Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential figures in 20th century philosophy but also both a member of the National Socialist party and a committed antisemite. That such a controversy would generate a substantial amount of scholarship is not surprising, and yet Mahon O’Brien’s Heidegger, History and the Holocaust attempts to break the trends of the usual works that deal with this highly contentious issue. In O’Brien’s view, the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s philosophy is an emotionally charged debate that fails to truly get to grips with the content of Heidegger’s philosophy. This philosophy is one that he justifiably finds ‘profound’ (4), and yet he has no delusions regarding whether Heidegger was a Nazi or antisemitic. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of taking sides in the debate which in the process eclipses the critical engagement necessary to understand the nature of Heidegger’s commitments to National Socialism and his antisemitism, and the implication of this for his thinking. It is precisely this trap that Heidegger, History and the Holocaust sets out to avoid. In the discussion that follows, however, there are other traps that O’Brien leaves himself vulnerable to.
In the first chapter, ‘Re-assessing the “Affair”’, O’Brien reviews some of the scholarship surrounding Heidegger’s political affiliations in order to explore how the controversy has unfolded. He argues that those who want to dismiss Heidegger’s philosophy on account of his political affiliations (the assumption being that it is intrinsically fascist) betray a kind of ‘victor’s morality’ (12), where the everyday, banal evils and the more overt evils of both the allies and our contemporary world are ignored. O’Brien’s reminder to step back from our own historical world and draw attention to the evils we regularly participate in is not meant to condone the horrific and abysmal acts of the Holocaust. That is, the repugnancy of Nazism is beyond dispute, but O’Brien is pointing out that the people who fought against them were not ‘faultless paragons of virtue’ either (13). This position does risk diminishing the specific horror of the Holocaust, but it is utilized by O’Brien to take on scholars such as Zimmerman who argue that the Holocaust was a singular event belonging to the Germans. On the contrary, O’Brien claims that the Holocaust is a horrific but complex story that extends beyond the borders of Germany. Framing the debate in this way, he is given cause to defend one of the only statements by Heidegger on the Holocaust:
Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving or countries. The same as the production of hydrogen bombs. (as quoted on p. 24)
Dubbed the ‘agriculture remark’, this statement has generated much controversy due to its suggestion that the horrors of the Holocaust are no different than the horrors of the mechanized food industry. This passage, written in context of Heidegger’s confrontation with the essence of technology, is the basis of O’Brien’s second chapter, ‘The Essence of Technology and the Holocaust’. On the surface, it appears as a highly insensitive claim that suggests a lack of remorse for the victims of the Holocaust. On the contrary, however, O’Brien believes that Heidegger’s work on technology should be ‘interpreted as a robust confrontation with the Holocaust’ (23). His strategy here hinges on drawing attention to Heidegger’s use of the word ‘essence’. For the claim that agriculture, the hydrogen bomb, and the Holocaust are the same ‘in essence’ is very different than saying they are identical, morally or otherwise. For Heidegger, the essence of something is ‘what holds sway within it such that it appears as what it is’ (39). This essence, for Heidegger is Gestell, or ‘enframing’, the technological deployment of the meaning of being into which we in the contemporary world are ‘thrown’. That is, Heidegger is trying to tell us something about the way in which things appear for us in our given historical epoch. Thrown into a world of Gestell, humanity succumbs to seeing things as ‘standing reserves’, that is, things (and people) are ‘revealed’ in relation to how efficient and optimized they are for our use. Hence, the specific way in which phenomena in our contemporary world is generally understood—or ‘revealed’ in Heidegger’s language—lends itself to the production of the atom bomb, the mechanized food industry, and, at its worst, atrocities such as the Holocaust.
O’Brien does not only draw from Heidegger, however, but also explores some of the memoirs of Nazi officials. In doing so, we witness the way in which the Jewish people were interpreted by the Nazis as pests to be exterminated. As O’Brien points out, the phrase the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ is particularly telling. This chilling phrasing expresses how ‘the inmates at the camp were revealed […] as practical, logistical problems that could be approached as one would approach an infestation of rodents or vermin within a factory’ (33) . The Heideggerian warning is that in the age of the technological dispensation of being this way of seeing lends itself to the horrors that occurred in Auschwitz. It is O’Brien’s contention that by viewing the Holocaust as a singular event specific to the German people we miss this sinister occurrence of truth that Heidegger diagnoses as part and parcel of our historical world. He thus presents the case that far from being dismissive of the horrific treatment of the marginalized in Nazi Germany, Heidegger offers us an analysis that may not only aid us in preventing the reoccurrence of something so morally repugnant, but also give us the tools to properly resist alternate expressions of its essence in our own time.
For my own part, nonetheless, although O’Brien’s efforts to show the relevance of Heidegger’s diagnoses is thought provoking, the existential gap between a philosophical analysis of essence and the lived suffering of those who were subject to the atrocities of the Nazi regime seems problematic. As I discuss in a footnote above, even the language of ‘reveal’ [zeigen] could serve to further de-humanize the marginalized and eclipse the responsibility of those involved in the atrocities that occurred in the Nazi regime. This, of course, raises the issue of Heidegger’s silence, his refusal to offer a public apology for his support of the regime. O’Brien’s solution to this is to draw our attention to the ‘lose-lose’ (19) situation Heidegger was in. A public apology would be an admission of guilt, which in turn would eclipse the far greater danger Heidegger wanted to warn us of. Perhaps this is a moment where our commitments to an idea can cause one to lose sight of the concrete and particular suffering in the lived experience of an individual. O’Brien’s later discussion of Heidegger’s rather unfavourable character might testify to this lack of empathy (117-124).
Chapter three moves to examine the charge against Heidegger of being a dangerous ideologue, given that critical scholarship often dismisses him on the assumption that he is just another member of the German Conservative Revolutionary Movement. Here O’Brien concedes that Heidegger does borrow some of the ‘motifs’ and ‘symbolism’ (71) of his contemporaries, such as Spengler and Jünger, but he makes a convincing case that philosophically Heidegger is far removed from the reductive and simplistic, and often dangerously racist, views of these intellectual counterparts. Here, we are reminded that identity of terms is not the same as identity in concepts, that is, that just because both Jünger and Heidegger are concerned with the role of technology in our age this does not mean that philosophically their reasons and solutions to this concern are the same. At times, however, I am left wanting for greater critical engagement with why Heidegger chose to express his philosophy through the language of the ideologues of his time, and the significance of this for a thinking which differs philosophically. O’Brien spends the first part of the chapter exploring the criticisms of the likes of Adorno, Bordieu and Zimmerman, showing in what way their issues with Heidegger’s conservatism fail to miss the content and significance of his philosophy. Having done so, O’Brien is free to move on to address some of the problems he sees in Heidegger’s conservatism, for he is aware that there are ‘genuine flaws’ in this ‘onslaught against modernity’ (48).
There is a great surprise lurking in this next part of the chapter. With its strong criticism of ‘will’, it is easy to assume that Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit is born out of his attempts to come to terms with what went wrong during the National Socialist regime in Germany. This concept is also born out of Heidegger attempts to confront the technological view of the meaning of being, and so offers us a potential way out of the force of its Gestell. O’Brien points out, however, that even as late as the 1950s this concept is entrenched in Heidegger’s idea of the ‘authentic rootedness of the people’ (72). Although the case might not be so evident by 1950, in the 30s it is clear that this idea of rootedness had ethnic ramifications, and given that the Black Notebooks show that Heidegger saw the Jewish people as the acme of a calculative thinking and this as a loss of the rootedness in the earth, the seemingly progressive notion of Gelassenheit becomes shrouded in doubt.
In the next chapter, ‘The Authentic Dasein of a People’, O’Brien returns to the roots of Heidegger’s notion of rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) through his analysis of the authentic community in Being and Time. Described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ (77), the author argues that the undeniably racist implications of Heidegger’s understanding of an authentic community rely on a number of arbitrary moves in his thinking. That is, O’Brien makes the case that Heidegger’s shameful prejudices are at odds with his own philosophy. Drawing our attention to Heidegger’s discussion of authentic community in Being and Time, O’Brien argues that in the notions of ‘leaping-in’ and ‘leaping-ahead’ (79) there is the potential for the development in Heidegger’s thought toward the recognition of the universal condition of finitude that is taken up in the particular historical situation one is thrown into. The inauthentic ‘leaping-in’ that Heidegger understands as the customary way we interact with others denies them the recognition of their finitude, whereas ‘leaping-ahead’ allows both individuals to be who they are (as finite beings toward death) in relation to the project at hand. Of course, my use of the word ‘individual’ here is problematic for this discussion rests on Heidegger’s conception of the human being as Dasein, a being which is primarily related to its self, world and others. As far as Heidegger is concerned Dasein is not an individual at all precisely because it is not indivisible from the historical situation it is thrown into and the others it shares this with, until, of course, it faces its finitude in the experience of anxiety-toward-its-own-death. Nonetheless, O’Brien exploits a strange ambiguity in Heidegger’s description of the social constitution of Dasein, where Heidegger rather bizarrely tries to argue that despite this primary social constitution Dasein is also ‘in the first instance’ unrelated to others (80). O’Brien contends that it is this ambiguity in Being and Time that allows Heidegger’s thought go awry in the 1930s. This is because in Being and Time Heidegger ends up, in some fashion at least, privileging the individual that he at the same time shows to be phenomenologically inappropriate. When his understanding of Dasein in the 30s becomes the Dasein of the nation, this privileging of the individual gets taken up as a privileging of a particular nation. Conveniently, this nation is the German one. Heidegger now thinks that Europe lies between the ‘pincers’ of Russia and America, and it is up to the Germans to save it, through a ‘repeat’ and ‘retrieve’ [Wiederholen] of the ‘historical-spiritual Dasein’, a task for the preserve of the Germans as the most metaphysical of people (85-87). Heidegger’s racism is thus not biological but spiritual, and one that O’Brien contends denies the implications in Heidegger’s thought of the shared history I have with others in my ‘cultural and intellectual milieu’ (88), a notion that an appropriate understanding of ‘leaping-ahead’ would have made apparent. Why are the Jewish people of the German nation denied their part in the historical-spiritual destiny of the German people?
O’Brien’s last chapter turns to Heidegger’s racism, and although the author’s use of the poetry of Kavanagh and Heaney gives rise to some of my favourite moments in this short work, it also seems to be the book’s most problematic chapter. It deals with a number of key seminars and works from the 1930s such as Nature, History, State and the Origin of the Work of Art. Major problems lurk in Nature, History, State, where Heidegger begins to conceive of historical Dasein as a Volk, thought of in terms of ‘mastery, rank, leadership and following’, where a Volk proper is only so in relation to the state (102/103). The ambiguity that O’Brien notices in Heidegger’s thought makes a return, however, for Heidegger also points out that wherever humans go we root ourselves in the soil. As such, the spiritual-ethnic chauvinism of Heidegger seems to briefly lift itself. Heidegger has always favoured the provincial, and through drawing on the poetry of Heaney and Kavanagh O’Brien offers a compelling case for why this provincialism is not necessarily problematic. He sees in Heaney, for example, an expression of the worlding of the world through a relationship with the earth that Heidegger explores in On the Origin of the Work of Art. These poets explore this tension between the universal and the particular, but give us the means of realizing that through our particular, historical and concrete struggles we are connected to all human beings as others who are thrown into the world and projected toward their end. This is of course the same latent possibility that O’Brien sees in Heidegger’s thought, but because of Heidegger’s insistence of the primacy of the particular over the universal O’Brien believes Heidegger’s thought went astray. People may indeed root themselves wherever they go, but in Heidegger’s account it is those rooted in German soil that are superior. The universal dimension that O’Brien finds in Heaney and Kavanagh is denied in Heidegger’s account of the artwork also, as the artwork is a purely regionally specific occurrence. Given that the work of art allows meaning and truth to emerge for Heidegger, O’Brien asks what the implications are ‘for a people [in this instance, the Jewish people] who are [according to Heidegger] worldless and without history?’ (112) O’Brien does not answer this question, but the implications are obvious and distressing.
Nonetheless, I am left wondering why the implications of this are not discussed in greater detail. Furthermore, there are some troubling moments where it is suggested that Heidegger’s friendship with other Jewish people at least somewhat obscures his commitments to his antisemitism (121, 132). Of course, dealing with antisemitism, particularly in such an important thinker, is a sensitive and difficult topic. O’Brien’s work is an important contribution to the growing debate around Heidegger’s political and ideological sympathies. However, perhaps O’Brien’s commitments to the resources in Heidegger’s thought that for O’Brien deny racism cause him to underplay at times the devastating role that Heidegger’s racism wreaks on this thinking. For, although Heidegger’s philosophy might on the one hand suggest that we should never deny someone their essence as a thrown projector, this is nonetheless precisely what he ends up denying the Jewish people. We may dismiss this as a personal prejudice that can be separated from his thinking, but this becomes increasingly difficult when, for example, passages of the Black Notebooks claim that ‘World Jewery’ is ‘grounded’ in the very calculative thinking and ensuing worldlessness that Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit attempts to resist. Furthermore, given that O’Brien does a good job of unearthing Heidegger’s specific form of antisemitism, I am left unconvinced that this ‘spiritual’ racism is indicative of the ‘garden variety’ racism (132) that O’Brien charges him with at the end of this work precisely because such a version of racism would seem to be more deeply rooted than the version of biological racism that was more prevalent at the time. That is, Heidegger does not dismiss the Jewish biology as defective as many who bought into the Nazi ideology of the time believed, but instead denies the Jewish person their Dasein. This problematizes one of the central tenets of O’Brien’s case—that Dasein is a universal condition of being human. For this is precisely what Heidegger denies in various works of the 1930’s, such as the Contributions to Philosophy. Here, Dasein is understood as a condition that we must ‘leap’ into, and we now know from the Black Notebooks that this is a possibility that for Heidegger is unavailable to the Jewish people. The troubling implications of this is not brought to the level of critical scrutiny that O’Brien shows himself capable of at other moments in this work. The sentiment that we are left with, however, is that through a proper and critical engagement with his thinking we are not de facto led to a racist ideology, although there is no doubt that Heidegger himself insists that his philosophy and politics are intertwined at some fundamental level. Thus, O’Brien’s study successfully makes the case that Heidegger’s attempt to reconcile the two is problematic.
We must not forget, however, that despite the problems in doing so Heidegger did try to reconcile the two. We can, if we wish, dismiss this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy, but it is nonetheless a part of its legacy. I welcome O’Brien’s attempt toward a reconstruction of Heidegger’s philosophy. His project, one of critically engaging Heideggerian discourse through delicacy, warranted suspicion, but a certain amount of good will, is bound to bear fruit for Heideggerian scholarship. But I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that despite setting out to do otherwise there is an attempt in this work to find a sanitized Heidegger, as if his revolting prejudices can be weeded out of his philosophy. There is only one Heidegger, and his philosophy will (and should) continue to inspire, provoke, and propel thinking. But the man himself was an ethnic chauvinist and an antisemite, and his attempts to reconcile his philosophy with his prejudices have stained the possibilities of his thought.
His emphasis. It is important to note that ‘revealed’ is not meant to invoke some sort of ‘true’ (in the usual sense of the term) reality coming to appearance, but simply the way in which the appearance is at a given time. In this view, the appearance gets its stability from a given historical movement of ‘truth’ (in Heidegger’s sense of the term), but this truth is not guaranteed or grounded by any transcendent source, such as a God, for example. As such, to say the Jewish people were ‘revealed’ as ‘pests to be exterminated’ is not meant to suggest that this revealing shows anything intrinsic (or truthful, in the usual sense of the term) about Jewishness. Instead, it is meant to suggest something highly problematic about the way in which the world reveals itself to us in our contemporary historical world, where things ‘show up’ as ‘standing reserves’ to be made efficient and optimized. Although phenomenologically justifiable, that the language used to express this (i.e. how the world ‘reveals’ itself) could be utilized to avoid responsibility is not brought under critical scrutiny in this work. That is, Heidegger, or O’Brien’s defence of his position here, has the potential to be used to justify the atrocities of the Nazi regime by arguing that it was simply the way the world was revealed to them at the time and, as such, one bears little responsibility for the horrors committed. Although this is certainly not what O’Brien intends it is a problematic worth drawing attention to.
O’Brien’s discussion in a later chapter of Heidegger’s appropriation of the term Volk touches on this problem somewhat (98-105).
In the first of these instances, O’Brien is quoting Hugo Ott. The second is his own, but afterwards he concedes ‘And yet […] he once insisted that there was indeed a dangerous international alliance of Jews, a belief which he expresses again in his notebooks from the 1930s.’ Although both these instances are not central to his argument, it is a dangerous and distasteful defence to bring into play.
Cf., for example, GA 95: 97 (Überlegungen VIII, 5), trans. by Richard Polt in ‘References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938-1948’, available at https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948 [last accessed 05/04/2017 at 15:39].
One assumes that what O’Brien means by this is that Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his ‘garden-variety’ racism with his philosophy, one that could not so easily accept the prevalent ‘blood and soil’ ideology at the time, causes him to develop the ‘spiritual racism’ in his thinking that O’Brien does a decent job of unearthing. The problem is that this spiritual racism seems to me to be a far more profound and dangerous form of antisemitism than the more prevalent form of its time, and it is precisely the intellectuals of the era that gave credence to the horrific and base forms of prejudice (leading to the Holocaust) that were occurring, whether their versions of antisemitism or otherwise were aptly understood by the populace. As such, to dismiss Heidegger’s antisemitism as simply a ‘garden-variety’ gone astray comes too close to a Heideggerian apologetics for my taste. If we then accept that the version of antisemitism that Heidegger seems to have developed is deeply troubling, and perhaps more so than other variations of antisemitism, then an earlier defence O’Brien offers, that Heidegger criticized the philosophy of the German Conservative Revolutionary movement for its misappropriation of Nietzsche (66), becomes deeply troubling, for it is precisely this disagreement with their lack of philosophical insight and depth that leads him to develop a more profound form of antisemitism, one that he at least believed to be concurrent with his philosophical thought.
In their debut text Cosmological and Psychological Time, Yuval Dolev of Bar-Ilan University and Michael Roubach of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, guide readers through topics concerning Relativity Theory, Transience and Experience, Temporality and Phenomenology in an engaging series of 12 chapters. In this review, I outline the main ideas purported in each of the chapters with the aim of bringing the reader closer to the understanding the relevance of the chapters to the field of time and philosophy, without pretending to purport a total synthesis of the work.
The motivation of Dolev and Roubach’s text is described in the introduction, where the central character of time is captured, from two visions: continental and analytical. From the perspective of continental philosophy, which assumes that time is intimately bound up with the notions of consciousness and subject, an assumption exists that there is an independence between the mind and experience. In the middle of this bifurcation of continental and analytic philosophy, there is also a tension as to the conception of time as Presentism or Eternalism. Within the framework of this tension is a working group of representatives of both analytical and continental currents. From a series of academic meetings at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, the text is derived, in order to contribute to the discussion of time from a double glance.
In the first section, “Relativity Theory”, there are four studies: “Physical Time and Experienced Time”, “Relativity, Global Tense and Phenomenology”, “Why Presentism Cannot Be Refuted by Special Relativity”, and “Einstein’s Bergson Problem: Communication, Consensus and Good Science”.
In “Physical Time and Experienced Time”, Denis Dieks assumes that the image of the Universal block is compatible with the human experience. By adopting this assumption, Dieks concludes that the human experience is detached from the critical view of the senses; thereby, breaking the sphere of experience as the way to reach information that will be confirmed by relativity. In this case, phenomenology is an intellectual tool that permits reflection and offers ideas that have been scientifically endorsed by relativity theorists. In sum, Dieks’s chapter is an analysis about A-Theory and B-Theory, the problems between both theories in relation to perception, and the dichotomy of understanding between how the naturalist-scientific and physic-psychological may converge. The author outlines several considerations about time from Newtonian physics and from relativity theory, with a special interest to the focus of flux time.
In “Relativity, Global Tense and Phenomenology”, Yuval Dolev confronts Dieck’s ideas developed in “Physical Time and Experienced Time”. Therein, he assumes that any task of interpreting relativity, absent a phenomenological approach, is inappropriate. Therefore, a global tense and the passage of time are immovable from experience. Concurrently, a phenomenological analysis of passage time establishes a framework of relativity; whereby, the inclusion of experience forces the abandonment of both Theory A and Theory B of time. Dolev disagrees with Dieck’s phenomenological analysis, his thesis about the block universe, as well as his assessment of the tension existing between the block universe and experience. He further postulates that relationship between the conditions of the local observer and the distance of the event that happens is problematized, suggesting the impossibility of any strict simultaneity between the event and the experience of the same, “The experience takes place not where the flares are igniting, but where the observer is located” (p. 26). Finally, Dolev assumes the there is a possible compatibility between Global Now with the relativity theory only after reflecting on a series of challenges he took as reference to the Now of Andromeda.
In “Why Presentism Cannot Be Refuted By Special Relativity”, Yehiel Cohen presents a third way to respect relativity theory in confronting the idea of a relationship existing between presentism and relativity. He also proposes that e-Lorentz transformations assume the notion of absolute simultaneity. Therein, Cohen confronts both, the conventionality of simultaneity and the relativity of simultaneity. The first part of the chapter develops a refutation of presentism by special relativity, taking note of Putnam’s thesis that, “there are no privileged Observers” (p. 42). Cohen then explains the notion of Conventionality of Simultaneity, where he describes how Sklar refutes Putnam’s thesis, and rather argues for Reichenbach’s synchronization of two clocks.
Midway through the text, Cohen adheres to a language that echoes Hinchliff’s terminology, deepening the notion of Point Presentism and Cone Presentism. This adherence extends first from an analysis of R(point) and the problem of now, and second from a scrutiny that concludes the untenable character of R(bcone). In summary, both R(point) and R(bcone) are assessed as flimsy, as Cohen conceives, because both are constituted by separate space-like events. Cohen’s work factually illustrates how an e-Lorentz transformation might be sustained, and concludes that, “presentism is not refuted by special relativity!” (p. 50). Cohen then culminates his chapter by confronting the problem of the Now as an open question.
Jimena Canales concludes the first section with the chapter, “Einstein’s Bergson Problem: Communication, Consensus and Good Science”. Here, Canales focuses on the Bergson-Einstein controversy; whereby, both men held differing opinions as to the possibility of physical time and a separate human existing apart from physical time. While the article does address both views, it also questions how the future of the debate may be shaped. Canales relates the origin of the controversy by describing the meeting between Einstein-Bergson in 1922. She also offers a short list of authors that represent opposing views concerning time in XX century. The opposing views she addresses regard physical time and the others regards psychological, yet she finds that, “neither of these labels do justice to the contributions of each men” (p. 57). Instead, Canales shows how Bergson is differs from Einstein, by evidencing their contrast through a comparison of the differences arising from their journals and the Letters of Einstein, which were the center the attention in the CIC meeting in Geneva (25 July, 1924). She further notes that it was in Geneva that Bergson and Einstein continued their debate, and critics to Bergson amalgamated, because, “[When] Einstein offered his official response…Bergson had not understood the physics of relativity” (p. 59).
Conversely, Cannels notes Bergson’s assumption that Einstein could not comprehend him because his lack of philosophical training—a point given heed by Bergson based on his supposition that the German (Einstein) did not read his book Duration of Simultaneity. Canales finishes the chapter by describing a third way the two men differ, favoring neither Einstein nor Bergson. Instead, she centers her attention on notion of communication, “science is replete with rhetorical strategies of nondialogue” (p. 69), Canales’ goal with this chapter is show a need for the perpetuation of improved rhetorical, argumentative, and persuasive practices, so as to benefit scientific communication practices and to establish a normative ideal of investigations. By instituting these two practices, a higher plane of communicatory practices can be established, providing the linchpin for garnering more of a consensus by generalists and specialists alike.
The Second Section, “Transience and Experience”, begins with a chapter written by Barry Dainton titled “Some Cosmological Implications of Temporal Experience”. The chapter illustrates constraints existing between the cosmological and phenomenological tradition. Therein, Dainton focuses his attention on the implications of temporal experience in metaphysical theorization regarding time. Dainton also defends Existentialism from objections and discusses the relationship between Existentialism and Cosmological conception, via block universe, presentism et al. He then adopts the notion of “extended presentism” as the most promising option for cosmology.
After observing the implications of motion, that Zeno, Russell, Broad and Slezak have noted, Dainton then revels an alternative called the “Extensional model”. Dainton also considers the merits of the Retentional and Extensional models of temporal experience, using music examples (Successions C-D-E-F-G) whose results are favorable to the scholars, thereby giving reason to accept the Extensional alternative to the Retentional account. Dainton explains Overlap Presentism’s characteristics, and unveils the compatibility between Existentialism and Ovelap Presentism. Dainton finishes the chapter by analyzing Bolzmann Brains theory, incorporating some of the differences between Brentano and Husserl’s thesis about time and which gives Dainton pause to reason the necessity for new approaches.
In “From Physical time to human time”, Jenann Ismael offers thne possibility of non-contradiction between flow time and conceives the universe as a block as a strategy for linking time and space. Ismael also adopts the idea that events that are represented by temporal perspectives are invariant of Eternalism point of view, based on his belief of there being, “[a] gap between the time everyday experience and the time of physics” (p. 107). Ismael, also confronts the problem of time by suggesting that, “some of the most difficult unsolved problems are much closer to the human scale and have to do with reconciling the way that physics tells us universe is with that we experience it” (p. 107), Lastly, he considers that the problem between familiar time and Block Universe present echoes of Parmenides and Heraclitus’s debate.
Ismael does provide some arguments regarding the historical perspective of natural thought, describing it as a combination of contents of memory and perception within the epistemic asymmetries of time. However, he proposes that it is the task of the investigator to advance from thought inside time (natural thought of history) to a thought outside of time as way to reconcile the Parmenidean and Hereclitian vision of time, or A-series and B-series. Ismael’s chapter concludes by developing new questions about physics time.
Tamar Levanon’s “Relation, Action and the Continuity of Transition” inquires as to the problem that exists between temporal experience and internal variation. This particularly relates to the succession of moments, whereby Levanon scrutinizes William James and Alfred North Whitehead’s thesis by contrasting in with Bertrand Russell`s thoughts. Levanon goes on to present the negation of Russell and conforms it to being a transition to James` and Whitehead`s approach. However, this factor does not mean that both authors share the same ideas. On one hand, Whitehead replaces succession from causation, while James refuses the notion of abstract succession. On the other hand, Russell considers succession as immediate experience between parts of one sense datum. Levanon concludes with by an following enlightening thought, “The claim is that temporality is already immersed with in our phases inevitably brings us back to the passage of time itself” (p. 141).
Ulrich Meyer’s chapter “Consciousness and the Present” defends the thesis there being a non-existent connection between consciousness and presentness, Meyer rather conceives, “whether the phenomenon of consciousness allows us to make a principled distinction between the preset and other times” (p. 143). Meyer starts describing two issues of philosophers of time, first the tension of Analytics and Continental Philosophers in the problem of relationship between physical time and human time, and second with the status of present moment, throw the view of Eternalists and Presentists (including a growing block view).
After explaining the dearth of independence between the issues cited, Meyer confronts the initial question, and bifurcates how consciousness could mark present through proposing that: (1) consciousness generates presentness or that (2) presentness brings about consciousness. This analysis is settled by George Myro’s theory and concludes with a reflection that divides the connection between consciousness and presentness.
Meir Hemmo and Orly Shenker’s chapter “The Arrow of Time” assumes that temporal directionality cannot be derived from science. Instead, the authors start with two uncontroversial facts: “we experience a direction of time”, and that, “we experience a direction of processes relative to this direction of time” (p. 155). The thesis of their chapter directs that physics is not the singular mode for analyzing time and that there are other modes for comprehending the direction of time. To support their claim, Hemmo and Shenker discuss the direction of thermodynamics, analyzing the argumentative structure from two points of view: (1) how to predict the increase of entropy towards future, and (2) from a historical analysis that proposes that entropy in thermodynamic retrodiction that entropy. Yet, for their claim to be properly contextualized, the authors introduce the reader to the notion of Past-Hypothesis. Their chapter concludes with the their submission that, “current physics is not complete, and its lacuna is in a very central and conspicuous place in the empirical data” (p. 156).
The third and final section, “Temporality and Phenomenology”, begins with Michael Roubach’s chapter “Heidegger’s Primordial Temporality and Other Notions of Time”. Therein, Roubach examines the notion of Heidegger’s “primordial temporality”, and reflects on this notion as the most basic form of time that is understood. Roubach delivers on his promise to argue for Heidegger’s claim of the existence of an, “ordinary notion of time [that] presupposes primordial temporality” (p. 165). Methodologically, Roubach explores the notion of primordial temporality (ursprüngliche Zeitlichkeit) in Being and Time, and assumes that some motivations arise to the problem or consciousness of time. In the middle of text, the authors invoke affinities between Heidegger and Brouwer’s intuitionism.
However, there are critics of Ricoeur and Blattner’s analysis of Heidegger’s thesis that build an argument from Heidegger’s discussions of notion of time (futurity and finitude). Therein, a relationship between primordial temporality and consciousness of time and ordinary time is discovered. At the end of the text, Roubach rejects Ricoeur’s notion that “narrated time” precedes the Heideggerian perception of time, and rather considers the, “path [as] open for rethinking the relationship between conscious time and objective time” (p. 175), Roubach finishes evaluating the dichotomy between continental tradition and mathematical representation of time, and focuses on notion of primordial temporality as bridge between conscious and cosmological time.
The objective of Philip Turetzky’s “The Passive Syntheses of Time” is to describe Deleuze’s passive synthesis of time in order of its genesis. Turetzky’s chapter first compares lectures between how Husserl and Deleuze’s define and understand time, requiring a concurrent comparison from Hume’s influence. The text then discusses the idea of a non-unified field of the continental tradition based on a discussion of the Hursserlian topics of reductions, intentionality, genetic phenomenology and passivity. Turetzky’s then analyzes Deleuze’s three passive synthesis of time, concentrating on the third synthesis first, followed by the second and the first. Turetzky necessarily explains the notion of “caesura” and how it corresponds to Husserl’s notion of retention. Turetzky finishes his dense text by describing the project of Husserl in 1939 as “ground judgments in aesthetics” and demonstrating how the third synthesis is essential for second for Husserl’s conception of time (p. 201).
Dror Yinon concludes the text with his chapter “Change’s Order: On Deleuze’s Notion of Time”. Yinon’s chapter is based on the second chapter of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. He starts the chapter by analyzing the traditions that assume objective time is grounded on subjectivity and relating subjectivity with the transcendental structure of temporality. Yinon then deliberates about Deleuze’s three syntheses of time and focuses attention on Deleuze’s notion of change, concluding the chapter with McTaggart’s critique to time as change.
The ideas and underlying perceptions developed in Cosmological and Psychological Time denotes a great sum of learned reflection. Those scholars whose research concerns the nature of philosophy of time must access this text, as it brings a wide lens of analysis, and clarifies some important notions of the difficult topics discussed herein. In sum, I would submit that this text as a necessary addition to a researcher’s library, based on the depth it brings to the investigation of time and philosophy. The effort of the editors, Yuval Dolev and Michael Roubach, and all the contributors will, without a doubt, be recognized as relevant and timely.
From Deleuze to Derrida, from Badiou to Nancy and Marion, the concept of event (évènement) witnessed an important development in the last fifty years of French philosophy and it is present in the most influential authors’ thought. Today, this notion still plays a central role in several attempts to rethink ontology and phenomenology, such as Claude Romano’s evential hermeneutics (hermenéutique événementiale). Even if the ideas of these philosophers substantially differ from each other and cannot be simply grouped together, we can trace at least one common issue in the notion of possibility. Events – with capital E – are happenings inaugurating a new horizon of possibility. They can actualize unforeseeable potentialities or make the impossible possible. For this reason, Events are said to be extraordinary moments and it has been argued that they should be unpredictable (imprévisible) or even impossible (impossible) since they lie beyond the ordinary structure of possibilities in which normal ontological movements take place. It goes without saying that the foundation of the modal structure of Being in such Events attests several theoretical problems If such Events overstep the general structure of Being, how are they supposed to happen? And where should an Event take place and have a place if Being cannot harbor its excess?
Some years before the flourishing of French “event” philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas formulated the notion of nocturnal events (événements nocturnes) in the preface of his masterwork Totalité et Infini. Levinas’ purpose is not to develop a philosophy of events. Indeed, in the whole book the expression “nocturnal event” is no more used and the adjective “nocturnal” appears just a few more times. However, even this parsimonious use of the term is enough to give us an important suggestion. The ultimate events that allow the deployment of new possibilities and which our comprehension of the world is based on are maybe not to be thought as impossible (im-possible), neither as unpredictable (im-pré-visible). They could rather be just invisible (in-visible).
After his impressive book on Derrida and Searle, Raoul Moati keeps deepening his researches about contemporary French philosophy dedicating an entire essay to Levinas and his idea of nocturnal events. What these two works have in common is the great attention given to the concept of intentionality and its Husserlian origins in the phenomenological tradition. Levinas and the Night of Being offers a fine reconstruction of the path undertaken by Levinas in Totalité et Infini to trace the way from the sensible ego to the infinite Other. Moreover, Moati shows us to what extent Levinas takes distance from other phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre as well as what does he own to their ideas. This review will first address which are the ontological and phenomenological involvements of nocturnal events that Moati highlights in his book. We will then retrace the way to the infinite in the context of a nocturnal conception of Being. Finally, we will have an overview of this book and its English translation by Daniel Wyche.
The Night of Being.
What Levinas reproaches to ontology and phenomenology is not, as other philosophers would have it, to be a sort of metaphysics of presence. Moati shows that the main critique that Levinas addresses to ontology and phenomenology is to be in a certain sense a metaphysics of light: they are based on “structures of illumination” (65), such as intuition, intentionality or comprehension. Sight and touch tended to have absolute primacy in the philosophical tradition, where “to be” means thus to be visible and graspable (67). The immediate consequence of this “diurnal sense of being” (XVI), from which Totalité et Infini attempts to liberate ontology, is that there is no more room left for otherness and exteriority: being becomes a totalizing structure and the Other is reduced to the self. A drastic rethinking of ontology, as a nocturnal broadening, is therefore needed in order to establish a place for those events that cannot be understood as being part of Being as a totality. That is to say, the nocturnal events:
There must be an ontology that establishes a place for ultimate events of being. […] Such events will no longer draw their significance from a Hegelian totalization or even from phenomenological constitution (Husserl) or the comprehension of the sense of being (Heidegger). The horizon of their deployment consists in a relation to being that overflows the light of objective evidence and of which all of these cases constitute various avatars (11).
The representation of Being that Moati presents us with is thus not that of a light irradiating the sensible world anymore, nor would it be that of a unique and totalizing illuminated surface. There are actually more than one illuminated surfaces, and we are only able to perceive them because of the dark background that encloses and undergirds them. Being does not correspond to these bright spots, but rather to the infinite night surrounding them. This night can be lightened by our “structures of illumination” and this is what originates diurnal events. However, there will always be a dark part not being seen in which nocturnal events are taking place.
Nocturnal events are “the nocturnal dramas by which being exhaustively produces itself” and amount to “a more originary experience for consciousness than transcendental constitution” (15). Is it possible to find a concrete case of nocturnal events? Moati provides us several examples taken from Levinas’ philosophy to describe these “nocturnal dramas”, among them we find the erotic encounter, fecundity, sociality and messianic peace. All these are for Levinas elements that, on the one hand, ground our primordial openness toward the Other and his or her face and which, on the other hand, constitute the base of an ontology that renounces to contain Being within the unity and recognises rather its plurality, taking up the discontinuity of the same and the other (81).
Even though Levinas affirms the primacy of events that are more primordial than subjective comprehension and transcendental constitution, Moati decisively stresses that this gesture does not correspond to a denial of the fundamental role that subjectivity, sensibility and ego play on the path to infinity. Indeed, without the ego’s sensible rooting in Being, no experience of infinite otherness would be possible: “the metaphysical alterity of the Other requires the precondition of the position of the self, a here-below positioned in relation to an over-there” (30). We will now see how nocturnal events and the sensible ego lead us on the way to infinity.
The Terrestrial Condition.
While in the first and last chapters of Levinas and the Night of Being Moati outlines the idea of a nocturnal ontology and unfolds the ontological involvements of nocturnal events, in the central chapters he deploys Levinas theory of the sensible ego and follows the path to infinity he had already sketched in Totalité et Infini. The book structure self is in this way a good representation of the nocturnal conception of being, where nocturnal events are the dark frame of our illuminated terrestrial experience.
First of all, Moati recalls the Levinasian notions of jouissance and element (élément). As it is known, according to Levinas the pre-objective degree of sensation corresponds to what he calls il y a (there is), that is the undefined existence without the existent, the undifferentiated element in which the self is originally immersed, the starting point of any further experience: “the element is the content from which forms are carved out, but it is not, as such, itself delimited by anything” (52). The first break in the uniformity of the element coincides with the subject’s jouissance, representing “the concrete mark of separation” (41). Enjoyment is “the contact between sensibility and the formless quality of the element” (94). It corresponds to sensation and more precisely to the very moment when the instrumental schema of the sensible is rejected and the subject just perceives his or her distinction and independence from the elemental world. Before having the possibility to be part of an ethical encounter with the Other, the subject should first have an ontic consistency: “enjoyment thus reveals the fundamental priority of the ontic for ontology” (47). This idea of a detachment and a constitution of the subject from and through the element questions the phenomenological distinction between constituent and constituted. Indeed, if on the one hand the ego shapes objectivity starting from the undifferentiated element, it is itself in turn delimited by the element:
Enjoyment reveals the impossibility of reducing the constituted to the position of the intentional correlate of the constitutive acts of transcendental consciousness. Every constituted object reveals itself through enjoyment just as much as it occupies the position of the constituent, which is to say the sensible nourishment of the self (55).
Once subjectivity consolidated, the self is ready for the encounter with the Other. This encounter begins in two other well known topoi of the Levinasian production: the dwelling (demeure), that is “the starting-place of any finalized human activity” (91), and the labor (travail), that consists “in the transformation of elemental nature into a world of identifiable things” (94). In order to encounter the Other, that is to manifest himself or herself to the Other, the subject should first have some possession to share with the Other, something to communicate to him or her. Here lies the fundamental importance of labor. It allows us to substantialize the element and fix it between the dwelling’s walls. Through labor we make the world and its objects identifiable and we start having possessions. At this point, Moati highlights and develops another great Levinasian intuition that, as the idea of a nocturnal ontology does, anticipates and responds to several difficult theoretical issues emerging in later event philosophy, especially the ones related to the possibility of the given and to its ontological status. Labor and possession – says Moati – turn the category of being into the category of having and they do that through a neutralization of being:
The thing is also, therefore, nothing more than the element, because it coincides with an element whose ontological independence has been neutralized and, in other words, whose being has been anesthetized. Put differently, through labor and the possession that results from it, the being (l’être) of the element becomes the having (l’avoir) of the self. […] The element becomes something only through the suspension of its being. Here, the ontological frontiers of the element no longer exceed those of the self, which is to say that we are now dealing with being insofar as it is possessed by someone (the self) (95).
Furthermore, in the event of the encounter our possessions become gift for the Other (136), and this gift is the content of the fundamental relation of teaching, that is the constitutive relation that marks the Other as such. As someone being my master not because of his or her deeper knowledges, but because of his or her radical otherness (126). Our shared world, that is the object of our ontology, does not follow the logic of being anymore, but that of having and giving. We are here facing a movement from être to il y a, from sein to es gibt.
Our possessions, shared in the social contest, exceed thus the ontology of light and become constitutive of the nocturnal event of sociality, a feature that marks us as humans. As the last step of the reconstruction, Moati finally points out how such nocturnal events, way far from being transcendent moments indirectly concerning the terrestrial condition, are not to be thought separately from our sensible way of being and how it grounds all other diurnal activities. We will now cite two cases Moati presents us with: sociality and fecundity.
Sociality is the base of our relationship with the Other. Because ofit we always already possess the idea of the infinite (107), which otherwise would be paradoxical and unreachable, for it would be reducible to totality of the self. Through sociality, ultimate event of Being, it is possible to articulate a relationship between the two terms (me and the Other) and at the same time maintain their separation (112). It is remarkable that sociality is an event of Being itself, constitutively belonging to its nocturnal structure. Because of sociality, Being is not a totalized monolithic Eleatic Being but is rather open and plurivocal. Moreover, in reason of this fundamental sociality, subjects can live their ethical relationship with the others expressing themselves through their discourse and interlocutory presence. Discours and teaching are the way in which the Other reveals to us his or her transcendence and allows us to have a relation with the infinite without reducing it to ourselves. Moati stresses one more time that this kind of expression is not to be understood in the context of a structure of illumination: “The one who expresses himself or herself does not draw his or her intelligibility from the light ‘borrowed’ from intentionality and unveiling, from which the same emerges” (115).
If sociality allows a relation without totalising elements of a plurivocal being, fecundity makes possible the production and realization of the infinite becoming of being. Moreover, it also represents a valuable alternative to the Heideggerian Geworfenheit to describe our terrestrial condition and our rooting in the concrete temporal situation. Moati recalls the famous example of the father/son relationship and gives us an account of its ontological meaning:
For the self, to be is also, through fecundity, to be other. The father is his son, in the precise sense in which the father transcends the horizon of his own selfhood in the son. The selfhood of the son, in the form from which the self of the father emerges, no longer coincides with the selfhood of the departure, that of the father. In fecundity, the self is discontinuous, fragmented. This discontinuity is an ultimate event of being itself, insofar as it is social, which is to say, transcendent and plural (172).
Levinas and Phenomenology.
As we mentioned before, together with a detailed development of the concept of nocturnal events and a reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation with the infinite, Moati provides us with illuminating comparisons between Levinas and other prominent phenomenologists throughout this book . These comparisons aim at explaining to what extent he kept following the Husserlian and Heideggerian ideas and what kind of disagreements he had with his contemporaries.
It goes without saying that the greatest dissent with Husserl concerns the ideas of transcendental ego and intentionality. We already saw how Levinas gives up the primacy of intentionality as a mean of objective representation since it is reduced to a structure of illumination, and how the distinction between constituent and constituted is questioned. Besides it, Moati also stresses the fact that Levinas cannot accept Husserl’s notion of transcendental ego for at least two reasons. First of all, the ego is always already sensible and we cannot think of an ego beyond its sensible situation. Second, Levinas reproaches the subjective non determination of the concept of transcendental ego. Indeed, its generality “hinders the possibility of establishing a relation that departs from the concrete immanence, from which only the other may speak — which is to say, deploy its ethical infiniteness” (182). All these remarks could be summed up in the general critic that Husserlian phenomenology brings about a totalization of the other and reduces it to the self.
Concerning Heidegger, Moati highlights that in the eyes of Levinas his historical and temporal conception of Dasein and thrownness (Geworfenheit) surely represent a step forward compared to the Husserlian suprahistorical model of consciousness. However, it would be a mistake to describe the sensible installation of our sensible ego within the element in terms of thrownness. More specifically, the concept of thrownness is linked to a conception of our existence based on the notion of power, that Levinas instead wants to quit: thrownness reveals our limits only in regard to the power that we have over our being. On the contrary, for Levinas our primordial situation is a position that locates consciousness beyond any positive or negative reference to power (78) and corresponds to the nocturnal event of fecundity. While thrownness puts us in the tragic condition of being powerless faced with our historical sensible determination and subject to the given horizon of possibility that is opened up to us with our birth, fecundity frees our terrestrial condition from this tragic connotation. Indeed, fecundity is here situated in the context of an ontology that renounces every claim of totalization and, therefore, renounces the primary role of power in representing our relationship with the Other: “the primacy of sensible happiness over any condition of misfortune becomes intelligible only once the nocturnal event of fecundity is elucidated, which in turn opens up the sensible depth of our being-in-the-world. It is thus fecundity that exhausts the reference to power and allows us to grasp the depth of our foundation in being” (83).
Another important disagreement drawn by Moati concerns Sartre. It is true that for both Levinas and Sartre the Other cannot be the object of a phenomenological reduction because of his or her transcendence and the encounter with the other takes the form of a dispossession of the world. But in this disagreement, Sartre understands this dispossession as a kind of alienation from the world, while for Levinas it actually corresponds to the “real becoming an objective world” (135). Indeed, Levinas sees a world that is only possessed and not shared, a silent world without discourse, as a contradictory world that remains subjective and relative. Since sociality grounds our being in the world, sharing our possessions with the other becomes the realization of our humanity and does not imply for us any kind of loss. The world is always a common world.
The last comparison that Moati presents us with is the one with Derrida and focuses especially on Derrida’s essay Violence et métaphysique. First of all, Moati points out a misunderstanding concerning the concept of “transcendental violence” in Derrida’s reading of Totalité et Infini. This misunderstanding is caused by the different grasping of the concept of intentionality and egoity that the two authors have: while Derrida thinks about the ego in the ethical relation as a transcendental ego (even if, as we all know, he strongly criticizes the Husserlian idea of transcendental), Levinas is instead talking about a sensible ego. The critique Derrida addresses to Levinas on “transcendental violence” thus misses its addressee, since Levinas refuses to problematize the subject’s relation with the other in transcendental terms (181). Moreover, the most stimulating remark that is formulated by Moati in this comparison is for sure the one concerning their two different conceptions of eschatology, for this thematic directly relates to event philosophy. Roughly, the greatest difference between the two authors lies in the fact that Derrida thinks the infinite in eschatology as a negativity, an endless process of spacing produced by the infinite waiting for an Other that never comes. In other words, as an infinite différance. For Derrida history designates “the ever-unachieved work of transcendental constitution” and is to be understood as “opening up to a nonpresence at the heart of phenomenality” (186). On the other hand, eschatology “lies in history as the movement of overflowing the closure of finite sameness” (187). Quite the opposite, Levinas sees eschatology as a relation to positive infinity. The Other manifests his or her infinite transcendence to us in a positive way, without a negative withdrawing. For Levinas eschatology is not contained within history but rather suspends it, “not only in that the transcendent passage from finite totality to the positivity of the infinite happens through it, but also in that eschatology suspends any recourse to our constituent powers to deduce the event of the revelation of the infinite” (187).
I would like to underline this final remark. In his late works, starting with Psyché. Inventions de l’autre, Derrida explicitly mentions the event of the coming of the Other as a fundamental – even quasi-transcendental – element of our experience and the human condition. Nevertheless, for Derrida the Other never comes and should never come in order to keep open the empty space needed to welcome him or her. This is why the event is impossible for Derrida; its conditions of possibility are its condition of impossibility. Levinas’ nocturnal events, and above all the event of sociality allowing our relationship with the infinite transcendence of the Other, free us from the paradox of an impossible foundation of our experience and knowledge. Indeed, both in Derrida and Levinas, our theoretical openness is based on the previous ethical striving for the Other. But while the Levinasian ethics finds its foundation in the nocturnal event of sociality, Derrida always misses the fundamental encounter with the Other.
In the night of Being, the Derridean spectre of the impossible could be chased by invisible ghostbusters: the nocturnal events.
Levinas and the Night of Being is an outstanding work of research in which Raoul Moati fully develops the ontological and phenomenological consequences of the notion of “nocturnal event” – on which very few was previously written – and properly contextualizes Levinas production in the phenomenological frame. Moati’s reading of Levinas thus provides us with new conceptual instruments to understand the key concept of ethics and otherness, theoretical core of Totalité et Infini. Inlight of his knowledge of phenomenology and French philosophy, Moati manages to explain with a remarkable clarity what is Levinas’ relation toward Husserlian phenomenology and how it is developed in contemporary philosophy, while also presenting critical readings of his work, such as the Derridean argument. Even though the chapters dedicated to the reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation to infinity give us a general glimpse of Levinasian main concepts, I would not suggest reading this book to first approach Levinas’ philosophy because of its complex critique of ontology and phenomenology. I would rather warmly suggest this reading to anyone who is already familiar with Levinasian ideas in general and with Totalité et Infini in particular. Indeed, Moati’s book not only helps us understanding his work by giving us a rigorous phenomenological context but it also prevents us from misreading Levinas as an anti-metaphysical or anti-ontological author. On the contrary, Moati shows us that an ontology is definitively possible insofar as we accept to also consider its nocturnal component.
Last but not least, I would like to spend a few words about Daniel Wyche’s translation as conclusion. Translating such a book is for sure not an easy task. Beyond the difficulties caused by philosophical jargon and complex argumentative structures there are several expressions in French, untranslatable in English, that should be rendered with neologism or directly rewritten in French. The most complex paragraphs may therefore prove more difficult to understand in the English version. It is maybe for this reason that the author chose to completely rewrite several passages exclusively for the English version. Overall, Wyche’s realized an elegant translation and managed to render in English concepts that are so idiosyncratically French. However, I would suggest to francophone readers to check also the original version, at least the least clear passages.
Peter Sloterdijk is currently one of Germany’s most important and most controversial philosophers, and his work has been emerging in English translations more and more over the past ten years. Polity Press has published quite a bit of Sloterdijk’s work, and its publication of Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger is a much-needed addition for Sloterdijk’s English audience. In this book of essays, lectures, and excerpts, Peter Sloterdijk presents the reader with a collection of thoughts which all swirl around two main concepts: 1. That Heidegger is a fallen soul whose inability to venture from the provincial into the cosmopolitan led him to retreat from the human world; and 2. That only through what Sloterdijk terms the anthropotechnic – the mobilization of the human being – can modern humans find their way in the world and to create of it what they will. In his fashion, through extended dialogues with both the reader and with a wide range of thinkers, as well as a developed depth and breadth of intellectual knowledge – with a literary style that is dense and compelling – Sloterdijk laments the fallen Heidegger, acknowledging and admonishing Heidegger’s embrace of cynical evil, while offering a positive vision of human power based on conscious activity and intelligent creation.
Concerning the first point, the substance of Sloterdijk’s critique of Heidegger is that Heidegger, in eschewing the cosmopolitan city for the village, never fully understood how humanity expands. Instead, Heidegger sought to impede modern growth by insisting on a philosophy of anti-expansion, one in which, according to Sloterdijk in the later works of Heidegger, becomes a parochial return to the Catholic-Augustinian acceptance of the human as a deeply flawed being incapable of overcoming this fall except through some metaphysical/spiritual intercession. Heidegger sought to ground the person in Ursprunglichkeit (origin), but for Sloterdijk this was a false consciousness: The human is anthropotechnic by nature, one whose growth is dependent on creating and recreating itself and its world through constant kinetic movement forward. In this instance, for Sloterdijk, the “The People” is a fiction, as this assumes, like Heidegger, that there is an essential essence which is what connects people together. But if we reject this Heideggerian Ursprunglichkeit for a more mobile ontology, we see that what connects people together is not essential ideology, but rather necessary technics of desire. Here, Peter Sloterdijk writes the following:
We will be dealing with a bit of mythology in which the screenplay for the history of this world begins with its prelude in the beyond. The Augustinian Satan, who represents something like an allegory of negation on a level below the principal, does not resort — this much is certain—to any external motive for his revolt against the origin. He finds everything that is necessary for sedition in himself — to put it more precisely, in his capacity for freedom, his most important endowment. By virtue of this, he can, parodying divine creation ex nihilo, generate his ‘no’ from the abyss of an unmotivated act of the will. Thus one may not ask why and from where he has acquired his evil will. He wills as he will and nothing more. (63)
It is the Augustinian-Satanic human, flawed and always doomed to failure and falling by engaging in degrading and dehumanizing behavior, of itself and of others for which contemporary humans have embodied in the new era. But Sloterdijk both laments and admonishes Heidegger for his own evil. Because Heidegger was afraid to move forward, he therefore had to justify his own failures within this Augustinian-Satanic paradigm, which also allows Heidegger to posit that there are classes of human beings: God and human, rulers and ruled, and breeders and bred.
However, the antithesis to Heidegger’s cynicism is through anthropotechnics and mobilization. Mobilization is a theme throughout Sloterdijk’s main work, and it is also found within the sections of this book as well. This lack of mobilization is what makes Heidegger’s fall to the Augustinian-Satanic figure so much more difficult for Sloterdijk. In the first essay in the book, titled “The Plunge and the Turn: Speech on Heidegger’s Thinking in Motion,” Sloterdijk writes, “With this fanciful sketch, ladies and gentlemen, with this almost ridiculous curriculum of the philosopher educated to the end, I have outlined what Heidegger, The Freiburg professor of philosophy and educator/inspirer of a generation of young thinkers and scholars, never did nor even attempted” (27). It may appear as a strong interpretation of Sloterdijk here, but Heidegger was evil because he was a coward, and Sloterdijk sees this in Heidegers’s own retracting from cosmopolitan human engagement. Sloterdijk lays bare the stark contradiction in Heidegger as he writes, as he lays bare this critique of Heidegger. But Sloterdijk goes further to demonstrate that Heidegger’s retreat into Augustinian solipsism is actually a perversion of Augustine’s own emphasis on movement through mediation. Heidegger selfishly adheres to the retraction part, which is where, according to Sloterdjk, Heidegger’s fear of expansion leads him to fall into the ignorance of the Augustinian-Satanic figure. This misappropriation of Augustine can also be found in Heidegger’s own awestruck admiration for Nietzsche. Heidegger’s affinity for Nietzsche rests within a narrow focus on power in Nietzsche, where Heidegger then mistakes power for the pastoral in Nietzsche. He refers to Heideger’s myth of “path of thought” (41) grounded in the “heroic apprehension of the self” in pseudo-Nietzschean terms, while Sloterdijk then remarks that this is because Heidegger retreats into a philosophy which pleads for salvation while still at the same time cowardly hides behind the fear of mobilization.
Therefore, according to Sloterdijk, Heidegger turned away from thinking and retreated towards a mythic metaphysics, as, according to Heidegger, the human cannot find a path to thought without help. Here we can feel Sloterdijk wrestling with an apologetics for Heidegger as Sloterdijk sees Heidegger as a fallen figure to be pitied. The true power of the human, according to Sloterdijk, is the mobilization towards outward expansion, which itself is a movement towards atmospheric and ecospheric migration, leaving behind the Augustinian for the propulsion into the macrosphere. But Heidegger himself never experienced this, and as such he sought to keep others from experiencing it as well through the appeal to philosophical certainty. Therefore, according to Sloterdijk here in Not Saved, philosophy is the attempt to plot a course, which is what Heidegger got right. But there is not one course, and Sloterdijk reads Heidegger as falling into a trap, in which for Heidegger contemplation is the tension and the kinetics of discovery, not truth. Once the philosopher abandons the search for truth, he becomes the lost soul, never finding the real and substituting that for chasing redemption in exile.
This theme runs throughout the book, in which Heidegger as the Augustinian-Satanic character is prevalent. In the essay “Luhmann, Devil’s Advocate,” Sloterdijk writes that the essentialist nature of Heidegger is exposed through Lumann’s own critique of the Augustinian, in which Luhmann demonstrates he is not afraid of the underlying systems of human ontology. This can also be seen in the essay “The Domestication of Being,” where Sloterdijk contrasts Luhmann to Heidegger by writing “The discourse on the human being in historical anthropology proceeds from the fact that the expression ‘human being’ does not designate any object concerning which one could formulate direct (edifying or lamenting) statements, but rather only presents a conceptual container that, to speak with Luhmann, holds ‘vast complexities’” (98). Here we see Luhmann embracing the macrospheric expanse, where Heidegger seeks to retreat away from this complexity into a mythology of a cynical rejection of human complexity. Here again, Sloterdijk points out that this expansionist thinking was present in Plato and Aristotle as the demiurgic and creative power of the human being.
However, the essay that encapsulates this dichotomy between the fallen Heidegger and the anthropotechnic antithesis is “Rules for the Human Park,” for which Sloterdijk started a controversial war of words between he and Habermas. Habermas raised the criticism that Sloterdijk was relying on the eugenic language of the Nazis, while Sloterdijk would go on to accuse Habermas of fascistically trying to smother Sloterdijk’s main point in the essay: That humanism is based on sophisticated dialogues between others and for which creates the topological space for human identity and human being. In this essay, Sloterdijk returns to the themes he has already raised in Not Saved by focusing on the categorical mistake Heidegger makes in dividing the world into God and human, rulers and ruled, and breeders and bred. Here, Sloterdijk insists that it is through true humanism – the study of the minds of the past and present – that will move the human from being a part of a breeding stock and towards a holistic being.
In “Rules” Sloterdijk writes:
The phenomenon of humanism deserves attention today above all because it recalls—in however veiled and timid a manner—the fact that human beings in high culture are continually engaged by two formative powers at the same time—we would like here, for the sake of simplicity, to designate them simply as inhibiting and disinhibiting influences. The conviction that human beings are ‘impressionable animals’ and that it is hence necessary to get them to come under the right kind of influences belongs to the credo of humanism. The label ‘humanism’ recalls—with false harmlessness—the constant battle for the human being, which is carried out as the struggle between bestializing and taming tendencies. (196)
Here Sloterdijk argues that human beings are “impressionable animals,” alluding to Aristotle’s comments concerning humans as politikon zoon while also harkening back to Plato’s theory of how proper education helps to create the good citizen and the just state. With a specific emphasis on Plato’s regard for rules regarding human political and social conduct, Sloterdijk then argues that human beings are not firstly interested in education, but rather, human beings are like animals who want to engage in the conditions which may breed successful human beings within a political-social topology. As Sloterdijk writes “In his dialogue Politikos—often translated as The Statesman—Plato put forward the Magna Carta of a European pastoral politology . . . Its incommensurable position in the history of thinking about the human being above all consists in the fact that it is conducted as though breeders were having a conversation about work” (207). Therefore, in Plato’s dialogue, Sloterdijk sees the beginning of Heidegger’s turmoil: From its very inception, philosophy has been about creating rules for human consumption. According to Sloterdijk, “Thus this Stranger and his counterpart, the Younger Socrates, devote themselves to the tricky endeavor of placing the politics of the future or the herdsmanship of the city under transparently rational rules” (207). On the surface, one may be tempted to take Habermas’ rejection of Sloterdijk here as true, but that would be facile at best. Sloterdijk is not advocating eugenics or any kind of political-social breeding program; instead, Sloterdijk wants to reorient the anthropology of the breeding human towards a positive and forward thinking humanism.
To do this, Sloterdijk begins the essay by defining humanism as “What from Cicero’s time onward has been called humanitas belongs, in the narrowest and broadest senses, to the consequences of literacy . . . It has allowed its writing to continue like a chain letter across generations” (193). From this point, Sloterdijk moves into a sustained critique of Heidegger, specifically Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism.” Sloterdijk begins by acknowledging the vast gratitude he has for Heidegger in general, but from there begins to criticize Heidegger for allowing the humanism of philosophical discourse degenerate into attacks against humanity in general. Sloterdijk writes:
A part of Heidegger ’s strategy thereby becomes manifest: the word ‘humanism’ must be given up if the actual task of thought, which in the humanist or metaphysical tradition wanted to appear as though it had already been accomplished, is to be experienced once more in its initial simplicity and inevitability. To put it sharply: why again tout the human being and his prevailing philosophical self-depiction in humanism as the solution when it has just been shown in the catastrophe of the present that it is the human being himself, along with his systems of metaphysical self-elevation and self-explanation, that is the problem? (198)
Here Sloterdijk once more takes Heidegger to task for not directly engaging in humanity, or rather from disengaging from humanity. The critique here is based on Heidegger’s Post-War status as a former Nazi in exile, rather than the esteemed philosopher Heidegger used to be. We must now realize that Sloterdijk is wrestling with both Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the historical figure, and for Sloterdijk both of these positions come together in Heidegger’s work in general. Because Heidegger always saw philosophy as a provincially elitist activity, Sloterdijk now contends that Heidegger never fully understood the true quality of human activity: To create humanism. Humanism, even in the face of Sloterdijk’s own arguments concerning breeding in this essay, is the rule for human activity.
In order to affect this new concept of humanism, Sloterdijk must also focus on the concept of anthropotechnics and its mobilization as the power of humanism. Therefore, the other philosophical archetype in this essay for Sloterdijk is Nietzsche, for whom Sloterdijk views as the antithesis for the cynical Heidegger. Sloterdijk asserts that it is through Nietzsche that Heidegger’s rejection of Plato’s concept of education is now understood as a human breeding system which arranges the material world by strict rules of hierarchy of powers, both material and phemonenological. Sloterdijk’s use of Nietzsche in this essay leads him to advance a radical critique rooted in a position posited strictly against the inhuman form of late modernism itself. For example, Sloterdijk writes that “The era of modern humanism as the model for schooling and formative education is over with, because the illusion can no longer be maintained that large political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of the literary society” (195). Modern society – which for Sloterdijk is the contemporary world of late and hyper capital – is awash in Heidegger’s cynicism: Instead of embracing humanism and the good, the modern age has followed Heidegger down the rabbit hole and into a world where there is no human good to truly discuss. Because Heidegger sees his own failure as a failure of ideas, so to then the modern world must be bereft of ideas for Heidegger to hide his own cynical, evil Nazi persona. Again, according to Sloterdijk’s critique of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger hides his shame behind the Augustinian-Satanic figure by shifting the blame onto an abstract concept of evil rooted in anti-humanism.
From this point in the essay, Sloterdijk begins to unpack Nietzsche for the reader. For Nietzsche:
In contrast, Nietzsche—who read Darwin and St. Paul with equal attention—thinks that he perceives a second, darker horizon behind the bright horizon of the formation of the human being in schools. He perceives a space in which inevitable battles over directions of human breeding will begin—and it is this space in which the other, veiled aspect of the clearing is revealed . . . He [Nietzsche] wants to call the proprietors of the monopoly on taming up to this point—the priests and teachers who present themselves as friends of the human being—by their name and to designate their secret function; he wants to launch a world-historically new kind of contest between different breeders and different kinds of breeding programs. (204)
Sloterdijk’s understanding of Nietzsche here is a complex articulation of both the fundamental problem within political philosophy – philosophy as regulator of human activity – and what Sloterdijk sees as Nietzsche’s strength: The human as anthropotechnic and mobile. Sloterdijk demonstrates that Heidegger’s cynical rejection of humanism has wrestled humanity away from its own consciousness by technologizing human labor and regulating human congregation, specifically through modern capital’s control over media and the phantasy worlds they create. By reproducing text itself not as a phenomenon of human cognitive self-positioning but as a measurable quantity of human worth and dignity, reproducible within technological apparatuses, human being can be controlled through the architecture of modern capital itself. Plato and Heidegger posit that rules must come from specialized types of ruler, referred to as breeders, for which Sloterdijk questions whether or not the breeders become a different species altogether, as Heidegger also differentiates between human and animal species, effectively rendering any discussion of consciousness from the later.
The result in the essay “Rules for the Human Park” is that Sloterdijk comes back to the concept of humanism as not a set of rules but the means to create human spaces. Sloterdijk writes:
It is the signature of the technological and anthropotechnological era that human beings become increasingly involved in the active or subjective side of selection, without having to be voluntarily thrust into the role of the selector. Additionally, one may observe that there is an unease in the power of choice; soon it will become an instance of opting for innocence when human beings explicitly refuse to exercise the power of selection that they have in fact managed to achieve. But as soon as powers of knowledge are positively developed in a field, human beings cut a poor figure if they—as in earlier times of incapacity—wish to allow a higher force, whether it be God or chance or something else, to act in their stead. Since mere refusals and dismissals generally fail in their sterility, in the future it will arguably be necessary to actively enter the game and formulate a code of anthropotechnics. Such a code would even retroactively transform the significance of classical humanism—since it would disclose and put in writing the fact that humanitas not only involves the friendship of human being with human being; it always implies as well—and with growing explicitness—that the human being represents the higher force for the human being. (206)
Sloterdijk’s reading here of psycho-socio culture is as an aggressive purveyor and user of cynicism against philosophy as humanism and humanity as biological. In this case, the human is not a self-creating being with anthropotechnic power, but rather is a product of a radical barrier which cuts off from the self its desire to create, maintain, and sustain its own ontology. Humanism is recognized here by Sloterdijk as the extended dialogue with past minds and as the concretization of the ideal through this mobilized poesis. Therefore, the antithesis for Heidegger’s cynicism is for human beings to return to true humanism and become the very spirit for which has to overcome its current bioorganic-technological existence. Instead of creating categorically false differences between classes of breeders and those who are bred, mobilization becomes the activity for consciousness to embody and extend itself into the material through a synthesis of anthropotechnic root structures.
The selections of the essays, lectures, and excerpts from Sloterdijk’s works here in Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger provides the reader with a sustained critique of Heidegger while also clearing a path towards unity between human and world. The uncovering of Heidegger as a fallen figure allows Sloterdijk to posit a philosophy of mobility and movement forward, and the analysis of the anthropotechnic – the self-creating mobile human being – becomes the action and the activity for which we as modern humans find mobility. The translation of these pieces by Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner is sensitive to Sloterdijk’s style while at the same time offering English readers the ability to savor Sloterdijk’s literary approach to philosophy. The book itself is not a primer for Sloterdijk, as it presents essays, lectures, and selections as pieces of an extended argument, as well as the nature of Sloterdijk’s dense prose, which is never stultifying but rather engaging and erudite. However, the translators are keenly aware of this as well, and as a general introduction to Sloterdijk’s methodology and concepts, this book is essential for anyone interested in one of the contemporary world’s most prescient, prolific, and prominent philosophers.
Sloterdijk, P. (2017). Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger. Cambridge: Polity Press.
David Farrell Krell’s Phantoms of the Other. Four Generations of Derrida’s Geschlecht is an in-depth study of Derrida’s Auseinandersetzung with Heidegger. Krell takes Derrida’s Geschlecht-series as his starting-point to focus on Heidegger and Derrida’s “magnetization” (25, also 113) with the poetry of Georg Trakl. Heidegger’s preference for poetry and language is well-known but his fascination with Trakl really stands out as a bit odd nonetheless: what on earth has Heidegger seen in the poetry of this young, rather rough and dark, poet?
Krell examines Derrida’s series thoroughly and focuses on its missing never published third piece. Geschlecht I and II are published as the opening of Derrida’s Psyche. Inventions de l’autre II (Galilée 2003), the fourth features in Politiques de l’amitié (Galilée 1994), all of which were written in the eighties of the previous century. Around that time Derrida, prolific writer as he was, also was composing his De l’esprit. Heidegger et la question (Galilée 1987), which Krell treats in his chapter three. Of Geschlecht III, there exists only a typescript of thirty pages or so that Derrida handed out to the happy few present at a colloquium in Chicago in 1985. Krell contends that this typescript was drafted from a seminar on ‘Nationalité et nationalisme philosophiques: le fantôme de l’autre’ that Derrida held in Paris from 1984 through to 1985 (2-3). For this seminar, Derrida drafted 100 or so pages on Heidegger’s 1953 essay Die Sprache im Gedicht, now in Unterwegs zur Sprache (Neske 1975: 35-82). Derrida’s text, however, was never published and it is not sure whether it will be—later in his beautiful book Krell complains that next to no one can read Derrida’s handwriting (218).
In his Introduction, Krell examines Derrida’s early confrontations with Heidegger, the recently published “Heidegger: la question de l’être et de l’histoire” (Galilée 2013) is included, for example, in order to look for “anticipations of the Geschlecht-series” (16n.2). Here Krell examines what will become one of his book’s main themes namely, what he calls “Derrida’s hope” (ibid.)—readers of Derrida will note the pun: had not Derrida once written rather critically about “Heideggerian hope” (in Marges de la philosophie 1972: 29). These anticipations and this hope will prove to be rather similar in Heidegger and Derrida, and my point in what follows will be that Krell takes the similarity perhaps a bit too lightly. To be sure, Derrida has never hoped for a primary word, nor for a gathering that gathers all and most certainly not for a ‘destiny’ that this or that people would have chosen. Yet Derrida’s hope, “for a sexuality that is not trapped in and by dualities and duels” (ibid.), for a humankind, a Geschlecht that is, or becomes, one is surely one of Derrida’s greatest dreams that resists (even his) deconstruction.
It is here, with questioning Heidegger’s Dasein supposed neutrality, transcending sexual difference that Geschlecht I, which Krell discusses in his first chapter. All of us, of course, have been struck by Heidegger’s repeated claims of neutrality, by his dismissing embodiment, especially in Sein und Zeit, lest ‘Dasein’ is not a thing, not a body primarily, but rather describes the phenomenological gaze, shared equally by women and men, arising from out of being-in-the-world—I have ventured something of this sort in my own work (Schrijvers 2016: 25 and 194).
Of course, Derrida is right in saying that Heidegger neutralizes and in a sense neuters Dasein. “To pass from the masculine and the feminine to the neuter is clearly, for Heidegger, to pass toward the transcendental, toward a meditation on the conditions of possibility of the being of Dasein” (27): if the being of Dasein would be neither male nor female, then what is it? This neutral, transcendental vantage point has a striking resemblance to what Heidegger will later call the ‘split’, or ‘blows’ the one Geschlecht faces (Heidegger 1975: 49-50). There is obviously a bit of a fog when it comes to these ‘blows,’ and Derrida will not stop questioning and exploiting these ‘blows’ or ‘Schlage’ nor will he stop being puzzled by them. For the moment, let us track what Heidegger takes from Trakl: there would be (there would have been or there will be: this is what separates Derrida from Heidegger) one Geschlecht, one humanity (but Heidegger will exclude all Latinate words and things. Hence, Krell and Derrida note, there ‘will never have been’ oneness in the first place), that then receives a blow, and one becomes two: this is the male-female Schlag, a sort of twofold that is not yet conflictual. The conflict and the duel, Heidegger states, comes later (like the third party in Levinas patiently waits until the ‘ethical relation’ between the other and me has been dealt with) and then the Zwiefalt becomes Zwietracht: there will be men and women, friends and foes, families and tribes against other tribes. This, Heidegger will call, with Trakl, the “decomposition [Verwesenden] of the human Geschlecht” (Heidegger 1975: 50). Not so much ‘beyond essence’ but, as it were, ‘out of essence’.
All of this surely sounds a bit mythological and for some, still versed in that tradition, Christian even: for, doesn’t it echo a tradition that narrates a ‘paradisiac’ state without shame or reticence that rather quickly had fallen (but when?) into dispute, into jealously, into ‘male’ and ‘female’ to such a point that it wasn’t even sure who was to be ‘his brother’s keeper’? For this, we would have to wait for that other great unifier, Versammlung, of which Paul (who gathers by dividing!) said that he inaugurates a state in which there will be ‘neither male nor female, neither master nor slave’ (but when?).
Heidegger makes no mention of these echoes of Christianity; Derrida, an Algerian Jew no less, will point them out to us. In his reading of Hölderlin, no less than in his reading of Trakl, the former theologian Heidegger will pretend not to know what this ‘bread and wine’ theme is all about. Derrida worries about this gesture: is this “not the classic metaphysical problem, namely, the attempt to ground negativity and dispersion on what ought to have been purely positive and unified” (35) and is not this metaphysics, with Heidegger, primarily Christian (and also without Heidegger of course: why else would he be in denial and/or repeating it, unbeknownst to himself)? These questions, Krell argues, would have prevailed in the Geschlecht III (43-45).
The second chapter, on Geschlecht II, is again a patient summary and meditation on Derrida’s piece on Heidegger’s imagery of ‘the hand’. Derrida’s hope “for a love where no quarrel can arise” (17) is here framed against Heidegger’s thinking of the hand, of handiwork and all things zuhanden. Why, Krell asks, is there again no mention of “loving hands” (50) in Heidegger, of handshakes perhaps, but of course also (and again) of caress, of sexual giving and taking? Derrida mentions Heidegger’s obsession with the hand in the singular, with apes who ‘have no hand’, but here again: is one always better than two? And would not “the folding of two hands into one, that is, into the gestures of pointing, signifying, praying and gathering” (58) deserve at least equal attention than, for instance, the ‘holding hands’ of lovers: why would these hands not form a unity and a gathering just the same? Yet, even though Krell notes how this “become[s] a crucial question for Derrida” (50) as well as for himself this early in the book, it already appears that these themes of love, of the sister, and of hope in general are suggested and intimated by Krell rather than straightforwardly addressed. This reader, at least, was a bit disappointed on that score, although Krell’s writing, humble, modest and suggestive as it is, is surely a strongpoint of the book. Countless are the ‘if I may’s, the ‘if I am allowed’s that preface a remark or a critique by Krell, who sometimes wants to side with Heidegger rather than simply follow Derrida (e.g. 87, 92, 116, 118 and so on).
I am not entirely convinced by Krell’s third chapter on Derrida’s De l’esprit. Krell contends that its importance is obvious from the fact that it was composed, more or less, at the same time Geschlecht III was drafted. Yet its themes and concerns seem to lie elsewhere. I remember the imagined dialogue in De l’esprit between Heidegger and the theologians fondly as one more example of how Heidegger’s thinking was at times being deconstructed by the Christianity he wanted to avoid. Krell, too, notes some important convergences between Heidegger and Derrida on this matter. Heidegger’s thinking about language shares the same paradox as Derrida’s question about the question: Heidegger was very much aware that to ask about the being of language, that “relation of all relations” (Heidegger 1975: 215), is only possible by already using language, just as Derrida’s questioning of the primacy of questioning, rather than of hearing or being addressed, is a similar way of a snake eating its tail (75). In the end, Krell too, concedes that De l’esprit is less radical than the Geschlecht series (85).
Nonetheless, we should recall that the third Geschlecht stems from a seminar on ‘philosophical nationalism’. Derrida’s remarks on Husserl’s Eurocentrism and, shall we say, his rather xenophobic remarks about gypsies should make us pause and think, beyond philosophical ‘scientificity’ (Derrida 1987: 94-95): it might be used to not too quickly condemn and judge Heidegger, for instance (not before reading him, that is) and to realize that, whatever neutral, transcendental vantage point we might desire to reach, this is not possible without somehow our locale and our context creeping in into our very desire for transcendentality—after all, one does not choose one’s metaphysics nor does one control how such a metaphysics could be overcome.
Chapter four turns to Derrida’s Geschlecht IV, where Derrida’s critique of Heidegger’s preference for ‘gathering’ and ‘unifying’ gains its full force. The problem with this gathering is that it gathers everything, “love or hate, amity or discord, peace or war—it does not really matter, it all gets gathered. One is all. For a thinker of différance, this is a nightmare” (125). Levinas, too, will criticize Heidegger for this: the ontological difference would have gathered both the same and the other, leaving no room for this Other to leave the ‘train of being’. Very true, this, but the opposite tendency might be just as well oppressive, for if nothing ever gets gathered, nothing ever gets united, we might lose the ability for reconciliation, for a certain dialectic perhaps, just the same. Hence, if I may, my critique of Derrida: whereas all naming might be a gathering of differences, not all gathering is just such an inappropriate naming (Schrijvers 2016: 352n.40). Sometimes, contra Derrida, the philosopher should simply try to say and name what ‘is’; and this ‘is’, of course, is ‘of the essence’. Perhaps not all differences can and should be gathered under the general heading of différance.
Krell contends that Derrida’s Politiques de l’amitié gestures toward the missing Geschlecht and its question about Heidegger’s desire to unite “what can distinguish between those two strokes that have struck our Geschlecht, the first, which coins a more gentle twofold, and the second, which condemns [it] to discord [?]” (129). How and when does the neutral “duality” become a malignant “discord” and duel (96), or: from whence and why this being chased out of paradise (see 162)?
Chapter five focuses on the thirty pages Derrida handed out to the participants in the colloquium in Chicago, entitled Geschlecht III. Here Derrida argues that in Heidegger’s reading of Trakl something similar occurs: on the one hand, there is the simple, traditional commentary of poetry (Erläuterung). On the other hand, Heidegger wants nothing to do with these commentaries, focusing on ontic affairs (such as biography for instance) and attempts what he calls an Erörterung, a ‘placement’ of the one poem that Trakl wanted to poetize and bring to speech. Just as every thinker truly has one thought, so Heidegger thinks that every real poet has but one poem. For Heidegger, obviously, there would be a rigorous difference between the two: the one ontic (and many), the other ontological, one might say: neutral (and one). For Derrida, however, such a neat distinction simply cannot be—if there is this one poem of Trakl (s’il y en a indeed) then some insight surely is to be gathered from his biography, from his coke addiction for instance (of which Heidegger says nothing), of his suicide (probably from an overdose, but Heidegger, again, remains silent), from his relation to his sister Gretl (again, of which Heidegger says next to nothing). One can see that the two realms are endlessly interspersed and there would be no way to distinguish them once and for all: their relation is in deferral and can in no way be denied. Krell comments: “For Derrida dissemination leaves only traces of sense, recognizing as it does the archaic non-origin of all meaning, for Heidegger dissemination is that paradox of an [essence] that peters out in a scattering of forces, a kind of ontic-existentiel entropy” (137).
The second blow to ‘humanity’ “irrupt[s] from the discord of the sexes” (163) and strikes everywhere, invading even, for Heidegger, das Geschwisterliche (Heidegger 1975: 60): it is no less than a plague—Heidegger mentions the Greek word, he could (and perhaps should) have mentioned the Hebrew. Heidegger, of course, pays no attention to the rumours of incest that surrounds the relation between the two Trakl’s, Gretl and Georg. Heidegger’s dream, for Krell, is the dream for a “new Geschlecht” (159), restored from out of the return of a (new) dawn, of a childlike state of being (before sex, neutral in any case to the question of sexual difference) (163). Krell asks, rightly, “does the poet ever dream Heidegger’s dream?” (165) and then, without further ado, wrongly I think, relegates the dream of Heidegger to the “utterly phantasmatic” (169). The chapter concludes with Derrida’s rather deft deconstruction of the difference between the ontological and the sexual difference: “it [is] impossible […] to keep these blows apart [and] equally impossible to deny that sexual difference and ontological difference are structurally identical. [If] the difference between being and beings, which is initially granted in Western history, is soon cursed by oblivion of being, so too is sexual difference initially granted, only to be cursed at some point by discord and dissension” (167). This, again, should make us pause and think about whether that which Heidegger wants to avoid—sex, Christianity, metaphysics—is not always that neatly avoided. The ontic and empirical—our history, our biography—penetrates the ontological.
Chapter six treats the hundred or so pages of Derrida’s seminar on nationalism that served as the inspiration for the thirty pages of Geschlecht III. These pages are now deposited in the archive in Caen where ‘Derrida’ is gathered. For the time being, Krell wants us to pause by “the coldness of Heidegger’s reasoning” (181), when stating that nothing is lost when this decomposing Geschlecht will have made its way onto a new dawn and a new gathering. There, supposedly, is a clear-cut between our past and our future. And even if Trakl mentions the “unborn grandchildren” in his last poem, written right after witnessing first-hand the horrors of the world war, then Heidegger will continue stating, in his ‘placement’ of Trakl, that these “are by no means the unengendered sons of the sons who have fallen” (Heidegger 1975, 65, Krell, 181). Something as ontic as the war surely will not have changed the one poem that Trakl needed to write. Heidegger’s attention goes to the ‘one Geschlecht’ that will rise from this new dawn, and here too this “resurrection” seems to have nothing to do with Christianity, nor, as Krell notes, with the lovers who Trakl nonetheless seems to intend (183). Derrida offers a benevolent but penetrating reading of the relations between women and men in this paradisiac state Heidegger is aiming for and states that, prior to the second evil blow, there would have been a sexual difference not yet disturbed by duel and discord. The typescript breaks off with the following enigmatic lines: “this relation between brother and sister is thus not asexual, but is a sexual relation within a difference that is without dissension” (184). Derrida and Heidegger’s hope, in a sense, coalesce. Here, in this fraternal moment, a moment of love, a relation to the other is envisioned in which our Geschlecht is set aright again, as in a “third stroke” (185), where the Geschlecht is one and where all are “brother to the brother” and “brother to the sister” in and through a sexual difference that is not a matter of discord anymore.
Such a dream means trouble nonetheless. On the one hand, Heidegger seeks to abolish the univocity brought about by technology and the current Gestell; on the other hand, the univocity of the Geschlecht remains something to be hoped for… Derrida does not sleep (or dream) lightly however and, in the typescript, likens such a paradisiac state to death. “Death lies in wait in on both sides,” he states, “with the phantasm of the integrity of the proper place and the innocence of a sexual difference without war, and also on the opposite side, that of impropriety or radical expropriation” (189). It is as if Derrida is voicing common sense (imagine!): it can’t be all good, but neither is it all bad. There is neither a paradise without the duel and the discord and yet the dual is not war and conflict all the way down. The place of life is in the movement between the two, between the dual and the dual. As long as there is movement, there is no death. In Heidegger, though, Derrida rightly perceives “the grand logic of philosophy […] still at work” (189) or, in Krell’s words, “a confidence in the purity and mutual exclusion of opposites” (190).
Heidegger dreams of a more originary dawn and future for us mortals, separating as it were the days and the nights, the heavens and the earth in a clear-cut manner (and so repeating a gesture of the Judeo-Christian tradition whilst silencing this tradition). Derrida, however, has a few qualms about such a “more originary repetition” (190). This is where the dreams of Derrida and Heidegger separate: while Heidegger explains away all references to Christianity in Trakl’s poems, Derrida offers a reading of them that will shock not a few theologians. Heidegger asked why Trakl’s last poems of horror do not call upon God if this poet is so decidedly Christian, calling for the sister instead (Heidegger 1975: 76)? Derrida answers, to his students, that “if they would grant him a bit of time he could show that the figure of the sister and that of Christ could in fact be substituted” (191).
Let us cite the passage in full:
“Son of God, Christ is the brother of all men and all women; he is simultaneously the image or the intercessor of the father. Yet he is a brother whose virility is never simply manifest or unilateral, a brother who presents himself within an aura of universal homosexuality, or in a sexual difference that has been appeased, pacified […] thus a brother who can be nothing other than a sister” (192-3).
The passage goes on: is this “not the essence of a relation to Christ, the essence or at least the destination, [the] entire Christian experience of the Holy Family, which is to say, of any and every family” (193)? Christ, being simultaneously both father and mother, or brother and sister, would then, for Trakl (and for a certain Derrida) be the one that gathers all and everything. Theology is rife, of course, with suggestions about Christ’s sexuality, gathering twelve fishermen around him, dwelling with prostitutes of the likes of a Mary Magdalene and with an institution that (more or less) condones homosexuality but abhors it when such sexuality would not be appeased or at all pacified.
Be that as it may, Derrida comments that in Heidegger “both Christian and Jews might well be happy to latch onto this moment […] as the affirmation of some sort of messianism” (199). But we know that messianism was not foreign to Derrida either. For Heidegger, though, this messianism as “the transition [of the West] to its matutinal essence” (ibid.) is a return to what once was. For Derrida, such a return is phantasmatic, that is, “a return to something that never was, an impossible return to a past that never was present” in the first place (229). No early Greeks, no pre-Socratics, no originary experience of being, no experience of a soft and tender childhood will tell us how to be our being.
But Derrida does dream, however, and Krell argues that “the entire Geschlecht series is magnetized by such a promise—the promise of a radically different sexuality for the future of humankind” (199). Derrida is not, for all that, laughing at Heidegger’s phantasm of a newly found childhood for humanity but “takes Heidegger’s effort […] quite seriously” by pondering that “it is perhaps when the sexual sense separates itself and determines itself as only sexual that discord appears” (204). Then, one might say, it is when eros separates itself from agape, that love is lost and one simply lusts (and vice versa perhaps: an agape without eros would not be love proper). Love, from then on (but when…?), is intermingled with instrumentality, with the techné of a Don Juan as it were. The question to Derrida here, of course, is, how can we name that difference? How can we state it phenomenologically: when and “how does the stroke strike” (207)?
Derrida takes Heidegger seriously, which in itself should be one of the lessons gained from Krell’s book. His “generous” reading will also try to see that Heidegger is not simply lamenting a lost and bygone era, but rather that Heidegger “is calling for, rather than to, a possibility” (217). In effect, what matters for Heidegger is more the transition to something new, a new gathering of being and beings, rather than a simple return to a phantasmatic past. It is such a transition, which dawns upon us a possibility precisely, that permeates Heidegger’s call out of technology and out of metaphysics. Krell, as we will see, is a bit too pessimistic about the possibility of this transition in Heidegger. Heidegger’s was not a revolutionary spirit for whom all that is past is bad and all that will come is good. Derrida, too, pondered this possibility, late in his life especially, and argues for the following: even though the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ stoke are always intertwined, even though there is no specific ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ to it, one might always hope for ‘moments’ of peaceful fraternity, of, well, democratic fervor for fraternity, equality and freedom in a “brotherland” (218). Following this, it is a bit odd that Krell does not turn to Derrida’s reservations about fraternity and community, notably in his Voyous (2003). Such a sexual difference, or such ontological differences over sexuality, has repercussions for the ontological difference too: not the one, grand history and sending of being, but rather “multiple sendings, sending of the other and of others”, of otherness, perhaps, in general and essentially (211).
Krell inserts Trakl into the debate in his final chapter, focusing primarily on his relation to his enigmatic sister, Gretl. Krell returns to Heidegger’s “coldness” when it comes to our falling Geschlecht and states that “Trakl does not dream of the demise of any Geschlecht” (231). It is in effect more than likely that it was the horrors of the battlefield that caused his own demise. There is no doubt that Heidegger could be harsh in his judgement of people, of persons and of era. There is however another Heidegger too, one for which the past is not simply a Christian, ontotheological mistake, but whom rather calls to a patient transformation of that past, for a meditation on the possibilities that lie dormant in these traditions, very much like Derrida’s deconstruction is the hornet on the back of those traditions rather than simply being ‘against tradition’. Heidegger, in Unterwegs zur Sprache, wrote that “die wahre Zeit ist Ankunft des Gewesenen” (Heidegger 1975: 75) and has, in other writings where he was on the way to language just as well, made clear just how to envision such an arrival of what was: “Gewesenheit darf aber nicht als Vergangenheit begriffen werden”—that which has been is never simply past. On the contrary, Heidegger argues, “it has always already grasped over every today and now: it essences as tradition” (GA38, 117; Heidegger 2009, 100). Concerning this matter of the Verwindung of a certain history, Heidegger and Derrida are closer than expected. This would mean that we cannot comprehend the call for a ‘brotherland’ without the call (back) to our past, our metaphysics and our discords (and all the phantasmatic risks involved). Here too, not the one without the other. Derrida, too, would have known that no one ultimately is immune for a certain nostalgia, and a certain hope.
That would be my small bit of critique of Krell’s remarkable book, the ease with which it is prepared to call Heidegger’s other thinking a phantasm (e.g. 238) and the concomitant silence about Derrida’s doubts, elsewhere, about fraternity. Far from a phantasmatic either/or on this score, Heidegger would never have “banish[ed] th[e] tradition” (241): it is certainly true that Heidegger wanted to ‘overcome’ and even abandon Christianity, but he also said that this metaphysics would be overturned very, very slowly (if at all), and since a lot of this metaphysics is Christian, there is thus no way, in Heidegger, to banish and bar the Christian tradition. What dawns upon us as lying ahead of us, is precisely an Abbau or deconstruction of Christianity.
Krell has written a magnificent book: at times it is a true adventure in thinking. We should call ourselves lucky that he has not been “dashing off to meetings” (Krell 2013, 6, also 75 and 149) too much lately. Another book of his is out, on the Black Notebooks this time, and my copy is on its way. Let us, to conclude ponder the motto of this fine book, on Derrida’s dream, Derrida’s dreaming, and the nature of dreaming: “does not the dream, all by itself, demonstrate, that of which it is dreaming” (200)? Or, to quote another thinker that received Heidegger’s cold gaze, pondering the nature of love and imagination: “in jener ‘Einbildung’ enthüllt sich nämlich ein anthropologischer Wezenszug” (Binswanger 1993, 298).
Binswanger, Ludwig. Grundformen und Erkenntnis des menschlichen Daseins (Heidelberg: Asanger, 1993).
Derrida, Jacques. Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972).
Derrida, Jacques. De l’esprit. Heidegger et la question (Paris: Galilée, 1987).
Derrida, Jacques. Politiques de l’amitié (Paris: Galilée, 1994).
Derrida, Jacques. Psyche. Inventions de l’autre II (Paris: Galilée, 2003).
Derrida, Jacques. Voyous. Deux essais sur la raison (Paris: Galilée, 2003).
Krell, David Farrel. Derrida and our Animal Others. Derrida’s Final Seminar, The Beast and the Sovereign (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2013).
Heidegger, Martin. Unterwegs zur Sprache (Pfüllingen: Neske, 1975).
Heidegger, Martin. Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Frankfurt a. M: Klostermann, 1998).
Heidegger, Martin. Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, trans. W.T. Gregory and Y. Unna (New York: SUNY Press, 2009).
Schrijvers, Joeri. Between Faith and Belief. Toward A Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life (New York: SUNY Press, 2016).
There is a growing concern in the world today, especially in contemporary philosophy, regarding nature. However, despite the strong concern, few texts adequately address the topic. In his work The Return of Nature, John Sallis attempts to show just how imperative it is that we reflect on nature and come to a new understanding of the relationship between humans, the current state of our world, and nature. This book serves as a solid call to arms, forcing us to reevaluate the meaning of nature and compelling us to take up the challenge of re-envisioning a future that is both sustainable and more fulfilling of our being.
The work emerges at the forefront of an ever growing concern with nature. With increased awareness of climate change and other environmental issues we face today, scholars from a wide array of disciplines have sought to address ways we can combat the evolving crises. In philosophy, nature has long been subject to investigation. Up until recently, the focus on nature was aimed at understanding its relationship to being or law, and related issues. Today, much of the focus has been on reconsidering various perspectives of nature in an attempt to account for the current movement to “return to nature,” with advocates for natural medicine, ecological living and energy.
This is indeed where Sallis fits; the goal of his text is to raise awareness to the necessity of accounting for nature in such a way that a paradigm shift occurs from man vs. nature, to man with nature. As with any text in this field it must not only provide a coherent and valid argument, but it must also draw from the tradition out of which it arises. Sallis utilizes German Idealism and American Transcendentalism to establish differing conceptions of nature as well as to interpret what a return to nature might mean for us today. Specifically, he focuses on the works of Emerson, Hegel, and Schelling in order to give an account of nature.
I believe that Sallis’ book can be broken down into three major sections based on the goal of each chapter. These are as follows: understanding nature, evaluating nature, and connecting nature to man. The first of these is the objective in the first three chapters, the second the middle three chapters, and the last the final two chapters. I will consider each of these sections as I see them in greater detail.
First, Sallis must provide a detailed background for viewing nature in the many ways that it has been understood. Accounting for the pre-Socratics through Nietzsche, he has done precisely this. In the first section, Sallis discusses the various ways in which nature can be said to “return.” He points out changing seasons, abandoned cities or buildings, and other instances in which nature may return – the meaning of return changing in different senses. In addition, “There are occasions when nature lets its beauty appear, when it shines forth in a scene so wondrous that it draws us into a contemplative repose in which we linger before the scene” Sallis writes (7).
Having set forth an explanation of the ways in which nature can be said to return, that is, the various meanings of “return” such that nature may do so, Sallis attempts to outline, in the second chapter, the origins of thought regarding nature, or what the Greeks termed φύσις, which reveals the etymological origins of the word to mean “birth” (28). Sallis then seeks to explore the foundations of nature in theoretical thought. He suggests that nature is “the place from within which natural things are born and determined as such” (29). Tracing nature in thought through German Idealism, and specifically through the philosophy of Schelling, Sallis concludes that nature tends to serve as grounding, a replacement for God. With this, “God can no longer be regarded as the causa sui but rather as progeny of the ground, as given birth by nature” (42).
Next, Sallis insists upon stablishing a distinction between the phrasing a “return of nature” and a “return to nature,” the former having been dealt with in the first chapter. The return to nature represents an often philosophical assertion, that we must derail the current trend of societal development and instead return to a state in which we give more regards to nature. As Sallis writes, it is an imperative which “presupposes that its addressees either have themselves retreated from nature or somehow been withdrawn from it, so that in either case they have been separated or at least distanced from nature” (44). Sallis considers the focus on a ‘return to nature’ through the theories of natural man in Rousseau, aesthetic judgment in Kant, and nature in Emerson. Following this, he briefly continues on into the German idealist tradition, as well as its successors in Nietzsche and Heidegger.
In accounting for Rousseau’s position on natural man as a starting point for a ‘return to nature’, Sallis notes that it “opens the way to a condition that, though not that of a savage, in a way accordant with modern life, approximate the state of nature” (46). It is thus theoretical and descriptive in content as it describes the state of nature, with the goal of leading to a method of critiquing or analyzing the modern political state. In the case of Rousseau then, the notion of a ‘return to nature’ is not asked on a sharp contradistinction between the separation of nature and this return. However, the opposite is true in Kant.
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant “begins by acknowledging the dependence of knowledge on experience, the primary movement enacted in the critical project consist in a regress from experience – primarily the experience of nature – to the a priori conditions of such experience, conditions that lie not in nature but in the subject,” Sallis notes (49). The separation of man from nature is evident in Kant’s theoretical philosophy, but is perhaps more profound in his practical, moral theory. According to Kant, morality consists in acting in accordance with the categorical imperative and goes against nature. Sallis writes “morality itself lies in self-determination that, utterly detached from natural inclination, is carried out in accordance with the moral law” (49).
Stemming out of this separation, this fierce distinction between man and nature, Emerson’s essay Nature, argues in favor of a ‘return to nature’ considering that man has so far removed himself from nature due to his entrapment in urban atmospheres. Emerson, Sallis suggests, saw “the human spirit is expanded by coming into proximity to nature, by returning from the detachment from nature inculcated and enforced by city life” (50). Thus nature serves as the means through which spirit manifests itself and presents itself contrary to its becoming subservient to materialism and the goals associated with materialism.
While I will not comment further on the general outline of the views of a return to nature as it develops in the German idealist tradition, it is clear the direction which it is headed. As Sallis writes, “From nature one is displayed to oneself in some specific manner” and that “The return to nature also awakens a sense of the elemental in nature and of our capacity to master and control it,” we can already note the progression this takes (51). For example, Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘Will to Power’ is easily traced and tied into this development of a ‘return to nature.’
In the first section of the text, Sallis has set-up the background for the ability to analyze the concept of ‘nature’ as such, a task which I have described as understanding nature. He has provided a detailed history of the development of ‘nature’ as a concept, including its ancient Greek origins as well as its changing tone in German Idealism. Additionally, he examined the conceptions of “return of nature” and a “return to nature” differentiating the two and clarifying the concern over nature in contemporary continental philosophy. In doing so, Sallis has given the reader the ability to understand nature such that they may critique and analyze nature along with the next aim of the text: evaluating nature.
The goal of evaluating nature is one of analysis and critique, through examining in detail the theories in which a certain conception of nature is presupposed. This section is condensed into a single chapter, chapter four, “Return to Nature from a Beyond Nature,” though it penetrates into the remainder of the work. In this chapter, Sallis argues that nature is, in one sense, reduced to mere sensation, i.e., colors and shapes. In this case, nature is no longer ‘nature’, i.e., landscapes and environs. In order that the former can be determined to be “reconstituted” as the latter, “determinacy must supervene upon it from elsewhere, from somewhere beyond nature,” and so thus, “posits a nature beyond nature” (61). Sallis traces this ‘beyond nature’ through Nietzsche’s thought and notes that the metaphysical ground of the beyond nature is shifted to a subjective ground. “Nature is thus recalled to nature,” or, in other words, nature is not constituted by a “nature beyond nature” anymore, but instead contains its own self-determinacy, nature as such (63).
Sallis then shifts in chapter five, “The Elemental Turn,” to applying philosophy to practical political and ecological concerns. This final section of the book, which I have termed, connecting man to nature, seeks, by making philosophy contemporary in its goals, to illustrate ways the philosophical conception of “return to nature” may be applied to a revised concern for nature and the environment. Thus, this section serves ultimately as a “call to arms,” a militancy, with the objective of eliminating a particular mode of living in the world that is not only contrary to, but ultimately destructive of our nature. It is the task of philosophy to “dismantle the frame of this turn so as to return to a nature,” which we have neglected throughout the whole of philosophy (74).
Overall then, this book is one of many in a push to reconsider and reevaluate nature, and our place within it. More importantly however, it joins the contemporary effort to utilize humanities research, especially philosophical research, to impact the global effort to combat our own actions that have proven devastating to the environment as well as to our very own nature. With that said, while this book expertly provides insight into how we ought to conceive of ‘nature’ such that a “return of nature” is possible, and even necessary, little is done to suggest where this might lead. The one effort made to provide a suggestion is what Sallis calls the “disintegration of difference” which involves the elimination of being a particular of being, and instead focused on the “plurality of being.” It is, Sallis writes, “precisely in being the kind it is, it would be devoid of selfsameness and so would not be a kind. There would be a disintegration of difference at the very heart of being” (119).
Sallis ends with questioning what this would lead to, but does not himself posit this future. Without this, the book almost feels incomplete. Unless, however, one considers this book amongst another which may perhaps put into perspective this emphasis on the plurality of being. Read together with the other works that complement each other in this emerging push for philosophy to influence practical issues, this book might be able to offer an alternative to our current mode of being in the world.
The Return of Nature is nevertheless an inspiring read which engages its readers from the very beginning. It can be read by anyone looking to open up their mind to the reflection on other ways to live more closely in tune with their own nature and to the nature that is around them.