This is the first in a series of three volumes of Gadamer’s essays. While many of Gadamer’s shorter writings have been translated and anthologized so far, this series aims to bring to the English reader the many that remained untranslated.[i] The translations in this volume are very readable and have a light touch about them, which also enhances access to Gadamer’s thought. By including several essays published well after Truth and Method (1960), the volume promises to make visible the nuances in his later reflections and deepen our insight into the earlier work. On the whole, it paints a portrait of Gadamer as an erudite historian of philosophy, a committed humanist (and staunch Europeanist), and a genial raconteur of his long, rich academic career.
These are mostly good things. While my review unavoidably considers Gadamer’s own views in these essays, I am more concerned even there with this edition as a self-standing volume and I will examine certain editorial and translation decisions to this end. The present volume contains 18 essays[ii] arranged in four parts, covering Gadamer’s reflections on (1) history in general, (2) Dilthey’s significance, (3) other critical encounters, and (4) Heidegger’s significance. A Preface by the translators outlines the goals and contents of the volume, stresses the nuance to be gained by reading Gadamer’s later writings, and situates Gadamer’s thought broadly with respect to its reception in both continental and analytic philosophy. An Introduction by the translators spells out some details of Gadamer’s thoughts on history, phenomenology, language, and practical philosophy, and encourages the beginner predisposed towards these thoughts.
Part 1 contains 6 essays, the oldest of which is from 1964 and the newest from 1991. This part considers the problem of history as a lived experience and as an existential question in the face of a prevailing naturalism. Part 2 contains 3 essays from the period 1984-1991, which attest to the enduring presence in Gadamer’s work of Dilthey’s conception of hermeneutics and historical consciousness. Part 3 contains 5 essays dating between 1974 and 1994, which situate Gadamer’s thought in relation to other figures in his firmament, Husserl, Sartre, Bourdieu, Habermas, and Derrida. While Heidegger looms large in in every piece, Part 4 contains 4 essays from 1985-6 focused on different aspects of Heidegger’s work as a researcher and as a teacher.
The essays on the first topic, “history,” vary greatly in style. Some are analytical and were intended as articles, while others are relatively lyrical, when not simply rambling, and come from “improvised”[iii] opening or closing remarks at conferences. The first essay “Is there a causality in history?” lays out the key idea. The concept of causality in the natural scientific attitude concerns a regular connection enabling prediction and planning ahead, whereas causality in history is rooted in the fundamental experience of an event as something that has already happened, something singular and surprising that entangles us in questions of freedom and necessity. To understand this experience, Gadamer unpacks the history of the concept through various philosophers and shows that the concept of causality is interwoven with fundamental ontological questions about human existence. Drawing up a term’s intellectual history[iv] and relating it to the structure of Dasein with Heidegger’s help is a common thread through several essays. The problem of history, then, invites us to think the question of being.
The other essays in this part develop this key idea different ways. I found it hard, however, to see how developing the idea differently also amounts to adding “nuance” to it, as the translators claim (viii-ix). The second essay is said (x) to newly re-engage Leo Strauss, but one finds in it just a passing mention of Strauss that clarifies very little.[v] Moreover, the essay’s thrust that the problem of historicism in recent philosophy has always been around since the ancient Greeks seems to de-historicize the issue itself. The third essay (from 1991) is really all over the place. In it, Gadamer returns to the contrast between the scientific and historical viewpoints, but we can scarcely take seriously the leaps he makes between the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe on the one hand, and Foucault, Homer, Galileo, and much else on the other.[vi] The essay eventually snowballs into dire warnings about the rise of technology and pious reminders about the value of the humanities. This might catch everything and still miss nuance.
To look for nuance in the fourth essay, which comes from “improvised” opening remarks, is futile. The last two essays in this part develop the concern for historical consciousness in a softer, reflective register, and ask about the experience of the old and the new and of dying. The nuance I find in the latter, however, is only an indirect one: while the conception of philosophy as a reflection on dying is somewhat familiar and remains interesting, Gadamer’s way of setting up this reflection via easy talk of the practices of dying in Christian, Islamic, and “the great East Asian cultures” (61) simultaneously underlines the need for a richer historical-sociological understanding of these topics and, in palpably betraying this need, Gadamer gives an honest account of the limits of his reflections on the question of death. In sum, while I celebrate the effort to make more of Gadamer’s corpus available to the English reader, I am left puzzled about how this also makes available a greater nuance.
Related worries appear in regard to the translation. As mentioned, it reads easily and captures the effortless flow of Gadamer’s travels through complex ideas and vast periods. The edition includes a general glossary of German, Latin, and Greek expressions at the end and helpful editorial endnotes to each essay guide the reader diligently. Yet, I am confused by some translation decisions. For example, it feels important to note Gadamer’s use of variants of both Geschichte and Historie in a volume taking its departure from the topic, but this is not done. It might very well be the case that Gadamer does not differentiate their senses, but, given his clear interest in linguistic and idiomatic trajectories as well as the Heideggerian background, it would have been useful to mark the verbal difference.
Had verbal differences been noted, essay 3 about the history of the universe and human historicity could have helped. Here, Gadamer seems to use Historie-variants for the professional discipline and Geschichte-variants for sites of deeper historical consciousness. Translating both with “history” and not marking the German term causes one to lose sight of this possible nuance.[vii] In the opposite direction, different words are given in place of one word. Gadamer consistently refers to a central concern in the essay on causality in history with the word Zusammenhang, but this is translated variously as “fabric,” “connection,” and “complex” on the first few pages (3-4).[viii] The same couple of pages also translate Freiheit once as “freedom” and then as “liberty,” but in this case it is possible to guess why two different words are used, for the editors may have wished to distinguish Gadamer’s own handling of “freedom” from Ranke’s technical term “scenes of liberty” (4).[ix]
A striking instance of the choice to translate the same word differently concerns another central concept featuring in comparisons of Dilthey and Husserl, which is itself a recurrent theme in the collection. In essay 7, “The Problem of Dilthey: Between Romanticism and Positivism,” Gadamer complicates a standard story about Dilthey’s work proceeding directly from psychology to hermeneutics, from conceiving the understanding as an inner process to its establishment as a general principle of the historical sciences. Rather, for Gadamer, Dilthey’s thought is initially inspired by Husserl’s anti-psychologism, which leads him to reformulate the account of an “inner process” through concepts of life and lived experience. Yet, unsatisfied with Husserl’s explorations of transcendental subjectivity, Dilthey combines both German Idealist and British empiricist influences to expand the theory of meaning and its grounding in life and, ultimately, to envision hermeneutics anew. The concept Bedeutung underlies this revised story, but this word is translated sometimes as “significance” and sometimes as “meaning,” apparently to distinguish Dilthey’s life-based conception from Husserl’s logical-ontological conception. While Gadamer himself consistently used one term for both conceptions, the terminological distinction added without notation by the translators may lead the anglophone reader astray.
The aforementioned essay is the first of three devoted to Dilthey’s contributions, making up part 2 of the volume. This part is stronger and more focused than the first. While the first essay (1984) sets out the central claims and turning points of Dilthey’s evolving work, the next essay (1985) pulls into its orbit Ortega y Gasset and Nietzsche, which, through their inclusion, broadens the debates on psychology in the period in which Dilthey worked out his position.[x] The translators probably had the third essay (1991) foremost in their minds when they noted that Gadamer, in comparison with his earlier critical rejection of Dilthey,[xi] “softens” his stance in the later essays (xxix). Here, Gadamer underlines that his earlier contrast between traditional hermeneutics (the line from Schleiermacher to Dilthey according to Gadamer) and philosophical hermeneutics (Gadamer’s self-representation) was not meant to separate, but to join the two in the demand for a reformed hermeneutics (107, 117). He admits that his earlier Schleiermacher critique was somewhat deficient, but he notes that that does not affect his Dilthey reading (105-6), and he appears to shift from his earlier, internal critique of Dilthey’s lamentable restriction to the concept of objectivity used in the natural sciences to taking it as a product of historical circumstance.[xii] The third essay was written in the context of new works on Dilthey’s thought and recent publication of posthumous materials, but it is still able to convey to us today the importance of re-examining the Dilthey-Gadamer encounter.[xiii]
Part 3 covers Gadamer’s other encounters (Husserl, Sartre, Bourdieu, Habermas, and Derrida) and is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of strength, but possibly justifies its inclusion in the volume due to the unfailing ability of Franco-German encounters to deliver satisfying entertainment, whether this takes place in a seminar room or on the football pitch. Essays 10 (1975) and 11 (1974) embody Gadamer’s reflections on Husserl. The former essay had been translated previously and I take it that it is recalled here as an introductory piece to situate the latter essay, which wades a little deeper into the issues. The former essay claims that appeals to intersubjectivity do not absolve Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology from its subjectivist trappings, nor is the concept of intersubjectivity lacking in Heidegger’s project in Being and Time, since the concept of being thrown into the world and the equiprimordiality of being-with and being-in-the-world include it. The latter essay analyzes the concept of the lifeworld and emphasizes that this is not a new development in Husserl’s thought. Rather, it marks a return to older questions about the thoroughness in bracketing the world, and, in fact, returns to yet older questions in German Idealism about thoroughness in setting up the foundations of transcendental philosophy (143). Gadamer locates his own turn to the movements of interpretation as an alternative to such issues of foundation, which have not been able to exit the sphere of the subject.
Essays 12 and 13 engage Sartre, Bourdieu, and Habermas, but they are not as strong as the Husserl treatments. Gadamer reminds us how novel Sartre’s joining together of Hegel with Husserl and Heidegger had appeared at the time and how this had to be squared with the characterization of Sartre as a French moralist. This concern with views from outside is also present in the review of Bourdieu’s The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, which is coupled with the short review mentioned earlier of Habermas’ Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Gadamer cannot stomach Bourdieu’s sociological approach, which appears to him to reduce the highest questions of truth and thinking itself to mere posturing, and he suspects that Bourdieu’s analysis of academic sublimations of socio-economic structures and anxieties is driven by a misplaced animus against the German university system and by easy comparisons with the more public intellectual sphere in France (169).
The Habermas review is slightly more respectful, but in Gadamer’s eyes he too misunderstands Heidegger’s thought. This is due to his use of a French reception of Nietzsche to view Heidegger, whereas, while marred by reductionism, Bourdieu at least had the sociological orientation right. Part 2 closes as it began with another re-translation, this time of Gadamer’s 1994 reckoning with Derrida. Coming on the heels of the non-dialogue with Habermas and Bourdieu, this essay shows Gadamer practicing what he teaches as a theorist of dialogue, as he pursues one with deconstruction well after the Gadamer-Derrida exchange in the early 1980s had exhausted itself and which most had admitted to be of a “somewhat disjointed and non-dialogical character.”[xiv] Gadamer recounts here his problems with Derrida’s understanding of logos in the critique of logocentrism, the focus on writing but not reading, the asubjectivity in the concept of trace that ignores a fundamental dialogical unity, and he does not forget to remind us that Derrida is writing from a French tradition over a German one.[xv]
Part 4 brings us four essays on Heidegger from 1985-86, each replete with fond recollections of the master’s quips and quirks, but each playing a slightly different role in this part. The first (essay 15) combines an account of Heidegger’s formative influences with Gadamer’s own under his direction. Hagiography notwithstanding, Gadamer occasionally registers nuances that one looks for in his later work, which occur in the form of realizations that dawned upon him much later, although these are not worked out in detail. He mentions his “recent insight” (211) that a possible influence of American pragmatism through Emil Lask may have come Heidegger’s way, or how, only much later, Gadamer saw in Heidegger’s course (co-taught with Ebbinhaus [sic], 213) on Kant’s philosophy of religion the inner theological grounds of Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics, which informs several late essays, e.g. essay 2 in part 1.
Essay 16 touches on Heidegger’s turn from his early, theologically saturated phase to a later “flight into poetic concepts” (223), but the essay is too short to be informative. Essay 17 takes up Heidegger’s turn to the pre-Socratics and Gadamer again notes his late realization that this turn too was prefigured in the intensely religious and theological forces in Heidegger’s early thought (242). This essay is only as helpful as the large strokes it paints with, but it is for the same reason remarkable for its brazen declarations about “the Greeks,” the fulfillment of the destiny of the west, and the like, which surpass Heidegger-style declamations along these lines.[xvi]
Or, in another instance, which the translators single out to illustrate Gadamer’s historical approach to concepts,[xvii] Gadamer explains how illuminating Heideggerian etymology can be by telling us about the word ousia. Before its philosophical codification and sedimentation, ousia meant a sustaining relation to the land, or a piece of property in this relation, and this sense underlies Heidegger’s effort to re-think being through Anwesenheit. Strangely, however, Gadamer states that this old meaning persists timelessly and seeks to demonstrate this with the help of a problematic example of 20th century Greek displacements from war and genocide. “The Greeks” (237), who were pushed out to the countryside by external genocide and internal displacement in the 1920s are said to gain presence (Anwesenheit) because these refugees are “all of them housed in their own small houses.” What does this have to do with the ancient Greek term? Gadamer continues confidently:
“The Greek can say the same and can say it right up to the present. Whoever knows Athens can see this… Here, the word ousia manages to make the philosophical conceptual sense clearer in its relation to the original meaning of the word.” (ibid.)
The final essay 18 also revolves around Heidegger and “the Greeks,” but here Gadamer balances his endearingly self-deprecating reminiscences of the master as well as his protective gestures in the face of the latter’s “political ‘aberration’,” as he puts it (173), with a sharp account (257-268) of his differences with Heidegger over the question of approaching Plato mainly through Aristotle and thereby missing Plato’s own openness to an historical, dialogical questioning of being. Gadamer gathers evidence in support of his critique from close readings of Heidegger’s comments on Plato as well as various Platonic dialogues, which the reader will wholeheartedly welcome after the number of unsubstantiated, sweeping claims in earlier parts of the book. And although this is not Gadamer’s explicit intent, the style of his confrontation with Heidegger’s Plato hints at his proximity to the Tübingen school of Plato interpretation and to the shared background shaping the profound works on Plato by another student of Heidegger, Jacob Klein.
The end matter contains an index of names, an index of subjects, and a list of works cited by Gadamer.[xviii] In view of the express intent of the series to complete the task of translating Gadamer into the English through its selections, it would have been useful to include a list of existing English translations of Gadamer’s other works of the kind at the end of the Bernasconi edition of Gadamer’s Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays.
In sum, this collection of essays provides a convenient point of access into the main planks of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, despite some inscrutable editorial and translation decisions described above, which prevent it from fully serving further research needs. It presents a rounded picture of Gadamer’s thought situated against key themes and figures, despite the great variation in the quality of the texts, and, as we saw, the picture is revealing in unintended ways as well. Finally, it showcases Gadamer’s flair for the essay form. Reading his essays, then, renews faith in this dwindling rarity, but, also – and this might be one of the ways that the ability to revisit earlier ideas from later parts of a long life generates “nuance” – a collection of essays allows both the author and the reader to live through the experience of an object under varying conditions. Putting into words that well apply to a reading of his own writings, Gadamer denies an ideal of complete transparency and affirms the infinitely varied and fused shades of darkness and light “even during the course of one’s life, so that things in a changing light are illuminated in a changing manner and often fall completely into obscurity. There is no light of an enduring day that makes the true significance of everything appear.” (81)
[i] Thus, together with those that were translated earlier elsewhere (130 articles), the series (50 articles) helps assemble an English version of all the major essays in Gadamer’s Gesammelte Werke (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1986-95, 10 volumes).
[ii] Two essays in this selection had been previously translated into English by Gadamer scholars and translators Richard Palmer and David Vessey. These are both in the third part.
[iii] Essay 4 in this part, “A World Without History?” (1972), was an “improvised opening talk” at a conference (288n.1), and it reads as such. Essay 3, “The History of the Universe and the Historicity of Human Beings” (1988), was a concluding speech at another conference (286n.1) and also rushes through a bewildering number of topics. Essay 5, “The Old and the New” (1981), was an opening speech (288n.1).
[iv] Gadamer even formulates this at one point thus: “For a long time, I have followed the methodological principle of not undertaking any investigation without giving an account of the history of the concept.” (126) The translators’ introduction remarks on the richness of this method not without some enthusiasm, using Gadamer’s discussion of ousia as an example (xviii), to which I will return later.
[v] The sought nuance would pertain to the differences we might perceive between Gadamer and Strauss on the problem of historical consciousness, but all this comes to rest on one cryptic sentence: “Strauss could not see that a reflection on the temporality of our understanding and the historicity of our existence is not always already at play in this question.” (17). Which question? A few lines above Gadamer states that we are concerned with “the urgency of the Socratic question,” but there was no mention of Socrates up to this point. In another essay, Gadamer says that “[t]he Socratic question is a constant exhortation to remember, which sustains itself in all human reflection and in all human acts of giving an account of oneself, whether one may own such an account to oneself or to another.” (83) Presumably, Gadamer has this in mind, but neither he nor the editors help bring it before the reader.
[vi] Consider this passage, which continues the puzzling talk of the universe as evolving – Gadamer calls it a “theory of evolution,” no less (27) – from the Big Bang: “If there is indeed such an evolution, then it follows in fact that this evolution in always pressing onward somehow pulls the future of the totality into our speculation. Here Foucault comes to mind. This may exceed our cognitive capacities, but it is thought ‘scientifically’ and fundamentally promises a savoir pour prevoir. Now this situation is completely different in the case of history, as indicated by Jacob Burckhardt’s famous words about history…” (ibid.) No relief from the barrage of such associations comes until the essay ends.
[vii] The difference, at first pass, seems to be between, on the one hand, the textually received tradition of storytelling and its historical-phenomenological significance, and, on the other, the professional forms of studying the past beyond written records, involving archaeology and the pre-Greek past (28-29). The difference is missed in translating all instances with “history,” and made yet harder to see with other related decisions, like rendering Vorzeit as “pre-history” (240), Historie as “historiography” (49), etc. This contrasts with the attention given to Gadamer’s play with root forms of words, e.g. forms of stehen (51, 54), scheiden (52), schreiben (195), etc.
[viii] Or “context” in other places. Essay 7 mostly uses “connection” to translate Zusammenhang, except on p. 80, where, like p.100 in essay 8, the metaphysically loaded term “nexus” is used.
[ix] The editorial note 2 on pp.282-3 reminds the reader of Ranke’s conception, which suggests (without explicitly stating) that “liberty” was chosen to mark it off from Gadamer’s conception of “freedom.”
[x] The question of locating Nietzsche returns in essay 13’s talk of German and French receptions of Nietzsche in the context of a very short review of a Habermas text (174-8). Related to this ‘locating’ is Gadamer’s stress on claiming Ortega for German thought and as a consummate European: “[Ortega] is one of the essential figures of European thought… Today, Europe inquires into its tasks under the changed constellation of the declining century… At this time, it is very precious for us to have a Dilthey as a universal advocate for the historical tradition to which we belong, as well as the European Ortega, who drew his inspiration from the whole of the European history of thought.” (102)
[xi] See Gadamer, Truth and Method, revised trans. by Weinsheimer & Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1998), 173-242.
[xii] That Dilthey succumbed to the pressure of the times is expressed in essay 9 (109), but essay 7 (80) remarkably goes as far as to treat this as inevitable because Heidegger has shown that something of the order of the forgetting of being clouds modern metaphysics.
[xiii] The anglophone reader today has many texts of Dilthey on history and hermeneutics available in the English to enable their analysis as well as of Gadamer’s references to them. I’m especially thinking of Dilthey’s youthful, detailed treatise on hermeneutics, and other writings on history, hermeneutics, and human sciences published by Princeton University Press in the late 1980s. Truth and Method mentions but does not take up the earlier treatise by Dilthey, and the present volume encourages its re-examination. The volume rarely engages in close reading of texts, but does contain intriguing clues emphasizing the presence of German idealism in the constellation of influences and tendencies at work in both thinkers. This topic has recently received impetus from the work of Kristin Gjesdal (Gadamer and the Legacy of German Idealism  and her not unrelated Herder’s Hermeneutics ), for instance. In view of these areas of research, it would have been useful to include Gadamer’s essays on Hegel and other German Idealists as a more pressing matter than those covered in weaker pieces of the present selection.
[xiv] Fred Dallmayr, “Hermeneutics and Deconstruction: Gadamer and Derrida in Dialogue,” in Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, eds. Diane Michelfelder & Richard Palmer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 75-92 (here, p.77).
[xv] “Even more strongly than [Stärker als] our idealistic and phenomenological tradition, to which Derrida belongs [an der Derrida teilhat], what appears essential in the works of Derrida is the French style of literary criticism.” (190). German in brackets added by reviewer.
[xvi] A sample: “When Heidegger speaks of the end of philosophy, we immediately understand that we can only talk like this from the Western perspective. Elsewhere, there was no philosophy that set itself apart so much from poetry or religion or science, neither in East Asia nor in India nor in the unknown parts of the earth. ‘Philosophy’ is an expression of the trajectory of Western destiny.” (229-230)
[xvii] See my footnote 4 above. The passage also elicits a long endnote by the translators (307 n.6), which focuses on the senses of Anwesen and steers clear of any comment on the disturbing example.
[xviii] Perhaps a sign of the times, but I note with some regret that I did not receive a hard copy of the book for review, which at least prevented me from seeing the back matter completely.
Disruption and Remembrance in Arendt’s Theory of Political Action
Trevor Tchir’s monograph, “Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Political Action”, covers a wide spectrum of Arendt’s works in providing a framework for her theory of political action. Tchir draws upon a range of thinkers, such as Heidegger, Kant, Augustine and Montesquieu, who influenced aspects of Arendt’s theory, and upon those thinkers whom Arendt explicitly criticized, such as Marx, to demonstrate how she both breaks with the tradition of western political thought and recollects and revises some of the concepts within that tradition in order to re-conceptualize “political action” in the modern age of secular politics. Thus, Tchir also highlights how Arendt transforms and revises aspects of others’ philosophies, in significant ways, when she does borrow from them. Moreover, his inclusion of commentary and criticisms of Arendt’s approach to political action by numerous contemporary thinkers helps him to illuminate the tensions within Arendt’s thought and to delineate his own thesis and argument. However, much of his book is devoted to an exegesis and interpretation of Arendt’s diverse works in respect to her theory of political action, as she encounters the Western tradition of political thought in general, and the aforementioned thinkers in particular. Although he slowly integrates his own voice into his interpretation, it isn’t until the final chapter of the book that he fully draws out how the tensions within Arendt’s thought are fruitful for contemporary politics.
Although Tchir’s book is very comprehensive in its approach to Arendt’s theory of political action, much of the territory he covers has been traversed by other commentators, especially as regards Arendt’s conceptual distinctions between the public and the private sphere, and the political and social/economic spheres. His own primary contribution to the extensive literature on Arendt is his discussion, in chapter 3, of the importance of the metaphor of the “daimon”, as introduced in The Human Condition in respect to the political actor, as she individuates herself through speech and action in the public sphere of a plurality of spectators. (89) The metaphor of the “daimon” is used by Arendt to indicate how the political actor does not have a self transparent to herself, but, whose self can only be “known” through the diverse judgments and narratives of the plurality of spectators to her actions, as if the “daimon” sat on her shoulder concealed from her view but visible to all those who witness her. Tchir also contends that that this metaphor of the daimon gestures towards a divine or transcendent origin of the capacity of humans to act and think (and, thereby, judge the actions of the actor that appear in the political sphere). The daimon, as a mediator between men and gods, expresses that the origins of these human capacities are ultimately unknowable. In this way, Arendt encounters the residual language of transcendence in modern political thought. Within the context of modern revolutions, such as the French Revolution and American Revolution, there was an overturning of traditional authority of religion within the realm of politics, but the language of rights often retained an appeal to transcendent sources of these “natural” rights of mankind. (12) Thus, there is a tension within Arendt’s own thought on the relationship of the secular and the religious within modern politics, and within political theory generally in the modern era.
This also opens the question as to whether or not there are any “foundations” to political theory in the modern age. However, this enables Arendt to introduce a conception of freedom suitable to an age without such religious, metaphysical, or natural foundations – one that is self-grounding within a political space of appearances (rather than grounded in an invisible sphere of divine or metaphysical laws). Her notion of freedom is one that is not based on a notion of the will that masters itself or directs its actions from pre-determined principles, whether metaphysical or religious or based on reason or nature, nor is it grounded in a notion of political sovereignty, where a ruler crafts laws which subjects obey. It is this western political tradition of freedom that lies in sovereignty and rule, one that promotes relationships of domination and an illusory control over what the subjects can do and their environment, that she is disrupting, while retrieving a freedom that arises from isonomia, that is, the agonistic politics that occurs in a sphere of formal equality, as practiced in ancient Greece. (135) The disclosure of the unique, daimonic “who” is the disclosure of a non-sovereign self.
However, Tchir also shows how the metaphor of the “daimon” has existential import for human dignity and the “meaning” of existence for humans in a world of uncertainty and contingency, rather than in a world where moral or religious absolutes, whether based on revelation or reason, could guide our political actions and insure mastery. (32) This existential impact demonstrates why the realm of political action is so centrally important to human existence for Hannah Arendt, and it is why she sometimes characterizes the “political world” as also a “spiritual world”. (79) It would seem to me that this latter characterization would make the divine element in human existence immanent rather than transcendent, and would point to a fundamental mystery at the core of human existence which amplifies its uncertainty and makes complete unconcealment of origins impossible.(84) Nonetheless, Tchir argues by the end of his book that Arendt would not exclude religion from the public sphere, and this is important to understanding the conduct of politics in today’s world. At the same time, he makes the point that uncertainty plays a central role in Arendt’s re-conceptualization of political action, as the success of any political actions remain uncertain and their effects remain unpredictable in an agonistic political world of plurality of actors and spectators with conflicting wills and cross-purposes. (25) Thus, Arendt has an understanding of both politics and existence as based in a fragility of a common political world shared by a plurality of actors and spectators, and a vulnerability of humans in the face of their “passive givenness” and in their attempts to actualize their historically situated possibilities from that givenness through action. (32) Although she dispenses with a concept of “human nature” as the basis of the political, she does not argue that political action can fundamentally change our givenness so much as actively disclose our individuality, which exceeds this givenness. This actualization of our individuality remains opaque to each of us, as individual actors. However, through political action, we can assert our human dignity as we confront this givenness as well as when we encounter the contingencies of our historical situations.
Action itself, as characterized by natality, is the source of freedom, which is the other major focus of Tchir’s exegesis. If one of the ontological conditions of the political space of appearances is that of plurality, the other one is that of natality, as a spontaneous beginning, and the capacity to initiate or give birth to something new and unprecedented into a world that is otherwise characterized by natural or historical processes, chains of causes and effects, and normalizing routines. Arendt’s conception of natality is borrowed from the Christian tradition of miracles, as that which interrupts natural processes, especially as found in Augustine’s works. (24) This is how action is differentiated from behavior and from being simply another cause in a chain of causes and effects, although action has unpredictable and uncontrollable ramifications by setting off many chains of causes and effects in unprecedented ways. Through natality, new aspects of the shared world of appearances are themselves disclosed, along with the disclosure of the unique “who” of the actors. Thus, individuality is dependent upon the witnessing of others, and political freedom is relational. This is a realm that discloses “meaning” rather than “truth”, although Arendt will complicate this picture by insisting that spectators enlarge their mentality so that their interpretations deal with “facticity” rather than with inaccurate distortions of what happened. (173) However, one of Arendt’s presumptions appears to be that people want or seek such meaning in their lives, and not solely the accomplishment of goals, social or otherwise. This is another way in which the political realm is also a spiritual realm.
Although plurality is also a condition of the public sphere, individuation occurs within that public sphere as actors perform in front of spectators who are characterized by both their equality and distinction. (23) The shared world is not one of a common vision of the good shared by a predetermined community, as in communitarianism, (5) but one of a material world of cultural artifacts, which themselves are subject to interpretation by participants in that world, and the “web of interrelationships” that occurs in that world. “Distinction” is presupposed in the plurality of participants, while “equality” is a formal feature of the public sphere where all participants’ perspectives play a role, rather than one of material equality.
Fundamental to the possibility of individuation is Arendt’s distinction between the “existential who” and the “constative what” (4, 85). The “who” that is disclosed in the public sphere is not simply a collection of character traits and talents or of a pre-established identity, such as that of socioeconomic status, gender or race, which could be generally applied to similarly situated others, all of which would be an aspect of the person’s “whatness”. The “who” is disclosed through the performance of her acts and the virtuosity of her deeds in the political space of appearances and is not “made” as a product of a craft. The “who” transcends the “what”. However, the “meaning” of her acts is disclosed in the narratives, stories, and histories composed by spectators who judge her acts, and which show how these acts, in disclosing the principles that inspired them, serve as “valid examples” for future action within that community. (31) Tchir proposes that this plurality is not only a plurality of “opinions” (or doxa), although it is especially that, but also a plurality of “whats” that insert themselves into this public sphere wherein they can renegotiate their identities as “whats” through their individuating actions and judgments of actions. (6) In this manner, pluralities are not a diversity of predetermined “whats” along ethnic, racial, gender, economic or social lines, but the latter are not so much excluded from the public sphere as augmented and revised within that sphere. As Tchir will argue in chapter 6 of the book, it is important that spectators do not surrender their individual judgments of actions to the prejudices and “whats” of others, even though they should be taking into consideration all the diverse perspectives of those who are physically present in the public sphere, as well as the perspectives of past historical actors within that sphere. Thus, there is a nuanced attempt to make room for the entry of the whatness of participants into this sphere, without subordinating that sphere to their “whatness” or to what has been loosely called “identity politics” (my term, and not the author’s).
This public realm and its freedom are fragile because they can only be sustained by the renewal of actions and judgments within the sphere. The space of appearances has no institutional infrastructure that can guarantee its presence, although Arendt does comment on structures that may encourage or facilitate such a sphere, such as a legal framework that makes such free exchange of “opinions” possible. She proposes a “council system” in On Revolution. (28) She also comments upon those structures that tend to interfere with such a free exchange of “opinion”, such as parties and some schemes of political representation. Because Tchir’s thesis is focused on the existential implications of Arendt’s theory of political action, he tends to omit detailed discussion of alternative structures of governance implied by her theory, although he does make observations about potential deliberative spaces for global actors in his concluding chapter, and explains why Arendt proposed federalism rather than a world government as a means to insure a “right to have rights” in chapter 5.
Although this book is devoted to the disclosure of the “existential and unique who” in political action, it also attempts to characterize and clarify what constitutes political action, a subject of great controversy in the literature on Arendt. Political action is a performance that invokes inspiring principles, examples of which might include “honor, glory, equality, and excellence, but also hatred, fear, and distrust” (29). Through these examples of inspiring principles, it becomes evident that some principles might sustain freedom within the public sphere better than others. Along these lines, Arendt will suggest that the principle of “rectifying social inequality” will most likely destroy the public sphere, as she contends happened when the “impoverished Sans-Culottes entered the scene of the French Revolution. (152) When this principle inspires actions in the public sphere it tends to destroy the plurality of perspectives and opinions, and obliterate individuality through single-mindedness of an instrumental goal, and, it is here that we can see a tension between the who and what in the plurality of the public sphere. Despite Tchir’s own argument, Arendt seems to favor the plurality of opinions, which she does not treat as confined to socioeconomic factors or status. (136) I will reserve further discussion of Arendt’s view of the social and its relationship to the political to later in this review.
Actions thereby spring from principles, as understood by Montesquieu, but also may “exemplify” and “sustain a principle” (30). Although such principles are “too general to prescribe specific courses of action”, they are “greater and longer lasting than immediate ends”, thereby contributing to the continuity of the shared public world. (31) However, these principles are not transcendent metaphysical principles or determined by reason prior to action. They are exhibited in the actions themselves, and, thus, they too must be repeated in narratives to inspire future actions, and in those future actions themselves, in order to sustain their role in the public space. In this manner, political action is for the sake of itself – that is, for the sake of maintaining a sphere of plurality in which action can continue to occur, and for the sake of its inspiring principles. (26) Political action contains its own end, rather than occurring “in order” to achieve instrumental goals. (30) Some critics find this approach to political action empty, a criticism to which Tchir responds in chapters 5 and 6, and which I will address later in this review. However, his discussion of inspiring principles is one of the most interesting parts of his book, and one which he revisits in later chapters in responding to criticisms of the emptiness of the public sphere – what does anyone talk about there? – and to criticisms of the formal but not material equality of that sphere, which could influence who is included or excluded from that sphere and the communication that occurs within that sphere.
My above discussion of the “daimon” metaphor and its existential impact, as well as my discussion of freedom, plurality, natality, and the political space of appearances, are drawn primarily from the first three chapters of Tchir’s book, although, as I indicate above, I anticipate where Tchir is going in the rest of his book. Thereafter the book is organized by chapters on Arendt’s encounters and interactions with the thought of other philosophers within the Western tradition. The rest of my review will briefly survey some of the main points made in each of these chapters in order to draw out some of the main strands of the argument delineated above.
In chapter 4,”Aletheia: The Influence of Heidegger”, Tchir shows how “Arendt incorporates Heidegger’s notion of Dasein’s (the human being’s) resolute action as disclosure of both the `who’ of Dasein and of the action’s context” into her theory of political action. (97) Arendt’s attempt to “rescue political action from its historical and contemporary concealment” in conceptions of sovereignty bears an affinity to her teacher, Heidegger’s attempt to rescue Dasein from the historical concealment of Being. Both Heidegger and Arendt share a concern for “Aletheia“, as an “un-concealment” or “un-forgetting” (97), and with the various modes in which arche (sources) of Being can be disclosed. Arendt’s distinction between a “who” and a “what” is drawn from Heidegger, who, in turn, found it in Aristotle’s distinction between poiesis and praxis. In poeisis, an external product is produced by a process of what Arendt will call “work”, and in praxis, there is no external product to be generalized. Instead, the end lies within the activity itself, as Arendt characterizes political action. However, unlike Heidegger’s adoption of Aristotelian concepts, Arendt rejects the idea that action becomes “fully transparent”, (109) and proposes that “the judgment of spectators can indeed change.” (109) Moreover, Arendt’s notion of plurality, although influenced by Heidegger’s “notion of Mitsein (Being-with)”, significantly revises how the “who” is disclosed. For Heidegger, the authentic “who” of Dasein can only be disclosed by the contemplative withdrawal of the individual from the routine, normalizing discourses of the “everydayness” and “idle talk” of the “They”, while Arendt locates the disclosure of the daimonic “who” within the “web of relationships” and the plurality of opinions – that is, the talk – of the public world. “Talk” and “opinions” of ordinary members of a community can be valuable. (114) Moreover, Arendt “reverses Dasein’s primacy of `being-toward-death’, in favor of the notion of `natality’….”. (115)
In chapter 5, “Labor and `World Alienation”: Arendt’s Critique of Marx”, Tchir addresses Arendt’s distinctions between the social and the political, and between the public and the private, in the context of her critique of Marx’s conception of what she calls “socialized humanity”. (125) Arendt’s rejection of Marx’s conception of freedom rests partly on her prioritization of the disclosure of the individual in the political realm over the other realms of the Vita Activa, those of labor and work, which she claims that Marx favors. Labor is the realm of biological necessity, in which people are simply “specimens” to be preserved, so that Marx’s focus on labor and its liberation is misplaced. (130) Arendt proposes that one can only enter the public sphere where freedom occurs when biological and economic needs have already been met in the private sphere of labor. Whereas, in ancient times, all economic activity also took place in the private household, today economic activity is public, found in the realm of the “social”, which still addresses the arena of mere preservation of life. Although Arendt agrees with Marx that capitalism has had world alienating effects – it is through capitalism that economics entered the public sphere (129) – she sees his solution as “perpetuating” the problem by “glorifying labor”(126) and by focusing on the cultivating of talents (which are an aspect of “whatness”) as the source of freedom when the classless society is achieved, rather than upon political action and the disclosure of the “who” as the source of freedom. (135) By treating speech as inescapably determined by social relations of production” (127), Marx denies the possibility of an individual unique “who” who transcends the constative characteristics of that individual’s “whatness”, as well as denying the plurality of perspectives that constitute a political realm.
I cannot do justice to Tchir’s survey of the literature on this aspect of Arendt’s thought, or to how he indicates with which commentaries he agrees or disagrees. However, it is within this chapter, as well as the next chapter, that Tchir explicitly addresses issues of inclusion and exclusion within a public sphere, revisits the relationship between the “who” and the “what”, and complicates the latter distinction by the introduction of Arendt’s conception of a private “place” (133) from which we emerge to insert ourselves into the public sphere – is such a “place” an aspect of a person’s “what” or only a precondition to participating in the political world? After all, “For Arendt, it as though classes are as unavoidable as labor itself” (135), so are they aspects of “whatness” or of “place”? At the same time, she proposes that the expansion of technological and productive forces may make it possible to give every person in a society such a place, that is, to alleviate poverty to the extent that everybody may be able to “transcend” the sphere of preservation of “mere life” to that of political action and the freedom it entails. (133) This is not entirely unlike Marx’s prediction that the productive forces of capitalism will usher in an age of the end of poverty. In this way, Arendt does want the public sphere to be inclusive, but without sacrificing a plurality of opinion that isn’t reducible to self-interest or to the “whatness” of the participants.
Furthermore, Arendt claims that when social questions based on urgent needs enter the public sphere, they become dominated by the self-interests of those who need to preserve their “mere life”, and this lends itself to the violence and rage that occurred during the French Revolution. Arendt’s conception of non-sovereign freedom and political action are introduced just to reduce the role of violence and domination in political life, although she does realize that violence and exploitation played a role in the private sphere of ancient Greece, and can play a role in producing poverty. (156) Moreover, she doesn’t think that social questions and the elimination of poverty can be successfully eliminated through political means. (152)
However, what then is talked about in the political sphere? Her answer is that questions with no certain conclusions properly belong in the political sphere. (163) For example, the question of “adequate housing” has a certain solution (in Arendt’s view), so it should be dealt with administratively, while the question of “integrated housing” is a properly political issue. (163) In that Arendt considers the provision of “adequate housing” important to establishing a place for every potential participant to enter the public sphere, (156-157) she is not insensitive to social and economic questions, although she does ignore the possibility of normative dimensions to what counts as “adequate”, as well as ignoring the question as to whether or not there should be political interference in the economic housing market in order to provide adequate housing. (159) At the same time, she herself states there is no firm distinction between political and non-political issues and that engagements with one’s historical situation means that what is talked about in the public realm will vary over time. (160) However, one commentator, Lucy Cane, suggests that other inspiring principles than that of eliminating material equality, such as one of “solidarity”, could be disclosed in the actions of political actors in such a way to address some of the concerns of those who are oppressed or exploited. (161)
The problem remains as to whether the formal equality that characterizes the public sphere can be maintained without material equality, and this is where many commentators criticize Arendt. Moreover, there are other types of racial and gender oppression which could distort the exchanges of opinion within the public sphere. However, I suggest that many of Arendt’s critics on these points are operating under different assumptions as to what constitutes power and power relations than those of Arendt. Thus, Tchir’s analysis could benefit from a discussion of Arendt’s own conception of “power”, as numbers of people “acting in concert”, and as distinct from violence which relies on “implements”. (On Violence, 44-46) This would not resolve all the differences between Arendt and her critics, but it would further illuminate her disruption of sovereignty as the basis of freedom, and would help support those commentators who make a case for civil disobedience as political action along Arendtian lines. (139) The role of civil disobedience comes up in Tchir’s discussion of Arendt’s conception of the “right to have rights”, which is “the right to have one’s destiny not be decided merely by how one’s given `what’ is defined and ruled by an external authority but rather by interactions with others who will judge one based on their words and deeds and allow one’s unique `who’ to appear.” (141) The “right to have rights” is the right to live in such a framework, to belong to such a community, which is denied now to those who are stateless or refugees. I suggest that equalizing the conditions of participants within the public sphere might be facilitated by multiple public spheres, based not so much on the features of “whatness” as upon diverse material worlds of cultural artifacts that those with such identities might share, and then federate these various “councils” into larger public spheres, as some protest movements form coalitions with each other. In this way, participants could immanently let their individuality shine through many lights.
In chapter 6, “The Dignity of Doxa: Politicizing Kant’s Aesthetic Judgment”, Tchir addresses in more detail how the judgments of spectators occur. Arendt draws upon Kant’s conceptions of reflective and aesthetic judgments, adapting them to the political sphere, because reflective judgments are not determinative of actions, (177) they involve the use of the imagination, and they make possible the exercise of responsibility. (173) Although each spectator judges differently, and partly from the standpoint of their “whatness”, that is, social class, gender, race, religion, etc., the imagination allows each spectator to enlarge her mentality to take into consideration the perspectives of all those physically present or those past participants in the public sphere. Such an “enlarged mentality” (163) involves a position of “disinterestedness”,(179) one in which we achieve some “distance” by “forgetting ourselves” (180), which implies that we transcend self-interest and considerations of instrumentality or usefulness. (179-180) However, it is unclear how much it involves direct exchange of opinions within the public sphere. In any case, the spectator tries to assess the meaning of acts, but not from a “higher standpoint” than those who participant within the political space.
The “shared judging community” is the sensus communis, now detranscendentalized from Kant’s conception of it. (183) Again many commentators criticize Arendt’s conception of the judging community because of inequities in the position of different spectators in the communication among them.(182ff) However, the role of such inequities in distorting communications, depends partly on the relationship of “whats” and “who’s” within the public sphere, a situation that remains somewhat unresolved, despite the fact that Arendt doesn’t want communication to be marked by conflict among publicly pre-determined identities. However, equality (of a formal rather than material sort) may serve as an inspiring principle, as could mutual respect. (185) It would seem that the maintenance of such a space would require tolerance of potential conflict, openness to listening to different perspectives, and courage to act and retain the personal element in judging, in ways that would always be subject to subversion. (86) Consensus does not appear to be the aim of the judging community, so much as the disclosure of the meaning of their common world. Thus, in these ways, Tchir returns to existential questions.
In the end, there is no hard separation between the position of the actor and that of the spectator. (193) Arendt borrows Kant’s idea of an original compact, in such a way that the inspiring principles of this compact bring the actor and spectator together as one, and an actor can always become a spectator and vice versa. Moreover, a spectator’s judgments are always revisable. Arendt also appropriates Kant’s notion of “exemplary validity”, which implies that “particular deeds may be taken as valid examples by which to judge other cases.” (195) In this way, a tradition may be established, and this also plays a role in Arendt’s conception of history as storytelling that displays such valid examples.
In chapter 7, “Forgotten Fragments: Arendt’s Critique of Teleological Philosophies of History”, Tchir discusses how Arendt criticizes the philosophies of history of Kant, Hegel and Marx, which, according to her, eliminate the possibility of natality, that is, the spontaneous birth of the unprecedented and new that characterizes political action, and subordinate the freedom of the political sphere, which should be for its own sake and for the plurality of that sphere, to the telos of history, and to the agent of historical forces themselves as they march towards that ultimate end without regard to the plurality of humankind. Individuals are reduced to functions in the movement of history itself, one that lends itself to totalitarianism. She proposes an “alternative method of fragmentary historiography,” (205) as influenced by Walter Benjamin. It is from this alternative method that I have pulled the title of my book review, as I contend, and, I have tried to show in this review, how Arendt tends, in her very theory of political action, to perform the type of disruption of historical continuity that she says has occurred in the modern era, but, at the same time, retrieve some ancient practices to re-conceptualize political action and freedom. In so doing, she performs both an action and a judgment, which has generated, in turn, a diverse set of interpretations and judgments of her own “storytelling”, many of which Tchir surveys in his monograph.
In his concluding chapter, Tchir recapitulates some of his main points, and draws together some of the loose threads of his observations into a brief argument as to the relevance of Arendt’s theory of political action in today’s world, which is characterized by divisive discourses of populism; (236) disillusionment by people in a public sphere dominated by corporations and sensational media (242) and a neoliberal security state that relegates people to pre-determined categories of “whatness” in order to control their movements and to deny them freedom and access to a framework in which they can act and judge freely. He makes a few suggestions about the possibility of bringing Arendt’s conception of political action into the international arena, and religion into the public sphere without it dominating that sphere with absolute metaphysical principles. This chapter would be more fruitful if expanded, but, given the monumental job Tchir has already accomplished, it might be beyond the scope of his book to do so.
Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. Harcourt, Brace and Company, San Diego.
Frank Schalow’s new book, Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction, offers an important contribution to the philosophical study of addiction. While, as Schalow notes at the start of his work, the topic of addiction has spawned many studies from a variety of fields in the past years, relatively few of these have examined addiction using the methods of philosophy, and specifically, of phenomenology. Schalow argues that this leaves an important gap in our approaches to addiction, given that studies that consider addiction in purely physiological terms overlook the meaningful dimension of the addict’s experience, specifically, they fail to consider the life world of the addict. It is this lack that Schalow’s new book intends to redress.
Schalow uses phenomenological methods and concepts, primarily drawn from Heidegger’s Being and Time and later work on technology, to illuminate the phenomenon of addiction, often with considerable success. As the subtitle, “Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence,” suggests, Schalow is primarily interested in understanding addiction with respect to the body, the technological context of addiction, and the existential dimension of addiction. While anyone seeking a detailed account of the role of the body in addiction might be left wanting more from Schalow’s book, they will nevertheless find probing analyses of the role that technology and transcendence can play in understanding addiction. With respect to the former, Schalow argues that the prevalence of addiction in the present era ought to be considered a referendum on the role of technology in our culture. With respect to the latter, Schalow argues that the phenomenological concepts of transcendence and authenticity can provide a key to addiction treatment.
Schalow’s first five chapters offer a phenomenological diagnosis of addiction, while the final three begin to develop phenomenological principles of addiction treatment. The first chapter argues for the importance of a philosophical, as opposed to neurological or psychological, approach to addiction. Schalow does this, in part, through the contention that addiction ought to be understood as a cultural-historical phenomenon – a “historical and cultural transformation of our ‘way to be'” (4) – which therefore cannot adequately be understood merely in terms of the physiology of the body, but only in terms of the meaningful features of the addict’s life-world. Schalow makes clear from the first that he intends to broaden our concept of addiction and to stand the common sense appraisal of the place of addiction in our society on its head, via his claim that addiction ought to be understood as a way of being that is in a certain sense the norm for our society (9).
Chapter 2 begins work on the phenomenological study of addiction, showing how many of Heidegger’s key concepts from Being and Time provide the existential preconditions of addiction. Schalow’s central argument here is that the possibility of addiction is rooted in structures of Dasein common to addicts and non-addicts alike, namely everydayness and being-with-others. Specifically, Schalow proposes to understand addiction as “a permutation of inauthenticity or unownedness” (29). Similarly, addiction can be seen as rooted in being-with-others: dissimulating one’s self-responsibility in terms of conformity with the they-self, as described by Heidegger, creates an environment in which addiction can flourish. Further, Schalow shows how phenomenological analyses of spatiality, in terms of de-severance, and temporality, in terms of making-present, can illuminate the situation of the addict. Chapter 3 continues this work, specifically with regard to the “hook” of addiction. Schalow argues that the hook ought to be understood in terms of the concept of a “fetish,” insofar as one becomes “hooked” on a substance or process when it acquires a disproportionate significance in one’s life, when an object or process operates as a locus of attraction beyond its immediate meaning, e.g., as a means of escape or inducing satisfaction. For such mediate significances, fetishes rely on our capacity for fantasy, or imagination. In a commodity fetish, for example, a commercial object becomes invested with the meaning of a marker of economic status. This is only possible insofar as the imagination opens up a space of possible meanings for an object over and beyond its immediate significance. However, when the fetish supplants the fantasy, according to Schalow, the fetish closes off other possible meanings and becomes addictive. Insofar as the addict, in being fixated on this object, is taken in by it, rather than projecting a meaning for it, addiction is in Heidegger’s terms a form of “fallenness,” i.e., of being lived by the world rather than choosing oneself (62). Chapter 4 completes the existential analysis of addiction, focusing on self-understanding and being-with-others. Here, Schalow argues that addiction corresponds to a form of self-evasion familiar in terms of “denial.” At the same time, addiction often corresponds to inauthentic modes of relation to others, e.g., in terms of leaping-in familiar as a kind of “co-dependency.”
In chapter 5, Schalow turns to the technological dimension of his project. As I indicated above, his claim is that addiction can be considered as a referendum on technology (91), or in other words, the ubiquity of addiction in our society can only be understood in terms of its technological backdrop. Schalow makes this point by connecting technology and addiction in a number of ways. First, new technologies often facilitate certain kinds of addiction that pre-exist those technologies, as, e.g., the internet facilitates a gambling addiction. Second, new technologies give rise to unique forms of addiction, e.g., addictions to social media or video games (89-90). But, thirdly, Schalow is engaged in a larger claim, namely the Heideggerian claim that technology essentially amounts to an “enframing” of the world, characteristic of our culture, i.e., in which everything (including humanity) becomes standing reserve. This “enframing,” in turn, is bound up with addiction in a number of ways. First, it fosters a culture of excess and immediate gratification which promote addiction. Second, this technological culture infuses the life-world of the addict with boredom and stress, and thereby motivates release via addictive substances or processes (section 5.2). Finally, there seems to be a deeper sense in which technology mirrors addiction: just as in addiction one seeks control over one’s life and moods through the use of a substance or process, but thereby in fact gives control of one’s life over to the substance or process, similarly technology offers the promise of control, the “enframing” of resources, only at the price of losing control of human life to this enframing (110). It is, I think, especially in this sense that Schalow understands his central claim that addiction should take on the broad sense of a “historical and cultural transformation of our way-to-be” (4).
In the final chapters of his work, Schalow turns to an existential analysis of methods of treatment. Since Schalow considers the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program to be the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111), Chapter 6 investigates the historical backdrop for the development of this program, explaining connections between AA founder Bill Wilson and the important figures and movements of his time, including Carl Jung, Rudolf Bultmann, and the Oxford movement. In chapters 7 & 8, Schalow argues that existing approaches to treatment are overly dependent on a mind-body dualism – i.e., they focus on either spiritual practices (e.g., AA or talk therapy) or purely physiological treatments – and so leave an important gap in treatment that would be targeted at the addict’s life-situation. Further, the hermeneutic-phenomenological method, insofar as it has long subverted the dualism of mind and body, can prove an important corrective here, by suggesting contours of treatment that would fill this gap. While these contours are multifaceted – e.g., involving the addict adopting new life-contexts (147) – Schalow focuses on transcendence, or responsibility, claiming that addiction cannot be treated without some “resoluteness” (in Heidegger’s sense) on the part of the addict. According to Schalow, “resoluteness” is the appropriate category by which to understand the addict’s choice of recovery, because the decision to quit a habit is not merely a choice, but really a choosing to choose. One does not overcome addiction through a single choice, but rather through choosing, day by day, sobriety, in a manner that is thus the opposite of the culture of immediate gratification fostered by technology. Addiction can only be treated with a commitment, on the part of the addict, and thus insofar as the addict takes responsibility for her or himself.
These analyses accomplish a number of important tasks. Schalow’s greatest accomplishment is to translate Heidegger’s phenomenological concepts into the context of addiction, and show that these concepts can be productively employed in this context. Second, Schalow draws together and develops Heidegger’s scattered thoughts about addiction into a sustained account, offering a cohesive existential analysis of the phenomenon. Third, Schalow makes a number of interesting claims about the cultural backdrop for the prevalence of addiction in today’s society, in particular, raising important questions about the role technology may be playing in this phenomenon. Fourth, in his final chapters, Schalow suggests the principles of an existential approach to recovery, an approach which may indeed offer some novel principles for treatment. Fifth, Schalow makes and supports the provocative claim that addiction is in some sense the norm for our society, and cannot be considered merely pathological. Finally, especially in Chapter 6, Schalow draws connections between a number of figures important in the early 20th century and demonstrates their relevance to the formation of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program.
Along with these significant accomplishments, there are some problems with Schalow’s account. In the following, I’ll outline four kinds of concerns about Schalow’s book: those dealing with his interpretation of Heidegger, with the connection he draws between technology and addiction, with his reliance on the AA program, and with his principles of treatment.
First, there are some issues with Schalow’s interpretation of Heidegger, three of which are especially significant. First, Schalow uses Heidegger’s analysis of technology to shed light on the role technology might play in the present addiction crisis. But it seems to me that Schalow often blurs the distinction, important to Heidegger, between technology and the essence of technology (e.g., Heidegger’s claim that “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological” ). But Schalow seems to move readily between the claim that specific technologies facilitate addiction and the claim that enframing, or the essence of technology, permeates the present addiction crisis, leaving it unclear to what extent his argument is Heideggerian. Second, and relatedly, it seems to me that Schalow risks misunderstanding the “danger” posed by the essence of technology according to Heidegger. Heidegger writes that “Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. … The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing is the danger” (333). The danger is not that of “the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” but that enframing blocks a more primordial engagement with Being. But Schalow is at the very least ambiguous in his understanding of the danger when he writes that “Heidegger argued that technology wields a double-edged sword, namely, that the greater opportunities afforded to human beings, including leisure-time, simultaneously brings its specific drawbacks and even risks. In his words, for every mode of ‘unconcealing’ what is, i.e., the opportunities created by new innovations, there are also equally ominous modes of ‘concealing,’ i.e., unanticipated and destructive consequences” (96). Third, if Schalow is right to think that addiction is a symptom of the essence of technology, then it is unclear that an individual’s resoluteness could free her or him of addiction. Heidegger writes that “Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it” (339). Schalow presupposes that terms like “resoluteness” (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s early work in Being and Time) can offer a resolution to a problem posed at least in part by technology (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s later work), a presupposition which is at least contentious. And if no human activity or achievement can directly counter the danger, then it is unclear to me how efficacious reflection on the kinship of the endangered and the saving power would be for the addict.
Second, the connection between technology and addiction could be better established. For example, at times Schalow claims that certain technologies or technological processes are addictive. But it would be helpful to cite some empirical research in this regard, especially given that the medical community has not yet concluded that there are such addictions (though some research does support this conclusion, e.g., Leeman and Potenza ). Here too it would be helpful if Schalow were clearer about the kind of connection he envisages between technology and addiction, whether in terms of technologies influencing addiction or technological thinking being in some sense essentially addictive.
Third, Schalow focuses much of his thinking about treatment around the AA twelve-step program, but does little to argue for the validity of this program. Instead, Schalow seems to assume that the AA program offers a valid point of departure for analysis, justifying it by appealing to it as the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111) or as the first addiction treatment program (ix). But the efficacy of the twelve-step program is controversial (see, e.g., Dodes  or Humphreys et. al. ). Granted, Schalow sets out to offer a philosophical and existential approach, rather than an empirical or medical approach, but a phenomenological approach must exercise care in its choice of a point of departure for analysis. Some other finer points raise similar concerns, e.g., Schalow’s referral to “neurasthenia” (161), a condition no longer recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In general, Schalow’s analysis would have benefitted from greater fluency with psychological and medical results.
Fourth, I have some concerns about Schalow’s principles for treatment. Foremost of these is that it is hard to see how Schalow’s prescription of “resoluteness” wouldn’t entail a return to the moralistic myth that the addict is merely lazy. Schalow recognizes this possibility, and certainly aims to avert it, for example, writing that he defines “responsibility” in a Heideggerrian manner (in terms of “answerability”) rather than in the traditional sense of a volitional act or exercise of the will (151). Nevertheless, the ensuing discussion of responsibility (especially Schalow’s use of Kant) makes it hard to see how he is not resorting to a more traditional sense of responsibility. Schalow is very likely correct that resoluteness is a necessary condition for recovery, but it is unclear how far it is supposed to get the addict. Further, if Schalow’s aim is to bridge the gap between treatments aimed at the mind and treatments aimed at the body (considered in biological terms), then “resoluteness” or “choosing to choose” might not be the best resource: a phenomenological analysis of human existence aimed at a level beneath deliberate choice might provide more novel approaches to treatment. Indeed, some of Schalow’s most interesting insights about treatment are found in discussions not directly oriented toward resoluteness, e.g., in his suggestion that for the addict to reorient her priorities she must begin to “inhabit a new space” of relations with others (146).
Schalow’s Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction succeeds in developing a phenomenological framework for thinking about addiction, and raises interesting questions about the role of technology and transcendence in addiction. Anyone led by Schalow’s subtitle to look in this book for a close treatment of the role of embodiment in addiction might be left wanting more, for Schalow treats this theme more sparingly than the others. One wonders if Husserl or Merleau-Ponty might have proven better resources in this regard for Schalow than Heidegger, and indeed, some of the most acute passages related to embodiment come from Schalow’s brief discussion of habituality and Merleau-Ponty (40-1). Nevertheless, Schalow succeeds in this work in knitting together a host of phenomenological themes around the topic of addiction, and perhaps it would be unfair to ask him to incorporate yet another with equal care. Its successes make this book a considerable step in the phenomenological and existential analysis of addiction, and no doubt it will prove an important study for anyone interested in this topic.
Dodes, Lance and Zachary Dodes. 2014. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. 307-352. New York: HarperCollins.
Humphreys, Keith, Janet C. Blodgett, and Todd H. Wagner. 2014. “Estimating the Efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous without Self-Selection Bias: An Instrumental Variables Re-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 38 (11): 2688-2694.
Leeman, RF and MN Potenza. 2013. “A Targeted Review of the Neurobiology and Genetics of Behavioral Addictions: An Emerging Area of Research.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 58 (5): 260-73.