Solomon Maimon: The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon: The Complete Translation

The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon Book Cover The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon
Solomon Maimon. Edited by Yitzhak Y. Melamed & Abraham Socher. Translated by Paul Reitter. With an afterword by Gideon Freudenthal
Princeton University Press
2019
Hardback $35.00
336

Reviewed by: Thomas Nemeth (USA)

Salomon Maimon hardly needs an introduction today. However, there was a time, not too long ago, when a relatively popular image of German Idealism within Anglophone philosophy had it consisting of just four figures, viz., Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, with the last three uniformly denounced and thereby simply dismissed. Bertrand Russell, for one, as late as 1945, saw Fichte’s subjectivism as involving almost a form of insanity. Even today, it may be all-too-easy to see Maimon as a curiously odd and eccentric figure sandwiched between Kant, who was fundamentally mistaken but could, they thought, be understood, and Fichte, whose prose was manifestly unintelligible and so could not possibly be understood. Of course, Maimon’s numerous philosophical writings, most of which are quite unfamiliar to even the most informed student of intellectual history, represent much more than a transition or stepping stone on the path to Hegel’s Absolute Spirit. Thankfully owing to the efforts of a number of recent assiduous scholars, this picture has considerably changed, although Maimon is still largely seen as an astute and penetrating critic of Kant’s epistemology rather than a precursor or even initiator of a strand of neo-Kantianism. Still, the appearance of outstanding studies of, in particular, Fichte and Hegel has forced increasing attention be paid to the conceptual understanding of the development of their respective philosophies and thus to Maimon. What is truly remarkable is that he alone penned a detailed autobiography—and an often amusing and informative one at that—whatever the motivation for writing it might have been.

We can briefly summarize Maimon’s account of his life. The bulk of the recollections in this volume admittedly have little to do with what gained him renown. Had he not written a single line of philosophy, his autobiography would be of interest only to cultural historians for what it tells us of the environment in which Maimon grew to young manhood and of the way of life within several dispersed Jewish communities of the time. But Maimon did write philosophical tracts of a rather high, perhaps, some might argue, even of the highest order and many will turn to this autobiography in hope of understanding his philosophical, rather than cultural, development. Admittedly, they may initially come away somewhat disappointed, but the information is there in plain sight.

Born Shlomo ben Yehoshua in 1753 in what was then Polish Lithuania (now Belarus), Solomon Maimon, as he recast himself in homage to the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, spent a significant portion of his adult life travelling in search of an education. In this pursuit, he left behind a family from an arranged marriage. Much could be said of the sheer intellectual poverty of his environment during his early years. He tells us that he was raised in the “blackest darkness,” that he tried to free himself “from superstition and ignorance” (215), that he read at a young age a Hebrew-language book on astronomy found in his father’s library, but, he laments in retrospect, it was already over 150 years old. The point we might notice today is not that the book was antiquated, as Maimon wants us to think, but that his father had a library! As a youth, Maimon was already recognized for his intellectual gifts in his community and was raised to follow his father’s footsteps as a rabbi. He writes that when he was about nine years of age he could “already grasp both the Talmud and the commentaries, I also enjoyed engaging in disputations about them” (31). In fact, Maimon recounts that in one of his travels in Germany he met a leading rabbinic opponent of the Jewish enlightenment, Raphael Kohen, who described Maimon’s father as a “famous rabbi” (219). Was Maimon’s environment, then, as impoverished as he wants us to believe. Did he not hone his intellectual gifts through an immersion in Jewish texts? And were the respective backgrounds of Kant and Fichte more “enlightened” than his? Kant’s family was hardly intellectual; his father was a harness maker. Fichte came from a family of poor ribbon weavers. What sort of “libraries” were those families likely to have? Certainly, one may respond that they had a greater opportunity for career advancement than Maimon did, but that is not the issue. The issue is Maimon’s portrayal of his background as intellectually impoverished.

Quite dissatisfied with his life and wishing to learn, Maimon set out westward in hopes of reaching Berlin ostensibly to study medicine. Eventually while on the road, he came upon a Jewish beggar, with whom Maimon wandered for a number of months and who taught him the art involved in his acquaintance’s “profession.” They came to Posen in Poland, and there Maimon decided to stay for a time owing to the generosity he encountered from within the Jewish community. After a while, realizing what he took to be the general superstitious nature of many of the locals, Maimon set out again for Berlin. Unlike his first attempt to enter the Prussian capital, he was able to enter without incident, since he traveled by coach, whereas previously he arrived by foot – and was turned away. Now in Berlin he encountered Moses Mendelssohn, for whom he expresses high praise indeed. Despite the privations he experienced during his meandering travels and his obvious mental gifts, Maimon not for a moment seriously considered adopting a trade that could improve his material well-being and yet yield sufficient free time to pursue his interest in philosophy. Mendelssohn was but one who admonished him to pursue a settled direction and cease his “dissolute” way of life – precisely what this was Maimon fails to elaborate. In any case, he had no intention of heeding this well-meant advice, telling Mendelssohn, as he told others, that he was “uninterested in practical undertakings,” that his upbringing had made him “prefer the quiet, contemplative life” (208). If this was the case, why did he frequent and spend what little financial resources he had at taverns and, quite likely, other establishments of ill-repute?  He records that he spent three years in an apprenticeship at a pharmacy, even earning a certificate to document his knowledge, but confesses that he never had any intention of actually working as a pharmacist.

Deciding to leave Berlin without offering much thanks to those who befriended him, he eventually made it to The Hague in Holland, where again he was welcomed and stayed for some nine months, “leading a life of complete independence but also extreme reclusion” (211). In short, he again gives every indication of being in debt to the generosity of others, not giving so much as a hint once of seeking meaningful employment. In the end, despairing of the Dutch Jews, whose only interest in his eyes was to make money, he decides to travel yet again, this time back to Berlin. Throughout his travels, Maimon often laments his inability to speak the language of those whom he encounters wherever he went. Judging from the numerous conversations he relates, though, one finds it hard not to ask how was he was able to communicate with so many. This remains somewhat of a mystery unless we take his linguistic handicap to be somewhat exaggerated. Were those with whom he had extended conversations able to understand his tongue, or did he acquire theirs in a remarkably short time?

Although we may find Maimon’s itinerant life-style curious, perhaps even amusing, what surely interests us here is his encounter with Kant’s philosophy, which he came upon sometime in the mid- to late-1780s. Writing down his observations and commentary on the first Critique, these became his best-known treatise, the Essay on Transcendental Philosophy, published in 1790 in Berlin. The story behind this work—or, rather, immediately after its composition—has been related numerous times. Maimon showed his manuscript to Marcus Herz, who suggested Maimon send it to Kant himself accompanied with a letter of introduction that Herz offered to write.[1] Kant, receiving the package and claiming he had little time to read carefully such a ponderous work, nevertheless, glanced at it. He quickly realized its worth, and remarked that Maimon had understood him better than any of his other critics. Maimon, of course, took this to be an affirmation of his own perspicacity into Kant’s thought particularly in contrast to Karl L. Reinhold’s, Kant’s first popularizer. What Maimon does not dwell upon in his Autobiography is Kant’s extended (for a letter) reply in his letter to Herz dated 26 May 1789 concerning the central issues raised in the Transcendental Philosophy. Kant recognized Maimon’s “many acute observations” (Ak 11: 54) but also that although Maimon’s central question “quid juris?” could be answered along the lines of Leibnizian-Wolffian principles, such an answer would require sensibility to be understood as not fundamentally different from the understanding. In short, Maimon’s “way of representing is Spinozism” (Ak 11: 50). As Kant understood the Transcendental Philosophy, human understanding is not just a faculty of thinking but also a faculty of intuition, whereby thinking brings the intuitive manifold into clear consciousness. In his reply to Herz, Kant wrote that regardless of the quality of Maimon’s manuscript, he could hardly explicitly endorse its publication, since it was in effect an extended criticism of his own views. As we know, it did get published and went on to receive high praise from Fichte for one.

Maimon’s autobiography was published in two volumes, the first in 1792 and the second in 1793. Naturally, then, he was able to recount the events of his life and publications only up to that time which includes several essays written and published soon after the Transcendental Philosophy. He sent copies of at least two of these essays to Kant, asking for the latter’s opinion. Kant did not answer. We cannot even be certain that he read them. Nevertheless, that he had at least looked at them would account for a sharp change of attitude toward Maimon conveyed in his letter to Reinhold from 28 March 1794 in which Kant wrote that he “never really understood what he [Maimon] is after” (Ak 11: 495). Reinhold may have seen Maimon as a competitor in the public arena. As mentioned, Maimon appears to have thought in such terms. Kant may have simply realized that Reinhold could be a much more effective propagandizer for his own transcendental idealism than the disheveled Maimon and accordingly sought to bolster Reinhold’s self-assurance.

It certainly is a great pity that Maimon died in 1800 in poverty. It is also quite sad that given the date of his autobiographical reflections only one chapter—and a short one at that—concerns his dealings with Kant and Kantian philosophy. Maimon would go on in the few years before his death to write a number of other works that have received little recognition in the meager scholarship devoted to his philosophical thought. It is fortunate, though, that the existing English-language scholarship is of a high order, the studies accompanying this translation being examples.

A translation of Maimon’s autobiography by J. Clark Murray appeared in 1888. It was republished by the University of Illinois Press in 2001 with a quite valuable introductory essay by Michael Shapiro. Despite that early translation’s imperfections, it is still useful for anyone wishing to become acquainted with Maimon and his environment. Shapiro’s introduction provides much useful background information for those unfamiliar with the subject matter. The language used in Murray’s translation may appear quaint to us today, but it is perfectly intelligible to anyone familiar with English literature of the period. For those who prefer contemporary idiom, the translation under review will be welcomed. This new translation is often more literal, arguably on a rare occasion to its disadvantage. For example, in one place Maimon recounts a well-meaning friend telling him “die Philosophie gelte nichts mehr,” which Reitter translates as “Philosophy has lost its value,” whereas Murray, more figuratively, but perhaps more accurately conveying its intent, translates it as “philosophy was no longer a marketable commodity.”

More significantly, of course, as the editors and translator note in their own introductory essay entitled “Maimon’s Autobiography: A Guide for the Perplexed,” Murray’s translation omitted ten chapters on Maimonides and a preface with which Maimon had begun his second volume. The Murray translation, in fact, did not acknowledge within the text itself a break between the first and second volumes, but he did confess in his “Translator’s Preface” to having omitted the material mentioned. Those who wish completeness either for its own sake or out of interest in what Maimon had to say about his hero Maimonides will welcome the inclusion of that material here in this new translation. On the other hand, the exclusion of it in the 2001 reprinting of the Murray edition will allow it to be read as a more natural autobiography, the chapters on Maimonides appearing as a distraction. The present translation also includes, in the editors’ words, a “comical, puzzling allegory with which Maimon concluded the second, final part of his autobiography” (xvi). Again, Murray may have felt this opaque text to be irrelevant for the purposes at hand. The editors of the present translation provide helpful information to its understanding, but the tale is unfortunately brief and sheds no substantial light on Maimon’s philosophy. It does allow us, though, to conclude, as mentioned, that he viewed Reinhold as his competitor.

Arguably more serious were Murray’s omissions in the chapter mentioning his philosophical writings circa 1790. Although Murray admitted that he had “condensed” those pages since the information there seemed to him to be “no longer of any special interest.” The problem is that many, if not most, readers of Maimon’s autobiography come to it with an interest in post-Kantian philosophy, not ethnic studies. Murray entirely omitted Maimon’s, brief though they may be, description of his 1789 article “Über Wahrheit,” some clarifications of another piece “Was sind Tropen?” from the same year as well as his short discussions of two other essays from 1790. All of these can be found in this splendid new translation. Of special interest in this regard for the student of philosophy is Murray’s failure to include Maimon’s criticism of Wolff’s definition of truth.

Whereas such are the omissions of the Murray translation, this beautifully produced 2018 translation omits—understandably, of course—Murray’s own “Concluding Chapter” in which he dutifully observes that despite the prejudices that Maimon as a Jew would have encountered there was no overarching reason why he had to live and die in poverty. As we know, one of his early heroes, Spinoza, did not find it beneath himself to earn a living working with his hands.

Melamed and Socher, the editors of the new Reitter translation, have added copious and helpful notes to the text throughout. They point out that many of the tales, incidents, figures, and quotations seem so incredible that a reader may conclude they are either fictitious or at least exaggerations. Yet, in every instance that could be verified Maimon’s accounts check out (xvi). They correctly point out that they documented this corroboration in their notes, thereby making this translation additionally valuable.

A significant addition to this translation is, of course, the editors’ essay, as mentioned, but also yet another essay, an “Afterword” entitled “Maimon’s Philosophical Itinerary” by Gideon Freudenthal, himself the editor of a collection of essays on Maimon’s thought.

The translation is accompanied by a thorough index and a nice bibliography for those who wish to learn more about both Maimon as an individual and as a thinker.

In conclusion, whereas the much earlier Murray translation particularly in its 2001 incarnation can still prove useful particularly to the initiate, the Reitter translation, given its completeness, accompanying materials, that it hews more closely to the text, will be preferable to those looking for those qualities.


[1] This, at least, is Maimon’s account. In his letter of 7 April 1789 to Kant, Herz writes that Maimon asked him to write such a letter (Ak 11: 14).

Édouard Jolly: Étranger au monde: Essai sur la première philosophie de Günther Anders, Classiques Garnier, 2019

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2019
Paperback 36,00 €
349

Günter Figal: Philosophy as Metaphysics: The Torino Lectures, Mohr Siebeck, 2019

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Mohr Siebeck
2019
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Ernst Cassirer: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Routledge, 2019

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Kurt Flasch: Hans Blumenberg, Klostermann, 2019

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Dietrich von Hildebrand: La filosofía y la personalidad de Max Scheler, Ediciones Encuentro, 2019

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Dietrich von Hildebrand
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F. W. J. Schelling: The Ages of the World (1811), SUNY Press, 2019

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SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
F. W. J. Schelling. Translated and with an introduction by Joseph P. Lawrence
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00

Julian Young: German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: From Weber to Heidegger

German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger Book Cover German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: Weber to Heidegger
Julian Young
Routledge
2018
Paperback £29.99
264

Reviewed by: Francesco Pisano (University of Florence)

Modern philosophical historiography has to constantly face some well-known problems. Julian Young’s book on the history of twentieth-century German philosophy is not only a precise, instructive and critical exposition of the work of Adorno, Husserl and Heidegger (among others). It is also a prime example of applied historiographical methodology with respect to some of these problems. Young’s original approach to philosophical historiography resonates throughout the text. His remarkable sensitivity for political and theoretical issues expresses itself through a brilliant and clear prose. This review will try to present a concise but complete exposition of the contents of the book. However, coherently with the author’s intent, it will attempt to do so while highlighting the critical choices that defined his work.

Roughly speaking, over the last two centuries the academization of philosophy resulted in two broad challenges for the historian of philosophy. The first issue concerns the technicalization of philosophy. The specialization of philosophers, along with the growth of productive interaction between philosophy and other sciences or disciplines, is responsible for the progressive blurring of the borders of philosophy as a specific praxis and as a distinct form of knowledge. With respect to philosophical historiography, this process culminated either in an inflation of the metaphilosophical question, or in various debates about the “end” of philosophy. The second general issue concerns the need for a canon of philosophy. It is true that this demand dates back at least to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But the modern search for a canon had to deal specifically with an extensive increase of the material available to the historian. Today, a plurality of cultures is involved in the history of thought – a plurality so vast and articulated that the very possibility of a rigorous and neutral canon of philosophy is called into question.

In this broad context, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century stands out immediately by virtue of the author’s attentive and radical approach to the apparent opposition between “objective-historiographical” and “theoretical-philosophical” history of philosophy. Even without an explicit thematization of his own historiographical method, Young manages to deal with this antinomy both in its relation to the metaphilosophical problem and in its link to the idea of a philosophical canon. He does not attempt at neutralizing the ambiguity between historiographical exposition and theoretical framework. Rather, he elaborates it by presenting an accurate historical exposition, while at the same time defining this exposition by means of an original critical premise. This premise could sound, in the words of the author, like this:

“Crisis […] lies at the heart of modern German philosophy. And in spite of the personal, philosophical, and above all political animosities that marred relations between Frankfurt and Freiburg, that the modern world is in crisis is a point on which they agree. The thinker who […] provided the most significant articulation of the nature of the crisis was the sociologist Max Weber” (2).

The reference to Weber gives a unitary frame to Young’s analysis, both internally and within the context of German philosophy as a whole. The proposed canon is defined by the concept of crisis: namely, German philosophy is a philosophy of crisis. But “in German thought, the conception of Western modernity as a ‘crisis of humanity’ reaches back”, in fact, “to the end of the eighteenth century, to the critique of the Industrial Revolution initiated by Goethe and the German Romantics” (2). Thus, “Weber’s primary significance for philosophy is that he transmits this critique to the twentieth century” (2). According to Young, the twentieth century sees a separation of this heredity along two branches: the “Frankfurt” one (Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, Marcuse) and the “Freiburg” one (Husserl, Heidegger, Arendt, Gadamer). These two branches delineate the two parts of the book, while each chapter concerns an author. Interestingly, Young devotes two chapters to Heidegger: the early Heidegger (between Husserl and Gadamer) is markedly distinguished from the later Heidegger, protagonist of the book’s last chapter.

Even if the book is a complete and exhaustive reading in itself, it constitutes only the first part of a broader project about the history of German philosophy. A future instalment should deal with other relevant German thinkers such as Benjamin, Bloch, Lukács, Scheler and Schmitt. It is left unclear if these philosophers will, in the end, all fit within the “Frankfurt-Freiburg” frame. If that will be the case, it seems that two main obstacles should be overcome. First, philosophers like Benjamin or Schmitt can hardly be defined as belonging to any school of thought. Second, the explanation of Bloch’s and Scheler’s work would require an extensive mention of German traditions that do not seem to be part of Young’s canon: psychologism (e. g., Külpe) and Lebensphilosophie (e. g., Simmel). On the other hand, it should be noted that, within Young’s narration, “Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are not properly names of cities, schools or traditions. They are names for two different critical approaches to Weber’s idea of a link between crisis and rationalization. Or rather, they are names for different theoretical positions within the long-lasting German debate about rationalization and loss of freedom.

“While the Frankfurt thinkers recognize loss of meaning as indeed a pathology, in practice, their attention is directed almost exclusively towards loss of freedom. […] The Freiburg thinkers, by contrast, while recognizing loss of freedom as an issue, attend far more closely to loss of meaning” (253).

“Frankfurt” and “Freiburg” are indeed names of constellations within the same cosmos, rather than rigid titles. Thus, it should be possible to define intermediate and “heretical” positions, thanks to the fluid nature of these distinctions.

The main theoretical and political point that Young wants to prove is that “with respect to the task of understanding the communitarian need, liberal thinkers have […] a great deal to learn from the German phenomenological tradition” (254). This theoretical thesis is motivated by a political reason.

“What, since 2016, had become unmistakeable is the existence of a widespread revolt against the liberal hegemony, the appearance throughout the West of political movements that in every case represent, at least in part, the demand for fraternity: for the community that comes from sharing with one’s neighbours what, borrowing the term from the Roman Stoics, Gadamer calls a sensus communis […], an intuitive understanding of the good life. Often, the manifestations of this demand are cynically manipulated, distorted and ugly—white nationalism, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, illiberal democracy—but sometimes they evoke a greater or lesser degree of sympathy – the independence movements of Catalonia, the Basque region, Flanders, Corsica and Quebec, for example” (254).

Nowadays, this urge for a new Gemeinschaft is resurfacing despite a fifty-year-long association with conservative and right-wing values.

“The notions of ‘tradition’, ‘homeland’, ‘people’, and ‘community’ were hijacked by the Nazis. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in mainstream post-war political thought, in Germany and elsewhere, such notions have been anathematized. Liberal, cosmopolitan, Habermasian, anti-traditional, modernity-embracing thought has been in the ascendant” (253).

The theorist that blindly follows this anathema ends up neglecting the urge for a new Gemeinschaft. However, this urge exists, and the current forms of its expression are often violent and populistic. In fact, the danger for a liberal critical theory is to ignore these pulsations that run across society, rather than attempt at comprehending and redirecting them.

The political motivation sets the tone and the main intention of the book. It is the tone of a liberal historian of philosophy speaking to liberal philosophers and liberal humanities students. Coherently, the demonstration of the aforementioned thesis aims to help the liberal thinker in “the challenge […] of understanding the character of this need [for community] and of assimilating it into liberal thought” (254). This aim is perhaps the key to understand some of Young’s methodological choices, such as the stark distinction between a “early Heidegger” and a “later Heidegger”. The author means to remark an implicit influence of Weber’s work on Heidegger’s conception of “technology” (Technik).  Thus, he needs to draw a dividing line between a more generic Weber – “early Heidegger” relation (mainly through Sein und Zeit and its position within the Zeitgeist) and the specific role that Weber allegedly has in relation to the “later Heidegger”.

In short, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century presents, more or less explicitly, each thinker’s work in its relation to Weber’s announcement of a crisis in modern European thought. Thus, Young’s exposition of Weber’s work is of pivotal importance for the internal economy of the book. Even so, it mainly concentrates on one short (and famous) lecture delivered by the old Weber to the students of Munich University in 1917: Wissenschaft als Beruf.

“The lecture is far from a celebration of science as a ‘vocation’. One reason for this, one can hypothesize, is the fact that the First World War, still in progress, had deployed the fruits of modern science to kill people on a hitherto unimaginable scale (38 million in total). […] Whatever the original intention that led to the delivery of the lecture, in the event, its central force is to place a serious question mark against the value of science, against, indeed the entire post-Enlightenment development of the West” (7).

The central equivalence of Weber’s lecture identifies modernity and rationalization. Modern science is, first and foremost, a vehicle of rationalization – i. e., of “control trough calculation”. Namely, control on nature and man is obtained trough the calculated manipulation of causes, in order to obtain certain consequences. The transformation of non-human nature in a series of causal relations generates a pathological “loss of meaning” (14). The transformation of human relationships in a series of causal relations, for its part, implies a “loss of freedom” (10). Disenchanted nature and organized work are, according to Weber, the main products of modern science. “We face, Weber tells us, a future denuded of both freedom and meaning. We stand in a moment of world-historical crisis, a crisis that can only be resolved by […] a ‘turning’ to a new, genuinely post-modern age” (15).

Young underlines how Weber’s solution to this crisis has already embraced a certain irrationalism. The only possibility for this revolutionary turning lies in the appearance of charismatics prophets: leaders that are capable form a new meaningful Gemeinschaft, defined by shared values. The nature of these values remains unspecified. But “Weber explicitly warns against ‘chiliastic prophets’ who believe that a noble end justifies any means […]. Weber’s call is a call for charismatic leadership within the limits of liberal democracy—the charisma of a Churchill or a Martin Luther King Jr.—rather than for charismatic leadership instead of democracy” (16). Thus, Wissenschaft als Beruf can also be read as the mature self-critique of a social scientist. Weber recognizes that the European man lost more than it gained from modern science. “Weber’s belief that rationalization has been a disaster places him in the tradition not only of Wagner and the youthful Nietzsche’s neo-Romantic critique of the Enlightenment, but also of the critique of the Enlightenment conducted, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, by the German Romantics themselves. […] It is through the early Nietzsche’s neo-Romanticism that the Romantic critique of Enlightenment rationalization passes to Weber, and primarily through Weber that it passes into twentieth-century German philosophy” (17).

The idea of a nearly irrecoverable loss pervades most of the following philosophical debate, in Germany. Young presents Horkheimer and Adorno’s common work as the first attempt at dealing with this loss. They both “reject the ‘bourgeois’ conception of the task of thought in general, and social thought in particular, as that of providing a neutral analysis of the way things are. To be worth anything, thought must be an attempt to alleviate suffering, an act of ‘solidarity’ with a suffering humanity” (21). This therapeutic, political and praxis-oriented character is what makes critical theory stand out from traditional theory. It is the Marxist trait that, along with a dialectical conception of history, makes Horkeimer and Adorno’s theory “critical” of the status quo. “Critical theory, writes Horkheimer, thinks in the ‘service’ of an ‘oppressed humanity’ and seeks to eliminate ‘social injustice’. […] Whereas […] traditional theory thinks of itself as simply trying to understand the world, the critical theorist wants to change it, change it so as to bring about ‘a future society (Gesellschaft) as a community (Gemeinschaft) of free men’. The aim, then, is liberty, liberation, but also – a point often overlooked – that other battle cry of the French Revolution, fraternity, community” (25). The struggle of critical thinking addresses, at least in principle, both the loss of freedom and the loss of meaning. However, Young argues, while contributing to a better articulation of our loss of freedom, Horkheimer and Adorno fail to provide a positive indication for action – a pars construens that is especially important with regards to the problem of meaning. Sure enough, the liberation that could amend our loss of freedom would consist in the negation of a condition we already know, inasmuch as we already are in it. On the other hand, the loss of meaning could be resolved only through the affirmation of new shared values: that is, by placing and constructing something that, at the moment, remains unknown. Horkheimer and Adorno “rouse us out of false consciousness to an explicit awareness of the suffering it causes, but that, it seems, is all they do. Yet is ‘negation’ enough, given that the aim is, with Marx, not merely to understand the world, but to change it; to engage in the ‘intellectual, and eventually practical, effort’ to change the order of things for the better?” (40). Young implicitly argues that this inadequacy is a flaw of “Frankfurt” philosophy as a whole, and that, consequently, an actual and up-to-date critical theory would need the constructive help of “Freiburg” phenomenology.

An emblematic instance of the weakness of the “Frankfurt” approach with regards to the loss meaning can be found in Habermas’ idea that social solidarity can be supplied by communicative rationality. In this case, the appeal to feeling that characterizes charisma – both in religion and in politics – would be replaced by the binding force of rationally valid claims. These claims would be defined by rational deliberation and criticised within public debate. This would be the frame of a “deliberative” liberal democracy. But such a liberal democracy would be the very antithesis of an actual Gemeinschaft.

“For while a community is defined by a sense of ‘belonging together’, a liberal democracy is defined – ever increasingly, in multicultural modernity – by a sense of belonging apart. […] Political liberalism is the solution to a problem: the problem of how we can live together without harming each other, given that we no longer have a shared conception of the good life, a shared ethical substance. While community is based on both respect for and ‘fraternity’ with the other, liberal democratic society is based on respect alone” (56).

This discrepancy within classical liberalism and a radical, genuine idea of Gemeinschaft excludes the simple solution, so to speak: a true Gemeinschaft cannot, as such, be re-imposed by the same Enlightenment culture that dissolved it in the first place. In order to appropriate the very idea of Gemeinschaft, the contemporary liberal philosopher must rethink Enlightenment in its defining terms, rather than extrinsically “apply” it on the current social situation.

While still being an important contribution to the German “philosophy of crisis”, critical theory remains wanting in its constructive aspect. An important exception, within the “Frankfurt” context, is represented by the work of Marcuse. His research constitutes not only a diagnosis of present-day social pathologies, but also of an audacious indication of possible remedies. It could be argued that it is actually Marcuse’s phenomenological education that mostly contributed in shaping the rich and lively idea of man that animates the future society he wishes for. Marcuse’s deep acquaintance with American society contributed to this vision too. One could say that Marcuse’s main distinctive trait, among “Frankfurt” theorists, consists in the importance he assigns to a positive description of man’s free desires: namely, the desires one harbours beyond the extrinsic conditioning imposed by advanced industrial society. “A true desire is a desire one would retain even after having become fully aware (through exposure to critical theory) of the degree to which advanced industrial society attempts to manipulate one in its own interests” (63). The very admission of the possibility of free desires opens a utopian space within Marcuse’s philosophy. And this space is positively characterized by means of a psychoanalytical (and partly phenomenological) anthropology.

“As a Marxist, Marcuse believes the point of all worthwhile theoretical activity is to change the world for the better, and so one might imagine that his engagement with Freud is generated by the need to refute his pessimism. […] The reason for the engagement is Marcuse’s belief that Freud got almost everything right. He believes, in particular, that Freud got the nature of happiness right. Freud’s belief that happiness within civilization is impossible is, however, a mistake. Perhaps it was once true, concedes Marcuse, but it is no longer so. Therefore, purged of this error, Freud’s theory can be developed in a way that provides the key to a happy civilization” (67).

Marcuse accepts Freud’s hedonism: he deems all human action motivated by the search for immediate libidinal pleasure. Thus, the inner pathology of civilization consists in the fact that it demands the sacrifice of this erotic impulse. But not all instances of rational civilizations are equal in their repressive aspect. There is a possible social organization within which repression would be reduced to its basic, “natural” contrast against the pleasure principle: socialism.

“If some repression is surplus, man-made rather than imposed by nature, then it is ‘artificial’, which means, contra Freud, that there is a […] [possibility of its] elimination by revolutionary action aimed at installing socialism as society’s reality principle. Given the current state of technology, a degree of repression will continue to be essential to any society’s survival. But, with the installation of the socialist reality principle, it will weigh on the individual in a greatly reduced, ‘basic’ form” (70).

Marcuse sees science as an historical process, rather than as a static aspect of civilization. This allows him to believe that modern science can, in fact, define a different distribution of work without altering its productivity; and his optimism regarding human nature prompts him to find the contents of a future, utopic Gemeinschaft in the creativity of human fantasy and in the free exercise of a polymorphous and sublimated sexuality.

Young makes a conscious effort in explicating the elements of phenomenological thought that could resonate with Marcuse’s attempt at a therapy for the crisis of meaning. Vice versa, he presents Husserl’s work under a specific perspective: the perspective that deems phenomenology essentially as a philosophy of crisis. After a concise summary of transcendental phenomenology’s main ideas, the author focuses on the late Husserl, and especially on Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. The early Heidegger is presented under the same light. Young’s discussion of Sein und Zeit is markedly characterized by a specific interest in the link between meaning and culture. However, this apparent one-sidedness is, in fact, an attempt at rethinking the relevance of classical phenomenology as a “political” philosophy – that is, as a philosophy that, even if not directly concerned with political issues, produces the idea of a possible human community.

The author finds this relevance in the common space sketched by Husserl’s idea of lifeworld and Heidegger’s idea of being-in-the-world.

“As Husserl puts it, the question that modern humanity finds ‘most pressing’ is that of ‘the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of human existence’ […]. What, however, is missing, according to both Nietzsche and Husserl, are ‘norms of absolute validation’, that is […] moral norms that are universally valid” (104).

The result of modern science is “the epistemological view that our only access to knowledge is through the natural-scientific method, together with its ontological consequence that nothing can be said to exist save the entities recognized as existing by natural science. An important fact about the natural sciences – and the social sciences, too, which ape the natural sciences in this regard – is that they are ‘value free’: among the entities recognized as existing by science, values (as distinct from valuings) are not to be found. Husserl’s claim […] is that it is the exclusion of values from the realm of the objectively real that results in the onset of nihilism, of ethical polytheism” (104). There is little doubt that both the late Husserl and the early Heidegger acknowledge the relation between modern rationalization and the pervasive sense of meaninglessness that characterizes present-day human life. To put it briefly, German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century sees the phenomenological movement as the part of the rationalist enterprise that is capable of a rigorous self-critique – that is, of a critique of Enlightenment that is neither (critical) refusal nor (critical) acceptation, but radical reformulation instead.

The idea of lifeworld gives Husserl the critical margin that such a self-critique presupposes. Lifeworld claims are, roughly said, the claims of everyday knowledge. They are the basis for the construction of every scientific knowledge. Sure enough, insofar as they define every self-evidence, they constitute the last ground of each complex scientific experience.

“What naturalism forgets is that the lifeworld is the ‘meaning-fundament’ of science, that what science is really talking about – ‘the only real world’ that is available to be talked about – is the lifeworld. […] Husserl uses ‘lifeworld’ sometimes to refer to culturally and historically specific lifeworlds and sometimes to refer to a structure that is common to them all, a structure that is partially definitive of what it is to be a human being. In Husserl’s language, ‘the’ lifeworld belongs to the ‘essence’ of human being. […] Transcending all culturally specific lifeworlds is the lifeworld together with the norms embedded in it, norms which are common to all cultures” (111-112).

Young presents Sein und Zeit’s project of a fundamental ontology as a deeper investigation in the ontological structure of this proper, more comprehensive lifeworld.

Heidegger’s approach to the question of being definitely refutes the idea of a phenomenology that deals exclusively with abstractions. His ontological analysis is, at the same time, a phenomenological description of the most primordial features of human existence.

“What explains the excitement surrounding Being and Time is not the fact that it chooses to interrogate Dasein but rather the manner of interrogation. […] We can only answer the question of the meaning of being by providing a ‘primordial’ account of Dasein, of us ourselves. […] Being and Time’s account of who we are portrays us as particularly fascinating, not to say troubling, beings. […] Suddenly, the seemingly dry investigation of what we mean when we say that something is has transmogrified itself into ultimate Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian questions about the meaning of life. Ontology has become existentialism, phenomenology has become existential phenomenology” (119).

Young’s presentation of the young Heidegger remains within this frame. Heidegger’s existential determination are critically discussed as aspects of his (provisional) solution to the problem of the meaning of human life. The key to this problem would be, according to Young’s interpretation of Heidegger, in the concept of praxis. Praxis should be defined as the original source of meaning. But, if praxis is in fact the structural source of every meaning, present-day meaninglessness must be a result of some change within the context of human praxis. Thus, an ethical problem arises: what is the proper, most authentic praxis? How can we act in a way that makes our lives meaningful?

The author describes Gadamer’s and Arendt’s philosophical projects as attempts at answering these questions. They both write against the dehumanizing effects of rationalization. Gadamer adopts an approach that is both ontological and epistemological. His task consists in rehabilitating artistic expression as a form of knowledge in its own right and as a moment of a complete human Bildung, in opposition to the privilege that positivism accords to an education based on natural science. On the other hand, Arendt deals with the problem of the loss of meaning from a political point of view. She emphasizes the role of educators in transmitting and enriching a shared ethical tradition.

In Young’s eyes, Gadamer and Arendt partake in the history of German philosophy inasmuch as they take part in a debate started by Goethe, transmitted by Weber and concluded by the last great philosophy of the crisis: the philosophy of the later Heidegger. Considering that this moment of Heidegger’s thought paved the way for the so-called postmodern philosophy in Germany (Sloterdijk), France (Derrida), Italy (Vattimo) and America (Rorty), one could probably say that the course of the German “river” described by Young flows again into the European “sea” from which it gushed out in the first place, with the French revolution and the end of the age of Enlightenment.

Young summarizes later Heidegger’s thought as a new appeal to the charismatic and unifying power of common “gods”. But this is not a repetition of Weber’s Wissenschaft als Beruf. The long phenomenological detour has shown that these “gods” are not specifically conservative forces. They represent the idea that every past meaning preserves a possibility for the future, but only inasmuch as the realization of any future simultaneously creates a new past – i. e., a new concealed possibility for yet another possible future.

“When we take into account the possibility that future generations will experience the world in ways that are unimaginable by us, not to mention the possibility of non-human knowers, we realize that there is no limit to the number of potential horizons of disclosure that are concealed by the horizon – the ‘being of beings’, as Being and Time calls it – that constitutes our life-world. This ‘unexperienced domain of being’ is the ‘non-essence of truth’ and is as inseparable from the essence of truth as is […] the dark side of the moon from its illuminated side. Heidegger calls this unexperienced domain simply ‘the mystery’. And since it is unlimited in extent it is, as with all things we cannot fathom, profoundly awesome” (233).

In this awesomeness appears the possibility of a rational, immanent salvation from the crisis. The search for this possibility – the search for a new rationalism – is, in the end, the story that German Philosophy in the Twentieth Century passionately narrates.

Marion Heinz, Tobias Bender (Hg.): „Sein und Zeit“ neu verhandelt: Untersuchungen zu Heideggers Hauptwerk, Meiner, 2019

"Sein und Zeit" neu verhandelt: Untersuchungen zu Heideggers Hauptwerk, Meiner, 2019 Book Cover "Sein und Zeit" neu verhandelt: Untersuchungen zu Heideggers Hauptwerk, Meiner, 2019
Blaue Reihe
Marion Heinz, Tobias Bender (Hg.)
Meiner
2019
Paperback 26,90 €
402

Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy: German Philosophy: A dialogue

German Philosophy: A Dialogue Book Cover German Philosophy: A Dialogue
Untimely Meditations
Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy. Edited by Jan Völker. Translated by Richard Lambert
MIT Press
2018
Paperback $12.95 T | £9.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

On January 30, 2016, Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy conducted a public dialogue at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) moderated by Jan Völker. The agenda for the dialogue was Badiou’s and Nancy’s perspectives of German philosophy and of its influence on French philosophy. This book records their conversation.

In his “Afterword”, Völker wonders if something like a dialogue is ever possible between philosophers. While skeptic that a dialogue in the strong sense is possible among philosophers, he suggests that to have a philosophical dialogue is to “exhibit the presence of philosophy, to share its essence, to develop problems by debating shared concepts…it is always an address, a praxis—an invitation, a letter” (81). What a philosophical dialogue does not seem to be, is a shared effort to reach an agreement and mutual understanding.  With that in mind, we need also to remark that this book is not a discussion about the reception of 19th and 20th Century German philosophy into French philosophy in general, but a reflection on Badiou’s and Nancy’s personal and highly original relationship to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. It is not the history of German philosophy in France, which would have to include also the influence of the different strands of neo-Kantianism, but an attempt to map the convergences and divergences between two leading French thinkers, which also happen to be the last representatives and inheritors of the great “Philosophical Moment of 1960’s”.

Völker opens the conversation stating that German philosophy plays an important role in the thought of Badiou and Nancy, while at the same time both subscribe to the idea of the timelessness of philosophy. Based on that, Völker asks from Badiou and Nancy to assess the philosophical relationship between Germany and France.

Badiou replies that philosophy is not really timelessness. There are discontinuous philosophical periods that we can locate historically and geographically.  We can speak of a Greek, an Arabic, a French (which starts with Descartes, and includes Spinoza and Leibnitz, both not French as he acknowledges), an English, a German (German Idealism), and finally a German-French period which seems to be reaching its end. This German-French period includes thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy and Ricoeur, and continues in Lacan’s and Foucault’s influenced French structuralism. Characteristic of this “French period”, which represent the last stage of the German-French philosophical constellation, is the effort to release Philosophy from its academic restraints and infuse it with new life, and to orient it towards a more political role, drawing inspiration from Psychoanalysis, the Arts and Mathematics.

Nancy adopts a more historical approach. He first comments on the fact that while Völker asked about the French-German philosophical relationship, both interlocutors are French, and they represent the French tradition. Nancy stresses that the influence of German philosophy dates from the interwar period, while the Second World War and its aftermath saw the departure of Philosophy from Germany and the invigoration of French thought.  What French philosophy inherited from the German tradition was the idea that the saying of Philosophy should be present in what it is said (7), which he opposes to a Cartesian tradition advocating a neutral language.

The second movement of the dialogue pertains to Badiou’s and Nancy’s relationship with Kant.  Badiou doesn’t like Kant.  He does not like the idea that there is a limit to human cognition, nor does he like the notion of a categorical imperative or the distinction between sublime and beautiful.  Nancy offers a nuanced rebuke to Badiou. Indeed, he also finds Kant „unlovable”, but this can be explained by the fact that Kant is writing in a language which is not mature enough to express his thought. Nancy also rejects Badiou’s understanding of Kantian epistemology as placing limits to knowledge. The “thing-in-itself” is not a something unknowable hidden behind the phenomena but, in a Heideggerian spirit, the “positing of the thing as such” (15). Nancy further explains that this is pure reality, which pushes reason to seek the unconditional, even if Reason knows that it will not find it.  Badiou declines this position. Everything can be absolutely known (17).  The “thing-in-itself” is nothing but “the general system of the possible forms of multiplicity”, one that we can explore mathematically, and therefore come to know (18). To say otherwise is to open the door to obscurantism and to political enslavement.

The question of limits to knowledge serves as a cue to Völker to steer the conversation to Hegel and to the question of the negative. Völker asks: „How much system is necessary to think negatively“ (21). Nancy interprets negativity as mobility. Hegel’s system is one that does not cease to systematize itself.  Even when Hegel engages into fields that seem odd today, like in his Philosophy of Nature, his purpose is to give voice to all things or to “traversing all things through language” (23).  Badiou, for his part, expresses his passionate relation to Hegel, but also his impatience with Hegel’s encyclopedist drive, which does not leave room for what is to come.  But Hegel is also a true thinker of an affirmative negativity. In this, he is, in spite of his shortcoming, our contemporary.

Nancy objects to Badiou’s affirmation of contemporaneity. We come after Hegel, and we reread him.  For Nancy, the relationship is one of reception. There is no direct encounter with a text but through those reading that already influenced our encounter. Nancy’s own reading of Hegel is mediated by a chain of tradition constituted of Derrida, Bataille, and Kojève. Nancy also objects to Badiou’s emphasis on the “exhaustive” impulse in Hegel. Nancy prefers to speak of a “process of coming to fulfillment“. He sketches the difference through a succinct discussion of Hegel’s presentation of the modern state as a “moral idea”, which already contains the idea of the disappearance of the State and its replacement with a more adequate form of “ethical idea in action”. On a more general way, Nancy reads Hegel’s like a philosophy of „infinite jouissance“.

Badiou rejects Nancy’s characterization. The “jouissance” we find in Hegel is a relationship internal to the spirit. Therefore, does not exclude the exhaustion of possibilities. Furthermore, Badiou believes that there is a big difference in the way in which he and Nancy relate to texts. Badiou characterizes his own reading as “naïve”, as seriously taking into consideration what it is said, and then to rewrite it in his own terms (30). Nancy feels compelled to defend his hermeneutical approach, shifting the question to the relationship between history and thought, and to Marx.

At this point, the moderator steers the discussion to Marx and to Marxism.  Völker asks the panelists to address the questions that Marx poses to philosophy: the question of practice, the question of the absence of Marx in contemporary critical discourse.

Badiou asks if it is adequate to characterize Marx (and also Freud) as philosophers.  Marx’s oeuvre contains philosophical ingredients but is not primarily a work of Philosophy. Furthermore, Badiou criticizes the notion of philosophical praxis and the idea—which goes back to the “Theses on Feuerbach”—which reduces philosophy to the interpretation of the world.  Badiou understands interpretation in a narrow sense, e.g., the production of myths, religions, wisdom. Philosophy, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of the rational and is based on science and mathematics.

Nancy concurs that Marx is not a philosopher because he does not push his questioning to the end. Marx is happy with pointing out to a future state of humankind but does not push forward to say what that future state would be. Marx is a philosopher which at a certain point got caught into something more urgent.  Interestingly, Badiou retorts that while not a philosopher himself, Marx indeed elaborated in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the concept of “generic humanity” (Badiou’s rendering of Gattungswessen, generally translated as “generic being”), and the “problem” is to identify in existing societies the seeds of this generic humanity (39).  It is noteworthy that Badiou is quoting here from the same 1844 Manuscripts that his master Althusser banished to the realm of the pre-Marxist. Badiou concludes this answer with the observation that on this point he feels that they both agree and that he is happy that such understanding was reached in reference to Marx.

Nancy and Badiou agree on the claim that philosophy is not interpretation but something else, but their agreement is only nominal. And their conversation turns to the question of the beginning of Philosophy which becomes the question of the beginning of Mathematics. Badiou’s position seems to shift during the conversation. He begins asserting that the birth of Mathematics is an event, an exception to the laws of a given situation (41).  But finally, he accepts Nancy’s hypothesis that Mathematics, as well as Philosophy and Tragedy, had their origin in the de-mythologization of the world. Badiou prefers to formulate this using the formula: “to speak the truth is no longer a question of a prescribed enunciative position“ (44). But under the insistence of Nancy, he finally sums up his position beautifully saying that Philosophy needs to find rational and shareable protocols so that humanity is not poisoned by its mourning the death of the Gods (46).

The book concludes with two questions which were added by Völker after the discussion, one dealing with Adorno and the second with Heidegger. Völker asks about the disconnect between Critical Theory and post-structuralist French thought, particularly at a time when the questions asked by Adorno are again relevant.  Badiou rejects the idea of “negative dialects”, preferring an affirmative form of dialectics that can be the basis for a measured, controlled, and creative form of negation. Nancy’s position is more nuanced. He acknowledges that Adorno is not well known in France. This is in part because of his difficult style but is also related to the divorce between radical political movements which emphasized “workerism” at the expense of theory, and a university where Positivism was hegemonic. This split left room only for marginal forms of Marxism (he offers as an example, Bataille and Lefebvre). Nonetheless, Lyotard, Abensour, and others were interested in Adorno. From an English reading perspective, it is noteworthy that Habermas and the thinkers from the third generation of the Frankfurt School are airbrushed from the discussion and also from the conference that provided the framework for this dialogue, though the conference shows extensive examination of Adorno’s philosophy.

The last question refers to Heidegger. Völker refers to the renewed debates on Heidegger’s antisemitism and entanglements with Nationalsocialism.  Badiou offers a succinct response based on three points: (a) that Heidegger’s merit was to bring back the question of being; (b) that he brought it essentially as a historical question; (c) that Heidegger brought the question of being in what is essentially an identitarian context. Nonetheless, his crude nationalism and antisemitism do not erase the importance of bringing back the question of being (53-54).

Nancy disagrees. It is not enough to say that regarding the question of being Heidegger was a great philosopher but that otherwise, he was an uninspiring human being.  Nancy also rejects those interpretations of the work of Heidegger that focus exclusively on his criticism of technology. Nancy believes that there is something more, which was deeply attuned to his time. He refers to the infamous Black Notebooks in terms of „philosophical hyperbole“ and „unbelievably hysterical“, that has to do with the „overwhelming within Europe“ of the relationship to what we know as “politics”. But he does not elaborate further, turning instead to “being” in what can be taken as a silent rebuke to Badiou’s affirmation of the importance of the question of being.  Badiou begs to differ and offers an autobiographical observation: “it was only in a space opened by the Heideggerian question that I was able to arrive at this mathematical vision of the indifference of being” (59).  He then summarizes their discussion as follows:

“…after the French infatuation with German thought (exemplified by Sartre and Derrida) and the distance separating French structuralism and German hermeneutics, what we can now expect to emerge is a new form…of thinking…that…will address the following problem: how are we to reconstruct an affirmative dialectic on the basis of an ontology that accepts the indifference of being” (64).

It befalls to Nancy to pronounce the closing sentences of the discussion, but it is doubtful that these last words should be taken as a summation of the whole conversation.  Ultimately, Völker is right in arguing that what was productive in this debate was the debate itself, and not some implausible coincidences between the parties. French philosophical thought in mid 20th century was intertwined with German Philosophy in complicated ways, and resonated differently in different philosophers, constituting their distinctive oeuvre. Völker created the opportunity for this wide range exploration