In his Vienna Lecture of 1935, Edmund Husserl argues that the emergence of philosophy from the surrounding world of the Greeks marks the primal phenomenon of Spiritual Europe, which puts in place the ideal of science as the infinite task of reason. Modern science’s objectification and mathematization of the world at once satisfies this teleological demand of reason and endangers it. For the replacement of the rational, thinking subject with a naturalistic psychology threatens to make senseless the teleology of Europe. Europe’s historic project thus falls into a weariness of spirit, in which faith in reason is lost, and European humanity is brought to a crisis in which irrationalism seems to be the final step of its rational development.
Phenomenology, which begins with Brentano’s discovery of an actual method for grasping the activity of consciousness in constituting the meaning of its objects, plays a fundamental role in the resolution of this paradox. Purified and systematized in Husserl’s own transcendental phenomenology, this method suspends all commitment to objective-naturalistic explanation, and thus offers itself as an absolutely self-sufficient science of spiritual intentionalities. The resultant reorientation of science, in which the role of the constituting intellect can be radically clarified, allows the rationality of the task of knowledge to be regained. Though European rationalism has nearly burnt itself out, constitutive phenomenology offers a new spiritualization of reason, in which Europe’s mission for humanity may rise up like a phoenix from the ashes.[i]
For Husserl, the European identity of phenomenology was not to be understood in terms of geographical or ethnic boundaries but rather in spiritual terms, as the infinite demand of reason. Nevertheless, it is only because of the antecedent constitution of a European spiritual sphere that the peculiar methods and aims of phenomenology have a meaning and motivation. Though phenomenological investigation can be undertaken by non-Europeans, as phenomenologists, these investigators become “Europeanized” in taking up the European spiritual project. The possibility of phenomenological investigation is therefore bound up, at least for Husserl, with the spiritual crisis and progress of Europe. But is phenomenology essentially European, so that descriptive science has meaning only within a living tradition of rational inquiry? In that case, the universalizing tendency of the European scientific interest would rightfully be considered as the endogenous force driving phenomenological investigation. Or, alternatively, is phenomenology only accidentally European, so that reflective analysis as a method of philosophizing was merely codified in the German university but is in principle amenable to non-European interests? If that were so, the particular content of a phenomenological analysis might be given exogenously by a surrounding world that is not essentially European. The historical examination of the phenomenological movement in North America has the potential to clarify how these two seemingly heterogenous pictures of phenomenology – one of the expansion of a European cultural sphere to new lands and persons, the other of the absorption of way of seeing that is enjoyed by diverse subjects who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise – can be reconciled.
Lester Embree and Michael D. Barber’s new volume, The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973 makes the plausible point that development of North American phenomenology depended on the New School for Social Research as a site of transference between two distinct surrounding worlds, the pre-war European university and the post-war American mass culture. The introduction, one of Embree’s final works before his death last year, presents a periodization of American phenomenology in which the New School mediates between the world of the German university and the post-Husserlian global phenomenological movement (2-11). According to Embree, the first stage of American phenomenology, beginning before the outbreak of World War I, and ending with Husserl’s death in 1938, was characterized by a few individual students of philosophy – notably the Harvard students Marvin Farber and Dorion Cairns – introducing Husserl’s “new” (post-1900) thought to the United States. The second, New School stage, marked the creation of a philosophy department in which phenomenology was both a topic of research, especially in the work of the “New School Three” – Alfred Schutz, Aron Gurwitsch, and Cairns – and a central pedagogical concern, educating a generation of American phenomenologists, who are represented in this volume. The later stages, in which American phenomenology turned toward existentialism, then to embodiment, and was ultimately absorbed into so-called “Continental” philosophy are, by Embree’s lights, a bastardization of the constitutive phenomenology that began with Husserl. Whereas constitutive phenomenology was concerned largely with Wissenschaftslehre, the theory of the natural and cultural sciences, these later stages are presented as falling away from the Golden Age tradition, increasingly focusing on merely “anthropological” concerns (5). The absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy, the introduction suggests, threatens to replace the original conception of phenomenology as a project of grounding universal and rational knowledge with personalistic questions about finitude and embodiment. Interestingly, Embree claims that it was he who coined the term “Continental philosophy” in 1978, a designation about which he later became “at least ambivalent.” According to Embree, “Continental philosophy” is like NATO, a mere political alliance of conflicted parties, who are united only in their shared opposition to analytical philosophy (11). In any case, if his periodization is correct, the stage considered in this book marks an important moment of unity in American phenomenology, between the individualistic pursuits of Husserl’s first American students, and the diversity of the post-constitutive phenomenological movement.
The remainder of the introduction provides an admirable discussion of the centrality of the New School in introducing phenomenological approaches not only in philosophy but also in the social sciences, a role that has been unwittingly downplayed in previous histories (18-32). If Embree is right, it seems that the book proposes to investigate an important site of transference between European constitutive phenomenology and post-war American intellectual culture. One hopes, then, for an intensive historical study of American phenomenology that would render valuable insight into phenomenology’s “dual citizenship,” on the one hand as a European descriptive science, and on the other hand as a global philosophical movement. However, in my view, the book does not offer such insight, since it fails to present a philosophically unified picture of phenomenology as it was practiced during the Golden Age, and of the American phenomenological movement that stemmed from that allegedly fertile soil. This failure is due to the fact that both the interests and methods of phenomenological investigations presented in the book are largely unrelated to one another. As a result, the book reads more like a compilation of phenomenologists and their projects than as a unified treatment of the period in question.
The book is split into two sections, the first on the teachers of phenomenology at the New School during the Golden Age, the second on students who graduated from the program under their tutelage. Both sections follow roughly the same format, consisting of a memoir concerning the individual’s time at the New School (or, if the person was deceased at the time of writing, a short biographical section) and a study by that individual.
The first part, on teachers, focuses on six figures – Schutz, Cairns, Marx, Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm. Michael Barber’s description of Schutz at the New School is mainly an epitome of certain sections of his biography of Schutz. Though it contains a number of interesting anecdotes about the period – such as Schutz’s quip that he deserved a sabbatical “every sixtieth year” and Leo Strauss’s dismissal of Schutz as a “philosophically sophisticated sociologist,” it tells little about how the peculiar environment of the New School affected Schutz’s already-formed intellectual outlook. This is followed by a masterful essay in which Barber addresses the question of how a phenomenologically informed theory of social science, which stresses the constitution in consciousness of the objects of inquiry, can allow for unintended consequences of actions, such as are required in “invisible hand” explanations in economics. Drawing on Schutz’s work on Goethe, Barber argues convincingly that the Schutzian should regard the spontaneous orders cited in such explanations as not being “brutely there” in the world of economic action but rather as “correlates of the conscious activity of the economist” (50). Far from insisting that unintended consequences not consciously grasped by the individual actors who cause them are covertly in the minds of those actors, Schutz can attribute the spontaneous orders cited in social scientific explanations to the conscious activity of the theorist. The essay by Schutz that follows, a critique of positivism in the social sciences, relates to Barber’s essay insofar as it postulates that the objects of social science – which presumably include those spontaneous orders of concern to Barber – are “constructs of the second degree,” that is, outcomes of the selective activity of the theorist who observes agents acting in their shared social world (65-66).
Embree’s summary of Cairns’ involvement with phenomenology contains some interesting excerpts from unpublished works, especially concerning the latter’s studies in Freiburg in the 1920s. In one anecdote, attending professor Husserl’s office hours, the enthusiastic young American defends the thesis that, strictly speaking, only “perspective appearances” can be seen. Gazing at a box of matches he is holding and turning it in his hand for some time, the professor finally and rather loudly responds, “Ich sehe den Streichholzschachtel.” In four words, Husserl demolishes the theory of sense-data so popular at the time, while Cairns is “startled into recognition of the obvious” (82). However, the following essay, composed in the late 1930s or early 1940s, in which Carins critiques Nazism as a form of “epidemic” irrationalism (97-98), seems unrelated. As interesting as his analysis may be, especially in light of Husserl’s own critique of European irrationalism discussed at the outset of this review, this essay seems to have no bearing at all on phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School over a decade later. Though we have been told that New School phenomenology is to be understood as a continuation of the Husserlian theory of science, that concern seems to be absent from this essay.
The chapter on Werner Marx is arguably even less helpful for understanding the New School stage of phenomenology. Despite Thomas Nenon’s able summary of Marx’s career, the essay included, which intends to reinvigorate Hegel’s notion of the “necessity of philosophy” for the realization of a pluralistic society, seems to have little to do with phenomenology. True – it ends with opposed characterizations of traditional, Aristotelian ontology as fundamentally theological and thus as leading to a teleological conception of philosophy, and the phenomenological conception of Lebenswelt (120-122). But Marx’s reflections are not themselves phenomenological in any recognizable sense. Moreover, the date of the essay is never given, and one wonders what bearing, if any, his views might have had on the development of American phenomenology.
The chapters on Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm are also unmotivated, given the stated purpose of the volume. Zaner’s discussion of Gurwsitch at the New School is, I suppose, interesting enough. But it does not even mention of his adoption of William James – after Gurwitsch’s emigration to the United States – as a seminal, proto-phenomenological figure. This is a shame, because Gurwitsch’s essay on the object of thought is arguably even more influenced by James than by Husserl or Gestalt psychology (see e.g.134-138). Again, though there is much to be said about Gurwitsch’s Jamesian understanding of the object of thought, the entire topic is out of place here: the essay was composed in 1946, long before his tenure at the New School, and has already been reprinted in a widely available edition of Gurwitsch’s essays.[ii] The sections on Mohanty and Seebohm also have little to do with the period in question. Mohanty (150) reports, in his somewhat telegraphic memoir, that he arrived at the New School not long before Gurwitsch’s death in 1973, and no essay by Mohanty is included in the volume. Seebohm taught at the New School from 1980 to 1982 and his essay, on the human sciences, was apparently composed in 2004. Though Seebohm was by all accounts a kind colleague and considerate teacher, he was absent during the Golden Age. One wonders whether he should have been included in the volume at all.
Though it is possible that such anachronistic inclusions might still contribute to our understanding of what made the New School stage of American phenomenology distinctive, one finds nothing in the book itself to justify such a view. The fact that the figures included attended conferences, offered courses, and gave talks on a variety of issues and figures, does not by itself offer any insight into American phenomenology, except by suggesting that the movement (if there was one) was thoroughly integrated into the routines of American academic life. Judging by these diverse contributions, it seems that the teachers at the New School were unified neither in their method nor in their doctrine but were simply rather successful merchants in the post-war American marketplace of ideas.
The second part concerns the students during the Golden Age and has roughly the same format, though I will focus primarily on the essays. The chapter on Maurice Natanson is quite short, consisting of a description of the mentor-student relationship between Schutz and Natanson, and a summary of Natanson’s existential phenomenological work on literature, both by Barber. This misses the opportunity to include unpublished work by Natanson or some of the Schutz-Natanson correspondence, which is cited here but never discussed in detail.
The chapter on Thomas Luckmann is more substantial, including both a memoir and a 1972 essay, the main claim of which is that language could never be exhaustively explained by empirical science, since the presuppositions of the empirical sciences present philosophical problems that must be resolved within language (201). What follows is a somewhat technical but certainly rewarding account of the polythetic constitution of the experience of a speaking other in the face-to-face situation (208). Here, Luckmann’s view seems to be that in linguistic communication, I directly experience an individual “like me,” due to an automatic polythetic constitution of his experience in my own stream of consciousness. In the face-to-face situation, my own stream of consciousness and his stream of consciousness are therefore experienced as “synchronized” durations, though his experience might become thematic for me, when he uses a certain form of expression that keys into a relevance structure that is part of my stock of knowledge at hand.
The chapter on Helmut Wagner consists of two short and encomiastic (we hear, for example, of Wagner’s “selfless desire to bring phenomenology to sociology,” 218) pieces by George Psathas, which nevertheless present Wagner’s fundamental contribution as “synthesizing” the work of Schutz (225). In the course of this treatment, we are told that Wagner left an unfinished philosophical anthropology of the life world (226). An excerpt from this work would have undoubtedly added value to the volume, by showing how Wagner came to understand a fundamental phenomenological idea late in his life. Instead, the reader is offered nothing by Wagner himself.
Fred Kersten’s essay, the longest in the collection, is an extended meditation on the connection between imagination and fiction. Beginning with the work of David Hume and Sir William Hamilton, the essay distinguishes depictive, feigning, and presentative functions of the imagination (232-240). A phenomenological clarification of these aspects of imagining allows one to understand the double sense of imagination as an intentionality that makes present non-presentive objects and as a feigning intentionality (243-244). The essay then turns to a discussion of the epistemology of fiction, focusing on Natanson’s concept of the “disjunctive convergence” of the worlds of imagination and reality. In the activity of reading a novel, for example, one can attend to the feigned world of the fiction only by suspending the real world, in which one nevertheless continues to read. The disjunction between the world of fiction and that of reality thus depends on a convergence between them, which itself is an achievement of feigning consciousness of the reader (256-257). The upshot of this line of thought is the claim that the world disclosed in a work of fiction is autonomous but feigned, such that I can take responsibility for it, but never enter into it, as I do the actual world of everyday life (263).
Richard M. Zaner’s essay focuses on the connection between cognition and embodiment in two cases of “locked-in syndrome,” in which a patient’s mind is left intact while his body is almost completely paralyzed. In the first case, after suffering a massive stroke, M. Bauby is able to perceive normally but unable to control any part of his bodily “husk,” except for his left eyelid (282-283). Zaner focuses on Bauby’s increasing dissociation from the world and resultant sense of grief. This at once shows the close connection between Bauby’s sense of personal identity as being dependent on his embodiment, but also problematizes the connection between mind and body, since his sense of loss is due to his awareness of the increasing separation of his “living” mind from his “dead” body. In the fictional second case, after being bombed in the trenches of World War I, a soldier called Joe is rendered blind, deaf, and dumb, but nevertheless retains the ability to feel touch and to move his head. Long unable to express that he is conscious, Joe’s rhythmic head-tapping is finally recognized as Morse code by a nurse, who responds by tracing letters on his chest that spell out “Merry Christmas” (283-285). Zaner’s concern in this case is to describe the act by which Joe finds himself recognized as a subject. The discussion here turns to Schutz’s contention that the experience of social reality is founded on a second-personal attitude, in which I posit another subject “like me” (290). Though Zaner’s argument is somewhat obscured by a block quote of uncertain origin, in which Max Scheler’s work is compared to that of Schutz (290-291), its central claim is that Schutz’s conception of the second-personal attitude was not wrong but one-sided. Though Schutz was correct in saying that I understand myself as a self by orienting myself to the other, he ignored how the other becomes attuned to me as another self (296). Thus, Joe’s self-recognition is constituted in part by the nurse’s recognition that within his husk of a body, there is a conscious subject, capable of thinking and communication. The upshot is that the theory of intersubjectivity must accommodate not just Schutz’s point that one is oriented in the social world by one’s recognition of other subjects, but also the more radical view that this orientation depends on one’s willingness and ability to be treated as other, the special target of second-personal attitudes.
The following section by Embree continues his criticism in the introduction of American phenomenology’s turn toward scholarship. For Embree, the elevation of scholarship at the expense of investigation, which he calls the “philologization” of phenomenology, is the most important and most deleterious effect of the recent absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy (12). According to this view, the “Continentalization” of phenomenology runs directly counter to the original intentions, not only of Husserl but also of the New School phenomenologists, who extended the research program of constitutive phenomenology to domains never imagined by Husserl, not through scholarship on texts but by what Gurwitsch called “advancing the problems.” Embree continues this critique of the present focus on scholarship in his memoir, claiming that primary research in phenomenology consists of investigation, that is, in the reflective analysis of a certain domain, with scholarship only serving the secondary purpose of clarifying concepts used in such investigations (306-307). Accordingly, Embree’s essay provides a reflective analysis of valuation, focusing especially on the distinction between the noesis of valuing and the noema of the thing-as-valued. Though this descriptive account is undoubtedly of some interest, the finest feature of this chapter is how it exhibits the work of reflective analysis to the reader. Embree’s introductory methodological comments (312-315) are delivered in plain language, such that they could be read by someone with minimal prior exposure to phenomenological texts. Likewise, the analysis itself offers a compelling way into the question of how valuing intentionality is related to willing, believing, and experiencing. This section is perhaps best understood as an invitation to the reader to engage such in reflective analysis, and thus to practice phenomenology itself.
Jorge García-Gómez’s chapter, on Julián Marías’s interpretation of José Ortega y Gasset’s notion of belief, focuses on an interesting distinction between a “true” or genuine belief, and a belief that is true (326-333). The distinction is worth making because, it seems, the possibility of beliefs being true depends in part on the possibility that human beings can authentically undertake responsibilities for our beliefs about the world. This section would have benefitted from the addition of introductory paragraphs connecting it to broader philosophical concerns of commitment and epistemic normativity. However, it appears to be an excerpt from a longer work, in which its role is surely more perspicuous.
Giuseppina C. Moneta’s “notes on the origin of the historical in the phenomenology of perception” is a kind of reflective analysis of historical perception. Following Piranesi, who would “let the ruins speak” to him, this essay takes the ruins of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Villa Adriana, located at the outskirts of Rome, as its theme (340). According to the view developed by Moneta in the course of this investigation, historical “seeing” is constituted by a complex interplay of the complementary but not fully integrated appearing and non-appearing aspects of a built environment (343). Though her analysis is suggestive, it would have been strengthened by more description, both of the architectural site itself and of the constitution of that site as meaningful, instead of relying as it does on quotes from the great men of phenomenology, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.
Osborne Wiggins’s essay argues that Natanson is to be understood as a philosopher of freedom, for whom existential experience marks a break from the typified, social world (364). This essay is very convincing and clarifies at least one respect in which constitutive and existential phenomenology are complementary rather than dissonant. However, it would have fit much better into the section on Natanson, in which his existential turn is one of the central issues.
William McKenna’s final chapter argues that the adoption of a concept of relative truth would help experts in conflict resolution bring opposed parties to “agree to disagree” (378). McKenna’s essay is thus mostly concerned to spell out a concept of “lifeworld truth” that avoids the consequence of “subjective idealism” but allows for multiple, correct interpretations of a single reality, through a reactivation of Husserl’s concept of evidence (381-382). According to McKenna, the same statement (such as “these mountains are holy”) may be true for one cultural group while being neither true nor false for another group, since the qualities necessary for reaching such a judgment are simply not available in the latter’s lifeworld (384). This is an interesting proposal but is a peculiar interpretation of Husserl’s notion of evidence. Surely Husserl’s conception of evidence was intended to clarify the foundation of the sciences, rather than to relativize the concept of truth. Though it is plausible that it could be put to other uses, it seems that this would require further argument than is given here.
The book ends there, without a conclusion, leaving at least this reader confused. What is this volume is meant to do? Is it primarily an historical work about phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School for Social Research from 1954 to 1973? If so, it fails to shed light on what phenomenological investigation looked like during that period: hardly any of the essays are from the era in question, and most of them are not reflective analyses. Is it a collection of thematic essays illustrating a particular style of phenomenology? In that case, how are the essays connected with one another? The broad collection of topics – economics, value, architecture, and truth, inter alia – ensures that whatever else may be at stake, no single theme ties them together. Or is the book an encomium, publicly honoring a generation of American phenomenologists? In that case, we should expect essays on a wide variety of topics, written as continuations of the work of Golden Age phenomenologists. Yet even here, the book provides few uniting features either methodologically or in terms of the figures cited. Though it focuses almost exclusively on Western European writers, the figures mentioned are so diverse in attitude and interest, it is hard to detect any unifying purpose in their work. What has Hume to do with Piranesi, or Hegel with Ortega y Gasset? The absence of any suggestion of an answer within the book leads one to the conclusion that, although nearly all the essays are of interest individually, some offering masterful treatments of difficult topics, there is apparently no inner logic to the book itself.
The promise of the book, to elucidate a Golden Age in American phenomenology, is a noble one. In failing to deliver on it, the book both misses the opportunity to shed light on an allegedly important moment in the history of phenomenology and shirks the task of clarifying the relation between the descriptive attitude of phenomenological analysis, the authority of phenomenology as a science, and its status as the product of a European spiritual sphere. Consequently, the reader is not put in a place to reconcile the two competing images, one of the world phenomenological movement as the expansion of European culture beyond its continental limits, the other of the absorption of a way of seeing by diverse practitioners who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise. Is it possible that the various anecdotes about and citations of the teachers at the New School do not cover over some more basic problem with the book’s conceptualization of American phenomenology? The nostalgia of the volume makes one wonder whether the Golden Age itself, rather than being a real movement or distinctive era in phenomenology, is nothing more than the myth of a more innocent and progressive post-war America. Perhaps what the New School phenomenologists offered as gold and diamonds, turned out to be no more than copper and glass.
[i] Carr, D. [Ed.] 1970. Edmund Husserl: The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 276, 298-299.
[ii] Gurwitsch, A. 1966. Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
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.”
Recent years have seen several new translations of books and shorter works by Hans Blumenberg into English and French, and an English edition with Blumenberg’s most important shorter writings is forthcoming. The French translation under review here, published in 2017, is further evidence of this growing interest in Blumenberg’s work.
Blumenberg’s previously unpublished text Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit was first edited in its German original by Anselm Haverkamp in 2007. Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit (Theory of Nonconceptuality) borrows its title—and so does the French translation by Marc de Launay—from a 1975 summer term lecture Blumenberg gave in Münster. This short text is of particular interest, as it relates several themes within Blumenberg’s thinking in a rather condensed way.
The main text (7–108) consists in the edition of those typescripts Blumenberg based his lecture upon (see 128) and is followed by an appendix entitled “Bruchstücke des ‘Ausblicks auf eine Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit’” (Perspective sur une théorie de l’inconceptualité; 109–125). A translation of the editor’s postface completes the volume (127–131). Théorie de l’inconceptualité most of the time does without headings or subheadings; only an excursion on ‘economy and luxury’ (19–26) and a revised passage on ‘negation’ serving as a transition (89–91) fall under headings. Instead, larger sections are simply divided by page breaks. As the editor remarks, Blumenberg presents his observations giving examples with varying levels of complexity, and often does so without guiding his listeners or readers to a conclusion (des exemples de complexions diverses—souvent sans déboucher sur une conclusion; 131). By refusing to add any new headings or divide Blumenberg’s work into sections, the editor succeeds in carefully preserving and communicating the original character of the typescript, which is between the tone of a lecture and a written text. Because all Blumenberg’s texts stylistically dense they present a challenge to the reader, and this text is no different. If one expects an easy-to-read introduction to his works, one will not find it in this booklet. Nonetheless, the themes discussed are at the heart of Blumenberg’s phenomenological project and are well worth the effort.
To begin with, it is difficult to judge what exactly the book is about. Here is my proposal: one might say that the text as a whole bundles varieties of human ways to deal with reality. More specifically, in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, Blumenberg primary focus is upon the epistemic operations humans are capable of. Specifically, he is interested in one particular way for humans to engage with reality, namely in the act of theorizing—or, to put it in phenomenological terms, the act of distancing oneself from one’s object of consideration by adopting a theoretical attitude.
Théorie de l’inconceptualité may be regarded as a text about ‘theory’ in a twofold or two-layered way. First, Blumenberg addresses various epistemic operations humans are capable of, focusing on the role of conceptual thinking (or its lack) in cognition. In his attempt to describe the structure of conceptual thinking and to ascribe to it the role it plays in cognition, Blumenberg scrutinizes the various forms the act of theorizing can take.. Secondly, Théorie de l’inconceptualité is itself a theoretical work. This does not so much amount to opposing theoretical and practical philosophy to one another, for Blumenberg himself does use practical examples (though in a broad sense) as much as he draws from epistemological observations and concepts. Rather, Blumenberg considers the ability to take on a theoretical attitude as something we do and perform; for him, it is a distinguished, an essentially human one. In short, Blumenberg addresses theory as one of the human ways to engage with reality from a precisely theoretical point of view. In other words, theory is taken both as a method and as the object in question; that is, theory itself becomes the very object of Blumenberg’s theoretical interest. In this sense, the above-mentioned two-layered approach to be found in the text emerges with Blumenberg playing on the reduplication of theory.
As a first step in this review, I want to discuss Blumenberg’s proposal for a notion of conceptual thinking. Secondly, I will link conceptual thinking to the theoretical attitude humans can assume. Then, I will turn to consider Blumenberg’s attempts to delimit conceptual thinking and nonconceptuality and his anthropological observations. By way of conclusion, I will touch upon the connection between the anthropological and the epistemological dimension found in Théorie de l’inconceptualité. It goes without saying that I cannot consider every aspect the text touches upon. Other topics within the wide range of Blumenberg’s observations such as aesthetics, the concept of the lifeworld, happiness, metaphors, the epistemic operation of negation or the anthropological function of prevention must remain largely uncommented upon here.
Contrary to what the title of the book suggests, the text does not start out by shedding light on what is to be understood by the term of ‘nonconceptuality’. Rather, Blumenberg’s text first lays its focus on conceptual thinking. However, rather than aiming at a (precise) definition of either of the two, Théorie de l’inconceptualité raises the question of how those two different ways of dealing with reality might refer to each other and, moreover, refer to theory in general. The reader expecting to be given a precise definition of at least one of the two terms will be deceived.
The fact that the text lacks a precise definition of conceptual thinking does not mean that Blumenberg does without spelling out crucial aspects he ascribes to conceptual thinking. For him, two features are to be found at the core of conceptual thinking: first, conceptual thinking has something to do with the phenomenon of absence (Le concept a un certain rapport avec l’absence de son objet; 7). For example, imagine the groceries you have run out of, which are therefore absent, and which you (mentally) represent when writing a shopping list. For Blumenberg, what one does in this case is use conceptual thinking in order to re‑present that which is not tangibly accessible (le concept seul demeure, qui, de son côté, représente toute l’échelle de ce qui est sensoriellement accessible; 7).
Blumenberg’s own example of the representation of an absent object in conceptual thinking, however, is more specific than my example of a shopping list. It consists in referring to a primal scene of anthropogenesis, namely the construction of a trap. A trap layer has to adjust his construction in shape and size to the animal he hopes to catch eventually. For example, setting a trap adequate for catching a mammoth requires nothing more than calling into presence that very mammoth which is absent the moment the trap is being set. Having a concept of a mammoth thus means to determine it as the expected prey, that is, to determine the trap in shape and size. In Blumenberg’s view, what the trap layer accomplishes is a conceptualization of an absent object. Or, to put it in phenomenological terms: laying a trap involves knowing an eidos and acting upon that knowledge. What Blumenberg’s example emphasizes, however, is that being able to use concepts is an achievement in (human) evolutionary history, implicitly assuming a historical constitution of transcendental (inter‑) subjectivity.
The second aspect Blumenberg locates within the realm of conceptual thinking is closely linked to the above-mentioned phenomenon of absence and concerns the phenomenon of distance (see 7; 10). Laying a trap directs one’s actions towards objects or events not immediately given but distanced in space and time: a mammoth shall not be caught right now and here but perhaps tomorrow and over there. In this regard, concepts are like tools humans use to act over a distance, they are the means of an actio per distans (12). For Blumenberg, the trap is the first triumph of conceptual thinking (Dans cette mesure, le piège est le premier triomphe du concept; 12).
According to Blumenberg, conceptual thinking such as the representation of a prey when setting a trap can count among reason’s products or performances (un produit de la raison; 7). As reason encompasses conceptual thinking and, therefore, also the above-mentioned actio per distans, it follows for Blumenberg that reason is the epitome of those epistemic operations that put in a performance over a distance, both spatial and temporal (On pourrait dire que la raison serait le condensé de pareilles réalisations à distance; 8). Yet the reverse, that reason only exists when something is conceptualized, does not hold (Mais cela n’autorise pas le renversement qui voudrait que la raison n’existe que lorsqu’elle parvient […] au concept; 7). Thus, it can be emphasized that, for Blumenberg, acting over a distance by means of conceptual thinking is only a first step within humans’ process of becoming a creature capable of theorizing. For what exceeds conceptual thinking insofar as it encompasses it, in Blumenberg’s view, is a theoretical attitude as such.
Blumenberg makes this idea more accessible drawing from an anthropogenic assumption: man, for Blumenberg, is the being that straightens up, transcends the short range of perception, and transgresses the horizon of its senses (L’homme, l’être qui se met debout et quitte le domaine de la proche perception, franchit l’horizon de ses sens; 8). Man raises his gaze and directs it to the horizon, that is, he is no longer only concerned with objects given to him within the realm of immediate and actual tactility, but also with potentially tangible objects (again, such as mammoths caught in a trap).
In Blumenberg’s view, this movement of transgression finds itself repeated. Man not only transgresses the horizon of his senses in order to master objects given to him in a (both temporally and spatially) mediated way. The above-mentioned anthropogenic moment lies in a two-step rotation of the head man accomplishes. First, he directs his gaze from the ground towards the horizon, which amounts to mastering mediately given objects over a certain distance. In this way, both building a trap and focusing on the horizon amount to an actio per distans. Second, man turns his head another ninety degrees to look at the sky (Ce qui veut dire que le regard n’est pas fixé sur l’horizon, spatial et temporal, pour attendre ce qui va arriver et pour agir sur ce qui surgit, mais que le regard, ayant accompli un mouvement à quatre-vingt-dix degrés pour quitter la direction du sol et parvenir à l’horizontal, va encore une fois accomplir une rotation à quatre-vingt-dix degrés et viser la voûte étoilée; 14). As laid out in The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, Blumenberg considers Thales of Miletus to be the “putative first philosopher” (see Laughter, Preface). It is exactly his gaze at the sky that turns him into the first contemplator caeli in a philosophical sense. Instead of anticipating prey and, therefore, being directed toward a potentially tangible object, the stars in the sky are perceptible and yet (at least for the run of several centuries) intangible. The skies represent that which encompasses the totality of all possible objects of perception, and thus represent the idea of totality. In this sense, the sky Thales of Miletus turns his gaze to represents the ultimate object of a theoretical attitude; this is why Thales is described as the proto-philosopher (le proto-philosophe et astronome Thalès de Milet; 16). For Blumenberg, it is a theoretical attitude that ultimately envisages the totality of the world (la théorie pure, son aspiration à la totalité du monde; 16). This is what Blumenberg must have had in mind when he suggests that reason’s intentions exceed the performances of conceptual thinking and relate to the idea of totality (Il se pourrait que la performance d’un concept soit simplement partielle par rapport aux intentions de la raison qui semble toujours avoir en quelque manière affaire à la totalité; 7).
Starting from the concepts that correspond to empirical objects, Blumenberg proceeds by broadening the scope of his scrutiny insofar as he takes into account something by which conceptual thinking in the narrower sense is exceeded. That is, the subject not only perceives singular objects entirely detached from one another and is amazed by the sky as a cosmic whole, but also takes into account the—potential—relations between objects. To put it in phenomenological terms, one could say that it is the horizontality of noemata according to which the perceiving and reflecting subject progresses in her intentional process of intuition. The less an empirical object plays a role in the act of conceptualization (or theorizing), the more intellectual performances—such as the act of idealization—gain importance in the process of thinking. The attempt to establish a meaningful relation among particular noemata leads to a reflection on the totality encompassing them—or again in phenomenological terms: to a reflection on the horizon of all horizons. That being said, it is clear that Blumenberg shares the fundamental insight with phenomenology that there is, apart from a naïve attitude, an observing, theorizing mode of consciousness.
Yet, the question as to which role is to be ascribed to nonconceptuality within the realm of theoretical performances is still unanswered. Once it has been shown that the use of concepts does not remain limited to representations of empirical objects (such as foods or a prey) but is also in some way involved in intellectual acts of greater abstraction, Blumenberg shifts the focus to the very boundary between conceptual and nonconceptual thinking, both of which for him are encompassed by a theoretical attitude. In conceiving of conceptual thinking as an epistemic operation that above all establishes a correspondence between intuition and understanding, Blumenberg clearly draws from a Kantian point of view. In that sense, it is not at all surprising that Blumenberg addresses nonconceptual thinking, too, in Kantian terms.
What Blumenberg does is to relate limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (see 41–42) to his conception of nonconceptuality. This refers to his conviction that the mode of conceptual concretization achieved in the representation of empirical objects is unlike the way abstract ideas are represented. Of course, this does not mean abstract ideas (such as the concept of world or the idea of freedom) cannot be addressed or dealt with by human reason at all. Instead, for Blumenberg, human reason has to approach abstract ideas in a different way, namely by drawing from nonconceptuality. As it follows for him, nonconceptuality must not be taken or undertaken as a mere auxiliary discipline to philosophy (une simple discipline auxiliaire de la philosophie; 56). Instead, it must be acknowledged that the preliminary endeavors to a notion of conceptual thinking do not achieve their aims (le travail dans le champ préalable du concept ne parvient pas à son but; 56) and that conceptual thinking is subject to the condition of—at least possibly—eventually being rendered concrete by the intuition of empirical objects. As Blumenberg sees it, nonconceptuality comes into play the very moment it turns out that this condition cannot be fulfilled, i.e. in the attempt to represent ideas. (Here, it seems to me to be helpful to quote both the German original text and its French translation. For what in German reads “im Zusammenhang mit der Angewiesenheit des Begriffs auf Anschauung und der Verfehlung dieser Bedingung bei der Idee” is rendered into French as follows: dans le contexte de l’articulation du concept sur l’intuition et […] de l’échec de cette articulation quand il s’agit de l’idee; 56). In other words, nonconceptual thought for Blumenberg is the means to operate in the concretization of abstract ideas. In my reading of Théorie de l’inconceptualité, limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (just as metaphors, incidentally) for Blumenberg represent the threshold of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking. The wide range of theoretical performances must exceed the purely conceptual.
However, Blumenberg merely indicates what a theory of nonconceptuality would have to undertake and leaves it open to his readers (or listeners) to follow down the indicated path. According to him, a theory of nonconceptuality is about reconstructing in a broad sense those horizons from which the theoretical attitude and conceptual thinking are derived (Une théorie de l’inconceptualité aurait à reconstruire les horizons, en un sens très large, dont ont procédé la prise de position et la formation conceptuelle théoriques; 112).
It is important to bear in mind that Blumenberg does not seek a definite notion of each of the epistemic operations in question for their own sake. As the use of both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking can be counted among the whole of epistemic performances human beings are capable of, they are part of the description of essentially human traits. That is, as Blumenberg aims at locating his observations within a larger, anthropological framework.. As he says, an anthropological theory of conceptual thinking is an urgent desideratum (Une théorie anthropologique du concept est un réquisit urgent; 9).
In order to frame Blumenberg’s endeavor in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, it is helpful to come back once more to the aforementioned primal hunting scene. Blumenberg does not give a clear answer to the question of why he is using a primal scene to illustrate the performances of conceptual thinking, or to that of which epistemic status this example is supposed to hold. All he does is to underline his assumption that the image of the construction of a trap may be nothing but the best way to depict the capacities of conceptual thinking (Sans doute peut-on montrer le plus clairement ce dont un concept est capable lorsque l’on songe à la fabrication d’un piège; 8). That is, the author himself leaves it an open question as to which epistemic status must eventually be ascribed to the example he is using. However, Blumenberg makes clear that he aims to explain how the capacities of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking have become possible by taking a view that is both anthropological and genetic at the same time (J’essaie de comprendre cela du point de vue anthropologique, générique; 8). The construction of a trap may, therefore, be taken as an attempt to locate reason’s performances or capacities within an anthropological, and more specifically, within an anthropogenic framework. It is thus no coincidence that Blumenberg’s example is the laying of a trap some ten thousand years ago and not a shopping list.
What Blumenberg does is draw a line connecting the anthropogenic observations of man having straightened up and having accomplished twice a ninety-degree-rotation of the head to the transcendental question as to how theory—and with it philosophy— became possible. Théorie de l’inconceptualité offers a contribution to the discussion of the status of conceptual thinking from an epistemological point of view—and, beyond that, points to the discussion of reason’s capacities in a whole. It is thus part of transcendental philosophy since it is an approach to the conditions of the possibility of theory. Blumenberg’s view on the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental in Théorie de l’inconceptualité is quite complex: he raises a question of transcendental philosophy in aiming to lay bare the conditions of the possibility of theory; these conditions can only be explained by reference to empirical assumptions about human prehistory.
In other words, Blumenberg considers both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking to offer a crucial contribution to the project of describing man (like the title of another posthumously edited work lays out, namely Beschreibung des Menschen/Description de l’homme). As he says, one has to consider the anthropological preconditions as the source of the performances of conceptual thinking, which in turn are part of reason’s intending totality (des présupposés anthropologiques […] la source d’où procède également l’efficace du concept qui n’est, en effet, que partiellement liée à l’intention de la raison visant la totalité; 122). Pointing to the intention of describing (and, in parts, explaining) characteristic performances of reason such as conceptual and nonconceptual thinking amounts to counting Théorie de l’inconceptualité among Blumenberg’s numerous approaches to an anthropological philosophy. It is here that Blumenberg’s endeavor exceeds the demands of a phenomenological discipline as Blumenberg gives phenomenology an anthropological orientation. What he undertakes is not a phenomenology of pure consciousness but rather a phenomenologically motivated description of an anthropogenic dimension that presumably has brought about man’s ability to theorize and to philosophize at all.
Blumenberg’s text offers a complex interplay between the fields of anthropological description and of transcendental philosophy. As Blumenberg draws attention to the question of how conceptual thinking as a part of the whole of reason’s capacities might have become possible, it is especially the anthropogenic dimension that links the two. In conclusion, one could say that Théorie de l’inconceptualité can be read in a threefold way. It is, first, an anthropological text, for it focuses on performances of human reason. Since the main interest of the text lies in reasoning and in all the various forms reason may take, the text may, secondly, be regarded as pursuing a project in epistemology. What then provides a link between the anthropological and the epistemological dimensions is, thirdly, the extension of genetic phenomenology into the anthropogenic view Blumenberg puts forward.
At this point, one might return to the style in which the text is presented. Although the title may seem to promise a fully developed theory of nonconceptuality, the text itself maintains a tentative and exploratory character. The reader is offered examples and illustrations taken from diverse texts of philosophy and literature and thus is offered nothing more—and, one has to add, nothing less—than enriching descriptions of the performances of human reason. All of these descriptions are strongly influenced by the phenomenological tradition. Théorie de l’inconceptualité should be counted among Blumenberg’s attempts to contribute to a phenomenologically influenced anthropology.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2011. Description de l’homme. Translated by Denis Trierweiler. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2015. The laughter of the Thracian woman: A protohistory of theory. Translated by Steven Rendall. New York: Bloomsbury (quoted as: Laughter).
Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books.
Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Bajohr, Hannes, Fuchs, Florian, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
 Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Other recent translations of Blumenberg’s work include among others: Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat; ibid. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books; ibid. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
 Unless stated otherwise, all page references refer to Théorie de l’inconceptualité.
 I want to thank Tobias Keiling for numerous helpful comments.
This book presents an enthusiastic dialogue between two contemporary philosophers, Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman. Neo-materialism and object-oriented ontology face each other as equally inspiring conceptual approaches to the key issues of new realism. One might have thought that DeLanda’s philosophy of dynamic relations and intensities, strongly influenced by Deleuzian concepts, can only be interpreted as a devoted rival of Harman’s philosophy which is very clear, in a partially neo-Aristotelian manner, about the priority of individual-substantial objects. But as the dialogue evolves, we have to realize that things are much more complicated.
So, what binds the interlocutors of this book together? First of all, they needed a common enemy to unite them. Indeed, the enemy has no clear outline – it embraces as different currents and thinkers as social constructivism and Alain Badiou, culturalist pseudo-Marxism and Karen Barad. According to DeLanda and Harman, they can all be brought together under the flag of anti-realism, either because of the denial of a mind-independent cosmos or because of treating human subjectivity as an ontologically outsized (co-)creator of the world. While DeLanda and Harman sometimes present realism as a heretic alternative with respect to mainstream continental trends, they also offer another perspective according to which 20th century continental philosophy can be re-read, at least partially, as a series of realist tendencies. For example, it is claimed that Deleuze is a continental realist, that Husserl’s concept of the object as an invariant form can serve as an inspiration for contemporary realism and that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has also serious realist consequences. Roughly speaking, in continental philosophy, realism is both an excommunicated pseudo-problem and the hidden message of its exciting underground. What is more, Harman does not hesitate to mention the fellow travelers: the speculative realists, Maurizio Ferraris and Markus Gabriel.
Although DeLanda and Harman are careful to emphasize their shared rejection of anti-realism throughout the book, the lines between their respective philosophies are not blurred. Already in the first chapter it is obvious that DeLanda’s neo-materialism cannot easily be reconciled with Harman’s “realism without materialism” which denounces materialism as a reductionist approach, being unable to account for immaterial entities such as fictional characters in novels. From the viewpoint of Harman’s flat ontology, “materialism has often led to premature decisions about what should and should not count as real.” (15) In contrast to this position, DeLanda proposes a material-energetic-informationism that “involves a rejection of entities that transcend the world of patterned matter-energy” (16). This immanentist model gives fiction a less mystifying status by defining it as an emergent property, or, more precisely, as a level of emergence. The first chapter of the book is valuable for several reasons. In particular, it is useful for clarifying the difference between materialism and realism, for being critical of various reductionist approaches (“undermining” / micro-reductionism and “overmining” / macro-reductionism) and for thematizing the dilemma of aprioristic and aposterioristic thinking in philosophy. Furthermore, there is an interesting debate on Aristotelian essences and forms, Harman being sympathetic to these concepts and DeLanda rejecting them on the grounds of his historical-genetic theory of singularities. The critique of Marxism is arguably the worst part of this chapter, especially when DeLanda suggests that Marxists have a “special brand in which a priori schemes of synthesis (the negation of the negation) form the core of their position” (12). It seems almost superfluous to say that this extremely abstract use of the term “Marxism” ignores the rich diversity of classical and contemporary Marxisms, with special regard to those that are highly critical of dialectical categories and the Hegelian legacy of Marx.
The second chapter relies upon Lee Braver’s 2007 book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism in order to make precise distinctions between realist and anti-realist positions. The key issues are the mind-dependence of the world, truth as correspondence, the possibility of a complete description of the world, the possibility of true and untrue statements, the relationship between knowledge and the knowable, and the claim according to which the human subject has a fixed character. DeLanda and Harman complete Braver’s list with three more problems. The first concerns the question whether the relation of the human subject with the world should be considered a privileged relation for philosophy, the second is whether subjective experience is linguistically structured and the third is about the world as a holistic entity in which everything is inextricably related. One of the most valuable aspects of this chapter is DeLanda’s and Harman’s insistence on defining the concepts of relation and relationism as precisely as possible. While Harman criticizes Whitehead, Latour and Barad for conceptualizing relations without properly taking into consideration the relata that are prior to them, DeLanda emphasizes that we should not accept “intrinsic relations that determine the very identity of what they relate”, but only extrinsic relations (32). The other aspect that deserves special mention is the interlocutors‘ agreement with respect to the impossibility of a complete description of the world. According to the conclusions of object-oriented ontology, Harman claims that “things in the world cannot be converted into bundles of accurate descriptions” (44), that is to say, there is always and necessarily a withdrawal of real objects. On the other hand, by relying on insights from the philosophy of chemistry and fuzzy logic, DeLanda focuses upon the problem of emergence, i.e. of new properties that cannot be reduced to the interactions of already existing entities and that can never be exhaustively described.
The third chapter is by far the richest one. DeLanda and Harman carry on with the topic of realism, but this time by focusing more on the main statements of object-oriented ontology and neo-materialism. It is almost impossible to summarize this chapter as it ranges from the concept of possibility, through the critique of reductionisms, to the ontological status of objects. We would like to underline two important aspects: one concerns essences, and the other is about dispositions. With a strong background in Aristotelian-Zubírian ontology, Harman argues that essences are “salvageable” and that otherwise it would not be possible to interpret objects as consistent entities. Whereas DeLanda claims that the concept of essence is illegitimate and unnecessary, the interlocutors seem to make a compromise by concluding that there is haeccity (“thisness”) that makes objects identifiable. In this context, DeLanda rightly insists on the fact that, according to Deleuzian ontology, the virtual is segmented into distinct actual objects as products. There is another extremely exciting debate on dispositions, i.e. on capacities to affect and being affected. Harman refuses to put dispositions into things and comes to the conclusion that dispositions should be treated as new compound entities that result from interactions between objects. DeLanda elaborates his philosophy of tendencies and capacities in details, with a special emphasis on defining the identity of actual objects as a combination of actual properties and virtual dispositions. In short, DeLanda suggests that we should account for the enduring identity of objects “by the mechanisms of emergence behind the historical genesis and day-to-day maintenance of an object’s identity” (88).
The fourth chapter deals with the question of cognition and experience. The interlocutors seem to agree that “epistemology” is a bad term, either because it implies a dualist ontology that privileges the relation between humans and everything else, or because epistemological debates tend to ignore many kinds of “rightness of fit”, e.g. the know-how dimension of experience. Accordingly, this chapter is very critical of various scientist epistemologies (empiricism, mathematic reductionism, etc.). Harman explains his approach to cognition by stressing the point that certain essential aspects of objects are necessarily withheld or withdrawn and that our access to objects is always mediated by processes of translation. In light of this, he presents his view on the difference between real and sensual objects. DeLanda’s concept of cognition resonates with the object-oriented approach only partially: he emphasizes that “we can use the possibility of future novelty, the imperfect record of past traces, the spatial and temporal scale-dependence of the world’s presentations … to spell … out [the withdrawal of objects]” (103). Similarly to Harman, DeLanda’s theory gives importance to the mechanisms of transformation between real objects and our experiental patterns, but with more attention to the biologic origins of embodied cognition and selective attentional processes. The common ground in this chapter is the insight that absolute knowledge is impossible, either because of the fundamental withdrawal of objects, or because of the open-ended character of nature and the untraceable aspects the past.
The last chapter articulates conceptual dilemmas with respect to time, space and philosophy of science. Harman equates “real time” with changes in space and defines sensual time as a relational entity that is derivative of the succession of objects. While he seems to accept the irreversibility of sensual time, on the other hand, he claims: “if we consider time as belonging to the real itself, then I guess I’m not a realist about time” (119). DeLanda is strongly opposed to this non-realist philosophy of sensual time and he emphasizes the irreducibility of real time, i.e. the succession of causes and effects by relying upon insights from the theory of relativity. DeLanda also offers a very useful analysis of the concept of intensity. After a longish debate on Latour, the interlocutors debate on the role of knowledge, semantics, falsification and the definition of truth. Harman summarizes the difference between their respective philosophies as follows: 1. while DeLanda privileges dynamic entities, Harman gives importance to the “inertia” of objects; 2. in contrast to the emphasis on the philosophy of science (especially on the philosophy of chemistry) in DeLanda’s philosophy, Harman’s philosophy seems closer to the arts (and for Harman “the exemplar is aesthetics”); 3. while object-oriented ontology focuses on individual-substantial entities, DeLandian neo-materialism offers a detailed conceptualization of outside factors such as phase-spaces and attractors; 4. while Harman puts emphasis on formal causes, for DeLanda it is more important to clarify the role of final causes. DeLanda completes this list with his critique of the object-oriented concept of fundamental withdrawal and Harman’s denial of real time.