Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.): Philosophers and Their Poets

Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant Book Cover Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Sarah Fayad (Emory University)

It is somewhat easy to forget that philosophy has not always, or in every case, been conducted through the medium of writing. For the most part, we expect philosophy to be written.  But the written-ness of philosophy is contingent, and so too is its suspension in the written: in literature, media, interview, and of course poetry. Socrates and Plato, or instance, did not make much use of citation and Plato especially elevated philosophy at the expense of poetry and drama. And, indeed, this contingency is all the more difficult for philosophers to fathom, because the written word is usually the trade-mechanism by which we philosophize, and through which we think. The experienced phenomena of reading and writing are the basic instruments of philosophy, as we practice it. Writing is not merely the way we convey and transmit ideas, born and nurtured in the mind. Rather, when we look at the phenomena of reading and writing, we see the ebb and flow of epiphany, of doubt, of enlightenment and invention. Writing is quite often how we philosophize at all.

The primordial disciplinary decision to move the vague shapes and shadows of our ideas from their mental and social obscurity (and incompletion) to the written word—a decision which none of us living had any hand in making— itself has philosophical ramifications. That is to say that the presupposition of philosophy’s written-ness, is shot through with questions: questions about the truth, as well as metaphilosophical questions about the place of philosophy within the universal/Borgesian “Library of Babel” it has chosen for itself, about the necessity of writing philosophy and the necessity of philosophy regarding other kinds of written works, about the relationship between philosophical, literary, journalistic, and poetical styles to reality, truth, clarity, and that part of the human spirit to which philosophy wants to appeal.

Charles Bambach’s and Theodore George’s anthology, Philosophers and Their Poets lights upon these fundamental questions of philosophy-as-word, as speech, and as our connection to one another and to the real through a series of serious, considered, and illuminating papers examining the relationship of philosophers to art, style, and of course poetry. I see these papers as being divided into four more-or-less distinguishable subject-categories: 1) papers dealing with German idealist discourse around the role and status of art, poetry, and beauty in what they regard as a burgeoning philosophical and rational world, 2) analyses of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art as it serves as a kind of hinge—indeed serves as itself a revealing poem—between idealism and more phenomenological and existential traditions, 3) those dealing with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry as a revolutionary force in meaning-making, and 4) those which proceed from the poems themselves to philosophical analyses.

The first three chapters of this collection take us through the foundations of these questions of style and artistry in the German idealist tradition. The first essay by Maria de Rosario Acosta Lopez analyses a historical controversy between Schiller and Fichte over philosophical style and the part of the human being to which philosophy must speak. This is followed by Chapter 2, which presents us with a very clear and compelling translation of the very letters exchanged between Schiller and Fichte, regarding philosophical style. These first chapters elucidate a possible ambiguity between reason and feeling, which gives way to a possible ambiguity between philosophy and poetry. This ambiguity leads Hegel’s intuitions, both conceptually and historically. Theodore George argues in Chapter 3 that philosophy and art have a similar purpose in the creation of world-historical meaning, for Hegel. We see a transition from any concern about the purity of philosophy in Fichte to an embrace of its meaning-founding affinities with religion and art in the later work of Hegel.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Nietzsche, whose philosophy marks a kind of transition between German idealism and the phenomenological and existential (represented by thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer), which will occupy the four of the volume’s remaining chapters. In Chapter 4, Babette Babich analyses Nietzsche’s relationship to ancient Greek tragic poetry, to its lost poets, and to their time-silenced songs in the interest of revealing what are indisputable contributions to philosophy itself, contra an extant tradition in the literature which more or less excludes him from the field. The fifth Chapter by Kalliopi Nikolopoulou investigates Nietzsche’s attachment to the heroic in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche saw ancient heroes and the poets who sung their tales as perhaps doubly heroic, she argues, since they might remedy Modern nihilism.

Chapters 5, 7, and 8 all deal with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry—as both the truth and the promise of philosophy. Like Schiller, Hegel, and Nietzsche Heidegger sees poetry as revealing a fuller truth than that accessible by reason alone. But it is only with Hegel that Heidegger shares this concept of the promise of poetry; both Heidegger and Hegel think art has (or once had) the power to inaugurate worlds and imbue them with meaning. Charles Bambach’s sixth Chapter for this volume begins at the interstices of aesthetics and ethics, mired in this Heideggerian meaning-making power/promise of the poem. He finds that the poem—in granting us access to our humanity in full—promises an originary ethics of our place, and (I’ll say) perfection, which is utterly opaque to us without the poetic disclosure. In the seventh Chapter, “Remains,” William McNeill addresses the futurity any concept of a promise must take for granted. He argues that Heidegger’s confrontations with Hölderlin’s poetry open up novel relations and meanings for us by altering the medium of time. Hölderlin’s works according to McNeill demonstrate a substratum of ambiguity in time wherein the greeting and remembrance are indistinct. Thus, the poem’s novel horizonality inaugurates a new world by possibilizing new projects, new relations to one another, and even new relations to the dead. Chapter 8 is likewise about the time of the poem, but it looks to its momentum, to the cadence of thought. Such poietic momentum, Krystof Ziarek argues, is experienced as rhythm and even texture. When philosophy takes on this cadence, it transcends the mere transmission of information and exceeds the possibilities of the argument: demonstrating in this excess new possibilities for thought itself.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 emerge from analyses of poets and poetic works, rather than from within the philosophical theories which have taken them up. This provides what I think is a novel opportunity for philosophers who might not themselves read much poetry. It is a strange admission to make here, I suppose, that I have likely read more philosophical works which abstract from and selectively cite poems than I have poems themselves. To the question, “Is poetry true?” Chapter nine of Philosophers and Their Poets poses a kind of phenomenological/experimental response; “In order to answer this question maybe no extensive conceptual discussion of truth is needed…just attention to a particular poem led by the question how such a poem can be read and understood.”[1] To this end, Gunther Figal looks to Burnt Norton” by T.S. Eliot. Chapter 10, by Gert-Jan van der Heiden, which I discuss in some greater detail below, looks to the somewhat revolutionary poetry of Célan, which render in poetic verse that promise of a different world, or of new meanings, of new homes—out of the silence, the nothingness, that must follow the decay of status-quo intelligibility, in the rests, and breaths that keep familiar meaning from crossing living lips. In Chapter 11, Max Kommerell (who has been translated here by Christopher D. Merwin and Margot Wielgus) provides an analysis of Hölderlin’s Empedocles poem, which demonstrates his distinctiveness. In particular, this analysis lays bare Hölderlin’s perhaps utterly unique poetic “ear,” which attunes him to cosmic harmonies and truths, and places what is revealed in his writing always-already outside the grasp of our concepts; “…in accord with his talent, Hölderlin could experience what, for us, lies at an ungraspable distance and is a hardly thinkable event as the real history of his soul.”[2]

Because of its historical breadth, this anthology might serve as a kind of introduction to the specific questions that arise from continental philosophy’s various encounters with poetry. But the book would only be an appropriate introduction for somewhat advanced students of philosophy, familiar with continental thought, and its historical movements. It is therefore I think primarily suited to philosophers already researching some of the questions outlined in my introduction. These would also be invaluable secondary sources for interdisciplinary researchers. I would readily recommend the volume, for example, to anyone writing at the interstices of philosophy or art and aesthetics with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, and metaphysics. This recommendation is in no small part because the authors in this volume have done an excellent job bringing the stakes of philosophy of art to the surface.

Art, especially as poetry, has had an inescapable influence on philosophical thinking throughout its 2000+ years of development. If the bare written-ness of philosophy opens up as many questions as it does, then what does its ready and intimate relationship to poetry mean for us? What does it say about philosophy itself: its veracity, its trustworthiness? And, perhaps more promisingly: What does it say about poetry, about its kind of truth? Bambach and George introduce the works in this anthology by way of a kind of conclusion:

What we find in poetry is the unfolding of the very momentum of language as an originary opening up and emergence that does not fit into the metaphysical encasements of presence and representation… Against the propositional language of statements, poetic language invites us to heed the pauses, the interruptions, and the caesurae that call us to attend to what is not said or can never be said in language.[3]

They find that poetry invites that part of the human spirit which can attend to the immutable mysteries of our existence and of Being, in general, to attend to these mysteries, in spite of their inherent obscurity. Poetry, in short, invites us to philosophize. We come up against this indistinction between the philosophical and the poetic, as we read the essays collected in Philosophers and Their Poets, again and again. The philosophical—which has, in many of its iterations attempted to void itself of the poetic, to let beauty die of neglect—is shot through with the poetic. The poetic is unavoidably philosophical: so much so that we might call any promise of truth philosophy might make, at all, the “poetic.”

We cannot help but ask here, where ordinary categories fail; Who are the philosophers and who the poets of Philosophers and Their Poets? Some thinkers examined within the volume trouble themselves with the differences, while others embrace, and even invest fully in the similarities. (Although, the indistinction between the poetic and the philosophical may, in the end, be why we feel compelled to draw such a distinction in the first place, rendering both derivative).

Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez’s analysis of a confrontation between Schiller and Fichte begins the essays in the collection and does so as an inauguration of the very questions with which we have been tarrying. Most importantly, the argument between these Modern titans lays bare a very basic metaphilosophical point I had not ever before considered: that all writing, all discourse, and all philosophy must speak either to the whole of the human being or to some part of her. Philosophy might, therefore, have a different audience than does poetry, news, or fiction even within the same enfleshed and living reader. Fichte presupposes that philosophy must solicit only some part of the subject. He argues that philosophical writing must be as logical as possible, using examples in such a way that they shore up arguments rather than evoke the sensible and imaginative capacities. This is because, on his view, philosophy takes aim at the Understanding alone. Other capacities of the subject are not relevant, on this view, to the philosophical pursuit of truth. Such a pursuit can, therefore, only be successful if it is confined to this valence of subjectivity.

But, is such a well-fortified compartmentalization of subjective parts, regions, and capacities even possible for more contemporary thinkers? Doesn’t Continental Philosophy’s “phenomenological turn” render anathema the very idea that philosophy might reach something like the tower-bound understanding—especially without dirtying itself in the more immanent ground of evoking and implicating imagination, sensation, and body? Indeed I think many of us would agree that philosophy might not be able to find and transmit truth if it does not consider and speak to the whole human being. Rosario Acosta Lopez shows that Schiller’s evocations of imagination insert “…in the heart of human action the elements of contingency, finitude and a permanent and necessary dialog with a world that is never entirely in our power to control.” Contra Fichte, Schiller’s more poetical and evocative style is veridical: showing us the world in its more awe-inspiring and challenging true-light.[4]

My continual tendency, aside from the inquiry itself, is to employ the ensemble of emotional forces and to the extent that it is possible to affect all of them. I thus do not wish merely to make my thoughts clear to others, but at the same time to transmit my entire soul to them, and to influence bother their sensuous and intellectual powers.[5]

Schiller makes an epistemological, existential, and ontological point with his imaginative and sensuous writing style. He also makes a metaphilosophical one, which proceeds naturally from undermining the understanding’s epistemic monopoly; “[T]he discussion reflects on philosophy itself, inviting us to understand the boundaries of thought, and the very rich possibilities that come along [sic] the recognition of these boundaries.”[6] The understanding has boundaries precisely with regard to the philosophical and cannot philosophize without pooling resources with something like the integrated-and-whole embodied subject.

This more phenomenologically salient, existential understanding of the poetic nature of philosophical writing (and of the philosophical nature of poetic writing, as well) seems to prevail in the context of the anthology as it deals with authors like Heidegger and Gadamer. Poetic writing, as it reaches the whole human being and casts its creeping, seeking, tendrils even into the most obscure and mysterious depths of the soil of our Being, and our Becoming.

Hegel might seem an odd-man-out in terms of this generalization since he does not affirm the indistinct boundaries between philosophy and art. His infamous and oft-misunderstood argument for the “end of art” and the primacy of philosophy is a testament to this. Yet, Theodore George shows Hegel nonetheless sees art as serving a similar function to philosophy in the founding and transmission of meaning, even in the Modern world. This function unsurprisingly has to do with truth. Art, religion, and philosophy allow “a society…to take a good look at itself, to make explicit its deepest context of meaning, the context that otherwise remains merely tacit even as it shapes, orients and grants legitimacy to all further meanings within that society.”

On George’s account in this volume, Hegel should be read as saying that between art and philosophy as well as between Classical and Romantic art, there are no differences in kind. Rather there are differences in context, which yield differences in the magnitude of their respective world-founding forces. Hegel thinks that Classical artworks originarily founded, grounded, and justified Greek culture. Everything in this period—including the first works of philosophy— derives from and makes sense in reference to this founding. Within the modern period, however, art bears no such promise and philosophy must provide our social foundations. The ancient context gave art a greater share of the inauguration, transmission, and preservation of its truth. The modern era by necessity gives it less.

On this view, the nascent philosophy of the ancient world could not but be derivative of its more originary sculptural founding, and thus will be supplanted by modern philosophy: the first philosophy to successfully found and ground a world-historical epoch. Hegel argues that modernity is, in essence, a revaluation, whereby philosophy accrues a greater degree of veridical force. This changing of worlds, the promise of new meanings and truths—the world-historical dawn in which Hegel feels himself bathed—this is the promise of philosophy as poetic and of poetry as philosophical, which comes to dominate Philosophers and Their Poets. Inchoate in language are new worlds.

Babette Babich’s search for Nietzsche’s all-but-lost poet, Archilochus, lays bare the tension with which humanity is suspended upon the Earth. The truth of tragedy is a musical truth, she concludes. But what is music within the Nietzschean paradigm other than “the becoming human of dissonance?”[7] In music, we take up into the body our irresolute difference from the world and its entities: a tension that cannot be resolved so long as we are of this world. Such a tension as that between the world and its dominant species is perfectly thought as musical dissonance; dissonance heard arises from the proximity of one note with the other, the greatest dissonance from the greatest similarity, proximity, intimacy.

This is what distinguishes us as the exception among beings, that we both inhabit and are inhabited by an inescapable uncanniness that pervades our ethos.[8]

This tension between the “possible nearness and necessary remoteness of all things” to us is the foundation of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially his philosophy of poetry and art. That strangeness and disquiet that emerges most strongly, most sustained, from the smallest margins of difference, from the tightest chasms of intimacy. We seek the resolution, like any listener, any composer. But the resolution cannot happen here, within our fraught intimacy with a world that cannot harmonize with us; a world that—through Modernity, mechanization, and technologization—we have mistakenly set to sing a different song from us, altogether. Philosophers and Their Poets allows us to tarry with the major philosophical insight that there are however possible—that is, horizonal, not-yet-actual/arrived—worlds, with which we could harmonize.

Such worlds, on Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s accounts, seem to exist just beyond the concepts that make up our reality:  possibilities invisible to us because we have a faith in the world, which could perhaps shatter upon rocks of the right philosophical or poetic work. William McNeill argues that Heidegger’s encounters with poetry reveal the limits of phenomenology, and therefore of the truth-telling capacity of our very experience. Poetry reveals those limits of our world which serve as its conditions of possibility (time), and thus what is real beyond our comprehension, or our apprehension, through the structures of meaning in which we are presently enmeshed.[9] Bambach argues that the poet sings the philosopher his longing for his “own home amid the experience of expulsion,” in an uncanny home, in an intelligibility which fails to make sense of the philosopher and indeed each of us, an intelligibility that thus desacralizes us, flattens and debases us. But the poet’s hymn is a heralding hymn, which points “ahead to the futural coming of the gods.” Gods, of course, found worlds. And perhaps the poet can sing the eventual creation of a home that protects our dignity, sanctifies us, and sets us forever free of the old intelligibility.[10]

The anthology presents oscillations and refinements of this insight throughout the history of Western thought—from Nietzsche’s conception of world-revolutionary “revaluation,” to Heidegger’s alethic revelation of (extant and real) values, the existential progressivism of so-called ontological and ethical “ambiguity,” and Gadamer’s “subdued hope…” The notes that harmonize with our being, hum imperceptibly all around us; we just need philosophy and art to amplify them, and finally to change the song of the world.

With new worlds, of course, come new ethics, new values, new ways of being with one another, and even new entities. The works collected in Philosophers and Their Poets confront the abyss of the as-of-yet inchoate possibilities of this new world—hidden in the bare written-ness of philosophy—and they do so with an eye to what’s at stake in such questions for denizens of the present world. We should, I think, desire new answers to the question, “Who are we?”[11] While I am reticent to add much of anything extra-textual to such a rich volume, I will say I feel we cannot but look at our current world in mourning, in longing. The coming of another means the terrifying demise of the world. But it might finally mean the embrace of the Other, of one another, no matter how strange we’ve been to each other:

Language gives us shelter… by deconstructing word and language the poem sets free another horizon, namely the horizon of the unfamiliar… the horizon of heaven.[12]

The stranger, in her approach through the medium of the poem; The strange in its approach through the medium of the poem; Both approach with their arms outstretched, and paradise in their hands, according to Célan.

I do not believe a poem alone can save us (unless our definition of “poetry” becomes so diffuse as to lose all meaning). After all, the horrors of this world have easily survived any beauty in it. I therefore even have to regard the destructive power Célan grants poetry with some skepticism. Nonetheless, I do think that (poetic) beauty has its place, as we attempt to turn the world over and reveal its other side. Alongside Schiller, I feel poetic language might help to engage the entire human being in the work of making a way for new meanings. As social and political creatures we are, of course, embodied and intercorporeal, only partially rational. If poetry is world-transitional in the ways Heidegger and Célan argue, it is in part because we cannot migrate to a new world by virtue of our rationality alone. Beauty as justice, as long-awaited relief, as burgeoning post-revolutionary responsibilities to one another, even as forgiveness, as absolution: this is the medium of revolutionary beauty, which might both carry us to a new world as well as compose this world in its meter, its tone, and its colors (as the paint carries us to the world of the painting, by the very act of creating that world). Such a medium perhaps makes possible—even beckons—the revolutionary poem. And thus we might be called to the selfless, futural, heartache of revolutionary beauty by the poets of our current, decaying, world as well. A poem alone may not be able to save us, but I am inclined to take what help there is.

[1] Günter Figal, “Learning from Poetry: On Philosophy, Poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 204.

[2] Max Kommerell, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” Translated by C. Merwin and M. Wielgus, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 260.

[3] Charles Bambach and Theodore George. 2019. Philosophers and Their Poets. Albany: State University of New York Press, 5-6.

[4]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[5] “Fichte and Schiller Correspondence, from Fichte’s Werke, Vol. 8 (De Gruyter).”  Translated by Christopher Turner, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 56.

[6]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[7] Babette Babich, “Who is Nietzsche’s Archilochus? Rhythm and the Problem of the Subject,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 103.

[8] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’ Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 146.

[9] William McNeill, “Remains: Heidegger and Hölderlin amid the Ruins of Time,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 179.

[10] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 152.

[11] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 145.

[12] Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 226.

Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.): Phenomenology as Performative Exercise

Phenomenology as Performative Exercise Book Cover Phenomenology as Performative Exercise
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 19
Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.)
Hardback €121.00
x, 236

Reviewed by: Thomas Arnold (University of Heidelberg)

The book is a whole divided into three parts, with the first part concerned with the performativity of phenomenology, the second with the phenomenology of performativity and the third with exercises in phenomenology. In this review, first I briefly discuss the volume as a whole. Then I focus on individual entries present in the volume, since they differ by topic and in quality. I conclude with some remarks.

I. Overview

The aim of the book is “to establish the first systematic connection between phenomenology and performativity” (1), which concerns both the performativity of phenomenology as well as the phenomenology of performativity (2). The third part of it “aims to sketch out three phenomenological exercises devoted to the constitution of contemporary performative phenomena” (7). The label “exercises” is somewhat misleading since all phenomenological inquiries are exercises in phenomenology. Moreover, all three essays in the exercise-section of the book are themselves phenomenological investigations into specific performances (as opposed to performativity in general), which thematically justifies their inclusion.

While we do get a promised look into the different ways in which phenomenology can be considered “performative,” I hold that the “transformation of attitude [performance] effects through a number of parallels between phenomenology and the ancient understanding of philosophy as an exercise and a way of life” (2) does not get enough attention. The specifics of this transformation do not seem to be discussed thoroughly enough in the book. How is the subject transformed exactly? From which state to what other state? Is subject-transformation desirable? Then again, this collection is just that: a collection – and therefore it cannot be expected to provide the same encompassing systematic reach a monograph might achieve.

What I liked in this volume was the systematic engagement with both historically close (Foucault, Derrida, a lot of Butler) as well as distant theories (e.g., Plato), which shows that phenomenologists are still interested in theoretical (as opposed to merely exegetical) issues and that we read and talk outside the boundaries of the phenomenological tradition, thus preventing conceptual in-breeding.

As I highlight later in this review, almost all papers contain more or less implicit assumptions about what phenomenology is and what it is supposed to do. If we follow some of the authors in this collection, it ought to be critical, active, transformative, not too intellectual or detached; yet there is not much open discussion about the foundations and justifications of these conceptions and I think this is a debate still waiting to happen – and one which can never really come to an end as long as philosophy demands radical justification for, of and by itself.

As far as I am concerned, paying close attention to how things appear (including texts) should still be the fundamental tenet of phenomenology, because that is how we adequately grasp things instead of just dealing with our own presuppositions and projections. As simple as this sounds, neither close attention (i.e. attention without prejudice, readily available formulae or random associations) nor the focus on the how of appearing (as against the what) are very well developed in our societies. And as Guidi points out, phenomenology is – in one sense – already “critical” inasmuch as it “draws our attention” (2) to sundry phenomena and their (contingent, problematic) modes of appearing, which for example include our naturalistic conceptions and inauthentic tendencies.

My final question however targets the subject and the object of these reflective operations. If we as phenomenologists are supposed to draw “our attention,” does this refer only to us phenomenologists or to us as simple humans? Put in the vocabulary of the present volume, who is supposed to be the benefactor of these phenomenological performances and exercises? And consequently, how should these exercises look? Should they be more academic exercises? More tentative theoretical acrobatics, language games within the same tedious vernacular, or maybe the umpteenth reading of Husserl’s descriptions of inner time consciousness? Or could they be more public exercises in reflecting on presuppositions and attending how things appear?

These questions are not trivial. For example, Husserl famously envisioned a social renewal centred around transcendental phenomenology. While I do not wish to advocate another attempt at healing (or bettering) the world through philosophy, I think phenomenologists are not in a bad position to contribute to what one might call “public philosophy”; especially since phenomenology is not a set of theorems or arguments or a doctrine one can extol, but a way of living, a way of looking, something we do and something we can train others to do too, maybe even to their (and our) advantage – a “performative exercise” indeed.

II. Review of Individual Entries

Dahlstrom characterises Heidegger’s phenomenology as performative insofar as it is obviously something we perform (as in: do), but mainly because “the phenomenologist’s philosophical act of understanding certain experiences entails carrying out the experience herself” (14). This leads him to the language used to prompt these re-enactments of experience – and to Heidegger’s reflection on the performativity of (phenomenological) language. Dahlstrom thus notes several concordances between Austin’s analyses of performatives and Heidegger’s early thoughts on language, especially on everyday performative discourse. Dahlstrom also mentions Heidegger’s engagement with authentic and inauthentic discourse as something that goes beyond Austin’s work.

In section two Dahlstrom deals with the phenomenological re-enactment (Vollzug) of experience in the sense of truth-proclamations. This touches upon the problem that phenomenological description does not simply mimic what it describes, but gives it “shape” (24). This is an example of  “Gestaltgebung” (24).[1] From here, Dahlstrom links Heidegger’s account of formal indication and its “existential-disclosive aspect” (26) to Searle’s take on performatives as creating linguistic facts. Dahlstrom ends on the observation that Heidegger’s account of speech acts is embedded in a much larger framework, while the speech act theorists focus more on specific issues and thus bring out more details, such that both could profit from each other (28).

From Dahlstrom’s considerations in section two, one might further question the function of re-enactment: why is it even necessary to “perform” experiences in phenomenology? And to what end? The repetition of experiences is necessary for our adequate grasp of what is given in experiences. Asserting without experience, i.e., asserting without direct contact to the things themselves, merely verbally, is what Husserl calls “empty” or even “inauthentic” discourse. How we perform our assertive acts is important because “empty” speech is phenomenologically worthless – hence the insistence on first-hand experience or, as Husserl calls it, “intuition.” Dahlstrom hints at the necessity of unpacking the distinction between authentic and inauthentic in Heidegger in FN 48. The end of all these efforts is ontological for Heidegger, for he is never interested simply in understanding experiences or even types of experiences for their own sake or in service of practical, “critical” projects. For Heidegger, questioning aims at something deeper: i.e., understanding being.

Legrand asks “What does happen if one practices an epochê without reduction?”(33). To arrive firstly at the fact that the epochê itself “is a performance of the subject” and that “the subject is performed by practicing the epochê,” the epochê becomes something specific to a suspension of judgement, a “suspension of anything that would prevent to work with what gives itself, as it is given, in the very field in which it is given.” (33-4, 40). Legrand sees Barthes practising a kind of epochȇ by suspending “that which makes his experience of the photograph ‘banal’” thereby also “suspending any narcissistic identifications with one’s mundane identity and normative identification with social roles” (36-7). In performing this bracketing, the subject shows itself to be certain without employing categories like “real” or “fictional”.

This allows Barthes to experience the “singularity” of the photograph, a singularity apparent just for him. However, the singularity for one is also singularity of one, an encounter between two singularities: “I am singular for the other” (37). Moreover, “the structure of singularity is not reflexivity but: the address of one to another” (38).  Arguably, then, one could describe this whole structure comprising the two singularities as reflexivity, given that the other reflects me onto myself (and vice versa).But the point seems to be that singularity requires more than individual reflection.

At any rate, Legrand fleshes out some of the differences between phenomenology and psychoanalysis and finds that the latter is decidedly non-transcendental, but still operates with a form of epochê. The psychoanalytic epochê consists in suspending the categories of the “correct, appropriate, relevant, interesting, true, or embarrassing, shameful, false, stupid, ridiculous etc.” (47) so as to “consider speech as Saying” (48) without judging the adequacy of the spoken to reality. The analyst instead listens with the presumption “that who I hear is irreducibly singular” (48). Following Legrand, in this act one would perform themselves as a singularity as well as the other. She offers the takeaway or insight that there are either different species of epochê or different paths to take, springing from the one epochê and leading to very different subjects/situations, depending on the mode and aim of the performance of the bracketing.

Cimino argues for deep agreements between Husserl and Plato. He begins by pointing out that Plato and Husserl agree on the fundamental nature of philosophy in regard to the other sciences. He fleshes out this distinction by drawing on a distinction between “discursive thinking and intuitive thinking” (53) as well as the necessity of other sciences “to rely on assumptions” (53) which philosophy questions; he then focusses on the former difference (56). I obviously agree with the general idea that Husserl and Plato are in accordance on central systematic issues (whether Husserl is aware of it or not); I disagree with Cimino’s more specific claim that they both endorse “the specific method of philosophy as inuitive thinking” (50).

For what could this “intuitive method” (56) even be? Firstly, what is intuition? As Cimino points out, self-givenness of any thematic object is fundamental to Plato and Husserl and both criticise mere verbal, i.e. non-intuitive speech. For both it “is rather the familiarity with the thing itself that produces real philosophical knowledge” (58) and when Cimino speaks of the “dialectical method” (57) he claims that “it entails the direct, first-hand grasp of essences or ideas” (57). To explain one metaphor through two others: intuition (for Cimino as well as for Plato and Husserl) is familiarity is first-hand grasp. Now can this be a “method” in and of itself? As Cimino himself says, the “dialectical method” “entails” it, which means it is not identical to it. And I venture it entails it because dialegesthai, literally “talking it through”, leads to what we have described as seeing, i.e. first-hand grasping. But the method, the way to go, is logical, it proceeds through logoi, through speeches, through questioning presuppositions, drawing out implications, discussing (varying) examples etc. Therefore intuition might either be a result or even a presupposition of Plato’s (and Husserl’s) philosophical method, but not a method in and of itself.

This has bearing on another issue, namely the intersubjective dimension of philosophy. In regard to this, what I hod to be a mistranslation of a passage from Plato’s 7th Letter is noteworthy. According to Cimino it states that insight appears “as a result of continued application to the subject itself”; however this passage ought to read that insight appears “in joint pursuit of the subject” (as translated by Morrow), since “synousia” means “being-together” and refers to the intersubjective dimension of philosophy, similar to “syzên”, “living together” in the very same sentence (one line further in 341d1). This being-together necessitates the logos as medium of philosophy since we cannot share intuitions directly. It is the intersubjective and reflective giving and taking of reasons which is the “method” of Platonic philosophy.

It is here, as I have argued,[2] that Husserlian phenomenology could benefit from a little more Platonism, given that some of Husserl’s own methodological characterisation of phenomenology turn it into a rather private, even solipsistic enterprise of inner monologue rather than the intersubjective endeavour he clearly wants it to be.

D’Angelo aims at establishing “four principles of every performance of phenomenological reading” (63) by reading and expanding on Gadamer’s reading of Plato’s Lysis. He sets out with highlighting that “phenomenology seems to happen mostly through texts and the interpretation of texts” (64); interestingly, D’Angelo does not call us (us phenomenologists that is) out on this (which he very well could and which Husserl would surely do), but rather asks “whether there is a distinctly phenomenological way of reading texts” (64) and claims that reading Husserl (for example) can still be a genuinely phenomenological exercise.

D’Angelo takes a basic principle from Gadamer, employs it (again) to the Lysis and then develops “four central moments of Plato’s theory of friendship which are, in my interpretation, at the same time four central moments of philosophy in general” (66). In a sense he performs a phenomenological reading to establish what a phenomenological reading is. These are the principles he wants to establish. First principle: There needs to be a “conjunction” of word and deed or attention to “the peculiar performance of a text” (76). For example, in the Lysis, “Socrates does things (erga) with words (logoi), by obtaining Lysis friendship through discourse.” (76) Were we to only focus on the explicit logoi, we would miss Plato’s enactment (in the sense of staging) of friendship, like Vlastos does, as D’Angelo contends (FN 19). The second principle D’Angelo gains from the fact that we are creating a logos about something for someone, which he translates into a principle of reading charitably, but also attending to the topic of the text itself, as to be able to criticise the text on its own terms. The third principle derives from the fact that “ignorance is a necessary component of philosophy” (74) and is basically a call to stay open-minded. The fourth principle reads: “There must be co-belonging, but also distance”, which implies a search for “common ground” (77). D’Angelo admits to a “feeling of triviality” (78) in regard to the principles listed, but points out that the triviality of these norms rather cements their validity while they are still continuously violated.

In reading D’Angelo’s account, two questions sprang to my mind: a) Why should we consider these principles to be especially “phenomenological”? b) Even if I happen to fully agree with his principles, where does their normativity stem from? Why should Gadamer or Plato (or their accordance) justify any principle for phenomenological reading whatsoever? An answer to both questions might lie in the phenomenological motto, since if we want to attend to the things themselves or let them show themselves as they are (be they texts or things or the world or…), we need to focus both on their explicit and implicit dimensions, apply categories of description not foreign to the phenomenon, stay open-minded and while attending the things themselves keep the appropriate descriptive distance.

Delving once again into the platonica, I have only a small gripe with how D’Angelo presents a basic Socratic tenet. Socrates’ principle is not “knowing only not to know” (69), as D’Angelo puts it, it is knowing when and if he does not know and abstaining from claiming such knowledge he does not possess (Apology 21d). In things of love and eidetic pregnancy, so to speak, Socrates always appears well-versed, indeed knowledgeable and proud of the fact. In the Symposium he even reveals his teacher in regard to these things, Diotima. Socrates knows that he knows of these things because he constantly proves to himself that he does, namely by performing his midwifery, i.e. dialectics. This does not however impede D’Angelo’s overall point that philosophy appears as the “in-between” (70) and as concerned with such.

Guidi focusses on the transformative dimension of phenomenology, which she then analyses in terms of the middle voice. Recalling the early Heidegger’s considerations about how understanding of formal indication requires a transformation on the side of the reader, Guidi concludes that phenomenological “speech is an enactment” (86), drawing the reader towards certain experiences, especially towards our thrown-ness: “Thus all phenomenological speech does is to indicate and address the very actual situation of the reader, by allowing her to experience the impossibility of founding that situation.” (85)

To conceptualise this enactment further, she draws on Benveniste’s analyses of the so called “middle voice”, which she claims opens “a topological perspective” (88), meaning that one can analyse actions as external or internal, the middle voice referring to a situation “where the agent is situated inside the process” (88), is “being affected” (89) in action. Guidi sees thinking according to Heidegger as exactly such an enactment, but denies its priority: “I claim that the ungrounded character of Dasein, the very same which phenomenology addresses in a performative way, opens up the ordinary and never fully accomplished task for every Dasein of transforming oneself and therefore relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity.” (90). Guidi then goes on to discuss four examples of middle-voice enactments, namely dialogue, expressing oneself, play and vulnerability, as analysed by Butler. She concludes with the conjecture that the “middle voice, by prompting the assumption of a topological perspective, may reveal the transformative potential of our ordinary comportments, and may further offer a new grammar for political action, one which is no longer founded on a sovereign account of subjectivity and agency” (96).

My main questions about Guidi’s account revolve around the notion of transformation. What transformation exactly are we talking about? And who has decided that it is to be the “task for every Dasein” (90)? The transformation involved in phenomenology is fairly specific and implies a shift away from “ordinary comportments”, not within or through it. This is why Husserl keeps writing introductions to phenomenology to explicate both the epochê as well as the reduction(s) in terms of a massive rupture with the natural attitude. Similarly for Heidegger; for while his philosophy certainly implies “acknowledging the ungrounded character of Dasein” (79), it also constitutes a radical break with the ordinary (even ordinary philosophy) towards fundamental ontology, the history of being or “thinking” in an eminent sense. Therefore I would be very interested in how exactly ordinary comportment transforms itself relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity without simply becoming philosophy, poetics or “thinking” – and how this transformation might be achieved. To be clear, this is not an ironic or rhetorical question, as I think it might really be better for everyone involved if more people acknowledged “the ungroundedness and the constitutive opacity” of our situation and acted accordingly. Could and should it be the “task” of philosophy to further this transformation?

Summa discusses the relation between performing and expressing, refuting Butler’s early claim that expression and performance are mutually exclusive, based on the assumptions that expression does not contribute to the constitution of what is expressed and presupposes a substantial subject (102). Instead, Summa offers a complementary account.

In the first section she sets out the false dichotomy between expression and performance. In the second section she discusses different notions of performance which inform current debates, namely Austin’s linguistic account of performatives and Turner’s cultural-anthroplogical account of ritual and the social drama. The common denominator Summa sees in “the accentuation of the productive and transformative power of the activity” (108) while pointing out that Turner’s concept is farther reaching, including the institution of norms and social identities through repetition – or their breaking. In the third section, Summa argues both that the “sincerity condition for the success of performative utterances” (112) cannot be understood apart from considerations of expression, and that expression itself is one way to exercise the power of institution as described by Merleau-Ponty. In each case, Summa shows that expression does not presuppose “the assumption of the subject as substance” (116). What is presupposed in but also formed by expression and acknowledgement, is experience. Moreover, any “expressive impulse emerges as a response to or a way to cope with some form of impasse within an already given order” and this presupposes an “embodied history of a style, which can itself become the object of modification, or écart, which will have an impact on our subsequent experience.” (118)

Summa’s contribution is both precisely argued and strategically interesting, as she, like Wehrle in her paper (see below), brings phenomenology systematically and critically into contact with concurrent theories, especially Butler’s. In doing so she disabuses us of certain common misconceptions about phenomenology, namely of being a subjectivist, pre-post-modern (i.e. modern) project. At the same time she actualises a transcendental line of questioning by elaborating on the conditions of possibility of expression and performance as well expression and performance as conditions of the possibility of subject-formation.

Wehrle contends “that Butler’s account of performativity as well as her ethics of precarity could profit from a phenomenologically-informed account of bodily performativity, which includes its passive and active aspects.” (126) She then explicates bodily performativity in terms of engagement: “as embodied, we are engaged with our environment and creative with regard to our relation with it. […] This relation, the performances of the body, so I want to argue here, have ontological relevance in that they can create real and lasting changes in situations, the environment and the bodies themselves.” (127) This “performative force of the body often goes unnoticed” (128), because it is usually anonymous.

While our bodies can actively perform, they can also be acted on, for example through bodily discipline, which Wehrle interprets as “forced or prefixed habituation” (130), be it through external forces or internalised norms. Thus bodies are normalised. Depending on the situation, the norms working on bodies and bodily behaviour are either experienced as comfortable (in case we conform to them) or uncomfortable (in case we do not conform to them) (132).

In dealing with these norms, Wehrle votes for a “pragmatic approach” according to which we do not simply abolish uncomfortable norms, but use the discomfort to enact the norms in “slighlty different ways”: changing their script so to speak, “thus integrating more possibilities and more possible subjects into it” (133). In fact, since no bodily act ever reproduces the underlying norms completely and since we (can) experience this discrepancy, Wehrle argues that we ought “regard embodied experience by itself as perfomative and, therefore, potentially subversive” (134) – like language. The starting point to any of these subversive acts is the “distance that is inherent to our very embodiment and experience”, namely that between being a body and having a body to which we can relate and which we ourselves can objectify, discovering “our ordinary ways of moving” (137) and lining them up for scrutiny – and consequently change through self-discipline, which Wehrle links with Foucault’s “care for the self”. She concludes: “In enacting norms, we thereby make them “real”, but always retain the capacity to transcend them.” (139)

As with parallel discussions in the realm of linguistic acts and norms, the next question – which can use Wehrle’s concise conceptual work as a starting point – would be how exactly this transcendence takes place, especially in extremis. For while it is easier to envisage how we can (bodily) transcend (bodily) norms in (more or less) free societies, it is harder to imagine how one can enact and subvert norms in, say, Guantanamo Bay or an Uighur internment camp. The enforced performances in such “Vocational Education and Training Centers” are exactly aimed at stopping any form of subversion, even to reduce fellow human beings to obedient bodies, collapsing the critical distinction between being and having a body.

Laner offers “(Post)Phenomenological Considerations of Contending Bodies” (140), taking Butler’s account of assembly and her criticism of Arendt’s perceived intellectualism as her starting point. She then goes on to develop a concept of “bodily forms of critique” (145), drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Ryle.

What then is “critique” and how can it be “bodily”, according to Laner? What are “performances of critique” (144) if not criticising? “Critique, as performed on a bodily level, […] means to question a situation not from a distanced perspective” (140), “critique” is about “altering” (142) a situation and attacking the norms inherent in it, indeed, critical “performances aim at transgressing such limitations” (143); “it is by means of bodily enactment that one takes a critical stance toward an existing system of norms” (146); “taking a critical stance on a bodily level can, in a very basic sense, be regarded as a form of bodily enactment that transgresses or subverts the existing norms.” (147) Bodily criticism is “a response to a given situation that does not affirm, but that questions the norms prefiguring our performances” (149). Such critical stances are performed by “[b]odies that claim to be recognized as free” (144) and it “it is the body that thinks and reflects” (151). Laner thus wants to overcome the “Dualistic characterisation” (144) of us humans as divided in body and mind.

In light of this aim it is odd that she a) constantly distinguishes between body and mind rather than focusing on the person as a whole but also b) keeps using mentalistic vocabulary to describe bodily actions. It is unclear why we should say that the body claims something, takes a stance or questions anything; surely it is the whole, embodied as well as minded person who performs all these acts? And does the difference between simply failing to properly enact a norm and subverting it reside in the body as opposed to the mind? Also having an “aim” (152) surely is something the person rather than the body ‘performs’? Even “performing intelligently” (153) in Ryle’s sense does not justify the term “bodily criticism” as Ryle himself says of a person or the “agent” that he does or does not exercise “criticism”, not of the body (as quoted by Laner on p. 153). So does Merleau-Ponty: the artist “questions perceptual norms” (155), as Laner says, not the artist’s body. Discovery and analysis are feats of the person as a minded entity, so why go back to the harsh duality of body and mind to then misapply these activities?

I do not advocate a view according to which “bodies are not able to perform critically, since their performances are understood in terms of necessary reaction” (145), but a view according to which criticality is an attribute of activities and dispositions of the whole person rather than one aspect. That is not to say that bodily performance cannot subvert norms, as Summa and Wehrle both establish very clearly (see above), but both successfully avoid forcing mentalistic vocabulary or dualism into their spelling out of the subversive possibilities of bodily engagement. Humans can question norms bodily, even by performing (or failing to perform) certain movements, yes. But why call this “bodily criticism”?

Then again, Laner also sees herself “questioning a notion of critique that underlines its merely rational nature and the distanced attitude it presupposes” (147) – a notion of critique she characterises as “trivial” and traces back to Kant. “Trivial notions of critique often refer to the etymology of the concept krinein, stressing its original meaning of discriminating. If critical performances are regarded as performances that simply detect differences and discriminate, critique seems to loose its normative impact.” (148) According to Laner it is also “clear that only a small elite even qualifies for critical engagement” (148) in this sense, although she does not say in which way it is so “clear”.

Firstly, where does the imperative of “normative impact” of critique come from? Or is that “simply” a presupposition? Secondly, as to the triviality of critique: the main aspect of “krinein” is to differentiate adequately, to detect a difference that makes a difference in a given context and to conceptualise it aptly – to “carve nature at the joints” as Plato has it (Phaidros 265e), A judge for example “simply” has to judge (discriminate) whether someone is guilty or not and what punishment is adequate. Critical thinking thus is not a passive “becoming aware of differences” or a bodily response of “detecting differences” (155), but actively seeking out differences according to certain criteria, employing conceptual skills. The ability to differentiate properly does therefore not seem “trivial” to me; or if it is “trivial” in the sense of belonging to the “trivium”, i.e. to any form of halfway proper education, it is not very well received – it certainly is not widely spread even within academia.

It is also arguably different from the drive or wish to change something one has previously identified (and thus differentiated from what it is not) as defective, which can follow acts of criticism but does not have to.

Regarding Kant, his notion of “Kritik” is very specific and concerns the possibility of metaphysics and the range of valid conclusions reason is allowed to draw (Critique of Pure Reason, A-Vorrede) and which is supposed to answer the question “How are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” – which is not what most people mean when they speak of the intellectual activity or disposition of being “critical”, presumably. Then again, in a more general understanding of a “critical” stance, Kant asks all of us (rather than a “small elite”, as Laner has it) to “dare to know”.

The connection between what Laner calls “trivial” as well as “non-bodily forms of critique” remains vague as she just says they are “somehow complementary”, since bodily critique relates “towards a matter from within”, whereas non-bodily critique supposedly operates “from outside the system” (156). Which is, again, highly problematic, given that the whole issue with Kant and post-Kantian idealism is the acute awareness that we are always “within”. There is no view from outside, no view from nowhere, no side-ways on view, no context-less context, no a-perspectival perspective etc. – pick your favourite “trivial” formula. Also, given that Kant talks mainly about theology, how is his critique not at least associated with “actual desires, affects and needs of the performer” (156)? Kant himself at least sees his critique as a matter of life and death after all – and lest we forget, with Plato, the proper critical, dialectical stance is the proper way to deal with death and the only worthy expression of Eros.

Laner’s divestment of critique from reflection is motivated by her concern about those unable to reflect as “they too deserve to be attributed the possibility of taking a critical stance.” (148) I am unsure who decides who is deserving, but surely the validity of attributions ought to rest on clean definitions rather than moral considerations?

Finally I think “postphenomenology” is an odd term in this context, since considerations about the “broader horizon of changing times, various cultures, political systems and power mechanisms shaping bodies as well as the diverse social roles attributed to them” (142) are well inside the range of phenomenological thought; after all, Husserl himself already conceives of a “historical apriori” (Krisis, 380) and takes the differences between “homeworld” and “otherworld” into account, as well as the cultural differences between say, Greek and non-Greek thought which sparked philosophy in the first place in his view. See Rentsch’s take on “situative contextuality” (164) in Husserl in the same volume (see below).[3]

Classical phenomenology always calls for a “Leitfaden” to any discussion, i.e. a given phenomenon from which the structure of interest can be lifted and analysed. This would have been very helpful in this case, since at least to me it is still very unclear what bodily critique is supposed to be.

Rentsch moves away from the body, towards the “transcendence of logos”, which refers to the “unavailability and withdrawal of the performative constitution of meaning, that is, its negativity”, i.e. “that which precedes and is outside of logos cannot be grasped or conceived of, except once again through linguistic forms.” (159) Rentsch situates this topic within the thematic range of the present volume by positing: “Linguistically, this transcending manifests in performativity” (167).

He proceeds from Wittgenstein’s silence at the end of the Tractatus and his subsequent practical turn, to Heidegger, Adorno’s constellation and Husserl’s passive synthesis, in all of which he sees attempts to conceptualise the unavailable performativity that constitutes meaning. Where Husserl is concerned, one might even go further than Rentsch in that not only the living present “does not exist as such, […] is unthinkable and unrepresentable” (166); the same holds for the ur-sphere and the “Urstand” therein, which is the form of subjectivity constituting all objects (Gegen-stand as opposed to Ur-stand) and which Husserl also considers to be no object in any way (cf. Bernauer Manuskripte 277) .

This line of thinking that certain structures are both “limits and ground” (167) of something can – again – be easily traced back to (at least) Plato, in whom the structuring principle always transcends whatever it structures, a thought that found its home at the heart of Neoplatonism, leading from Plotinus to Proclus on to the Florentine Academy, Cusanus and further. Rentsch can be read as analysing an instantiation of this very basic structure in its aspect concerning meaning and language, truth (161).

As with Platonic takes on the issue, one might ponder what exactly “inexplicability” (167) means in this context. After all, Rentsch asks us “to conceive of [the inexplicable conditions] as conditions of meaning” (167), thus conceptualising, explicating and expressing them, namely “as conditions”. The formerly non-thematic performance becomes thematic and thus loses its transcendence – otherwise it could not be object of inquiry.

In his conclusion he hints at ways in which “fundamental domains of the constitution of meaning on the life-world” (169) are affected by recent developments and mentions fake news, exchange trade, artificial intelligence in warfare and pornography. In all these cases he sees the irreducible and to some extent inexplicable basis of meaning-constitution under threat. The connection of these issues to his former elucidations of the performative withdrawal at the heart of meaning-constitution remains somewhat tentative however. He ends on an ethical note: “what is at stake is that we develop ways to take back […] and strengthen the critical faculty of judgement” (169) – and who would argue against that?

Slaby bridges a wide gap, “From Heidegger to Afro-Pessimism”. In this he aims at a “temporal account of affectivity” (173), specifically the “background affectivity” which permeats our being-in-the-world and which is shaped by “historical events” (174). Slaby wants to “revive” Heidegger’s take on the relation between affectivity and time “for the purpose of motivating and informing a critical phenomenology of affectivity” (174), where to be “in an affective state amounts to finding oneself “here”, at a particular juncture, confronted by what has been, what is factual, what has come to be so that we have no choice but to go on from here.” (175) Affectivity both discloses and occludes our situation, however. Slaby’s goal is thus partially critical, to “reveal layers of distrust, dishonesty and inauthenticity” (176).

He then draws on Fanon, Rankine and Coates (among others) to portray the affectivity of many black lives in the US, “constitutively placed on the brink of death” through the “violent appropriation of black lives” (179). He goes on to discuss Merleau-Ponty’s concept of social sedimentation as it impacts the body-schema, as well as Al-Saji’s and Ahmed’s contributions to phenomenology. It is here that the phenomenological meat of his approach lies as he establishes the connection between the historical (re-)embodiment of white privilege “in the spaces and operations of public institutions, and how it becomes manifest within affective modes of embodied being-in-the-world.” (186)

Slaby follows this with a look at Sharpe’s concept of the Wake (of the Middle Passage), which is both a factual condition as well as a mode of caring. He sees Wake work as similar to phenomenology in regard to the attention to the natural attitude (192; additionally he posits the condition of being in the Wake as a “Grundstimmung”, alongside the phenomenological favourites “anxiety” and “nausea” (192): “Living under the reign of capital is living in the Wake, still embodying, continuing, re-enacting this concrete history.” (192-3) – This is, of course, tricky terrain, since while capitalism affects non-black people as well, the Wake shapes black lives, especially in the USA, very differently from how it shapes the lives of white people; or – on average – white people are living in the Wake differently than black people.

The only point I do not quite understand in Slaby’s contribution is his criticism of aspiring to “evaluative” “detached neutrality” (194) as opposed to a stance which would “require practitioners to thoroughly situate their respective subject matters historically and to devise philosophical methods adequate to this task – methods that work performatively so as to crack open ossified formations of understanding and being.” (194) Again I am tempted to ask where the imperative to crack open anything stems from and why that cannot or should not be performed in a detached way. After all, even Husserl’s fairly detached way of philosophising always aimed at negating what he called ossification in order to get at the things themselves and renew society. And surely “neutrality” in this context simply means not to be unfair or prejudiced?

Kozel writes about her engagement with the works of the choreographer Margrét Guðjónsdóttir and states that “A phenomenology of affect affords a parallel between Guðjónsdóttir’s choreographic practices and Cambridge Analytica’s political manipulations”, namely as “choreographies of affect and somatic states”, in each case affective states being the “material” of the work in question. The difference for Kozel lies in the fact that in the former case, the “reflective process” is in play, while it is “missing from social media users’ attitudes” (205), as the reflective process is part of the choreographer’s work. The paper also contains a detailed description of the experience of viewing a piece by Guðjónsdóttir.

In terms of theory I could not find a definition for what she calls “hyper-reflection” (205). In general, Kozel’s idea of how and why we “do a phenomenology” (206) seems to be more practical than theoretical. Her description of the steps involved in doing “a” phenomenology sounds more like a form of mindfulness-meditation followed by a written account; to me it certainly seems further removed from traditional philosophical theorising than the other contributions – which in itself is not a reason to evaluate it negatively, of course.

Buongiorno’s paper deals with “digital performativity” in the sense of the “ways we act ourselves out” and “construct ourselves by means of digital artefacts” (214) After briefly sketching the differences in self-constitution brought on by digitalisation, drawing on work by Belk, Buongiorno discusses three phenomenological concepts, which he thinks will help to understand these new forms of self-constitution: a) epochê: this constitutes the distance necessary to do phenomenology, as is the case with Husserl, b) variation: our digitalised mediated experience can be conceptualised as variations of non-digital experience – “we may understand digital experiences as a virtual transposition of the contents of real experience” (222) and c) the flesh, which serves to undercut the discussion about disembodiment through digitalisation and its dualist presuppositions, in order to better understand digital “reembodiment”.

“Phenomenology” for Buongiorno is supposedly “far from being just a theory resorting to reflection and analysis” (220) but rather a “form-of-life” (221) – something no traditional phenomenologist would doubt, presumably. However the specifics of this form-of-life seem to me to rest exactly in “reflection and analysis”, as phenomenology both as a stance and an activity is based on turning our attention back (reflectere) towards conditions of possibility, towards conceptual structures and frames of mind, towards our constituting activities, ill-grounded presuppositions etc. and then carefully taking them apart (analyein) and explicating them in order to foster understanding.

III. Conclusion

As can be gleaned from my remarks, I am rather taken aback by some of the implicit or explicit disavowals of the ideals of earlier phenomenology, namely to strive for a differentiated, analytic, reflexive, neutral, i.e. theoretical account of the things themselves (including ourselves). This striving is itself already a performative as well as a transformative exercise and thus a way of life,[4] one which is sorely in need of proponents in my mind, since it implies a thoughtfulness and an understanding of our own presuppositions and (epistemic) limits which in turn are the bedrock both for reasonable political action as well as fruitful research. Temporal philosophical disengagement neither implies global (political) inactivity or a general disembodiment, yet only reflection can curb some of our more unproductive reflexes.

This reflection also ought to include the “ought”, as quite a few papers in the present collection simply assume certain norms or directives without either arguing for or at least describing the sources of their validity, which ought to be a problem for any radical, self-critical philosophy – as phenomenology traditionally purported to be.

Despite my critical remarks, most of the contributions to the volume qualify as solid academic performances, some are outstanding in clarity and concision. The volume as a whole shows (again) that current phenomenology is divers, well suited to place itself in a wider context and able to engage with other traditions and new topics. As the Guidi states in the introduction, “We wish [to] bring to light the mutual relation between phenomenology and performativity and set the ground for further exercises” (10). This it accomplishes very well.

[1]   Cf. Florian Arnold, Logik des Entwerfens (Paderborn, 2018) for an account of the connection between philosophy and design.

[2]  Thomas Arnold. 2017. Phänomenologie als Platonismus. Berlin/New York, §§ 22.

[3] See also Aldea’s take on the criticality of Husserlian phenomenology in: Smaranda Aldea, “Making Sense of Husserl’s Notion of Teleology: Normativity, Reason, Progress and Phenomenology as ‘Critique from Within’,” Hegel Bulletin 38/1 (2017): 104–128 and “Phenomenology as Critique: Teleological-Historical Reflection and Husserl’s Transcendental Eidetics,” Husserl Studies 31/1 (2016): 21–46.

[4] Cf. the locus classicus, Pierre Hadot. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Blackwell .

Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.): Philosophers and Their Poets, SUNY Press, 2019

Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant Book Cover Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Paperback $28.95

Alan Kim (Ed.): Brill’s Companion to German Platonism

Brill's Companion to German Platonism Book Cover Brill's Companion to German Platonism
Brill's Companions to Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy, Volume: 3
Alan Kim (Ed.)
Hardback € 180.00, $ 232.00
xii, 388

Reviewed by: Miquel Solans (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya)

Brill’s Companion to German Platonism explores how Plato was interpreted and appropriated by some of the leading thinkers of the history of German philosophy, from Nicholas of Cusa to Hans Georg Gadamer. The book includes fifteen chapters, each of them devoted to one author or school, written by outstanding scholars. While most of the contributions deal with the reception of Plato’s epistemology and ontology, some others also—or only—address the long-disputed issue of how to interpret Plato’s philosophy. Since it is not possible to discuss all the topics in this almost four-hundred page volume, the review is limited to discussing how Plato’s most famous and controversial doctrine, the so-called theory of forms, was interpreted by German philosophers. More specifically, I will pay special attention to what we might call—to use the terminology suggested by the editor—the ‘transcendental interpretation’ of Plato’s theory of ideas. In the following lines, I focus on how this reading emerged and was developed by German philosophers in their various ways of endorsing, modifying, or rejecting Plato’s thought.

Alan Kim’s Introduction (chapter 1) provides an overview of the topics discussed by each of the contributors and identifies the two conflicting interpretative models already mentioned: the ‘transcendental’ or ‘functional’ reading of the ideas, on the one hand, and the ‘transcendent’ or ‘substantial’, on the other (2). According to the latter, which is the most common interpretation of Plato, ideas are separated substances that exist in a transcendent sphere of reality. Under this view, the forms are conceived as the true objects of knowledge and the soul is said to gain access to them through intellectual intuition. On the other hand, the former reading does not understand the forms as objects, but rather as ‘transcendental conditions of possible experience’ (3). The transcendental reading thus rejects the realism and dualism associated with the transcendent one and does not consider ideas as objects of intuition, but rather as functions of understanding. Among the figures examined in this volume that ascribe to Plato the substantialist view are Kant, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. On the other side, the functional interpretation was anticipated to some degree by Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, Mendelssohn and Hegel, and explicitly supported and developed by Cohen, Natorp and Husserl.

In the first chapter after the introduction (2), Claudia D’Amico presents a detailed study of the manifold connections between Nicholas of Cusa and Platonism. She also provides a valuable survey of German authors that in one way or another were influenced by Cusanus’ thought. As for the understanding of Platonic forms, Nicholas of Cusa criticizes Plato for conceiving ideas as separated forms, suggesting instead that while forms are real, they do not exist separated from things. Cusanus thinks that real forms are inaccessible to human reason, only capable of forming conjectures.

In chapter 3, Jack Davidson examines how Leibniz incorporates Plato and Platonism into his own philosophical system. Among the most remarkable points of agreement between both philosophers, Davidson points out Leibniz’s rejection of materialism and his conviction that reality ultimately consists of immaterial, intelligible substances, of which sensible things are appearances (53). After indicating other points in which both philosophers converge, the author devotes epigraph 5 to show how Leibniz’s epistemology reshapes some Platonic themes. More precisely, this section focuses on the agreements and disagreements regarding the role and nature of innate ideas. As it is well-known, Leibniz holds that some of the most fundamental concepts are known innately. At the same time, however, he rejects two positions he ascribes to Plato: the pre-existence of the soul and the presupposition that every truth one knows has been explicitly known by the soul before (63). Despite the emphasis that Leibniz puts on his differences with Plato at this point, both philosophers agree on a fundamental level, as Davidson suggests, that sensible experience does not suffice to account for our knowledge of necessary truths. Thus, the human soul must be equipped with a special potential to know them (ibidem).

The next chapter, written by Bruce Rosenstock, studies Moses Mendelssohn’s appropriation and reworking of Plato’s Phaedo within the framework of his ‘Leibnizian Platonism’ (79) in his own Phädon. Rosenstock focuses on the ‘infinitesimal calculus of the soul’ as Mendelssohn applies it in his own version of the dialogue. The application of Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus leads Mendelssohn to endorse a functionalist view, since he believes that the soul’s process of knowledge works—like that type of calculus—by progressively ‘integrating’ the initially indistinct mass of representations’ (83). Thus, following Leibniz, Mendelssohn understands the soul as an active Platonic idea that brings unity into multiplicity (84). However, as Rosenstock indicates, this is only one side of the story. Under Mendelssohn’s view, the Platonic ideas do not only account for the integrative nature of human knowledge; they are not merely abstract objects of understanding, but also and at the same time ‘the object[s] of the soul’s authentic (philosophic) desire for happiness’ (92). In this sense, the soul’s capacity to unify the multiplicity of appearances through conceptual unities is the ‘expression’ of the soul’s desire for happiness (93). Hence, according to Mendelssohn, the search for knowledge is necessarily entangled with the quest for the good (92).

In chapter 5, Manfred Baum examines Kant’s appropriation of the theory of ideas in both the pre-Critical and the Critical period. It is worth noting, first, that Kant never attributes the two-world doctrine to Plato, even though his primary source, Brucker, does it. The Kantian pre-critical reading of the Platonic idea assimilates it with a ‘common standard of perfection’ for measuring all other less perfect realities (115). In the critical period, Kant’s well-known differentiation between understanding and reason leads him to reshape his reading. Under this new light, Plato’s ideas are interpreted as anticipating to some extent Kant’s concepts of reason, the regulative ideas, in contrast with the concepts of understanding, the categories (123-124). According to Baum, both Kant and Plato agree that ideas do not originate in the senses and that their object is not found in the empirical world (ibidem). However, Kant rejects the alleged hypostatized nature of Platonic forms, that he presumably takes from Bruker’s Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato (126-127). The result of Kant’s appropriation of Plato’s theory of ideas, then, is twofold (as Kim also puts it in the introduction [5]): Kant attributes to Plato a substantial or transcendent view of ideas, while at the same time he sees Platonic ideas as the first attempt towards a transcendental consideration of human knowledge.

Hegel’s reading of Plato can be seen, as Jere Surber persuasively presents it in chapter 6, as the first modern philosophical interpretation of the Platonic corpus (133). The most distinctive features of the Hegelian approach to Plato are, first, Hegel’s direct and detailed engagement with the dialogues and, second, his distinctive appropriation of the Platonic ideas. According to Hegel, Plato’s ideas anticipate in a still unsystematic way his own systematic account of genuine Begriffe (concepts) as “concrete universals” (141). Relying on his interpretation of Parmenides, Timaeus, and Republic, Hegel rejects the dualistic, transcendent interpretations of the forms. He suggests instead that the Platonic idea should be understood as an ‘identity-in-difference’, and therefore as a genuine concept in Hegelian terms, that is, one that unifies in itself the formal and material aspect of reality (136). On the other hand, Hegel also dismisses the psychological transcendentalism according to which the ideas are mere constructs (or mere concepts, as opposed to genuine concepts) of the human mind since this view fails to account for the essential connection between the ideas and the sensible things (p.136). Therefore, as Surber points out, Hegel thought of his own philosophy as the articulation of Plato’s ‘in a modern systematic form’ (142).

The following two chapters (7 and 8) are devoted to Schleiermacher’s influential approach both to Plato’s philosophy and its interpretation. In chapter 7, André Laks provides an insightful discussion of Schleiermacher’s both philological and philosophical reading of the Platonic dialogues. Regarding the interpretation of Plato’s ideas, Schleiermacher rejects Aristotle’s criticisms and defends that the forms are real concepts that actually possess causal force and can directly affect both the physical and the moral world, given that they derive from God’s power (155). Chapter 8 is at odds with the rest of the contributions since it does not offer a reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s reading of Plato, but rather presents the author’s (Thomas Szlezák) main reasons for disagreeing with it. While the philological arguments provided by Szlezák are highly illuminating, and many of his objections to Schleiermacher are indeed very persuasive—see, for instance, his detailed analysis of Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus (172-179)—, one cannot but wonder why Schleiermacher’s interpretation is the only one subject to such critical scrutiny. Besides, the main objections of the Tübingen School–to which Szlezák belongs– to Schleiermacher are again developed and argued for in chapter 14 by Vittorio Hösle. In his contribution, Hösle also provides a valuable survey of some of the most representative advocates of the abovementioned school and provides a summary of the main points of Krämer’s pioneering dissertation Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, still only available in German (337-339).

Robert Wicks’ chapter on Schopenhauer (9) stresses the role of Plato’s account of time in the former’s metaphysical account of human consciousness and reality. More specifically, according to Wick, the Platonic conception of time as ‘the moving image of eternity’ in the Timaeus inspired Schopenhauer’s consideration of the spatio-temporal world as a prison of human consciousness (192 and 215). In his mature philosophy, Schopenhauer regards Plato’s ideas as essentially dependent on the Will, which constitutes the core of reality, the thing-in-itself, which lays beyond any form of representation and time (209). Under this view, ideas are said to play an intermediary role between the thing-in-itself as Will, on the one hand, and the objects of the spatio-temporal world, on the other (210). Therefore, as Wick suggests, Schopenhauer’s reading of ideas within this framework attributes them a twofold nature: as long as they are objects, they ultimately belong to the world of representation and, to this extent, they are high-ranking illusions; however, considered in their relationship to the thing-in-itself, ideas are ‘timeless acts of Will’ (213-214). In this last sense, Plato’s forms are placed behind the veil of the ordinary experience of the world, and thus they are only apprehended by a certain timeless intuition that Schopenhauer identifies with an intense awareness of the present moment (200-201). Philosophy is thus conceived as a form of asceticism whose aim is to reach such timeless, transcendent, and even mystical awareness (215). As Richard Bennett stresses at the beginning of chapter 11, Nietzsche regards this ascetic approach to reality—that he attributes to Plato—as anti-natural, coward, and decadent (249-252). In the second section of his contribution, Bennet proves that Nietzsche’s consideration of Plato goes far beyond this one-sided evaluation and is more multi-faceted and less consistent than usually acknowledged.

The transcendental reading of Plato’s ideas was explicitly defended for the first time by the two leading figures of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism: Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp. In chapter 10, Karl-Heinz Lembeck examines both authors’ attempts to mediate between Kant and Plato in their ambitious philosophical-historical interpretations (217). Cohen’s early reading of the forms as psychological categories radically evolved in the mid-1870s into a purely logical-transcendental interpretation of them. Under this new approach, and drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, ideas are now viewed as ‘regulative concepts’ guiding knowledge. Within this picture, the form of the Good is not seen as a real entity, but rather as ‘the function of a unifying synthesis of appearances’ (223-224). Cohen extracts this interpretation from Plato’s alleged identification of ideas as hypothesis, that is, as ‘pre-sub-positions’ which thinking anticipates in order to be able to apprehend reality (228). In other words, ideas are said to be a priori conditions of knowledge.

Unlike Cohen’s, Natorp’s appropriation of Plato is grounded on a deep engagement with the texts. In Platons Ideenlehre (Plato’s Theory of Ideas), Natorp develops his reading of Plato’s theory of ideas as a theory of the constitution of experience (231-232). From this standpoint, Natorp downplays the ontological significance of the ideas, stressing their epistemological relevance as ‘laws’ that govern the dynamisms of knowledge (233). In his late systematic philosophy, Natorp modifies his reading of Plato’s ideas, as he seems to come under the influence of Neo-Platonism. Now, forms are understood as categories and, as such, as secondary functions unable to grasp the ultimate level of reality. Such level corresponds to Plato’s form of Good, which is radically transcendent and, therefore, inaccessible by means of articulated knowledge (237).

In the next chapter (12), Alan Kim explores Husserl’s ‘productive appropriation of Plato into phenomenology’ (273), relying on the fact that Husserl considered himself a phenomenological Platonist. By doing this, Kim provides an original, perceptive reading of the theory of ideas from a phenomenological perspective and, at the same time, a compelling presentation of the Husserlian account of eidetic intuition. In a way akin to Cohen and Natorp, Husserl endorses a transcendental interpretation of Platonic ideas, rejecting the ‘static’ Platonism of separated substantial forms along with its subsequent metaphysical dualism and mystical intuitionism (274). According to Kim, Husserl’s ideas or eidê refer to the object of the apprehension of the what-ness of a given thing. Such eidê, however, differ from the empirical universal concepts derived by abstraction from contingent facts. Eidê also relates to facts, but not because they derive from them, but rather because they constitute the rule of any possible apprehension of them. In order to illustrate the process by means of which consciousness moves from facts to eidê, Kim draws on Plato’s Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave. The first is meant to represent the different psychic states, while the second focuses on the soul’s progression from one to another. Here, eidê are presented as logical structures or essential meanings ‘that had always been co-intended in my aesthetic grasp of the phenomenon as actual thing, but which had been, as it were, eclipsed by the glare of ‘reality’’ (278). The ascension of the soul towards the realm of ideas is thus understood as a progressive detachment and liberation from the blinding glare of sensible appearances of things, so as to be able to perceive the essential features of them. This interpretation explains both the fact that the highest form of knowledge according to Plato, namely, dialectics, is said to deal only with ideas, and also that the knowledge of ideas allows the ex-prisoner in his return to the cave to recognize images as what they really are (280). In the following pages, Kim equates both Husserl’s and Plato’s account of the vision of eidê with the ‘understanding of the F-ness of many f’s’ (281). As the author points out in a footnote, the state of consciousness in which we grasp an eidê is not adequately described as a learning process, that is, as certain acquisition of knowledge, but instead as some sort of perceiving or, even more accurately, re-cognizing (erkennen) (281, n. 70). In this sense, the phenomenological method of purifying the mind from its factual intentions and redirecting it towards the essential turns out to be very similar to Plato’s account of dialectic as a process of remembering (anamnesis) what one already knows in his or her soul (281). Within this framework, Kim forcefully argues that Husserl’s basic idea of a ‘noematic form implicitly governing the coherence of sense experience’ can be paralleled with Plato’s account of the relationship between noêsis and aisthêsis in the passage on the summoners in Republic VII, as well as with the role attributed to sensibility in the recollection argument offered in the Phaedo. Finally, the author points out that the Husserlian reading was deeply influenced by Lotze’s thesis that ideas do not possess existence (Sein), but rather validity (Geltung) (294).

The two remaining chapters are devoted to Heidegger’s confrontation with Plato (chapter 13) and Gadamer’s productive reshaping of the Heideggerian reading (chapter 15). Francisco J. Gonalez begins his chapter on Heidegger’ reading of Plato by focusing on the 1924/25 course on Plato’s Sophist. In these lectures, it becomes apparent a tension that characterizes how Heidegger will read Plato the rest of his life. On the one hand, the Heideggerian approach reveals several points where Plato’s understanding of being comes very close to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. On the other, the German philosopher insists that Plato interpreted being as presence, that is, as the object of logos, and therefore that Plato’s philosophy is to be seen as the first of a long series of reductions of truth to correspondence (306). As Gonzalez clearly shows in his contribution, this tension will persist until the late Heidegger, although the latter approach will become the ‘official’ reading. The author suggests that one of the most remarkable exceptions to the official reading can be found in the Parmenides seminar of 1930/31. Drawing on both Heidegger’s class notes and Herbert Marcuse’s transcript of this seminar, Gonzalez clearly shows that Heidegger saw Plato’s discussion of exaiphnês (instant) in the Parmenides as a genuinely ontological comprehension of the problem of ‘being and time’ (314-315). We find a similar exception in Heidegger’s interpretation of erôs in the Phaedrus seminar of 1932 (319 ff.). Gadamer’s appropriation of Platonic philosophy, discussed by François Renaud in the final chapter (15), reacts against Heidegger’s official reading. Gadamer claims that ‘Plato is not a Platonist’ and argues that the theory of forms and the method of dialectic are meant to make explicit the conditions of Socrates’ practice of dialogue in the early dialogues (356). According to Renaud, Gadamer seems to think that the forms are objects independent from representation, though he also speaks of them as if they only were transcendental principles (374).

This volume is worth reading for both historical and philosophical reasons. Each of the fifteen chapters provides the reader with valuable insights into the history of German philosophy in line with the most updated research and effectively supports the general thesis of the book that Plato exerted a decisive influence over the most relevant German philosophers (1). On the other hand, anyone interested in the interpretation of Plato’s works will surely find this book an exciting source of inspiration. In particular, as I hope to have shown, it will prove especially helpful for those intrigued by the possibilities of a transcendental reading of Plato’s theory of ideas. Last but not least, this collective work reminds us of both the risks and benefits of a philosophical reading of Plato, that is, one that attempts to identify and rethink the core issues of Platonic philosophy anew.


Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Ed.): Philosophers and Their Poets, SUNY Press, 2019

Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant Book Cover Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Ed.)
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Ranjan Ghosh (Ed.): Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives, Columbia University Press, 2019

Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives Book Cover Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives
Ranjan Ghosh (Ed.)
Columbia University Press
Hardback $75.00£58.00

John Arthos: Hermeneutics After Ricoeur, Bloomsbury, 2018

Hermeneutics After Ricoeur Book Cover Hermeneutics After Ricoeur
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
John Arthos
Hardback $102.60

Saulius Geniusas, Paul Fairfield (Eds.): Hermeneutics and Phenomenology: Figures and Themes, Bloomsbury, 2018

Hermeneutics and Phenomenology: Figures and Themes Book Cover Hermeneutics and Phenomenology: Figures and Themes
Saulius Geniusas, Paul Fairfield (Eds.)
Paperback £91.80

Hans-Helmuth Gander: Self Understanding and Lifeworld: Basic Traits of a Phenomenological Hermeneutics

Self-Understanding and Lifeworld: Basic Traits of a Phenomenological Hermeneutics Book Cover Self-Understanding and Lifeworld: Basic Traits of a Phenomenological Hermeneutics
Studies in Continental Thought
Hans-Helmuth Gander. Translated by Ryan Drake and Joshua Rayman
Indiana University Press
Hardcover $65.00

Reviewed by:  Douglas Giles (University of Essex)

Gander’s declared aim in Self Understanding and Lifeworld is to build on the untapped potential of Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology of the lifeworld and the self-forming experience of reality. The book is a long and closely argued exploration of how a human being develops an understanding of oneself as a self within a social lifeworld.

Gander spends perhaps a little too much time beating the dead horse of the Cartesian self but he does correctly emphasize the importance of the self not as a self-certainty but as a fluctuating play of unfolding human experiences in the historical world. The historicity of the individual is important to Gander, who focuses on the self-understanding as a to-and-fro between present experiences and progressive-anticipatory self-confirmation. To the contrary, Gaander says, the human self is historicized, meaning that the self cannot be identified as an ahistorical transcendent ago, but needs to be conceived as a historical self in the current of history. As human individuals, our task is to have to incessantly identify our self from within our self within the lifeworld.

Gander’s primary task in Self Understanding and Lifeworld is to set forth a phenomenology of the human self that describes what it means to be a unified human self in the current of life history. In response to the philosophical need to critically discuss self-understanding within the lifeworld, Gander argues that the Husserlian conception of the phenomenology of consciousness is inadequate for answering the problem of history in the hermeneutics of the self-understanding of human beings in the world. Each of us, Gander says, is what we are only through what we have become, and thus, the hermeneutical question of the self-understanding takes shape in Heidegger’s project of a hermeneutics of facticity.

In Part One, Gander interprets the human being’s facticity as similar to the writing and reading of a text. Gander’s analogy is to compare self-understanding with understanding a text. Our knowing is an interpretation, including our knowing of ourselves, allowing us, Gander argues, to compare the understanding of our self with the understanding of a text. The move Gander makes here is one with which the reader may or may not agree, and the reader may or may not find Gander’s defence of it—a blending of Dilthey, Foucault, and Gadamer—convincing. In short, if I understand Gander correctly, his argument is that in a text, there is a space in which the writing subject disappears and since a human being’s self understanding is a historical consciousness—a kind of text being written and read—we as a knowing subject of our self-understanding disappears. The textual analogy rests largely on seeing the historicity of the individual as a kind of reading of the individual’s cultural traditions. We enter into the text (the “book of the world”) of our tradition and in reading and interpreting that text, our individual self-persuasion forms itself. Gander says that “the human self- and world understanding underlies and forms itself from out of the force field of the particular historical-cultural tradition.” (55) That individuals develop their understandings of self and world from their cultural tradition is uncontroversial, but whether we gain philosophical understanding of this process by applying the textual analogy is open to question. Gander’s argument is certainly plausible, but it is not clear that it is an advance on other philosophical approaches.

Regardless of how we view the self-formation of the human self, we are left with the problem of the lifeworld. This is a philosophical problem because the constitution of the self and the possibility of self-experience are connected to the self’s history in the world. Gander turns to the problem of the lifeworld in Part Two. The field of reality, Gander says, opens itself to the philosopher in the language the philosopher speaks and the meaning of its concepts which are set out in historical context. The approach needed, therefore, is a hermeneutical interpretation of concepts that is related to human situatedness in everyday experience. (79-81) Gander then enters a lengthy exposition against Descartes’s philosophical method and the self-certainty of the self within Descartes’s method, little of which will be new to the reader.

When Gander returns to the problem of the lifeworld, he observes that life and thus the lifeworld can no longer be considered something over and against the subject as in Descartes. (116) He then turns to Husserl’s discussion of the lifeworld, interpreting Husserl’s task as a project of “lifeworldly ontology.” (140) Gander adopts Husserl’s task, but also finds Husserl’s approach wanting. The individual’s facticity in the world is carried out in the historical and cultural horizons of the lifeworld. The “concrete lifeworld” is a variable, changing historical-social-cultural world and the lifeworld is more than a mere preliminary to the transcendental sphere of reason. For this reason, Gander says we must take leave of Husserl’s narrow approach to a theory of perception and begin anew the task of an ontology of the lifeworld as outside the transcendental horizon. Gander criticizes Husserl as bypassing the factically concrete lifeworld in its historicity in favor of what Gander calls “an intended final sense by means of the transcendental epoché…[and] takes the sting out of his diagnosis.” (163) By claiming the singularity of the lifeworld, Husserl, Gander says, cuts himself off from existentiell factical contingent experience and the plurality of lifeworlds. At no point does there arise a central perspective from which the human relation to self and world, therefore, Gander rejects Husserl’s approach, adopting in opposition the approach that “the ground of the natural lifeworld, with the experiences of contingency encountered everywhere and at each moment, remains a significant, indeed a necessary corrective against intellectual flights of thinking.” (167)

Gander expands on his claim that Husserl has neglected the historical and factical life in Part Three. And it is here that he gets to the main point of his book:

I experience myself only in the midst of the world—and that means in the midst of time and history—so this relatedness always already implicates the self-constituting experience of difference in its ontological presupposition. The self-relation generates and determines itself accordingly through and as difference, yet does not spilt in the Cartesian sense, but rather in that I experience myself qua difference as essentially open to the world; the self always already transcends itself beyond me to the understanding possible for me as historical horizon. (184)

Our finite self-relation is constituted by both transcendence and difference, Gander argues, and though our phenomenological approach to the problem of the lifeworld benefits from Husserl’s epoché, it also benefits from the early Heidegger’s critique of Husserl—specifically the former’s view to the structure of care. Gander sides with Heidegger in rejecting Husserl’s empty certainty and in accepting instead the understanding that science should be posited as knowing comportments of human beings. Human knowing is a specific mode of being in the world and taking this into account allows our phenomenological approach to include the unexpressed effective background beliefs that form humans’ presuppositional horizon. The proper things of philosophy, Gander concludes, following Heidegger, are not experiences of consciousness taken through the transcendental and eidetic reduction but the phenomena of the human ontological condition of the care for life. Heidegger grasps facticity, Gander says, as the existentiell situation of the individual—one’s own concrete, particular context of life. (196) Self-understanding is therefore experienced in one’s particular facticity within an historical horizon constituted by both transcendence and difference regarding one’s orientation to oneself and to the world.

Having argued for the preference of Heidegger over Husserl, Gander turns back to the issue of a hermeneutics of the self-understanding of human beings in the world. He begins by approaching the pretheoretical life. The human is enmeshed in factical life in such a way that the self as activity constitutes itself in the lifeworld. What we call “life” is known through and in a hermeneutically interpreting active knowing of the having of life itself. (212) Life in itself is always my own life and what it means to be a self is to experience the self-world that is there for us in every situation. Our phenomenological approach must look at the factical experience of life that is always lived out in a lifeworld which is centered in the self-world of comportment to oneself. (214) Gander’s hermeneutical ontology of facticity considers the world-relation as self-relation and constructs an historical ontology of our ourselves based on the conception that experience fundamentally refers to self-relation that is always already situationally related or bound. We make experiences only in situational connections, and situations create in themselves possibilities of experience for me.

Self Understanding and Lifeworld is perhaps longer of a book than it needs to be. One could also argue that it covers well-worn paths of material. As a contribution to Heideggerian studies, Gander’s book has value in how he relates several concepts in Heidegger to other twentieth century philosophers. Any writings concerning this subject matter are, almost by necessity, opaque and complex, and Self Understanding and Lifeworld is definitely those things. Gander’s differentiation of everyday experience as an historical life is a difficult read but worthwhile for the reader who is interested in new applications of Heidegger for the study of the self.

Julian Young: German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger, Routledge, 2018

German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger Book Cover German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger
Julian Young
Paperback £29.99