Jacques Derrida: La vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)

La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976) Book Cover La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)
Bibliothèque Derrida
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf
Seuil
2019
Paperback 24.00 €
372

Reviewed by: Mauro Senatore (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Santiago de Chile)

“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.

By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.

§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.

From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).

Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).

In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.

In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.

§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).

§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.

In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.

In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.

The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.

Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.

References

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

 

Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Hardback $120.00 £80.00
199

Paul Downes: Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur, Routledge, 2019

Concentric Space as a Life Principle beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur Book Cover Concentric Space as a Life Principle beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur
Paul Downes
Routledge
2019
Hardback £115.00
188

Graeme Nicholson: Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and its Fate, University of Toronto Press, 2019

Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and its Fate Book Cover Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and its Fate
New Studies in Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Graeme Nicholson
University of Toronto Press
2019
Cloth $45.00
200

Harald Seubert: Heidegger – Ende der Philosophie oder Anfang des Denkens, Karl Alber, 2019

Heidegger – Ende der Philosophie oder Anfang des Denkens Book Cover Heidegger – Ende der Philosophie oder Anfang des Denkens
Harald Seubert
Karl Alber Verlag
2019
Hardback 49,00 €
568

Kevin Aho: Contexts of Suffering: A Heideggerian Approach to Psychopathology, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019

Contexts of Suffering: A Heideggerian Approach to Psychopathology Book Cover Contexts of Suffering: A Heideggerian Approach to Psychopathology
New Heidegger Research
Kevin Aho
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Hardback £90.00
164

Iain Macdonald: What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno, Stanford University Press, 2019

What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno Book Cover What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno
Iain Macdonald
Stanford University Press
2019
Paperback $26.00
248

Alan Kim (Ed.): Brill’s Companion to German Platonism

Brill's Companion to German Platonism Book Cover Brill's Companion to German Platonism
Brill's Companions to Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy, Volume: 3
Alan Kim (Ed.)
Brill
2019
Hardback € 180.00, $ 232.00
xii, 388

Reviewed by: Miquel Solans (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya)

Brill’s Companion to German Platonism explores how Plato was interpreted and appropriated by some of the leading thinkers of the history of German philosophy, from Nicholas of Cusa to Hans Georg Gadamer. The book includes fifteen chapters, each of them devoted to one author or school, written by outstanding scholars. While most of the contributions deal with the reception of Plato’s epistemology and ontology, some others also—or only—address the long-disputed issue of how to interpret Plato’s philosophy. Since it is not possible to discuss all the topics in this almost four-hundred page volume, the review is limited to discussing how Plato’s most famous and controversial doctrine, the so-called theory of forms, was interpreted by German philosophers. More specifically, I will pay special attention to what we might call—to use the terminology suggested by the editor—the ‘transcendental interpretation’ of Plato’s theory of ideas. In the following lines, I focus on how this reading emerged and was developed by German philosophers in their various ways of endorsing, modifying, or rejecting Plato’s thought.

Alan Kim’s Introduction (chapter 1) provides an overview of the topics discussed by each of the contributors and identifies the two conflicting interpretative models already mentioned: the ‘transcendental’ or ‘functional’ reading of the ideas, on the one hand, and the ‘transcendent’ or ‘substantial’, on the other (2). According to the latter, which is the most common interpretation of Plato, ideas are separated substances that exist in a transcendent sphere of reality. Under this view, the forms are conceived as the true objects of knowledge and the soul is said to gain access to them through intellectual intuition. On the other hand, the former reading does not understand the forms as objects, but rather as ‘transcendental conditions of possible experience’ (3). The transcendental reading thus rejects the realism and dualism associated with the transcendent one and does not consider ideas as objects of intuition, but rather as functions of understanding. Among the figures examined in this volume that ascribe to Plato the substantialist view are Kant, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. On the other side, the functional interpretation was anticipated to some degree by Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, Mendelssohn and Hegel, and explicitly supported and developed by Cohen, Natorp and Husserl.

In the first chapter after the introduction (2), Claudia D’Amico presents a detailed study of the manifold connections between Nicholas of Cusa and Platonism. She also provides a valuable survey of German authors that in one way or another were influenced by Cusanus’ thought. As for the understanding of Platonic forms, Nicholas of Cusa criticizes Plato for conceiving ideas as separated forms, suggesting instead that while forms are real, they do not exist separated from things. Cusanus thinks that real forms are inaccessible to human reason, only capable of forming conjectures.

In chapter 3, Jack Davidson examines how Leibniz incorporates Plato and Platonism into his own philosophical system. Among the most remarkable points of agreement between both philosophers, Davidson points out Leibniz’s rejection of materialism and his conviction that reality ultimately consists of immaterial, intelligible substances, of which sensible things are appearances (53). After indicating other points in which both philosophers converge, the author devotes epigraph 5 to show how Leibniz’s epistemology reshapes some Platonic themes. More precisely, this section focuses on the agreements and disagreements regarding the role and nature of innate ideas. As it is well-known, Leibniz holds that some of the most fundamental concepts are known innately. At the same time, however, he rejects two positions he ascribes to Plato: the pre-existence of the soul and the presupposition that every truth one knows has been explicitly known by the soul before (63). Despite the emphasis that Leibniz puts on his differences with Plato at this point, both philosophers agree on a fundamental level, as Davidson suggests, that sensible experience does not suffice to account for our knowledge of necessary truths. Thus, the human soul must be equipped with a special potential to know them (ibidem).

The next chapter, written by Bruce Rosenstock, studies Moses Mendelssohn’s appropriation and reworking of Plato’s Phaedo within the framework of his ‘Leibnizian Platonism’ (79) in his own Phädon. Rosenstock focuses on the ‘infinitesimal calculus of the soul’ as Mendelssohn applies it in his own version of the dialogue. The application of Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus leads Mendelssohn to endorse a functionalist view, since he believes that the soul’s process of knowledge works—like that type of calculus—by progressively ‘integrating’ the initially indistinct mass of representations’ (83). Thus, following Leibniz, Mendelssohn understands the soul as an active Platonic idea that brings unity into multiplicity (84). However, as Rosenstock indicates, this is only one side of the story. Under Mendelssohn’s view, the Platonic ideas do not only account for the integrative nature of human knowledge; they are not merely abstract objects of understanding, but also and at the same time ‘the object[s] of the soul’s authentic (philosophic) desire for happiness’ (92). In this sense, the soul’s capacity to unify the multiplicity of appearances through conceptual unities is the ‘expression’ of the soul’s desire for happiness (93). Hence, according to Mendelssohn, the search for knowledge is necessarily entangled with the quest for the good (92).

In chapter 5, Manfred Baum examines Kant’s appropriation of the theory of ideas in both the pre-Critical and the Critical period. It is worth noting, first, that Kant never attributes the two-world doctrine to Plato, even though his primary source, Brucker, does it. The Kantian pre-critical reading of the Platonic idea assimilates it with a ‘common standard of perfection’ for measuring all other less perfect realities (115). In the critical period, Kant’s well-known differentiation between understanding and reason leads him to reshape his reading. Under this new light, Plato’s ideas are interpreted as anticipating to some extent Kant’s concepts of reason, the regulative ideas, in contrast with the concepts of understanding, the categories (123-124). According to Baum, both Kant and Plato agree that ideas do not originate in the senses and that their object is not found in the empirical world (ibidem). However, Kant rejects the alleged hypostatized nature of Platonic forms, that he presumably takes from Bruker’s Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato (126-127). The result of Kant’s appropriation of Plato’s theory of ideas, then, is twofold (as Kim also puts it in the introduction [5]): Kant attributes to Plato a substantial or transcendent view of ideas, while at the same time he sees Platonic ideas as the first attempt towards a transcendental consideration of human knowledge.

Hegel’s reading of Plato can be seen, as Jere Surber persuasively presents it in chapter 6, as the first modern philosophical interpretation of the Platonic corpus (133). The most distinctive features of the Hegelian approach to Plato are, first, Hegel’s direct and detailed engagement with the dialogues and, second, his distinctive appropriation of the Platonic ideas. According to Hegel, Plato’s ideas anticipate in a still unsystematic way his own systematic account of genuine Begriffe (concepts) as “concrete universals” (141). Relying on his interpretation of Parmenides, Timaeus, and Republic, Hegel rejects the dualistic, transcendent interpretations of the forms. He suggests instead that the Platonic idea should be understood as an ‘identity-in-difference’, and therefore as a genuine concept in Hegelian terms, that is, one that unifies in itself the formal and material aspect of reality (136). On the other hand, Hegel also dismisses the psychological transcendentalism according to which the ideas are mere constructs (or mere concepts, as opposed to genuine concepts) of the human mind since this view fails to account for the essential connection between the ideas and the sensible things (p.136). Therefore, as Surber points out, Hegel thought of his own philosophy as the articulation of Plato’s ‘in a modern systematic form’ (142).

The following two chapters (7 and 8) are devoted to Schleiermacher’s influential approach both to Plato’s philosophy and its interpretation. In chapter 7, André Laks provides an insightful discussion of Schleiermacher’s both philological and philosophical reading of the Platonic dialogues. Regarding the interpretation of Plato’s ideas, Schleiermacher rejects Aristotle’s criticisms and defends that the forms are real concepts that actually possess causal force and can directly affect both the physical and the moral world, given that they derive from God’s power (155). Chapter 8 is at odds with the rest of the contributions since it does not offer a reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s reading of Plato, but rather presents the author’s (Thomas Szlezák) main reasons for disagreeing with it. While the philological arguments provided by Szlezák are highly illuminating, and many of his objections to Schleiermacher are indeed very persuasive—see, for instance, his detailed analysis of Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus (172-179)—, one cannot but wonder why Schleiermacher’s interpretation is the only one subject to such critical scrutiny. Besides, the main objections of the Tübingen School–to which Szlezák belongs– to Schleiermacher are again developed and argued for in chapter 14 by Vittorio Hösle. In his contribution, Hösle also provides a valuable survey of some of the most representative advocates of the abovementioned school and provides a summary of the main points of Krämer’s pioneering dissertation Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, still only available in German (337-339).

Robert Wicks’ chapter on Schopenhauer (9) stresses the role of Plato’s account of time in the former’s metaphysical account of human consciousness and reality. More specifically, according to Wick, the Platonic conception of time as ‘the moving image of eternity’ in the Timaeus inspired Schopenhauer’s consideration of the spatio-temporal world as a prison of human consciousness (192 and 215). In his mature philosophy, Schopenhauer regards Plato’s ideas as essentially dependent on the Will, which constitutes the core of reality, the thing-in-itself, which lays beyond any form of representation and time (209). Under this view, ideas are said to play an intermediary role between the thing-in-itself as Will, on the one hand, and the objects of the spatio-temporal world, on the other (210). Therefore, as Wick suggests, Schopenhauer’s reading of ideas within this framework attributes them a twofold nature: as long as they are objects, they ultimately belong to the world of representation and, to this extent, they are high-ranking illusions; however, considered in their relationship to the thing-in-itself, ideas are ‘timeless acts of Will’ (213-214). In this last sense, Plato’s forms are placed behind the veil of the ordinary experience of the world, and thus they are only apprehended by a certain timeless intuition that Schopenhauer identifies with an intense awareness of the present moment (200-201). Philosophy is thus conceived as a form of asceticism whose aim is to reach such timeless, transcendent, and even mystical awareness (215). As Richard Bennett stresses at the beginning of chapter 11, Nietzsche regards this ascetic approach to reality—that he attributes to Plato—as anti-natural, coward, and decadent (249-252). In the second section of his contribution, Bennet proves that Nietzsche’s consideration of Plato goes far beyond this one-sided evaluation and is more multi-faceted and less consistent than usually acknowledged.

The transcendental reading of Plato’s ideas was explicitly defended for the first time by the two leading figures of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism: Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp. In chapter 10, Karl-Heinz Lembeck examines both authors’ attempts to mediate between Kant and Plato in their ambitious philosophical-historical interpretations (217). Cohen’s early reading of the forms as psychological categories radically evolved in the mid-1870s into a purely logical-transcendental interpretation of them. Under this new approach, and drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, ideas are now viewed as ‘regulative concepts’ guiding knowledge. Within this picture, the form of the Good is not seen as a real entity, but rather as ‘the function of a unifying synthesis of appearances’ (223-224). Cohen extracts this interpretation from Plato’s alleged identification of ideas as hypothesis, that is, as ‘pre-sub-positions’ which thinking anticipates in order to be able to apprehend reality (228). In other words, ideas are said to be a priori conditions of knowledge.

Unlike Cohen’s, Natorp’s appropriation of Plato is grounded on a deep engagement with the texts. In Platons Ideenlehre (Plato’s Theory of Ideas), Natorp develops his reading of Plato’s theory of ideas as a theory of the constitution of experience (231-232). From this standpoint, Natorp downplays the ontological significance of the ideas, stressing their epistemological relevance as ‘laws’ that govern the dynamisms of knowledge (233). In his late systematic philosophy, Natorp modifies his reading of Plato’s ideas, as he seems to come under the influence of Neo-Platonism. Now, forms are understood as categories and, as such, as secondary functions unable to grasp the ultimate level of reality. Such level corresponds to Plato’s form of Good, which is radically transcendent and, therefore, inaccessible by means of articulated knowledge (237).

In the next chapter (12), Alan Kim explores Husserl’s ‘productive appropriation of Plato into phenomenology’ (273), relying on the fact that Husserl considered himself a phenomenological Platonist. By doing this, Kim provides an original, perceptive reading of the theory of ideas from a phenomenological perspective and, at the same time, a compelling presentation of the Husserlian account of eidetic intuition. In a way akin to Cohen and Natorp, Husserl endorses a transcendental interpretation of Platonic ideas, rejecting the ‘static’ Platonism of separated substantial forms along with its subsequent metaphysical dualism and mystical intuitionism (274). According to Kim, Husserl’s ideas or eidê refer to the object of the apprehension of the what-ness of a given thing. Such eidê, however, differ from the empirical universal concepts derived by abstraction from contingent facts. Eidê also relates to facts, but not because they derive from them, but rather because they constitute the rule of any possible apprehension of them. In order to illustrate the process by means of which consciousness moves from facts to eidê, Kim draws on Plato’s Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave. The first is meant to represent the different psychic states, while the second focuses on the soul’s progression from one to another. Here, eidê are presented as logical structures or essential meanings ‘that had always been co-intended in my aesthetic grasp of the phenomenon as actual thing, but which had been, as it were, eclipsed by the glare of ‘reality’’ (278). The ascension of the soul towards the realm of ideas is thus understood as a progressive detachment and liberation from the blinding glare of sensible appearances of things, so as to be able to perceive the essential features of them. This interpretation explains both the fact that the highest form of knowledge according to Plato, namely, dialectics, is said to deal only with ideas, and also that the knowledge of ideas allows the ex-prisoner in his return to the cave to recognize images as what they really are (280). In the following pages, Kim equates both Husserl’s and Plato’s account of the vision of eidê with the ‘understanding of the F-ness of many f’s’ (281). As the author points out in a footnote, the state of consciousness in which we grasp an eidê is not adequately described as a learning process, that is, as certain acquisition of knowledge, but instead as some sort of perceiving or, even more accurately, re-cognizing (erkennen) (281, n. 70). In this sense, the phenomenological method of purifying the mind from its factual intentions and redirecting it towards the essential turns out to be very similar to Plato’s account of dialectic as a process of remembering (anamnesis) what one already knows in his or her soul (281). Within this framework, Kim forcefully argues that Husserl’s basic idea of a ‘noematic form implicitly governing the coherence of sense experience’ can be paralleled with Plato’s account of the relationship between noêsis and aisthêsis in the passage on the summoners in Republic VII, as well as with the role attributed to sensibility in the recollection argument offered in the Phaedo. Finally, the author points out that the Husserlian reading was deeply influenced by Lotze’s thesis that ideas do not possess existence (Sein), but rather validity (Geltung) (294).

The two remaining chapters are devoted to Heidegger’s confrontation with Plato (chapter 13) and Gadamer’s productive reshaping of the Heideggerian reading (chapter 15). Francisco J. Gonalez begins his chapter on Heidegger’ reading of Plato by focusing on the 1924/25 course on Plato’s Sophist. In these lectures, it becomes apparent a tension that characterizes how Heidegger will read Plato the rest of his life. On the one hand, the Heideggerian approach reveals several points where Plato’s understanding of being comes very close to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. On the other, the German philosopher insists that Plato interpreted being as presence, that is, as the object of logos, and therefore that Plato’s philosophy is to be seen as the first of a long series of reductions of truth to correspondence (306). As Gonzalez clearly shows in his contribution, this tension will persist until the late Heidegger, although the latter approach will become the ‘official’ reading. The author suggests that one of the most remarkable exceptions to the official reading can be found in the Parmenides seminar of 1930/31. Drawing on both Heidegger’s class notes and Herbert Marcuse’s transcript of this seminar, Gonzalez clearly shows that Heidegger saw Plato’s discussion of exaiphnês (instant) in the Parmenides as a genuinely ontological comprehension of the problem of ‘being and time’ (314-315). We find a similar exception in Heidegger’s interpretation of erôs in the Phaedrus seminar of 1932 (319 ff.). Gadamer’s appropriation of Platonic philosophy, discussed by François Renaud in the final chapter (15), reacts against Heidegger’s official reading. Gadamer claims that ‘Plato is not a Platonist’ and argues that the theory of forms and the method of dialectic are meant to make explicit the conditions of Socrates’ practice of dialogue in the early dialogues (356). According to Renaud, Gadamer seems to think that the forms are objects independent from representation, though he also speaks of them as if they only were transcendental principles (374).

This volume is worth reading for both historical and philosophical reasons. Each of the fifteen chapters provides the reader with valuable insights into the history of German philosophy in line with the most updated research and effectively supports the general thesis of the book that Plato exerted a decisive influence over the most relevant German philosophers (1). On the other hand, anyone interested in the interpretation of Plato’s works will surely find this book an exciting source of inspiration. In particular, as I hope to have shown, it will prove especially helpful for those intrigued by the possibilities of a transcendental reading of Plato’s theory of ideas. Last but not least, this collective work reminds us of both the risks and benefits of a philosophical reading of Plato, that is, one that attempts to identify and rethink the core issues of Platonic philosophy anew.

     

Robert C. Scharff: Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological: Interpreting Husserl Through Dilthey, 1916-1925

Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological: Interpreting Husserl through Dilthey, 1916–1925 Book Cover Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological: Interpreting Husserl through Dilthey, 1916–1925
New Heidegger Research
Robert C. Scharff
Rowman & Littlefield International
2018
Paperback $39.95
176

Reviewed by: James Cartlidge (Central European University)

The story often told about the birth of phenomenology begins with the perceived proto-phenomenological tendencies of philosophers of antiquity, before the discipline eventually found its proper explicit expression in Edmund Husserl. Following in the footsteps of Husserl comes his young student Martin Heidegger, who takes his basic insights, expands on, develops them and revises them, which eventually results in a ‘phenomenological ontology’, as opposed to Husserl’s ‘transcendental phenomenology’. Though Heidegger disagrees significantly with Husserl on some issues, when it comes to how Heidegger became the kind of philosopher he did, the debt he owes is largely to Husserl. However original Heidegger goes on to be, he is ultimately, to some extent, a Husserlian revisionist. However, as more of Heidegger’s early lecture courses have appeared, another figure’s considerable influence on the young Heidegger became increasingly difficulty to deny, at the expense of Husserl and the line of interpretive thought I just described. This figure is Wilhelm Dilthey, a German historian best known in philosophical circles for his contribution to the epistemological debate surrounding ‘understanding’ and ‘explanation’. The fact that Dilthey influenced Heidegger, and that Heidegger thought his work was especially promising, is uncontroversial: even in Being and Time he wrote that “the researches of Dilthey were, for their part, pioneering work; but today’s generation has not as yet made them its own.”[1] The extent of Dilthey’s impact on Heidegger’s philosophical formation, however, has not been adequately understood, nor its primacy over the influence of Husserl. Correcting this oversight is the central aim of Robert Scharff’s Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological. Using the wealth of evidence from Heidegger’s early lecture courses and the clearly Dilthey-influenced language and theoretical framework found in them, Scharff not only elaborately illustrates Dilthey’s impact on the formation of Heidegger’s thought, but shows how it is this impact that informs his subsequent reading of Husserl. It is only based on his prior reading of Dilthey that Heidegger ‘destructively retrieves’ Husserl. The dominant interpretive line of thought with respect to the history of phenomenology from Husserl through Heidegger is therefore mistaken, a fact that is perhaps not necessarily new to us but has never been as comprehensively expressed and well-demonstrated as Scharff does here. His text is a welcome addition to the New Heidegger Research series, with its clear writing, thorough scholarship and nobly motivated project making it of interest to anyone looking to learn about the history of phenomenology.

On the one hand, Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is a historical, scholarly work concerned with the genesis of Heidegger’s phenomenology and the specifics of his engagements with Dilthey and Husserl. But on the other hand, it is also about what it is to philosophize at all, and what kind of philosophers we need to be, or become. Its expositions of Heidegger, Dilthey and Husserl are driven and bookmarked by an impassioned call for philosophers to question the predominantly materialist/objectivist, ‘technique-happy’, scientifically-minded condition in which much philosophy finds itself, where the “primacy of the theoretical” (158) reigns. In this climate, there is a dominant tendency to conceive of ourselves as knowing subjects, rational animals, as cognizing consciousnesses to which objects appear – at the expense of the wealth of phenomenological life-experience that this conception of ourselves ignores. The effect of this ‘loss of touch with life’ on philosophers, on Scharff’s view, is particularly damning:

their work grows to be an embarrassment, increasingly displaying a tendency to become excessively logical, formalistic, or simply clever; and this is so even if in the beginning, some insightful encounter or concern that is actually lived-through was the source of hat are now just empty exercises. (153)

It is these ‘insightful encounters or concerns’ that Scharff, through Heidegger and Dilthey, insists we must get back to. But this cannot be done as long as we are mired in the normal (read, broadly analytic, scientistic) way of doing philosophy, where philosophers ‘inquire, argue and claim’ (159), ‘take positions, promote theories and influence others’ (xii) and the worth of their viewpoints are evaluated. (xvi) Here, claims are either true or false, arguments are sound or unsound, theories are coherent or incoherent, changing your mind is inconsistent, new ways of speaking perhaps ‘incoherent’, ‘obscurantist’ or ‘unscientific’, and everything a philosopher says in their work is taken at face value. It is this superficial way of doing philosophy that we must overcome, and another strength of Scharff’s text is its emphasis on and drawing out of Heidegger’s way of overcoming it – his way of reading other philosophers in a ‘destructive retrieval’. The bulk of Scharff’s text is dedicated to explicating, in detail, how Heidegger engages in such a ‘destructive retrieval’ of Dilthey and Husserl. I will briefly summarise how the book proceeds chapter by chapter before spelling out some of its most significant points in greater detail.

Chapter 1 frames the book in terms of Heidegger’s early preoccupation with how we should philosophize, his ‘preliminary question’ of what kind of philosopher one needs to be in order to be phenomenological. For Heidegger, this will involve a destructive retrieval of both Husserl and Dilthey, with the emphasis on ‘destructive’ with Husserl and ‘retrieve’ with Dilthey. The retrieval of Dilthey is the starting point of chapter 2, which begins ‘part one’ of the text. Here, Scharff introduces Dilthey’s central ideas of ‘the standpoint of life’ and ‘understanding life in its own terms’ as they arise in the most familiar contribution Dilthey has been known to make to philosophy, which is his attempt to delineate between the natural and human sciences and provide epistemology for the latter. Out of this project arises Dilthey’s idea that the human sciences attempt to understand human history from ‘the standpoint of life’, an idea that gets ‘phenomenologically replaced’ in Husserl with the ‘transcendental consciousness’, a de-historicised, de-contextualized cognizing subjectivity to which objects appear. Heidegger sees certain ‘intuitions’ in Dilthey’s idea that promise far more philosophically (for phenomenology and ontology) than even Dilthey himself realised. Chapter 3 shows how Heidegger sought to appropriate Dilthey and carry his work far beyond the epistemology of the human sciences, which Dilthey confined himself to. Here there are interesting discussions of how Heidegger engages with other philosophers, in terms of ‘appropriation’ and the ‘formal indications’ we might find implicit in their work even if they do not realise it. ‘Formal indication’ is a notoriously difficult concept in Heidegger, one that normally gets fleshed out from its application in Being and Time and beyond, so it is interesting to see its treatment in the 1920s lecture courses. Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey’s ‘standpoint of life’ leads us into ‘part two’ of the text, which deals with how Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey informs the ‘destructive’ element of his engagement with Husserl. Dilthey helps Heidegger realise that Husserl’s phenomenology is not genuine phenomenology, but an enactment of the theoretical-scientific attitude, containing an unhelpful opposition to Dilthey’s alleged ‘historicism’, which for Husserl leads to obscurity and relativism, and does not “a proper philosophical response to the empirical facts of historical-human life.” (98) Phenomenology, on Husserl’s view, must ‘get behind’ historical life to the transcendental consciousness which experiences it. However, an immersion in the historical, as Heidegger learns from Dilthey, turns out to be a requirement for genuine phenomenology, not something to be opposed by it. Chapter 5 turns to the positive retrieval of Husserl, in which Heidegger attempts to salvage Husserl’s ‘principle of all principles’ in a way that is compatible with Dilthey’s historically-immersed ‘standpoint of life’. Heidegger’s destructive retrieval of both Dilthey and Husserl for the purpose of becoming genuinely phenomenological lead Scharff to the conclusions he draws in chapter 6, about the always-ongoing nature of phenomenology, something that necessarily ‘becomes’ without ever reaching a complete state of ‘being’. The point of phenomenology is to become attuned to our historical being, a process which is always ongoing, never finished – the point is therefore to continuously ‘become’ phenomenological, not try and ‘be’ it.

 Arguably, the most important term in Scharff’s book, both for understanding how Heidegger conducts his philosophy and for understanding the project of the book itself, is ‘destructive retrieval’. Heidegger’s notion of ‘destruction’ is long-familiar to us, especially in the form of the ‘destruction of the history of ontology’ he proposes in Being and Time. But in his earlier lecture courses, which are the sole focus of Scharff’s analysis, Heidegger speaks rather of ‘destructive retrieval’, emphasizing both the positive and negative aspects of the task he would later refer to only as ‘destruction’.

Sometimes, one encounters texts whose author seems to be “on the way” toward a topic or insight that outruns, or perhaps even casts doubt on the aptness of – what they say or even consciously intend. In such cases, it is especially desirable to try to understand the text “in its own terms” (xviii)

To destroy, or destructively retrieve, a philosopher’s work, does involve a negative dismantling of it, but always with an eye towards retrieving the positive possibilities latent within it, the tools it might (in spite of itself) afford us for moving beyond it. Rather than a strict emphasis on whether someone is right or wrong, coherent or incoherent, destructive retrieval aims at ascertaining what about their historical context might drive a philosopher to say what they say and what worth this motivation might have in the long run, even if the expression this motivation was given and the work it was put to turns out to be mistaken or inadequate. It is not just about dismantling inadequate systems of thought, but “stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition” (BT, 44) in which they are situated, ascertaining what we can learn from it about how to do philosophy as well as how not to do it.

This is precisely what Heidegger does with both Dilthey and Husserl, but it is Dilthey who Heidegger owes a greater philosophical debt to, and Dilthey who informs Heidegger’s subsequent reading of Husserl, not the other way round. Scharff’s book therefore finds a happy home alongside other texts in the New Heidegger Research series such as Thomas Sheehan’s Making Sense of Heidegger, since it also aims at overturning a long-dominant interpretive tendency in Heidegger scholarship. Scharff argues at length that the influence of Husserl on the young Heidegger has been overemphasized for far too long, with “the two main interpretive options […] [being] that he is either a revisionist Husserlian or a radically revisionist Husserlian.” (vii) Scharff’s contention, backed up by the relatively recent availability of Heidegger’s 1920s lecture courses, is that both of these alternatives are wrong, and it is in fact Dilthey who helps Heidegger take up a position on how it is that he should philosophize, a position which goes on to inform his reading of Husserl.

But this is not to say that Husserl had nothing to offer Heidegger, or that Heidegger has no issues with Dilthey – Heidegger engages in a destructive retrieval of both, though “it is more a matter of critically dismantling in the case of Husserl and more a matter of appropriation/retrieval in the case of Dilthey.” (xxii) Ultimately, Husserl saw the potential of and necessity for phenomenology but was gravely mistaken in his articulation of how it should be practised. Phenomenology, for Husserl, must rise above our “concrete circumstances […] of scientific practice […] of culture, society, history” (40) in order to be able to train itself exclusively on what appears to a ‘transcendental consciousness’. Only then will we have returned ‘to the things themselves’, as his famous slogan suggests. But as anyone familiar with the Heidegger of Being and Time will know, this ‘rising above’ is precisely a step in the wrong direction. Rather,

historical-human life […] belongs to us and is possessed by us as an endlessly rich, diverse and multiply interested environmental experience that is an already meaningful and understandable process before it gets theoretically sliced up and conceptualized. (xx)

Husserl’s basic motivation to return to the things themselves as we experience them, is a noble and necessary one. However, his idea of what this means is gravely mistaken. According to Husserl, we must strip away the trappings of historical life, culture and experience in order to experience the world ‘as it really is’, and so he remains trapped in a Cartesian-Kantian framework that amounts to an “enactment of the current (predominantly scientific and philosophically scientized) ways of conceptualizing” (xxi) life as we live it. To be phenomenologists, according to Husserl, we have to become the disinterested, objective cognizing observers that science would have us be, and record our experience this way. Heidegger’s problem with this is not just that the stripping-away Husserl proposes is impossible, but that even if it were possible, would be a far from accurate reflection of our existence and experience. We are fundamentally historical beings, and this being-historical fundamentally conditions our existence and experience of it at every step. To attempt to rise above it to describe our experience of our existence, therefore, is gravely misconceived and would miss out on a constitutive element of our existence. Rather, any phenomenology worthy of the name must involve an attempt to understand our life ‘in its own terms’, cultural-historical trappings and all. And it is this insight that Heidegger gets from reading Dilthey.

Through Dilthey, Heidegger arrives at a conception of how to do phenomenology that far surpasses Husserl’s, but this is not what Dilthey had in mind. Dilthey’s original project, as chapter 2 explains, was originally to construct an epistemology of the human sciences, such that they can be shown to be distinct rom the natural sciences and yet still be called a science. Readers unfamiliar with Dilthey’s well-known contributions to the human sciences and the ‘explanation vs. understanding’ debate will learn a lot from this chapter, which reconstructs some of the most salient points before phenomenologically recasting this territory as Heidegger does. In the course of Dilthey’s project, Heidegger detects “a [very non-traditional] philosophical concern”, namely, the concern to understand the living-through of historical existence and all of its manifestations “in their own terms.”” (xxii) According to Heidegger, waiting to be retrieved in this idea is the basic attitude one must adopt if one wishes to be a phenomenologist, something Dilthey ultimately was unable to realise because of his own historical situation, and his own self-conception as an epistemologist of the human sciences. Indeed, understanding how a thinker’s work is an expression of its own historical-cultural situation is a key element of a destructive retrieval – the point is not only to understand what a philosopher got right or wrong, but what it is about their situation that drove them to say what they said in the first place and how it ‘expresses’ their situation. Dilthey’s idea of understanding life in its own terms, and working out what this might mean for phenomenology, becomes Heidegger’s primary destructive-retrieving concern in the 1920s, up until the writing and publication of Being and Time. His response to Husserl’s conception of phenomenology may initially seem obvious, but it is not without reason that Husserl opposes Dilthey, in fact this points to a deep disagreement between philosophers of all stripes over a key issue: the nature and danger of relativism.

Husserl sees Dilthey as engaging in a kind of ‘historicism’, which brings with it the danger of relativism. If everything must be understood out of and related back to our historical life, everything is relative to whichever historical period it arises out of, none of which are ‘better’ or ‘more fundamental’ than any other. Practitioners of natural science, and anyone that adopts a ‘theoretical-scientific attitude’, would obviously want to oppose this, since the very point of science is to achieve knowledge that would be true no matter what historical period we are in. But Heidegger is not advocating for (at least this kind of) relativism, as this quote shows:

those who cry, “Relativism!” typically have things backward. It is factical life in its primordial sense that is “absolute,” and the particular expressions of practice that emerge from it are “relative” (59)

Heidegger, along with Dilthey, is keen to relate everything back to “the facts of consciousness” (60) for this is where all human practises originate and have their grounding. To say this is not to say that experiential knowledge is more fundamental than natural-scientific knowledge, or that one is ‘better’ than the other, just that they are different and one emerges out of the other, as all human practises do. A phenomenology, to be truly phenomenological, must get to grips with our historical existence as that kind of being out of which disparate human practises, indeed any human practises, arise. The point of phenomenology is not to invalidate or undermine science or the knowledge it discovers, but one of its functions is to explicate science’s origin out of human life and its being grounded therein, in the facts of historical consciousness.

But this task of phenomenology, as Scharff deals with later in the book, is always a necessarily unfinished one, something we are always on the way towards but never quite reach completely because of the ever-changing historical landscape. Phenomenology is always ongoing, always ‘responsive’ to the changes of our existence as we experience them. This is where the second sense of the book’s title comes into play – the first sense emphasizes that it is a book about how Heidegger becomes the sort of philosopher he is by 1927, and the second emphasizes the unfinished nature of phenomenology as something that is always ‘becoming’, never ‘being’ in itself, complete. This is also another reason behind Husserl’s opposition to Dilthey’s ‘historicism’ – because history is ever-developing, to remain immersed in it in the course of our philosophical investigations implies an insusceptibility to a definite method or single way of proceeding, which dooms us to remain trapped in indefiniteness and obscurity. Indeed, because of the problem of history there will have to be as many or phenomenological methods or techniques as is required by whatever new challenges to it that history throws up as it proceeds. But this is not necessarily a negative consequence, but rather testifies to phenomenology’s status as a process: “no method or training regimen can protect even a well-intentioned phenomenologist from the never-ending struggle to become phenomenological” (157). Because human existence is ever-changing, developing and dependent on the whim on history, phenomenology must be ever in the process of becoming ‘responsive’ to these changes in order to capture them adequately. Though Husserl’s basic motivation of getting back to the things themselves is noble, his enactment of it precludes the required kind of attitude to phenomenology, where Dilthey’s openness to historical being better equips us for attaining it.

These are, I would suggest, the most important and salient points Scharff makes throughout the book, but this is not to mention some other interesting issues that arise along the way. The way Scharff grapples with Heidegger’s notoriously difficult idea of ‘formal indication’, and the array of formally indicative concepts and phrases in Heidegger’s early work, is admirable. So is the inclusion of Heidegger’s much-less-discussed engagement with Paul Natorp, a prominent philosopher of the time. How Heidegger uses Natorp’s criticisms of Husserl as a springboard for making a case for “a non-theoretical “immanent illumination of life experience that remains in this experience and does not step out and turn it into objectivity” (122). This is likely not to be familiar to most readers.

Which brings me to some perhaps more negative aspects of the text, of which there admittedly are not many and do not eclipse its overall merits. The influence of Dilthey on the young Heidegger, owing largely to the relatively recent publication of the lecture courses Scharff discusses, has been evident for quite some time now. Readers that are familiar already with Dilthey and Heidegger’s early lecture courses are therefore unlikely to find much that is surprising or new here. However, I find it hard to imagine that the link between Dilthey, the early Heidegger and Husserl has been as comprehensively expressed elsewhere, which is a merit in itself. The book would therefore be especially suited to students of Heidegger looking to learn about his relationship with Dilthey. This is especially the case because a basic grasp of Heidegger (and Husserl’s) work would be beneficial to have before approaching Scharff’s text, which can be dense at times. But these are not necessarily criticisms of the text itself, which is well-researched and well-constructed, and the complicated parts about the nuanced ideas of the three philosophers involved are explained in detail and at length, ultimately leaving little room for misunderstanding.

Furthermore, because of the nature of the text, some of the most interesting issues that arise within it – about the phenomenological ‘method’ and attitude, and whether it can fully escape the trappings of theoretical attitudes – do not ultimately get much attention. Scharff admirably reconstructs this specific area of phenomenological scholarship and points towards the surrounding issues it raises, but leaves the discussion open at some interesting points. To what extent can phenomenology be rigorous if it has no single method? Can we ever really escape the ‘analytic’ way of doing philosophy, where claims are made, positions analysed, etc.? What exactly is the nature of the ‘responsive’, ‘mindful’ attitude to our historical life we must attain, and how do we attain it? These are questions that the text circles around but does not try to solve definitively. Obviously, by the time he writes Being and Time, Heidegger has some ideas about how to answer these questions, but since Scharff’s aim is to ascertain how Heidegger becomes the kind of philosopher he is by that point, he does not go into this. This is part of what makes the text a good springboard toward further research and reading for whoever engages with it, and because it points to the fact that it is in the very nature of phenomenology to be unfinished, and these supposed ‘difficulties’ or ‘deficiencies’ that actually keep it alive, and allowed to develop along with our historical being.

Anyone interested in the history of continental philosophy, the interconnection of Husserl, Heidegger and Dilthey, or the history of phenomenology in general, will find much of worth in Scharff’s text. It would be especially informative for those in the early stages in their acquaintance with these topics, but those with a familiarity will undoubtedly find something worthwhile here too, if only because of the sheer detail Scharff goes into with Heidegger’s 1920s lectures, or the discussion of Dilthey’s epistemological writings, or the specifics of Husserl’s conception of phenomenology. This also because it serves as a good indicator of several interesting areas of discussion about the possibility of a phenomenological method (or methods), the nature of phenomenology and its relation to our historical nature, and how we should do philosophy at all. In fact, it is on this point that Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is at its most admirable, passionately defending philosophy that opposes the dominance of the scientific-attitude, which questions philosophy’s reliance on established theoretical frameworks, and refuses to rely on technique-happiness and generally-accepted ways of doing things. Surely, philosophy should be an enterprise that questions itself all the time, and questions the methods and conceptions of itself that have become dominant within it. Philosophy should always be something the resists complacency, never being completely satisfied with what it has achieved, because the questions that it deals with are eternal questions, ones that we must continuously work towards a better understanding of but always in the knowledge that a complete solution of them is impossible. This is what drives philosophy forward, or at least the most interesting and philosophical kinds of philosophy, no matter where in the world it is from. The divide between analytic and continental philosophy is beginning to become more blurred, with analytic philosophers doing metaphysics, and there is more dialogue than ever between philosophers across the divide (Heidegger and Wittgenstein being a key example), Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is also a powerful reminder of why this is a good thing, and how much continental and analytic philosophers have to learn from each other.


[1] Martin Heidegger. 1962. Being and Time (BT). Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, London, 429.

Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Ed.): Philosophers and Their Poets, SUNY Press, 2019

Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant Book Cover Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Ed.)
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
288