The “Social Imaginaries” series from Rowman and Littlefield International aims to publish important works on this and related concepts “from theoretical, comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary perspectives” and with an “international, multi-regional and interdisciplinary scope.”[i] The present volume focuses more narrowly on thinkers its editors see as having provided the basis for philosophical discussions of productive imagination, specifically the continental tradition following Kant (vii). This focus is not meant to be exclusive but rather supportive of diversity and further original inquiries (xii). With this goal in mind, the volume indeed offers eight helpful, well-researched essays; and we may hope that this strong foundation will spark future studies meeting the more global aspirations above.
This review will outline what I see as the central arguments of each of the essays. My goals are to reveal the broader lines of their interconnected narrative and then to indicate a few potentially fruitful avenues for future research suggested by the volume.
One of the volume’s most sweeping essays is its first one, Dmitri Nikulin’s “What is Productive Imagination?” Nikulin situates the modern concept of imagination within the grand history of Western ideas, from the Greeks to German idealism. Aristotle’s imagination, defined as the capacity to have an “apparition of a thing in the absence of that thing,” plays a central role in this narrative (3). Even so, Nikulin notes that Aristotle leaves the imagination’s powers dependent on prior perceptions, and thus his view contrasts with the Kantian imagination’s potential apriority and spontaneity (4). Nevertheless, even for Kant imagination remains doubly dependent: it is bound to sensibility insofar it must offer presentations within the predefined formats of spatial and temporal intuitions; and it is bound to understanding insofar as it constructs figures or schemata within the constraints of the a priori categories (4-5). If the former constraint links Kant to Aristotle, the latter reveals some similarity to Proclus, for whom the imagination adapts the intelligible, Platonic forms to finite thinking (6). In either sense, however, Kant’s imagination, even in his aesthetics, ultimately serves to harmonize other faculties: understanding and the senses. Thus, its spontaneity is always contained by rational norms and the receptive capacities of the subject; it has no completely independent status (11).
Even so, the imagination has a strong grip over us precisely because it can actively overlook its essential dependency. Thus, Nikulin speaks of the imagination as having a “negative” power to deny its sources (14). In this respect, imagination’s supposed originality must be hedged: “imagination imagines that it produces something new” (14, my emphasis). It creates a pretention to positive creativity, even though it is really a “radical negativity” (14). This pretension appeared dangerous to Kant, whose arguments restricted even creative genius to the mere exemplification of rules; absolute creativity he reserved for the idea of God (14).[ii] As later thinkers tried increasingly to free imagination from this Kantian dependency, they steadily severed its link with experience and thus lost the vital relationship between imagination and memory (19).
Two questions come to mind in light of Nikulin’s compelling conceptual history. First, its caution against severing the link with memory is related to Nikulin’s broader point that imagination somehow renders “non-being” (i.e. what does not presently exist) present for us. In Nikulin’s account, however, “non-being” carries the significance of the past, the has-been, or the no-longer (20). In this sense, the question of the imagination’s relation to hope and to futural “non-being” could be raised. I will return to this avenue later, as it is suggested by other contributors.
Second, Nikulin’s stage-setting essay displays the broadly European focus of the volume, with few references beyond that scope. Additional avenues thus appear for research on non-European conceptions of imagination or its analogues. Likewise, within the broader canon, future research could explore the medieval adaptation of the Aristotelian phantasm, and especially its history in Islamic thought. For even the European reception of Aristotle and Proclus is heavily mediated through the Islamic tradition (e.g. al-Kindī on prophecy and dreams; Ibn Sīnā’s explicit distinction of estimation from imagination and his widespread use of imaginal thought experiments; Ibn Tufail’s use of fictional narrative; Ibn Arabi’s “nondelimited imagination”; and so on).
Kant’s importance in the history of productive imagination is of course clear as well, and Alfredo Ferrarin’s essay defends the importance of Kant’s liberation of imagination from its previous role of copying contingent events of sensibility. Imagination now “moves about idealizations and conjectures formulated in deliberately counterintuitive ways, transforms things into possibilities until we establish an invariant core, and plans experiments to verify conjectures” (33). Its emergence in philosophy is thus linked historically with the emergence of the scientific method (32). This link likewise explains why Ferrarin warns us not to confuse Kant’s scientific “productive imagination” with the truly social-ethical “practical imagination,” which is only hinted at in Kant. The practical imagination aims not at understanding objects but at instituting practical end-goals. In the latter we find no “split between independent reality and likeness” as we do in the former (38). (Ferrarin mentions cases such as the constantly reinstituted social meanings of, e.g., bank notes, temples, marriage, and traffic rules.) In general, Ferrarin emphasizes that the practical imagination enables us to grasp alternative practical possibilities; it reveals “the gap between being and possibility, fact and ideal, real and possible” (38). Thus, imagination is necessary for a social critique capable of proposing new norms, in the sense Ernst Bloch and Castoriadis recognized (39). Ferrarin’s essay is thus essential for understanding the way the term “imaginary” is often used in critical theory and practical philosophy and how these development differ from Kant’s scientific imagination. That said, Ferrarin does suggest that Kant’s aesthetics—and other contributors concur regarding other aspects of later Kant—offers hints of the practical imaginary (45).
Moving the narrative from Kant to German romanticism, Laura S. Carugati argues that we move there from an “ontogonic” to a “cosmogonic” use of imagination (52). In other words, for figures like Novalis, Schleiermacher, and Schlegel, imagination provides the basic framework or “horizon” for the experience of objects, rather than merely prefiguring the particular objects we perceive. In Schlegel, this shift liberates the imagination from the aforementioned Kantian norms; and hence Carugati highlights Schlegel’s claim that “because imagination won’t let itself be linked to the world of things […], it can function in a free and independent manner, according to its own laws” (54). Similarly, in Novalis, “to romanticize” becomes an active, imaginal engagement aiming to unite the poles of the various Kantian dualisms (55). The resultant synthesis, known as “art,” is not a mere product or thing but rather a life-structuring “event” (57). Arts, as engagements in imagination, do not merely imitate or reproduce but rather “discover or institute an ordering principle that shapes the original chaos into a romanticized world” (57). In a sense, then, even the Kantian divide between human productivity and divine creativity gets mediated here; art and reality become indistinguishable.
We may note at this point the helpful coherency of the volume’s narrative as it places each figure in conversation with contemporaries and predecessors. This historically informed narrative is again supported by Angelica Nuzzo’s compelling contribution on German idealism. She defends the centrality of productive imagination not only in Fichte and Schelling (where it plays an explicitly important role) but also in Hegel, where the textual evidence for its centrality is much less prevalent. Nuzzo claims that “Hegelian spirit is informed by the Kantian notion of productivity proper to the imagination of the genius,” albeit in a way that gets “extended beyond the aesthetic realm, and thereby deeply transformed” (73). Imagination moves from a merely subjective role into an absolute role as “self-actualizing conceptuality” (77).
Nuzzo’s argument could be reconstructed into four steps. First, Kant’s third Critique suggests that imagination is schöpferisch (and perhaps not merely exhibitive of aesthetic ideas); it creates “another nature” from the given nature of the senses (74). Second, Fichte notices and radicalizes this creativity, such that imagination produces even the “material for representation” (74). And this productivity, Nuzzo argues, is equated by Fichte with Geist. Third, Schelling renders the imagination productive not only of representation but also of the actuality of things themselves, thus giving it the absolute role Kant had reserved for intellectual intuition (71). Finally, fourth, Hegel appropriates but reworks and reverses this “absolute” productive imagination. Certainly, on the one hand, Nuzzo acknowledges that the Encyclopedia subordinates imagination to a merely subjective moment of spirit (76). But this subordination does not stop Hegel, she argues, from adopting exactly the productivity highlighted by the preceding idealists’ account of imagination. Thus, on the other hand, the Phenomenology and Logic, she argues, adapt this very productivity to the role of a self-producing absolute, with the caveat that, contra Schelling, its truth is now said to be revealed only in the end of its development. For Hegel, “no absolute identity, absolute indifference, or absolute creation out of nothing […] can be placed as the beginning-origin of an immanent discursive process” (77). Instead, for Hegel, “the logical determination process is immanently and successively articulated toward ever more complex determinations up to the ‘absolute idea’ that makes the end” (78).
While Nuzzo’s thesis might sound extra-textual, it is in fact very closely defended with links between Hegel’s texts and those of Kant and Fichte. And if we remember that she aims merely to show that “some fundamental characters of the productive imagination […] become constitutive traits of Hegel’s own notion of Geist” (77, my emphasis), then we should be, I believe, persuaded, despite the relative non-centrality of the vocabulary of “productive imagination” in Hegel. Nuzzo’s contribution is likewise essential to this volume insofar as it defends a narrative leading into Hegel that can help clarify our persistent suspicion that there are Hegel-like traces in later concepts often referred to under the broad label of “social imaginary.”
The conversation within German thought continues with Rudolph A. Makkreel’s essay on Dilthey. Whereas Kant’s aesthetic imagination helps us shift from narrow, personal experiences of pleasure to universal judgments of taste, Dilthey similarly thinks that imagination can broaden us and test “how local commonalities relate to universally accepted truths” (92). This broadening occurs partly through what Dilthey calls the “typifying imagination.” Artists, for example, can “articulate” felt connections pervasive in an era by exemplifying them into figures, characters, or events (87). Whereas thinking produces concepts, imagination “produces types” (95). And whereas the historian’s imagination merely fills in gaps and supplies coherency, the artist’s has more freedom (e.g. in fiction, painting, etc.). With artworks, we experience their “typicality” not when we understand something generic about them (like norms) nor when we look at particular, material qualities. Rather, for Dilthey, the typicality of an artwork its “distinctive style.” For example: “The style of a Cézanne painting cannot be intuitively defined by the visible lines and colors […]. Style is an inner form that can only be imaginatively captured by following out the intense interplay of the angular and curved shapes that Cézanne projects into our medial horizon of vision” (96).
With respect to this “inner form,” important for Makkreel is Dilthey’s shift from an earlier view arguing that it is discovered through personal introspection, to a later, non-psychologistic, and more contextualized view that the “feelings of a composer like Beethoven are musical from the start and exist in a tonal world” (99). That is, we must be conversant with a broader system of perspectives and facts (as seen “from without”) in order to understand ourselves or others (101). In this sense, Dilthey accepts the Hegelian concept of objective spirit, with the qualification that his rendition of spirit is nothing that “submerges individuals and regulates human interaction in the overall course of world history” but rather is a “locally definable ‘medium of commonalities’ that nurtures each of us ‘from earliest childhood’” (101). The best way to think about such local “artistic medial contexts” is to consider particular examples: “Beethoven cannot but think of Haydn and Mozart when composing a quartet while also striving to chart his own path” (102). Grasping these larger constellations of sense requires tapping into an imagination that “goes beyond reality in such a way as to illuminate it” (85).
This point about the imagination’s power to “go beyond reality” opens up some important avenues for research on additional figures whose inquiries emphasize similar functions. We might think of Feuerbach’s imagination, with its power to alienate us through negating our dependency and this-worldly finitude. This critical route would of course lead into discussions of Marx and Freud but also through Husserl into Sartre’s early works, which contain, as in Dilthey, more positive valences regarding this “going beyond.” In Sartre, for example, beauty is said to be “a value that can only ever be applied to the imaginary and that carries the nihilation of the world in its essential structure.”[iii] Using the very example of Beethoven, he argues that “the performance of the Seventh Symphony […] can be manifested only through analogons that are dated and that unfurl in our time. But in order to grasp it on these analogons, it is necessary to operate the imaging reduction, which is to say, apprehend precisely the real sounds as analogons.”[iv] Sartre thus engages with two themes central to this volume, namely imagination’s link to non-being and, as in Dilthey (and later in Ricoeur), its helpful role in revealing the world through an “as”-structure.
Next, breaking the train of German thought is Nicolas de Warren’s essay on Flaubert’s diagnosis of human self-deception (as interpreted by Jules de Gaultier). The essay proposes a valuable distinction between productive imagination and creative, novelistic imagination (106). With the productive side we imagine ourselves as something other than what we are and thus become self-deceptive. The creative side, by contrast, which is manifest in the novelist’s art, allows us to perceive the self-deception without falling prey to it. The artist’s perception “becomes a truthful mirror of the world by virtue of the imagination’s power of magnification, or modification, which renders visible what remains otherwise invisible” (113). The novelist shares in a kind of “pure perception,” i.e. an “absorption” in the world rather than a scientific “possession” of an object (113). This pure perception generates the novel almost as a by-product and allows an adult to learn that she falsely “pursues a notion of herself for which neither she nor the world affords” (123). Such false images are not merely epistemically worrisome, as de Warren clarifies, since they also impact the world of our desires, as when a person “makes the world around her boring in order to despise the world even more so as to serve as propellant for an even more vengeful and intense abandonment to the imaginary” (129).
De Warren’s essay brings to mind two avenues. First, his essay links self-deception to productive imagination’s power to deny what we are. Flaubert’s characters are shown to succumb “to the universal fiction of striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be” (107). That said, other contributors raise the prospect of finding positive value in imagination’s penchant for proposing non-extant alternatives, i.e. ones worth striving for. Hence, de Warren’s essay raises the question: Could there be a good version of “striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be”?
Second, de Warren’s essay could perhaps be read as an alternative account of what René Girard refers to as Flaubert’s “novelistic truth.”[v] Certainly, Girard’s and de Warren’s readings agree that “truthful forms of fiction” helpfully reveal the dangers of self-deceit and self-imposed insatiability (110). But a difference may reside in whether we think the novelist’s deliverance from self-deception stems from what de Warren emphasizes or what Girard claims. De Warren emphasizes that deliverance is achieved through the novelist’s share in pure perception, or an engagement with the world prior to and free from socially-influenced self-images. On this reading, the problem behind self-deception is that the “spontaneity of an individual’s self-shaping personality” has become “reduced to a condition of mimetic inertness” in our society (112). Self-deception consists in a person concealing from herself the fact that “she is the author of her own fate” (124). By contrast, on Girard’s reading, Flaubert unmasks precisely as self-deceit one’s belief that one is the unmediated, pre-social author of desires, i.e. desires that would be valid simply because they are one’s own. Under the sway of such a belief one fails to see that one’s desires are always mediated through imitation of others’ desires. The novel offers deliverance in that it allows us to see through the vanity of the “romantic lie” and to critically recognize our own interdependency. Hence, if I understand them correctly, these readings not only differ but pull in opposite directions. I should state that I am not unsympathetic per se to either reading of Flaubert; rather, it is the prospect of a dialogue that strikes me as a fruitful avenue to pursue.
As for an important dialogue that is explored in this volume, Saulius Geniusas reviews the Cassirer-Heidegger encounter at Davos. Geniusas frames the debate as hinging only overtly on divergent interpretations of imagination in Kant. On Cassirer’s reading, the productive imagination is formed and contextualized by its share in an independent understanding and reason; for Heidegger, reason is formed and contextualized by the finitely situated productive imagination (138). But the deeper issue between them, argues Geniusas (agreeing with Peter E. Gordon), concerns their basically divergent philosophies, including their views on moral freedom. Cassirer thinks imagination’s share in reason allows it spontaneity and the power to step back from any finite dwelling. Fundamentally “homeless,” we can use our imaginations to “trespass the boundaries of […] merely natural existence and enter into the domain culture,” where we construct an infinite variety of cultural modes of existence (140). For Heidegger, by contrast, the productive imagination defines our existential-temporal mode of receptivity to a world and thus marks us—in both our knowledge and action—as essentially finite. Cassirer, Heidegger thinks, lacks a fundamental ontology of the supposedly fully spontaneous being who “enters into” cultural constellations; he suggests Cassirer’s view would merely define humanity through studies of different cultural—and merely ontic—contexts (139). Cassirer would thus (re)create “the ‘They’ world and the deeper forgetfulness of one’s ontological roots” (140). In response, Cassirer thinks Heidegger’s basic mistake is to refuse the independence of reason, as a source of imagination’s freedom, from finite imagination and intuition. This refusal, argues Cassirer, implies the impossibility of genuine moral autonomy or the universality of ethics in Kant’s sense (147).
Certainly, as Geniusas shows, Heidegger and Cassirer attain a kind of nominal agreement on some broad issues, e.g. that productive imagination “produces the transcendental horizons of sense, the operational fields, or the modes of vision, which predetermine human experience” (150). But their basic trajectories, argues Geniusas, are in the last analysis “fundamentally different” (151). Cassirer’s view leads him to emphasize the constructive possibilities of a humanity drawing guidance from reason, while Heidegger emphasizes the need, in his own words, for a “destruction of the former foundation of Western metaphysics in reason (spirit, logos, reason)” (151). Even if Geniusas might not persuade some who see Cassirer and Heidegger as compatible, his essay does provide a clear statement of how the deeper projects of each thinker determine their overt disagreements over Kant.
In the volume’s final essay, George H. Taylor mines Paul Ricoeur’s broader corpus for a thesis on imagination moving beyond his merely explicit views. His explicit views emphasize the power of productive versus merely reproductive imagination and show how the former allows us to understand images separately from any concept of originals. This inquiry then helps us grasp how fictions can be efficacious in altering reality (159). As for Ricoeur’s more implicit views on imagination, Taylor draws on texts from the 1970s and 80s to highlight the concept of “figuration,” a term avoiding merely visual connotations and allowing Ricoeur to analyze metaphor (167). In epistemology, the concept of figuration expands on Kant’s suggestion of an ever-present, “common root” between understanding and sensibility. It implies that reality is only ever given as already saturated with “symbolic” mediation (166). “We do not see; we see as—as the icon, as the figure” (170). Similarly, Taylor finds a parallel role for figuration in Ricoeur’s view of human action: no action is just physical motion; each act always points to or modifies some extant role or another (166). These twin “as”-structures thus always mediate for us between sense and concept, or between deeds and their narration (165). Since there is thus no mode of human life without figuration’s various modes, we can never fully leave behind what Hegel calls “picture thinking” (173). All modes of thought or action occur on the backdrop of an already instituted and “readable” world (171).
In this respect, Taylor’s essay points to a question we have already raised. Several contributions caution against the dangers of denying a connection with one’s past or of losing the link between imagination and memory. Yet it is likewise true that what will arise anew for (and from) each of us tomorrow “is not” as of today but rather, if it indeed comes to be, will emerge tomorrow with an unparalleled uniqueness (at least in some stratum of its emergent reality). Does not the human tendency to overlook the newness in each historical moment (emerging in some sense from “non-being”) constitute a distinct danger, alongside that of forgetting the sedimented nature of the meanings and roles we adopt? While this volume does at times speak to this concern, it refrains—perhaps for the best—from lingering on it or on the metaphysical quandaries involved in references to non-being and creativity. On this issue, interested readers might thus benefit from a sister volume in the “Social Imaginaries,” i.e. the analysis of the Ricoeur-Castoriadis debate.[vi] Taylor, it should be mentioned, also helpfully contributed there.
Done and to be Done
As I have indicated, the merits of this volume are clear. It offers a valuable combination of introductory guidance and original theses. It contains helpful clarifications of how philosophical concepts develop through inter-philosophical dialogue but also in conversation with the arts. It likewise opens avenues for exploring the grand, metaphysical question of human creativity in history. If we approach it aware of its deliberate focus on the Kantian and continental tradition, we will see that its chapters develop a coherent “conceptual history” of a core moment in philosophy. We thus have reason to hope that it will achieve its goal of enabling broader studies on productive imagination. And as it stands, this volume’s essays—appropriate to the productivity they investigate—already instantiate one of the volumes frequent themes: human creativity arises in and with a community of contributors, both extant ones and ones hoped for.
[i] “Social Imaginaries,” Rowman & Littlefield International, last accessed: July 24, 2018: https://www.rowmaninternational.com/our-publishing/series/social-imaginaries/.
[ii] Apart from its emphasis on imagination’s mere negativity, we may note the proximity of Nikulin’s account to the thesis of Cornelius Castoriadis’ essay, “The Discovery of the Imagination” (from 1978; in World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, ed. David A. Curtis, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997). Castoriadis argues that fear of imagination’s creativity has led philosophers to attribute the truly instituting power not to us but to other beings (e.g. ancestors, gods, God, nature, etc.). Both Nikulin and Castoriadis seem to me to echo, somewhat divergently, Heidegger’s reading of Kant as having discovered but later denied the radical implications of productive imagination.
[iii] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 193.
[iv] Sartre, Imaginary, 193.
[v] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
[vi] See Suzi Adams (ed.), Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary, London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017.
Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.
Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.
By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).
Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.
Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.
However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.
An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.
Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.
A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.
The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.
The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.
It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]
Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.
One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.
In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]
While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.
One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.
The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.
Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).
Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.
Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.
[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).
[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.
[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.
[iv] Ibid., 53.
[v] Ibid., 51.
[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.
[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.
[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.
Breaking the Ontological Circle
Keiling’s study addresses the following problem: according to Heidegger, philosophy should become totally historical and should totally focus on things at the same time. How is that possible? Keiling provides an answer by developing what he calls “phenomenological realism” through a close reading of central texts from Heidegger’s late period. Phenomenological realism according to Keiling is a “context-sensitive category, asking to orient philosophy towards things” (289) by way of a “basal, pre-ontological, quasi metaphysically neutral reference” (293) to these very things. Phenomenological realism calls for a “thematisation of the real” (348), of res, i.e. things qua things irrespective of any ontological preconception. We will clarify what this entails in the following three sections. The first section gives a rough overview of the book, the second section highlights its central claims, which are discussed in the third section.
The book consists of three parts and an introduction. The fairly substantial introduction lays out the problem and clarifies certain hermeneutical issues regarding Heidegger’s late work. Rather than giving up on the later Heidegger’s texts as ‘mystical’ or otherwise unintelligible, Keiling sees them as legitimate philosophical engagements with the history of being and the thingness of things – two strands of Heidegger’s thought he contends are intimately, though not obviously connected. The introduction also provides a synopsis of the themes developed throughout the book and locates them in a wider systematic context.
The first part, “Phenomenology and Ontology” is in some sense negative as it consecutively disentangles the notions of phenomenology and ontology as well as metaphysics. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Keiling doesn’t proceed chronologically in his reading of Heidegger’s texts but aims to present a coherent argument drawing from sources after (and including) Being and Time. In §1 Keiling establishes Heidegger’s topological analysis of the “end of philosophy” as a meta-theory or “overview” (108) of philosophy, where the end of philosophy does not mean its dissolution but rather the point at which philosophy can look back on its history and uncover the historicity of ontology. Famously Heidegger holds that throughout the course of philosophical thought, being has been understood in different ways, where each specific way of understanding being, namely each ontology, constitutes an “epoch”; Descartes and Kant are prime examples of the epoch of the object or objectification, in which being is equal to being an object.
§2 accordingly contains a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of “epoch” and how it is related to Husserl’s notion of “epochê”. One result of the discussion is that while it is presupposed that different ontologies all conceptualise the same topic (being) or answer the same question in different ways, this assumption of a unitary common theme is in need of an argument without which “the unity of Being [across ontologies] remains speculative.” (123)
That issue leads Keiling to discuss different ways of posing the so-called “question of being” in §3. While what Heidegger calls the “guiding question” calls for a concrete, totalising answer of the form “being is …, therefore all beings are …”, which then constitutes an epoch in the history of being, the “basic question” opens up a pre-ontological, i.e. phenomenological discourse (137). Whenever we understand the question of being as a guiding question and accordingly supply an answer to it, we remain intra-epochal. Extra-epochal and therefore pre-ontological access to the appearance of things is possible only through the basic question, which does not require any answer in the sense of a concrete ontology but, reversely, makes it possible to translate different answers to the guiding question into a common language.
The relation between the basic question and phenomenological accounts of the subject matter of philosophy is the topic of §4. While earlier phenomenologists have simply predefined the “matter of thinking” (Sache des Denkens) by answering the guiding question, thus subscribing to a specific ontology, Heidegger leaves the matter of thinking open by posing the basic question. The basic question disallows philosophy to settle on any specific definition of being and it also prevents philosophy from any claims about being as a totality of beings. If we understand ontology as the business of defining being (or existence) and metaphysics as the effort to think the totality of being, the basic question uncouples philosophy from both ontology as well as metaphysics.
As Keiling writes in §5, phenomenology knows ontological totality only in the mode of questioning (179). This pre-ontological, pre-metaphysical stance turns out to be the expression or effect of a genuinely phenomenological freedom, namely the ability of bracketing ordinary thought (which Husserl achieves through the epochê) or stepping outside the history of being (an operation Heidegger calls the ‘step back’, Schritt zurück). As Keiling points out in §6, this step back is not “sigetic” (201), i.e. no lapse into mystical silence, but simply the stepping back from any ontological projection of an epochal understanding of being unto entities. The step back is the appropriate reaction to the basic question; it lets the open appear as condition of manifestation and within it the things qua things, yet it nevertheless structures this appearance propositionally (200), making it available to philosophical, though non-ontological, non-metaphysical discourse. This discourse is phenomenology, oriented towards the manifestation of things in an ontologically unprejudiced way; it reflects on and negates the bias induced by any epoch of the history of being to enable descriptions that are not ontologically naïve but allow for the ontological pluralism the history of being has established. In Heidegger’s terminology, the critical impact of phenomenology on ontology allows particulars to appear not as “objects” (Gegenstände) but as “things” (Dinge).
This progression from the end of philosophy through the reflection on the two ways the question of being might be conceived of, to a step back, can be construed in two different ways: first, it can be understood (macrologically) as the historical development of philosophy in general, Heidegger’s own philosophy in particular. Yet it can also serve as the (micrological) description of what needs to be done to de-ontologise any given discursive context: through the step back as radicalized epochê, the end of philosophy and the turn to phenomenological realism can be initiated at any moment within a philosophical conversation.
The second, positive part, “Phenomenological Realism”, constitutes a discussion of core issues of phenomenology, starting from a discussion of the canonical phenomenological understanding of the phenomenon in §7. Any appearance (phenomenon) is always of something, it contains presentational and representational elements, most importantly, according to Heidegger’s discussion in the introduction to Being and Time, it presupposes an identical point of reference to understand the very idea that a phenomenon can at first be covered (or not-yet-discovered, unentdeckt), then discovered (entdeckt) by phenomenology or covered over (verdeckt) again. The history of ontology is the history of the way the manifestation of things is covered over by different ontologies. These deliberations lead to a discussion about the nature of phenomenology itself in §8 where Keiling portrays Heidegger’s critique of thinking as representing (Vorstellen) in his reading of Hegel in “The Age of the World Picture” and post-war lectures. As opposed to Husserl, Hegel (according to Heidegger) loses both sight of the transcendence of the things qua things as well as his phenomenological freedom, due to his immanentism. Freedom for Hegel is just participation in or even just contemplation of the absolute process; this however is no the step back (269), but contains ontological determinations of the absolute, namely as of a will. Hegel therefore fails to achieve a proper phenomenological stance.
§9 then consists of a close reading of the end of Husserl’s Ideas I and “Mein Erlebnisstrom und Ich” from the Bernau Manuscripts. Keiling points out that things are paradigmatic objects even for Husserl; they are themselves Leitfäden for phenomenological investigations (314) and their dissolution into their constitutional levels impossible (316, 319). Husserl is himself a phenomenological realist in Keiling’s sense (309, 332). §10 sees Heidegger dealing with Kant as well as the late Heidegger dealing with the early Heidegger dealing with Kant. While the early interpretations lapse into (fundamental-)ontological reductionism, the later interpretations allow for a “pluriparadigmatic phenomenological ontology” (360). For, if “being is not a real predicate”, the reality of things can be discussed without a predefined ontology, including the temporal ontology of early Heidegger. The meaning of predicates is independent of a prior answer to the question of being. This raises the question of how such meaning is to be described. In §11, Keiling turns to language. It is in the variety of spoken and written language(s) that phenomenology finds a first freedom from ontological discourse (386). The experience of things itself is lingual and therefore open for hermeneutics; thus, Heidegger’s realism is hermeneutical realism (406). In light of this interpretation, Heidegger’s infamous linguistic speculations, rather than being absurd efforts at a form of mystical etymology, simply afford different ways of describing thing-ness (420).
The task of the third part, “A World of Things”, is to re-interpret three core-concepts of phenomenology from the perspective of phenomenological realism. Keiling accepts a realistic version of Husserlian horizonality in §12, according to which horizons belong primarily to the thing themselves, rather than our experience of them. Also, the horizonality of things is independent of any given ontology. Keiling identifies Husserl’s horizons with the late Heidegger’s topology and conceives of them as the place where experience takes place. Yet he sees Heidegger himself in danger of trying to reduce things to the metaphysical process of an unfolding of the “Gegnet” (438) or of truth. Similar concerns pertain to the notion of the world, voiced in §13, since Heidegger as well as Husserl stand to fall back into dogmatism or metaphysics when dealing with the world: either it is conceived of along the lines of subjectivist ontology (Husserl), the temporal ontology of Dasein (early Heidegger) or the ontology of the four-fold (late Heidegger). Against this reductionism, Keiling introduces Heidegger’s notion of “worlding” (das Welten) to describe the dynamic interplay of the horizons of things as opposed to the “world” as a unique, definite and static totality of things. In §14, Keiling then treats Heidegger’s topology in the same vain. While Heidegger himself tends to prioritise the spacing of space ontologically, thus degrading the appearance of the things to an “epiphenomenon” (462), Keiling argues that things remain “necessary descriptive factors [Beschreibungsgrößen]” (477) in all contexts of building, dwelling as well as thinking.
II. Central Issues
Throughout the dense and detailed study, two main themes emerge. The first revolves around phenomenology as meta-theory of ontology (a), the second concerns things as necessary descriptors (b).
a) As we have seen, phenomenological realism disentangles philosophy from ontology where ontology is identified as a way of answering the guiding question. Any such answer constitutes an epoch in the history of Being, but according to Keiling they necessarily fall prey to the “ontological circle” (35): starting from the question of Being, we choose one paradigmatic entity or a region of entities to start the investigation. We then – following the ontological difference – focus on the Being of this entity. Under the assumption that Being is Being no matter what entity we look at, we commit an act of “ontological generalisation” (33) through which we arrive at a dogmatic and overgeneralised account of what it means for all things to be. Since this account will break down in the face of entities that are very different from the one whose Being we have overgeneralised, we are forced to go back to raise the question of Being once again. As Keiling notes repeatedly (33, 81, 110, 129, 132), Heidegger himself falls prey to the logic of the ontological circle, firstly when he tries to establish a temporal ontology through his analysis of Dasein, as he simply overgeneralises the temporality of his chosen paradigmatic entity; secondly when he outlines his ontology of the fourfold.
Phenomenological realism avoids the ontological circle in two ways. It eschews overgeneralisation since it is not interested in providing a philosophical explanation of the totality of entities, and it does not try to give a definite answer to the guiding question. This is why, surprisingly, the absolute is still in play for phenomenological realism, although it does away with traditional ontology (and arguably metaphysics and even epistemology as well): the “un-thinged/un-conditioned (das Unbedingte)” (386) – as Kant puts it – is not something behind or above all entities, as onto-theology has it, but the reality of each thing itself. Taken this way, phenomenological realism remains a theory of the absolute, but not of the totality of entities.
This stance in turn enables phenomenology to investigate different totalising ontological claims from a non-internalist but also non-externalist viewpoint (288); it avoids the “encroachment of history” (379) on the appearance of things by simply focusing on how things appear in a given situation, without presupposing any specific ontological vocabulary. In this sense, phenomenological realism is still beholden to the idea of phenomenology as a descriptive rather than a speculative endeavour. For Keiling this also constitutes the difference between Speculative Realism as presented by Meillassoux and his own position developed in the reading of Heidegger, for while the speculative realist sees speculative realism as (just another, although) radical alternative to classical ontology, realist phenomenology can treat different ontologies as possible “patterns of descriptions” (64) of the appearance of things and integrate or reject them due to their respective descriptive plausibility. Phenomenological realism thus guards philosophy against empty speculation by tying all ontological theories back to the pre-ontological appearance of things. This is the central negative claim of phenomenological realism.
b) Things have thereby turned out to be meta-philosophically necessary descriptors: without reference to things as they appear we cannot judge any ontological effort. The main arguments for phenomenological realism proceed along similar (transcendental) lines, insofar as the reference to things and their appearances constitutes the condition of intelligibility for certain philosophical moves: “thingness is the focus of very different contexts” (397). This idea has at least two meanings: an intra-epochal sense and an extra-epochal sense.
Intra-epochal, the experience of things is the “condition of possibility of objectivity” (cf. 435). In things, space and time instantiate themselves. Also, units of validity (Geltung) can only be described if they are conceived of as based or centred around things of experience (210), which is why Husserl’s descriptions of the levels of the constitution of objects presuppose the appearance of the thing as the focal point of those very levels (319). In his reading of Husserl, Keiling goes as far as to state that only the reference to can stop the regress-problems surrounding the Ego (331). Even temporal (fundamental) ontology has to presuppose things in order to phenomenologically explicate different modes of Dasein (374), since things are always already present as that from which Dasein can understand itself authentically or inauthentically. Things are the starting point of most if not every ontological universalisation (376), as the ontological circle encompasses the move from a given thing, conceived of as an entity, towards its Being along the lines of the ontological difference.
Extra-epochal, epochs of Being can only be identified as different answers to the same question if the non-ontological phenomenology of the appearance of things is presupposed. For only the reference to things qua things allows to justify and differentiate ontological theories (336) as different descriptions of the very same things. They mediate phenomenological presence and representation as well as their shifts (397). The concept of the world can only be elucidated phenomenologically if things are presupposed (447). A real “why”-question is only possible for the phenomenological realist, since only the realist lets things appear before applying any given ontological framework (456); only the basic question allows to ask for a (final) ground of something without distorting the appearance of the thing in question.
The study primarily sets out to provide a comprehensive and systematic reinterpretation of the later writings of Heidegger. It achieves this admirably by developing the framework of phenomenological realism as a perspective that allows to read the texts of the later Heidegger as systematic efforts of understanding the appearance of things and its ontological-historical distortions. I will not engage in a comparison with competing readings, although these are discussed throughout the book. However, Keiling himself also locates phenomenological realism in regard to the “discussion about metaphysical and ontological realisms” (16) and therefore raises a claim to offer a systematic contribution to philosophy. As he argues in the introduction, any interpretation of philosophy at some point becomes a philosophical position that is itself susceptible to be checked against what it aims to describe. (5) So instead of engaging with the intricacies of Heidegger exegesis, I would like to conclude this review by pointing out one particularly pressing issue.
This issue is the identity of things. Supposedly things are “invariants of experience, the reference to which requires no identity-criteria” (52). But while it is true that in everyday life we do not need to know a sufficient and necessary set of attributes to reference a thing, Keiling himself points out that phenomenology needs to show that the things it deals with on a pre- or non-ontological level are the same as the objects of ontology (200). So, while it might sound intuitive to assume that one identical thing allows for very different appearances, how do we actually know that two phenomena are of the same thing? How do we know we can “carry over” a thing’s identity from one “explanatory and descriptive context to the next” if the “meaning of the thing” changes “radically” and different “truths” apply to it in different contexts (388)? Keiling seems to lean towards a foundationalist solution. With Heidegger, he stipulates a “definitive context of explication [maßgeblichen Explikationszusammenhang]” (388), a pure experience of things below all “epistemic paradigms” (388), i.e. an experience independent of ontological contamination. Since Keiling assumes with Heidegger that experience is in some sense tied to language (and language to things, 477), this pure experience cannot be conceived of as non-lingual, though it need not involve a strong notion of subjectivity. And as it is supposed to ground judgements about the descriptive quality of different ontologies (482), it should even be conceptual. Yet to substantiate these meta-philosophical claims of phenomenological realism, this foundational discourse needs to be fleshed out and put into critical use over and beyond what Keiling already presents in part 3 of his study.
To me this effort would include not only dealing with the issue of the identity of things, securing a foundation and showing how exactly it grounds judgements, but answering a few of the following questions. If phenomenological realism is not thing-fundamentalism, what other categories – apart from “thing”, “horizon”, “world”, “place” – could be in play in such foundational discourse? Is every thing embedded in a “universal horizon” (431) even in the weaker form of a ‘worlding’? Keiling himself notes that Heidegger’s descriptions are always threatened whenever he tries to establish the truth of universal processes without grounding his accounts in concrete phenomena (476), so the supposed universality of the world itself seems suspicious. Also, is the perspective of phenomenological realism available for all ontologies? Phrased differently: are all objects just things in ontological disguise? What about mathematical objects? Should we speak about mathematical things in opposition to mathematical objects? Or fictional things?
These remarks should not be understood as criticisms of Keiling’s book, since they go way beyond his main effort to re-read the later Heidegger. They rather show that to solve the problem of the identity of things and further develop phenomenological realism, we might need to turn to sources other than Heidegger. Keiling himself hints at the author whose work might be the most promising resource for phenomenological realism: Hans Blumenberg.