This is the kind of book one hates to review. Not because it is bad; it is an excellent work, rich and profound and relevant at least to: the scholar of half a dozen areas in the history of philosophy (from medieval through early modern, modern, Kant, post-Kantian, to the early analytic philosophy), the philosopher of language, the metaphysician, the philosopher of logic, and the epistemologist. But it is complex – much more complex even than your average 1069-page philosophy collection. Perhaps this is to be expected: one way to think of The Logical Alien is as a commentary (on steroids) of James Conant’s 1991 “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus”, itself a long, seminal, profound and – dealing as it does with history and theory and some of the heavyweights of the last five hundred years of philosophy – multitasking paper. The papers collected in the book are written for one third by different authors engaging with Conant’s 1991 paper, and for two thirds by Conant engaging with his former self and with each of the other contributors, occasionally with more than one at the same time. The parts of the book end up being so interconnected at so many levels, that it takes several readings just to find one’s way through it – never mind figuring out what to make of even one of the numerous debates involved or convey it to prospective readers with something resembling accuracy. Yet the book is as difficult to review as it is exhilarating to read. Once you get hooked up (and you do get hooked up), you won’t be finished for a long time.
The central question is taken from Frege and is simple enough: Is there such a thing as thought which is logical but whose logical laws are different from, and incompatible with, ours? Put this way, there would seem to be an equally simple answer: yes. Consider systems with different and incompatible rules of inference: in a classical setting, Excluded Middle and Full Double Negation are laws; in an intuitionistic setting, they aren’t – yet nobody from either camp seriously thinks that the other just isn’t thinking logically. After all, intuitionistic and classical logic are equiconsistent (a proposition is classically provable if and only if its double negation is intuitionistically provable). Of course there is a qualification to make in this case: some logical laws are in common. For example, Non-Contradiction – which in any case seems to be needed for concepts like ‘consistency’, ‘incompatibility’ and ‘disagreement’ to even make sense. What about, then, thought which shares none of our logical laws – not even Non-Contradiction? Conant’s original paper, and much of the discussion in the book, revolve around this insight: that since at least some of what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, thought which does not conform to them is in fact not thought at all. In one form or another is attributed by Conant, past and present, to Frege, Wittgenstein and Putnam (or Putnam at some point of his career).
The insight – which we shall call the Insight – develops in interesting ways. Consider the following way of putting the central question: Are the laws of logic necessary? If the Insight is correct, then, one might say, they are. Not so – at least on the view Conant and his critics are interested in. Since what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, logically alien thought is an impossibility. Discourse about it, then, is what Conant calls philosophical fiction (768). The contrast is with empirical fiction. The latter invites us to contemplate a scenario which happens not to be the case, but which ‘falls within the realm of the possible’. The former invites us to contemplate something which is not even possible. So that in philosophical fiction we ‘only apparently grasp what it would be for [the scenario] to obtain: its possibility can only seemingly be grasped in thought’. But, the view concludes, if logically alien thought is philosophical fiction, then the project of establishing its possibility or impossibility is in fact a non-starter: for in order to affirm or deny that logically alien thought is possible, or even ask whether it is possible, we first need to grasp ‘it’ – the thought with content ‘logically alien thought’ – but that is exactly what we cannot do. Far from being able to answer the question, we seem to have no question to answer. It looked as though we had one; but it turns out we never did. It was a mock-question. Hence, for example and according to Conant (past and present), the austere – non-mystical – Wittgensteinian stance at the end of the Tractatus: the necessity of logic isn’t a question which logic cannot answer; it is a non-question. Hence, too, the Wittgensteinian idea that philosophy should be conceived of not as doctrine, not even as research, but as something called ‘elucidation’: the activity of recognising that some or all of what we take to be profound philosophical problems are in fact simply nonsense.
In the original 1991 paper, Conant follows the development of this line of thought – call it elucidativism about logic – from Descartes through Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, Frege, to Wittgenstein and Putnam. He does not defend elucidativism, but he clearly favours it. In the first part of The Logical Alien, his critics either follow up on 1991-Conant’s historical claims in the paper (which is included in the book), or take issue with theoretical claims, or both. The following is an overview of the contributions. A.W. Moore’s is about Descartes and what he ought to have thought about modality. In particular, whereas 1991-Conant claims that Descartes’ official view was that necessary truths (amongst which are the laws of logic) are contingently necessary, Moore argues that statements to that effect to be found in Descartes are aberrations rather than expressions of the official view. Matthew Boyle’s chapter is about Kant’s and Frege’s conceptions of logic and of the formal. Arata Hamawaki’s paper is about a distinction between Cartesian and Kantian skepticism. I have to say that, while the former contributions are excellent reads, I found this one rather difficult to follow and, despite the theme, somewhat underwhelming. Barry Stroud’s paper is the skeptical contribution: historically, doubts are cast on 1991-Conant’s reading of Frege; theoretically, issue is taken with the notion that necessary truths are apt to being explained. Peter Sullivan objects to 1991-Conant’s view of Frege, and argues that the latter is more Kantian than is usually thought. The contribution also contains a very good summary of the dialectic of the 1991 article (in case you struggle to follow it). Along with Moore’s, perhaps the best of the (mainly) historical contributions (to my taste). Martin Gustafsson and Jocelyn Benoist concentrate on post-tractarian Wittgenstein: the former to examine the relations between language use and rule-following, the latter to show how Wittgenstein’s treatment of private languge is an exercise in elucidation. Finally, Charles Travis’ chapter, the longest, discusses Frege, Wittgenstein and the heart of the elucidative enterprise. Undoubtedly the most important of the critical essays. I agree with many points he makes, and I will be saying something similar in the remainder of this review – but from a very different perspective. The second part of The Logical Alien consists of present-day Conant discussing both his 1991 paper and the critics’ contributions. I see no point in saying anything here, except that he (and probably the editor, Sophia Miguens) did an excellent job of making the Conant’s own chapters a single narrative rather than a collection of discrete replies.
Now, upon my first reading of the 1991 paper, and on every subsequent reread, and indeed as I was ploughing through the book, I thought it a shame that there was (virtually) no reference to the phenomenological tradition at all. This is not to say that there should have been: as far as I can tell, phenomenology has never been among Conant’s interests, and that this should be reflected in a book about his work is, after all, only natural. On the other hand, at least some of the debates in The Logical Alien might have benefited from a phenomenological voice; and others are relevant to discussions within the phenomenological tradition. And since I am writing this review for a journal called Phenomenological Reviews, I will allow myself to expand on the above and bring phenomenology into the melee.
I have already said what the central view at stake in the book is: that the question as to whether there can be logically alien thought is a non-question, because its formulation involves something akin to a cognitive illusion. The further question, however, is: Why is grasping a thought about an impossibility itself impossible? Why, in other words, should we buy the claim that in philosophical fiction, as Conant says, we only seem to grasp a thought but we really do not? Why is the thought that there may be logically alien thought, despite appearances, no thought at all?
The reason lies in the following view, endorsed at lest to some extent by Frege, embraced by tractarian Wittgenstein and assumed in Conant and his critics’ discussions: To grasp a thought is to grasp what the world must be like for the thought to be true and what the world must be like for the thought to be false. A thought for which either of these things cannot be done is a thought for which, as Frege would put it, the question of truth does not genuinely arise. It is then not a thought but a mock-thought. This is the basis of Wittgenstein’s notion that tautologies and contradictions have no content: for we just cannot imagine what the world what have to be like for tautologies to be false or contradictions true. For all the depth and complexity of the debates which Conant’s 1991 paper has sparked, and which are well represented in The Logical Alien, if what we may call the Assumption falls it is hard to see how the rest might stand. For if grasping the content of a thought is decoupled from grasping its truth-(and-falsity-)conditions, or from even bringing truth into the picture, then even if philosophically-fictitious scenarios are impossible we can still grasp them – if only to deem them impossible. Thoughts about them are not mock-thoughts; or, if they are, they are so in a weaker sense than Conant seems to envisage – too weak for the work he wants mock-thoughts to do.
Conant is aware of this. In his reply to Stroud he highlights how the 1991 paper pinpoints a tension in Frege between 1) his elucidative treatment of the logical alien in the foreword to Grundgesetze, and 2) his commitment to the idea that tautologies and axioms are true. If the Insight and the Assumption are true, then 1) and 2) are (or very much seem to be) incompatible. Conant suggests that the ‘deeper wisdom’ to be found in Frege, which is also the strand of Frege’s thought which Wittgenstein develops, is 1). The claim that axioms and tautologies, despite having negations which are absurd, are true is treated by Conant as stemming from Frege’s conception of content (thought) as ‘explanatorily prior’ to judgement. So that it is only if we think that the content of a judgement pre-exists the judgement that we can take judgements about impossible scenarios to have a content. Otherwise we would have to say: there is no judgement to be made here, and therefore there is no content.
I will not go into the minutiae – or even the nitty-gritty – of Fregean scholarship. But surely the move only pushes the problem a step further. Grant that judgeable content should not be thought of as explanatorily prior (whatever that means exactly) to judgement, the question is: Why buy the claim that we cannot judge about impossibilia – not even to say that they are impossibilia? If we can, there is judgement; and therefore there is content. Are there views on the market which do not take judgeable content as explanatorily prior to judgement, and according to which we can and do judge about impossibilia?
Husserl held just such a view throughout his career. There are several ways to see this. Begin with the Investigations. There, meanings are ideal objects (universals) instantiated by the act-matter of classes of meaning-intentions. The latter are intentional acts through which a subject intends, or refers to, an object. Their matter is, with some oversimplification, their content. Notice that the content of a meaning-intention is not the meaning: without an act there is no content – though there is a (perhaps uninstantiated) meaning. So even in the early Husserl, despite his ostensible Platonism, it is not obvious that judgeable content is prior to, or even independent of, judgement. In the fourth Logical Investigation, a distinction is made between nonsensical (Unsinnig) and absurd (Widersinnig) meanings. A nonsensical meaning is a non-meaning: an illegal combination of simpler meanings (illegal, that is, with respect to a certain set of a priori laws). A syntactical analogue would be a non-well-formed string of symbols: ‘But or home’. So, when it comes to nonsensical meanings, there just is no content (no act-matter). An absurd meaning, by contrast, is a (formally or materially) contradictory one: ‘Round square’. In this case there are both a meaning and an act matter; it’s just that to intentional acts whose matter or content instantiates the absurd meaning there cannot correspond an intuition – intuition being the sort of experience which acquaint us with objects: perception, memory, imagination. So we cannot see or remember or imagine round squares, but we can think about them, wonder whether they exist, explain why they cannot exist, and so on. Moreover, the very impossibility of intuitively fulfilling an absurd meaning-intention is, in Husserl, itself intuitively constituted and attested: attempting to intuit the absurd meaning leads to what Husserl calls a synthesis of conflict.
Say, then, that whilst engaging in philosophical fiction we try to make sense of logically alien thought, and we fail. This failure consists, in Husserlian phenomenology, in the arising of a conflict in our intuition, as a consequence of which we deem the scenario impossible. In the Husserlian framework this failure does not entail that there was never any thinking taking place with the content ‘logically alien thought’: it was ‘merely signitive’ thinking – thinking to which, a priori, no intuition can correspond – but contentful thinking nonetheless. We cannot intuit the impossible, but we can think about it.
So in Husserl the impossibility – the philosophical-fictitiousness – of logically alien thought does not entail that, when we think of logically alien thought, we only seem to do so. When we think of logically alien thought, we actually do think about logically alien thought; and one of the things we reckon when we think about logically alien thought is that it is impossible. All of this, notice, without appealing to the explanatory priority of judgeable content over judgement – which is what Conant finds disagreeable in Frege. Husserl, then, seems to be in a position to agree with Conant that judgeable content doesn’t come before judgement, and yet disagree with Conant that there is any wisdom whatever in Frege’s elucidative treatment of the logical alien.
All this is reflected in Husserl’s view of logic. From the Investigations throughout his career, Husserl maintained that logic comes in layers. In the official systematisation (Formal and Transcendental Logic, §§ 12-20) these are: 1) the theory of the pure form of judgements; 2) the logic of non-contradiction; 3) truth-logic. The first of the three is what in the fourth Investigation was called ‘grammar of pure logic’, and its job is to sort the meaningless – combinations of meaning which do not yield a new meaning – from the meaningful. It is the job of the logic of non-contradiction to sort, within the realm of the meaningful, the absurd meanings from the non-absurd. It is debatable whether truth is operative in this second layer of logic; I understand Husserl as denying that it is. But in any case, truth is not operative in the first layer. When Conant and his critics discuss the laws of logic, they take them to be such that, first, they are constitutive of thought, and second, truth plays a crucial role in them; and they take thoughts which misbehave with respect to truth, such as tautologies and contradictions, not to be thoughts at all (giving rise to tension in Frege). From a Husserlian perspective, what makes a thought a thought is not the laws of truth, but the laws of the grammar of meanings. Truth has nothing to do with it – nor, as a consequence, with what it is to be a thought.
The second part of Conant’s reply to Stroud (roughly, from p. 819 onwards) connects the above to another phenomenologically relevant strand of The Logical Alien: Kant and the project of a transcendental philosophy. The starting point is the difference between Frege’s approach on the one hand, and Kant’s and Wittgenstein’s on the other. The issue is, again, the central one of the relations between thoughts and judgements. Conant’s aim is to show that Frege can conceive of thought as separate from judgement – of content as distinct from the recognition of the truth of content – only by committing himself to the following conjunctive account: whenever an agent S judges that p, a) S thinks that p, and b) S recognises that p is true. These are two distinct acts on the part of S. This is contrasted with Kant’s (and, later on, Wittgenstein’s) disjunctive approach: there is a fundamental case of judgement in which S simply judges that p; and there are derived cases, different in kind from the former, in which S entertains the thought that p without recognising its truth – for example, in what Kant calls problematic judgements (‘Possibly, p’). Conant does not seem to provide a reason why we should be disjunctivists rather than conjunctivists – other than the claim that conjunctivism is at odds with the wider Kantian transcendental project. The implication being that if one buys into the latter at all, then one ought to be a Kantian rather than a Fregean when it comes to the relations between content and judgement.
What is, for Conant, Kant’s transcendental project? This is spelled out in the excellent reply to Hamawaki and Stroud. To be a Kantian is first of all to put forward transcendental arguments. According to Conant, a transcendental argument is something close to an elucidative treatment of what he calls Kantian Skepticism: the worry, not that the external world may not be as experienced or not exist all, but that we may not be able to ‘make sense of the idea that our experience is so much as able to afford us with the sort of content that is able to present the world as seeming to be a certain way’ (762). Kant’s way to resolve the worry is to show that the scenario in which our experience is not able to present the world at all is philosophical fiction: if we probe the Kantian-skeptical worry enough, we find it unintelligible.
I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as endorsing elucidativism – that is, I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as making the final step: if the scenario in which experience does not present us with a world is unintelligible, then so is the scenario in which it does. But he does say that this ‘is arguably the closest Kant ever comes to an extended philosophical engagement with something approximating the question of the intelligibility of the idea of a form of cognition that is logically alien to ours’ (772). If one is a transcendentalist, in any case, one has to put forward transcendental arguments; and if Conant is right in his reading of what a (Kantian) transcendental argument is, then a transcendentalist needs to be in a position to reason from the unintelligibility of a scenario to the unintelligibility of the question as to whether the scenario is possible. But to do so – recall the (alleged) tension between Fregean conjunctivism and the Kantian project – a transcendentalist ought to avoid seriously distinguishing between content and judgement.
Another strand of Conant’s discussion of Kant, and at some level a consequence of the nature of transcendental arguments as described above, is the recognition that any account of our cognitive capacity must be given from within the exercise of our cognitive capacity – so that no account of the latter can be given in non-cognitive terms. Conant calls this ‘the truth in idealism’ (776). And this is what, for Conant, ultimately is to be a Kantian: to pursuse a philosophical project in the light of the truth in idealism. Needless to say, Wittgenstein counts as a Kantian par excellence; and so does the elucidativist half of Frege.
The phenomenologically alert reader will not have missed the fact that the truth in idealism is in fact a central tenet of Husserl’s post-Investigations philosophy. Suffice it to quote the title of Section 104 of Formal and Transcendental Logic: “Transcendental phenomenology as self-explication on the part of transcendental subjectivity”. I am less sure about Conant’s reading of transcendental arguments: granted that they do involve the recognition of the unintelligibility of skeptical scenarios, it is unclear why that should not simply be thought of as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, or perhaps of a quasi-aristotelian elenchos, rather than as something pointing to elucidation. Be that as it may, Husserl’s mature philosophy is a view in which the truth in idealism is preserved and in which, however, elucidativism is avoided – because even in the mature Husserl absurd thoughts are contentful.
Consider the relation between content and judgement. In the mature Husserl the interdependence of content and the mental is reasserted and strengthened with the notion of meaning as noema, introduced alongside the old Platonistic one in the 1908 Lectures on the Theory of Meaning, and center-stage in the first volume of Ideas in 1913. The main difference here is that the noema, one of whose component is intentional content, exists only insofar as the relevant mental act – in our case, the relevant thinking episode – does. As to the relations of noema and judgement, Husserl does think that it is possible to thematise a propositional content without judging that it is true. Yet this is claimed within a broader story – genetic phenomenology – of how more sophisticated intentional performances, together with their productions (including propositional contents), arise from more fundamental ones. The chief text here is Experience and Judgement. So Husserl could be said to hold something like what Conant calls the disjunctive account: the act of merely entertaining a thought is derivative of the act of straightforwardly judging. But this is not to say that one cannot merely entertain a thought! It simply means that we would not be able to mereley entertain thoughts if we were not able to straightforwardly judge. Indeed, for Husserl the existence of a noema such as, say, ‘ABCD is a round square’, while dependent on the relevant meaning-intention, is independent of the possibility of there being round squares at all. We can and do entertain the thought whether round squares exist, ask ourselves whether they do, and judge that they don’t. (The simplicity of the example might lead to error: it might appear as though, in this case, phenomenologically or introspectively, there were no distinction between entertaining and judging, for it is immediately clear that there are no round squares. All you have to do is try with more covert absurdities; to take a pertinent example, Frege’s very own Basic Law V.)
It really does seem to be a phenomenological fact that content and judgement are distinct. As the Husserlian case shows, one can maintain that that is so while still allowing the distinction to be derived rather than fundamental. Not only this: one can maintain the distinction, thereby blocking elucidativism, and still subscribe to the truth in idealism and be counted as a Kantian by Conant’s own standards. Or so, at any rate, it seems.
So being a Husserlian may be one way of being a Kantian without being an elucidativist. I hope it is and I hope there are others. Elucidativism usually divides people into three categories: those who buy it, those who don’t, and those who dismiss it as empty gobbledegook. I don’t dismiss it – but I don’t buy it either. For example, the argument for it discussed, and indeed put forward, by Conant seems to me to prove too much. This is a point Stroud makes in his contribution. In the reply, Conant is, I think, too concerned to show Stroud’s (alleged) misunderstandings to take his commonsense worries seriously. Regardless of that dialectic, consider any proof by contradiction in mathematics: we set up a proposition, we show that the proposition is inconsistent (either with itself or with other assumptions), we conclude that the negation of the proposition is true. If the elucidativist is right, the latter step is unwarranted: if a proposition turns out to be nonsense (which it does, being a proposition about an impossible scenario) then its denial is also nonsensical. So, if the view is correct, a large part of mathematics either is merely a cognitive illusion or, at best, is an exercise in elucidation. And yet the proposition, say, that there are infinitely many primes – whose negation is absurd in the same sense in which logically alien thought is – seems to be a perfectly legitimate proposition. So does the question whether there is a greatest prime, even though, it turns out, it makes no sense to suppose that there is. For some of us, intuitions in this respect are just too strong. In comparison, the elucidativist manoeuvre really seems sleight of hand of sorts.
Of course, even we must bow to argument. And in any case, since the stakes could not be higher, high-quality discussion is always welcome. The Logical Alien provides plenty – as I said, enough to go on for a long time. That is one reason to recommend the book – eve if, like me, you are not in the elucidativist camp. Another reason, relevant to the phenomenologically-minded reader, is that there seems to me to be a family resemblance, however faint, between elucidativism and certain strands of the phenomenological tradition broadly construed: Deleuze’s operation in Logic of Sense, Derrida with his différance, Sartre’s manoeuvres in Critique of Dialectical Reason. The Logical Alien might add something meaningful to those discussions, too.
 J. Conant. 1991. “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus” Philosophical Topics 20 (1): 115-180.
 Part II, Section X, “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution of the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782. Arabic numerals in parentheses in the main text refer to pages in The Logical Alien.
 I say ‘assumed’, but it is in fact at the heart of Travis’ piece. Sullivan discusses it, too.
 Part II, Section XI, “Reply to Stroud on Kant and Frege”: 783-829.
 For an excellent overview of Husserl’s philosphy of language and its development, see Simons 1995.
 Part II, Section X: “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution to the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782.
 Part I, “Logical Aliens and the ‘Ground’ of Logical Necessity”: 170-182.
In a recent review, Kate Hayles praises Catherine Malabou for admitting in Morphing Intelligence that she was “dead wrong” about some scholarly matter. While not begrudging Malabou her applause, most academics would have to admit the low cost of such an admission for a full professor invited to speak across the globe, and treated as a “celebrity,” as Malabou is. More praiseworthy is for younger academics, and those with unsubsidized careers in higher education’s hierarchy, to write that some prominent author is wrong. Those assertions can mean banishment from conferences, withdrawal of speaking invitations, and the like, since professional societies devoted (in the questionable sense) to major authors are understandably controlled almost always by an author’s fans, disciples, and sometimes family members. Speaking truth to yourself (a confession) and speaking truth to power is a distance similar to being winged in a Twitterstorm for your views and being “canceled.” None of this should be compared to the kind of courage, say, Alexey Navalny exhibits. That’s a different realm, but needs to be part of the context, lest academics damaged by schoolhouse politics slip into masochism.
The contributors to Interrogating Modernity demonstrate an inspiring irreverence and willingness to declare that the volume’s star, Hans Blumenberg, has gotten things wrong. That virtue makes for an admirable collection worthy of its subtitle. At this early stage—Blumenberg’s ashes were scattered only a quarter century ago—the scholarly work on Blumenberg has been uncritical, making Interrogating Modernity a refreshing novelty on the Blumenbergiana shelf.
Blumenberg’s followers have fashioned a mythic Blumenberg, portraying him as a mysterious intellectual Colossus, adopting Blumenberg’s own tendency later in his life toward self-aggrandizement. Thus, we have the film The Invisible Philosopher, for example. The followers’ strategy has upped the stakes for anyone who might question or criticize the great philosopher.
Willing to be heretical, the contributors to this volume refuse to be intimidated by The Wizard of Oz scenario fabricated by Blumenberg’s fans to promote knee-bending as opposed to scholarly spinefulness. The volume’s editors charged the authors with “putting [Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the book that arguably launched Blumenberg’s international reputation] into dialogue with later versions of modernity” (vii). The editors insisted on rethinking issues Blumenberg raises in Legitimacy, and the contributors frequently exceed expectations in responding to the call for rethinking.
The first essay out the gate encapsulates all that is good about this book. It’s not a head-on meeting with Blumenberg’s Legitimacy. It’s creative. It takes risks. It could have failed. Here’s a taste of Bielik-Robson’s experimentation: “Although it does not mention Job explicitly, Hans Blumenberg’s reading of Descartes suggests this affinity very strongly” (4). Bielik-Robson resurrects an old-fashioned scholarly recipe: rub any two things together and see what sparks fly.
Bielik-Robson recognizes Job as a figure of “self-assertion,” a topos in Blumenberg. Unable to tie Blumenberg directly to Job, Bielik-Robson uses a side door. Blumenberg’s research counterpart in the Hermeneutik und Poetik group, Hans Robert Jauss, views “Job as the first hero of self-assertion” in his essay “Job’s Questions and Their Distant Reply” (6). This clever move allows Bielik-Robson the opportunity to demonstrate an incompleteness in Blumenberg’s attention to Descartes. In Legitimacy, Blumenberg acknowledges the importance of Descartes: “Descartes appear[s] not so much as the founding figure of the epoch as rather the thinker who clarified the medieval concept of reality all the way to its absurd consequences and thus made it ripe for destruction.” Blumenberg wants to downplay “the founding figure,” the singular Descartes,” in order to promote “the thinker,” synonymous with anyone who employs the method Descartes used to bring about the old reality’s destruction.
The new reality Descartes advocates post-destruction appeals to Blumenberg, because it involves principles of construction to philosophize. That is, Descartes emphasizes the form and conditions of thinking rather than the contingent content. Like Descartes, Blumenberg wants “reoocupation” to function as a transcendental model untainted by historical events, a point fleshed out in the last chapter by Whistler. Historical changes are to be explained by Blumenberg’s ahistorical model.
Descartes studies his “own self” in a room of his own, where it occurs to him “that frequently there is less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by a single hand.” The primacy of the individual thinker is Job redux. Bielik-Robson describes Job’s situation in memorable prose. Job’s story becomes important when “the anthropological minimum [Job] asserted itself for the first time against … the theological maximum [God]” (15). In a schoolbook, this might be described as individuality versus omnipotence.
Job becomes a synonym for “enough is enough!” (16). For Bielik-Robson, Job’s story is the journey of a patient moving toward health. “According to [Jonathan] Lear, the patient reaches the point of relative health when she is able to exclaim: ‘Oh, this is crap!’—which very nicely corresponds with Blumenberg’s take on Descartes, who may be said to have reacted in a similar way, by simply deciding to cut himself off emotionally from the theological morass and call deus fallax a ‘metaphysical fable’—basically, a very crappy story” (16). Unfortunately, Blumenberg’s focus on the meta-analysis instead of the patient means the trauma of being fed up is not given its due as a revolutionary catalyst (18).
Elad Lapidot’s “Legitimacy of Nihilism” juxtaposes Hans Jonas and Blumenberg. Lapidot argues that Blumenberg rejects Jonas’s critique of modernity as “the return of Gnosticism” (45). For Blumenberg’s taste, that would leave modernity without as radical a break as he wants. Blumenberg needs a way past the logic that “legitimacy enters the world through negation, through illegitimacy” (48). Modernity establishes its own legitimacy apart from the previous historical epoch. According to Lapidot, the New itself “is a category of entitlement and legitimation.”
Opposing not only Jonas but also Martin Heidegger, Blumenberg seeks to jettison a notion of continuity attached to a substance. Lapidot writes, “This original constant substance is the basic assumption of all critiques against any historical age” (45). Blumenberg is uninterested in substantialism. He is after something more radical. “The new has no other foundation but itself, and so its specific form of legitimacy is self-legitimization” (47). This antifoundationalism is partly what attracted Richard Rorty to Blumenberg (Rorty was an early Anglophone reviewer of Blumenberg’s Legitimacy book).
Lapidot’s essay pairs well with Daniel Whistler’s “Modernizing Blumenberg.” Whistler begins boldly: “[Blumenberg] gets modernity wrong” (257). According to Whistler, Blumenberg supplements modernist figures’ arguments for modernity’s legitimation, fashioning a case that the modernist figures themselves did not make.
Like Lapidot, Whistler reports that the continuity between the middle ages and modernity Blumenberg emphasizes is functional, but not substantive. In a way, it’s the old form versus content argument. Rather than seeing the two as dependent on other, Blumenberg elevates form over content, since that’s the airplane ticket out of any historical ruptures at ground level. Forms fly above temporality’s constraints. From such a height, anyone might have anticipated Blumenberg to look down on things. Thus, Whistler writes, “[I]t is hard not to discern a slight tone of condescension in Blumenberg’s narrative of modernity” (259).
By siding with form and functionality, Blumenberg asserts that his account offers a novel stability. Whistler: “[W]henever the content of history changes, the forms stay the same. Forms may themselves be changing slowly, but their inertia is sufficient for them to remain a stable reference point by which to make sense of any novelty in history” (263). Blumenberg is not content with the messiness of mere history. “Like Kant, Blumenberg considers his transcendental apparatus to be immutable, to exist outside of the frame of historical change and epochal transformation” (264). Whistler concludes that this viewpoint makes Blumenberg a “right Aristotelian” (268). Given Blumenberg’s allegiances to far-right ideas linked to Latinate Catholicism, Whistler’s “right Aristotelian” designation rings true. Blumneberg is a “conservative” (267).
In the chapter contrasting Bruno Latour and Blumenberg, Willem Styfhals understands Blumenberg as an “apologist” (77) for the ecological mess we are in, and decides Latour offers better options for the predicted apocalypse. “The apocalypse is an unstable, unbearable position that might be conceptually appealing but not practically endurable. This is what Blumenberg made crystal clear in Lebenszeit und Weltzeit as well as in Legitimacy. The apocalypse is so attractive because it allows us to see the world in a radically different perspective, liberates us from the old world for a moment. But this moment does not give rise to a stable and durable position in the world” (77). Syfhals has missed Frederic Jameson’s insight, cited in Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, that calls for distinguishing among apocalypses: “[I]t is easier to imagine a total catastrophe which ends all life on earth than it is to imagine a real change to capitalist relations” (334).
Latour does not see capitalism as the problem; it’s religion: “If modernity were not so deeply religious, the call to adjust oneself to the Earth would be easily heard.” (71). Thus, Styfhals says, “[W]e should develop a political theology of the environmental apocalypse” (61).
While Blumenberg published at least one book specifically about technology, it’s difficult to categorize any other of his major writings as confronting environmental issues in the way Styfhals does with his focus on Latour and the Anthropocene. No one would think of Blumenberg as a stand-in for Rachel Carson.
The fourth chapter by Joseph Albernaz and Kirill Chepurin also addresses the theme of political theology. Styfhals’s use of apocalypse in the previous chapter has its place in the fourth chapter. For anyone acquainted with televangelism, the continual announcement of forthcoming apocalypses is a staple of populist Christianity. No matter that a specific date for the rapture is given and then passes. That failure is overlooked while a new date for the end is announced. The misreading of signs can be chalked up to human fallibility rather than an indication of a flaw in “God’s plan.” Albernaz and Chepurin recognize that what becomes important for Christianity is not that the world didn’t end as predicted, but that it continues: “But as Christianity found itself needing to explain the world’s continued existence, it was also establishing itself … as a [worldly] power. As a result, it needed to justify not the end of the world, but its prolongation” (86). The Christian Church sets itself up “as the institution of the not-yet that is the world – as the institution ‘stabilizing’ this not-yet” (86).
Within this context of an ever-delayed apocalypse, Christians fashioned a God with unlimited sovereignty and omnipotence. However, by the late medieval period God’s characteristics became incomprehensible, “alien to consciousness,” according to Albernaz and Chepurin (88). In response to this affront to consciousness, human beings develop their own rationality to give themselves security that is comprehensible (91-92).
The deleterious effects of Christianity’s global power as explored by Albernaz and Chepurin also concern Lissa McCullough. Her essay makes the case that if you thought Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt were harmful, then you need to take a second look at John Locke (124). “Locke founded a new religion focused around the sacrality of proprietas in The Second Treatise on Government, while retaining in The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) as much as was reasonably salvageable of the trappings of Christian faith to give the new religion a respectable pedigree, hitching it to . . . the authority of an apparent continuity with Jewish-Christian tradition (122). If you wonder why some people feel it legitimate to kill others for stealing, you can thank Locke for valorizing property over human lives. McCullough writes that Locke and his advocates managed to persuade numerous capitalists that the individual’s only incentive to consent to “join” society is to protect the property he has” (122).
McCullough sifts through Blumenberg to demonstrate Blumenberg’s allegiance to Locke’s valorization of property, despite Blumenberg’s efforts to make Locke seem insignificant to the massive scholarly buttresses Blumenberg uses to build his cases. Vital matters pivot on a reference to Locke in a footnote, for example. “[A]n extended footnote in Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960) … proves a vein of gold when mined for its immense implications. This footnote expands on the notion of truth as a product of labour. In it, Blumenberg remarks that this sort of produced [constructed?] truth is truth that is legitimately one’s own. The possession to be taken” (110). McCullough’s hermeneutical attention shows Blumenberg’s participation in Locke’s scheme. Blumenberg contributes to overturning the Horatian view that what is natural is not something one can own: “Nor he, nor I, nor any man, is made/by Nature private owner of the soil” (111).
In addition to articles that confront Blumenberg’s arguments and politics, the collection features authors who affirm Blumenberg’s positions. Zeynep Talay Turner’s “Political Legitimacy and Founding Myths” corroborates Blumenberg’s criticism of Hannah Arendt in Blumenberg’s “Moses the Egyptian,” written around 1978. Turner writes, “As Freud took Moses the man from his people [Blumenberg says Freud “damaged” his people’s “self-confidence”], so Hannah Arendt took Adolf Eichmann from the State of Israel.” Blumenberg does not hide his “indignation” towards this “stealing” (129).
Turner captures the salient features of “Moses the Egyptian” and presents an effective précis of Blumenberg’s use of the term “prefiguration.” Even though Turner seems ultimately to agree with Blumenberg about Eichmann in Jerusalem, Turner notes in his conclusion that Blumenberg may have been venturing outside his area of expertise in taking up the question of “what a Jewish state should do with someone who had sought to destroy the Jews” (146).
According to Turner and Blumenberg, Israel needed Eichmann to take on a mythic role at his trial in order to solidify Israeli nationhood. It’s not clear whether anyone ever laid that task at Arendt’s feet during the trial, since she was writing in the moment, as events unfolded. Unlike Blumenberg, Arendt did not have the luxury of hindsight, nor was she alive in 1978 to respond to such criticism. Furthermore, Turner and Blumenberg do not provide details of how Arendt’s book on Eichmann undermined Israel, then or since. Conceptual damage is of a different order from “stealing” a nation’s legitimacy.
In Chapter 7, Robert Buch concentrates on a “neglected” (153) part of Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the section about theoretical curiosity. Why has it been neglected? Buch: “The reasons for the relative neglect of the third part undoubtedly have to do with its length and more specifically its detail and apparent digressiveness, but above all its sheer material abundance.”
The editors sought to bring Blumenberg into conversation with other thinkers, and Buch chooses Husserl as Blumenberg’s conversation partner. Buch’s aim is “to juxtapose Blumenberg’s account of the genesis of early modern science with Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences” (153).
Perceptions of science’s legitimacy have relevance, Buch writes, given “the modern suspicion of science, aggravated dramatically in our times of climate crisis” (164). Husserl questioned the cause of a universal science, a science that adhered to rational structures and objectivity (166). Husserl reacted against the easy division between objectivity and subjectivity. Husserl posits that modern science fails to consider consciousness as a component of its investigations.
In Buch’s account, Blumenberg owes many debts to Husserl’s view of science and technology. The differences are fewer than the commonalities. One important difference appears in Blumenberg’s narrative about the electric doorbell in an essay Buch leans on heavily, “Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization,” now available in English in The Blumenberg Reader. Blumenberg says the electric doorbell, the workings of which are hidden in comparison to a mechanical doorbell, “is ‘packaged’ in a way that it conceals this history and deprives it from us in its abstract uniformity…. [I]t is legitimized by being … put into operation” (Blumenberg Reader, 386). The “artificial product,” the doorbell, is “shrouded” with “obviousness”; technization produces this unquestioned obviousness (Reader, 387), a point Blumenberg claims shows the limits of Husserl’s commentary on the connection between life-world and technization. Blumenberg aims to show that his account is “more complicated.” To appreciate Blumenberg’s point, think of the unknowability about the functioning of crosswalk buttons in urban centers, many of which remain deliberately unfixed. Even a non-working button gives the illusion of control.
Charles Turner’s chapter on “infinite progress” in science concludes with an exploration of time and the life of the politician (175). In the middle of the two topics is C. Turner’s choice for Blumenberg’s partner in dialogue, Max Weber. The question Weber poses that C. Turner investigates is: [W]hat are the chances that someone whose life is necessarily limited to one arena of activity can achieve something of lasting significance?” (181). Weber directs that question at scholars and politicians.
In making Weber’s question contemporary, C. Turner reminds readers about the fast pace of contemporary life coupled with an increase in life expectancy. In the infinity of time, how are finite individuals to gather meaning for their lives? For scholars, the fear is that one’s work becomes obsolete within the scholar’s lifetime. For the politician, long-lasting glory can come with great success, but few politicians are remembered beyond their lifetimes. As Weber puts it, the scholarly life is chained to progress (thus fear of obsolescence), while the political life is more like art in that multiple spectacular achievements by different artists are possible, though those achievements must be of a stature to escape temporal constraints (184).
Weber’s long view echoes Blumenberg’s considerations of Lebenszeit and Weltzeit, the tension between the individual’s tiny lifetime amidst the ocean of time that is world history. Blumenberg suggests we leave the tension in place, lest the world itself suffer as it did with Adolf Hitler. According to Blumenberg, Hitler’s sin was an effort at melding Lebenszeit and Weltzeit. The evidence lies in a quotation from Hitler: “I … stand under the command of fate to achieve everything within a short human life … That for which others have an eternity, I have merely a few meagre years” (191).
In Chapter 9, Oriane Petteni escorts her readers into the world of art history and optics. This gives Petteni reason to ponder Blumenberg’s preference not to be photographed (202), as if Blumenberg’s own study of optics caused his wish to avoid the medium. Petteni is well aware Blumenberg’s avoidance of selfies is something more than shyness. Petteni sees it as connected to much larger matters, like truth. The visible and the hidden link up with Western beliefs about truth. Petteni writes, “[I]n the modern age, truth no longer reveals itself; instead, it must be revealed by decisive action” (195). That is, we must work for our truth.
The comments on truth correspond to Blumenberg’s views about biology. Petteni sees that Blumenberg derives his anthropology from biology. Petteni turns to The Genesis of the Copenican World for evidence. “The Earth requires both exposure to the Sun for complex lifeforms to arise and protection from direct exposure to sun rays, which would otherwise threaten to consume every living thing. The exposure to light requires—for the Earth as well as for human beings—a kind of filter or screen” (203). Others back up Petteni’s sense that Blumenberg foregrounds the importance of indirection and camouflage, such as the recent biography by Uwe Wolff, who notes multiple times Blumenberg’s penchant for indirect communication.
Petteni finishes her reflections on Blumenberg via a journey through Franz Kafka’s Der Bau. The unfinished Kafka text parallels, for Petteni, Blumenberg’s open-endedness regarding the human impulse to fashion “endless significance” (211). The story about a burrow also fits in with a quotation Petteni cites by Heinz Wisman, “[Blumenberg’s] thought is strongly marked by the worry not to remain at the surface of things” (202).
Chapter 10 might serve readers best read in conjunction with the first and the last chapters where Descartes has a prominent role. One difference about Adi Efal-Lautenschläger’s chapter is the linkage between Descartes and Blumenberg’s book The Legibility of the World. Blumenberg himself points out the parallels between his theme in Legibility and Descartes’s Traité du monde et de la lumière. What does Blumenberg find in Descartes’ book? “The self is to be experienced according to the measure of the world, as compatible or not with its changing conditions” (Legibility, 92). This lesson runs counter to interpretations of Descartes that rely on the celebrated cogito ergo sum and tend to make Descartes a happy solipsist. The lesson also seems a challenge to Whistler’s essay in which Blumenberg leaves behind the messy world for timeless forms and models, though keep in mind that Whistler’s interpretation launches from a different Blumenberg work, Legitimacy rather than Legibility.
Efal-Lautenschläger contributes a useful dichotomy based on the arguments of Legibility: “Blumenberg chooses to put his concept of reality on the side of world-imaging, instead of world-modelling. [R]eality is understood as belonging to the arena of representations or of world-imaging. World imaging – and, with it, reality itself – has an interpretative orientation: the reality that results from the image of the world is designated as an act of reading” (224-25).
Credit the editors with choosing to follow Efal-Lautenschläger’s essay with one that expands Efal-Lautenschläger’s points. Returning to Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Sonja Feger dives into another pairing, “reoccupation” (Umbesetzung) and “reality-concepts” (Wirklichkeitsbegriffe). Feger tells readers that Blumenberg uses reoccupation “to explain how epochal change can be grasped. On the other hand, and in other texts, he provides a historical analysis of what he calls “reality-concepts.” “In this chapter, I attempt to bring these two concepts into line with each other” (237).
Reoccupation is up first. Feger: “It is important to note that “reoccupation”, that is, the English term Wallace uses to translate the German word Umbesetzung, does not allude to anything antagonistic; it is not about any kind of (intellectual) conquest or usurpation. Rather, the term brings into focus the process-character of epochal change” (244). Emphasizing the “process-character” of change points to Whistler again, because “reoccupation” is about a perennial question-and-answer model Blumenberg wants to say is at work. Not that a “firm canon” of “great questions” exists. Fegel warns readers not to become fixated on answers or questions in their concrete content. Relying on a quotation from Blumenberg’s essay on secularization, Fegel asks readers to remember that “the historical identity and methodical identifiability of supposedly secularized notions is an illusion created by the identity of the function that altogether heterogeneous contents can assume in certain positions within man’s system of understanding the world and himself” (245).
How do we find out about reality? In some places, like Blumenberg’s famous essay on the possibility of the novel, his response seems to be “sometimes we won’t.” Feger pinpoints his wording: “[I]t is quite natural that the most deeply hidden implication of an era – namely, its concept of reality – should become explicit only when the awareness of that reality has already been broken.” (246). It’s a version of not being able to see the forest for the trees. “The subject as historically situated can only account for earlier concepts of reality, not current ones” (246).
Exiting that reality dilemma depends on reality-concepts. “Making a reality-concept explicit draws on the distinction between an object (i.e. a certain behaviour towards reality) and reflection on that object” (247). While it looks as if Blumenberg’s position is that our reflecting on an object called reality is accurate only for earlier periods, Feger says our access to what’s real about the moment we are in depends on Husserlian transcendental phenomenology. “[T]ranscendental consciousness both carries out and simultaneously reflects upon the process of (reality-) constitution” (248). Problem solved (if Blumenberg is correct).
Bajohr, Hannes, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (Eds.). 2020. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.
Hayles, N. Katherine. 2019. “Review of Morphing Intelligence.” Posted May 17, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/n._katherine_hayles_reviews_morphing_intelligence.
Prisco, Jacopo. 2020. “Illusion of Control: Why the World is Full of Buttons that Don’t Work.” CNN.com. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/placebo-buttons-design/index.html.
Wolff, Uwe. 2020. Der Schreibtisch des Philosophen: Erinnerungen an Hans Blumenberg. München: Claudius Verlag.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2011. Living in the End Times. London: Verso.
In her introduction, translator Christina Gschwandtner says that that this work represents ‘the pinnacle of the conversation between Descartes and phenomenology in Marion’s work’. Jean- Luc Marion is a foremost French phenomenologist and it should be no surprise that Descartes is, and has been, a source of great inspiration to him. The father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, used Descartes’ method of doubt which involved the excluding of all but the most certain propositions about the world, as the starting point for his own methodology of the epoche. The main difference between Marion’s earlier writings on Descartes and this book is that in the earlier writings Marion used both Husserl and Heidegger to throw light on an interpretation of Descartes. Here, he is directly engaging with Descartes’ text to show him in the light of contemporary phenomenology, where Marion has been a major contributor over many years.
In this book, which will be his last on Descartes he declares, Marion explores the sixth Meditation as a central concern, but he also relies on textual analyses of other writings, such as The Passions of the Soul. He defends Descartes from the usual criticisms of a straightforward mind/body dualist position, but more importantly gives a reading of Descartes as a modern phenomenologist, with a view of the embodied self as a thinking and feeling being. It is this being which is capable of the ‘passive thought’ referred to in the title of the book.
Marion is keen to explore the relationships between soul/mind and body, and body and flesh as conceived in the phenomenological sense which emerge in the text of the Meditations. The ‘passive thought’ referred to in the title is the thinking that is experienced both by the combined soul/mind and body of the subject( which is not to be considered as a combintion of two primitive notions, but a completely distinct and self- contained third primitive notion) and by the intellectual ego which is able to reflect on itself. (A reminder is useful here that the verb ‘penser’ used in the first version of the famous Cogito had a wider meaning in the 17th century French than strict cognition. It was a verb which covered the experience of emotions, feelings and attitudes, for example). In other writings of his own philosophy, Marion has made much of the distinction between ‘my body’ and ‘my flesh’ and he wants to suggest that this important distinction is also implicit in Descartes’ writings, where the third primitive notion of my whole self is effectively ‘my flesh’. In a further development, Marion, who is known for his key concept ‘the saturated phenomenon’ is able to read examples of such phenomena from Descartes’ Passions of the Soul through this idea of the person as ‘flesh’ combined with the auto-affectivity of the intellectual ego.
In the first chapter, Marion raises the difficulties posed by the sixth Meditation. It seems to stand on its own, rather than being a conclusion or summing up of the previous Meditations. Descartes himself reinforces this idea by suggesting that the first five Meditations and their objections be read together and then, and only then should the reader approach the sixth. The sixth Meditation raises two main issues, the existence of material things in the world exterior to the ‘thinking thing’ on which Descartes has elaborated in earlier Meditations, and the real distinction between the mind and the body and whether there is another notion, a union between these two. Descartes seems to concede that the argument employed in the sixth Meditation is less coherent than in the previous Meditations. Marion wonders whether this is because in the last meditation he has finally faced up to the difficulties posed by his earlier conclusions about the existence of a benevolent God and the separation of body and mind and the implications this might have for this third notion of ‘my whole self’ – the embodied self.
Marion poses the following questions about this sixth Meditation. Firstly, is my body included within the material things whose existence is in question for Descartes? Second, is Descartes trying to establish a distinction between body and mind or a union thereof? Third, what is the nature of this unified thing? Fourth, is the proof given for the existence of material things in the Sixth Meditation of the same nature/quality as those given in earlier Meditations? He sets about answering these questions in the following chapters.
In the second chapter, Marion concentrates on textual analysis to show that Descartes firstly distinguishes knowledge of my body from other bodies (which are part of the group of material things whose existence must be proved). No such proof is required of my body, claims Marion. Further, and importantly for Marion, it is not just the case that Descartes recognises that we have special knowledge of our own body which enables it to be excluded from the doubters’ gaze, it is also the case that my body is in some way part of the ‘thinking subject’ at the heart of the Cogito. Marion concedes that Descartes does not label the first of these distinctions as the difference between body and flesh as modern writers have done. (In fact, Marion suggests that Spinoza may have come close to making this distinction as well as Descartes in nearly explicit terms). There is a further problem in that this distinction between my body and others’ bodies comes near the start of the Sixth Meditation, which puts the structure of Descartes’ argument in a different order from the other Meditations – the conclusion being stated before the argument
Marion has thus distinguished my body with which I have a special relationship (and thus which has a special place in the world and does not form part of the world of material things) from the psychosomatic entity that is the thinking self which is the both my intellect and my flesh. It is this psychosomatic entity which is capable of passive thought. Importantly it is also capable of suffering and principally in registering a lack of bodily needs such as hunger, thirst and so on. The psychosomatic entity needs the body for this to make sense.
Marion considers whether Descartes took for granted the distinction between ‘my body’ and the bodies of others, where ‘my body’ is not just one external object amongst others but stands in a special relationship to me. (By extension, this might mean that my body might form part of the ‘I’ which certainly exists and would give Marion the platform he needs to support the thesis that Descartes has a notion of passive thought which relies on the thinking ‘I’ and the close relationship with my body.) Whether this special relationship is one which can be characterised as the distinction between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ in the fully developed sense as used by many modern philosophers is put on hold at this stage.
Marion claims that there is textual evidence for Descartes recognising the distinction between my body and other external objects such as other bodies in an incomplete early work (early 1630s) ‘The Search for Truth’, which takes the form of a dialogue. Marion suggests that one of the characters, Polyander, sows the seeds for the distinction between doubting that other bodies exist and that my own body exists. ‘I cannot deny absolutely that I have a body’ says Polyander (my italics). He also makes the comment that ‘I am not quite my body’. There is much confusion and ambiguity here as Marion points out, but there is at least not the outright denial that my own body is or might be some part of the ‘I’ which exists conclusively even in the face of familiar arguments such as madness, dreaming and an evil spirit and fashioned by a loving God.
The connection between ‘sensing’ and ‘thinking’ is raised. ‘Sensing’ that it is I that is dreaming or having experiences does not seem to rely on having a body with the five senses (so it might be acceptable to deny the existence of my body in a basic sense) It is certainly more than simply just thinking. This form of sensing leads the ego back to itself, as Marion puts it, to ‘a self-sensing of itself that is more primordial than any sensing of an object’.
Marion concludes that by the time Descartes came to write the Meditations, the distinction between my body and other external bodies was clear to him. Descartes recognised that there is more to putting my body to the sceptical tests than there is to putting other external bodies to such tests. Denying the existence of one’s own body with all the sensory input so close at hand is a much harder task and prone to an admission of folly, rather than the more easily assimilated test that other bodies do not exist. But even if I admit that all the close sensory experience which I might have is as apparent to me in a dream as it is when I am awake, this simply shows that my sensations and feelings which have bodily manifestations are not reliant on the external world. It does not show that the body which has these experiences, which ‘senses’ and ‘feels’ does not itself exist. Marion concludes that it is the external things of the world, the ‘other bodies’ which are put to the sceptical sword, with the sixth Meditation finally confirming (in Marion’s interpretation at least) the my body is a distinct entity from the external things which are being questioned in this Meditation and that my body exists because it partakes in the sensing which is part of the cogito, the thinking ‘I’.
The Cartesian ego is thus not just a thinking thing: it has a multiplicity of modes, states Marion and it is a failure to understand this that has led to an extended misunderstanding of Descartes’ position: it has led to his being the mind/body dualist par excellence of philosophy teaching in the analytic world. The modal multiplicity of the Cartesian ego is made clear when Descartes responds to his self-posed question ‘but what then am I?’ The answer comes back: ‘A things that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling and also imagines and has sensory perceptions’. The doubting was made clear in the first Meditation, understanding in the second, affirming and denying in the third, whilst the fourth deals with the will, the fifth with imagination and the sixth with sensory perception. My body in the sense of meum corpus turns out to be the shape of the Cartesian ego for Marion because it guarantees auto affectivity – the capability for the ego to sense itself.
Marion proceeds in the next chapter to consider how to incorporate this principle of meum corpus (that Descartes recognised as his ‘flesh’ in modern phenomenological terms) with the other two principles (or primitive notions as Marion calls them) which emerge from the Meditations: the thinking ‘ego’ and the existence of God as the first cause: both of these stop the hyperbolic doubt. Meum corpus is the ‘flesh’ which can sense itself (through passive thought rather than ratiocination). Marion charts the history of Descartes’ ego; in the early Rules, the ego is set up as the basis for understanding a science of objects; it is the foundation for acknowledging the existence of the external world. In the later Meditations, the mode of the ego is slightly different: it is an ontic and final principle of the metaphysics of infinity, claims Marion. But with the meum corpus, the ego now becomes capable of passive thought. Marion considers how the meum corpus can be a primitive notion in Descartes’ scheme, when it would seem to rely on an interaction between something immaterial (the mind, soul) interacting with a material body (the body rather than the flesh). Here Marion points to several examples in Descartes’ correspondence where he explains that we know that the mind can interact with the body (give instructions for movement and so on) through experience: we just know that there is a simple basic relationship between our thoughts and what happens to our body. Does this union which is acknowledged by all create a new substance – my flesh? If so, how does that escape the problems engendered by the hyperbolic doubt? There is a difference Descartes concludes between the body which can be described in physical terms as having a certain shape, size and so on and the body which is the matter which is inextricably linked with a man’s soul. (Would an example of the difference be a phantom limb story? On the second description – the body would include the now materially absent limb).
In the fourth and fifth chapters, Marion explains that this notion of meum corpus – this special union between the soul and the body forming the third primitive notion – is not obvious or even admissible to Descartes’ readers, because Descartes did not have the metaphysical vocabulary to describe it – it had not been developed. In particular, the scholastic term substantia causes problems. Marion claims that whilst Descartes is forced into using substantia in getting his idea of this primitive notion across to interlocutors such as Hobbes and Gassendi, it simply gets him into problems. Descartes wants to start with the meum corpus as a primitive notion, not one which can be arrived at through using the traditional scholastic vocabulary. In the end, he is forced back into using simple explanations and vocabulary, as in the following key explanation of the meum corpus:
‘The body does not think, except under the heading of corpus humanum taken on in the union. The res cogitans would not think if it did not also think passively, thus it would not think truly and completely in all of its modes, if it did not also think in the union.’ (173)
Marion’s final chapter extends the discussion of passive thought by his reading and discussion of Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul. Passive thought comes to be important in both moral and theological themes, suggest Marion. In this work, Descartes moves on from the traditional scholastic view of the passions, which arrive unbidden to act upon us in both a bodily and mental way. Any form of Stoicism would normally seek to repress the passions, but Descartes seeks to consider the passions as part of an early development of virtue ethics. Two sorts of passive thought are involved, according to Marion. The first involves the meum corpus which acts upon our minds so that our thinking selves do not just have ‘willed thoughts’ but passive thoughts too, which enable us to imagine, doubt and so on. We also ‘sense ourselves’ through this union of the thinking self and the meum corpus.
The second sort of passive thought is one which takes place entirely within the thinking self, although the effects of this thought will be felt throughout the whole of the extended self to include the meum corpus. Marion examines this in the context of Descartes’ analysis of the virtue of generosity.
Marion claims that Descartes’ view of this virtue relies on passive thinking. Generosity involves a recognition of the good activities of the will and a reflection on the self; a form of self-esteem and auto-affectivity, which is then followed by the recognition that this is a universal trait, so that we come to have esteem for others. Generosity is then fostered by this realisation. Indeed, passions can become ‘habits of virtue’ which can rely on this passive thought and are given a physiological support derived from meum corpus. We feel good when we do good, in short.
This self-reflection as passive thought has an important role to play in love, claims Marion. (Readers of Marion’s The Erotic Phenomenon will recognise themes here). Once we have a ‘fix’ on ourselves through self- reflection, we can begin to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole (joined with the object of our love).We can assess how much of ourselves to give to this greater whole and also learn to care for this new ‘whole’ (perhaps we could consider it the relationship formed between two people who love each other) rather more than we care for ourselves.
Marion’s book is not an easy read. The translation into English is awkward (not necessarily the fault of the translator – Marion’s style does not move easily from French idiom to English). There are many long quotations in Latin in the body of the text and footnotes are extensive and plentiful. If Descartes’ argument is hard to follow in the Sixth meditation, so is Marion’s interpretation. Many of the themes in the book are covered more coherently and helpfully in anglophone philosophy (For example, in several articles in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes’ Meditations or by the philosopher John Cottingham to whom Marion refers).
Marion has the original idea of turning Descartes into a thoroughly modern phenomenologist, however. He achieves this through his suggestion that Descartes has an idea of the self as ‘flesh’ or meum corpus, which takes in information from the outside world at all levels and this can be used both in the ordinary way of life and, as Marion makes clear in the last chapter, for the development of virtue as well. The discussion of Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul in the last chapter is an interesting development of Marion’s idea of passive thought, using not only the notion of the ‘flesh’, but also extending the idea of the thinking self so that it too is capable of passive thought. Norman Kemp Smith in his book New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes (1952) titled the final chapter of his survey of Descartes ‘Descartes as Pioneer’. Marion certainly would agree that Descartes was a pioneer with a modern conception of the self, providing plenty of material for modern day phenomenologists and personalist philosophers alike.