Françoise Dastur: Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident, Les Belles Lettres, 2018

Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident Book Cover Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident
Encre Marine
Françoise Dastur
Les Belles Lettres
Broché 25.50 €

Daniel Giovannangeli: La Phénoménologie partagée, Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2017

La Phénoménologie partagée, Presses Universitaires de Liège Book Cover La Phénoménologie partagée, Presses Universitaires de Liège
Série Philosophie
Daniel Giovannangeli
Presses Universitaires de Liège
Paperback 23.00€

Françoise Dastur: Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude

Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude Book Cover Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Françoise Dastur. Translated by Robert Vallier
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Reviewed by:  Rhonda Siu (University of New South Wales)

Françoise Dastur’s aim in her most recent monograph, Questions of Phenomenology, is to examine how various phenomenologists have responded to the essential questions of philosophy, especially those which challenge the phenomenological approach (Dastur 2017, xiii-xiv).  The background to Dastur’s project is the transformation of the meaning of “phenomenology” in the early twentieth century from a specific philosophical discipline to a new understanding of philosophy itself (ibid., xiii).  This new understanding is based on the view adopted by Husserl from the ancient philosophers that philosophy is a collective enterprise that brings different thinkers together (ibid.).  Dastur thus emphasises not individual theorists but rather the interconnections between them that revolve around their shared concerns (ibid.).  A broad range of concerns underlie the fourfold structure of Dastur’s monograph: (1) language and logic, (2) the self and the other, (3) temporality and history, and (4) finitude and mortality.

There are several particularly meritorious aspects of the monograph.  Despite the considerable ground she traverses, Dastur’s discussions are highly integrated; she moves fluidly from one to another by drawing connections between the themes that emerge throughout the work.  For example, Dastur notes that the difference between Husserl and Heidegger’s emphases on the immortality of the “transcendental ego” and finitude, respectively, also results in different perspectives of history, and of the threat that technology poses to human existence (in Patočka’s thought).  Equally as fluidly, Dastur weaves phenomenologists’ views into an intricate tapestry of different but interconnected perspectives.  Rather than seeking to eliminate the conflicts between viewpoints, Dastur acknowledges the existence of “irreconcilable positions” (ibid.) and immerses herself into the complex relationships between them.

This fluidity is also embodied in Dastur’s own approach to phenomenology, which allows for a nuanced and sustained analysis of the central themes.  Two main influences underlie her approach.  Following Husserl and Heidegger, Dastur also believes that phenomenologists share “the practice of a method” rather than a particular “doctrine” or “school” (ibid.).  Following Merleau-Ponty, she conceives of phenomenology as a constantly evolving “movement” rather than a finished or fixed structure (ibid.).  Consequently, rather than pitting different phenomenologists against each other, Dastur establishes a conversation between them by examining how each has participated in, and thereby contributed to, this movement by developing, critiquing and even diverging from the ideas of his predecessor/s.  To her credit, Dastur explores not only the movement between different philosophers’ views, but also within each philosopher’s views as they evolve.  While Dastur’s analysis centres on the complex relationship between Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenologies, she also explores the notable contributions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Eugen Fink, Jan Patočka and Emmanuel Lévinas.  Whereas she recruits the first five philosophers as mediating figures between Husserl and Heidegger, she enlists Lévinas as her main interlocutor in her unifying endeavour.  Given her focus on phenomenology as a movement, Dastur does not argue that Husserl’s views are superior to Heidegger’s, or vice versa.  Rather, she acknowledges that Heidegger is indebted to Husserl for providing the groundwork for his own phenomenological views and for prompting him to “designate his own mode of thinking as ‘phenomenology’ until the end of his career” (ibid., 46).

Commentators such as Burt Hopkins note that such unbiased approaches are “conspicuously lacking” in the analyses of the Husserl-Heidegger relationship in the existing scholarship (Hopkins 1993, 4, emphasis in original).  Instead, Hopkins claims:

The literature treating the relationship between the phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger has not been kind to Husserl.  Heidegger’s “devastating” phenomenologically ontological critique of traditional epistemology and ontology, advanced under the rubric of “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time, has almost been universally received, despite the paucity of its references to Husserl, as sounding the death knell for Husserl’s original formulation of phenomenology.  (ibid., 1)

In part one, Dastur begins by examining Husserl’s views of language, logic and knowledge before turning to the transition of Husserl’s approach to phenomenology to Heidegger’s through the inclusion of the hermeneutical dimension.  In chapter one, Dastur investigates Husserl’s early theory of knowledge, focussing on how his epistemological views in Logical Investigations were influenced by the German philosopher, Rudolph Hermann Lotze’s theory of “validity”.  Lotze’s work, Dastur claims, was a key contributing factor in Husserl’s transition from the “psychologism” he adopted from Franz Brentano to “logicism” and its attendant Platonic underpinnings (Dastur 2017, 5).  What Husserl takes from Plato (and Lotze) is the notion that the validity of a proposition (when understood as “universality”) is based on its being a “truth in itself” (ibid., 14).  Dastur claims that it is this idea of “truth in itself” and the wider “logicism” wherein it is embedded that Husserl will later abandon following his “idealist ‘turn’” in 1905-07 (ibid.).

Continuing her investigation of Husserl’s epistemology in chapter three, Dastur provides a reading of Husserl’s more mature text, Experience and Judgment which focusses on the “genealogy of logic” (ibid., 29).  She distinguishes between Husserl and Heidegger’s notions of “originary experience” (ibid., 35).  Whereas Husserl associates this experience with the “individual”, she argues that Heidegger associates it with Dasein’s “originary openness to a world”, which also includes its relations with others (ibid., 35 and 40).  Also in this chapter, Dastur expands on the reasons behind Husserl’s departure from Brentano’s psychologism.  She claims that psychology, for Husserl, approaches its limits when it attempts to go back to “originary experience”; it can only reach an experience that has already been informed by “idealizations” originating in the “modern natural sciences” (ibid., 29).  In departing from this psychological perspective, Husserl, Dastur argues, does not dismiss science but rather seeks to attain a more comprehensive understanding of it by revealing the implicit assumptions behind its idealizations (ibid.).

In chapter two, Dastur examines Husserl’s enterprise of developing a “pure logical grammar”, focussing on the fourth Logical Investigation (ibid., 15).  Departing from the modern linguists of his time who relied heavily on empirical methodology, Dastur claims that Husserl seeks to revitalise the former notion of “‘universal’” and “‘a priori grammar’” through revealing the “conditions of possibility for all language and all meaning” (ibid., 15-16 and 19, emphases in original).  Dastur also astutely challenges Husserl’s privileging of the “category of the substantive” in this enterprise due to his (questionable) assumption that it underlies the grammatical forms of all languages (ibid., 25-26).  She employs Johannes Lohmann’s observation that while “Indo-European languages” may have the “predicative structure of the proposition” as their basis, this does not apply to other languages like Chinese (ibid., 26-27).

In chapter four, Dastur details Heidegger’s combination of phenomenology with hermeneutics to form the notion of “hermeneutic phenomenology” (ibid., 52).  This, she claims, partakes in Heidegger’s endeavour to show more emphatically than Husserl how phenomenology, rather than being a new direction in philosophy, is actually an extension of Plato and Aristotle’s “philosophical project” (ibid.). As commentators like Günter Figal (2012, 525) observe, “the hermeneutical dimension of phenomenology remains at the margins” of Husserl’s philosophy.  Although acknowledging that hints of this dimension can be found in the first Logical Investigation and the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Figal maintains that “Husserl never discussed the hermeneutical aspects of his conception of phenomenology; he never clarified what precisely he meant by ‘explication’, and how it should be practiced” (ibid., 525-526).

Dastur claims that a key difference between Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies lies in their views of how the subject initially experiences the world.  In what she refers to as Husserl’s “philosophy of the pure gaze”, the world first appears to the subject as impenetrable and perplexing; the meaning-giving act of the “constituting consciousness” is required to render it intelligible (Dastur 2017, 51).  By contrast, Dastur suggests that in Heidegger’s “hermeneutic phenomenology”, the subject is from the very beginning already embedded in, and engages with, the world and thus finds it comprehensible upon first contact (ibid., 51-52).  Aligning himself with the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, Heidegger believes that the world cannot be reduced to a “pure sensuous given” inasmuch as perception is already a reaction to, and the initiation of a conversation with, the world (ibid., 43-44).

Part two of Dastur’s monograph is multifaceted, comprising analyses of: (1) Husserl’s “transcendental reduction”, (2) the self-other/patient-therapist relationship in the medical domain from a Heideggerian perspective, and (3) the crucial question of intersubjectivity in Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenologies by way of Levinas’ distinctions between the same and the other, and between ethics and ontology.  In chapter five, Dastur outlines the ways that Husserl distinguishes his method of “phenomenological reduction” from that employed by the positive sciences (ibid., 57-58). Positive science assumes a pre-existing object that will be subjected for analysis, but Husserl’s “reductive method” does not (ibid., 57).  Dastur also analyses how Husserl departs from Descartes’ “representational” view of knowledge when he develops the notion of the “constituting consciousness” that marks the “transcendental turn” in his philosophy (ibid., 62-63).  Whereas the object and consciousness are completely distinct in Descartes’ epistemology, they are interrelated in Husserl’s philosophy (ibid.).  Dastur argues that, for Husserl, this does not entail that the constituting consciousness is responsible for founding the object; rather, the object initially becomes meaningful to us through the interpretative activity of consciousness (ibid., 63).  She also argues that what eventually motivated Husserl to distance himself even further from Descartes was his perception of Descartes’ inability to adequately address the issue of intersubjectivity, which Husserl regarded as essential to grasping the meaning of subjectivity (ibid., 65).

In chapter seven, a highly distinctive and interesting section of the monograph, Dastur examines how Heideggerian phenomenology can be applied to the medical domain, especially the possibility of deriving from it a “‘doctrine of human illness’” or a “therapy and preventative medicine” (ibid., 84).  Her analysis concentrates on two Swiss psychiatrists, Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger, who applied Heidegger’s ideas to their psychiatric practice in different ways.  Heidegger, Dastur claims, approved of Boss’ method of Daseinsanalyse because it forged a potential bridge between the ontological and ontic domains (ibid., 83).  By contrast, Heidegger claimed that Binswanger’s “psychiatric analysis of Dasein” constituted a “complete misunderstanding” of his thought as it did not progress beyond “an ontic and existentiell interpretation of factual Dasein” (ibid., 83-84).  A Heideggerian therapy that avoids the shortcomings of Binswanger’s approach, Dastur suggests, would necessitate a deeper engagement on the doctor’s part than the simple application of the ontological to the ontic by requiring the doctor to actually “experience himself as Da-sein” and perceive “all human reality” through this lens (ibid., 84).

In chapters six and eight, Dastur takes up the crucial “question of the other” in phenomenology by examining the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger’s views of intersubjectivity.  In both chapters, Lévinas serves as Dastur’s main interlocutor as she critiques his strict distinction between Being and ontology, on the one hand, and Ethics and the Other/alterity on the other.  In chapter six, she argues against Lévinas’ contention that the “question of the other” is adequately accounted for in Husserl’s philosophy but not in Heidegger’s, claiming instead that this question should be further examined in both their philosophies in an unprejudicial way (ibid., 69-70).  Temporality is central to Dastur’s investigation of intersubjectivity here insofar as she bases her analysis on what she perceives as Lévinas’ worthwhile contention that the “alterity of the other” is entwined with the “alterity of time itself” (ibid., 70).  She claims that Husserl’s notion of “self-constitution” relies on the alterity of time because the ego is necessarily constituted at a moment other than the present, meaning that the “constituting” and “constituted” cannot coincide (ibid., 71).  Dastur suggests that for Husserl this also applies to the self-other relationship.  Just as the ego cannot have immediate or direct access to its “past ego” (i.e. it can only recollect its past experiences later through reflection), in Husserl’s notion of “empathy”, the self only has indirect access to the other through “appresentation” (ibid., 74).  Moreover, just as the self’s recollection of its “past-ego” assumes that it shares a “community of consciousness” with the latter, so too does the “appresentation” of the other to oneself presuppose an “originary co-presence of the other” within the flux of time (ibid.).

In Heidegger’s philosophy, Dastur suggests that we find an even more intimate relationship between the self and time because the self is not simply subject to, and in, time, Dasein is time (ibid., 76).  As Heidegger’s well-known analysis of “being-toward-death” illustrates, Dasein’s finite nature means that time is essential to how it understands and interprets its own Being.  Dastur emphasises that, for Heidegger, the term, “being-with”, does not simply entail the fact that other people exist (ibid., 76-77) but is rather implicated and presupposed in how the self understands, and engages with, its finite existence.  Refuting Lévinas and those who accuse Heidegger of “solipsism”, she argues that “[i]t is therefore not at all a paradox to claim that in Being and Time, the question of the other is posed everywhere.” (ibid., 77-78, emphasis in original)

In chapter eight, Dastur recruits ideas from Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another to present a mediating position that adheres neither to Heidegger’s “thought of being” nor to Lévinas’ notion of “otherwise than being”, but rather contains and contests elements of both (ibid., 93 and 101-102).  She challenges Lévinas’ distinction between ontology and ethics by using Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism as an example (ibid., 92).  There, Heidegger combines these two notions by reanimating an ancient notion of ethics, namely, “ethos” (or “place of habitation”), which he conceptualises as the study of the “truth of Being” (Dastur 2017, 92 and Heidegger 1977, 234-235).  Positioning herself against Lévinas, Dastur claims that ontology, for Heidegger, is already “practical”, “engaged” and “ethical”, qualities which help to explain why he did not explicitly produce an ethics (Dastur 2017, 93).

In part three, Dastur establishes a dialogue between Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenological accounts of time by way of Merleau-Ponty’s views of temporality and the notion of the “event”.  Ricoeur and Gadamer’s views of the entwinement of hermeneutics and narrativity in history are also examined.  In chapter nine, Dastur designates Merleau-Ponty as the “figure of the phenomenological movement situated ‘between’ Heidegger and Husserl” by tracing the “movement” of the section on “Temporality” in Phenomenology of Perception (ibid., 112).  There, Merleau-Ponty refutes both the realist and idealist responses to the problem of time.  On the one hand, Dastur claims that the realist view, for Merleau-Ponty, posits that the “subject is in time”, whereby time regarded as an object (ibid., 107, emphasis in original).  In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (2002, 481) suggests that this conventional notion of “objective time” is unviable because it would simply consist in a “series of instances of ‘now’, which are presented to nobody, since nobody is involved in them”.  Rather than being supposedly applicable to everyone, objective time would in fact be inapplicable to anyone.  On the other hand, Dastur claims that the idealist view, for Merleau-Ponty, posits that the subject is “outside” of time and thus supposedly liberated from its confines (Dastur 2017, 107-108, emphasis in original).  For Merleau-Ponty, Dastur argues, this so-called “freedom” is misleading because the subject can only conceive of time’s “passage” or flow by inhabiting time rather than remaining completely detached from it (ibid., 108-109).  Merleau-Ponty’s alternative phenomenological response to the problem of time is that the “subject is time” (ibid., 107, emphasis in original).  By this, he means that an account of time must take the lived experience of the particular subject as its starting point.  It is the subject that either connects, or distinguishes between, the events of his/her past, thereby organising them into an integrated and meaningful narrative.

Dastur suggests that Merleau-Ponty formulates his phenomenological account of time by taking up an unconventional mediating position between Husserl and Heidegger’s views of temporality (ibid., 110 and 112).  Whereas Merleau-Ponty, she claims, follows Heidegger in interpreting Husserl’s notion of “intentionality” as “transcendence”, he follows Husserl in interpreting “ek-stasis” as pertaining to the subject rather than to existence (ibid., 110-111).  Moreover, she continues, by emphasising the subject’s “ek-static rather than synthetic character”, Merleau-Ponty reinforces Husserl’s notion of the “‘living’” or “‘enlarged’” present which, unlike the conventional notion of the present, comprises both the “retentional and protentional horizons” of the past and future (ibid., 113 and 115).  Dastur deems this marriage of Husserl and Heidegger as “the proper singularity of Merleau-Ponty’s work, which manages to give an eminent sense to the unity of what we have rightly called not the ‘school’ but the ‘movement’ of phenomenology” (ibid., 115).

In chapter ten, Dastur tackles the challenging question of how phenomenology can conceive of the “event”.  Specifically, Dastur claims that “the question is to show how a phenomenology of the event (if it is possible) constitutes the most proper completion of the phenomenological project rather than an announcement of its destitution or impossibility, as thinkers of absolute exteriority and alterity (such as Levinas and Derrida) sometimes suggest” (ibid., 120).  In her view, the event poses a challenge to philosophy (including phenomenology) because it exemplifies the “contingency” of time (ibid., 116).  The event, she argues, is brought about through an unexpected rupture between the past and future, which, in turn, is crucial to human experience because it allows for its transformation (ibid., 120).  Dastur investigates the significance of the “event” by examining the “phenomenology of expectation and surprise” that she finds in both Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies (ibid., 121).  Influenced by Heidegger’s characterisation of death as “possibility” (or an “impossible” paradoxically made “possible”), Dastur links the “phenomenology of eventuality” with the “phenomenology of mortality” (ibid., 121).  Husserl’s philosophy intersects with Heidegger’s in Dastur’s analysis through her claim that Heidegger’s delineation of the possible as “a structure of existence” is grounded in Husserl’s “intentional analyses”, with the notion of “excess” being common to both (ibid., 122).  Just as the “possible” exceeds the “real” in Heidegger’s existential analysis, the “intentional aim” exceeds the “intentional object” in Husserl’s intentional analysis (ibid., 121-122).

Dastur perceptively raises a potential objection to developing a “phenomenology of the event”, namely, the possibility of confronting events of such magnitude (e.g. the death of a lover and “religious conversion”) that they provoke not only a “reconfiguration of possibles” within human experience but the total annihilation of them (ibid., 123).  In such circumstances, Dastur suggests, our ability to even confront the event becomes doubtful insofar as what “we experience in moments of crisis is our incapacity to experience the traumatizing event in the present” (ibid., emphasis in original).  Dastur’s counterargument is that the fact that we attempt to attribute meaning to the event in the first place presupposes that we are already in the process of engaging with it (rather than simply being at its mercy) (ibid., 124).  She argues that, “[w]e must therefore not oppose phenomenology to the thought of the event, but rather conjoin them, so that the opening to the phenomenon can be merged with the opening to the unforeseeable.” (ibid., 124-125).

In chapter eleven, Dastur turns her attention to the issue of “historicity”.  Her analysis centres on the “philosophies of historicity” that arose as a reaction against the undesirable relativism that followed the demise of Hegelianism (ibid., 128).  She claims that these philosophies presented a new way of conceiving the link between “truth and history”, which had previously been overlooked by relativistic approaches (ibid.).  The beginnings of this new conception, Dastur suggests, can be found in Husserl’s phenomenology and, to a certain extent, in the “life-philosophy” of theorists such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Yorck von Wartenburg (ibid.).  However, she also argues that a common weakness amongst these “philosophies of historicity”, including in Husserl’s thought, is their inability to situate history fundamentally in the concepts of “death and finitude” (ibid., 129).  For example, Dastur suggests that Husserl is ultimately unable to grasp the “absolute historicity of consciousness” because he maintains that the transcendental ego is immortal (ibid., 130-131).  By contrast, Dastur believes that “only in Heidegger are finitude and historicity thought as essentially linked to one another, with mortality constituting the hidden ground of the historicity of existence” (ibid., 131).  Dastur stresses here (and in other chapters) that Heidegger’s view of history is not solipsistic because the finite subject is embedded in a community of other finite subjects with whom it remains in conversation (ibid., 132-133).  Aligning herself with Heidegger, Dastur concludes that mortality is the basis of truth and history, and that the acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of “human finitude” and the wider “finiteness of being” signals the opportunity for developing a “new alliance of truth and history” (ibid., 137).

In chapter twelve, Dastur begins by discussing David Carr’s interpretation of Ricoeur’s views on the philosophy of history, concentrating on the relationship between the “ontological” and “epistemological” aspects of narrative (ibid., 138).  Dastur sets out Ricoeur’s view that epistemology and ontology are entwined in narrative in such a way that epistemology transforms into ontology, in turn effecting the “opening of the hermeneutic dimension itself” (ibid., 139-140).  This uncovering of the hermeneutic dimension is possible in Ricoeur’s philosophy, Carr claims, because he departs from the traditional “representational” view of historical knowledge whereby the latter is said to mirror the “real past” (ibid., 139).  By contrast, Carr stresses that historical knowledge for Ricoeur is transformative, maintaining a “‘re-creative’ or reconfigurative” relationship with the past with which it actively engages (ibid.).  As Dastur explains, for Ricoeur it is through the act of interpretation that a profound relationship is established between the historian/interpreter and the past (ibid., 140).  This relationship permeates his/her “fundamental mode of being”, encompassing his/her connection with the texts s/he interprets, other people and to himself/herself (ibid.).

To advance her analysis of history and hermeneutics, Dastur turns to Gadamer’s philosophy, believing that he “most forcefully expressed the linkage of epistemology and ontology in the intermediary dimension of hermeneutics” (ibid.).  She argues that, for Gadamer, the historian’s relationship with the past is not one of domination, but is instead “dialogical” in that the past “speaks” to the historian who simultaneously interprets it (ibid., 140-142).  Dastur claims that, due to the time lapse between the moments of composition and interpretation, the meaning of a text for Gadamer is neither completely foreign nor completely understandable, but is rather situated between “strangeness and familiarity” (ibid., 140 and 142).  Gadamer (2002, 330-331) himself views this “temporal distance” not as an obstacle to be eliminated, but rather as “a positive and productive condition enabling understanding”.  Dastur concludes by concurring with Carr’s contention that “hermeneutics and narrativity” are implicated in each other, such that one can no longer “‘clearly separate life and the activity of recounting this life’” (Dastur 2017, 146).

In the final part of the monograph, Dastur explores the interrelated themes of finitude, worldliness and the divine through Patočka and Fink’s interpretations of Heidegger’s thought.  In chapter thirteen, Dastur further investigates the linkages between Husserl and Heidegger, this time recruiting Jan Patočka as a mediating figure.  While recognising both philosophers as important figures in the phenomenological movement, Dastur claims that Patočka highlights “the unifying elements subtending their opposition…by adopting a critical attitude with respect to both doctrines, to make the profound meaning of phenomenology appear as a ‘reflection on the crisis of thinking,’ which is also a crisis of humanity” (ibid., 151, emphasis in original).

In chapter fourteen, Dastur analyses three of Patočka’s texts that focus on Heidegger’s philosophy.  In the first text, The Crisis of Meaning, Patočka explores the similarities between Heidegger’s work and that of Thomas Masaryk, a Czech politician and philosopher (ibid., 157).  Patočka, Dastur claims, perceives in both Heidegger’s “eminently practical philosophy” and Masaryk’s act of establishing the state, prime examples of “‘engaged thought’” based on Heidegger’s notion of “resoluteness” (ibid., 158-159).  The second text, “Martin Heidegger, Thinker of Humanity”, is the “immediate posthumous elegy” that Patočka wrote for Heidegger (ibid., 160).  There, Dastur claims, Patočka portrays Heidegger as a “thinker of humanity” instead of a “thinker of being”, which is aligned with Heidegger’s own views in Letter on Humanism (ibid.).  Finally, Dastur examines a text that Patočka wrote following his “Varna lecture from September 1973” (ibid., 163).  According to Dastur, Patočka claims that Heidegger’s philosophy constitutes the “‘first truly radical attempts to situate philosophy in finitude’”, with the latter constituting the primary theme in both his early and more mature writings (ibid.).  Based on this assessment, Patočka distances himself from Husserl’s version of phenomenology, with its insistence on the immortality of the transcendental ego, and draws closer to Heidegger’s version.  In Dastur’s reading of Patočka, Heidegger’s emphasis on mortality also means that he perceives technology as a more ominous threat to humanity than Husserl (ibid., 164).  Technology contributes to the illusion of our domination over nature, which is perceived simply as a measurable resource for indiscriminate exploitation (ibid.).  According to Dastur, Patočka’s Heideggerian viewpoint is that technology obscures how “sacrifice” brings the “human nonmastery over beings” to light, thereby tempering the illusory “unconditional mastery” over beings that technology seeks to promote (ibid., 164-165).

In chapter fifteen, Dastur focusses on Eugen Fink’s course, “World and Finitude”, which is based on ideas from Heidegger’s course, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (ibid., 167).  Fink explores in it the interconnections between the themes of finitude and “worldliness”, that is, our relationship with “nonhuman” entities in the world (ibid., 168).  Whereas Heidegger characterises this issue as “ontological difference”, Fink characterises it as “cosmological difference” (ibid., 167).  Fink, Dastur claims, avoids formulating his notion of “cosmological difference” based on Heidegger’s notion of “ontological difference” because he regards cosmology as more fundamental than ontology whereas Heidegger argues for the reverse (ibid., 169).  When investigating cosmological thought, Fink posits the notion of the “‘double experience’ of death” as a counterpart to Heidegger’s notion of death as the “condemnation to extreme individuation” (ibid., 173).  When confronted with death, Fink believes that we experience both “solitude” and “love”, where love is a means of liberating ourselves from solitude (ibid.).  In Dastur’s view, Fink conceives of “love” as an intersubjective experience that emphasises the regeneration of life, that is, the experience of merging with the “‘original and unformed ground of all life and being’”, such as is featured in Nietzsche’s “philosophy of life” (ibid., 173-174).  Dastur argues that, “[i]n opposition to the unilaterality of the Heideggerian interpretation that […] gives primacy to death, Fink wants to give value to the double aspect, individual and social, of death and to conjoin the perspective of the dying with the perspective of the survivor.” (ibid., 176)

In the final chapter, Dastur explores the role of the divine in the phenomenological movement.  Dastur claims that Husserl, like Kant, abandons the traditional philosophical notion of “a metaphysical God” who acts as a “supreme ontological guarantor” (ibid., 180).  Rather, Husserl conceives of God as subject to the “laws of intentionality” in the same way as humans (ibid., 178).  However, Dastur suggests that this conception of God proved problematic for Husserl when he attempted to subject it to the transcendental reduction, because it did not fit neatly into his categories of “immanence” and “transcendence” (ibid., 179-180).  Husserl ultimately arrived at a conception of God as “a perfect and totally rational humanity” constituting the “absolute logos” towards which humans are heading (ibid., 181).  However, Dastur emphasises that this development does not signal “a ‘religious’ turn for phenomenology” in the context of his philosophy (ibid.).

Turning then to Heidegger, Dastur claims that he formulates his own notion of the “last God” based on the experience of the “death of God” in Nietzsche, and the “flight of the Gods” in Hölderlin’s poetry (ibid., 183). Dastur identifies several aspects of this “last God” that Heidegger believes would allow us to develop a more profound grasp of the divine than past conceptions of God (ibid., 184).  First, unlike the “God of revelation”, the “last God” “passes” into time, meaning that it only interacts with us as it retreats (ibid.).  Second, being subject to the flux of time, the “last God” reveals to us “‘the most intimate finitude of being’” rather than the “divine infinitude” of the Christian God (ibid.).  Lastly, unlike the “moral God”, the “last God” does not decree anything (ibid.).

As stated at the beginning of this review, Dastur’s exploration of key phenomenological questions is fluid, nuanced and engages with, rather than avoids, the complexities that emerge from such an investigation.  There are a few more evaluating remarks I want to make to conclude this review.  First, this monograph would be most useful to those seeking an analysis of diverse issues in the phenomenological movement from various perspectives rather than a detailed analysis of a particular issue.  Second, although Dastur raises some astute criticisms of the theorists she examines (e.g. her critique of Husserl’s privileging of the substantive in chapter two), besides Lévinas, I felt that a few more figures who clearly distinguish between Husserl and Heidegger could have been included to render the analysis more balanced.  Lastly, although there are clear lines of argument within the individual chapters that render them cohesive, the reader may sometimes feel frustrated at the lack of an overall topic that unites all parts of the work.  This, however, is probably a result of the approach that Dastur has chosen to adopt, and, moreover, part of the point she wants to make.  As she continually emphasises, phenomenology should be viewed as an evolving movement that encompasses diverse perspectives rather than a doctrine whose followers are assumed to share a common subject-matter or common principles.  The notably diverse nature of phenomenological contributions has been noted by commentators like Dan Zahavi (2012, 1), who observed that sometimes, despite Husserl’s crucial status as the forefather of phenomenology, “virtually all post-Husserlian phenomenologists ended up distancing themselves from most aspects of Husserl’s original program” (ibid.).  He even goes so far as to ask whether “there really [is] something like a phenomenological tradition, let alone a phenomenological method” (ibid.).  From this perspective, then, Dastur’s approach is not flawed but rather an attempt to contribute to the phenomenological movement by tackling a key challenge to it.


Dastur, Françoise. 2017. Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude. Translated by Robert Vallier. New York: Fordham University Press.

Figal, Gü 2012. “Hermeneutical Phenomenology”. In The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology, edited by Dan Zahavi, 525-542. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2002. “Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience” from Truth and Method. In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney, 314-338. London and New York: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977. Letter on Humanism. In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, 189-242. New York: Harper and Row.

Hopkins, Burt C. 1993. Intentionality in Husserl and Heidegger: The Problem of the Original Method and Phenomenon of Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2002. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge Classics.

Zahavi, Dan. 2012. “Introduction” to The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology, edited by Dan Zahavi, 1-4. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

R. Alexander, G. van Kerckhoven (Eds.): L’espace, les phénomènes, l’existence: De l’architectonique phénoménologique à l’architecture, Peeters Publishers, 2017

L'espace, les phénomènes, l'existence: De l'architectonique phénoménologique à l'architecture Book Cover L'espace, les phénomènes, l'existence: De l'architectonique phénoménologique à l'architecture
Bibliothèque Philosophique de Louvain, 100
R. Alexander , G. van Kerckhoven (Eds.)
Peeters Publishers

Judith Wambacq: Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 2018

Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty
Series in Continental Thought, № 51
Judith Wambacq
Ohio University Press/Swallow Press
Hardcover $95.00

Brian Harding: Not Even a God Can Save Us Now: Reading Machiavelli after Heidegger, McGill Queen University Press, 2017

Not Even a God Can Save Us Now: Reading Machiavelli after Heidegger Book Cover Not Even a God Can Save Us Now: Reading Machiavelli after Heidegger
McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Ideas Series, Volume 70
Brian Harding
McGill Queen University Press
Paperback $31.46

Raoul Moati: Levinas and the Night of Being

Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity Book Cover Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity
Raoul Moati, Translated by Daniel Wyche, Foreword by Jocelyn Benoist
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Innocenzo Sergio Genovesi (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

From Deleuze to Derrida, from Badiou to Nancy and Marion, the concept of event (évènement) witnessed an important development in the last fifty years of French philosophy and it is present in the most influential authors’ thought. Today, this notion still plays a central role in several attempts to rethink ontology and phenomenology, such as Claude Romano’s evential hermeneutics (hermenéutique événementiale). Even if the ideas of these philosophers substantially differ from each other and cannot be simply grouped together, we can trace at least one common issue in the notion of possibility. Events – with capital E – are happenings inaugurating a new horizon of possibility. They can actualize unforeseeable potentialities or make the impossible possible. For this reason, Events are said to be extraordinary moments and it has been argued that they should be unpredictable (imprévisible) or even impossible (impossible) since they lie beyond the ordinary structure of possibilities in which normal ontological movements take place. It goes without saying that the foundation of the modal structure of Being in such Events attests several theoretical problems If such Events overstep the general structure of Being, how are they supposed to happen? And where should an Event take place and have a place if Being cannot harbor its excess?

Some years before the flourishing of French “event” philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas formulated the notion of nocturnal events (événements nocturnes) in the preface of his masterwork Totalité et Infini. Levinas’ purpose is not to develop a philosophy of events. Indeed, in the whole book the expression “nocturnal event” is no more used and the adjective “nocturnal” appears just a few more times. However, even this parsimonious use of the term is enough to give us an important suggestion. The ultimate events that allow the deployment of new possibilities and which our comprehension of the world is based on are maybe not to be thought as impossible (im-possible), neither as unpredictable (im-pré-visible). They could rather be just invisible (in-visible).

After his impressive book on Derrida and Searle, Raoul Moati keeps deepening his researches about contemporary French philosophy dedicating an entire essay to Levinas and his idea of nocturnal events. What these two works have in common is the great attention given to the concept of intentionality and its Husserlian origins in the phenomenological tradition. Levinas and the Night of Being offers a fine reconstruction of the path undertaken by Levinas in Totalité et Infini to trace the way from the sensible ego to the infinite Other. Moreover, Moati shows us to what extent Levinas takes distance from other phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre as well as what does he own to their ideas. This review will first address which are the ontological and phenomenological involvements of nocturnal events that Moati highlights in his book. We will then retrace the way to the infinite in the context of a nocturnal conception of Being. Finally, we will have an overview of this book and its English translation by Daniel Wyche.

The Night of Being.

What Levinas reproaches to ontology and phenomenology is not, as other philosophers would have it, to be a sort of metaphysics of presence. Moati shows that the main critique that Levinas addresses to ontology and phenomenology is to be in a certain sense a metaphysics of light: they are based on “structures of illumination” (65), such as intuition, intentionality or comprehension. Sight and touch tended to have absolute primacy in the philosophical tradition, where “to be” means thus to be visible and graspable (67). The immediate consequence of this “diurnal sense of being” (XVI), from which Totalité et Infini attempts to liberate ontology, is that there is no more room left for otherness and exteriority: being becomes a totalizing structure and the Other is reduced to the self. A drastic rethinking of ontology, as a nocturnal broadening, is therefore needed in order to establish a place for those events that cannot be understood as being part of Being as a totality. That is to say, the nocturnal events:

There must be an ontology that establishes a place for ultimate events of being. […] Such events will no longer draw their significance from a Hegelian totalization or even from phenomenological constitution (Husserl) or the comprehension of the sense of being (Heidegger). The horizon of their deployment consists in a relation to being that overflows the light of objective evidence and of which all of these cases constitute various avatars (11).

The representation of Being that Moati presents us with is thus not that of a light irradiating the sensible world anymore, nor would it be that of a unique and totalizing illuminated surface. There are actually more than one illuminated surfaces, and we are only able to perceive them because of the dark background that encloses and undergirds them. Being does not correspond to these bright spots, but rather to the infinite night surrounding them. This night can be lightened by our “structures of illumination” and this is what originates diurnal events. However, there will always be a dark part not being seen in which nocturnal events are taking place.

Nocturnal events are “the nocturnal dramas by which being exhaustively produces itself” and amount to “a more originary experience for consciousness than transcendental constitution” (15). Is it possible to find a concrete case of nocturnal events? Moati provides us several examples taken from Levinas’ philosophy to describe these “nocturnal dramas”, among them we find the erotic encounter, fecundity, sociality and messianic peace. All these are for Levinas elements that, on the one hand, ground our primordial openness toward the Other and his or her face and which, on the other hand, constitute the base of an ontology that renounces to contain Being within the unity and recognises rather its plurality, taking up the discontinuity of the same and the other (81).

Even though Levinas affirms the primacy of events that are more primordial than subjective comprehension and transcendental constitution, Moati decisively stresses that this gesture does not correspond to a denial of the fundamental role that subjectivity, sensibility and ego play on the path to infinity. Indeed, without the ego’s sensible rooting in Being, no experience of infinite otherness would be possible: “the metaphysical alterity of the Other requires the precondition of the position of the self, a here-below positioned in relation to an over-there” (30). We will now see how nocturnal events and the sensible ego lead us on the way to infinity.

The Terrestrial Condition.

While in the first and last chapters of Levinas and the Night of Being Moati outlines the idea of a nocturnal ontology and unfolds the ontological involvements of nocturnal events, in the central chapters he deploys Levinas theory of the sensible ego and follows the path to infinity he had already sketched in Totalité et Infini. The book structure self is in this way a good representation of the nocturnal conception of being, where nocturnal events are the dark frame of our illuminated terrestrial experience.

First of all, Moati recalls the Levinasian notions of jouissance and element (élément). As it is known, according to Levinas the pre-objective degree of sensation corresponds to what he calls il y a (there is), that is the undefined existence without the existent, the undifferentiated element in which the self is originally immersed, the starting point of any further experience: “the element is the content from which forms are carved out, but it is not, as such, itself delimited by anything” (52). The first break in the uniformity of the element coincides with the subject’s jouissance, representing “the concrete mark of separation” (41). Enjoyment is “the contact between sensibility and the formless quality of the element” (94). It corresponds to sensation and more precisely to the very moment when the instrumental schema of the sensible is rejected and the subject just perceives his or her distinction and independence from the elemental world. Before having the possibility to be part of an ethical encounter with the Other, the subject should first have an ontic consistency: “enjoyment thus reveals the fundamental priority of the ontic for ontology” (47). This idea of a detachment and a constitution of the subject from and through the element questions the phenomenological distinction between constituent and constituted. Indeed, if on the one hand the ego shapes objectivity starting from the undifferentiated element, it is itself in turn delimited by the element:

Enjoyment reveals the impossibility of reducing the constituted to the position of the intentional correlate of the constitutive acts of transcendental consciousness. Every constituted object reveals itself through enjoyment just as much as it occupies the position of the constituent, which is to say the sensible nourishment of the self (55).

Once subjectivity consolidated, the self is ready for the encounter with the Other. This encounter begins in two other well known topoi of the Levinasian production: the dwelling (demeure), that is “the starting-place of any finalized human activity” (91), and the labor (travail), that consists “in the transformation of elemental nature into a world of identifiable things” (94). In order to encounter the Other, that is to manifest himself or herself to the Other, the subject should first have some possession to share with the Other, something to communicate to him or her. Here lies the fundamental importance of labor. It allows us to substantialize the element and fix it between the dwelling’s walls. Through labor we make the world and its objects identifiable and we start having possessions. At this point, Moati highlights and develops another great Levinasian intuition that, as the idea of a nocturnal ontology does, anticipates and responds to several difficult theoretical issues emerging in later event philosophy, especially the ones related to the possibility of the given and to its ontological status. Labor and possession – says Moati – turn the category of being into the category of having and they do that through a neutralization of being:

The thing is also, therefore, nothing more than the element, because it coincides with an element whose ontological independence has been neutralized and, in other words, whose being has been anesthetized. Put differently, through labor and the possession that results from it, the being (l’être) of the element becomes the having (l’avoir) of the self. […] The element becomes something only through the suspension of its being. Here, the ontological frontiers of the element no longer exceed those of the self, which is to say that we are now dealing with being insofar as it is possessed by someone (the self) (95).

Furthermore, in the event of the encounter our possessions become gift for the Other (136), and this gift is the content of the fundamental relation of teaching, that is the constitutive relation that marks the Other as such. As someone being my master not because of his or her deeper knowledges, but because of his or her radical otherness (126). Our shared world, that is the object of our ontology, does not follow the logic of being anymore, but that of having and giving. We are here facing a movement from être to il y a, from sein to es gibt.

Nocturnal Events.

Our possessions, shared in the social contest, exceed thus the ontology of light and become constitutive of the nocturnal event of sociality, a feature that marks us as humans. As the last step of the reconstruction, Moati finally points out how such nocturnal events, way far from being transcendent moments indirectly concerning the terrestrial condition, are not to be thought separately from our sensible way of being and how it grounds all other diurnal activities. We will now cite two cases Moati presents us with: sociality and fecundity.

Sociality is the base of our relationship with the Other. Because ofit we always already possess the idea of the infinite (107), which otherwise would be paradoxical and unreachable, for it would be reducible to totality of the self. Through sociality, ultimate event of Being, it is possible to articulate a relationship between the two terms (me and the Other) and at the same time maintain their separation (112). It is remarkable that sociality is an event of Being itself, constitutively belonging to its nocturnal structure. Because of sociality, Being is not a totalized monolithic Eleatic Being but is rather open and plurivocal. Moreover, in reason of this fundamental sociality, subjects can live their ethical relationship with the others expressing themselves through their discourse and interlocutory presence. Discours and teaching are the way in which the Other reveals to us his or her transcendence and allows us to have a relation with the infinite without reducing it to ourselves. Moati stresses one more time that this kind of expression is not to be understood in the context of a structure of illumination: “The one who expresses himself or herself does not draw his or her intelligibility from the light ‘borrowed’ from intentionality and unveiling, from which the same emerges” (115).

If sociality allows a relation without totalising elements of a plurivocal being, fecundity makes possible the production and realization of the infinite becoming of being. Moreover, it also represents a valuable alternative to the Heideggerian Geworfenheit to describe our terrestrial condition and our rooting in the concrete temporal situation. Moati recalls the famous example of the father/son relationship and gives us an account of its ontological meaning:

For the self, to be is also, through fecundity, to be other. The father is his son, in the precise sense in which the father transcends the horizon of his own selfhood in the son. The selfhood of the son, in the form from which the self of the father emerges, no longer coincides with the selfhood of the departure, that of the father. In fecundity, the self is discontinuous, fragmented. This discontinuity is an ultimate event of being itself, insofar as it is social, which is to say, transcendent and plural (172).

Levinas and Phenomenology.

As we mentioned before, together with a detailed development of the concept of nocturnal events and a reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation with the infinite, Moati provides us with illuminating comparisons between Levinas and other prominent phenomenologists throughout this book . These comparisons aim at explaining to what extent he kept following the Husserlian and Heideggerian ideas and what kind of disagreements he had with his contemporaries.

It goes without saying that the greatest dissent with Husserl concerns the ideas of transcendental ego and intentionality. We already saw how Levinas gives up the primacy of intentionality as a mean of objective representation since it is reduced to a structure of illumination, and how the distinction between constituent and constituted is questioned. Besides it, Moati also stresses the fact that Levinas cannot accept Husserl’s notion of transcendental ego for at least two reasons. First of all, the ego is always already sensible and we cannot think of an ego beyond its sensible situation. Second, Levinas reproaches the subjective non determination of the concept of transcendental ego. Indeed, its generality “hinders the possibility of establishing a relation that departs from the concrete immanence, from which only the other may speak — which is to say, deploy its ethical infiniteness” (182). All these remarks could be summed up in the general critic that Husserlian phenomenology brings about a totalization of the other and reduces it to the self.

Concerning Heidegger, Moati highlights that in the eyes of Levinas his historical and temporal conception of Dasein and thrownness (Geworfenheit) surely represent a step forward compared to the Husserlian suprahistorical model of consciousness. However, it would be a mistake to describe the sensible installation of our sensible ego within the element in terms of thrownness. More specifically, the concept of thrownness is linked to a conception of our existence based on the notion of power, that Levinas instead wants to quit: thrownness reveals our limits only in regard to the power that we have over our being. On the contrary, for Levinas our primordial situation is a position that locates consciousness beyond any positive or negative reference to power (78) and corresponds to the nocturnal event of fecundity. While thrownness puts us in the tragic condition of being powerless faced with our historical sensible determination and subject to the given horizon of possibility that is opened up to us with our birth, fecundity frees our terrestrial condition from this tragic connotation. Indeed, fecundity is here situated in the context of an ontology that renounces every claim of totalization and, therefore, renounces the primary role of power in representing our relationship with the Other: “the primacy of sensible happiness over any condition of misfortune becomes intelligible only once the nocturnal event of fecundity is elucidated, which in turn opens up the sensible depth of our being-in-the-world. It is thus fecundity that exhausts the reference to power and allows us to grasp the depth of our foundation in being” (83).

Another important disagreement drawn by Moati concerns Sartre. It is true that for both Levinas and Sartre the Other cannot be the object of a phenomenological reduction because of his or her transcendence and the encounter with the other takes the form of a dispossession of the world. But in this disagreement, Sartre understands this dispossession as a kind of alienation from the world, while for Levinas it actually corresponds to the “real becoming an objective world” (135). Indeed, Levinas sees a world that is only possessed and not shared, a silent world without discourse, as a contradictory world that remains subjective and relative. Since sociality grounds our being in the world, sharing our possessions with the other becomes the realization of our humanity and does not imply for us any kind of loss. The world is always a common world.

The last comparison that Moati presents us with is the one with Derrida and focuses especially on Derrida’s essay Violence et métaphysique. First of all, Moati points out a misunderstanding concerning the concept of “transcendental violence” in Derrida’s reading of Totalité et Infini. This misunderstanding is caused by the different grasping of the concept of intentionality and egoity that the two authors have: while Derrida thinks about the ego in the ethical relation as a transcendental ego (even if, as we all know, he strongly criticizes the Husserlian idea of transcendental), Levinas is instead talking about a sensible ego. The critique Derrida addresses to Levinas on “transcendental violence” thus misses its addressee, since Levinas refuses to problematize the subject’s relation with the other in transcendental terms (181). Moreover, the most stimulating remark that is formulated by Moati in this comparison is for sure the one concerning their two different conceptions of eschatology, for this thematic directly relates to event philosophy. Roughly, the greatest difference between the two authors lies in the fact that Derrida thinks the infinite in eschatology as a negativity, an endless process of spacing produced by the infinite waiting for an Other that never comes. In other words, as an infinite différance. For Derrida history designates “the ever-unachieved work of transcendental constitution” and is to be understood as “opening up to a nonpresence at the heart of phenomenality” (186). On the other hand, eschatology “lies in history as the movement of overflowing the closure of finite sameness” (187). Quite the opposite, Levinas sees eschatology as a relation to positive infinity. The Other manifests his or her infinite transcendence to us in a positive way, without a negative withdrawing. For Levinas eschatology is not contained within history but rather suspends it, “not only in that the transcendent passage from finite totality to the positivity of the infinite happens through it, but also in that eschatology suspends any recourse to our constituent powers to deduce the event of the revelation of the infinite” (187).

I would like to underline this final remark. In his late works, starting with Psyché. Inventions de l’autre, Derrida explicitly mentions the event of the coming of the Other as a fundamental – even quasi-transcendental – element of our experience and the human condition. Nevertheless, for Derrida the Other never comes and should never come in order to keep open the empty space needed to welcome him or her. This is why the event is impossible for Derrida; its conditions of possibility are its condition of impossibility. Levinas’ nocturnal events, and above all the event of sociality allowing our relationship with the infinite transcendence of the Other, free us from the paradox of an impossible foundation of our experience and knowledge. Indeed, both in Derrida and Levinas, our theoretical openness is based on the previous ethical striving for the Other. But while the Levinasian ethics finds its foundation in the nocturnal event of sociality, Derrida always misses the fundamental encounter with the Other.

In the night of Being, the Derridean spectre of the impossible could be chased by invisible ghostbusters: the nocturnal events.


Levinas and the Night of Being is an outstanding work of research in which Raoul Moati fully develops the ontological and phenomenological consequences of the notion of “nocturnal event” – on which very few was previously written – and properly contextualizes Levinas production in the phenomenological frame. Moati’s reading of Levinas thus provides us with new conceptual instruments to understand the key concept of ethics and otherness, theoretical core of Totalité et Infini. Inlight of his knowledge of phenomenology and French philosophy, Moati manages to explain with a remarkable clarity what is Levinas’ relation toward Husserlian phenomenology and how it is developed in contemporary philosophy, while also presenting critical readings of his work, such as the Derridean argument. Even though the chapters dedicated to the reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation to infinity give us a general glimpse of Levinasian main concepts, I would not suggest reading this book to first approach Levinas’ philosophy because of its complex critique of ontology and phenomenology. I would rather warmly suggest this reading to anyone who is already familiar with Levinasian ideas in general and with Totalité et Infini in particular. Indeed, Moati’s book not only helps us understanding his work by giving us a rigorous phenomenological context but it also prevents us from misreading Levinas as an anti-metaphysical or anti-ontological author. On the contrary, Moati shows us that an ontology is definitively possible insofar as we accept to also consider its nocturnal component.

Last but not least, I would like to spend a few words about Daniel Wyche’s translation as conclusion. Translating such a book is for sure not an easy task. Beyond the difficulties caused by philosophical jargon and complex argumentative structures there are several expressions in French, untranslatable in English, that should be rendered with neologism or directly rewritten in French. The most complex paragraphs may therefore prove more difficult to understand in the English version. It is maybe for this reason that the author chose to completely rewrite several passages exclusively for the English version. Overall, Wyche’s realized an elegant translation and managed to render in English concepts that are so idiosyncratically French. However, I would suggest to francophone readers to check also the original version, at least the least clear passages.

Jean-Luc Marion, Dan Arbib: The Rigor of Things, Fordham University Press, 2017

The Rigor of Things: Conversations with Dan Arbib Book Cover The Rigor of Things: Conversations with Dan Arbib
Jean-Luc Marion, Dan Arbib. Translated by Christina M. Gschwandtner, Foreword by David Tracy
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Merleau-Ponty Revived

In Defense of Phenomenology: Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy Book Cover In Defense of Phenomenology: Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy
Douglas Low
Hardcover $89.95

]Reviewed by: John Shand (The Open University)

The main title of this book suggests that it is a defense of phenomenology. An interesting and alluring idea. In fact the book is not a general defense of phenomenology, but is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, and thus of his particular brand of phenomenology – in the course of this it is also a defense of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, since the author holds that it has been misunderstood, or at least in certain crucial aspects fundamentally misrepresented. The particular villain of misunderstanding is Vincent Descombes in his venerable, but still quite widely read, introductory book Modern French Philosophy first published in French in 1979 and in English in 1980. It is unclear how influential Descombes book still is however, leaving one to wonder whether his view of Merleau-Ponty is still the prevailing one that might justify the effort involved here of showing up its flaws. Still, if the view presented by Descombes is mistaken, that gives some grounds for thinking such a misunderstanding as his needs countering, as it might turn up anywhere. It is also worth noting that one would be unlikely now to recommend Descombes book as a first introduction to phenomenology when there are more recent books, quite possibly better ones that do not take Descombes’ view of Merleau-Ponty, such as David E. Cooper, Existentialism, (second edition, Blackwell, 1999) and Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth, Russell Keat, Understanding Phenomenology (Blackwell, 1991). Descombes’ book is conspicuously absent from Cooper’s bibliography.

Still, the first main section of Douglas Low’s book is a systematic and detailed refutation of the view of Merleau-Ponty as presented by Descombes. It is this that I shall concentrate on in this review. There are three other chapters in the book: ‘One Merleau-Ponty, Not Two’, ‘Merleau-Ponty’s Criticism and Embrace of Hegel and Marx’, and ‘Marx, Baudrillard, and Merleau-Ponty on Alienation’. As can be seen from this, the book is a set of essays, rather than an integrated work, but one linked all the time by the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.

So let us look at the issue of Merleau-Ponty’s basic philosophy, and how it might be misunderstood. Low’s principal objection to Descombes is that he portrays Merleau-Ponty as a subjectivist, albeit of an absolute idealist sort, derived from misunderstanding Merleau-Ponty’s view that the self is involved in every understanding of the world. Whereas the truth of the matter is that Merleau-Ponty wishes to find new categories to overcome the dichotomies of subject and object, and mind and body. What eliminates the putative gap is the human body which looks both ways: it constitutes, and is essential to being, a subjective self, while at the same time it is the way we encounter the world and is an object in the world.

Before looking at what Merleau-Ponty might or might not have said about the problem of our understanding the world and our place in it, let us consider the problem itself. The traditional problem is essentially of Cartesian manufacture. The way it is set up by Descartes opens, as it turns out, an unbridgeable gap between our ideas of the world and how the world really is, or at least our being able to know how the world really is. The approach of phenomenology as it developed from Husserl’s initial version of it, the new version, a version common in certain basic respects to that of Heidegger and Sartre (just to pick out the major players) is to undercut the ideas-representation/world dichotomy. The attempts to go from idea-representation to the world by various means has tormented philosophy ever since Descartes. The approach of the new phenomenology is a variation of the old joke that if I wanted to get to there I would not start from here, as well as showing that the proposed starting place is in fact, as described, not a place from where one could start.

Descartes not only thought he had to set aside all that he could not be certain he knew to be true in order to build up a picture of how things are uninfected with falsehoods, he thought that such a picture should strip away all that makes the view dependent on contingent features of a perspective, all the things that make it my view, for with these in place we would not have a view of how things are in themselves, but rather a subjectively corrupted view of how they appear to creatures such as ourselves. What he was aiming for was an objective-conception, God’s-eye, view of reality that could then with justification be taken as showing how reality is, one not polluted with the trappings of a perspective. But once he retreats to the idea-representations of the world in his mind he finds it impossible to get out again so that he might be sure that any of them may be known to correspond to how the world actually is. The desperate nature of his plight is shown by the desperate measures he takes in drawing on a dubious medieval argument for the existence of God so that God may act as the guarantor of the truth of things he clear and distinctly perceives, for it is inconceivable that God would allow him to be deceived when he has made his best and most honest effort to grasp the truth.

From then on much of the history of philosophy becomes an attempt to solve the conundrum set up by Descartes, but, and this is crucial, still in Descartes’ terms and with his assumptions. One of the most obvious lines taken is various forms and degrees of idealism. If we cannot epistemically bridge the gap between our ideas of the world and the world in itself, one approach is to bring the world back into the realm of ideas. Obviously some distinction needs to be maintained between how things are in a merely subjective sense, thus how they are objectively; but this is done by epistemic devices and identifying features within the realm of ideas. Thus we have Kant’s transcendental idealism where objectivity is derived from those conditions that are necessary for the very possibility of experience, ‘the world’ being the sum total of such possible experiences. But because Kant was unable to give up completely on the idea of things as they might be, independently of any of the modes of acquaintance by which we may access them, he posits thing-in-themselves or noumena. To stop having something like noumena left hanging we move onto absolute idealism where ultimately the fully developed mode of knowing the world and the world itself are one. If you cannot get from ideas to the world, bring the world into the fold of ideas, thus making it in principle completely knowable. But this leads to one huge problem for many: plausibility. And it is not just nineteenth-century European philosophy that wrestles with bridging the Cartesian gap, one can see it running through the writings on epistemology and perception in twentieth-century analytical philosophy, at least until the later Wittgenstein and with him the first signs that a new radical approach was needed.

That approach on the continent is the new phenomenology. What is crucial to understanding it, and in particular the way that Merleau-Ponty presents it, is to show how Descartes is simply not entitled to use all the concepts, or ideas, that he has about the world, given where he starts from as a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness. Descartes simply helps himself to these concepts – through which he might articulate a view of reality, and then wonders whether such articulations are true – and does so unquestioningly and without entitlement. He is not entitled to the meanings that these concepts provide, without which no truth (or falsehood) may be articulated about the world, because from the point of view of a God’s-eye objective disembodied pure consciousness, no sense of the meaning of being would arise at all that might be captured in any concepts whatsoever. Now when we look as to why he is not entitled to the articulating concepts that present to us a world that has determinate being, we see that such concepts, and such a world, only arise at all because we are not a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, but are rather creatures that are a interested, embodied, impure consciousness. By this is meant that what gives any sense and meaning to the world, such that it may be thought of at all, is our being contingently-configured, engaged, embodied, creatures, and the particular senses and meanings that emerge reflect the particular form of our contingently-configured embodiment and engagement. It’s hard for us to notice this, as it was difficult for Descartes, because such modes of thinking are so pervasive, habitual and taken for granted. It’s only when we step back that we see that our very modes of thinking about the world depend on something that means that the ideas-representation/world gap is not merely bridged, but also eliminated because it could not have existed. For Merleau-Ponty, as Low clearly explains, that eliminator of the ideas-representation/world is the body. Crucially – and this needs emphasising – the body does not bridge the gap – it is not another solution to the traditional Cartesian problem – rather, if it is understood properly, it is the entity that is both a realm of ideas and the realm of the world. Dual featured, it is both, taking the first two together, the mode by which any understanding of our understanding of the world is possible, and the mode by which any understanding of the world is possible, while also being an entity in the world understood. Our bodies are, as Low puts it, that little bit of the world by which the world understands itself. And the crucial feature of the body is that it allows us to be engaged with the world. It is of us and of the world. It is only by being engaged with the world that the being of the world may be something to us (and to any understanding creature, although they may have different contingent-configurations). To put it crudely, only by bumping into things in the world do things come into being for us, have significance, as articulated in concepts that go on to have normative interconnections – thus, say, solid and liquid become opposed terms. The bumping into may be more or less literal of course – let us perhaps call it a matter of resistance and limits – so that things become such that they cannot be passed through, or are out of reach, or are unliftable, or have a beginning and have an ending. And such resistance and limits may only arise from being embodied, and embodied in a manner that must necessarily be determinate in some way or other. Thus all the meanings that Descartes used to speculate as to whether things could be known to be true or how things really are are meanings that could only arise by there being a world to which the meanings apply for us. Without being embodied and engaged in the world, it would be an undifferentiated homogeneous ineffability – this of course Kant understood when he posited noumena, even if he did not see the full significance of why such a world would be, or should be, strictly speaking inarticulable – and that only by a contingent mode of engagement with the world provided by a body does the world become something ‘bumpy’ so to speak, with peaks and troughs of significance and degrees of interest which concepts can mean. For a disinterested, disembodied, pure consciousness, (it is questionable indeed if such a thing is possible for it may be argued that it could have no thoughts) there would be no guiding motivation to develop any concepts which might express an understanding of the world at all, nor one might add an understanding of ourselves, a self. Why would there be? Without an other there can be no self and without a self there can be no understanding of the other. A view from nowhere is no possible view at all.

Merleau-Ponty’s is quite possibly the clearest account of this position – far more so than the later Husserl, or Heidegger or Sartre. Indeed Merleau-Ponty thinks that Sartre in his distinction of the for-itself (conscious self-awareness) the in-itself (non-human things) perpetuates too much the traditional mind/world distinction, and again leaves himself with a gap to be bridged. For Merleau-Ponty the body is both mind and world, and the understanding of the mind without the world and the world without the mind is impossible –each entails otherness. This also denies materialism as well as idealism. He shares however the primary thought that because of the, as it were, assumptions of the body, how we think about the world because of the contingently-configured body means that we are thrown into the world-ready-made. And we are thrown in as human beings qua human beings. It presents itself to us already there as being – it is not something we construct from the impressions on a mental tabula rasa. This may be modified by personal and cultural variations, but as Low explains quoting Merleau-Ponty, because of the durable commonality of the flesh, my world is essentially the same world as that of Plato and Aristotle. (cf p.12). Nothing is reached as it is in itself for it is necessarily encountered through the human body, but what is reached is always perceived gestalt as something that goes beyond the perception and with an awareness of its being something other.

Low’s is an excellent book, and he makes his case convincingly. It does something not only towards giving a better understanding of Merleau-Ponty, but also to clear up a possibly misunderstanding of him that may detract from our realising his importance. If anyone should lead the new phenomenological approach and show up the mistaken assumptions of much of previous philosophy, then Merleau-Ponty is an excellent candidate, and it is clear that he deserves more attention than he gets in philosophical academia. As hinted earlier, his approach has much in common with the later Wittgenstein when it is closely examined. The common approach, with noted differences, between Heidegger and Wittgenstein has recently been well explored in Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (The MIT Press, 2012). It would be fascinating and fruitful for someone to do the same with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein. Your next project, Professor Douglas Low!?

Gabrielle Dufour-Kowalska: Logos et absolu: Relire la phénoménologie du christianisme de Michel Henry, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2016

Logos et absolu: Relire la phénoménologie du christianisme de Michel Henry Book Cover Logos et absolu: Relire la phénoménologie du christianisme de Michel Henry
Empreintes philosophiques
Gabrielle Dufour-Kowalska
Presses universitaires de Louvain
Broché 22.00 €