Wojciech Kaftanski: Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity

Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity: A Study of Imitation, Existence, and Affect Book Cover Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity: A Study of Imitation, Existence, and Affect
Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy
Wojciech Kaftanski
Hardback £120.00

Reviewed by:  Steven DeLay (Research Fellow, Global Centre for Advanced Studies)

The concept of mimesis has a rich, complicated career in the history of aesthetics, philosophy, and theology. Plato and Aristotle both make much of it. Later, Lessing, Kant, and the Romantics draw heavily upon it as well. More recently, so too have René Girard and Heidegger. The term’s power to compel widespread attention is due in part to its fascinating ambivalence. As the existentialists noted famously, imitation (a core notion at the heart of mimesis) can be pernicious, “a mysterious force animating masses of people to uncoordinated collective common action,” a source of “dissolution of differences leading to normative uniformity,” a “spontaneous reflexive process” responsible for “marginalizing the value of human individuality, the meaning of subjective experience, and the role of passion and faith” (1). At the same time, imitation is fundamental to the artistic representation of beauty, the creative and ethical tasks of grappling with ideality, and, of course, the theological notion of imitatio Christi. In the human search for meaning, mimesis is thus both fundamental and inescapable. And to be sure, modernity’s “way of thinking about […] the role of authority and institutions in humanity’s orientation in the world” (2), entails a reconceptualization of mimesis itself, and how in turn it shapes the distinctly modern pursuit of an authentic human existence. According to Wojciech Kaftanski’s study Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity, it is Søren Kierkegaard who “offer[s] us one of the most comprehensive and profound accounts of modernity” (1). “What, then,” Kaftanski naturally asks, “are we to make of Kierkegaard’s understanding and use of mimesis?” (7).

Mimesis can be variously defined, as Kaftanski observes. It can designate “emulation, mimicry, dissimulation, doubling, theatricality, realism, identification, correspondence, depiction, verisimilitude, resemblance” (7). In the classical world, it typically denoted “faithful imitation of a model” (7). In the modern context, it is has come to be associated with creativity, “as originality, genius, individuality, imagination” (7). It is thus “ambivalent, inconspicuous, and in many ways blurry” (7). For as Kaftanski notes, mimesis also admits of a “pharmacological” meaning—it is “both a problem and a cure for the maladies of the modern individual” (7). Realizing it is futile to give the term any single concrete and exhaustive definition, it is better to approach the term by treating its cluster of concepts along the lines of Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblance.

This polyvalence of mimesis is apparent in Kierkegaard’s own handling of the term. Contrary, then, to what one might initially expect from a study of Kierkegaard, Kaftanski’s interest in the term extends beyond “simply imitation, or the imitation of Christ” (7). As he notes, Danish does not provide “a direct translation of the Greek mimesis into a noun” (9). The key term is Efterfølgelse (which can be literally translated into English as “following after”), a translation of the Latin term imitatio, itself the translation of mimesis (9). But Kierkegaard’s linguistic repertoire for mimesis is expansive and multi-layered, an “impressive and far wider” vocabulary than has been acknowledged (9). As Kaftanski says,

Kierkegaard uses a variety of terms to refer to the broad mimetic sphere in his corpus, such as Gjentagelsen (repetition), Ligne (likeness, and to liken, to resemble), Lighed (similarity and equality), Sammengligning (comparison), Eftergjøre (going and doing after), Efterabelse (aping or parroting), mimisk (mimic or mimical), but also Fordoblelse (redoubling), Reduplikation (reduplication), Dobbelt-Reflexion (double-reflection), Dobbelthed (doubleness or duplexity), Dobbelt-Bevoegelse (double-movement), Billede (image or picture), and Forbillede (prototype, model, tyfpe, pattern) (9).

In addition to the linguistic complexity of the phenomenon, there is the further fact that mimesis also reflects the multifaceted aesthetic, scholastic, economic, political, social, and religious context in which Kierkegaard was living and writing. Human beings orient themselves in place. And in the modern period, the city is central to that place. As Kaftanski says, the reinvention of Kierkegaard’s own Copenhagen was itself undertaken in mimetic fashion, by architecturally and culturally emulating Belin, Paris, and London (3). According to Kaftanski, the becoming of the modern city is a “macro-representation of the becoming of the individual […] the city and its inhabitants mirror one another” (4). How so? Part of it is that “mimesis entails both retaining the old and assimilating the new” (4). Copenhagen accordingly transformed itself into something new by reworking its past. But such reworking was not so banal, but in many ways radical. At the time, nineteenth-century Copenhagen was a city indelibly shaped by the formation of mass society, as well as class struggle. Consequently, a tendency emerged among its lower-classes to attempt to “imitate and appropriate” the standards, values, and tastes of the bourgeoisie (6). However, dissatisfied with their economic and political conditions, “an age of revolution” (2) quickly swept across Europe beginning in France and Germany, eventually finding its way to Copenhagen too. This “revolutionary mass action” exhibited a “mimetic-affective crowd behavior” (6)—a force of “mimetic magnetism, fascination, somnambulism, scapegoating, and violence” (12), which Kierkegaard himself was keen to resist, and led him to coin the pejorative terms “the public” and “the crowd.” Thus, as a modern critic of modernity, Kierkegaard’s account of becoming a single individual was deeply responsive to the interlocking mimetic structures of his economic, social, political, and religious milieu. Assuming a countercultural role resembling his philosophical hero Socrates, in this way the “gadfly of Copenhagen” was born.

As Kaftanski explains, Kierkegaard’s literary output reconceptualizes mimesis by creatively appropriating a variety of both classical and modern sources. At stake in doing so, is a conception of mimesis that shifts from “the ideal of representation characterizing pre-modern and the early modern” to an understanding that sees “humans as radically imitative creatures” (5). Mimesis, in short, is not simply an aesthetic phenomenon pertaining to the realm of artistic representation, but a fundamental feature of human existence as such. As Kaftanski says, “Representation is among the three fundamental meanings of mimesis conceptualized in classical Greece. The other two are ‘imitation’ and ‘expression’” (15). On such a view, mimesis is a process of “making present,” one guided by the goal of achieving “similarity and truth”—an artwork sets its vision on replicating “morally desirable objects,” aiming to reproduce something guided by “normativity and correspondence, form and mode” (15).

But whereas for classical art mimesis is “about representing some original, hence producing copies” (19), modern artists sought instead to create “new originals” (19). For the moderns, art should not merely seek to copy reality, but instead express something original or novel. Art, so the thought goes, “should not serve any other purpose but itself” (20). Here Lessing’s influential theory of aesthetics proves illustrative. “Lessing,” says Kaftanski, “asserts that the goal of art is to display beauty; hence, art is irreconcilable with suffering. Second, aesthetics is its own goal; it does not serve other ends” (21). Indeed, according to Lessing, art and religion have their distinct and largely “irreconcilable territories” (20). As is well-known, the Romantics consequently “tended to consecrate art as a religion” (19). Kierkegaard seizes on Lessing’s view, turning it to his own purposes. For according to Kierkegaard, if art and religion are in some way incompatible, this underscores the essential fact that art is said to be unable to express the religious dimension of suffering (15) which so interests Kierkegaard. Religious suffering, as Kaftanski says, is something Kierkegaard sometimes appears to maintain cannot be represented in the arts (20). If the goal of art is depicting beauty, then the ugliness and horror of the crucified Christ eludes its power of portrayal. For Kierkegaard, that art is unable to capture the inner truth of religious suffering in turn suggests that the religious life is itself irreducible to, and indeed higher than, the aesthetic life. For whereas a strictly aesthetic existence remains characterized by “human indecisiveness and a sensuous and disinterested attitude toward the world” (16), religious striving concerns “the pursuit of […] absolute fulfillment that the world cannot provide” (17), a “becoming an individual before God” (17). If art is undertaken simply for its own sake, it would appear to be irrelevant to the kind of authentic human existence Kierkegaard is so interested in expressing.

And yet, as Kaftanski notes, some of Kierkegaard’s own writings indicate a more ambivalent relationship to the value and function of both art and aesthetics. This becomes apparent when one considers the concept of ekphrasis important to Lessing himself—as Kaftanski says, “Ekphrasis is at work when a physical object of art, such as a painting or a sculpture, gets its written account” (21). Because ekphrasis uniquely “engages the subjectivity of the recipient” (21), it has the power to transform the viewer in ways that have implications for religious transformation. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author Anti-Climacus says as much. “The synergy of word and image,” Kaftanski writes, “can be seen in cases where Anti-Climacus refers to the activity of telling a picture, or describing what is represented in the picture, hence following the classical definition of ekphrasis, of re-presenting in words what already has a visual representation” (24). “Anti-Climacus,” says Kaftanski, “believes that if one can ‘be’ moved by the image of the suffering Christ to the imitation of His sufferings into one’s life, then one is becoming a genuine Christian” (25). In short, the experience of viewing the picture has an existential and mimetic dimension (27). Although, then, for Lessing, “the guiding task of aesthetics is to represent what is beautiful and harmonious, ‘the image of the crucified Christ’ is ugly and represents violence and chaos” (27), in Kierkegaard, because an artwork is not reserved to one particular medium, but instead consists of various media, it is possible to create a “spoken picture or, one could argue, a visualized narrative” (27). Such a work could in principle serve a mimetic function, by in effect calling the viewer to change.

Kierkegaard, thus, is neither a classical nor a full-fledged modern thinker (40), as his idiosyncratic view of the relationship between art and religion attests. For one thing, Kierkegaard is deeply suspicious of the modern ideal of human autonomy. Whereas the Enlightenment was wholly critical of classical mimesis, which it viewed as incompatible with the values of originality and creativity, Kierkegaard finds certain aspects of the modern conception of mimesis objectionable. For Kierkegaard, the modern ideal of an anti-mimetic, self-sufficient existence is a myth to be rejected (28). And yet, although the Enlightenment ideal of self-sufficiency is primarily hostile to mimesis, Kaftanski notes that it is actually Kant who in a way formulates a number of mimetic concepts that are relevant to Kierkegaard’s own attempt to work out a mimetic account of human existence. For Kant, the open-endedness of artistic production entails that aesthetics becomes a “judgment of taste” (30). Central to aesthetic production and valuation are four concepts of imitation: “copying [Nachmachung], aping [Nachäffung], imitation [Nachahmung], and emulation or following [Nachfolge]” (30). For Kant (and the Romantics too) who “cherished the ideal of mimesis understood as originality and criticized forms of art that aim to represent reality and hence were related to a pre-given existing model” (37), this modern criticism of classical mimesis led to the rejection of the mimesis-imitation of an artist to the elevation of the creativity of a genius (32). If for Kant, “genius cannot be taught and learned” (129), previous works of great art serve as exemplars “not for imitation” but “for emulation”—in encountering such a work, “another genius is thereby awakened to the feeling of his own originality, to exercise freedom from coercion in his art in such a way that the latter thereby itself acquires a new rule, by which the talent shows itself as exemplary” (127). Kierkegaard follows the Romantics in valuing originality over realistic representation of a model, but he “maintains that the Christian existential creation is in fact in relation to a model […] the model is transcendent” (37)—namely, Christ the prototype. Romantic anthropology, which takes autonomous agency to mark the human essentially, fails to provide the conceptual resources necessary to depict “the representational dimension of Kierkegaard’s own presentation of the ideal self” (33). As Kaftanski explains, “the aesthetic-religious puzzle of the representation of the suffering of the crucified Christ” (39) in turn leads Kierkegaard to formulate philosophical and literary works whose mimetic idioms seek to present an adequate picture of ideal Christian existence.

To do so, Kierkegaard begins by taking up existence in its “time-oriented and concrete, but also mundane, ordinary, and recurrent” everydayness (44). It is here that a pair of key Kierkegaardian notions, repetition and recollection, enter the picture. “Repetition—this is actuality and earnestness of existence,” says Kierkegaard (50). Repetition’s experiential task is to “recognize continuity in time” (45). In thinking about the drudgery of modern factory work and life, for instance, it is easy to understand how the banality of such an existence could lead to despair. One way it might do so is by leading those crushed beneath the weight of existence’s apparent absurdity and emptiness into substituting reality for a realm of ideality, of imagination. This is what happens in the aesthetic life, as Kierkegaard understands it. In this “hyper-reflective existence fueled by and lived in imagination” (51), there is a “lack of commitment to one’s life possibilities” (51). For the aesthete, “life splits up into a boundless multiplicity [held] within the sphere of reflection” (61). “Devoid of the ethical component,” the aesthete’s reflective “system” is not a life-view (61). The danger of imaginary dispersion in hyper-reflection is manifestly apparent in the theatrical. When producing or viewing a performance in the theater, one “entertain[s] a number of self-representations, which [Kierkegaard] calls ‘possible variations’” (52). The trouble is that, by doing so, one fails to actually be oneself, and instead loses oneself in imaginary characters and situations that have no real bearing on one’s real life. “This mimetic mirroring of the theater,” says Kaftanski, “constitutes a type of a private laboratory where one can fragment oneself” (52). Suffice it to say, if the dangers of idle escapism attending aesthetic enjoyment and diversion were already pressing with nineteenth-century forms of entertainment such as the theater and the newspaper, today that is only more so the case, given the advent of television, film, and the Internet.

According to Kierkegaard, however, the aesthete’s fragmentary response to existence is not the only possible form a response to the spectacles of the modern milieu may take. The key to appreciating the alternative Kierkegaard envisions lies in the concept of mimesis itself, which, according to Kaftanski, Kierkegaard himself sees “as embodied and performative” (44). Repetition as a mimetic concept entails “movement, imagination, and time” (45). And if this mimetic process is put in the service of a model truly worthy of imitation (60), then instead of remaining trapped in an imaginary world of ideality, ethical transformation and religious awakening is achievable.

If “life emulates art,” such emulation should “contribute to the becoming of a self in actual existence” (72). Here Kierkegaard exploits the mimetic power of texts themselves. For according to Kaftanski, Kierkegaard’s notion of repetition is a forerunner of Ricoeur’s refiguration. “The textual extension of real life,” says Kaftanski, “becomes mimetically re-appropriated back into real life and, essentially, becomes a part of it” (73). In a word, “the self emerges from the text. In effect, the text contributes to the creation of the self” (74). It is possible to actualize the ideality contained in a text. In this way, a text can function as a mirror of one’s existence, as a basis through which to pattern one’s own life. This becomes particularly salient in cases in which a text serves as a form of self-examination, not for any reader only, but especially for the author himself. Like Rousseau, whose Confessions were meant to be an exercise in self-judgment, so too Kierkegaard’s own partly autobiographical texts become an occasion for narrative self-examination (78). As Kaftanski says, “Kierkegaard’s autobiographical narratives participate in a formative process of the self—hence, the formation of the self—through a continuous and repetitive procedure of self-recognition, self-interpretation, self-understanding, and self-creation” (78). Writing becomes an extension of life, by enacting a process of “life-development,” through which Kierkegaard reworks himself “in and through his own literary production” (81). Rather than remaining a merely aesthetic pursuit, literary and philosophical production perform an ethical, even religious, function. “Autobiography,” so Kaftanski concludes, “is a peculiar mirror that allows the author to see oneself as another, to correct oneself, and, paradoxically, to correct the mirror” (82).

Central to this mimetic interplay between text and life is what Kierkegaard calls a “psychologiske Experiment” (82). The author invents various characters (which may or may not be versions of one’s actual self) that in turn serve as a source of ethical and religious self-assessment. Far from aesthetic production serving as an escape from reality, it can thus serve as a means of perfecting it, by cultivating an “authentic existence” (82). It does so by individuating the author (and its other readers) from the pernicious influence of social contagion and conformism. Due to the sociality of mimetic desire, “herd behaviors in humans include panic and rioting” (83), as such mimesis involves “affective and visceral mood-sharing” (84). While Plato’s conception of mimesis was focused on representing objects, and Aristotle’s at representing action (88), Kierkegaard’s coordination of action and fiction is not then simply about realistic representation, but demands an authentic existence—providing “templates of existence” (90), the resulting literary figurations are designed to be taken as existential prescriptions (90). Kierkegaard recognizes that stories needn’t be mere fictions, for poetic depictions of life can serve to perfect human life and transform it (89). By means of the text, mimesis effects a transition from literary representation to representation in action in real life. Informing us “about the world as it is and as it could be, or even sometimes as it should be” (90), they are not “simply fantasy or, for that matter, corrective mirrors” (91). They issue “blueprints” for existence, prescriptions for selfhood (91). These literary “experiments” (91) are exercises in life itself, for “writing and reading is a process of self-understanding, encapsulating oneself, and self-formation that is stretched between two worlds: the actual and the fictive” (91).

In Kierkegaard’s own case, the highest “poetic possibility of himself” (92) is to be a genuine Christian. At stake in his literary production is expressing a self-ideal of himself (“Kierkegaard the martyr”) and hence a “picture of the ideal Christian” (91). Thus, as Kaftanski notes, “Following Ricoeur’s mimetic arc, we can understand Kierkegaard’s ‘real’ life as dependent upon, or mediated through, a textual representation of himself” (91), and it is this tension between poetic and actual existence and the issue of translating a prescribed ideal of life into reality, that constitutes “the conundrum running through his authorship” (92).

How, then, can an “imaginary construction”[1] (94) assist the process of becoming a single individual, an authentic human before God? It is necessary to reduplicate, through action, the ideality embodied by Christ. Whereas the aesthete is one for whom his “life has no history, no unity, and no continuity to it,” the life of genuine faith “has a beginning, is organized around a unifying idea or a goal, and has a telos” (93). In reading Kierkegaard’s portrayal of such a life, one is called to undertake the task of becoming an individual, a form of existence itself “represented in descriptions of the imaginary characters’ wrestling with suffering, love, death, finitude, freedom, and time—but also with God, despair, and sin” (95). If the ideal expressed in the text is ever to be truly understood, it must be appropriated by a reduplication in the actual existence of the reader. When it comes to faith, this reduplication requires a far more earnest and serious effort than what in Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was taken to suffice. As Kierkegaard says,

No, Christ has not appointed assistant-professors—but imitators or followers. When Christianity (precisely because it is not a doctrine) does not reduplicate itself in the one who presents it, he does not present Christianity; for Christianity is an existential-communication and can only be presented—by existing. Basically, to exist therein, to express it in one’s existence etc.—this is what it means to reduplicate (99).

Imitation, we see, is an experiential imperative for Kierkegaard’s account of the development of a life-view. As Kaftanski notes, a cluster of concepts—Eftergjøre, Efterligne, Lighed, and Ligne—are operative in the Dane’s account of existential redoubling and reduplication (113). “Eftergjøre,” Kaftanski explains, “refers primarily to a sophisticated human capacity for imitation that is has mostly secular application” (114). When, then, writing of the ideal of “Being like Christ, or resembling Him” (115), Kierkegaard sometimes uses the term Ligne, which, like Efterfølgelse (“following after”), is to be contrasted with Eftergiore and Efterligne, meaning “to counterfeit, to mimic” (118). He chooses Efterfølgelse to account for this task. While Kierkegaard frequently contrasts Efterfølgelse with Efterabelse (“mimicking” “aping”), towards the end of his literary production he attributes pejorative connotations to Eftergjøre and Efterligne. In any case, the point for Kierkegaard is that the individual ought to find a way to incorporate the ideality of authenticity into actuality. For in doing so, the authentic human being, which Kierkegaard names “the single individual” (122), transcends mundane “social expectations” (120), and, overcoming the tug of conformism and mediocrity characterized by a kind of “levelling” rooted in a pernicious perfectibility entailing a “certain plasticity, malleability, or moldability of human nature” (121), instead emulates the image of Christ genuinely, in what Kaftanski terms Kierkegaard’s “existential mimesis” (123). Here again, Kaftanski finds it fruitful to turn to Kant. Kant notes four types of imitation in the Critique of the Power of Judgment—“Nachäffung, Nachmachung, Nachahmung, and Nachfolge” (125).

The first word has been translated into English as ‘aping’ or ‘parroting’; Nachmachung has been translated as ‘copying;’ ‘imitation’ is the usual translation of Nachahmung; Nachfolge has been translated as ‘emulating,’ ‘following,’ but also as ‘succeeding’ (125-26).

Reworking Kant’s own conception of “exemplary originality” (127), Kierkegaard articulates a form of existential emulation whose ideal entails an “interpretive duty [with] an individual and subjective character, in contrast to imitation that follows a preset standardizing pattern that can be adhered to on a mass scale” (130). Whereas patterning oneself on societal everydayness “produces in individuals the feelings of estrangement and alienation, who then seek the remedy to these negative feelings in mimetic collective behavior” (130), Kierkegaard’s imitatio Christi is meant to produce an integrated, authentic individuality. In doing so, such existential mimesis “does not place the imitator in an elevated position based on their functions and education, as it is in Plato and Aristotle, nor based on their extraordinary skills or moral merits, as in Kant” (130). Rather, Kierkegaard’s existential mimesis is an egalitarian project (130), for everyone is able, if he is so willing, to follow after the pattern of Christ.

Of course, this is not to say that doing so is easy. As Kierkegaard himself notes repeatedly, many people fail to do so successfully. What particularly interests Kaftanski is the complex mimetic imagery Kierkegaard develops in the course of developing an account of how this process of becoming a single individual is supposed to work itself out in actual existence. As Kaftanski says, “Kierkegaard’s Forbillede denotes that which represents an idealized and hence ‘prototypical’ quality of someone or something. The Danish Forbillede, also translated into English as ‘pattern,’ comes from Billede, which stands for ‘image’” (133). These terms are roughly Danish equivalents to the classical notions of “figura and exemplum” (133). “Forbillede,” says Kaftanski, “the prototype—plays an important role in Kierkegaard’s Efterfølgelse—imitation” (133). At stake is a “movement from the ideal to the actual” (134), a “creation in reference to a model” (133) that captures for Kierkegaard what it “means to be and become a genuine Christian” (134). Because “figura denotes something material and visual, but also formal and structural” (135), not only does such a figure “already embody and determine modes of interpretation, appropriation, and representation” (135), it sets “an ideal that an individual should internalize” (137). It is an ideal that many fail to ever internalize—negative models, for Kierkegaard, include “pastors, assistant professors, journalists” (137). But there are examples of those who do accomplish it (or come close)—Abraham, Job, the sinful woman, even the lilies and the birds! Job, for instance, represents the “ideality” (151) of the biblical criterion for being human as a single individual—for in the “existential redoubling” (152) by which Job enacts the ideal of faithfulness to God, by “actually relating himself to the ideal” (153), he finds himself persecuted by all of those he knows, including his friends. Job becomes an offense. Unlike the hero who achieves the admiration of others, Job is scorned and hated. As Kaftanski recounts, “What follows is the public condemnation of Job, disapproval of his person, mockery, insults, and ostracism. This social phenomenon of universal punishment represents ‘the scapegoat mechanism,’ and Job is the scapegoat” (144); “The friends contribute to the suffering he experiences. Instead of soothing his pain, they condemn him and amplify his misery” (147). Depicting the suffering of Job, Kierkegaard expresses his own ideal of Christian martyrdom, of the idea that to be a true Christian is to suffer. Recollecting the life of Job in literary form in turn serves as an injunction to reduplicate that same suffering in one’s own life. As Kierkegaard says, “My entire work as an author has also been my own development” (141).

But as Kaftanski notes, if “Forbillede designates a perfected or ideal representation of someone or something” (150), for Kierkegaard, existential reduplication in the case of ideal Christianity is impossible. The Christian is always “a being in becoming” (155). This means that the typical view of Kierkegaard, which interprets him as straightforwardly recommending the imitation of Christ as prototype for human existence, must be modified. Kaftanski, rather audaciously, claims that, for Kierkegaard, “Christ as the prototype is not sufficient with respect to guiding would-be Christians to successfully imitating Him” (154). This is so, says Kaftanski, because according to Kierkegaard, “[Christ] is not a human being as we are” (157), but is rather “a God-man” (158). Paradoxically, then, Kierkegaard’s “ideal picture of being a Christian” (158) requires acknowledging that Christ himself is not a Christian. “Jesus Christ,” says Kierkegaard, “it is true, is himself the prototype, and will continue to be that, unchanged, until the end. But Christ is also much more than the prototype; he is the object of faith” (156).[2] In depicting the ideal picture of being a Christian, Kierkegaard intends to show others, particularly his complacent fellow Danes, that exposing “themselves to the mirror of the Word” (162) involves “perpetual self-accusation” (161).

Consequently, “an authentic Christian existence, which demands from Christians not admiration but imitation” of Christ (179), must navigate the reality of human frailty. This means, first, recognizing the pitfalls of admiration itself. As Kaftanski observes, “admiration is collective and contagious” (179), “is not powerful enough to motivate us to do the good” (182), and “is suspiciously like an evasion” (182). As an affective phenomenon, admiration is subject to “magnetism” and “prestige” (185), the “power of opinion” (186), a morass of “shared feelings, emotions, passions, and affects” (186), which, typified by the “readership of a newspaper” (188) only forms a contemptible “collective identity” (189) that stunts the individual’s becoming. That alone would be bad enough! Yet admiration, which lies at the root of social conformism, is also prone to violence and irrational upheaval. Here Kaftanski exploits the insights of Girard. For if, as Kierkegaard would say, “the public is a phantom” (192), this is because the “deindividualization created by mass media and public opinion” (193) is susceptible to dynamics of “social pressure, human collectivity, and affective contagion” (204) which for Girard culminates in violence and scapegoating. This is powerfully apparent in the horrific death of Christ himself, who the crowd turns upon. The Messiah, who was initially hailed as a King upon entering Jerusalem, is shortly thereafter handed over to the Romans in lieu of Barabbas—“crucify him!” As Kaftanski says, “The quickness and the spontaneity of this altering reaction of the crowd suggests a kind of affective independence of that swing of valences on the pendulum of affectivity” (196).

Given the fraught nature of such mimetic behavior, there is an admitted oddity in “Presenting mimesis as a remedy to the problems caused by mimesis” (215). But this is precisely what Kierkegaard’s account of existential mimesis aims to do. The important difference between good and bad mimesis, Kaftanski notes, lies in the “non-comparing” and “nonimitative” nature of the former. Here, “indirect prototypes” can be useful—as Kaftanski observes, “one can become a Christian by living as the lily and the bird live” (222). Such “icons” or “middle terms” are necessary in the process of becoming an authentic self, argues Kaftanski. For again, if “Christ is a God-man,” and thus “not a Christian” (227),[3] this means that the ideal of being like Christ is one for which we will always fall short. In some sense, emulating Christ entails being left to one’s own self—“In walking alone, one is deprived of the direct resource of the visible model” (229). I should note that, although Kierkegaard was highly critical of what he perceived to be the superficiality, insincerity, and hypocrisy of the Danish Lutheran Church, his attack on Christendom often remained largely beholden to the theological dogma inherited from Augustine and Luther. Kierkegaard for much of his career, like Luther, labors under the idea that human depravity essentially prevents one from ever measuring up adequately to the ideal of authentic Christian existence. In effect, one is never truly a Christian, because being a Christian involves a kind of perpetual incompletion, or, better, imperfection. However, it should be noted that, in his very last journal entries, Kierkegaard at times expresses discontent with this Augustinian and Lutheran conception of human depravity and weakness. Such an anthropology, Kierkegaard notes, unintentionally leads to the same mere admiration of Christ he criticized so adamantly, for it eliminates the sort of “primitivity” Kierkegaard comes to view as essential to New Testament Christianity. This is all to say that some of Kierkegaard’s more pessimistic remarks concerning the supposed impossibility of ever emulating Christ genuinely should perhaps be tempered by his own later comments on the subject—remarks which, abandoning Lutheran orthodoxy, underscore the legitimate possibility of emulation. Such a view, as it happens, would be more in line with a strand of optimism apparent in the New Testament itself, which frequently mentions the possibility of obeying God, insofar as God’s commandments are not burdensome and provide joy, peace, and rest.

Having traced the various shades of mimesis, their pertinence to modernity, and their relevance for the project of human authenticity, Kaftanski at the work’s conclusion can rightly conclude that, “Just as Kierkegaard is not perceived as an important theoretician or critic of mimesis, so Kierkegaardians do not seem to find mimesis to be of much importance to Kierkegaard’s thought and authorship” (238). Kaftanski’s book corrects both these errors by convincingly (and engrossingly!) reconstructing Kierkegaard as a thinker “contributing to the modern shift in appraising mimesis from artistic representation based on the ideals of similarity to mimesis as a human condition underpinning the individual and social aspects of human existence” (239).

Needless to say, philosophers of religion, readers of Kierkegaard, and scholars of post-Kantian European philosophy more generally, will benefit from Kaftanski’s text immensely. Everyone knows that reading somehow changes us. Kaftanski in effect provides us with a powerful account of how exactly the art of reading does so, by shaping and transforming the individual who authentically encounters a text. Of course, no work is flawless. Others will object to some of the things Kaftanski says. At this stage of the review, it would be customary to list the potential objections. Instead, however, I should like to emphasize that Kaftanski’s work is an important contribution to an influential body of works that has taken up the issues of authenticity and identity in modernity—to wit, Charles Larmore’s The Practices of the Self, Stephen Mulhall’s Inheritance and Originality, Claude Romano’s Être soi-même, and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. While reading this text, one’s mind frequently will inevitably turn to Heidegger, a figure who looms large in such a context. Fitting, then, that Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity’s very last line should mention Heidegger by name. The concluding reference to Heidegger proves timely. It is no small thing that, by the work’s end, Kaftanski has shown how it is Kierkegaard, not Heidegger, from whom we have the most to gain when reflecting upon what it means to live an authentic human existence. As for the significance of Kaftanski’s own text’s contribution to that task, it bears returning to an earlier moment in the text, in which Kaftanski examines Kierkegaard’s remarks from a book review of the nineteenth-century Danish novelist Thomasine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvard. In his review, Kierkegaard is very complimentary of her work for many reasons. As Kaftanski says, chief among them is the fact that Kierkegaard found writing the review of Gyllembourg-Ehrensvard’s book to not only serve as an exercise in recollecting what the book contained. More importantly, Kierkegaard found himself “changed in the repetition” (57) of writing it. I have had a similar experience in writing this review. Having thought about what Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity gives to think in the course of writing this review of it, I have been reminded of what an extraordinary gift existence is, and how invigorating it is to feel the possibility of being able to continue the task of actualizing the ideal of becoming a single individual through Christ. No doubt other readers will have the same experience. For, more than just a theoretical meditation on existential mimesis, Kaftanski’s account is a call to it.

[1] The clear resonance between Kierkegaard’s notions of “imaginary construction” and “psychological experiments” and Husserl’s phenomenological technique of eidetic variation is not coincidental. As Shestov reported, Husserl once confided to him that a secret inspiration for his phenomenological method was Kierkegaard.

[2] According to Kierkegaard, in the New Testament, Christ is represented strictly in the mode of being, rather than becoming. For this reason, any strict emulation of Christ is rendered impossible for us, since as mere human beings we find ourselves in a contrasting process of incessant becoming. Without at all meaning to suggest that Kierkegaard is wrong for emphasizing the uniqueness of Christ as the God-man, I do think it is worth noting that there are apparent traces of Christ’s own process of becoming in the Gospels, a becoming that accentuates the humanity of Christ. For example: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52).

[3] Interestingly, Nietzsche says exactly the opposite: “There has only been one Christian, and he died on the Cross,” The Anti-Christ, §39.

Corijn van Mazijk: De Wereld als Verschijning

De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw Book Cover De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw
Corijn van Mazijk
Paperback €22,50

Reviewed by: Ward Huetink

Dr. Corijn van Mazijk is an assistant professor at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands, who specializes in Kant and post-Kantian philosophy, particularly phenomenology. De Wereld als Verschijning: Fenomenologie en de Twintigste Eeuw (The World as Appearance: Phenomenology and the Twentieth Century, all translations from the Dutch are my own) is his second book, following a monograph on the nature of reality, perception and the relation between the two, in the work of Kant, Husserl and McDowell.[1]

De Wereld als Verschijning is a step back from the highly specialized research conducted in the earlier publication. Van Mazijk sets out to provide an introduction into phenomenology that is “as easily accessible as possible” (32). And that is exactly what he delivers. The book comprises five chapters and each chapter treats one of the four most influential phenomenologists of the 20th century; Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, respectively. The final chapter discusses six lesser known phenomenologists, including Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas.

Each chapter follows an identical structure. It opens with a short column detailing the main themes of this particular philosopher’s thought, as well as his or her influence on the development of the phenomenological tradition. This is followed by a few pages of biographical information, detailing the life of the thinker and the cultural-intellectual climate of the time, and how this influenced the work he or she went on to produce. With this setting-the-stage out of the way, the main part of each chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the philosophical substance itself. Van Mazijk emphasizes that although the book is intended to introduce phenomenology, the subject matter by itself is by no means simple, and so the main objective is to expound the ideas as clearly as possible, where needed aided by illustrations. The chapters then conclude with an overview of the main ideas of each thinker, complemented by a short list of important concepts and their definitions.

The work of each thinker is discussed in largely chronological order. For example, the first chapter, on Husserl, starts out with a discussion of the Logische Untersuchungen (1901) and ends with Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transcendentale Phänomenologie (1936). Of the five, this chapter is the longest. This is not surprising, considering the amount of work Husserl produced and his importance as the founder of the phenomenological tradition. As such, this chapter serves not only as an introduction to Husserl, but to the themes and philosophical considerations that continue to define phenomenology more broadly. It starts out, for instance, with Husserl’s critique of psychologism and naturalism, and the aim of returning to the description of things as they are given to consciousness, guaranteeing the clarity and absolute certainty of the outcome of his investigations. Van Mazijk then introduces the reader to Husserl’s work on intentionality, the natural attitude, the phenomenological reduction and the epoche. Then follows a more in-depth explanation of eidetic variation and the difference between constitutive and genetic phenomenology, the latter marking a shift in focus from Husserl’s earlier to his later work. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Husserl’s concept of ‘horizons’ and his analysis of time. By the end of these 36 dense pages, the reader is acquainted with many concepts and themes essential to understanding the other thinkers, although it is likely that those novel to phenomenology will have to return to this chapter for clarifications later on.

As the previous one, the chapter on Heidegger is divided between the early and later works. The priority is given, understandably, to the earlier work, Sein und Zeit (1927) in particular. Van Mazijk spends some time establishing the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger, and consequently the personal and intellectual rift between the two. He emphasizes Heidegger’s deviation from Husserl, especially where it concerns their respective epistemological positions by highlighting Heidegger’s recognition of human finitude and “the insignificance of every human attempt at knowledge” (p. 72). Simultaneously, he shows how Heidegger employs a kind of phenomenological reduction in carrying out his existential analytic of Dasein to uncover the ‘meaning of Being’. The main part of this chapter is dedicated to examining the results of this analysis, including the ontological difference between beings and in general, being-in-the world as human existence, care, the distinction between Vorhanden and Zuhanden through the classic example of the hammer, and the different modes of human existence in fallen-ness and authentic being. The chapter concludes by referring to Heidegger’s later works, of which only The Question Concerning Technology is discussed somewhat extensively.

The third chapter, on Sartre, is almost a third shorter than the preceding two and by far the most critical of the author discussed. In the introduction Van Mazijk makes it clear that, rather than a rigorous philosophical teaching, Sartre’s existentialism was more of a cultural movement, “comparable to the American beat generation” (109). Sartre, he argues, uses Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology primarily to ground his theory of the radical freedom of human beings. According to Sartre’s analyses, expounded in his main works Le Transcendence de l’Ego (1936) and L’Être et le Néant (1943), consciousness is essentially nothingness, an apersonal, transparent process without fixed properties. It is this essential nothingness, being-for-itself, that constitutes the freedom against the being-in-itself, the massive presence of the outside world. Thinking one is ‘something’ or a definite ‘someone’ is living in bad faith, a denial of the true, free essence of human life; hence Sartre’s famous proclamation that “existence precedes essence”. Van Mazijks main critique of Sartre’s brand of phenomenology is that it is flawed and inconsistent. It is flawed, since it denies the limiting constraints put on freedom by concrete reality. It is inconsistent, on the other hand, because Sartre modifies his theory on multiple occasions to undercut objections raised against him, or to avoid unwanted conclusions that seem to follow from his premises. For example, he rejects the possibility of radical egoism by introducing a kind of Kantian deontology in his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, without much ground for these kind of ethical constraints on human freedom present in his earlier works. All in all, it seems Van Mazijk includes Sartre in the book more because of his historical influence in popularising phenomenology in Europe mid 20th century, rather than his philosophical accomplishments in their own right.

The fourth chapter discusses the work of Merleau-Ponty. The shortest chapter of the book limits itself to discussing La Structure du Comportement (1942) and Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945). Van Mazijk stresses Merleau-Ponty’s achievements in his analysis of perception as the fundamental way in which subject and object, or consciousness and world, interact. For each work, he shows how Merleau-Ponty’s dialectical style of doing philosophy results in a new understanding of this interaction. He shows how Merleau-Ponty uses insights from Gestalt-psychology to show how the intellectualist and physiologist paradigms of human behaviour are both lacking in their own right when it comes to describing and explaining behaviour, while his own position ambiguously oscillates between these subjectivist and objectivist poles, resisting a reductive interpretation. Similarly, in Phénoménologie de la Perception Merleau-Ponty shows how both empiricism and intellectualism remain stuck in the natural attitude towards the world, whereas perception as the portal to this world cannot itself be understood in terms of it. His own phenomenological analysis, combined with insights from empirical research, again paints a more holistic and ambiguous picture of the relation between man and world, in which the living body is the locus of this interaction. Van Mazijk emphasises that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is much closer to Heidegger and Husserl than it is to Sartre – although the deviations from Husserl are significant, including the integration of empirical research in his philosophical works, leading to a more interdisciplinary phenomenology.

The fifth and final chapter of De Wereld als Verschijning explores the work of six lesser known phenomenologists in brief. These are, in order, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Eugen Fink, Alfred Schutz, Emmanuel Levinas and Jan Patočka. Here, too, a brief biographical introduction is followed by a discussion of their work. Since only a few pages are dedicated to each thinker, their treatment is condensed to a defining theme. For Scheler, this is love; for Stein, empathy; for Fink, phenomenology itself and the possibility of philosophy in general; for Schutz, philosophy of the social world and the foundations of sociology; for Levinas, the Other; and for Jan Patočka, the care for the soul. This chapter is a nice addition to an introduction to phenomenology, since it shows the influence and scope of phenomenological research. The choice of authors seems somewhat arbitrary, though; certainly, other writers in the phenomenological tradition could have been considered, such as Frantz Fanon, Ludwig Binswanger, Luce Irigaray or Iris Marion Young. Their influence today is certainly no less than Patočka or Schutz, and the inclusion of especially Young and Fanon would have added some diversity. They opened the door to what is now called Critical Phenomenology, and have been instrumental in pointing out how the supposedly ‘neutral’ consciousness of classical phenomenologists obscures latent presuppositions on what it is to be human. It is also notable that Simone the Beauvoir receives no more than a passing mention in the chapter on Sartre, while she is from a philosophical perspective undoubtedly as influential as her life-partner.

The book starts out with the question ‘what is phenomenology?’, and by the end the reader has a good idea of what Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty thought on this matter. However, Van Mazijk’s own view on the matter is not discussed in detail. In the conclusion, he briefly discusses the modern, specialized applications of phenomenology in different branches of science, such as psychiatry and artificial intelligence. It appears he laments this development and prefers the ‘grander’, more ambitious transcendental and existential projects of the past. He writes: “Only the future can tell whether the phenomenology of the 20th century had maybe more to offer than a reservoir of ideas for scientific application”, and it is clear that he certainly thinks so, but how exactly remains obscure. Throughout the book, he mentions these modern applications of phenomenology, but never elaborates in detail. This is a missed opportunity, since it could have emphasized the importance and relevance of the tradition, and potentially inspire those readers not strictly interested in abstract philosophy.

All in all, Van Mazijk provides a detailed and supremely readable introduction into phenomenology, which will undoubtedly be of great value to those interested in learning about the tradition and its main figures, or students looking for a good overview. De Wereld als Verschijning is the first book of its kind published in Dutch by a Dutch author in several decades, and it is a testament of the knowledge, passion and dedication the author has for his field of expertise.

[1] van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. New York, NY: Routledge.  For a review of this book in this journal: http://reviews.ophen.org/2020/08/23/perception-and-reality-in-kant-husserl-and-mcdowell/.

Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas: Briefwechsel 1928–1976

Briefwechsel 1928–1976: Mit einem Anhang anderer Zeugnisse Book Cover Briefwechsel 1928–1976: Mit einem Anhang anderer Zeugnisse
Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas. Edited by Andreas Großmann
Mohr Siebeck
Paperback 69,00 €
XXV, 161

Reviewed by: Ian Alexander Moore (Loyola Marymount University; Faculty Member, St. John’s College)

This volume contains letters, spanning nearly fifty years, between the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas. It also includes a helpful editor’s introduction and a nine-part appendix, containing, among other documents, Martin Heidegger’s and Bultmann’s previously unpublished evaluations of Jonas’s 1928 dissertation on Gnosticism, as well as Jonas’s brief, previously unpublished correspondence with Heidegger.

In the first substantive letter (13 July 1929), which is more of a book proposal than a letter properly speaking (Jonas called it a Briefmonstrum, an “epistolary monster,” 7), Jonas attempts phenomenologically to derive a universal truth about humanity from St. Paul’s famous description of his struggle to fulfill the Law in Romans 7:7–25. The existential, hence not specifically Christian structure of Paul’s statements consists, according to Jonas, in the tension between a free, primordial self-willing (volo me velle) and its inevitable lapse into the objectification of the universe and, correlatively, of the self (cogito me velle). Here we have Entmythologisierung (“demythologization”) avant la lettre.

But, it should be noted, we are not far before the letter: the very next year, in his first book, Jonas would introduce the language of demythologization, which would become one of the defining and most controversial features of Bultmann’s theology, into the scholarly world. This important, but still-untranslated book, titled Augustin und das paulinische Freiheitsproblem: Ein philosophischer Beitrag zur Genesis der christlich-abendländischen Freiheitsidee (Augustine and the Pauline Problem of Freedom: A Philosophical Contribution to the Genesis of the Christian-Western Idea of Freedom), builds on Jonas’s “epistolary monster.” Bultmann published it in 1930 in his prestigious series “Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments” (“Research on the Religion and Literature of the Old and New Testament”).[1]

Although, apart from a few largely perfunctory letters, the extant correspondence does not resume in earnest until 1952, Jonas and Bultmann remained in contact in the interim. For example, in a later memorial tribute to Bultmann (included in the appendix to the correspondence), Jonas relates that Bultmann was the only teacher whom he had visited before emigrating from Germany in 1933 in response to the SA troops’ harassment and persecution of Jews. Bultmann, moreover, would also be one of the first teachers Jonas would visit when he returned to Germany fifteen years later as a soldier in the victorious Allied forces. It is worth reproducing Jonas’s recollections here, as they attest not only to his intellectual respect for his teacher (which he also had for Heidegger, for instance), but above all to his respect for Bultmann’s character and ethical bearing (which, to his great dismay, he found tragically lacking in Heidegger). After reading this, it should come as little surprise that Jonas kept a picture of Bultmann by his desk in New York (108), or that, in 1934, Bultmann was bold enough to write a preface for the publication of the first volume of his Jewish student’s work on Gnosticism and even to confess an intellectual debt to Jonas (117–18; see also XIX–XX, 143).[2] As Jonas tells it:

It was in the summer of 1933, here in Marburg. […] I related what I had just read in the newspaper, but he [Bultmann] not yet, namely, that the German Association of the Blind had expelled its Jewish members. My horror carried me into eloquence: In the face of eternal night (so I exclaimed) the most unifying tie there can be among suffering men, this betrayal of the solidarity of a common fate—and I stopped, for my eye fell on Bultmann and I saw that a deathly pallor had spread over his face, and in his eyes was such agony that the words died in my mouth. In that moment I knew that in matters of elementary humanity one could simply rely on Bultmann, […] that no insanity of the time could dim the steadiness of his inner light.

Of their next meeting, amid the ruins of war, Jonas recalls:

barely done with the hurried exchange of first welcomes, scarcely over the emotion of this unexpected reunion—we were both still standing—he said something for which I recount this highly personal story. I had come by military transport from Göttingen and held under my arm a book which the publisher Ruprecht had asked me to take to Bultmann, as civilian mail services had not yet been restored. Bultmann pointed at this parcel and asked, “May I hope that this is the second volume of the ‘Gnosis’?” At that, there entered into my soul too, still rent by the Unspeakable I had just learned about in my erstwhile home—the fate of my mother and of the untold others—for the first time something like peace again: at beholding the constancy of thought and loving interest across the ruin of a world. Suddenly I knew: one can resume and continue that for which one needs faith in man. Countless times I have relived this scene. It became the bridge over the abyss; it connected the “after” with the “before” which grief and wrath and bitterness threatened to blot out, and perhaps more than anything else it helped, with its unique combination of fidelity and soberness, to make my life whole again. (125–26; see also 99, 118–19)[3]

The next major highlight of the correspondence pertains to Jonas’s text “Immortality and the Modern Temper,” which he delivered as the annual Ingersoll lecture at Harvard University in 1961.[4] Jonas sent a copy of the lecture, which attempts to explain what sense immortality could have in today’s disenchanted world, to Bultmann in January 1962. In his prefatory letter, Jonas explains that he felt compelled to go in the opposite direction of his erstwhile mentor: whereas the don of demythologization strives, as Jonas had earlier in his career (see especially 115–116), to uncover the true, existential content of myth behind its fantastical garb, Jonas thinks that myth, in the manner of Plato, is the best we have to go on when it comes to questions such as the meaning of immortality and the meaning of God after Auschwitz. Of his lecture, Jonas writes—and here I quote and translate at length, since it is uncertain if and when the correspondence will be translated in its entirety—

It was a daring attempt at a metaphysical statement. When developing it, I saw myself compelled to have recourse to myth—to a self-invented myth. This was not intended as a general method of metaphysics, but as a personal form of symbolic answer to a question that I could not answer in any other way but whose right to an answer was undeniable.

[Es wurde ein gewagter Versuch zu einer metaphysischen Aussage, in deren Entfaltung ich mich genötigt sah, zum Mythos—einem selbsterdachten—Zuflucht zu nehmen. Das war nicht als generelle Methode der Metaphysik gedacht, sondern als persönliche Form der symbolischen Antwort auf eine für mich nicht anders beantwortbare, aber in ihrem Recht auf Antwort unabweisbare Frage.]

It is not enough, Jonas continues, to refer to the authentically human content of mythological form, as Bultmann would have it.[5] Myth itself can, and must, also be deployed—consciously and with full recognition of its inherent inadequacy—in service of being as such:

when, in a seriously non-dualist fashion, the authentic reality of the human points back to the authentic reality of the universe […] and when it is necessary to speak also of this—of the totality of being and its ground—without there being any identifiable terminology for it, then we are directed to the path of the objectifying, indicative symbol; then a momentary, as it were experimental mythologization, a mythologization that holds itself in suspense, can again come closer precisely to the mystery. And here the revocability of the anthropomorphic symbol would have to wait to be replaced by other, for their part likewise revocable symbols, not, however, for a subsequent demythologization, which would have to relinquish what was to be signified only in the symbol.

[wo, ernsthaft undualistisch, die eigentliche Wirklichkeit des Menschen auf die eigentliche Wirklichkeit des Universums zurückweist […] und also auch davon—vom All des Seins und seinem Grunde—gesprochen werden muss, ohne dass es die ausweisbare Begrifflichkeit dafür gibt, da sind wir auf den Weg des objektivierend andeutenden Symbols gewiesen und da kann vielleicht eine momentane, gleichsam experimentelle, sich selber in der Schwebe haltende Mythologisierung gerade dem Geheimnis wieder näher kommen. Und hier würde die Widerruflichkeit des anthropomorphen Symbols auf Ersetzung durch andere, ihrerseits ebenso widerrufliche Symbole zu warten haben, nicht aber auf eine nachkommende Entmythologisierung, die preisgeben müsste, was nur im Symbol zu bedeuten war.] (51–52)

In his myth, which he would later develop in such essays as “The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice” and “Matter, Mind, and Creation: Cosmological Evidence and Cosmogonic Speculation,”[6] Jonas imagines a god who, in the beginning, divested itself of its power and gave itself wholly over to the becoming of the cosmos. It now falls to the radical freedom of the human being to reshape the face of God, whether by restoring it to its former glory through good deeds, or by creating a disfigured perversion of it through evil deeds.

Jonas received countless replies to his lecture, none, however, more profound and impressive (see 63, 77) than that found in Bultmann’s letter from 31 July 1962. Indeed, Jonas would later publish an edited version Bultmann’s response, together with his own subsequent reply to Bultmann, in his book Zwischen Nichts und Ewigkeit: Drei Aufsätze zur Lehre vom Menschen (Between Nothing and Eternity: Three Essays on Anthropology).[7] Jonas even claims in a letter from 1963 that, without their epistolary exchange, “my immortality-essay would seem very incomplete to me” (“Ohne es käme mir jedenfalls mein Unsterblichkeitsaufsatz jetzt sehr unvollständig vor”) (77). Here Jonas refers to the essay as his “fragmentary and searching philosophical manifesto” (“mein fragmentarisches und versuchendes philosophisches Manifest”) (78).

Bultmann, in his response to “Immortality and the Modern Temper,” makes several objections, chief of which is that Jonas’s perspective on God’s relation to the universe is, first, aesthetic and, second, external to the existential situation of the being that, in Heidegger’s language, is in each case mine. Jonas contests the first, since he aims not at the final reconciliation of oppositions, but at the triumph of good over evil through the free choice of human beings. His view is ultimately ethical, not aesthetic. Regarding the second, Jonas concedes that it is necessary to take an external perspective if one wishes to interpret the whole. Today, there is little interest in such speculation. But Jonas takes it to be imperative:

For precisely this is now my conviction: that ethics must be grounded in ontology, that is, the law of human comportment must be derived from the nature of the whole; and this is so because self-understanding follows from understanding the whole (thus “from without”)—namely when the whole is understood in such a way that it comes about that the human being is there for the whole, and not the whole for the human being.

[Denn eben dies ist nun meine Überzeugung, dass die Ethik auf der Ontologie gegründet sein muss, das heisst: das Gesetz menschlichen Verhaltens aus der Natur des Ganzen abgeleitet werden muss; und dies, weil das Selbstverständnis aus dem Verständnis des Ganzen folgt (also “von aussen”)—dann nämlich, wenn das Ganze so verstanden ist, dass sich ergibt, dass der Mensch für das Ganze da ist, und nicht das Ganze für den Menschen.] (67)[8]

Bultmann also invites a consideration of the relation between Jonas’s myth of the fate of God and Heidegger’s idea of the destiny of being (Seins-Geschick). Jonas ignores this invitation in his rejoinder to Bultmann, although he will later take it up in his famous critique of Heidegger, “Heidegger and Theology,” first delivered before a group of theologians at Drew University in 1964.[9]  (Jonas describes the event on 84).

Despite Jonas’s often scathing critique of Heidegger’s thought and person,[10] it is interesting to note that, in a letter to Bultmann from July 1969, Jonas relates that he had met with Heidegger and had “finally reconciled [endlich … ausgesöhnt] with him” (92). Moreover, in 1972, Heidegger supported Jonas’s efforts to receive reparations from the German government for the difficulties inflicted on his academic career under National Socialism. At Jonas’s request, Heidegger promptly wrote the following official explanation of Jonas’s circumstances at the time, testifying to his respect and admiration for his one-time student:

I, Martin Heidegger, was a full professor of philosophy at the Philipps-University in Marburg between 1923 and 1929. / Hans Jonas, who graduated with his doctorate summa cum laude under my directorship in 1928, was one of the most gifted students at the university and predestined to be a university lecturer. Before I left Marburg, Dr. Jonas had discussed with me the basic conception of the work he intended as a habilitation thesis on the position of Gnosticism in the entire thought of late antiquity. The finished work was published in 1934 as a book under the title “Gnosticism and the Spirit of Late Antiquity” (1st part). I read it. There is and there was no doubt for me that this work was outstandingly qualified to be a habilitation thesis. If I had still had something to do with this work as a habilitation thesis, I would have warmly recommended it without reservation.

[Ich, Martin Heidegger, war von 1923 bis 1929 Ordinarius für Philosophie an der Philipps-Universität in Marburg. / Hans Jonas, der bei mir 1928 summa cum laude promovierte, war einer der begabtesten Studenten der Universität und prädestiniert zum Dozenten. Die Grundkonzeption seiner als Habilitationsschrift gedachten Arbeit über die Stellung der Gnosis im Gesamtdenken der Spätantike hatte Dr. Jonas mit mir noch vor meinem Weggang von Marburg besprochen. Die fertige Arbeit ist 1934 als Buch unter dem Titel “Gnosis und spätantiker Geist” (1. Teil) erschienen. Ich habe es gelsen. Es besteht und bestand für mich kein Zweifel, dass diese Arbeit als Habilitationsschrift in hervorragendem Masse qualifiziert war. Hätte ich noch mit dieser Arbeit als Habilitationsschrift zu tun gehabt, so hätte ich sie ohne Einschränkung aufs wärmste empfohlen.] (122)

Other noteworthy moments in the correspondence with Bultmann include Jonas’s description of his research in 1952, which, he says, is directed entirely at “an ontology in which ‘life’ and thus also the human being obtain their place in nature” (“Alle meine theoretischen Bemühungen gehen um eine Ontologie, in der das ‘Leben’ und damit auch der Mensch seinen Platz in der Natur erhält”) (18); Jonas’s critique of Eric Voegelin’s sweepingly pejorative use of the term “Gnosticism,” and his conclusion that Voegelin himself “is the modern gnostic” (32–34); Bultmann’s claim, made in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince Jonas to assume a professorship at Marburg University, that “you are the only one who has the strength today to take up and continue the great tradition that has developed in the history of philosophizing in Marburg” (“Sie sind der Einzige, der heute die Kraft hat, die große Tradition aufzunehmen und fortzuführen, die in der Geschichte des Philosophierens in Marburg erwachsen ist”) (44); and a debate on authenticity (Eigentlichkeit), in which Jonas relates it to his pursuit of an ethics grounded in ontology, whereas Bultmann sees it, with Heidegger, in opposition to the life of das Man (“the they”) and as outside the sphere of the ethical (72–76).

Fortunately, some of the most important correspondence is already available in English. Jonas’s own translation of the aforementioned “epistolary monster” is available, with additions and emendations, under the title “The Abyss of the Will: Philosophical Meditation on the Seventh Chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.”[11] The two main letters about “Immortality and the Modern Temper” are in Bultmann and Jonas, “Exchange on Hans Jonas’ Essay on Immortality.”[12] Furthermore, the seventh document in the appendix, a memorial tribute to Bultmann, exists in a translation by Jonas himself as “Is Faith Still Possible?: Memories of Rudolf Bultmann and Reflections on the Philosophical Aspects of His Work.”[13] The final part of the appendix is a republication, in English, of Jonas’s 1984 tribute to Bultmann on the centenary of the latter’s birth.[14]

[1] Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1930. For the second edition (1965), Jonas changed the subtitle to Eine philosophische Studie zum pelagianischen Streit (A Philosophical Study on the Pelagian Controversy) and appended a revised version of the “epistolary monster.” Jonas speaks of “a demythologized consciousness” (“ein entmythologisiertes Bewußtsein”) in the first appendix “Über die hermeneutische Struktur des Dogmas” (“On the Hermeneutic Structure of Dogma), which appeared in both editions. See p. 82 of the second for the reference. For discussion, see pp. 14–17 of James M. Robinson’s introduction to the second edition, as well as Hans Jonas-Handbuch: Leben–Werk–Wirkung, ed. Michael Bongardt et al. (Berlin: Metzler, 2021), 78 (contribution by Udo Lenzig).

[2] It is noteworthy that, in his controversial 1941 lecture “Neues Testament und Mythologie: Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkündigung,” Bultmann twice refers to Jonas’s works. See Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of Its Re-Interpretation,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 12n1, 16. See Bultmann’s discussion of the lecture on pp. 21–22 of the correspondence.

[3] Translation in Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, ed. Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 146–47. See also Hans Jonas, Memoirs, trans. Krishna Winston (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2008), 74, 144–45.

[4] In, for example, Jonas, Mortality and Morality, chapter 5.

[5] Jonas quotes from Bultmann’s recently published “Zum Problem der Entmythologisierung,” in Il problema della demitizzazione, ed. Enrico Castelli (Padua: CEDAM, 1961): 19–26. In English as “On the Problem of Demythologizing,” trans. Schubert M. Ogden, The Journal of Religion 42, no. 2 (1962): 96–102.

[6] In Mortality and Morality, chapters 6 and 8.

[7] Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963, 63–72.

[8] Translation in Rudolf Bultmann and Hans Jonas, “Exchange on Hans Jonas’ Essay on Immortality,” trans. Ian Alexander Moore, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 40, no. 2 (2020): 491–506 (quote on p. 503).

[9] See Hans Jonas, “Heidegger and Theology,” in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), Tenth Essay. For more on this point, and Jonas’s relation to Heidegger more broadly, see Ralf Elm’s contribution in Hans Jonas-Handbuch, 28–34.

[10] For the latter, see especially Hans Jonas’s 1963 lecture “Husserl und Heidegger,” in Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Hans Jonas, vol. III/2, ed. Dietrich Böhler et al. (Darmstadt: WBG, 2013), 205–224. For discussion, see Ian Alexander Moore’s contribution in Hans Jonas-Handbuch, 172–75.

[11] In Hans Jonas, Philosophical Essays (New York: Atropos, 2010), chapter 18. Also, with the subtitle as sole title, in James M. Robinson, ed., The Future of Our Religious Past: Essays in Honour of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), chapter 15.

[12] Op. cit.

[13] In Jonas, Mortality and Morality, chapter 7.

[14] Also in Edward C. Hobbes, ed., Bultmann, Retrospect and Prospect: The Centenary Symposium at Wellesley (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985): 1–4.

Andrea Oppo: Lev Shestov: The Philosophy and Works of a Tragic Thinker, Academic Studies Press, 2020

Lev Shestov: The Philosophy and Works of a Tragic Thinker Book Cover Lev Shestov: The Philosophy and Works of a Tragic Thinker
Andrea Oppo
Academic Studies Press
Hardback €130.95

Rebecca Dew: Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020

Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies Book Cover Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies
International Political Theory
Rebecca Dew
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 77,99 €
X, 258

Mark Leffert: The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd, Routledge, 2020

The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd: Existentialism and Phenomenology in Contemporary Psychoanalysis Book Cover The Psychoanalysis of the Absurd: Existentialism and Phenomenology in Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Mark Leffert
Paperback £23.99

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

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

Reviewed by: Francesco Valerio Tommasi (Sapienza, Università di Roma)

Lo scopo di questo volume è di mostrare il ruolo nascosto giocato dal cattolicesimo nel successo e nella diffusione della fenomenologia. Le connessioni e i rapporti tra la corrente di pensiero inaugurata da Edmund Husserl e i pensatori e le istituzioni cattoliche del Novecento, infatti, sono molteplici e di diversi livelli. Si pensi a Martin Heidegger e ai suoi studi di filosofia medievale e di teologia, o a Edith Stein, protagonista di un percorso per certi aspetti speculare: il primo procede infatti dal cattolicesimo ad una fenomenologia metodologicamente atea – per cui l’espressione “filosofia cristiana” è notoriamente un “ferro ligneo”; la seconda muove invece dalla fenomenologia – orgogliosamente atea – al cattolicesimo. Ma si pensi anche, ovviamente, a Max Scheler, che contemporaneamente alle riflessioni sulla fenomenologia sviluppa le sue prospettive religiose, gravitanti attorno alla chiesa cattolica, di cui si fa promotore e da cui poi si allontana. Oppure, per risalire sino alle origini e alla preistoria della fenomenologia, si pensi a Franz Brentano, sacerdote e studioso di Tommaso d’Aquino, oltre che ispiratore e maestro di Edmund Husserl. Ma si pensi anche a Karol Wojtyła, formatosi allo studio di Max Scheler e su cui giocò un’influenza rilevante anche il pensiero di Roman Ingarden.

Il rapporto prevalente che la fenomenologia instaurò fu quello con la cosiddetta Neoscolastica, ossia con la corrente filosofica e teologica volta al recupero e alla riattualizzazione del pensiero medievale ed in particolare del tomismo, sostenuta con energia dalla chiesa cattolica nel corso del ventesimo secolo e rilanciata in particolare dall’enciclica Aeterni Patris di Leone XIII (1879). La vicinanza tra le due correnti può apparire a prima vista sorprendente: la fenomenologia infatti si presenta come un pensiero privo di riferimenti storici, rifiuta qualsiasi tipo di presupposto extra-razionale ed è costitutivamente contraria alla metafisica, tanto che “metafisico” e “fenomenologico” vengono talora ad essere aggettivi usati in modo antitetico; la Neoscolastica, all’opposto, trova appunto nel pensiero medievale un riferimento privilegiato, è orientata al dialogo con la teologia e con la fede rivelata, e sostiene una ripresa della metafisica.

A ben vedere, però, un orientamento marcatamente teoretico caratterizza anche la Neoscolastica, che si rivolge al passato medievale come ad una presunta “età dell’oro”, la cui validità teorica andrebbe riproposta con energia contro le derive e la crisi della modernità. Su questo piano dunque – ossia sul piano di un interesse speculativo scevro da pregiudizi – va compresa la possibilità di un primo, generico, punto di incontro. Un secondo, già più specifico, punto di contatto va rinvenuto nell’istanza fondativa con cui entrambe le correnti impostano il loro procedere, così che la fenomenologia, per quanto anti-metafisica, si presenta come una “scienza rigorosa” e come una “filosofia prima”. Ma il terzo e più preciso punto di incontro che ha condotto alla possibilità di dialogo tra queste due correnti va sicuramente individuato nell’approccio inaugurato da Husserl con le Logische Untersuchungen (1900-01): in quest’opera, infatti, si difende un‘impostazione che può essere compresa – ed è stato compresa effettivamente dai primi discepoli di Husserl – come realista. Husserl infatti propone una forte critica allo psicologismo, e molti allievi considereranno una svolta indebita da parte di Husserl l’impostazione idealista delle successive Ideen I (1913). Per la Neoscolastica era proprio lo psicologismo – e più in generale il soggettivismo – uno dei maggiori errori del pensiero moderno in generale, a partire da Cartesio e da Kant. La Neoscolastica proponeva quindi un ritorno al realismo metafisico che aveva caratterizzato l’epoca medievale. Così, il ritorno “alle cose stesse” propugnato da Husserl poteva certamente attrarre l’attenzione dei pensatori neoscolastici. La stessa fenomenologia, non a caso, venne accusata di essere una forma di “nuova Scolastica”. Proprio al realismo e alla necessità di “convertirsi” ad esso fa dunque riferimento il titolo del volume di Baring, che finalmente mette a tema questa importante relazione intellettuale tra due movimenti di pensiero protagonisti del secolo scorso.

Oltre alle figure più prominenti già menzionate in apertura, molti altri nomi sono emblematici del rapporto tra fenomenologia e cattolicesimo: Dietrich von Hildebrand, per esempio, altro giovane fenomenologo che conobbe la conversione al cattolicesimo in età adulta. Oppure Erich Przywara, che con curiosità di avvicinò allo studio del pensiero husserliano a partire da posizioni neoscolastiche. E poi, nelle generazioni successive di pensatori, si pensi all’importanza, per la diffusione della fenomenologia, di figure come Alphonse de Waelhens (Belgio), Sofia Vanni Rovighi (Italia), Joaquìn Xirau (Mesicco) o Herman Boelaars (Olanda). Fu un sacerdote cattolico, inoltre, Hermann Leo Van Breda, a porre in salvo i manoscritti husserliani e a fondare l’Archivio dedicato al padre della fenomenologia. E la diffusione attuale della fenomenologia in Francia – forse l’ultimo avamposto della corrente husserliana – è dovuta in buona misura a pensatori dichiaratamente ed esplicitamente cattolici, come Michel Henry o Jean-Luc Marion, ma anche Jean Greisch, Philippe Capelle-Dumont ed Emmanuel Falque: tanto che si è parlato, famigeratamente, di un “tournant théologique” della fenomenologia francese.

Mettere in luce questi rapporti rappresenta la mera esposizione di un fatto storico incontrovertibile. Tuttavia, a partire da ciò, prudentemente l’Autore non intende sostenere la tesi di un carattere cripticamente cattolico della fenomenologia – in quello che rappresenterebbe una sorta di ribaltamento della tesi di Janicaud sul “tournant théologique”. Infatti, egli scrive:

“By claiming that Catholics played an outsized role in the reception of phenomenology […], even in its atheistic versions, I don’t mean to argue that phenomenology is essentially Christian, and that the secular thinkers who have developed its claims in important and interesting ways were crypto-Catholics, blind to the true nature of their thought. First, the Catholic readings of phenomenology were in many ways expropriations. Husserl gave little encouragement to those who hoped to bend his philosophy to fit a Catholic agenda. Second, as we shall see, phenomenology’s compatibility with Catholicism was by no means assured, and it was the difficulty of aligning it with neo- scholasticism that made phenomenology attractive to other religious thinkers and, later, atheists. Finally, and most fundamentally, it is not clear on what basis one could declare phenomenology Christian or Catholic, because the concept of a ‘Christian philosophy’ is notoriously difficult to define. At almost precisely the moment when Catholics were shuttling phenomenological ideas around the continent, many of the same thinkers were also engaged in a Europe-wide debate about whether ‘Christian philosophy’ had any meaning at all” (11-12).

Il volume quindi procede prevalentemente su un terreno più solido e sicuro, che è il terreno storico. Tuttavia, con un’osservazione che può essere definita di “ispirazione” fenomenologica si deve rilevare come, evidentemente, non esistano “fatti” storici da poter cogliere in modo positivisticamente ingenuo e scevri da ogni carattere interpretativo. La buona “intenzionalità” dell’Autore, quindi, si perde almeno in parte nel corso del volume. Valutiamo come.

Nella prima parte vengono analizzati i rapporti di Husserl, Heidegger e Scheler con il cattolicesimo e la Neoscolastica, in quattro capitoli dedicati rispettivamente al rapporto, in senso generico, tra le due correnti di pensiero, e poi a ciascuna delle tre figure. La seconda parte si dedica a descrivere alcune influenze rilevanti che queste figure cardine giocarono sui rapporti con il cattolicesimo di alcuni pensatori al di fuori della Germania: nello specifico si analizzano sia figure quali Nicolai Berdyaev, Gabriel Marcel e Augusto Guzzo (definiti “esistenzialisti cristiani”); sia la corrente del tomismo qui denominato “cartesiano” – e definibile in senso più lato “trascendentale” – ossia Joseph Maréchal, Karl Rahner, ma anche Giuseppe Zamboni (nel meritorio ed informato ricordo di un dibattito molto interessante all’Università Cattolica di Milano); sia la ricezione teologica di Kierkegaard (soprattutto nella teologia dialettica); sia quella di Nietzsche nei fascismi, ed il loro controverso rapporto con il cattolicesimo impegnato socialmente e politicamente. La terza parte, infine, si dedica alla storia dell’Archivio Husserl e poi – ampliando la prospettiva al di là dei confini del cattolicesimo – prende in esame le vicende di Paul Ricoeur e di Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Proprio questo allargamento finale di prospettiva – così come, più in generale, la vastità di questioni, correnti ed autori presi in considerazione – mostra forse quella che è una prima difficoltà del volume, ossia la tesi per cui il ruolo del cattolicesimo, nella vicenda fenomenologica, viene forse in alcuni tratti sovrainterpretato. Rispetto a Ricoeur o a Merleau-Ponty, infatti, non sembra che il rapporto con l’ambito di pensiero Neoscolastico o con la storia del cattolicesimo abbia avuto un’influenza così decisiva. Ma, a ben vedere, ciò non vale solo per questo capitolo. La tesi dell’Autore pare, a giudizio di chi scrive, dover essere ridimensionata in senso complessivo.

In ciascun passaggio, forse, Baring dona troppa enfasi al ruolo del cattolicesimo, come si può evincere in questo passaggio in cui egli riassume la sua prospettiva generale e che il lettore potrà valutare analiticamente:

“I argue that the neo-scholastic reading provided the impetus and stakes for the realism/ idealism debate that engulfed Husserl’s students in the 1910s and 1920s (Chapter 2); I suggest that Catholic debates lend context to the development of an existential version of phenomenology, both in Heidegger’s work (Chapter 3) and elsewhere in Europe in the 1930s (Chapters 5, 6, and 7); I show how the conflicts between religious thinkers furnished the means for non-Catholics to craft atheistic versions of phenomenology and existentialism (Chapters 7, 8, and 10); and I explain how Catholic readings helped imprint phenomenology with political meaning both in Germany in the 1920s (Chapter 4) and outside of Germany in the 1930s (Chapter 8), in a way that foreshadowed and shaped the emergence of existential Marxism in the 1940s (Chapter 10). The Catholic reception of phenomenology was a subterranean but massive structure, linking many of the most important developments in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. It could play this role because, before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (20).

Su ciascun aspetto, si potrebbero mettere in luce anche dibattiti e contributi non solo di provenienza cattolica: il dibattito tra idealismo e realismo coinvolge tutti gli allievi gottinghesi di Husserl e il rapporto con i monachesi, ben al di là dei confini confessionali; l’esistenzialismo – categoria peraltro difficilmente applicabile al pensiero di Martin Heidegger – conosce uno sviluppo non solo marcato da influenze cattoliche, così come un esistenzialismo marxista ha una traiettoria anche completamente indipendente da matrici confessionali etc…

Le ultime righe del brano appena citato, poi, chiamano in causa una seconda difficoltà che ci sembra mostrare il volume di Baring, ossia una certa tendenza a sovrapporre troppo velocemente categorie ed etichette storiografiche: cattolicesimo e Neoscolastica, ad esempio, non sono sinonimi, così come evidentemente non coincidono nemmeno con l’idea della “filosofia cristiana”. L’Autore ne è consapevole, come abbiamo visto e sottolineato anche con una citazione esplicita, in precedenza; ma allora il rapporto della fenomenologia con il cattolicesimo in senso generale appare chiamare in causa figure e contesti anche molto (troppo?) diversi tra loro. Sull’altro versante, poi, l’equiparazione della fenomenologia con la “filosofia continentale” appare ancora più forzata. Se è vero che l’ermeneutica o l’esistenzialismo derivano o non possono prescindere dalla fenomenologia, il marxismo, il neokantismo, il neoidealismo, lo spiritualismo e il personalismo sono tutte correnti “continentali” che – sia pur entrate in qualche rapporto con la fenomenologia – hanno avuto origini e sviluppi da essa indipendenti e autonomi. Se negli ultimi decenni quindi la filosofia continentale è stata in larga misura almeno di ispirazione fenomenologica, evidentemente non sempre è stato così nel corso del Novecento e le due categorie non sono sovrapponibili.

Ciò che sta a cuore all’Autore, d’altronde, emerge nell’Epilogo, in cui egli afferma – forse con eccesso di enfasi:

“Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion. Whether they consider religion as something that needs to be exorcised, conjured up, or—and this is where my sympathies lie—mined as an intellectual resource, philosophers across Europe have returned insistently to religious themes and questions” (343).

Anche in questo caso, si sostiene un giudizio dalla portata molto vasta – e per farlo ci si deve riferire al pensiero “religioso” in senso generale; per poi concludere invece rivolgendosi nello specifico al Tomismo e affermando:

“Thomism is not the power house it once was. Still taught in Catholic universities and seminaries around the world, it rarely enjoys philosophical attention outside the Church. Yet when assessing its influence, we should not restrict our attention to those few who continue to bear its name. Whether passed on as a positive inheritance, or persisting as a negative imprint on other forms of philosophy, neo-scholasticism’s greatest legacy is the international debate between non- Catholic philosophers over phenomenology. And though this would be cold comfort to a Mercier, a Gemelli, a Przywara, or a Maritain, Thomism continues to deserve the title philosophia perennis, thanks to its contradictory afterlives in secular thought.” (349).

Queste osservazioni critiche, comunque, nulla tolgono al valore di un volume che molto meritoriamente evidenzia finalmente in modo diffuso e analitico, e con una erudizione sorprendente, un rapporto macroscopico e sinora sorprendentemente sottaciuto. Così come nulla tolgono alla precisione del testo alcuni piccoli errori o refusi (chi scrive questa recensione, ad esempio, viene talora confuso con Roberto Tommasi). Impostare il rapporto in modo più stringente sul rapporto tra Neoscolastica e fenomenologia – piuttosto che tra cattolicesimo e pensiero continentale – avrebbe forse potuto essere una scelta più efficace, ma il lavoro di Baring resta in ogni caso decisivo per comprendere una vicenda rilevantissima della storia della filosofia del Novecento e dunque anche – “Herkunft bleibt stets Zukunft – i suoi sviluppi futuri.

Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism

Rethinking Existentialism Book Cover Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
Hardback £45.00

Reviewed by: Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth (Queens University Belfast)

‘Existentialism’ has long been held as a concept of contention. It has been used as a buzzword for bleakness, and a synonym for pessimism. Despite its misuse within popular culture, it has also been employed as an umbrella term to denote a philosophical movement. The conflation of this concept has led to a legacy of confusion regarding precisely that which constitutes existential thought, and who ought to be considered as an existentialist. Even much of the secondary literature has failed to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘existentialism’. Instead, we are often offered a constitutive list of themes which ‘existentialists’ supposedly share in common, such as nihilism, absurdity, and authenticity. It is precisely this linguistic ambiguity that causes Jonathan Webber to rethink existentialism, and that which he sets about dispelling. In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label. Instead, Webber offers a carefully considered account, defining existentialism in accordance with the Sartrean maxim ‘existence precedes essence’. It is from this standpoint that Webber takes the reader on a journey of rethinking ‘existentialism’.

Webber begins to clear the confusion by demonstrating why the label ‘existentialist’ should not be applied to certain associated thinkers. In the second chapter, Webber addresses the misattribution of Camus to the inner circle. Here it is illustrated that Camus rejects the central tenants of existentialism, and that the disagreement between Sartre and Camus is a consequence of their subsequent philosophical stances. Another thinker who was initially associated with existentialism, but whom Webber demonstrates to be on the periphery, is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In chapter three, Webber depicts Merleau-Ponty’s divergence in terms of his criticism of Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and Beauvoir’s defence that Merleau-Ponty has misunderstood Sartre. Although Webber does an excellent job of disentangling the intellectual connections between these theorists, one would appreciate further elucidation as to why additional thinkers ought to be excluded. Whilst Webber focused his attention on the development of existentialism in post-war France, there are two further thinkers who could have been addressed. Gabriel Marcel, for example, released his Philosophy of Existentialism in 1946, and Jacques Maritain published his Existence and Existent in 1947. As contemporaries of Sartre and self-proclaimed existentialists (at least initially) it would be interesting to see how they fit into Webber’s narrative.
In the positive phase of his project, Webber sets about determining who ought to be included. Until recently, Simone de Beauvoir has been believed to be without philosophical merit. The reason for overlooking her intellectual prowess is often attributed to her own rejection of the label ‘philosopher’ and referral to Sartre as the brains behind their project. Webber takes this to task in chapter four, where he demonstrates that Beauvoir articulates the existential ideal ‘existence precedes essence’ within her metaphysical novel She Came to Stay. Moreover, that the account which Beauvoir presents contains the concept of ‘commitment’ which presents a significant development upon Sartre’s theory of mind. Within chapter eight, a further important, and unexpected, contribution which Webber makes, is to include Frantz Fanon within the existentialist camp. Webber argues that within Black Skin, White Masks Fanon can be seen to ground his theory on the definition of existentialism insofar as he rejects that there is any essential difference between black people and white people. That is, for Fanon the belief that black people are inferior is caused by the sedimentation of a negative cultural representation in the collective consciousness. This is shown to make a significant development from Sartre’s own attempt to explain racial prejudice in terms of bad faith in Anti-Semite and the Jew.

Although Webber defines existentialism in accordance with the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, he notes that Sartre and Beauvoir initially disagreed upon what this concept entailed. In this way, he maps the development of the definition amongst the advocates themselves. Whilst Sartre is usually considered to be synonymous with existentialism, Webber illustrates that Sartre’s early work is flawed in terms of addressing the problem of absurdity. By tracing the development of Sartre’s thought, Webber shows that Sartre later comes to adopt Beauvoir’s position to reach the mature position where his version of existentialism corresponds to those of Beauvoir and Fanon in terms of their respective concepts of commitment. Having illustrated the various stages in the development of the concept of existentialism, Webber differentiates these forms, which includes Sartre’s early approach, from what he terms the canonical account. Existentialism proper, for Webber, entails that there is no predetermined nature, and that one’s essence is formed through the sedimentation of projects. The canonical accounts of existentialism, according to Webber, are represented by Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Sartre’s Saint Genet.

The ethical ideal espoused by existentialism is ‘authenticity’ and which is a response to absurdity. Sartre and Fanon are shown to offer eudaimonian arguments for authenticity, which suggests that the desire for authenticity emerges in relation to the realisation that inauthenticity leads to psychological distress. However, Webber notes that Sartre’s and Fanon’s accounts of authenticity fail to sufficiently overcome the issue of absurdity because they cannot address the meta-ethical problem of the grounding of normativity. Although Sartre appears to be at the centre of attention at the beginning of the book, it is Beauvoir who emerges as the hero of absurdity, insofar as she is shown to present the most fully articulated account of authenticity. Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity is shown to be supported by the categorical imperative that we should not value any ends which conflict with the value of human nature. Throughout the text, Webber refers to the ‘virtue of authenticity’, however, he does not explain why we ought to conceive of authenticity as a virtue. It is also difficult to understand the way in which authenticity could be construed as a virtue. If in relation eudaimonia, it does not make sense to refer to authenticity as a virtue because eudaimonia is not a virtue for Aristotle, but the end which the virtues lead to. Again, on the Kantian account, virtues are ends which are also duties, but it is questionable whether a way of life could be considered authentic if we have a duty to live in that particular way. Thus, clarity regarding that which is meant by ‘virtue of authenticity’ would be appreciated in avoiding any such confusion.

Webber makes a number of interesting observations and insights within his book. Whilst existentialism is often thought to be at odds with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is demonstrated that this is not the case. In chapter five, it is argued on the contrary that existentialism in fact falls within the Freudian tradition. Although Freud’s account appeals to innate drives, and the existentialists reject the idea of a predetermined essential-self, Webber illustrates that there is no contradiction, but instead a sustained engagement with Freud in attempting to overcome the Cartesian subject. In chapter six, Webber offers an original interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. The standard interpretation is that since ‘hell is other people’, we ought to prefer our own image of ourselves as opposed to that projected upon us by other people. Webber, however, claims that the real moral of the play is that bad faith inevitably impairs our relations with others. In each of these chapters, Webber offers interesting insights which make original contributions to the literature. However, with regards to the overall aim of defining a canonical account of existentialism, neither of these chapters seem directly related.

In the final chapter, Webber brings his analysis to a close by discussing the future direction of existentialism. In particular, he illustrates the practicality of his canonical account and the impact that it could have upon interdisciplinary exchange. Namely, he portrays what experimental science can learn from a more refined account of existentialism, and that this will enable existential-infused approaches to develop further. Although psychoanalytic approaches which have been built upon Sartre’s concept of radical freedom are subject to the same criticism as Sartre, Webber claims this field could undergo a revival were it to instead be built upon the theory of commitment.  Webber also notes that there are further lessons which can be learnt from existentialism. Whilst certain insights have been confirmed by experimental psychology, other claims, such as Fanon’s suggestion that psychiatric problems stem from the internalisation of stereotypes by the victim, remain unexplored. Thus, not only does Webber provides us with an analytically satisfactory account of existentialism, but also demonstrates the benefits possessing a more accurately defined theory.

The current political landscape has been marked by the sustained engagement with race and gender discourse. One can hardly open a newspaper, or read a social media news-feed without encountering a story about gender wage gaps, for example, or racism within first world countries. Whilst much philosophy remains decisively abstract in terms of application, Webber demonstrates how existential philosophers, such as Beauvoir and Fanon, engage with these very issues. In this respect, Rethinking Existentialism is a timely text which demonstrates the contemporary relevance of existential philosophy. Moreover, Webber’s book is lucidly written, and composed in an accessible manner which navigates both the personal relationships between theorists, and the development of their thoughts. Rather than individual sections which trace the trajectory of each theorist’s isolated intellectual development, Webber presents an interwoven account, articulating the development of particular existentialist figures in relation to one another. Whilst other authors confuse and conflate existentialism and existentialists, Webber clears the rubble piled-up and built upon by previous commentators. Webber provides elucidation and a clearing for those with an obscured view of existentialism, and a fresh and coherent perspective for those first approaching the subject. In this way, Webber’s Rethinking Existentialism is not only essential reading for anyone interested in existentialism, but the only book one needs.

Jean Wahl: Philosophies of Existence, Routledge, 2019

Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre Book Cover Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre
Routledge Library Editions: Existentialism
Jean Wahl
Hardback £80.00

Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy, Harvard University Press, 2019

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press
Hardback $49.95 • £35.95 • €45.00