Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.): Phenomenology as Performative Exercise

Phenomenology as Performative Exercise Book Cover Phenomenology as Performative Exercise
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 19
Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.)
Hardback €121.00
x, 236

Reviewed by: Thomas Arnold (University of Heidelberg)

The book is a whole divided into three parts, with the first part concerned with the performativity of phenomenology, the second with the phenomenology of performativity and the third with exercises in phenomenology. In this review, first I briefly discuss the volume as a whole. Then I focus on individual entries present in the volume, since they differ by topic and in quality. I conclude with some remarks.

I. Overview

The aim of the book is “to establish the first systematic connection between phenomenology and performativity” (1), which concerns both the performativity of phenomenology as well as the phenomenology of performativity (2). The third part of it “aims to sketch out three phenomenological exercises devoted to the constitution of contemporary performative phenomena” (7). The label “exercises” is somewhat misleading since all phenomenological inquiries are exercises in phenomenology. Moreover, all three essays in the exercise-section of the book are themselves phenomenological investigations into specific performances (as opposed to performativity in general), which thematically justifies their inclusion.

While we do get a promised look into the different ways in which phenomenology can be considered “performative,” I hold that the “transformation of attitude [performance] effects through a number of parallels between phenomenology and the ancient understanding of philosophy as an exercise and a way of life” (2) does not get enough attention. The specifics of this transformation do not seem to be discussed thoroughly enough in the book. How is the subject transformed exactly? From which state to what other state? Is subject-transformation desirable? Then again, this collection is just that: a collection – and therefore it cannot be expected to provide the same encompassing systematic reach a monograph might achieve.

What I liked in this volume was the systematic engagement with both historically close (Foucault, Derrida, a lot of Butler) as well as distant theories (e.g., Plato), which shows that phenomenologists are still interested in theoretical (as opposed to merely exegetical) issues and that we read and talk outside the boundaries of the phenomenological tradition, thus preventing conceptual in-breeding.

As I highlight later in this review, almost all papers contain more or less implicit assumptions about what phenomenology is and what it is supposed to do. If we follow some of the authors in this collection, it ought to be critical, active, transformative, not too intellectual or detached; yet there is not much open discussion about the foundations and justifications of these conceptions and I think this is a debate still waiting to happen – and one which can never really come to an end as long as philosophy demands radical justification for, of and by itself.

As far as I am concerned, paying close attention to how things appear (including texts) should still be the fundamental tenet of phenomenology, because that is how we adequately grasp things instead of just dealing with our own presuppositions and projections. As simple as this sounds, neither close attention (i.e. attention without prejudice, readily available formulae or random associations) nor the focus on the how of appearing (as against the what) are very well developed in our societies. And as Guidi points out, phenomenology is – in one sense – already “critical” inasmuch as it “draws our attention” (2) to sundry phenomena and their (contingent, problematic) modes of appearing, which for example include our naturalistic conceptions and inauthentic tendencies.

My final question however targets the subject and the object of these reflective operations. If we as phenomenologists are supposed to draw “our attention,” does this refer only to us phenomenologists or to us as simple humans? Put in the vocabulary of the present volume, who is supposed to be the benefactor of these phenomenological performances and exercises? And consequently, how should these exercises look? Should they be more academic exercises? More tentative theoretical acrobatics, language games within the same tedious vernacular, or maybe the umpteenth reading of Husserl’s descriptions of inner time consciousness? Or could they be more public exercises in reflecting on presuppositions and attending how things appear?

These questions are not trivial. For example, Husserl famously envisioned a social renewal centred around transcendental phenomenology. While I do not wish to advocate another attempt at healing (or bettering) the world through philosophy, I think phenomenologists are not in a bad position to contribute to what one might call “public philosophy”; especially since phenomenology is not a set of theorems or arguments or a doctrine one can extol, but a way of living, a way of looking, something we do and something we can train others to do too, maybe even to their (and our) advantage – a “performative exercise” indeed.

II. Review of Individual Entries

Dahlstrom characterises Heidegger’s phenomenology as performative insofar as it is obviously something we perform (as in: do), but mainly because “the phenomenologist’s philosophical act of understanding certain experiences entails carrying out the experience herself” (14). This leads him to the language used to prompt these re-enactments of experience – and to Heidegger’s reflection on the performativity of (phenomenological) language. Dahlstrom thus notes several concordances between Austin’s analyses of performatives and Heidegger’s early thoughts on language, especially on everyday performative discourse. Dahlstrom also mentions Heidegger’s engagement with authentic and inauthentic discourse as something that goes beyond Austin’s work.

In section two Dahlstrom deals with the phenomenological re-enactment (Vollzug) of experience in the sense of truth-proclamations. This touches upon the problem that phenomenological description does not simply mimic what it describes, but gives it “shape” (24). This is an example of  “Gestaltgebung” (24).[1] From here, Dahlstrom links Heidegger’s account of formal indication and its “existential-disclosive aspect” (26) to Searle’s take on performatives as creating linguistic facts. Dahlstrom ends on the observation that Heidegger’s account of speech acts is embedded in a much larger framework, while the speech act theorists focus more on specific issues and thus bring out more details, such that both could profit from each other (28).

From Dahlstrom’s considerations in section two, one might further question the function of re-enactment: why is it even necessary to “perform” experiences in phenomenology? And to what end? The repetition of experiences is necessary for our adequate grasp of what is given in experiences. Asserting without experience, i.e., asserting without direct contact to the things themselves, merely verbally, is what Husserl calls “empty” or even “inauthentic” discourse. How we perform our assertive acts is important because “empty” speech is phenomenologically worthless – hence the insistence on first-hand experience or, as Husserl calls it, “intuition.” Dahlstrom hints at the necessity of unpacking the distinction between authentic and inauthentic in Heidegger in FN 48. The end of all these efforts is ontological for Heidegger, for he is never interested simply in understanding experiences or even types of experiences for their own sake or in service of practical, “critical” projects. For Heidegger, questioning aims at something deeper: i.e., understanding being.

Legrand asks “What does happen if one practices an epochê without reduction?”(33). To arrive firstly at the fact that the epochê itself “is a performance of the subject” and that “the subject is performed by practicing the epochê,” the epochê becomes something specific to a suspension of judgement, a “suspension of anything that would prevent to work with what gives itself, as it is given, in the very field in which it is given.” (33-4, 40). Legrand sees Barthes practising a kind of epochȇ by suspending “that which makes his experience of the photograph ‘banal’” thereby also “suspending any narcissistic identifications with one’s mundane identity and normative identification with social roles” (36-7). In performing this bracketing, the subject shows itself to be certain without employing categories like “real” or “fictional”.

This allows Barthes to experience the “singularity” of the photograph, a singularity apparent just for him. However, the singularity for one is also singularity of one, an encounter between two singularities: “I am singular for the other” (37). Moreover, “the structure of singularity is not reflexivity but: the address of one to another” (38).  Arguably, then, one could describe this whole structure comprising the two singularities as reflexivity, given that the other reflects me onto myself (and vice versa).But the point seems to be that singularity requires more than individual reflection.

At any rate, Legrand fleshes out some of the differences between phenomenology and psychoanalysis and finds that the latter is decidedly non-transcendental, but still operates with a form of epochê. The psychoanalytic epochê consists in suspending the categories of the “correct, appropriate, relevant, interesting, true, or embarrassing, shameful, false, stupid, ridiculous etc.” (47) so as to “consider speech as Saying” (48) without judging the adequacy of the spoken to reality. The analyst instead listens with the presumption “that who I hear is irreducibly singular” (48). Following Legrand, in this act one would perform themselves as a singularity as well as the other. She offers the takeaway or insight that there are either different species of epochê or different paths to take, springing from the one epochê and leading to very different subjects/situations, depending on the mode and aim of the performance of the bracketing.

Cimino argues for deep agreements between Husserl and Plato. He begins by pointing out that Plato and Husserl agree on the fundamental nature of philosophy in regard to the other sciences. He fleshes out this distinction by drawing on a distinction between “discursive thinking and intuitive thinking” (53) as well as the necessity of other sciences “to rely on assumptions” (53) which philosophy questions; he then focusses on the former difference (56). I obviously agree with the general idea that Husserl and Plato are in accordance on central systematic issues (whether Husserl is aware of it or not); I disagree with Cimino’s more specific claim that they both endorse “the specific method of philosophy as inuitive thinking” (50).

For what could this “intuitive method” (56) even be? Firstly, what is intuition? As Cimino points out, self-givenness of any thematic object is fundamental to Plato and Husserl and both criticise mere verbal, i.e. non-intuitive speech. For both it “is rather the familiarity with the thing itself that produces real philosophical knowledge” (58) and when Cimino speaks of the “dialectical method” (57) he claims that “it entails the direct, first-hand grasp of essences or ideas” (57). To explain one metaphor through two others: intuition (for Cimino as well as for Plato and Husserl) is familiarity is first-hand grasp. Now can this be a “method” in and of itself? As Cimino himself says, the “dialectical method” “entails” it, which means it is not identical to it. And I venture it entails it because dialegesthai, literally “talking it through”, leads to what we have described as seeing, i.e. first-hand grasping. But the method, the way to go, is logical, it proceeds through logoi, through speeches, through questioning presuppositions, drawing out implications, discussing (varying) examples etc. Therefore intuition might either be a result or even a presupposition of Plato’s (and Husserl’s) philosophical method, but not a method in and of itself.

This has bearing on another issue, namely the intersubjective dimension of philosophy. In regard to this, what I hod to be a mistranslation of a passage from Plato’s 7th Letter is noteworthy. According to Cimino it states that insight appears “as a result of continued application to the subject itself”; however this passage ought to read that insight appears “in joint pursuit of the subject” (as translated by Morrow), since “synousia” means “being-together” and refers to the intersubjective dimension of philosophy, similar to “syzên”, “living together” in the very same sentence (one line further in 341d1). This being-together necessitates the logos as medium of philosophy since we cannot share intuitions directly. It is the intersubjective and reflective giving and taking of reasons which is the “method” of Platonic philosophy.

It is here, as I have argued,[2] that Husserlian phenomenology could benefit from a little more Platonism, given that some of Husserl’s own methodological characterisation of phenomenology turn it into a rather private, even solipsistic enterprise of inner monologue rather than the intersubjective endeavour he clearly wants it to be.

D’Angelo aims at establishing “four principles of every performance of phenomenological reading” (63) by reading and expanding on Gadamer’s reading of Plato’s Lysis. He sets out with highlighting that “phenomenology seems to happen mostly through texts and the interpretation of texts” (64); interestingly, D’Angelo does not call us (us phenomenologists that is) out on this (which he very well could and which Husserl would surely do), but rather asks “whether there is a distinctly phenomenological way of reading texts” (64) and claims that reading Husserl (for example) can still be a genuinely phenomenological exercise.

D’Angelo takes a basic principle from Gadamer, employs it (again) to the Lysis and then develops “four central moments of Plato’s theory of friendship which are, in my interpretation, at the same time four central moments of philosophy in general” (66). In a sense he performs a phenomenological reading to establish what a phenomenological reading is. These are the principles he wants to establish. First principle: There needs to be a “conjunction” of word and deed or attention to “the peculiar performance of a text” (76). For example, in the Lysis, “Socrates does things (erga) with words (logoi), by obtaining Lysis friendship through discourse.” (76) Were we to only focus on the explicit logoi, we would miss Plato’s enactment (in the sense of staging) of friendship, like Vlastos does, as D’Angelo contends (FN 19). The second principle D’Angelo gains from the fact that we are creating a logos about something for someone, which he translates into a principle of reading charitably, but also attending to the topic of the text itself, as to be able to criticise the text on its own terms. The third principle derives from the fact that “ignorance is a necessary component of philosophy” (74) and is basically a call to stay open-minded. The fourth principle reads: “There must be co-belonging, but also distance”, which implies a search for “common ground” (77). D’Angelo admits to a “feeling of triviality” (78) in regard to the principles listed, but points out that the triviality of these norms rather cements their validity while they are still continuously violated.

In reading D’Angelo’s account, two questions sprang to my mind: a) Why should we consider these principles to be especially “phenomenological”? b) Even if I happen to fully agree with his principles, where does their normativity stem from? Why should Gadamer or Plato (or their accordance) justify any principle for phenomenological reading whatsoever? An answer to both questions might lie in the phenomenological motto, since if we want to attend to the things themselves or let them show themselves as they are (be they texts or things or the world or…), we need to focus both on their explicit and implicit dimensions, apply categories of description not foreign to the phenomenon, stay open-minded and while attending the things themselves keep the appropriate descriptive distance.

Delving once again into the platonica, I have only a small gripe with how D’Angelo presents a basic Socratic tenet. Socrates’ principle is not “knowing only not to know” (69), as D’Angelo puts it, it is knowing when and if he does not know and abstaining from claiming such knowledge he does not possess (Apology 21d). In things of love and eidetic pregnancy, so to speak, Socrates always appears well-versed, indeed knowledgeable and proud of the fact. In the Symposium he even reveals his teacher in regard to these things, Diotima. Socrates knows that he knows of these things because he constantly proves to himself that he does, namely by performing his midwifery, i.e. dialectics. This does not however impede D’Angelo’s overall point that philosophy appears as the “in-between” (70) and as concerned with such.

Guidi focusses on the transformative dimension of phenomenology, which she then analyses in terms of the middle voice. Recalling the early Heidegger’s considerations about how understanding of formal indication requires a transformation on the side of the reader, Guidi concludes that phenomenological “speech is an enactment” (86), drawing the reader towards certain experiences, especially towards our thrown-ness: “Thus all phenomenological speech does is to indicate and address the very actual situation of the reader, by allowing her to experience the impossibility of founding that situation.” (85)

To conceptualise this enactment further, she draws on Benveniste’s analyses of the so called “middle voice”, which she claims opens “a topological perspective” (88), meaning that one can analyse actions as external or internal, the middle voice referring to a situation “where the agent is situated inside the process” (88), is “being affected” (89) in action. Guidi sees thinking according to Heidegger as exactly such an enactment, but denies its priority: “I claim that the ungrounded character of Dasein, the very same which phenomenology addresses in a performative way, opens up the ordinary and never fully accomplished task for every Dasein of transforming oneself and therefore relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity.” (90). Guidi then goes on to discuss four examples of middle-voice enactments, namely dialogue, expressing oneself, play and vulnerability, as analysed by Butler. She concludes with the conjecture that the “middle voice, by prompting the assumption of a topological perspective, may reveal the transformative potential of our ordinary comportments, and may further offer a new grammar for political action, one which is no longer founded on a sovereign account of subjectivity and agency” (96).

My main questions about Guidi’s account revolve around the notion of transformation. What transformation exactly are we talking about? And who has decided that it is to be the “task for every Dasein” (90)? The transformation involved in phenomenology is fairly specific and implies a shift away from “ordinary comportments”, not within or through it. This is why Husserl keeps writing introductions to phenomenology to explicate both the epochê as well as the reduction(s) in terms of a massive rupture with the natural attitude. Similarly for Heidegger; for while his philosophy certainly implies “acknowledging the ungrounded character of Dasein” (79), it also constitutes a radical break with the ordinary (even ordinary philosophy) towards fundamental ontology, the history of being or “thinking” in an eminent sense. Therefore I would be very interested in how exactly ordinary comportment transforms itself relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity without simply becoming philosophy, poetics or “thinking” – and how this transformation might be achieved. To be clear, this is not an ironic or rhetorical question, as I think it might really be better for everyone involved if more people acknowledged “the ungroundedness and the constitutive opacity” of our situation and acted accordingly. Could and should it be the “task” of philosophy to further this transformation?

Summa discusses the relation between performing and expressing, refuting Butler’s early claim that expression and performance are mutually exclusive, based on the assumptions that expression does not contribute to the constitution of what is expressed and presupposes a substantial subject (102). Instead, Summa offers a complementary account.

In the first section she sets out the false dichotomy between expression and performance. In the second section she discusses different notions of performance which inform current debates, namely Austin’s linguistic account of performatives and Turner’s cultural-anthroplogical account of ritual and the social drama. The common denominator Summa sees in “the accentuation of the productive and transformative power of the activity” (108) while pointing out that Turner’s concept is farther reaching, including the institution of norms and social identities through repetition – or their breaking. In the third section, Summa argues both that the “sincerity condition for the success of performative utterances” (112) cannot be understood apart from considerations of expression, and that expression itself is one way to exercise the power of institution as described by Merleau-Ponty. In each case, Summa shows that expression does not presuppose “the assumption of the subject as substance” (116). What is presupposed in but also formed by expression and acknowledgement, is experience. Moreover, any “expressive impulse emerges as a response to or a way to cope with some form of impasse within an already given order” and this presupposes an “embodied history of a style, which can itself become the object of modification, or écart, which will have an impact on our subsequent experience.” (118)

Summa’s contribution is both precisely argued and strategically interesting, as she, like Wehrle in her paper (see below), brings phenomenology systematically and critically into contact with concurrent theories, especially Butler’s. In doing so she disabuses us of certain common misconceptions about phenomenology, namely of being a subjectivist, pre-post-modern (i.e. modern) project. At the same time she actualises a transcendental line of questioning by elaborating on the conditions of possibility of expression and performance as well expression and performance as conditions of the possibility of subject-formation.

Wehrle contends “that Butler’s account of performativity as well as her ethics of precarity could profit from a phenomenologically-informed account of bodily performativity, which includes its passive and active aspects.” (126) She then explicates bodily performativity in terms of engagement: “as embodied, we are engaged with our environment and creative with regard to our relation with it. […] This relation, the performances of the body, so I want to argue here, have ontological relevance in that they can create real and lasting changes in situations, the environment and the bodies themselves.” (127) This “performative force of the body often goes unnoticed” (128), because it is usually anonymous.

While our bodies can actively perform, they can also be acted on, for example through bodily discipline, which Wehrle interprets as “forced or prefixed habituation” (130), be it through external forces or internalised norms. Thus bodies are normalised. Depending on the situation, the norms working on bodies and bodily behaviour are either experienced as comfortable (in case we conform to them) or uncomfortable (in case we do not conform to them) (132).

In dealing with these norms, Wehrle votes for a “pragmatic approach” according to which we do not simply abolish uncomfortable norms, but use the discomfort to enact the norms in “slighlty different ways”: changing their script so to speak, “thus integrating more possibilities and more possible subjects into it” (133). In fact, since no bodily act ever reproduces the underlying norms completely and since we (can) experience this discrepancy, Wehrle argues that we ought “regard embodied experience by itself as perfomative and, therefore, potentially subversive” (134) – like language. The starting point to any of these subversive acts is the “distance that is inherent to our very embodiment and experience”, namely that between being a body and having a body to which we can relate and which we ourselves can objectify, discovering “our ordinary ways of moving” (137) and lining them up for scrutiny – and consequently change through self-discipline, which Wehrle links with Foucault’s “care for the self”. She concludes: “In enacting norms, we thereby make them “real”, but always retain the capacity to transcend them.” (139)

As with parallel discussions in the realm of linguistic acts and norms, the next question – which can use Wehrle’s concise conceptual work as a starting point – would be how exactly this transcendence takes place, especially in extremis. For while it is easier to envisage how we can (bodily) transcend (bodily) norms in (more or less) free societies, it is harder to imagine how one can enact and subvert norms in, say, Guantanamo Bay or an Uighur internment camp. The enforced performances in such “Vocational Education and Training Centers” are exactly aimed at stopping any form of subversion, even to reduce fellow human beings to obedient bodies, collapsing the critical distinction between being and having a body.

Laner offers “(Post)Phenomenological Considerations of Contending Bodies” (140), taking Butler’s account of assembly and her criticism of Arendt’s perceived intellectualism as her starting point. She then goes on to develop a concept of “bodily forms of critique” (145), drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Ryle.

What then is “critique” and how can it be “bodily”, according to Laner? What are “performances of critique” (144) if not criticising? “Critique, as performed on a bodily level, […] means to question a situation not from a distanced perspective” (140), “critique” is about “altering” (142) a situation and attacking the norms inherent in it, indeed, critical “performances aim at transgressing such limitations” (143); “it is by means of bodily enactment that one takes a critical stance toward an existing system of norms” (146); “taking a critical stance on a bodily level can, in a very basic sense, be regarded as a form of bodily enactment that transgresses or subverts the existing norms.” (147) Bodily criticism is “a response to a given situation that does not affirm, but that questions the norms prefiguring our performances” (149). Such critical stances are performed by “[b]odies that claim to be recognized as free” (144) and it “it is the body that thinks and reflects” (151). Laner thus wants to overcome the “Dualistic characterisation” (144) of us humans as divided in body and mind.

In light of this aim it is odd that she a) constantly distinguishes between body and mind rather than focusing on the person as a whole but also b) keeps using mentalistic vocabulary to describe bodily actions. It is unclear why we should say that the body claims something, takes a stance or questions anything; surely it is the whole, embodied as well as minded person who performs all these acts? And does the difference between simply failing to properly enact a norm and subverting it reside in the body as opposed to the mind? Also having an “aim” (152) surely is something the person rather than the body ‘performs’? Even “performing intelligently” (153) in Ryle’s sense does not justify the term “bodily criticism” as Ryle himself says of a person or the “agent” that he does or does not exercise “criticism”, not of the body (as quoted by Laner on p. 153). So does Merleau-Ponty: the artist “questions perceptual norms” (155), as Laner says, not the artist’s body. Discovery and analysis are feats of the person as a minded entity, so why go back to the harsh duality of body and mind to then misapply these activities?

I do not advocate a view according to which “bodies are not able to perform critically, since their performances are understood in terms of necessary reaction” (145), but a view according to which criticality is an attribute of activities and dispositions of the whole person rather than one aspect. That is not to say that bodily performance cannot subvert norms, as Summa and Wehrle both establish very clearly (see above), but both successfully avoid forcing mentalistic vocabulary or dualism into their spelling out of the subversive possibilities of bodily engagement. Humans can question norms bodily, even by performing (or failing to perform) certain movements, yes. But why call this “bodily criticism”?

Then again, Laner also sees herself “questioning a notion of critique that underlines its merely rational nature and the distanced attitude it presupposes” (147) – a notion of critique she characterises as “trivial” and traces back to Kant. “Trivial notions of critique often refer to the etymology of the concept krinein, stressing its original meaning of discriminating. If critical performances are regarded as performances that simply detect differences and discriminate, critique seems to loose its normative impact.” (148) According to Laner it is also “clear that only a small elite even qualifies for critical engagement” (148) in this sense, although she does not say in which way it is so “clear”.

Firstly, where does the imperative of “normative impact” of critique come from? Or is that “simply” a presupposition? Secondly, as to the triviality of critique: the main aspect of “krinein” is to differentiate adequately, to detect a difference that makes a difference in a given context and to conceptualise it aptly – to “carve nature at the joints” as Plato has it (Phaidros 265e), A judge for example “simply” has to judge (discriminate) whether someone is guilty or not and what punishment is adequate. Critical thinking thus is not a passive “becoming aware of differences” or a bodily response of “detecting differences” (155), but actively seeking out differences according to certain criteria, employing conceptual skills. The ability to differentiate properly does therefore not seem “trivial” to me; or if it is “trivial” in the sense of belonging to the “trivium”, i.e. to any form of halfway proper education, it is not very well received – it certainly is not widely spread even within academia.

It is also arguably different from the drive or wish to change something one has previously identified (and thus differentiated from what it is not) as defective, which can follow acts of criticism but does not have to.

Regarding Kant, his notion of “Kritik” is very specific and concerns the possibility of metaphysics and the range of valid conclusions reason is allowed to draw (Critique of Pure Reason, A-Vorrede) and which is supposed to answer the question “How are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” – which is not what most people mean when they speak of the intellectual activity or disposition of being “critical”, presumably. Then again, in a more general understanding of a “critical” stance, Kant asks all of us (rather than a “small elite”, as Laner has it) to “dare to know”.

The connection between what Laner calls “trivial” as well as “non-bodily forms of critique” remains vague as she just says they are “somehow complementary”, since bodily critique relates “towards a matter from within”, whereas non-bodily critique supposedly operates “from outside the system” (156). Which is, again, highly problematic, given that the whole issue with Kant and post-Kantian idealism is the acute awareness that we are always “within”. There is no view from outside, no view from nowhere, no side-ways on view, no context-less context, no a-perspectival perspective etc. – pick your favourite “trivial” formula. Also, given that Kant talks mainly about theology, how is his critique not at least associated with “actual desires, affects and needs of the performer” (156)? Kant himself at least sees his critique as a matter of life and death after all – and lest we forget, with Plato, the proper critical, dialectical stance is the proper way to deal with death and the only worthy expression of Eros.

Laner’s divestment of critique from reflection is motivated by her concern about those unable to reflect as “they too deserve to be attributed the possibility of taking a critical stance.” (148) I am unsure who decides who is deserving, but surely the validity of attributions ought to rest on clean definitions rather than moral considerations?

Finally I think “postphenomenology” is an odd term in this context, since considerations about the “broader horizon of changing times, various cultures, political systems and power mechanisms shaping bodies as well as the diverse social roles attributed to them” (142) are well inside the range of phenomenological thought; after all, Husserl himself already conceives of a “historical apriori” (Krisis, 380) and takes the differences between “homeworld” and “otherworld” into account, as well as the cultural differences between say, Greek and non-Greek thought which sparked philosophy in the first place in his view. See Rentsch’s take on “situative contextuality” (164) in Husserl in the same volume (see below).[3]

Classical phenomenology always calls for a “Leitfaden” to any discussion, i.e. a given phenomenon from which the structure of interest can be lifted and analysed. This would have been very helpful in this case, since at least to me it is still very unclear what bodily critique is supposed to be.

Rentsch moves away from the body, towards the “transcendence of logos”, which refers to the “unavailability and withdrawal of the performative constitution of meaning, that is, its negativity”, i.e. “that which precedes and is outside of logos cannot be grasped or conceived of, except once again through linguistic forms.” (159) Rentsch situates this topic within the thematic range of the present volume by positing: “Linguistically, this transcending manifests in performativity” (167).

He proceeds from Wittgenstein’s silence at the end of the Tractatus and his subsequent practical turn, to Heidegger, Adorno’s constellation and Husserl’s passive synthesis, in all of which he sees attempts to conceptualise the unavailable performativity that constitutes meaning. Where Husserl is concerned, one might even go further than Rentsch in that not only the living present “does not exist as such, […] is unthinkable and unrepresentable” (166); the same holds for the ur-sphere and the “Urstand” therein, which is the form of subjectivity constituting all objects (Gegen-stand as opposed to Ur-stand) and which Husserl also considers to be no object in any way (cf. Bernauer Manuskripte 277) .

This line of thinking that certain structures are both “limits and ground” (167) of something can – again – be easily traced back to (at least) Plato, in whom the structuring principle always transcends whatever it structures, a thought that found its home at the heart of Neoplatonism, leading from Plotinus to Proclus on to the Florentine Academy, Cusanus and further. Rentsch can be read as analysing an instantiation of this very basic structure in its aspect concerning meaning and language, truth (161).

As with Platonic takes on the issue, one might ponder what exactly “inexplicability” (167) means in this context. After all, Rentsch asks us “to conceive of [the inexplicable conditions] as conditions of meaning” (167), thus conceptualising, explicating and expressing them, namely “as conditions”. The formerly non-thematic performance becomes thematic and thus loses its transcendence – otherwise it could not be object of inquiry.

In his conclusion he hints at ways in which “fundamental domains of the constitution of meaning on the life-world” (169) are affected by recent developments and mentions fake news, exchange trade, artificial intelligence in warfare and pornography. In all these cases he sees the irreducible and to some extent inexplicable basis of meaning-constitution under threat. The connection of these issues to his former elucidations of the performative withdrawal at the heart of meaning-constitution remains somewhat tentative however. He ends on an ethical note: “what is at stake is that we develop ways to take back […] and strengthen the critical faculty of judgement” (169) – and who would argue against that?

Slaby bridges a wide gap, “From Heidegger to Afro-Pessimism”. In this he aims at a “temporal account of affectivity” (173), specifically the “background affectivity” which permeats our being-in-the-world and which is shaped by “historical events” (174). Slaby wants to “revive” Heidegger’s take on the relation between affectivity and time “for the purpose of motivating and informing a critical phenomenology of affectivity” (174), where to be “in an affective state amounts to finding oneself “here”, at a particular juncture, confronted by what has been, what is factual, what has come to be so that we have no choice but to go on from here.” (175) Affectivity both discloses and occludes our situation, however. Slaby’s goal is thus partially critical, to “reveal layers of distrust, dishonesty and inauthenticity” (176).

He then draws on Fanon, Rankine and Coates (among others) to portray the affectivity of many black lives in the US, “constitutively placed on the brink of death” through the “violent appropriation of black lives” (179). He goes on to discuss Merleau-Ponty’s concept of social sedimentation as it impacts the body-schema, as well as Al-Saji’s and Ahmed’s contributions to phenomenology. It is here that the phenomenological meat of his approach lies as he establishes the connection between the historical (re-)embodiment of white privilege “in the spaces and operations of public institutions, and how it becomes manifest within affective modes of embodied being-in-the-world.” (186)

Slaby follows this with a look at Sharpe’s concept of the Wake (of the Middle Passage), which is both a factual condition as well as a mode of caring. He sees Wake work as similar to phenomenology in regard to the attention to the natural attitude (192; additionally he posits the condition of being in the Wake as a “Grundstimmung”, alongside the phenomenological favourites “anxiety” and “nausea” (192): “Living under the reign of capital is living in the Wake, still embodying, continuing, re-enacting this concrete history.” (192-3) – This is, of course, tricky terrain, since while capitalism affects non-black people as well, the Wake shapes black lives, especially in the USA, very differently from how it shapes the lives of white people; or – on average – white people are living in the Wake differently than black people.

The only point I do not quite understand in Slaby’s contribution is his criticism of aspiring to “evaluative” “detached neutrality” (194) as opposed to a stance which would “require practitioners to thoroughly situate their respective subject matters historically and to devise philosophical methods adequate to this task – methods that work performatively so as to crack open ossified formations of understanding and being.” (194) Again I am tempted to ask where the imperative to crack open anything stems from and why that cannot or should not be performed in a detached way. After all, even Husserl’s fairly detached way of philosophising always aimed at negating what he called ossification in order to get at the things themselves and renew society. And surely “neutrality” in this context simply means not to be unfair or prejudiced?

Kozel writes about her engagement with the works of the choreographer Margrét Guðjónsdóttir and states that “A phenomenology of affect affords a parallel between Guðjónsdóttir’s choreographic practices and Cambridge Analytica’s political manipulations”, namely as “choreographies of affect and somatic states”, in each case affective states being the “material” of the work in question. The difference for Kozel lies in the fact that in the former case, the “reflective process” is in play, while it is “missing from social media users’ attitudes” (205), as the reflective process is part of the choreographer’s work. The paper also contains a detailed description of the experience of viewing a piece by Guðjónsdóttir.

In terms of theory I could not find a definition for what she calls “hyper-reflection” (205). In general, Kozel’s idea of how and why we “do a phenomenology” (206) seems to be more practical than theoretical. Her description of the steps involved in doing “a” phenomenology sounds more like a form of mindfulness-meditation followed by a written account; to me it certainly seems further removed from traditional philosophical theorising than the other contributions – which in itself is not a reason to evaluate it negatively, of course.

Buongiorno’s paper deals with “digital performativity” in the sense of the “ways we act ourselves out” and “construct ourselves by means of digital artefacts” (214) After briefly sketching the differences in self-constitution brought on by digitalisation, drawing on work by Belk, Buongiorno discusses three phenomenological concepts, which he thinks will help to understand these new forms of self-constitution: a) epochê: this constitutes the distance necessary to do phenomenology, as is the case with Husserl, b) variation: our digitalised mediated experience can be conceptualised as variations of non-digital experience – “we may understand digital experiences as a virtual transposition of the contents of real experience” (222) and c) the flesh, which serves to undercut the discussion about disembodiment through digitalisation and its dualist presuppositions, in order to better understand digital “reembodiment”.

“Phenomenology” for Buongiorno is supposedly “far from being just a theory resorting to reflection and analysis” (220) but rather a “form-of-life” (221) – something no traditional phenomenologist would doubt, presumably. However the specifics of this form-of-life seem to me to rest exactly in “reflection and analysis”, as phenomenology both as a stance and an activity is based on turning our attention back (reflectere) towards conditions of possibility, towards conceptual structures and frames of mind, towards our constituting activities, ill-grounded presuppositions etc. and then carefully taking them apart (analyein) and explicating them in order to foster understanding.

III. Conclusion

As can be gleaned from my remarks, I am rather taken aback by some of the implicit or explicit disavowals of the ideals of earlier phenomenology, namely to strive for a differentiated, analytic, reflexive, neutral, i.e. theoretical account of the things themselves (including ourselves). This striving is itself already a performative as well as a transformative exercise and thus a way of life,[4] one which is sorely in need of proponents in my mind, since it implies a thoughtfulness and an understanding of our own presuppositions and (epistemic) limits which in turn are the bedrock both for reasonable political action as well as fruitful research. Temporal philosophical disengagement neither implies global (political) inactivity or a general disembodiment, yet only reflection can curb some of our more unproductive reflexes.

This reflection also ought to include the “ought”, as quite a few papers in the present collection simply assume certain norms or directives without either arguing for or at least describing the sources of their validity, which ought to be a problem for any radical, self-critical philosophy – as phenomenology traditionally purported to be.

Despite my critical remarks, most of the contributions to the volume qualify as solid academic performances, some are outstanding in clarity and concision. The volume as a whole shows (again) that current phenomenology is divers, well suited to place itself in a wider context and able to engage with other traditions and new topics. As the Guidi states in the introduction, “We wish [to] bring to light the mutual relation between phenomenology and performativity and set the ground for further exercises” (10). This it accomplishes very well.

[1]   Cf. Florian Arnold, Logik des Entwerfens (Paderborn, 2018) for an account of the connection between philosophy and design.

[2]  Thomas Arnold. 2017. Phänomenologie als Platonismus. Berlin/New York, §§ 22.

[3] See also Aldea’s take on the criticality of Husserlian phenomenology in: Smaranda Aldea, “Making Sense of Husserl’s Notion of Teleology: Normativity, Reason, Progress and Phenomenology as ‘Critique from Within’,” Hegel Bulletin 38/1 (2017): 104–128 and “Phenomenology as Critique: Teleological-Historical Reflection and Husserl’s Transcendental Eidetics,” Husserl Studies 31/1 (2016): 21–46.

[4] Cf. the locus classicus, Pierre Hadot. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Blackwell .

Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press
Hardback $49.95

Reviewed by: Elad Lapidot (University of Bern)

Is Catholicism a Religion?

Over the last decades, scholars have increasingly called into question the universal validity of the category “religion” as referring to a supposed ahistorical constant domain of all human mind and civilization, the domain of faith. The claim has characteristically been that, even though nowadays we often speak and think of religion this way, both in everyday life and in scholarship, in fact our notion of religion is a historical construct. This conceptual construct, so the claim, is fashioned after a specific cultural tradition, the Christian West, which, as part of obtaining or preserving its global epistemic hegemony, has asserted its own culture – Christianity – as a universal and superior feature of human nature as such: religion. Consequently, all cultures would have their religions: the Jewish, the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, which could therefore be compared and evaluated in view of the underlying paradigm – and ultimate paragon – of religion, Christianity.

This sort of critique of religion is commonly deployed in postcolonial-like discourses, which confront the Christian West with its non-Christian others. Could the same critique apply within Christianity itself (West vs. East) or even within the Western? Wouldn’t the construct “religion” arise not only from a geo-political bias, i.e. the West, but also from a chrono-political bias, i.e. Modernity? And if so, wouldn’t it give effect and perpetuate a bias within the Christian West, namely in favor of modern Christianity, marked by Protestantism and Secularism, so as to undermine premodern, Catholic forms of Christian civilization? Is Catholicism a religion?

There is much in Baring’s intriguing new book to suggest that Catholicism is in fact not primarily a religion, but a philosophy, or even – philosophy. The main theme of the book is continental philosophy, whose center according to Baring is phenomenology. Its explicit concern is intellectual and institutional genealogy, “the Making of Continental Philosophy”, namely how a specific direction in 20th century philosophy, phenomenology, has been able to transform “from a provincial philosophy in southwest Germany into a movement that spanned Europe” (2), and so to become “continental”. Here and elsewhere in the book, Baring highlights the political significance of epistemic constellations, underlying the transnational, pan-European character of phenomenology as “continental” philosophy. His own historiography performatively turns away from national narratives (phenomenology in France, Husserl in Spain, Heidegger in Italy etc.) in search of a more transnational, universal ground. The movement that spread Husserl’s word among the nations (“the single most important explanation for the international success of phenomenology in the twentieth century”, 5), Baring suggests, is the one that goes under the name of the universal itself, the catholicos, Catholicism. Catholicism is the principal agent in this continental, transnational, catholic historiography of philosophy.

It is somewhat paradoxical that Baring’s professed transnational perspective nonetheless preliminary features phenomenology as belonging to “southwest Germany”, namely as originally particular, which accordingly begs the question of its continental success. According to this logic, this transnational success can only be accounted for by something beyond phenomenology itself, something more European, more universal, which would be Catholicism. However, in what sense would phenomenological philosophy itself not be sufficiently universal to account for its own universal spread? In what sense is Catholicism more obviously universal, and what explains its own international success, beyond the province of Rome?

Be that as it may, the notion of success, namely the ability of philosophy or thought, the ability of ideas, to obtain and expand their hold on the world, on reality, is central to Baring’s project. The primary transnational feature of Catholicism that the book foregrounds is its global institutional presence. Next to the transnational and universal, “catholic” historiographic perspective, Baring’s study accommodates Catholicism also in focusing on the worldly reality of the Church. The Catholicism that, as the book suggests, carried phenomenology across the continent is first and foremost a “network of philosophers and theologians that stretched across Europe” (7); “we can speak of ‘continental philosophy’ because phenomenology could tap into the networks of a Church that already operated on a continental scale” (11).

The story of “making” continental philosophy, as told in the book, is indeed concerned less with conceptual genealogy of ideas and more with how they spread. It’s a story of thought as an inter-personal, inter-institutional happening, where events of thinking take place between works, between thinkers. The great individual names of phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, the “phenomenological trinity” Baring calls them (6) – are there, but they function as basic coordinates for describing the real plot, which is scholarship. Primary and secondary literatures switch here places. The main protagonists of this book are neither the great names nor the great book, but their less known scholarly recipients, the clerics, who read, translate, introduce, interpret, discuss and institutionalize ideas, convene conferences and found archives, journals and schools. Most importantly, and this is one of the great achievements of this book, the history of thought is told through formative debates, such that polemics – and with it politics – is posited at the heart of epistemology, a real at the heart of the ideal. Could polemics too – next to transnationalism and institutionalism – count as Catholic heritage?

At any event, Baring tells continental philosophy’s church history, and according to him the early church of phenomenology was Catholic. To quote some impressive facts:

“self-professed Catholic philosophers produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II, making Catholic phenomenology by far the largest constituent part of the early European reception” (8-9);

“Within Europe, phenomenology has been most successful in Catholic countries, while tending to skip, at least at first, the Protestant strongholds of Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, it has flourished in Latin America and at Catholic universities in the United States, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. The geography of phenomenology is best described, not by the contours of mainland Europe, but by the reach of the ‘universal Church’.” (11).

What is certain, in Baring’s account Catholicism does not just function as a contingent carrier of phenomenological philosophy, a vessel which would remain external to the content that it spreads. The Church is not simply a vehicle for Husserl’s word. The network of catholic intellectuals and institutions does not feature in this book as a mere logistical structure, but as the institutional embodiment of its intellectual content, of thought. Is Catholicism a religion? In this book, the Catholic emerges primarily as a philosophy. Insofar as Catholicism accounts for making phenomenology the philosophy of the European continent, Baring argues, it is because “before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (19)

What is Catholic philosophy? This question is not really developed in the book, which has a very clear answer: medieval scholastic philosophy as it has been oriented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, namely Thomism. In the relevant period for the book, the first decades of the 20th century, Catholic philosophy consisted in the attempt to renew Thomism, namely in neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism, which according to Baring was in these decades “the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world” (8). Neo-Thomism was global philosophy, which makes one wonder about the reason it was only able to turn phenomenology “continental”, but no more than that. Neo-Thomism, as Baring portrays it, had set to itself a daring task. It translated medieval philosophy into modern terms not in order to modernize this philosophy, but, on the contrary, in order to effect “a philosophical conversion of modernity, a movement from modern to medieval metaphysics” (14). Neo-Thomism was the Catholic mission to the Moderns, aiming to reconvert modernity “back to Catholicism” (ibid.).

“Conversion” is a key word in Baring’s book. It is the basic description of the intellectual event that it portrays, and the plot is articulated by the personal conversions – official or not – of the protagonists. What was the nature of the conversion “back to Catholicism”, which neo-Thomists were trying to generate? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Baring’s historiographic thesis: it designates the ultimate purpose of Catholic, neo-Thomist philosophy, explains why phenomenology was deemed useful for Catholic intellectuals to pursue this purpose and so would account for why Catholicism helped phenomenology to its continental and international success.

Were neo-Thomists interested in converting modernity, modern thought and philosophy, from secularism or atheism back to religion? Obviously, as already indicated, neo-scholasticism was not looking to promote “religion” in its modern, paradigmatically Protestant or secular sense. But furthermore, Baring most often does not describe Catholic thought in terms of religion or what is commonly – in modern discourse – associated with religion as a special domain, of faith, transcendent God, holiness, spirituality etc., in short, as a different domain than secular, atheological or even atheistic philosophy.

On the contrary: neo-Thomism was looking to renew Thomism, for which, as described by Baring, theology implied worldly thought. Catholic thinkers “were convinced that the world incarnated a divine order, and that the institution of the Catholic Church was the worldly locus of redemption” (14); God is present in “His effects in the world” (30), such that faith is deemed “the perfection of natural knowledge” (29). The goal of Neo-Thomists was accordingly, among others, to connect Catholicism to science, natural science: by going back to Aquinas they were trying to reconnect with Aristotle. In other words, whether or not Catholicism was interested, in the first decades of the 20th century, in renewing something like religion, in Baring’s book Catholic philosophy emerges as a powerful agent for the renewal of Aristotelian philosophy, which historically speaking is perhaps nothing but Western philosophy, or philosophy tout court. Just as philosophy’s first and ultimate concern is with Being, Baring’s Catholicism is concerned with “the Real”.

“The Real” is the central concept of Baring’s narrative, which thus connects the contemporary discourse on philosophy and religion with the contemporary philosophical conversation on realism. Explicating this connection may have been a useful way for Baring to provide a more precise explanation of what he understands by “the Real”. Considering the pivotal centrality of this concept for the book’s argument, it remains rather vague and sometimes ambivalent. In fact, its basic significance in this book seems to be above all polemic, in that it designates what neo-scholasticism, seeking to renew medieval, premodern philosophy, was asserting against modern thought. Indeed, throughout the book, Catholic positions are characterized in various ways as opposing the negation of realism by modern philosophy, namely as opposition to the idealism, relativism and subjectivism that would characterize modern thought.

That non-realism (a negation of or distance from the Real) is constitutive to modern philosophy, is a decisive presupposition of Baring’s project. The exact significance of this presupposed non-realism or idealism remains as much an open question as the exact meaning of “the Real”. If the supposed non-realism of modern philosophy means detachment from the worldly and natural order, in favor of some dimension of transcendence, of some supernatural or transcendental subjectivity, will or spirit, this would mean that modern thought, far from being secular and “worldly”, has rather become closer to religion, as a relation to the unworldly. This kind of analysis no doubt sits well with accounts of modernity, such as Hans Jonas’, as arising from man’s liberation from and subsequent domination of nature (NB: not against but precisely through modern, technological science), which would resemble or even be the avatar of ancient Gnosticism, religion of the Alien God. Neo-Thomism, working to effect on modernity a – as the title of Baring’s book reads – “Conversion to the Real”, which is actually a re-conversion, a movement back to the world, would accordingly be the modern permutation of the same anti-heresiological movement that for someone like Hans Blumenberg, for instance, accounted for the emergence of Christian doctrine. This movement may be described less as a conversion from philosophy to religion than as a conversion from religion back to philosophy, from faith back to reason.

Converting modern philosophy to the Real was in any case, so Baring, the missionary goal of neo-scholasticism in the first decades of the 20th century. It is for this mission that Catholic networks identified phenomenology as suitable and for this purpose they “made” it continental. The reason that phenomenology was found by neo-Thomist to be such a suitable discourse for deploying the conversion of non-realist modern philosophy to realism, Baring argues, is that phenomenological thought, to begin with Husserl’s notion of intentionality (consciousness is always of an object), was identified as an anti-idealist movement back to the Real within modern philosophy itself, so to speak a spontaneous movement of self-conversion: “phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” (14) How exactly neo-scholastic thinkers and institutions tried to achieve this goal, their more or less successful negotiations – and debates – among themselves, with phenomenology, as well as vis-à-vis other Catholic, Protestant and non-religious intellectual currents, and how all this contributed to the making of continental philosophy – this is the story told by Baring’s rich book.

One basic and far-reaching insight of Baring concerns the ambivalent nature of conversion: the shift from one conception to another at the same time connects both conceptions and thus opens the way to a counter-conversion, from the second conception to the first. Conversions work “in both directions” (16). This insight may be deemed as a structural principle that regulates – and complicates – basic dynamics in the history of thought, something like the Third Law of Intellectual Motion. It seems to be particularly significant in conversions that are not just spontaneous, but induced, namely in conversion projects, in missionary movements.With respect to the neo-Thomist mission to convert modern philosophy “back to Catholicism”, in order to do so it established “the Real” as a connection between modern phenomenology and medieval scholasticism, which would serve as a passage from the former to the latter. As Baring shows, however, this passage also facilitated the inverse movement, to the effect that the bridge built between Thomism and phenomenology also served Catholic thinkers to cross to the other side and to “break with Roman Catholicism” (15). The paradigmatic example discussed by Baring is Heidegger.

What is however the meaning of this counter-conversion, away from Catholicism, which according to Baring has become so prevalent in post-WWII phenomenology so as to completely obliterate its early Catholic years? Would it be that phenomenology, and continental philosophy, was moving away from religion, towards secular and atheistic thought? Is Catholicism religion? The question of religion, as already noted, interestingly does not explicitly frame the narrative of the book, which foregrounds instead the debate of realism vs. idealism. Catholicism is realism, but is it therefore more or less a religion?

It is only in the Epilog that Baring directly addresses the question of religion. “Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion” (343): the famous return to religion, a contemporary conversion – or perhaps even a contemporary mission? By whom – to whom? Is Baring’s book a part of this project, namely facilitating the passage from contemporary continental philosophy to religion by recalling how it was Catholicism that originally “made” phenomenology into continental philosophy? The “religious specters” that “haunt” continental philosophy today, Baring argues, indeed arise from its “family history”, namely phenomenology’s transmission to the world as it was “passed down through Catholic scholars” (344), so to speak phenomenology’s Catholic womb. The current return to religion in continental philosophy is connected to its Catholic heritage.

However, according to Baring’s further insight into the Third Law of Intellectual Movement, just as conversion is not only unidirectional, inheritance too is not simply linear. He points out that intellectual inheritance may pass on not just positive, affirmative doctrines, but also negative positions, what he terms “negative inheritance” (347). According to Baring’s analysis, it is by way of “negative inheritance” that phenomenology’s Catholic past, namely neo-Thomism, continues to operate within continental philosophy’s return to religion. In other words, Catholicism, as portrayed in Baring’s book, is present in this contemporary return to religion not as the positive agent, not as the agent of religion, but on the contrary in the negative, anti-religious positions – more specifically in their realism.

He brings the example of Quentin Meillassoux, who “presents himself as a rationalist ally to the natural sciences, seeking to reinvigorate realism after a period of idealist hegemony. Meillassoux is aware of his proximity to Thomism, which he defines as ‘the progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’”. (348) Baring’s conclusion: “The atheist scourge of much contemporary continental philosophy appears as the inverted image of those Catholic thinkers who helped make philosophy continental in the first place.” (ibid.)  It is not in the return to religion but rather in the resistance to this return that current continental philosophy would be inspired by Catholicism, which consequently operates, at least in this context, not as a religion, but as anti-religion.


Synopsis of the Book:

Baring’s story is told in three chronological parts, which concern three different periods in the early history of phenomenology in its reception by Catholic scholars: 1900-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1950. The narrative is organized by another triad, three main figures of early German phenomenology, the “phenomenological trinity”: Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, and the debates around them.

Part I, “Neo-Scholastic Conversion. 1900-1930” deals with the immediate Catholic reception of German phenomenology. Baring traces back the initial reception to a specific current within neo-Thomism, “progressive Thomism”, promoted by the Louvain School of Léon Noël, head of the Institut supérieur de Philosophie. Progressive Thomism was oriented by the work of Cardinal Désiré Mercier (Critériologie), who translated Thomist realism into the discourse of epistemology. This anti-Kantian epistemology was the site of early Catholic reception of Husserl, as told in Chapters 1 and 2. The first reception referred to The Logical Investigations of 1900-1901 and was enthusiastic, as Husserl’s anti-psychological notions, such as intentionality (which goes back through Brentano to scholasticism) and categorical intuition, appeared to secure epistemic access to “the objective order of the world” (40). “For Catholics around Europe, reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations was a revelation”, Baring writes (48). Modern philosophy’s “conversion to the Real” was celebrated by scholars such as Jospeh Geyser, Erich Przywara and the Milan School’s Agostino Gemelli, and even existentially performed through a personal conversion, such as by Edith Stein, to whom phenomenology has showen “the way into ‘the majestic temple of scholastic thought’” (75). All the more disappointing was Husserl’s return to the transcendental consciousness in his Ideen of 1913. The second reception identified in Husserl a second, reversed conversion, from realism back to idealism, which “was experienced by neo-scholastics as a betrayal— both of Husserl’s earlier work and, by implication, of their own project” (61).

Chapter 3 follows the intellectual development of early Heidegger, a phenomenological convert away from Catholicism. Influenced by Joseph Geyser, young Heidegger, “a progressive scholastic” (88), in his 1913 dissertation embraced Husserl’s anti-Psychologism, and in his 1916 Habilitaiton on Dun Scotus, the “pinnacle of Heidegger’s neo-scholastic period” (97), formulated a meaning-based realism. The disengagement is signaled in 1917, as Heidegger stated that Catholicism “forgot religion for theology and dogma” and looked for religious experience in Christian mysticism, Augustine and Protestants from Luther, Otto, Overbeck, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Schleiermacher. Being and Time of 1927, so Baring’s perceptive analysis, features a curious atheism based on “two confessional strands” (113): Catholic ontology, but no longer perennis, and Protestant Dasein-analysis, but indifferent to faith.

Chapter 4 traces a similar dynamic with respect to Max Scheler, extending the plot from theory to ethics and politics. Scheler’s 1913 Formalism in Ethics provided a phenomenological access (Wert-nehmen, axiological intuition) to an “objective order of value” (140) and his personalism, the notion of Gesamtperson, gave this ethics a socio-political embodiment. Both combined offered practical philosophy to Catholic social revival and anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist corporatism. Carl Muth’s influential Catholic magazine Hochland celebrated Scheler as “Black Nietzsche” (124) and intellectuals followed him in his early WWI patriotism, growing distance from nationalism and anti-republicanism in Weimar, such as Paul-Ludwig Landsberg’s “conservative revolution” (137). Disenchantment manifested itself, on the Catholic side, in doubts raised by neo-scholastics, such as Przywara, as to Scheler’s too heavy reliance on human intuition and emotional intentionality, and on Scheler’s side, in the pantheistic turn of his late work (1928, The Human Place in the Cosmos).

Part II, “Existential Journeys 1930-1940”, describes how, beyond its initial reception by neo-scholasticism, phenomenology “became a privileged battlefield in intra-Christian debates” (152). The central intra-Christian tension in Baring’s narrative is between neo-scholastics and existentialists. Chapter 5 tells about the rise of “Christian Existentialism across Europe” by portraying the tension between two converts to Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Marcel (Metaphysical Journal, 1927; Being and Having, 1935), influence and mentor to existentialists such as Nicolai Berdyaev, René Le Senne, Jean Wahl as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, criticized neo-Thomist intellectualism as “hubris”, and insisted on the “unintelligibility of existence”, its embodiment and “mystery”. Maritain claimed “existential philosophy” describes rather Thomism itself, which deals with esse and acknowledges its mystery, deems it nevertheless “open to intellectual understanding” (163).

Chapter 6 goes back to the Catholic reception of Husserl and how during the 1930s it was shaped by a division within neo-scholasticism, between progressive and strict Thomists. Baring portrays this division through the “Critical Realism Debate”, concerning the attempt of the Louvain School’s progressives, such as Léon Noël and René Kremer, to base realism on epistemology, namely on critique of subjective knowledge (leading to post-WII “transcendental Thomism”). “Strict” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain rejected the notion of “critical” – Cartesian or Kantian – realism as self-contradictory, insisting on the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology. Baring shows how this debate pressed progressive intellectuals, such as Kremer, Kurt Reinhart and Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who initially embraced Husserl’s phenomenology, to reject and rectify his perceived idealistic tendencies, especially as manifested in the Cartesian Meditations of 1931.

Chapter 7 presents the 1930s’ reception of Heidegger as the battleground for the inter-confessional debate between neo-Scholastics (such as Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar) and Protestants, in particular Karl Barth’s Kierkegaard-inspired Dialectical Theology. Baring describes this debate as arising from “two diametrically opposed, if symmetrical, accounts of Heidegger’s atheism: Thomists explained it by the restrictions placed upon Heidegger’s ontology by his (Protestant) prioritization of human subjectivity; Protestant theologians understood it through his attempt to ground the analysis of human finitude in an ontology, which arose from an excessive and Catholic faith in our rational capacities.” (213) In other words, both (dialectical theology’s) emphasis on the unintelligible and (neo-Thomist) emphasis on intelligibility could be construed, from the opposite  perspective, as subjectivist and so proto-atheistic. This leads Baring to the brilliant observation whereby “religious notes” of atheistic conceptions (he speaks of existentialism) may arise not from “uncomplicated inheritance of a believing antecedent, but rather as the reflection of a more distant voice, directed toward and bouncing of a common religious foe” (240), i.e. “negative inheritance”.

Chapter 8 returns to the reception of Scheler, “The Black Nietzsche”, in Catholic political thought. Baring shows how the Schelerian notion of social corpora as embodying spiritual order of values could support to conflicting conceptions of Catholic anti-liberal politics. Luigi Stefanini drew on Scheler to affirm a “hierarchical order of values” enacted by an authoritarian and totalitarian state, which led him to collaborate with the Fascist regime and even acknowledge “racial defense” as “an act of the sovereignty and transcendence of the spirit” (259). In contrast, for Paul-Louis Landsberg, as Paul Ludwig Landsberg was known in his French exile and anti-Fascist resistance, “the divine order is always to come and can never be fully worked out. For that reason, authoritarianism runs the risk of shutting down the process by which the true order is revealed” (263), which led him to reject Nazism and Communism. Baring exemplifies the same ambivalence in Scheler in the development of Emmanuel Mounier’s Catholic-Nietzschean magazine Esprit, from support of Vichy to Resistance and post-WII negotiations of Thomism and Marxism.

Part III, “Catholic Legacies 1940-1950”, discusses how after “the Catholics who had helped promote phenomenological ideas around Europe withdrew from the stage”, “[t[he script that they had written […] persisted, to be picked up and adapted by new actors.” (276) Chapter 9 is dedicated to the story of the Husserl Archives, famously smuggled from Germany to Belgium by the young Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda, to be institutionalized within Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie. According to Baring, after WWII Van Breda, who was looking for means to secure the archives’ further existence (which he obtained at last from UNESCO), realized that “the archives would flourish only if they became independent of the Church” (297). Catholicism, which made phenomenology continental, was now required, in order to prefect its own making, to retreat. Like the truth of Heidegger’s Beyng, the appearance of neo-Thomism in phenomenology was completed by the concealment of neo-Thomism in phenomenology’s Veröffentlichung. It is thus that the first volume of the Husserliana was dedicated to the Cartesian Meditations, “the text where Husserl distinguished his work most clearly from scholasticism” (300).

Chapter 10, the last one, indicates traces of neo-scholasticism in “Postwar Phenomenology”, once again through an intellectual tension, this time between the secular Merleau-Ponty and the Protestant Paul Ricoeur. Both of “Marcelian bent”, affirming embodiment and existence versus idealism, their diverging interpretations of Marcel reproduced the debate between Thomism and Existentialism, inasmuch as Merleau-Ponty emphasized the intentional order of perception and Ricoeur the mystery and the “fault”. The disagreement on Marcel was intertwined with a disagreement on Husserl, which reproduced the debate between progressive and strict Thomism: whereas Merleau-Ponty, like the Louvain School, strove to protect Husserl’s realism from his transcendentalism, Ricoeur, like Maritain, read Husserl as an idealist. Commenting on the Protestant philosopher’s surprising affinity to strict Thomism, Baring provides a precious polemic triangulation, which is perhaps the real glory of scholastic sophistication: “Against the Thomists, Ricoeur denied that Christians could use philosophy to defend religious dogmas. Against the Barthians, Ricoeur did think philosophy retained an important role. It could challenge the pretension of science to have provided ‘a final solution.’ Christian philosophy would thus be a ‘science of limits, an essentially Socratic, ironic position [. . .] forbidding all thought to be totalitarian’.” (327)


Three Concluding Reflections:

  1. The key concept of the book’s argument is “the Real”. Catholicism promoted phenomenology for the sake of converting modern philosophy to the Real. As noted above, however, realism signifies in this book primarily polemically, in contrast to the alleged idealism of modern thought. However, as Baring insightfully shows with respect to “atheism”, polemic meanings are unstable and easily turned around. Just like criticism of “atheism” can be found in any religious position against any other religious position, isn’t criticism of “idealism” as detached from the real, i.e. as false, inherent to the disagreement of any philosophical position against all the others? Wasn’t metaphysical dogmatism for Kant too disconnected from reality, as the Ptolemaic system for Copernicus? For Hegel, an arche-idealist, the real was the reasonable. Baring shows how neo-Thomism too deemed the real intelligible, whereas existentialism and dialectical theology experienced reality in unintelligibility.
  2. It seems that ultimately “the Real” for Baring signifies the limit of human autonomy and power, where reason means intelligibility of – and subjection to – the given, eternal, cosmic order (Thomism), in contrast to modern “self-affirmation of reason” (Blumenberg). Conversion to the Real means something like undoing modern hubris, disempowering the human. Baring portrays at least two divergent ways of doing so in Catholic thought, rationalism and existentialism, both inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. One may wonder, however, whether both modes of “the Real” are equally defining for continental philosophy. The very term “continental” philosophy, determines reason by existence, i.e. actual geography, politics, history, which arguably condition more continental than analytic thought. It is rather Anglo-American philosophy that may be said to represent anti-idealist, positive rationalism, where reason is limited qua “analytic”. Wouldn’t this modern philosophy – which is closer to natural sciences, and arises from phenomenology only within its alliance with logical positivism against psychologism – be a more suitable ally for neo-scholasticism?
  3. There seems to be a third way of limiting or determining reason, which is very present in Baring’s study, albeit unthematized as such. Next to rationalism (reason determined by given logical order) and existentialism (reason determined by given non-logical being), his narrative centrally features also the determination of reason through the inter-personal plurality of thought: thought as a school, the institution that gave scholasticism its name. As such, scholasticism determines reason neither by the given intelligible, nor by the unintelligible, but by the overintelligible, namely by the open excess of thought as polemics. By choosing the debate as a primary figure of thought, Baring’s book manifests perhaps scholarship itself, next to analytic and continental philosophies, as a third post-modern manifestation of scholastic realism, and perhaps of philosophy überhaupt.

M. E. Littlejohn (Ed.): Imagination Now: A Richard Kearney Reader, Rowman & Littlefield, 2020

Imagination Now: A Richard Kearney Reader Book Cover Imagination Now: A Richard Kearney Reader
M. E. Littlejohn (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield
Paperback $39.95

Mauro Carbone: Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution

Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution Book Cover Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Mauro Carbone. Translated from French by Marta Nijhuis
SUNY Press
Hardback $80.00

Reviewed by: Keith Whitmoyer (Pace University)

Carbone’s most recent work, now available in English, marks a critical moment in the author’s philosophical development: the passage from an original reader and interpreter of Proust and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to a completely original contribution to the history of philosophy. In a way, this contribution has been in development at least since Carbone’s The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy, but clearly, in this recent work, it reaches a new level of clarity that now operates beyond the auspices of interpretation. I would like to take the opportunity to clarify what Carbone brings to the history of philosophy. What he has found in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and Proust, which now, in Philosophy-Screens is thought beyond them, is the reversal of Platonism. In this respect, we can place Carbone’s work in this history of what Merleau-Ponty calls the history of a-philosophy, a history that includes Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche and more recently the work of Deleuze.[1] What is the sense of Platonism here and how could such an ambitious claim be justified?

At the center of this question, which is also the center of the text, is the screen. It was already Plato who, in his famous Cave Allegory, first thought the screen, and if the history of philosophy is a history of footnotes to Plato, as Whitehead said, then philosophy has always been a rumination on the screen. The screen, on one hand, is what Lyotard has called the “specular wall in general,”[2] a surface that has the dual role of being a window (revealing) and at the same time a curtain (concealing), which in this dual role becomes inscribed and invested with a historical and dynamic form of signification: the skin, the canvas, the cinema, the TV, the electronic device, the wall of the cave, the list goes on. It is through Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams that Carbone traces Lyotard’s specular wall to the origins of philosophy in Plato. The film documents the Chauvet Cave in France, home to the best-preserved cave paintings known to exist, dating back at least 32,000 years, making it 14,000 years older than the famed caves of Lascaux. These paintings, Carbone notes, “celebrate the enigma of images themselves, as well as the enigma of the surface that is invested with such a celebration and therefore delimited from the surrounding space.”[3] The Chauvet cave is an instance of what Carbone calls the “arche-screen,” “understood as a transhistorical whole gathering the fundamental conditions of possibility of ‘showing’ (monstration) and concealing images on whatever surface. In our culture such a whole has been opened and experienced through the human body itself.”[4] I will return to the significance of the human body mentioned here. For now, I want to mention that the Chauvet cave, as a “variation” of the arche-screen, serves as a vehicle for the legibility of the cave in Plato’s allegory.

The cave of the allegory, as Carbone shows, is a space organized around its functions of revealing and concealing, that is, a space constituted precisely in terms of an arche-screen. On one hand, there is the more obvious screen, the καταντικρύ, the cave wall standing in opposition to the sources of light where the shadows dance and play. This surface is ostensibly one of revealing, since it is a necessary condition for the appearance of the images (shadows). Its disclosive function, however, is inextricably bound up with another screen, the τειχίον, the “low wall” that functions to conceal the mysterious figures who constitute the spectacle as they carry the σκευαστῶν, “artificial things,” along the enclosed path. This second screen, Carbone notes, “performs the double function of concealing by offering a protection and of selecting things to be shown—which are both, actually, characteristic of the arche-screen.”[5] The two screens operative here are, in a sense, so inextricably related to one another that it would be useless to attempt to separate or compare them, and it seems that only together is the arche-screen’s instance of the cave constituted: the concealing movement of the low wall, which selects the artifacts by occluding the puppeteers, is a moment of the disclosive, opposite wall on which the shadows are cast.

There is a second arche-screen’s instance present here, however, in which the concealing-revealing movement of the shadow play is embedded. We recall that, for Plato, while the shadow play is initially disclosive—a world is indeed made present to the prisoners—this disclosive function is simultaneously one of concealing since what are disclosed are precisely shadows—shadows that both indicate and at the same time occlude the σκευαστῶν. This is the first arche-screen described above. These “artificial things,” in their turn, however, have the same dual movement: they show themselves to the prisoner who has turned away from the shadows toward the fire but precisely here they too both indicate and conceal the things themselves that wait on the outside. This is another, second arche-screen. The prisoner eventually is dragged up a rough and steep path into the light of day where she beholds the “things themselves.” These things, now beheld in a shadowless light, are supposed to signify the είδη, the “ideas” of what is. It would seem that here we encounter a surface that reveals only and conceals nothing, and this is, therefore, not an arche-screen in the sense described but the foundational condition of possibility for the others, the ἀρχή, the origin of all other screens and arche-screens. I want to pause briefly here and note that it seems to be this moment of the allegory that becomes foundational for Western metaphysics since Plato—that philosophy henceforth will understand itself as the pursuit of this origin, seeking out that absolute surface on which it can inscribe itself but which will at the same time conceal nothing, leaving no trace of latency or depth.

But Plato seems to be very careful here, and upon further reflection it may not be obvious that we arrive in such a space on the journey out of the cave. I think that this pause is critical for understanding the significance of the arche-screen, the philosophy-screen, and Philosophy-Screens. Is the outside that Plato imagines truly a space without depth? Is it correct to say that in that space there is disclosure only and that any movement of concealment is absent? The presence of the είδη, their very legibility, is premised on their coming to light, and therefore their visibility is made possible only through an accompanying concealment: the visibility of things always rests on the invisibility of light. The prisoner encounters things illuminated by the light of the sun but precisely then the light itself remains invisible. It seems, then, that even here we encounter an arche-screen, a twofold movement of revealing and concealing, an event of what Heidegger called Unverborgenheit, “unconcealment,” which he always preferred to refer to the Greek word ἀλήθεια, “truth.” I believe that it the question of truth that stands at the center of Philosophy-Screens and that Carbone’s work should be understood as an elaboration and continuation of—rather than a commentary—on a work by Merleau-Ponty at one point titled “The Origin of Truth.”[6]

What re-reading the cave allegory through the arche-screen teaches us is that, contrary to the historical reading of Plato that understands truth in some super-sensible beyond, that which always is and never otherwise, call it Being or ideality, is in every case implicated by and in its sensible reverse. Each event of unconcealment is coupled with concealment, every surface is both a screen and curtain, revealing and concealing: the tattooed or scarred skin both outwardly manifests its meaning and yet simultaneously conceals certain depths; the printed page both outwardly manifests its intended signification and yet always conceals an un-thought element; the speech of the other signifies her wishes and yet, as Proust understood, always conceals a person that we cannot know and who cannot know herself. It is also here that we encounter what I have described as Carbone’s reversal of Platonism: in the figure of a re-thinking of the relationship between sense and idea and the manner in which these two operate as the two poles of the arche-screen. This figure is articulated by Carbone, via Merleau-Ponty and Proust, under the rubric of the “sensible idea.” In Philosophy-Screens, he describes these as

ideas [that] are inseparable from their sensible presentation (that is, from their visual, linguistic, or musical images for instance, but even that they are instituted by these very images as their own depth. … an order of ideas that—just like aesthetic ideas for Kant—cannot be reduced to concepts, ideas that the intelligence, as such cannot grasp, because—as Merleau-Ponty emphasizes—they ‘are without intelligible sun. … the essences of certain experiences, which only similar experiences can, sometimes, fully manifest, but cannot be defined by any concept.’[7]

Such remarks are prefigured in Carbone’s 2004 book, The Thinking of Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy:

Proust describes ‘ideas’ which do not preexist independently of their sensible presentation. Rather, they are inseparable from and simultaneous with their sensible presentation, since only the sensible presentation provides us with the ‘initiation’ to them: ideas which, ‘there, behind the sounds or between them, behind the lights or between them, recognizable through their always special, always unique manner of entrenching themselves behind them’ (VI 198/151).[8]

The sensible idea, for Carbone, is perhaps illustrated most clearly in Proust’s descriptions of love, especially the “little phrase” that captures so essentially—and yet so indescribably—the pathos of Swann’s relationship with Odette and later the love between the narrator and the elusive Albertine. Carbone notes in The Thinking of the Sensible:

Merleau-Ponty explains that Marcel Proust characterizes melody as a ‘Platonic idea that we cannot see separately’ since ‘it is impossible to distinguish the means and the end, the essence and the existence in it’ (N 228/174). He alludes to the fact that, for the main character of those pages of the Remembrance, a peculiar idea of love is incarnated in the sound of a melody—the melody of the petite phrase of Vinteul’s sonata—to such an extent that the idea of love becomes inseparable from Vinteul’s listening.[9]

It may be worth attending to some perhaps length passages from the Recherche in order to express more fully the sense of the sensible idea. These are from the scene in The Fugitive where, after Albertine’s death, the narrator gradually begins to forget and understand that he no longer loves her. The passing of this love is linked to the petite phrase, the lifespan of which has passed through the loves of Swann and Odette and through the loves of the narrator and Albertine. The phrase is both its sensible, carnal expression in the music and at the same time the very sense and meaning of a love that has now passed; that is, its essence inextricably bound to its existence:

In the Bois, I hummed a few phrases of Vinteul’s sonata. The thought that Albertine had so often played it to me no longer saddened me unduly, for almost all my memories of her had entered into that secondary chemical state in which they no longer cause an anxious oppression of the heart, but rather a certain sweetness. From time to time, in the passages which she used to play most often, when she was in the habit of making some observation which at the time I thought charming, of suggesting some reminiscence, I said to myself : ‘Poor child,’ but not sadly, merely investing the musical phrase with an additional value, as it were a historical, a curiosity value…. When the little phrase, before disappearing altogether, dissolved into its various elements in which it floated still for a moment in scattered fragments, it was not for me, as it had been for Swann, a messenger from a vanishing Albertine. It was not altogether the same association of ideas that the little phrase had aroused in me as in Swann. I had been struck most of all be the elaboration, the trial runs, the repetitions, the gradual evolution of a phrase which developed through the course of the sonata as that love had developed through the course of my life. And now, aware that, day by day, one element after another of my love was vanishing, the jealous side of it, then some other, drifting gradually back in a vague remembrance to the first tentative beginnings, it was my love that, in the scattered notes of the little phrase, I seemed to see disintegrating before my eyes.[10]

Plato seems to have been troubled by the Heraclitean idea of change—that all things come to pass in a state of flux, the “ever-living fire, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures.”[11] Beyond the deflagration of the sensible, Plato sought to ascend to a presence outside of time and its vicissitudes: the εἶδος. The sensible idea, precisely because it is not outside of time, emerges only insofar as it is lived, only insofar as it is experienced. Love is no doubt an ideality “expressed” by the petite phrase. But love, precisely in its ideality, is never a “love as such” extricated from those who do and have loved. Insofar as the petite phrase expresses this ideality, it expressed precisely the love of Swann toward Odette, the love of the narrator for Albertine, with all of the shades and textures of sense entailed by that love that was lived. In this way, as Proust indicates in the passaged cited, love, even its ideality, is subject to generation and decay—it lives and dies, and it was this vitality of idealities that Plato could not conceive in his desire to escape from time. It is this vitality, however, that is restored to the ideal in the sensible idea, and this is the more precise sense in which Carbone’s work, including Philosophy-Screens, seeks to reverse Platonism. Because the ideal is lived—because it is nothing other than the sedimentation and concretion of sensible experience, the manifest, τὀ αληθής, is in every case the inverse, the fold of the concealed,   ἡ λήθη, what has passed into oblivion.

I would now like to turn to the figure that articulates this reversal, the screen. The screen in this context should not be construed simply a technology or an apparatus, nor should this be understood as a perhaps useless preoccupation with our historical and cultural phragmaphilia. The screen, rather, is the site of so many reversals, crossings, and intersections, a refractory point, one might even say an aleatory one. In this respect, the human body too is a screen, which can “produce images by being interposed between a luminous source and a wall … or by being decorated with inscriptions, drawings, colors, or tattoos.”[12] The screen, then, is in a sense nothing new and has been with us as long as we have been with ourselves, that is to say, as long as there have been surfaces that conceal and reveal (the skin, the curtain, the written page, etc.). What is new—what Carbone gives us in Philosophy-Screens—is a re-configuration of this surface that opens up paths of thinking and philosophical expression heretofore un-thought: not just a screen but a philosophy-screen, philosophizing in accordance with the screen, to allow the screen itself to be the vehicle of thinking and philosophical expression, indeed, what Carbone quite perspicaciously calls, following Deleuze, “philosophy-cinema.”[13]

Philosophy-cinema should not be conceived as making films about philosophy—this is not a question of documentary or filming philosophers speaking, lecturing, etc., nor should it be considered biography or even in terms of the more recent perpetuation of philosophy pod-casts. It is rather a new way of thinking about what it means to think and what it means to express thought. Platonism (and this history of Platonism) has given us the βίβλος, the Book: a monumental artifact in which the absolute truths of Being are inscribed, outside of time and beyond the vicissitudes of history and life. As Husserl and Derrida have shown, the history of the Book is simply a moment in the history of writing, the constitution of idealities through repeated acts of articulation and reactivation.[14] To philosophize cinematically, to bring forth philosophy-cinema, is to think in a manner that no longer takes the form of writing and no longer presupposes or requires monumentality—it is profoundly non-graphic, that is to say, no longer rests on the necessity of γρᾰ́φω, the cutting or chiseling into stone at the beginnings of writing and from which all subsequent writing is derived. To philosophize cinematically is to allow for, even to welcome, the passage of thought in time, its coming into being but also what Nancy has described as its partance, its flight and departure.[15] It is this temporal element that writing, in its function of constituting the ideal as such, attempts to erase—where the inscription into stone is the attempt to erase time—and it is this temporal element that cinema allows us to think again. Philosophy-cinema, then, is not the attempt to escape—to escape time, escape the cave—through the constitution of a monument that mirrors the a-temporality of “truth” but is rather the effort to allow for escape: the flight of thought into its self-concealment and oblivion, the passage of life and experience that cinema has always attempted (and perhaps always failed) to make visible.

This sentiment is expressed both at the beginning and at the end of Philosophy-Screens: the effort to think again and in a manner that allows for the temporal partance of thinking, its objects, as well as its modes of expression. Deleuze is referenced a second time in Part I of the book, “What Is a Philosophy-Cinema?,” in a quote from Difference and Repetition:

The time is coming when it will hardly be possible to write a book of philosophy as it has been done for so long: ‘Ah! The old style…’ The search for a new means of philosophical expression was begun by Nietzsche and must be pursued today in relation to the renewal of certain other arts, such as the theatre or the cinema.[16]

Carbone adds:

In short, Deleuze found that the novelty of the cinema implied a renewal of the philosophical questions concerning to only our relationship to ourselves, to the others, to the things, and to the world, but also—and inevitably—concerning philosophy itself: that is, concerning its expressive style and, hence, the very style of its own thinking. Indeed, the question of the ‘philosophy-cinema’ does not belong to a single thinker. Rather, it involves a whole epoch, as the Preface to Difference and Repetition suggested. In this sense, it is a question regarding thinking itself.[17]

The renewal of philosophy, of its expressive style as well as the style of its own thinking are indicated by the refractory and reflective surface of the screen. The screen is perhaps not always even a surface but rather a point at which lines, trajectories, and forces curve, displace, and integrate but only as the inverse of a disintegrative movement. The screen, then, is precisely the point of alteration in the sense that there is no longer a “one” but only the repetition of others, of differences. As Carbone says,

Such logic [of screens] inevitably ends up exceeding and hence contesting that of concepts, to which it had been claimed to be reducible, in spite of all. However, in the gaps between the fingers of our hand, squeezing in the gesture of seizing—the gesture on which the modern action of conceptualizing was shaped—we increasingly feel that sense is slipping away. Without falling into a rhetoric of the ineffable, the philosophy to be made is called upon to account for this.[18]

The screen, in a complex of senses, makes philosophy-cinema possible; it allows for a modality of thinking freed from the βίβλος and its monumentality. Insofar as it inserts itself back into the flow and lapse of time, philosophy-cinema no longer conceptualizes itself in terms of the Begriff, that which is to be grasped and taken hold of, but allows for—perhaps even welcomes—the slippage of sense as it passes through our grasp. Must we then be content with some alternative between philosophy in its traditional self-assessment on one hand—Book, concept, grasp—and some form of irrationalism or untenable skepticism? No, because the alternative between these is a false one. We need not choose between the traditional instantiations of philosophy and nihilism, for there are modes of thinking and expressivities that are neither; these are the uncharted territories for thinking that have perhaps only been indicated. Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution takes us down such a path and opens the way for a philosophy that will perhaps be the new standard for thinkers yet to come.

[1] See Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Notes de Cours 1958-1959 et 1960-1961 (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 278; and Carbone, Mauro, The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2004), xiii.

[2] Carbone, 46.

[3] Ibid., 65, italics Carbone.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Ibid., 67.

[6] Published posthumously and under a later title as The Visible and the Invisible.

[7] Ibid., 34; 37; 69.

[8] Carbone, 2004, 40-41.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. V, “The Fugitive,” 755-56.

[11] Heraclitus, Fragment B30.

[12] Carbone, Philosophy-Screens, 66.

[13] Ibid., 3; the reference is to Italian translation of The Logic of Sense, translated into English by Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, ed. David Lapoujade, “Note to the Italian Edition of The Logic of Sense,” in Two Regimes of Madness (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), 66.

[14] Probably the most important text in this regard is Derrida’s commentary on Husserl’s text, “The Origin of Geometry.” See Derrida, Jacques, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavy, Jr. (Licoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

[15] See Nancy, Jean-Luc, Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body, trans. Sarah Clift (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 28.

[16] Carbone, 3; Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, XXI.

[17] Carbone, 3.

[18] Carbone, 109.

Miroslav Petříček: Philosophy en noir, Karolinum Press, 2020

Philosophy en noir Book Cover Philosophy en noir
Václav Havel Series
Miroslav Petříček
Karolinum Press, Charles University
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Gregory P. Floyd, Stephanie Rumpza (Eds.): The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America, University of Toronto Press, 2020

The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America Book Cover The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America
Gregory P. Floyd, Stephanie Rumpza (Eds.):
University of Toronto Press
Cloth $60.00

Alexandre Kojève: Atheism

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

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.


Kojève, Alexandre. 2018. Atheism. Translated by Jeff Love. New York: Columbia University Press.
“Tonus.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 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
Paperback $30.00 £25.00

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).


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.


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.


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.


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
Hardback $95.00

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.


Sebastian Luft: Philosophie lehren: Ein Buch zur philosophischen Hochschuldidaktik, Meiner, 2019

Philosophie lehren: Ein Buch zur philosophischen Hochschuldidaktik Book Cover Philosophie lehren: Ein Buch zur philosophischen Hochschuldidaktik
Sebastian Luft
Paperback 19,90 €