“I believe that if you look at the writings expressly directed against Wagner, and especially The Case of Wagner, you could readily extrapolate what he [Nietzsche] would have said against Heidegger. And I think if you could actually perform this feat of imagination that I am proposing to you, and envisage such a Nietzschean critique of Heidegger, then for penetrating insight it would surpass anything which I can offer you with my modest powers in these lectures.” (104)
These intriguing remarks, set forth by Theodor W. Adorno in his series of lectures delivered in Frankfurt during the winter semester of 1960/61, can be regarded as the touchstone of Ontology and Dialectics. This lecture course of 1960/61 – and the three Vorlesungen delivered at the Collège de France in March 1961 – first published in 2002 under the title Ontologie und Dialektik, excels in presenting a subtle analogy between Nietzsche’s positions concerning Richard Wagner’s music as a cultural expression of décadence and his remarks on Heidegger’s fundamental ontology as a degenerate movement or tendency against Aufklärung. As presented in Der Fall Wagner (1881), the Nietzschean formulation of Wagner’s music as a “disease” affecting German culture is evoked in order to analyse the philosophical observations on Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno in Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno’s incisive observations, fundamental ontology, as defined by Heidegger, manifests a specifically German posture – considered by Adorno as profoundly deplorable – against Enlightenment ideology. As Adorno asserts, fundamental ontology is a philosophical movement which can be characterized as an abominably vile counter-Enlightenment. The Nietzschean analysis regarding the infamous power of seduction involving Wagner’s music, from Adorno’s point of view, is a “Heideggerian disease” because it profoundly affects the German academic world, which represents a new philosophical movement that is intensely respected and greatly venerated. The bizarreness of this Heideggerian spell, or disease, under which the German intelligentsia seemed to succumb, is often considered by Adorno:
“[…] for in Germany there are now hardly any responsible academic positions or professorial chairs in philosophy that do not feel obliged at least to show that they are somehow worthy of what has been achieved by Heidegger and Jaspers. And even those thinkers who for political and other reasons are extremely critical of both philosophers, but especially of Heidegger, still appear to be captivated – in a way I find really hard to understand since I have never experienced this spell myself – by this kind of thinking and seem unable to sever the umbilical cord entirely in this regard.” (100-101)
According to Adorno, fundamental ontology, Heidegger’s philosophical project, can be regarded as a philosophical tendency which owes its effect and possesses its forces through opposition to idealism in general. It is an anti-subjectivism; in fact, the philosophical question concerning fundamental ontology may be stated in a variety of ways. Adorno puts it thus: fundamental ontology is essentially an anti-subjectivist. Fundamental ontology stands in contrast to a philosophy which remains essentially devoted to a preliminary question, namely the question of how knowledge is possible at all. The coarse obliteration of the philosophical reflection upon the subjective mediation of knowledge and the epistemological relevance of the conceptual thought represents the chief theoretical posture of Heidegger’s ontology as conceived by Adorno.
Fundamental ontology is unequivocally the chief subject matter of Ontology and Dialectics by Theodor W. Adorno. The relevance of such a book – essentially a compilation of 23 Vorlesungen delivered in Frankfurt in 1960/61 and in Paris, at the Collège de France, in March 1961 (we refer to the last three lectures included in the book) – can be described in accordance with the consideration that the positions expressed in Ontology and Dialectics represent as an initial discussion of the Heideggerian ontology developed by Adorno. It should be observed that Ontology and Dialectics presents a philosophical anticipation of the incisively penetrating analysis of the Heideggerian ontology which, ultimately, forms the core of The Jargon of Authenticity, published in 1964. According to the “Editor’s Foreword” included in this edition, written by Rolf Tiedemann, the book Ontology and Dialectics, which expresses the philosophical antipathy to the ontological movement emanating from the Black Forest, evokes a project which Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht had already begun to pursue around 1930, not long after the publication of Being and Time. The project they sought to pursue was that of “demolishing Heidegger” [den Heidegger zu zertrümmern]. The intention of “demolishing Heidegger” pervades Adorno’s work and thought, especially after his return from exile to Germany. As Rolf Tiedemann elucidates, within the German philosophical academic circle developed after the end of the Third Reich, during the political and social process of re-establishing democracy in Germany, Adorno was widely regarded as the pre-eminent intellectual opponent to Heidegger – and Adorno accepted this incumbency. To lay emphasis on the fact that Adorno’s Complete Writings comprise almost 600 references to the name of Heidegger (exceeded in number only by those to Walter Benjamin) is not superfluous. Clearly then, “demolishing Heidegger” was an Adornian philosophical project. Nevertheless, the Adornian critique of Heidegger is not an aggressive refutation of the fundamental ontology that is without merit, nor is it intended to chiefly condemn the political positions adopted by Heidegger. The Adornian objections to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology that are most important are those which excel in revealing the dangerous political and social implications of a philosophical tendency – developed in accordance with the refusal of the cognitive sophistication of philosophy – that, in its instauration of odd cults and bizarre interests, promoted the pseudo-ideal of pre-Socratic irrationalism.
The title of the book, Ontology and Dialectics, alludes to Adorno’ intention of presenting a philosophical contrast between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and Adorno’s own conception of dialectical thought as negative dialectics. This intention is subtly illustrated in a story involving Gustav Mahler and his literary taste.
“It is well known that Gustav Mahler was passionately interested in Dostoyevsky, who stood for something quite different in the years around 1890 than he does of Moeller van den Bruck. On one occasion, during an excursion with Schoenberg and his pupils, Mahler is said to have advised them to spend less time studying counterpoint and more time reading Dostoyevsky. And Webern is supposed to have responded with heroic timidity: ‘Pardon, Herr Direktor, but we have Strindberg’.” (1)
As Adorno explains, this story is probably apocryphal; nevertheless, this episode involving Gustav Mahler’s literary taste is mentioned by Adorno as a witty elucidation of the relationship between the new fundamental ontology of Heidegger (or, we might say, Dostoyevsky’s new literature) and the tradition of the German dialectic thought (or, we might say, Strindberg’s thought). However, the emphasis upon the philosophical opposition between the new fundamental ontology and the traditional dialectic thought does not form the heart of Ontology and Dialectics. It is pertinent to observe that this series of lectures, published under the title Ontology and Dialectics, precedes the three lecture courses which form the book Negative Dialectics, Adorno’s masterpiece, published in 1966. The thorough theoretical presentation of such a philosophical project – the delineation of the philosophical singularity and distinctiveness of the negative dialectic thought – is indeed the chief subject matter and the central line of thought developed by Adorno in Negative Dialectics, written between 1964 and 1966. It is worth noting that Ontology and Dialectics, which precedes Negative Dialectics, is especially devoted to the philosophical condemnation of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.
At any rate, as Adorno conceives it, the concept of Being, in Heideggerian terms, is not actually a concept at all. In fact, according to Adorno’s reading of Heidegger’s ontology, the concept of Being is not supposed to be the highest abstraction, the supra-concept reached by omitting all particular individuation, all particular determination. In approaching such a philosophical account of Being, Adorno intends to lay emphasis upon the fact that the Heideggerian ontological positions should be sharply distinguished from other kinds of ontology – such as the concept of ontology introduced by Husserl, the ontological project developed by Nicolai Hartmann, or the ontological positions advanced by the neo-scholastic tradition. The relentless obliteration of the conceptual dimension of Being defines the decided difference between Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and the traditional ontologies. As Adorno clearly explains, Being, in Heideggerian terms, is supposed to be what is utterly prior and primary, that which is highest and most constitutive. The question regarding Being – over against the highest regions, the highest and most universal concepts of all possible classes of beings – is what is decisive here, precisely because it involves the problem of the possibility of ontology as such, namely whether such a pure doctrine of being can be thought as such independently of the doctrine regarding the order of beings. From Heidegger’s point of view, those doctrines devoted to the ontological delineation of the order of beings – those doctrines which totally disregard the benedictory ontological difference between Being and beings, those ontologies of the ontic developed in accordance to systems of blind conceptual categories, fundamental principles and axioms – it is these doctrines imply an ontological questioning in the naïve sense. They do not represent, as Heidegger insists, the essential task of ontology understood in the radical sense – and this is precisely what fundamental ontology is.
The cult of the concept of absolute originality, the cult of the Firstness, is one of the philosophical oddities bound up with the persistent assertion of such an ontological questioning in the radical sense, as advanced by Heidegger. According to fundamental ontology and, especially, according to its chief claim concerning the ontological difference between Being and beings, any approach which does not involve the priority of Being with respect to beings is already rejected ab ovo and defamed as inferior, as a failure, as a betrayal of the real question. As Adorno asserts: “we are constantly presented with the same invocation, variation or repetition of this premise, namely the priority of Being with respect to beings” (22). Consequently, in repudiating the conceptual sophistication of the traditional philosophical thought (and of the philosophical ontologies), Heideggerian ontology fails to consider that the concept of Being itself is not the original question which fundamental ontology would have us believe. As Adorno attempts to explain – this is, unfortunately a very laconic explanation – the concept of Being deserves to be regarded philosophically as a concept of reflection in the sense of those concepts subjected to criticism by Kant in his “Amphiboly of the Concepts of Reflection” when they are hypostasized – in other words, when they are treated as an expression of true beings as such. On this view of things, the concept of Being is not something very ancient but something rather late and, correlatively, developed in accordance with the conceptual sophistication of critical philosophical thought. It should be observed that, from Adorno’s point of view, the concept of Being is a result, a historical result, attained only through a process, which, in turn, can be characterized as a conceptual and critical philosophical process. The concept of Being, in Adornian terms, is, in fact, understood philosophically as a concept – the highest abstraction, understood in accordance with the development of the conceptual sophistication of philosophical thought. It is not properly a Kantian perspective. This concept of Being as the highest abstraction is already present in Plato and in Aristotle, as Adorno claims, despite the brevity and the laconism of his elucidations.
It is certainly worth noting that Adorno’s reading of Heidegger excels in presenting a collection of problems, ambiguities and contradictions which profoundly involves fundamental ontology. According to Adorno, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology comprises a double refusal: in effect, fundamental ontology is a philosophical tendency developed in accordance with its emphasis upon the rejection of both conceptuality – it is pertinent to mention the delineation of the concept of Being as a non-concept – and reality – and it is convenient to consider the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings. Fundamental ontology can be described, as Adorno suggests, by its attempt to escape both from mere conceptuality and from any reality simply or immediately accepted as such. This double approach, this double front against a philosophy of concepts and against a philosophy of reality, is precisely what characterises the efforts of fundamental ontology. However, as Adorno elucidates, Heidegger incessantly fails to attain these philosophical intentions.
The Heideggerian cult of language, or the fascination with language, has tremendous significance for Heideggerian ontology. Language as a mediation of Being, or language as the possibility of aletheia and the unveiling of Being, is not philosophically compatible with a coarse rejection of conceptual thought. As Adorno proposes, Heidegger continuously disregards the fact that the concept of Being, in terms of its origin and its legitimacy, is directly bound up with the categorial structure of language. Heidegger’s ontology perniciously explores such a quid pro quo involving Being as a concept – Being as an element of language, entity, and even Being as a non-concept – which cannot be expressed through mere meanings insofar as it is not exhausted by conceptual terms nor by subjectively instituted concepts, and is cut off from conceptual thought. Nevertheless, such a remarkable ambiguity between Being as concept and Being as a what-is-beyond-concept is not acknowledged by fundamental ontology as a deficiency at all, as Adorno explains. On the contrary, it is chalked up as a positive and counted as credit. Why? The enigma, or the touchstone, underlying Heidegger’s pernicious ambiguity is taken as a venerable philosophical position that proceeds from a peculiar account of language that is incessantly proposed by Heidegger: the idea that language as a true, pure and absolute entity, or the idea of language as the domain of the unveiling of Being, is that of an immediate medium, organon or ‘complexus’ of truth that is deprived of any conceptual elements or aspects – and, as Adorno elucidates, also deprived of subjectivity and historicity. Hence, the concept of Being – in accordance with such a conception of language – deserves to be inexorably regarded as an entity beyond mere conceptuality.
In presenting this Heideggerian ambiguity, Adorno reflects more closely upon fundamental ontology as an anti-subjectivism by apparently overcoming subjectivism and the spurious claim that philosophy has somehow escaped its imprisonment within subjectivity (and within conceptual and categorial thought) through this new ontological project. This is intimately bound up with the Heideggerian quid pro quo, acknowledged and presented by fundamental ontology as an element of apparently higher dignity, as “one of the strongest seductions of this philosophy” (46), which arises from “that wavering, negative and inarticulate character of this talk of being itself” (46). Regarding the Heideggerian refusal of reality and the abandonment of the empirical dimension – a claim which involves and justifies the celebrated ontological difference between Being and beings and, correctively, the hypostatization of the word ‘Being’ (by supressing the dialectic of Being and beings) – Adorno draws attention to a conspicuously Heideggerian philosophical posture: the act of ontologizing the ontic; the repeated ontologising of ontic beings, namely, the human being itself. The anti-subjectivism which involves fundamental ontology is, in effect, the central axis treated by Adorno – that of the ontological conception regarding the human being as Dasein, which permits an elimination of the subjective character, now turned into a determination of Being. As Adorno explains, the ontological interest is profoundly incompatible with the subjective reflection itself. The subjective dimensions of reflection, spontaneity, consciousness and self-consciousness, and, by extension, the subjective dimensions of critical, conceptual and discursive thought, are all totally avoided and obliterated in order to sustain an ontological conception of Dasein as a ‘mode of being’ or, in a developed sense, a “shepherd of being”, where the latter serves as a primitive agrarian metaphor set forth by Heidegger in Letter on Humanism, and serves as an amusing object of Adorno’s attention.
According to Adorno, Heidegger sets out to extirpate subjectivity by transforming it into the scene or arena of ontology. In effect, this ontological kind of thinking, for which Being appears or manifests itself in Dasein, naturally evokes something related to subjectivity; but, at the same time, it loses what was so decisive for this subjective form of thought – in other words, it loses that moment of subjectivity that appears in Kantian philosophy under the name of ‘spontaneity’ and in Hegelian philosophy, under the name of ‘labour’. In fundamental ontology – and this is, as Adorno explains, the phenomenological legacy of the doctrine which Husserl had already developed, namely the idea of the pure intuiting of the thing in question – subjectivity is actually introduced as a kind of pure receptivity; subjectivity becomes that to which Being manifests itself, yet without that moment of activity, or that ‘function’, as Kant also occasionally puts it, properly being acknowledged. Consequently, a philosophical relevant determination of the Heideggerian project consists in “taking up that moment of reflection and subjectivity which is directly opposed to the ontological approach and integrate it into his original project by turning it into a mode of objectivity, turning ‘existence’ into Seinsweise, or ‘mode of being’” (82). It is the absolute precedence of Being over beings, the total precedence of Being over human existence, that concerns us here. This structure – that a particular being is itself ontological – is the defining and distinctive touchstone of the doctrine of Dasein, and it implicitly expresses Heidegger’s intention of avoiding the conflation of his own analysis of Being with the ‘philosophy of existence’ associated with Kierkegaard or Jaspers. Ultimately, as Adorno suggests, this ontologizing of the ontic, this reduction of the ontic being to Being, promotes, in an unexpected and ineluctable way, the superfluity and the dissipation of the celebrated ontological difference, which gives rise to the absolute hypostatization of Being. Indeed, Adorno’s acute reading of the Heideggerian analysis of Dasein deserves an extended treatment, for it excels in considering the anti-subjectivism manifested in fundamental ontology. Nevertheless, we venture to say that Adorno disregards the philosophical relevance of the Heideggerian notion of Befindlichkeit as a singular determination of human being, which cannot be reduced to any subjective or discursive determination developed by critical thought.
The Adornian emphasis upon the anti-subjectivist turn introduced by Heidegger’s fundamental ontology represents a crucial element of Ontology and Dialectics. According to Adorno, this “pseudo-revolutionary form of thought” (121) – which incisively repudiates the axes of modern critical form of thought, declaring itself to be a pre-critical return to naïve realism – expresses “a reactionary mentality” (121), which can be characterized by its philosophical intention of destructing the subjective mediation of thought, the critical moment of thought, in order to extirpate Enlightenment and rational thought. In Adorno’s words, Heidegger’s ontological project imposes itself as a pernicious philosophical tendency which can be described as irrationalism, counter-Enlightenment and, ultimately, return to myth, return to barbarism. In rejecting the question of the mediation of Being, and in repudiating the critical relevance of the thinking subject and the subjective determination of knowledge, Heidegger’s philosophical project, developed in accordance with the veneration of a truth fallen into oblivion (namely Being), expresses an odd return to myth and to fate that elaborates a philosophical project that denigrates philosophizing in favour of a particular relationship to language – an archaic language – that is totally devoted to what is primordial, original or authentic, and, supposedly, purified of conceptual determinations. The analysis of a collection of poems written by Heidegger – characterized by its “inferior character” (162) and “wretchedness” (162) – is an integrate part of Adorno’s emphasis upon the conspicuously archaic moment of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology: the spuriousness of Heidegger’s philosophy and poetry resides in its veneration of an archaic kind of thinking, which manifests an intention to suppress historical and social determinations inextricable to the act of philosophizing.
Regarding Adorno’s remarks on Heidegger’s poems, it is perhaps not superfluous to draw attention to an important aesthetic essay dedicated to Hölderlin’s late poetry: the essay entitled “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry”, written by Adorno in 1963, which is fundamentally devoted to condemn Heidegger’s approach to art, namely to Hölderlin’s poetry; interestingly, according to Adorno, the Heideggerian commentaries on Hölderlin’s poetry reveal the total absence of aesthetic sensitivity towards the poetic object – the lack of an aesthetic organ (Mangel an ästhetischen Organ), as set forth by Adorno in his essay.
It is convenient to take into account the centrality of the concept of Schicksal in Heidegger’s ontology, for it clearly illustrates the intention of supressing the critical dimension of the act of philosophizing in order to establish a reversion to fate and a revocation of rationality and, ultimately, of freedom. In Adorno’s words,
“the concept of fate or destiny here ascribed to ‘being’ is that of a blindly entangled will – for what is ascribed to ‘being’ in this context bears all the marks of irrationality. In other words, ‘being’ is characterized as something utterly obscure that may somehow be intimated and venerated, but about nothing substantive can ever be said. In the first place, you should clearly observe how this very passage moves directly to the concept of Schicksal or fate, and how this concept of fate, even if it is indeed indexed historically, is furnished with that blind and ineluctable character which belongs to the ancient and traditional notion of fate” (117).
The Heideggerian emphasis upon the concepts of time and historicity is actually designed to deceive: the concept of Schicksal – regarded in its philosophical affinities with the concept of Hörigkeit, or ‘obedient hearkening’, a hearkening to Being which sounds like blind submission – defines and determines Heidegger’s form of thinking. It’s worth noting that Schicksal and Hörigkeit represent Heidegger’s condemnation of the critical thought – the critical labour of the conceptual, as Adorno puts it, according to Hegelian positions – regarded by fundamental ontology as a process of philosophical degeneration. Heidegger annuls critical labour, as if philosophy could assume a historical standpoint beyond history; although, philosophy is enjoined to obey history, which is then, like existence, itself ontologized.
The philosophical purpose of Ontology and Dialectics, as announced by Adorno in the first lectures, consists in throwing light upon the philosophical discrepancies, contrasts and oppositions between fundamental ontology and negative dialectics. We conclude that Adorno leaves untouched a philosophical intention of forming the heart of negative dialectics in Ontology and Dialectics, for Adorno passes in silence the chief lines indicative of such a philosophical intention. In the context of Lecture 23, the last lecture of Ontology and Dialectics, there is a philosophical concept under the name “negative dialectics” that is described theoretically by fundamental determinations, but, interestingly, in order to offer a precise theoretical description of negative dialectics, Adorno proposes to consider the most relevant philosophical condemnations advanced against Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, especially the disapproval concerning Heidegger’s project as a philosophical tendency intended to perpetuate mythical thought. Dialectical thought, in its turn, is described as a philosophical attempt, “by means of cunning, the oldest medium of enlightenment” (240) to dissolve the mythical context of nature, to transcend the immediate context of nature without imposing its own domination, the domination of reason – in other words, dialectical thought “attempts to transcend nature without incurring that sacrifice and rage which would merely perpetuate the same context of nature” (240). As Adorno argues, dialectical thought excels in being the acne of enlightenment – the culminating point of conceptual thought – presented in its critical potential to extirpate the mythical context of nature. In accordance with these observations, it is worth noting that Adorno considers the mythical context of nature under the conception of identity – or, identity principle. Indeed, the idea of such a negative dialectics, as delineated and described by Adorno, implies a critique of identity – a critique of mythical forms of thought. It is the philosophical purpose of negative dialectics to abolish the circle of identity and the correlative identity principle. According to negative dialectics, the philosophical procedure of conceptualization is devoted to the determination of the non-identical; the negative element of thought which cannot be entirely tolerated under the identity principle. Such a principle – the identity principle – does not recognize the prominent prerogative of subjectivity or subjective mediation, which consists in determining the non-identical, the negative element of thought, without extirpating it under the logic of conceptual hypostatization.
In conclusion, it is important to lay emphasis on the logic of conceptual hypostatization. As Adorno argues – and this forms the core of the book Negative Dialectics (1966) – negative dialectics attempt to contradict any positive and unconditionally total dialectic elaborated under the identity principle. To distinguish negative dialectics, Adorno’s own philosophical project, from the Hegelian model of dialectics is, indeed, the theoretical axis of Negative Dialectics: the Hegelian elaboration of the supreme concept of Geist as a philosophical bizarreness which, as Adorno states, implies the pernicious sovereignty of the identity principle and its aspiration for (false) totality. Interestingly, in Negative Dialectics, the Hegelian dialectics – regarded as a model of dialectical thought, and not as the dialectical thought par excellence – there is treated by Adorno a degenerative dialectic, which succumbs to the hegemony of the identity principle and, consequently, to the annihilation of the preponderance of the negative elements of thought. According to Adorno, the hypostatization of the concept of Geist as a superlative entity, developed as an absolutization of the concept of subjectivity, clearly illustrates the process of decline of the Hegelian dialectics – a process of decline due to the assumption of the identity principle. It is not, perhaps, philosophically irrelevant to consider a subtle affinity between Hegel’s Geist and Heidegger’s Sein (advanced by Adorno as against the philosophical intention of elaborating supreme concepts, supreme conceptual entities which subsume the ontic or individual elements or realities under an aspiration for total identity), as an incisive disapproval of both Hegel’s dialectics and Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The chief purpose of Adorno’s negative dialectics consists in presenting the philosophical prerogative of subjectivity: subjective mediation as an act of spontaneity devoted to determine the non-identity and the negative elements of thought in order to destroy – through the critical labour of the concept – the identity principle (a mythical principle) which governs conceptualization itself.
Is it possible to abolish the identity principle through the labour of concept? Is it possible to extirpate the supreme conceptual entities, such as absolute subjectivity, or Geist, through the act of subjective spontaneity? To present and consolidate the fundamental lines of thought of negative dialectics with conviction represents a philosophical tour de force developed by Adorno. But, as with all tours de force, we are confronted with confusion, perplexity and uncertainty: How philosophically convincing is negative dialectics, Adorno’s philosophical project? The response should be found not in Ontology and Dialectics, but in Negative Dialectics.
“This book is not a translation of La vie la mort,” McCance states in the introduction of The Reproduction of Life Death—a study of Jacques Derrida’s series of lectures conducted at the ENS from 1975 to 1976— “Nor is the book an exegesis of the seminar” (McCance, The Reproduction of Life Death, 5). Without offering further clarification, the author seems to have posed a curious riddle for the reader: after all, this work appears to be a translation of sorts, given the multiple inserted and interlaced quotations from various seminal works of Derrida; and it appears to be an exegesis of Derrida’s consistently deconstructive effort within and beyond the seminar to problematize the oppositional logic that renders the form of reproduction as a repetition of the identical and that lends theoretical and scientific force to the eugenic movements, exemplified chiefly in the thoughts of Aristotle, Hegel and François Jacob, by tracing the lines of thought of Nietzsche and Freud that consider the relational difference between life and death as interdependent and mutually inclusive. Already there is a curious aporia between the author’s aim and the organization of the text, a struggle that perhaps reflects McCance’s careful effort to keep her study of La vie la mort from becoming an ironic proof of what Derrida attempts to refute in the seminar: a programmed form of inheritance that strictly follows a predetermined nonliving model and consequently subjects difference to identity. Hers is a dynamic double gesture of both reworking the Derridian positions on biology and pedagogy and breaking the spell of “technoscientific and philosophical ‘modernity,’” a time of experimental science in which “invention has become less a ‘discovery’ than a ‘production’” (9). Following the author’s winding attempt to decode a work of Derrida’s that defies simplistic explication, therefore, surpasses the intellectual pleasure of the source text, especially when Derrida’s principle task—to critique the mode of biological or educational reproduction as repetition of an identical model—seems to echo what Gilles Deleuze formulated in Difference and Repetition years before Derrida’s seminar. In that work, Deleuze strives to overturn the ruling primacy of identity in the history of philosophy and thereby restore the significant function of difference in weaving together an image of thought prior to any static formation of concepts and repetitions. In such a spirit Deleuze writes, for instance, “When we define repetition as difference without concept, we are drawn to conclude that only extrinsic difference is involved in repetition; we consider, therefore, that any internal ‘novelty’ is sufficient to remove us from repetition proper and can be reconciled only with an approximative repetition, so called by analogy” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 27). The invisible Deleuzian presence in La vie la mort thus weakens the joy of deconstruction one usually feels when reading a Derridian text, but at the same time, it separates McCance’s study from its source text and continues the inquiry into its nature and grounding, as the publication of this neither-translation-nor-exegesis precedes the real English translation of the seminar. McCance’s overall methodology of approaching Derrida’s seminar in a thematic rather than a linear way implies a relational inquiry, that is, instead of treating La vie la mort as a stand-alone text, McCance examines how Derrida’s central thesis fits into his oeuvre, and it is the rhizomic effort to trace the course of the envelopment of an idea that constitutes the primary significance of the book.
Before delving fully into the seminar, McCance begins the first chapter with a detour of Derrida’s suspicious attitude towards the telos of modern experimental science by revisiting his account of the change of meaning in the notion of invention in Psyche: Inventions of the Other. No longer is invention related to unearthing something new, rather, it has become a mode of production that follows a programmed and oppositional logic (9-10). McCance then helpfully underscores the key line of thought in Derridian philosophy, the concept of heritance, and then links it to a provocative work of biological science—La logique du vivant— by Nobel Laureate biologist François Jacob, provocative because of its declaration of “biology’s release from metaphysics and its coming of age as a science” (11). With McCance’s careful reminder of the unsatisfactory English title of the book, The Logic of Life, which obscures the departure of the study of life from its metaphysical tradition, we come to understand the inherent opposition in modern biology that aims to demystify living life via nonliving entities (that is, DNA), an effort that consequently establishes juxtapositions between life/living and death/nonliving. She captures what is at stake in Derrida’s account: the relation between life and death, be it connective or predicative. As already suggested in the title of the seminar La vie la mort, inserting an undecidable difference or “trait blanc” is thus necessary—Derrida speculates in the spirit of Freud and Nietzsche—for launching a qualitative transformation of the dynamism between life and death from oppositional or dialectical to supplementary. McCance writes “Derrida chooses the titles La vie la mort, he says, not in order to suggest either that life and death are not two, or that one is the other, but rather that the difference at stake between the two is not of a positional (dialectical or nondialectical) order” (11-12). Situating the book back in the mid-70s context where poststructuralist momentum was thriving in France, such an attempt to break with binary oppositions would not seem revolutionary or overly creative; rather, it reads more like an affirmation of philosophical trends of the era. But McCance extends our interest by drawing on the power of such oppositional logic in the process of auto-reproduction by associating La vie la mort with Derrida’s critique of the Hegelian family in Glas, where Hegel claims the privilege of the father-son lineage while crossing out the role of the female. It is precisely this coded mechanism in familial reproduction that finds its echo in the writing of François Jacob and Georges Canguilhem, where the meaning of heritage becomes understood as mere transmission of hierarchical information (26-27), with the result that eugenic measures would proceed to eliminate unwanted differences. The grounding of such a critique comes from Derrida’s explication of an analogy Jacob makes between DNA and text, a view that helps him initiate the accusation of phonologocentrism in Jacob, and McCance concurs: “Indeed, to refer to DNA as a ‘text’ is to borrow a metaphor, in Jacob’s case, an all but outdated metaphor of text drawn from structuralist semiotics, a metaphor through which he reduces ‘text’ to a phonologocentric communicative entity” (30). Hence Derrida’s understanding of DNA’s function: it is the difference along with sameness that get processed and extended through sexual reproduction (31).
Derrida’s critical objective in the seminar not only aims at cultivating an awareness of the problem of inheritance in biological science, but also—and perhaps more interestingly and convincingly—at highlighting the application of such an oppositional logic in biology in modern philosophical institutions, in particular the ENS, where Derrida—teaching then as an agrégé-répétituer—likens the way the philosophy program operates at the institution to the concept of genetic program Jacob proposes, a logos-like message that instructs and repeats generation after generation. Drawing on this theoretical resemblance, in the second chapter McCance then walks us through Derrida’s theory of pedagogy and reemphasizes the unavoidable power inherent in the process of teaching where structural signs are passed along. One problematic function of teaching, especially teaching philosophy, as Derrida diagnoses in his essay “What Is a Teaching Body,” is exactly the auto-productive program that transcribes the coded and repetitive information via the teaching body of the agrégé-répétituer. The act of teaching, therefore, must base its effectiveness on a kind of machinic institutional power “presented as a defense against mutant or contraband influences that threaten the death of the biological or institutional body” (47). By highlighting the mutually supportive roles of the two Derridian texts, McCance, instead of overly emphasizing the rather trite thesis of La vie la mort regarding the oppositional logic of the repetition of the same, directs our attention to the analogy that reveals the pervasiveness of such a biological model on which Jacob relies in educational institutions; we learn from her concluding statement that:
In his reading of Jacob’s program as an apt description of the aggregation program, Derrida demonstrates that both the biological and pedagogical institutions, attempting to ward off difference, constitute reproduction as repetition of the same, although as he remarks every reproduction involves selection and thus the failure of philosophical-biological-pedagogical metalanguage. (50).
Given Derrida’s predicament regarding the presence of ideological power in both academic and scientific institutions, McCance unpacks further the working mechanism of such effort to automate and rigidify the process of teaching and biological reproduction in the following chapter, by invoking Derrida’s curious rendering of Nietzsche’s name and philosophical legacy in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. This reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo functions as an apology for Nietzsche’s posthumous negative influence by arguing that the dissemination of the autobiography depends not on the author’s own signature but the ear of the other who cosigns with differences in hearing or translating the original text. The riddle with which Derrida begins his text—the death of Nietzsche’s father and the life of his mother at the moment he is born—helps foster the sense of self in Nietzsche’s course of life, which, in turn, leads to Derrida’s association of Nietzsche’s description of his life with the process by which one obtains an identity and becomes oneself. Such a process is represented through the development of the name:
“There, this is who I am, a certain masculine and a certain feminine. Ich bin der und der, a phrase which means all these things. You will not be able to hear and understand my name unless you hear it with an ear attuned to the name of the dead man and the living feminine—the double and divided name of the father who is dead and the mother who is living on” (Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, 16).
But the continuation of the name after death—the living, namely—depends not on the bearer of the name but on the persons who listen to the name and revive it in the process of infinite eternal return; hence, according to Derrida, one cannot ascribe to Nietzsche the atrocities that the Nazi perpetrated: “One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness” (30). To emphasize the fluidity of life death that refuses any form of consolidation of Nietzsche’s thought under the unity of his proper name, as Heidegger reads and interprets Nietzsche through the “Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition” (The Reproduction of Life Death, 57), McCance aptly connects the three seminal concepts Derrida exploits to contest the institutional or scientific subjectivity grounded by oppositional and hierarchical logic: autobiography, the ear, academic freedom (53), of which the ear is given special emphasis in the rest of the book. After a brief characterization of the Hegelian-Heideggerian line of thought that shares a synthetic tendency to fold and classify an identity within an unchanging personal proper name, McCance explains the Derridian alternative that sees heritance as a process, with the remark that
“The temporal deference upsets the linear notion of time, making the writing of autobiography an ongoing life death affair, an alliance between the living and the dead, a case of death in life […]” (61).
An intriguing idea that appears near the end of the third chapter and runs throughout the rest of the book—perhaps the most memorable elements of the text—is the (re)formulation of Derrida’s view that the study of the relation between life and death demands an interdisciplinary effort. Modern biologists’ efforts to decode the living by treating it as text, Derrida argues, by no means simply the methodology; quite the contrary. The texualization of life inserts a third term—the text—between life and death, and thus, “the referential subject/object paradigm no longer suffices, a changed situation for all disciplines—or at least, a change that would be required for revitalization of the academic institution” (69). An interdisciplinary transition of the academic institution—in the spirit of Nietzsche—is necessary for the future collaborative study of life, a key point McCance proposes here: “The radical ‘interdisciplinarity’ that, for want of a better term, I read La vie la mort to recommend is as much needed today as it was in the 1970s and as it was in the German university of Nietzsche’s day” (69). In such a spirit, Chapter 4 traces the transdisciplinary effort of an oppositional logic that may be found in Marxist political economy, the Jacobian biological theory of life, Alexander Graham Bell’s speech reproduction theory, and the eugenics movements in American history. Centering on the notion of production that entails man’s distinct cerebral ability to control products and eliminate the redundant and undesirable, Derrida surmises that interchanging usages of production and reproduction in Jacob’s work indicates his belief that “man distinguishes himself from animals by assuming control over the products of evolution” (77). In a similar fashion, McCance adds, phonetic speech is reproduced via Bell’s invention of the phonautograph, a speech producing apparatus preceding the appearance of the telephone that makes visible the phonetic signs by a “mechanical theory of hearing” (87). Bell’s essentialist momentum of reproducing the same speech by reducing its abnormal patterns finds its echo in the American eugenics movement, where inheritance is controlled in accordance with a mechanical model that helps produce offspring of desired types.
Chapter 5 develops in detail an essential line of thought Derrida addresses in La vie la mort, the dangerous power of scientific knowledge that is in part unavoidable. McCance finds inspiration in Derrida’s final seminar, “The Beast & the Sovereign,” where a consciousness of knowledge-as-sovereign is always present alongside the process of scientific inquiries, a demonstration of man’s hierarchical and theological power over the beast that lends force to a Catholic ethics, one that “reproduces a double body, an imperishable life worth more than natural or animal life, even as, paradoxically, the church reduces ethics to the automaticity, to the technics or technical reason, from which, at least since Vatican I (1869-1870), it has sought self-protection” (116). However, for Derrida, such a religious goal of self-protection or immunization—standing in line with the oppositional logic criticized in La vie la mort—causes an internal conflict: “religion’s efforts at immunization end up attacking, as an external contaminant, what is already internal to its own body, and indeed necessary for its survival” (116). This self-destructive tendency within religious bodies (similar to the concept of “the politics of politics” that Geoffrey Bennington has recently proposed) finds its secular recurrences in the contemporary “non-speciesism” ethical theories developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, two modes of thought that primarily concern the rights of the animal. Conjoining other works of Derrida, such as The Animal Therefore I Am, The Beast & the Sovereign, McCance returns to the principal theme in La vie la mort and contends that Derrida’s formulations provide “a critical resource for developing non-sovereign, non-prescriptive, non-oppositional and non-anthropocentric approaches to ethics in the age of the Anthropocene” (122).
By way of Freud’s implicit counter to the Hegelian and Jacobian oppositional logic of the living in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, McCance offers a holistic account of an earlier theme that the study of life requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is beyond the capacity of science or philosophy. Derrida was intrigued by the Freudian methodology of speculation, a view that tends to explicate the meaning of pleasure in terms of the variation of quantitative energy, an economic theory that concentrates on the relation between two quantities with unknown essences (130). Grounded by such a model, Derrida moves on to note that the Freudian theory of life death—or Eros Thanatos—defies the Hegelian-Jacobian program that reproduces only the same. On the contrary, Freud writes with a sense of confusion that also surprisingly breaks with the logocentric convention of the production of sameness: “[…] Derrida reads Freud’s account of reproduction in Beyond as offering an alternative ‘logic’ to Jacob’s, an alterity on the side of life and living on” (146). Life, therefore, is not opposed to death in the form of an either/or, but supplements and becomes interdependent with it, with a nexus of difference that always moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and binary judgements.
The Reproduction of Life Death is a strange book, precisely because McCance writes it in deconstruction but at the same time out of Derrida. We read an anxious awareness of the not-so-spectacular source text with a rather trite thesis along with a rhizomic effort of McCance’s to move beyond the scope of La vie la mort—just as Derrida tries to move beyond the limitations of the life/death opposition in the process of the continuation of heritance—to make the seminar itself an intertextual nexus in relation to Derrida’s oeuvre. McCance rigorously highlights the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of life and the living—a central theme of La vie la mort and, perhaps most importantly, reveals Derrida’s courage in the text to confront the dogmatism and sacredness of modern science, a spirit of the spur that is increasingly difficult to find in the weakening voice of the humanities.
McCance, Dawne. The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
Marguerite La Caze’s aim as editor of the volume, Phenomenology and Forgiveness (2018), is to enhance phenomenology by investigating ways that it could examine forgiveness as an experience (La Caze 2018, vii). Forgiveness, she claims, has become an increasingly important issue in philosophy given recent developments such as the global reconciliation commissions in South Africa and the Solomon Islands (vii). Moreover, La Caze believes that phenomenologists can offer insightful analyses of first-person experiences of forgiveness, not least because many of them have struggled intensely with the issue of forgiveness themselves (e.g. Husserl, Sartre and Stein) (vii).
Two key aspects inform the approach to phenomenology adopted in this volume. First, the volume features an open-ended, comprehensive view of phenomenology that La Caze terms “wild phenomenology”; this view explains why thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology (e.g. Jankélévitch, Camus, Arendt and Derrida) have also been included (x). Second, the volume features “critical phenomenology”, continuing a tradition established by philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and developed by more contemporary thinkers like Matthew Ratcliffe, Havi Carel and Jill Stauffer (La Caze 2018, xiv; Murphy 2018, 199). While adherents of critical phenomenology retain phenomenology’s traditional emphasis on first-person experience, they also diverge from its emphasis on subjectivity by focusing instead on intersubjectivity (Murphy 2018, 199). Here, La Caze refers to Lisa Guenther’s notion that critical phenomenology is not simply a theory but a “practice of liberation”; that is, it conceives of phenomenology as a philosophy that is constantly transforming, and which, in turn, transforms the world (Guenther 2017, 203, cited in La Caze 2018, xiv). Hence, contrary to the common view that phenomenology is purely “descriptive” (Murphy 2018, 199), this volume insightfully demonstrates how it has real-world application through its capacity to inform and motivate action. The volume has a facilitative tripartite structure encompassing: (1) “Experiences of forgiveness”, (2) “Paradoxes of forgiveness”, and (3) “Ethics and politics of forgiveness”. Before evaluating the volume further, I will discuss the key claims posited by the writers of each section.
- Experiences of Forgiveness
The writers of section one reveal how the complexities of forgiveness are accentuated when it is examined in terms of the lived experiences of individuals and collectivities. They also reveal how the specificity of these experiences may prompt us to question those conventional notions of morality and religion that are intended to have universal application. In chapter one, Shannon Hoff examines what constitutes a morally “good” action in relation to Hegel’s account of conscience, confession and forgiveness in Phenomenology of Spirit (Hoff 2018, 4). According to her interpretation, this complex issue of moral action is staged as a confrontation between a moral agent who performs what she considers a “good” act and a judge who assesses its morality (or lack thereof) (4). Importantly, this confrontation embodies a necessary contradiction. Theoretically-speaking, applying moral standards is meant to be universal, unambiguous and objective (7). However, in actuality, realising a moral law through action is necessarily performed from a biased standpoint because a specific agent must devise her own understanding of this law in a highly distinctive situation (4-5). In this situation, both the agent and judge are human and thus imperfect; lacking omniscience, they can only view things from their own perspectives, perspectives that are necessarily shaped by their own experiences, projects and interests (4-6). Rather than self-righteously reproaching an agent for her biased standpoint, Hoff argues that we should assess an action’s moral value through intersubjective means, that is, by simultaneously empathising with others’ situations and being open to their criticisms, and vice versa (15).
Importantly, Hoff offers valuable insights into how Hegel’s account of forgiveness can be applied to tackle controversial political issues. Her analysis is particularly relevant to a political environment increasingly characterised firstly by “intersectionality” (17), wherein multifaceted and often conflicting notions of identity render pursuing justice even more complex. Secondly, the political terrain has also been significantly altered by the rise of social media (12), whereby the “public naming and shaming” that occur, for example, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram often only permit a reductive response to complex political issues. Consequently, productive public discourse is stifled; one is either praised or condemned for supporting or dismissing a viewpoint. By contrast, Hoff demonstrates how one could respond constructively to sensitive socio-political issues like adopting another’s perceived oppression as one’s own cause (12). She provides the example of a Westerner (e.g. a “middle-class, white, Canadian man”) combatting what he perceives as the mistreatment of women in a manifestly different cultural environment (e.g. a “specific, conservative, Muslim culture”) (11). Hoff claims that such an individual’s desire to perform a “good” act should neither be ridiculed nor dismissed (8 and 14), for instance, by claiming that he is not equipped to help just because he is neither Muslim nor a woman. Rather, she argues that we should view his pursuit in a positive light as his chance for further education, self-interrogation and change; ideally, he would seek to learn more about the other’s situation (from the other) and critique his own actions based on any newly-acquired knowledge (14).
In chapter two, Nicolas De Warren explores how Arendt’s phenomenological approach to forgiveness emphasises its temporal, intersubjective and ontological dimensions (De Warren 2018, 25). Understanding Arendt’s conception of forgiveness, de Warren claims, requires an understanding of how it is bound up with two other key concepts in her philosophy: “natality” and “plurality” (25). Forgiveness, for Arendt, firstly entails plurality because the act of forgiving requires at least two people (the forgiver and the forgiven); one cannot forgive one’s own act of harming the other (33). Secondly, Arendt grounds her concept of natality in the interrelated notions of “respect” and “distance” (37-38). For De Warren, Arendt’s emphasis on respect means that she thereby departs from traditional moral or religious conceptions of forgiveness. Rather than emphasising conventional concepts like “salvation, charity” and “intimacy”, Arendt highlights the gap that respect (re)institutes in the self-other relationship that allows the other (whom one has forgiven) to appear “unequal to her appearance” (38-39, emphasis in original). That is, the other is thereupon presented as different from her past self; her identity no longer coincides with her misdeed/s (34). This reinstitution of distance, de Warren claims, is essential to natality as it allows the self-other relationship to begin anew; the other reacquires her “agency” and capacity for action, aspects she effectively gave up by doing us wrong (33-34 and 39). By thus freeing us (or in Arendt’s terms, “redeeming us”) from the immutability of the past, forgiveness brings about the “re-temporaliz[ation]” of interpersonal relationships (25-26, 30 and 34). As will become apparent, many writers in the volume also draw explicitly or implicitly on this concept of forgiveness as renewal; indeed, Arendt’s philosophy seems to form the volume’s undercurrent.
In chapter three, Simone Drichel draws on Emmanuel Levinas’ writings to explore how forgiveness is experienced during and after trauma. Drichel finds it curious that forgiveness does not feature more prominently in Levinas’ philosophy, given its relevance to his account of “traumatic subject constitution” in more mature works like Otherwise than Being (Drichel 2018, 43-44). Importantly, she challenges what she views as Levinas’ “‘counter-intuitive’” claim in his notion of “ethical relationality” that one’s “vulnerable exposure” to others is always experienced as a “‘good trauma’” (44 and 55). Indeed, Levinas even suggests that this vulnerability should be embraced instead of dreaded or evaded (46). In her challenge to Levinas, Drichel investigates the links between his later idea of the “traumatic force of the il y a” (in Otherwise than Being) and psychoanalytic accounts of trauma (44 and 52). While acknowledging that Levinas himself was unsympathetic towards psychoanalysis, she also argues that there are key similarities between Levinas’ conception of the “il y a” and the psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott’s conception of “early infantile traumatization” (50-51). In both notions, Drichel claims, the reaction to trauma is a “flight into monadic existence” or a defence mechanism that the individual employs to protect herself against trauma (52).
Such a reaction, Drichel claims, is problematic because it is damaging to both ethics and relationality. By fleeing into a state of “invulnerability”, the traumatised individual thereby becomes insusceptible to the other’s “ethical demand”, rendering her effectively “‘ethically impaired’” (50 and 52, emphasis in original). Drichel argues that this “unethical ‘inversion’” undermines Levinas’ ethical framework and is thus something to which he should have paid more attention (52-53). To increase its robustness, Drichel suggests that Levinas’ trauma-based ethics needs to be supplemented by a psychoanalytic interpretation of trauma’s devastating impact (51). She draws on the Hungarian psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi and the Austrian author and Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry’s suggestions that forgiveness is only possible through restoring ethical relationality, that is, by restoring the self’s capacity and willingness to leave its fortress of invulnerability and be rendered vulnerable to the other once again (54-57). As with Arendt, forgiveness for Drichel thus involves the renewal and transformation of the self-other relationship, which she conceives broadly as reinstituting an “ethical” relation with the “world of others” (58). Moreover, for Drichel, this willingness to re-experience vulnerability in turn relies on the community’s establishment of a secure, “‘holding environment’” around the individual (an expression she borrows from Winnicott) which tempers the sense of isolation that follows the traumatic event (45 and 55).
In chapter four, Peter Banki takes up this theme of trauma by examining how a devastating event like the Holocaust can dramatically change one’s views of forgiveness. To do this, Banki investigates the contradiction between Vladimir Jankélévitch’s position on forgiveness in Forgiveness (Le Pardon) (1967) and his later work, Pardonner? (1971), a contradiction acknowledged by Jankélévitch himself (Banki 2018, 66 and 72). In his earlier work Forgiveness, Jankélévitch argues for a “hyperbolical ethics of forgiveness” based on love, whereby even the unforgivable must be forgiven (66). However, later in Pardonner?, Jankélévitch claims instead that the unforgivable cannot be forgiven; indeed, for him, the mass murder of Jews (the Shoah) marked forgiveness’ demise (72). Banki, however, does not view this contradiction as a weakness of Jankélévitch’s philosophy, claiming instead that it is an appropriate response to the “hyper-ethical” nature of the Holocaust (66). The inhumane crimes of the Shoah cannot be forgiven because neither proportionate punishments nor specific offenders can be attributed to them (73).
For Banki, if forgiveness can be said to be found in such circumstances, it involves acknowledging Jankélévitch’s contradiction for what it is rather than trying to resolve it (66). This form of forgiveness, Banki suggests, is apparent in Jankélévitch’s decision to reject a young German’s invitation to visit him in Germany (74-75). In his letter, the German expressed feelings of accountability for the events of the Holocaust but challenged the idea that he himself was guilty for crimes he had not committed (74). Partly responsible for Jankélévitch’s refusal of the invitation was his radical view that virtually all Germans and Austrians were “Nazi perpetrators and collaborators” (72). Banki approves of Derrida’s interpretation of Jankélévitch’s refusal as the confrontation between two conflicting discourses: the reconcilable and the irreconcilable, whereby the unforgivable (e.g. mass murder) ultimately cannot be forgiven (75).
Interestingly, Banki also takes Jankélévitch’s thought even further by claiming that, in the context of forgiveness, lesser and more mundane wrongdoings can be viewed in the same way as inhumane crimes like the Shoah (77). This is because any wrongdoing cannot be entirely forgiven; a trace of the unforgivable will always remain. This leads Banki to the radical conclusion that forgiveness does not exist and may have never existed (77). In saying this, Banki’s reading of Jankélévitch departs from religious accounts of forgiveness (e.g. the Judeo-Christian account) which assume that forgiveness occurs whenever it is undertaken in the spirit of good will and magnanimity (77). Banki’s suggestion that forgiveness may have never existed is perhaps the most radical view of forgiveness or unforgiveness presented in the volume. While Banki does suggest that an “impure forgiveness” based in Jankélévitch’s thought may yet be created in the future, he does not really expand on what this might look like (77). His chapter thus ends with a promising suggestion for future research.
- Paradoxes of Forgiveness
The writers of section two take up the previous notion of contradiction as their overall theme when exploring collective forgiveness, self-forgiveness and the role of forgiveness in politics (or lack thereof). In chapter five, Gaëlle Fiasse demonstrates how Paul Ricoeur’s account of forgiveness, for example, in Memory, History and Forgetting, displays interesting points of similarity and difference to/from Derrida, Jankélévitch and Arendt’s (Fiasse 2018, 85 and 88). Like certain aspects of Jankélévitch and Derrida’s philosophies, Ricoeur conceives of forgiveness as an “unconditional gift” of love (91). As Fiasse explains it, Ricoeur’s innovative conception of forgiveness is represented by the intersection of two asymmetrical axes, with the asymmetrical aspect implying that a wrongdoing does not automatically imply forgiveness of it. The upper and lower poles of the vertical axis are occupied by the unconditional gift of forgiveness and the “depth of the fault of the wrongdoer”, respectively (87). Influenced by Jankélévitch, Ricoeur begins his account with the gravity of the misdeed rather than the unconditional gift of forgiveness to emphasise the magnitude of the wrongdoing and the need for the wrongdoer to be held accountable for his/her unjust actions (88). Moreover, like Arendt, forgiveness, for Ricoeur, implies a renewal of the self-other relationship through the reinstitution of agency and action to the wrongdoer (90).
On the one hand, Fiasse acknowledges Ricoeur’s claim that forgiveness can only be realised between people rather than political and juridical institutions (87 and 92). (In my later discussion of chapter seven, I will show that this specific view of Ricoeur’s is also shared by Edith Stein.) On the other hand, Fiasse also posits that the above-mentioned institutions may play a larger role in Ricoeur’s own philosophy than he sometimes suggests through his notion of the “incognito” (an expression she borrows from Klaus Kodalle) or “spirit of forgiveness” (87 and 93). She highlights how, in these institutions, the “incognito” of forgiveness tempers the violence involved in punishments, for instance, by allowing the wrongdoer a fair trial and access to rehabilitation, and also facilitates the resumption of regular interpersonal relationships voided of hatred and vengeance (87, 93 and 95). In emphasising this possibility of renewal, Ricoeur, Fiasse claims, thereby departs from Derrida’s belief that forgiveness is unattainable (85 and 87).
In chapter six, Jennifer Ang explores this key theme of renewal from the perspectives of both forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Like Banki, she investigates how experiencing a traumatic event like the Holocaust can prompt a serious reconsideration of one’s position on forgiveness. To do this, Ang draws on the Italian-Jewish writer, chemist and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi’s notion of the “gray zone”, a notion she applies to challenge the supposedly clear-cut distinction between “innocent” victims and “morally reprehensible” collaborators under totalitarian regimes like Nazism (Ang 2018, 103). Levi, Ang claims, questions one’s right to morally condemn collaborators if one has not lived through the traumatic events of the Holocaust. Accounting for Levi’s disapproval of hasty moral condemnation, Ang is not interested in whether we could or should forgive the Nazis or collaborators. Rather, she uses key concepts in Sartre’s phenomenology such as bad faith, shame and guilt to explore how individuals responded to morally ambivalent situations during World War II (103).
Ang attributes different types of “bad faith” to different types of Holocaust collaborators, depending on the type and degree of their “collaboration, complicity and compromises” (108). Active collaborators who held privileged positions like the president of the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rombowski, were in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they could act with absolute freedom, that is, completely unconstrained by their facticity (105-106). Ang claims that these collaborators engaged in self-deception; despite recognising that they were accountable for their immoral decisions, they chose to believe that they could not have acted otherwise (106). Turning to the other extreme, Ang claims that Holocaust survivors like Levi who were severely plagued by guilt and shame were also in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they were fully defined by their facticity, of which their past choices were a large part (106 and 108). They also mistakenly believed that those who died by suicide or other causes during the Holocaust were better and more courageous people than themselves (108 and 113). Recovery for these tormented survivors, Ang argues, entails realising that their past does not fully define them because they had been thrown into a “gray zone” wherein any decision would have been morally ambiguous (112). Acknowledging this would allow these survivors to reconfigure their perception of themselves at the end of the Other’s “look”; they would gradually be able to release their feelings of self-hatred and project themselves towards an open future (109-12). Viewed from this reconfigured perspective, survival, Ang suggests, could be perceived not as shameful but rather as an act of defiance against the anti-Semite’s machinations (113).
In chapter seven, Antonio Calcagno explores Edith Stein’s social ontology, redirecting the reader’s attention from how individuals experience forgiveness/self-forgiveness to the phenomenon of collective forgiveness (Calcagno 2018, 118). On the one hand, Stein concurs with Max Scheler that collective responsibility and forgiveness are possible (117). On the other hand, Stein disagrees with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person” whereby individual members “identify” and merge with each other to form a “super-individual”; these members genuinely “feel themselves as one person” (117 and 121). According to Calcagno, understanding Stein’s position on collective forgiveness requires understanding her distinction between two types of sociality: society and community (118). Societies are formed when their members come together to attain a specific objective whereas communities are characterised by a more potent lived experience of sociality whereby people are connected by a “shared sense or meaning”, such as grieving over a mutual friend’s passing (119-20 and 126). While acknowledging that forgiveness in a community can be similarly conceived as a shared sense or meaning, Stein, like Ricoeur, maintains that acts of extending and receiving forgiveness can only transpire between individuals, not groups (118). What prevents Stein from agreeing with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person”, Calcagno suggests, is her “strong sense of individuation” (121). This in turn arises from her view that the combination of “body [and affect], psyche and spirit” that is expressed in an individual’s “personality” is idiosyncratic to that individual (121), thereby implying the impossibility of attributing a singular combination of traits to multiple unique individuals.
Calcagno’s innovative move here is extending Stein’s account to consider how forgiveness can also feature within a society as a common goal (124). He provides the example of the Canadian government’s commitment to achieving reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. This involved formulating, accepting and adhering to, the recommendations set forth by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the latter of which was responsible for investigating injustices within the residential school system (124-25). As my imminent discussion of chapter eight will demonstrate, Geoffrey Adelsberg, by contrast, views the Canadian government’s attempt at reconciliation with a more critical eye. Nevertheless, Calcagno’s overall suggestion about forgiveness’ role in a society highlights forgiveness’ potential contribution to socio-political change and thus warrants further investigation.
In chapter eight, Adelsberg’s analysis of forgiveness revolves around a real-world event, namely the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota (Adelsberg 2018, 131). Adelsberg uses this event as a case study to support his claim that causing enduring harm to others is damaging to, and defeats the purpose of, appeals for forgiveness. During the protests, a group of military veterans represented by Wes Clark, Jr., requested forgiveness for past injustices caused by settler colonialism in the Oceti Sakowin Territory (131). On the one hand, Adelsberg acknowledges the positive aspects of this request; it was a gesture of respect towards the natives and constituted the first steps towards showing regret and accountability for the settlers’ unjust actions (133 and 138). On the other hand, Adelsberg claims that Clark’s appeal for forgiveness ultimately fell short of its aim to renew the relationship between both parties (131-32). Justifying this claim, he refers to Glen Coulthard’s critique of the Canadian politics of reconciliation, drawing especially on Coulthard’s claim that the discourses of transitional justice had been misused therein. According to Coulthard, such discourses had been wrongfully mobilised to forgive past injustices rather than to recognise the devastating truth of present and continuing wrongdoings (134). Applying similar criticisms to the Standing Rock protests, Adelsberg claims that current issues like land rights, Native sovereignty and self-governance have been similarly overlooked (131 and 134). Taking a phenomenological perspective, Adelsberg concludes that Clark failed to achieve a “renewed moral relationship” between the parties because he neither recognised the gravity of continuing wrongs nor sought collective ways to rectify them (132).
Adelsberg makes his second main criticism of Clark by drawing on Leanne Simpson’s critique of Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau’s approach to reconciliation (138). Like the figure of Trudeau depicted in Simpson’s critique, Clark’s response, Adelsberg claims, failed to transcend a “gestural politics of juxtaposition”; that is, his appeal for forgiveness attained its significance mainly because it embodied a different and improved approach to reconciliation and forgiveness from the past (138-39). For Adelsberg, this entails that Clark’s message lacked real-world effect. It did little to advance the movement towards taking collective responsibility for injustices because Clark was not sanctioned by his peers to deliver his message of forgiveness; the views he expressed were thus mainly limited to his own (132 and 139-40).
- Ethics and Politics of Forgiveness
Further exploring themes already introduced in the volume, the writers of section three examine the role of forgiveness in morally and politically ambivalent situations created under totalitarian rule. In chapter nine, Matthew Sharpe examines Camus’ notion of forgiveness in works written after L’Homme Revolté (1951) that were influenced by the events of World War II (Sharpe 2018, 149). Sharpe identifies three key features of Camus’ account of forgiveness in these later works: (1) an emphasis on self-forgiveness, (2) the separation of forgiveness from notions of both “absolute innocence” and “objective guilt” or “original sin”, and (3) the important role of forgiveness in establishing and sustaining cohesion amongst people (160-61). Like Ang and Banki’s analyses, Sharpe’s interpretation of Camus features the perspective that the inhumane world created by totalitarian regimes like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia significantly reconfigured how thinkers perceived forgiveness (153 and 155). In Camus’ own view, totalitarianism “institutes a world without innocents, and without innocence”, thereby rendering forgiveness impossible (153).
In chapter ten, David Brennan investigates how Václav Havel’s views of forgiveness were developed against the background of the turbulent post-Communist period in Czechoslovakia and were informed by his phenomenological conception of political morality (Brennan 2018, 166). Prior to its downfall in 1989, the Communist Government employed informants to uncover possible dissidence amongst its citizens to secure maximum control (165). Havel, a dissident himself, became President in 1990 and thus had to address the challenging issue of collaborators, some of whom had severely mistreated their fellow citizens (166 and 170-71). Brennan focuses on the ambivalence of Havel’s response to the collaborators. While Havel denounced the witch-hunt provoked by the newly instituted “lustration act” (1991), he nevertheless did not stop the “public naming and shaming” of those who had committed severe wrongdoings (170-71). According to Brennan, this is because Havel recognised that those who had been mistreated deserved justice and that he could therefore not mandate all citizens to forgive the collaborators (174). Nevertheless, influenced by Arendt, Havel was keenly aware of the centrality of forgiveness to renewal, both for individuals and within the wider political domain (170 and 173-75).
Havel’s inclusion of forgiveness in his response to the dilemma was heavily criticised by some (166 and 172). Brennan claims that Havel’s response was firstly influenced by his mentor, Jan Patočka’s notion of “living in truth”, that is, ensuring that our actions are governed by our relationships with, and accountability to, other humans rather than political exigencies. Under this view, politics is not the main determinant of action, but rather one consideration among many (167). Secondly, Havel, Brennan claims, was influenced by Tomáš Masaryk’s humanist philosophy and thus believed that morality could not be separated from politics (167-68). Accordingly, Havel was sceptical of passing hasty “guilty” or “not guilty” judgements on collaborators who had been placed in a morally compromising position by the government (169). Lastly, Brennan astutely points out that both Arendt and Havel recognised that many wrongdoings were committed unconsciously because collaboration was so deeply embedded within social relationships that it was hard to detect (174-75). Like Ang’s interpretation of Levi, then, Brennan’s analysis of Havel also raises the issue of whether one could be required to request forgiveness for wrongdoings over which one had little awareness and control.
In chapter eleven, Karen Pagani, like Hoff, contextualises her Heideggerian analysis of collective, political forgiveness within the rise of information technology and social media (Pagani 2018, 181). Central to this development for Pagani is the ability for anyone to engage in public discourse, however informed their opinions may be (181-82). Pagani does not critique this development due to her belief that public discourse on political forgiveness must admit a diversity of views from various disciplines (182-83). Although recognising the challenge of trying to achieve agreement in this discourse, she, like political theorists such as Donald Shriver, stresses the need to establish “shared, conciliatory narratives” (181-82).
Pagani’s account nicely complements Ang’s analysis of individual self-forgiveness by demonstrating how self-forgiveness can also be collective. Pagani draws on Heidegger’s notions of “care, resoluteness, and the call of conscience” in Part II of Being and Time (1927) to explore the place of “self-reflexive ‘forgiveness’” in Dasein’s existence (181 and 190). Dasein, she claims, forgives itself when it accepts that it had diverged and will continue to diverge from its authentic self by being influenced by the “they-self” (190). Self-forgiveness is necessary to Dasein’s existence because Dasein can neither completely divorce itself from the world where the “they” reside nor remain permanently in an authentic state. For Pagani, forgiveness in Heidegger’s philosophy thus constitutes the path by which Dasein transitions between the “I-self” and the “they-self” (190). To advance her argument, Pagani extends this notion of self-forgiveness to the Dasein of a collectivity, arguing that a group of individuals can also be deceived by the “they-self” (191). Linking collective self-forgiveness to politics, Pagani, like other writers in the volume, emphasises renewal, which she conceives as the generation of new collectivities through the process of reconciliation (193).
In chapter twelve, Ann Murphy departs from the approach of other writers in the volume by not performing a phenomenological analysis of how forgiveness is experienced but concentrating instead on how forgiveness could enhance the phenomenological method (Murphy 2018, 197). While acknowledging the common view that the phenomenological method is primarily descriptive, Murphy is nevertheless more interested in how it could be carried out in a critical, “ameliorative” spirit to support and thereby advance ethical and political endeavours (197). Murphy begins her analysis by reminding us that even Edmund Husserl’s writings adopted this critical, ethical and political approach because he perceived the crisis in the European sciences as a wider “crisis of humanity” (197-98). Husserl, Murphy claims, thus endowed phenomenology with a “redemptive” power, an aspect shared by notions of restorative justice and forgiveness (198). Moreover, like Arendt, redemption for Husserl is achieved through renewal, which he conceives as critically examining the past to enhance the future (198).
For Murphy, the more contemporary practice of critical phenomenology draws further on this redemptive or “restorative spirit” that often remains concealed in phenomenology (199). Murphy claims that analysing shame as a “philosophical mood” is key to understanding how forgiveness can bring out phenomenology’s ameliorative potential (201-202). Drawing on the work of Michèle le Doeuff, Judith Butler and Levinas, she argues that philosophy’s shame stems from its misguided attempts to reject other disciplines by maintaining the illusion that it is the superior discipline (201-202). Furthermore, central to the redemptive potential of philosophical shame is its “ambivalence”; philosophy can either try to remain self-contained or it can engage in a constructive self-critique that acknowledges the merit of other disciplines (202). Influenced by Robert Bernasconi, Murphy concludes the volume on the hopeful note that this ameliorative approach will project phenomenology into an open future (204 and 206-207).
I conclude with some overall evaluative remarks about the volume that have been derived from the critical overview presented above. First, given its adoption of the “wild phenomenology” approach, this volume might be of more interest to readers with a similarly broad and open-ended understanding of phenomenology rather than those with a stricter understanding. Being sympathetic to the volume’s approach, I believe that the addition of thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology, especially Arendt and Derrida, produces an intricate, dialogical and consequently enriched discussion of forgiveness.
Second, while the volume covers both theory and practice (La Caze 2018, xv), its focus on critical phenomenology effectively highlights the practical implications of the phenomenological method in terms of how ideas of forgiveness are exemplified in, and can be applied to, real-world situations. Adelsberg’s phenomenological analysis of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests is a case in point. While critical phenomenology may not appeal to those interested in a primarily theoretical discussion of phenomenological ideas, I believe that this “practical” emphasis makes the volume highly accessible and engaging and provides promising openings for future research. (See, for example, my earlier comments on Banki and Calcagno’s chapters.)
Third, the volume offers important philosophical insights into the complexities of forgiveness by combining diverse and sometimes conflicting views of similar types or modes of forgiveness such as individual and collective forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Diverse views of the same real-world events (e.g. the Holocaust and Canada’s attempts at reconciliation) are also provided, highlighting that there is rarely a clear-cut answer to how and when forgiveness might be given or not given. Indeed, the inclusion of an entire section on the “paradoxes of forgiveness” demonstrates La Caze’s appreciation of forgiveness’ complexities and nuances.
Lastly, despite the diversity of perspectives presented, continuity is maintained throughout the volume because central themes like trauma, conflict, renewal and futurity are regularly revisited. The choice of these themes is commendable in two main ways. First, and related to point three above, the writers’ analyses of trauma and conflict remind us that forgiveness is not a straightforward concept by directing our attention to situations where forgiveness’ limits are tested. Second, the focus on renewal and futurity highlights the important point that forgiveness is rarely an end in itself; rather, it is a pathway towards revitalised relationships and socio-political advancement. Overall, the volume provides an insightful, nuanced and frank exploration of forgiveness and was a pleasure to read.
La Caze, Marguerite. 2018. “Introduction: Situating Forgiveness within Phenomenology.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, vii-xxii. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Hoff, Shannon. 2018. “The Right and the Righteous: Hegel on Confession, Forgiveness, and the Necessary Imperfection of Political Action.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 3-24. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
De Warren, Nicolas. 2018. “For the Love of the World: Redemption and Forgiveness in Arendt.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 25-42. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Drichel, Simone. 2018. “’A forgiveness that remakes the world’: Trauma, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness in the Work of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 43-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Banki, Peter. 2018. “Hyper-Ethical Forgiveness and the Inexpiable.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 65-82. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Fiasse, Gaëlle. 2018. “Forgiveness in Ricoeur.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 85-102. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Ang, Jennifer. 2018. “Self-Forgiveness in the Gray Zone.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 103-16. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Calcagno, Antonio. 2018. “Can a Community Forgive? Edith Stein on the Lived Experience of Communal Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 117-30. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Adelsberg, Geoffrey. 2018. “Collective Forgiveness in the Context of Ongoing Harms.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 131-46. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Sharpe, Matthew. 2018. “Camus and Forgiveness: After the Fall.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 149-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Brennan, David. 2018. “Václav Havel’s Call for Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 165-80. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Pagani, Karen A. 2018. “Toward a Heideggerian Approach to the Problem of Political Forgiveness, or the Dignity of a Question.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 181-96. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Murphy, Ann. V. 2018. “Phenomenology, Crisis, and Repair.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 197-208. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.