Viorel Cernica (Ed.): Studies in the Pre-Judicative Hermeneutics and Meontology, First Volume

Studies in the Pre-Judicative Hermeneutics and Meontology, First Volume Book Cover Studies in the Pre-Judicative Hermeneutics and Meontology, First Volume
Viorel Cernica (Ed.)
Bucharest University Press

Reviewed by: Andrei Simionescu-Panait (Romanian Society for Phenomenology)

This volume engages with Pre-judicative Hermeneutics, a phenomenologically- and hermeneutically-oriented framework that rose to prominence in Romanian-speaking academic circles in 2013 with Viorel Cernica’s Judgment and Time: The Phenomenology of Judgment (Judecată şi timp. Fenomenologia judicativului). Like Cernica’s monograph, this volume is in Romanian. A second volume in the series has just been published. These publications are driven by scholars at the University of Bucharest.

Cernica’s idea of a Pre-judicative Hermeneutics is intended as a counterpart to Husserlian phenomenology. His point of departure is constitutive phenomenology; the brand of phenomenology that focuses on the ways in which judgments are constituted from an otherwise pre-reflective level of experience. For Cernica, there are certain aspects of judgment that are not constituted and cannot support constitution. He has attempted to account for these aspects of ‘non-judicative’ experience.

The starting point for such an account is a process of ‘de-constitution’. According to this process, the hermeneuts’ job is to engage with quasi-objectual pre-judgment and prevent it from reaching a constituted judgment. This may remind some readers of the illustrative charioteer metaphor that Plato invokes in his Theaetetus. Focussing on an impulsive pre-judgment reveals its inherent behavior and promotes a better understanding of both judgment and its correlates.

The volume brings together five texts plus an extensive introduction by Cernica. A reader familiar with more traditional approaches to phenomenology may find it useful to commence with Oana Șerban’s contribution. Cernica’s chapter is more of a straight-to-business type of philosophical text and less of a pedagogical introduction. Of the remaining chapters, two use Cernica’s phenomenologically inspired method of inquiry regarding pre-judgments. A third can be contrasted with the first two in both terminology and scope. The last contribution attempts to explain why meontology is a natural match for Cernica’s brand of hermeneutics. On the one hand, these contributions are the results of an intersubjective phenomenological effort (what Herbert Spiegelberg’s calls‘symphilosophizing’). Indeed, Mihai-Dragoș Vadana and Remus Breazu’s respective chapters have emerged from lengthy seminar discussions. On the other hand, the reader should not expect a single, consistent and coordinated approach on behalf of the contributors.

When it comes to Cernica’s introduction, he focuses on the concepts of pre-judgment and non-judgment. Cernica believes that the constitutive nature of traditional phenomenology forfeits the possibility of making sense ofthe pre-judicative level of experience. According to the de-constitutive process, not only do I have to suspend judgment, it is more interesting to try to understand how I can roll back my instinct to judge in a certain way. A more traditional phenomenologist may argue that rolling back my instinct to judge is a constitutive process in itself, so any sense of de-constitution is actually a way of constituting a portion of the world in a different way altogether. According to Cernica, one cannot deny that every experience (in the broadest sense of the word) is constituted. What one can deny is the idea that every experience encompasses all previous experiences such that they bloom into full judgments. Not all experiences result in object fulfillment indicative of judgment because they are cases of de-constitution. At a phenomenological level, such cases refer to moments of experience where the order of the lifeworld is bothered by something I cannot really place my finger on (no matter what I do). This persistent yet elusive bothering is the non-judicative gateway towards the permanently tense pre-judicative sphere of experiencing that is the focal point for pre-judicative hermeneutics.

Vadana attempts to marry ideas from Cernica’s method with those of Romanian philosopher Mircea Florian. He underlines the contrast between constitutive judging and regulative judging, which revolves around being configured by judgment’s formal structure (subject-predicate) – in the case of constitutive judging – or not – in the case of regulative judging. Vadana proceeds from this distinction in order to explore the non-formal origin of regulative judging. He finds a similar conceptual behavior in both regulative judging and the notion of recessivity. The basic formulation of recessivity involves the distinction between emerging and the source of the emergence. For instance, culture recedes from nature, objects of consciousness recede from acts of consciousness, and so on. By analogy, Vadana sees that regulative judging recedes from regular constitutive judging. In a certain sense, thisreflects the de-constitutive move made by Cernica. In order to express the similarities, Vadana focusses on Aristotle’s account of post-predicaments – those stable characteristics that inevitably occur with judgment. Vadana thinks that the study of post-predicaments is, in fact, the study of the phenomenon of pre-judging;one studies consequences to know what one can always expect.

Breazu’s contribution concerns the distinction between absurdity and non-sense. Absurd judgments are problematic but still respect the basic formal requirements of judgments. Even though some arguments are dominated by absurdity, they still make sense and can sometimes develop into convincing philosophical arguments. For instance, for a phenomenologist, the idea of a thing-in-itself is absurd. Rather, phenomenologists acknowledge that things are things one intends in a certain manner. On that basis, phenomenologists can acknowledge that one is able to constitute absurd judgments. Breazu distinguishes between logical absurdity and objectual absurdity. Whereas logical absurdity is something that can be constituted, objectual absurdity is defined by the inability to have full constitution in the field of consciousness. Breazu describes this inability as non-sensical. Appropriating Cernica’s framework, he suggests that something does not make sense if the non-judicative clashes with the formal territory of judgment; if a syntactic slip results from otherwise sound judgments. This can be compared to a case where a quasi-object of consciousness, which has never been constitutively fulfilled (e.g. seeing a mirage under the full summer sunlight), is violently adapted to the formal rigor of the sharpest HD camera. Indeed, it makes no sense to experience a crystal-clear mirage. Breazu shows that Cernica’s focus on de-constitution (as opposed to constitution) can, in fact, enrich phenomenological discourse. It is still unclear whether Cernica interprets his hermeneutics as a species of phenomenology.

Oana Șerban’s chapter provides an assessment of the compatibility of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and pre-judicative hermeneutics. With regards to Merleau-Ponty’s account of perceptual belief, Șerban focusses on the concept of pre-reflection, which is conceived as a guarantee for belief that does not enter the field of judgment. She argues that perceptual belief must rely on the concept of pre-reflection. She traces the roots of Cernica’s concept of pre-judgment in Merleau-Ponty’s concept of pre-reflection. Thus, Șerban’s exegesis adds a supplementary layer of meaning to some of Cernica’s ideas.

Cornel Moraru discusses the idea of meontology in the context of Cernica’s framework. He explores the concept of questioning by applying the idea of de-constitution. He holds that serious questions (as opposed to ironic and rhetorical ones) constitutively rely on a certain nothingness, or absence, without which there could be no questioning. Furthermore, he argues that affectivity is configured by such an absence. Moraru refers to the study of de-constituted questioning as meontology.

This volume’s particular strength relies in its novel ideas and its use of classical philosophical terminology. These innovative ideas will provoke phenomenologists that are interested in the experiential aspects of judgment constitution and de-constitution. However, the volume’s unifying thread does not surface easily; the last two texts are only minimally connected to the theme of pre-judicative hermeneutics. Furthermore, the volume only partially delivers on what it promises, that is, to clarify the meaning and nature of pre-judicative hermeneutics.

Martin Eldracher: Heteronome Subjektivität, Transcript Verlag, 2018

Heteronome Subjektivität: Dekonstruktive und hermeneutische Anschlüsse an die Subjektkritik Heideggers Book Cover Heteronome Subjektivität: Dekonstruktive und hermeneutische Anschlüsse an die Subjektkritik Heideggers
Martin Eldracher
Transcript Verlag
Paperback 39,99 €

Bruce B. Janz (Ed.): Place, Space and Hermeneutics

Place, Space and Hermeneutics Book Cover Place, Space and Hermeneutics
Series: Contributions to Hermeneutics, Vol. 5
Bruce B. Janz (Ed.)
Hardback 139,09 €
XXIV, 531

Reviewed by: Sanna Lehtinen (University of Helsinki)

Place, Space and Hermeneutics is an extensive compilation of articles that cover a wide spectrum of hermeneutical approaches to understanding place and space. It is the 5th volume in Contributions to Hermeneutics series and comprises 37 individual chapters. Hermeneutics is understood quite loosely through philosophical and non-philosophical definitions of it. This is explicitly done in order to avoid diminishing its possibilities: the emphasis is on making visible the richness of current hermeneutical thinking and show new directions and application possibilities for it. Hermeneutics is presented as an umbrella term for a set of methods and perspectives to interpretation that will, and already have proved, to be useful for understanding place and space. How exactly do the fundamental hermeneutic tasks of understanding and interpreting help in making sense of the human relation to space and place? Hermeneutics of place is approached through various very different cases: from imaginary places to embodied experience and from textuality to particular places on the Earth, the specific position of hermeneutics for understanding the human relation to place is shown to be undisputed. One obvious meta-question central to the collection of articles is, what kind of interpretations hermeneutics itself elicits from its authors.

One of the more fundamental themes for an anthology with this type of a theme is the spatial nature of the very situatedness of human beings (v). The interweaving of the ontological and epistemological approaches within hermeneutics is done to a convenient extent: as Jeff Malpas writes in his foreword, the emphasis of the book has been on depicting the hermeneutical engagement with the topics at hand, instead of making a dedication specifically to hermeneutical philosophy (vii). This proves that the approach stays open and close to the topics it is attempting to cover. Another more fundamental question deals with the mechanisms of how place and space contribute to the constitution of the human subjectivity and embodied experience of space. This is a topic that Shaun Gallagher, Sergio F. Martínez, and Melina Gastelum examine more closely in their joint article. The baseline, in a sense, for any hermeneutical relation to the world, comes from understanding how the lived body relates to the world it is by necessity bound to. Understanding the body as it is lived as opposed the ‘corporeal body’ (Körper) brings forth the bodily ramifications for any engagement with place. Kevin Aho takes up this distinction in his contribution and develops the theme of a hermeneutic understanding of the ‘lived-body’ (Leib).

While the application of hermeneutics to place is not new as such, attention has been paid in the book to developing hermeneutic philosophy also towards future needs and purposes. A lot of emphasis is put, quite understandably, on the notion of place. Space is not necessarily discussed to the same extent as place due to the rich, already existing phenomenological tradition concentrating on interpreting place. Space is most often treated in relation to either place or time: direct approaches and experiential perspectives to spatiality become exposed in glimpses. These reflections open up new paths and clarify old conceptions of hermeneutics. It seems clear, that future research will be able to build on the preconception that time and temporality are complemented with place and space within the hermeneutic tradition. The collection makes visible the myriad ways in which hermeneutic philosophy and phenomenology are intertwined and also where their ways part. In this, Ricoeur’s distinction between epistemological (Dilthey) and ontological approaches (Heidegger) to hermeneutics has traditionally worked as a useful compass (116). However, the multiplicity of voices is present throughout the book: in a compilation this vast, no one thinker manages to override others in balancing “the opposing pulls of space and place” (275).

The volume introduces the reader to the internal variation within contemporary hermeneutic thinking. The book is divided into three larger parts: “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”, “Figures and Thinkers” and “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. The importance of a comprehensive account of hermeneutical methodologies applied to place is also highlighted directly by many of the contributors, since, for example according to Christina M. Gschwandtner: “place is always interpreted. There is no objective, neutral, or “pure” place.” (170). Place as such calls for an interpretation as it demarcates an already existing, culturally and historically tinged engagement with space.

The first part, “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”., consists of nine individual articles examining basic questions of hermeneutics as an approach to place and space. Some do it on a more general level, but others have already a specifically chosen point of view to present. Textuality is presented as a central perspective in Bruce B. Janz’ account, the first of many dealing with this specifically central theme. Annike Schlitte takes up narrative, whereas dialogue is presented as the main topic in Kyoo Lee’s contribution. The choice of focus on textuality in the beginning is well justified by the history of hermeneutical tradition and ideas to which it is still associated with most strongly. The textual model for interpretation is a valid starting point for many of the subsequent ventures as well. The textuality-based themes discussed in the first part serve well also the interpretation of the rest of the book. While text interpretation continues to be central point of orientation for any hermeneutic approach, other interesting themes in the first part of the collection are covered by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s article on the notion of play (Gadamerian Spiel) and style and Dylan Trigg’s phenomenological take on the differences between place and non-place, that builds on the legacy of both Marc Augé and Edward Relph.

Text as a metaphor for place together with other metaphors is examined since both textuality and place are core concepts in hermeneutics (26). The relation of places to memory is also evoked (171). Different narratives turn spaces into shared places, even fictitious or dreamed spaces (Cristina Chimisso on Gaston Bachelard). The theory and practice of art is also present to some extent (Babette Babich on Merleau-Ponty and Keith Harder on place-specific artistic practices). It goes without saying, that architecture is also present in this context. Interestingly enough, stairwells and stairs prove to be important architectural elements discussed as examples in both articles that are directly focusing on architecture: Jean-Claude Gens writing about Gadamer and David Seamon focusing on the architectural language of Thomas Thiis-Evensen.

The second part is titled concisely “Figures and Thinkers” and it delves deeper into the general theme by presenting central figures for contemporary hermeneutic approach to place and space in its 12 chapters. Diverse and indispensable philosophers from Heidegger to Ricoeur or Gadamer to Malpas receive direct attention, the whole list of figures being too extensive to go through here in detail. Space is also dedicated to thinkers less directly associated with hermeneutical tradition: these include Arendt and Foucault. Some names come altogether outside the philosophical canon, such are for example Yi-Fu Tuan and J. J. Gibson, to name a few. All of these thinkers have a slightly different type of relation to hermeneutics and specifically to examining place and space. Some are closer to what could be characterized as the core of the approach and others have had a less direct influence on the unfolding the interpretational themes related to place and space. The thinkers in this part represent many traditions from ontological hermeneutics to human geography. Despite the seemingly wide variety between figures and approaches, there is unforeseeable value in bringing them together under the same title in this context.

The legacy of some prominent thinkers who have been previously considered to be at the margins of hermeneutical tradition, is rewritten from the perspective of inclusive, multidisciplinary hermeneutics. An example of this, Yi-Fu Tuan, is noted in Paul C. Adams’ chapter to explicitly avoid any methodology. However, in his approach closely following some of the central parameters of hermeneutic thinking: empathy and interest towards a vast variety of human experiences and advancing thought through contrasts in circular motion. Other thinkers would seem to resist the stamp of hermeneutics more but are still depicted in this account as bearing some connection to the current forms of hermeneutics of place and space. Henri Lefebvre, for example, is traditionally seen to be very far from any version of hermeneutics but according to Peter Gratton’s reading of his work, Lefebvre’s projects on spatiality are affect also any subsequent hermeneutical account of the themes of place or space. This selection of articles show also, how hermeneutic approach to place can get significant depth and reinforcement from Arendtian multi-perspectivism, Foucauldian discourse analysis or Gibsonian ecological psychology. Also, the more sceptical attitudes towards methodologies in general are given a place, as the articles on Bachelard, Arendt and Tuan pay attention to show.

Hermeneutics is often used to refer to the conscious development of a specific methodology, but the term also denotes a general, even a more intuitive attempt to understand the constituents of particular human actions. The volume at hand makes explicit the inevitable distinction between hermeneutics as a philosophical program (Malpas & Gander 2014) and hermeneutics as a set of interpretation tools applicable to varying topics. An overview of hermeneutics to place and space is created thus by showing the strengths of these approaches in relation to the main topics of interest here: what types of interpretations do human actions and their spatial dispersions elicit and enable? Understanding human actions and practices, their meanings and intentionality behind them, is at the centre throughout the collection, even though interpretative efforts are directed towards more particular aims in each individual contribution. The human relation to place and space and the forms it gets, opens up the discussion to many directions. This serves as a reminder of the vast terrain of possible subthemes in any variety of hermeneutics of place and space. Besides direct engagement, hermeneutics is used also to interpret the many traces left by human activity. It is easy to see great value in this type of an approach, and hermeneutics in this form could profit even more the ongoing discussions about such complex and large-scale issues as climate change and urbanization. This has already been shown by a growing interest towards environmental hermeneutics that precedes this publication (see e.g. Treanor & al. 2013). This is also precisely where the anthology proceeds towards its end.

The third, last and understandably the largest part of the book is dedicated to “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. As one strand of the final part, the topical planetary level problems that are increasingly seeping into our everyday consciousness are taken into closer consideration. The broad concepts discussed in the chapter include the Anthropocene (Janz) and climate crisis (Edward Casey). Environmental and ecological thinking is present more broadly also already in Gschwandtner’s application of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics to place. Janet Donohoe gives environmental hermeneutics a more detailed account as she focuses on the concept of the environment and what this environment in peril is in relation to the human culture and the significant places in our lives. This type of an approach is a welcome reminder, of how environmental philosophy can profit from taking hermeneutics into account in comprehending the current complex environmental threats and the relation to the human lifeworlds.

From environmental perspective, it is also relevant to think about how to draw interpretation about the events that take place on a planetary scale. How does the need for space of the human population affect the living conditions of other species on Earth? What type of knowledge and engagement do these types of questions entail? These questions raised by the currently prevailing ecological concerns show, that the need to reflect, understand and interpret these tendencies and the human responsibilities is more crucial than ever. The human capacity for collectively organizing its living conditions according to the afforded space is not unique, by any means. What we are capable though, is the conceptual thinking and long-term planning in relation to how human spaces are created, developed and used. This type of long-term, temporally evolving engagement is what hermeneutics is also well-equipped to illustrate.

The final part of the book consisting of 15 chapters in total, gives an overview of the interdisciplinary relations in which hermeneutics has proven to be particularly fruitful. The clear intention of this part is also to widen the possibilities of use and show new directions for developing hermeutics of place and space. Among various newer or less-studied interdisciplinary constellations presented here are for example topopoetics, which according to Tim Cresswell is “a project that sees poems as places and spaces” (319). This part of the book, intended to be “exploratory and creative”, stretches further ground for new hermeneutical approaches (4). Paths point towards the possible multidisciplinary futures of hermeneutics of place and space: hermeneutics as inherently directed towards exploration of inner meanings encourages these interdisciplinary approaches. This becomes apparent by some chapters of the final part: they rely strongly on the tradition of their specific field but show how hermeneutics has successfully been implemented into their approach to place or space. Thomas Dörfler and Eberhard Rothfuß, for example, have human geography as their starting point. In the same vein, Pauline McKenzie Aucoin has anthropological and Eva-Maria Simms psychological focuses in their contributions. Making visible these intersections with fields of study that grew in importance during 20th century, point towards the scale of possible uses for hermeneutical concepts and methods.

One pivotal strand in the book focuses on how hermeneutics could help in understanding urban life in its current forms and settings. Urbanization is a complex phenomenon that a collection with a focus such as this cannot omit. Yet it can be approached from many different directions even in this context and it follows that there are various more or less direct references to urban hermeneutics: Alan Blum and Andy Zieleniec, for example, take each in their own article into focus the urban social sphere in order to show how hermeneutics has already been applied and could be developed further within the sphere of social sciences. Zieleniec, for example, brings together Simmel, Benjamin and Lefebvre in order to draw a specifically sociological approach to space and spatiality within the urban sphere. The meanings and values that space and spatiality get through everyday urban activities is in the focus when going through the influence these thinkers have had on sociological study of urban environments. Hermeneutic approach definitely has a lot to offer to the philosophical understanding of different facets of urban life. In this context, the subtheme of mobility could have easily been added in a separate article: moving in any given space necessarily alters the starting point for interpretive engagement. Mobility is present in some parts though, as in Cresswell’s account of poetry (327) or when Zieleniec writes about Simmel and Benjamin (384–385; 387).

The social aspects of hermeneutic philosophy include the shared nature of place, intersubjectivity of spatial experiences and spatial or platial interpretations of social situations. Also presented are the themes of globalisation (Gratton) and inequality (Abraham Olivier on townships in the opening article of the collection), to which philosophically solid accounts are urgently needed. Towards its end, the book presents in separate articles some currently important but also exceedingly wide themes. The questions pertaining to the digital realm, for example, are opened up by Golfo Maggini’s article on digital virtual places. He presents the digital places stemming from ubiquitous computing as heterotopic places of radical alterity. This reading … It would certainly be interesting to read more about this type of an approach to digital and virtual environments, where hermeneutics can significantly widen the interpretational context.

Crucial contributions in the last part of the book are the openings towards feminist and racial approaches to hermeneutics of place and space. Janet C. Wesselius charts feminist philosophy through its already existing approaches to situatedness. She takes into examination the notion of “a woman’s place”, in particular. The perspective of philosophy of race comes through Robert Bernasconi’s article where he dissects institutional racism as a historico-spatial construct. In the final article of the volume, the reader is also given a glimpse of the non-western perspectives to hermeneutics of space and place. This is done by On-cho Ng’s critical treatment of the limits and tensions following from applying local knowledge to interpreting phenomena elsewhere: in this case from how Western hermeneutics collides with Chinese traditions of interpretation. This part of the book scratches the surface of a fascinating discussion that will hopefully continue to flourish. Due to the fact that racial, feminist, queer, non-western or multicultural approaches are by no means marginal anymore, they definitely could intersect already earlier with the main themes of the book in order to be better taken into consideration as parts of the multitude of interpretational horizons.

Throughout the entire collection, the list of actual places used as examples opens up a vast spectrum of different place typologies. They include traditionally valued culturally and historically significant places, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site Meteora in Greece (in Bahar Aktuna & Charlie Hailey’s article) or more generic forms of human spatial traits such as urban hiking trails (in Simms’ example). Walmart chain store (in Trigg’s account) comes to represent a quintessential non-place of the contemporary Western society. Importantly, also places of human despair that should be an exception in the story of any civilisation, such as German refugee camps (in Dörfler and Rothfuß’s article), are included in order to critically examine their non-place qualities. These and other concrete and sometimes even surprising examples fix reader’s attention effectively and punctuate the varied theoretical accounts on place.

The book opens up to two directions that are by no means antithetical but support each other: what are the implications of hermeneutics of place and space on studying different types of phenomena and, on the other hand, what are the direct consequences on the philosophical discourse of more explicitly emphasizing this connection and approach. All in all, there is surprisingly little redundant repetition (or wasted space, one is tempted to say in this context), even when different authors discuss the same thinkers or concepts. It is also a notable feat that the collection is accessible to readers who do not have an extensive knowledge of the hermeneutical tradition. The strengths of this volume are in its wide-ranging scope, the way it presents on-going discussions and includes less heard voices to the canon of hermeneutical approaches. By emphasizing hermeneutics as an inherently open and engaged approach, it encourages any subsequent exploration on human spatiality through this lens. This strong engagement at the core is thus also the legacy of hermeneutics outside the immediate sphere of philosophy.

Care has been put on selecting the themes and writers, at the same time giving them the freedom to approach the topic from an individually selected point of view: “This book is more curated than edited.” (2) This has resulted in a coherent and intellectually rewarding piece of philosophical literature. Janz as the editor clarifies in the introduction, that the idea has not been to cover every aspect of the wide topic but to offer enough for the discussion to continue with renewed energy (2–3). As a result, the collection will inevitably have influence in shaping and directing the contemporary understanding of what hermeneutics is and what it could be. It is also stated explicitly in the introduction that the collection is not intended to be a handbook on hermeneutics and place and space (4). However, this does not mean that it will not, or should not, be used as such. On the contrary, it is easy to see that this selection of texts can open the tradition of hermeneutics to students, scholars and other curious minds, even if they do not have philosophy as their main interest. The collection is an indispensable reference to researchers working on a variety of different topics and approaches within philosophy of space and place as well as more applied approaches circling these themes. It is a valuable contribution to hermeneutic literature as well as to place/space research and the many imaginable intersections between these.


Malpas, Jeff & Ganders, Hans-Helmut (Eds.) 2014. The Routledge Companion to Hermeneutics. London & New York: Routledge.

Treanor, Brian, Drenthen, Martin, Utsler, David & Clingerman, Forrest (Eds.) 2013. Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics. New York: Fordham University Press.

Miles Groth: Translating Heidegger

Translating Heidegger Book Cover Translating Heidegger
New Studies in Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Miles Groth
University of Toronto Press
2017. Reprint edition
Paperback $29.71

Reviewed by: Eric v.d. Luft (Gegensatz Press)

This book is a non-updated reissue of a book published by Humanity Press in 2004. Nevertheless, the University of Toronto Press did well to pick it up, because it is an important contribution to anglophone Heidegger studies. Markus Weidler’s review of the 2004 publication in The Review of Metaphysics, 60, 2 (December 2006): 399-401, is both a straightforward summary and a clear appraisal of the main thrusts of its contents.

The book’s title suggests that it might be a sort of manual for rendering Heidegger’s difficult technical vocabulary into English. Some of this is indeed included, but it occupies only the first third of the book (15-112), which is mainly historical. The second third (113-198), which is mainly systematic, concerns Heidegger’s own theory of translation, and the final third (199-304) is bibliography.

The Preface and Part One expose infelicities and errors in translating some of the key terms of Heidegger’s technical vocabulary into English. In so doing, Groth suggests a few modifications, some of which seem more controversial than the questionable renderings which he is trying to improve or correct. For example, he translates das Seiende, which he considers “the pivotal term in Heidegger’s way of thinking” (8), as “be-ing,” then gives an unconvincing explanation of how adding the hyphen emphasizes both the substantive and the participial or gerundive nature of this word and reveals how Heidegger used sein as a transitive verb. Since das Seiende “denotes the active ongoing manifesting of an effective actuality” (8), it leads him to rather farfetched renderings such as “seienden Menschen (actual human beings)” (8). The reader is left wondering not only how he would translate wirklichen Menschen, but also whether a clumsy circumlocution such as “human beings who actively are” would be more in keeping with his analysis of das Seiende.

One of the thorniest problems in translating Heidegger is to distinguish adequately between Dasein and Existenz. A common solution is to translate the latter as “existence” and the former as either “being-there” or “there-being” or just leave it in German. Groth suggests translating Dasein as “existence” and Existenz as “life” (9-10). Some of his reasons are cogent, but his flouting of the cognate is bound to cause confusion and his bending over backwards to avoid allusions to Dilthey is unnecessary.

Groth identifies six “fundamental words” (Grundworte) from Heidegger’s technical vocabulary as indispensable in his thought, namely, Sein, Seiende, Dasein, Existenz, Nichts, and Ereignis (23). We might add a few more, such as Sorge, Gestell, Anwesen, Sprache, Alltäglichkeit, ontisch, das Man, eigentlich, Bestand, Zuhandenheit, Gelassenheit, and even the infinitive lassen. Translating these terms as accurately as possible is crucial toward developing any plausible understanding of Heidegger among anglophone thinkers. Accordingly – and wisely – Groth’s focus in Chapter One (29-94) is on the earliest receptions of Heidegger in English, starting with Ryle’s review of Sein und Zeit in 1929, in order to identify the roots of persistent misinterpretations of Heidegger among anglophone scholars. Groth apparently believes that Ryle got Heidegger completely wrong, and it would be difficult to disagree with Groth about this, especially since Groth cites to his advantage several of Ryle’s most blatant mistranslations of Heidegger’s terms, e.g., Sein as “timeless substance” (30) and besorgen as “being-about” (31). Nevertheless, despite his strong criticism of Ryle, Groth graciously gives Ryle the last word, citing to Ryle’s advantage Ryle’s 1969 partial recantation of his 1929 review (32-33).

Groth is less kind to Marjorie Grene. He is not the first to name her 1948 Dreadful Freedom (later retitled Introduction to Existentialism) as among the least helpful introductions to existentialism in general or to Heidegger in particular. Her book, which considers Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Marcel, is worthwhile only with regard to Kierkegaard, and is indeed quite pernicious with regard to Heidegger. In the preface to the 1959 edition, she not only admitted her own laziness in trying to interpret Heidegger for the first edition, but also, after claiming to have finally understood him, rejected him outright and withdrew from any serious consideration of Heidegger to wallow in her pessimistic existentialist morass. After duly citing this preface, Groth shows how Grene actually had little or no understanding of Heidegger (35-36), but obstinately tried to squeeze him into her Procrustean existentialist framework and called his thought and language “weird” or “nonsense” whenever she could not satisfactorily perform this squeeze.

Groth gives about two dozen more good examples in Chapter One of erroneous pre-1949 receptions of Heidegger. Many of these early interpreters, e.g., the theologian Julius Bixler (37), misunderstood Heidegger’s idiosyncratic use of Existenz and thus threw him in among the existentialists. Others, e.g., Paul Tillich (47-49), Ralph Harper (49, 75-76), and Vincent Edward Smith (68-69) each erred in similar ways, trying to impose Thomistic or Scholastic categories of essence and existence upon Heidegger, who uses Wesen, Dasein, and Existenz in quite different senses from how medieval philosophiers used quid est, quod est, essentia, esse, or existentia. All that these theologically or existentially inclined interpreters really show is that, despite their interpretations, Heidegger’s philosophy cannot easily be turned in a theological direction. Furthermore, Eric Unger, writing for the intelligent laity rather than just philosophers, presents Heidegger not as a serious thinker, but as a curiosity, almost a sideshow freak (57-60). Not surprisingly, he also lumps Heidegger in with the existentialists. Unger fails to recognize the ontological difference, believes that Heidegger contrasts reality and existence, and translates Seiende as “reality.” A frustrated Groth writes that “any possibility of understanding Heidegger’s notion of existence is foreclosed by Unger’s translation of Dasein as ‘human life'” (59). Many such interpretations leave us “with an overwhelming sense of obscurity and incomprehensibility about Heidegger’s so-called existential philosophy” (65). Others simply dismiss his vocabulary as impossible to fathom in English (41). For Groth, none of these writers misinterprets Heidegger more grotesquely than William Tudor Jones (70-71) and none of them comes closer to satisfying Groth’s own understanding of Heidegger than William Barrett (72-74).

Regarding Heidegger’s too often alleged connection to existentialism, Groth notes in several places (e.g., 37, 45-49, 66-67, 72, 74) that some interpreters, especially theologians, are too quick to consider Heidegger in conjunction with the radical Christian existentialist Kierkegaard, who, after all, has very little in common with Heidegger. Groth suggests that this tendency to lump the two together may arise from inadequate understanding of such terms as Sein, Dasein, Existenz, Leben, and Wesen. He complains that some translators render Dasein as “human existence” (42, 47), which he says is redundant, since Dasein only refers to specifically human existence. Even though his point is well taken, the redundancy might be necessary to convey the full Heideggerian sense of Dasein to anglophone readers.

Given her life story and especially her close association with Heidegger from 1924 to 1926, we would expect Hannah Arendt not to misunderstand him, even when she disagrees with him. Nevertheless, Groth identifies an “essential error” (51) in her reception of Heidegger, namely, that she confuses Dasein, Existenz, and Mensch. However, as a native speaker, she surely realized that what was perfectly clear to her about Heidegger’s technical vocabulary in German could not be adequately expressed in English. Also, it is not unlikely that her view of Heidegger in the 1940s was influenced by her subsequent mentor, the avowed existentialist Jaspers, and was thus pushed toward existentialism. If we look at the German text of her “What is Existenz Philosophy?” (1946) or “What is Existential Philosophy?” (1994), i.e., “Was ist Existenz-Philosophie?” (1948), we see that among her purposes is to explain, in plain German, Heidegger’s complicated German to a German audience. For example, she uses Essenz instead of Wesen. Such a purpose would naturally not translate well. But Groth considers only the first of these two English translations, does not mention her German version, and indeed seems to be misinterpreting her, alleging, for example, that she equates Existenz and Dasein when she certainly knows better than to do that. Hence we should give her the benefit of the doubt. Much of Groth’s criticism of Arendt could more properly be applied to her translators, Barrett, Robert Kimber, and Rita Kimber (87 n. 48).

Chapter Two (95-112) gives an account of the earliest translation of Heidegger to be published in English: Existence and Being (London: Vision; Chicago: Regnery, 1949). It is important to realize that this book is not a translation of a book by Heidegger, but rather an English journalist’s loosely interrelated compilation of four of Heidegger’s essays (albeit with Heidegger’s approval). In other words, there is no systematic unity to that book. Of the five who worked on it, Stefan Schimanski, Werner Brock, Douglas Scott, Alan Crick, and R.F.C. Hull, only Brock had solid philosophical credentials and none of them were qualified to interpret or translate Heidegger (109). The result was not only a misrepresentation of Heidegger, but also an internally inconsistent hodgepodge. Groth shows how these inconsistencies swirled around the usual key terms: Dasein, Seiende, Existenz, and Sein (104), as well as Befindlichkeit, Entfremdung, existenziell, etc.

The art of translation is to break a textual or literary artifact apart then reassemble it in the context of another culture. Good translating has many axioms, e.g., use a dictionary as contemporary as possible with the text to be translated; translate into, not out of, your native language; try to preserve etymological connections, puns, permutations, transpositions, rhymes, etc. Heidegger would not disagree with any of these; however, his project was different. Going back to original terms and texts was a key aspect of his deconstructive agenda, and thus of his entire philosophy. He did not trust translations, but always preferred to consult and analyze the originals, which in his case generally meant classical and scholastic Latin and especially ancient Greek. Groth notes that Heidegger believed that misunderstandings and corresponding mistranslations of five Greek terms, alêtheia, hen, logos, idea, and energeia, have largely “determined the course of Western philosophy” (19), for better or for worse.

Accordingly, Chapter Three (115-163) discusses Heidegger’s theory of translation as it evolved from 1915 to 1969. Groth has painstakingly gleaned this theory from scattered remarks in Heidegger’s vast corpus. These gleanings provide insight into not only Heidegger’s theory of translation, but also his method and agenda of philosophizing in general. This feature alone would, for both Heidegger scholars and Heidegger disciples alike, make this the most interesting chapter in the book; but Groth makes it even more interesting with the extraordinary claim (116-117) that, contrary to common sense and to traditional hermeneutical principles, thinking is not dependent upon words. Rather, Groth holds that, for Heidegger, thinking is a kind of saying (Sagen), as if there were a real difference between the spoken word and any other kind of word. After all, common sense dictates that we cannot “say” anything unless we have words in which to say it. Without words, spoken or otherwise, actual thinking is not possible, but just a flow of inchoate emotions, disconnected perceptions, and vague notions of how to proceed and survive in the world on a purely animal level.

Groth notes that other commentators have missed this counterintuitive interpretation of Heidegger, as well they might, since it is spun out of thin air and couched in equivocation. Groth even presents evidence against it as evidence for it. He cites “language speaks” (die Sprache spricht) to support his argument that “thinking is not up to the thinker” and that we do not use language, but language uses us in the service of being (117). While it is certainly true that, for Heidegger, language reveals being to us if we listen carefully; it would still be a misinterpretation to take the individual or subjective human actor out of the process of creating or presenting language in the first place. Heidegger’s optimal kind of thinking, meditative thinking (rechnendes Denken), although we may get lost in it and end up we know not where, is above all a deliberate, self-motivated, and self-motivating act, as we clearly infer from Heidegger’s 1955 “Memorial Address.” His famous assertions that “language speaks” and “language is the house of being” mean, among other things, that thought hides in words, i.e., that thought remains concealed (verborgen) in words – whether written, spoken, read, heard, or even merely dreamed – until it is disclosed (entborgen) as being. If we conceive of language in the broadest possible way, then the existence and development of language is a necessary and sufficient condition for thinking.

Despite this major misstep by Groth, other aspects of Heidegger’s theory of translation and Groth’s interpretation of it are less problematic, and generally lead to the conclusion that translating is a kind of thinking (160 n. 69).

Chapter Four (165-193) provides a detailed example of Heidegger’s “paratactic” method of translating. Parataxis means “arranging,” “arrangement,” or “array.” Groth shows how Heidegger breaks up, rearranges, and reassembles an eight-word fragment from Parmenides, using Parmenides to elucidate more precisely his own meaning of seiend-, seen in the Greek as various forms of einai. This is a reciprocal process (183); i.e., in order to bring (herüberbringen) into German the concepts that are hidden in Greek words, the German translator must first immerse himself in Greek thought and go over (hinübergehen) into the Greek so as to become capable of understanding these concepts in both Greek and German and thereby of eventually rendering them in German. Thus Heidegger reads himself into Parmenides and Parmenides into himself. Heidegger is not interested as much in the grammar or syntax of the Greek text (150) as in its particular words, syllables, and even letters, so as to disclose to himself and his readers the far-reaching allusions, etymological inferences, and deep truths that would otherwise remain hidden forever, and were perhaps even hidden from Parmenides. This method coheres well with the whole deconstructive enterprise. “For Heidegger, translating was not at all a matter of words, but of ways of thinking” (108), which suggests that Heidegger’s translation of Parmenides may tell us more about Heidegger than about Parmenides.

Carmen López Sáenz: La hermenéutica filosófica de H-G. Gadamer en busca de la verdad, Dykinson, 2018

La hermenéutica filosófica de H-G. Gadamer en busca de la verdad Book Cover La hermenéutica filosófica de H-G. Gadamer en busca de la verdad
Carmen López Sáenz
Paperback 17,10 €

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Banality of Heidegger

The Banality of Heidegger Book Cover The Banality of Heidegger
Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Jeff Fort
Fordham University Press
Paperback $25.00

Reviewed by:  Zühtücan Soysal (Middle East Technical University)


A recent wave of Heidegger scholarship has been developing with the ongoing publication and translation of the Black Notebooks. The notebooks created an immediate controversy, so much so that Heidegger’s thought was a subject of discussion in popular Anglophone media even before the appearance of the English publication of the first volume. Planned to be published as the concluding volumes of Heidegger’s Collected Works, the notebooks are found particularly interesting in relation to their antisemitic content. The prevalent issue for many commentators and critics revolves around whether Heidegger’s apparent antisemitism is a personal engagement which would keep his philosophy sterile or whether there is an inherent antisemitism at the core of his thought, indispensable to the very notion of the truth of being. Nancy’s The Banality of Heidegger departs from this context and overreaches that basic either/or predicament by undertaking a rather post-Heideggerian reading of the notebooks. Holding on to what he thinks to be the essential resource of the Heideggerian enterprise of “reduction of naive ontology” (5),[1] Nancy puts into question what remained unthought by Heidegger and reveals the play of deconstructive and antisemitic motifs within his thought.

The Banality of Heidegger consists of 12 numbered chapters, a coda and a supplementary chapter on a passage from Anmerkungen I-V, the fourth volume of the Black Notebooks, which was published after Nancy’s book. The merits of the Heidegger-Levinas-Derrida lineage are visible throughout the book with carefully situated ambivalences and rigorously structured interpretations at the limits of the possibility of a discourse. Nancy focuses primarily on the notebooks and operates within their discourse by assuming an earlier acquaintance with Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The first two chapters introduce the framework and lay out a few preliminary remarks.

The book does not have the author’s preface or introduction; thus, the first chapter bears the responsibility to justify the title, “the banality of Heidegger.” Nancy repeatedly notes that the fact that antisemitism is “banal” is not to be taken as something that would result in a relative indifference to the horrific moments in empirical history. It means, rather, that Heidegger’s corpus inherited some values of the dominant antisemitic discourse of its time. In fact, Heidegger’s identification of Jewishness with calculative reasoning, manipulation, historylessness, internationalism, and the will to domination is drawn from the “most banal, vulgar, trivial, and nasty discourse . . . propped up for some thirty years by the miserable publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (23).

Yet Nancy seeks the philosophical significance of what Heidegger has to say with this notorious jargon, which will go beyond the crude fact of its notoriety. To this end, before any close reading, Nancy eliminates a certain untenable—yet still widespread—interpretation in which Heidegger’s antisemitism is identified as or at least associated with a form of racism. Notwithstanding, Heidegger explicitly renounces the racial principle in the notebooks, and also in Contributions to Philosophy, because it “proceeds from a biological, naturalist, and therefore ‘metaphysical’ conception” (4). This is not to say that Heidegger did not argue about the Jews as the embodiment of a greedy vulgarization of the world (24), but to say that “Jews” in that context does not signify a racial determination. What does it signify, then? This is a question Nancy resolves by first outlining a few cardinal concepts from the broader context of the Heideggerian thought in the second chapter.

The first of those concepts is “the reduction of naive ontology” (5), a term Nancy uses with reference to Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena and equates with both Heideggerian Destruktion and Derridean deconstruction (6), which here designates the general critical stance of Heidegger and of the thinkers following the pathway opened by him—including Nancy—on traditional Western metaphysics from Ancient Greece to Hegel and beyond. Secondly, the reduction of naive ontology requires an essentially novel way of grasping metaphysics, a “second beginning” of metaphysics (6). This new beginning or the “other beginning” [Anfang] would be driven by the thoughtful scrutiny and radical questioning directed at the conceptualization of the human essence as something shared equally by the entire homogeneous bulk of humankind irrespective of how Dasein constitutively understands itself with regard to its being. Such a conception of human essence, which lies at the heart of the Western metaphysics and in particular of the Enlightenment, amounts to the uprooting of Dasein from its ecstatico-horizontal temporality (Being and Time, H. 388; pagination of the later German editions). Thirdly, the constitutive understanding of being which belongs to a “people” [Gemeinschaft], whose shared understanding implicates a shared history [Geschichte] as their shared ground. As Nancy summarizes Heidegger’s point concisely, “a people—which is not a race—can be considered as a . . . force of historial [geschichtlich] beginning” (7-8). The reciprocity among a people, history, and being has thus been established.

It has already been said that a people is not a race but a historial determination, and Nancy touches upon the purport and significance of a particular people at the beginning of the third chapter, the Jewish people, in the context of the Black Notebooks. The opening passage has this remarkable quote from Heidegger: “The question concerning the role of world Jewry is not a racial question but the metaphysical question that bears on the type of human modality which, being absolutely unbound, can undertake as a historial ‘task’ the uprooting of all beings from being” (10). Such is called “historial anti-Semitism” by Peter Trawny. Accordingly, being Jew is being in a certain human modality, which does not stipulate consanguinity or any other biological or natural circumstance. From all these, an affinity between the Jews and the “they” [das Man] as evinced in Being and Time is visible (H. 129). To be sure, Heidegger presumes that he has the right to use the word “Jews” to designate a people who are eo ipso dispersed into the “they,” that is, entrapped in their everyday, inauthentic existence in which they see the world through a scientific-historiological objectification. Yet it would be untenable to claim that “they” is just a euphemism for “Jews,” because, as the above quote shows, for Heidegger, the Jews are not only characterized by being “absolutely unbound” and thus “groundless” but also specified as those whose historial task is “the uprooting of every being” by way of calculative reasoning and machination (11), which have only been aggravated since the “first beginning” of Western metaphysics in Ancient Greek thought. In other words, Heidegger takes Jewishness to be more than an inauthentic human modality; it also indicates the task with whose accomplishment such an inauthenticity would dominate the world.

In the fourth chapter, this line of thought is furthered and one of the major questions of The Banality of Heidegger, namely, the question of how Heidegger locates the Jews with respect to the history [Geschichte] of being, or, in other words, to the destiny [Geschick] of the West, is introduced. Nancy here draws a striking parallel between the Marxist narrative and Heidegger’s account of the Jews. To begin with, Marx’s interpretation of the homogenization of labor in the form of a “general equivalent” as alienation from the proper value of the human productivity calls for a specific understanding of, and a political-spiritual stance against, a certain type of nondifferentiation (cf. Capital, 46-55). It is under the light of this portrayal that Nancy reads the Jews’ claiming for themselves the principle of “‘domination of life by machination’ . . . in the direction of a complete ‘deracialization’ (Entrassung) of a humanity reduced to the undifferentiated equality of all, and in general of all beings” (15). In a mixed discourse of Marx and Heidegger, then, the Jews would be the commodity fetishists par excellence. Moreover, a different as yet even more striking parallelism suggests that both the Jews of the Black Notebooks and the proletariat suggests “a certain eschatological and figural regime of thought: an end is approaching—an end, and therefore a beginning—and this advent requires a figure, the identification of the annihilating force” (15). This time, the Jews are the proletariat par excellence as the bearers of the task of annulling the multiplicity of peoples’ being. Therefore, with their incapability of acknowledging Dasein’s essential belongingness to a people, the Jews in the discourse of the Black Notebooks constitute the historial force which drives the West to its devastating self-alienation [Selbst-entfremdung].

In the following few chapters, Nancy expands the scope of his investigation into the designation of the Jews in the context of Geschick/Geschichte. It has been said that the Jews, with regard to their historial determination, embody the decline of the West, and Nancy shows that the historico-destinal possibility of the devastation of Western civilization is put to be the ultimate condition of its salvation, viz., of the second beginning. Indeed, Heidegger had already maintained in “Overcoming Metaphysics” that overcoming metaphysics necessitates a stage of decline, and the notebooks confirm that the Heideggerian depiction of the West resembles a phoenix; the “other beginning” is possible only after the destruction of the predecessor (19). This does not mean, nonetheless, that the historial force that has been characterized by Jewishness is to achieve complete annihilation of the West or its turning into nothingness, but means that the Western-destinal schema must harbor the epitome of “a failure to identify itself, to recognize itself, and to accept itself” (20) and thus must employ the Jewishness as a part of its ownmost destining (25).

Once the task of “destruction of the spirit of beginning” is set to belong to the West itself, the task becomes at once self-affirmation and self-destruction. By destroying itself, the West fulfills “a necessity of its destining, and it requires the destruction of its destructiveness, so as to liberate another beginning” (25). Thus, there are multiple tasks and intertwined historialities, which constitute the unique history of being. Nancy examines these interweaving historialities. This does not only put forward a framework to read Heidegger’s historial understanding of the people of the West, but it also provides Nancy with a textual margin within which a manoeuvre of radicalization would render Heidegger’s narrative to be the subject of its own questioning. While doing so, Nancy proceeds from a play of equivocalities to a relatively clear interpretation of how Heidegger positions the Jews with respect to the history of being. There are four particularly important nodes that set the ground for a deconstructive discourse within the margins of the Black Notebooks.

The first of those nodes is the “first beginning,” i.e., the Ancient Greek thinking. “The West bears within itself a fatality [Verhängnis]” (19), which is inscribed by the destining of being in the “first beginning” (30). That is to say, the self-detestation of the West was not alien to Ancient Greek thought, as if imposed by the Jews as an external force, but to the contrary was inaugurated by it. “[The] erosion began with Plato . . . [who] is not Jewish” (33), and it is not by accident but as a necessity that the initial unveiling (ἀ-λήθεια) stipulates the subsequent decline. Nancy states that investigating this necessity falls outside the scope of the book, except just once he gives a hint: “Thus have we learnt that the unveiling is always initial, but also that it was necessary that the veiling come along to show this to us” (53-4). Then, given that “Jewishness” is inscribed within Ancient Greek thought, one questions Heidegger’s choice of the “Jews” as the leading agent of modern devastation. The answer will be given in the second nodal point of the discourse, which is Christianity.

Heidegger’s account of Christianity displays a double character. On the one hand, he reduces Christendom to the Jews and sees the former as an extension or as the twin of the latter. It is not so seldom that Heidegger arrives at Christianity as the roots of an idea by way of a rigorous and elaborate investigation, then jumps to Judaism by simply stating that Christianity is issued from Judaism (cf. 69). Bringing Christianity and Judaism together results in nothing but the calcification of the status of the Jews as the principal agent of the devastation of the West in Heidegger’s discourse, because Christianity in this way is seen as the Roman appropriation of the Jewish groundlessness and nothing more. By insistently avoiding any interest in questioning this “self-evident” caricature and by submitting to a violent and hateful depiction of the Jews, Heidegger joins the banality and vulgarity of the antisemitism of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion without a question, which is also why he feels no discomfort at labeling the entire tradition of the forgetting of being as “Jewish.” On the other hand, Heidegger’s narrative is shown by Nancy to exhibit an affinity with Christianity insofar as Christianity itself is antisemitic. From this perspective, Christendom is the first to renounce the groundlessness in Judaism by claiming for itself an identity which is detached from the Jews. However that identity is rooted in the Jewish convictions, its historial legacy fosters antisemitism, which Heidegger eagerly adopted (34-5). On the whole, Christianity as a historico-destinal human modality stands in contradistinction to itself, and thus becomes the true heir of the West’s self-rejection.

Thirdly, there is Jewishness, whose portrayal by Heidegger is already the main thematic of The Banality of Heidegger. To sum up, there are three aspects to Jewishness in Heidegger’s understanding. First, the Jews are inherently bound with technics and machination, and thereby epitomize the primary historial force that leads to the devastation of the West. In this respect, the Jews are thoroughly repudiated by the destining of being. However, for this exact reason, secondly, they appear as an indispensable part of the history of the West and hence of its second beginning. In this respect, the Jews are included as a cardinal part of the Western destiny. And thirdly, by being a people whose historial task is the dissolution of all peoples into a non-differentiated array of calculable atoms, that is, by being self-destructors per se, they represent the grounding possibility of the Western beginning in general. As Nancy confirms, “the Jew is the oldest figure of a self-destruction of the West” (30), and in this respect, the Jews’ historico-destinal standing is elevated, although in the form of a “detestable exception . . . of a foreign intrusion” (28). Thus, repudiation, inclusion and elevation frame the constitutive aporia of Jewishness.

Finally, Nazism. In the notebooks, Heidegger states that “[o]nly someone who is German can in an originarily new way poetize being and say being—he alone will conquer anew the essence of θεωρία and finally create logic” (Ponderings II-VI, 21). Here and in many other places, for example, in Being and Truth and in “Europe and German Philosophy”, the Germans appear as the “spiritual nucleus” of the West. Accordingly, the Germans are the rightful bearers of the task to undertake the second beginning. Notwithstanding, by the very fact that they are the nucleus of the West, they carry within themselves the self-annihilating force, which led to the self-betrayal of Germans with the thoughtlessness of the Nazi regime (8, 71), so much so that through the end of 1941 Heidegger even considered the possibility of a non-German “new beginning” that might arise out of Russian authenticity as opposed to communism (7-8). It is important here to clarify that for Heidegger, the horror of Nazism is not related to a moral, political, or sociological account of the extermination camps but has always been “the extreme destinal point of technics” and machination (40). For this matter, the Nazi regime, for Heidegger, indulged in the ultimate German hypocrisy, as it were, by taking as its principle the domination of the masses despite the Greek legacy of authentic thought. It is ontically the closest to the possibility of the second beginning, that is, by being German, yet ontologically maybe the farthest.

Nancy’s investigation into the historial-political discourse of the Heidegger of the Black Notebooks does not employ the schematic description outlined here. The four textual nodes of tension, namely, the first beginning, Christianity, Jewishness, and Nazism, are rather to be taken as the outcome of an effort to structurize the unsystematic unfolding of The Banality of Heidegger. Furthermore, they are neither the consecutive stages in a continual history nor the moments of a dialectic movement. They rather designate a set of non-sequential yet in a way interrelated encounters of the peoples with the historial possibility they open.

World War II is seen from this perspective as the Jews’ “simultaneous combat against its counterpart (the Nazi racial principal) and against itself [Bolshevism]” (50). Thus, Nazi thoughtlessness is seen to be the counterpart of the Jewish groundlessness. While Jewishness dictates metacultural neutrality, Nazism dictates its extreme opposite: the racial principle. “This struggle—at once Jewish/Nazi and Bolshevik/American—determines ‘the high point of self-annihilation [Selbstvernichtung] in history’” (69). Yet “at the height of devastation ‘there continues to shine [and is therefore undestroyed] the light of a history capable of decision’” (21; Nancy’s insertion). In other words, neither the Nazi betrayal nor the overarching ravage of the war, which, in the eyes of Heidegger, is nothing but the domination of the technical calculating machination, then, does eliminate the possibility of the second beginning. Accordingly, there remains an untouched authenticity within the West, not in the sense of a self-subsistent spirit but as a necessity of the overflowing of being, which ultimately grounds the possibility of all forgetting and concealment, and thus of all machination and also the war itself (cf. 30). Apparently, Heidegger locates his own discourse within this authentic Germanness, whose victory over the historyless can only arrive through the self-destruction of the agent of the Western destruction. Depending on this, Nancy concludes that “Heidegger was not only anti-Semitic: he attempted to think to its final extremity a deep historico-destinal necessity of anti-Semitism” (51-2).

The historial, non-racial antisemitism of Heidegger stems from the banality of Heidegger, which puts the Heideggerian discourse on the Jews in contradistinction to itself, and this is where Nancy extends his reading towards questioning the unthought of Heidegger. The demonstration is spread throughout the book, but is condensed in the final chapters. One facet of the banality of Heidegger has already been mentioned, in that, Heidegger’s antisemitism “carts around the vulgarity spread by an incessant discourse crystallized as hateful, racist denunciation” (71). In other words, Heidegger adopts the antisemitic vocabulary of his time, a time which is shaped by the mass propaganda of the antisemitic discourse. If one prefers the rhetoric of Being and Time, the vocabulary that Heidegger so blatantly adopts is the “public” [Öffentlich] vocabulary of the “they” (cf. H. 126-7). Therefore, to the extent that Heidegger remains reluctant to question what is ordinarily self-evident, i.e., a deep-rooted antisemitism, his narrative rivets the “long error and/or wandering of the West” (30). And yet if one prefers rewording this finding in the rhetoric of the Black Notebooks, it would be Heidegger’s own “thoughtlessness” to assume the antisemitism of the tradition.

There is another facet of Heidegger’s banality, and that is more deeply entangled with the core of the Heideggerian enterprise. Nancy quotes Elisabeth Rigal to summarize the issue: “Heidegger’s error is to have believed in a unique destining” (42). To explain, despite its difference from the traditional understanding of history as the succession of happenings [Historie], Heidegger’s understanding of history as destining of being inherits the idea of “origin” from the tradition. Thus, having a proper, authentic, delineable and determinable origin, viz., Ancient Greek thought, which is also free from the “darkening of the world” (69), the entire history is perceived with reference to that origin and to everything inscribed within it, that is, decline, second beginning, etc. Hence, the multiplicity of peoples is—not melted into or sublated by but—conglomerated into one single heterogeneous play of forces revolving around the first beginning towards the second beginning upon the unique destining of being (41-2). Having related the concept “origin” to the “uniqueness of destining,” Nancy claims that this obsession with the origin is the “metaphysical” obsession par excellence, which led Heidegger into his own way of self-hatred (47), which is in general the peculiarity of Western metaphysics. Therefore, what is obstructed [verstellt] in the discourse of Heidegger is the possibility of a wholly other destining, which would entail the acknowledgement of, if not respect for, the Jews as a people towards an other destiny than what Heidegger thinks to be the singular one.

However, these do not mean that the Destruktion of ontology, as an attempt to destabilize that which is ordinarily self-evident, has to operate within a self-annihilating banality. As for the first facet of the banality of Heidegger, Nancy points out that the Heideggerian impetus has resulted in the flourishing of many philosophical pathways, such as that of Levinas, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, which did not “pick up anything remotely resembling anti-Semitism from the always murmuring gutters of banality” (47). As for the second facet, Nancy considers Heidegger’s thought not as a static doctrine but as a way of questioning which is open to transformation. Thus, he still has the hope that the currently unpublished volumes of the Black Notebooks may harbor a transformation in Heidegger’s understanding of “beginning” (38). Furthermore, Nancy also thinks that Heidegger’s thought already implies the Destruktion of the “rage for the initial or for the archi-” even though that rage is one of the main tenets that shape how Heidegger considers historiality; accordingly, it would still be “thinking” [Denken] even if the uniqueness of destining is questioned (43).

On the whole, by way of deconstructive plays with the intertwined textual tensions in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, Nancy’s reading demonstrates that Heidegger’s unthought partakes in the antisemitism which has been a constitutive element of the discourse of Western thought since the early days of Christianity. Identification of the Jewish people with the “thoughtless will to domination” is the persistent characterization on which the entire antagonism is built in the Black Notebooks. Nevertheless, it must also be noted that Heidegger’s antisemitism does not stem from the racial principle of Nazism; it rather takes its departure from the concept of the destining of being, according to which, as Nancy’s reading shows, Nazism is the German counterpart of “Jewishness,” both serving to the spiritual decline of the West. While Nancy examines the antisemitic character of the Black Notebooks, he in no way disregards the fact that Heidegger is one of the leading figures—and indeed he states Heidegger’s “operation was the most frontal” (12)—of contemporary thought. All in all, Nancy does not only think that the Destruktion of ontology can operate without the antisemitic elements in Heidegger’s thought, but also demonstrates that the Heideggerian legacy paves the way for the deconstruction of those very elements.


Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Harper & Row, 1962.

———. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Trans. Richard Rojcewicz. Indiana UP, 2016.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Vol. 1. Trans. Samuel Moore. Wordsworth, 2013.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Banality of Heidegger. Trans. Jeff Fort. Fordham UP, 2017.

[1] All page references are to The Banality of Heidegger unless stated otherwise.

Hans-Georg Gadamer: Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Works of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I

Hermeneutics between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I Book Cover Hermeneutics between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I
The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer
Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer
Hardcover $207.00

Reviewed by: Christopher Noble (Villanova University)

Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Volume 1, edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer, collects eighteen essays by Gadamer on the topic of the philosophy of history. Of these sixteen essays, two have previously appeared in English (“Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person,” Gadamer 2000; “Hermeneutics on the Trail,” Gadamer 2007). This volume on the philosophy of history is the first of a projected three of Gadamer’s selected works, and will be followed by volumes on ethics and aesthetics. By providing these materials in English translation, the editors aim to contribute to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophy and its evolution, as well as provide new context through which to understand his views:

“When it comes to a major philosopher like Gadamer a strong case can be made that scholars need to have all available essays in order to assess the different components of the philosopher’s theses, to measure the evolution of his thought through time, and to grasp all the intricacies of his views in the different contexts of their application. This is the aim of this edition.” (viii)

Note that this project is not meant to collect Gadamer’s most significant works on the philosophy of history. Rather, it supplements what is currently available in other locations in English. It also excludes short speeches and book reviews, as well as essays the editors deem not to add anything of philosophical significance to what is already available. This project is commendable, and although Gadamer develops many of the themes of this volume in books and essays already available in English, it constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and more broadly, the overall nature, context, and development of German philosophy in the twentieth-century. This volume should therefore be of interest to readers of Gadamer, continental philosophy more generally, and indeed anyone concerned with the relation between philosophy and its history.

Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, which involves a vision of human life as continuously interpreting the world, attempts to show that thought and language bear an essential relation to the past. For Gadamer, what we are able to think and the questions that we are able to ask in the present emerge on the basis of historical tradition. Famously, in his magnum opus Truth and Method [Wahrheit und Methode], first published in 1960, Gadamer sought to rehabilitate the notion of “prejudice” [Vorurteil] that he thought had been unfairly maligned as a result of the Enlightenment rejection of external authority (Gadamer 2004, 268-83). Although Gadamer does not think that we should uncritically accept the judgments and ideas that have been handed down to us by tradition, he maintains that the judgments that we find pre-given as part of our cultural heritage and experience provide the positive basis for our intellectual horizons in the present. On this view, philosophy unfolds as a dialogue with the past, where we both uncover and interpret what is implicit in how we already think about the world, and in which we take up and renew what still speaks to us from across temporal distance.

From the standpoint of the historiography of philosophy, Gadamer’s position thus carves a path between approaches to philosophical history that see themselves as working to understand the past on its own terms without reference to present day philosophical concerns, and those approaches that mine the history of philosophy for arguments and solutions that can provide insight into contemporary problems without taking into account the historical genesis of these philosophical problems themselves. From a Gadamerian perspective, both of these types of approach sever the living connection between the philosophical past and the present at the heart of any genuine philosophical project. For Gadamer, the history of philosophy should not only be the province of self-described historians of philosophy; rather, every working philosopher is responding to philosophical tradition, whether they realize it or not.

The essays collected in this volume span the years of 1964-94, the period after the 1960 publication of Truth and Method, and thus represent a period in he was recognized as a major philosophical voice both in Germany and internationally. Many of the essays develop and explicate themes from Truth and Method, as well as provide Gadamer space to reflect upon his own philosophical development. Most prominently in this latter regard, ample space is given to the respective roles of Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger (Gadamer’s teacher in the 1920s, and whose reputation Gadamer helped restore in the post-World War II period) in the development of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. Whereas Dilthey’s historicism, philosophy of life, and hermeneutics played a major role in shaping the “hermeneutical situation” of Gadamer’s youth, Heidegger’s influence lent shape to Gadamer’s views of language, scientific objectivity and the role that the history of philosophy plays in determining our philosophical horizons.

The editors divide the volume into four parts. Part one includes six essays covering the general topic of history, and develop Gadamer’s distinctive notion of human life as “historically affected.” Part two features three essays on Dilthey’s historicist philosophy of life, and how Gadamer viewed it as an impetus for his own philosophical hermeneutics. The third part collects five essays on the works of European philosophers and intellectuals including Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida. The material on Bourdieu, Habermas, and Derrida is particularly illuminating as it presents Gadamer’s responses to contemporaries, each of whom, in their own way, represent direct challenges to Gadamer’s phenomenological, linguistic, and hermeneutical positions. Part Four includes four essays on Heidegger from the mid-1980s, consisting of reminiscences of Gadamer’s experiences as a student of Heidegger, Gadamer’s interpretation of Heidegger’s so-called Kehre as a “return” [“Ruck-kehre”], and his account of Heidegger’s interpretations of ancient Greek philosophy. In light of the recent revival of controversy over Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism, spurred by the publication of the Black Notebooks (Heidegger 2014/2016), it may be of note that these essays give little insight into Gadamer’s knowledge of, or perspective on, Heidegger’s political engagements (Gadamer himself worked to maintain distance and intellectual independence from the National Socialist regime. See Grondin 2003, 150-230). Perhaps an editors’ note with clarification, or that points the reader to independent discussion of these issues would have been of use.

In addition to translating Gadamer’s essays, the editors contribute a preface and introduction, as well as notes and glossaries of German, Latin, and Greek expressions used by Gadamer. The preface introduces the contents of the volume and characterizes Gadamer’s philosophical and rhetorical style. The introduction provides a general introduction to Gadamer’s philosophical project, focusing on the role of history within it. In addition to treating Gadamerian themes including interpretation, dialogue, the speaking voice, and philosophical praxis, the introduction examines Gadamer’s philosophical influences and interlocutors such as Plato, Aristotle, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida. This reader found especially helpful the editors’ account of how Gadamer’s philosophy of history relates to his philosophy of language.

In approaching this volume, I have adopted the perspective of a historian of philosophy concerned with the methodological question of how to understand the relation between the philosophical past and present. For this reason, as well as in the interest of space, the review will focus more on Gadamer’s philosophy of history, and less on the details of Gadamer’s interpretations of other philosophers that are found in this volume. This philosophy of history is directly developed in the first part of the volume. These essays include reflections on themes including historical causality, the relation between historicity and truth, the relation between human history and the natural history of the universe, what it would mean to try to separate oneself from all history, the meaning of the terms “old” and “new”, and death. Together, they provide an overarching account of Gadamer’s understanding of human life as embedded within history.

In the first essay, “Is there a Causality in History?” (1964), Gadamer argues that history is a network of events that determines our lives and that can never be reduced to a “causal analysis.” Neither naturalistic explanation in the form of efficient causality, nor a Kantian analysis of historical causality as the realm of human freedom, can capture the way that history determines human life and possibilities:

“Investigating the deeper reasons for the historical course of things is absolutely not an attempt at a ‘causal’ explanation, which would only ask for the causa efficiens. When we discern historical connections, we have not discovered a web of causal factors – of nature and freedom – whose threads we isolate only to be able to get our hands on them for the future – history never repeats itself. It is precisely in this that the reality of history consists: to be and to determine us, without ever being able to be mastered through a causal analysis.” (12)

We are embedded within history, and can never extricate ourselves from it such that we can provide an exhaustive causal account of the past and future. For Gadamer, the hermeneutic task becomes understanding that the past constrains our possibilities for action while remaining open to the contingencies of the future.

The second essay, “Historicity and Truth”, from 1991, concerns itself with the question of historical relativism. Against the view that the truth-claims found in history are relative to their times and places, Gadamer argues that this belief assumes a notion of objective knowledge as that which aims to control and master. Under this regime, we would reduce truth-claims to their specific position within history, thereby eliminating their capacity to attain a form of truth that transcends mere circumstance. If we resist this assumption, not only can we treat past philosophers as potential interlocutors, but we can understand how their ideas are capable of attaining universal application with respect to the understanding of human life and its possibilities:

“Objectivity means objectification. It signifies a constricting prejudice everywhere in that realm where breaking resistance and achieving control are not actually paramount, but rather being together and participating in the hermeneutic universe in which we live with one another. In this regard, I could show how Platonism, in addition to Aristotelianism, makes itself repeatedly relevant for the exegesis of Christian mystery and, altogether, how in the time of the enlightenment the pronouncements of art reach deep into the life of individuals and peoples, beyond all historical distances and differences as well as beyond practical and political decisions.” (23)

For Gadamer, the relevance of history and historical knowledge lies in the way that ideas may continue to speak to us across time. In taking up old ideas, we may of course translate them in applying them to our own contexts. However, this mode of application is not a distortion of the original idea; rather, it reveals what was true and therefore universal within it.

In the third essay, “The History of the Universe and the History of Things,” written in 1998, Gadamer argues that human history represents a sphere distinct from the progression of natural events or facts. Gadamer distinguishes between what he calls the “history of the universe” and “the history of the world”:

“Obviously, there also belongs to the history of the universe the question as to when humanity first appeared on this planet, which we call the Earth, and how the human species evolved – and perhaps also whether and when to expect the extinction of this species. Human beings would then be recorded like key fossils in a chapter of the history of the universe. Yet, this historical past, which we awaken through what monuments and tradition give us as hints, means something else. ‘World history’ is not a phase in the history of the universe, but is a whole in its own right. It is not primarily through the so-called ‘facts’, which can be established in objective research with the methods of the natural sciences, that we have a knowledge of this history that we call world history.” (30)

Although the history of the human world unfolds within the temporal arc of natural history of the universe, and its components can be analyzed as facts from the perspective of universal history, qua features of the history of the human world, they are not reducible to natural facts. Unlike the fossilized remains of natural history, that which belongs to the history of the human world is, for Gadamer, what is retained in living memory in the form of monuments and traditions. This history is that which provides significance for our lives, as well as what gives us an inkling of our specifically human possibilities in the future.

Whereas the “history of the universe” is the object of the natural sciences [Naturwissenschaften], the “history of the world” is the domain of the human sciences. Gadamer argues that we do not know the truths pertaining to the human sciences with certitude or in an objective manner. Rather, the human sciences such as philosophy, anthropology, or art history, participate in the very cultural practices that they study, helping to open up new human possibilities through their modes of reflection:

“Human sciences rather belong to orders that constantly configure and reconfigure themselves through our own concrete participation in them and thereby contribute to our knowledge about the human possibilities and normative commonalities that affect us […] There are no certainties here like the guarantees of the theoretical and ‘scientific’ kind and here we always need to consider the other side – not only what we have in mind, but also what others think.” (41)

One upshot of all of this, for Gadamer, is that the human sciences have an important role to play in moving our multicultural, global world into the future. Not only do the human sciences have the potential to create dialogue between disparate groups around the world, but Gadamer maintains that they have a further potential to help resist the global domination of technology insofar as they eschew objectifying forms of knowledge:

“In our pluralistic world, the other also includes foreign cultures and distant inhabitants of this earth. We will have to learn all this more and more in the future. Our human goal cannot be to use a technological civilization in order to stifle everything that has been handed out to us or to others and has shaped us all in the forms our life has taken. Only when we put the capacities of understanding and mutual acceptance to use in the new tasks that bring and hold the world in equilibrium, will we be able to create new forms of organization. Of all the sciences, it is especially the so-called human sciences that contribute the most to the nurturing of these capacities. They force us to confront constantly in all its richness the entire scale of what is human and all too human.” (41)

The fourth essay, a lecture given in 1969 entitled “A World without History?”, defends the importance of the art of reading and specifically historical knowledge against what Gadamer characterizes as “the omnipresence of a constant flood of information” (48) in the modern world. Together with the view that all knowledge should be modeled on the knowledge proper to the natural sciences, Gadamer suggests that this flow of information from the media threatens to produce thoughtless conformity and manufactured opinion. Within this situation, Gadamer advocates for a recognition of the importance of playful reading and historical knowledge. Here, Gadamer is less concerned with history in the sense of the objective facts of what took place at what time, and more with what is handed down in the living memory of the past:

“Without knowledge and without reflecting on our own proper possibilities, there is for us no future. However, this means, not without history. History does not mean an evasion into the past, but is a memoria vitae, a memory of life, as Cicero calls historiography. History, the world of history, is not a second world of the past alongside the natural world that surrounds us. History is a completely inexhaustible system of all the worlds that are out there, which are closer to us than the nearby satellite orbiting our earth. For, history is the world of human beings. To study history is to keep open the entire range of what it means to be human. Thanks to history we are not confined to what we know or think by ourselves. History describes all our possibilities. As for what kind of future we will have, it will depend on how broadly we preserve and increase the heritage of the historical tradition from which we all originate and which unifies us all more and more.” (49)

Within the context of the social criticism of this essay, we recognize the larger significance, for Gadamer, of history for human life. Beings historically affected means that there is no gap between the historical world of the past and our world in the present. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of information threatens to cut us off from this living history, trapping us in the present and constraining our ability to genuinely think. Thus, Gadamer fears that a “world without history” is a world in which human beings are servile and manipulable.

The fifth essay, “The Old and the New” (1981), presents a phenomenological analysis of the categories of the “old” and the “new.” Here Gadamer argues that, in a strict sense, the “old” is that which appears as so familiar as to be irrelevant. We may indeed become interested in things that are “old” in the sense of being from the past, but insofar as we do, we have discovered new possibilities for their application, thereby making them “new” again.

“‘Always after the new.’ The expression betrays us: it is not the old and the new that are up for choice, but this or that, what promises something and because it promises something. It can also be something old. It is in fact never the choice between the old and the new. The old is never up for choice as something old. To the extent that it is old, it has reached the obviousness of what is familiar. Only in light of new possibilities can it be put up for choice at all as a counterpossibility and elicit our attention.” (54)

Gadamer then takes occasion to reflect upon our phenomenological experience of time, which is split between the dimensions of the past, present, and future. What is truly past or old, is what is no longer possible. The future, by contrast, Gadamer conceives of as that which stands before us, and in this sense may include “past” possibilities that have been made new:

“This is precisely the experience that time is for us: its two dimensions, future and past, are never the present. However, this means that they do not stand in front of us like two equal possibilities. One is the possible, the past is well and truly gone. Even a god cannot make unhappen what has happened. What stands before us [was vor uns steht] is what may await us [was uns bevorstehen mag]. Even when it is something well-known that awaits us, it is no longer what is usual and known, but appears in a new light.” (54)

For Gadamer, the category of the “new” — as that which awaits for us in the future — will always include elements of the [temporal] past for which we have found new applications and possibilities.

The final essay of the first part, a philosophical reflection upon death from 1975 entitled “Death as a Question”, presents a formulation of the philosophical activity that connects it to tradition. For Gadamer, the universality of hermeneutics means that we are always interpreting ourselves and our world. In this sense, philosophy becomes a knowledge of the already known, which Gadamer associates with the Platonic theory of recollection or anamnēsis:

“These are questions to which philosophy must devote itself in its own way because the task of philosophy is to want to know what we know without knowing that we know it. This is a precise definition of what philosophy is and an [164] apt description of what Plato first recognized: the knowledge with which we are dealing here, anamnēsis, is a bringing out of the interior and a raising to consciousness. Let us, thus, ask what one knows without knowing it when one knows about death. What does the philosophical tradition we inhabit have to say about it? Should we also ask about these attempts at thinking whether they are attempts to know or whether they are yet again ways of not wanting to know what we know?” (62)

Insofar as human life and philosophizing is embedded within history, Gadamer argues that philosophical reflection is one of recollection. Specifically, we are attempting to make present to ourselves that which, by virtue of the traditions in which we stand, we have always already known.

From a review of the philosophy of history sketched in Part 1, we learn that, for Gadamer, human life is embedded within history, which provides the horizon of our future possibilities. Not only is our human history distinct from the natural history of the universe, but we cannot avoid the way that it determines and constrains what is possible for us. The hermeneutical task becomes one of surveying the past, [re]-discovering that which continues to speak to us across time, and making it new again in applying it to the present.

If this is Gadamer’s general view of the place and role of history in human life, in the remainder of this review, I wish to apply this philosophy of history to the particular view of the history of philosophy that Gadamer presents in this volume. In so doing, I aim to test the limits of Gadamer’s account in order to pose the question of whether or not present-day readers should take up Gadamer’s hermeneutics as part of the “philosophical new,” or if they ought to, rather, consign it to a place in the history of philosophy with the “philosophical old.”

As is clear in this volume, and especially in the essays on Heidegger in part four, Gadamer himself understood his own philosophy as part of a larger Western/European tradition stretching back to Greek antiquity. For Gadamer, this Greek beginning of philosophy, and its subsequent effects, enable us to form a principled distinction between philosophy as it has been practiced in Europe and the Western world more broadly, and what we might think of, for instance, under the rubric of “Eastern philosophy.” As Gadamer describes the Heideggerian theme of the “end of philosophy” in the lecture “On the Beginning of Thought” in 1986:

“When Heidegger speaks of the end of philosophy, we immediately understand that we can only talk like this from the Western perspective. Elsewhere, there was no philosophy that set itself apart so much from poetry or religion or science, neither in East Asia nor in India nor in the unknown parts of the earth. ‘Philosophy’ is an expression of the trajectory of Western destiny. To speak with Heidegger: it is a destiny of being that has in fact become our destiny. The civilization of today, as it appears, finds its fulfilment in this destiny.” (229-30)

Following the “history of being” traced by Heidegger, the Greek beginning of philosophy is decisive insofar as its echoes shape the subsequent development of Western thinking. In Gadamer’s view, philosophical thinking as it descends from Greece self-consciously differentiates itself from religion. Further, philosophy aims for theoretical knowledge of nature, and as becomes evident in the Modern period and its separation of philosophy from the natural sciences, it attempts to produce methodological justification for the epistemic activity carried out in the natural sciences. These features of Greek-inspired Western philosophy may be found in such historical instances as the codification of Greek metaphysics in the Latin tradition, the emergence of Cartesian subjectivity and method in the seventeenth-century, the Kantian critique of metaphysics, the great philosophical systems of German idealism, and the ongoing technological domination of the natural world. Thus, Gadamer does seem to affirm a distinction between philosophy as a specifically “Western” intellectual tradition and forms of intellectual activity carried out in other coordinates in the human world:

“When we hear about the end of philosophy, we understand it from such a situation. We realize that the separation between religion, art, and philosophy, and perhaps even the separation between science and philosophy, are not originally common to all cultures, but precisely shaped the particular history of the Western world. One can ask oneself what kind of destiny this is. Where does it come from? How is it that technology could develop into such an autonomous force of necessity that it has become the hallmark of human culture nowadays? When we question in this manner, Heidegger’s surprising and apparently paradoxical thesis suddenly appears to be disturbingly plausible: it is Greek science and metaphysics, whose effects in today’s global civilization dominate our present.” (230)

On the basis of this account of the history of philosophy, it becomes natural to identify the philosophical task as one of interpreting and making explicit one’s own philosophical heritage. Indeed, we have seen that this task corresponds to Gadamer’s own philosophy of history as outlined in Part 1 of this volume: only by these means can one understand the linguistic and conceptual influences that shape one’s philosophical horizons, and indeed thereby have any hope of breaking free or of thinking something genuinely new.

However, what if one does not identify with this particular tradition of philosophy? Or, for that matter, what if one rejects the particular Gadamerian narrative of the history of philosophy? On this score, readers may be skeptical, for instance, of the distinction that Gadamer, following Heidegger, draws between “philosophy” [i.e. “Western philosophy”] and the rich traditions of metaphysical, ethical, and social-political thinking found in other parts of the human world. Though this distinction is drawn on the basis of a substantive claim regarding the existence of a distinct tradition of philosophical thinking originating in Classical Greek antiquity, one may contest the historical, linguistic, or theoretical continuity and integrity of such a tradition as set apart from the rest of global intellectual history. Further, if we assume its existence, we may worry that reserving the name “philosophy” for it alone might permit philosophers to disregard the contributions of thinkers from other parts of the world, insofar as those not in dialogue with the Western tradition were, by definition, not engaging in “philosophy.”

For readers skeptical on these grounds, the measure of Gadamer’s continuing philosophical relevance or “newness” may well be the degree to which one is willing to separate Gadamer’s broader philosophy of history from the history of philosophy as he himself conceived of it. Indeed, in Gadamer’s defense, one could imagine him replying that all genuine human questioning unfolds upon the backdrop of some tradition, and that it would therefore be a mistake to reject this insight and its consequences as a result of a disagreement over the facts of philosophical history. In any case, he would very likely agree that the task of delineating the true scope, meaning, nature of philosophy is one that must be continuously renewed, not least in the course of interacting with those from outside of the particular traditions one may call home.

As this volume of essays on Gadamer’s philosophy of history makes clear, the significance of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for us today is dependent upon our willingness and ability to apply it within our own philosophical situation and questions. In this regard, I could not escape the impression that the editors could have done more to provide guidance regarding how Gadamer’s hermeneutics could productively contribute to ongoing philosophical projects. Though they indicate, for instance, Gadamer’s critical relationship with Derridean deconstruction (xviii-xix), or that the philosopher John McDowell has acknowledged a Gadamerian inspiration present in his 1994 book Mind and World (xiii), are there more recent, active philosophical projects that are being carried out in what we might think of as a Gadamerian spirit? Does Gadamer’s critique of the objectivizing methodology of the natural sciences hit its mark, or may he find sympathetic ears in contemporary post-positivist practitioners of the philosophy of science? In this reviewer’s view, areas in which Gadamer’s philosophy of history may prove relevant and fruitful include methodological discussions in philosophical historiography (e.g. Catana 2008, 299-304), and comparative philosophy aiming for cross-cultural dialogue (Berger et al. 2017). In light of Gadamer’s insistence that philosophical truth emerges in the application of ideas from the history of philosophy to the present, the editors may have missed an opportunity to test Gadamer’s applicability today and lend further support to the continuing relevance of his philosophical hermeneutics.


Berger, Douglas L., Hans-Georg Moeller, A. Raghuramaraju, and Paul A. Roth. 2017. “Symposium: Does Cross-Cultural Philosophy Stand in Need of a Hermeneutic Expansion?” Journal of World Philosophies 2: 121–43.
Catana, Leo. 2008. The Historiographical Concept “System of Philosophy”: Its Origin, Nature, Influence and Legitimacy. Leiden: Brill.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2000. “Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person.” Translated by Peter Adamson and David Vessey. Continental Philosophy Review 33: 275–87.
———. 2004. Truth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd, Revised Edition ed. London; New York: Continuum.
———. 2007. “Hermeneutics Tracking the Trace [On Derrida].” In The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings, edited by Richard E. Palmer, 372–406. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Grondin, Jean. 2003. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 2014. Uberlegungen II-VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931-1938). Edited by Peter Trawny. Martin Heidegger Gesamtausgabe 94. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.
———. 2016. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Justin Sands: Reasoning from Faith: Fundamental Theology in Merold Westphal’s Philosophy of Religion, Indiana University Press, 2017

Reasoning from Faith: Fundamental Theology in Merold Westphal’s Philosophy of Religion Book Cover Reasoning from Faith: Fundamental Theology in Merold Westphal’s Philosophy of Religion
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
Justin Sands
Indiana University Press
Paperback $35.00

Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber: Heidegger, Philosophy and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference

Heidegger, Philosophy and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference Book Cover Heidegger, Philosophy and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference
Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber, Translated by Jeff Fort, Foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy
Fordham University Press
Hardback $85.00

Reviewed by: Raymond Aaron Younis (Australian Catholic University)

In this valuable, timely and in many respects, enlightening volume, Mireille Calle-Gruber gathers together a number of important documents: the transcripts of a discussion between Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe at a seminar in Heidelberg on Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of his Thought; a series of questions to Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, and their answers concerning Heidegger’s thinking, political affiliations and commitments; and a thought-provoking and altogether memorable appendix by Gadamer.

Gadamer’s response is, in some ways, not surprising, and striking. First of all, he chooses to speak in French (since the other two speakers, Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida, are French, and visitors to Germany); he asserts that there is “no authentic conversation without dialogism, that is, without the basis of a common language” (6) – one might add: also without authentic hospitality. He brings no text; he sees the invitation to speak as “license permitted to an improvisation” (6). He insists on a familiar note: “there is no point in speaking about Heidegger if one is not familiar with the origins of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics” (6-7). Indeed, he reminds us that this was the main reason why he had begun to read the works of Derrida. He explains that his interest lies not just in a “set of problems touching on Heidegger” but also in the question of “how, to some extent, it also determined us” (7).

He then turns to Derrida’s “concept” of deconstruction: “the term ‘deconstruction’ then, taught me immediately to recognize this connotation [destruktion as a ‘return to living speech’] that had never come to mind for us when we were listening to the young Heidegger speak of Destruktion. ‘Deconstruction’ wants, it seems to me, to underscore that it is a question not simply of destroying, but also of constructing something” (7). He hastens to add, however, quite unsurprisingly, that he is not “inhabited” (as Derrida “is”) “by the conviction that there is a total rupture of communication among men today” (8). He reminds the audience also that the hermeneutics at the basis of his reflection on communication is not as interested in “the hidden meanings of words and discourse” (8).

He argues that Derrida sees in Heidegger‘s interpretation of Nietzsche a “form of continuation, unintended and involuntary, of the tradition of metaphysics and even of logocentrism” – a “true provocation”, he calls it (8). In Gadamer’s view, Heidegger’s greatness lay in this: that he had taught Gadamer “that logocentrism was in a way the destiny of the West. That it was at the foundation of metaphysics…. That this logocentrism had constituted, for Heidegger himself, the true invitation to philosophy” (8). In a sense. Heidegger had begun to “comprehend” something “not comprehensible by means of the conceptuality or the metaphysics of the Greeks and of medieval or even modern thinkers” (8-9).

Gadamer then turns to the question of Heidegger’s “engagement in the National-Socialist movement” (9). He introduces a deeply personal, and troubling, note:

we were troubled by it from the moment when we began working with him, when we were his students. I was at Marburg and was a young colleague of Heidegger’s when he began to get involved in the Nazi movement in Freiburg. It is true and must be confessed, that for many of us this came as a surprise. Perhaps one will say: you were blind! Young people are blind, in a way, when they are guided by a master with great energy and force; so they give their attention only to what corresponds to their own interests and their own questions (9-10).

This insight brings him to the “crucial and absolutely inevitable problem,… the problem of German Nazism” (10). And he is insistent on this point: “it is clear that one cannot dissociate Heidegger’s philosophy from the fact of the extermination that took place” (10) – presumably because they had been troubled by Heidegger’s direct “involvement” in “the Nazi movement in Freiburg”. He does not note that the involvement was uncritical, of course, but his alarm could perhaps be explained by the very nature of that “involvement”. He insists also on the context: a period of liberalism, a bourgeois culture in decline, an age of artistic visions of the destruction of German culture, and so on. The young Heidegger had been “determined” by this kind of background, which extended to the critique of transcendental idealism, neo-Kantianism, “the critique on the part of Jewish thinkers and Catholic thinkers” during World War 1, and so on (11).

Nonetheless, he emphasises two problems

that have remained very troubling… throughout my life. The first has to do with the responsibility assumed by a man as excellent and paradigmatic as the thinker that Heidegger was in 1933… but also… there is the other fact, contradictory and disturbing: to wit, the same thinker, at the same moment—at a time when he supported, certainly not everything, not the anti-Semitism, not the racism, not the biologism of Nazism, but all the same some of its fundamental decisions—this thinker was writing texts that we still today can read as an anticipation of the coming reality. I am thinking in particular of “Die Zeit des Weltbildes,” of the description of the “forgetting of being,” as he called it, of the predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution; in short, of everything that, as we know, began long ago but became evident only more recently, and is evident for young people to such a degree that this is perhaps today, in the eyes of the old man I am now, the most troubling fact there is: I mean, the pessimism of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity (11).

The question of responsibility is a profound one, given the context that Gadamer highlights; the question of Heidegger’s support for some of the “fundamental decisions” of Nazism is also a profound and troubling one, as are its connections with his writings concerning the “predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution” (11), and the emerging pessimism “of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity” (11).

So the first “great ambiguity” in the case of Heidegger is the question of responsibility; the second one concerns the “ambiguity of his silence” (11). (“Heidegger never spoke of his error”, though Gadamer adds that “he did say once that it was ‘the greatest error of my life’”, in relation to his “engagement” with the Nazi Party). He intensifies the analysis considerably, in searing terms:

But that is superficial with regard to the serious affinities that exist between Heidegger’s philosophical position and certain tendencies of that movement. It is this question that has always preoccupied the Jewish friends I have met in America during my travels. They all say: the error of Heidegger, his participation in the movement, these are things that could be forgiven. But why did he never evoke that? Why did he refuse to speak of it? (11-12).

He explains how his attempt to explain “why Heidegger did not recognize any responsibility” in an article in Le Nouvel Observateur had been “very mutilated” (“but what can one expect, when a German writer engages in a Parisian debate”, 12). He critiques Farias’ book except “on one point”:

I am referring to the date of June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives. It was there that my difference with Heidegger, I believe, revealed itself as fundamental. For both of us, this was a date with fatal consequences, but we did not understand this fatality in the same way. For Heidegger, it was the end of the revolution as he understood it: that is to say, a spiritual and philosophical revolution that ought to have brought with it a renewal of humanity in all of Europe. Whereas for me this stabilization of the Nazi revolution through the support of the army brought the irrevocable certainty that it would never be possible to be liberated from this regime without a catastrophe. This was, in my eyes, the prospect we were facing. And for me it is clear that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it? When faced with weapons one does not counter them with preaching (12).

The bifurcation of their two paths is striking: for Heidegger, according to Gadamer, the Night of the Long Knives signalled the end of a revolution, in a “spiritual and philosophical sense”, that promised to bring in its wake, a renewal of all Europe; for Gadamer, it signalled a national “stabilization” which brought him the certainty that it would not be possible to be liberated from the “revolution”, except in catastrophic terms. It may be, as he argues, “that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it?” But the question cannot be disengaged quite so readily: when one is faced with weapons, admittedly preaching may be futile, but it could be argued that critical thinking and questioning need not be abandoned entirely (notwithstanding the “determining” elements that Gadamer identifies incisively).

So, Gadamer concludes with some observations on that article in French, on a hermeneutical note that is long familiar from his writings, in which optimism and the possibility of authentic and meaningful communicative relations are affirmed, in the knowledge that the next speaker will be Derrida: he reaffirms his conviction that “communication can always take place, and that in my work there is not at all this insistence on the rupture that formed the destiny of human culture today” (13).

Derrida’s response is significantly longer than Gadamer’s, perhaps not surprisingly, though interestingly, he does not respond directly to Gadamer’s forceful claims about Heidegger. He begins with a startling claim: he professes to be happy, afraid, “very impressed” and “very intimidated” by “what is developing here”! (13) Derrida imagines Heidegger’s specter, or “something of his specter, predicting that this evening there will be no thinking [ça ne pensera pas]! And that is indeed what may happen” (13).

Perhaps. But it is evident that some thinking has already taken place, deep thinking or pondering, as Heidegger would have it, on the part of Gadamer. Derrida seems to mean that thinking may not take place in this challenging and less than ideal context: a short meeting, speaking briefly rather than reading (or writing) in detail, and so on. He clarifies his meaning:

an agreement in favour of improvisation: we are improvising, and we will continue to improvise. Why improvise in this case? Whereas everything, on the contrary—the gravity of the matter, the complexity of the problems, of the texts, of the political and historical situations, of the traps awaiting us at every moment—all this, precisely, would push us to weigh our words, to leave nothing to chance, to never improvise…. And I must say that personally, each time that I have attempted to speak of these questions—as I have done again recently—, I avoided improvisation as much as I possibly could. Not in order simply to defend or protect myself, but because the consequences of every phrase and sentence are so grave that all this deserves, precisely, to be removed from the element of improvisation (14).

He reasons that they are “improvising”, yet the complexity of the issues, the gravity of the situation, and so on, demand that they do not improvise. But it is not obvious that Gadamer had merely improvised; on the contrary, his talk seemed to come out of some deliberation, and over a sustained period of time, on the complexities and gravity of the situation –  hardly without preparation. Yet Derrida insists on the point about improvisation. So, Derrida turns to Gadamer’s talk and to “a philosophical question… in what terms responsibility will be defined. Which category of responsibility ought to guide us, not only in the definition but in the taking of responsibilities?” (14)

On the one hand, Derrida insists on the improvisatory aspect, and on the other hand, speaks of Gadamer’s abundant attention to some of these things. Yet he raises an important question about the meaning of responsibility and the responsibilities that one has, for example, in relation to reading Heidegger carefully: since the publication of Farias’ text among others, “many of those who were not professional philosophers, or experts on Heidegger, if you will…  have accused those who have been interested in Heidegger either of being uninformed regarding Heidegger’s Nazi engagement or, if they were informed… of not having transformed into a common problem, what they were aware of as professional philosophers” (14-15). The point about non-professional philosophers is fair enough. The “accusations” ought to be examined carefully and not merely in a purely improvisatory way which is after all, in a sense, an unphilosophical way of inquiry, as Derrida would have it.

Farias’ book has provoked emotions, Derrida claims; a provocation that compels “professional philosophers” to explain their own work on Heidegger, and in less than ideal circumstances, namely in terms of improvisation. Now, if Derrida is correct on this question, then the point is a strong one. Such issues, such “provocations”, largely on the part of non-professional philosophers, in a philosophical sense, demand not improvisation but pondering, deliberation, systematic and careful reflection, in short, all the things that improvisation makes impossible. He therefore introduces a complication, an aporia concerning improvisation, or in other words, the very mode of discourse and format of the exchange, as he sees it, that day, which makes him fearful: “improvising runs the risk of preventing us… from maintaining a certain refinement, a certain rhythm in the discussion that we are used to. In short, a certain style of discussion that is ours” (15). He seems to believe that such a mode, or format, runs a grave risk: it prevents the philosophers, who are also teachers, from maintaining a “certain style of discussion” which is inherently philosophical (though he does not name it here), which belongs to philosophy (and by implication, it seems, not to the style or mode which belongs presumably to those who are not professional philosophers).

 A grave risk and a formidable but necessary one, then, according to Derrida, since philosopher-teachers in their philosophical mode (whatever that may be, but certainly involving complications and qualifications) are disarmed by the demands of the operative mode of discourse: disarmed in at least two senses, that is, deprived of a kind of power and disabled or weakened considerably. But he insists, “that no one here is in any way favorable, or wishes to be favorable, to what we always very cursorily call Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism” (16), or is to be suspected of wishing to defend them; no one wishes, he claims, to disculpate him [Heidegger] or render him innocent of every kind of fault in that respect (16).

So, though he feels disarmed, and though he fears the risks, he nonetheless feels that it is necessary to speak, and requests a “protocol of discussion”: that no one is to be suspected of defending the theses of Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism; that no one “claims to absolve Heidegger, to disculpate him or render him innocent” of fault in these respects. The point he makes here is an important one: he is characteristically going, not just to improvise, but to introduce a number of complications, and he wishes to maintain a distinction between complication as a philosophical (aporetic) mode and justification or evasion. He wishes to affirm the possibility of being vigilant “with regard to the discussions that develop on this subject… with regard to our discourse and our improvisations, in such a way that they would not contain or reproduce the gestures, the aggressions, the implications, the elements of scenography that recall the very thing against which we are allied” (16). He warns against modes that improvisation may valorise and promote: “every gesture that proceeds by conflation, precipitous totalization, short-circuited argumentation, simplification of statements, etc., is politically a very grave gesture that recalls…the very thing against which we are supposed to be working” (17).

He also warns, characteristically, against gestures which seem to attack totalitarianism yet unwittingly reproduce the very thing they attack; against attacks upon him for not denouncing “Heidegger’s Nazism”, even as he denounces this in his writings (“I speak of nothing else”, 18). He returns to the question of the significance “of the encounter this evening” (18). He asks why the “intense phase” of the debate took place in France, and reflects again on the sufficiency of the analyses in relation to the complexity of the “phenomenon” (18-19), on the over-determination, and points to a number of threads, even as he admits that they are insufficient. And he attacks the unreflective linking of France and Heideggerianism with good reason: he points out that such a linkage is both reductive and simplistic, for there is “not one single French Heideggerianism”, just as he insists on this point in order to detotalize the matter and insist on the differences and the ruptures that have marked the legacy of Heidegger (19).

He rightly insists on the amount of work that “remains to be done” (20), in relation to such complications, and complexities. He insists also on bringing the discussion back to

the political situation in France and in Europe. At a moment when the destiny of Europe, as one says, is taking a certain path, when a certain political discourse dominates the discourse on politics in Europe, in France, in Germany, and in many other Western democracies, we see a confrontation between, on the one hand, a resurgence of ideologies and comportments that are not unrelated to what one identifies very quickly as Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism; and, on the other hand, a social-democratic discourse whose values of reference are those of the rights of man, of democracy, of the liberty of the subject (21).

This is a “confrontation” between two discourses, one “not unrelated” to what may be identified, “very quickly” (again), with “Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism”, on the one hand, and a discourse that revolves around rights, democracy, liberty and the subject, on the other hand. One of the symptoms of this clash is anxiety or fear or distrust, not always informed, he argues, by a careful and reflective approach to reading the complex texts, but also “the compulsion to accuse very quickly, to judge, to simplify” – an “extremely grave” symptom (22) of an age in which nothing less, as he would have it, than the destiny of Europe and its path, are at stake. He also finds the accusations in Germany “unjust”: “so compulsive, so precipitous and globalizing” (22). Accordingly, he presents two “hypotheses”: first, “that for well-known historical reasons, the relation to Heidegger became so intolerable that, aside from a few exceptions, naturally, Heidegger has been little read in Germany since the war” (22). In France, he believes Heidegger was read with less of a bad conscience, for one bypassed a certain reading of Heidegger. He argues that “the reading of Heidegger in Germany was rather repressed since the war” (22).

The second hypothesis is that this “repression was bound to produce, in the form of a projection-expulsion, a desire to accuse, from the other side of the border, those who for their part had anything to do with Heidegger” (23). So, what the encounter “this evening” symbolizes “is the possibility, today, thanks to these provocations, of lifting the inhibitions on every side, and of not only reading Heidegger with the political vigilance required, but of reading him” (22-23).

Now, the first hypothesis is not supported by strong evidence, it has to be said, by Derrida. Of course, one can grant it as a hypothesis, but hypotheses without supporting evidence remain tenuous; they remain suppositions. The second hypothesis is that the “repression” of the reading of Heidegger’s works “since the war” in Germany, which has lead, amongst other things, to the “encounter” between the three thinkers at the conference nonetheless symbolically offers a possibility, namely that of lifting prohibitions (just how is not explained by Derrida) and that of actually reading Heidegger “with the political vigilance required”. It has to be said though, notwithstanding Derrida’s justifiable insistence of reading Heidegger carefully, vigilantly, responsibly and within a political context of human rights, liberties and the subject very much to the fore, the second hypothesis concerning a “projection-expulsion” is no less tenuous than the first. Of course, it may be true, but it is impossible to tell for sure from this contribution.

He closes on three important points at least: first, he reminds the audience of what interests him, in particular, about Heidegger’s thinking, namely “what, in Heidegger, on the one hand, made it possible to question the traditional categories of responsibility, of the subject, for example, of right [du droit], and what let itself nonetheless, up to a certain point, be limited by this questioning—and even, perhaps, by the form of the question” (23). Second, he argues that “deconstruction” is not an “abdication of responsibility”, even when it “places in question this axiomatic of subjectivity or of responsibility, or when it places in question certain axioms of Heidegger’s discourse” – he insists that it is, at least in his view, the “most difficult responsibility that I can take. And to trust in traditional categories of responsibility seems to me today to be, precisely, irresponsible” (24). Finally, he points, characteristically, to an aporia, and therefore to the importance of vigilance: “complicities between a discourse that is, let’s say, humanist and democratic but that has not reelaborated in a critical fashion its own categories, and that which it is meant to oppose” (24-25).

Lacoue-Labarthe speaks briefly (perhaps because Derrida spoke for too long!), but he makes a number of critical points, clearly, forcefully and concisely: he notes, firstly, that he belongs, unlike Derrida, to “the generation of 1940”, and so, sees the question differently:

This is still a family affair because, in the discourse, the language, the statements that suffused my childhood and my adolescence, in high school and in my surroundings, I heard pass a countless number of anti-Semitic phrases pronounced by schoolmates and friends, by adults, who were not particularly extreme right wing, but for whom this language was more or less natural (26).

In an important sense, he tackles the question of French antisemitism directly, and without protestation or equivocation: the “language” and “discourse” of antisemitism and the extent to which it had become “natural” for a whole generation. Or more. He reminds the audience of the importance of such questions: “when one touches on these problems, this is a question that one should never forget to ask oneself. What would I have done, given that it was only afterward that I gradually discovered all this?” (27). It is notable that he wishes to note the importance of this question without aporiai, without hesitation, just as it is notable that he emphasised the practical response, not the merely theoretical one: there is something that needed to be done, or that should have been done.  He warns, with remarkable and clear insight, against an attack that is “emerging”, that Farias’ book, or its conclusions, “will help to authorize, to legitimize” (28): he refers to a “kind of liberal philosophy, social-democratic, if you like, founded on what one of the two journalists I mentioned a moment ago calls a ‘juridical humanism’” (28), and notes the role played by Stalinists and ultra-Stalinists: “it is the same people who, in order to construct that humanism, are in the process of finding authorization in Farias’s denunciation” (28). He insists on this point: there is in this an undeniably political scene being played out. And I believe that this must not be passed over in silence (28).

It is a remarkable and striking contribution, and all the more so because it follows, and marks a stark contrast to, Derrida’s speech: it is spare, measured, stark and direct, and it does not shy away from the central question, the ethical, responsible, vigilant and unflinching critical analysis of Nazism and Heidegger’s complicity with aspects of the ideology, not just in his complex philosophical works, which demand extended attention, to be sure, but in his writing and thinking more generally in that context (his letters, notebooks, lectures, and his opinions expressed to friends and colleagues, and so on and so forth): it is, he notes, “perhaps only today that we are capable of beginning an attempt at an analysis of Nazism, of the fascisms; because it is in effect the first time that, on the one hand, we are at bottom rid of the communist . . . obstacle, let’s call it”  (29).

He insists like Derrida on the importance of reading Heidegger thoughtfully and responsibly, but does not shy away from the context for such a reading, as many have noted, in particular Jaspers, Gadamer and Habermas, among many others, namely, the reality of Nazism in Heidegger’s thinking, even if one grants that Heidegger’s Nazism was not pure and unquestioning:

it is the reading of Heidegger that, I believe—provided that one carry it out in a certain way, of course—can give access to a certain reality of Nazism. An access that the univocal moral and political accusation—which of course I share; but in fact when one tries to carry out philosophical work one cannot after all limit oneself to that—has continued to mask (29).

He anchors his analysis not in aporetic complications, or extended problematizations, but in an attitude, which needless to say, attaches quite readily to the practical, namely, distrust of certain ideologies:

From the moment when one began to distrust the use of the word “fascist,” from the moment when there was a questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism, from that moment, perhaps, it is possible for real work to begin. And that is the reason why—this is one of my grievances against Farias’s book—the simplification that consists in presenting Heidegger as entirely Nazi seems to me extremely unfortunate in this story: because perhaps it will be necessary, for a certain time still, to fight about this presentation, in order to try to make it understood that, in Heidegger, one of the secrets of Nazism has remained unperceived up to now (29).

It is not self-evident, or demonstrative, it has to be said, that this moment, and only this moment, signals the possibility of the commencement of “real [philosophico-critical] work”. The moment, so to speak, when Heidegger’s commitment to the spirit, if not the letter, of Nazism becomes apparent, is an important moment in relation to the commencement of this critical project; those moments, so to speak, when there was an understanding, a dawning awareness, on which “questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism” could be based, also make it possible for real work to begin.

What follows however in the volume is a (valuable) series of questions to the speakers, with their answers, and questions from the audience, also with answers, along with an appendix by Gadamer. He notes the crucial differences between the reception of Farias’ book in France and in Germany. He expresses surprise over the “uproar” that Farias’ book has generated in France, since “almost all” of what Farias reveals “has long been known” in “German speaking countries” – and wonders, “could it be that so little is known there about the Third Reich? Heidegger’s followers, believing they were defending him, no doubt contributed to the affair by continually repeating the refrain of his ‘rupture’ with Nazism at the end of a year of disappointing experiences as the rector of Freiburg” (79).

He notes that in Germany, “no one is able to feign surprise in discovering that Heidegger did not leave the Nazi Party” (79); and he highlights the reaction of the younger generation in Germany, and their questioning: they find it “difficult to imagine the reality of that time: the conformism, the pressure, the ideological indoctrination, the sanctions. . . . Many of them ask, ‘Why did none of you cry out?’” (79). He answers, by affirming the underestimation of “the natural human inclination toward conformism, which is always ready to be taken in by any type of deception”, typified in particular, by the question, “Does the Führer know about this?” (79).

The historical context is critical, and Gadamer underscores it, in a way that, in a sense, seems intended to carry the reader well beyond aporetic questions and beyond astonishment or perplexity. He insists that the strategy of explaining (away) Heidegger’s political errors by claiming that they “have nothing to do with his philosophy” is insulting; for after fifty years of reflection on “the reasons that disturbed us and separated us from Heidegger for many years” “we” cannot be astonished to hear that Heidegger had “‘believed’ in Hitler” (80).

It is important to note the register here, to note that Gadamer chose to write like this, in the appendix, which is in an important sense the last word in the volume. It is quite breathtaking- there is no obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion:

Heidegger was not a mere opportunist. His political engagement clearly did not have much to do with political reality. The dream of a “people’s religion” encompassed, in fact, his profound disillusionment at the course of events. But he secretly safeguarded this dream. This is the dream he believed he was pursuing during the years 1933–34, convinced that he was rigorously fulfilling his philosophical mission by attempting to revolutionize the university. It was to this end that he did everything that outraged us. For him it was a question of breaking the political influence of the church and the inertia of the academic mandarins. He even gave Ernst Jünger’s vision of “The Worker” a place alongside his own ideas on overcoming the tradition of metaphysics on the basis of being. Later, as is well known, he went so far as to speak of the end of philosophy. That was his revolution (80-81).

He then tackles, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion, the question of Heidegger’s responsibility:

Did he then feel no responsibility for the terrible consequences of Hitler’s seizure of power, the new barbarism, the Nuremberg laws, the terror, the blood spilled—and, finally, the indelible shame of the extermination camps? [The answer is a rigorous “no.” For that was the perverted revolution and not the great renewal arising from the spiritual and moral [sittlich] strength of the people, which he dreamed of and longed for as the preparation of a new religion of humanity.] (81)

Such writing demands thinking and reflection, and deliberation, of course, but to put it bluntly, after some fairly long-winded exchanges in the volume, it is bold and striking, like his pronouncements on Farias’ book (“very superficial”, “grotesque” in some senses, “overflows with ignorance”, and so on):

What was considered the world over as a radical step forward in thought, his confrontation [Auseinandersetzung] with the Greeks, with Hegel, and finally with Nietzsche, had all this suddenly become false? Or have we long since finished with all that? Or perhaps what we are being asked to do is definitively to renounce thinking. Watching anxiously from afar as Heidegger thus strayed into the cultural politics of the Reich, we sometimes thought of what happened to Plato at Syracuse. One of his Freiburg friends, seeing him in the tram after his departure from the rectorship, asked him, “Back from Syracuse?” (81)

He ends with a reminder, like Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, perhaps intentionally, about the “requirements of thinking”, but in a different key:

The requirements of thinking are not so easily eluded. Even those who were disturbed at the time by Heidegger’s political adventure and distanced themselves from him for many years would never have dared to deny the philosophical impetus with which he had not ceased to inspire them from the beginning. [Just as Heidegger in the 1920s did not create blind followers for himself, likewise one must find one’s own paths of thought, now more than ever.]

[Whoever believes that today one need no longer be concerned with Martin Heidegger has not taken the measure of how difficult it will always be for us to debate with him, instead of making oneself ridiculous by looking down on him with an air of superiority.] (82)

So, he reminds us, pointedly, in the closing paragraphs in the volume, of the (above all, philosophical) importance of finding not so much an aporia, but a euporia (a way for thinking, which is not mere questioning – that is, a “path” of one’s own), “now more than ever”; he reminds us of the, above all, philosophical importance of engaging critically without evading responsibility (for example, for naming the thing by its true name, “the reality of Nazism” in Heidegger’s thinking, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation and/or evasion).

If Derrida presents hypotheses which remain unjustified, tenuous or questionable, if he (somewhat ironically, it has to be said!) spends a considerable amount of time given to him improvising on improvisation, as well as on the short amount of time given to them (though his speech is the longest, by far!) and on aporetic considerations and performative problematizations, which are not always convincing, and if Lacoue-Labarthe is not entirely convincing on the question of just which “moment”, if any, is entirely suitable for the genesis of “real work” on this problem, Gadamer closes with a sobering, largely lucid and startlingly concise meditation on conformism, ideological indoctrination and resistance, complicity and “rupture”, and the authentic and difficult, but always necessary task of thinking.

Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation

Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation Book Cover Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation
Cambridge Philosophy Classics
Paul Ricoeur
Cambridge University Press
Paperback £ 14.99

Reviewed by: Francesco Poggiani (Pennsylvania State University)

  1. Introduction

The title of this anthology (originally published in 1981 and including eleven studies published in the 70’s) hints at the prospect of expanding our knowledge of human affairs in light of a general theory of textual interpretation (“hermeneutics). The more immediate purpose of these essays, however, consists in the articulation of the basic motivations for considering the “method” of the human sciences (sciences de l’esprit) as hermeneutical without renouncing their status as sciences. Indeed, according to Paul Ricœur, the psychological, social and historical disciplines constitute not so much a potential application of hermeneutics as its proper domain — hermeneutics being conceived by the French author as the “theory of the fixation of life expressions by writing” (even if, originally, it was confined to the field of biblical exegesis). At the same time, many of the essays in this collection are not merely concerned with methodological and epistemological questions. By reflecting on the nature and paradigmatic features of textual interpretation, Ricœur was engaged in the project of exploring the “subjectivity” which at once presides over and results from action as well as text-interpretation.

As Ricœur explains in his response to John Thompson’s illuminating introduction, his own hermeneutical turn, in the second volume of his first major project on the will (especially The Symbolism of Evil) was at least partially motivated by the desire to overcome a “disturbing gap” between “the essential structures of the volitional consciousness” (the subject of his first two books, Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man), and “the historical or empirical condition of the human will, prisoner of the passions and prone to evil.” That is to say, Ricœur’s interest in interpretation (of symbols and, later, of “all phenomena to a textual order”) was initially motivated by his identification and critical engagement with the tradition of “reflective philosophy” (or philosophy of reflection) – as developed by Descartes, Kant, and Husserl – which “seeks to disclose authentic subjectivity through a reflection upon the means whereby existence can be understood.”

Accordingly, and since a detailed summation would require more words than the present review can offer, I shall focus here on the way in which these essays reflect the development of Ricœur’s understanding of subjectivity. This emphasis is also justified by the fact that the anthology constitutes an important transition to Ricœur’s later studies of selfhood and narrativity. I will focus primarily, although by no means exclusively, on one essay (arguably the most significant) from each of the three parts in which the collection is organized: “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” regarded by Ricœur as “the real introduction” to his subsequent work; “Appropriation,” which appeared for the first time in this collection; and “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text,” which was originally written in English and represents the most immediately relevant essay to the anthology’s topic. As Ricœur points out, “the basic analogy between text and action is the key to the relation between the theory of interpretation and the social sciences.”

In his preface to this edition, Charles Taylor writes that the similarity between “text interpretation” and “making sense” of action, as it is entailed by the dialectic between explanation and understanding, is also reflected by the “impossibility of claiming closure” in both domains. “No matter how convincing our present reading, it is always possible that someone could propose a better one. And the same applies to human action in history.” Ricœur’s overall project in these essays, as I read them, consists in showing that while all interpretation (the very means by which subjectivity can be realized as well as disclosed) entails the impossibility of “absolute knowledge,” the inherent openness of the interpretative process —its irreducible distance from its own ideal fulfillment — is at the same time the positive condition for pursuing a “science” of human life.

  1. The Central Discovery of Phenomenology

Ricœur was a Husserlian phenomenologist well before his involvement with Gadamer’s work and philosophical hermeneutics. Indeed, such an interest emerged from his realization that, insofar as all “intuition” entails “explication” (explicitation) — a coincidence which Husserl “perceived” without being able to “draw all its consequences” — “phenomenology can be realised only as hermeneutics.” At the same time, the inescapable character of explication — the fact that nothing at all can be intuited, grasped or experienced without being somehow articulated or “interpreted” in the most basic sense of this word — is itself explained by the “universality of intentionality” — the idea that, since all consciousness is consciousness of an object, “no consciousness is self-consciousness before being consciousness of something towards which it surpasses itself.” Thus, if phenomenology can only be realized as hermeneutics, it is only because intentionality, our being “outside” of ourselves “towards meaning,” is the (phenomenological) presupposition of all forms of understanding.

In particular, according to Ricœur, it is “the reference of the linguistic order back to the structure of experience” which constitutes “the most important phenomenological presupposition of hermeneutics.” Indeed, “when the latter subordinates lingual experience to the whole of our aesthetic and historical experience, it continues, on the level of the human sciences, the movement initiated by Husserl on the plane of perceptive experience.” But if experience is always already “structured” or articulated, we cannot confuse it with any sort of “ineffable immediacy;” rather, “Lebenswelt” must be understood as “the surplus of sense in living experience” which “renders the objectifying and explanatory attitudes possible.” This is why Ricœur eventually moved away from an idealistic phenomenology of “foundations” toward a speculative philosophy of ontological manifestation. As he puts it, “the concept of manifestation of a world, around which all other hermeneutical concepts are organised, is closer to the idea of the ‘self-presentation’ of the true, following the preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, than to the Husserlian idea of constitution.”

  1. Belonging, Distanciation, Appropriation

This triad constitutes the core of Ricœur’s conception of interpretation. Belonging — “the hermeneutical experience itself” — represents the positive counterpart of the experience of finitude which is entailed by the discovery of intentionality. If we cannot become conscious of ourselves without explicating features of a world in which we are already implicated, it follows that such a worldly engagement “comes before any constitution of the object by a sovereign subject.” Belonging expresses, in this sense, the Heideggerian concept of being-in-the-world, hence the “primacy of care over the gaze,” or, more precisely, the “priority of the ontological category of the Dasein which we are over the epistemological and psychological category of the subject which posits itself.”

Up to this point, Ricœur was commenting upon aspects of Heidegger and Gadamer’s hermeneutical thought. His novel contribution consists in the way he tried to overcome what he saw as the “central problem of hermeneutics,” implied in the “epistemological specificity” of interpretation: the fact that interpreting a text appears as a radically different process than, for example, explaining a natural phenomenon, as Dilthey and others had already pointed out. What makes this difference particularly problematic is that interpretation, unlike explanation, seems to involve a circularity whose hypothetical viciousness would affect the validity of its results. If the “human sciences” as a whole are hermeneutical in their method, it might be the case that, after all, no scientific knowledge of human affair could ever be attained.

According to Ricœur, both Heidegger and Gadamer partially supported this conclusion for the sake of preserving the specificity of philosophical, historical, and other forms of “human” understanding. This move, however, depended upon accepting, without questioning any of it, an opposition between “alienating distanciation”, allegedly produced by scientific explanation (alienating because it abstracts from our concrete experience of being-in-the-world) and the “participatory belonging” which is the constant presupposition of all interpretation. In light of this antinomy — which, according to Ricœur, is “the mainspring of Gadamer’s work,” as attested by the very title of his major book (Truth and Method) — all forms of objectification entail some level of falsification of the experience they intend to describe and explain.

By contrast, Ricœur wants to think of “distanciation” (or objectification) as a “moment” of belonging. To be clear, he did not intend to deny that the natural and human sciences are concerned with different “regions” of reality. His point was rather that, if we pay attention to the “paradigm of writing” and its counterpart, reading, distanciation ceases to be a merely necessary but problematic dimension of understanding — necessary because all signification requires interrupting our “lived experience in order to signify it;” problematic because thereby the problem emerges how not to distort experience in the very act of signifying it. And it ceases to be problematic because it now appears as having a “positive and productive function at the heart of the historicity of human experience.” In this respect, as Gadamer himself perceived (“without perhaps giving it the emphasis which it deserves”), “mediation by the text is the model of a distanciation which would not be simply alienating… The text is, par excellence, the basis for communication in and through distance.”

Of course, distance here doesn’t merely refer to the temporal distance of texts and other text-like monuments from the past, but also to that “positive distancing” which, on the one hand, “establishes the autonomy of the text with respect to its author, its situation, and its original addressee” and, on the other and, projects “a new being-in-the-world … freed from the false evidences of everyday reality.” With respect to the latter, Ricœur suggests that the “non-ostensive reference” or “matter” of the text, as he often calls it, can be understood or “rendered near only in and through” the distance generated by the “imaginative variations” which the text “carries out on the real.” Thus, in the last essay of the collection (“The Narrative Function”), Ricœur argues that this dialectic between the alien and the familiar “places history in the neighborhood of fiction.” Similarly, after recalling Benedetto Croce’s claim that there is only a history of the present, he suggests to modify it as follows: “there is only a history of the potentialities of the present. History, in this sense, explores the field of ‘imaginative’ variations which surround the present and the real that we take for granted in everyday life. Such is the way in which history, precisely because it seeks to be objective, partakes of fiction.”

The “consubstantiality” between belonging and (positive) distanciation has two important implications. First, as we have already seen, “there is no need to search, under the title ‘sphere of belonging’, for some sort of brute experience which would be preserved at the heart of my experience of culture, but rather for an antecedent which is never given in itself.” I belong to this or that tradition, or undergo a given experience, always according to a certain modality of participation or engagement, under a certain description or respect, and from the perspective generated by certain interests. “In spite of its intuitive kernel, this experience remains an interpretation. ‘My own too is discovered by explication and gets its original meaning by virtue thereof’,” as Husserl himself wrote. Second, insofar as understanding a text involves a final act of “appropriation” (the act of rendering near what is far), interpretation can no longer be understood as a projection into the text of the reader’s prejudices. This is because the act of appropriation is dialectally related to the experience of distanciation (of the matter of the text from the reality of our habitus) whereby, “as reader, I find myself only by losing myself.”

But how is this possible? “How can this letting-go, this relinquishment, be incorporated into appropriation?” How can it be anything more than a temporary distraction from which we must eventually recover in order to ascertain, from the perspective of our own interests and concerns, what the text means (to us)? In order to answer this question, Ricœur links the act of appropriation “to the revelatory power of the text which we have described as its referential dimension. It is in allowing itself to be carried off towards the reference of the text that the ego divests itself of itself.” Here as elsewhere, Ricœur makes clear that it is not a matter of compromising between objective meaning and personal subjectivity, but of showing how they are reciprocally generated. “The notion of subject must be submitted to a critique parallel to that which the theory of metaphor exercises on the notion of object. In fact, it is the same philosophical error which must be understood from both extremities: objectivity as confronting the subject, the subject as reigning over objectivity.”

Consequently, as writing carries out imaginative variations on the real, “reading introduces me into the imaginative variations of the ego” (Ricœur goes so far as to say that “it is the text, with its universal power of unveiling, which gives a self to the ego”). Indeed, “the metamorphosis of the world in play is also the playful metamorphosis of the ego.” And since the later “implies a moment of distanciation in the relation of self to itself … understanding is as much disappropriation as appropriation.”

  1. Text as Paradigm of Action

One of the most interesting aspects of this anthology is Ricœur’s attempt to find a concept of interpretation which could explain the foregoing experience of reading, in which a text seems to have intentions or “injunctions” of its own, independent of its author, and capable of engendering self-transformation through the imaginative variations it induces of the reader’s world and ego. A text, in this sense, is not only the embodiment of the author’s intentions, but a semi-autonomous source of potential meaning. If “to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text” — to comply with its injunctions — our concept of interpretation as a subjective act on the text must be replaced by, or combined with, an understanding of it as an objective act of the text itself (upon the reader). In this respect, Ricœur’s appeal to Aristotle’s On Interpretation and, above all, to Charles Peirce’s semiotics, become central to his argument.

Unfortunately, Ricœur’s engagement with Peirce’s work does not go beyond a superficial assessment and appears to be mostly informed by secondary sources. At the same time, he does capture a quite crucial point of Peirce’s concept of interpretation: its “synechistic” nature, namely the continuous, non-extrinsic character of the relationship between (to use Ricœur ’s terminology) “tradition” — what a text or other forms of discourse signify (tradit) — and “interpretation” — what it evokes in the mind of the interpreter. “According to Peirce, the relation of a ‘sign’ to an ‘object’ is such that another relation, that between ‘interpretant’ and ‘sign’, can be grafted onto the first.” We have here another expression of the consubstantiality between belonging and distanciation, in that a sign can signify or “belong” to an object only by determining a further sign (the interpretant). For instance, the word “chair” can only signify a chair by evoking an image of it, which is course another sign. Yet this irreducible “distance” of any sign from its object is a necessary condition for understanding it. A sign incapable of generating a further interpretant of its object would be as incomprehensible as a sign without any object whatsoever — it would indeed be meaningless.

Accordingly, the above mentioned continuity between tradition and interpretation does not entail the kind of deductive closure one might expect from it. Paradoxically, the more one enters into the actual meaning of a text, the more her insights are “open” to interpretation, not only in the sense of being revisable, but also in the positive sense of being intellectually fecund, capable of generating new ways of being read, articulated and developed (the Gospel’s notoriously enigmatic phrase might be illuminating in this context: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath [Matthew 13:12, KJV]). Ricœur clarifies this point by citing Gilles-Gaston Granger: “The sign-interpretant association, realised by whatever psychological processes, is rendered possible only by the community [continuity], more or less imperfect, of an experience between speaker and hearer,” or text and reader. But this experience “can never be perfectly reduced to the idea or object of the sign,” that is, to an immediate or “brute” notion of belonging. “Whence the indefinite [open] character of Peirce’s series of interpretants.”

We finally come across Ricœur’s argument concerning the analogy between text and action. “My claim is that action itself, action as meaningful, may become an object of science, without losing its character of meaningfulness, through a kind of objectification similar to the fixation which occurs in writing” — a fixation in virtue of which, as we have seen above, “the author’s intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide.” But how can the same dissociation take place with action? Doesn’t an action by definition require the contemporaneous presence of an agent? Isn’t here a deeper subjective irreducibility than in the case of the text? For instance, while a text can indeed become relatively independent of the original writer’s intentions, the action of writing cannot in the same way be dissociated from the agent’s intention to write.

And yet, as Ricœur insists, unless human behavior can be “fixated” or objectified without losing its significant (intentional) character — unless “the expressions of life undergo a kind of objectification” — it won’t be suitable to become an object of scientific inquiry. This is because inquiry always requires its object to be inscribed in “external marks,” in the same way in which a discourse must be written down in order be not only practically understood but also theoretically analyzed. And if it is indeed impossible for the meaning of “action events” to be inscribed, a scientific understanding of human affairs could only amount to explaining away their original significance as a subjective phenomenon (as it happens with reductive explanations of action in terms of biological and neural concepts). This phenomenon, in turn, could only be understood or interpreted in a “romantic” sense of the term, namely, in virtue of our “pretension of recovering, by congenial coincidence, the genius of the author.” This is why there might be a genuine antinomy between understanding and explanation.

On the other hand, as Ricœur points out, action does sometime appear to dissociate itself from the agent’s intentions without losing its meaningful character. That is the case of actions which, as we sometime put it, leave “traces” or “marks” — not only because they have consequences (this is true of all actions), but also insofar as their importance goes beyond their relevance to the initial situation, even if only by embodying general features (such as “desirability characters”) which may be made the object of subsequent practical reflection. Accordingly, “could we not say that the process of arguing linked to the explanation of action by its motives unfolds a kind of plurivocity which makes action similar to a text?” Thus an action-event, like a speech-act, entails “a similar dialectic between its temporal status as an appearing and disappearing event, and its logical status as having such-and-such identifiable meaning or ‘sense-content’.” On this point, I believe Ricœur’s work might benefit by an even deeper interaction with “analytic” theories of agency — an interaction he continued to pursue in his subsequent work (see especially Oneself as Another).

“But if the ‘sense-content’ is what makes possible the ‘inscription’ of the action-event… what corresponds to writing in the field of action?” In other words, how can an action become “detached from its agent” and develop “consequences of its own”? Ricœur’s answer to this question echoes the above seen concept of interpretation as an essentially open and communal process. If the inscription of discourse has a spatial dimension, it is in “social time” that the “autonomization” of action occurs. And social time, Ricœur points out, “is not only something which flees; it is also the place of durable effects, of persisting patterns. An action leaves a ‘trace’, it makes its ‘mark’ when it contributes to the emergence of such patterns which become the documents of human action.” The objectification of meaningful behavior is essentially social, and it is social in virtue of the temporal dimension of all human interactions, in which certain actions and events come to be seen as weighing more than others, and their effects are consequently more lasting and pervasive (however less discernible and thus more easily discardable).

But in order for the effect of an action to last, its capacity to be recollected is not enough. It must, on the contrary, be developed into persisting and increasingly complex patterns of behavior, so as to transcend its original address and situation. In order for an action to become important (worthy of being recollected, registered, celebrated, questioned, interrogated, institutionalized, etc.), it must be capable, like a text, of opening up a “world” whose relevance “exceeds … the social conditions of its production and may be re-enacted in new social contexts. Its importance is its durable relevance and, in some cases, its omni-temporal relevance.”

  1. Conclusion

This is only the skeleton of Ricœur’s answer to the question about the nature of “truth” in the human sciences. The essays of the third part, in particular, articulate the implications of the foregoing remarks for critical theory, psychoanalysis, and history. Most importantly, the anthology as a whole reflects Ricœur’s commitment to show how a philosophy of reflection can become “concrete” without renouncing its “scientific” aspirations. It can do that by pursuing, at all levels of analysis, the dialectical relation between freedom and necessity, distanciation and belonging, method and tradition, fiction and history or, from another perspective, critique and ideology. Thus, one the one hand, “all objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural tradition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect.” On the other hand, the impossibility of “complete reflection” is but an expression of that “potentiality of meaning” which it is our fundamental responsibility to “appropriate” by giving up our dominant world-interpretations for the sake of their impending explications.