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
2019
Paperback 20,00 €
199

Reviewed by: Sebastian Müngersdorff (University of Antwerp)

On Unbearable Reality and Beautiful Appearances

I.

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).

II.

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).

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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).

 

Bibliography

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Alfredo Ferrarin, Dermot Moran, Elisa Magri, Danilo Manca (Eds.)
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XIII, 190

Reviewed by: Daniel Herbert (University of Sheffield)

While Hegel has long been acknowledged as an important influence upon several figures within the phenomenological tradition, the relation of his system to the movement’s founder, Husserl, has been largely overlooked. Husserl’s few, and – for the most part – unenthusiastic references to Hegel, together with the anti-Hegelian attitudes of his teacher, Brentano, have seemed, for most, to suggest that there is nothing to learn from comparing Husserl’s thought with Hegel’s, however much Hegelian and Husserlian themes are to be found combined in the works of subsequent phenomenologists. As such, the recent collection of essays, Hegel and Phenomenology, edited by Alfredo Ferrarin, Dermot Moran, Elisa Magrì and Danilo Manca, represents a most welcome contribution to current debates concerning Hegel’s legacy for Continental philosophy, and the affinities between Hegelian and Husserlian approaches. The collection leans very much towards Husserl, with eight of its eleven chapters centring upon Husserl’s relation to Hegel. Other members of the phenomenological tradition, customarily thought closer to Hegel, are less well-represented here, although there are very interesting chapters on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Ricœur, each of which makes an original contribution to phenomenology scholarship while offering a distinct perspective from which to assess Hegel’s twentieth century legacy.

Although several of the contributors note significant agreements between Husserl and Hegel in earlier works, it is no surprise that the Hegelian motifs in Husserl’s project are most apparent in the posthumous Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Whether or not Husserl himself became conscious of his affinities with Hegel, his successors in the phenomenological tradition were not slow to appreciate the Hegelian implications contained within a post-Kantian philosophy of subjectivity once it has become sensitive to the importance of intersubjective and inherited historical factors conditioning the subject’s understanding of its experience. The first three chapters of the collection are therefore specifically devoted to interpreting Husserl’s Crisis text in the light of such Hegelian motifs. Chapters four and five compare methodological approaches in Hegel’s phenomenology, whereas chapters six, seven and eight make subjectivity their central theme. The remaining three chapters examine Hegel and Husserl by way of Adorno, Ricœur and Sellars.

The first chapter of the collection, by Dermot Moran, delivers a fascinating account of Hegel’s passage from disrepute to prestige during the early history of the phenomenological movement. As Moran explains, Hegel’s reputation suffered enormously in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the call for a return to Kant left Hegelian speculative idealism discredited as an extravagantly metaphysical position vulnerable to epistemic critique. Brentano typifies the anti-Hegelian attitudes of this period in German philosophy, identifying Hegel as part of an irrationalist wave terminating a cycle of philosophical progress. The monumentally influential lectures of Koyré, Kojève and Hyppolite notwithstanding, however, Moran shows Heidegger’s rehabilitation of Hegel to pre-date these developments in France, so that it is in Germany that Hegel’s journey to phenomenological respectability originates. Moran stresses the importance of Heidegger’s Freiburg lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit in restoring Hegel’s esteem amongst a new generation of phenomenologists, and devotes particular attention to Finks’s Hegelian inheritance and its possible influence upon the ultimate shape of Husserl’s Crisis text.

Husserl’s early disregard for Hegel aside, Moran clearly identifies deep affinities between Hegel’s treatment of subjectivity in terms of historically developing intersubjective Spirit and the concerns of the Crisis, examining possible sources of conscious or unconscious Hegelian influences upon this work. Moran’s assessment of the Hegel-Husserl relationship is compelling, original and productive, opening a route to significant re-evaluation of a pairing frequently regarded as fundamentally incompatible. Moran arguably overstates Hegel’s proximity to Husserl, however, on the crucial and much-contested issue of transcendental philosophy – a matter of decisive importance in assessing Hegel’s place in the post-Kantian tradition. Whereas Husserl never abandons his commitment to transcendental methods following his 1907 Kantian epiphany, Hegel’s consciously anti-Kantian methodology greatly complicates efforts to classify him as a transcendental philosopher in any straightforward, unqualified sense.

The complex relationship between Hegel’s system and Husserl’s later work is further examined in the second chapter of the collection, by Tanja Staehler, which addresses their respective treatments of history and teleology. Whereas, according to Staehler, both thinkers identify a purposiveness in European history, and an orientation towards a telos, Hegel takes the goal of history to have been prescribed in advance by the logic of the Absolute Idea, while Husserl allows for changes in historical trajectory owing to the revisability of its telos. In spite of a common teleological approach to historical understanding, Husserl and Hegel differ very significantly, according to Staehler, in their treatments of the future. For Staehler, Hegel’s omnivorous system struggles to accommodate genuine spontaneity into its grand design, which entails that the horizons of historical possibility completely fixed by a process which achieved maturation in the early nineteenth century. Husserl, however, is better able to acknowledge contingencies of time and culture not anticipated in the historical experience of any given community. As such, the future never loses its potential for radical novelty on Husserl’s account, according to Staehler, who takes Husserl to deny the possibility of an ‘absolute’ perspective from which all historically-conditioned limits of understanding are overcome.

Those who are sympathetic to Hegel shall no doubt take issue with Staehler’s familiar objection that there is no contingency or spontaneity worthy of the title in Hegel’s treatment of history. All the same, Staehler identifies a crucial point of disagreement between Hegel and Husserl, insofar as Husserl treats the telos of European history as originating within a specific historical life-world, whereas, for Hegel, teleology involves the realisation in space and time of a conceptual order originating elsewhere. As such, Staehler is well-supported in maintaining that Husserl’s historical teleology is more modest in its claims than Hegel’s.

Danilo Manca’s chapter – the third of the collection – compares Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective treatments of the history of philosophy, with particular focus upon their differing relations to Kant’s approach to the same topic. Beginning with a discussion of Kant’s position, Manca outlines the notion of a ‘philosophizing history of philosophy’ which Kant introduces to distinguish a narrative of specifically philosophical significance within the events leading from Thales to the Enlightenment. Although the first Critique presents the history of philosophy as a cyclical process of metaphysical indulgence and sceptical renunciation, Manca notes evidence from Kant’s posthumous documents suggesting a more progressive interpretation of the same events, whereby reason’s own nature entails its elaboration over time. According to Manca, Hegel and Husserl are Kant’s successors in the project of a philosophizing history of philosophy, each seeking for an underlying rationale and a generally progressive direction to the same historical sequence of events.

Manca’s contribution is the first of the collection to discuss in detail the shared Kantian inheritance to the Hegelian and phenomenological movements, and his comparison of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective accounts of the history of philosophy neatly illustrates their points of departure from a common ancestor. Manca notes that, for Hegel, contingencies in the historically-situated articulations of the Absolute Idea are the result of the spatiotemporal medium in which reason strains to express itself, whereas Husserl understands the same contingency to originate in more mundane cultural differences. Ultimately, Manca concludes, Husserl remains closest to Kant, insofar as he interprets the history of philosophy as orbiting around a set of problems, rather than as the unidirectional process by which reason realises itself over an organic series of stages. Whereas, for Hegel, history articulates a conceptual structure outlined in the Science of Logic, Husserl recognises no such extra-historical standard informing history’s development.

Hegel’s critique of immediacy and its implications for Husserl’s foundationalist project provides the theme for Chapter Four, by Chong-Fuk Lau, in which it is argued that Husserl came ultimately to concede the impossibility of the very presuppositionless standpoint to which his epoché had been intended to facilitate access. As Lau notes, Hegel and Husserl are similarly committed to the possibility of a rigorously scientific and presuppositionless philosophy, differing principally over whether presuppositionlessness is the feature of a starting-point or a system taken as a whole. Lau is sympathetic to Hegel’s anti-foundationalism, which he takes to fatally undermine the pursuit of ultimate beginnings to which Husserl is committed in his transcendental phenomenology. According to Lau, whereas Hegel had shown that there is nothing altogether free of mediation, Husserl’s performance of the epoché is intended to facilitate a radical beginning from which all mediation has been expelled. For Lau, there is simply no room for compromise between Husserl and Hegel over this Cartesian methodological issue, and Husserl’s appearance of having moved closer to Hegel by the time of the Crisis is the result of his having abandoned his earlier foundationalist ideals.

Lau’s expert discussion of Hegel compellingly makes the case for a fundamental incompatibility between Hegel’s method and that of the Husserlian transcendental phenomenologist. Whereas, however, he is on secure ground in maintaining that Heidegger or Gadamer represent greater prospects for a phenomenological appropriation of Hegelian insights than is afforded by Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his claim that the Crisis involves a complete reversal of earlier foundationalist aspirations is more questionable. The ideal of “European science” to which Husserl re-affirms his commitment in the Crisis does not significantly differ from that which he presents in the Cartesian Meditations, and Husserl does not suppose his greater attention to the life-world to undermine earlier aspirations.

Chapter Five, the first of the collection specifically to compare Hegel and Heidegger, is by Antoine Cantin-Brault and examines Hegel’s and Heidegger’s respective understandings of the Heraclitean logos. In its profounder sense, as the principle (arche) of nature (phusis), logos may, according to Cantin-Brault be understood either as (i) the dialectical and determinate truth of being, or as (ii) the unveiling of that which is concealed. Although Heraclitus does not, Cantin-Brault maintains, explicitly make any such distinction, Hegel interprets Heraclitean logos from the first perspective, whereas Heidegger’s interpretation emphasises the second. For Cantin-Brault, Heidegger’s approach to Heraclitus is mediated by a Hegelian interpretation which he tries, and ultimately fails, to overcome. As such, Cantin-Brault argues, Heidegger is unsuccessful in his attempt to understand Heraclitean logos apart from Hegelian dialectic. Hence, for Cantin-Brault, as for Hegel, Heraclitus is a dialectical thinker, in whose work a process of rational self-articulation is driven by the dynamic relation between certain fundamental concepts. Indeed, Cantin-Brault maintains, it was Heraclitus that first instituted a logos which provides Hegel’s philosophy with its central governing principle.

Heidegger’s changing approach to Heraclitean logos, and his disagreements with Hegel on this matter, are, according to Cantin-Brault, illustrative of differing understandings of the nature of ontology, and Heidegger engages differently with Heraclitus before and after his famous Kehre. Cantin-Brault’s chapter strikingly highlights the very different issues relevant to comparing Hegel with either Heidegger or Husserl, and marks quite a thematic departure from the previous, more Husserl-focussed contributions. This is apparent not only in the respectively epistemic and ontological priorities which distinguish Husserl and Heidegger, but also in their divergent attitudes towards the pre-Socratics. Although Plato marks a watershed for both Husserl and Heidegger, he is, for Husserl, the first true philosopher, and for Heidegger, the initial step to modernity’s ontological forgetfulness.

In Chapter Six, Andrea Altobrando compellingly makes the case that, from the time of his transcendental turn, Husserl came to share with Hegel a commitment to the pure ego as a necessary abstraction from the concrete self. After the initial Humean-Brentanian scepticism towards the unified self which he displays in the Logical Investigations, Husserl moves, according to Altobrando, in the contrary direction, acknowledging the pure ego as a necessary condition of any possible experience. Like Hegel, however, in the Phenomenology of Spirit and Philosophy of Mind, Husserl is not, Altobrando shows, committed to Cartesian substance dualism, but recognises the pure ego as an abstraction from a more concrete self, upon which it is therefore ontologically dependent. Both Hegel and Husserl, Altobrando maintains, recognise a demand to develop a more concrete understanding of one’s ontological identity which is not, therefore, merely abstract. For Hegel as well as Husserl, the pure ego, according to Altobrando, is entirely barren of content, simple, indeterminate and negative, without being unreal. Such an abstract pure ego is, Altobrando maintains, necessary for both Hegel and Husserl in order to accommodate the possibility of free agency and the intentionality of consciousness.

With this discussion of the pure ego, Altobrando highlights a feature of Husserl’s philosophy which might – in view of his well-known Cartesian inheritance – initially be thought to disqualify any prospect of overlap with Hegel, and shows that such impressions are unfounded. What is more, as Altobrando explicitly remarks, the comparison of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective views concerning the pure ego represents a large and difficult project with very significant potential for re-assessing the prospects for dialogue between Husserlian and Hegelian traditions. As such, Altobrando’s contribution indicates the beginning of an exciting and promising larger project concerning the place of the pure ego in Husserl’s thought and Hegel’s.

Chapter Seven, by Alfredo Ferrarin, examines the much-neglected topic of Hegel’s and Husserl’s respective views concerning the imagination and, in so doing, identifies fascinating and unexpected points of agreement between the two thinkers, along with more predictable disagreements. According to Ferrarin, Hegel and Husserl share, first, a common Humean target, and, second, an understanding of the mind as stratified into layers of capacity which support and build upon one another. Unlike Hume, who recognises only a difference in degree of liveliness and vivacity between the ideas and impressions which furnish the contents of the mind, Hegel and Husserl recognise logically irreducible functional differences between the imagination and other subjective capacities. Such capacities are vertically ordered, for Hegel and Husserl, each of whom maintains that the capacity for sensible perception is conditional and grounded upon that of imagination.

Whereas, for Ferrarin, Hegel stresses the continuities between imagination and perception, Hegel emphasises their discontinuities, but both acknowledge a mutual dependence between the possible representation of the real and that of the unreal. In accordance with their contrasting methodological approaches, however, Hegel and Husserl differ very significantly, according to Ferrarin, in their assessments of the philosophical role of the imagination. Husserl’s eidetic discoveries are presented as the products of phantasy or imaginative variation, whereas Hegel understands the imagination as an intermediate stage on subjectivity’s self-propelling journey towards the pure Idea, wherein the sensible content of one’s representations is abstracted and their logical form laid bare to the contemplation of speculative intelligence. Since for Hegel it is the business of philosophy to transform representations into thoughts, the products of imagination are, in spite of their necessary contribution in facilitating the possibility of sensible knowledge and experience, part of what needs to be overcome in effecting the self-mediated transition from ordinary consciousness to philosophical science.

In her chapter – the eighth of the collection – Elisa Magrì argues that Hegel and Merleau-Ponty confront a similar paradox concerning expression, and pursue a common strategy in response. According to Magrì, the concept of expression occupies a central role in Hegel’s thought and Merleau-Ponty’s, but is in neither case to be understood in terms of the manifestation of a pre-existing logos. Beginning with Kant’s account of genius in the third Critique, Magrì shows that, for Kant, expression involves the spontaneous production of a representation which is communicable to others without having been generated according to a fixed procedure or rule. Expression takes on a broader systematic role for Hegel and Merleau-Ponty, Magrì maintains, both of whom employ genetic description to make sense of its pervasive significance in every aspect of thought and subjective experience. Magrì examines Hegel’s discussions of the concepts of expression and manifestation in the Science of Logic and identifies how their respective shortcomings contribute to the emergence of the self-conditioning concept which is the articulation of its own significance. Hegel’s account of expression in the Philosophy of Subjective Spirit is then explored in depth and its systematic connections with the argument of the Logic brought into view.

Merleau-Ponty is seen to agree with Hegel in treating expression properly understood as the origination of meaning, rather than the making publicly available of a privately originating significance. According to Magrì, expression depends, for Hegel and Merleau-Ponty, upon a complex dialectical interplay of activity and passivity, the importance of which for their respective post-Kantian approaches is difficult to overstate. Such a dialectic is particularly well-illustrated, Magrì suggests, in Hegel’s and Merleau-Ponty’s respective accounts of the processes by which the body becomes habituated to the expression of meaning – a series of developments involving moments of subjectivity and objectivity, interiority and exteriority.

Chapter Nine, by Giovanni Zanotti, represents something of a change in direction for the collection, with Hegel taking a step into the background and his place being filled by one of his most important twentieth century enthusiasts – Theodor Adorno. Zanotti examines Adorno’s Hegelian critique of Husserl’s commitment to a presuppositionless first philosophy grounded in the immediate deliverances of intuition. According to Zanotti, Adorno shows Husserl’s ambitious foundationalist project to fall victim to Hegel’s critique of pure immediacy, insofar as Husserl falsely assumes the possibility of an immediate foundation to knowledge which is yet able to mediate the transfer of epistemic support to propositions to which it must therefore stand in relations of mediation. Zanotti explicitly maintains that Adorno’s critique is effective specifically against such earlier Husserlian works as the Logical Investigations, leaving open the possibility that Husserl may be less vulnerable to such criticisms in the Crisis and related works of that period.

What is especially interesting about Zanotti’s admirably lucid and finely-crafted chapter is the way it explains Adorno’s discovery of an unintended dialectical tendency in Husserl’s work. According to Zanotti, Adorno shows that Husserl is led, in spite of himself but nonetheless through a kind of logic immanent within his position, to qualify the earlier Platonic realism of the Logical Investigations in recognition of a necessary subjective ground for the logical concepts he intends to elucidate without, however, sliding into the naïve psychologism which, Adorno maintains, Husserl was right to reject. As such, Zanotti’s chapter amplifies a theme recurrent throughout the collection – that in spite of his ignorance of and early antipathy to Hegel’s thought, the trajectory of Husserl’s philosophical development is towards increasingly greater proximity to Hegel. This is not to deny, however – as Adorno well-recognises – that the one-sidedness of Husserl’s earlier works indicates a genuine insight.

The penultimate chapter of the collection, by Gilles Marmasse, explores Ricœur’s ambivalent assessment of Hegel’s system and its legacy. According to Marmasse, Ricœur understands Hegel’s absolutist ambitions as a temptation which must be resisted, but the renunciation of which cannot be experienced without a sense of profound loss. For Ricœur, the events of the twentieth century have made it impossible to subscribe any longer to the self-grounding and totalising conception of philosophy which Hegel offers in reply to the finitude of the Kantian system, without having eliminated the appeal of such an ideal. The contemporary predicament is well-illustrated by the remarkable fascination which Hegel’s system retains, according to Ricœur, notwithstanding that it is no longer possible seriously to regard philosophy as party to anything else than a partial interpretation of the multifaceted cultural environment to which it belongs and by which it is conditioned.

Ricœur exaggerates Hegel’s dogmatic proclivities, according to Marmasse, who confronts Ricœur’s familiarly speculative interpretation of Hegel with a more deflationary approach which emphasises the Hegelian ambition to accommodate contingency and particularity within the system without annihilating their status as irreducible moments of a greater whole. Contrary to Ricœur’s inflationary reading, Hegel’s notion of Spirit does not, Marmasse maintains, commit him to any disembodied extra-human agency. All the same, according to Marmasse, Ricœur’s criticisms of Hegel retain, in spite of their shortcomings, a contemporary value and interest, especially in respect of their highlighting of authoritarian implications in Hegel’s theory of the state. Marmasse’s chapter is especially interesting in the way it exemplifies a phenomenon frequently remarked upon in the history of Hegel’s reception – namely, the peculiar allure of his system even for those seeking to identify its failings, and the apparent impossibility of ‘getting beyond’ Hegel – with whom it therefore seems necessary to remain in continued dialogue.

Daniele De Santis concludes the collection with a chapter defending Husserl against charges of the kind raised by Sellars’s monumentally influential critique of the myth of the Given. As De Santis remarks, Sellars’s Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind is often taken as the original source of a Hegel renaissance within analytic philosophy by which Cartesian approaches of the kind which Husserl advocates have been largely discredited. De Santis identifies three aspects of Sellars’s Hegelianism; (i) a ‘three-fold critique’ of givenness, comprising epistemological, metaphysical and genetic elements, (ii) a historical counter-account to a received view of Hegel’s relation to Cartesian philosophy, and (iii) a conceptual holism subsequently embraced by Brandom and McDowell. According to De Santis, Sellars intends for his initial attack against sense-datum theories to open a route towards the rejection of a general picture of givenness of which no philosopher has been altogether innocent. Sellars’s self-described Méditations Hégéliennes are intended to recall Husserl’s Méditations Cartésiennes, De Santis maintains, and therefore to implicate Husserl as complicit in the myth which Sellars means to unveil and dispel.

Identifying a problematic conception of evidence as the core of Sellars’s three-fold critique of givenness, De Santis proceeds to argue that performance of the transcendental-phenomenological reduction, or epoché, leads Husserl to reconceive of the intentional object as the product of acts of transcendental synthesis. Appearances are not mere isolated ‘givens’ according to Husserl, but originate within a normative network of combination-guiding principles which has more in common with Sellars’s conceptual holism than analytic Hegelians have yet to recognise. De Santis’s contribution carries the welcome implication that the so-called ‘Hegelian turn’ in recent analytic philosophy need not preclude productive engagement with phenomenology, any more than phenomenologists have been prevented from making significant contributions to Hegel scholarship or to contemporary understandings of Hegel’s current relevance.

The omission of chapters devoted specifically to Sartre, de Beauvoir and Gadamer and their respective responses to Hegel is perhaps surprising, although a volume addressing each of the major figures of the phenomenological movement would have significantly increased the length of the collection and shifted its focus away from the movement’s founder. Certainly other phenomenologists are more explicitly indebted to Hegel, and Husserl is one of the least obviously ‘Hegelian’ figures of the tradition, but the collection’s unusual attention to Husserl’s widely unacknowledged affinities with Hegel’s thought is, for this very reason, amongst its many virtues. Few other collections offer such thorough studies of the congruences and points of departure between Hegel’s ambitious project and the tradition of philosophical research originating with Husserl, without failing to respect the complex unity of the phenomenological movement as a venture of Husserlian origin. The essays in the present volume – the result of a conference on “Hegel and the Phenomenological Movement” held in Pisa in 2014 – collectively and compellingly make the case for a fresh approach to the relation between Hegelianism and phenomenology, which does not assume Husserl’s basic philosophical orientation to be antithetical to Hegel’s but sees both traditions as responses to a common Kantian heritage and capable of productive cross-fertilisation in the development of anti-naturalist strategies centring upon the meaning-constitutive priority of historical subjectivity. Such a re-evaluation – it might reasonably be hoped – shall be met with enthusiasm by an audience which has become impatient with dismissive treatments of Husserl as a naïve Cartesian, radical only in his uncompromising foundationalism and unmoved by the era-defining concerns which have, since the mid-twentieth century, made Hegel increasingly difficult to ignore for analytic as well as Continental philosophers. While the history of the phenomenological movement has typically been seen as one of successive heretical departures from an original Husserlian ideal of ‘philosophy as rigorous science’ and the greater acceptance of a hermeneutic and historicist approach antithetical to Husserl’s, the present collection invites readers to question such received wisdom by considering the Hegelian potential implicit in Husserl and re-examining his legacy from a perspective informed by Hegel.

Kenneth Maly: Five Groundbreaking Moments in Heidegger’s Thinking, University of Toronto Press, 2020

Five Groundbreaking Moments in Heidegger’s Thinking Book Cover Five Groundbreaking Moments in Heidegger’s Thinking
New Studies in Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Kenneth Maly
University of Toronto Press
2020
Cloth $52.50
216

Rochelle Tobias (Ed.): Hölderlin’s Philosophy of Nature, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

Hölderlin's Philosophy of Nature Book Cover Hölderlin's Philosophy of Nature
New Perspectives in Ontology
Rochelle Tobias (Ed.)
Edinburgh University Press
2020
Hardback £80.00
272

Paul Downes: Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur: Inclusion of the Other

Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other Book Cover Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other
Paul Downes
Routledge
2020
Hardback £115.00
188

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Christ Church, Oxford)

The heart of the human experience is suffering. Such, at least, is Arthur Schopenhauer’s abiding thought. For Schopenhauer, in fact, our own personal suffering is just a microcosm of the whole world’s plight, which itself is, as his writings never cease trying to remind us, one characterized by brutality, cruelty, agony, despair, and ultimately death. Our situatedness in the phenomenal world (which is but the illusory shimmer of a primal Wille), he says, is that of a sailor who “sits in a small boat in a boundless raging sea, surrounded on all sides by heaving mountainous waves, trusting to his frail vessel; so does the individual man sit calmly in the middle of a world of torment, trusting the principium individuationis” (49). If the world we experience is in many ways a house of horrors, then, so Schopenhauer argues, it falls to each of us to do what he can to diminish the suffering we find in it—and how else, so he suggests, will accomplishing that be feasible except by having compassion for others? Compassion, hence, it would seem to follow, is the foundation of ethics.

As Schopenhauer says of Mitleid in On the Basis of Morality, when this “compassion is aroused, the weal and woe of another are nearest to my heart in exactly the same way, although not always in exactly the same degree, as otherwise only my own are. Hence the difference between him and me is now no longer absolute” (31). The ethical imperative to die to one’s egoism, and to thereby identify with others rather than only with oneself, however, is for Schopenhauer paradoxically infused with a thoroughgoing fatalism: just as the individual and his ego are themselves illusions, so too is free will. “The person is never free,” claims Schopenhauer, “even though it is an appearance of a free will, because it is the already determined appearance of the free willing of that will” (39). It is the search for life’s justification even in the face of its immense suffering that later drove Friedrich Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, to reflect on these matters of freedom, value, and meaning. Art consistently proves central to those resulting reflections. For on one plausible interpretation of the matter, Nietzsche’s idea that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon” that existence is justified is itself a formulation to be understood as a variation of Schopenhauer’s own pessimistic insight into the purportedly inherent pointlessness of suffering.[1] Existence requires justification precisely because it is not immediately self-justified. As for life, as the Nietzsche of the Birth of Tragedy notes, it cannot be affirmed strictly for what it is—“the truth is terrible,” after all—but rather must be tolerated by way of placative lies. On the view Nietzsche sets out during this period of his thinking, art accordingly presents us with a palatable world, a beautifully transfigured version of what is a reality otherwise too ugly to be embraced unadorned.

Many scholars have examined the numerous, fascinating connections between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on points of art, ethics, and metaphysics. Many, too, have done so with the aim of locating both figures in their shared intellectual and historical milieu. Paul Downes’s Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur: Inclusion of the Other, does both of these things, with an eye to philosophical ambitions of its own that make the work remarkably original. Downes is not interested only in telling us what these three key post-Kantian European figures think, but, more vitally, in getting us to identify and think about the important subtleties they themselves have left unthought, or at least unsaid. For Downes, who is interested in our relation to the other in its full ethical and metaphysical complexity and richness, the correct point of departure lies, with Schopenhauer, in seeking “a basic orientation of openness” breaking with egoism (43). The task for thinking, here in turn, demands a form of inquiry that he calls a “spatial phenomenology”: an account of experiential space in all its variegation, including the peculiar spatiality of thought itself.[2] Through a series of close and constructive readings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Ricœur too (among others like Kant, Lévi-Strauss, and Heidegger to name a few), Downes undertakes a comprehensive analysis of the relation between oneself and the other, a spatial alterity ethics, as it were. As he puts it, “There is a spatial system of relations, a primordial spatial discourse pertaining to life that is embedded in the seminal works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur —and yet overlooked by each of them” (1).

Before turning to Downes’s account of “concentric” and “diametric” spaces, it is valuable to linger over the problem of empathy, or compassion. Nietzsche’s philosophy of will to power, for instance, by rendering the picture of self-consciousness and human flourishing that it does, rejects the deeply humane perspective above for which Schopenhauer is famous. Compassion for the Übermensch is out the window, with cruelty assuming the pride of place. It is somewhat surprising that Nietzsche’s thought, which does begin by acknowledging the role of suffering in existence, nonetheless abandons compassion. How does it end in cruelty? As Downes says, to start with, Nietzsche’s view of tragedy correctly recognizes the deep pain of existence, what the latter himself terms “the eternal wound of life” (55). Dionysianism seeks relief from this primordial suffering in a countermovement of ecstasy, or rapture. And if the world of individuated consciousness is one giving rise to ineradicable suffering, this consciousness itself must be dissolved if suffering is to be vanquished. What results, Downes writes, is “a purported expansion as annihilation,” an “obliteration of boundaries” whose quest consists in the desire “for no boundaries” (54). A Nietzschean pursuit of rapture leads to the monism of the Dionysian, “a collective ritual, the fusion” of one’s diffusion of oneself “with the crowd” (55). In the end, however, this entire economy of desire only spells trouble. Its “intoxication as obliteration of self, as annihilation of boundaries,” says Downes, “whether wine-fueled or through other intoxicatory substances such as hallucinatory drugs,” risks a collapse of self. An assessment of this economy invites the question of what mediating pathways explain the passage from this collapse of identity in the early Nietzsche’s Dionysian, on the one hand, to the subsequent cruelty of the Dionysian in the later Nietzsche, on the other hand, a cruelty including eventually even the lust to inflict it. The desire to expand (or at least this mode of expansion: the dilatio explicated by Jean-Louis Chrétien, for one, is not the same), to be powerful, to ever grow beyond one’s current limits, eventually in Nietzsche’s thinking transforms into the satanic desire to inflict suffering on others, to dominate and control them. As Downes notes, following Károly Kerényi, whoever travels this road ends up psychologically mimicking the cruelty of the sacrificial Dionysian rite in which the victim “was first boiled and then roasted” (95).

According to Nietzsche himself, “cruelty constituted the great joy and delight of ancient man” (109). In turn, as Downes puts it, “joy becomes a celebration of cruelty” (Ibid.). Now as anyone familiar with what Nietzsche says can attest, nothing about such cruelty is said by him to be ethically censurable. After all, the fact that, ordinarily, cruelty is something condemned while compassion is praised is only so, maintains Nietzsche, because of the “slave morality” from which the moral categories of good and evil themselves originated, a moral and psychological economy that his account of will to power presumes itself to have dismantled. But Downes detects a problem waiting to surface. For even if it is possible to overlook the fact that Nietzsche’s characterization of “blissful annihilation” is perhaps just an unwitting variation of the very same pessimistic impulse behind Schopenhauer’s “ascetic negation of the will” that he wishes to reject (43), it still remains the case that, for Nietzsche, “hell is not so much other people as connection with other people” (100). Ultimately, this urge for domineering isolation, which is mobilized in pursuit of self-gratification, undermines itself, for it never finds the satisfaction it is seeking. The Nietzschean impulse to flee from connection (100), to dash the bonds of our ordinary ethical relations and the Apollonian mode of self-consciousness underpinning those relations, culminates in a lust for power that replicates, in the form of a straightforward inversion, the two original terms of the ethical relation it sought to overcome. Where before one was encouraged to have compassion for another’s suffering, now one instead takes delight in inflicting it. At times, Nietzsche appears to attempt to defend this mode of existence by emphasizing that this is simply the way of the world, that “all happening in the organic world consists of overpowering and dominating” (89). As Downes explains, the will to power, which was said to originate as a life principle, instead becomes a will to death, one that accordingly “finds infliction of pain and suffering ‘magical’” (90), so much that the “actual infliction of suffering is elevated into being an end of itself” (Ibid.). The “fundamental monism” recounted in the Birth of Tragedy’s account of an “unmediated life will in music,” a surpassing of the ordinary boundaries of the Apollonian principium individuationis (107), ultimately elevates the psychology of “Dionysian sacrifices” (94) to a “wider cosmological principle” (93), thereby justifying psychological hate and destruction. One here might naturally call to mind Freud, whom Downes does: “Freud’s account of ritual” as an “obsessional neurosis” rooted in the “compulsion to repeat” (97), and which gives expression to a death drive, seems a plausible explanation for the psychology of the one who comes to be dominated by his compulsive desire to dominate others. What began as the attempted liberation from the cultural construction of good and evil leads to little more than an insatiable, self-destructive sadism. “Why,” for example, Nietzsche asks, “is knowledge … linked to pleasure? First and foremost, because by it we gain awareness of our power … any new knowledge … makes us feel superior to everyone” (90). Perhaps Nietzsche really just is more perceptive and honest than the rest of us, when he claims to identify the desire to know as one whose end consists in the satisfying pleasure of feeling superior to others who don’t know what we do. Some people, I suppose, may well desire to know for that reason. But everyone always?

This stated diagnosis of what motivates our desire to know raises a deeper question of whether knowledge itself is even possible at all, a skeptical worry that for its own part leads to further questions concerning the nature of the experienced world and the nature of reality as such. For Schopenhauer, for example, who basically grants the Kantian division between the world in itself and the world of appearance, there is a sense in which any human discursive knowledge is illusory. From this radically Kantian perspective, the spatiotemporal world of individuated entities is itself a deformation of the real—whatever it may be. In a move that will anticipate the work’s subsequent treatment of Ricœur, Downes observes that, in the wake of “the linguistic turn” associated with structuralism, realism goes by the wayside. The structuralist commitment to the “primacy of language” leaves us with conceptual schemes, and that is all. As an heir to Kantianism, such an approach denies that we have access to things as they are in themselves. Here in response to the linguistic idealist, Downes like Claude Romano holds that there is a domain of meaning more fundamental than that which is shaped and structured by language or concepts. It is, he says, “a language of space that is itself prior to language—a spatial protolanguage or discourse” (7). Or more precisely still, “Space is a precondition for language; language is not a precondition for space. Space is itself a system, a system of meaningful relations through the contrasts between diametric and concentric spaces” (156). This space is experientially prior to anything language is able to mediate or structure. To begin bringing into focus what Downes wishes us to see, to see what he means by this spatiality, it is important to recognize that the relevant notion of space is not Cartesian. Descartes’s notion of empty space, a geometrically extended field for scientific abstraction, is not what is at issue (6). Nor is the conception of space at issue Kantian either, for it is not “a transcendental condition as a necessity for thought” (7). Initially, Downes explains what such space is by characterizing both concentric and diametric space in terms of what they are not:

“[Concentric and diametric spaces] are not to be reduced simply to a flawed appeal to the ‘natural’ […] Life is not being treated as a substance, it not ousia as presence but as a relation, a relational space as a directional movement and tension” (9).

“Concentric space is not being postulated as an ancient primordial experience to be re-enacted. Concentric space is not a nostalgia for the premodern or for some period of history lost in the mists of time; it is a current, ongoing experiential possibility [concentric and diametric spaces] are not mere categories, static forms, collections of sterile classifications, schemes or cognitions corresponding to particular ideas, life goals or world views. Rather they are proposed as being prior framing conditions for understanding as projections of primordial experience structured through these spaces—and as such these spaces are not monoperspectival exhortations, but rather conditions for a vast plurality of perspectives to grow and thrive” (11).

“Primordial here is not being invoked in terms of some ancient prehistory. The spatial dimension is proposed as ontologically prior and primordial as a more fundamental truth or experience; a direction of unity for experience; a truth and experience prior to socially constructed realities; a cross-cultural truth; being beyond the limited schema of causal explanations” (27).

Alternatively, sometimes he offers a description of these spaces in positive terms:

“Moving space is the breath of thought” (6).

“Spatial breath is the pulse of thought, not a denial of spatial breath in the inert space of monism. Space is indelibly interactive and immanent in thought” (Ibid.).

“Diametric spatial structure is one where a circle is split in half by a line that is its diameter or where a square or rectangle is similarly dived into two equal halves” (17).

“In a concentric spatial structure, one circle is inscribed in another larger circle; in pure form, the circles share a common central point” (Ibid.).

“A concentric spatial relation is a structure of inclusion compared to diametric spatial structure of exclusion” (20).

“These spaces are being examined as fundamentally directions of movement rather than to be treated as simply static structures” (21).

“They are precognitive framing spaces and are prior to metaphor” (24).

Returning to Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s handling of compassion and cruelty shows how these issues are to be understood in terms of Downes’s spatial phenomenology. From this perspective, Nietzsche is “locked into a diametric spatial understanding” (12). In at least two senses. To begin with, diametric space is oppositional, sometimes exclusionary to the point that one of its binaries cuts off all contact with its opposite term. Taken in an ethical register, to say that Nietzsche’s Dionysian account of self-understanding is underwritten by diametric space is just to say, whatever else it also means, that the self excludes the other. The self who is locked in diametric space lacks compassion and empathy for the other: precisely what Nietzsche himself extols when he valorizes cruelty. Furthermore, there is the second sense to this diametric spatial understanding, one which concerns the thought itself responsible for attempting to conceptualize the ethical relation. Here again, Nietzsche’s thinking is itself diametric: in struggling to subvert the ordinary terms of good and evil, he ends up re-instantiating binaries, either to prioritize one of the original terms over the other, or else to introduce a new dyad in substitution for the original pairing. Thus, according to Downes, “the more [Nietzsche] seeks to break away from the diametric spaces underpinning this, the more he is locked within them in different forms” (86).

Hence, “Inclusion of the Other” requires a “concentric spatial relation” (2). And here again, in both of the two senses established above. Because the “exclusion process in the us/them projection rests on a diametric binary opposition” (2), it will be necessary to overcome this binary in a way that allows the self and other to exist harmoniously, rather than as adversaries. Schopenhauer’s own position can be explained in terms of the spatial terms that frame it: just as compassion “internalises the other as an extension of the self” (33), so here a concentric spatial relation “is not an obliteration of self but a moistening of boundaries between self and other as a governing precondition for compassion” (37). Such a concentric relation depends on an assumed connection rather than an assumed separation (32). Nietzsche’s will to power, as Nietzsche himself says, is a process of expansion, which is seen to be spatial: “Its object thereby is the incorporation of new ‘experiences’ … growth; or more properly, the feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power—is its object” (84).[3] This process, however, as we have seen, is haunted by its inherently egoistic topos, what in turn erects a “thick partition” (37) between oneself and the other. It could be argued that Nietzsche’s account of the Dionysian possesses sufficient conceptual resources to overcome this “diametric oppositional spatial split between self and other, where the individual internalizes the other with stark divisive boundaries of a diametric dualistic spatial relation” (41-42). After all, is not the point about such Dionysian self-consciousness that it entails a sort of orgiastic, monistic fusion, whereby boundaries between oneself and others are dissolved? Downes acknowledges that the Nietzschean position could be initially construed as embodying a form of concentric space, insofar as it articulates a connective notion of “monistic fusion as unity” (43). But, as Downes notes, there is a difference between “destruction and dissolving generally” (37). Nietzsche’s account proposes a dissolution of ordinary self-consciousness so extreme, that, despite overcoming a form of the ordinary oppositional split characteristic of diametric space, it nevertheless fails as an ethical solution to the problem of egoism. It lapses into the annihilation of self. This form of monistic connective space does not make room for the inclusion of the other, then, because there remains no individuated self capable of exercising the recognition necessary to welcome that other. This, it should be noted, is one of the main troubles with crowd psychology and mob mentality, which absorb the individual into a mindless monism. If I am to identify successfully with your pain and so empathize with you, I must so exist as an individual. Nietzsche’s Dionysianism, which refers to “drunkenness and mystical self-abandonment, Dionysian festivities,” and which bring “an effusive transgression of the sexual order,” and with that the “annihilation of the usual limits and borders of existence” (133-34), may escape the diametric separation of Apollonian self-consciousness, but it ushers in an ethical void.[4]

In fact, the Apollonian and Dionysian, Downes writes, “is a response to experience of an existential void” (74), what Nietzsche himself identifies in On the Genealogy of Morals as the suffering incurred “‘from the problem of [finding one’s] own meaning’” (74). On the subject of the void—or the “nothing,” one might say—it is Heidegger whom Downes discusses most extensively. But it is a different aspect of Downes’s engagement with Heidegger that I would like to highlight instead. In the spirit of Being and Time’s existential analytic, might not one claim, with Heidegger, that the entire problem of the relation between self and other has heretofore been misconstrued? While the spatial phenomenology on offer does well to have highlighted how experiential space is not Cartesian (or even Kantian), has it not, so the argument continues, failed to eliminate perhaps another classic residue of Cartesianism, the vision of intersubjectivity that envisions self and the other as essentially disconnected? Put differently, is to characterize compassion as an achievement, as Schopenhauer does, to overlook the deeper ontological bond between oneself and another? As Heidegger famously claims when explaining why traditional skepticism about the “external world” and other minds is misplaced, Dasein is Mitsein, a being for whom its mode of being always already includes others being with and alongside oneself. The other, thus, “is in some way a dimension of the primordial structures of self” (174). This Heideggerian line of objection will resurface down the page, when turning to Downes’s treatment of Ricœur’s use of metaphor.

As for the failure of Nietzsche’s account of the relation with the other to reach any satisfying ethical solution, this is so, as Downes says, in part due to the fact that, trapped in one’s egoism, the individual who rejects compassion in the name of will to power thereby confines himself to the “dungeon of diametric space [operating] as a sealed compartment” (87).[5] Understandably, we want to say this is bad, and for many reasons. But does a spatial phenomenology allow us to reject such egoism on genuinely ethical grounds? In considering this question, I want to mention a potential tension that emerges in Downes’s view. When, for instance, it is written in the book’s introduction that a spatial phenomenology “is paving the way for a question of wellbeing for all people” (11), the thought naturally arises: precisely what view of man is at issue here? How are we to understand the notion of wellbeing, what is our measure of good in doing so? On the one hand, the work’s language appears to endorse a full-blown realism about human nature when remarking that space is “a truth and experience prior to socially constructed realities; a cross-cultural truth” (27). On the other hand, sometimes the language suggests something less universal but pluralistic or even relativistic: “these spaces are not monoperspectival exhortations, but rather conditions for a vast plurality of perspectives to grow and thrive” (11). The tension between these statements is most evident, as just mentioned, I think, when focusing specifically on Nietzsche’s own metaethical critique of good and evil. Sometimes, Downes appears to endorse Nietzsche’s rejection of the claim that there is any absolute notion of good and evil worth preserving: “Nietzsche challenges the good-evil diametric opposition and is aware of the need to seek a more fundamental understanding” (108). A similar point seems to be made when criticizing oversimplistic binaries, including, evidently, that again of the one between good and evil: “Nietzsche perceives the limitations of the diametric oppositions, good-evil, pleasure-pain and seeks to overcome them for a purportedly more fundamental level of reality and experience” (111). And the apparent historicity of values—including morals—is stated explicitly two pages later: “Morals derive from emotions and experience, thus a shift in experiential habits can bring a transformation of values” (113). On one reading, it appears that Downes wants to reject Nietzsche’s diametric spatial account of the relation between self and other in order to retain the ethical importance of compassion, but I wonder whether compassion’s value can be truly affirmed without also endorsing the kind of metaethical realism from which Downes’s spatial phenomenology seems to decouple itself. When Nietzsche says, “Who is really evil according to the meaning of the morality of resentment? … just the good man of the other morality, just the aristocrat, the powerful one, the one who rules, but who is distorted by the venomous eye of resentfulness” (85), I think those of us who see the value of compassion are inclined to condemn Nietzsche’s exaltation of power and cruelty as not simply being mistaken in just any sense, but as wrong morally. I am not sure how an analysis of compassion in strictly spatial terms will accommodate that judgment. It is also worth mentioning in this same context that despite “the death of God” being a central lodestar for Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Ricœur, Downes does not explicitly say anything about the issue. Addressing this theological horizon of their thinking would perhaps be one way of also addressing the metaethical questions to which spatial phenomenology’s account of compassion and alterity ethics gives rise.

It is, I think, to this task that the the work’s third figure, Ricœur, is meant to answer. Just as with Ricœur himself who takes Husserl’s side against structuralism by denying the primacy of language, so too Downes holds that there are “structures of relation prior to metaphor” (146). Because concentric space operates “at a preconceptual, precognitive, prerepresentational framing level” (58), there is room for the establishment of an ethical relation prior to the interference of power-relations or any of the other potential complications attending language and tradition. A truly empathetic face-to-face encounter with the other is possible. Against the “monistic tendency” (63) of Nietzsche and the pessimism of Schopenhauer, Ricœur sets out a conception of alterity ethics that is capable of grounding a constructive dialogical exchange, a true sharing of views and perspectives in good faith, one that is in principle oriented by the ideals of truth, reason, and justice, rather than manipulation, power, and oppression. The trick, in short, says Downes, is to appreciate with Ricœur that a “concentric relation allows for distinction and difference that does not have to lead to opposition” (147). Here, Ricœureaen metaphor is to be understood as a spatial “precondition or prior system of relations to language interacting with language” (145), opening onto, as Husserl and Romano each say, “an autonomous system of meaning and relations” before language (146), and that accordingly invites us to “seek[] structures of being” (Ibid.). To return to Heidegger again (and the language of his phenomenological ontology), what is at stake in a work such as Basic Problems of Phenomenology, for example, is an “interrogation of the copula” (146), an inquiry entailing the recognition of a “domain of truth prior to [the] apophantic judgment of Aristotle” (163). Spatial phenomenology is an heir to that sort of effort.

In a theme which recurs throughout the work, Downes claims that whatever the analysis of experience happens to be on offer (whether from Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Heidegger), it fails to prioritize space in favor of something else. The most obvious example of this tendency to downplay space would be in Heidegger’s own prioritization of temporality. One response to this subordination of space, it might be suggested, would be instead to adopt a hybrid approach: one that, for example, synthesizes the role of space and time in structuring experience and thought. In a word, why not see place—rather than just space or time—as the fundamental structure of experience? Downes acknowledges this position explicitly (Jeff Malpas’s work on place is discussed) but ultimately rejects the claim that place is prior to space—such an approach, he says, “[collapses] the subtlety of space into mere place” (162). I cannot adjudicate this important debate, nor the related question of how concentric and diametric spaces relate to one another, adequately here, so I must simply note it in passing.

To conclude, it should be said that some readers may be frustrated with Downes’s dense formulations that require multiple readings. What he means is not always immediately clear. But that, I don’t think, is because what Downes is saying is inherently muddled, but rather because we are today too often superficial, inattentive, and distracted readers, so we are less and less accustomed to authentically thinking as we’re reading. It can be disorienting and unsettling to encounter a text that expects serious effort from us. This, maybe, is I think part of what makes Downes’s book enjoyably challenging. In a time when the space of discourse is increasingly less a space of reasons, a work as this, sensitive and subtle and deeply humane, is a thoughtful refuge from the shrill and shallow, one that repays the attention we provide it.

 


[1] For one excellent statement to this effect, see Julian Young, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art (CUP, 1992).

[2] This question will not be foreign to those familiar with analytic phenomenology, for which the phenomenality of thought has been a topic of attention for some time. See Charles Siewert, The Significance of Consciousness (Princeton, 1998) and David Pitt, The Quality of Thought (OUP, in progress).

[3] Downes, quite accurately, summarizes the nonconformist psychology typifying the one who sincerely rejects the morality of “the herd,” thereby hovering above and beyond good and evil. Such an individual’s concern, says Downes, “is to challenge flattened notions of comfort and security underpinning some conceptions of wellbeing, while he quests for an experiential intensity connected with risk and danger of destruction of self” (110). As a sociological observation, it bears noting that recent events surrounding Covid-19 have revealed something of an irony, that many of those in our universities who self-avowedly claim to live as Nietzschean «free spirits» have themselves instead embraced the logic of “safety and security,” and quickly succumbed to mass panic and hypochondria.

[4] It should be noted Downes anticipates that somebody might object to his phenomenological interpretation of the Dionysian in terms of concentric and diametric spaces by claiming that such an account is itself a quasi-Apollonian attempt to impose form on what Nietzsche treats as a formless expansive sea (76). His reply, which strikes me as correct, is that this is not an imposition of form, but rather the uncovering of “structural regularities in Nietzsche’s own habits of thought and experience” (Ibid.). The fact that the work identifies many other instances where Nietzsche’s thought exemplifies the same diametric opposition it notes in this context strengthens its position.

[5] As Downes observes, some of Nietzsche’s readers such as Walter Kaufmann have recognized the implicit binary structure of Nietzsche’s thought, noting in this context that monistic fusion and diametric closure are themselves inverted diametric images identified as power and impotence, respectively.

Jacques Derrida: Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity, University of Chicago Press, 2020

Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity Book Cover Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington, Katie Chenoweth, and Rodrigo Therezo. Translated by Katie Chenoweth and Rodrigo Therezo
University of Chicago Press
2020
Cloth $27.50
168

Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Hardback $120.00
200

Reviewed by: Walter D Hopp (Boston University)

“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil—such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).

DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).

At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.

But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.

Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).

For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.

That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).

Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.

From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).

This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.

Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.

Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).

But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).

I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).

All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate[] those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.

Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.

Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).

For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:

A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).

And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.

It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.

More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.

How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.

But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.

We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).

Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.

This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.

This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?

DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:

…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?

Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.

That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.

Works Cited

Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.

DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.

Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.

Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Ivo De Gennaro: Principles of Philosophy: A Phenomenological Approach, Karl Alber, 2020

Principles of Philosophy: A Phenomenological Approach Book Cover Principles of Philosophy: A Phenomenological Approach
Ivo De Gennaro
Karl Alber Verlag
2020
Hardback 39,00 €
376