Schelling published his masterful essay Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Human Freedom in the same year that he lost his wife Caroline (1809). One might speculate that the latter event provoked Schelling’s own descent into the abyss of being, a journey that he would try to articulate for over two decades afterwards. Up until 1833, Schelling would namely lecture and draw up drafts for a work entitled The Ages of the World (Weltalter). Most of these drafts, along with Schelling’s unpublished manuscripts, were regrettably lost when the Munich archive was bombed during World War II (1944).
Horst Fuhrmans reports there were about twenty drafts of this work, most extensively developing the first part of the work dealing with “the past.” Schelling never published any of these drafts in his lifetime. Though, he did prepare the first draft in 1811 for publication, he decided to rescind his agreement for publication after the reception of the proofs. The same happened to a second draft in 1813. Shortly after his father’s death, Schelling’s son published the most extensive draft in 1815 with some extant editorial revisions. It is this last draft that is most well-known and has been translated into English several times, most notably by Jason Wirth in 2000.
In his introduction to that work, Wirth calls for the urgent translation of the 1811 draft. The drafts of 1811 and 1813 differ in a particular way from the one of 1815. While the last draft was heavily edited by Schelling’s son—with several omissions, the inclusion of section headings and some extant corrections—the two earlier drafts were only published much later by Manfred Schröter with less of an editorial impact and thus appear, on the whole, more reliable. But it is very hard to judge the editorial reach of Schelling’s son. Because of the abovementioned destruction of the Munich archive, Schröter could not attend to publishing the drafts written between 1815 and 1833. The draft of 1813 appeared in English translation by Judith Norman in 1997 and was accompanied by a tantalizing essay by the contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. In the English-speaking world, Žižek’s essay is seminal for the interpretation of Schelling’s Weltalter. Scholars had to wait a long time for an English translation of the 1811, the urgency of which should be apparent. This is now provided for a first time by Joseph Lawrence.
The present works contain the translation of Schelling’s 1811 draft of The Ages of the World. The translator, Joseph Lawrence, offers an extensive introduction which situates the work historically and thematically, as well as justifies some of his choices when translating Schelling’s often peculiar use of German into English. Alongside the text for which Schelling rescinded publication permission , the book also contains Schelling’s extensive notes and fragments for this draft and its second chapter. Lawrence is upfront about the impact of his own Schelling-interpretation on his activity as a translator. This impact is not limited to certain choices of translation as next to these, Lawrence decided to include several section and division headings, but also adds thirty-five clarifying footnotes. These notes most often provide extra information about Schelling’s meaning and sources, but occasionally engage the existing literature on the proper interpretation of Schelling’s text.
I will not judge whether this is appropriate when translating a text—at the very least, Lawrence is entirely upfront about the matter (see 47 ff.). Rather, I found Lawrence’s editorial work helpful and the sectional division unproblematic and even helpful in manifesting a textual hidden structure. The English translation reads as Schelling would have intended: engaging, penetrating, provocative and occasionally mystifying. In his translation, Lawrence succeeded in capturing something of the enigmatic spirit of the work.
The actual text is preceded by an extensive introduction (some fifty pages). There, Lawrence provides historical context about the different drafts of The Ages of the World and their academic reception. Missing from this extensive introduction are an overview of Schelling’s argument (Lawrence takes this for granted), contextualization within Schelling’s thought (between early and later), and western philosophy (transitioning between modern and postmodern paradigms of thought). The period in which Schelling wrote his drafts for The Ages of the World coincides with his own transitioning from his earlier thought—usually called the philosophy of identity and the nature-philosophy—towards his later philosophy, where he engaged mostly with positive philosophy, revelation and metaphysical empiricism. For a very long time, Schelling was known only through his earlier work. This was due to that Schelling’s later philosophy was only available in lecture form and that those who had eagerly attended his Berlin lectures (1841 and onwards) were thoroughly disappointed. The same Schelling who boldly divinized humanity and nature, who defended pantheism, and spoke so lyrically about the abyss of reason, now sang the praises of what appears to be a relatively orthodox Christian philosophy. It is not hard to imagine how Schelling’s failure to complete The Ages of the World provoked his move from his earlier to his later paradigm. As such, the decisive locus of failure in that work offers a window into Schelling’s philosophical development.
It would have been very interesting to read Lawrence’s take on the ideological place of The Ages of the World in Schelling’s development, and to gain some insight into why Schelling abandoned the project. This remains unclear to scholars, though most agree that Schelling failed to conceptualize a transition from “the past” to “the present” through an act of freedom. This is where the three known drafts were arrested in their deveopment, and where there is an ample sum of diversity. The 1811 draft was a first attempt at thinking this through, though Schelling ultimately abandoned the answer provided here; an answer that is, compared to the other known drafts, the closest to his views in Freiheitsschrift (1809).
Lawrence does give a cogent defense of the more general philosophical relevance of Schelling’s The Ages of the World. He does this not primarily from a historical angle, but from the perspective of its unique contribution to various contentious areas in contemporary philosophical discourse. Taking issue with Žižek’s influential reading of Schelling’s work, Lawrence provides a deliberately non-psychological reading of Schelling’s Weltalter. First and foremost, Schelling would look for “a compelling alternative to the mechanical conception of time as something stretched out into infinity, with neither beginning nor end” (5). Indeed, central to Schelling’s pre-occupation at the time of writing Weltalter was the concern to do full justice to a new, non-reductive sense of time. Lawrence’s emphasis on this topic of time is undeniably correct, but it might overshadow some of the equally important ontological and theological questions that Schelling engages at that time.
When he conecptualized The Ages of the World, Schelling was convinced that it was paramount for philosophy to think of God as an entity more than in its modern configuration, namely a rationalized and abstract idea. Schelling then provocatively suggests that God must become God; a position that can only do justice to a robust sense of time and to the vast panoply of horror and suffering that scars the world. Lawrence turns to the topic of God towards the end of his introduction (30-38), but seems mostly invested in showing how Schelling’s nature-philosophy is not atheist but a renewal of Christianity. Implicit in Lawrence’s reading of Schelling’s critique of atheism would be the attempt to transition more smoothly from the nature-philosophy towards the more overtly Christian Spätphilosophie of mythology and revelation. This might be true, but not because Schelling feared atheism; rather, he feared a kind of theology that sapped the life out of God.
What is interesting is how Lawrence connects Schelling’s work to innovations in modern science, such as those of Einstein and Heisenberg (17-20), and his reflection on the trajectory of human history and its relationship to capitalism and communism (20-30). These reflections can get preachy at times—lamenting the influence of capitalism on the university—but serve as an honest and provoking attempt at making Schelling’s abstract thought more palatable to contemporary concerns.
Schelling was namely concerned with a number of basic questions that remain unsolved to this day. One of the central points of argument in The Ages of the World is that there can be nothing outside primordial matter, because it is a dense singularity, disabling anyone form explaining the emergence of life from any outside influence. There can be no external agent that impacts primordial life in such a matter that life, time and intelligence come to be. This immediately invalidates the traditional Christian understanding of creation. Life must be self-creative. Especially in the 1811 draft, Schelling follows the metaphor of pregnancy very closely, thinking of the self-fertilization of the divine substance in moments of contraction. This parthenogenesis was his first attempt to explain how a primordial matter could give birth to itself.
To summarize, Schelling wrote an introduction for The Ages of the World which stays almost entirely unchanged throughout the drafts of 1811, 1813, and 1815. The well-known but enigmatic opening sentence of this introduction is, “the past becomes known, the present recognized, and the future divined” (55), which at the very least signals that the three “ages” are known in distinct ways. Schelling intended to write three parts which respectively deal with the eternal past, the eternal present and the eternal future, but never managed to write a substantial part beyond the first age of the world. In that part, the question is asked what happened before God became God in the act of the creation. Schelling’s argument—to many a scandalous one—was that God must become himself from the Lauterkeit (translated by Lawrence as lucid purity) of a pre-temporal, pre-conscious existence. Almost all of the material known of the Weltalter attempts to investigate, on the one hand, what was going on in the pure being of God before creation and, on the other hand, how and why God would abandon that position. It is this second issue upon which the various drafts of Weltalter dramatically differ. Schelling seemed thoroughly dissatisfied with his answer to the how and why of creation.
The mood is set by the introduction. Schelling aims for a science that is “the development of a living, actual being” (56), which has at that time finally become possible because a sense of spirit (Geist) has been brought back to philosophy. There, Schelling calls attention to the dialectical turn in philosophy, most overtly in his own nature-philosophy and Hegel’s idealism. Dialectical philosophy allows for the subject to recognize himself as part of a larger process, where it can then find within his own soul the different steps of the protohistorical process in which the universe came to be. It is clear that Schelling is still mulling over Hegel’s powerful critique in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Yet, Hegel claimed that Schelling’s philosophy starts as if “by the shot of a gun” out of “the night in which all cows are black.” In other words, Hegel indicted Schelling with arguing that we move from absolute unknowing to absolute knowing without much of a real, timely transition.
Taking Hegel’s criticism seriously, Schelling became more interested in conceptualizing a proper sense of time and history. For instance, Schelling emphasizes that our knowledge is piecemeal, in a stage of becoming, and never complete (e.g. 61). Time must come to be and it must have an absolute beginning. If one would entertain a more mechanical conception of time—of an infinite series—there would be no such things as novelty or unicity because everything is caught within that infinite series. For something to have a past, a real past, it has to come to be through an act of separation or division (Scheidung). There is a point of beginning, the moment where the present starts and the past ends, but the question then becomes what precedes the moment of beginning. This is what Schelling would call the relative and absolute prius in his positive philosophy.
This beginning before the beginning must be an original purity, Lauterkeit. This lucid purity is conceptualized by Schelling in more or less blissful and simple terms. There is a peaceful self-rumination in the original state (which would change drastically in later drafts of Weltalter, especially the 1815 one). This stage of purity is somehow lost through a movement within God before he is God himself, namely a desire to intuit or represent himself. This can only happen via a contraction of himself, a contracting of being and becoming determinate. This brings out a duality of willing in God, namely purity and contraction. Unlike the future drafts, Schelling does not figure this duality in strongly dialectical terms (more in dualistic terms). For instance, he uses the following image: “Heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool” (79). Rather, this is seen as the quite peaceful interplay between two different wills which results in a spiritualized sense of matter, a so-called golden age.
Only later would Schelling discuss how this interplay leads to frustration, namely when these two wills start to strive for independence. This leads to an inner antagonism in the primal being: “This is the dire fate of all life, that to become comprehensible to itself, it seeks constriction, demanding narrowness over breadth. But after constricting itself and discovering what it feels like to be, it demands once again to return into openness” (93). Schelling is attentive to a number of objections that could be made to this view, namely that it would involve a deification of nature, whether this can be taken as a systematic representation of being and whether this does not regard matter too highly. Schelling’s response is unapologetic and emphasizes that such a pantheist self-rumination is the repressed past of the world. It seems that Schelling moved away from this point of view in his Spätphilosophie.
This leads Schelling to what Schröter and Lawrence view to be the second part of this draft, namely the move beyond the past. This cannot happen through a force from the outside, since there is no outside to the original pantheist unity. The move beyond the past happens through the Father begetting the Son (contraction, giving birth), the other through which the Father can come to know himself. While there is opposition—the Son is not the Father—their opposition is not absolute, but actually paves the way for a higher, now cognized, unity: “They are brought to a higher unity precisely by that which tears them apart, insofar as, once they have been divided from one another, they are able to embrace anew, mutually dissolving into one another with the entire wealth of their content” (126). That unity is not fixed at any point, but is in a constant state of becoming. This was put forward by all religions—or so claims Schelling—and especially in the Christian understanding of the trinity: three personalities in one person. Yet, this point is something that reason finds difficult grappling and might have been complete unable to reach without the light of revelation: “Without the light of revelation a scholarly researcher would never be in the position to follow with natural ease the inner going forth of the first divine actions, guided by concepts that are as straightforward and human as they need to be” (130). Philosophers that close off from revelation will “simply become more and more entangled in their own thoughts, losing themselves in the end in what is vacuous and sterile” (ibid.).
For Schelling, this introduces a new sense of time into philosophy, in opposition to three previous understandings of time. First, the mechanical sense of time where time constitutes an actual infinity (without beginning or end). Second, the idea that time is not needed to understand the becoming of the world or that all happens in “one fell swoop.” Third, a partial subjectification of time while allowing something of an objective time (Kant’s position). Schelling believes that there is no objective time, only the subjective time of the thing itself. Time exists because God slows down his revelation; he does not force things to happen instantly. Things develop organically becomes God holds back his self-exposure. This second part ends with a number of disparate and largely unfinished reflections on the relationship between pantheism and dualism (in dialogue with Schlegel); the freedom that enables the world to be, which happens not for the Father but for the Son; the limitations of knowledge, a point of self-professed ignorance, where philosophy runs up against the boundaries of what is can legitimately say.
After this translation of the draft, Lawrence included just under one-hundred of pages of notes and fragments belonging to this draft. Schelling never intended these to be published and their German editor, Schröter, admits that his work on these notes was hasty. Due to their destruction, he did not have the opportunity to check his work. These notes can offer a helpful view into the process through which Schelling composed this first draft of The Ages of the World.
For the most part, this is a matter of wording rather than content. Joseph Lawrence provided as service to Schelling-studies by supplying a well-structured, readable translation of the 1811 draft of Weltalter. The fluent translation reflects the spirit and content of the original text, while some of his choices are slightly infelicitous. For instance, Schelling’s confounding use of Sein and Seiendes is rendered by Lawrence respectively as “being” and “that which is.” While this translation is correct, it loses the simplicity of Schelling’s terms. Elsewhere, this couple is rendered respectively as “being” and “existing being.” The English language has no simple word pair as the German does. The choice to translate Scheidung as scission should be applauded. It is more conventional than the usage of “cision” and keeps the connection with the German Entscheidung (de-cision). For Schelling, separation happens through a free decision, not through a natural sense of decay. This is one term he uses that distances himself from his erstwhile roommate, Hegel.
On a whole, Lawrence’s translation is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of Schelling studies. For the first time, English readers of Schelling can now read and compare the three remaining drafts of The Ages of the World.
Phenomenology as Transcendental Speculative Idealism
The book by Alexander Schnell, a professor of theoretical philosophy at University of Wuppertal, bearing the title Was ist Phänomenologie? (What is Phenomenology?), is his third book written in German. The book presents the conception of phenomenology understood as speculative transcendental idealism. To a large extent it refers to Schnell’s prior investigations, such as in his first German-edited book Hinaus. Entwürfe zu einer phänomenologischen Metaphysik und Anthropologie (Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann, Orbis Phaenomenologicus (Studien), Nr. 24, 2011, 160). This book which will be reviewed here consists of a Preface and three parts, each of which is subdivided into two chapters. The length of this book—relative to its gravity and the complexity of the question included in its title—suggests that Schnell’s new book (in a similar vein to his Hinaus) is a systematic presentation of an idea; a well-thought project rather than a complete system of phenomenological philosophy.
Schnell’s project is intended to answer two fundamental questions: 1) How do we understood phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” (that is, “tactile,” “concrete,” “hard,” etc.) concept of being with respect to reality? What is at stake here is the possibility of reconciling an epistemological question about legitimizing cognition with the ontological character of phenomenology. In other words, Schnell’s agenda aims at reconciling the goals and methods of phenomenology pursued by Husserl and Heidegger, respectively. To reach this goal, Schnell delivers an argument which combines three distinct “ways” out of a possible four: 1) it presents the idiosyncrasies of the phenomenological method; 2) it points to the heritage of German idealism and English empiricism as the philosophico-historical origins of phenomenology; 3) it polemizes with Quentin Meillassoux’ speculative realism and puts forward a phenomenological-transcendental grounding of the concept of reality. The fourth way, which would consider specific investigations of phenomenological problems, not counting the issue of correlationism (Korrelationismus) and sense-formation (Sinnbildung), lies outside the author’s interest.
The book is intended not to be a historical or systematic introduction to phenomenology, but rather an outline of the task which we can label, quoting Eugen Fink, as a “phenomenological idea of grounding.” When asked about the possibility of uniformizing such distinct standpoints as Husserl’s, Heidegger’s, Merleau-Ponty’s, Fink’s, Levinas’s, and Richir’s into a common phenomenological “school” Schnell replies that phenomenology from its very beginning was a project which has been (despite many differences in the methods of its realization) characterized by a common philosophical horizon and direction of thinking. In his view, this common denominator is transcendental philosophy.
Phenomenology is a philosophical project emerging from a critical diagnosis of western culture in the 20th century. Opposing the general cultural tendency to reduce the dimensions of sense and being to pure facts, the point of departure for phenomenology is to note that whatever appears to us is given to our consciousness and that the appearance of things presupposes the idea of correlation. The only object of phenomenology is intentionality or original phenomenological correlation, which is the transcendental field for constituting any sense, including the sense of the real world.
Schnell operationalizes the conceptual core of phenemenology by the following four points: firstly, double (both ontological and gnoseological) presuppositionlessness; secondly, genetic givenness, which, due to the fact that it is just being drawn out, it is not priorly given; thirdly, the above-mentioned correlativity; and finally intelligibilization, which states that instead of exploring Being and justifying or explaining cognition, phenomenology is oriented at investigating sense and “rendering the idea of cognition comprehensible”.
As far the phenomenological method is concerned (chapter 1), with which phenomenology as such happens to be identified, Schnell points to four points of convergence for the shaping of sense: transcendentality, meaningfulness, eidetics and correlativity. The first point reduces to the correlation between thinking and Being (Fichte), with this correlation being enabled by way of “transcendental experience,” or opening the field of sense constitution. That is why the second sense characterizes the phenomenological method as investigations oriented at sense, or as an attempt to make things comprehensible. After Heidegger, we can describe said sense as the “with respect to what” of each comprehension. The third moment, that is eidetics, protects the phenomenological cognition from the threat of collapsing into investigating fact (contra psychologism). Eventually, the fourth moment has already been mentioned in the context of the concept of transcendentality; on the grounds of phenomenology, correlation proceeds in a three-fold manner: 1) It is still a pre-phenomenological correlation between the subject and object of experience; 2) Strictly phenomenological correlation of noetic-noematic nature; 3) Deep pre-phenomenal correlation, understood as pre-immanence, pure anonymity. With these three points mentioned above serving as a point of departure, one can point to four fundamental axes of the phenomenological method 1) Epoché and reduction; the former means suspension of judgement, as characteristic of the natural approach, whereas the latter means a turn to transcendental subjectivity. Additionally there is 2) Eidetic variation, 3) Phenomenological description, and 4) Phenomenological construction. What merits attention is a complex description of the eidetic variation, with the description in question introducing a characteristically phenomenological concept of essence. This very concept appears to be quite different from what traditional philosophy understands by essence (as opposed, on the latter view, to facts and particulars). From the point of view of the well-known opposition of essence and phenomenological fact, Eidos is something third. Across all these constituents of the phenomenological method, Schnell stresses their “creative,” “constructive”, and speculative character. There is a relation of mutual dependence between the objects of phenomenology and the existence of the phenomenological method.
There is another concept related to the above-delineated phenomenological method; namely, the concept of understanding, which makes the Husserlian phenomenology receptive to Heideggerian motifs (chapter II). The concept of understanding operates within a tension between the Self and the Other; that is between the Self and what is other than myself. As an element of the phenomenological method, the previously mentioned concept renders phenomenology capable of addressing the problem of legitimizing (a problem that haunts the humanities) claims for truth and epistemic accomplishments of the sciences. Schnell brings out a methodical outline of understanding in two steps. First, he refers to historical conceptions of understanding in the thought of Heidegger and Fichte. Second, he heeds two aspects of understanding which the afore-mentioned thinkers failed to consider and which are, however, essential to the phenomenological understanding. Just as in the previous considerations related to a method, also at this point, the author emphasizes a ‘creative’ and active character of the phenomenological method, the aspect of which is understanding itself. The said character manifests itself, first and foremost, in the concept of projection (Heidegger); and second – in the self-interpretation of the Self, which understands something; third – in the negative activity of differentiation (Fichte); fourth – in the fixation; that is, in holding of what is to be comprehended, during which within the Self there emerges some distance to itself; fifth, in the “phenomenalization” of what is incomprehensible, which constitutes a sort of base for the comprehensible. The phenomenalization in question, involving the a priori extension of the field of comprehensibility, is achieved by way of “the phenomenological construction”; namely, “genetization.” Generally speaking, phenomenology as a method means an incessant “going back to things in themselves”; or, to put it more accurately, going “beyond things” and towards the open horizon which makes things appear to us in the first place. In this open horizon, there is eventually something irreducible, something given which is not to be identified with any “data” but rather with something “given” in the process of the phenomenological construction. This will be addressed further along.
Chapter III points to another route towards phenomenology. This route goes across philosophico-historical reflection which is supposed to elucidate “what is not thought about” in the phenomenological method. The idea of grounding, constituting a guiding idea of phenomenology itself, derives its motifs from two traditions: classical German philosophy and English empiricism of the 17th century. Resorting to the pronouncements of Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas, Schnell notes that phenomenology is possible only as idealism which combines in itself both a transcendental and ontological dimension. The premises of this reasoning are to be found in classical German philosophy, especially in Fichte, according to whom one legitimizes cognition by virtue of non-sensory intuitive cognition. The intuitive legitimization of cognition has different modi. First and foremost, it refers to the first level of justifying cognition. That is, it refers to the level of the phenomenological description of immanent data of consciousness. At a second stage, with this stage entering the sphere of pre-immanence, aware (or conscious) experience must be supplemented with the annihilation of occurring closures. The positive side of annihilation is the already-mentioned construction. Its intuitive dimension is instantiated as history, conceived of as genesis; that is habitualizations and sedimentations. These are creative accomplishments of a phenomenologist who constructs whatever is necessary for validating cognition at the deepest level. This is the lesson from Kant. However, Fichte goes even further than Husserl by demonstrating in the double reflection how what enables cognition is possible: how are conditions of possibility possible themselves? On the grounds of phenomenology, a similar scheme of conduct is realized by the Heideggerian existentiell being-towards-death, which, grounding the “entirety” of Dasein, is labelled as “enabling” (Ermöglichung) what constitutes the “possibility of impossibility”, and hence, death. Searching for the possibility of combining an epistemological and ontological aspect of the “idea of grounding”, Schnell evokes a dispute between Fichte and Schelling. According to the latter, in order to legitimize knowledge, it is not sufficient to resort to a form of knowledge as such. One should also take into consideration its content. This strict relations between the constituting and the constituted was recognized within the realm of phenomenology by Levinas, who speaks of “the relations of mutual conditioning.” To rebut an indictment of formalism, which is in turn related to an indictment of solipsism, one should demonstrate what the immanent link between thinking and Being consists in. The explication of this relations proceeds in reference to three categories and dimensions: truth, constitution, and genesis. Regarding truth: On the basis of the analyses of experience, Husserl demonstrates in what way “truth is an a priori form of any reference to the world.” Regarding constitution: On the level of the sphere of immanence, it is proved that every actual consciousness is surrounded by the horizons of potentiality, which opens up the way towards “new ontology” (Levinas), although it must be conceded that thinking constitutes Being. The latter each and every time transcends thinking, thus founding the former’s accomplishments. On the level of pre-immanence, what is revealed is the sphere of ‘pre-being’, the aspects of which are “subject” and “object”. Therefore, it transpires that “transcendental constitution is an ontological founding” (100). Regarding genesis: At the level of transcendental genesis, what takes place is what Levinas labels as “diachrony” and Fichte – “the reflection on reflection”. Every relation of conditioning presupposes a shift between registers, wherein one asserts either presence or absence – depending on the perspective assumed: be it the conditioning or the conditioned. Then again, what applies at this point is the trope of enabling doubling. Due to the complexity of the issue under scrutiny and its concise presentation in Schnell’s book, what we can say herein is that it is only at the level which Heidegger calls “fundamental happening,” that what is eventually reconciled is the need to make cognition comprehensible and founding everything upon Being itself.
A second historico-background for Husserlian phenomenology, next to German classical philosophy and of equally importance, is English empiricism (chapter IV). Husserl dedicated much attention to the Humean achievements particularly towards the end of his life; that is, in the period in which—on the one hand—he recognized Lebenswelt as a primary category of his phenomenology—and on the other hand—he described phenomenology as reflection on history. The latter characterization leads to the conclusion that the crisis of science results from its “objectivism”, which roughly means its underestimation of the life-world. The said objectivism supersedes the world of natural approach with a mathematical substrate, understood as a being in itself. And it is precisely in Hume’s thought that soul constitutes the world out of impression by virtue of fantasy that Husserl finds the motifs which shake the foundations of this objectivism. In his phenomenological considerations Husserl tries to give a positive account of how consciousness, including the acts of imagination, constitutes the world “in itself” and legitimizes the pretense of modern sciences for absolute truth. In Husserl’s view, unlike in Kant’s, the major problem in Hume’s thought is not the problem of induction, but the problem of making comprehensible this “naïve obviousness of the certainty of the world” which ordinary and scientific consciousness feeds on. To solve this problem, Husserl enters transcendental considerations which are supposed to disclose the transcendental life of subjectivity at the very foundations of “the certainty of the world.” For this purpose, he develops the “world-life reduction”, which is supposed to liberate one’s perception from the naïve certainty of the world and to direct it towards a priori, inhering in Lebenswelt. That is, to the hidden correlation of the world and the consciousness thereof; to “spiritual actions” which constitute all the meaningful creations. Only via this route is one able to, on the one hand, show whence sciences derive their claim for universal validity; and on the other, to make comprehensible the naïve obviousness surrounding the life-world. According to Husserl, the validity of sciences has its foundations in the sense of being in the life-world, from the “synthetic wholeness” of its transcendental achievements.
From the above-described perspective of “the science of Lebenswelt,” Husserl conducts a critical reinterpretation of five fundamental motifs of earlier phenomenology: 1) The grounding horizon of the legitimization of cognition, 2) Intuition as the principle of all principles, 3) The most fundamental role of actual perception, 4) Description as a basic method of phenomenology, and 5) Hegemony of the constructing Ego. Regarding the five above-listed motifs in turn: 1) Whereas in his writings dating back to the twenties, Husserl mainly aimed at justifying any cognition, in his notes and lectures from the thirties he describes the task of phenomenology as making comprehensible, which introduces the process of sense-formation and exposes the significance of intersubjectivity, or actually, strictly speaking, intersubjectivity of “anonymous” character. Such intersubjectivitity requires not reduction but “in-duction” (Latin inductio literally means: introduction) into the realm of what is pre-subjective. 2) This anonymous subjectivity calls into question the principle of all principles; or to put it more clearly, the primacy of intuition as far as sense-formation goes. 3) This in turn gives rise to contesting the primacy of actual perception as a legitimizing source of all cognitive references made by consciousness to objects. Instead, contesting the above can count in favour of the modes of actualization realized by imagination. 4) Reaching the transcendental non-intuitive foundation of sense-formation requires that it should be recognized and conceded that philosophy may be a “universal science” only as a non-objective science. There is no “descriptive science on transcendental being and life”, says Husserl. This implies that the process of making comprehensible must avail itself of a different notion of truth from the one traditionally attributed to objective sciences. 5) The last difficulty concerns the relations between the constituted world and the constituting subjectivity. Here we are facing the following dilemma: either we preserve the participation of the subject in the word, which would make the world-constitution non-radical. Or, alternatively, the constitution is radical, and then what would be required is that the subjecthood, as related to the world, is to be rescinded. Therefore, at this point there occurs some tension between the natural approach to the world and the transcendental approach. To elucidate this tension, it takes the introduction—as a “foundation” of the world constitution—of the self-destructive subjecthood. In Husserl, this paradox is solved by projecting it onto the problem of the relations between primordial-Self and intersubjectivity and between primordial self and objectified worldly self.
This very reference to the lowest layers of the transcendental life and being is reminiscent of the issue of the Absolute. Schnell raises this issue with reference to the dispute having been going on since the critique of phenomenology launched by “speculative realism,” represented by Quentin Meillassoux (chapter V). According to the latter thinker, phenomenology is purportedly the contemporary paradigm case of the philosophical standpoint, labelled as correlationism, wherein there is no possibility of thinking a being in itself without simultaneously relating this very being to thinking itself. Schnell takes the sting out of these indictments in four steps.
The main argument against the phenomenological correlationism is to be the one from ancestrality. The main thrust of the argument is the claim that any version of correlationism faces an insuperable problem posed by the fact of existence of the events prior to the emergence of conscious beings who could have experienced these events. This argument is easy to refute from the perspective of transcendentalism. Neither Kant’s philosophy nor Husserl’s imply that something exists insofar as it is experienced by empirical persons. Instead, what the above philosophies deal with are the conditions of possibility of possible experience. Believing that the transcendental consciousness must be always embodied in a physical person and defining what is possible in terms of the lack of what is actual, Meillassoux misunderstands the transcendental status of phenomenological subjecthood and its function of making comprehensible what is genuinely possible. It is erroneous to conceive of the relation of phenomenology to reality in the same vein and at the same level as one conceives of the relation of natural sciences to reality. For phenomenology, after applying the epoché, reality appears to us as a phenomenon; a phenomenologist does not ask whether the said phenomenon exists or existed; rather, he asks about its sense: how does the past reality which no empirical person could in fact experience appear to us?
Apart from that in the process of a critical analysis speculative realism proves to be correlationism in disguise. According to Schnell, Meilassoux’s indictments derive from the assumption of a false external attitude towards phenomenology.
A positive side of the discussion is the attempt to engage phenomenology in elucidating the profoundest foundations of the correlation, which should simultaneously ensure the meaningfulness of what is – in both daily and scientific experience understood as reality it itself. Schnell brings up “correlational hypophysics” (Greek hipo – under), which is supposed—in order to fully realize the task of materializing the “idea of the grounding of phenomenology” to life—to elaborate the “transcendental matrix of correlationism” (151). In the course of elaborating this very idea, the three fundamental motifs of correlationism are uncovered. First and foremost, it is to be established what is the foundation and essence of correlation; second, what is the principle of making phenomenological cognition possible and—along with this—of granting sense; third, what phenomenological reflection consists in. Therefore, what makes up the transcendental matrix of correlationism are three motifs: correlation, sense and reflection.
Schnell outlines the said three motifs in the following manner. The essence of correlation is—following Heidegger—“horizon-opening anticipating.” It is this concept that captures the intuitive sense of what appears to us; namely the very appearing to us itself. On the other hand, reflection does not imply a subject’s turning to itself. Rather, it means the already-mentioned “introduction (induction) into a self-reflective processualness of sense-formation” (153). Phenomenological reflection is reflection over both “borderline structures of phenomenality and what phenomenality enables”. What is thereby meant is a “characteristic performance of a phenomenologically relevant form of reflection” (154). Schnell distinguishes three types of induction, which correspond with three layers of the transcendental matrix of correlation. At the first stage of reflection, there emerges an intentional structure of consciousness, designing sense and making cognition comprehensible. Each of these structures have a dualistic form: intentionality is divided between a subject and object; what designing sense consists in is its creation and the reception thereof; making cognition comprehensible is spread between the original (Urbild) and a copy (Abbild). At the second stage, these dualities get both deepened and dynamized: consciousness becomes self-consciousness, the apparently ultimate truth of fulfilling intentions is getting hermeneutically distanced and the relations between the original and a copy within the principle of cognition becomes malleable in the process of the simultaneous designing and annihilating. Eventually, at the third stage, self-reflection becomes inward (verinnerlichende) self-reflection. First, this self-reflection opens a pre-phenomenal, pre-immanent sphere of phenomenological constitution; second, it deepens the hermeneutic truth and elevates it to the rank of a generative truth. In place of what is given, a construction emerges. The example of the latter is Husserl’s phenomenological construction of original temporality, included in Bernauer Manuskripten. Third, what is subject to inward reflection is also establishing and destroying – both interwoven with the principle of cognition; at this stage, the reflection becomes the reflecting (Reflektieren), which highlights the workings (laws) of reflection itself (Reflexionsgesetzmäßigkeit). What is at stake here is to make the very act of making possible transparent. What is thereby meant is to enable the enabling, which characterizes the nature of what is transcendental. These workings (laws) of reflection express—next to making understanding possible—enabling being. For, eventually, what we deal with at the lowest level of what is transcendental is not pure reflective asserting. Rather, it is something which anticipates the former and which reduces to the annihilation of the experienced positiveness of conditions and to the creation of these conditions and of being as a “surplus,” with the said surplus being supposed to serve as ontological foundations to the conditions in question. “Being is a reflection on reflection” (159). “It is being that is ‘ground’ of any reality; it is not priorly given or assumed but rather genetically constructed, reflectively geneticized ‘medium of reality’” (159). With reference to the dispute with Meilassoux, Schnell claims that “the fundamental result of phenomenological speculative idealism ‘is a concept of being that can be classified as the’ Absolute”. It does not coincide with reality. It does not denote any entity. Instead, it can be characterized in the following three-fold manner. 1) Being is a prior being, “pre-being”; it denotes a pre-immanent realm of openness, an “ontological status of transcendental a priori” (161); 2) Being is a surplus; 3) Being is identified grounding.
In the last chapter (VI), Schnell returns to the question of reality. He searches for the motives for raising this question in historico-philosophical problematics of modernity, inaugurated by Descartes and then promptly revolutionized by transcendental philosophy. From this perspective, one can clearly see that the question of reality already appeared in the context of epistemological problematics, within which reality is a concept standing in contradistinction to the subjective experiences of imagination, dream or methodically complex intellectual operations. The Kantian attempt to redefine the problem introduces the idea of correlationism. However, even this idea is originally of purely epistemological character, with which, on the grounds of phenomenology, only Heidegger clearly polemizes.
According to Schnell, one can distinguish four fundamental forms of correlationism. The first of them is to be found in Kant: it is a correlation of judgement and self-consciousness. The second is introduced by Fichte: it is a correlation of Being and thinking. The third one—phenomenological—is inaugurated by Husserl: it is the intentional correlation. The fourth one stems derives from Heidegger: it is the correlation of being-in-the-world. Schnell pauses to consider the third form of correlation, known mainly from late writings and manuscripts by Husserl in which he develops his investigations pertaining to genetic phenomenology. He combines the notion of constitution with the one of genesis. As Husserl says:
“Indem die Phänomenologie der Genesis dem ursprünglichen Werden im Zeitstrom, das selbst ein ursprünglich konstituierendes Werden ist, und den genetisch fungierenden sogenannten „Motivationen” nachgeht, zeigt sie, wie Bewusstsein aus Bewusstsein wird, wie dabei im Werden sich immerfort auch konstitutive Leistung vollzieht” (Hua XIV, 41).
The said history of consciousness is given in transcendental experience. The key concept of genetic phenomenology is the category of “sense-formation” (Sinnbildung). Schnell distinguishes three semantic moments of the process in question: the constituting moment (bildend-erzeugende), the moment of imagination (Einbildung), and the one introduced by Marc Richir: the constituting-schematizing moment (bildend-schematisierende). With reference to Richir, who was searching for the novel grounding of phenomenology, Schnell highlights the third moment and claims that at the very bottom of any act of a cognizing subject referring to Being, there is no perception but fantasy (certainly, as conceived of in the transcendental sense). Referring to the transcendental concept of an image, Schnell attempts—by way of “transcendental induction”—to demonstrate “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation,” which allows for making both cognition and reality comprehensible. According to Schnell, what is an image is both reality and the said pre-phenomenon. In three steps of reflection, Schnell constructs “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation.” In the above-mentioned first step of reflection, one constructs an empty concept of reflection (Abbild) which, in the second step of reflection (that is, during self-reflection) is endowed with some content. This in turn means that the former as an empty concept gets annihilated. The construction thus assumes a malleable form. Finally, during the third step of construction, which is an inward reflection, reflection starts manifesting itself as reflection with its lawfulness, which means that “each transcendental relations of conditioning implies its own enabling doubling” (178); namely, the enabling of enabling. The last sections bring an answer to two originally posed questions: 1) How may we understand phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” concept of being with respect to reality? The first question is replied to with “the principle of elucidating phenomenological knowledge-claims”, which is a gradually inward reflection. By revealing its own workings (laws), this reflection leads to an answer to the second question: the possibility of reconciling epistemological and ontological features of phenomenology is to be found in the concept of phenomenality as “durable steadfastness” (ausstehende Inständigkeit) (Heidegger). Reality, as non-theoretically understood, is a “trace” of a mutual relationship of immanence (endogenesis) and transcendence (exogenesis); it is “onto-eis-ec-stasis”. “Reality is not pure being-in-itself, neither only being-for-myself, but rather, a steadfastly (inständig) discovered and geneticized being-outside-of” (181).
The boldness of some of Schnell’s ideas are inversely proportional to the detailedness of their respective explications; that is why, the last words of the book—since it is devoid of a conclusion proper—is the statement that all the considerations included therein are of preliminary nature and they call for further elaboration.
At the end, let us take the liberty of posing several questions of a polemical-critical nature. Undoubtedly, the content of the book evidences the fact that the author is well-versed in the phenomenological problematics and he freely chooses the issue that he deems necessary to highlight the identity and the peculiarities of phenomenology. However, it raises the following questions: To what extent do Schnell’s decisions related to the selection of problematics stem from what phenomenology as such is? To what extent do those questions stem from the fact that the author desires to validate his vision—rather arbitrarily assumed—of what, in his opinion, phenomenology may be? Furthermore, the next question is this: To what extent is the reconstruction of the motifs selected by Schnell—the motifs being known to the phenomenological movement—an apt interpretation? And to what extent is this interpretation distorted, taking into account the goal motivating the author’s very enterprise? What is the purpose of Schnell’s considerations? It seems that the purpose may be most easily identified in the light of the title of the scrutinized work. In other words, what is at stake is an answer to the question of what phenomenology is. Does the author succeed in reaching his goal?
Certainly, due to its concise and cursory nature, Schnell’s work requires the reader to be significantly acquainted with intricacies of the problematics of phenomenology. In this sense, the book is not, thematically and historically speaking, of introductory character, which, if it were, would make it useful to the adherents of phenomenology barely initiated into the art of philosophizing in this fashion. Quite the contrary, the beginning of Schnell’s considerations require a higher level of prior knowledge on the part of his readers. Certainly, the above does not translate into any sort of indictment. Still, it must be conceded that Husserl’s wrote that a phenomenologist is always a beginner; yet, this dictum should not be construed as related to the amateur’s practice. Husserl’s conviction about the introductory character of phenomenology gives rise to another quite distinct problem. Phenomenology is an introductory science in the five-fold sense: 1) It is a science about origins; 2) It a science designed from scratch; namely, by dint of systematic maneuvers which are supposed to ensure to phenomenology relevant sourceness and presuppositionlessness; 3) It is a point of departure for other sciences; 4) It is located at the beginning of its historical development; and, eventually 5) It is of preliminary nature. Phenomenology is essentially a research work, it is active searching, questioning, also going astray and getting lost. By contrast, Schnell’s work is a systematic presentation of ideas and of the results of phenomenological analyses – genuinely formidable, coherent construction which, albeit sketchily presented, is ex hypothesi a self-confident attempt at a philosophical system. In this sense, the scrutinized work alludes to all those attempts which can be subsumed under the umbrella term of German idealism. It is especially Kant and Fichte, to whom Schnell makes frequent historical references, that used to present their respective philosophies in a rudimentary form which was meant to eventually assume the form of a system. Hence, the title of Schnell’s book—instead of Was ist Phänomenologie?—should rather be: Ein Entwurf der Phänomenologie als spekulativer transzendentaler Idealismus. Counter to the generality of the title given by Schnell—which not only assumes the form of an interrogative but also uses the word Phänomenologie without any article, thus implying that the text shall concern the most general idea of phenomenology taking into account its most extreme thematic and historical instantiations—all the considerations contained herein are from the very beginning dedicated to the presentation of a single form of phenomenology, that is the one which is understood in the light of “the idea of grounding” (E. Fink). It seems that the element most wanting in Schnell’s consideration is the ability “to maintain the state of questionness” (“what is phenomenology?”). After all, the said ability is—as I believe—a distinctive feature of phenomenology as well as its trademark, thus distinguishing it from the other movements in the history of philosophy. The said traits are not only distinctive features marking the realm of phenomenology off against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. They also constitute its philosophical mission, so to speak. Elevating the motif of the question to the rank of a fundamental methodological directive—which entails the altered understanding of cognition and being—it dissociates itself from the question of oblivion, with the oblivion having lasted since the times of Aristotle. To revoke the question is to restore to philosophy its proper dimension of self-realization. And this is what Kant’s “Copernican turn” as well as its misunderstanding on the part of Kant’s German successors essentially consist in. By the same token, this is what the historical importance of phenomenology consists in too. That is why, if one attempts to understand phenomenology through the eyes of historico-philosophical motifs known to the history of philosophy—which, albeit important and educational in itself, threatens to obfuscate the original contribution made by phenomenology—it is precisely in Kant’s ‘Copernican turn’ that one should look for creative affinity.
After all, grasping phenomenology in the light of the question (stated by the title of the reviewed book) shows more than merely the peculiarities of phenomenology against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. By posing the question of what phenomenology is and “remaining in this state of questionness,” one uncovers phenomenology, on the one hand, as a domain or problems; and on the other hand – as an open field of different possibilities of understanding and solving them. Certainly, these are not pure possibilities but possibilities of historical nature. The internal richness of the possibilities of the idea of phenomenology, and which is what we can aptly label as its internal problematicity, somehow a priori resists any attempt to exclusively identify phenomenology with one of these possibilities. This principle applies both to its thematic and historical aspect. The question opens its own historicalness of phenomenology, with this historicalness directing us to philosophico-historical aspect of the phenomenological movement. One would be ill-advised to reduce this internal problematicity either to a specific set of problems or to only selected attempts at solving them. However, in the context of this problem, Schnell’s work is of regrettably one-sided character. For instance, despite Schnell’s scholarly competence, as indubitably evidenced by his intellectual accomplishments, his book almost entirely skips the discussions on and transformations in the understanding of phenomenology known from, say, the writings by French phenomenologists of the post-war period (the only exception being sporadically mentioned Emannuel Levinas and Marc Richir). Certainly, it would be very bad if any subsequent attempt to raise the question of “what is phenomenology” similarly dismissed Schnell’s work.
In their introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics, editors Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal immediately make clear that the volume differs in approach from other, similar guides to hermeneutics. Whereas there are a number of volumes available that offer histories of hermeneutics or treatments of individual hermeneutical theorists, this book focuses on the question of how hermeneutical issues relate to different fields of study, such as theology, literature, history and psychoanalysis. In this way, the authors aim to demonstrate how hermeneutical thinking thrives and develops through concrete interdisciplinary reflection.
The book opens with an article on “Hermeneutics and Theology,” written by Christoph Bultman. In this essay, Bultman offers a historical overview of different approaches to the interpretation of religious texts and focuses in particular on the various approaches that were developed and debated during the German Enlightenment. Although Bultman offers a clear overview of different approaches within biblical hermeneutics, to a certain extent his precise aim and argument remain unclear, with the central questions behind his overview not made explicit.
In an interesting contribution in the second chapter, Dalia Nassar focuses on the way in which the study of nature in the eighteenth century involved hermeneutical methods and insights that transformed the way in which we approach and represent the natural world. In her essay, “Hermeneutics and Nature,” Nassar directs attention to the ideas of Buffon, Diderot and, especially, Herder. Nassar starts her investigation by highlighting the fact that the emergence of a hermeneutics of nature that can be found in their works must be understood in light of the liberalization of science in the mid-eighteenth century. This liberalization meant that science was no longer understood as founded on mathematics, which led to the introduction of new modes of knowledge in scientific research. According to Nassar, one of the important ideas within the development of a hermeneutics of nature in the eighteenth century was Herder’s concept of a “circle” or a “world.” If we want to understand the structure of a bird or a bee, we should focus on their relationship to the environment or world. Instead of being devoted to classifying animals or other forms of life into different categories, Herder thus directs his attention to grasping the particular “world” a certain creature inhabits and to the way this world is reflected in the structure of its inhabitants. Interpreting nature thus implies seeing the parts in their relation to the whole and, in turn, seeing how the whole is manifest in the parts.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Romanticism,” Fred Rush focuses on the form that hermeneutics took in German Romanticism, and in particular in the works of Schlegel, Schleiermacher and Humboldt. It is in their works that hermeneutics becomes concerned explicitly with methodological questions. Rush sketches the historical and philosophical circumstances in which this turn comes about.
In his chapter on “Hermeneutics and German Idealism,” Paul Redding also focuses on the emergence of a philosophical hermeneutics in the wake of an era of post-Kantian philosophy. In particular, he explores the different stances taken by hermeneutical philosophers such as Hamann and Herder, and idealist philosophers such as Fichte and Hegel, towards the relation between thought and language. Particularly interesting is his reading of the later Hegel, in which he emphasizes that Hegel can be read not as the abstract metaphysician he is often seen to be but as a philosopher engaged with hermeneutical issues.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and History,” John H. Zammito explores the disciplinary self-constitution of history and the role of hermeneutics in that disciplinary constitution. Through this exploration, Zammito aims to show a way out of contemporary debates on the scientific status of disciplinary history. By investigating the views of Herder, Schleiermacher, Boeckh, Humboldt, Droysen and Dilthey, Zammito argues that the hermeneutical historicist’s attempt to give an account of the past is a cognitive undertaking and not a mystical one. The historian thus does not aim to relivethe past but to understand it. As Zammito’s exploration makes clear, such a view acknowledges the importance of the imagination in this practice, but at the same time ensures that this imagination is harnessed to interpretation, not unleashed fantasy.
Frederick C. Beiser also connects a contemporary debate to the period in which disciplinary history emerged. He starts his chapter on “Hermeneutics and Positivism” with the statement that the distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy has a harmful effect on many areas of philosophy and that one of worst affected areas is the philosophy of history. Beiser notes that, starting in the 1950s, there was a sharp rise in interest in the philosophy of history among analytic philosophers in the Anglophone world, but that these analytic discourses almost completely ignored the German historicist and hermeneutical tradition. The main cost of this, Beiser argues, has been the sterility and futility of much recent philosophical debate, and in particular the long dispute about historical explanation. The dispute has been between positivists, who defend the thesis that covering laws are the sole form of explanation, and their idealist opponents, who hold that there is another form of explanation in history. One of the reasons this debate has now ended in a stand-off can be found in the neglect of alternative perspectives, and in particular that of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition. Beiser argues that if these perspectives had been taken into account by analytic philosophers, they would have recognized that there are goals and methods of enquiry other than determining the covering laws. Had they done so, their focus of attention may have shifted in the more fruitful direction of investigating the methods of criticism and interpretation that are actually used by historians. Beiser therefore concludes that the philosophy of history in the Anglophone world would be greatly stimulated and enriched if it took into account these issues and the legacy of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition.
In the subsequent chapter, “Hermeneutics: Nietzschean Approaches,” Paul Katsafanas explores several key points of contact between Nietzsche and the hermeneutical tradition. As Katsafanas notes, Nietzsche is deeply concerned with the way in which human beings interpret phenomena, but also draws attention to the ways in which seemingly given experiences have already been interpreted. By highlighting these two aspects, Katsafanas argues that it is not wrong to characterize Nietzsche as offering a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur suggested, but that this statement can easily be misinterpreted. As Katsafanas notes, the hermeneutics of suspicion is often understood as a stance which discounts the agent’s conscious understanding of a phenomenon and instead uncovers the real and conflicting cause of that phenomenon. Nietzsche is clearly doing more than this. According to Nietzsche, the fact that a conscious interpretation is distorting, superficial or falsifying does not mean that it can be ignored. On the contrary, these interpretations are of immense importance, because they often influence the nature of the interpreted object.
The following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis,” also deals with one of the thinkers who Paul Ricoeur identified as developing a hermeneutics of suspicion, namely Sigmund Freud. In this chapter, Sebastian Gardner argues that there is an uneasy relationship between hermeneutics and Freud’s own form of interpretation. As Gardner shows, Freud may be regarded as returning to an early point in the history of hermeneutics, in which the unity of the hermeneutical project with the philosophy of nature was asserted. In line with this thought, which was abandoned by later hermeneutical thinkers, Freud can be seen as defending the idea that in order to make sense of human beings we must offer an interpretation of nature as a whole.
In “Hermeneutics and Phenomenology,” Benjamin Crowe explicates some of the fundamental insights and arguments behind the phenomenological hermeneutics developed by Heidegger and brought to maturity by Gadamer. Crowe shows how Heidegger opened up a radically new dimension of hermeneutical inquiry, because his conception of hermeneutics as a phenomenological enterprise intended to be a primordial science of human experience in its totality, and in this way took hermeneutics far beyond its traditional purview. By building on Heidegger’s approach, Gadamer developed this thought further, thinking through the distinctive role and value of humanistic inquiry in an age that prized exactitude and results above all else.
In “Hermeneutics and Critical Theory,” Georgia Warnke focuses on the critique of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics by Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, two thinkers from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Warnke starts her investigation by returning to Horkheimer’s description of critical theory and shows how these ideas form the basis of Habermas and Honneth’s philosophical framework. Taking Horkheimer’s framework as his starting point, Habermas seems to see many virtues in Gadamer’s philosophical ideas. Gadamer’s theory, for instance, begins with the social and historical situation, and in this way provides an alternative to the self-understanding of those forms of social science that assume they can extract themselves from the context. Habermas and Honneth nevertheless see Gadamer’s attitude to reflection as a problem, because his emphasis on the prejudiced character of understanding seems to give precedence to the authority of tradition and immediate experience instead of emphasizing the importance of reason and reflection. As Warnke shows, Gadamer’s response to this critique consists of showing that the dichotomies between reason and authority and between reflection and experience are not as stark as Habermas and Honneth suppose. We can, for instance, only question the authority of aspects of our tradition on the basis of other aspects, such as inherited ideals and principles that we do not question, just as we can only reflect on our experiences if we do not begin by distancing ourselves from them. Full transparency is therefore not possible.
In “Hermeneutics: Francophone Approaches,” Michael N. Forster focuses on the French contributions to hermeneutics during the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first part of the chapter, Foster argues that the roots of German hermeneutics were largely French. German hermeneutics, for example, arose partly as a response to certain assumptions of the Enlightenment, one of which was the Enlightenment’s universalism concerning beliefs, concepts, values and sensations, etc. According to Forster, this anti-universalism of German hermeneutics was largely a French achievement and was exported from France to Germany. In particular, Montaigne and the early Montesquieu and Voltaire had developed an anti-universalist position, which emphasized, for example, profound differences in mindset between different cultures and periods.
In the second part of the chapter, Forster focuses on some key figures within twentieth-century French philosophy who contributed to the development of hermeneutics, despite not describing themselves as hermeneutical thinkers. One of them is Jean-Paul Sartre, who gave a central role to interpretation in his early existentialism developed in Being and Nothingness, where he included what Forster calls a hermeneutical theory of radical freedom: although we do not create the world itself, we do create the meanings or interpretations through which we become acquainted with it.
Paul Ricoeur is the only French thinker Forster discusses who not only contributed to hermeneutics but also regarded himself as a hermeneutical thinker. Forster, however, does not seem to regard Ricoeur’s philosophy as very attractive. According to Forster, Ricoeur’s most important contribution to hermeneutics lies in his development of the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in this way drawing attention to the fact that three major philosophical developments in the nineteenth century, namely Marx’s theory of ideology, Nietzsche’s method of genealogy and Freud’s theory of the unconscious, can be classified as forms of hermeneutics. It is, however, somewhat strange that Forster does not give much attention to the way in which Paul Ricoeur, as the only philosopher he discusses who also regarded himself as working in the hermeneutical tradition, described his own philosophical project as a hermeneutical one. In particular, Ricoeur’s idea that understanding and explanationshould not be regarded as opposites but rather as being dialectically connected, perhaps deserved more attention.
In “Hermeneutics: Non-Western Approaches,” the topic of which is rich and broad enough to be the subject of a companion of its own, Kai Marchal explores the question of whether modern hermeneutics is necessarily a Western phenomenon. As Marchal points out, philosophers in Western academia only rarely examine reflections on interpretation from non-Western traditions. Marchal therefore offers a very short overview of some of the most important scholars and texts on interpretation from non-Western cultures, while at the same time pointing toward the problem that arises from the use of the word “non-Western,” insofar it refers to a multitude of cultures and worldviews which do not have much in common. Instead of presenting an overview of the different hermeneutical theories and practices around the globe, Marchal therefore focuses on one particular example: the history of Confucian interpretive traditions in China.
After this first part, Marchal changes the scope of his investigation and focuses on the possibility of a dialogue between Western and non-Western hermeneutics. As Marchal shows, Western hermeneutical thinkers from the eighteenth century, such as Herder and von Humboldt, engaged with non-Western thought and languages, while most representatives of twentieth-century hermeneutics highlighted the Greek roots of European culture and emphasized the idea that we are tied to this heritage. Many non-Western philosophers, however, have engaged with ideas that were formulated by Heidegger and Gadamer. Nevertheless, such non-Western philosophers often unfold their understanding of European philosophical problems in their own terms. Furthermore, they are encouraged to do so by Gadamer’s claim that understanding is necessarily determined by the past. Marchal concludes his short introduction to non-Western approaches to hermeneutics by emphasizing the value of engaging with hermeneutical thinkers from other traditions. This engagement may result in an awareness of the Other’s understanding of ourselves against the backdrop of their traditions, and even in becoming open to the possibility of a radically different outlook on things.
In a chapter on “Hermeneutics and Literature,” Jonathan Culler aims to answer the question of why the tradition of modern hermeneutics has not figured significantly in the study of literature. Culler starts his investigation by noting that in literary studies there is a distinction between hermeneutics and poetics: while hermeneutics asks what a given text means, poetics asks about the rules and conventions that enable the text to have the meanings and effects it does for readers. Poetics and hermeneutics therefore work in different directions: hermeneutics moves from the text toward a meaning, while poetics moves from effects or meanings to the conditions of possibility of such meanings. In his historical overview of literary criticism, Culler highlights two important evolutions that enable us to explain the absence of modern hermeneutics within contemporary literary studies. The first is the revolution in the concept of literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this period, the concept of literature as mimesis shifted to a concept of literature as the expression of an author. Although this means literary criticism no longer assesses works in terms of the norms of genres, of verisimilitude and appropriate expression, most discussion of literature nevertheless remains evaluative rather than interpretive. The change in the conception of literature, however, also inspired German thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher to propose a general hermeneutics, as opposed to the special hermeneutics that had focused on biblical or Classical texts. Once the mimetic model of literature is displaced by an expressive model, Culler writes, the question of what a work expresses also arises.
The arguments about what kind of meaning a work might be taken to embody or express seldom draws on this hermeneutical tradition. One of the reasons for this is the second evolution that Cullers highlights, which occurred in the twentieth century when hermeneutics itself changed. Modern hermeneutical thinkers such as Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer shifted their focus to the understanding of understanding. In this way, their hermeneutical theories offer little guidance on interpretation or in distinguishing valid interpretations from invalid ones.
In “Hermeneutics and Law” Ralf Poscher starts from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s claim that hermeneutics in general could learn from legal hermeneutics. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer about what exactly can be learned. As Poscher summarizes, Gadamer thought that what could be learned from the law is that an element of application must be integrated into the concept of interpretation. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer’s idea that hermeneutics is a monistic practice consisting of interpretation, and he argues that what can be learned from law is that hermeneutics is a set of distinct practices that are of variable relevance to different hermeneutical situations. Poscher develops this thought by exploring the different hermeneutical activities in which a lawyer must engage when applying the law to a given case, such as legal interpretation, rule-following, legal construction and the exercise of discretion, and he highlights the important distinctions between these different means for the application of the law to a specific case. To prove the point that hermeneutics is not a monistic practice but rather a complex whole of different practices applicable to hermeneutics in general, Poscher draws some minor parallels between the different hermeneutics applied in law and in art. These parallels are often very clear, although the fact that they are often reduced to brief remarks means that Poscher does not really engage with debates on the interpretation of art. Nevertheless, these remarks do indicate that such a profound comparison between legal hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of art could be an interesting subject for further investigation.
In the final chapter, “Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,” Kristin Gjesdal explores the question of how best to conceive of the relationship between philosophy and other sciences through the lens of hermeneutical theory and practice. Gjesdal reveals that different responses can be given to the question of what hermeneutics is, and she explores the various answers. First, she outlines the Heideggerian-Gadamerian conception of hermeneutics, in which philosophy is identified with hermeneutics and hermeneutics is identified with ontology. According to Gjesdal, this tendency is concerning because it takes no interest in the different challenges emerging from within the different areas of the human sciences, nor does it acknowledge different subfields of philosophy or textual interpretation. When looking for an answer to the question of how the relationship between hermeneutics and the human sciences might be understood, an investigation of hermeneutics in its early, Enlightenment form, seems to be more fruitful, Gjesdal argues. Through such an investigation, Gjesdal shows that hermeneutical thinkers such as Herder, Schleiermacher and Dilthey combined an interest in hermeneutical theory with hermeneutical practice and in this way can be seen as an inspiration to explore our understanding of the relationship between philosophy and the other sciences. Philosophy would then no longer be seen as the king among the sciences, and our thinking about the relationship between philosophy and the human sciences would start with a more modest attitude and a willingness not simply to teach but also to learn from neighboring disciplines.
It is clear that for a large share of the contributions to this companion, the history of hermeneutics itself and the way in which this history has been constructed by later hermeneutical thinkers is under investigation, leading to new insights into contemporary debates. In this way, this companion as a whole can be seen as engaging with the question of what hermeneutics is, with the various approaches leading to the formulation of different answers to this question. Furthermore, the different readings of the history of hermeneutics also means that a number of contributions go beyond the traditional understanding of hermeneutics, drawing attention to thinkers who are not commonly associated with the field. In this way, the approach to hermeneutics does not remain limited to an investigation of the works and ideas of those thinkers who are generally understood as belonging to the hermeneutical tradition, which also makes the relevance of hermeneutical thinking to diverse contemporary disciplines and debates more apparent. Although the diverse contributions to this companion engage with the fundamental question of what hermeneutics is in different ways, this book as a whole will probably not serve as a good introduction for someone who is not already familiar with philosophical hermeneutics and its history to some extent. Some of the contributions are successful in offering the reader a clear introduction to the subject and discipline they discuss, but this is not always the case, with some authors presupposing a lot of prior knowledge on the subject. Nevertheless, for those already familiar with the subjects discussed, several contributions to this companion will offer the reader fruitful insights and perhaps provoke thought that invites further research.
Kojève’s slim volume, a translation of a two-part article that originally appeared in 1934/35, while its author was conducting his famous seminars on Hegel in Paris, is itself an “adaptation,” as the translators’ put it, of a 1926 dissertation submitted as a dissertation in Heidelberg under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. This French-language article “La métaphysique religieuse de Vladimir Soloviev” was not Kojève’s first presentation of Solovyov’s ideas. He had previously published in 1930 a short piece entitled “Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews,” presumably also culled from his dissertation. Kojève was also not the first Russian to submit a dissertation to a German university on Solovyov. Fedor Stepun had already in 1910 – only a decade after Solovyov’s death – submitted a dissertation also with the title Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews to Heidelberg University.
Alexandre Kojève’s name needs little introduction to Western audiences familiar with secondary literature on Hegel. The notes from Kojève’s Parisian lectures at the École Pratique des Hautes Études on the Phenomenology of Spirit have long been available to English-speaking philosophy students. Kojève, born Aleksandr Kozhevnikov in Russia in 1902, had by all accounts a unique personality. In the same year that he completed his dissertation, he moved to Paris, where another well-known Russian émigré scholar/philosopher Alexandre Koyré happened to have established himself as early as 1912 after Husserl had rejected his dissertation. (Despite this, Koyré remained on quite friendly terms with his former mentor, who attended Koyré’s dissertation defense in Paris.) Later in life after World War II, Kojève worked in the French Ministry of Economics and from there was instrumental in establishing the European Common Market. Although a Marxist, at least of sorts, he was invited to Berlin in 1967 by radical students to whom he allegedly advised that they should turn their attention instead to learning ancient Greek!
Kojève’s book can be read from two distinct viewpoints. We can, on the one hand, comb the text for Kojève’s own positions at the time of its writing. Bearing in mind his later emphasis on the Hegelian dialectic and in particular on the master-slave riposte Kojève made famous in his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, we can attempt to see its anticipation here. Indeed, there are good grounds for doing just that, and we find within the pages of this book a considerable discussion of the Absolute vis-à-vis the Other. Within the framework of Kojève’s concern, this is both understandable and cannot be held to be inappropriate or incorrect. Kojève’s familiarity with Schelling and Hegel as well as with the German mystical tradition is clearly evident throughout his text. Whether Kojève’s emphasis on Solovyov’s debt to those German writers is excessive or not is for the reader to determine. No one has seriously questioned, however, that Solovyov owed a great debt to Hegel and the later Schelling, even though specific references to the latter in Solovyov’s writings are virtually non-existent.
On the other hand, one can read Kojève’s book apart from its author’s later writings, taking it as what it purports to be, namely, a secondary text on Vladimir Solovyov, which is how we shall approach the book here. Solovyov is likely to be a name less familiar to an English-speaking philosophical audience. Although generally regarded as the greatest Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century, his works are almost invariably classified as belonging to religious philosophy. We find in them, especially his early writings, hardly a trace of the concerns that would rivet either the budding German neo-Kantian movement or the logic of such figures as Bolzano, Frege, or Husserl. Solovyov, instead, was deeply religious in that his beliefs were carried over into his philosophical investigations, something that cannot be said about the other figures mentioned. Solovyov did seek to express his religious faith in the form of a philosophy employing his knowledge of both the history of philosophy and philosophical terminology, suitably adapted of course. Thus, a reader coming with contemporary analytic sensibilities will look in askance at such claims as that ideal Humanity, the Soul of the World (note the capitalizations) is an individual, free, and independent being (58). Kojève, especially in his later pages, is particularly prone to such statements without comment, let alone critical assessment. Solovyov, certainly, writes in such a manner. However, should a twentieth-century philosopher let such a claim pass freely? There are countless additional statements that Kojève affirms as Solovyov’s position and that the former fails to question or to clarify. To be sure, he offers a masterful paraphrase, but it is just that and no more than that.
We see, then, that Kojève is correct in seeing the starting point and the center of gravity of Solovyov’s thought lies in metaphysics. What Kojève does not make sufficiently clear is that his characterization applies most poignantly to the early Solovyov, but, arguably to be sure, not to his later works. Indeed, Kojève focuses almost exclusively on the early Solovyov, though he does reference from time to time Solovyov’s 1889 Russia and the Universal Church, which appeared originally in French and in some proffered periodizations belongs to Solovyov’s middle period.
As with most Solovyov-scholars, Kojève sees Solovyov’s literary activity falling into three distinct periods. Doing so is in keeping with Solovyov’s own fixation on triadic schemes. Kojève in his earlier German-language essay on Solovyov’s philosophy of history from 1930 found that the first period featured a philosophy of history under the influence of the Slavophiles. During a second period a Catholic influence predominated, and the third period or standpoint, which was also the briefest, was represented by just one writing, the three conversations known in English translation as War, Progress and the End of History from 1900. This appeared just a short time before Solovyov’s death. We could object to Kojève’s particular delimitations, but we should keep in mind that his concern in this early essay was with Solovyov’s philosophy of history, not his metaphysical system. Unfortunately, Kojève was noticeably silent on just when this supposed “Catholic period” in Solovyov’s thought began, but presumably it extended until the writing of the 1900 piece.
In the book under review here, Kojève offered a different periodization for Solovyov’s philosophical works, presumably owing to the book’s different orientation – but, nevertheless still three and only three periods. Kojève finds that the first one serves as a historical and critical introduction to Solovyov’s metaphysical system, a system that he had already in his mental possession by this time. Kojève, unfortunately, fails to demarcate how long this period extended. But it surely includes Solovyov’s first major writing, viz., his magister’s thesis The Crisis of Western Philosophy, for he there declares, as Kojève notes, that a definitive metaphysical system would emerge on Russian soil in the near future. Kojève is somewhat misleading in stating that this system would, in Solovyov’s eyes, be his own. The metaphysical system Solovyov had in mind at the time of writing his Crisis text was that presented by the Eastern Church Fathers. Contrary to Kojève’s claim, Solovyov had neither a fully formed system at this early date nor would he ever if by that we mean Solovyov had already conceived all the details. For example, when he published his major systematic work the Critique of Abstract Principles he had not yet, nor would he ever, have a hammered out comprehensive philosophy of art. Kojève characterizes the second period of Solovyov’s activity to be the shortest, and during this time he presented an outline of his metaphysics. It is from the works of this period that Kojève will draw much of his discussion. The third period is the longest. However, since Solovyov apparently at this time lost much of his interest in theoretical questions and in metaphysics proper, it is of little concern to Kojève. Indeed, the latter has little to say about the works stemming from this last phase in Solovyov’s thinking. What is hard to countenance is Kojève’s dismissal of those works on the grounds that by 1890 – and thus just after the publication of Russia and the Universal Church – Solovyov had completed the elaboration of his metaphysics and would not make any changes to it important enough to mention. In light of the fact that Solovyov explicitly rewrote his ethics resulting in The Justification of the Moral Good and started a revision of his “theoretical philosophy” immediately after doing so, it is hard to assent to Kojève’s claim.
Kojève draws his discussion of Solovyov’s metaphysics from three early works in addition to the 1889 one. Although Kojève recognizes that there are obscurities, inaccuracies, contradictions, and shortcomings in Solovyov’s works, these are not often carefully indicated. Kojève also charges Solovyov’s thinking with being often abstract and superficial, more religious than philosophical. Yet, Kojève avoids philosophical, i.e., rational, and secular criticism of that thinking. As have many other commentators on these writings, Kojève sees a marked inspiration from Schelling in Solovyov’s constructions. Kojève goes so far as to say that Schelling served almost exclusively as Solovyov’s model and that the German Idealist’s philosophy lay at the root of nearly all of the Russian’s metaphysical ideas. What Kojève does not point out is the fundamental differences between Schelling and Solovyov. One of the most striking, of course, is that for the former the “positive” reconstruction of Christianity is merely the first step on the road to a philosophical metaphysics, whereas for Solovyov his elaborations are meant as an expression of the truth of Christianity. Solovyov had no intention of replacing Christianity with philosophy of any sort.
Notwithstanding the alleged influence of Schelling, we cannot be surprised that Kojève sees as well a dialectic of the “Other” in Solovyov’s metaphysics, although he finds that dialectic to be the most obscure and most abstract part of it. Those interested in Kojève’s thought for its own sake can surely find much of interest here. Most curious, though, is that instead of seeing Solovyov’s discussion as drawn from Hegel’s Phenomenology, Kojève sees it as a “simplified and impoverished paraphrase” of the relevant speculations found in Schelling, who, in turn, is largely indebted to Jakob Böhme (23). In a sense, we cannot truly be surprised. Others even more recently, such as Zdenek David, have recognized the influence of the German mystic Böhme on Solovyov and Russian religious philosophy in general. Solovyov may have first turned to Böhme through the former’s philosophy professor at Moscow University Pamfil Jurkevich and the spiritualist circle around Ivan Lapshin, a civil servant, orientalist, and father of the St. Petersburg philosophy professor Ivan Ivanovich Lapshin. Kojève, in turn, may have been alerted to this German source of Solovyov’s own metaphysics through the 1929 book on Böhme by his friend Koyré.
Kojève, of course, recognizes that there is a certain “kinship” between the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and Neoplatonic teachings, but he finds that kinship to be extremely vague. What kinship there is between the Christian doctrine and Neoplatonism can be easily explained through the influence of Neoplatonism on early Christianity, when the latter was still in its formative stages. Solovyov himself gave neither any direct indication nor any evidence of the source or sources of his own conception of the Christian Trinity. We have no basis to hold that Solovyov was directly influenced by Plotinus or any of his disciples here. For Kojève, Solovyov saw his own version of the Trinitarian doctrine arising from his idea of the Absolute independently of the Christian tradition to which he otherwise expressed such allegiance. Solovyov’s conviction in his originality in this matter is illusory and shows the extent to which Solovyov thought was permeated by dogmatism. He believed that thinking through his religious experience he could deduce all dogmatic truths including that of the Trinity. In Kojève’s eyes, the speculations of the German Idealists, rather than the Neoplatonists, served as Solovyov’s more immediate source (28).
What we have seen thus far forms a section of the book that Kojève calls “The Doctrine of God.” The next section, “The Doctrine of World” is frankly more metaphysical, if that is imaginable. Kojève provides a faithful recounting of Solovyov’s early metaphysical position, but without extended critical reflection on it from the standpoint of concrete, empirical substantiation. Solovyov’s conception of Divine Humanity is above all the “culmination and crown” of his religious metaphysics (31). Whereas we can affirm that it is the crown of that doctrine, it strains logic to hold that it, in the same breath, is also the starting point of Solovyov’s doctrine of the world. How it can be both the culmination and starting point is unclear unless we distinguish in some ill-defined manner Divine Humanity from the world. Solovyov, after all, has precious little to say about the world apart from humanity. Even more egregious, though, is Kojève’s assertion that Solovyov’s idea of Divine Humanity, being the “keystone” of his metaphysics, is, for that reason, the pivot of his entire philosophical system. Such an assertion may be true on the face of it for Solovyov’s early writings, but it needs demonstration when affirmed of the writings stemming from the last decade of Solovyov’s life.
Kojève is on firmer grounds in claiming that the presentation of Sophia in Solovyov’s metaphysics and that in his alleged mystical experience is enormous. Since the manuscript material related to Sophia has now been widely available for some years, the reader can easily confirm Kojève’s statement that many of the elements in the mysticism associated with Sophia have equivalents in Solovyov’s early metaphysics. Yet, Kojève correctly recognizes that the Sophia depicted in that metaphysical doctrine cannot be the image he supposedly saw as a vision while sitting in the British Museum’s library and which directed him to proceed forthwith to Egypt.
Kojève holds that whereas Solovyov purports to analyze the dialectical notion of the Absolute deductively to obtain his doctrine of God, the doctrine of World employs an empirical method. It is to Kojève’s credit to recognize that Solovyov does not adhere rigorously to these two respective methods in their respective domains. In fact, Kojève is, if anything, too polite. In both doctrines, the assumptions made are staggering in number. Solovyov sees the entire doctrine of God as merely a rational deduction from what is contained in a mystical intuition of divine love. He makes no allowance for those who are unable to intuit this Godly presence, and the premises for his a posteriori, inductive doctrine of the World are similarly not ones with which everyone would agree. The early Solovyov has God doing this and that spelled out in language just as questionably appropriate as the general idea being expressed. On what basis Solovyov determines that God imparts freedom to his creation and then separates Himself from that creation is anyone’s guess. Kojève, following in Solovyov’s footsteps, apparently feels no trepidation in using the word “freedom” in conjunction with the Soul of the world, but Kojève provides no non-circular definition of the term. Indeed, even an idea itself can be characterized as free! Again to Kojève’s credit, he recognizes that Solovyov is indebted to others, particularly to Schelling, which can come as a surprise to no one. Immersed as he was in the metaphysical aspects of German Idealism, Kojève finds Schelling behind Solovyov’s formulations, with the general ideas and structure being similar (71).
There is little here in Kojève’s work that we can easily characterize as phenomenological, focusing as it does on the early metaphysics of Solovyov. Kojève makes no attempt to provide a non-metaphysical reading. Certainly, Solovyov himself understood his position as definitely, even defiantly, religious. But what we, as readers, can ask is why this work at this time. The translators in their introduction admirably discuss the difficult writing style Kojève employed. To their credit, were it not for their comments the reader would likely not realize the points they make. The English is generally smooth and flows as gently as one could wish given the abstruse subject matter. Knowing something about Kojève’s writing style might tell us something about Kojève, but it does little for our knowledge of Kojève’s thoughts on Solovyov. It would have been helpful if the translators had situated this work within Kojève’s corpus and at least have compared the ideas presented with those found in his work on Solovyov in German. Perhaps that was not their intention. But if we look at this extended essay as an intended contribution to scholarship on Solovyov, we can ask what its relationship was at the time of its original appearance to other works on Solovyov in general but particularly to those in the French-speaking world.
Unfortunately, the translators also do not inform us why they singled out this work for their efforts. Is it outstanding in some special manner compared to others? Were it not for the fact that Kojève later became widely known for his Hegel-interpretation would they have translated it nonetheless? Most regrettably, the translators do not situate Kojève’s work within the body of Solovyov-scholarship in recent years. They take no account of the vast literature in either Russia or the West that has appeared particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again, the question, then, arises: Why this work at this time? Is Kojève’s extended essay in some manner better than recent work on the same topic?
The translators’ references can be confusing or at least troublesome. Whereas the translators make the appropriate references to Solovyov’s works, these are to the now obsolete first edition of the collected works from the first decade of the 20th century instead of availing themselves of the far more accurate and detailed 21st century ongoing edition together with its detailed commentary. Additionally, the references given are always to the mentioned Russian edition even when an English-language translation exists. This poses an obstacle to anyone without knowledge of Russian but who wishes to pursue some idea further. It certainly would also have been helpful to mention the title of the individual work by Solovyov, rather than simply the volume and page number within the set of the collected works.
In conclusion, whereas the advanced student of Solovyov may find Kojève’s work unnecessary, those largely unacquainted with the ideas of the Russian religious philosopher will find this to be a splendid introduction as well as further evidence of the infiltration of German Idealism into Russia.
A curious intellectual phenomenon occurred in Germany after 1850. Suddenly, the mood was doom and gloom with no obvious or single explanation. The global market was booming. Germany was a capitalist power rivaling England. French imperialists were defeated. But German intellectuals were stuck in a funk.
The word is Weltschmerz – ‘world pain’. Instead of Hegel’s more optimistic Weltlauf – ‘the march of the world’ towards freedom – Weltschmerz implies “weariness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering” (1). German pessimism involved “a rediscovery [and reformulation] of the [ancient] problem of evil” (5). In short, German intellectuals secularized the concept of evil and attempted to comprehend the meaningfulness of life in the face of the radical ontological evil envisioned by Kant.
For Beiser, the origins of Weltschmerz are a mystery. The great capitalist depression from 1870 to 1900 that came after only helps to explain the spread of Weltschmerz, not its cause. If pessimism were all the rage among the genteel, one would expect them to be cynics to the suffering of others. Yet Weltschmerzers and their challengers had differing positions, not only on metaphysics, but over the “social question” of capitalist modernization and the exploitation of the worker. Many optimists, convinced that social progress (when left alone) is certain and sufficient, opposed welfare reforms. Pessimists wanted state intervention and technical progress to alleviate suffering even if, as a matter of principle, they believed ours was a world racing to the bottom. If pessimism did not have an identifiable social cause, Beiser locates the sullen Zeitgeist in the history of ideas and, specifically, in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer came from a wealthy family. He is famous in the annals of philosophy for coming up with the most offensive philosopher-on-philosopher insults. For years, Schopenhauer languished in obscurity, berating the German professoriat that was represented by Hegel and taking breaks to look for his soon-to-be disciple, Julius Fraunstaedt, his brightest follower and most fervent critic. Living off his father’s rents in Frankfurt, Schopenhauer spent his days musing on nothingness and absurdity in the comfort of his “Grand Hotel Abyss”. When the dust settled and the “dragon seed of Hegelianism” was finally eradicated by the good Christian king (with no small help from Schelling), Schopenhauer had his chance.
At that time, there were two branches of German philosophy. On the one hand, Neo-Kantians offered “transcendental grounds” for science, thereby attempting to justify philosophy in the face of great scientific advances. These were not the advances of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, but the electromagnetism of Michael Faraday, Leon Foucault and the rotation of Earth and, of course, the equations of James Maxwell. On the other hand, positivists saw their craft as a sui generis science of facts. The problem was that both schools forgot the world of emotions, the problem of freedom and the the sense of evil. That is, the very bread and butter of the philosophia perennis. Furthermore, philosophers lacked an audience. Nobody was buying.
With the publication of Parerga and Parapolimena, a collection of witty essays about existence and the meaning of life, in 1851, Schopenhauer became the celebrity philosopher of the second half of the long nineteenth century. As Beiser tells us, his “influence lies more on his age than on individual thinkers.” Schopenhauer successfully set Germany’s philosophical agenda for the rest of the century. What was that agenda?
Schopenhauer devised an anti-theodicy, according to which non-existence is better than existence because existence implies that, even in the very best of lives, a minimum of suffering that is absent in not existing. The position is both perfectionist and realist. First, Schopenhauer argued like an upturned Leibniz: the worst of all worlds has a maximum of evil compatible with existence because if we add one gram more of that poison, the world ceases to be. Second, Schopenhauer endorsed Epicurus and some of the ancient utilitarians. Pain always outweighs pleasure and, if we were rational, we would choose nothingness over being. Yet we exist, so what to do in such a pickle?
Schopenhauer returned to the questions of classical philosophy: life, pain, death and meaning. According to Schopenhauer, evil and suffering belong to the very make-up of our world. However, it is not Kant’s concept of evil, which is a matter of just intelligence, of freely and rationally choosing the opposite of the Categorical Imperative. Radical evil for Kant allows us to disrespect other people’s dignity, violate their autonomy and walk all over their humanity in a purely disinterested and universal way. For Schopenhauer, however, evil is not only a “noumenal” idea that guides our actions. Evil is noumenal in a more radical way; it is part of the very nature of existence. The will only cares about itself. As Beiser puts it, “life is suffering because it is the product of an insatiable and incessant cosmic will” (37).
Schopenhauer’s assertions on cosmic wills were, in a sense, more radical than those of Kant. The latter told the world that it is impossible to know things as they really are. He critiqued a type of reason that thinks it speaks for things in themselves, or worse, for non-things like God and the soul. Kant built a wall between representation and whatever was behind or beyond it. He argued, instead, that we can only know our own mental representation of things. But Kant was not an atheist. He reserved the capacity to think beyond appearances for morality. Only as a commandment of the will can the idea of God or the soul be of any use. Such entities cannot be proven by science but ethical beings need them to make free-will feasible. Freedom is not proven but demanded. As Fichte claimed, freedom is “posited” by an infinite will.
Schopenhauer, however, was a Kantian. He was aware of the faux pas against established orthodoxy and he “solved” the ontological question by inlaying a new dimension to the already radical duality between things-in-themselves and representations. Schopenhauer agreed, following orthodoxy, that the faculty of understanding produces representations. But he reserved the will for the noumenal realm – the old country of metaphysics. Beneath all representations of things, there is this inexhaustible, irrepressible and unending will of which everyone is only a fleeting quote.
Yet, for Schopenhauer, a return to metaphysics had only practical significance. It is not Scholasticism 2.0. Schopenhauer addressed “the puzzle of existence” in practical terms. This simple and apparently antiquated, yet profound, change in tactics made him different and popular among readers of the time. So, what were the ethical implications of his new metaphysics?
Beiser thinks that Schopenhauer produced a sort of Protestant atheism, or “Protestantism without theism”. It is not enough that we suffer. We deserve to suffer. In their obstinate attachment and reiteration of original sins as excuses for our suffering, Schopenhauer joined other great modern reactionaries like Joseph DeMaistre and Juan Donoso Cortés. Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s negative anthropology was useful in drawing the necessary weapons against starry-eyed Enlightenments. Because man is evil, a strong hand is needed. Because man is evil, only grace can save us. However, due to the impenetrability of God’s designs, such voluntarism is usually resolved in a monastery and in the blind acceptance of rules. But Schopenhauer was not a man of mystery. His catholic rationalism and cosmological voluntarism is a fascinating mix. Schopenhauer did believe that natural law can be known. The problem is that his notion of natural law is not the happy and elated one of Aquinas. The selfish will is the only natural necessity. Yet, unlike Spinoza, Schopenhauer thought that we can separate ourselves from an absolute will (“lift the veil of Maya”) by using our understanding and denying the will. It is the aesthetic quietism well known to Schopenhauer readers. Yet, how does one reconcile Schopenhauer’s determinism of the will with intellectual autonomy? Beiser offers an explanation of this contradiction. However, his is not a decent solution. Ultimately, it is a problem that manifests when philosophy starts with absolute definitions and proceeds through dichotomies until the end. Antinomies always remain antinomies because of a static universe despite Schopenhauer’s hyperactive will.
Historians have long ignored the tradition Schopenhauer started. However, Beiser shows that, from 1860 to 1900, Schopenhauer towered above all others in Germany. Schopenhauer’s followers like Eduard von Hartmann or critics like Karl Eugen Duhring (sadly remembered today for being the punching bag of Engels and for his late anti-Semitism) were stars in the intellectual sky of the Second Reich. Hartmann’s “flat, dry, and boring” Philosophy of the Unconscious went through eight editions. Duhring’s Natural Dialectic went through no less than ten revisions and an equal number of editions. Beiser reminds us of the contemporary importance of these neglected thinkers and, moreover, places Nietzsche within his proper context. Many of Nietzsche’s ideas were borrowed from the “pessimist controversy” that defined German thinking, that is, between Schopenhauerian curmudgeons and the positivist and neo-Kantian Panglossians.
There were many voices involved in the Weltschmerz controversy: Agnes Taubert, Olga Plümacher. Büchner, Duboc, Windelband, Paulsen, Meyer, Vaihinger, Fischer, Rickert, Cohen, Riehl. Beiser, however, explores the philosophies of five of Schopenhauer’s disciples and critics, who responded by recalibrating or re-mixing in different ratios the pessimist and optimist elements in a sort of moral chemistry.
First, there is Julius Frauenstaedt, Schopenhauer’s first apostle and critic. Frauenstaedt was the only Schopenhauerian who came from the fading Hegelian tradition. All others were neo-Kantians or positivists. Frauenstaedt abandoned Hegelianism because the monism of Hegel’s dialectics was not enough to account for the identity of faith and reason. Where does human freedom stand if in the last instance reason is both divine and human? This “divine reason” or “speculative Good Friday” of Hegel cannot be resolved in theism or pantheism because both are “illegitimate metaphysics”. Frauenstaedt finds in Schopenhauer a more feasible solution to this problem. There is, in Schopenhauer’s body of work, both a system of transcendental idealism, according to which the thing-in-itself is separate from appearances and a system of transcendental realism whereby appearances are objectifications of this transcendent will. Thus, it is the will that unites reason and faith. However, Frauenstaedt finds a new dualism in Schopenhauer – the separation of will and understanding. The will needs to represent the object of its striving; it needs to have an idea of what it wants. On the other hand, why does the cosmic will that is all-powerful and self-sufficient divide itself into two – itself and non-will? Other dualist problems in Schopenhauer concern the distinction between philosophy and natural science and the Schopenhauerian contempt for history in favor of metaphysics. All these problems that originate from Schopenhauer’s radical dualism were signs for Frauenstaedt that Schopenhauer remained trapped in “the cage of idealism.” In the end, Beiser thinks Frauenstaedt could not abandon the basic Hegelian conviction that things always work out for the better even if they do so through the worst.
Karl Eugen Duhring was Schopenhauer’s fiercest detractor. He opposed Schopenhauer with an optimism based on natural science and socialism. Duhring’s positivism precluded any metaphysics of cosmic wills and known unknowns. Immanence is absolute. We determine the value of life, our own small measure of peace. However, according to Beiser, Duhring contradicts himself. We can grasp nature and reality through intellect and correctly conclude that there is no world beyond. Yet, for Duhring, the intellect cannot make a final determination on the worth of existence. That determination is ineffable. On the topic of death, Duhring joined the gang of pessimists repeating Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius; we shall not fear death since we cannot experience it.
Duhring was one of only a couple of Weltschmerzers that harbored leftist sympathies in the “pessimist controversy.” Most were well into the political right. However, unlike Mainlander, Duhring thought that we can make life happier for the greatest number through science and redistribution. For Mainlander, even socialism does not solve suffering.
The most influential theorist of pessimism was Eduard von Hartmann. Philosophy of the Unconscious was the “eye of the storm” in the 1870 pessimist controversy. Hartmann tried to reconcile Schopenhauer’s pessimistic voluntarism and Hegel’s optimistic rationalism in a systematic way through a) pantheistic monism, b) transcendental realism, c)an eudemonic pessimism and d) evolutionary optimism. Hartmann saw that spiritual monism solves the problems of theism and materialism altogether. It avoids the traps of theism in that ethics is autonomous in a pantheist system because moral law comes from the dictates of a cosmic self, while theistic ethics is heteronomous; one should obey an alien God. Spiritual monism also avoids the traps of materialism. This cosmic self has a purposeful nature in the sense that it is not a machine without track. Secondly, against Kant, Hartmann followed Schopenhauer in taking a transcendental-realist position; appearances can give us some information on the things-in-themselves. Consequently, Hartmann thought that the best position is the ancient ideal of eudaimonia because it has an idea of how the universe really works. The world is pain and suffering but life is worth living if one follows the ancient utilitarian principle of avoiding both. However, Hartmann shared with the positivists and Hegelians a belief in progress and claimed that, culturally or as species, mankind heads for the better. This evolutionary optimism allowed Hartmann some measure of social Darwinism in that pain, suffering, war and colonialism are tools for progress unbeknownst to us in another iteration of the Hegelian List der Vernunft.
Beiser devotes a later chapter on Hartmann in relation to the pessimist controversy between 1870 and 1900. It describes the main points of the polemic between Hartmann and his two “female allies”, Olga Plumacher and Agnes Taubert, against Lutheran priests and neo-Kantians (a more intellectual kind of Lutheran) on whether life is worth living on the basis of love, pain, and pleasure. It is worth mentioning that one of the debates is about the question on whether the hedonic calculus should be considered quantitatively or qualitatively. By that time, economic thought was undergoing a profound change on this question. Marginalism – to which this problem was central – caused a major revolution that transformed economics into the science that it is today.
Phillip Mainlaender (née Phillip Batz) was the most utopian politically and the most coherent. He followed his master’s proclivities for dark and gore with even more gusto. He signed off his only book and immediately hung himself. Mainlander’s philosophy is a gospel of suicide. The only way out of suffering is death. His view of life is not that of Stoic tranquility but of the Christian mystic. Life is suffering and death redeems us all. Yet, Mainlaender was a materialist and did not believe that there is life after death, not even the promise to enjoin the one true cosmic will of Schopenhauer. For him, such ideas are abstractions. Mainlander was a nominalist. For him, there is only the individual will. He was also profoundly democratic and nationalist. For all his ethical pessimism, what matters in social life is sympathy and pity for the suffering of others, not the misanthropy and scorn proper to reactionaries like Schopenhauer.
Finally, there was Julius Bahnsen. His philosophy further problematized Schopenhauer’s metaphysics along familiar scholastic lines of whether the will is universal (Schopenhauer), multiple (Bahnsen) or individual (Mainlander). Bahnsen’s ideas were powerful and original, yet those traits came from a profoundly mentally ill man. His marriage was a disaster. His career as a professor failed. Some of his anxieties betrayed his petty-bourgeois conditions. Much of Bahnsen’s views were rooted in that social resentment that comes, like Schopenhauer, from not being of the establishment. For Bahnsen, pessimism sprang from failed dreams, not from the primacy of suffering in life. If suffering were the criterion, “even animals would be pessimists”.
In the face of dissatisfaction, Bahnsen revised some key aspects of his master’s doctrine. Firstly, there is individual responsibility in life’s actions and projects. Accordingly, the cosmic will is useless. Will is just a property or potential but the actual outcome is the sole province of each. Secondly, since responsibility presupposes autonomy (Kant), then the will must be redefined as plural and individual – a monadology so to speak of individual substances in the noumenal realm. Thirdly, even with disinterested activities such as aesthetics, there is also will – a “higher interest” of “self-promotion, self-affirmation, and self-satisfaction” (again, Bahnsen’s job anxieties come to the fore.) That the will is resilient in all fields of activity questions the stark division between will and representation. On the one hand, to experience art without interest or intellectual curiosity is boring “even if it were forms of Plato”. On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s notion of aesthetic detachment is refuted by the real fact that “we are touched and moved by aesthetic objects.”
Beiser’s book is delightful, clear and thorough. It is written in the best style of historians of philosophy. My only issue as a reader who prefers social histories of thought is that his approach is too internalist and textualist. For Beiser, “there seems to be no straightforward social or historical case for [German Weltschmerz]” because the period studied seems like “a happy age” for Germany. However, I take issue with this hypothesis and subsequent dismissal of social explanations. Furthermore, I think Beiser mirrors sociological reductionism in reverse. For mechanical theories of material-cum-intellectual conditions, then, if social conditions are happy, intellectual traditions have an optimistic outlook. Indeed, if conditions are dire, then pessimism is the intellectual order of the day. Beiser’s argument is similar: since social conditions were good in Germany, then the only reason for intellectual pessimism is the ideas of an individual (Schopenhauer) who caused the entire ruckus. However, to accept this theory would reduce German pessimism to a dull workout of the disgruntled class of intellectuals. In my opinion, things are always socially conditioned despite the apparent contradiction, or precisely because of real contradictions, between thought and (social) being. It is more interesting to speculate on why capitalist expansion produces periodically the kind of languor we see today and of which German Weltschmerz were the outcome and not the cause. I recall Walter Benjamin’s studies on Baudelaire. Why is it that Baudelaire produced dark and gloomy poetry in Paris, “the capital of the 19th century”? Why did Baudelaire use another genre of allegories to express a problematic that was not visible in economic indicators? Though speculative, Benjamin offers a more satisfying social theory to Weltschmerz. It is precisely in times of commodity abundance and high consumer satisfaction offered by a buoyant capitalism that the meaninglessness of material life expresses itself as boredom and hopelessness. Even Benjamin’s explanation would make sense along Schopenhauer’s lines: since desire is endless and instant satisfaction guarantees boredom, why do we need more?