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

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

Reviewed by: Francesco Pisano (University of Florence)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh Robinson: Adorno’s Poetics of Form

Adorno’s Poetics of Form Book Cover Adorno’s Poetics of Form
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Josh Robinson
SUNY Press
2018
Hardback $90.00
288

Reviewed by: Michael D’Este (School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester)

In this addition to the venerable SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Josh Robinson seeks to problematize and subsequently re-construct the concept of ‘form’ as it relates to literature – and the sphere of the arts taken in general – through recourse to both Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory at large, and to the precise and manifold studies of practitioners which Robinson gathers from a thoroughly close reading of Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften, including the Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), Noten zur Literatur (1958-1961) and his posthumous projects Ästhetische Theorie (1970) and Beethoven. Philosophie der Musik. Fragmente und Texte (1993).

Robinson provides many of his own translations throughout the book, seeking to preserve and amplify the nuance of Adorno’s distinct German idiom whilst maintaining readability and eloquence. Despite his – unfair – self-criticism in the introduction (22), Robinson has done an admirable job of rendering some of Adorno’s more abstruse terminology, such as erfüllen – which Robinson translates as ‘imbue’ rather than ‘fulfil’ – in ways which retain their literal meaning, whilst allowing him to comment on the tensions or ambiguities inherent in these lexical choices (69). As such, Robinson’s translations do not appear incongruous alongside his selections from Edmund Jephcott and Robert Hullot-Kentor’s work, and in some cases surpass these canonical translations in lucidity. These translations of his own are noted, helpfully, in the list of abbreviated works which precedes the introduction.

The introduction lays out the overall aims of the publication in clear detail, which is characterised by a three-fold objective. Firstly, it seeks to support the development of the ‘New Formalism’ in poetics, outlined by means of tracing the history of this emerging field as it responds to dominant trends in literary theory – the New Criticism of I. A. Richards, Harold Bloom et al., and the New Historicist studies inspired by the work of Stephen Greenblatt and others – which is perhaps best characterised through its approach to the close reading of the internal elements of the text qua historically contingent features and functions, the study of which enables a more textually-grounded literary and cultural historicism. Robinson’s support for this New Formalism comes by way of a rigorous reflection on its underlying principle of artistic form. Rather than accepting the pre-supposition that one knows what is being dealt with when we speak of certain elements of the text as instantiations of the concept of form, Robinson seeks to elaborate on precisely what the ‘formal’ elements of a literature are, and how the consideration of form is itself able to shape the analysis of literary art and artworks.

Secondly, Robinson proposes to support his more practical-critical goal outlined in the paragraph above by way of critical philology of Adorno’s writings. As an aesthetician, Adorno had a “somewhat uneasy influence […] on the New Formalism,” in Robinson’s characterisation (8). In his analyses of music, the visual arts and literature, we see a diversity of uses to which Adorno puts form—as an explication of the activity of a practitioner as they shape the lexical, physical or phonic materials out of which their art is made, as the manifestation of that shaping activity – the artwork itself – and, as the tradition or convention within which that objective manifestation is placed alongside others, the genre which draws different works together. By focusing on Adorno’s claim that form is ‘sedimented content’ in the artwork, and that artworks are “products of social labour[…],” Robinson seeks to provide a basis from which we can think of forms, and consequently what those forms might tell us about the form of life specific to capitalist social and property relations (25-26).

Robinson’s third and final aim is to lay the groundwork for a future study of specific works of art and their attendant form, what this poetics of form may illuminate in the texts and other artworks to which it is applied, and the implications of this approach for the theorising of art’s possible intervention into, and relationship with, society and the political economy.

His first chapter, titled ‘Form and Content,’ goes ahead to critically assess Adorno’s thinking of form through an analysis of the polemical rift between Adorno and Martin Heidegger, noting that although Adorno is guilty of mischaracterising Heidegger’s argument, his issue with Heidegger’s attempt to engage with the question of art is in fact a pointed critique of his method. In Heidegger we see that the question of what an artwork is cannot be answered by starting from the question ‘what kind of thing is an artwork?’ (30), whereas Adorno insists that the artwork’s thing-hood is that which enables it to be more than a mere thing—that their tangible qualities, accessible through sensory observation, simultaneously reveal elements which cannot be fully understood through that sensory observation or ‘anschauung.’ Much like Heidegger, Adorno focused a considerable portion of his writing on the lyric poetry of Johann Friedrich Hölderlin; Robinson notes, however, that Adorno’s criticisms recognise the tendency in Heidegger’s discussion of this work towards a metaphysical separation of form and content, which is then followed by the philosophical investigation of content to the detriment of any inquiry into the form of the work. This philosophical investigation into the content of the work is necessary, posits Robinson, but must begin with what is left behind after the philological analysis of form has been undertaken, in response to the “aspects that are philologically most challenging” (36).

Adorno’s rejection of Heidegger’s theorisation starts here: any separation of form and content in Adorno’s work is first and foremost a conceptual separation which is only ever temporary, and the philosophy which attempts to uncover the truth-content of the work of art thus ought to be carried out in relation to the poem as it is experienced (36) in philological analysis, a philosophy commensurate with and sensitive to the requirements of the work. Such a philosophy would side-step Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger’s method, that it would not ‘infiltrate’ the poetry with philosophy from the outside, risking the possibility that the analysis would tell us more about the philosopher’s presuppositions than the “object of enquiry[…]” (29).

Robinson carries on to clarify Adorno’s notion of form as sedimented content, whereby form is characterised as coming into being as the particular way the artist deposits content in the work:

“Form is thus the result or mark of the process by which the work of art is made, but never appears as merely subjective or arbitrary. […] What is significant for understanding the relationship between form and content is that the separation is arbitrary. […] Sedimentation refers here to a process whereby the content of what come to be artworks […] ceases to be relevant (or even exist), while the objects continue to be made with the same or similar features.” [Emphasis added] (44-45).

As such, if the critic minimises the role of form in the artwork to the emphasis of content, they disregard what the whole aesthetic content of the work is, and simultaneously miss the way in which truth-content in the work is characteristically shaped by the intentions of the artist. Form has its origins in the content of the work of art, insofar as propositional content is only one half of the picture, the other half fulfilled by the formal content in the work. Discussing Adorno’s essay on punctuation marks in the Noten zur Literatur, Robinson suggests we see a clear example of the way in which form functions and takes on meaning, as distinct from the functioning of propositional content in the work. The punctuation in a work does not signify, Adorno insists, but rather fulfils a performative function in that they direct the subjective experience of reading, in that they encourage the reader to slow down, speed up, halt, and so on—and thus the language in the work is “itself[…]” able to enter “into communication with the reader” (52).

Chapter two, ‘Form and Expression,’ continues this thread of argument, investigating the relationship between artist and expression. Form and expression, Robinson contends, are fundamentally observable phenomena in the work of art (67). If form is something which is refined by the work of the artist, as set out above, then it is also that which mediates the expression of the artist in the manifestation of the work, by way of its being imposed on the expressive impulse (69). However, if this is the case, then the observable form of the work is itself a presentation of the expressive impulse within the work; in Robinson’s words, “the form that subjugates expression itself becomes expression […]” an “immediate subjectivity that masquerades as object” in even the most stringently realist work (78-80). There is something of a reciprocity in the work of art, that is, there is a palpable subjectivity inherent in the work, even if the expression which is presented in the work is necessarily seen as an objective content. This formal mediation of expression in the work of art means that the expressive impulse outlined here is distinguishable from that of the individual artist themselves, characterised by Robinson as the ‘subject of art,’ which in Adorno’s words “speaks out of art[…]” and is not merely “presented by it” (78).

This is perhaps best portrayed by recourse to Robinson’s discussion of Adorno’s critique of Expressionism. In attempting to bypass aspects of tradition or convention – and, by extension, form writ large – by way of the ‘intensification’ of the principle of expression, aiming at an immediately “subjective expression as its content,” by means of an “unstylised recording of psychic or emotional content,” the Expressionist work appears as merely a contingent, arbitrary ‘experiential impression,’ as it is through the process of forming that “the subjective presence of the artist exists within the work,” as the subjective power to form which is distinguished from the expression of the subject of art (73-78). In Robinson’s words, through the “elimination of the objective content of expression, expression can no longer be subjective, and at once ceases to express and is transformed into objective content. […] a subject free of all mediation through the object—is no subject at all” (74-78).

Robinson’s concern in this chapter is primarily given over to the notion of mimesis in Adorno’s aesthetics; that the artworks whose realism comes closest to the world are not necessarily works of Expressionism or Realism, considered as attempts to describe the – subjective or objective – world, but rather in the works of artists such as Samuel Beckett, and particularly in the short stories and novels of Franz Kafka, as artists whose works imitate the world and as such draw attention to the process of reification, which “makes the web of delusion knowable” in Adorno’s interpretation (85). In a masterful reading of Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926) and Der Process (1925) we see our own estrangement or alienation “come to expression” in light of the author’s “rejection of the techniques of literary expressionism[…]” in the form of Kafka’s works “their realistic element crystallizes;” that is, in the ‘sober’ depiction of brutal oppression and bureaucratic absurdity alongside the ‘interior’ sensations, thoughts and feelings of his characters we see imitated our own condition of social repression, the ‘scattered shards’ of reality which compose an enigmatic, thoroughly expressive image (82-84). Mimesis, as such, is tied to the composition of artworks and how works make meaning: a specific bearing towards the work, and towards the world. Through the mediation of their particular expression by way of the formal aspects of the work, the examples of Kafka’s work briefly stated here achieve, to paraphrase Robinson, mimetic, “objective form.”

In chapter three, ‘Form and Genre,’ Robinson turns from his focus on the notion of form as it is manifest in particular works to how form is able to offer a way of thinking through the individual work to the shared character of different works. Each artwork that is worthy of the name, Robinson notes, ought necessarily to challenge and redefine the limits of its genre—and as such genre is shown to be historically contingent, characterised by its shifting frontiers. As each artist employs diverse techniques of composition in the process of creation they reconfigure the material available for future artists to shape, with consequent significance for the general category to which the work belongs. Pace Marx, Adorno suggests that artistic production is not a mere epiphenomenon of changes in industrial production, rather asserting that the means of artistic production are mediated through the relations of production, in much the same way that the means of industrial production are mediated through the relations of production. If “labour constitutes the principle means of relating to nature, at once enabling and restricting human life,” then the relations of production constitute the logic by which that labour is organised (100), and artistic labour is just as receptive to this mediation as industrial labour.

Individual developments in the particular form of art have an effect on the ‘universal’ tradition or genre within which it is placed, but this is more than a simple contribution. It is in the aspect of the individual, particular work of art which is hostile to the very notion of genre – the ‘abstractness’ and ‘limitedness’ of the concept –that this “tendency to strive against and break down the generality of the subordinating concept starts[…]”  (108-109). Robinson considers here Adorno and Horkheimer’s treatment of the products of the culture industry as illustrated in Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), suggesting that the significance of the consideration of these products – instantiations of the ‘commodity form’ (116) – for Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory is in their instrumentalisation of art. In short, the commodity form is a means by which the work uncritically assimilates and as such supports the state of things as they are; products of the culture industry are best depicted in opposition to the ‘worthy’ artworks outlined above in that there is an absence of the tension between particular and universal which characterises the individual work of art. By way of their “fidelity to this [uncritically accepted] reality they abandon that which distinguishes them from it, renounce their claim to be different from the world,” to restate Robinson’s explanation (117). Thus it is not the products of the culture industry which are the cause of the taking-up of the commodity form; rather, it is the development of the culture industry and automated production under late capitalism which has caused the shift in socio-economic conditions and thus enabled the commodity form to function.

Of course, it is not simply the products of the culture industry which have been denigrated under this mode of production. In a case which appears as the opposite of the mimetic expression of Kafka’s work, the novel under capitalism has typically served not to draw attention to the reification of oppressive social-property relations, but to be in alliance with reification by means of a ‘realistic’ demystification of the world, an “uncritical absorption of and hence support for things as they are” [emphasis added] (118-119). The universal, generic artistic form, Robinson asserts, develops and evolves in response to the given social conditions of the historical ‘moment,’ conditions which demand a certain expression and ‘mode of address’ of the particular work, manifest in the ‘capitulation’ to a reality which cannot be transfigured under late capitalism (124-126). Those ‘worthy’ works draw attention to this state of alienation, to the “hollowing out of subject and reality,” even if they reject realism outright (125).

Chapter four, ‘Form and Material,’ sees Robinson turn to questions of the relationship between works and the materials out of which they are formed, engaging more closely with questions of technique and process. If “content, broadly speaking, is an aspect of existing artworks[…]” [emphasis added], then the material of which those artworks are created – the colours from which the painting is fashioned, the sounds from which compositions are hewn, the words from which the poem is constructed – can be understood as “in some way pre-artistic, that out of which not-yet-existing artworks are made” [emphasis added] (136). This distinction between form and material and content and material is, much like the distinction between form and content, not a metaphysical separation, but an abstract and conceptual one which again serves to temporarily allow for investigation of the aspects of art which are present in the experience of the work. In Robinson’s words:

“Material can no more be thought of as contentless than content as free from the material in which it is expressed; the meaning of a poem cannot be divorced from the words and sounds and traces of which it is made.” (136)

The physical properties of a given material do not merely lend themselves to the production of a given artwork, but, as a pre-artistic and pre-productive condition from which those particular works are fashioned, must also and to a significant degree determine the way that the particular work – and, by extension, the universal, generic form in which that particular work is placed and modifies – develops. Though these materials pre-exist the work of art, the range of material which appears available to the artist is and must be, as Adorno suggests in the Ästhetische Theorie, “historical through and through” (ÄT, 223). For how could it be any other way? To take an Adornian tack, the material available to the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, such as the stochastic or random process which he applied in his musical arrangements, pre-existed his use of them – indeed, they pre-existed our uncovering of them, considering that ‘stochastic processes’ merely delineates and enables the description of various physical and biological phenomena such as the motion of particles through space – but they were not apparent and available as an artistic material until they were theorised as being applicable in the work of composition, and they did not become part of compositional tradition until the 1957 premiere of his piece Pithoprakta. In Robinson’s terms, “each new composition not only opens up new possibilities but also[…] sets new restrictions for future musical development;” and, by extension, future artistic development in general (140).

Artistic technique and material, for Robinson as for Adorno, are mutually interdependent; technique is attentive to the constraints and “demands of the material, but also by the content of the work that is to be created” whilst the material available for use is determined by the results of prior artistic technique (144-145). Even the most oppositional technique which seeks to fight against “form’s tendency to settle and stagnate” is complicit in the creation of a new form, which will consequently be opposed by even newer forms (147). Technique is not merely an addition to working the available materials of artistic production, but is also present to the future artist as a constraint, inhering in a form which becomes material to be opposed in this future productive activity. Contingency enters into the picture here in the shape of “influences or interruptions from external factors” which destroy or modify the material available to the artist—here one could think of the potential artistic materials lost when the artist’s studio burns down, for instance (160).

In chapter five, ‘Artistic Form and the Commodity Form,’ Robinson highlights “the antagonisms that permeate bourgeois society[…]” insofar as they are reflected within the concept of form (163). In doing so, Robinson is able to bring his discussion to a close through a return to Adorno’s discussion of artworks as products of social labour, characterised not by their relationship to exchange-value through ‘commodity-producing labour,’ but rather as it refers to an activity which deliberately sets out with the “purpose of improving human existence,” the form of human labour prior to its transformation into a type of mutually-reinforcing abstract, alienated labour through the reification of social domination, hierarchy and the logic of the capitalist mode of production (168-170).

Even under the conditions of this society – our society – there exist forms of labour which are able to realise a different kind of sociality (170). The making works of art is such a process, although it is one in which the product is never wholly disassociated from the commodity form—whether that is through the techniques of mechanical reproduction which are deployed in industry before being co-opted by artists, or by the use of tools such as the internet, developed within a military context. It is in the experience of the artwork, however, in our experience of the particular work, that we see the potential of art manifested:

“Artworks[…] exemplify the actuality of a social labour that is liberated from compulsory abstraction […] in doing so they not only serve as a reminder that it is possible to resist the totalising claims of abstract value and its logic of exchangeability, but also present a kind of social labour that does not efface the particularity of the activities that constitute it. […] The artwork as we encounter, experience, and conceive it, that is, is a consequence and a phenomenon[…] of capitalist society. Absent this coercive, violent sociality, the artwork ceases to be thinkable as we think it, as both a mode of resistance and a promise of something better […] Artworks are thus a kind of clearing within a world dominated by instrumental reason, opening the way for emancipation from it.”[Emphasis added] (176-177)

Artworks, in Robinson’s final analysis, come to be defined in opposition to the logic of the capitalist mode of production, yet this is always already a definition which sustains a connection between the work of art and the society in which they were a part; in even the most radical rejection of the principles which govern that society and its mode of production one cannot wholly separate the work from its negation of the society out of which it was created—capitalist social-property relations remain in the work as a trace, or mark, or echo. Robinson’s utilisation of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is a notably clear example of this quality of artworks: freed of the functional rationale of instrumentality in which it would have otherwise been found – in this case, the ‘mens room’ – our experience of the work nevertheless calls to mind the location and instrumental reason from which it has been freed by means of the subjective activity of the artist (179). This recursive and referential relationship to reality is reflected in the form of the work, a reality it simultaneously maintains and abandons, a reality which “form thus helps render[…] thinkable” (179). Referring back to Adorno’s demand “that life imitate art,” we see that the poetics of form which Robinson draws out of Adorno’s aesthetic theory is one which enables the reading of artworks as a means by which the possibility of a different mode of production, and thus a different kind of sociality, is not realised or actualised, but is postulated as possible. This illuminates Robinson’s claim that Adorno’s aesthetic theory is an poetics of “the wrong state of things;” that is, that his reconfiguration of the work of art “opens up the possibility of the emergence of a transformation out of the existing order[…]” and as such, the work of art effects a “formulation of the complexity of the relationship between commodity society and a successor[…] that is worth wishing for” (186-187).

In his conclusion, ‘Lyric, Form, Society,’ Robinson considers the implications of the arguments outlined here, and the elaboration of Adorno’s ‘poetics of the wrong state of things’ for the study of literature. In this study, forms are grounded as “a token or[…] a deposit for a wide range of connections between us and the worlds to which the work connects us: it lies at the nexus of these connections,” the sensitivity to which means that, through our experiential engagement with the work of art, we keep in sight the prospect of a different world, or the realisation of a different set of social-property relations in our present one (209). Robinson’s analyses indeed fulfil his goal of gesturing towards a conception of the work of art, as outlined above, in which particular works are able to intervene into the social and economic form of a given society, whilst not restricting this functional possibility to ‘political’ works of art, or the ‘revolutionary art’ which Trotsky sets out in his Literature and Revolution (1924).

Adorno’s poetics of form appears to present a means by which we can theorise the relationship between artworks and shifts in the fabric of society by imbuing those works with a kind of agency: by means of the function outlined in the discussion of chapter two, these works are able to embody “emancipatory social practice,” clearing away the reification which attends the capitalist mode of production, a means of thinking beyond oppressive social structures towards a “non-hierarchical life in the world” (218-222).

In Adorno’s Poetics of Form, Josh Robinson carries out a necessary and fruitful investigation into the way we think about art, and the potential embedded in particular works. His reconstruction of Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory – considered beyond the remit of his Ästhetische Theorie – is masterful, and establishes a strong foundation on which the thinking of literary form, and artistic form in general, can take place. It is able to stand alongside projects such as Fredric Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms as setting the stage for a contemporary Marxist aesthetics, whilst being of practical value for literary critics and art theorists alike. The immediate criticism which could be made of Robinson’s publication, a choice which was no doubt necessitated by the requirements of brevity and the focus of the project, is that it perhaps gives Walter Benjamin’s arguments in support of Surrealism, outlined in a short paragraph in chapter two, rather short shrift; similarly, his discussion of labour and the creative process in chapter five would have benefitted from a discussion of Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936). For a reader well-versed in the internal debates – both voiced and unvoiced – between the thinkers within and on the periphery of the Frankfurt School, this work was likely in mind, however, for the reader just setting out on their investigation of Adorno’s aesthetics, to understand what he was responding to in his collaborator’s work may provide additional insight into what sets Adorno’s project apart.

These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Robinson has produced a highly readable and accomplished contribution to the scholarship on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic project as it pertains to the question of form, and a thought-provoking reformation of the Marxist theory of art.

David Jones (Ed.): The Philosophy of Creative Solitudes, Bloomsbury, 2019

The Philosophy of Creative Solitudes Book Cover The Philosophy of Creative Solitudes
David Jones (Ed.)
Bloomsbury
2019
Hardback £76.50
256

Jacques Derrida: Theory and Practice, University of Chicago Press, 2019

Theory and Practice Book Cover Theory and Practice
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington and Peggy Kamuf. Translated by David Wills
University of Chicago Press
2019
Cloth $35.00
144

Aaron James Wendland, Christopher Merwin, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.): Heidegger on Technology

Heidegger on Technology Book Cover Heidegger on Technology
Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy
Aaron James Wendland, Christopher Merwin, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.)
Routledge
2018
Hardback £96.00
346

Reviewed by: Florian Arnold (Heidelberg University and State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, Germany)

Releasing Gestell

Our daily life is influenced deeply and massively by technical devices, while their effects on our economic, social or even political behaviour are largely unknown. It seems obvious that we are not yet at the end of the story regarding technology but rather at the very beginning of an unforeseeable change, a downright revolution whose real import only the future will show. Given that technologies always had a crucial impact on human mindsets we have now entered a new realm of reality in terms of a global digitization. What determines this new era as truly new relates to intricate challenges on every field of human activity or thought, touching upon our very self-image as human beings. Can we still take for granted that we only change our equipment without, in turn, being equally changed by it? How can we cope with this new situation? And how can we develop a proper understanding of what is going on around us – or even with us?

In this state of affairs Heidegger’s reflections on technology and his equally famous and opaque notion “das Gestell” have gained renewed attention. For addressing our current situation on an “ontological”, or to be precise: a “seinsgeschichtlichen” level, his approach provides the reader with deeper “insights in that what is” than a mere description of surface phenomena. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing with a technical mode of unconcealing that not only transforms both our practical and theoretical encounters with a mostly concealed world. For in doing so it increases the same concealment to an extent such that we even forget about its very “nature” or “essence” (“Wesen”, or rather “Unwesen” in this case). According to this setting the expectations run high where a publication like the present “Heidegger on Technology” is concerned, which not only lays claim to clarifying Heidegger’s relation to technology but even engages in a broader discussion, following the editor’s appeal “to apply Heidegger’s analysis of technology to some of the most pressing ethical and political problems we confront today.” (8)

“Heidegger on Technology” contains instructive contributions that provide its readers with plenty of insights concerning Heidegger’s development of thought, whether it be its breaks or its continuities. Like any other companion it offers useful hints, much needed clarifications, even congenial interpretations; but also mere recapitulations of already prominent ideas. The book contains 17 articles, starting with a former presentation by Mark A. Wrathall, first given at the University of Sussex in 2016 which is representative for the inner tension between “Gestell” and “Gelassenheit” (“releasement”) both in the outline of the volume and of our time in general.

In The Task of Thinking in an Technological Age Wrathall argues for a reconfiguration of the academic curricula based on a late Heideggerian approach which abandons homogenisation, forgetfulness, and efficacy in favour of what Heidegger calls “thinking”. Wrathall advocates a certain “sensibility” (“Besinnung”, 31) towards contingency and whatever is questionable in our lifeworld, a kind of sense for possibilities and options that we are to choose for the purpose of an alternative way of life: “to accomplish Heidegger’s purposes, an education in history needs to highlight the discontinuities in style, and emphasize the breaks and ruptures between worlds which show those worlds to be lacking in determinate foundations.” (33)

It is worth mentioning, however, that Wrathall does not stop at this point. May teaching first be conceptualized as a close collaboration of learning subjects (which finds an echo in Iain Thomson’s article)[i], he hereafter goes deeper into a “apprenticeship in skilful behaviour” (34) by stating: “All of this suggests that an education in thinking requires a curriculum that includes fostering bodily skills, even if–especially if–those skills have no ready value in the global economy. For instance, the inclusion of sports in educational curricula […] should not be on training a few athletes to play a role in the entertainment industry”. (36) Should “releasement” from the Gestell finally lead to sports in terms of a “non-calculable” flow, representing “the surprising, the genuinely risky, the open-ended”? (36)

In fact there is some evidence that this is indeed a genuinely Heideggerian line of thought, considering his affections for the former German team leader Franz Beckenbauer but also his attempts during his rectorship to militarize the academic curriculum. The latter rather foils Wrathall intentions but at the same time it sheds some light on the inherent dialectics of this case: playfulness seems to be an essential condition of releasement but when it comes to a normative structuring for the purpose of social engagement, like in the case of an academic schedule, the Gestell comes nearer and, finally, the game could be over before it begins. In other words: Unless we are not willing to serve the Gestell, could Gelassenheit remain something else than an end in itself? For taken as a means, instead, we have been already caught in the trap of gamification, understood as the post-industrial revenge of the Gestell, instrumentalizing creativity, inspiration, flow etc. for its own ends. From this perspective the question whether there could be other ways to (re)interpret Heidegger’s notion of releasement, and what they should look like becomes crucial.

Bret W. Davis’ reading of the Country Path Conversations appears to offer such a way: Heidegger’s Realeasement From the Technological Will. In a well-informed recapitulation of Heidegger’s intellectual development since Being and Time Davis shows that the concept of the will plays a central role during all periods. For the will is already literally present in the “umwillen” of Dasein’s care-structure, and thus marks an episode directly leading into Heidegger’s commitment to National socialism.[ii] But it was only after Heidegger resigned from his rectorship and his deeper study of Hölderlin and Nietzsche that he saw clearer: his own existential voluntarism had in a way imitated the ‘will to will’, carried out to its devastating consequences in WWII especially by the Nazis but also by the Communists or even the ‘Americans’. According to this late insight Davis states a “second turn”: “Heidegger’s thought-path also underwent a ‘second turn’ around 1940, a turn from a tendency to think the relation between human being and being (beyng) in terms of will, and a turn to a sustained attempt to think this relation in terms of a non-willing releasement and letting-be.” (136) This willing, however, exhibits a well-known dialectic: the “willing to/of non-willing”, in order to be successful, requires a releasement from quasi any “to”. And while releasement “to” is not under the dictate of being or a result of our mute obedience, every releasement “to” remains a willing, even in the case of a “non-willing” and is therefore no proper releasement (We will come back to this point later).

Following the Country Path Conversations, Tobias Keiling compellingly demonstrates that only in respect to particular beings a ‘will to thinking’ in terms of generalising subsumptions can be overcome. In his radical reading of Heidegger’s “Seinsgeschichte” the notion of “being” itself tends to occupy the horizons of possible interpretations when it comes to singular beings. By presupposing that there is one final horizon of all horizons, we fail to recognize (the basic insight of set theory) that the plurality of things is accompanied by a plurality of ontologies (108), settled in a strictly open “horizon”, and, therefore, open to a transfinite series of encounters. We only get in touch with “things for themselves”, instead of “things in themselves”, or things for us, if we learn to let things be in such a way that we cease our ontological commitment (104). Releasement in this sense means letting, not even letting be – and thus enables, in turn, the freeing of thinking from its own will to think only for itself.  Correspondingly, one could say, released thinking is letting things be ends in themselves, and what is more: a thinking on behalf of things.

So far, so good. But does this apply only to a released thinking in Heidegger’s sense or also to a released thinking of the Gestell itself – a thinking that thinks on behalf of the Gestell by letting it be for itself? Looking for an answer, one of the first things that comes to mind could be the reply: Like science, the Gestell doesn’t think. But like in science, there is still a calculative intelligence at work, even if Heidegger is not willing to call it thinking. But then “was heißt denken”? Heidegger’s general answer amounts to letting beings be as well as thinking led by being. Now, Technology is a mode of disclosure, and the Gestell is the very “Wesen” of technology, a “Wesen” of being, thus even if the Gestell itself does not think, it lets think for itself by leading our thoughts (into itself). So, the question arises: Must we distinguish a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ thinking – as two modes of being’s disclosure?

In fact it is not Gelassenheit whose opponent is the Gestell, but the “Geviert”. And so releasement turns out to be a mere vehicle of transition on the way from Gestell to Geviert. According to this characteristic of Gelassenheit, as a vehicle or device, it shows striking resemblance to Husserl’s epoché, understood as the enabling condition of a phenomo-logic. As Christos Hadjioannou reconstructs in his text Heidegger’s Critique of Techno-science as a Critique of Husserl’s Reductive Method Heidegger’s early notion of a “formal indication” lays ground to his critique of a so-called “care about certainty” (66) in Husserl’s concept of phenomenology as transcendental science: “So, formal indication lets everything stand as is, without referring, without imposing on things any pre-judged order. By indicating phenomena, it unassumingly releases them into the open, allowing them to show themselves from themselves. Thus, with ‘formal indication’, Heidegger attempts to replace Husserlian phenomenological analysis with a hermeneutic praxis that does not objectify, that does not posit any sort of order or classification, that does not assume an indifferent stance towards the content of phenomena, hiding the enactmental character of the philosophical praxis, and that does not slip into an attitudinal/theoretical comportment.” (71)

Sounds familiar. But here we see now that Heidegger, right from the beginning, is engaged in the methodological question of how to let things be, in order to let them show themselves. “Hermeneutical praxis” in this sense shall overcome “phenomenological analysis” by giving things a voice in the conversation of being, whereas Husserlian phenomenology seems to objectify things by quasi scrutinizing them only in respect of its own ‘worldview’. In other words: Heidegger’s methodological ground (or unground) is language, rather than the supposed ocularcentrism of Husserlian phenomenology. Therefore, Heidegger’s own philosophical praxis approaches poetry. Until this reversement from scientific classifications to the inner heart of the named holy, the Geviert, is executed, there will be no releasement from the Gestell according to Heidegger.

A deeper discussion of this relation is found in Susanne Claxton’s Poetry and the Gods. From Gestell to Gelassenheit, and here again, the emphasis lies on Gelassenheit. While not being wrong, this constitutes only one half of the way towards Heiddegger’s language as a phenomenology of poetry. As Claxton herself knows, Heidegger’s evoking of gods, the mortals, sky, and earth within the Geviert is not metaphorical in a pejorative sense. Instead, he truly believes in gods that rise to speak through their prayer-like addressing by mortals. As Claxton puts it: “For myths are not explanations, but rather ways of creatively conceptualizing experiences, experiences felt and perceived by mortals to be encounters with something outside themselves, something that has force.” (238) And later: “A given god, as such, can feel nothing in himself; the god needs a mortal to feel for him. Understood in this way, divinities may be seen as affective powers intending toward manifestations via mortals as embodied expressions thus experienced. In the coming together of mortal and divinity, fullness of experience is achieved.” (239) In other words: What is to be saved from the Gestell are certain extraordinary “feelings” (“Stimmungen”) that are conveyed, articulated, and experienced through a quasi-divine poetical language. These “Stimmungen” need “Stimmen” (“voices”) in order to not be ignored and forgotten. And so, it is not only for the sake of the gods that “Dasein” shall listen attentively to what ‘his’ experiences tell him.

Yet as we have already heard, gods are not the only ones who “need” or “use” (“brauchen”) Dasein as a kind of resonator. Moreover, the question seems to be whether gods simply do not feel or whether they do not think either. If the latter, there could very well be other gods than the mythological ones – for instance, technical ones or what we tend to call artificial intelligences. Without going too much into detail here, it seems quite obvious that they (still) need and are (already) using (“brauchen”) us, as well. Whereas the Geviert, in Heidegger’s view, stands for the holy shrine of the mystery (“Geheimnis”), the Gestell could turn out to be the secular shrine of the “need of needlessness” (“Not der Notlosigkeit”)[iii]. To put it another way: Are we still in need (and use) of Heidegger’s gods? – I’m not sure. Maybe in need and use of others? But why call them gods any longer?

Moving on from the gods some of the contributions to the volume rightly stress the point that there is still a lot to concerning big issues of our time such as the need for a new ecology (Michael E. Zimmerman and Trish Glazebrook) or the outcomes of an “audit society” (Denis McManus). In all the three cases Heidegger’s notion of the Gestell (or its forerunner “Machenschaft”) functions like a guideline to conceptualize what is going wrong, even if there might be no complot or genius malignus behind the scenes. Especially in the case of the audit society we are facing developments that foil the intended results: “So despite audit’s ‘promise of accountability and visibility’ (Power 1997, 127)[iv], there is reason to think it makes it significantly harder to see where power actually lies.” (277) If we cede our powers of decision to anonymous evaluation systems or even algorithms we get lost in our own lifeworld when it comes to human politics.

To be clear on this point, I do not deny that it is crucial to engage in such critiques as supported by Heidegger’s conceptual framework. Releasement is fine and I acknowledge the policy of emphasizing this notion in place of the Geviert. Yet I side with McManus here when he asks at the end of his chapter: “even if we accept that Heidegger’s diagnosis of our contemporary situation sheds light on the phenomena that Power describes, is it the best diagnosis?” I think it is one of the best, and two out of four names which McManus mentions subsequently even based their own diagnosis on Heidegger’s (Foucault and Arendt, while Marx and Weber undergo Heidegger’s critique). The only question I am asking here is, how far one can get, sticking to Heidegger original attempt. Of course, there are still points to be made, for instance, against Habermas, when Julian Young points out that a Habermasian communicative rationality ignores a certain “need for dwelling” (205 et passim). Or when Aaron James Wendland shows that the Kuhnian concept of “paradigm shifts” still emphasizes assimilation tendencies after the break where Heidegger rightly sees a needful release (297). And even when Taylor Carman, regarding the controversy between Heidegger and Heisenberg, argues that ‘science still doesn’t think’ because of its reductionist concept of “physis” (309 et passim). But does this lead to Heidegger’s final insight that only a god can save us–a god of poetry and a poetry of gods?

I am afraid it does, but only if we accept that Hölderlin is the greatest poet and that dwelling means to ensconce oneself in Heidegger’s ‘house of being’, viz. in his private language of thinking under the advice of being, including his idiosyncrasies, wrong etymologies, and ‘mystery’ lecture performances. Then we might believe that we live in times of the “Not der Notlosigkeit” in an era of a self-accomplishing forgetfulness of being, of self-deceit, which manages to ignore its own need to be saved. And even today there are still several believers among Heidegger’s readers. But maybe (according to Heidegger’s late reticence) there will be no saving needed anymore. Not because everything is just fine, but because the Gestell, along with its essence, the “danger” (“Gefahr”), could be in itself already the saving (“Rettung”)–not the saving from it, but the saving for itself. In other words: Could there be a saving of the Gestell by letting it be (for itself)? Having said this, what would this actually mean?

There is one moment in his Bremen Lectures where Heidegger comes close to this point: “Das Wesen der Technik ist das Seyn selber in der Wesensgestalt des Ge-Stells. Das Wesen des Ge-Stells aber ist die Gefahr. […] Die Gefahr ist das Ge-Stell nicht als Technik, sondern als das Seyn. Das Wesende der Gefahr ist das Seyn selbst, insofern es der Wahrheit seines Wesens mit der Vergesslichkeit dieses Wesens nachstellt.“ (GA 79, 62)

Can being be forgotten, or even forget itself? In this passage Heidegger reflects on the essence not only of the Gestell and on what is meant to be the Gefahr, but also on the essence (or ‘the essenceing’ = “das Wesende”) of the Gefahr: “das Seyn” being after itself (“nachstellen”), and in so doing, disguising (‘verstellen’) itself with the “Ge-Stell”. Hence, the danger is, according to Heidegger, that there seems to be no danger. Like the “need of needlessness”, Heidegger conceives of a danger of “safety” (“Gefahrlosigkeit”, literally ‘dangerlessness’). According to its own dialectics, the essence of danger is un-essence (“Unwesen”), an essence (“Wesen”) that denies itself and in doing so finally would become the ‘essencelessness’ (= “Wesenlosigkeit”) of being, if it is not recalled by Dasein anymore as the danger of being or the threat of its own forgetfulness.

To let the Gestell be for itself would therefore mean not to ignore the danger of forgetting, but to recognize the danger of forgetting as that what it truly is: our fear of death, angst. The real danger seems to be that not even danger will remain when we are gone. But that is probably going to happen. In contrast, the inherent ‘nihilism’ of the Gestell reminds us not of death, but of the forgetfulness of death (expressed through the loss of angst). As a result, the threat to Heidegger’s own thinking, as a permeant contemplation of the meaning of death, is simply that it could be pointless–because of the meaninglessness of death. This, in turn, doesn’t mean that there is no being and yet it means that the meaning of being is not necessarily the being of meaning, or what Heidegger would call the “Ereignis” of meaningfulness.

To conclude I return to the Country Path Conversations and listen to what Steven Crowell has to say about the correlation between “Sein” and “Dasein” in his chapter: The Challenge of Heidegger’s Approach to Technology. A Phenomenological Reading: “The first thing to note is that Heidegger’s attempt to overcome representational thinking does not abandon correlationism […]. Heidegger is quite clear about this: ‘das Seyn braucht den Menschen’ (GA 65: 261), the worlding of world requires the thinking being (GA 77: 147). But one might wonder whether Heidegger’s late notion of thinking as the ‘indwelling releasement to the worlding of world’ retains the feature of the care-structure that […] is the phenomenological ground of meaning–namely, trying to be (Worumwillen). Is the ‘relation to the essence of the human being’ that allows the Open ‘to be as it is [wesen…wie es west]’ (GA 77: 146), a relation that involves my being at issue in trying to be a thinker?” (89)

In the last sentence before this passage Crowell added an endnote. In this endnote Crowell replies to Quentin Meillassoux in defence of Heidegger’s correlationism: “Calling something an arche-fossil or a hammer or an electron–or a jug or a Gegnet or a Geviert, for that matter–has a determinate meaning only in a normative context grounded in the speaker’s commitment. The ‘realism’ which opposes this is perfectly suited to Ge-stell since, by denying the correlational conditions of meaning, it does away with meaning altogether and bottoms out in nihilism.” (94)

This punchline is remarkable, not primarily, however, as a critique but rather in the sense that Crowell laudably clarifies the relation (or correlation?) between a so-called “speculative realism” (or in the case of Meillassoux: speculative materialism) and the prevailing Gestell. Indeed, we are living in the Gestell, and Meillassoux somehow approves this insight by transcending every correlationism stemming from an anthropocentric vision of thinking. Now, is there a contradiction implied in what Crowell refers to? So far as I can see, none that Meillassoux hasn’t already dealt with elsewhere. Instead, there are consequences that concern not least the Heideggerian concept of releasement. Whereas Heidegger tries to free thought from the Gestell in order to gain a free relation to technology, speculative realism takes the opposite view: the freeing of thought from “Dasein”.

There still might be “the correlational conditions of meaning” but only for us as a species which cannot cease to make sense of everything, even nothing. But unfortunately that does not guarantee that beyond human comprehension meaning exists at all. Instead, we are today facing a situation wherein an intelligent form of calculation takes command without any proper understanding of its own agenda. And the same holds for philosophical speculations on the necessity of contingency, necessitating us to think the end of thinking as a possible, although unthinkable event (or rather “Enteignis”). Therefore, to talk about releasement under present conditions points, if anything, to a releasement into “nihilism” – according to our human, all-to-human presuppositions and expectations. Even though this does not mean that meaning does not mean anything to us, we find ourselves alone, surrounded by silicon and silence.

The German term “Gelassenheit” has its Latin equivalent in the Christian notion of “resignatio”. What in English still echoes the expression “resignation” or “resign” is translated into German as “Entlassung” – another, often unmentioned morphological derivation of “lassen”. Could it be that Heidegger’s own “releasement” from onto-theo-technology only renamed his resigning, his resignation by the Gestell, seine Entlassung durch die Seinsgeschichte? In this case he would have been the first and last thinker of the complete “Enteignis”: ‘The end of philosophy and the task/capitulation (“Aufgabe”) of thinking’ within the Gestell…a releasement from a self-annihilating being (“Sein”), and into a new substantial commitment with beings (“Seienden”)…the reversal from resigning to designing?


[i]See Technology, Ontotheology, Education, p. 185: “At the heart of Heidegger’s reontologization of education is a rethinking of what is called ‘learning,’ in which teaching itself becomes ‘the highest form of learning,’ an exemplary art of ‘learning-in-public,’ from which students learn how to learn by example, and learning comes to stand higher than being learned or knowing. (In what I have called ‘the pedagogical truth event,’ teachers learn to come into their own as teachers by showing students how to disclose the being of entities creatively, responsively, and responsibly, thereby helping students, things, and being all come into their own together.)” This “pedagogical truth event”, as Thomson calls it, seems to be already a common praxis, especially in demographic societies where youthfulness represents a rare good, whereas maturity is believed to be a kind of sale out.

[ii]For a closer reading of Heidegger’s thinking having an affair with National Socialism see Aaron James Wendland contribution to the present volume: Heidegger’s New Beginning. History, Technology, and National Socialism.

[iii]The German expression “Not” has also the connotation of “misery”.

[iv]McManus is quoting the inventor of the term “Audit Society” Michael Power in his book: The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.

Elizabeth Burns: Continental Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University Press, 2018

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2018
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Martin Heidegger: Réflexions II-VI. Cahiers noirs (1931-1938), Gallimard, 2018

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J.-S. Hardy, S. Camilleri (Eds.): Ens mobile: Conceptions phénoménologiques du mouvement, Peeters, 2018

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David Johnson: Watsuji on Nature: Japanese Philosophy in the Wake of Heidegger, Northwestern University Press, 2019

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Eugen Fink: Sein, Wahrheit, Welt, Karl Alber Verlag, 2018

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