The forgetfulness towards Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State is telling about the fate of phenomenology. Over the past century its political concerns were mostly overlooked. The noticeable return to political phenomenology since the post-cold war period has had the peculiar character of neglecting most of the preceding political phenomenologies from the past. So, the publication of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics, edited by Eva Reyes-Gacitúa and Antonio Calcagno has the value of calling attention to one of the earliest texts on political phenomenology. While there a few occasional analysis of Stein’s contribution on the state to Husserl’s Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung, the essay is far from being a canonical text in phenomenology, regardless of its unique object in the early period of the phenomenological movement.
The encompassing nature of the book edited by Calcagno and Reyes-Gacitúa reflects its genesis. It results from the 2016 symposium by the Edith Stein Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies held in Chile, a centre that convenes annually to contribute for the expansion of scholarship on Stein’s work. 4 years ago, they attempted to introduce most of the content of Stein’s exploration into the state. The book has two parts, the first offers 8 chapters in an exhaustive presentation of the contents of Stein’s book, the 5 following chapters explore the usefulness of the book to approach current topics that were less salient in the 1920s.
As the essay was written between 1919 and 1921, and published in 1925, one wonders why did it take so long for any attention to be devoted to it? The editor’s introduction offers three reasons, 1) Stein is mostly associated with phenomenology or with Christian philosophy, and the State is not seen as a particular concern, 2) research on Stein’s wider works has only recently started and this book is part of her earlier unexplored texts, 3) for its association with the German intellectual mood of the interwar years (viii-ix). Strangely, the first two points assume that her readership would be constituted of specialists on Stein, without the inclusion of intellectual historians or other readers of phenomenology. The third point directs us into a more interesting dimension. On the one hand, the editors claim that the entire inter-war period is tainted by the involvement of Germany in the two most violent processes of the preceding century. More importantly, the intellectual explorations that have similarities with what lead the extremist policies of the period, were pushed aside, and ignored. This may make some sense as a fault of Stein’s support for World War I, before she started to write the essay on the state, but she was not a supporter of the Nazi regime. Indeed, she died in a concentration camp. Thus, the similarities between her work and some of the rising totalitarian ideas should be explored to understand the multiplicity of voices, and the specific differences of the period. What remains most surprising is that the editors did not mention Martin Heidegger’s collaboration with the Nazi regime. Heidegger isn’t even mentioned in the book, and his political choices are likely to have served as a greater deterrent for the development of political phenomenology. The specific reasons for overlooking An investigation Concerning the State seem insufficient to explain such a long delay between publication and its recent critical reception.
The opening chapter of part I by Mariano Crespo offers an allusion to the earliest works of political phenomenology that precede Stein’s contribution. Crespo’s attempts to provide prior explorations in the two most clear phenomenological influences for Stein, Husserl, and Reinach serve to emphasize the relevance of Stein’s endeavor. It becomes obvious that Husserl’s late emphasis on intersubjectivity and Reinach’s take on law inform Stein but both fall short of arriving at the political as their object. At the same time, the influence of Reinach is well presented and his apriorism constitutes a driving force for Stein’s considerations, a topic that is recurrent across the edited book. Stein replaces Reinach’s term apriori law for pure law and uses it to distance her approach from the concrete forms positive law assumes, while also avoiding the pitfalls of natural law and the apriori contents it offers. As Crespo states “a priori theory of law is nothing more than a theory of the ‘formal norms of legality’” (10). What applies for this first presentation applies for the entirety of the Stein’s perspective and for the chapters that are contained in this book.
Rather than analysing the concrete appearance of the state, the book chapters follow the ways Stein approaches the conditions of possibility of the state: Law (“Certain Legal Presuppositions About the Idea of Law in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State”, by Marcelo Gidi SJ), Community (“People and State in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” by Marcela Aranda), Ethics (“Sovereignty and the Ethical Demands of the State, by Luis Mariano de la Maza). Aranda presents how Stein takes the People to be a special form of community, Gidi approaches the specific function of Law in Stein edifice, and de la Maza analyses the Ethical realm, particularly in its relation to Stein’s Aristotelian conception of autonomy, in opposition to modern conceptions of sovereignty.
Stein’s personal trajectory, and mostly her conversion to Catholicism, ended up by determining the audience for her writings as she seems to be more popular among catholic intellectuals than phenomenologists, some statements about her life assume a particularly important role. The text on the state was written before her 1922 conversion, and both the editors and de la Maza suggest that it is related with her affiliation with the German Democratic Party. De la Maza suggests there may be a “tension between the interests and personal involvement of Stein with the social and political reality of her time in Germany and the philosophical intent to address the subject of the state in the most objective and neutral way possible” (63-64). While it is difficult to argue that any thinker can develop a thought totally bracketing their own time, these assertions require explanation beyond mere biographical assertions. So, rather than suggesting that her adherence to the German Democratic Party was an influence on her thought on the state, they should have elaborated on how is such an influence felt, mostly when Stein leaves the state open to any ideological actualization. Or, perhaps more productively, they should have explored how Stein’s emphasis on the appearance of the state as either a community or a law creating entity, are the result of the increased bureaucratization of early 20th century state or of an increased perception of a rupture between community and authority. The diverse conceptions of the latter point drove much of the political instability of the interwar period, with competing understandings, from nationalism to Marxism, taking it as a point of dispute.
Likewise, Eva Reyes-Gacitúa’s “Woman and the State in Edith Stein’s thought” offers an important consideration on Stein’s thought on the necessity for an increased role of women in politics, accentuating particularly the contribution women may bring to a reform pedagogical culture. The relevance of women and any other fringe group remains highly relevant to this day, and the way their contribution can be valued and promoted should remain a central concern for conceptualizations of the state and politics. But her positions should also be viewed in relation to the period’s increased involvement of women, and catholic women in particular, in the public sphere to promote specific topics usually associated with education and family. Stein likely outpaces many of these proposals for the centrality of the civic dimension in her thought on women, but it is still remains part of this greater awareness of women’s activity. Reyes-Gacitúa’s chapter occupies a strange place in he edited book, as the Stein’s concern about women is posterior to the essay on the state, and she fails to make a relevant connection between Stein’s two explorations.
To this day, Stein’s continued influence comes less from her collaboration in phenomenological circles than from her spiritual quest that led to her conversion to Catholicism. Even though the book was written just prior to her conversion, it certainly represented a step in the journey that led to it, even if just as an exploration of the fields in which a mystical experience was supposed to remain absent. The significance of this element is felt throughout the recently published edited book and particularly explored in Juan Francisco Pinilla’s “Religion, Mysticism, and the State”. This chapter advances a challenging quest: to explore the mystical dimension of the state, particularly through the connections between the early book by Stein on the state and her later mystical writings, this despite of Stein’s refusal of a spiritual dimension in the life of the state. Pinilla’s parallelism between the two periods of Stein thought brings them together through a politico-theological perspective that clearly deserves further exploration in an analysis of Stein’s early forcible rejection of a religious enmeshment into the state.
Calcagno’s “The Challenges Posed by the Community of Law-Givers and Law-Followers in Edith Stein’s Idea of the State” that appears at the end of Part I is the most challenging and interesting chapter of the entire book. The chapter brings together much of the content of the preceding chapters, while also attempting to challenge and overcome Stein’s proposals. Calcagno’s analysis starts by approaching community, and the related concepts masses and society, in Stein’s works. This section is followed by an analysis of Stein’s approach to the state, and the chapter is concluded by a proposed alternative. By focusing on the centrality of sociality in Stein’s approach to the state, Calcagno attempts to avoid an excessive emphasis on philosophy of law to prioritize the sociological dimension of her proposal. Calcagno’s aim is to claim that “the intimacy and intensity that typify Steinian community pose a challenge for her understanding of the state”. Overall, his claim is that the value of Stein’s analysis lies outside of political theory, and that her conceptual apparatus is inadequate for an understanding of the state. It is surprising that the most interesting chapter in the book is an opposition to the relevance of this Stein’s book.
Calcagno’s discussion of sociality in Edith Stein pays attention to her relation to contemporary sociology and the emphasis on the mass or crowd, society, and community. Soon after completing her An Investigation Concerning the State she published her essay on the Individual and Community. Calcagno, just like Steiner, passes quickly through the notion of the masses as it seems of little relevance to the state for her, a position that Arendt would later regret to be false in the rise of totalitarian regimes. Calcagno also adds a dismissive note to the conceptual apparatus supporting an analysis of the masses by defining it as «marked either by imitation or what Stein and others call psychic contagion”. In the end, the analysis of the support of the state gets reduced to the two opposing social bonds that were central for Tönnies, society and community. Fundamentally, the distinction ends up by being supported by the individual’s relation to the form of sociality. In a community the individual assumes an objective character and it is guided by the attempt to achieve a certain goal, it is “an overextending desire for complete unification that cannot be practically achieved within material and historical circumstances” (88). Stein is explicit that it is community that is best suited as a foundation for law and the state. This very definition of community already pushes it to the constitution of the state. But is this a fair assessment of the value of her analysis of the relation between community and the state? It partly is, and Calcagno’s knowledge of Stein’s work is hardly reproachable, but there is an interpretative overstretch that deserves further exploration.
Calcagno’s interpretation of Steinian community is not exclusively based on her book on the State, but he gets most of his support from the 1922 text on the “Individual and Community”. While this is a common practice, it should be noted that Stein presents the community that feeds the state as a special type of community, unlike for example the family, and it should be noted that this difference makes the state community less intense than the smaller forms of community. Furthermore, the later text is closer to Stein’s conversion to Catholicism, and the limitations of earthly community are more explicit for her, but in her case that points towards a mystical experience that includes a relation to a dimension that supersedes sociality. Stein does assumes that there is a spiritual dimension to the state, but as Calcagno recognizes, it is because the state “appertains to the realm of freedom and motivation” (91). It can hardly be claimed that in the 1921 text she would accept that this could be brought back into a religious experience. So, the overlap of these two works to dismiss the political relevance of the earlier text require much more sustenance than what was done by Calcagno.
At the end of the chapter Calcagno uses the earlier analysis to support a liberal society as a more viable source for the state than community. Calcagno’s criticisms of Stein are generally informative, but his inclination towards society as a better support for the state is based on dubious assessments of Stein’s perspective. First, Calcagno seems to read Stein’s analysis of the state as a set of positive normative proposals. While there is no doubt there are several normative considerations guiding her inquiry, the inadequacy of this view is revealed by Calcagno’s puzzlement at the lack of explorations of specific political ideologies (84). Hers is not intended to be an ideology of the state, but a phenomenology of the state independently of the ideology that is to be deployed. Second, Calcagno is correct to claim that “her philosophical view of the underlying sociality required for statehood runs certain risks” (92), that is, the risk of totalitarianism that incidentally followed the writing of Stein’s book. But by reducing the hazards to an authoritarian personality becoming the leader of the community, Calcagno misses the point that the difference between society and community as support of a state that becomes totalitarian is the difference between a bureaucratic and a nationalist totalitarian state. Third, when Calcagno views society as a better means to achieve unity, he misses the point that this claim can only be done through profound reconceptualization, as he attributes a function to society that it necessarily is not able to sustain. While Stein clearly fetishizes the unity associated with community at a political level, Calcagno’s depoliticized fragments hardly seem to be ready for the task he proposes.
The emphasis Calcagno places on the role of sociality as the basis of the state is the best analysis of the implications of Stein’s work offered in the entire book. All the other elements, including her philosophy of law, remain void without a critical assessment of this point. For Stein, the question is how all the components of the state are experienced, and Calcagno offers a rich introduction to Stein’s ground-breaking dislocation of the support for the state to a careful analysis of sociality.
Part II of the book presents several explorations on the current usefulness of Stein’s approach to the state. These chapters analyse several of the dimensions that current researchers should be able to bring out of analysis of historical texts, how can we bring it to our day?
In “Bioethics and Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” Alberto Rojas Osorio explores how Stein’s understanding of the role of the individual contributes for an assessment on how to deal with bioethical issues raised in contemporary society. The overview of the history of bioethics and the relation of humans to non-humans is brought out as being relevant beyond the field of medical research and it is enlightening and of significant relevance for many contemporary debates on posthumanism, object-oriented ontology, etc. Focusing on Stein’s presentation of sociality as relating to a common world of values, the author offers a reading on how Stein’s approach can be relocated to a bioethical concern. Clemens Franken’s “The Issue of the State’s Power and its Abuse in the Literature of Gertrud von le Fort in Light of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” presents a parallelism between Stein and the literary productions of her contemporary von le Fort. This chapter’s interest arises mostly due to the way Franken is able to approach the two authors despite of their different ideological positions and literary genres. They obviously also had much in common, and despite von le Fort’s focus on literary production, she was also very interested in philosophy. And perhaps more importantly, both converted to Catholicism. It is this latter point that makes the most akin, as Franken shows that both authors supported a view of the individual’s appurtenance to community as breeding an acceptance of obedience, an aspect that became relevant in the contemporary development of personalism. Franken’s chapter is not only important for the relation between the two thinkers, as it also offers an insightful intellectual history of their period. The Last chapter of the book is written by a Chilean politician reflecting on the relevance of Stein’s book for an assessment of current political reform in Chile. Soledad Alvear’s “The Current Process of the Constituent Assembly and the Relevance of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” embraces Stein’s encompassing theory of the state as allowing for a continued concern with the community to which it is directed.
Unlike the other chapters of Part II, Fredy Parra’s “The Justification of the Modern State in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: A Political Theological View” and María Esther Gómez de Pedro’s “Forms of the State: An Approach to the Work of Edith Stein Based on its Aristotelian Influences” approach topics that are not alien to Stein. Parra approaches the state from a perspective that hadn’t yet been developed at Stein’s time, political theology, and he brings to discussion authors that were all born in the decade that succeeded the production of Stein’s book. Parra’s chapter introduces Stein’s analysis of the state, emphasizing how the final form of her study remains unable to hinder the seizure of the state by undesirable values. Parra brings Ratzinger and Metz to explore the current predicaments of the state, as they result from his assessment of Stein. De Pedro focusses on the centrality of the bearers of the state in Stein’s understanding of the relation between community and the state. She also extends Stein’s analysis by further presenting how a greater focus on Aristotelian virtues could add to Stein’s view, claiming a political continuum between Aristotle, Aquinas and Stein.
Edited books are always a strange endeavor, and anyone who ventures into this field should always be lauded, but the current one presents a further challenge, it didn’t start as a book. In the beginning it was a conference. Perhaps more in the present day than ever before, the bringing together of researchers into a common physical space to present, explore, and criticize on common topics is of greater relevance in the production of renewed reassessments of the legacy that the world and intellectual tradition have legated us than most publications that arrive to us. So, the present book serves as a testimony to events that are becoming scarce and that threaten to consolidate the digitalization that was already impending. At the same time, the conference was performed by a group that was mostly starting to enter into Edith Stein’s book, and this led to presentations that privileged breadth of content rather than critical analysis. So, while the book covers most topics advanced by Stein, they bring limited novelty to what Stein wrote to start with. Furthermore, most contributions had to be translated from Spanish into English to be included in the book, but that left some problematic choices. For example, it is a poor choice to retain references to the Spanish translation of a German text in an English language text, as most readers won’t find these references helpful.
Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics serves as remembrance of the relevance of books that remained undervalued. Stein brought fresh light into the problematic of the state by directly focusing on aspects that remain pertinent and unresolved to this day.
It is a commonplace to say that digital media and communication technology have thoroughly transformed the world we live in. This is obvious to all of us. The impact of the digital revolution, however, is so immense that philosophy, in spite of a multitude of books and articles, has only started to get a grip on it, as far as that is possible at all. Although one might expect a large number of contributions of the hermeneutic tradition to the philosophical reflections on digital media, since these are mainly information and communication technologies, philosophical hermeneutics has remained relatively silent with regard to the new media.
Alberto Romele’s monograph Digital Hermeneutics is therefore a more than welcome intervention in the philosophical reflections on the new media. Romele has written a rich book that discusses many aspects of this complicated field of research. His book does not only develop a hermeneutic approach to digital media, it also shows the mutual influence of hermeneutic interpretation theory and the new media technology.
Romele’s approach is in line with the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Especially the notion of distanciation is used to highlight how new media are both object of research and actor in the networks in which they are embedded. But also Romele’s style is reminiscent of Ricoeur: he develops his ideas in discussion with many other theorists, showing ever new insights into the complicated relations between information and interpretation, internet and society, imagination and mediation, humans and technology. Also in line with Ricoeur’s style, the conclusions of the different parts of the book are more like new chapters than integrating summaries. This makes the book as a whole a dense and rich composition of many lines of thought, starting with an Overture, followed by two large parts, while ending with a grand Finale. The book has a large scope: after the introduction of its approach in the Overture, Part 1 offers an epistemological and methodological account of the digital, Part 2 is about an ontology of the digital, while the Finale discusses several ethical end political consequences.
Romele rightly argues that a hermeneutic approach of new media cannot be a matter of simply applying existing points of view of the hermeneutic tradition to the digital. The hermeneutic tradition itself needs to be taken up and renewed. In the Overture he starts with a ‘confession’ (2) that he began the project of this book with the intention to deconstruct the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur. In Gadamer’s philosophy Romele recognizes a focus on unity, with theological roots, that, notwithstanding all the emphasis on dialogue, is a monologue of “the sole truth of the Event.” (1) In Ricoeur’s work, Romele finds what he calls an “idealism of matter”, a tendency to focus exclusively on language as the main or even only mediator of meaning. The same concentration on unity and ontology can also be found in Heidegger’s philosophy of technology that takes all technological phenomena together from the single perspective of Gestell. Instead, a hermeneutic-phenomenological philosophy of technology should not only be fixated on a general ontology but embrace the ontic plurality of many technical devices, projects and phenomena. Romele therefore makes a plea for a “minor and pragmatic hermeneutics” (1) that highlights the multi-linear and multi-medial character of interpretation, including digital and non-linguistic interpretation; a hermeneutics that embraces ideas of post-phenomenology, empirical philosophy and actor-network-theory. Interpretation does not only take place in language, but also in other media, matter and machines. It is also a matter of images, websites, cell phones and algorithms.
Of course, this approach is not a break with the hermeneutic tradition, it is a renewal. Just as post-phenomenology takes up several aspects of Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit, Romele’s digital hermeneutics follows his ontological turn in hermeneutics that regards every relation between Dasein and world as an interpretation. Thus, instead of deconstructing hermeneutics, Romele picks up Ricoeur’s concept of distanciation (11) and uses it to reveal how, on the one hand, we are connected with the world through all kinds of digital and technical-material relations, while, on the other hand, the digital devices and networks can become object of scientific research and philosophical reflection as well. In this way Romele also transforms Ricoeur’s idea of distanciation, giving it a material deepening beyond the merely linguistic understanding by Ricoeur.
In this respect, he also uses a distinction made by Don Ihde (1998) between a ‘special’ and a ‘general’ hermeneutics. Special hermeneutics refers to the specific kind of technologies that offer a representation of the world, while general hermeneutics alludes to the fact that all technologies are hermeneutic in the sense that they selectively frame and mould the human-world relations in which they function. A philosophical hermeneutics of the digital needs to take into account the active interpretative performances of technical tools and procedures that are at work in all our engagements with it. Digital hermeneutics is a hermeneutics of the digital in both meanings of the subjective and objective genitive.
Epistemology of the Digital
Under the somewhat confusing heading “The Virtual Never Ended” Romele examines epistemological and methodological issues, disputing several lines of thought that tend to minimize the distance between the virtual and the real. In the first reflections on the internet and digital media, now a few decades ago, many theorists emphasized the difference between the virtual and the real. The virtual was a ‘second world’ in which we could easily experiment with what was not possible or harder to accomplish in the real world. Later, this perspective changed in its opposite: many researchers now maintain that no distinction can be made anymore between the virtual and the real. Romele uses the notion of distanciation to criticize both points of view. The virtual is like the glasses or contact lenses that we can see, but also through which we can see and that change the way we see, although they seem to be completely transparent.
In the first chapter Romele takes a position against those who believe that “the virtual invaded the real.” In particular, he discusses the “semantic theory of information”, formulated by Luciano Floridi. Floridi (2005) defines information as “data + meaning + truth” (27). This is a very objectivist view that includes meaning and truth as internal ingredients of information. Floridi even gives a Hegelian-style formula to express this belief: “what is real is informational, and what is informational is real.” (35) Based on this view, Floridi also develops the more practical view that in everyday life the real and the virtual are blurred, mixing ‘life’ and ‘online’ in an Onlife Manifesto (35). This leads to all kinds of problems and contradictions: thruth-values as supervening on semantic information; the difference between factual and instructional information, and more.
As an alternative, Romele sketches a hermeneutic approach of information, describing it as part of contextual communication. He draws on several other authors, as well as on etymological research that shows that the pre-modern meaning of information was ‘giving a (substantial) form to matter’ (24). For those who are well educated in hermeneutics, his criticism is not very surprising: information can only manifest its meaning in contexts, it is in need of interpretation, and therefore the meaning can never be entirely fixed. The conclusions of this chapter, however, show the importance of the material aspects in Romele’s approach:
“…the hermeneutics of information (and, more broadly, digital hermeneutics) is a material hermeneutics for three reasons: (1) because it starts from an analysis which is internal and not extrinsic to the object in question; (2) because it deals with the varieties of contexts of production and reception of meaning; (3) because it is interested in the matter (the techniques and technologies) through which digital traces are transformed into data, and data into information.” (38)
The introduction to the second chapter discusses several topics, among them the growing awareness that the real and the virtual are not two separated worlds, but are thoroughly intertwined. In terms of the title: the real invaded the virtual. This involves, besides many other issues, problems with privacy; but in this part of the book Romele directs our intention mainly to digital sociology, asking the epistemological question how society can be studied with digital methods. Several examples of data visualization, Big Data and computational sociology are discussed, while Romele underscores the view that digital methods do not give a transparent window on the world or on ourselves. There always remains “an inexhaustible gap between the self and its digital representations.” (50) So again, the virtual and the real do not coincide. In the second section Romele chooses an unexpected opponent: Bruno Latour.
One might expect, Romele rightly suggests, that Latour would show how digital representation and research methods do not simply represent the world as it is, how digital technology needs its own material structure of cables, electricity, hardware, etc., and how the internet can be seen as a dense network of actants. To the surprise of both author and readers, this is not what Latour writes about the digital. Romele shows how Latour usually combines an emphasis on matter and on networks, but with regard to the digital he seems to forget its material shapes and almost entirely focusses on how digital networks offer us a view on real networks:
“It is as if Latour’s attention to the matter of the spirit applies to everything except to digital technologies and methodologies because they allow social reality to be seen as Latour wants to see it. For him, the digital has a double function. From an ontological point of view, it is a model and a paradigm for seeing the society as an actor-network. From an epistemological perspective, it offers a new resource to study society ‘in action.’” (53)
Latour seems to try to erase the difference between map and territory: “…digital traceability has transformed reality in a global laboratory in which entities and events can be followed step by step.” (54) However, arguing that the real and the virtual never coincide, Romele reads Latour against Latour, showing how Latour’s interest in uncovering networks in the real world conceals the matter of the digital as a web of constructing actants. In other words, with regard to the digital Latour seems to behave like the ‘modern’ scientist that he elsewhere claims we have never been:
“In his We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Latour denoted with the word ‘modern’ two orders of practices: the ‘translation,’ consisting of creating hybrids, and the ‘puriﬁcation,’ which continuously hides these same hybridizations. Are we not facing such a process right here? Are we not, on the one hand, creating hybrid entities of (social) nature and (digital) culture (digital traces and the methods for their analysis as ‘presentiﬁcation’ of social reality) and, on the other hand, concealing the very process of creation of these entities?” (58)
After this criticism Romele mentions several ideas and methods that are better candidates to be incorporated in a methodology of digital hermeneutics. Big Data do not simply show massive facts, but, with a reference to Rob Kitchin (2014), could better be called “capta (from the Latin capere, ‘to take’), because they are extracted through observations, computations, experiments, and recordings that have nothing immediate in themselves.” (60)
How can we develop methods that make use of the giant new possibilities of massive digital information, while remaining aware of its perspective and constructive elements? Romele refers to the work of the digital sociologist Noortje Marres (2017), perhaps “the most Latourian in this ﬁeld, more Latourian than Latour himself,” (61) who indicates the impossibility to establish a clear boundary between digital methods and their objects. In her digital sociology she has decided to accept the fluidity of the distinction between methods and objects, and to investigate this unsolidified distinction. Marres’ sociology includes “the continuous effort to trace the boundaries between medium, methods, and social reality.” (62) Sociology therefore needs to combine digital and classical methods, while placing the constructive effects of digital settings in the centre of scientific analysis. Marres calls this “issue mapping.” (63)
This is where hermeneutics meets post-phenomenology. This last current of thought (Romele mainly refers to Don Ihde and Peter-Paul Verbeek) investigates how technologies are co-constitutive in the mediation between humans and the world. It offers another perspective on the same insights of actor-network-theory: “…while actor-network theory is attentive above all to the plurality of relations, postphenomenology, which usually considers only one relation at a time, addresses somewhat the different types of relations and the different types of actors involved in these relations.” (65) Digital hermeneutics thus includes the use of digital methods as well as reflections on these methods and the many ways they participate in shaping their objects. Further investigations in this field of research will probably lead to very complex analyses of many different sorts of multidimensional and flexible networks. Romele has developed a promising epistemological vantage point for this kind of research. I would have liked to read a bit more about advanced elaborations on it, but these lie beyond the scope of this book.
In this way Romele sketches not only a material and technological turn in hermeneutics, but also a hermeneutical turn in the philosophy of technology. Digital hermeneutics is an actualization of Ricoeur’s “long route” of hermeneutics, “making existence, preconceptions, and speciﬁc worldviews emerge from an internal analysis of the methods and the objects themselves.” (74) This approach includes negotiations about the methods and terminologies that the researcher has to link his own work to, in order to keep a dialogue going. On the one hand Romele seems to join theories of information, trying to give a hermeneutic twist to them. On the other hand he suggests another terminology, developing the notion of “digital trace” as a “hermeneutic alternative to the concept of semantic information” of Floridi and others (75). Although information and communication are still relevant features of the digital, Romele writes: “I believe that today recording, registration, and keeping track represent the most appropriate paradigm for understanding the digital and its consequences.” (72) Again, he follows Ricoeur in this respect, for whom the trace was “the matrix of a difficult but possible epistemology.” (77). Tracking or following traces is a general notion for a style of research in many different practices, like medicine, hunting and art history. “A hermeneutic of the trace would therefore be much wider (both in depth and width) than the classic hermeneutics of texts, documents, or monuments.” (78)
Ontology of the Digital
The second part of this book is dedicated to the ontology of the digital. Its aim is a new ontological turn in hermeneutics, now within the context of digital hermeneutics, by investigating to what extent digital machines are able to interpret. This is a farewell to the anthropocentrism that has accompanied modern hermeneutics for centuries. In the third chapter Romele goes step-by-step from Kantian imagination to Emagination – this term is also the title of part II.
The Kantian transcendental scheme or Einbildungskraft is the famous faculty of the first Critique that brings sense data and understanding together: the transcendental construction of objects in the mind. In the third Critique Kant adds a reflective imagination that is less dependent on the twelve categories of understanding. In the twentieth century this imagination as faculty of human consciousness was replaced by Simondon and Ricoeur in a, respectively, practical-technical and a semiotic-historical imagination. Romele refers several times to Simondon, but mainly elaborates on Ricoeur. In Ricoeur’s narrative theory productive imagination is externalized in language: “The synthesis between receptivity and spontaneity happens outside, in linguistic expressions such as symbols, signs, metaphors, and narrations.” (87) Imagination is not a creatio ex nihilo, but is a recombination of already existing elements, a process of distanciation and re-appropriation, which takes place in language. Ricoeur has articulated this process with the help of the Aristotelian notions mimesis and mythos. The re-arrangement of elements of a series of events in the structures of a story takes the place of the Kantian imagination that combines sense data and the categories of the understanding. This emplotment is performed in several levels of mimesis: prefiguration, configuration and refiguration.
In a move that is analogous to his argument in the first part, Romele now transposes productive imagination from language to machines. Digital imagination, or emagination, however, is more than an extension of human imagination from language to machines: the machines work by themselves. “Digital technologies, I would say, imitate with increasing ﬁdelity the way human productive imagination actually works.” (100) They are “imaginative machines” that work by mimesis and mythos.
With regard to mimesis, Romele refers to, among others, Don Ihde, who has distinguished several ways in which technology mediates between humans and the world. All these mediations are transparent, in the sense that, after a while, we hardly notice them anymore:
“(1) embodied relations, whose speciﬁcity lies in the high transparency of the technological artefact after a period of adaptation (for instance, glasses); (2) hermeneutic relations, which give a representation of the world that interprets the world, and that must in its turn be interpreted (for example, thermometers and maps); (3) alterity relations, in which the relation with the world is temporarily suspended, and the technology itself assumes the role of interlocutor/competitor (for instance, computer games); and (4) background relations, when a technology creates the conditions of our own relation with the world (for example, heating and lighting systems).” (100-101)
Digital technologies can perform all these mediations. In doing so, they interpret, represent and reproduce the world for us. But however transparent they may seem, we still need to be aware of the distanciation that is at work here: digital representations do not coincide with reality.
With regard to mythos, digital software is able to perform productive imagination. The emplotment is created by databases and algorithms, analogous to the Kantian sense data and categories – and perhaps also to series of events combined in narrative structures. This last comparison is suggested but not specified by Romele. A few pages further, this analogy is relativized, when he mentions differences between narrative imagination and Big Data analytics. The latter is abstracted from its context of production and, moreover: “…data mining and machine learning are based neither on narrative emplotment nor on the research of causes […], but on the correlation of heterogeneous data.” (108) Nevertheless, digital technologies work autonomously and can guide our perceptions and actions. They are “…not only interfaces to our imagination and the world but are one of the ways (probably the main one today) in which productive imagination externalizes and realizes itself in the world.” (103)
Moreover, digital machines are increasingly performing faster and on a larger scale than humans. Big Data and the newest algorithms work more and more autonomously, and with a productive imagination that surpasses human sensibility and understanding. According to Romele, at the end of the last century productive imagination could still be said to be “lower” than human imagination. In the social web of the last two decades there is rather a correspondence between the two. But today, now that databases have become data streams and because of the development of machine learning algorithms,
“the relation between human and digital imagination is going to be inversed, since the latter is overpassing the possibilities of the former. Or at least, even without wanting to confront them, it seems fair to say that digital imagination is taking an autonomous path which has concrete consequences on our decisions.” (91)
Given the fact that the analogy between narrative and digital imagination is, in my view at least, less convincing than other parts of the book, it makes sense to suggest that the latter is different from human imagination, but that it also, at least in several respects, outperforms human productive imagination.
This last observation, one of the most important ideas of this book, is not only fascinating, but also deeply worrying, as becomes clear in the example of algorithmic governmental profiling. The third chapter ends with the larger question how human freedom can be understood in this understanding of productive imagination and in relation to the digital. Romele pleas for a relatively modest view of our freedom: “Human beings are essentially hetero-determinate, and what we call ‘freedom’ is a long and difﬁcult detour through our technological, but also bodily, cultural, and social exteriorities.” (109) Nonetheless, the newest digital technologies may have enormous consequences on our subjective sense of freedom.
In chapter 4 Romele goes further in “frustrating” our human self-esteem. He states that human imagination is not as creative and ingenious as we often think. All innovation is a recombination and further developing of what already existed. Romele combines the Kantian distinction between determining imagination in the first Critique and free reflective imagination in the third Critique with Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between the engineer and the bricoleur. The engineer looks for the right materials and can develop a large number of tools and concepts, whereas the bricoleur only uses the material at hand. According to this distinction, the bricoleur is productive and the engineer is creative. Romele criticizes the idea that human imagination works like creative engineering, following Derrida’s deconstruction of the distinction: the engineer is a myth. Thus, we have never been engineers, as the title of this chapter says (124).
In addition, Romele stresses the increasing role of Artificial Intelligence in influencing our aesthetic judgments (machines recommending us what to watch and what to listen to), as well as aesthetic production in some areas. All this means “…that digital machines are also teaching us to be modest when it comes to us pretending to be engineers.” (132)
In the conclusion of this chapter, Romele compares several phases of the relation between hermeneutics and nature with phases of digital hermeneutics. These phases are a “level zero” (nature cannot be interpreted), “level one” (nature as object or our projections) and “level two” (nature has interpretative capacities). Comparably, for a long time hermeneutics made a strong distinction between humans and non-humans, which can be called “level zero”. At “level one” interpretation “…is a result of the articulation between human and non-human intentionalities.” (138) “Level two” still mainly has to come. The question here is whether we can “…attribute to digital technologies, or at least to an emerging part of them, an autonomous interpretational agency.” (139)
A part of the answer to this last question is given on the first page of the Finale. Among the many distinctions Romele has made in his book, is a list of different degrees and kinds of interpretation. Several levels of complexity can be distinguished. The more complex the level of interpretation is, the less it can be attributed to digital technologies. Classification in already established orders can be done more efficiently by machines, whereas digital technologies cannot (yet) beat human pattern-recognition abilities (143).
Ethics and Politics of the Digital
The plea for symmetry between humans and digital machines does not make Romele blind for the political consequences it may have. He argues for a critical posthumanism that needs to address differences between humans and machines, “… while remaining within the limits of a principle of symmetry.” (144) This critical posthumanism has to investigate “…the kind of interference between human and non-human (in this case, digital) claims for meaning when the object of interpretation and eventual understanding is human subjectivity.” (145) In recent years this interference has been growing because of the collection, analysis and trade of user and consumer data. Romele speaks of a “general ‘algorithmization’ and ‘Big Datafication’” that has created a superstructure with a central role in our digital economy, culture and society (148).
What worries Romele is the indifference he finds in many people, “the most important affection in the present digital age.” (145) He tries to understand this indifference with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. Habitus is a “supra- or infra-cultural entity that frames our intention without us even being conscious of such hetero-determination.” (149) It shapes our behaviour, postures, wishes, etc., and makes us part of a specific social and economic class. The digital, Romele writes, “must be considered as a sort of habitus generator.” (146, 151) At the end of his book he formulates the following important question:
“The question I want to ask at this point is how it is possible to make subjects able to deal with the digital habitus in order to carve out room for manoeuvring or allowing a margin of freedom before the power and the conﬁguring force exercised on them by and through the sociotechnical systems.” (153)
His answer makes use of three notions that are articulated by Michel Foucault. The first is the Panopticon: surveillance is an increasing problem of social media. The second notion is confession. Foucault states that Western self-understanding and expression have adopted a form of confession that gives rise to problematic power relations. The way to deal with these power relations may lie in a third notion: parrhesia, speaking freely, in a way that interrupts the usual codes. The problem is, however, that algorithmic digital technology seems to have anesthetized our free speech or to have made it irrelevant. What can speaking freely help us, if the algorithms of insurance companies or the police have already profiled us as suspicious? Romele suggests that only socio-economic and institutional initiatives can constitute contexts and situations that make parrhesia possible. The justice we would need to look for, he concludes,
“…would consist of creating sociotechnical conditions for an ethos of distanciation from one’s own digital habitus. In other words, it would mean to contribute to framing a sociodigital environment in which people can become sensitive to the insensibility and indifference of the digital.” (158)
Digital Hermeneutics is a rich and dense book that offers many views on the rapidly developing digital structures of our world. It discusses several important questions that philosophy needs to address today. At the same time it is a very good effort to re-invent hermeneutics in a contemporary setting, incorporating post-phenomenology and other philosophies of technology. In short, this is a must-read for everyone who is interested in hermeneutic philosophy and the digital.
Don Ihde. Don. 1998, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Floridi, Luciano. 2005. “Is Semantic Information Meaningful Data?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2): 351–370.
Kitchin, Rob. 2014. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. London: Sage.
Marres, Noortje. 2017. Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Sociological Research. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1991. From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Staiti’s book is a very engaging metaethical investigation of naturalism in ethics (7). Here, phenomenology serves a twofold purpose. As it is in the nature of phenomenology, in this book, too, phenomenology is used as a method and theory. On the one hand, phenomenology’s methodological approach can provide the right ‘atteggiamento’ (attitude, 30) for addressing problems proper to naturalism, such as nihilism and the relative limits of physicalism (20-25); on the other hand, phenomenological theory in axiology, specifically in relation to the notion of material a priori (38), offers ideas in support of a “liberal way” (29) of interpreting naturalism and handling some of the thorniest debates in metaethics. This is especially clear when Staiti discusses the problem of moral intuition and perception and the behavior of axiological properties in mereological foundations (8).
What does phenomenology have to gain from this interaction? Staiti’s answer is that metaethics can help phenomenology to position itself in the contemporary philosophical metaethical traditions (9). Since metaethical problems are very close to the issues tackled by the phenomenological tradition, the two can help each other in the most problematic areas.
The book is organized into four chapters. The first starts with a description of naturalism, in general, and ethical naturalism, in particular. Staiti describes two aspects of naturalism: ontological and methodological. Methodological naturalism is based on and limited by the natural sciences and the scientific community that gathers around them (16). In this form of naturalism, the philosophical discussion is based on the solid ground of what can be proven by science. In doing so, methodological naturalism does not leave much room to discuss what cannot yet be proven. This problem also occurs in ontological naturalism. Ontological naturalism, in fact, focuses on the description of concrete entities; what is labelled as spooky (17) exceeds this category. For this reason, Staiti seems to welcome De Caro’s proposal of a liberal naturalism (19-20), which connects philosophical rationality to empirical sciences in order to revise scientific positions that would oppose the experimental nature of science and philosophy (20).
In ethics, naturalism expresses itself in the forms of physicalism and realism. In ethical physicalism, what matters for the ethical discourse is what we can ‘tangibly’ see; hence, in the case of a nihilistic solution what matters is Nothing, or, in the case of psychologism and expressivism, what matters are feelings and emotions. A naturalistic approach to the good leads the investigator to take into consideration only what exists in reference to the world (22). This form of naturalism in ethics tends to reinforce a moral psychology that limits the investigation to what can be proven as true and good from the perspective of the Geisteswissenschaften (sciences of mind). The other declension of naturalism in ethics is realism, which considers axiological properties as real entities accessible to the philosophical investigation. Similarly to the liberal naturalism proposed above, Staiti points to a liberal form of naturalism in ethics that would avoid a nihilist solution to ethical problems. In fact, the liberal version of ethical naturalism supports “the existence of axiological properties as natural properties accessible in the same way as natural properties” (25). In order to access these properties, philosophy needs to adopt the right attitude which seems to be best provided by the phenomenological method (31).
As we know from Husserl’s essay Philosophy as a Rigorous Science (1910), phenomenology discusses naturalism in a new fashion. The essence of one’s experience of a natural phenomenon cannot be reduced to a mere aggregate of physical or psychical atoms (in the case of scientific or psychological naturalism). Having experience means to refer to something that constitutes the object of my experience in the world (34-35). The natural phenomenon can never be the summation of its parts, but instead is the intentional content of a given lived-experience that we can access and describe through the reflective analysis of the lived-experience itself. Similarly to liberal ethics, phenomenology shares the idea of being able to access the axiological properties of ethical experience as much as its perceptual properties (37) as the two are bound together by a mereological foundation in which the results of the natural givenness is not mere summation but the supervenience of the relationship between its elements. Speaking to this, Staiti gives the example of Husserl’s notion of material a priori as an a priori model for explaining how the material axiological aspects of the experience stand in relation to a specific region of reality and its logical properties. For example, pain is a disvalue, hence what we know as torture is wrong as it produces this specific disvalue consequence in this region of reality.
Continuing on this road, the second chapter of Staiti’s book shows how the phenomenological attitude can lend itself to the understanding of the mereological supervenience of axiological and logical properties. Focusing on moral intuition and perception, Staiti shows how the natural entity of the ontological and methodological approach used in naturalism is explained in phenomenology as the intentional fulfillment correlated to the intentional essence. Referencing Audi, Staiti explains in great clarity how in Husserl, differently from Audi, the perceptual awareness of the correspondence between reality and experience (49) tends to distinguish experience from one’s lived-experience as this latter involves a reflective quality proper to the intentional act that escapes the mere representationalist point of view. According to representationalism, in fact, the sensorial multitude on which the perceptive experience of something is based is lived but not experienced—hence it is for us a mental representation of the direct perceptive experience. For Husserl, instead, ”the intentional relationship establishes that an act of perceptual awareness refers to a perceived object and this relationship is a phenomenal [manifestativa] and not representational one” (52). The direct perceptual experience is a phenomenal manifestation, while one’s lived experience has a phenomenological reflective quality that is missing in the spontaneity of the natural attitude. The correctness of the description of the natural phenomenon in ethics, as the scientist experiences it in a natural spontaneous life, does not amount to the representations of that phenomenon but to the intuition of the axiological properties pertaining to that ethical phenomenon as they are perceived in that intentional act. “The simple perception—seeing a lemon—will evolve, most probably, in the predicative perception ‘seeing a yellow lemon’ because the lemon is yellow. If I were to always sell lemons, therefore continuously exposed to their brightness of that yellow, probably it would not be its yellow so immediately apparent, but another property, for example the opacity of its skin that reveals that the lemon has not been treated with chemicals” (56). Any perception of axiological properties is a thematization of the intentional relationship that connects the individual to a specific region of that lived experience.
In chapter three, Staiti explains how the concreteness of what is perceived can emerge as a content that is congruent to what is perceived and intuited in the lived-experience of the subject. In fact, Staiti remarks, “in phenomenology, intuition represents the apex of an experiential process, that is, the congruence between the sense as it is thought and the sense as it has been actually experienced” (63). How this congruence comes together in the intentional content is explained through the notion of supervenience or mereological foundation. In phenomenology, foundation (Fundierung) describes a mereological relationship of parts and whole (81) in which a complex experience and its object can be analyzed according to their mutual inferences. In the case of a naturalistic liberal ethics, we want to ask ourselves “what kind of objects are the objects qualified in an axiological manner? What’s their structure? What kind of experience is the one in which objects of this kind are intentionally meant? (81).
To describe how the concreteness of the intentional content is shaped in relation to axiological properties, Staiti uses emotional acts (Gemütsakte). These acts can be described as those acts with which we refer to objects whose axiological properties we can clearly perceive—Maria loves Giulio, for example. Giulio is the positive object of Maria’s emotional act. As with any other intentional act, emotional acts are also constituted of a form (Maria loves Giulio, i.e. subject + verb + object) and a matter (what is in the act of Maria loving Giulio). Any matter is generally qualified by a position-taking with which we can tell whether the subject refers to reality (Maria loves Giulio, her partner) or fantasy (Maria loves Giulio, her imaginary friend). The position taken in emotional acts — such as “I love,” “I respect,” “I value” — need to be completed by the emotion that qualifies that position-taking and the objectivating acts that make sense of their content-matter (87). Maria loves Giulio because she knows Giulio (epistemological, doxic, logic position) or at least she can bring his matter to the predicative form—Giulio. The position-taking proper to emotional acts needs a logical layer for the emotional content matter to be brought to the fore. If this layer is missing, what remains is a motivational necessity that moves Maria’s emotion of loving to connect with the object of her love but without being able to express it in words or being aware of it. Maria is attracted to this person. Axiological properties in general, like those that characterize emotional acts, need objectivating predicative acts to bring that motivating/-ed matter to the fore. The intentional essence of the emotional content needs to be meant in order to be epistemologically understood, yet their axiological quality can already be perceived in intuition (the essence of the beloved person as a positive value, for example). Axiological properties do not necessarily refer to the ‘real’ object (91); Giulio can be just Maria’s fantasy, or he might no longer be living, or he could be the character of her favorite play. Axiological properties relate to the content-object in the same way as logical properties do. Yet, while logical properties are necessary for the content to preserve its objectual unity (92), axiological properties do not seem to be essential to this unity; they come as a co-existent addition to that unity (Giulio, the person Maria has in mind, versus Giulio, the person Maria loves). In fact, even if I do not know whom I love, that person will continue to be, although my feelings in relation to that person and the values that I attribute to her will be perceived as disconnected moments that hinder the possibility of fully grasping the content of my intention. Parenthetically, I think that this magnitude of disruption is exactly what occurs in cases of borderline and bi-polar personalities where the inability to mean the axiological properties related to the intentional content of an emotional act has the power to disrupt the unity of the emotional content as much as logical properties do.
To come back to Staiti’s argument, the asymmetry between axiological and logical acts does not involve that axiological acts are not intentional. The necessity connecting the essential integrity of an object (constituted by the logical properties that make that object what it is) to its axiological properties is a motivational necessity. According to this motivational necessity, the object of my experience comes to acquire a value after I have grasped its nature (101); this understanding motivates me to feel and act in a certain way toward it. Axiological and logical properties refer to each other in a complementary way. This complementarity structures the way in which I see the object of my experience and determines the meanings and values that I am going to assign to that object. “The more easily I will understand the supervenient axiological properties of my object, the more familiar I am with the logical properties of the same object” (101). If I am not wrong in my understanding of Staiti’s argument, I think that his argument would flawlessly work in the example of the lemon vendor he mentioned above. The lemon seller will know more the value of what she is selling the more she knows about the product. Yet, once again, I think that this argument would be less effective when applied to emotions. Logical properties do not seem to be more essential than axiological ones in emotional acts. In fact, it might happen that the more I know someone the less I feel I can value her because her personality is puzzling to me or the less I feel that I know her because she keeps showing side of herself that are contradictory.
Yet, here Staiti raises an important point: there is a parallelism between axiology and logic, which he explains as a parallelism between the good and truth, that makes liberal naturalism in ethics possible. Using Husserl’s reference to this same parallelism, which in Husserliana XVIII and XXXVII focused, though, on ethics, axiology, and logic—respectively the good, value, and true—Staiti builds an interesting strategy for describing the concreteness of the good in ethics as a natural phenomenon. He writes that “the good is the axiological equivalent to the notion of existence in the logical-theoretical sphere” (115). Staiti proposes the parallelism between axiology and ethics as a stratagem for solving the problem of realism in ethics. While I believe that this stratagem is quite effective, I also think that a passage is missing here: the object of axiology, in fact, is a value and not the positive value—the good as Staiti seems to affirm. I think that the parallelism he proposes is not between axiology and logic but between ethics and logic which modifies, of course, the terms and results of Staiti’s argument. Moreover, he indicates that the logical equivalent of the good is the notion of existence, and not the expected notion of truth. Although unexpected, I agree with Staiti’s explanation of Husserl’s argument. The truth is in continuity with the notion of existence, that is a property of Sätze (115) propositions. What exists is what is posited (gesetzt), that is, the objectual correlate of what has been posited in a categorical act (114).
In the last chapter, Staiti applies this parallelism as a convincing stratagem for tackling G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument (1903). Moore’s Open Question Argument relates to the impossibility of defining good (1903, 50). If ethics cannot find a convincing definition of good, no analytic proposition around the good holds, accordingly all the propositions used to describe the good must be all synthetic ones. “Interrogating whether something is good, equates to ask oneself if pleasure is pleasant” (1903, 64). “Moore shows that the notion of good is irreplaceable when it appears together with complex proposition, otherwise their meaning would change” (122).
Yet, if we look at this problem from a phenomenological perspective and ask ourselves “what does the question ‘x is good’ truly ask?” we will see how what we want to know is the concretum of goodness as it belongs to that specific intentional act correlated to that specific ontological region. The question addresses the kind of properties and objects with which the notion of good is in a mereological foundation. Since the good correlates with its logical properties in an essential way and since the logical properties are what is posed, then the good is the mereological foundation of those parallel properties. We know how to answer the Open Question in relation to the good without leaving x as an incognitum. The good is that Satz (proposition) which receives a cognitive fulfillment qualified by axiological properties related to a specific ontological region existing in one’s experience of a given space and moment in time. Differently from Geach’s argument toward Moore (1956, 33), Staiti is not saying that the good is an attribute of being because there is a mereological relationship between logic and axiology, the posited and the good. While an attribute can be removed or changed without altering the essence of the object, in this mereological relationship the good and the posited are interwoven with each other via a motivational necessity; changing any of these terms will change the nature of the phenomenon itself.
I think that Staiti succeeds in his goal of showing the mutual enrichment deriving from applying phenomenology in metaethics. The argument presented in this concluding chapter is a tangible proof of it.
De Caro, M. 2016. “Natura e Naturalismi.” Hermeneutica, 16: 9-24.
Geach, P. 1956. «Good and Evil.» Analysis, 17: 33–42.
Husserl, E. 1988. Vorlesungen ueber Ethik und Wertlehre. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (Hua, XXVIII).
Husserl, E. 2004. Einleitung in die Ethik. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (Hua, XXXVII).
Husserl, E. 1965. “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” trans. in Q. Lauer (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy. New York: Harper.
Moore, G. E. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The heart of the human experience is suffering. Such, at least, is Arthur Schopenhauer’s abiding thought. For Schopenhauer, in fact, our own personal suffering is just a microcosm of the whole world’s plight, which itself is, as his writings never cease trying to remind us, one characterized by brutality, cruelty, agony, despair, and ultimately death. Our situatedness in the phenomenal world (which is but the illusory shimmer of a primal Wille), he says, is that of a sailor who “sits in a small boat in a boundless raging sea, surrounded on all sides by heaving mountainous waves, trusting to his frail vessel; so does the individual man sit calmly in the middle of a world of torment, trusting the principium individuationis” (49). If the world we experience is in many ways a house of horrors, then, so Schopenhauer argues, it falls to each of us to do what he can to diminish the suffering we find in it—and how else, so he suggests, will accomplishing that be feasible except by having compassion for others? Compassion, hence, it would seem to follow, is the foundation of ethics.
As Schopenhauer says of Mitleid in On the Basis of Morality, when this “compassion is aroused, the weal and woe of another are nearest to my heart in exactly the same way, although not always in exactly the same degree, as otherwise only my own are. Hence the difference between him and me is now no longer absolute” (31). The ethical imperative to die to one’s egoism, and to thereby identify with others rather than only with oneself, however, is for Schopenhauer paradoxically infused with a thoroughgoing fatalism: just as the individual and his ego are themselves illusions, so too is free will. “The person is never free,” claims Schopenhauer, “even though it is an appearance of a free will, because it is the already determined appearance of the free willing of that will” (39). It is the search for life’s justification even in the face of its immense suffering that later drove Friedrich Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, to reflect on these matters of freedom, value, and meaning. Art consistently proves central to those resulting reflections. For on one plausible interpretation of the matter, Nietzsche’s idea that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon” that existence is justified is itself a formulation to be understood as a variation of Schopenhauer’s own pessimistic insight into the purportedly inherent pointlessness of suffering. Existence requires justification precisely because it is not immediately self-justified. As for life, as the Nietzsche of the Birth of Tragedy notes, it cannot be affirmed strictly for what it is—“the truth is terrible,” after all—but rather must be tolerated by way of placative lies. On the view Nietzsche sets out during this period of his thinking, art accordingly presents us with a palatable world, a beautifully transfigured version of what is a reality otherwise too ugly to be embraced unadorned.
Many scholars have examined the numerous, fascinating connections between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on points of art, ethics, and metaphysics. Many, too, have done so with the aim of locating both figures in their shared intellectual and historical milieu. Paul Downes’s Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur: Inclusion of the Other, does both of these things, with an eye to philosophical ambitions of its own that make the work remarkably original. Downes is not interested only in telling us what these three key post-Kantian European figures think, but, more vitally, in getting us to identify and think about the important subtleties they themselves have left unthought, or at least unsaid. For Downes, who is interested in our relation to the other in its full ethical and metaphysical complexity and richness, the correct point of departure lies, with Schopenhauer, in seeking “a basic orientation of openness” breaking with egoism (43). The task for thinking, here in turn, demands a form of inquiry that he calls a “spatial phenomenology”: an account of experiential space in all its variegation, including the peculiar spatiality of thought itself. Through a series of close and constructive readings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Ricœur too (among others like Kant, Lévi-Strauss, and Heidegger to name a few), Downes undertakes a comprehensive analysis of the relation between oneself and the other, a spatial alterity ethics, as it were. As he puts it, “There is a spatial system of relations, a primordial spatial discourse pertaining to life that is embedded in the seminal works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur —and yet overlooked by each of them” (1).
Before turning to Downes’s account of “concentric” and “diametric” spaces, it is valuable to linger over the problem of empathy, or compassion. Nietzsche’s philosophy of will to power, for instance, by rendering the picture of self-consciousness and human flourishing that it does, rejects the deeply humane perspective above for which Schopenhauer is famous. Compassion for the Übermensch is out the window, with cruelty assuming the pride of place. It is somewhat surprising that Nietzsche’s thought, which does begin by acknowledging the role of suffering in existence, nonetheless abandons compassion. How does it end in cruelty? As Downes says, to start with, Nietzsche’s view of tragedy correctly recognizes the deep pain of existence, what the latter himself terms “the eternal wound of life” (55). Dionysianism seeks relief from this primordial suffering in a countermovement of ecstasy, or rapture. And if the world of individuated consciousness is one giving rise to ineradicable suffering, this consciousness itself must be dissolved if suffering is to be vanquished. What results, Downes writes, is “a purported expansion as annihilation,” an “obliteration of boundaries” whose quest consists in the desire “for no boundaries” (54). A Nietzschean pursuit of rapture leads to the monism of the Dionysian, “a collective ritual, the fusion” of one’s diffusion of oneself “with the crowd” (55). In the end, however, this entire economy of desire only spells trouble. Its “intoxication as obliteration of self, as annihilation of boundaries,” says Downes, “whether wine-fueled or through other intoxicatory substances such as hallucinatory drugs,” risks a collapse of self. An assessment of this economy invites the question of what mediating pathways explain the passage from this collapse of identity in the early Nietzsche’s Dionysian, on the one hand, to the subsequent cruelty of the Dionysian in the later Nietzsche, on the other hand, a cruelty including eventually even the lust to inflict it. The desire to expand (or at least this mode of expansion: the dilatio explicated by Jean-Louis Chrétien, for one, is not the same), to be powerful, to ever grow beyond one’s current limits, eventually in Nietzsche’s thinking transforms into the satanic desire to inflict suffering on others, to dominate and control them. As Downes notes, following Károly Kerényi, whoever travels this road ends up psychologically mimicking the cruelty of the sacrificial Dionysian rite in which the victim “was first boiled and then roasted” (95).
According to Nietzsche himself, “cruelty constituted the great joy and delight of ancient man” (109). In turn, as Downes puts it, “joy becomes a celebration of cruelty” (Ibid.). Now as anyone familiar with what Nietzsche says can attest, nothing about such cruelty is said by him to be ethically censurable. After all, the fact that, ordinarily, cruelty is something condemned while compassion is praised is only so, maintains Nietzsche, because of the “slave morality” from which the moral categories of good and evil themselves originated, a moral and psychological economy that his account of will to power presumes itself to have dismantled. But Downes detects a problem waiting to surface. For even if it is possible to overlook the fact that Nietzsche’s characterization of “blissful annihilation” is perhaps just an unwitting variation of the very same pessimistic impulse behind Schopenhauer’s “ascetic negation of the will” that he wishes to reject (43), it still remains the case that, for Nietzsche, “hell is not so much other people as connection with other people” (100). Ultimately, this urge for domineering isolation, which is mobilized in pursuit of self-gratification, undermines itself, for it never finds the satisfaction it is seeking. The Nietzschean impulse to flee from connection (100), to dash the bonds of our ordinary ethical relations and the Apollonian mode of self-consciousness underpinning those relations, culminates in a lust for power that replicates, in the form of a straightforward inversion, the two original terms of the ethical relation it sought to overcome. Where before one was encouraged to have compassion for another’s suffering, now one instead takes delight in inflicting it. At times, Nietzsche appears to attempt to defend this mode of existence by emphasizing that this is simply the way of the world, that “all happening in the organic world consists of overpowering and dominating” (89). As Downes explains, the will to power, which was said to originate as a life principle, instead becomes a will to death, one that accordingly “finds infliction of pain and suffering ‘magical’” (90), so much that the “actual infliction of suffering is elevated into being an end of itself” (Ibid.). The “fundamental monism” recounted in the Birth of Tragedy’s account of an “unmediated life will in music,” a surpassing of the ordinary boundaries of the Apollonian principium individuationis (107), ultimately elevates the psychology of “Dionysian sacrifices” (94) to a “wider cosmological principle” (93), thereby justifying psychological hate and destruction. One here might naturally call to mind Freud, whom Downes does: “Freud’s account of ritual” as an “obsessional neurosis” rooted in the “compulsion to repeat” (97), and which gives expression to a death drive, seems a plausible explanation for the psychology of the one who comes to be dominated by his compulsive desire to dominate others. What began as the attempted liberation from the cultural construction of good and evil leads to little more than an insatiable, self-destructive sadism. “Why,” for example, Nietzsche asks, “is knowledge … linked to pleasure? First and foremost, because by it we gain awareness of our power … any new knowledge … makes us feel superior to everyone” (90). Perhaps Nietzsche really just is more perceptive and honest than the rest of us, when he claims to identify the desire to know as one whose end consists in the satisfying pleasure of feeling superior to others who don’t know what we do. Some people, I suppose, may well desire to know for that reason. But everyone always?
This stated diagnosis of what motivates our desire to know raises a deeper question of whether knowledge itself is even possible at all, a skeptical worry that for its own part leads to further questions concerning the nature of the experienced world and the nature of reality as such. For Schopenhauer, for example, who basically grants the Kantian division between the world in itself and the world of appearance, there is a sense in which any human discursive knowledge is illusory. From this radically Kantian perspective, the spatiotemporal world of individuated entities is itself a deformation of the real—whatever it may be. In a move that will anticipate the work’s subsequent treatment of Ricœur, Downes observes that, in the wake of “the linguistic turn” associated with structuralism, realism goes by the wayside. The structuralist commitment to the “primacy of language” leaves us with conceptual schemes, and that is all. As an heir to Kantianism, such an approach denies that we have access to things as they are in themselves. Here in response to the linguistic idealist, Downes like Claude Romano holds that there is a domain of meaning more fundamental than that which is shaped and structured by language or concepts. It is, he says, “a language of space that is itself prior to language—a spatial protolanguage or discourse” (7). Or more precisely still, “Space is a precondition for language; language is not a precondition for space. Space is itself a system, a system of meaningful relations through the contrasts between diametric and concentric spaces” (156). This space is experientially prior to anything language is able to mediate or structure. To begin bringing into focus what Downes wishes us to see, to see what he means by this spatiality, it is important to recognize that the relevant notion of space is not Cartesian. Descartes’s notion of empty space, a geometrically extended field for scientific abstraction, is not what is at issue (6). Nor is the conception of space at issue Kantian either, for it is not “a transcendental condition as a necessity for thought” (7). Initially, Downes explains what such space is by characterizing both concentric and diametric space in terms of what they are not:
“[Concentric and diametric spaces] are not to be reduced simply to a flawed appeal to the ‘natural’ […] Life is not being treated as a substance, it not ousia as presence but as a relation, a relational space as a directional movement and tension” (9).
“Concentric space is not being postulated as an ancient primordial experience to be re-enacted. Concentric space is not a nostalgia for the premodern or for some period of history lost in the mists of time; it is a current, ongoing experiential possibility [concentric and diametric spaces] are not mere categories, static forms, collections of sterile classifications, schemes or cognitions corresponding to particular ideas, life goals or world views. Rather they are proposed as being prior framing conditions for understanding as projections of primordial experience structured through these spaces—and as such these spaces are not monoperspectival exhortations, but rather conditions for a vast plurality of perspectives to grow and thrive” (11).
“Primordial here is not being invoked in terms of some ancient prehistory. The spatial dimension is proposed as ontologically prior and primordial as a more fundamental truth or experience; a direction of unity for experience; a truth and experience prior to socially constructed realities; a cross-cultural truth; being beyond the limited schema of causal explanations” (27).
Alternatively, sometimes he offers a description of these spaces in positive terms:
“Moving space is the breath of thought” (6).
“Spatial breath is the pulse of thought, not a denial of spatial breath in the inert space of monism. Space is indelibly interactive and immanent in thought” (Ibid.).
“Diametric spatial structure is one where a circle is split in half by a line that is its diameter or where a square or rectangle is similarly dived into two equal halves” (17).
“In a concentric spatial structure, one circle is inscribed in another larger circle; in pure form, the circles share a common central point” (Ibid.).
“A concentric spatial relation is a structure of inclusion compared to diametric spatial structure of exclusion” (20).
“These spaces are being examined as fundamentally directions of movement rather than to be treated as simply static structures” (21).
“They are precognitive framing spaces and are prior to metaphor” (24).
Returning to Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s handling of compassion and cruelty shows how these issues are to be understood in terms of Downes’s spatial phenomenology. From this perspective, Nietzsche is “locked into a diametric spatial understanding” (12). In at least two senses. To begin with, diametric space is oppositional, sometimes exclusionary to the point that one of its binaries cuts off all contact with its opposite term. Taken in an ethical register, to say that Nietzsche’s Dionysian account of self-understanding is underwritten by diametric space is just to say, whatever else it also means, that the self excludes the other. The self who is locked in diametric space lacks compassion and empathy for the other: precisely what Nietzsche himself extols when he valorizes cruelty. Furthermore, there is the second sense to this diametric spatial understanding, one which concerns the thought itself responsible for attempting to conceptualize the ethical relation. Here again, Nietzsche’s thinking is itself diametric: in struggling to subvert the ordinary terms of good and evil, he ends up re-instantiating binaries, either to prioritize one of the original terms over the other, or else to introduce a new dyad in substitution for the original pairing. Thus, according to Downes, “the more [Nietzsche] seeks to break away from the diametric spaces underpinning this, the more he is locked within them in different forms” (86).
Hence, “Inclusion of the Other” requires a “concentric spatial relation” (2). And here again, in both of the two senses established above. Because the “exclusion process in the us/them projection rests on a diametric binary opposition” (2), it will be necessary to overcome this binary in a way that allows the self and other to exist harmoniously, rather than as adversaries. Schopenhauer’s own position can be explained in terms of the spatial terms that frame it: just as compassion “internalises the other as an extension of the self” (33), so here a concentric spatial relation “is not an obliteration of self but a moistening of boundaries between self and other as a governing precondition for compassion” (37). Such a concentric relation depends on an assumed connection rather than an assumed separation (32). Nietzsche’s will to power, as Nietzsche himself says, is a process of expansion, which is seen to be spatial: “Its object thereby is the incorporation of new ‘experiences’ … growth; or more properly, the feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power—is its object” (84). This process, however, as we have seen, is haunted by its inherently egoistic topos, what in turn erects a “thick partition” (37) between oneself and the other. It could be argued that Nietzsche’s account of the Dionysian possesses sufficient conceptual resources to overcome this “diametric oppositional spatial split between self and other, where the individual internalizes the other with stark divisive boundaries of a diametric dualistic spatial relation” (41-42). After all, is not the point about such Dionysian self-consciousness that it entails a sort of orgiastic, monistic fusion, whereby boundaries between oneself and others are dissolved? Downes acknowledges that the Nietzschean position could be initially construed as embodying a form of concentric space, insofar as it articulates a connective notion of “monistic fusion as unity” (43). But, as Downes notes, there is a difference between “destruction and dissolving generally” (37). Nietzsche’s account proposes a dissolution of ordinary self-consciousness so extreme, that, despite overcoming a form of the ordinary oppositional split characteristic of diametric space, it nevertheless fails as an ethical solution to the problem of egoism. It lapses into the annihilation of self. This form of monistic connective space does not make room for the inclusion of the other, then, because there remains no individuated self capable of exercising the recognition necessary to welcome that other. This, it should be noted, is one of the main troubles with crowd psychology and mob mentality, which absorb the individual into a mindless monism. If I am to identify successfully with your pain and so empathize with you, I must so exist as an individual. Nietzsche’s Dionysianism, which refers to “drunkenness and mystical self-abandonment, Dionysian festivities,” and which bring “an effusive transgression of the sexual order,” and with that the “annihilation of the usual limits and borders of existence” (133-34), may escape the diametric separation of Apollonian self-consciousness, but it ushers in an ethical void.
In fact, the Apollonian and Dionysian, Downes writes, “is a response to experience of an existential void” (74), what Nietzsche himself identifies in On the Genealogy of Morals as the suffering incurred “‘from the problem of [finding one’s] own meaning’” (74). On the subject of the void—or the “nothing,” one might say—it is Heidegger whom Downes discusses most extensively. But it is a different aspect of Downes’s engagement with Heidegger that I would like to highlight instead. In the spirit of Being and Time’s existential analytic, might not one claim, with Heidegger, that the entire problem of the relation between self and other has heretofore been misconstrued? While the spatial phenomenology on offer does well to have highlighted how experiential space is not Cartesian (or even Kantian), has it not, so the argument continues, failed to eliminate perhaps another classic residue of Cartesianism, the vision of intersubjectivity that envisions self and the other as essentially disconnected? Put differently, is to characterize compassion as an achievement, as Schopenhauer does, to overlook the deeper ontological bond between oneself and another? As Heidegger famously claims when explaining why traditional skepticism about the “external world” and other minds is misplaced, Dasein is Mitsein, a being for whom its mode of being always already includes others being with and alongside oneself. The other, thus, “is in some way a dimension of the primordial structures of self” (174). This Heideggerian line of objection will resurface down the page, when turning to Downes’s treatment of Ricœur’s use of metaphor.
As for the failure of Nietzsche’s account of the relation with the other to reach any satisfying ethical solution, this is so, as Downes says, in part due to the fact that, trapped in one’s egoism, the individual who rejects compassion in the name of will to power thereby confines himself to the “dungeon of diametric space [operating] as a sealed compartment” (87). Understandably, we want to say this is bad, and for many reasons. But does a spatial phenomenology allow us to reject such egoism on genuinely ethical grounds? In considering this question, I want to mention a potential tension that emerges in Downes’s view. When, for instance, it is written in the book’s introduction that a spatial phenomenology “is paving the way for a question of wellbeing for all people” (11), the thought naturally arises: precisely what view of man is at issue here? How are we to understand the notion of wellbeing, what is our measure of good in doing so? On the one hand, the work’s language appears to endorse a full-blown realism about human nature when remarking that space is “a truth and experience prior to socially constructed realities; a cross-cultural truth” (27). On the other hand, sometimes the language suggests something less universal but pluralistic or even relativistic: “these spaces are not monoperspectival exhortations, but rather conditions for a vast plurality of perspectives to grow and thrive” (11). The tension between these statements is most evident, as just mentioned, I think, when focusing specifically on Nietzsche’s own metaethical critique of good and evil. Sometimes, Downes appears to endorse Nietzsche’s rejection of the claim that there is any absolute notion of good and evil worth preserving: “Nietzsche challenges the good-evil diametric opposition and is aware of the need to seek a more fundamental understanding” (108). A similar point seems to be made when criticizing oversimplistic binaries, including, evidently, that again of the one between good and evil: “Nietzsche perceives the limitations of the diametric oppositions, good-evil, pleasure-pain and seeks to overcome them for a purportedly more fundamental level of reality and experience” (111). And the apparent historicity of values—including morals—is stated explicitly two pages later: “Morals derive from emotions and experience, thus a shift in experiential habits can bring a transformation of values” (113). On one reading, it appears that Downes wants to reject Nietzsche’s diametric spatial account of the relation between self and other in order to retain the ethical importance of compassion, but I wonder whether compassion’s value can be truly affirmed without also endorsing the kind of metaethical realism from which Downes’s spatial phenomenology seems to decouple itself. When Nietzsche says, “Who is really evil according to the meaning of the morality of resentment? … just the good man of the other morality, just the aristocrat, the powerful one, the one who rules, but who is distorted by the venomous eye of resentfulness” (85), I think those of us who see the value of compassion are inclined to condemn Nietzsche’s exaltation of power and cruelty as not simply being mistaken in just any sense, but as wrong morally. I am not sure how an analysis of compassion in strictly spatial terms will accommodate that judgment. It is also worth mentioning in this same context that despite “the death of God” being a central lodestar for Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Ricœur, Downes does not explicitly say anything about the issue. Addressing this theological horizon of their thinking would perhaps be one way of also addressing the metaethical questions to which spatial phenomenology’s account of compassion and alterity ethics gives rise.
It is, I think, to this task that the the work’s third figure, Ricœur, is meant to answer. Just as with Ricœur himself who takes Husserl’s side against structuralism by denying the primacy of language, so too Downes holds that there are “structures of relation prior to metaphor” (146). Because concentric space operates “at a preconceptual, precognitive, prerepresentational framing level” (58), there is room for the establishment of an ethical relation prior to the interference of power-relations or any of the other potential complications attending language and tradition. A truly empathetic face-to-face encounter with the other is possible. Against the “monistic tendency” (63) of Nietzsche and the pessimism of Schopenhauer, Ricœur sets out a conception of alterity ethics that is capable of grounding a constructive dialogical exchange, a true sharing of views and perspectives in good faith, one that is in principle oriented by the ideals of truth, reason, and justice, rather than manipulation, power, and oppression. The trick, in short, says Downes, is to appreciate with Ricœur that a “concentric relation allows for distinction and difference that does not have to lead to opposition” (147). Here, Ricœureaen metaphor is to be understood as a spatial “precondition or prior system of relations to language interacting with language” (145), opening onto, as Husserl and Romano each say, “an autonomous system of meaning and relations” before language (146), and that accordingly invites us to “seek structures of being” (Ibid.). To return to Heidegger again (and the language of his phenomenological ontology), what is at stake in a work such as Basic Problems of Phenomenology, for example, is an “interrogation of the copula” (146), an inquiry entailing the recognition of a “domain of truth prior to [the] apophantic judgment of Aristotle” (163). Spatial phenomenology is an heir to that sort of effort.
In a theme which recurs throughout the work, Downes claims that whatever the analysis of experience happens to be on offer (whether from Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Heidegger), it fails to prioritize space in favor of something else. The most obvious example of this tendency to downplay space would be in Heidegger’s own prioritization of temporality. One response to this subordination of space, it might be suggested, would be instead to adopt a hybrid approach: one that, for example, synthesizes the role of space and time in structuring experience and thought. In a word, why not see place—rather than just space or time—as the fundamental structure of experience? Downes acknowledges this position explicitly (Jeff Malpas’s work on place is discussed) but ultimately rejects the claim that place is prior to space—such an approach, he says, “[collapses] the subtlety of space into mere place” (162). I cannot adjudicate this important debate, nor the related question of how concentric and diametric spaces relate to one another, adequately here, so I must simply note it in passing.
To conclude, it should be said that some readers may be frustrated with Downes’s dense formulations that require multiple readings. What he means is not always immediately clear. But that, I don’t think, is because what Downes is saying is inherently muddled, but rather because we are today too often superficial, inattentive, and distracted readers, so we are less and less accustomed to authentically thinking as we’re reading. It can be disorienting and unsettling to encounter a text that expects serious effort from us. This, maybe, is I think part of what makes Downes’s book enjoyably challenging. In a time when the space of discourse is increasingly less a space of reasons, a work as this, sensitive and subtle and deeply humane, is a thoughtful refuge from the shrill and shallow, one that repays the attention we provide it.
 For one excellent statement to this effect, see Julian Young, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art (CUP, 1992).
 This question will not be foreign to those familiar with analytic phenomenology, for which the phenomenality of thought has been a topic of attention for some time. See Charles Siewert, The Significance of Consciousness (Princeton, 1998) and David Pitt, The Quality of Thought (OUP, in progress).
 Downes, quite accurately, summarizes the nonconformist psychology typifying the one who sincerely rejects the morality of “the herd,” thereby hovering above and beyond good and evil. Such an individual’s concern, says Downes, “is to challenge flattened notions of comfort and security underpinning some conceptions of wellbeing, while he quests for an experiential intensity connected with risk and danger of destruction of self” (110). As a sociological observation, it bears noting that recent events surrounding Covid-19 have revealed something of an irony, that many of those in our universities who self-avowedly claim to live as Nietzschean «free spirits» have themselves instead embraced the logic of “safety and security,” and quickly succumbed to mass panic and hypochondria.
 It should be noted Downes anticipates that somebody might object to his phenomenological interpretation of the Dionysian in terms of concentric and diametric spaces by claiming that such an account is itself a quasi-Apollonian attempt to impose form on what Nietzsche treats as a formless expansive sea (76). His reply, which strikes me as correct, is that this is not an imposition of form, but rather the uncovering of “structural regularities in Nietzsche’s own habits of thought and experience” (Ibid.). The fact that the work identifies many other instances where Nietzsche’s thought exemplifies the same diametric opposition it notes in this context strengthens its position.
 As Downes observes, some of Nietzsche’s readers such as Walter Kaufmann have recognized the implicit binary structure of Nietzsche’s thought, noting in this context that monistic fusion and diametric closure are themselves inverted diametric images identified as power and impotence, respectively.
The problem of determining whether or not Husserl belongs to a broader «Platonic» tradition is destined to remain open. The philosophical importance of Thomas Arnold’s Phänomenologie als Platonismus. Zu den platonischen Wesensmomenten der Philosophie Edmund Husserls rests on the fact that this text places the issue on a solid theoretical basis. Arnold’s work, in fact, through its paratactic structure, helps us to avoid an historical reconstruction or a mere scholarly discussion of the problem, and advocates the idea that a Plato-Husserl confrontation has to be analyzed through «Wesens-Momenten,» through «essential moments.» In what sense does our approach to Platonism change, when seen through a Husserlian perspective? First of all, it is useful to read how the idea of “Platonism” should be understood:
«‘Platonismus'» wird im Folgenden nicht nur als Bezeichnung einer Familie von realistischen Positionen innerhalb des Universalienstreits oder spezieller der Ontologie der Mathematik verstanden, d. h. als Synonym einer schmal verstandenen ‘Ideenlehre’, sondern vielmehr als Name einer ganzen Philosophie» (6).
[«‘Platonism'» is here understood not only as a designation of a family of realistic positions within the problem of the universals, or more specifically, of the ontology of mathematics, i.e. as a synonym of a narrowly understood ‘theory of ideas’, but rather as the name of an entire philosophy”].
It is clear that the intention of the book is not to trace a conceptual filiation between Platonism and phenomenology, but rather to measure how philosophy quo talis, that is, in the spirit of Husserl, philosophy «als strenge Wissenschaft,» can be fully achieved by Plato or by Husserl. In a few words, the underlying idea is that, regardless of the diversity of conceptual vocabularies, the gnoseological requirements of the two authors coincide in many points. Arnold even goes so far as to hold that already in Plato there are the «regional ontologies» presented in Husserl’s Ideen, tracing a correspondent symmetry in Platonic dialogues:
«Regionale Ontologien finden sich etwa im Phaidon (Ontologie der psychê), in der Politeia (Ontologie der Kunst) oder im Timaios (Ontologie der Natur); neben pädagogischen und epistemologischen Querelen der Ethik stellt auch die Ontologie der Tugend ein Problem dar, bis sie im Gorgias und weiter in der Politeia als ‘Ordnung’ erkannt wird» (58).
[«Regional ontologies can be found in the Phaedo (ontology of psychê), in the Republic (ontology of art) or in the Timaeus (ontology of nature); in addition to the pedagogical and epistemological quarrels of ethics, the ontology of virtue also poses a problem until it is recognized as an ‘order’ [Ordnung] in the Gorgias and further in the Republic”].
But regardless of the possible conceptual symmetries between the texts of the two authors, the question always remains a theoretical one. The ambition of philosophy coincides with its claim to an absolute foundation, or to a conceptual foundation of the Absolute:
«Die sogenannten Wissenschaften sind bloße Techniken, insofern sie ihre Voraussetzungen nicht aufklären können. Wissenschaft muss absolut fundiert sein. Absolute Fundierung ist Fundierung im Absoluten. Nur Philosophie kann die Normen der absoluten Reflexion erfüllen. Sie ermöglicht damit Wissenschaft und ist selbst absolute Wissenschaft» (35).
[«The so-called sciences are mere techniques in that they cannot elucidate their pre-conditions. Science must be absolutely founded. Absolute foundation is foundation in the absolute. Only philosophy can fulfill the norms of absolute reflection. It enables science and is itself the absolute science»].
To do this, the text elaborates two strategies: firstly, underlining an analogical relationship between the Platonic and the Husserlian argumentative processes, it challenges the pre-eminence of the Cartesian approach, placing Husserl, through a Rückblick to Plato, already beyond modernity; secondly, in order to understand the Platonic analogies in Husserl, it assumes the existence of an already «phenomenological» Plato (30). In continuity with the Platonic and Husserlian arguments, Arnold claims the idea that philosophy does not exhaust itself in a mere gnoseological or epistemological approach, but it invests the very idea of «life.» According to this view, philosophy becomes the «absolute Rechtfertigung des Lebens» (Arnold: 129) [«the absolute justification of life»], overcoming the abstract antagonism of doxa and episteme:
«Die Radikalität der Phänomenologie selbst, kombiniert mit dem Selbstverständnis ihrer Stellung in der teleologischen Entwicklung des Menschen in Richtung Rationalität, erzwingt den Antagonismus zwischen Tradition (doxa) und Philosophie (episteme)» (129).
[«The radical nature of phenomenology itself, combined with the self-understanding of its position in the teleological evolution of man toward rationality, forces the antagonism between tradition (doxa) and philosophy (episteme)»].
Nevertheless, the most striking continuity between the Platonic and the Husserlian philosophical approach is the fact that «ideas» occupy the central theoretical position, i.e. the idea that the proper philosophical activity coincides with an act of Wesenschau. The «idea of idea» represents the conceptual strategy through which the essence of an «intentional psyché» is realized, contesting every naturalization of the mind, even in ancient times (Anaxagoras) and particularly in modern ones (Psychologism) (see, Arnold: 136). Ideas are the intelligible structures of things, «d. h. das, was ihre erkennbare, allgemeine Bestimmtheit ausmacht, ihr ‘Prinzip der Bestimmtheit’ oder das ‘Organisationsprinzip einer Gegenstandseinheit’, d.h. auch das ‘Kriterium’ (Uhlmann), dem gemäß ein Gegenstand ein solcher und nicht ein anderer Gegenstand ist» (Arnold: 207) [“i.e. what constitutes their recognizable, general determinateness, their ‘principle of determinateness’ or the ‘organizing principle of an object-unity’, i.e. also the «criterium» (Uhlmann), according to which an object is such and not another»]. The fundamental importance of ideas and essences, both in Plato and Husserl, suggests the fact that philosophy still aims to be, according to the Husserlian perspective, a «science of essences»:
«Wesen sind für Husserl die intelligiblen Bestimmtheitsstrukturen der Gegenstände und das, was ihnen ihre Möglichkeiten apriori vorgibt; ein Gegenstand, der ein Eidos instantiiert, hat in diesem Eidos seine Bestimmung» (214).
[«For Husserl, essences are the intelligible structures of the definiteness of objects, and what gives them their possibilities a priori; an object that instantiates an eidos has in this eidos its determination»].
The fundamental purpose inscribed in every platonic/realistic approach is to reflect on how and why our gnoseological capacities provide us with the ability to get in contact with ideas/essences, which, although transmaterial, possess the concreteness of a specific Gegenständigkeit. As Arnold points out, «die Ideen sind keine sichtbaren Dinge und keine Gedanken, aber sie sind nichtsdestotrotz in einem bestimmten Sinn eigenständige Gegenstände» (Arnold: 220) [«Ideas are not visible things and neither thoughts, but they are nonetheless – in a certain sense – independent objects»]. Tracing the idea of an essential analogy between Plato and Husserl, Arnold’s work provides a new conceptual legitimacy to the fundamental terms of our philosophical tradition. Through Plato and Husserl, a transhistorical conceptual vocabulary still conserves those certain powerful words, which are the very glory of philosophy: «idea,» «science,» «justification,» «essence,» «Absolute.»