Helen Fielding, Dorothea Olkowski (Eds.): Feminist Phenomenology Futures

Feminist Phenomenology Futures Book Cover Feminist Phenomenology Futures
Helen Fielding, Dorothea Olkowski (Eds.)
Indiana University Press
Paperback $45.00

Reviewed byMaría Jimena Clavel Vázquez (St. Andrews/Stirling Philosophy Graduate Programme)

In Feminist Phenomenology Futures we find a multiplicity of approaches, experiences, and points of view of intellectuals working on feminist phenomenology. But, which is the guiding thread that unites them all? On the one hand, we may say that this is a book about current approaches to feminist phenomenology united solely by that, by providing accounts that fit into the framework of this discipline. And, although the multiplicity of points of view is central not only to this book but to this endeavour, we need to focus on something else. What matters is not only the currency of these approaches, but the future that is latent in them. This, of course, is made explicit in the title of the compilation. However, this might be difficult to grasp. So, I believe it is worth pausing here to clarify exactly what this means because this is not only the most relevant feature of this compilation, but its greater contribution.

As I said, this book is concerned with the future of feminist phenomenology. At this point we should note that we are not asking for the expected outcome of a research programme and the methodology that will lead us to it. It is neither a book that seeks to unify a discipline and mark the path for its future development. This book is, rather, traversed by a question regarding the destiny of feminist phenomenology. Or, in other words, feminist phenomenology considered as a project. The future, in this context, is not something that belongs to a chain of events, nor an “empty zone”, as Dorothea E. Olkowski and Helen A. Fielding state in the introduction. It is rather the future of experience. In her article “Open Future, Regaining Possibility”, to which I will later return, Fielding claims that our experience is characterised by simultaneity in that it is a “gathering of the past and future in the present experienced from a point of view by someone who perceives, feels, thinks, and acts” (94). The future is already sketched in us, embodied and situated beings. This allows us to comprehend the relevance of populating feminist phenomenology with multiple voices. As Fielding emphasizes at the beginning, in “A Feminist Phenomenology Manifesto”, the future in this context should not be understood as a unifying force, but as the opening of possibilities in our experiences and these, we must add, are never uniform but multiple. The future belongs to this discipline because it recognizes such multiplicity. In this manifesto, Fielding claims that at the core of feminist phenomenology is a “decentered subject” that is “multiple rather than singular” (viii). Feminist phenomenology becomes, thus, the methodology of the future because it emphasizes as its guiding task the opening of possibilities. In this line, Fielding claims that at the core of this understanding of feminist phenomenology lies “the recognition that there are multiple ways of approaching living experience” (vii). Furthermore, there lies a compromise of accounting for the experiences of embodied and situated agents and their worlds: “we need robust accounts of embodied subjects that are interrelated within the world or worlds they inhabit” (viii). This compromise is what turns feminist phenomenology into an emancipatory endeavour.

Part 1. The Future Is Now
As Olkowski and Fielding notice in the introduction (pxxiii – xxiv), the phrase “the future is now” is commonly used but hardly explained. So, how are they interpreting this phrase? The authors draw on Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of Feuerbach. According to Merleau-Ponty, Feuerbach is claiming that being should not be taken to be an abstraction, but as something embodied, involved in the senses, attached to life. Philosophy thus becomes a new happiness, the joyful expectation of a project to come that involves us all, embracing the forces traversing our current experiences. The future in this sense is the future that is sketched in us. The papers in this section address this outline, that is, the future as it appears in us.

The paper that inaugurates this section is Dorothea E. Olkowski’s “Using Our Intuition: Creating the Future Phenomenological Plane of Thought”. Throughout this paper, she advances the thesis that intuition should be considered the structure for the methodology of feminist phenomenology. Olkowski starts from the situated woman, someone whose situation is identified with her body, and which is shaped by culture, history, and society. In that sense, her being is temporal. However, Olkowski sees a problem in the way her body has been considered because instead of being recognized as “her freedom, her transcendence”, she has been taken to be “embedded in her embodiment” (4). This is what Olkowski wishes to challenge: the idea that feminist phenomenology is particularly concerned with embodiment because the body represents the opposition to traditional notions of reason and knowledge. The problem, then, is that this notion became more relevant in the context of feminist phenomenology than in other areas of philosophy. In order to tackle this issue, Olkowski explores the plane of thought that underlies this phenomenon, that is, its “milieu of concepts and methods” (6).

Olkowski defends, drawing on Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir, and Bergson, that the plane of thought that is adequate to account for embodiment, without stripping it away from the freedom that constitutes it, is the vital form or the plane of the virtual which brings together the realm of language with that of nature (10). Between language and nature lies a structure of significance where the perceptible acquires meaning. Consciousness is not apart from the body, rather in the present, consciousness exists as the body where past and future meet (12). It is in the temporal structure of the embodiment that intuition can be considered once again as the structure that guarantees that action is creative instead of being just a repetition of previous patterns (13).

In “Just Throw Like a Bleeding Philosopher: Menstrual Pauses and Poses, Betwixt Hypatia and Bhubaneswari, Half Visible, Almost Illegible”, Kyoo Lee is concerned with the way feminist phenomenology can face the complexity of embodiment (25). In particular, she is interested in an analysis of menstruation. To do so, she focuses on the double structure that constitutes menstruation: “The menstruator enters and exits the cycle of life simultaneously while bleeding herself into a revolving door she herself becomes, beginning to exist and exit at once in syncopation that seems to have a will, a script, of its own” (30). On the one hand, it is an overcharged phenomenon that marks the entrance of women into existence; while, on the other, it is an overlooked phenomenon in that it hides women in plain sight.

Lee puts forward two cases where this phenomenon is brought into view. Firstly, the case of Hypatia: when a student declared his love to her, she threw her menstrual handkerchief to his face, to show that she who was the object of his Platonic love was also this embodied being. This way, she was not only affirming herself as female, but also bringing to light this double structure. Lee claims that she is throwing it “back at the smug face of philosophy that says one thing and does another or the other” (p. 34). Lee also goes through the case of Bhubaneswari Bahduri, a young woman from North Calcutta sixteen or seventeen years old, who committed suicide specifically on the time of her menstruation. Bhubaneswari had joined a terrorist group but then escaped the entrusted task of assassinating a political figure through her suicide (p. 37). Her action challenges the “patriarchal violence, the class system, and the colonial rule” (p. 38) precisely because every single one of her actions was a liberating act. Both Hypatia and Bhubaneswari throw back the situation to which they are thrown to, opening in this way alternative futures for women.

The third paper in this section is “Transformative Lines of Flight: From Deleuze to Masoch” by Lyat Friedman. Drawing on a text by Deleuze and Guattari called Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Friedman seeks to disentangle the opposition men-women by providing a “line of flight” or a way out. For her, this method offers alternative interpretations that do not contest an opposition, rather they complicate it (49). Friedman starts by providing an account of the opposition men-women. Following de Beauvoir, she argues that this opposition does not resemble that of two opposing poles. While women are the negative, the Other, men are not only the positive but the neutral as well.

Friedman draws on Deleuze’s interpretation of Sade and Masoch, and the women from their texts. As de Beauvoir notes, one of the features of these texts is that they present the male perspective of different types of women (56). Sade depicts his male protagonists as figures of power whose opposite is a victim or prey. Masoch, on the other hand, offers a male protagonist who thrives on humiliation. His opposite is a woman who “refuses to act from her position of power” (56). As Friedman notes, these structures are incompatible. The author finally returns to de Beauvoir’s position as it appears in an article called “Must We Burn Sade?” There de Beauvoir intends to provide a charitable understanding of Sade’s expression of hatred towards women, offering thus an interpretation of his texts that breaks with binary oppositions. She claims that: “We must learn to avoid reiterating oppositions even as we disagree with them. We must find lines of flight, identify intersections, and leave given paths, if only to produce alternative futures for women and men” (62).

The last paper of this section, “Crafting Contingency” by Rachel McCann, offers an exploration into the creation of alternative social paths. For McCann, architectural design provides, firstly, a field for understanding the complex interactions between a system and its environment, the organisation of a system that reiterates a pattern, and the way this pattern transforms and transmits information. For her, patterns are reiterative, complex, and, at times, flexible structures. The exploration of these concepts allows her to posit a model for effecting social change. Drawing on bell hooks, McCann claims that “in order to effect social change we must position ourselves at once on society’s margins and at its center” (73). Social change will come from creatively reconfiguring the boundaries that cannot be crossed. Effecting change in these structures will lead to an eventual restructuring of the world (81).

Part 2. Negotiating Futures
A different notion of future is at play in the second section. In the introduction (xxv-xxvi), Olkowski and Fielding note that the opening of emancipatory possibilities requires the commitment of bringing about these projects. Ultimately, it requires erasing the boundaries between reason and passion: these emancipatory possibilities are not only sketched in us, but they are also something that is affirmed through passionate action. Bringing about these possibilities involves audacity in that there is always a risk of failure. Now, this notion of project has a retrospective character because the future is not something that breaks with the past, that is, built from scratch. As Olkowski and Fielding note, when others look back into these projects the future appears not as a possibility but as something that was inevitable, something that was bound to happen (xxvi).

The first paper in this section, “Open Future, Regaining Possibility” by Helen A. Fielding explores situations where personal time, that is, time as it appears in our experience, breaks down. To do so, she draws on Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between impersonal time, personal time, and objective time. Fielding describes personal time in terms of simultaneity. As mentioned earlier, she considers this to be a gathering of present, past, and future (94). Fielding describes temporal break down as the closure of possibilities, as the loss of “the phenomenal experience whereby each moment is full of the living possibilities with which we ‘reckon,’ possibilities that are actualized as possibilities…” (95). She explores this phenomenon in light of a couple of cases in which online bullying resulted in the suicide of its victims. In these cases, Fielding argues, these teenagers suffered from a depression that involved the break down of personal time. An important factor in these cases is the temporality that is involved online: “on the internet temporality is collapsed into space” (96).

In the second paper of this section, “Of Women and Slaves”, Debra Bergoffen discusses de Beauvoir’s notion of an original Mitsein. Bergoffen starts from the idea that de Beauvoir’s position allows a movement from women considered as an oppressed Other to the “dignity of difference” (110). De Beauvoir is troubled by the fact that, despite being oppressed, women do not rebel. Bergoffen explains that for the French philosopher this is rooted in an original bond between men and women: an original Mitsein. Rebellion makes sense when the other is not absolute but relative, but this is not the case of women for de Beauvoir. For this reason, Bergoffen develops an exploration into de Beauvoir’s original Mitsein. For her, this concept “identifies the couple as the site where… desire is fulfilled” (115). Unlike slavery, oppression in the case of women does not aim towards destruction but domestication. The author explores this notion in connection with de Beauvoir’s claim that women are slaves to their husbands. Furthermore, she offers an analysis that takes into account the intersectionality of subjects, the crossroads between race and gender, and the vulnerability of women who are not privileged.

In the final article of this section, “Unhappy Speech and Hearing Well. Contributions of Feminist Speech Act Theory to Feminist Phenomenology”, Beata Stawarska addresses the phenomenon of speaking as a woman. Drawing on Austin’s theory on language performativity, she proposes to think of the failure of woman being heard as a failure in the illocutionary force of the speech. According to Stawarska, when a speech is performed by a socially dominant speaker, it enjoys a force that gets lost when it is spoken by a non-dominant speaker. For her, this failure is one that is socially modulated. To address this phenomenon, she complements Austin’s theory with a phenomenological perspective. The gender-power imbalance results in an infelicitous enactment of a speech act. Stawarska shows that the success or failure of a speech act depends not only on the speaker, but on the listener as well: “The hearer’s uptake is both the effect of what is being said and the condition of the saying acquiring the force of a speech act” (132). Addressing the silencing of women requires, then, to cultivate not only the speakers but, importantly, the listeners: it is essential to cultivate an attentive listener.

Part 3. The Ontological Future
In the third section of this compilation, the authors offer an ontological perspective on the future as it appears in experience. Olkowski and Fielding draw on Husserl’s notion of internal temporality (xxvii). For him, what appears to consciousness does so in continuing phases and enjoys a unity that is synthetic: this flowing away belongs to the way objects appear to consciousness. In other words, the objects of consciousness get their unity and identity from this “flowing subjective process” (xxvii). Taking this into account is essential for the task of feminist phenomenology as an ontological endeavour. The authors complement Husserl’s take on internal time with Henri Bergson’s ontological memory: “even our most minute sensations form an ontological memory, images created by the imperceptible influences of states in the world on our sensibility” (xxvii). In this sense, in experience our present coexists and interacts with the past: new experiences alter the past and create new possibilities. For the authors, this is essential to understand that we are projected beings.

The first paper in this section, “Adventures in the Hyperdialectic” by Eva-Maria Simms, develops Merleau-Ponty’s method of the hyperdialectic. To do so, Simms starts by exploring Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the gestalt principle. For Merleau-Ponty, a gestalt is a consideration of a new dimension of order. This refers to “a system that is more than the sum of its parts” (144) and that stands as the transcendental field of the objects that appear to consciousness. According to Simms, the hyperdialectic is a method that allows the formulation of a set of principles that accounts for being understood not as an absolute, but as a gestalt. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty’s hyperdialectic opposes the dialectic method that loses touch with the concrete (143). Simms is interested in providing an account of gender through the method of the hyperdialectic. At the end of this paper, she provides a short outline of this account.

In “The Murmuration of Birds. An Anishinaabe Ontology of Mnidoo-Worlding” by Dolleen Tisawii’ashii Manning, the author advances an outline of the ontology of the Algonquian language family from North America. She is particularly interested in the notion of mnidoo, a concept that among other things, means spirit, substance, nature, essence, mystery, potential. Manning is interested in showing that mnidoo-worlding, that is, mnidoo dwelling in the world is an unconscious “conceding” that is “embedded over generations” (156). To explore this ontology, the author draws on the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, particularly on the latter’s notion of chiasm. Manning advances a notion of consciousness that surpasses animal or human sentience and locates in the world (p.162). This opens a dimension or center that connects and goes through the bodies (animate and inanimate) that constitute this center. This entails that, in mnidoo-worlding, these bodies fuse to become an indistinguishable whole. The relation between the bodies that constitute the whole is, for her, “an ownmost immediate knowing”, a familiarity that exceeds the subjective: “Nii kina ganaa – All my relations/All my relatives/My all/My everything” (165).

Christine Daigle’s “Trans-Subjectivity/Trans-Objectivity” is situated within the framework of the ethics of flourishing. Discussing with (and drawing on) several philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Deleuze, Heidegger, and Foucault, she wishes to provide an account of the human being as trans-subjective and trans-objective. Hers is a weak ontology in that it provides a deep reconsideration of the relation between human beings and their worlds. Daigle begins with the idea that our body is the anchor to the world. However, the boundaries of the body are not fixated, rather they are on the making. Not only that, for her, human beings are transformed in their engagements not only with others but with the world as well. These transformations have an ontological dimension: they transform our being. Daigle uses the trans((subj)(obj))ective structure to account for trauma and its everlasting effects. She claims that: “What a trans((subj)(obj))ective being does to another is not circumscribed in time and space, but it is an everlasting deed. It is constitutive of one’s being as both trans-subjective and trans-objective…” (195).

Part 4. Our Future Body Images
As mentioned earlier, the future is already sketched in us and part of that outline is our body image. As Olkowski and Fielding state in the introduction: “The body image is a vital prereflective sketch of the body’s practical possibilities for engagement with the world” (xxix). This turns out to be essential to the understanding of an agent. The authors draw on Gail Weiss’ notion of the body image, which claims that this is “an active agency that has its own memory, habits, and horizons of significance” (Weiss, Body Images, p. 3, as it appears in p. xxix). The texts in this section reflect precisely on the idea that the body image is our embodied experience in the world, an image that makes sense in the intertwining of our interactions with the world and with other agents, and that emerges from these interactions. The body image in that sense is both individual and social. It is individual in that it tracks my specific engagements and point of view. However, it also tracks the norms and the structures of our interactions with others, our social practices. Paying attention to our image is essential to the project of feminist phenomenology and its emancipatory character. As Olkowski and Fielding claim: “Since corporeal schemas reflect the ways we take up the world, shifting these practical possibilities or embodied norms is pivotal to shifting practical possibilities, and, similarly, bringing concrete change to our world can also shift the ways we move and hence our bodily schemas” (xxix).

Gail Weiss, in the paper “The ‘Normal Abnormalities’ of Disability and Aging. Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir”, addresses the ambivalent attitudes towards people who do not conform to the normative standards of beauty in a society. Weiss follows Julia Kristeva in claiming that human beings avoid confronting their vulnerabilities by projecting onto others “the status of abject other” (204). The author claims that avoiding someone with what she calls a non-normative body is a strategy to avoid thinking about our own possibilities. Weiss emphasizes the paradox of the abnormalcy of age. Although it is considered non-normative, or an abnormal body, the thing is that we will all age. In consequence, Weiss argues, it is impossible to distance ourselves fully from this image.The author explores de Beauvoir’s perspective on this phenomenon. Weiss argues that ageing involves an alienating experience. The problem is that vilifying ageing “is clearly against the self-interest of each of us to the extent that we aspire to live a long life” (209). To explore the phenomenon of disability, Weiss draws on Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty argues that this phenomenon allows us to understand better our perceptual engagements. Weiss takes Merleau-Ponty’s discussion about the Alzheimer patient who, despite her cognitive impairments, inhabits her world meaningfully. For Weiss, it is Merleau-Ponty’s position that allows the normalisation of the abnormal (212) and, in consequence, it allows us to challenge the oppressive considerations of the non-normal body.

The next paper, “The Transhuman Paradigm and the Meaning of Life” by Christina Schües addresses the way biotechnology impacts our experiences and, in consequence, the meaning of life. Bio-phenomenology is able to provide an account of the way meaning is transformed through the introduction of new technologies and its intertwining in our biographies. She claims that: “Bio-phenomenology provides an appropriate approach to investigating the underlying dimensions of meaning and the structures of experiences, which concern the biotechnological, medical, and reprogenetic practices in the transhuman paradigm” (225).

In “The Second-Person Perspective in Narrative Phenomenology” Aneemie Halsema and Jenny Slatman offer a phenomenological consideration of the second-person perspective and its relevance in sense-making. They focus specifically in research interviewing in cases of breast cancer diagnosis. The authors explore the role of the interviewer in the way the respondent articulates her experience. For them: “Sense-making is not the work of an individual, but takes place in joint narrative work” (243). They show that language co-creates experiences drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur.

In the final paper of this section, “Hannah Arendt and Pregnancy in the Public Sphere”, Katy Fulfer challenges Arendt’s idea that pregnancy cannot be considered a public activity. Interestingly, she does so from Arendt’s own distinction between the private, the social, and the public. Fulfer is specifically concerned with issues regarding reproductive justice in cases of contract pregnancy. Fulfer argues that Arendt’s notion of the social allows her to show that pregnancy surpasses the private realm. The social realm is defined as that in which the necessities of life take the place of the public or the political. This is the case of contract pregnancy when considered as a biopolitical phenomenon. Fulfer defines the biopolitics as that which “offers governing bodies the ability to control bodies and populations under the guise of promoting the health of individuals” (260). Given that gestational workers are controlled and disciplined through contracts and political rhetoric, Fulfer claims that they are no longer considered as political agents but as workers whose job is to preserve a life, entering thus the social realm. The author argues as well that there is also an aspect in which gestational workers enter the public realm through political discourse, a discourse that takes place when they discuss their own situation, and that in some case impacts their contracts.

Part 5. Present and Future Selves
In the final section of this compilation, we find papers that address the world as it has been configured by the actions and speeches of “our past selves”, as Olkowski and Fielding advance in the introduction (xxxi). These papers scrutinize and evaluate the possibilities that were configurated before us. This is the retrospective character of the future that was mentioned in part 2.

The first paper of this section, “Is Direct Perception Arrogant Perception? Toward a Critical, Playful Intercorporeity” by April N. Flakne argues against analogical theories of the perception of others. For her, these theories eliminate difference, something that is essential in our considerations of the other, by modelling the other “on oneself” (278). To make her case, Flakne joins the defenders of direct perception, a theory according to which our perception of others is not mediated by either a theory of the mind of others or by a re-enactment of others’ mental states (i.e. the simulation theory). The idea behind direct perception is that we encounter others “because they comport themselves toward the world” (281).

Flakne argues that in order to avoid arguments that model the other after oneself, it is necessary to focus on the spaces where the other demands a response or an interaction: “an occasion for uptake and response that we cannot present ourselves” (289). The author draws on Maria Lugones who claims that individuals are not discrete, rather they are constructed by a world that is shared. She takes Lugones’ notion of world-travelling according to which we approach the other by being affected by other worlds. Our identity is, for Flakne, constituted by the playful corporeal interaction with others. Through the notion of this playful interaction, Flakne wishes to give new directions to direct perception.

“Leadership in the World Through an Arendtian Lens” by Rita A. Gardiner challenges contemporary accounts of authentic leadership, an enquiry that began as an ethical evaluation of leadership positions and practices, and that evolved into a prescriptive discipline that accounts for the features a leader should have. The problem of these accounts is that, from a phenomenological perspective they fail to account for lived experience. Furthermore, they equate authentic leadership with moral goodness (302). Drawing on Arendt, Gardiner wishes to advance a notion of leadership that emphasizes collaboration as an essential element of leadership. She claims that “freedom and power are impossible without the ability to act in concert with others” (304).

In “Identity-in-Difference to Avoid Indifference”, Emily S. Lee proposes to recognize the relevance of identity or commonality in the philosophy of race. She does so by proposing a phenomenological analysis of the notion of identity-in-difference. Lee starts from the process of ontologizing of racial differences,the process in which social differences that are marked racially are no longer recognized as social constructs, they are rather naturalized. Lewis Gordon claims that “naturalizing what is socially constructed makes an ontological difference” (314). This emphasis on difference within philosophy of race, Lee holds, can also be seen in Gareth Williams. For him, colonized subjects have difficulties finding a history that does not narrate the lives of those who benefitted from development. Lee’s concern is that these positions might threaten the “possibility of racially distinct subjects sharing a social horizon” (315). This follows from the idea that, according to work in phenomenology and cognitive science, “embodiment influences our cognitive development” (315). The influence of embodiment in our cognitive development might lead to the sedimentation of difference. Lee wishes to show that differences are not relevant enough to disconnect us from one another. To do so, she defends Merleau-Ponty’s notion of identity-in-difference.

The paper that closes this compilation is “What is Feminist Phenomenology? Looking Backward and into the Future” by Silvia Stoller. In this paper, Stoller goes through the history of feminist phenomenology to offer, as well, an account of its future horizons. She begins with an account of the two phases that constituted feminist phenomenology. The publication of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949 was followed by the post-structuralist phase of feminism in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s a phase of institutionalisation followed this first stage. Stoller recognizes Edith Stein, Gerda Walther, and Hannah Arendt as early feminist phenomenologists. For her, historical research into these figures is an important part of feminist phenomenology, however, it does not exhaust the framework. Feminist phenomenology is, in addition, interested in an understanding of experience that recognizes its situated, embodied, historical character. In other words, an understanding of experience as multiple. Feminist phenomenology also involves the dialogue with other important figures within phenomenology such as Merleau-Ponty, Lévinas, Husserl, and Heidegger. Finally, this discipline also called for the dialogue with post-structuralism and its criticisms of phenomenology. Nowadays, Stoller claims, these two approaches do not seem to oppose each other. Rather, the two can complement each other in a meaningful way (336). The author takes this to be an open movement. She claims that: “the future of feminist phenomenology can be sustained only by continuing to preserve its heterogeneity and cultivating its diverse orientations. It was never – as is the case with phenomenology itself – a fully developed theory” (343).

Concluding Remarks
The constant turning back to the past from the authors of this compilation, and the way they build from this reflection new possibilities confirms the methodology of feminist phenomenology that is advanced in this volume. This discipline involves the recognition of new alternatives in our current situation, alternatives that stem from past reflections, commitments, and actions. In the way the editors knit the guiding thread of this volume, as well as in the introductory chapters, they advance an extremely interesting reflection on the methodology of feminist phenomenology and its future path, exemplified and enriched in each of the papers. The authors of this compilation offer a phenomenological analysis that engages not only with previous works on feminist phenomenology, but also with works that have been challenged before by the feminist tradition, and with works that belong to other frameworks and disciplines. Anyone working on feminist theory, in general, will be greatly benefitted by exploring these works, and discussing their contributions. Furthermore, they offer important contributions to discussions within philosophy of mind, philosophy of race, linguistics, leadership research, bioethics, anthropology, narrative medicine, among others, thus showing the reach of the project of feminist phenomenology.

Trevor Tchir: Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Political Action: Daimonic Disclosure of the ‘Who’

Hannah Arendt's Theory of Political Action: Daimonic Disclosure of the `Who' Book Cover Hannah Arendt's Theory of Political Action: Daimonic Disclosure of the `Who'
International Political Theory
Trevor Tchir
Palgrave MacMillan
Hardcover 103,99 €

Reviewed by: Amy Bush (Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)

Disruption and Remembrance in Arendt’s Theory of Political Action

Trevor Tchir’s monograph, “Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Political Action”, covers a wide spectrum of Arendt’s works in providing a framework for her theory of political action. Tchir draws upon a range of thinkers, such as Heidegger, Kant, Augustine and Montesquieu, who influenced aspects of Arendt’s theory, and upon those thinkers whom Arendt explicitly criticized, such as Marx, to demonstrate how she both breaks with the tradition of western political thought and recollects and revises some of the concepts within that tradition in order to re-conceptualize “political action” in the modern age of secular politics. Thus, Tchir also highlights how Arendt transforms and revises aspects of others’ philosophies, in significant ways, when she does borrow from them. Moreover, his inclusion of commentary and criticisms of Arendt’s approach to political action by numerous contemporary thinkers helps him to illuminate the tensions within Arendt’s thought and to delineate his own thesis and argument. However, much of his book is devoted to an exegesis and interpretation of Arendt’s diverse works in respect to her theory of political action, as she encounters the Western tradition of political thought in general, and the aforementioned thinkers in particular. Although he slowly integrates his own voice into his interpretation, it isn’t until the final chapter of the book that he fully draws out how the tensions within Arendt’s thought are fruitful for contemporary politics.

Although Tchir’s book is very comprehensive in its approach to Arendt’s theory of political action, much of the territory he covers has been traversed by other commentators, especially as regards Arendt’s conceptual distinctions between the public and the private sphere, and the political and social/economic spheres. His own primary contribution to the extensive literature on Arendt is his discussion, in chapter 3, of the importance of the metaphor of the “daimon”, as introduced in The Human Condition in respect to the political actor, as she individuates herself through speech and action in the public sphere of a plurality of spectators. (89) The metaphor of the “daimon” is used by Arendt to indicate how the political actor does not have a self transparent to herself, but, whose self can only be “known” through the diverse judgments and narratives of the plurality of spectators to her actions, as if the “daimon” sat on her shoulder concealed from her view but visible to all those who witness her. Tchir also contends that that this metaphor of the daimon gestures towards a divine or transcendent origin of the capacity of humans to act and think (and, thereby, judge the actions of the actor that appear in the political sphere). The daimon, as a mediator between men and gods, expresses that the origins of these human capacities are ultimately unknowable. In this way, Arendt encounters the residual language of transcendence in modern political thought. Within the context of modern revolutions, such as the French Revolution and American Revolution, there was an overturning of traditional authority of religion within the realm of politics, but the language of rights often retained an appeal to transcendent sources of these “natural” rights of mankind. (12) Thus, there is a tension within Arendt’s own thought on the relationship of the secular and the religious within modern politics, and within political theory generally in the modern era.

This also opens the question as to whether or not there are any “foundations” to political theory in the modern age. However, this enables Arendt to introduce a conception of freedom suitable to an age without such religious, metaphysical, or natural foundations – one that is self-grounding within a political space of appearances (rather than grounded in an invisible sphere of divine or metaphysical laws). Her notion of freedom is one that is not based on a notion of the will that masters itself or directs its actions from pre-determined principles, whether metaphysical or religious or based on reason or nature, nor is it grounded in a notion of political sovereignty, where a ruler crafts laws which subjects obey. It is this western political tradition of freedom that lies in sovereignty and rule, one that promotes relationships of domination and an illusory control over what the subjects can do and their environment, that she is disrupting, while retrieving a freedom that arises from isonomia, that is, the agonistic politics that occurs in a sphere of formal equality, as practiced in ancient Greece. (135) The disclosure of the unique, daimonic “who” is the disclosure of a non-sovereign self.

However, Tchir also shows how the metaphor of the “daimon” has existential import for human dignity and the “meaning” of existence for humans in a world of uncertainty and contingency, rather than in a world where moral or religious absolutes, whether based on revelation or reason, could guide our political actions and insure mastery. (32) This existential impact demonstrates why the realm of political action is so centrally important to human existence for Hannah Arendt, and it is why she sometimes characterizes the “political world” as also a “spiritual world”. (79) It would seem to me that this latter characterization would make the divine element in human existence immanent rather than transcendent, and would point to a fundamental mystery at the core of human existence which amplifies its uncertainty and makes complete unconcealment of origins impossible.(84) Nonetheless, Tchir argues by the end of his book that Arendt would not exclude religion from the public sphere, and this is important to understanding the conduct of politics in today’s world. At the same time, he makes the point that uncertainty plays a central role in Arendt’s re-conceptualization of political action, as the success of any political actions remain uncertain and their effects remain unpredictable in an agonistic political world of plurality of actors and spectators with conflicting wills and cross-purposes. (25) Thus, Arendt has an understanding of both politics and existence as based in a fragility of a common political world shared by a plurality of actors and spectators, and a vulnerability of humans in the face of their “passive givenness” and in their attempts to actualize their historically situated possibilities from that givenness through action. (32) Although she dispenses with a concept of “human nature” as the basis of the political, she does not argue that political action can fundamentally change our givenness so much as actively disclose our individuality, which exceeds this givenness. This actualization of our individuality remains opaque to each of us, as individual actors. However, through political action, we can assert our human dignity as we confront this givenness as well as when we encounter the contingencies of our historical situations.

Action itself, as characterized by natality, is the source of freedom, which is the other major focus of Tchir’s exegesis. If one of the ontological conditions of the political space of appearances is that of plurality, the other one is that of natality, as a spontaneous beginning, and the capacity to initiate or give birth to something new and unprecedented into a world that is otherwise characterized by natural or historical processes, chains of causes and effects, and normalizing routines. Arendt’s conception of natality is borrowed from the Christian tradition of miracles, as that which interrupts natural processes, especially as found in Augustine’s works. (24) This is how action is differentiated from behavior and from being simply another cause in a chain of causes and effects, although action has unpredictable and uncontrollable ramifications by setting off many chains of causes and effects in unprecedented ways. Through natality, new aspects of the shared world of appearances are themselves disclosed, along with the disclosure of the unique “who” of the actors. Thus, individuality is dependent upon the witnessing of others, and political freedom is relational. This is a realm that discloses “meaning” rather than “truth”, although Arendt will complicate this picture by insisting that spectators enlarge their mentality so that their interpretations deal with “facticity” rather than with inaccurate distortions of what happened. (173) However, one of Arendt’s presumptions appears to be that people want or seek such meaning in their lives, and not solely the accomplishment of goals, social or otherwise. This is another way in which the political realm is also a spiritual realm.

Although plurality is also a condition of the public sphere, individuation occurs within that public sphere as actors perform in front of spectators who are characterized by both their equality and distinction. (23) The shared world is not one of a common vision of the good shared by a predetermined community, as in communitarianism, (5) but one of a material world of cultural artifacts, which themselves are subject to interpretation by participants in that world, and the “web of interrelationships” that occurs in that world. “Distinction” is presupposed in the plurality of participants, while “equality” is a formal feature of the public sphere where all participants’ perspectives play a role, rather than one of material equality.

Fundamental to the possibility of individuation is Arendt’s distinction between the “existential who” and the “constative what” (4, 85). The “who” that is disclosed in the public sphere is not simply a collection of character traits and talents or of a pre-established identity, such as that of socioeconomic status, gender or race, which could be generally applied to similarly situated others, all of which would be an aspect of the person’s “whatness”. The “who” is disclosed through the performance of her acts and the virtuosity of her deeds in the political space of appearances and is not “made” as a product of a craft. The “who” transcends the “what”. However, the “meaning” of her acts is disclosed in the narratives, stories, and histories composed by spectators who judge her acts, and which show how these acts, in disclosing the principles that inspired them, serve as “valid examples” for future action within that community. (31) Tchir proposes that this plurality is not only a plurality of “opinions” (or doxa), although it is especially that, but also a plurality of “whats” that insert themselves into this public sphere wherein they can renegotiate their identities as “whats” through their individuating actions and judgments of actions. (6) In this manner, pluralities are not a diversity of predetermined “whats” along ethnic, racial, gender, economic or social lines, but the latter are not so much excluded from the public sphere as augmented and revised within that sphere. As Tchir will argue in chapter 6 of the book, it is important that spectators do not surrender their individual judgments of actions to the prejudices and “whats” of others, even though they should be taking into consideration all the diverse perspectives of those who are physically present in the public sphere, as well as the perspectives of past historical actors within that sphere. Thus, there is a nuanced attempt to make room for the entry of the whatness of participants into this sphere, without subordinating that sphere to their “whatness” or to what has been loosely called “identity politics” (my term, and not the author’s).

This public realm and its freedom are fragile because they can only be sustained by the renewal of actions and judgments within the sphere. The space of appearances has no institutional infrastructure that can guarantee its presence, although Arendt does comment on structures that may encourage or facilitate such a sphere, such as a legal framework that makes such free exchange of “opinions” possible. She proposes a “council system” in On Revolution. (28) She also comments upon those structures that tend to interfere with such a free exchange of “opinion”, such as parties and some schemes of political representation. Because Tchir’s thesis is focused on the existential implications of Arendt’s theory of political action, he tends to omit detailed discussion of alternative structures of governance implied by her theory, although he does make observations about potential deliberative spaces for global actors in his concluding chapter, and explains why Arendt proposed federalism rather than a world government as a means to insure a “right to have rights” in chapter 5.

Although this book is devoted to the disclosure of the “existential and unique who” in political action, it also attempts to characterize and clarify what constitutes political action, a subject of great controversy in the literature on Arendt. Political action is a performance that invokes inspiring principles, examples of which might include “honor, glory, equality, and excellence, but also hatred, fear, and distrust” (29). Through these examples of inspiring principles, it becomes evident that some principles might sustain freedom within the public sphere better than others. Along these lines, Arendt will suggest that the principle of “rectifying social inequality” will most likely destroy the public sphere, as she contends happened when the “impoverished Sans-Culottes entered the scene of the French Revolution. (152) When this principle inspires actions in the public sphere it tends to destroy the plurality of perspectives and opinions, and obliterate individuality through single-mindedness of an instrumental goal, and, it is here that we can see a tension between the who and what in the plurality of the public sphere. Despite Tchir’s own argument, Arendt seems to favor the plurality of opinions, which she does not treat as confined to socioeconomic factors or status. (136) I will reserve further discussion of Arendt’s view of the social and its relationship to the political to later in this review.

Actions thereby spring from principles, as understood by Montesquieu, but also may “exemplify” and “sustain a principle” (30). Although such principles are “too general to prescribe specific courses of action”, they are “greater and longer lasting than immediate ends”, thereby contributing to the continuity of the shared public world. (31) However, these principles are not transcendent metaphysical principles or determined by reason prior to action. They are exhibited in the actions themselves, and, thus, they too must be repeated in narratives to inspire future actions, and in those future actions themselves, in order to sustain their role in the public space. In this manner, political action is for the sake of itself – that is, for the sake of maintaining a sphere of plurality in which action can continue to occur, and for the sake of its inspiring principles. (26) Political action contains its own end, rather than occurring “in order” to achieve instrumental goals. (30) Some critics find this approach to political action empty, a criticism to which Tchir responds in chapters 5 and 6, and which I will address later in this review. However, his discussion of inspiring principles is one of the most interesting parts of his book, and one which he revisits in later chapters in responding to criticisms of the emptiness of the public sphere – what does anyone talk about there? – and to criticisms of the formal but not material equality of that sphere, which could influence who is included or excluded from that sphere and the communication that occurs within that sphere.

My above discussion of the “daimon” metaphor and its existential impact, as well as my discussion of freedom, plurality, natality, and the political space of appearances, are drawn primarily from the first three chapters of Tchir’s book, although, as I indicate above, I anticipate where Tchir is going in the rest of his book. Thereafter the book is organized by chapters on Arendt’s encounters and interactions with the thought of other philosophers within the Western tradition. The rest of my review will briefly survey some of the main points made in each of these chapters in order to draw out some of the main strands of the argument delineated above.

In chapter 4,”Aletheia: The Influence of Heidegger”, Tchir shows how “Arendt incorporates Heidegger’s notion of Dasein’s (the human being’s) resolute action as disclosure of both the `who’ of Dasein and of the action’s context” into her theory of political action. (97) Arendt’s attempt to “rescue political action from its historical and contemporary concealment” in conceptions of sovereignty bears an affinity to her teacher, Heidegger’s attempt to rescue Dasein from the historical concealment of Being. Both Heidegger and Arendt share a concern for “Aletheia“, as an “un-concealment” or “un-forgetting” (97), and with the various modes in which arche (sources) of Being can be disclosed. Arendt’s distinction between a “who” and a “what” is drawn from Heidegger, who, in turn, found it in Aristotle’s distinction between poiesis and praxis. In poeisis, an external product is produced by a process of what Arendt will call “work”, and in praxis, there is no external product to be generalized. Instead, the end lies within the activity itself, as Arendt characterizes political action. However, unlike Heidegger’s adoption of Aristotelian concepts, Arendt rejects the idea that action becomes “fully transparent”, (109) and proposes that “the judgment of spectators can indeed change.” (109) Moreover, Arendt’s notion of plurality, although influenced by Heidegger’s “notion of Mitsein (Being-with)”, significantly revises how the “who” is disclosed. For Heidegger, the authentic “who” of Dasein can only be disclosed by the contemplative withdrawal of the individual from the routine, normalizing discourses of the “everydayness” and “idle talk” of the “They”, while Arendt locates the disclosure of the daimonic “who” within the “web of relationships” and the plurality of opinions – that is, the talk – of the public world. “Talk” and “opinions” of ordinary members of a community can be valuable. (114) Moreover, Arendt “reverses Dasein’s primacy of `being-toward-death’, in favor of the notion of `natality’….”. (115)

In chapter 5, “Labor and `World Alienation”: Arendt’s Critique of Marx”, Tchir addresses Arendt’s distinctions between the social and the political, and between the public and the private, in the context of her critique of Marx’s conception of what she calls “socialized humanity”. (125) Arendt’s rejection of Marx’s conception of freedom rests partly on her prioritization of the disclosure of the individual in the political realm over the other realms of the Vita Activa, those of labor and work, which she claims that Marx favors. Labor is the realm of biological necessity, in which people are simply “specimens” to be preserved, so that Marx’s focus on labor and its liberation is misplaced. (130) Arendt proposes that one can only enter the public sphere where freedom occurs when biological and economic needs have already been met in the private sphere of labor. Whereas, in ancient times, all economic activity also took place in the private household, today economic activity is public, found in the realm of the “social”, which still addresses the arena of mere preservation of life. Although Arendt agrees with Marx that capitalism has had world alienating effects – it is through capitalism that economics entered the public sphere (129) – she sees his solution as “perpetuating” the problem by “glorifying labor”(126) and by focusing on the cultivating of talents (which are an aspect of “whatness”) as the source of freedom when the classless society is achieved, rather than upon political action and the disclosure of the “who” as the source of freedom. (135) By treating speech as inescapably determined by social relations of production” (127), Marx denies the possibility of an individual unique “who” who transcends the constative characteristics of that individual’s “whatness”, as well as denying the plurality of perspectives that constitute a political realm.

I cannot do justice to Tchir’s survey of the literature on this aspect of Arendt’s thought, or to how he indicates with which commentaries he agrees or disagrees. However, it is within this chapter, as well as the next chapter, that Tchir explicitly addresses issues of inclusion and exclusion within a public sphere, revisits the relationship between the “who” and the “what”, and complicates the latter distinction by the introduction of Arendt’s conception of a private “place” (133) from which we emerge to insert ourselves into the public sphere – is such a “place” an aspect of a person’s “what” or only a precondition to participating in the political world? After all, “For Arendt, it as though classes are as unavoidable as labor itself” (135), so are they aspects of “whatness” or of “place”? At the same time, she proposes that the expansion of technological and productive forces may make it possible to give every person in a society such a place, that is, to alleviate poverty to the extent that everybody may be able to “transcend” the sphere of preservation of “mere life” to that of political action and the freedom it entails. (133) This is not entirely unlike Marx’s prediction that the productive forces of capitalism will usher in an age of the end of poverty. In this way, Arendt does want the public sphere to be inclusive, but without sacrificing a plurality of opinion that isn’t reducible to self-interest or to the “whatness” of the participants.

Furthermore, Arendt claims that when social questions based on urgent needs enter the public sphere, they become dominated by the self-interests of those who need to preserve their “mere life”, and this lends itself to the violence and rage that occurred during the French Revolution. Arendt’s conception of non-sovereign freedom and political action are introduced just to reduce the role of violence and domination in political life, although she does realize that violence and exploitation played a role in the private sphere of ancient Greece, and can play a role in producing poverty. (156) Moreover, she doesn’t think that social questions and the elimination of poverty can be successfully eliminated through political means. (152)

 However, what then is talked about in the political sphere? Her answer is that questions with no certain conclusions properly belong in the political sphere. (163) For example, the question of “adequate housing” has a certain solution (in Arendt’s view), so it should be dealt with administratively, while the question of “integrated housing” is a properly political issue. (163) In that Arendt considers the provision of “adequate housing” important to establishing a place for every potential participant to enter the public sphere, (156-157) she is not insensitive to social and economic questions, although she does ignore the possibility of normative dimensions to what counts as “adequate”, as well as ignoring the question as to whether or not there should be political interference in the economic housing market in order to provide adequate housing. (159) At the same time, she herself states there is no firm distinction between political and non-political issues and that engagements with one’s historical situation means that what is talked about in the public realm will vary over time. (160) However, one commentator, Lucy Cane, suggests that other inspiring principles than that of eliminating material equality, such as one of “solidarity”, could be disclosed in the actions of political actors in such a way to address some of the concerns of those who are oppressed or exploited. (161)

The problem remains as to whether the formal equality that characterizes the public sphere can be maintained without material equality, and this is where many commentators criticize Arendt. Moreover, there are other types of racial and gender oppression which could distort the exchanges of opinion within the public sphere. However, I suggest that many of Arendt’s critics on these points are operating under different assumptions as to what constitutes power and power relations than those of Arendt. Thus, Tchir’s analysis could benefit from a discussion of Arendt’s own conception of “power”, as numbers of people “acting in concert”, and as distinct from violence which relies on “implements”. (On Violence, 44-46) This would not resolve all the differences between Arendt and her critics, but it would further illuminate her disruption of sovereignty as the basis of freedom, and would help support those commentators who make a case for civil disobedience as political action along Arendtian lines. (139) The role of civil disobedience comes up in Tchir’s discussion of Arendt’s conception of the “right to have rights”, which is “the right to have one’s destiny not be decided merely by how one’s given `what’ is defined and ruled by an external authority but rather by interactions with others who will judge one based on their words and deeds and allow one’s unique `who’ to appear.” (141) The “right to have rights” is the right to live in such a framework, to belong to such a community, which is denied now to those who are stateless or refugees. I suggest that equalizing the conditions of participants within the public sphere might be facilitated by multiple public spheres, based not so much on the features of “whatness” as upon diverse material worlds of cultural artifacts that those with such identities might share, and then federate these various “councils” into larger public spheres, as some protest movements form coalitions with each other. In this way, participants could immanently let their individuality shine through many lights.

In chapter 6, “The Dignity of Doxa: Politicizing Kant’s Aesthetic Judgment”, Tchir addresses in more detail how the judgments of spectators occur. Arendt draws upon Kant’s conceptions of reflective and aesthetic judgments, adapting them to the political sphere, because reflective judgments are not determinative of actions, (177) they involve the use of the imagination, and they make possible the exercise of responsibility. (173) Although each spectator judges differently, and partly from the standpoint of their “whatness”, that is, social class, gender, race, religion, etc., the imagination allows each spectator to enlarge her mentality to take into consideration the perspectives of all those physically present or those past participants in the public sphere. Such an “enlarged mentality” (163) involves a position of “disinterestedness”,(179) one in which we achieve some “distance” by “forgetting ourselves” (180), which implies that we transcend self-interest and considerations of instrumentality or usefulness. (179-180) However, it is unclear how much it involves direct exchange of opinions within the public sphere. In any case, the spectator tries to assess the meaning of acts, but not from a “higher standpoint” than those who participant within the political space.

 The “shared judging community” is the sensus communis, now detranscendentalized from Kant’s conception of it. (183) Again many commentators criticize Arendt’s conception of the judging community because of inequities in the position of different spectators in the communication among them.(182ff) However, the role of such inequities in distorting communications, depends partly on the relationship of “whats” and “who’s” within the public sphere, a situation that remains somewhat unresolved, despite the fact that Arendt doesn’t want communication to be marked by conflict among publicly pre-determined identities. However, equality (of a formal rather than material sort) may serve as an inspiring principle, as could mutual respect. (185) It would seem that the maintenance of such a space would require tolerance of potential conflict, openness to listening to different perspectives, and courage to act and retain the personal element in judging, in ways that would always be subject to subversion. (86) Consensus does not appear to be the aim of the judging community, so much as the disclosure of the meaning of their common world. Thus, in these ways, Tchir returns to existential questions.

In the end, there is no hard separation between the position of the actor and that of the spectator. (193) Arendt borrows Kant’s idea of an original compact, in such a way that the inspiring principles of this compact bring the actor and spectator together as one, and an actor can always become a spectator and vice versa. Moreover, a spectator’s judgments are always revisable. Arendt also appropriates Kant’s notion of “exemplary validity”, which implies that “particular deeds may be taken as valid examples by which to judge other cases.” (195) In this way, a tradition may be established, and this also plays a role in Arendt’s conception of history as storytelling that displays such valid examples.

In chapter 7, “Forgotten Fragments: Arendt’s Critique of Teleological Philosophies of History”, Tchir discusses how Arendt criticizes the philosophies of history of Kant, Hegel and Marx, which, according to her, eliminate the possibility of natality, that is, the spontaneous birth of the unprecedented and new that characterizes political action, and subordinate the freedom of the political sphere, which should be for its own sake and for the plurality of that sphere, to the telos of history, and to the agent of historical forces themselves as they march towards that ultimate end without regard to the plurality of humankind. Individuals are reduced to functions in the movement of history itself, one that lends itself to totalitarianism. She proposes an “alternative method of fragmentary historiography,” (205) as influenced by Walter Benjamin. It is from this alternative method that I have pulled the title of my book review, as I contend, and, I have tried to show in this review, how Arendt tends, in her very theory of political action, to perform the type of disruption of historical continuity that she says has occurred in the modern era, but, at the same time, retrieve some ancient practices to re-conceptualize political action and freedom. In so doing, she performs both an action and a judgment, which has generated, in turn, a diverse set of interpretations and judgments of her own “storytelling”, many of which Tchir surveys in his monograph.

In his concluding chapter, Tchir recapitulates some of his main points, and draws together some of the loose threads of his observations into a brief argument as to the relevance of Arendt’s theory of political action in today’s world, which is characterized by divisive discourses of populism; (236) disillusionment by people in a public sphere dominated by corporations and sensational media (242) and a neoliberal security state that relegates people to pre-determined categories of “whatness” in order to control their movements and to deny them freedom and access to a framework in which they can act and judge freely. He makes a few suggestions about the possibility of bringing Arendt’s conception of political action into the international arena, and religion into the public sphere without it dominating that sphere with absolute metaphysical principles. This chapter would be more fruitful if expanded, but, given the monumental job Tchir has already accomplished, it might be beyond the scope of his book to do so.

Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. Harcourt, Brace and Company, San Diego.

Hans Blumenberg: Rigorism of Truth: “Moses the Egyptian” and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt, Cornell University Press, 2018

Hans Blumenberg: Rigorism of Truth: "Moses the Egyptian" and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt Book Cover Hans Blumenberg: Rigorism of Truth: "Moses the Egyptian" and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt
signale|TRANSFER: German Theory in Translation
Hans Blumenberg. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll
Cornell University Press
Hardback $95.00

Roger Berkowitz, Ian Storey (Eds.): Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch

Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch Book Cover Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch
Roger Berkowitz, Ian Storey (Eds.)
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Reviewed by: Mary Walsh (University of Canberra, Australia)

What an honour it is to review Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, especially as the Denktagebuch was originally published in German in 2002 (and republished in 2016), and has not been translated (as yet) into English. The editors, Roger Berkowitz and Ian Storey are respectively the Academic Director and Associate Fellow of The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College and Artifacts of Thinking is the result of a week-long workshop held there in the summer of 2012. They have gathered together a collection of nine stellar contributions that allow readers a glimpse into the fascinating mind of arguably the greatest political theorist of the twentieth century. The German edition of the Denktagebuch is divided into 28 books dated between June 1950-1973. 22 of these were written between 1950-1958, with books 23-28 written from 1958-1961 to 1973, with a final contribution on Kant. As the Editors make clear, it is difficult to classify the Denktagebuch as a ‘thought diary’, as “the Denktagebuch makes evident how closely Arendt read the work of her interlocutors, records previously hidden sources, and displays the dynamic, evolving nature of Arendt’s thinking” (Storey, 1).

In the first chapter ‘Reconciling Oneself to the Impossibility of Reconciliation: Judgment and Worldliness in Hannah Arendt’s Politics’, Berkowitz notes Arendt’s Denktagebuch “begins and ends with reflections on reconciliation” (10). Berkowitz argues that reconciliation is a key and guiding idea that enriches understanding Arendt’s conception of politics, plurality and judgment. He seeks to demonstrate that the judgment to reconcile with the world comes from Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger on thinking, forgiveness, and reconciliation which are part of a complex interplay with Arendt’s personal and intellectual reconciliation with Heidegger (11). Berkowitz presents nine theses around the theme of reconciliation that he discerns from his reading of her Denktagebuch (12-33). The first four theses distinguish reconciliation from forgiveness, guilt, and revenge. Reconciliation is understood “as a political act of judgment, one that affirms solidarity in response to the potentially disintegrating experience of evil” (11). Theses 5 locate her discussion in her engagements with Hegel and Marx. Thesis 6 examines the key role of reconciliation in Arendt’s book Between Past and Future arguing that the “gap between past and future” is the location of Arendt’s “metaphorical space for a politics of reconciliation understood as a practice of thinking and judging without bannisters, as she put t, in a world without political truths” (12). Theses 7-8 focus upon Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger, arguing that her articulation of reconciliation within an evil world is a direct response to Heidegger’s erroneous worldless thinking. The last theses examines Arendt’s final judgment of Adolf Eichmann, arguing that Arendt’s refusal to reconcile with Eichmann’s actions demonstrates the limits of reconciliation and that her demand for his death is a paramount example of political judgment. Berkowitz concludes that reconciliation and nonreconciliation are at the centre of Arendt’s understanding of thinking and judging in politics and that “both are judgments made on the battlegrounds of past and future and thought and action” (33).

Ursula Ludz, one of the two editors who compiled and annotated the German publication of the Denktagebuch, examines one key section in the Denktagebuch for insights it can provide on one of the most controversial periods of Arendt’s life and work: the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the fallout of her five instalments on the trial published in The New Yorker in 1963. Ludz locates the discussion in Notebook XX1V under the title ‘Wahrheit und Politik’ (Truth and Politics). The section has 43 entries and, for Ludz, two merit special attention (10 and 21) as they are directly related to Arendt’s personal case and also note 44 (Weihnachten 1964), which Ludz examines in detail (40). “Like Entry 21, Entry 44 is unique, but this time because it reveals some of Arendt’s inner life, which in principle she keeps hidden almost all through her thought diary” (43). She also notes that Arendt begins the section with two important distinctions: (1) Truth vs. lie and (2) truth vs. opinion (37). Ludz uses the three sections to provide insights into why Arendt chose to respond to her critics collectively and from a distance. Moreover, Ludz discusses what the Denktagebuch adds philosophically to the claim that Arendt apparently understood Eichmann’s banality as a simple factual truth. This is further elucidated as Ludz’s reading examines what constitutes factual truth in Arendt’s consideration of the Eichmann trial (46), a question she claims “haunted the seminar discussion and indeed many of the essays in this volume: What is “truth on a factual level”?” (39).

Wild begins his engagement with the question of whether there is a way of thinking that is not tyrannical. Like Berkowitz, he engages with the themes from the first Notebook, themes that would encapsulate Arendt’s central political concerns of the 1950s. “The question of the relationship between tyranny and thought is a political and theoretical one” (52). Wild is keen to demonstrate the way in which Arendt diagnoses an “unprecedented break in history and tradition” developing new ways of writing and expression that examine the political structure of thinking, especially its reduction to reason and logic. Wild’s reading of the Denktagebuch seeks to demonstrate the way in which Arendt sought to describe what was in front of her. “She does not refer to a pre-existing system of conception, nor does she deduce a theory to present her thoughtful observations. Her way of writing describes a process: ‘to face and to come to terms with what really happened’” (54). Wild identifies Arendt’s approach as a mode which is not chronological, intentional or causal. In the Denktagebuch she takes the word ‘band’ and uses it differently. “It is not the coercive logic of reason but rather the imagination that forms a ‘band between people’” (54). He describes Arendt’s system of writing in the Denktagebuch as creating constellations: “It is a collection and juxtaposition of notes, excerpts, reflections, fragments, quotes, poems; assemblages that establish connections and leave them open, because they are being questioned; or figurations, whose traces are reworked in Arendt’s texts, from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to The Life of the Mind (1977)” (58). This key characteristic of Arendt’s modus operendi, has remained, ‘largely without response” (58).

Similarly, in ‘Thinking in Metaphors’ Cornelissen recognises that the Denktagebuch cannot be read as a book and is better to be thought of as a series of ‘thought fragments’, because there is no single theory or set of propositions (73). He constructs a dialogue between the Denktagebuch and The Human Condition, specifically the way in which the fragmentary nature of the Denktagebuch makes readers aware of the fragmentary nature of her other published work (74). The essay addresses the question of how Arendt “conceives of the activity of thinking without the model of making (Herstellen) (76). Cornelissen locates three different motifs of thinking which he identifies as “condensed meanings, as wanderings through her writings” (76). Firstly, dialectical thinking (the inner two-in-one), secondly, representative thinking as a type of thinking that attempts to ‘represent’ the plurality of perspectives in the public realm preparing the formation of opinions and judgments about past happenings and future events, and finally, ‘thinking poetically’ which refers to the recognition that thought occurs in language, and that the nature of language is metaphorical (77). In her later work, Arendt speaks of ‘meaning’ rather than ‘truth’ and according to Cornelissen, her reflections upon metaphor stay largely consistent (77). He notes that traditionally the activity of thinking is conceived on the model of cognition (seeing or beholding the truth). In contradistinction to cognition, Arendt proposes a different metaphor based upon understanding thinking as an endless activity. Arendt proposes there is a correspondence of thinking to “the sensation of being alive” as well as a cyclical motion, both metaphors she derives from Aristotle (78), yet she admits these metaphors are not entirely satisfactory. Cornelissen notes that rather than search for an alternative metaphor, Arendt shifts her attention to another question – What makes us think? He says “I have always found this a rather abrupt shift” (78). The rest of the essay outlines the correspondences between thinking and political speech (78-82) and the correspondences between thinking and poetic speech (82-85). The essay concludes where it began with the question of how Arendt conceives of the activity of thinking without contemplation (85).

Anne O’Byrne in ‘The Task of Knowledgeable Love: Arendt and Portmann in Search of Meaning’ examines the influence of Portmann, a Swiss zoologist, in terms of their parallel concern with appearance. She notes that the Denktagebuch entries on Portmann “turn out to be entrances onto the realm of life or, more to the point, onto a distinctive and dynamic thinking of life” and she asks the question of what drew Arendt to Portmann’s work and what status did Arendt give the insights he offered?(89). Portmann’s accounts of the natural world paralleled her own approach to understanding the political world. Arendt “engages his work as a fellow thinker of the human condition, a fellow member of the reading and writing public” (90). A key connection reading “through her Denktagebuch notes and The Life of the Mind to his thinking of life leads us to their meeting place in the question of meaning” (90). Arendt brings a ‘phenomenological sensibility’ in reference to Portmann’s morphology and Portmann appears in the Dengtagebuch between 1966 and 1968. O’Byrne notes that early in The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s thinking encounters Portmann’s and that what is important “is that appearances are sensed and that sensing is the province of all sentient beings” (91). O’Byrne traces the scientific tendency to understand the world via truth “but the gap between knowing and being….persists and generates the distinction between truth and meaning. Along with a desire to know, we have a need for meaning, which is pursued through the activity of thinking” (91). Arendt resists philosophy’s metaphysical tendency and regards modern science “as giving new life to this old tendency” (94). “This move beyond appearance is not our only alternative. Indeed, for Arendt, it is no alternative at all” (94).

In “Vita Passiva: Love in Arendt’s Denktagebuch” Tommel claims that the Denktagebuch “is certainly the richest source of her thought on love, richer even than her dissertation about the concept of love in Augustine” (106). She cites passages form the Denktagebuch from May 1955 and acknowledges that although Arendt’s main work concern the active life and the life of the mind, “she did not neglect the personal and intimate life, as it has often been suggested” and claims the Denktagebuch “makes clear that the vita passiva must be understood as an independent mode of life” (107). Tommel asks the questions: “What is love according to Arendt? What are we doing when we love? Where are we if we are neither alone with ourselves nor equally bound to all other people but entirely focussed upon one person?” (108). The chapter seeks to give an overview of Arendt’s core thoughts on these questions. She suggests that “Arendt’s ambivalent, partly paradoxical thinking about love emerges from a – never systematic – differentiation between various forms of love” (109). She identifies four different kinds of love in the Denktagebuch that intersect but cannot be subsumed into a single understanding and says Arendt’s important notion of amor mundi is beyond the scope of the chapter and cannot be understood without taking into account Arendt’s understanding of volo ut sis (118). With regards to love as passion, Tommel argues that Arendt’s separation of love and the world is not as absolute as Arendt suggested, and further, that the fourth notion of love, love as unconditional affirmation, provides further insights into the paradoxical relation between love and the world (109). In conclusion, Tommel notes that like Lessing, Arendt did not feel obliged to resolve the difficulties raised by her work (119) and does not advocate blurring the distinction Arendt made. In fact, she advocates embracing the importance of these distinctions as “it is the plurality of love that guarantees the mutual protection of the public and intimate spheres. We need them both to turn a desert into a world” (119).

Tracy Strong’s “America as Exemplar: The Denktagebuch of 1951” begins with Arendt herself, arriving in America in 1941 as both a European and a refugee. As an outsider, Arendt had been struck by the difference between European nation states and America. Having become an American citizen in 1950, Strong traces Arendt’s scholarly attention in attempting to make sense of what had happened to her, with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism to understanding her new environment in America. He notes that she begins a series of entries in her Denktagebuch from September 1951 referring to America as “the politically new” and these notes go on to become On Revolution (124). Strong outlines Arendt’s concern with sovereignty and what a human society would be if it were truly political (125). He notes that what is striking about Arendt’s discussion is that she approaches the question through the explicit lens of European philosophy. “Thus, she is attempting an answer to the question of ‘can we determine the particular excellence of the American polity by viewing it through the lenses of European thought?’”(125). Strong claims the thinkers Arendt invokes are important as she first mentions Marx, and then Nietzsche, whom Arendt understands as having key roles in the end of Western philosophy, as Marx inverted Hegel and Nietzsche inverts Plato (125). “The point of her analysis of Marx and Nietzsche is to assert that they released thought from its bond to the ‘Absolute’” (125). Strong goes on to investigate what the implication is of Arendt’s claim that contract (or covenant or compact) is the “highest law” and the specific excellence of America (128). His discussion engages Nietzsche, Kant, Derrida and Weber in extending understandings of promising (which is a contract) and performatives to conceptualise Revolution as, in working with Nietzsche, this is something further understood as hyper-performative (131). Strong’s reading of the earlier parts of the Denktagebuch provide us with an understanding of how important America was to Arendt as an exemplar of what the political could be (126).

Jeffrey Champlin’s “Poetry or Body Politic: Natality and the Space of Birth in Hannah Arendt’s Thought Diary” examines one of Arendt’s most central contemporary concepts, the concept of natality. As Champlin notes, the term only appears in the Denktagebuch once before it appears more centrally in The Human Condition (1958). “The puzzling, even obscure, presentation of the term in the Denktagebuch challenges interpretive protocols that depend on a linear development” (144). Champlin argues that the entry ‘deserves attention’ “because it shows Arendt transforming a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative conception of corporeality. Maintaining Rousseau’s attention to the clash of language and ontology, Arendt shows that the body bears a specifically earthly form of freedom” (144). Champlin notes that it is tempting to approach the Denktagebuch from the tradition of western philosophy but he wants to suggest that Arendt’s early entry of natality “requires a focus on its specifically literary aspects, understood as the particular ways in which she constructs it through arrangements of language” (144). Champlin argues that this entry on natality helps us comprehend the striking originality of Arendt’s understanding of politics and emphasises the way in which “a careful reading of the explicit reference to natality in the Denktagebuch and nearby references to figures of birth can help understand how Arendt uses the narrative and poetic dimensions of the idea to expand the philosophical concepts of novelty and change. Natality, as a condition in Arendt’s sense, is related to, but different than, a concept, an anchor, and an ontological principle” (145). Ultimately, “Arendt offers a poetry of the body politic” (158), and as Champlin astutely points out, Habermas’s claim “that Arendt falls back on the ‘contract theory of natural law’ rings false, though. He leaves us little else to support his accusation, and it seems to be a sort of stopgap approach to closing the important questions raised by his description of Arendt’s conception of power” (152).

The final contribution in Artifacts of Thinking is Ian Storey’s “Facing the End: The Work of Thinking in the Late Denktagebuch”. He seeks to explore the last substantive section of Arendt’s Denktagebuch the twenty-seventh notebook. Storey notes that Notebook XXVII is “preoccupied with thinking about ends, and Arendt weaves the multiple senses of the word in both English and German together into a series of mediations on the relationships between thinking, death, and purpose” (162). As Storey notes in the Introduction to the book, “It asks what can be learned by looking on the Denktagebuch as a rear-view mirror on Arendt’s thought as well” (8). For Storey, the mediations in Notebook XXVII, with the central focus upon ends, provides a way of bringing to the surface aspects of Arendt’s published work, particularly The Human Condition and the various iterations of Culture and Politics, as well as providing threads for rethinking aspects of her work across different periods. He notes that instrumentality and the orientation towards particular ends were a key concern of Arendt’s work in the 1950s and 1960s and this explains the rise in the popularity of her thought in political theory and philosophy more generally. Storey moves within the complex interplay of ‘what might have been’ and ‘what might yet be’ when he considers Notebook XXVII having been written in the shadow of the “terrible interruption” of Heinrich’s death and Arendt’s own declining years (176). He poses the question as to whether Arendt’s work on reconfiguring the place of good in the world of appearances may have led to “a new vision of political conscience” or “have become a fully-fledged ethics, in the book Judging that was never to be? Or would this line of reason simply have become mired in all the basic moral dilemmas that “aesthetic” accounts of politics have been accused of creating” (176).

I said at the beginning of this review that it is an honour to have the opportunity to review this edited collection. And it has been. Each contributor provides important insights into how the Denktagebuch illuminates Arendt’s oeuvre and stunningly original approach to thinking politically. This edited collection is especially significant given Arendt’s Denktagebuch is not available in English translation as yet. It means serious scholars of Arendt’s political theory can glimpse into the extraordinary mind of Arendt to further complement their understanding of Arendt’s key texts written in tandem during these particular historical periods. Overall, a crucial and significant contribution to the legacy of the political theorist who is Hannah Arendt.

Sophie Loidolt: Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity, Routledge, 2017

Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity Book Cover Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity
Sophie Loidolt
Hardback £110.00

Emmanuel Faye: Arendt et Heidegger. Extermination nazie et destruction de la pensée, Albin Michel, 2016

Arendt et Heidegger. Extermination nazie et destruction de la pensée Book Cover Arendt et Heidegger. Extermination nazie et destruction de la pensée
Emmanuel Faye
Albin Michel
Broché 29.00 €