Robert Sokolowski: Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology

Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology Couverture du livre Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology
Robert Sokolowski
Catholic University of America Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by:  Chad Engelland (The University of Dallas)

The fourteen essays in this volume are exercises in what the author terms “applied phenomenology” (ix) in contrast to the formal analyses found in his Presence and Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being. The aim of both volumes is to recover the question of being by reclaiming the truth of appearances.

The essays in this book are attempts to describe various ways in which things can appear: as pictured, quoted, measured, distinguished, explained, meant, and referred to, and also as coming to light in moral conduct. The description of each of these forms is made more vivid and exact by being placed alongside the descriptions of the others. And because appearance always involves that which appears and the one to whom it appears, my essays are meant to be not only an analysis of appearance but also a venture into the question of being and a clarification of what we are. (xiii)

The fourteen essays, arranged in six parts, cover central topics of interest to students and specialists in phenomenology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and ethics. Sokolowski exercises a sovereign philosophical voice that plainly and without fuss lays bare the being of things—and in doing so infectiously invites us to do the same.

In the first part on representations in image and in speech, Sokolowski explores ways of referring to absent things as well as to beliefs other than our own. Picturing requires a unique intentional relation that makes present something that is absent. Naming, by contrast, targets something whether present or absent without making it present in any way. Quoting allows us to target things as intended by others so that we can toggle between our own present articulation of things and those of others without, however, necessarily adopting others’ views as our own.

In the second part on coping with intelligibility, Sokolowski reflects on the explanatory power of strategically distinguishing one thing from another: making sense is not principally a matter of argument or dialectic; it is principally a matter of elucidation by identification with the appropriate kind. For example, pictures are other than quotations and sense is other than reference.

In the third part, Sokolowski details the part-whole structure of time and space and considers themes that arise in the ambit of science concerning the intentionality of timing and of measurement. He also includes a rewarding essay on the relation between the complex world in which we live and the exact one arrived at through the idealizations of science.

In the fourth part, Sokolowski turns explicitly to the philosophy of language and develops, in a phenomenological voice, the difference between sense and reference. He argues that we should “exorcise concepts” as nothing more than a baleful prejudice that, while explaining nothing, generates a host of intractable pseudo-problems. Philosophy’s habitual appeal to concepts comes from a continual failure of nerve, a continual failure to realize that we can and do refer to absent things without the mediation of some sort of present mental entity; in fact, the positing of such an entity is a matter of falling prey to what Sokolowski calls a “transcendental mirage,” a matter of thinking something is there when it is not. Instead, we can handle everything about the phenomenon of language by positing a speaker, speaking about something, to someone. The speaker presents something to someone by means of a “slant” on things. Positing concepts undermines the intentional relation to things; slant-talk reestablishes the fact that speaking is at bottom an issue of the presentation of something to someone. Sokolowski’s analysis of referring nicely displays the advantages of the phenomenological method for exploring the intentionality of naming; it defends both the integrity of ordinary ways of reference and the value of philosophical idealizations of the sort operative in mathematical logic.

In the fifth part, Sokolowski attends to the part-whole structure of sentences and images. Grammar signals not only the thoughtful activity of the speaker but also the need for the listener to undertake the same activity to achieve understanding. Despite a surface similarity between words and pictures, they present things with different conditions of satisfaction.

In the sixth and final part, Sokolowski presents a phenomenology of ethical performance, which develops themes from his Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study. Abstraction stands in the way of moral understanding, which is by nature embodied in the very behavior of morally good agents: “To be able to respond to the natural law—indeed to let it become actual as law, to show by one’s actions what can be done, and thus to make others see what should be done—is to be a certain kind of person: not one who simply conforms to things set down, but one who lets the good appear, to himself and to others, in what he does” (291).

With Sokolowski, the practice of philosophy may be fruitfully understood as a matter of explaining or exhibiting intelligibility by means of carefully distinguishing one thing from another, and of doing so for ourselves and each other together. Hypothesized mental entities only gum up our understanding of language and being; exorcising them allows language to spring again to life so that the wonder-inducing operation of presentation and articulation can once again be registered and appreciated. Those who wish to follow concrete paths into the heart of being could not do better than to pick up this illuminating collection. Highly recommended. 

Emmanuel Levinas: Il tempo e l’altro, Mimesis Edizioni, 2022

Il tempo e l’altro Couverture du livre Il tempo e l’altro
Emmanuel Levinas. Postfazione di: Francesca Nodari
Paperback € 11,40

Andrew M. Jampol-Petzinger: Deleuze, Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Selfhood, Edinburgh University Press, 2022

Deleuze, Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Selfhood Couverture du livre Deleuze, Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Selfhood
Andrew M. Jampol-Petzinger
Edinburgh University Press
Hardback £80.00

Samantha Matherne: Cassirer

Cassirer Couverture du livre Cassirer
The Routledge Philosophers
Samantha Matherne
Paperback GBP £19.99

Reviewed by: Nikolaus Schneider

The Ernst Cassirer renaissance is in full order. Since Massimo Ferrari’s anticipation and prediction that the German philosopher would be lifted from the realms of semi-forgottenness in 1994 different lines of reception have swept through the German-, Italian- and English-speaking world. (cf. Ferrari, 1994) It was only a matter of time until this resurgence would carry over to Anglo-American departments, where, along with a renewed interest in Neo-Kantianism, more and more research on Cassirer is being conducted.[1] The newly translated and edited edition of his three volume magnus opum The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms by Routledge is a case in point here. Accordingly, the present work by Samantha Matherne, assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is perhaps only the logical conclusion to a new wave of Cassirer reception in the English-speaking world, appearing in the renowned The Routledge Philosophers series edited by Brian Leitner. Primarily aimed at undergraduate students, the book will surely complement many syllabi on the German philosopher in the English-speaking academy for years to come, especially as the hitherto existing English introduction to Cassirer, John Michael Krois’ Symbolic Forms and History, is by now 34 years old.

In the contemporary reception Cassirer’s philosophy is explicitly advertised as being able to bridge “gaps not only between the so-called ‘analytic-continental divide’ in philosophy, but also between philosophy and other disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences” (p.2)[2] Indeed, apart from purely historical considerations the primary aim of contemporary research on Cassirer seems to be the development of a transcendental philosophy of culture as the investigation of the conditions of possibility that enable cultural artifacts and their world by means of an analysis of the different modalities of symbolization. (cf. Endres et al., 12f.; Luft 2021, 215) Following the influential studies of Peter Gordon (Gordon, 2010) and Michael Friedmann (Friedmann, 2000) the peculiar position of Cassirer in 20th century (German) philosophy is  recognized and contextualized and with it a philosophy that seemingly does not outright reject modernity’s proliferation of cultural and life-forms in either a rural conservative individual flight to authenticity (Heidegger) or a detached logic-semantical analysis of scientific propositions (Carnap). Hans Sluga, a reviewer of Gordon’s book, however, expressed his doubts about deriving a reconciliation of culture via Cassirer:

Cassirer was no doubt an accomplished philosopher, an influential teacher, and above all a thoroughly decent and admirable human being, but he does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure. (Sluga, 2011)

However, the contemporary reception of Cassirer wagers that the German philosopher has still a lot to offer for present-day problematics. (cf. Gordon 2021, xiv; cf. Luft/ Ferrari 2021, passim)

How the background of this reception and its repercussions along with the different ‘geophilosophical’ context vis-à-vis existing German introductions (Sandkühler/ Pätzold, 2003; Graeser, 1994; Recki, 2004, 2013; Paetzold, 2014) have shaped the task of presenting a summary and overview of Cassirer’s philosophy will form the frame of this review. The author’s aim to “offer an overview of Cassirer’s philosophical system as a whole that can help the reader navigate his corpus” will determine its immanent threshold of success. (p.2) I will provide a summary of its contents before engaging in a more critical reading.

After setting out from a brief biography of Cassirer, the book unfolds via a historical contextualization of Cassirer within the broader movement of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as the general frame of reference and conceptualization Cassirer worked and philosophized within. “For all the shifts and developments in Cassirer’s body of work, his philosophical system remains, throughout, that of a Neo-Kantian.” (p.18) It is transcendental spontaneity that for Matherne is the central motif of Cassirer’s effort for a philosophy of culture and in connection with the methodological impetus of accounting for the conditions of possibilities of cultural facts the decisive trait of his intellectual lineage. Hence this, after setting the general picture of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as being primarily scientifically oriented right, amounts to a transcendental investigation of the conditions of possibility of meaning-creating/ – making in a shared world. In this sense, (Marburg) Neo-Kantianism tout court had always already been on the way to a philosophy of culture, though it is Cassirer’s merit to conduct this investigation in a way that would do justice to the concept of culture. (cf. p. 31f.)

In practice, this configures the subject’s capability to confer meaning- and form – making processes freely and spontaneously upon the world. Matherne decisively accounts for this by contextualizing Cassirer’s indebtedness to Cohen’s and Natorp’s intellectualist interpretation of Kant’s theory of cognition – the actual conceptuality of what had been forms of intuition, space and time, in Kant. (cf. p. 39ff.) In other words, all forms of cognition and perception remain relative to the transcendental subject’s employment of a range of categories. On this view, Cassirer’s central philosophical innovation consists in invoking the ‘softer’ notions of form and symbol/ function against ‘law’ – the former two permitting a greater range of phenomena attributable to the ‘world of meaning’. (cf. p. 37.)

Accounting for this in more detail, Matherne sets out to retrace the younger Cassirer’s work on epistemology and a theory of concept-formation, largely neglecting the first published monograph Leibniz’ System in its Scientific Foundations and the first volume of Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Rather, Cassirer’s first central philosophical innovation is said to have first and foremost occurred within the theory of concepts and the adjacent philosophy of mathematics to form conceptual and scientific basic distinctions, which, insisting on the continuity of Cassirer’s thought, remain invariant up to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and beyond. In this way, Cassirer’s elaboration of the distinction between substance-concept and function-concept in the eponymous book are employed to account for the respective processes of objectification (Ver-gegenständlichung) yielding the symbolic forms and their ranges of perception and cognition. This amounts essentially to the primacy of the category of relation over substance from Kant’s transcendental logic to prevent a notion of concepts as being mere copies of pre-existing objects attained by way of abstraction. (cf. Truwant 2015, 291) A spontaneously conceived function – later to be extended as symbolic form – posits a law of succession and orders a series of representations according to it. (cf. 53ff.)

The remaining chapter presents Cassirer’s consequent views in the philosophy of arithmetic and geometry. Matherne summarizes the attained position under the heading of  ‘logical structuralism’, “according to which mathematics has its basis in functions of relations that belong to logic and mathematical objects are ideal structures generated on the basis of those functions or relations.” (p. 75) Although introducing Cassirer’s first philosophical innovation in this way diminishes the methodological role of the Neo-Kantian’s historiography of philosophy as a history of problems (Problemgeschichte) in relation to the historization of the a priori and its relevance for the establishment of the function-concept, the presented difference between the two respective views is presented clearly and convincingly.

The historical character of functions comes back in Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of natural science’, which is the topic of the ensuing chapter. In dialogue with the natural scientist, it is the transcendental philosopher’s task to account for the conditions of possibility of the facts of science by means of a reconstruction of the corresponding transcendental functions, which remain relative to the overall scientific context of experience (cf. p. 81 In the context of natural science this task amounts to the elaboration of the fundamental concepts employed by the natural scientist and the positions the yielded concepts occupy within their empirical theories. Hence the elaboration of a taxonomy of the scientific statements of measurement, laws and principles as instantiations of a different order of generality. In turn, the philosopher should, according to Cassirer, make out the invariant relations on a purely conceptual level. (cf. p. 98.) In the last instance, these figure as the transcendental categories, that is, the functions continuously employed in all scientific endeavors such as time, space, or number. Although these may be configured differently over history they serve as the functional a priori building blocks of any scientific theory.

Subsequently, the discussion moves on to the philosophy of symbolic forms proper, that is, not just the elaboration of the eponymous trilogy, but also the dispersed articles and texts written between 1920 and 1945. Matherne chooses to frame the philosophy of symbolic form as a philosophy of culture throughout, and, although not outright neglecting its later transformation into a philosophical anthropology, takes her “cue from his early formulations of it in The Philosophy Symbolic Forms and other texts from the 1920s”. (p. 116) While it is conceded that Cassirer’s thought evolved in newer directions at a later stage of his career, the conception of a ‘philosophy of culture’ is by definition a narrower one than that of a philosophical anthropology. And although the reason for this concession is provided for in the continuity of the central status of symbolization as seen in the dictum of the human as animal symbolicum, questions why this should not compel one to conceive of his philosophy of culture as a philosophical anthropology[3] are unanswered. (cf. 116f.) It is perhaps by way of the general relevance of Cassirer for a contemporary philosophy of culture that this conception is motivated. Rather than going the whole way of conceiving of the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophical anthropology the more modest task of investigating meaning-making processes fairs equally well with the ascribed position of the German philosopher with regard to the analytic-continental split. Thus, the task of the philosophy of symbolic forms “is ultimately organized around an effort to elucidate the conditions of culture.” (p. 119)

Matherne follows the common distinction between the different forms of culture along the subjective and objective lines. The former is comprised of the different modalities of representation as the triad of expressive, presentative and significative functions, the latter as the continuous progression of objective spirit, that is, culture’s overall context of signification as an “a priori intersubjectively shared structure and activity, which unites human beings […] together.” (p. 120) The different symbolic forms encompass respective “perceptive, intuitive and cognitive” structures and in this way the philosophy of symbolic forms aims to tie an analysis of the transcendental functions of the subject with its objective cultural expressions together (p.125) In contrast to the discussion of the cognitions of mathematics and natural science, the investigation shifts to the broader notion of the various kinds of ‘understanding’ in the human cultural sciences. (p.121) Cassirer posits their specific modality of concept-formation as being aligned with the general model detected in the natural sciences, foreclosing an anticipated discussion of their status as form- or style-concepts. (Form- oder Stilbegriffe)

Matherne then goes on to discuss the methodological requirements to conduct an analysis of the conditions of possibility of culture. The transcendental method is once again evoked, this time in Natorp’s “bi-directional conception”. (p. 124) The correlation of objective and subjective spirit is bifurcated along a reconstructive axis for the subjective side of the equation and constructive axis for its objective side. The latter posits a specific analysis of culture (‘constructive’) and the former accounts for the conditions of possibility of it by reconstructing a corresponding synthesis of transcendental subjectivity. (cf. Freyberg/ Niklas 2019, passim) It would perhaps have been worthwhile to extend and contrast the presented account with the manuscript for a Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms and its thoughts on ‘Basis Phenomena’ for a more rounded account. Matherne’s presentation gives the impression that Cassirer’s seems to privilege the reconstructive side over their correlativity or ‘work-relatedness’ (Werkbezogenheit), though the account remains thus firmly faithful to her overall interpretation of Cassirer. Subsequently the details of symbolization by means of categorial function-concepts, such as cause, time, thing or property, to yield the respective symbolic forms are discussed. (cf. p. 129) These figure as  “the concepts that remain constant across all our spiritual activities because they are the a priori conditions that make all spiritual ‘forming’ possible in the first place.” ( p. 129) Matherne takes up Cassirer’s distinction between a category’s quality – its basic logical impetus of ordering series – and its modality, the particular ‘content’ “indexed to ‘regions of culture’ a[s] context” that orders representations. (p.130) With regard to spirit, Cassirer draws  attention to ongoing discussions concerning the autonomy of the respective symbolic forms vis-à-vis the others (‘irreducibility thesis’) and whether their consecutiveness is to be conceived of teleologically as progress (‘teleology thesis’), although the latter question is answered affirmatively.

After the determination of the general functional context, Cassirer moves on towards the elaboration of the individual symbolic forms. The triad of expressive, presentative and significative symbolization as different functional modalities of representation provide the guidelines for this elaboration, relating the individual to respective realizations of her own freedom as spontaneity. Accordingly, religion and myth are relegated toward the expressive, language, history, and technology toward the presentative and mathematics, the natural sciences, morality and right toward the significative function of consciousness. (cf. p. 152) Philosophy entertains neither a position of a totalized god-like view of their overall cohesion nor does it count as one symbolic form among the others but figures as a toll to reflect on the symbolic forms. The specific functions and ‘worldviews’ of both myth and religion are presented in clear and minute detail before going over to art as the ‘objective’ demonstration of ‘subjective’ presentation – thereby “revealing to us that we are not passive with respect to our affects and emotions.” (p. 166) Objectification is reflected from the objective side of the dichotomy by the symbolic form of language, which, while still remaining bound to intuition and a substance-based view of categories, fosters the recognition of self-consciousness by the liberated understanding of reality it enables. It is interesting that Matherne specifically mentions that language and technology foster both practical and theoretical recognition of freedom and one wonders to what extent that can be said of the other symbolic forms. While this realization would be imaginable for myth, religion and the latter distinction between specific recognitions of this contention in morality and natural science, respectively, is left unaccounted for.

Both history and technology remain tied to the presentative functions of consciousness and spirit, the former by revealing reality’s distinctively human texture by means of the objective presentation of the past, the latter as the realization of the will’s striving for power toward the free configuration of the world. (cf. p.175f; p.178f.) Lastly, it is, on the side of theoretical reason, mathematics and natural science, that exemplify the significative functions of spirit. Following Cassirer’s views on the philosophy of mathematics, it is the fact that these symbolic forms are devoid of any relation to intuition or perception as to the yielded concepts and ‘things’ that elevates them towards the highest ranks of culture as most grasped realizations of transcendental freedom. It is precisely because these forms remain purely self-referential as expressions of freedom that “spirit truly discovers itself”. (Cassirer in Matherne, p. 184.)

The elaboration of the theoretical accomplishments of subjectivity is followed by their practical counterpart and the question over their position within the overall cohesion of the philosophy of symbolic forms. Recounting Cassirer’s refutation of emotive cognitivism in Axel Högerstrom Matherne insists on the employment of the transcendental method in the realms of morality and right. “ Cassirer endorses a critical approach [to practical philosophy] in which he analyzes morality and right in terms of ‘functions’ that serve as conditions of the possibility of the ‘facts’ of the ‘world of willing and action’. (p. 193, my amendments, N.S.) This deployment of the transcendental method is thereby connected to the demand of a regulative principle, the categorical imperative its claim to a universal, objectifiable moral principle. “Thus, a universal principle is one that enables us to most closely approximate the idea of ‘unity of willing’” thereby conferring objectivity on the ethical progress of consciousness via Sittlichkeit.(p. 194) Right, on the other hand, functions as a symbolic form in the overall context of Cassirer’s philosophy as self-binding to juridical lawfulness. Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of right’ posits a version of natural right that fosters the practical recognition of freedom by means of the postulation of and adherence to collective autonomy via laws. (cf. p. 214) Lastly, the teleological underpinnings of Cassirer’s progressivist understanding of theoretical and practical consciousness are posited as contingent. This is demonstrated in Cassirer’s analysis of National-Socialism in his The Myth of the State. Fascism re-introduced myth in modern consciousness via the symbolic form of technology and the ideas of hero worship, race and the dominance of the state. It is these late analyses that prompted Cassirer to also revise his conception of philosophy late in his career. Against the merely scholastic concept of philosophy, he brought forward its ‘cosmopolitan’ counterpart. Culture’s contingent accomplishments are not to be taken for granted but are to be achieved and upheld by means of struggle. To assign the task of this struggle had been the last innovation of Cassirerean philosophy.

The last chapter aims to reconstruct Cassirer’s influence on the development of not only philosophy but also (art) history, social science, ethnology, and Critical Theory. The presentation is focused on direct engagements with and influences of Cassirer on figures and movements. Accordingly, one learns about, for instance, the German philosopher’s influence on such diverse figures as Langer, Goodmann, Merleau-Ponty, Panofsky, Blumenberg, Habermas Cassirer’s possible inspiration to contemporary positions in the philosophy of science, such as logical structuralism and ontic scientific realism are addressed. (cf. p. 249f.)

It is puzzling, though, that, given the general narrative of Cassirer, an explicit contextualization of Cassirer within and relation to ‘philosophy of culture’ and its major movements and figures is lacking. This is even more relevant as, despite presenting the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophy of culture, Cassirer’s specific concept of culture remains unaccounted for. It appears that, following his Neo-Kantian heritage, the latter can only ever be the constructed empirical totality of culture at a given moment in history. Accordingly, one wonders whether the philosophy of symbolic forms is not prone to becoming ‘sociologized’: an investigation of the constituents and subsequent diversity of culture that would, by means of the quid iuris, be retied to an investigation of the correlative conception of subjective spirit. In the German context, this could be understood along the lines of Luhmann’s project of a ‘system theoretical’ approach to culture and society and its ‘autopoietic’, subjective sources.

Whether one concurs with Matherne’s way of framing Cassirer and his philosophy as being ‘organically’ culturally oriented or not, it is unquestionable that she is an informed and avid reader of the German philosopher. Via the transcendental method, Matherne is able to provide a coherent narrative of Cassirer’s philosophy. The book neatly ties the multi-faceted aspects of the oeuvre together in a rigorous and convincing manner and presents them in a remarkably cohesive way. Indeed, another title for it could have been: Cassirer: A Study on the Unity of his System. It is beyond doubt that the new reception of Cassirer has found a corresponding introduction to its subject.


Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo. 2016. “Cassirer, globalized.” In Philosophie der Kultur- und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen, edited by Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo, Philosophie im Kontext von Gesellschaft und Wissenschaften, vol. 78, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 9 – 22.

Ferrari, Massimo. 1994. “La ≫Cassirer-Renaissance≪ in Europa“,  Studi Kantiani 7: 111–139.

Friedmann, Michael. 2000. A Parting of the Ways. Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago/ La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Freyberg, Sascha, Niklas, Stefan. 2019. “Rekonstruktive Synthesis. Zur Methodik der Kulturphilosophie bei Ernst Cassirer und John Dewey.” In Ernst Cassirer in seinen systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie Sonderbände Vol. 40, edited by Breyer, Thiemo and Niklas, Stefan, 47-68, Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter.

Graser, Andreas. 1994. Ernst Cassirer. München: Beck.

Gordon, Peter. 2010. Continental Divide. Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge, MA/ London: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Peter. 2021. “Foreword.” In Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume 3: Phenomenology of Cognition. Trans. by Steve G. Lofts. viii-xv. Oxon/ New York: Routledge.

Luft, Sebastian. 2021. “Cassirer’s Place in Today’s Philosophical Landscape. ‘Synthetic Philosophy,’ Transcendental Idealism, Cultural Pluralism.” In Interpreting Cassirer. Critical Essays, edited by Simon Truwant. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 214-236.

Luft, Sebastian/ Ferrari Massimo. 2021. “Cassirer’s Children”, Special Topics Issue, Journal of Transcendental Philosophy 2(1):1-5.

Paetzold, Heinz. 2002. Ernst Cassirer zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius.

Recki, Birgit. 2004. Kultur als Praxis: eine Einführung in Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Recki, Birgit. 2013. Cassirer. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Sandkühler, Hans Jörg and Detlev Pätzold (Ed.). 2003. Kultur und Symbol. Ein Handbuch zur Philosophie Ernst Cassirer. Stuttgart/ Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler.

Schwemmer, Oswald. 1997. Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Sluga, Hans. 2011. “Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos.” Review of Continental Divide, by Peter Gordon. Accessed November 1, 2021.

Truwant, Simon. 2015. “The Concept of ‘Function’ in Cassirer’s Historical, Systematic, and Ethical Writings.“ In The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer: A Novel Assessment, edited by  Friedman, J. Tyler and Luft, Sebastian, 289-312, Berlin: De Gruyter.

[1] See cf. Endres et al, “Cassirer, globalized”, in: Philosophie der Kultur – und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen. Endres/ Favuzzi/ Klattenhoff (Eds.), pp. 9 -22. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 2016, for an overview of recent research conducted on Cassirer.

[2] Where in text citations refer to page numbers only the addressed book is Matherne, Cassirer. Routledge, 2021.

[3] For cf. Schwemmer 1997, it is precisely the case that Cassirer’s philosophy of culture is always already a philosophical anthropology  – “because that which defines the human being – spirit – consists in the configuration and usage of cultural symbolisms. (Ibid., p. 3145, my translation, N.S.)

Stefano Marino, Andrea Schembari (Eds.): Pearl Jam and Philosophy

Pearl Jam and Philosophy Couverture du livre Pearl Jam and Philosophy
Stefano Marino, Andrea Schembari (Eds.)
Bloomsbury Publishing
Hardback $108.00

Reviewed by: Kurt Borg (University of Malta), Raylene Abdilla (University of Malta)

In their introduction to this volume, co-editors Stefano Marino and Andrea Schembari reveal how the idea for this book project was born at a 2017 Pearl Jam concert in Firenze while they were waiting for the band to kick off their gig. They emphasise how music, particularly rock music in this case, has the power to change and even save a life, echoing Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s remarks on how he is a living proof of this. Recalling their youth in Sicily, the co-editors note how the bands they followed afforded them “great passion, thrill, euphoria, exaltation, excitement, and enthusiasm” (3). As scholars and fans, the co-editors argue that there is a case to be made for considering Pearl Jam in the growing literature of pop culture and philosophy. Marino and Schembari point out that, rather than a philosophical system of Pearl Jam, what they attempted to point towards through this book was how Pearl Jam’s songs and career entail notions and themes that have troubled philosophers for centuries.These include themes of a particularly phenomenological nature such as the notions of experience, temporality, death, the human condition, significance and the meaning of life, authenticity and identity. Other, more broadly philosophical themes covered in this book also include the critique of mass society and the culture industry embodied by Pearl Jam, as well as resistance to conformist pressures. In their introduction, the editors present some pointers to Pearl Jam’s philosophy or, rather, their ethos: namely, their fight against censorship and oppression, their endorsement of democratic and progressive values, their attempt to be part of the culture industry without being swallowed by it, and their commitment to ecology, gender issues and human rights. The different chapters attempt different ‘gestures’. Some chapters engage with the ethos of Pearl Jam, what they stood for, their development over time as a band and the power of their music; while others conduct more specific ‘readings’ of particular songs or albums. Other chapters draw on Pearl Jam to reflect more broadly on political aesthetics, subcultural authenticity and postmodern fashion, while other authors attempt a more literary engagements with an aspect of Pearl Jam’s music.

The book opens with a foreword by Theodore Gracyk, himself the author of various books on the aesthetics of rock music. Gracyk connects Pearl Jam with ‘rockism’, which is a term that gained prominence in music commentary in the late 1980s. Rockism, as Gracyk explains, is the adoption of a core set of values associated with rock bands, such as refusal to define greatness in terms of commercial success, or an expression of progressive values by rock musicians and their audience, or recognising the value of music to unify, and, importantly, the use of guitars. By these criteria, Pearl Jam qualify as rockist. Gracyk recognises that rockism can also entail a lot of snobbery, sexism and whiteness. Hence, while Pearl Jam can be seen to be exponents of a kind of rockism especially in their early work, they are also a dynamic band that motivate us to go beyond the reductive understandings of rockism. So, if Pearl Jam supposedly moved away from ‘rockist’ tenets by obtaining commercial success, their ‘rockist’ ethos was seen in the way they challenged Ticketmaster for over-charging their fans. Pearl Jam defy easy categorisations. They embody contradictions, dynamism and fluidity; this is arguably what makes them a good band to ‘philosophise’ with.

In Chapter 1, “Contingency, (In)significance, and the All-Encompassing Trip: Pearl Jam and the Question of the Meaning of Life,” Marino takes his cue from Vedder’s lyrics questioning whether we are ‘getting something out of this all-encompassing trip.’ He connects this with Karl Jasper’s notion of ‘the encompassing,’ that is, reality in its richness and fullness. Marino reads Pearl Jam’s questioning of modernist narratives of progress and evolution through various twentieth century philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and Gadamer. In Pearl Jam, Marino identifies a preoccupation with the act of questioning itself, showing that, in their songs, Pearl Jam often refer to the insurmountable questions and the insufficiency of answers. Marino links this with Wittgenstein’s therapeutic understanding of philosophical questioning as being akin to trying to treat an illness, that is, to overcome the torment of excessive philosophical doubt. Similarly, in Pearl Jam, we encounter conflicting views on the role of philosophising in human life: on one hand, Pearl Jam point toward the questioning nature of mankind while at the same time highlight the eventual futility, if not harm, of excessive questioning which can come at the expense of life or experience. Marino points to the numerous questions asked in Pearl Jam’s lyrics – questions of what is real, what is truth, what is human, who are we? – yet ultimately the lesson he finds in Pearl Jam is that some questions remain open precisely because they are meant to remain open. Marino then turns to the notion of temporality, claiming that the western philosophical tradition (particularly in the modern age) has tended to place primacy on the temporal mode of the future. To show this, Marino foregrounds a section from Being and Time in which Heidegger identifies the futurality associated with being-towards-death, whereby anticipation is tied to Dasein’s authentic being. Marino notes that, through songs such as ‘Present Tense’, Pearl Jam challenge this privileging of the future at the expense of the present. Meaning is found not in omnipotence, but in finitude, contingency, imperfection and ephemerality. Instead of surrendering oneself to a defeatist attitude in the face of insignificance, Pearl Jam call for action, fueled also by anger against oppression. With apologies to Gramsci, Marino refers to how Pearl Jam’s intellectual pessimism is coupled with critical optimism of the will. Marino’s extensive essay ends with a reading of Pearl Jam’s ethos in light of Mark Fisher’s comments on Kurt Cobain. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher claims that alternative and independent music had become absorbed by the mainstream, recuperating its subversive potential by transforming it into a commodified lifestyle. For Marino, Pearl Jam recognise this tension and learn to dwell in the ‘in-between’ while surviving in a world of contradictions.

In Chapter 2, “‘Just Like Innocence”: Pearl Jam and the (Re)Discovery of Hope,” Sam Morris draws parallels between Pearl Jam and British Romanticism, arguing that the relationship between the two is not always a smooth and complementary one, not least because romanticism is not easily defined. The early material of Pearl Jam – for example, the Mamasan traumatic trilogy of ‘Alive’, ‘Once’ and ‘Footsteps’ – portrays a difficult relationship between the self and others, which Morris reads alongside some moments from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads that depict guilt, the inadequacy of society, and innocence as childlike wonder. Yet Morris also notes that in some of their early songs (such as ‘Rearviewmirror’) there is already a hint of a transition from childhood to adulthood, akin to the transition from innocence to experience described by Blake. There are also traces of hope, Morris writes, in songs such as ‘Leash’ and ‘Not for You’, echoing lines from Blake and Wordsworth about the joys of youth and the innocence of nature. Morris argues that No Code represents a turning point for the band, which also represents some divergences from the Romantic tradition. He reads Pearl Jam’s expression of longing for a lost past innocence as not completely in line with Wordsworth and Blake’s critique of the temptation of nostalgia, even if they too acknowledge that the feeling of childhood wonder fades as one grows. However, Morris argues that if the romantic poets placed their hope in embracing mature experience, Pearl Jam seem to go on a search for a lost innocence in No Code. Morris reads Pearl Jam’s engagement with feelings of anxiety and fear of death as attempts to overcome them so as to not forget the wonder of experience. This attempt to sustain hope in appreciating the beauty in the world is read by Morris as re-connecting Pearl Jam with the British Romantic tradition, even if they diverge from the romantic journey that leads from innocence to experience. The romantic impulse in Pearl Jam is read by Morris in their exhortation of listeners to turn inward for hope and a future-looking utopian energy to be ultimately turned outward to transform the world.

In Chapter 3, “Who’s the Elderly Band Behind the Counter in a Small Town?” Radu Uszkai and Mihail-Valentin Cernea reflect on the metaphysics of the transtemporal identity of a rock band. They ask questions on whether changes in band name, group composition or music style alter a band’s identity. Referring to John Searle’s notion, the authors point out that the existence of a band belongs to the realm of ‘institutional facts’, that is, bands can survive severe changes while still being recognized as the same thing, in the same way that a government would still exist despite a change in leadership. The authors draw on conceptual tools such as Robert Nozick’s ‘closest continuer’ theory and Saul Kripke’s notion of ‘rigid designator’ to discuss how metaphysical questions surrounding the transtemporal identity of rock bands can be approached. Uszkai and Cernea argue that the name of a band does not seem to be essential for the identity of a band over time, as otherwise the band Mookie Blaylock – the name under which Pearl Jam played their very first gigs – would not be the same band as Pearl Jam. With lineup changes, perhaps the question complicates itself further, as Pearl Jam had several changes in their drummers and have also been joined by guest musicians such as Boom Gaspar in their live shows. The authors discuss questions such as what happens in the case of a fission of a rock band into two bands, and both claim continuity with the original band. The authors also engage with what changes in music style do to a band’s identity. While some ‘die-hard’ fans may feel that a band is no longer that band if it deviates from its ‘original sound’, the authors argue that it is quite hard to argue that a band loses its metaphysical identity due to such aesthetic transformations. The authors conclude by indicating that the cultural recognition of bands is a crucial component of appropriately designating whether a band is the same band or not.

In Chapter 4, “Making a Choice When There is No ‘Better Man’,” Laura M. Bernhardt foregrounds the theme of compromised agency as it is presented in Pearl Jam’s song, ‘Better Man’. Bernhardt engages with the song’s portrayal of a female narrator anguishing about leaving an abusive relationship but ultimately opting not to. She reads this alongside the band’s own struggles with the pressures of commodification at the time when the song was released. Bernhardt analyses such compromised agency through the work of Carisa Showden on how compromised agents, such as victims of abuse, are required to choose from a selection of bad possibilities under circumstances that are not quite of their choosing. The author highlights the complexity of such situations because it is not a matter of the victim not knowing that the situation is not in her interest, but rather that her freedom is constrained in such a way that her autonomy is compromised. The author calls for an outlook to this issue that moves beyond denying the victim’s agency as well as implying that the victim is somehow complicit in her situation. One way out of this conundrum, Bernhardt suggests, is by looking at Simone Weil’s notion of affliction. For Weil, an afflicted person is someone abandoned to misery or isolation, and someone who is reduced to an object by powerful forces, such as a factor labourer working under oppressive and dehumanising conditions. The afflicted person, Bernhardt notes, would resign herself to unhappiness and feel undeserving of salvation from the wickedness to which she is subjugated. For this reason, apart from systemic and material solutions to improve her agency, the author argues that something more is also needed, namely, radical empathy. The author concludes by proposing that recognition of another person as afflicted may help us to better understand the complexity and ambiguity involved in situations involving compromised agency when people stay in situations where they would not necessarily want to remain, such as the character described in ‘Better Man’.

Chapter 5, “That’s Where We’re Living: Determinism and Free Will in ‘Unthought Known’,” by Enrico Terrone revolves around philosophical themes from FlashForward. This is a 2009-2010 sci-fi television series that engages with the question of what remains of human free will in circumstances where the future seems to be determined and the characters have had ‘flashforwards’ that showed them the outcome of their future. The Pearl Jam connection is that an edited version of their song “Unthought Known” is used in a scene from one of the episodes of this series. Terrone reminds us that the notion of ‘unthought known’ originated in Freud, and was later developed further by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. This concept describes how “one can know things about which one is unable to think” (97). Terrone notes that ample metaphysicians argue that science encourages a conception of the universe as strictly governed by natural laws. This view problematises free will as an epiphenomenon which we are unable to do away with simply because it is such a deep-rooted feeling which gives coherence to emotional responses and moral judgements that regulate societies. Various movies and fiction have engaged with the theme of free will and determinism, in which characters are given powers of clairvoyance. Yet, as Terrone argues, some of these artistic attempts are riddled with an obvious inconsistency, namely that although the characters become aware of the future, somehow they manage to contradict what they would have foreseen, which is, of course, untenable with the original clairvoyant ‘visions’. Such a move is often done in the spirit of critiquing the deterministic outlook by insisting on a sort of ‘humanistic’ sentiment that privileges free will over a cold deterministic universe. With regard to the Pearl Jam song and its use in the TV series, “Unthought Known” reflects on the human condition, finitude, the role of the human within the immensity of the cosmos, and ultimately the beauty of the richness of human experience. The author concludes by arguing that the way in which the song is deployed in the context of the narrative points towards the difficulties surrounding a notion of free will, but that its stakes within our practical thought may be too high to let go of it.

In chapter 6, “No Code Aesthetics,” Alberto L. Siani engages with Pearl Jam’s fourth album, No Code, noting that the heterogeneity that marks this album makes for interesting philosophical reflection, not least on the role of ‘codes’ and their rejection in art. The author reads the aesthetics of this album in terms of the ‘end of art thesis,’ which holds that the traditional conception of art as an expressive medium that transmits metaphysical and ethico-political content no longer exists. Siani maintains that this ‘end of art’ is not necessarily something to be decried, because it has emancipatory aspects that allow for veering away from traditional systems of values and embraces plurality. No Code complements this thesis insofar as it represents a rejection of various codes, including a break from the code of their preceding three albums. In a point that is also explored in other chapters, Siani reflects on whether this rejection of codes ultimately becomes a code in itself, that is, the code of rejecting codes, which would lead to a contradiction. However, Siani notes that “we should keep in mind that No Code is an artwork, not a logical investigation” (116). This is a welcome clarification; rather than excessive and intricate philosophical argumentation, Pearl Jam are embracing this unsolvable existential tension, and in this regard they represent the ‘madness’ of the decision, and the leap of affirming life in the face of uncertainty. For Siani, this is perhaps what ‘no code aesthetics’ stands for, that is, the aesthetics of heterogeneity and disharmony which may prompt the listener to a more reflective experience of the music.

Chapter 7, “Can Truth Be Found in the Wild?” by Paolo Stellino focuses on the story of Christopher McCandless, which was made into a movie in 2007 with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. In his early 20s McCandless set off wandering around North America until he hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in the wild. His decomposing body was found around four months after he entered the wild, with the cause of death being probably starvation or poisoning due to ingesting seeds that contained a toxin. Various critics claim that the story of McCandless is often romanticized, ideologized and commodified, with sympathetic commentators insufficiently calling out his naivety and arrogance. Stellino remarks that Vedder’s lyrics too can be seen as contributing to this idealization of McCandless. However, while acknowledging these critiques, Stellino highlights that the appeal of this story does not lie in the specific details of McCandless’ life but rather in its universal significance. Interestingly, Stellino also draws on insights from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to analyse McCandless’ story, particularly his notion of ‘the sick soul’. Stellino argues that McCandless was a ‘sick soul’ who suffered from the artificiality of consumer society, and thus opted to radically transform his life by seeking an asceticism through which he felt reborn. Drawing on Erich Fromm, Stellino writes that this transition marks McCandless’ preference for the authentic ‘being’ mode of existence, as opposed to the accumulative ‘having’ mode. The profound insight that McCandless seems to have had at the end of his spiritual search for truth is that authentic existence is relational; it requires the presence of others and is not a solitary mission. Hence, ‘happiness is only real when shared’, McCandless writes on the pages of the last book he was reading. This is why, Stellino concludes, although one may disagree with the specifics of McCandless’ diagnosis of society or with his decision to flee into the wild, what still remains admirable is the courage and honesty of the human pursuit of authentic existence. This is ultimately what Vedder gave voice to in the Into the Wild soundtrack, which highlights continuities with some of Pearl Jam’s lyrics.

Chapter 8’s title, “‘They Can Buy, But Can’t Put On My Clothes’: Pearl Jam, Grunge and Subcultural Authenticity in a Postmodern Fashion Climate” by Stephanie Kramer, makes reference to a verse from Pearl Jam’s song ‘Corduroy’. Kramer notes how the song was inspired from a corduroy jacket Vedder wore numerous times during his shows, including in their MTV Unplugged, and was remade by the fashion industry. According to Kramer, the song’s lyrics reflected the “band’s refusal to sell out as a grunge posterchild in the name of corporate greed” (158), with the jacket serving as a literal and metaphorical act of resistance. Kramer links the lyrics of this song with a ‘grunge’ fashion trend that picked up in 1992 where plaid flannel shirts, flamboyant hats, and other cheap and conventional clothing items that came to be associated with grunge were turned into fashionable icons and sold at higher prices. Kramer draws on the work of media theorist Dick Hebdige to note that although subculture fashion, like punk fashion, highlighted individuality, non-conformity, and resistance to mainstream social norms, with time these subversive trends become absorbed by the mass fashion industry and thus lost their subversive edge. According to Kramer, Pearl Jam refused to partake in the dynamic of fashion altogether and managed to resist artistic commodification itself. Pearl Jam always chose a convenient style of clothing comprising of t-shirts, shorts, boots or tennis shoes, with Ament wearing his flamboyant headdresses, and Vedder wearing plain t-shirts on which he could scribble political messages. Kramer argues that Pearl Jam did not give much weight to their outfits to the extent that the possible machismo associated with basketball jerseys and other sports symbols were in opposition to the feminist and political messages embedded in the band’s ethos and lyrics. The band members, ultimately, were after producing music and not becoming glorified symbols for imitation.

In Chapter 9, “Pearl Jam’s Ghosts: The Ethical Claim Made From the Exiled Space(s) of Homelessness and War – An Aesthetic Response-Ability,” Jacqueline Moulton considers Pearl Jam’s references to homelessness and war in their music and actions. She refers to the band’s 2018 gig in Seattle which they branded ‘The Home Shows’ since the band had not played in Seattle for some years. In fact, the juxtaposed theme of home/homelessness was central to this show as Pearl Jam raised money, awareness and knowledge on the homelessness crisis playing out at the time in Seattle. The author elaborates on what ‘home’ signifies in ethical terms, that is, “the ethical question of contemporary dwelling, the question of who is at home and who is not, of who is living exiled” (165). Referring to how the word ethos in ancient Greek signified both dwelling and mode of being, Moulton explores the ethical implications of being at home versus ‘not at-home’. She argues that this dichotomy unveils “the ideology of inside versus outside” (166). For this reason, those on the outside pose an ethical question to those on the inside, and for Moulton, the concept of home is always haunted by its constitutive outside – “the sense of being not at-home” (167). This unsettling and displacing feeling of foreignness and familiarity, for Moulton, is best grasped through Freud’s notion of the uncanny which brings this juxtaposed duality of homeness and foreignness into the realm of the aesthetic. According to Moulton, during ‘The Home Shows’, Pearl Jam conjured the audience to respond ethically and aesthetically to the ethical claim made from those who are ‘exiled’. The aesthetic displaces the hegemonic elements that structure language and helps to invert the antagonistic dichotomy between inside and outside. Indeed, Moulton follows Adorno’s assertion that ethics emerges from the outside. Moulton notes how Pearl Jam’s songs ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ and ‘Bu$hleaguer’ – embedded with references of war – echo the sense of ‘the uncanny’ as a haunting from within, “a fear that comes up from within, a fear which is familiar and therefore impactful, fear which is close” (169). For Moulton, this form of haunting cuts across the realms of ethics and aesthetics, and poses a new question of what the ethical claims and responses can be and how to translate them into “communal and equitable structures of living interdependently upon a shared world” (169).

Cristina Parapar’s contribution in Chapter 10, titled “Pearl Jam: Responsible Music or the Tragedy of Culture?” evaluates Pearl Jam’s ethos as a form of popular music. Parapar notes how Adorno distinguishes between responsible music and light music, arguing that light music is standardized, contributes to one-dimensional thinking and, unlike responsible music, plays into a capitalist system that seeks to alienate and passively entertain its consumers. Parapar challenges Adorno’s understanding of popular music through French philosopher and music Agnès Gayraud’s work, arguing that Adorno seems to ignore the fact that popular music denotes a broad variety of genres that can merge different traditions, scales, modulations, and influences from both high and low culture. Following from this defense of pop music, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music can at least on occasion speak to its listeners about their own situation in the same way Adorno speaks of dissonance. Following Terry Eagleton’s take on left aesthetics, Parapar argues that a piece of art is in itself subversive because it refuses identification and reveals the impossibility of the union between “form and content, between language and meaning, and between the artistic form and empirical reality” (190). Pearl Jam’s music, according to Parapar, serves this purpose. The ‘dirty’ sounds of grunge, with its partially out of tune music together with its form-content, reflect the Zeitgeist of disillusionment with American society in the 1990s. Parapar argues that while some pop music fits within Adorno’s critique, other types of music contain the potential for critique. Following Gert Keunen’s typology of pop mainstream, underground, and alternative mainstream, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music lies within the third category. This is because while they speak to a wider audience through mass distribution they still maintained “the authorship of their pieces, the less familiar sound of grunge, and the rejection of musical recipes” (197). Correspondingly, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music requires a certain kind of listening. Pearl Jam listeners are, in a sense, negotiators, “negotiating between intellectualism and catharsis, between adequate and structural listening and enjoyment (jouissance)” (199). Thus, for Parapar, Pearl Jam’s listener can be best described as the ‘postmodern listener’, that is, a listener who enjoys the pleasure offered by the music, but at the same time is aware of the way in which the music reveals the ideological fantasy and its symptom. Ultimately, Parapar concludes that Pearl Jam’s music is both responsible and authentic.

In Chapter 11, “Pearl Jam/Nirvana: A Dialectical Vortex that Revolves Around the Void,” Alessandro Alfieri discusses the dialectic opposition of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Alfieri argues that, as opposed to the music scene of the 1980s such as glam rock, grunge represented a turn to a sober, existential and introverted music scene that expressed the void experienced by a whole generation. He notes that, paradoxically, this wave of existential dread came at a time of expansion of well-being as discourses around mental health expanded in the 1990s. According to Alfieri, Nirvana was one of the few bands that reflected this existential dissatisfaction with their “message of pain and death” (207), in comparison to that of, for example, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Although both Nirvana and Pearl Jam originate from this sense of existential crisis, the bands have long been seen as rivals. Alfieri notes how on many occasions Kurt Cobain was critical of Pearl Jam, although once he admitted that he actually liked Eddie Vedder and came to appreciate him more. Alfieri argues that Pearl Jam fall on the side of the vitalistic dynamic rock of the 1990s and 2000s, whereas Nirvana was more nihilistic, self-destructive, visceral and transgressive. Alfieri notes how the two bands are caught up in a dialectical vortex. Cobain’s aesthetic made Nirvana attractive to mass media even though their ethos was linked to the rejection to success and social prestige. Cobain himself was caught up in this unsolvable contradiction of detesting success while at the same time basking in it and becoming paranoid when it recedes. Pearl Jam turned to mass distribution, but were more reserved in front of the cameras, with Vedder turning down many interviews. Alfieri also argues that Pearl Jam had a more mature stance, with their music reflecting more intellectual and political awareness. For Alfieri, Pearl Jam manage to negotiate the melancholic existential dread of our time through a ‘nostalgia for the present’ set between “anhedonic nihilism and vitalism” (214) where rage, dissent and a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs are expressed alongside the life-affirming pleasure that the experience of their music provides.

In the concluding Chapter 12, “The Tide on the Shell: Pearl Jam and the Aquatic Allegories of Existence,” Andrea Schembari notes how in their music Pearl Jam express the experience of living through aquatic allegories and metaphors, such as navigation, the ocean and the river. Schembari illuminates these dimensions through the work of other thinkers who, like Pearl Jam, recognized how these dimensions can express the condition of life. Schembari argues that the work of Pearl Jam often reflects an understanding of being as if one is navigating a ship out at sea. He reads this alongside the work of Blaise Pascal who maintains that to live one must always face the opposition between taking the plunge ‘into the sea’ and the inclination toward stability. However, stability and safety are never guaranteed, as depicted in the band’s song ‘Force of Nature’ and as expressed through the Roman poet Lucretius. The songs ‘Oceans’ and ‘Release’ reflect water as a form of energy that directs one to a desired goal, where nothing remains static or unmoving, whereas ‘Big Wave’ speaks of human adaptation – ‘surfing the waves’ – to whatever life brings. As Pascal’s wager reveals, one cannot avoid making choices, and this inevitability to make choices is outlined in the band’s song ‘Infallible’ which, according to Schembari, denounces “the arrogance and distortions of an economic progress disjointed from a true social and cultural progress” (226-7). The band also explores aquatic metaphors of love keeping swimmers afloat reflected in ‘Amongst the Waves’. From allegories of the condition of living to allegories of time, Schembari takes us through instances where Pearl Jam refer to the passage of time as “phenomenological time” and a “time of consciousness” (230) as outlined by Husserl and Heidegger respectively. These allegories of time become more apparent in Pearl Jam’s later albums, particularly their 2020 Gigaton but also in earlier songs like ‘I am Mine’. Finally, Schembari also engages with Pearl Jam’s aquatic metaphors on the meaning of life, such as like murmuring and hollow shells washed ashore, which he reads alongside reflections by Paul Valéry and Italo Calvino.

All in all, Marino and Schembari have completed an interesting curation of high-quality essays that capture the diversity of affects and themes in Pearl Jam songs, as well as their engagement, oftentimes critical, with the culture industry. The title of this project may, at first glance, raise an eyebrow (if not an eyeroll), for example, of those for whom ‘low culture’ is no place to look for serious theorising; or of those who perhaps due to an anti-intellectualist stance perceive such a project as unnecessary intellectual posturing. But this book strikes a good balance in this regard. In no way does it pretend that an appreciation of such chapters is necessary in order for one to understand the true depths of Pearl Jam. Yet, on the other hand, the authors appreciate that the band that originated in 1990 in Seattle during the golden days of grunge is one of those bands that lend themselves to theoretical engagement. Ultimately, the chapters that compose this book are written by scholars who are also fans. It is not incidental that some of the authors make references to the role, big or small, that Pearl Jam has played in their personal lives. In this positive way that this book seems like it was a labour of love.

This is a book for fans: the reader must have great familiarity with Pearl Jam’s music, as well as the band’s history, actions and position within rock history. Do some of the chapters engage in over-reading? Maybe. And if a listener knows what it is like to feel undone by ‘Black’, or to feel goosebumps during ‘Alive’, or to go crazy with ‘Porch’, then perhaps they may not need this book to tell them what they are feeling. But, nonetheless, the chapters that constitute this book will be appreciated by philosophically-inclined fans of the band who, for years, have lived with the band’s music, or perhaps have even witnessed the deep experience that is a Pearl Jam concert; have experienced the wild exhilaration that the band provides. In other words, if you get it, then you get it. Not unlike a lot of philosophy, ultimately, Pearl Jam can be seen to embody a fundamental question: what does it mean to be alive?

Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, Rodrigo Martini (Eds.): Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, Bloomsbury, 2021

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism Couverture du livre Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism
Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism
Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, Rodrigo Martini (Eds.)
Bloomsbury Publishing
Hardback $117.00

Jack Marsh: Saying Peace: Levinas, Eurocentrism, Solidarity, SUNY Press, 2021

Saying Peace: Levinas, Eurocentrism, Solidarity Couverture du livre Saying Peace: Levinas, Eurocentrism, Solidarity
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Jack Marsh
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Edmund Husserl: Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920

Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920 Couverture du livre Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920
Bibliothèque des Textes Philosophiques
Edmund Husserl. Translated by Marie-Hélène Desmeules and Julien Farges
Paperback 12,00 €

Reviewed by: Veronica Cibotaru (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges présentent dans cet ouvrage pour la première fois une traduction française d’une partie du volume 37 des Husserliana qui reste jusqu’à présent non traduit en français. Ce volume contient des leçons sur l’éthique que Husserl donna entre 1920 et 1924. Toutefois cette traduction présente une partie de ces cours qui ne porte pas directement sur la question de l’éthique. C’est pourquoi précisément elle s’intitule Digression dans les Leçons (Exkurs in der Vorlesung). Cette version française traduit l’intégralité de la Digression, une partie des appendices ainsi qu’un choix de variantes.

Les traducteurs mettent au jour dans leur introduction deux thèmes fondamentaux qui structurent cette Digression, à savoir la normativité et la déconstruction. La question de la normativité est mue par la distinction opérée par Husserl entre les sciences d’objets (Sachwissenschaften) et les sciences normatives (Normwissenschaften), distinction dont le point culminant consiste selon les traducteurs dans l’élucidation phénoménologique du terme «évaluer» (werten). En effet, cette élucidation permet de démontrer au § 13 que les sciences normatives et l’éthique ne sont pas équivalentes.

Comme le montrent les traducteurs il y a l’œuvre dans ce texte de Husserl une réflexion sur la possibilité des sciences normatives, possibilité qui se conçoit par la structure intentionnelle de la conscience. Par là-même la normativité devient dans ce texte un objet d’étude en soi et n’est plus considérée à l’aune d’une simple application des sciences théoriques, approche que Husserl adopte dans le premier tome des Recherches logiques, Prolégomènes à la logique pure. Plus précisément, ce lien intrinsèque entre la normativité et la structure intentionnelle de la conscience se conçoit comme une relation intrinsèque entre le sens et l’objet visé, relation qui n’est pas réelle mais intentionnelle. En effet, cette relation implique une distance entre le sens et l’objet visé, ce qui fait que le sens subsiste même lorsque l’objet visé n’existe pas. Or c’est précisément cette distance qui fonde la possibilité des jugements normatifs puisqu’ils portent justement sur les visées de sens. Sur ce point l’explication des traducteurs est particulièrement éclairante : «s’il y a un sens à juger une visée de sens à l’aune de sa conformité à l’objet auquel elle se rapporte, c’est justement parce que la possibilité subsiste que l’objet ne soit pas tel qu’il est visé».[1]

A partir de cette compréhension de la normativité l’on peut définir les sciences normatives comme des sciences qui reposent sur le rapport entre le sens et l’intuition. Comme le remarquent les traducteurs l’on retrouve cette compréhension des sciences normatives déjà dans les Ideen I, § 136-153. A partir de cette définition Husserl réinterprète la distinction entre les sciences de la nature et les sciences de l’esprit puisque seules les sciences de l’esprit admettent une orientation normative, les sciences de la nature ne pouvant avoir qu’une orientation objective.

Dans leur introduction Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges offrent également une élucidation intéressante du rapport entre l’éthique et la normativité tel qu’il apparaît dans la Digression. Ils insistent sur l’idée développée par Husserl selon laquelle la valeur et la vérité ne sont pas équivalentes, ce qui permet justement de distinguer l’éthique de la normativité en fonction de ces concepts opérants qui leur sont respectivement propres. En effet, «la vérité ne « s’apprécie » (…) pas comme on apprécie la teneur affective et axiologique d’un objet ; elle consiste à vérifier que le sens est ajusté à l’attestation intuitive ».[2] La vérité ne présuppose donc pas intrinsèquement un acte d’évaluation, raison pour laquelle elle est une catégorie qui n’est pas équivalente à la valeur. Par conséquent, l’éthique et les sciences normatives ne sont pas équivalentes. De façon très intéressante les traducteurs en concluent que la notion d’une éthique normative n’est pas pléonastique.[3] Bien au contraire il est possible de concevoir également une éthique objective sur le modèle des Leçons sur l’éthique de 1914 de Husserl.

Toutefois. malgré cette distinction claire et nette entre l’éthique et les sciences normatives sur laquelle insistent les traducteurs force est de constater l’idée paradoxale soutenue par Husserl au § 13 de la Digression selon laquelle « l’éthique est de fait, parmi toutes les sciences normatives, la reine des sciences »[4], semblant ainsi soutenir que l’éthique est bel et bien une science normative. Husserl justifie cette idée en affirmant que l’éthique « présuppose toutes les autres sciences et qu’elle les absorbe finalement en elle, et (…) qu’elle prête finalement à toutes les sciences une fonction éthique.»[5] Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges n’occultent pas dans leur introduction cette idée paradoxale.. Toutefois cette idée ne contredit pas à leurs yeux la distinction husserlienne entre l’éthique et les sciences normatives, étant bien plutôt un geste rhétorique censé exprimer l’idée selon laquelle l’éthique « transformerait en devoir pratique la normativité intentionnelle étudiée dans ces sciences »[6], c’est-à-dire dans les sciences normatives.

Il aurait été sans doute intéressant de mentionner le contexte polémique au sein duquel Husserl élabore la distinction entre la valeur et la vérité et par là-même aussi entre la valeur et la norme. En effet, Husserl développe cette distinction contre la pensée de Windelband et de son école à laquelle il reproche de confondre « l’acte d’« évaluer » au sens affectif avec l’acte de « normer ». »[7] Il est vrai toutefois que Husserl se limite à évoquer ce point, ce qui explique sans doute son omission dans l’introduction.

Le deuxième volet de la Digression déploie ce que les traducteurs considèrent comme étant la « première (et quasiment la seule) exposition circonstanciée de la méthode de la déconstruction (Abbau) »[8] sous la plume de Husserl, méthode qui sera reprise par Heidegger et Derrida entre autres. L’exposition détaillée de cette méthode ne se retrouve selon les traducteurs que dans un seul autre texte de Husserl, datant de 1926, édité dans le volume 39 des Husserliana.

La méthode de la déconstruction est étroitement liée selon les traducteurs à la dimension génétique de la phénoménologie dont l’objet d’étude est « l’histoire des objets dans la conscience et, de façon corrélative, l’auto-constitution « historique » de la subjectivité constituante elle-même ».[9] L’objet de la phénoménologie génétique est donc le pouvoir constituant de la passivité à la fois primaire et secondaire. Or au sein de la passivité secondaire s’édifie la sédimentation que les traducteurs définissent de façon très éclairante comme un « phénomène de modification continue en vertu duquel les acquis des visées actives de la conscience ne disparaissent pas quand ces visées cessent d’être actuelles mais persistent à l’arrière-plan de la conscience sur un mode rétentionnel, comme des dépôts d’activités antérieures prêtes à être réactivés ».[10]

Or, la méthode de la déconstruction consiste justement en une procédure inverse, à savoir en une procédure de dépouillement (entkleiden, abtun) ou encore de désédimentation, terme que les commentateurs reprennent à Jean-François Courtine et à Dominique Pradelle.[11] C’est une procédure de clarification du sens qui consiste à dépouiller les objets du monde de leurs couches de signification avec lesquelles ils nous sont toujours prédonnés. Par là-même il s’agit de mettre au jour un « niveau originaire d’expérience »[12]  au sein duquel se constituent les prédicats de signification.

Une telle procédure de déconstruction aboutit à un monde d’objets in-signifiants, dont on ne peut jamais faire l’expérience et que Husserl nomme monde de l’expérience pure. Comme le soutiennent Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges, le fondateur de la phénoménologie reprend consciemment ce terme au philosophe empiriste et positiviste Richard Avenarius, puisque dès le début des années 1910 Husserl met en avant l’affinité qui existe entre sa phénoménologie et la pensée d’Avenarius, notamment dans des cours réunis dans le volume 13 des Husserliana. Ici il aurait été sans doute intéressant de remarquer que l’on retrouve cette notion d’expérience pure également au sein de la pensée de William James que Husserl n’était pas sans connaître.

De façon très intéressante les traducteurs attirent notre attention sur le fait que la manière dont Husserl utilise la notion d’expérience pure évolue au cours de ses écrits. En effet, si dans la Digression le monde de l’expérience pure s’oppose au monde de la vie, dans les textes ultérieurs regroupés dans les volumes 6, 9 et 32 des Husserliana le monde de l’expérience pure est tout au contraire identifié au monde de la vie.

Pour finir, les traducteurs évoquent la question du sens de ce procédé de déconstruction, qui consiste selon leur formule en une « reconstruction philosophique du monde ».[13] Plus précisément cette reconstruction peut avoir un double sens, à savoir celui d’une restitution du monde de l’expérience dans sa concrétude ou celui d’une construction d’un monde ambiant conforme aux normes, d’un nouveau monde vrai corrélatif d’une humanité vraie. Cela permet finalement de montrer le lien intime qui relie la question de la déconstruction à celle de la normativité dans la Digression. En effet, «la méthode de déconstruction sert l’idée de normativité telle que Husserl l’a élaborée dans la première partie de la Digression ».[14]

Plusieurs écrits ont été consacrés au sein de la littérature contemporaine à la question de la normativité d’une perspective husserlienne et plus généralement phénoménologique.[15] En ce sens cette traduction ainsi que son introduction permettent d’approfondir une question actuelle et importante pour la recherche phénoménologique contemporaine. Plus particulièrement, la distinction que proposent Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges entre les notions de normativité, de normalité et d’optimalité est particulièrement féconde pour nuancer les lignes de recherche contemporaines autour de cette question. Selon les définitions proposées par les traducteurs, la notion de normativité désigne la rectitude en fonction d’une norme, la notion de normalité indique ce qui devrait normalement être notre perception de l’objet tandis que la notion d’optimalité définit ce qui devrait être idéalement notre perception de l’objet.[16] Ces distinctions conceptuelles permettent aux traducteurs de démarquer l’objet propre de recherche de la Digression, à savoir la normativité, de l’objet de recherche de plusieurs études phénoménologiques contemporaines qui n’est pas la normativité telle que l’entend Husserl dans la  Digression mais la normalité et l’optimalité.

En conclusion, nous saluons cette première traduction française de la Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920 ainsi que les éclaircissements apportés par les traducteurs qui sont à la fois très utiles pour une meilleure compréhension des enjeux de ce texte mais aussi féconds pour la recherche phénoménologique contemporaine.

[1] Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, trad. fr. par Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges, Paris, Vrin, 2020, p. 16.

[2] Ibid,, p. 31.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 151 / Hua 37, 319.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 33.

[7] Ibid,, p. 146 / Hua 37, 316.

[8] Ibid., p. 36.

[9] Ibid., p. 37.

[10] Ibid., p. 38.

[11] Cf. Jean-François Courtine, « Réduction, construction, destruction. D’un dialogue à trois : Natorp, Husserl, Heidegger » dans Archéo-Logique. Husserl, Heidegger, Patočka, Paris, P.U.F., 2013, p. 35 ; Dominique Pradelle, Généalogie de la raison, Essai sur l’historicité du sujet transcendantal de Kant à Heidegger, Paris, P.U.F., 2013, p. 309.

[12] Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, p. 42.

[13] Ibid., p. 47.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Voir par exemple Steven Crowell, Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013 ; Maxime Doyon et Thiemo Breyer (éd.), Normativity in Perception, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 ; Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh et Irene McMullin, Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology, New York, Routledge, 2019.

[16] Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, p. 24.

Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought, Stanford University Press, 2021

Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought Couverture du livre Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Ethan Kleinberg
Stanford University Press
Paperback $28.00

David Zaretsky: The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas

The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas Couverture du livre The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas
Robert Zaretsky
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $20.00

Reviewed by: Simon van der Weele (The University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, The Netherlands)

Simone Weil once wrote about philosophy that it is “exclusively an affair of action and practice” (1970, 335). Weil, who was a Jewish intellectual, mystic, and political activist with Christian, Marxist and anarchist leanings, believed that philosophy could only be worth its while if it was willing to occupy itself with action and experience – with the reality of everyday concerns that give texture to everyday life. Her dedication to this idea is evident from Weil’s own life. Famously, she worked in factories, on fishing trawlers, and on farms; she also volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and (fruitlessly) attempted to advice De Gaulle on battlefield tactics during the Second World War. (Her suggestion, which was to parachute troops of nurses onto the battlefields of France, led De Gaulle to exclaim Weil was folle, a mad woman). All the while, these experiences became objects of Weil’s philosophical attention and were formative of the conceptual apparatus she eventually developed in her many essays, notebooks, and letters.

This, in a nutshell, is the central purpose driving David Zaretsky’s The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas: to examine Simone Weil’s thought through the prism of her life. In this lucid and knowledgeable book, which is both an introduction to Weil’s thought and a loose biography, Zaretsky starts from Weil’s insistence that “philosophy was neither theory nor discourse, but instead was practice” (10), and hence to be concerned with action and experience. The author, a historian who has previously written books on Albert Camus, James Boswell, and Denis Diderot, subsequently develops this idea by presenting the main philosophical concepts she developed in rich biographical detail to consider how she arrived at them and why they became important to her. In doing so, Zaretsky essentially argues that Weil’s philosophy is best read against the background of her biography, because her biography is inseparable from her philosophical ethos.

For Zaretsky, this ethos boils down to an unyielding attention for what he calls “the reality of life” (8) and her insistence that philosophy reckons with it. Citing Stanley Cavell, he writes that Weil was “exceptional in her refusal to be “deflected”; in her refusal to turn away from the reality of the other and the other’s suffering by way of philosophical skepticism. Cora Diamond (2003) has referred to this problem as “the difficulty of reality,” and she also mentions Weil as a “philosopher concerned with deflection” from it. To get a feel for how this ethos saturates Weil’s writing, it is worth reading a fragment from her essay Human Personality, also cited by Diamond (but not by Zaretsky).

Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished and replaced by anything whatsoever of the filthiest and most contemptible sort.” (2014, 81)

One way to read Weil’s oeuvre would then be as an attempt to acknowledge “the reality of affliction” and defuse the temptation of deflection. This also seems to be the reading of Weil proposed by Zaretsky in The Subversive Simone Weil.

It is a pity, then, that Zaretsky does not develop his allusion to Cavell in the introduction in the remainder of the book – at least not philosophically. In fact, although Zaretsky does compare Weil’s thought to the ideas of some other notable thinkers (George Orwell, Marcus Aurelius, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few), he rarely situates her in wider philosophical debates. He also does not provide fine-grained exegeses of her main philosophical works. But this does not seem to be the goal Zaretsky has set for himself in The Subversive Simone Weil. Indeed, this book should not so much be read as a philosophical interrogation of Weil’s thought than as an introduction to it, enriched by detailed biographical sketches that breathe life into her original ideas. Each of the book’s five chapters is devoted to a main concept of Weil’s vocabulary: affliction, attention, resistance, rootedness, and goodness. Zaretsky chooses these because he believes they “still resonate today. Or… should resonate” (11). Should resonate, because Zaretsky thinks that Weil’s concepts are not getting their proper due, and neither is Weil herself. He takes attention as an example: a popular topic amongst contemporary critics “in a world so deeply afflicted with attention deficit disorder” (12), but typically without any mention of Weil. One of Zaretsky’s aims here is to amend such oversights.

The five chapters that follow the introduction thus take as their subject a single concept of Weil’s – although, as Zaretsky professes in the introduction, “the terms often spill into one another” (12). The chapters are structured loosely, even impressionistically, their various sections separated not by subheadings but by asterisms. Each typically starts with a series of historical vignettes, setting the scene for how the concept in question began to matter to Weil. To elucidate the concepts he is investigating, Zaretsky cites liberally from Weil’s well-known books and essays, as well as from her notebooks and letters. He intersperses this exegetical work with brief forays into the work of like-minded thinkers, some of whom inspired Weil, some of whom were her contemporaries, and some of whom are inheritors of her ideas. Zaretsky’s writing throughout is outstanding: it is clear, to the point, and never needlessly complicated. It is also thoroughly absorbing. The way Zaretsky manages to weave together a coherent account of Weil’s thought from the different strands of her extensive oeuvre is nothing short of impressive.

The first chapter, “The Force of Affliction,” begins with Weil’s job interview at Alsthom, a factory manufacturing electronic equipment, when she was 25 years old. Weil had been working as a teacher in the south of France, where she had spent her evenings instructing French literature at a worker’s co-op. Seeking to strengthen her connections to the working class, Weil took a leave of absence from her teaching work and began her stint as a factory worker. It was in these “dim and deafening” (10) factories that Weil began contemplating the state of degradation and indignity she called le malheur, usually translated as “affliction”. Zaretsky cites Weil defining affliction as a condition that “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things” (19); it referred to a stripping away of one’s dignity and humanity that “rob[s] us of the power to say ‘I’” (quoted in Zaretsky, 20). For Weil, the factory was a principal site of affliction. The monotonous work, the vile managers, and the deafening clanging of machines turned workers into “slaves,” whose exhaustion gave way to the “strongest temptation that this life entails: that of not thinking anymore, which is the one and only way of not suffering from it” (quoted in Zaretsky, 14). Zaretsky embellishes his discussion of affliction with vivid accounts of the worker’s life taken from Weil’s notebooks.

Weil found the cause of affliction in what she called puissance, translated as “force” or “power”. Power, writes Zaretsky, was for Weil a “fundamental datum of human existence,” one as “omnipresent and overpowering as gravity” (14). Power, argued Weil, is not in anyone’s possession, and can never be secured for good. For this reason, it is constantly chased after by those seeking to possess it, to keep it from rivals, and to secure it from resistance of the powerless. It is this pursuit of power that Weil locates the cause of oppression – and finally, of affliction. Here, Zaretsky takes some time to discuss Weil’s essay on Homer’s Iliad, which for Weil was chiefly a poem about force: the true hero is not a warrior, but force itself, she wrote. The essay, Zaretsky notes, was written as Weil fled Paris for Nevers soon after France’s defeat to Germany in 1940. Weil saw mirrored in the destruction of Troy the suffering of her own and her fellow Parisians; this was the work of force.

Weil’s account of power calls to mind Nietzsche’s and also seems to presage Foucault’s, but Zaretsky leaves this resemblance unexplored. Instead, he turns to George Orwell, who like Weil had spent time in Paris in a working class job, as a plongeur washing dishes in the basement of the city’s restaurants. Orwell, too, discerned in the plight of the plongeur the markings of slavery and the gradual sapping away of one’s capacity to think. But unlike Weil, argues Zaretsky, he did not explore the spiritual meaning of their suffering; he focused on a critique of the worker’s material conditions. For Weil, on the other hand, affliction was an almost mystical experience, especially later in life, when she began edging closer to Christianity. After all, what sense was there to make of affliction in the face of God?

Soon after Weil left the factory, she joined her parents to a coastal town in Portugal. There, she overheard a group of fishermen’s wives perform a religious ritual. It proved to be a transformative experience for Weil, who saw as by revelation that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others” (19). In this connection to God, the state of affliction acquired a more ambivalent status for Weil. It was, as Zaretsky puts it, “ground zero of human misery” (19), but her attachment to affliction was unmistakable – it brought the slave closer to God. Citing Mary Dietz, Zaretsky admits that Weil risks “fetishizing” affliction in these writings. However, he also points out that affliction itself holds no value for Weil as such; its value lies in what we make of it. “Whether it can teach us anything as grand as wisdom depends on how we define wisdom. If virtues like comprehension and compassion, toleration and moderation are to constitute at least part of wisdom, we could do worse” (20).

The second chapter, “Paying Attention,” is devoted to what is perhaps Weil’s most famous notion: the work of attention. The chapter begins with an interesting reading of Weil’s ‘Essai sur la sur la notion de la lecture’, in which she argued that our “readings” of the world – our perceptions and observations – are inevitably inflected by our moral orientation. Or, as Zaretsky puts it, “the way in which we read the world turns on our particular location—moral, social, political, and economic—within the world” (21-22). In effect, Weil is essentially proclaiming the inseparability of fact and value, which, as Zaretsky points out, brought her in disagreement with most prevailing epistemologies of the time. Weil’s position seems a clear precursor of those taken by analytic moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Bernard Williams, but Zaretsky does not dwell on these parallels. Rather, he ponders another question of Weil’s: if our readings of the world are situated readings, is there “a single and right way to read”? (22). For Weil, a fervent Platonist, the answer would have had to be “yes”. And she looked for answers in her concept of attention.

To explain Weil’s concept of attention, Zaretsky takes his readers to her high school lessons, in which she instructed her students not to find answers to geometrical problems, but rather to contemplate the problems themselves. This principle, for Zaretsky, contains the essence of Weil’s conception of attention. For her, attention is not a “muscular effort” of concentration, but rather a “negative effort,” “one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in” (22). Attention requires the suspension of thought, so that one’s consciousness is cleared of self-concern and, as Weil put it, left “detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23). Attention becomes a work of patient waiting, in which we diligently work at letting go of ourselves so as to make space for true understanding of fellow human beings. “In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us,” writes Zaretsky, “we must first divest ourselves of our own selves” (23). It is in this way that attention becomes a method for discerning and responding to affliction. Attention is the moral work we must do to see what is “sacred” in the other.

Having defined the work of attention, Zaretsky makes brief excursions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – comparing them to Weil’s notebooks – and to Kant’s discussion of reverence, which he likens to attention in Weil’s sense. Citing Murdoch again, he suggests that both concepts are concerned with “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real” (1959, 51). The chapter then ends on a surprisingly personal note. Zaretsky ponders his own moral ineptitude as he faces a panhandler at an intersection as he is driving his car to work. (The scene, set in Houston, Texas, was not quite relatable for this European city-dweller who goes without a driving license.) Zaretsky berates his reluctance to witness the panhandler’s affliction with attention. “Let’s face it: she wants to be seen. Will I, though, allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come in between us?” (26). Zaretsky senses he is not up to the strict moral standard posed by Weil. But as he opens his car window to hand the panhandler some change, his children in the backseat, he hopes they will perhaps one day do so as well – and that even if they do not ask the panhandler, as Weil implores us to do, “What are you going through?”, then at least know that the question is important (quoted in Zaretsky, 27).

In the third chapter, “The Varieties of Resistance,” Zaretsky introduces the notion of resistance, which, he admits, is not strictly speaking a concept of Weil’s, but nonetheless a “a value that girds a great deal of her thought and merits a chapter of its own” (12). Zaretsky approaches resistance first of all as a common thread in Weil’s life. He narrates, for instance, her involvement in the Spanish Civil War and in the French resistance, both in the south of France and in London. He also chronicles how Weil rebelled against her own middle-class upbringing, by requesting to work on a fishing trawler (during a summer vacation), in a mine (whilst teaching in Le Puy), and on a farm – frequently egging on bemused workers to join her in protest. Zaretsky peppers these stories with great anecdotal details. For instance, he humorously describes how the family that let her work on the farm took offense in Weil’s insistence that their lives were wretched, poor, and altogether unhappy. “When their guest told them that she wanted to “live the life of the poor, share their burdens, and know their troubles,” the couple felt that Weil not only failed to recognize who they were, but also patronized them,” he writes (33). Such anecdotes paint Weil into a tragicomic figure: she was clumsy (her stint in Spain ended after she injured her foot stepping in boiling oil); she was inept (she fought in Spain with no idea of how to hold a gun); she made appalling mistakes (she dropped a suitcase full of secret Resistance pamphlets out in the streets). In many ways, Weil was unfit for the reality she was so eager to face – but which she nonetheless stubbornly kept close.

Throughout these experiences, argues Zaretsky, resistance also became an object of contemplation for Weil, even if not explicitly. He dives into Weil’s suspicion of the “collectivity,” which Zaretsky defines as “the convergence of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that dictate our lives” (32). Collectivity, Weil believed, inhibits thought, and clear thinking is paramount to resisting the oppression caused by the vicissitudes of force. (Unsurprisingly, Weil was also suspicious of political parties.) This idea underlines once more Weil’s belief that the importance of thought lies in its connection to action. Zaretsky also discusses Weil’s complex form of pacifism, about which she changed her mind over time: having embraced pacifism for much of young adulthood, by 1939 she wrote in her diary that that “non-violence is good only if it’s effective” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35); a conviction she had already acted on several years earlier, when she joined the Spanish Resistance. As Zaretsky notes, Weil frequently “went to war on behalf of peace” (35); for her, in her own words, “[t]he struggle of those who obey against those command, when the mode of commanding entails destroying the human dignity of those underneath, is the most legitimate, most motivated, most genuine action that exists” (quoted in Zaretsky, 35). But if Weil valued resistance, she was not a dogged revolutionary: she was skeptical of the impulse to dehumanize and mistreat the oppressor one seeks to rise up against. Zaretsky closes this chapter with a reflection on the affinities between Weil and Camus (who was a great admirer of Weil’s), discerning traces of Weil’s “ethic of resistance” in Camus’ novels The Plague and The Rebel.

The fourth chapter, “Finding Roots,” starts with a discussion of Weil’s love for English pub culture, which she professed in her notebooks while living in London in the 1940s. What brought her to love the pub, argues Zaretsky, is their rootedness in the customs and traditions of what he calls an “English way of life” – which Weil discerned in the jolly atmosphere of the pub as much as in a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This notion of rootedness is also the thematic of Weil’s The Need for Roots, the last of her major works before her early death in 1943. In this book, Weil diagnoses the ills of modernity in terms of what she called déracinement or “uprootedness”: “the fact and feeling of homelessness” (41). For Weil, uprootedness conveys a sense of alienation from both place and tradition. Foreign invasion is one source of uprootedness, but Weil saw the condition epitomized in the factory, which uproots its workers both physically (by bringing them from the countryside into the city) and psychologically (through the rationalization of labour). Weil’s antidote to uprootedness is a “new patriotism” (50), which Zaretsky points out is to be nourished not by pride in one’s nation, but by compassion for others and an appreciation for the vulnerability of one’s nation. Zaretsky is careful to distinguish Weil’s conservatism from that of her right-wing contemporaries: he observes in her plea for a compassionate patriotism a more pacifying aspiration, as it “tightens the bonds of fraternity both between peoples and within a single people” (46). Her form of patriotism also causes Weil to denounce France’s colonial project. However, Zaretsky is critical of Weil’s reluctance to grand former colonies full independence, instead opting for a form of “protection” that would still tie them to “certain organized states”: “Weil,” he observes, “seemed either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that a growing number of the very people on whose behalf she spoke were no longer interested in such ties” (45).

The nation, then, emerges as a source of obligations to others. The content of these obligations is captured in Weil’s list of fourteen “needs for the soul,” which opens The Need for Roots. Zaretsky briefly discusses Weil’s famous critique of rights-based conceptions of justice in an essay called ‘Human Personality’: Weil was sceptical of the discourse of rights, which to her had a transactional undertone that she found painfully non-committal. To move away from the conditionality of rights, Weil proposed a discourse of obligation and duty based on the reality of human needs. Zaretsky then provides an insightful discussion of Weil’s similitude to Aristotle, in spite of her self-proclaimed love for Plato. He also does a good job linking Weil’s political thought to a variety of more contemporary thinkers. He likens her needs-based moral theory to Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory and compares her patriotic leftism to the communitarian impulse in writers such as Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Amitai Etzioni. Disappointingly, Zaretsky fails to mention care ethicists like Joan Tronto (1993), who have built on Weil’s critique of rights in the well-known “care vs. justice” debate that was foundational for the formulation of care ethics in the 1980s and 90s. By skipping care ethics, he misses a notable body of work in which Weil’s thought does still, in Zaretsky’s words, resonate (Bourgault 2014).

Finally, in the fifth chapter, “The Good, the Bad, and the Godly,” Zaretsky offers a more prolonged examination of Weil’s engagement with Christianity and mysticism. Weil’s relationship to Christianity, as Zaretsky notes, was fraught with tension, as she was split between “the desire to surrender herself wholly to the church and her indignation at so much of its history and dogma that prevented her from doing so” (52). Weil’s dialogue with Christianity materialized in her conversations with two interlocutors: the Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin and “aspiring Catholic theologian” Gustave Thibon (52). After her death, she left both men with unpublished work, which they subsequently went on to publish, the former in Waiting for God and the latter in Gravity and Grace. Zaretsky mostly approaches Weil’s mysticism in terms of her idea of décreation, which loosely refers to the unmaking or undoing of the self in the face of God. This idea hinges on Weil’s image of God, who “shows his love to his creation by withdrawing from it” (54). God, in Weil’s understanding, cannot coexist in a cosmos with the non-divine, and for this reason, has no choice but to withdraw and hide. To love God is to join him in hiding: “Our being is nothing other than the will that we should consent not to be. He is forever begging from us the being which he gives. And he gives it so as to beg it from us” (quoted in Zaretsky, 54). Zaretsky is understandingly baffled by Weil’s descriptions of décreation. He deems her God “at best neurotic, at worst sociopathic,” and refers to our relationship to him as a “bizarre family dynamic” (54). To make more sense of Weil’s mysticism, he turns to one of her most famous readers: the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. Murdoch, as Zaretsky puts it, adds another “o” to Weil’s “God,” and her notion of goodness turns décreation into a process of the gradual peeling away of the selfish ego, so as to open oneself to perceive and act on goodness. (Weil’s notion of attention, which became so important for Murdoch, is this idea’s backbone.)

This final chapter is briefer than the other four, and also a little less focused. Zaretsky oddly selects this chapter to expound on Weil’s distaste for political parties, where chapter three and four would probably have been more sensible choices. It is also surprising that Zaretsky has little to say here about the importance of Weil’s religious beliefs for her social and political thought. Especially towards the end of her life, these became increasingly indistinguishable. When, for instance, Weil writes that “the capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer… is almost a miracle” (quoted in Zaretsky, 23), this miracle is of God’s making; the miracle of goodness is also the miracle of God’s love. This is a thought Zaretsky hints at (especially in the first chapter), but he regrettably does not fully develop its ramifications here.

Zaretsky closes the final chapter with the observation that Weil’s thought is often impractical, even if it is important. Indeed, Weil’s “attraction to absolutes” (45) and the rigidity of her thought can encumber attempts to draw practical wisdom from her social and political philosophy. Or, as Raimond Gaita (2014, xxi) puts it, “[i]t is hard to be open to Weil’s political thought in a way that is consistent with both sobriety and idealism.” This is perhaps one reason why her thought does not resonate as strongly in contemporary thought as Zaretsky would like; but to Zaretsky, Weil’s severity is precisely her strength. Approvingly, he quotes Iris Murdoch, who once quipped that reading Weil is “to be reminded of a standard” (quoted in Zaretsky, 12). Indeed, Zaretsky sees in Weil an exemplary figure. Throughout The Subversive Simone Weil, his tone is reverential; and aside from some brief critical reflections (for instance, on her reading of the Iliad and on her position on colonialism), he refrains from scrutinizing her thought in much detail. Zaretsky frequently finds himself humbled by the unsparing nature of her thinking and of her personality, as well as of her insistence to engage with the world head-first. In the book’s epilogue, he refers to Weil’s friend and biographer Simone Pétrement, who poignantly observed: “Who would not be ashamed of oneself in Simone’s [Weil’s] presence, seeing the life she led?” (Quoted in Zaretsky, 60.)

In many ways, Weil embodies a picture of the intellectual that is much in vogue today: critical, uncompromising, and leaning towards activism. She is at least in this sense a timely figure. Nonetheless, Zaretsky does not fully make good on his promise in the introduction, which was to show how Weil’s core notions may resonate today. Sure enough, Zaretsky occasionally alludes to the relevance of Weil’s thought in our daily life (as in his encounters with panhandlers) or the present political moment (references to Trump’s administration abound). But the devil is in the details, and what sometimes misses from his discussions is a more sustained analysis of how Weil’s impractical stances may be rendered practical – or indeed, whether her rigidity and severity are not also in some ways flaws. If Weil really is so impractical, did she in fact succeed at avoiding “deflection” and face “the difficulty of reality”? By eschewing this question, or at most briefly hinting at answers (as he does in the epilogue), Zaretsky does not quite convince about the urgency of Simone Weil’s oeuvre for today.

But perhaps this is beside the point, as the accomplishments of The Subversive Simone Weil lie elsewhere. To be sure, Zaretsky is hardly the first to discuss Weil’s life in conjunction with her thought. Indeed, Weil’s biographical details punctuate many philosophical discussions on Weil. (Her martyrlike death of starvation, in part a consequence of her refusal to eat more than her fellow citizens in Occupied France, has become near-legendary.) But if these references can sometimes appear gratuitous, more concerned with myth-making than with sense-making, Zaretsky’s achievement here is to render Weil’s biography a rich resource for understanding her main philosophical ideas – and, in doing so, to provide a vivid, compelling, and stimulating introduction to the ideas of this singular philosopher. Newcomers to Weil’s oeuvre will be amazed (if not humbled), no doubt; but Zaretsky’s impressive scholarship should ensure that even those familiar with her life and work will find plenty to discover in this rewarding book.


Bourgault, Sophie. 2014. “Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 35 (2): 1.

Diamond, Cora. 2003. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1 (2): 1–26.

Gaita, Raimond. 2014. “Foreword.” In Letter to a Priest, by Simone Weil, xiii–xxiv. London and New York: Routledge.

Murdoch, Iris. 1959. “The Sublime and the Good.” Chicago Review 13 (3): 42.

Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

Weil, Simone. 1970. First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2014. “Human Personality.” In Letter to a Priest, 57–90. London and New York: Routledge.