Fredrik Westerlund: Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena

Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena Book Cover Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena
Fredrik Westerlund
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback $62.10

Reviewed by: Michael Mosely (University of Sydney)

In Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena, Fredrik Westerlund characterises Heidegger’s thinking from the time of his early Freiburg lecture courses, up until his late writings of the 1960s, as a struggle to understand the question of phenomena and the inherently related question of phenomenology. For Westerlund, the question of phenomena is an enquiry into what it means for anything to come to, or give itself, in meaningful appearance, and the question of phenomenology is an enquiry into what it means to explain and articulate how our experience of phenomena is structured.

Westerlund calls attention to the fact that there are two schools of thought on the question of phenomena/phenomenology in Heidegger scholarship. A transcendental, phenomenological reading and a historical, hermeneutic reading. In the former, Heidegger, although critical of Husserl, is nevertheless understood to be essentially offering an elaboration of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. This reading claims that Heidegger remains committed to the notion that it is possible to uncover the structures of our experience that allow phenomena to be meaningful through direct intuitive reflection. In the latter reading this notion is rejected because the historical contexts of meaning in which we find ourselves predetermine our experience of phenomena. For this reason, this reading holds that phenomenology must proceed through hermeneutic reflection on our current, historical context of meaning, or by “tracing and answering to the groundless differential logic at the basis of every historical formation of meaning” (5).

For Westerlund, these two opposed interpretations reflect a tension at the heart of Heidegger’s thinking. While Heidegger repudiates the possibility of phenomenologically direct reflections on the structures of experience on the basis of the radically historical foundation of our meaningful experience, in practice, much of Heidegger’s writings consist of phenomenologically direct reflections. Thus, rather than side with either interpretation, Westerlund sets out to attend to and explore the effects of this tension throughout Heidegger’s writings. This task is undertaken in Parts 1–3 of the book. Yet Westerlund does not only offer an exegesis of Heidegger but also a critical and systematic reading. The contradictions and blindspots of Heidegger’s claims are laid bare throughout the book and in the fourth and final part, the Epilogue, Westerlund offers a more extended critique. Here Westerlund argues that, contra Heidegger, it is our first-person experience that provides direct access to phenomena beyond their historical determination and that as such we are essentially open to the call of the other as someone to love and care for, which is a source of moral meaning not confined to a historical context .

The first part of Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena contains three chapters and aims to show that in Heidegger’s earliest Freiburg lecture courses his philosophy is essentially a critical appropriation of Husserl’s phenomenology in that Heidegger’s thinking proceeds through “intuitive reflection on the essential structures of our first-person experiences” (15). Westerlund begins this task in Chapter One by giving a brief introduction to Husserl’s understanding of the problem of phenomena. In Westerlund’s account of Husserl’s phenomenology, the meaning of things and the structure of experience cannot be explained by reference to any ground of knowledge other than phenomenal self-presentation. The task of phenomenology is to turn our gaze away from the objects that we focus on in the natural attitude and examine experience as it is given in consciousness. Specifically, Husserl is held to seek to determine the essential structures of experience, such as how when we see one side of an object we nevertheless move within the horizon of possible perceptions of its other sides.

Following his discussion of Husserl’s phenomenology, Westerlund provides an exposition of the conception of philosophy put forth by Heidegger in his early Freiburg lecture courses as a primordial science of life. He shows that, for Heidegger, our primary experience of the world is our encounter with the pretheoretical significances of things. Highlighting Heidegger’s questioning of the given in his 1919 war emergency semester course, Westerlund explains that the domain of pretheoretical givenness is, for Heidegger, “nothing less than the basic domain of given meaningful being” (23). Subsequently Westerlund outlines Heidegger’s criticism of theoretical philosophy for its failure to recognise the primacy of pretheoretical experience, as well as Heidegger’s criticism of Husserl specifically for his remaining within the theoretical attitude of philosophy his and attempt to ground pretheoretical significance theoretically. Westerlund concludes the chapter by assessing Heidegger’s critique of Husserl and he argues that while Husserl’s focus on the comprehension of objects through perception leaves the connection between existentially and practically concerned experience unclarified, this does not diminish the capability for intuitive reflection on the structures of experience to uncover truths about our experience of phenomena.

In Chapter Two Westerlund outlines how Heidegger understands phenomenology and the structure of phenomena explicitly, with the aim of showing that Heidegger’s philosophy is, in 1919 and 1920, a critical appropriation of Husserl’s phenomenology. He shows that Heidegger’s phenomenology can be characterised as proceeding through intuitive seeing during this period by drawing attention to Heidegger’s account of the kind of experience of a Senegalese tribesman would have if transported to the lecture hall in Freiburg. Heidegger states here explicitly that the Senegalese’s experience of equipmental strangeness when looking at the lectern is identical with Heidegger’s own experience of the significance of the lectern as a place from which to lecture. Thus, Westerlund concludes, the aim of Heidegger’s phenomenological descriptions during this period is not to uncover the sense of a particular historical context but rather to use intuition to uncover the basic structure of pretheoretical life. Westerlund also shows that Heidegger’s phenomenology is reflective during this period. The description of the method of phenomenology Heidegger offers in his 1919–20 lecture course Basic Problems of Phenomenology begins with a going along with life without reflection, but ends with a leaping ahead into the horizons of experience and its motives, and an articulating of the structures of experience—that is, with reflection. Thus although Heidegger recognises during this period that historical concepts can distort phenomenologically intuitive seeing and reflection, and that we must therefore subject these concepts to critical destruction, this does not indicate that he has developed a historicist conception of phenomenology. Rather Heidegger’s phenomenology is Husserlian as he “both articulates and practices phenomenology as direct intuitive reflection on the constitutive structures of our experience” (48).

In Chapter Three Westerlund shows how the philosophy Heidegger develops in his early Freiburg lecture courses undermines itself with respect to its purpose. If, as Heidegger claims, our factical pretheoretical experience of phenomena is primary then what is left for philosophy to do? Westerlund highlights how Heidegger seems confused on this question, as he argues that philosophy is needed for a transparent enactment of life but also seems to suggest that the task of philosophy is only to remove theoretical abstraction so that we can live in unadulterated pretheroretical significance. For Westerlund, this problem can ultimately be traced to Heidegger’s desires to “critically regenerate…the age-old ambition of philosophy to explicate the basic sense of life and Being” as well as make philosophy relevant for “the challenge of facing and understanding the acute ethical-existential problems of our personal life” (54). At this early stage of Heidegger’s thinking, Heidegger cannot unite these two desires.

In Part Two Westerlund provides an account of Heidegger’s understanding of the question of phenomena/phenomenology in Being and Time (1927) and explains how Heidegger’s philosophy changed during the years intervening between his engagement with Aristotle’s De Anima in his 1921 summer semester seminar and the publication of his major work. In Chapter Four, Westerlund outlines how Heidegger’s historicist conception of phenomenology emerges. Heidegger’s engagement with Aristotle during the early 1920s is shown to be the occasion for the initial development of the historical as-structure, the notion that our pretheoretical experience of the world is determined by our prior understanding of the historical contexts of meaning in which we live. For Westerlund, Heidegger develops this notion through his interpretation of Aristotle’s concepts of phronēsis and nous. Phronēsis is understood as practical coping with the world that highlights the way that the significance of beings is founded on the basis of preceding concerns. Nous is the prior understanding that conditions our experience of beings; it is an understanding of eidē, of form, and additionally, an understanding of archai, the ultimate ‘from -out-of-which’ that determines the regions of Being from which different beings get their sense. Taken together, these concepts suggest to Heidegger that the significance of beings is determined by a historical as-structure or context of meaning.

Westerlund also in this chapter highlights Heidegger’s discovery of Aristotle’s privileging of sofia over phronsis, that is, the privileging of the pure perception of the eidē determining different beings. This privileging leads Aristotle to define Being as ousia, as constant presence, which determines the subsequent theoretical focus of philosophy. This discovery further suggests to Heidegger that phenomenology is fundamentally historical; if Being is determined historically then direct intuitive seeing is not possible. Rather it is necessary to undertake a hermeneutic destruction of the historical concepts latent in our tradition. Westerlund concludes the chapter with a lengthy exposition of Heidegger’s engagement with Husserl in Heidegger’s 1925 course and shows that Husserl’s categorial intuition, in its general form, becomes, for Heidegger, indicative of the way that our understanding of the world is guided by a pre-given historical context of meaning.

In the remaining chapters of Part Two Westerlund turns his attention to Being and Time. In Chapter 5 he considers the way that Heidegger’s elaboration of the ontological difference—the notion that our prior understanding of Being determines how beings appear—necessitates the enactment of fundamental ontology so that we might gain “clarity about ourselves and the world” (82). And he also outlines his problems with this view, namely, that our historically influenced understandings of the ontological structure of the world do not determine how we experience beings in a necessary manner. Westerlund additionally highlights the fact that the Heidegger’s project of fundamental ontology is not historical but seeks to determine the transhistorical structure of Dasein that constitutes the sense of Being itself. Chapter 6 contains Westerlund’s exposition of Heidegger’s account of Being-in-the-world. Here he highlights the way that our understanding of the historical world cannot be, for Heidegger, true or false. For Westerlund, this undermines the notion that it is necessary to distinguish between the historical prejudices of the They and a genuine understanding of phenomena, which he perceives as a significant problem. Chapter 7 treats this problem with reference to Heidegger’s concept of authenticity, which, for Westerlund, has a central role to play in Heidegger’s understanding of phenomena.

On Westerlund’s reading, Dasein is inherently challenged to acknowledge the utterly historically determined and therefore groundless nature of the possibilities it has available to choose for its identity. While inauthentic Dasein shirks this challenge and rather is guided by the They, to be authentic Dasein must meet this challenge. There is a problem with this notion, however. It does not seem possible for authentic historical possibilities to address Dasein as binding, as worth pursuing, without the binding character of these possibilities finding its source in the They. Westerlund identifies an oscillation between collectivism and subjectivism in Heidegger’s account of authenticity. It is collectivist in that it is the They that is the source of all ethical-existential normativity and it is subjectivist in that even if Dasein’s choosing itself apart from the They is possible, there is nothing to guide its choice other than “its own blind whims and impulses” (112). From this impasse Westerlund sees it as important to investigate into how life possibilities can appear as obligating at all and he argues that in Heidegger’s conception of both authentic and inauthentic Dasein, Dasein’s actions in life are motivated by a desire for social affirmation. Dasein seeks to live up to the collective values and norms of the They or those of the authentically chosen hero. This is problematic, for Westerlund, because it rules out the possibility of the ethical claim of the other. It is not possible, with this motivation, to care about the other as such, because all care is directed towards preventing the self from feeling the shame of failing to follow the norms that guide it. This problem is addressed at greater length in the Epilogue.

Chapter Eight, the final chapter of the second part, concerns Heidegger’s method in Being and Time. Westerlund opens this chapter by comparing and contrasting the interpretations of Heidegger’s method offered by Overgaard and Guignon. For Overgaard, the destruction is not a necessary part of fundamental ontology because the destruction itself presupposes an experience of Being that is phenomenologically basic—without this experience the historical senses of Being could not be identified as distortions. Guignon, on the other hand, hews closer to Heidegger’s actual comments in Being and Time that concern the necessity of the destruction for the retrieval and appropriation of Being. For Westerlund, like Overgaard, Heidegger does not follow through on his claim to be undertaking a hermeneutic-destructive mode of thinking and rather does presuppose that he is able to distinguish between our current prejudiced conception of Being and something more primordial. He highlights the fact that Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein is not an account of contemporary Dasein’s implicit, historical prior conceptions, but rather offers phenomenological descriptions of the basic structures of Dasein and its factical experience. Furthermore, it is the capacity of Heidegger’s descriptions to reveal truths about our day-today experience of the world, rather than their relation to the philosophical tradition, that gives them their validity. Thus direct, intuitive, phenomenological seeing remains a central feature of Heidegger’s method in Being and Time.

In the third part of Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena, Westerlund discusses Heidegger’s later philosophy, with chapters on the turn [Kehre], Ereignis as the opening of the world, and the method Heidegger’s late thinking. Westerlund seeks to show in this part that Heidegger’s phenomenological method becomes more historical after the publication of Being and Time. There is also a chapter on Heidegger’s relation to National Socialism in this part. Chapter Nine contains Westerlund’s interpretation of Heidegger’s turn, which he understands as Heidegger’s turn from phenomenology to historical reflection. To support this claim Westerlund examines Heidegger’s discussion, in his 1937–38 lecture course Basic Questions of Philosophy, of the inherent turning of the question of the essence of truth into the question of the truth of essence. For Westerlund, this ‘turning’ is the turning from Heidegger’s explication of the basic structures of Dasein, which are that through which beings become unconcealed (and are the essence of truth), so that true or false judgements might be expressed about them, to “a historical interrogation of the openness and givenness of historical being itself” (the truth of essence). Heidegger’s philosophy is no longer concerned in the mid 1930s with structure of phenomena or intuitive reflection on the structures of experience but rather seeks to determine the “phenomenality of Being” and proceeds through historical reflection (143).

It is therefore the turn that motivates Heidegger’s engagement with the history of philosophy in the mid 1930s and Westerlund demonstrates the historical character of Heidegger’s thinking by providing an account of Heidegger’s conception of the task of philosophy at this time. During this period of his thinking the history of philosophy is understood by Heidegger to have been determined by the Greek, metaphysical designation of Being as constant presence and to free ourselves from this understanding of Being it is necessary to return to the Greek beginning of philosophy in order to determine whether it contains a more primordial understanding of Being. Heidegger finds just such a primordial understanding in the pre-Socratic conception of Being as φύσις and in the Greek word for truth, ἀλήθεια. Together these terms reflect a view of Being as an event that is opened up.

In Chapter 10 Westerlund addresses Heidegger’s relation to National Socialism and offers a number of criticisms of Heidegger’s thinking. In the 1930s Heidegger no longer advocates becoming authentic but holds that it is necessary to open a binding historical world. Westerlund points out that as for Heidegger ontology has ultimate priority over ethics there is no check on the establishing of a new world that ignores the ethical claim of the other, such as the world that National Socialism wished to erect. Furthermore, Westerlund criticises Heidegger’s framing of his anti-semitism in ‘metaphysical’ terms. He shows that in Heidegger’s making use of many common anti-Semitic stereotypes, his position essentially becomes only a “philosophically inflated version of the kind of cultural racism that vilifies a certain culture or religion on the basis of crude and falsifying stereotypes” (149). Westerlund also sees in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks an additional problem for Heidegger scholarship, namely that they seriously displace our view of the ‘spirit’ of Heidegger’s thinking. In Heidegger’s utter failure to offer any remarks that reflect sympathy towards those who were subject to violence, persecution, and murder at the hands of the NSDAP, and in his explaining away of the events of the 1930s and 40s in being-historical terms, his philosophy appears abhorrent. If thinking the history of Being fully inures one to the ethical claim of the other in the manner it appears to have done to Heidegger, then there is little to recommend such a thinking.

In Chapter Eleven Westerlund returns to explicating the historical character of Heidegger’s philosophy with his account of Heidegger’s conception of art as that which opens a binding historical world. On Westerlund’s interpretation, the thinking of Being prepares the way for the poetry that opens the ‘holy’. Art in general, but poetry especially, is understood to reveal as important a set of highest values and ideals that are to guide our experience of phenomena and this is the opening of a binding historical world. Westerlund explains that art establishes a binding historical world through the openness of the poet or artist to the address of history “as our as yet undetermined manifold of being-possibilities” and the poet or artist’s subsequent gathering  of “this manifold into a unified and limited historical world” (171). This gathering and presenting additionally requires founding the world on what Heidegger calls the earth. The world set up by the work of art must also be, for Westerlund, grounded in the natural surroundings in which we live and shaped by the materiality and sensuousness of the medium of the work of art. It is in this way that the meanings of history can become anchored in the earth and the purposes and meanings, the guiding ideals and values, can “shine forth in a concrete paradigmatic form” (174). Westerlund also addresses in this chapter how in Heidegger’s thinking of the 1950s and later, the earth and world binary is expanded into the fourfold of earth, sky, mortals, and gods, and that in this period things, such as a bridge, can also open a world.

Chapter Twelve contains a discussion of Heidegger’s own account of the method of his late thinking. Heidegger unsurprisingly is critical of Husserl’s phenomenology at this time and champions historical reflection. For Westerlund, however, Heidegger’s criticisms of Husserl’s thinking fail to distinguish between the content of Husserl’s phenomenology and its method. While Husserl is influenced by scientific abstraction and seeks certain truth, this does not establish a necessary connection between intuition-based reflection and the metaphysical desire for ultimate grounds. Westerlund further indicates the historical character of Heidegger’s philosophy by showing how Heidegger pursues his investigation of the event of the opening of a world. Westerlund highlights that Heidegger examines texts from the history of metaphysics to show that the understanding of Being as presence that the texts utilise is not accounted for within them, and that he also examines poems by Hölderlin, George Trakl, and Stefan George, and the work of the pre-Socratics, to show that these texts hint at clearing. He also points out that Heidegger’s analysis of word etymologies is used for this end. In the final section of the chapter, to combat the assertion that there are phenomenological analyses in the later Heidegger, Westerlund shows that the late Heidegger’s phenomenological analyses of objects, such as a jug (in relation to the fourfold), do not take place within accounts of concrete use-cases. These accounts therefore “threaten to remain unphenomenological constructions of the same kind as all other conceptual and theoretical projections that dogmatically postulate meanings that they cannot account for” (192).

In the final part of the book, the Epilogue, Westerlund subjects Heidegger’s thinking to a more thorough  critique, one that is a development of criticisms of Heidegger made by Levinas, Tugendhat, and Cristina Lafont and that is an elaboration on criticisms of Heidegger’s thinking he has offered throughout his study. In Chapter 13, Westerlund engages with Levinas’ critique of Heidegger in which Heidegger is charged with covering over our direct ethical relation to the other with the question of Being. For Westerlund, Heidegger’s philosophy relies on the human desire for social affirmation motivating all action (works of art only persuade us to follow historical norms) which defines Dasein as essentially egoistic and rules out the possibility of responding to the other with love and care. Furthermore, Heidegger’s concern for the task of “reflecting on the openness of being in order to make possible the establishment of a binding world” has absolute primacy, and supersedes all ethical concern for individuals. This is not only a drawback in itself, but Westerlund also sees that the world Heidegger desires, one that is structured by a set of highest values and ideals that all must follow, can very easily become a world of control, repression, and persecution. That Heidegger does not consider such dangers further indicates the ethically problematic status of his philosophy.

In Chapter 14, Westerlund, drawing on Cristina Lafont’s criticism of Heidegger, is concerned with Heidegger’s claim that our historical understanding of Being cannot be true or false because it determines the meaningfulness of beings, which necessitates taking over our historical context as groundless. Westerlund argues against this notion. He holds that Heidegger provides no phenomenological evidence to show that our understanding of Being cannot be considered true or false. For Westerlund, we are claimed by the other regardless of our historical context and it is for its alignment with the claim of the other that the ethical status of an understanding of Being and its values can be judged. Westerlund ultimately holds that we possess an openness of conceptual understanding that allows us understand and appropriate aspects of our own cultural worlds, and recognise that there is an irreducible dimension of experience that grounds other cultural worlds.

In Chapter 15 Westerlund argues against Heidegger’s view that historical reflection is the necessary method of phenomenology. For Westerlund, Heidegger also offers no evidence that our understanding of Being is determined by our historical situation. Rather our understanding of Being consists of openly seeing and grasping the structures of experience over our historical preconceptions. Even though our historical contexts guide our thinking primarily and may offer up distortions, we are always free to discard these distortions and examine the structure of experience, which determines the truth of our concepts. Furthermore, Westerlund argues, Heidegger’s historical method cannot actually demonstrate that the event or the clearing is the source of historical Being. Even if Heidegger could demonstrate that the event or the clearing is the foundational concept of the Western tradition, this would not show that it is the source of Being. Rather it would show only that the event or the clearing is the “philosophical horizon of the Western tradition”, and the truth of the concept would remain undetermined (220). As Westerlund puts it, “Heidegger’s metaunderstanding of the radically historicist character of his method does not allow him to account for what it is that gives to his thinking whatever truth or clarificatory force it possesses” (221). Ultimately, for Westerlund, while it is very difficult to accurately reflect on our own experiences and to free ourselves from prior prejudices this is precisely the task of phenomenology. The difficulty of phenomenology does not undermine its validity.

Westerlund’s Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena is a valuable addition to contemporary Heidegger scholarship. It contains a number of sections that clarify central issues in the study of Heidegger. Westerlund’s accounts of Heidegger’s relation to Husserl’s phenomenology in his early Freiburg lecture courses, and of Heidegger’s development of a more thoroughgoing historicism through his engagement with Aristotle in the early 1920s, are excellent. Similarly, Westerlund’s treatment of Heidegger’s 1925 engagement with Husserl is the clearest I have encountered. Furthermore, Westerlund’s undertaking of a “philosophical“ rather than “exegetical” reading of Heidegger in which he is not constrained by the horizon of the texts he treats but rather provides independent articulations of what these texts show and fail to show is also very welcome. Heidegger scholarship can certainly benefit from more studies that take this kind of approach. The study is not, however, without its flaws. Westerlund covers a lot of ground in this work and as a result his treatment of individual topics often proceeds quite quickly. This sometimes prevents him from addressing relevant issues in a topic. He does not, for example, discuss how a work of art like van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes, discussed by Heidegger in “The Origin of the Work of Art”, could reveal the highest ideals and values of a culture. The speed at which Westerlund proceeds through Heidegger’s material also causes his overarching arguments to fade into the background at times and make the relation of some sections to these arguments unclear. Westerlund’s arguments would likely have been served better through structuring his book around his criticisms of Heidegger, rather than the chronological progression of Heidegger’s thought.

Elad Lapidot: Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism, SUNY Press, 2020

Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism Book Cover Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism
SUNY series, Philosophy and Race
Elad Lapidot
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Elizabeth Cykowski: Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss, Oxford University Press, 2021

Heidegger's Metaphysical Abyss: Between the Human and the Animal Book Cover Heidegger's Metaphysical Abyss: Between the Human and the Animal
Oxford Philosophical Monographs
Elizabeth Cykowski
Oxford University Press
Hardback £55.00

Elliot R. Wolfson: Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis

Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis Book Cover Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis
Elliot R. Wolfson
Indiana University Press
Paperback $60.00

Reviewed by: Alexandre Couture-Mingheras (Université de Bonn – Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Dans son nouvel ouvrage, de très haute facture, Elliot R. Wolfson met sa connaissance précise des textes de la tradition kabbalistique et plus largement son érudition dans le domaine des études juives, dont il figure aujourd’hui l’un des plus grands spécialistes, au service de l’étude, aussi précise qu’ambitieuse, de la phénoménologie de Heidegger, ressaisie essentiellement à partir de Sein und Zeit en 1927 jusqu’aux textes de maturité, dont Beiträge zur Philosophie (vom Ereignis) paru à titre posthume en 1989 en Allemagne. Cette comparaison, étonnante au regard du contexte houleux qui entoure la publication des Schwarze Hefte – je parle bien sûr de l’attitude de Heidegger à l’égard du National-Socialisme et de la question de l’antisémitisme, que certains thuriféraires s’efforcent, en vain, de gommer -, n’a évidemment rien d’arbitraire.

Le rapport de Heidegger au judaïsme fait l’objet, depuis quelques années, de plusieurs études, dont celle, remarquable, de Marlène Zarader, La dette impensée : Heidegger et l’héritage hébraïque : si Heidegger affirme l’opposition principielle entre la pensée, d’origine hellénique, et la foi, d’héritage biblique, en réalité les choses sont loin d’être simples, comme l’atteste la similarité entre ses propres écrits et certains tropes de la tradition hébraïque. Le judaïsme, exclu thématiquement de la pensée heideggérienne, pourrait bien en constituer « l’impensé » opératoire, non au sens de ce qui n’a pas été pris pour objet de pensée, mais ce qui sous-tendant et irriguant la pensée, terre d’accueil, en constitue l’arrière-plan, nécessairement voilé. S’amorce ainsi, après les propos dirimants de Derrida et de G. Steiner par exemple, une excursion hors du commentarisme crypto-phénoménologique qui fonctionne souvent en vase-clos. Ce tournant dans la recherche, qui suppose que l’on rompe avec une propension exégétique à rapporter sa phénoménologie au nazisme (au fond, question d’apparence provocatrice : quid du judaïsme de la philosophie de Heidegger ?) se trouve ici approfondi par un travail comparatiste prenant pour base la mystique juive, à savoir la Kabbale. De même que le Vedanta constitue la dimension « ésotérique » de l’hindouisme, sous l’angle de la theoria à titre de Métaphysique (l’Absolu même, le Sans-Nom), sous l’angle de la praxis à titre de mystique d’ordre sotériologique de l’Unio mystica avec ce qu’il y a de plus Haut en soi, de même la Kabbale est-elle la partie « occulte » du judaïsme.

Pourquoi cette étude comparatiste, qu’est-ce qui le justifie, et, surtout, que gagne-t-on à lire Heidegger au prisme de la Kabbale ? La Kabbale n’est évidemment pas un « thème » pour Heidegger, raison pour laquelle, dès l’introduction, l’auteur, au terme d’un état des lieux de la recherche mais aussi d’une justification philologique, déclare ouvertement son projet : non l’analyse « positive » (au sens du positivisme, de ce qui se fonde sur les faits) du rapport d’un auteur à la mystique juive du point de vue des textes car s’il est bien un jeu d’influence, avec notamment la mystique rhénane et l’idéalisme allemand, surtout schellingien, son importance tient à « l’arrière-plan » théorique, à une forme de Stimmung épocale ; une telle analyse est menée, bien sûr, mais là n’est pas l’essentiel : le rapprochement tire sa justification de ce que l’auteur appelle la corrélation de la mêmeté (Sameness) par la différence, à distance aussi bien de la recherche à tout prix de ce qui est commun (au prix d’une perte de la singularité – identité – de chacun des deux termes), que de l’exhibition stérile de la différence : en ce cross-over monographique, inédit et le premier à sérieusement établir une telle comparaison sur la base de critères philologico-textuels, c’est en effet tout aussi bien Heidegger qui se trouve éclairé par la Kabbale que la Kabbale qui se trouve introduite pour la première fois par le biais de l’outillage conceptuel heideggérien. Cet éclairage conjoint de la Kabbale et de Heidegger, en une méthode de variation thématique et perspectivale, ainsi que l’absence de présentation liminaire de la Kabbale, expliqueront sans doute qu’un tel ouvrage, dense et massif, ne soit pas d’un abord aisé pour qui est totalement étranger à la mystique juive. Cette absence se justifie néanmoins tout d’abord par le statut particulier de la Kabbale et la façon dont elle se rapporte à elle-même, se concevant en termes de différenciation diachronique d’une même vérité pour ainsi dire synchronique, à l’image de sa conception du monde comme manifestation en de multiples formes d’un seul et même être – le Seul qui soit; ensuite par la façon même dont Heidegger conçoit la tradition, non comme l’objet passé de la conscience historique, mais comme son avenir et, pour tout dire, son destin, parallèle à la rupture avec la conception linéaire et causaliste du temps. Mais, on le sait, tout ce qui est beau est aussi difficile que rare, et c’est là, par l’originalité de ses thèses et la manière dont Heidegger s’en trouve éclairé, un très beau livre.

Venons-en directement à la Chose même, aussi bien pour la Kabbale que pour Heidegger : l’Être. L’ouvrage se compose de huit chapitres, que je n’ai nullement l’ambition de restituer de façon thétique, comme si chacun d’entre eux constituait une Thesis que l’on eût pu dès lors résumer en quelques lignes, pour des raisons qui tiennent à la méthode dialéthéique (littéralement la « double vérité ») mise en œuvre. Cette méthode s’impose, c’est certain, du fait de l’inobjectivabilité de son sujet de recherche : le Seyn ou l’absolu kabbalistique nécessite un mode d’exposition qui chaque fois permette de l’éclairer ponctuellement sans le trahir, c’est-à-dire sans le travestissement qu’entraîne un mode d’exposition étranger à son objet ; la logique classique qui procède par identification (quand l’être est Ereignis) et par opposition (l’absolu sera transcendant ou immanent) ne saurait fonctionner ici. Si bien que l’ouvrage, fait rare et beau, fait ce qu’il dit et à mesure qu’il le dit, opérant une réduction, ou neutralisation, de la logique dualiste (l’être ne sera ni immanent ni transcendant), à la mesure donc de l’Être, Neutre, qui est par-delà toute opposition, et sans qu’il puisse faire l’objet d’une relève en un troisième terme synthétique : dire que l’être ou le divin n’est ni immanent au monde comme chez Spinoza ni transcendant (comme, en dépit de ressemblances, chez Plotin, avec le système d’émanation à partir de l’Un, Principe dont tout découle mais qui est lui-même absolument transcendant), c’est non pas indiquer un troisième terme, mais montrer la non-vérité même de l’opposition, autrement dit l’inexistence même de l’immanence et de la transcendance depuis la perspective de l’infini. Autrement dit, si le but est le chemin, en l’occurrence ici la méthode est la thèse elle-même, qu’on ne saurait dissocier de son récit, avec tout ce qui, en lui, donne l’impression de constituer un excursus.

Les divers thèmes abordés au gré des huit chapitres de l’ouvrage (la question de la circularité herméneutique qui ouvre l’ouvrage, la pensée du commencement, le rapport à l’altérité et au néant, l’auto-érotisme de l’être, du divin qui, par désir de Soi, caprice originel, se « manifeste » par le monde) s’articulent ainsi autour de l’Ain Soph (le « correspondant » kabbalistique du Seyn heideggérien) ainsi que de son exposition, de la façon dont on s’y rapporte par la parole, tant il est vrai que la réflexion « sur » le réel emporte avec elle, ou idéalement doit intégrer, le sujet réfléchissant : il y va pour le Sein d’être Da, comme pour le Dasein d’être ce qu’il est du fait de son ouverture à la question du Sein. Cette corrélation entre les deux pôles, qui en constitue la trame théorique, donne son titre à l’ouvrage : entre la « Gnose cachée » et la « Voie de la Poiesis », entre d’une part ce qui, comme lumière, illumine en restant soi-même voilé, ce qui manifeste sans être manifeste, l’Aimé Sans-Visage derrière tous les visages, bref, l’être en tant qu’être, et, d’autre part, la promotion d’un discours qui déjoue le partage même entre apophantique et apophatique, déjouant celui-là même entre néant et être, entre présence et absence, dont l’ouvrage constitue la patience méditation : tout se jouera donc dans cette atmosphère crépusculaire d’entre-deux, il est vrai au prix parfois de la clarté du propos (l’auteur est parfois prisonnier du style heideggérien), mais on comprend que se joue là l’Essentiel et que l’Être ne saurait être abordé si ce n’est par les voies indirectes du langage : méta-ontologique la « présence n’est pas l’absence de l’absence » pas plus que l’absence « l’absence de la présence » mais « la mise en présence (presencing) est plutôt l’absentement (absencing) de l’absentement de la mise en présence » (7).

Mais pourquoi rapprocher l’Être, le Seyn, ce qui, comme le dit Heidegger, l’emportant sur tous les êtres (tout être participe de l’Être, mais l’Être ne saurait être trouvé en aucune forme), est ce qui est le plus digne de penser, et l’Ain Soph kabbalistique, littéralement « l’infini » ? Cette question n’a rien d’anodin car elle engage bien la philosophie de Heidegger et, sans nul doute, de toute philosophie véritable. Or on le sait, la philosophie, chez Heidegger, présente des limites qui sont celles-là même de son histoire et du régime objectivant du langage. C’est pourquoi, afin d’éclairer la question de l’Être, il s’agit de procéder à la déconstruction des catégories sédimentées et dualistes du langage : l’oubli de l’être, rabattu sur un étant éminent, est corrélé à l’impropriété du langage à nommer ce qui échappe à toute dé-finition et ce qui partant ne saurait être pensé en termes de « transcendance » ou « d’immanence », à savoir ce qui n’obéit pas aux lois de la pensée, de non-contradiction et de tiers-exclu. Autrement dit, Heidegger quitte le palais de cristal du logos pour une parole qui, voulant dire l’origine, installée dans le silence du muthos, dit moins que, pareil au dieu dont parle Héraclite, elle ne « montre », se situant résolument dans la nuit compacte du mystère de l’être (de l’être comme mystère). Camper au niveau de l’aporie ontologique, sans la vouloir lever, telle qu’elle a été formulée par Aristote (l’être n’est ni un genre ni ne s’identifie à l’une de ses catégories, i.e. modes d’être : il n’est ni immanent à ses modes ni transcendant, « à part », en un autre lieu, ce qui reviendrait à en faire une « chose », à confondre, dans le lexique de Heidegger, l’être avec l’étant), c’est ainsi même se mettre à l’écoute de ce qui, à être dévoilé, échappe : l’être se médite, au crépuscule de la raison, à l’ombre des objets, parce qu’il y va de sa propre « essence » que de ne pouvoir souffrir la lumière objectivante du concept.

Sous cet angle, l’apport de la mystique juive pour l’exégèse heideggérienne tient à la manière dont elle pense l’Être, loin de toutes les figures qui instancient, selon Heidegger, la métaphysique comme onto-théo-logie, à savoir comme oubli de l’être par pensée de l’étant (le summum ens, ou Dieu comme super-héros de l’ontologie, porte le poids de l’ens commune). Le philosophique se trouve éclairé par ce qui en est devenu l’ombre : le « philosophal ». C’est là du moins un apport passionnant à la lecture de Heidegger, décentré par ce qui s’avère lui être le plus « propre », un ailleurs qui en détient la vérité. Je donnerai deux exemples, qui sont les deux axes qui structurent l’ouvrage (la Gnose cachée et la Poiesis). Le premier concerne le Seyn, ressaisi à partir du Ain Soph, à savoir l’essence infinie qui ne saurait elle-même avoir d’essence : la différence ontico-ontologique se trouve ressaisie à partir de la différence entre le Ain Soph et ses émanations séphirotiques. De même que Dieu est le lieu du monde sans que le monde soit le lieu où trouver Dieu, de même, dans le lexique du phénoménologue, l’être est-il au principe de l’étant sans pour autant que l’étant puisse le figurer ; et pourtant, l’étant n’est pas l’Autre de l’être. L’être chez Heidegger, est l’absolument Autre (être et étant) dans la Mêmeté (l’être est : seul l’être est, telle est la voie lumineuse qu’ouvre la déesse chez Parménide) ; la mystique juive nous fait mieux saisir, par contraste aussi avec le néo-platonisme, la nature de l’absolu ou de l’être : n’étant essentiellement présent que dans le retrait, se dissimulant soi-même dans les étants qui le manifestent, il est la Présence (le « il y a »)  absente, qui se dévoile sur le mode du voilement. L’aletheia, qui dit la vérité comme mise en présence, se trouve ainsi éclairée à l’aune de la gnose. Si la gnose est secrète, c’est bien parce qu’il y va de la vérité de l’être que d’être secret, non-manifesté, soustrait à toute parole qui le voudrait circonscrire. Mais cette différence se fait sur fond d’un monisme singulier, qui a neutralisé l’opposition entre l’un et le multiple, celui pour lequel le Monos, l’Être, Seul est (court-circuitant le partage entre être et non-être) : de même que la vague et la mer sont de la même substance, que l’ornement n’est que la mise en forme de l’or informe, de même l’Ain Soph éclaire-il le jeu interne à l’Être de l’être et des étants, jeu avec Soi-même qui, pour la finitude, est celui d’une perte et d’une errance (l’oubli comme destin occidental), mais qui, en dernière instance, est le Jeu différentiel de Cela qui a toujours été. De même que l’absolu, ou le divin, se révèle comme secret, car n’étant rien il n’a rien à révéler ni qui devrait être démasqué, de même l’être chez Heidegger apparaît-il ressaisi en son obscurité native par rapport à un Dasein dont la vérité est, à titre de sujet séparé, de n’être pas. A Bikkhu Maha Mani, moine bouddhiste de Thaïlande qui lui explique que la méditation consiste à se concentrer et, se rassemblant en soi, à déloger la racine du « Je », renvoyé à son caractère ontologiquement illusoire, par la réalisation de sa nature véritable, de Soi, qui est un Rien qui est tout (fullness), Heidegger répond : c’est ce que j’ai essayé de dire toute ma vie. Il y a dans, dans cette riche comparaison, une thèse implicite : que la mystique juive ne fait pas qu’éclairer la philosophie de Heidegger ; point culminant d’une pensée qui œuvre pour l’Impensé qu’elle ne peut approcher qu’en se dessaisissant d’elle-même, la mystique dit et fait ce que la philosophie, renvoyée à son propre mode discursif, ne peut que sourdement faire deviner, sauf à elle aussi mourir à elle-même, jetant l’échelle au terme de son ascension, en un dernier grand saut, de la pensée à l’impensé. C’est dans ce silence, cet « espace » de présence pure en lequel seul peut naître une parole authentique (non celle du « on »), qu’on atteint la « Gnose cachée » de l’être : il n’y a jamais eu de voile à lever, car le voile est celui de l’ignorance ontologique première : l’épreuve du fleuve du Léthé n’est pas celle de l’oubli de son être (de soi) mais de l’Être (de Soi). Caché, l’être l’est à qui le cherche ; mais à qui, dans le silence de la Présence, s’oubliant ne s’excepte pas de ce qui est, il Est, de l’ordre du That inqualifiable et non du What, selon la formule qu’utilise William James pour désigner l’expérience pure (à laquelle l’auteur fait référence du reste en de beaux passages sur Nishida Kitaro).

L’élucidation du statut de cette Gnose cachée appelle, comme je l’indiquais, une réflexion sur le langage lui-même qui l’articule, qui, à l’image de l’être, se trouve sous-tendu par la dialectique de la présence et de l’absence. Qu’est-ce que la connaissance véritable en effet (celle de l’être), comment opère-t-elle ? Il ne s’agit pas d’agrandir le stock de connaissance en y introduisant de nouvelles représentations, car ces dernières concernent uniquement les étants, mais bien d’une assignation du sujet à la vérité de son être, d’une connaissance de l’être qui est à la fois connaissance de soi (l’ontologie fondamentale ou analytique existentiale du Dasein) : la spiritualité n’est pas l’autre de la philosophie, mais son essence, comme le silence l’est du son (le son se détache sur le fond silencieux, toujours présent, tout comme l’être qui se manifeste quand les étants disparaissent dans la nuit du monde dans l’expérience de l’angoisse), ce qui explique l’aspect méditatif des Wege de Heidegger, chemins sinueux qui tournent autour d’un même centre qui illustrent le type de parole, poétique, tendu vers l’être comme non-manifeste, au bord du silence : car de même que la plus belle du bouquet est la fleur absente, celle qu’évoque la parole du Poète, de même l’être, inobjectivable, trouve en la Poiesis son abri. La parole véritable, en parlant, conduit au silence dont elle n’est que l’ornement. Le langage a pour sujet véritable, chez Heidegger, l’être même : le poète véritable ne dit pas l’être : son être est comme une conque dans laquelle faire résonner l’Ereignis, l’évènement de l’être, de l’ordre du es gibt. On ne saurait donc reprocher à Heidegger d’abandonner la logique au profit d’un irrationalisme non-scientifique, dans la mesure où il remonte à sa racine et que, par fidélité à son principe, il pense la vérité de l’être de façon plus fidèle et précise : car, loin d’être une technique formelle, la logique est le biais par lequel on s’exerce à dévoiler la vérité. A condition que le logos, loin de la parole codifiée et structurée par l’opposition, regarde en arrière de soi et, inventif, se situe au bord de ce qui, en en étant la vérité, en signe la disparition. Le langage, poétique, montre dans une parole qui déjà se laisse envahir par le silence, hors du régime objectivant du langage à valeur communicationnelle (qui dit le « what », l’objet). Cette thèse « gnostique » sur le langage et la vérité comme dévoilement du voilement du voilement (le passage, chez Platon, de la double ignorance – je ne sais pas que je ne sais pas – à la simple ignorance), gagne ainsi en clarté à la lumière de la compréhension mé-ontologique dans la Kabbale du Ain Soph et du statut du texte, à la fois spéculatif et dévotionnel, qui est autant commentaire de commentaire que Voie de Dévoilement (au sens d’aletheia) de l’Absolu. Le langage, sous cet angle, se laisse ainsi ressaisir à partir de la conception kabbalistique de la nature, comme abri de la signature secrète que Dieu a placée sur les choses.

 C’est, globalement, à l’aune de la mystique juive que la philosophie de Heidegger apparaît pour ce qu’elle est : comme une Poiesis, vaste méditation, essai d’une pensée sans lieu, utopique, ni suffisamment « logique », trop conceptuelle pour être poétique, trop philosophique pour être mystique. Certes, dans ce dépassement de la métaphysique, qui n’est autre qu’un saut hors de soi de la pensée, on y verra désormais bien des éléments de Kabbale, et il sera difficile au lecteur d’aborder de nouveau le Seyn, sans toute la richesse de compréhension qu’elle apporte. Mais, à tout le moins, c’est me semble-t-il la Kabbale elle-même qui fait l’objet des plus belles pages de l’ouvrage, et dans l’enthousiasme de l’auteur, mais aussi la profondeur de vue, fruit d’années de recherche, c’est le Feu sacré du Savoir véritable qui se révèle, contaminant jusqu’au lecteur lui-même. Quant à savoir si le destin historial de la philosophie ne serait pas du côté de la mystique, c’est là une question que nous maintenons ouverte. Comme si l’aridité et l’exigence conceptuelle de la philosophie servaient de tremplin à la simplicité du Verbe, que le philosophe n’était pas celui qui dit la vérité sur l’être (le totalisant, comme s’il le surplombait), mais celui qui, ouvrant à la vérité de l’être, doit désormais dans le silence se faire Myste. La Poiesis chez Heidegger est sans commune mesure avec la Poiesis véritable dans la mystique, avec le passage de l’Homme à l’Homme-Dieu, de l’existence éparpillée dans les étants à la réalisation de son essence. Mais cela, la phénoménologie de la finitude de Heidegger ne le pouvait penser.

Gregory Fried (Ed.): Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue on Politics and Philosophy

Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue on Politics and Philosophy Book Cover Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue on Politics and Philosophy
New Heidegger Research
Gregory Fried (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Paperback $44.95 • £35.00

Reviewed by: Andrei-Valentin Bacrău (former graduate researcher at the University of Zurich)

The book Confronting Heidegger: A Critical Dialogue in Politics and Philosophy does present the readers with the expected level of critical analysis needed to revise Heidegger’s literature in contemporary philosophical research. Given the discoveries that Heidegger himself was associated with German nationalism through the rise of the Third Reich and during the Second World War, the academic space has brought into question the extent to which Heidegger should be taken seriously. Additionally, Heidegger’s work has grown in popularity with the French scene in the mid-20th century, as well as with contemporary Americans. The notion of whether or not his works should be taught continues to be present in lecture halls and contemporary literature on German philosophy.  Despite the concern towards the researchers that have built their academic careers on unpacking and clarifying Heidegger’s views, we must also address the theme of how we, as an academic community, should proceed with integrating the works of Heidegger in the philosophical literature, particularly within the branch of phenomenology.

This book initially began as an exchange of correspondence between Gregory Fried and Emmanual Faye, which later on accepted commentaries from other scholars within the radar of Heidegger and phenomenological studies. The text contains a wide plethora of arguments both in favor and against allowing Heidegger to be read and discussed within academic circles, between researchers on one hand, as well as with students on the other. During my review and synthesis of the contributions to this text, I shall outline four primary areas of contextualizing Heidegger within the aforementioned theme: philosophical, historical, political, and academic. The philosophical portion shall outline the charges and defenses of Heidegger within the text itself, isolated by the commentaries of the contributors. The historical portion is going to elaborate on the historical scenarios in which Heidegger himself operated, and the extent to which such historical phenomena have shaped his thoughts and writing style. Thirdly, the political discussion is going to clarify how Heidegger’s affiliations with German nationalism influenced not only the nationalistic culture of Germany in the 20th century, but also how this has inevitably lead to the accusations of antisemitism. Lastly, the academic section is going to explore the extent to which the earlier three sections justify either allowing or rejecting Heidegger’s works in contemporary research. Surely, all four aspects of the review are interwoven with each other, in some cases with such convergence that it is perhaps difficult to delineate between them. Since understanding Heidegger’s place within the philosophical space is already a difficult task, this process of correctly delineating between the social contexts which are affected by him is also an obstacle towards maintaining ethical standards within contemporary research. As we shall see with the contributors of the texts, the priority of Heidegger scholars must be disambiguating his intentions and the contexts which were outside of his control, with events which Heidegger himself not only endorsed but supported one way or another.

I. Philosophical

Some of the early traces for understanding Heidegger’s intellectual developments can be found at the beginning of the book. In the section on abbreviations, Fried himself notes that Heidegger holds different denotations on the notion of “being”. Such distinctions are held between the concepts of Sein and Seiendes (xi). Whereas the former emphasizes a state or a particular entity, the latter denotes the state of affairs or a collective. This subtle distinction between sein and seiendes is going to become particularly helpful for understanding Heidegger’s reasons in favor of German nationalism, as well as his exclusion of Jews from the civic discourse. Thomä’s essay includes another significant distinction, although this one is more particularly concerned with the intellectual development and maturation of Heidegger’s thinking. The question is at what point did Heidegger abandon his view of collective subjectivity? Thomä holds that Heidegger clung to such philosophical notions in the late 1930s. The argument states that we can only overcome metaphysical analysis only in so far as we can abandon clinging to the notion of a self or subject (167). Although the book itself does present some chronological debates as to whether or not this shift in Heidegger’s paradigm should be ascribed to the pre-war or post-war period of his thinking, Thomä maintains that it should be ascribed to the pre-war era.

The second aspect of unpacking how Heidegger conceived of the social world, is less abstract and more grounded in our civic activities. Fried’s defense of Heidegger’s Nazism in contrast to the propaganda projected by the Reich, is that Heidegger supposedly was opposed to both biological racism as well as global imperialism (1). Fried continues by claiming that Heidegger’s view supported the platform of Nazism as a bridging mechanism between cultures. Fried’s defensive reading of Heidegger comes to rigorous criticism from Kellerer. Heidegger’s antisemitism became more obvious in his writings since the completion of his Black Book. As Kellerer phrases it, post-1938 Heidegger indeed takes his mask off and uses more direct language that discriminates against the Jewish people (192). Kellerer also recognizes that although Heidegger’s antisemitism is not grounded in biological justifications, it is nonetheless concealed in an obscure writing style. Once Heidegger’s writings are disambiguated, as Strauss also emphasizes, the objective of the writing also becomes clearer. Heidegger’s intentions weren’t simply to push for a discourse of alienating the Jews from civic life but to annihilate any sort of influence or voice they might have had (204).

The main difficulty with disambiguating Heidegger is that he wrote in a seductive style, which brings students in (224). This seductive appeal, explained by Thomä and extended via Fried’s piece, is that it does not appeal to reason or intuitions. Rather, the seduction occurs via insights and revelations which are inaccessible to most people and readers. Despite such hermeneutic obscurations, Fried does maintain that Heidegger should be taken seriously (232). The discussions encouraging the abandonment of Heidegger as a legitimate 20th-century thinker are primarily ideological, rather than philosophical. The ideological-philosophical distinction illustrated by Fried, as well as the implications of Heidegger’s potential anti-semitism and cryptic style of writing are going to be further analyzed in the following sections.

II. Historical

Thus far, I have emphasized two main overarching questions regarding the interaction between Heidegger and the far-right politics of Germany. Firstly, whether or not Heidegger himself was an active participant in such political discussions and secondly, whether or not such participation discharges him from the academic space of philosophical discussions? Fried’s contribution insists that we should delineate between conservative attitudes in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, as well as Heidegger’s import from such discussion in the maturation of his work. Fried’s analysis claims that we cannot trace such anti-semitic attitudes to his earlier works, such as Being and Time (34). Fried’s defense also continues by stating that it was inevitable for Heidegger to at least indirectly present conservative views, since the attitudes of most European states during the 1930s were anti-cosmopolitan, nationalistic as well as anti-modern. Although these attitudes were the building blocks of Nazism, later on, they are not an expression of Nazi ideology. Therefore, a charitable reading of at least early Heidegger should be a German nationalist. Even if we were to ascribe Heidegger Nazi affiliations, Fried claims that we must be wary of contrasting it with the political activities of Nazi Germany. Whereas the political movement during Heidegger’s time supported imperialism and biological superiority via a metaphysical framework, Heidegger himself criticized this reading of Nazism, in favor of some sort of aggressive yet universalist form of the view (16).

Polt’s article emphasizes less of these subtle distinctions of German nationalism and focuses more on how Heidegger used the dialectic method to combat metaphysics, subjectivity as well as machination. Heidegger advocated that the aforementioned notions are dangerous and that they can drive humanity towards the collapse of civilization. This “ontohistorical machination”, as Polt phrases it, leaves “no hint of sympathy here for the victims; instead, he seems to be coldly, distantly, and ironically observing the events of the time” (134).

Polt maintains the defense that we should not read Heidegger as a supporter of Nazism. One of the justifications rests with Heidegger’s condemnation of Hitler’s reckless military policies through the war (119). Such defense results in a reading of the Black Book as a critique of Nazi ideology, while maintaining some sort of position in favor of German nationalism. Polt himself would perhaps agree with this reading since he also mentions that Heidegger’s bitter attitude towards the post-war European state of affairs also contains mixed feelings towards notions of German guilt and their relationship with a perverse understanding of Christianity. Polt’s conclusive remarks leave the readers with an interesting alternative from Fried’s interpretation that Heidegger’s views were in favor of some sort of cosmopolitanism. Namely, Polt’s alternative claims that since Heidegger rejected all moral and political principles in favor of some metaphysical structure, Heidegger must default to some sort of view of totalitarianism to reason through actions and political movements that are not promoted by a mere socialist state (140). Heidegger’s political affiliations have been defended and disambiguated in multiple ways by the contributors to this book. The next section of my review attempts to clarify which reading is more plausible, given Heidegger’s attitudes towards nationalism and the Jewish people.

III. Political

A third significant theme debated through the book is concerned with whether or not Heidegger intends his students and readers to develop sympathy towards Nazism. Fried opens the discussion with two observations. Firstly, that Heidegger’s work has been taken seriously in France and now in the US, and secondly, reading Heidegger does not entail the reader to grow sympathy for German nationalism (7); Fried continues:

For Heidegger, this means resolutely belonging to a particular place, a particular time, and particular people with its particular destiny. It means embracing the radical finitude of being human and radical boundedness to the human community (12).

Although Fried seems to be convinced that we can assess and maintain Heidegger’s work within the academic corpus, there does seem to be the pressing question of what exactly does this maintenance of Heideggerian work mean? Heidegger was undoubtedly a passionate nationalist, even in instances where historians can indeed say that he criticized his contemporary political structures in Germany. Therefore, we must ask ourselves to what extent Heidegger’s metaphysical agenda necessitated a nationalistic paradigm in contradistinction with cosmopolitanism? The contributors also clashed on the questions of ideological limits, rather than only attempting to describe Heidegger’s views of metaphysics and politics.

Kellerer argues that Heidegger’s antisemitism is obvious since the publication of the Black Notebooks (191). There are also other arguments present. Some scholars would say that given Heidegger’s obscure usage of the German language, it is difficult to pin exactly which passages are meant to be taken as anti-semitic. Additionally, Kellerer also extends the discussion surrounding the distinction between German views of superiority based on some sort of biological claim, with Heidegger’s national socialism which does not argue for such physiological superiority. However, this subtle distinction does not entail that Heidegger himself is free from the charge of racial superiority in some form. Since the exposé of GA:96, Heidegger was pushing for “ontologizing” principles of “blood and soil”. In this way, the dialectic struggle embodied in machination has been amplified. While also pushing forth ambiguous notions of “struggle for the liberation of the essence”, Heidegger attempts to distance himself from the notion of biological purity, while also claiming that such reductionist criteria have consistently been found in Jewish literature (193). Kellerer’s piece continues to make it quite obvious to her audience that Heidegger’s antisemitism is not only intentional but also not as subtle as some defenders of Heidegger would like to make it seem. Claims such as the Jew as the parasite, and that all Jews are devoid of any self (Selbst), make Heidegger’s intentions and objectives clear (198).

What is at issue here is intentional philosophical deception for domination and taking power in the spiritual and political fight for Nazism (203).

Dasein is the constant urgency of defeat and the renewed resurgence of the act of violence against Being, in such a way that the almighty reign of Being violates Dasein (in the literal sense), makes Dasein into the site of its appearing, envelops and pervades Dasein in its reign, and thereby holds it within Being (30).

Although this review is not the place to offer a comprehensive overview of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, I would like to point out particular denotations of this concept, concerning Kellerer’s discussion. Regardless of how ambiguous or seductive the readers of Heidegger might think his philosophy is, it is quite difficult to defend the thesis that Heidegger had no intention of constructing a metaphysical system that initially alienates and then annihilates the Jewish people. The more difficult question remaining, is how the academic space should react to a writer that has such a legacy behind him. The fourth section, addressing the academic reactions to Heidegger, is going to further explore the arguments in favor and against keeping Heidegger as a legitimate thinker in the pedagogical system.

IV. Academics

Regardless of whether the contributors of the book favored the view that Heidegger was promoting Nazi ideology or a less harmful version of nationalism, both sides remain with the burden of addressing the last theme I shall cover in this review. Namely, should Heidegger be taught at all? Should we, as researchers, offer the space for such ideas, and more importantly, what is the pedagogical value of literary works that are borderline disruptive to a minority group?

The beginning of the debates are traced in Fried’s introduction to the book. He argues that we should not merely see Heidegger as a historical byproduct of German propaganda and that we should take him seriously. In this way, we do not jeopardize the careers of researchers working on Heidegger, nor do we discourage students with a growing interest in Heidegger’s thought (xviii). Fried’s concern is that we are “ventriloquizing Heidegger”. To defend Heidegger against over-contextualizing the material conditions and historical scene in which he lived, Fried pushes the agenda that Heidegger’s Nazism was different because it supported a cosmopolitan platform for nations to communicate amongst each other (1). A reoccurring theme during these discussions is how to address the evolution of Heidegger’s ideas beyond his scope and intentions. There seems to be a collective consensus that as long as the Heidegger scholars recognize the delineation between Heidegger’s contributions and the inevitable evolution, then Heidegger enthusiasts can engage with the literature without necessarily being stained by Heidegger’s political ideology.

The attempt to de-legitimize Heidegger has been opposed by Fried in other ways as well. Not only does Fried defer to the interest of thinkers such as Sartre and Habermas in Heidegger’s work,  but also the case that Voltaire, Kant, and Locke also expressed racist views and some of them went as far as favoring slavery (35). Such deferment to other well-known thinkers through European thought surely does bring into question the overall philosophical project of European thinkers. The extent to which this concern is well-grounded is not only left to the readers but I too would like to encourage a growing discourse into investigating the discriminatory biases of European thinkers.

Altman’s piece attempts to find a reconciliation between the charges against Heidegger and the pedagogical value of keeping his work as live options during debates and discussions in phenomenology and metaphysics. The argument “education first” adds to the discourse of delineating between Heidegger as a byproduct of his time and the intellectual import researchers can obtain from him today. Altman continues with an analogy between Heidegger and Elvis. Similarly to the underdog rise to fame of Elvis so too Heidegger enjoyed the spotlight of American academia (117).

Kellerer attempts to pair her arguments with Faye’s methodology. They should not be perceived as attempting to discharge Heidegger from the academic circles. Rather, they attempt to survey the extent to which the Nazi culture of his contemporaries influenced his writings so that the readers of Heidegger have a better grasp of the ideologies at work in his philosophy. Faye also supports Kellerer’s pluralistic reading of Heidegger (190, 238). The rhetoric emanated from all positions in this debate is that we must be careful with the way the debate is being shaped. One of the horns of the dilemma is to completely discourage any discussion about Heidegger due to the tension in his literature and the ethics of human rights. The other horn would be over-celebrating Heidegger and denying the implications, however minimal, that he had with German nationalism. Such projects are particularly difficult because Heidegger himself was using the German language in unusual ways.

The terminology of the Black Notebooks is more explicit than his other works of the same period, probably because many of those works have been manipulated by Heidegger’s own self-censorship or the censorship of the publishers, as we know to be the case in The History of Being. That terminology clarifies and confirms the meaning and conclusion of the 1940 course on Nietzsche. (253)

Faye’s conclusive remarks of the debate correctly illustrate the political outcome of the mid-20th century Germany. Aside from the terrors and atrocities which millions of people have unjustly experienced, we, as a global community, have engaged in an active discourse of human rights. As academic researchers, we must contribute to a civic and academic ecosystem where these rights are not only protected but also encouraged to flourish.

Overall, the impressions of the book are positive. The writing is clear and accessible both to students with minimal exposure to Heidegger’s work, as well as to Heidegger scholars. I would gladly recommend this piece to anyone interested in Heidegger or phenomenology at large. The book offers a wide plethora of debates concerning how we see and read Heidegger in today’s academic space. The only way for researchers to further look into the details of Heidegger’s affinities and philosophy is by enabling a discourse where such discussions are possible and reasoned through.

Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.): Philosophers and Their Poets

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 (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Sarah Fayad (Emory University)

It is somewhat easy to forget that philosophy has not always, or in every case, been conducted through the medium of writing. For the most part, we expect philosophy to be written.  But the written-ness of philosophy is contingent, and so too is its suspension in the written: in literature, media, interview, and of course poetry. Socrates and Plato, or instance, did not make much use of citation and Plato especially elevated philosophy at the expense of poetry and drama. And, indeed, this contingency is all the more difficult for philosophers to fathom, because the written word is usually the trade-mechanism by which we philosophize, and through which we think. The experienced phenomena of reading and writing are the basic instruments of philosophy, as we practice it. Writing is not merely the way we convey and transmit ideas, born and nurtured in the mind. Rather, when we look at the phenomena of reading and writing, we see the ebb and flow of epiphany, of doubt, of enlightenment and invention. Writing is quite often how we philosophize at all.

The primordial disciplinary decision to move the vague shapes and shadows of our ideas from their mental and social obscurity (and incompletion) to the written word—a decision which none of us living had any hand in making— itself has philosophical ramifications. That is to say that the presupposition of philosophy’s written-ness, is shot through with questions: questions about the truth, as well as metaphilosophical questions about the place of philosophy within the universal/Borgesian “Library of Babel” it has chosen for itself, about the necessity of writing philosophy and the necessity of philosophy regarding other kinds of written works, about the relationship between philosophical, literary, journalistic, and poetical styles to reality, truth, clarity, and that part of the human spirit to which philosophy wants to appeal.

Charles Bambach’s and Theodore George’s anthology, Philosophers and Their Poets lights upon these fundamental questions of philosophy-as-word, as speech, and as our connection to one another and to the real through a series of serious, considered, and illuminating papers examining the relationship of philosophers to art, style, and of course poetry. I see these papers as being divided into four more-or-less distinguishable subject-categories: 1) papers dealing with German idealist discourse around the role and status of art, poetry, and beauty in what they regard as a burgeoning philosophical and rational world, 2) analyses of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art as it serves as a kind of hinge—indeed serves as itself a revealing poem—between idealism and more phenomenological and existential traditions, 3) those dealing with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry as a revolutionary force in meaning-making, and 4) those which proceed from the poems themselves to philosophical analyses.

The first three chapters of this collection take us through the foundations of these questions of style and artistry in the German idealist tradition. The first essay by Maria de Rosario Acosta Lopez analyses a historical controversy between Schiller and Fichte over philosophical style and the part of the human being to which philosophy must speak. This is followed by Chapter 2, which presents us with a very clear and compelling translation of the very letters exchanged between Schiller and Fichte, regarding philosophical style. These first chapters elucidate a possible ambiguity between reason and feeling, which gives way to a possible ambiguity between philosophy and poetry. This ambiguity leads Hegel’s intuitions, both conceptually and historically. Theodore George argues in Chapter 3 that philosophy and art have a similar purpose in the creation of world-historical meaning, for Hegel. We see a transition from any concern about the purity of philosophy in Fichte to an embrace of its meaning-founding affinities with religion and art in the later work of Hegel.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Nietzsche, whose philosophy marks a kind of transition between German idealism and the phenomenological and existential (represented by thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer), which will occupy the four of the volume’s remaining chapters. In Chapter 4, Babette Babich analyses Nietzsche’s relationship to ancient Greek tragic poetry, to its lost poets, and to their time-silenced songs in the interest of revealing what are indisputable contributions to philosophy itself, contra an extant tradition in the literature which more or less excludes him from the field. The fifth Chapter by Kalliopi Nikolopoulou investigates Nietzsche’s attachment to the heroic in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche saw ancient heroes and the poets who sung their tales as perhaps doubly heroic, she argues, since they might remedy Modern nihilism.

Chapters 5, 7, and 8 all deal with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry—as both the truth and the promise of philosophy. Like Schiller, Hegel, and Nietzsche Heidegger sees poetry as revealing a fuller truth than that accessible by reason alone. But it is only with Hegel that Heidegger shares this concept of the promise of poetry; both Heidegger and Hegel think art has (or once had) the power to inaugurate worlds and imbue them with meaning. Charles Bambach’s sixth Chapter for this volume begins at the interstices of aesthetics and ethics, mired in this Heideggerian meaning-making power/promise of the poem. He finds that the poem—in granting us access to our humanity in full—promises an originary ethics of our place, and (I’ll say) perfection, which is utterly opaque to us without the poetic disclosure. In the seventh Chapter, “Remains,” William McNeill addresses the futurity any concept of a promise must take for granted. He argues that Heidegger’s confrontations with Hölderlin’s poetry open up novel relations and meanings for us by altering the medium of time. Hölderlin’s works according to McNeill demonstrate a substratum of ambiguity in time wherein the greeting and remembrance are indistinct. Thus, the poem’s novel horizonality inaugurates a new world by possibilizing new projects, new relations to one another, and even new relations to the dead. Chapter 8 is likewise about the time of the poem, but it looks to its momentum, to the cadence of thought. Such poietic momentum, Krystof Ziarek argues, is experienced as rhythm and even texture. When philosophy takes on this cadence, it transcends the mere transmission of information and exceeds the possibilities of the argument: demonstrating in this excess new possibilities for thought itself.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 emerge from analyses of poets and poetic works, rather than from within the philosophical theories which have taken them up. This provides what I think is a novel opportunity for philosophers who might not themselves read much poetry. It is a strange admission to make here, I suppose, that I have likely read more philosophical works which abstract from and selectively cite poems than I have poems themselves. To the question, “Is poetry true?” Chapter nine of Philosophers and Their Poets poses a kind of phenomenological/experimental response; “In order to answer this question maybe no extensive conceptual discussion of truth is needed…just attention to a particular poem led by the question how such a poem can be read and understood.”[1] To this end, Gunther Figal looks to Burnt Norton” by T.S. Eliot. Chapter 10, by Gert-Jan van der Heiden, which I discuss in some greater detail below, looks to the somewhat revolutionary poetry of Célan, which render in poetic verse that promise of a different world, or of new meanings, of new homes—out of the silence, the nothingness, that must follow the decay of status-quo intelligibility, in the rests, and breaths that keep familiar meaning from crossing living lips. In Chapter 11, Max Kommerell (who has been translated here by Christopher D. Merwin and Margot Wielgus) provides an analysis of Hölderlin’s Empedocles poem, which demonstrates his distinctiveness. In particular, this analysis lays bare Hölderlin’s perhaps utterly unique poetic “ear,” which attunes him to cosmic harmonies and truths, and places what is revealed in his writing always-already outside the grasp of our concepts; “…in accord with his talent, Hölderlin could experience what, for us, lies at an ungraspable distance and is a hardly thinkable event as the real history of his soul.”[2]

Because of its historical breadth, this anthology might serve as a kind of introduction to the specific questions that arise from continental philosophy’s various encounters with poetry. But the book would only be an appropriate introduction for somewhat advanced students of philosophy, familiar with continental thought, and its historical movements. It is therefore I think primarily suited to philosophers already researching some of the questions outlined in my introduction. These would also be invaluable secondary sources for interdisciplinary researchers. I would readily recommend the volume, for example, to anyone writing at the interstices of philosophy or art and aesthetics with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, and metaphysics. This recommendation is in no small part because the authors in this volume have done an excellent job bringing the stakes of philosophy of art to the surface.

Art, especially as poetry, has had an inescapable influence on philosophical thinking throughout its 2000+ years of development. If the bare written-ness of philosophy opens up as many questions as it does, then what does its ready and intimate relationship to poetry mean for us? What does it say about philosophy itself: its veracity, its trustworthiness? And, perhaps more promisingly: What does it say about poetry, about its kind of truth? Bambach and George introduce the works in this anthology by way of a kind of conclusion:

What we find in poetry is the unfolding of the very momentum of language as an originary opening up and emergence that does not fit into the metaphysical encasements of presence and representation… Against the propositional language of statements, poetic language invites us to heed the pauses, the interruptions, and the caesurae that call us to attend to what is not said or can never be said in language.[3]

They find that poetry invites that part of the human spirit which can attend to the immutable mysteries of our existence and of Being, in general, to attend to these mysteries, in spite of their inherent obscurity. Poetry, in short, invites us to philosophize. We come up against this indistinction between the philosophical and the poetic, as we read the essays collected in Philosophers and Their Poets, again and again. The philosophical—which has, in many of its iterations attempted to void itself of the poetic, to let beauty die of neglect—is shot through with the poetic. The poetic is unavoidably philosophical: so much so that we might call any promise of truth philosophy might make, at all, the “poetic.”

We cannot help but ask here, where ordinary categories fail; Who are the philosophers and who the poets of Philosophers and Their Poets? Some thinkers examined within the volume trouble themselves with the differences, while others embrace, and even invest fully in the similarities. (Although, the indistinction between the poetic and the philosophical may, in the end, be why we feel compelled to draw such a distinction in the first place, rendering both derivative).

Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez’s analysis of a confrontation between Schiller and Fichte begins the essays in the collection and does so as an inauguration of the very questions with which we have been tarrying. Most importantly, the argument between these Modern titans lays bare a very basic metaphilosophical point I had not ever before considered: that all writing, all discourse, and all philosophy must speak either to the whole of the human being or to some part of her. Philosophy might, therefore, have a different audience than does poetry, news, or fiction even within the same enfleshed and living reader. Fichte presupposes that philosophy must solicit only some part of the subject. He argues that philosophical writing must be as logical as possible, using examples in such a way that they shore up arguments rather than evoke the sensible and imaginative capacities. This is because, on his view, philosophy takes aim at the Understanding alone. Other capacities of the subject are not relevant, on this view, to the philosophical pursuit of truth. Such a pursuit can, therefore, only be successful if it is confined to this valence of subjectivity.

But, is such a well-fortified compartmentalization of subjective parts, regions, and capacities even possible for more contemporary thinkers? Doesn’t Continental Philosophy’s “phenomenological turn” render anathema the very idea that philosophy might reach something like the tower-bound understanding—especially without dirtying itself in the more immanent ground of evoking and implicating imagination, sensation, and body? Indeed I think many of us would agree that philosophy might not be able to find and transmit truth if it does not consider and speak to the whole human being. Rosario Acosta Lopez shows that Schiller’s evocations of imagination insert “…in the heart of human action the elements of contingency, finitude and a permanent and necessary dialog with a world that is never entirely in our power to control.” Contra Fichte, Schiller’s more poetical and evocative style is veridical: showing us the world in its more awe-inspiring and challenging true-light.[4]

My continual tendency, aside from the inquiry itself, is to employ the ensemble of emotional forces and to the extent that it is possible to affect all of them. I thus do not wish merely to make my thoughts clear to others, but at the same time to transmit my entire soul to them, and to influence bother their sensuous and intellectual powers.[5]

Schiller makes an epistemological, existential, and ontological point with his imaginative and sensuous writing style. He also makes a metaphilosophical one, which proceeds naturally from undermining the understanding’s epistemic monopoly; “[T]he discussion reflects on philosophy itself, inviting us to understand the boundaries of thought, and the very rich possibilities that come along [sic] the recognition of these boundaries.”[6] The understanding has boundaries precisely with regard to the philosophical and cannot philosophize without pooling resources with something like the integrated-and-whole embodied subject.

This more phenomenologically salient, existential understanding of the poetic nature of philosophical writing (and of the philosophical nature of poetic writing, as well) seems to prevail in the context of the anthology as it deals with authors like Heidegger and Gadamer. Poetic writing, as it reaches the whole human being and casts its creeping, seeking, tendrils even into the most obscure and mysterious depths of the soil of our Being, and our Becoming.

Hegel might seem an odd-man-out in terms of this generalization since he does not affirm the indistinct boundaries between philosophy and art. His infamous and oft-misunderstood argument for the “end of art” and the primacy of philosophy is a testament to this. Yet, Theodore George shows Hegel nonetheless sees art as serving a similar function to philosophy in the founding and transmission of meaning, even in the Modern world. This function unsurprisingly has to do with truth. Art, religion, and philosophy allow “a society…to take a good look at itself, to make explicit its deepest context of meaning, the context that otherwise remains merely tacit even as it shapes, orients and grants legitimacy to all further meanings within that society.”

On George’s account in this volume, Hegel should be read as saying that between art and philosophy as well as between Classical and Romantic art, there are no differences in kind. Rather there are differences in context, which yield differences in the magnitude of their respective world-founding forces. Hegel thinks that Classical artworks originarily founded, grounded, and justified Greek culture. Everything in this period—including the first works of philosophy— derives from and makes sense in reference to this founding. Within the modern period, however, art bears no such promise and philosophy must provide our social foundations. The ancient context gave art a greater share of the inauguration, transmission, and preservation of its truth. The modern era by necessity gives it less.

On this view, the nascent philosophy of the ancient world could not but be derivative of its more originary sculptural founding, and thus will be supplanted by modern philosophy: the first philosophy to successfully found and ground a world-historical epoch. Hegel argues that modernity is, in essence, a revaluation, whereby philosophy accrues a greater degree of veridical force. This changing of worlds, the promise of new meanings and truths—the world-historical dawn in which Hegel feels himself bathed—this is the promise of philosophy as poetic and of poetry as philosophical, which comes to dominate Philosophers and Their Poets. Inchoate in language are new worlds.

Babette Babich’s search for Nietzsche’s all-but-lost poet, Archilochus, lays bare the tension with which humanity is suspended upon the Earth. The truth of tragedy is a musical truth, she concludes. But what is music within the Nietzschean paradigm other than “the becoming human of dissonance?”[7] In music, we take up into the body our irresolute difference from the world and its entities: a tension that cannot be resolved so long as we are of this world. Such a tension as that between the world and its dominant species is perfectly thought as musical dissonance; dissonance heard arises from the proximity of one note with the other, the greatest dissonance from the greatest similarity, proximity, intimacy.

This is what distinguishes us as the exception among beings, that we both inhabit and are inhabited by an inescapable uncanniness that pervades our ethos.[8]

This tension between the “possible nearness and necessary remoteness of all things” to us is the foundation of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially his philosophy of poetry and art. That strangeness and disquiet that emerges most strongly, most sustained, from the smallest margins of difference, from the tightest chasms of intimacy. We seek the resolution, like any listener, any composer. But the resolution cannot happen here, within our fraught intimacy with a world that cannot harmonize with us; a world that—through Modernity, mechanization, and technologization—we have mistakenly set to sing a different song from us, altogether. Philosophers and Their Poets allows us to tarry with the major philosophical insight that there are however possible—that is, horizonal, not-yet-actual/arrived—worlds, with which we could harmonize.

Such worlds, on Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s accounts, seem to exist just beyond the concepts that make up our reality:  possibilities invisible to us because we have a faith in the world, which could perhaps shatter upon rocks of the right philosophical or poetic work. William McNeill argues that Heidegger’s encounters with poetry reveal the limits of phenomenology, and therefore of the truth-telling capacity of our very experience. Poetry reveals those limits of our world which serve as its conditions of possibility (time), and thus what is real beyond our comprehension, or our apprehension, through the structures of meaning in which we are presently enmeshed.[9] Bambach argues that the poet sings the philosopher his longing for his “own home amid the experience of expulsion,” in an uncanny home, in an intelligibility which fails to make sense of the philosopher and indeed each of us, an intelligibility that thus desacralizes us, flattens and debases us. But the poet’s hymn is a heralding hymn, which points “ahead to the futural coming of the gods.” Gods, of course, found worlds. And perhaps the poet can sing the eventual creation of a home that protects our dignity, sanctifies us, and sets us forever free of the old intelligibility.[10]

The anthology presents oscillations and refinements of this insight throughout the history of Western thought—from Nietzsche’s conception of world-revolutionary “revaluation,” to Heidegger’s alethic revelation of (extant and real) values, the existential progressivism of so-called ontological and ethical “ambiguity,” and Gadamer’s “subdued hope…” The notes that harmonize with our being, hum imperceptibly all around us; we just need philosophy and art to amplify them, and finally to change the song of the world.

With new worlds, of course, come new ethics, new values, new ways of being with one another, and even new entities. The works collected in Philosophers and Their Poets confront the abyss of the as-of-yet inchoate possibilities of this new world—hidden in the bare written-ness of philosophy—and they do so with an eye to what’s at stake in such questions for denizens of the present world. We should, I think, desire new answers to the question, “Who are we?”[11] While I am reticent to add much of anything extra-textual to such a rich volume, I will say I feel we cannot but look at our current world in mourning, in longing. The coming of another means the terrifying demise of the world. But it might finally mean the embrace of the Other, of one another, no matter how strange we’ve been to each other:

Language gives us shelter… by deconstructing word and language the poem sets free another horizon, namely the horizon of the unfamiliar… the horizon of heaven.[12]

The stranger, in her approach through the medium of the poem; The strange in its approach through the medium of the poem; Both approach with their arms outstretched, and paradise in their hands, according to Célan.

I do not believe a poem alone can save us (unless our definition of “poetry” becomes so diffuse as to lose all meaning). After all, the horrors of this world have easily survived any beauty in it. I therefore even have to regard the destructive power Célan grants poetry with some skepticism. Nonetheless, I do think that (poetic) beauty has its place, as we attempt to turn the world over and reveal its other side. Alongside Schiller, I feel poetic language might help to engage the entire human being in the work of making a way for new meanings. As social and political creatures we are, of course, embodied and intercorporeal, only partially rational. If poetry is world-transitional in the ways Heidegger and Célan argue, it is in part because we cannot migrate to a new world by virtue of our rationality alone. Beauty as justice, as long-awaited relief, as burgeoning post-revolutionary responsibilities to one another, even as forgiveness, as absolution: this is the medium of revolutionary beauty, which might both carry us to a new world as well as compose this world in its meter, its tone, and its colors (as the paint carries us to the world of the painting, by the very act of creating that world). Such a medium perhaps makes possible—even beckons—the revolutionary poem. And thus we might be called to the selfless, futural, heartache of revolutionary beauty by the poets of our current, decaying, world as well. A poem alone may not be able to save us, but I am inclined to take what help there is.

[1] Günter Figal, “Learning from Poetry: On Philosophy, Poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 204.

[2] Max Kommerell, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” Translated by C. Merwin and M. Wielgus, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 260.

[3] Charles Bambach and Theodore George. 2019. Philosophers and Their Poets. Albany: State University of New York Press, 5-6.

[4]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[5] “Fichte and Schiller Correspondence, from Fichte’s Werke, Vol. 8 (De Gruyter).”  Translated by Christopher Turner, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 56.

[6]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[7] Babette Babich, “Who is Nietzsche’s Archilochus? Rhythm and the Problem of the Subject,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 103.

[8] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’ Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 146.

[9] William McNeill, “Remains: Heidegger and Hölderlin amid the Ruins of Time,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 179.

[10] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 152.

[11] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 145.

[12] Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 226.

Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.): Phenomenology as Performative Exercise

Phenomenology as Performative Exercise Book Cover Phenomenology as Performative Exercise
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 19
Lucilla Guidi, Thomas Rentsch (Eds.)
Hardback €121.00
x, 236

Reviewed by: Thomas Arnold (University of Heidelberg)

The book is a whole divided into three parts, with the first part concerned with the performativity of phenomenology, the second with the phenomenology of performativity and the third with exercises in phenomenology. In this review, first I briefly discuss the volume as a whole. Then I focus on individual entries present in the volume, since they differ by topic and in quality. I conclude with some remarks.

I. Overview

The aim of the book is “to establish the first systematic connection between phenomenology and performativity” (1), which concerns both the performativity of phenomenology as well as the phenomenology of performativity (2). The third part of it “aims to sketch out three phenomenological exercises devoted to the constitution of contemporary performative phenomena” (7). The label “exercises” is somewhat misleading since all phenomenological inquiries are exercises in phenomenology. Moreover, all three essays in the exercise-section of the book are themselves phenomenological investigations into specific performances (as opposed to performativity in general), which thematically justifies their inclusion.

While we do get a promised look into the different ways in which phenomenology can be considered “performative,” I hold that the “transformation of attitude [performance] effects through a number of parallels between phenomenology and the ancient understanding of philosophy as an exercise and a way of life” (2) does not get enough attention. The specifics of this transformation do not seem to be discussed thoroughly enough in the book. How is the subject transformed exactly? From which state to what other state? Is subject-transformation desirable? Then again, this collection is just that: a collection – and therefore it cannot be expected to provide the same encompassing systematic reach a monograph might achieve.

What I liked in this volume was the systematic engagement with both historically close (Foucault, Derrida, a lot of Butler) as well as distant theories (e.g., Plato), which shows that phenomenologists are still interested in theoretical (as opposed to merely exegetical) issues and that we read and talk outside the boundaries of the phenomenological tradition, thus preventing conceptual in-breeding.

As I highlight later in this review, almost all papers contain more or less implicit assumptions about what phenomenology is and what it is supposed to do. If we follow some of the authors in this collection, it ought to be critical, active, transformative, not too intellectual or detached; yet there is not much open discussion about the foundations and justifications of these conceptions and I think this is a debate still waiting to happen – and one which can never really come to an end as long as philosophy demands radical justification for, of and by itself.

As far as I am concerned, paying close attention to how things appear (including texts) should still be the fundamental tenet of phenomenology, because that is how we adequately grasp things instead of just dealing with our own presuppositions and projections. As simple as this sounds, neither close attention (i.e. attention without prejudice, readily available formulae or random associations) nor the focus on the how of appearing (as against the what) are very well developed in our societies. And as Guidi points out, phenomenology is – in one sense – already “critical” inasmuch as it “draws our attention” (2) to sundry phenomena and their (contingent, problematic) modes of appearing, which for example include our naturalistic conceptions and inauthentic tendencies.

My final question however targets the subject and the object of these reflective operations. If we as phenomenologists are supposed to draw “our attention,” does this refer only to us phenomenologists or to us as simple humans? Put in the vocabulary of the present volume, who is supposed to be the benefactor of these phenomenological performances and exercises? And consequently, how should these exercises look? Should they be more academic exercises? More tentative theoretical acrobatics, language games within the same tedious vernacular, or maybe the umpteenth reading of Husserl’s descriptions of inner time consciousness? Or could they be more public exercises in reflecting on presuppositions and attending how things appear?

These questions are not trivial. For example, Husserl famously envisioned a social renewal centred around transcendental phenomenology. While I do not wish to advocate another attempt at healing (or bettering) the world through philosophy, I think phenomenologists are not in a bad position to contribute to what one might call “public philosophy”; especially since phenomenology is not a set of theorems or arguments or a doctrine one can extol, but a way of living, a way of looking, something we do and something we can train others to do too, maybe even to their (and our) advantage – a “performative exercise” indeed.

II. Review of Individual Entries

Dahlstrom characterises Heidegger’s phenomenology as performative insofar as it is obviously something we perform (as in: do), but mainly because “the phenomenologist’s philosophical act of understanding certain experiences entails carrying out the experience herself” (14). This leads him to the language used to prompt these re-enactments of experience – and to Heidegger’s reflection on the performativity of (phenomenological) language. Dahlstrom thus notes several concordances between Austin’s analyses of performatives and Heidegger’s early thoughts on language, especially on everyday performative discourse. Dahlstrom also mentions Heidegger’s engagement with authentic and inauthentic discourse as something that goes beyond Austin’s work.

In section two Dahlstrom deals with the phenomenological re-enactment (Vollzug) of experience in the sense of truth-proclamations. This touches upon the problem that phenomenological description does not simply mimic what it describes, but gives it “shape” (24). This is an example of  “Gestaltgebung” (24).[1] From here, Dahlstrom links Heidegger’s account of formal indication and its “existential-disclosive aspect” (26) to Searle’s take on performatives as creating linguistic facts. Dahlstrom ends on the observation that Heidegger’s account of speech acts is embedded in a much larger framework, while the speech act theorists focus more on specific issues and thus bring out more details, such that both could profit from each other (28).

From Dahlstrom’s considerations in section two, one might further question the function of re-enactment: why is it even necessary to “perform” experiences in phenomenology? And to what end? The repetition of experiences is necessary for our adequate grasp of what is given in experiences. Asserting without experience, i.e., asserting without direct contact to the things themselves, merely verbally, is what Husserl calls “empty” or even “inauthentic” discourse. How we perform our assertive acts is important because “empty” speech is phenomenologically worthless – hence the insistence on first-hand experience or, as Husserl calls it, “intuition.” Dahlstrom hints at the necessity of unpacking the distinction between authentic and inauthentic in Heidegger in FN 48. The end of all these efforts is ontological for Heidegger, for he is never interested simply in understanding experiences or even types of experiences for their own sake or in service of practical, “critical” projects. For Heidegger, questioning aims at something deeper: i.e., understanding being.

Legrand asks “What does happen if one practices an epochê without reduction?”(33). To arrive firstly at the fact that the epochê itself “is a performance of the subject” and that “the subject is performed by practicing the epochê,” the epochê becomes something specific to a suspension of judgement, a “suspension of anything that would prevent to work with what gives itself, as it is given, in the very field in which it is given.” (33-4, 40). Legrand sees Barthes practising a kind of epochȇ by suspending “that which makes his experience of the photograph ‘banal’” thereby also “suspending any narcissistic identifications with one’s mundane identity and normative identification with social roles” (36-7). In performing this bracketing, the subject shows itself to be certain without employing categories like “real” or “fictional”.

This allows Barthes to experience the “singularity” of the photograph, a singularity apparent just for him. However, the singularity for one is also singularity of one, an encounter between two singularities: “I am singular for the other” (37). Moreover, “the structure of singularity is not reflexivity but: the address of one to another” (38).  Arguably, then, one could describe this whole structure comprising the two singularities as reflexivity, given that the other reflects me onto myself (and vice versa).But the point seems to be that singularity requires more than individual reflection.

At any rate, Legrand fleshes out some of the differences between phenomenology and psychoanalysis and finds that the latter is decidedly non-transcendental, but still operates with a form of epochê. The psychoanalytic epochê consists in suspending the categories of the “correct, appropriate, relevant, interesting, true, or embarrassing, shameful, false, stupid, ridiculous etc.” (47) so as to “consider speech as Saying” (48) without judging the adequacy of the spoken to reality. The analyst instead listens with the presumption “that who I hear is irreducibly singular” (48). Following Legrand, in this act one would perform themselves as a singularity as well as the other. She offers the takeaway or insight that there are either different species of epochê or different paths to take, springing from the one epochê and leading to very different subjects/situations, depending on the mode and aim of the performance of the bracketing.

Cimino argues for deep agreements between Husserl and Plato. He begins by pointing out that Plato and Husserl agree on the fundamental nature of philosophy in regard to the other sciences. He fleshes out this distinction by drawing on a distinction between “discursive thinking and intuitive thinking” (53) as well as the necessity of other sciences “to rely on assumptions” (53) which philosophy questions; he then focusses on the former difference (56). I obviously agree with the general idea that Husserl and Plato are in accordance on central systematic issues (whether Husserl is aware of it or not); I disagree with Cimino’s more specific claim that they both endorse “the specific method of philosophy as inuitive thinking” (50).

For what could this “intuitive method” (56) even be? Firstly, what is intuition? As Cimino points out, self-givenness of any thematic object is fundamental to Plato and Husserl and both criticise mere verbal, i.e. non-intuitive speech. For both it “is rather the familiarity with the thing itself that produces real philosophical knowledge” (58) and when Cimino speaks of the “dialectical method” (57) he claims that “it entails the direct, first-hand grasp of essences or ideas” (57). To explain one metaphor through two others: intuition (for Cimino as well as for Plato and Husserl) is familiarity is first-hand grasp. Now can this be a “method” in and of itself? As Cimino himself says, the “dialectical method” “entails” it, which means it is not identical to it. And I venture it entails it because dialegesthai, literally “talking it through”, leads to what we have described as seeing, i.e. first-hand grasping. But the method, the way to go, is logical, it proceeds through logoi, through speeches, through questioning presuppositions, drawing out implications, discussing (varying) examples etc. Therefore intuition might either be a result or even a presupposition of Plato’s (and Husserl’s) philosophical method, but not a method in and of itself.

This has bearing on another issue, namely the intersubjective dimension of philosophy. In regard to this, what I hod to be a mistranslation of a passage from Plato’s 7th Letter is noteworthy. According to Cimino it states that insight appears “as a result of continued application to the subject itself”; however this passage ought to read that insight appears “in joint pursuit of the subject” (as translated by Morrow), since “synousia” means “being-together” and refers to the intersubjective dimension of philosophy, similar to “syzên”, “living together” in the very same sentence (one line further in 341d1). This being-together necessitates the logos as medium of philosophy since we cannot share intuitions directly. It is the intersubjective and reflective giving and taking of reasons which is the “method” of Platonic philosophy.

It is here, as I have argued,[2] that Husserlian phenomenology could benefit from a little more Platonism, given that some of Husserl’s own methodological characterisation of phenomenology turn it into a rather private, even solipsistic enterprise of inner monologue rather than the intersubjective endeavour he clearly wants it to be.

D’Angelo aims at establishing “four principles of every performance of phenomenological reading” (63) by reading and expanding on Gadamer’s reading of Plato’s Lysis. He sets out with highlighting that “phenomenology seems to happen mostly through texts and the interpretation of texts” (64); interestingly, D’Angelo does not call us (us phenomenologists that is) out on this (which he very well could and which Husserl would surely do), but rather asks “whether there is a distinctly phenomenological way of reading texts” (64) and claims that reading Husserl (for example) can still be a genuinely phenomenological exercise.

D’Angelo takes a basic principle from Gadamer, employs it (again) to the Lysis and then develops “four central moments of Plato’s theory of friendship which are, in my interpretation, at the same time four central moments of philosophy in general” (66). In a sense he performs a phenomenological reading to establish what a phenomenological reading is. These are the principles he wants to establish. First principle: There needs to be a “conjunction” of word and deed or attention to “the peculiar performance of a text” (76). For example, in the Lysis, “Socrates does things (erga) with words (logoi), by obtaining Lysis friendship through discourse.” (76) Were we to only focus on the explicit logoi, we would miss Plato’s enactment (in the sense of staging) of friendship, like Vlastos does, as D’Angelo contends (FN 19). The second principle D’Angelo gains from the fact that we are creating a logos about something for someone, which he translates into a principle of reading charitably, but also attending to the topic of the text itself, as to be able to criticise the text on its own terms. The third principle derives from the fact that “ignorance is a necessary component of philosophy” (74) and is basically a call to stay open-minded. The fourth principle reads: “There must be co-belonging, but also distance”, which implies a search for “common ground” (77). D’Angelo admits to a “feeling of triviality” (78) in regard to the principles listed, but points out that the triviality of these norms rather cements their validity while they are still continuously violated.

In reading D’Angelo’s account, two questions sprang to my mind: a) Why should we consider these principles to be especially “phenomenological”? b) Even if I happen to fully agree with his principles, where does their normativity stem from? Why should Gadamer or Plato (or their accordance) justify any principle for phenomenological reading whatsoever? An answer to both questions might lie in the phenomenological motto, since if we want to attend to the things themselves or let them show themselves as they are (be they texts or things or the world or…), we need to focus both on their explicit and implicit dimensions, apply categories of description not foreign to the phenomenon, stay open-minded and while attending the things themselves keep the appropriate descriptive distance.

Delving once again into the platonica, I have only a small gripe with how D’Angelo presents a basic Socratic tenet. Socrates’ principle is not “knowing only not to know” (69), as D’Angelo puts it, it is knowing when and if he does not know and abstaining from claiming such knowledge he does not possess (Apology 21d). In things of love and eidetic pregnancy, so to speak, Socrates always appears well-versed, indeed knowledgeable and proud of the fact. In the Symposium he even reveals his teacher in regard to these things, Diotima. Socrates knows that he knows of these things because he constantly proves to himself that he does, namely by performing his midwifery, i.e. dialectics. This does not however impede D’Angelo’s overall point that philosophy appears as the “in-between” (70) and as concerned with such.

Guidi focusses on the transformative dimension of phenomenology, which she then analyses in terms of the middle voice. Recalling the early Heidegger’s considerations about how understanding of formal indication requires a transformation on the side of the reader, Guidi concludes that phenomenological “speech is an enactment” (86), drawing the reader towards certain experiences, especially towards our thrown-ness: “Thus all phenomenological speech does is to indicate and address the very actual situation of the reader, by allowing her to experience the impossibility of founding that situation.” (85)

To conceptualise this enactment further, she draws on Benveniste’s analyses of the so called “middle voice”, which she claims opens “a topological perspective” (88), meaning that one can analyse actions as external or internal, the middle voice referring to a situation “where the agent is situated inside the process” (88), is “being affected” (89) in action. Guidi sees thinking according to Heidegger as exactly such an enactment, but denies its priority: “I claim that the ungrounded character of Dasein, the very same which phenomenology addresses in a performative way, opens up the ordinary and never fully accomplished task for every Dasein of transforming oneself and therefore relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity.” (90). Guidi then goes on to discuss four examples of middle-voice enactments, namely dialogue, expressing oneself, play and vulnerability, as analysed by Butler. She concludes with the conjecture that the “middle voice, by prompting the assumption of a topological perspective, may reveal the transformative potential of our ordinary comportments, and may further offer a new grammar for political action, one which is no longer founded on a sovereign account of subjectivity and agency” (96).

My main questions about Guidi’s account revolve around the notion of transformation. What transformation exactly are we talking about? And who has decided that it is to be the “task for every Dasein” (90)? The transformation involved in phenomenology is fairly specific and implies a shift away from “ordinary comportments”, not within or through it. This is why Husserl keeps writing introductions to phenomenology to explicate both the epochê as well as the reduction(s) in terms of a massive rupture with the natural attitude. Similarly for Heidegger; for while his philosophy certainly implies “acknowledging the ungrounded character of Dasein” (79), it also constitutes a radical break with the ordinary (even ordinary philosophy) towards fundamental ontology, the history of being or “thinking” in an eminent sense. Therefore I would be very interested in how exactly ordinary comportment transforms itself relating to Dasein’s ungrounded facticity without simply becoming philosophy, poetics or “thinking” – and how this transformation might be achieved. To be clear, this is not an ironic or rhetorical question, as I think it might really be better for everyone involved if more people acknowledged “the ungroundedness and the constitutive opacity” of our situation and acted accordingly. Could and should it be the “task” of philosophy to further this transformation?

Summa discusses the relation between performing and expressing, refuting Butler’s early claim that expression and performance are mutually exclusive, based on the assumptions that expression does not contribute to the constitution of what is expressed and presupposes a substantial subject (102). Instead, Summa offers a complementary account.

In the first section she sets out the false dichotomy between expression and performance. In the second section she discusses different notions of performance which inform current debates, namely Austin’s linguistic account of performatives and Turner’s cultural-anthroplogical account of ritual and the social drama. The common denominator Summa sees in “the accentuation of the productive and transformative power of the activity” (108) while pointing out that Turner’s concept is farther reaching, including the institution of norms and social identities through repetition – or their breaking. In the third section, Summa argues both that the “sincerity condition for the success of performative utterances” (112) cannot be understood apart from considerations of expression, and that expression itself is one way to exercise the power of institution as described by Merleau-Ponty. In each case, Summa shows that expression does not presuppose “the assumption of the subject as substance” (116). What is presupposed in but also formed by expression and acknowledgement, is experience. Moreover, any “expressive impulse emerges as a response to or a way to cope with some form of impasse within an already given order” and this presupposes an “embodied history of a style, which can itself become the object of modification, or écart, which will have an impact on our subsequent experience.” (118)

Summa’s contribution is both precisely argued and strategically interesting, as she, like Wehrle in her paper (see below), brings phenomenology systematically and critically into contact with concurrent theories, especially Butler’s. In doing so she disabuses us of certain common misconceptions about phenomenology, namely of being a subjectivist, pre-post-modern (i.e. modern) project. At the same time she actualises a transcendental line of questioning by elaborating on the conditions of possibility of expression and performance as well expression and performance as conditions of the possibility of subject-formation.

Wehrle contends “that Butler’s account of performativity as well as her ethics of precarity could profit from a phenomenologically-informed account of bodily performativity, which includes its passive and active aspects.” (126) She then explicates bodily performativity in terms of engagement: “as embodied, we are engaged with our environment and creative with regard to our relation with it. […] This relation, the performances of the body, so I want to argue here, have ontological relevance in that they can create real and lasting changes in situations, the environment and the bodies themselves.” (127) This “performative force of the body often goes unnoticed” (128), because it is usually anonymous.

While our bodies can actively perform, they can also be acted on, for example through bodily discipline, which Wehrle interprets as “forced or prefixed habituation” (130), be it through external forces or internalised norms. Thus bodies are normalised. Depending on the situation, the norms working on bodies and bodily behaviour are either experienced as comfortable (in case we conform to them) or uncomfortable (in case we do not conform to them) (132).

In dealing with these norms, Wehrle votes for a “pragmatic approach” according to which we do not simply abolish uncomfortable norms, but use the discomfort to enact the norms in “slighlty different ways”: changing their script so to speak, “thus integrating more possibilities and more possible subjects into it” (133). In fact, since no bodily act ever reproduces the underlying norms completely and since we (can) experience this discrepancy, Wehrle argues that we ought “regard embodied experience by itself as perfomative and, therefore, potentially subversive” (134) – like language. The starting point to any of these subversive acts is the “distance that is inherent to our very embodiment and experience”, namely that between being a body and having a body to which we can relate and which we ourselves can objectify, discovering “our ordinary ways of moving” (137) and lining them up for scrutiny – and consequently change through self-discipline, which Wehrle links with Foucault’s “care for the self”. She concludes: “In enacting norms, we thereby make them “real”, but always retain the capacity to transcend them.” (139)

As with parallel discussions in the realm of linguistic acts and norms, the next question – which can use Wehrle’s concise conceptual work as a starting point – would be how exactly this transcendence takes place, especially in extremis. For while it is easier to envisage how we can (bodily) transcend (bodily) norms in (more or less) free societies, it is harder to imagine how one can enact and subvert norms in, say, Guantanamo Bay or an Uighur internment camp. The enforced performances in such “Vocational Education and Training Centers” are exactly aimed at stopping any form of subversion, even to reduce fellow human beings to obedient bodies, collapsing the critical distinction between being and having a body.

Laner offers “(Post)Phenomenological Considerations of Contending Bodies” (140), taking Butler’s account of assembly and her criticism of Arendt’s perceived intellectualism as her starting point. She then goes on to develop a concept of “bodily forms of critique” (145), drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Ryle.

What then is “critique” and how can it be “bodily”, according to Laner? What are “performances of critique” (144) if not criticising? “Critique, as performed on a bodily level, […] means to question a situation not from a distanced perspective” (140), “critique” is about “altering” (142) a situation and attacking the norms inherent in it, indeed, critical “performances aim at transgressing such limitations” (143); “it is by means of bodily enactment that one takes a critical stance toward an existing system of norms” (146); “taking a critical stance on a bodily level can, in a very basic sense, be regarded as a form of bodily enactment that transgresses or subverts the existing norms.” (147) Bodily criticism is “a response to a given situation that does not affirm, but that questions the norms prefiguring our performances” (149). Such critical stances are performed by “[b]odies that claim to be recognized as free” (144) and it “it is the body that thinks and reflects” (151). Laner thus wants to overcome the “Dualistic characterisation” (144) of us humans as divided in body and mind.

In light of this aim it is odd that she a) constantly distinguishes between body and mind rather than focusing on the person as a whole but also b) keeps using mentalistic vocabulary to describe bodily actions. It is unclear why we should say that the body claims something, takes a stance or questions anything; surely it is the whole, embodied as well as minded person who performs all these acts? And does the difference between simply failing to properly enact a norm and subverting it reside in the body as opposed to the mind? Also having an “aim” (152) surely is something the person rather than the body ‘performs’? Even “performing intelligently” (153) in Ryle’s sense does not justify the term “bodily criticism” as Ryle himself says of a person or the “agent” that he does or does not exercise “criticism”, not of the body (as quoted by Laner on p. 153). So does Merleau-Ponty: the artist “questions perceptual norms” (155), as Laner says, not the artist’s body. Discovery and analysis are feats of the person as a minded entity, so why go back to the harsh duality of body and mind to then misapply these activities?

I do not advocate a view according to which “bodies are not able to perform critically, since their performances are understood in terms of necessary reaction” (145), but a view according to which criticality is an attribute of activities and dispositions of the whole person rather than one aspect. That is not to say that bodily performance cannot subvert norms, as Summa and Wehrle both establish very clearly (see above), but both successfully avoid forcing mentalistic vocabulary or dualism into their spelling out of the subversive possibilities of bodily engagement. Humans can question norms bodily, even by performing (or failing to perform) certain movements, yes. But why call this “bodily criticism”?

Then again, Laner also sees herself “questioning a notion of critique that underlines its merely rational nature and the distanced attitude it presupposes” (147) – a notion of critique she characterises as “trivial” and traces back to Kant. “Trivial notions of critique often refer to the etymology of the concept krinein, stressing its original meaning of discriminating. If critical performances are regarded as performances that simply detect differences and discriminate, critique seems to loose its normative impact.” (148) According to Laner it is also “clear that only a small elite even qualifies for critical engagement” (148) in this sense, although she does not say in which way it is so “clear”.

Firstly, where does the imperative of “normative impact” of critique come from? Or is that “simply” a presupposition? Secondly, as to the triviality of critique: the main aspect of “krinein” is to differentiate adequately, to detect a difference that makes a difference in a given context and to conceptualise it aptly – to “carve nature at the joints” as Plato has it (Phaidros 265e), A judge for example “simply” has to judge (discriminate) whether someone is guilty or not and what punishment is adequate. Critical thinking thus is not a passive “becoming aware of differences” or a bodily response of “detecting differences” (155), but actively seeking out differences according to certain criteria, employing conceptual skills. The ability to differentiate properly does therefore not seem “trivial” to me; or if it is “trivial” in the sense of belonging to the “trivium”, i.e. to any form of halfway proper education, it is not very well received – it certainly is not widely spread even within academia.

It is also arguably different from the drive or wish to change something one has previously identified (and thus differentiated from what it is not) as defective, which can follow acts of criticism but does not have to.

Regarding Kant, his notion of “Kritik” is very specific and concerns the possibility of metaphysics and the range of valid conclusions reason is allowed to draw (Critique of Pure Reason, A-Vorrede) and which is supposed to answer the question “How are synthetic a priori judgements possible?” – which is not what most people mean when they speak of the intellectual activity or disposition of being “critical”, presumably. Then again, in a more general understanding of a “critical” stance, Kant asks all of us (rather than a “small elite”, as Laner has it) to “dare to know”.

The connection between what Laner calls “trivial” as well as “non-bodily forms of critique” remains vague as she just says they are “somehow complementary”, since bodily critique relates “towards a matter from within”, whereas non-bodily critique supposedly operates “from outside the system” (156). Which is, again, highly problematic, given that the whole issue with Kant and post-Kantian idealism is the acute awareness that we are always “within”. There is no view from outside, no view from nowhere, no side-ways on view, no context-less context, no a-perspectival perspective etc. – pick your favourite “trivial” formula. Also, given that Kant talks mainly about theology, how is his critique not at least associated with “actual desires, affects and needs of the performer” (156)? Kant himself at least sees his critique as a matter of life and death after all – and lest we forget, with Plato, the proper critical, dialectical stance is the proper way to deal with death and the only worthy expression of Eros.

Laner’s divestment of critique from reflection is motivated by her concern about those unable to reflect as “they too deserve to be attributed the possibility of taking a critical stance.” (148) I am unsure who decides who is deserving, but surely the validity of attributions ought to rest on clean definitions rather than moral considerations?

Finally I think “postphenomenology” is an odd term in this context, since considerations about the “broader horizon of changing times, various cultures, political systems and power mechanisms shaping bodies as well as the diverse social roles attributed to them” (142) are well inside the range of phenomenological thought; after all, Husserl himself already conceives of a “historical apriori” (Krisis, 380) and takes the differences between “homeworld” and “otherworld” into account, as well as the cultural differences between say, Greek and non-Greek thought which sparked philosophy in the first place in his view. See Rentsch’s take on “situative contextuality” (164) in Husserl in the same volume (see below).[3]

Classical phenomenology always calls for a “Leitfaden” to any discussion, i.e. a given phenomenon from which the structure of interest can be lifted and analysed. This would have been very helpful in this case, since at least to me it is still very unclear what bodily critique is supposed to be.

Rentsch moves away from the body, towards the “transcendence of logos”, which refers to the “unavailability and withdrawal of the performative constitution of meaning, that is, its negativity”, i.e. “that which precedes and is outside of logos cannot be grasped or conceived of, except once again through linguistic forms.” (159) Rentsch situates this topic within the thematic range of the present volume by positing: “Linguistically, this transcending manifests in performativity” (167).

He proceeds from Wittgenstein’s silence at the end of the Tractatus and his subsequent practical turn, to Heidegger, Adorno’s constellation and Husserl’s passive synthesis, in all of which he sees attempts to conceptualise the unavailable performativity that constitutes meaning. Where Husserl is concerned, one might even go further than Rentsch in that not only the living present “does not exist as such, […] is unthinkable and unrepresentable” (166); the same holds for the ur-sphere and the “Urstand” therein, which is the form of subjectivity constituting all objects (Gegen-stand as opposed to Ur-stand) and which Husserl also considers to be no object in any way (cf. Bernauer Manuskripte 277) .

This line of thinking that certain structures are both “limits and ground” (167) of something can – again – be easily traced back to (at least) Plato, in whom the structuring principle always transcends whatever it structures, a thought that found its home at the heart of Neoplatonism, leading from Plotinus to Proclus on to the Florentine Academy, Cusanus and further. Rentsch can be read as analysing an instantiation of this very basic structure in its aspect concerning meaning and language, truth (161).

As with Platonic takes on the issue, one might ponder what exactly “inexplicability” (167) means in this context. After all, Rentsch asks us “to conceive of [the inexplicable conditions] as conditions of meaning” (167), thus conceptualising, explicating and expressing them, namely “as conditions”. The formerly non-thematic performance becomes thematic and thus loses its transcendence – otherwise it could not be object of inquiry.

In his conclusion he hints at ways in which “fundamental domains of the constitution of meaning on the life-world” (169) are affected by recent developments and mentions fake news, exchange trade, artificial intelligence in warfare and pornography. In all these cases he sees the irreducible and to some extent inexplicable basis of meaning-constitution under threat. The connection of these issues to his former elucidations of the performative withdrawal at the heart of meaning-constitution remains somewhat tentative however. He ends on an ethical note: “what is at stake is that we develop ways to take back […] and strengthen the critical faculty of judgement” (169) – and who would argue against that?

Slaby bridges a wide gap, “From Heidegger to Afro-Pessimism”. In this he aims at a “temporal account of affectivity” (173), specifically the “background affectivity” which permeats our being-in-the-world and which is shaped by “historical events” (174). Slaby wants to “revive” Heidegger’s take on the relation between affectivity and time “for the purpose of motivating and informing a critical phenomenology of affectivity” (174), where to be “in an affective state amounts to finding oneself “here”, at a particular juncture, confronted by what has been, what is factual, what has come to be so that we have no choice but to go on from here.” (175) Affectivity both discloses and occludes our situation, however. Slaby’s goal is thus partially critical, to “reveal layers of distrust, dishonesty and inauthenticity” (176).

He then draws on Fanon, Rankine and Coates (among others) to portray the affectivity of many black lives in the US, “constitutively placed on the brink of death” through the “violent appropriation of black lives” (179). He goes on to discuss Merleau-Ponty’s concept of social sedimentation as it impacts the body-schema, as well as Al-Saji’s and Ahmed’s contributions to phenomenology. It is here that the phenomenological meat of his approach lies as he establishes the connection between the historical (re-)embodiment of white privilege “in the spaces and operations of public institutions, and how it becomes manifest within affective modes of embodied being-in-the-world.” (186)

Slaby follows this with a look at Sharpe’s concept of the Wake (of the Middle Passage), which is both a factual condition as well as a mode of caring. He sees Wake work as similar to phenomenology in regard to the attention to the natural attitude (192; additionally he posits the condition of being in the Wake as a “Grundstimmung”, alongside the phenomenological favourites “anxiety” and “nausea” (192): “Living under the reign of capital is living in the Wake, still embodying, continuing, re-enacting this concrete history.” (192-3) – This is, of course, tricky terrain, since while capitalism affects non-black people as well, the Wake shapes black lives, especially in the USA, very differently from how it shapes the lives of white people; or – on average – white people are living in the Wake differently than black people.

The only point I do not quite understand in Slaby’s contribution is his criticism of aspiring to “evaluative” “detached neutrality” (194) as opposed to a stance which would “require practitioners to thoroughly situate their respective subject matters historically and to devise philosophical methods adequate to this task – methods that work performatively so as to crack open ossified formations of understanding and being.” (194) Again I am tempted to ask where the imperative to crack open anything stems from and why that cannot or should not be performed in a detached way. After all, even Husserl’s fairly detached way of philosophising always aimed at negating what he called ossification in order to get at the things themselves and renew society. And surely “neutrality” in this context simply means not to be unfair or prejudiced?

Kozel writes about her engagement with the works of the choreographer Margrét Guðjónsdóttir and states that “A phenomenology of affect affords a parallel between Guðjónsdóttir’s choreographic practices and Cambridge Analytica’s political manipulations”, namely as “choreographies of affect and somatic states”, in each case affective states being the “material” of the work in question. The difference for Kozel lies in the fact that in the former case, the “reflective process” is in play, while it is “missing from social media users’ attitudes” (205), as the reflective process is part of the choreographer’s work. The paper also contains a detailed description of the experience of viewing a piece by Guðjónsdóttir.

In terms of theory I could not find a definition for what she calls “hyper-reflection” (205). In general, Kozel’s idea of how and why we “do a phenomenology” (206) seems to be more practical than theoretical. Her description of the steps involved in doing “a” phenomenology sounds more like a form of mindfulness-meditation followed by a written account; to me it certainly seems further removed from traditional philosophical theorising than the other contributions – which in itself is not a reason to evaluate it negatively, of course.

Buongiorno’s paper deals with “digital performativity” in the sense of the “ways we act ourselves out” and “construct ourselves by means of digital artefacts” (214) After briefly sketching the differences in self-constitution brought on by digitalisation, drawing on work by Belk, Buongiorno discusses three phenomenological concepts, which he thinks will help to understand these new forms of self-constitution: a) epochê: this constitutes the distance necessary to do phenomenology, as is the case with Husserl, b) variation: our digitalised mediated experience can be conceptualised as variations of non-digital experience – “we may understand digital experiences as a virtual transposition of the contents of real experience” (222) and c) the flesh, which serves to undercut the discussion about disembodiment through digitalisation and its dualist presuppositions, in order to better understand digital “reembodiment”.

“Phenomenology” for Buongiorno is supposedly “far from being just a theory resorting to reflection and analysis” (220) but rather a “form-of-life” (221) – something no traditional phenomenologist would doubt, presumably. However the specifics of this form-of-life seem to me to rest exactly in “reflection and analysis”, as phenomenology both as a stance and an activity is based on turning our attention back (reflectere) towards conditions of possibility, towards conceptual structures and frames of mind, towards our constituting activities, ill-grounded presuppositions etc. and then carefully taking them apart (analyein) and explicating them in order to foster understanding.

III. Conclusion

As can be gleaned from my remarks, I am rather taken aback by some of the implicit or explicit disavowals of the ideals of earlier phenomenology, namely to strive for a differentiated, analytic, reflexive, neutral, i.e. theoretical account of the things themselves (including ourselves). This striving is itself already a performative as well as a transformative exercise and thus a way of life,[4] one which is sorely in need of proponents in my mind, since it implies a thoughtfulness and an understanding of our own presuppositions and (epistemic) limits which in turn are the bedrock both for reasonable political action as well as fruitful research. Temporal philosophical disengagement neither implies global (political) inactivity or a general disembodiment, yet only reflection can curb some of our more unproductive reflexes.

This reflection also ought to include the “ought”, as quite a few papers in the present collection simply assume certain norms or directives without either arguing for or at least describing the sources of their validity, which ought to be a problem for any radical, self-critical philosophy – as phenomenology traditionally purported to be.

Despite my critical remarks, most of the contributions to the volume qualify as solid academic performances, some are outstanding in clarity and concision. The volume as a whole shows (again) that current phenomenology is divers, well suited to place itself in a wider context and able to engage with other traditions and new topics. As the Guidi states in the introduction, “We wish [to] bring to light the mutual relation between phenomenology and performativity and set the ground for further exercises” (10). This it accomplishes very well.

[1]   Cf. Florian Arnold, Logik des Entwerfens (Paderborn, 2018) for an account of the connection between philosophy and design.

[2]  Thomas Arnold. 2017. Phänomenologie als Platonismus. Berlin/New York, §§ 22.

[3] See also Aldea’s take on the criticality of Husserlian phenomenology in: Smaranda Aldea, “Making Sense of Husserl’s Notion of Teleology: Normativity, Reason, Progress and Phenomenology as ‘Critique from Within’,” Hegel Bulletin 38/1 (2017): 104–128 and “Phenomenology as Critique: Teleological-Historical Reflection and Husserl’s Transcendental Eidetics,” Husserl Studies 31/1 (2016): 21–46.

[4] Cf. the locus classicus, Pierre Hadot. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Blackwell .

Hans Blumenberg: Die Nackte Wahrheit

Die nackte Wahrheit Book Cover Die nackte Wahrheit
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2281
Hans Blumenberg. Edited by Rüdiger Zill
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 20,00 €

Reviewed by: Sebastian Müngersdorff (University of Antwerp)

On Unbearable Reality and Beautiful Appearances


Ferdinand Hodler’s painting ‘Die Wahrheit’ features a naked woman dispelling six cloaked male figures as if they were dark thoughts. She finds herself standing on an isle of grass while the men – lies? – turn from her and look for shelter in barren lands. In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s depiction of the truth, titled ‘The Truth Coming from the Well with Her Whip to Chastise Mankind’, one sees exactly what the title promises. At least, presuming the beholder knows that truth always comes as a naked, angry woman ready to hysterically chase you down. I would hardly be surprised if the painter kept the words “How could you!” in mind, or, more accurately, “Comment peux-tu!”, when drawing the contours of her screaming mouth. Perhaps he even pictured the face of his wife at the moment he told her the truth about his many models and the adulterous state of affairs.

In other paintings, by Merson, for example, or Lefebvre or Baudry, lady truth brandishes a mirror instead of a whip. In the version of Édouard Debat-Ponsan, two men, one of whom is blindfolded, try to restrain her and her charged mirror, to no avail. Her clothes tear from the male grip while her flaming red hair blows bravely and unhinderedly, her gaze aimed at some point outside the frame: her holy mission? Ultimate victory in the Age of Reason?

Venus, Eve, Leda, the Sirens, Diana, Phryne, nymphs: figurative painting has always gratefully seized upon the offer to depict naked women. Nonetheless, it is not self-evident that Hodler’s ‘The Truth’ belongs to this list of subjects. Why is truth female? Why can she only show herself unveiled? Why is she angry? Why is she victorious? Why is she armed? Why is she white? And why does she have no pubic hair?

At least some of these questions spurred Blumenberg’s collection of small excerpts exploring the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ in Western thought, now published from his archives as Die Nackte Wahrheit by Rüdiger Zill. This book makes quite clear that the depiction of truth as naked is more than a mere representation. There is a longstanding tradition in which truth is deeply intertwined with a pure female nature understood as clarity, innocence, attraction and unapproachability. Such equation of truth with female nudity creates a variety of unuttered associations. Truth, for example, is accessible only to few – something that will play into the democratizing project of Enlightenment. It installs a connection between eros and the pursuit of truth, a desire, a libido sciendi. Prohibition is involved and it gives rise to the problem of whether truth is still truth when she presents herself dressed up. Truth becomes contaminated by male deception. The quest for truth becomes “an expedition to some exotic place”, as Kołakowski terms it in his text on nakedness and truth (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Truth becomes a capture, an ambiguous purpose of curiosity, an ideal of knowledge which is godlike, forever beyond reach yet nonetheless worth chasing, “a passion deserving of death” as Blumenberg calls it (NW 105). Just like in the story of Artemis and Actaeon (NW 104-6), the male gaze automatically becomes indiscrete and inappropriate, and curiosity becomes a kind of unacceptable voyeurism. Just like Actaeon, anyone who looks at the divine must die, an implication of a lethal danger of pursuing truth. It is worth considering that such a passion is rewritten in the expression “vedi Napoli e poi muori”, especially when bearing in mind how often a beautiful city – the word city, like truth, has a female genus in most European languages – is considered in similar female terms: the Jewel of Europe, La sposa del mare, the Pearl of the Orient, la Superba or Elbflorenz. In the case of Paris, it is expressed in terms of this other metaphor for truth: la ville lumière.

That in the European languages “truth appears on the stage as a female act”, Blumenberg writes, gives “truth an erotic-aesthetic trait […] which is not taken for granted by the misogynist” (NW 126). Whether this implies that skeptics must also be misogynists remains unclear. And whether this applies to the skeptic Blumenberg himself is a question that perhaps only a modern Diogenes might dare to ask Blumenberg’s daughter, Bettina.

Be that as it may, in view of the topic it is rather striking that this book devotes only a single page to a female writer, Madame du Châtelet. This one page, however, does not discuss her writing or thought; instead, it addresses an anecdote that tells how Mme du Châtelet shamelessly undressed in front of her servant Longchamp. Blumenberg links this behavior to the project of Enlightenment itself, in which “truth shows herself unembarrassedly in front of those who ought to serve her” (NW 103). In short, rather than her writings and ideas, it is only Madame du Châtelet’s indifference to her own nakedness that becomes a significant expression of the “new methodological ideal of objectivity” (NW 103).

Although Blumenberg does not render it explicitly, the short chapter on Actaeon following this page suggests that the divine nakedness of truth becomes human in the nakedness of Émilie du Châtelet. The hunter Actaeon, servant of the goddess Artemis, watches his mistress undress and consequently he must be punished for seeing her in her nudity. Someone who looks at Medusa, however, instantly dies. In other words, Acteon already signals an alteration in the mythic gaze upon a deity, which in Artemis’ bathing scene changes from tremendum into fascinosum. He doesn’t die immediately, he is punished for his violation. In the anecdote of Madame du Châtelet, then, a succeeding shift occurs. In contrast to Actaeon, the servant Longchamp is not punished, he is not even noticed. Longchamp becomes a subject “of conscious exposure” and is regarded as not being there: “in the witness of nudity an awareness is raised […] of remaining unnoticed in his presence” (NW 103).

This reversal in the relation of nakedness, fascinosum, between mistress and servant, punisher and the one punished, is still far from Nietzsche’s later take, “to think of the naked truth as a frightening and unbearable dimension” (NW 126). Whether a comparison of Nietzsche’s views on the ugly truth and his lashing attitude towards women – note the double inversion of Gérôme’s depiction concerning the appearance of lady truth and the one who is cracking the whip – could add something to the debate about his possible misogyny is merely a suggestion discerned between the lines.

Like this example, and completely in line with his longstanding interest in the non-conceptual (Unbegrifflichkeit), i.e. metaphoric, narrative, anecdotal and mythic substratum of conceptual thought, Blumenberg delves into the layers of implicit imagery and associations so as to note significant changes in meaning over time. Moreover, he lays bare – an expression which is itself already part of the semantics of the naked truth – inconsistencies in the rational discourse that is built on this metaphoric level and shows how it can be deconstructed and eventually turned against itself. He does so by discussing writers and philosophers such as Adorno, Kafka, Pascal, Fontenelle, Rousseau, Vesalius, Fontane, Schopenhauer, Kant, Kierkegaard and Lichtenberg. The seemingly incoherent order of these names mirrors both Blumenberg’s own avoidance of chronology and his preference of association. Although he refuses an all too systematic approach of the issue, the intrinsic connection of the different chapters is always clear: “How does the metaphor portray the position of the thinker, in which he maneuvered himself because of more or less compelling reasons and under more or less unavoidable conditions” (NW 127)?

Applied to truth, this question brings him to many considerations about the implications of viewing truth as naked: “If truth only is right when naked, then every cover is a disguise and eo ipso wrong” (NW 71). However, when we embrace the conviction that truth is true only when it is naked, we can never undo the threat that “even its nakedness is still costume” (NW 92). Nakedness then turns into “the illusion […] which is created by the gesture of tearing down dresses”, which in turn evokes “the scheme of the onion skin” (NW 97). “When once opened, nothing ever is something final” (NW 102). And at the same time, there is the thought that “truth might be as unbearable to humans as nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 51). In this case, “the cover of truth seems to grant us our ability to live”, a thought which appears in “Rousseau’s pragmatic exploitation of the metaphor of truth in the water well […]: leave her there. The depth of the well protects us from the problem of its nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 57).

In this regard, it is remarkable how rarely Blumenberg refers to the Christian tradition. In “The Epistemology of Striptease”, Leszek Kołakowski, for example, traces “the entire foundations of the theory of nakedness which has been so important in our culture” back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Kołakowski 2004, 225). The Book of Genesis indeed tells of an intrinsic connection between the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the shame which immediately manifested itself when the fruit was eaten. A shame “not of their crime, but of their nakedness” (Ibid., 223). Thus, “a double relation has been established: between truth and nakedness on the one hand, and between truth and shame on the other” (Ibid., 225).

Another absence which resounds throughout the book is that of the name Heidegger, which appears not even once. Nonetheless, Die Nackte Wahrheit can be read as an implicit yet fundamental critique of Heidegger’s conception of truth as alètheia. By dissecting the metaphor of truth, Blumenberg’s text offers a perspective which shows that Heidegger still fits perfectly within the dominant Western tradition, a tradition Heidegger himself sought to destruct by thinking beyond the ontological difference and the forgetting of being. Blumenberg, however, implicitly shows that Heidegger and his conception of truth as disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’, still wades through the Western waters that Heidegger himself thought he had traced to their source.

Despite this absence of Christianity and Heidegger, Blumenberg convincingly illustrates how metaphor functions “as a more or less easily fixable crack in the consistency of thought, a stimulant, and as such it refreshes reason; it also is, however, a sedative in other cases, where it covers up the failure of the concept or remedies its lack by a merely different procedure” (NW 127).

At this point, Die Nackte Wahrheit surpasses being just a study of the naked truth and begins to concern the project of metaphorology itself. As Rüdiger Zill notes, “already since the late 1960s, Blumenberg had been thinking about a detailed revision of his metaphorology” (NW 186). Concerning his distanced relation to his initial approach, Blumenberg wrote to his English translator: “The text is not only outdated – after a quarter of a century! – it is also poor” (NW 189).

In Blumenberg’s project of ‘metaphorology’, metaphor is always more than a disguise of truth or a thought expressed in non-conceptual language. “It is essentially aesthetic”, which means “that it is not something like the mere cover of the naked thought, of which one had to constantly think as the true purpose of its interpretation and unlocking that has to be reached in the end. Who constantly thinks beyond its limits, loses what he has without receiving what he cannot possess” (NW 176). In other words, there is no naked truth to be found beyond the metaphor. And more specifically, the power of metaphor is precisely this lack of precision sought by advocates of a clear and distinct conceptual language. Thus, Blumenberg argues, in contrast to the views of many thinkers he discusses, that “history” is not the “course of the self-exposure of the concept” (NW 155). Blumenberg’s associative selection of authors and topics stresses that metaphor, with its ambiguity and openness to many interpretations, is always “far more intelligent than its composer” (NW 176).


The first fifty pages of Die Nackte Wahrheit concern Nietzsche and Freud. The only other pieces that come close to even ten pages are those on Pascal, Kant and the Enlightenment. Thus, of all the names figuring in Blumenberg’s posthumous book, Nietzsche and Freud can be called his main interlocutors.

Nietzsche immediately shows a fundamental reversal of truth as a beautiful naked creature. When he writes that “Truth is ugly. We have art so that we are not ruined by truth” (NW, 14), it is clear that something in the metaphor of truth changes. We are no longer in pursuit of the naked truth – she lies within reach in her unbearable ugliness – and so our interest shifts to the beautiful veils that are produced to conceal her.

“There would be no science, if science would only care about this one naked goddess and about nothing else” (NW, 20). With this thought, both Freud’s concept of sublimation and Blumenberg’s apotropaic function of myth are prefigured: art and culture function as a “human safety device” (NW 15), a protective shield which safeguards us from something insufferable. Or as Nietzsche formulates it: “Every type of culture starts with an amount of things that are veiled” (NW 15).

Blumenberg’s text from 1971 on the relevance of rhetoric and anthropology directly evidences the strong influence of this Nietzschean thought: “Ah, it is impossible to have an effect with the language of truth: rhetoric is required” (NW 31). Nietzsche defends rhetoric as a right to deceive vis-à-vis an unbearable truth. For the sceptic Blumenberg, however, truth cannot be unbearable, because the very possibility of truth itself is bracketed and remains an open question. In his writing on Hannah Arendt and Freud it is “the absolutism of truth” which becomes unbearable, this intimate European conviction “that the truth will triumph” (Blumenberg 2018, 57). Yet, as Blumenberg proclaims, “[n]othing is less certain than that the truth wishes to be loved, can be loved, should be loved” (Blumenberg 2018, 3).

This critique of Freud, already present in Rigorism of Truth, is continued in Die Nackte Wahrheit. The notion that psychoanalysis lives from the metaphor of revealing and concealing and connects the intellectual with the sexual can only barely be called a renewing insight. Blumenberg, however, uses this as a step to a subtler point. He reproves Freud’s rigorism because his therapy prioritizes the affirmation of his theory rather than the well-being of his patients. In other words, via Freud, Blumenberg criticizes the longstanding tradition “in which truth is justified at every cost” (NW 38), the same rigorous conviction that resonates in Thoreau’s famous phrase that “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

Read from within the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’, Freud’s quest for truth – a quest strongly intertwined with the centrality of sexuality and the prudery of the society in which he lived – shows that it is not at all clear when something is yet more ‘resistance’, a symptom, a still-clothed kind of nudity, and when exactly someone has encountered the bare piece of the reality they are searching for. “The general premise for resistance as a criterion might be (this): what people gladly accept cannot be the truth” (Blumenberg 2018, 59). In discussing this central concept of resistance as an element of Freud’s “para-theory” (loc. cit.) he comes rather close to Popper’s rejection of Freud’s methodology. In his archive there are two manuscripts with the respective abbreviation TRD and TRD II, in which Blumenberg shows how ‘resistance’ is a kind of parachute that recuperates elements falling from or even objecting to Freud’s main theory (Zill 2014, 141-43). This way, even the critics of his theory can still be fitted within it. Blumenberg points out how Freud’s quest for countering resistance and his rigorist search for truth, his urge to reveal secrecy after secrecy, eventually lead to a “hysteria of revelation for which history has an analogy in hysteria of confession” (NW 47).


Die nackte Wahrheit is certainly not Blumenberg’s first engagement with either Nietzsche or Freud. He had already dealt with both authors extensively and quite similarly in his earlier writings: reading them through the lens of their own imagery in order to criticize them from within the logic of these images and metaphors. In Arbeit am Mythos, for instance, both authors receive ample treatment on several occasions and are the focus of important passages. Freud and Thomas Mann, for example, are bound together in a trenchant and meaningful anecdote: Mann reading his lecture on Freud to Freud himself during his visit to Freud’s villa in Grinzing on Sunday, May 14, 1936. Blumenberg calls this a “great scene of the spirit of the age, which hardly had another scene comparable to it”, and notes that one of the “preconditions” of this “incomparable event” precisely “is the relationship to Nietzsche that both partners shared” (Blumenberg 1985, 516).

Other important passages include Blumenberg’s extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s approach of Prometheus against the light of his aesthetic conception of reality and of Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In the last section, ‘The Titan in His Century’, Blumenberg’s analysis of Freud’s use of Prometheus follows his assessment of Nietzsche’s use of Prometheus, such that Freud and Nietzsche, joined by Kafka, share the final page of Work on Myth. In Die nackte Wahrheit Kafka likewise follows upon Nietzsche and Freud, although it would surely be mere speculation to look for further significance here. Nonetheless, despite his longstanding and rather critical occupation with Nietzsche and Freud, Blumenberg clearly incorporated and continued many aspects of their thought.

Blumenberg’s aesthetic conception of reality, his attention for rhetoric, myth and metaphor and his truth-sceptic attitude can all be directly linked to Nietzsche. Just as rhetoric gains importance when the conviction of “the one clear and whole truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350) is given up, so too does myth return to view when this ideal of truth is abandoned. And here Blumenberg, already in his earlier work, shows himself to be an heir of Nietzsche. As Blumenberg writes in his first text on myth, “Nietzsche’s affinity to myth begins with the rule of truth becoming problematic to him. The poets lie – this saying comes back into favor” (Blumenberg 2001b, 352). Blumenberg’s name can be perfectly interchanged with Nietzsche’s here. The shift towards the aesthetic, and the revaluation of the ancient Platonic reproach of the poets implied in this reference, is a central concern underlying all of Blumenberg’s aesthetic texts from the 1960s, as assembled by Anselm Haverkamp in his Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften. Moreover, Blumenberg‘s two important texts on rhetoric and myth from 1971 both start from the truth-sceptic premise he shares with Nietzsche and which spans his work from the very beginning to this posthumous publication of Die Nackte Wahrheit. And this last publication is probably inconceivable without Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. Indeed, Blumenberg’s general endeavor is essentially summed up in one of Nietzsche’s most famous sentences: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins”.

Blumenberg’s approach of die vakante Stelle and his descriptions of Umbesetzung, elaborated in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, can be read as a direct translation of Nietzsche’s worn-out coins and his dictum of the “Death of God”. Herewith, Blumenberg translates Nietzsche’s nihilism into a general philosophical endeavor of Entselbstverständlichung, a process marking “the great epochal revolutions of historical life” (Blumenberg 2017, 54). This endeavor, according to Blumenberg, eventually is “the basic process of philosophical thinking: for how could the inherent task of philosophical work be characterized more fittingly than as the persistent opposition of matter-of-factness with which our daily life and thought is interspersed, yes, substantiated into their very cores – much more than we could ever suspect?” (Blumenberg 2017, 54).

Furthermore, Blumenberg’s later, more literary and anecdotal style evokes Nietzsche’s claim that it is possible to present the image of a person with only three anecdotes, just as it should be possible to reduce philosophical systems to three anecdotes. When, for example, it comes to Blumenberg’s highly ironical and critical pieces on Heidegger in Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, he not only takes up Nietzsche’s challenge but even seems to have added something to it: the challenge becomes not only to render an image of the person and a summary of his philosophical thought, but also to get even with him in the same move.


Rüdiger Zill has wittily but quite perceptively characterized the sort of relation Blumenberg has with Freud: “Just like family members you sometimes hate and sometimes love, who from time to time grate on your nerves but who also occasionally inspire, yet always, however, still belong in the family, authors as well can be ranked among the intellectual family formation” (Zill 2014, 148). Zill’s assessment on this matter is clear: Freud undoubtedly belongs to Blumenberg’s intellectual family. However, the more he reads Freud, the more critical Blumenberg becomes, without Freud ever losing his force of fascination (Zill 2014, 128). Ironically, when Blumenberg received the Sigmund Freud Prize for Academic Prose in 1980, he did not refer to Freud in his acceptance speech. He mentioned Socrates, Diogenes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as exemplar thinkers who should be admired because they did not allow their thinking to be hindered by any safeguarding method.

There is, however, quite some common ground between Freud and Blumenberg which might be easily overwritten by Blumenberg’s recent critical works on Freud from the archives. When Blumenberg ascribes rationality to aspects of thought, such as metaphor and rhetoric, that have been banished to irrationality by the tradition of philosophy there is a general similarity to Freud’s Traumdeutung and his overall endeavor of psychoanalysis. Indeed, there are at least two specific and critically important points of contact between them: Freud’s idea of sublimation and detours.

In his text on rhetoric, Blumenberg refers to Freud’s analysis of the funeral repast: “Freud saw in the commemorative funeral feast the sons’ agreement to put an end to the killing of the tribal father” (Blumenberg 1987a, 440). It is the Freudian principle of sublimation that is evoked here and Blumenberg is explicit about the importance of this matter: “If history teaches anything at all, it is this, that without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind” (loc. cit.). Herewith an important crux of Blumenberg’s thought is laid bare: “The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all ‘metaphorical’” (Ibid., 439). This means that metaphor is not a deficit of rational thought, as it has been understood by Descartes or British empiricism (NW 110-1); nor is it even an aid of theory or merely a way of thinking in its own right; rather, it is a way of coping with reality. This “metaphoric detour by which we look away from the object in question, at another one” (Blumenberg 1987a, 439) immediately ties to the second important overlap between Freud’s and Blumenberg’s work: if Blumenberg acknowledges sublimation as the human capacity to have culture, and if sublimation – the possibility of taking a metaphoric detour – lies at the heart of this capacity, then Blumenberg’s concept of culture should be one of detours.

Blumenberg, in his 1971 text on myth, refers to Freud’s notion of Umwege. In his “Jenseits des Lustprinzips”, Freud classed the drives of self-preservation under the general concept of “detours to death”. As Freud states, “If we can accept it as an experience without exception, that all the living dies because of internal reasons, that it returns to the inorganic, then we can only say: the purpose of all life is death” (Freud 1940, 44). Everything working against this destruction and everything delaying “the achievement of the purpose of death” (Ibid., 45) becomes a “detour to death”. In this Freudian scheme, life itself is “a still more difficult and risky detour” (Blumenberg 1985, 90) and Blumenberg recognizes in these “detours to death”, this “final return home to the original state” (Ibid., 91), the same mythic circle underlying the Oedipus myth, the Odyssey and even Nietzsche’s thought of “the eternal return of the same” (loc. cit.). On the one hand, Blumenberg critically reveals the total myth (Totalmythos) of the circle underlying Freud’s thought; on the other hand, Blumenberg incorporates this notion of detour in his work as a life-spending mechanism opposing omnipotence. As he writes, for example, in his 1971 text on myth, “Essentially, omnipotence refuses somebody to tell a story about its bearer. Topographically represented, stories are always detours” (Blumenberg 2001b, 372).

Die Sorge geht über den Fluss, published in 1987, includes a short chapter titled Umwege, in which Blumenberg again stresses the importance of the possibility of taking detours: “It is only if we are able to take detours that we are able to exist. […I]t is the many detours that give culture its function of humanizing life. [… The] shortest route is barbarism” (Blumenberg 1987b, 137-8). In these descriptions of culture as Umwege, some of its psychoanalytical origin still sounds through: it is by means of culture, by the possibility of taking detours, that we can avoid our own self-destruction. As Blumenberg puts it, “Not to choose the shortest path is already the basic pattern of sublimation” (Blumenberg 1985, 93). Or as Freud states in the penultimate sentence of his letter to Einstein: “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war” (Freud 1950, 27).

This is the very basis of Blumenberg’s thought. Whether it is his approach to rhetoric and its power of delay, whether it is the apotropaic function of myth and the dynamic of storytelling vis-à-vis the absolutism of reality – man’s metaphoric way of dealing with the world – whether it is Blumenberg’s own elaborate and meandering writing style or his anecdotal and narrative philosophy as an effort to ironically undermine the authority of certain thinkers, whether it is the construction of his archive and the delayed publication of his own works or this metaphoric study of the naked truth aimed against the “Absolutism of Truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350), all of it falls under this “basic pattern of sublimation”, this decision “not to choose the shortest path”. In this specific sense and despite his highly critical piece on Freud in Die nackte Wahrheit, Blumenberg’s thinking remains Freudian at its very core.


As Blumenberg had noted in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie, “The metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ belongs to the pride of enlightened reason and its claim to power” (Blumenberg 1960, 54). Hence, it is clear that Die Nackte Wahrheit should be understood as a critique of this enlightened self-consciousness. And yet Blumenberg did not abandon the project of rationality entirely, despite paying profound attention to non-standard philosophical topics such as metaphor and myth. “Myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos’”, he points out in Work on Myth (Blumenberg 1985, 12) and Blumenberg himself employs this power of reason to trace the metaphor of the naked truth in thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau and Fontenelle. Herewith, a last characteristic of Blumenberg returns in Die Nackte Wahrheit: the correspondence of form and content. In Work on Myth, for example, Blumenberg offers a theory of how myth is a process of variation and, as he develops the theory, he himself engages in the same process of selection and rewriting. In his fragmentary book Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, in which Blumenberg exposes thinkers such as Heidegger, Freud and Wittgenstein and shows how they seduce their audience with rhetorical tools and attractive imagery; he himself tries to persuade his readers by rhetorically and wittingly affirming his own superiority of thought. The same applies for Die Nackte Wahrheit, where Blumenberg discusses the traces, consequences and changes of the metaphor of the naked truth, as he himself undresses other thinkers. As he emphasizes, the use of metaphor often indicates the “embarrassment of its theoretical situation” (NW 127). In other words, he seeks for the weak spots of thinkers such as Freud and Pascal in order to unmask them. If metaphor is indeed at work in the “front court of concept formation” (Blumenberg, 2001a), then Blumenberg clearly seeks to expose his interlocutors in their changing rooms. At the same time, he precisely questions these implications of thinking about truth in such terms of covering and uncovering. Certainly, Blumenberg does not claim that his disclosures touch upon “the naked truth” or a final word about these writers, yet nonetheless he somehow contributes to this enlightened topos of “tearing down the mask” (NW 134). He still partakes in what Kołakowski calls this “sadistic game” of “intellectual curiosity”, even as he precisely lays bare its rules and tools and does away with the purpose the game has pursued for ages. However, one asks after reading Blumenberg’s book, what use does this vocabulary preserve when the “reality” revealed under this mask is yet another mask, no more or no less reality than the one just dispelled. To make a final appeal to Kołakowski: Blumenberg involves us in a philosophical striptease, in which he exposes, “from a superior (clothed) position”, “another’s shame (nakedness)” (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Only it has become uncertain what happens with a philosophic tradition of revealing when the possibility of truth disappears, nakedness itself becomes yet more costume and the feeling of shame is revaluated. No purpose, no revelations, only detours and descriptions (Umschreibungen). Nonetheless, Blumenberg certainly exemplifies like no other that whenever philosophy thinks there will be a moment that Lady Truth will rise from her well and create clarity, philosophy, just like science, is once more deceived “by a pipe dream […] which its scholars pursue without ever achieving it” (NW 77).



Hans Blumenberg, Die Nackte Wahrheit, Hrsg. von Rüdiger Zill (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019).

–, Rigorism of Truth. “Moses the Egyptian” and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt, ed. by Ahlrich Meyer and transl. by Joe Paul Kroll (New York: Cornell University Press, 2018).

–, Schriften zur Literatur: 1945-1958, Hrsg. von Alexander Schmitz und Bernd Stiegler (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017).

–, “Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit. Im Vorfeld der philosophischen Begriffsbildung” in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001a), 139–171.

–, “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos“ in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001b), 327–405.

–, “An Anthropological Approach on the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric”, in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, ed. by Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987a), 429–458.

–, Die Sorge geht über den Fluss (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987b).

–, Work on Myth, transl. by Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985).

–, “Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie,” Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 6 (1960): 7–142.

Sigmund Freud, “Warum Krieg?”, in: Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke. Band XVI, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1950), 11–27.

–, “Jenseits des Lustprinzips” in Gesammelte Werke. Band XIII, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940), 3–69.

Leszek Kołakowski, “The Epistemology of Striptease,” in The Two Eyes of Spinoza & Other Essays on Philosophers (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 222–238.

Rüdiger Zill, “Zwischen Affinität und Kritik. Hans Blumenberg liest Sigmund Freud” in Blumenberg Beobachtet, Hrsg. von Cornelius Borck (München: Karl Alber Freiburg, 2014), 126-148.