Bruce Janz (Ed.): Place, Space and Hermeneutics, Springer, 2017

Place, Space and Hermeneutics Book Cover Place, Space and Hermeneutics
Contributions to Hermeneutics
Bruce Janz (Ed.)
Hardcover, ebook
XXIV, 531

George Kovacs: Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)

Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis) Book Cover Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)
Heidegger Research
George Kovacs
Zeta Books
Paperback €28.00

Reviewed by: Stuart Grant (Centre for Theatre and Performance, Monash University)

How could a review of a commentary of Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis), be construed as anything other than a twice-removed betrayal of the intent of the original writing? To the uninitiated reader, this question, which would be clear to one acquainted with the work, requires some background explanation.

The publication of the Beiträge in 1989, fifty-three years after its writing, and the subsequent first translation into English, by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly in 1990, brought much controversy, and responses ranging from contemptuous ridicule as gibberish nonsense, to laudatory praise as Heidegger’s second magnum opus. Even among dedicated Heidegger scholars, the responses to these apparently fragmentary, obscure, and difficult writings veered from scorn to intrigue. Consequently, the last two and a half decades have also produced a number of how-to-read guides, interpretations, and companions-to. The controversy also gave rise to the perceived need for an alternative translation in 2012 by Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu. The book reviewed here, Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis), by George Kovacs, enters this fraught field.

Kovacs’ book belongs firmly in the camp that believes the Beiträge to be Heidegger’s second great work. To state my own position, before reviewing the book, I would affirm that I not only agree with Kovacs as to the importance of the work, but that I am tempted to go further and say that I believe, despite the inevitable unevenness of its success, that in its intent, in its philosophical gesture, and in the magnitude of its epochal sweep, the Beiträge is a more important moment in Heidegger’s work than Being and Time, which I understand as a mere prelude to the later work.

The problem of this review is the same problem of Kovacs’ book, and the problem of the Beiträge itself. Heidegger’s book, which he never thought of as a book, and which he consequently assiduously refrained from publishing in his lifetime, was not meant to be, “about something and representing something objective”, but rather attempted to enact a saying which “does not describe or explain, does not proclaim or teach…does not stand over against what is said…rather the saying itself is the ‘to be said’” (Heidegger 1999, 4). As such, the Beiträge is performative in its intent. It is not a series of assertions aimed at a correct correlation, description or analysis of a state of affairs, but the production of “being-historical-thinking”, of the event of the bringing forth of that which it says as it says it; and as such, it should be used as a directive towards an enjoinment to further action.

To be brief, Heidegger realised that Being and Time had only managed to outline the problem of the need for a new approach to the asking of the question of Being, which would require the “necessity of transforming our orientation of questioning, which entails our entering into this fundamental occurrence”. (Heidegger 1995, 360-361). Heidegger found that as soon as he began to talk about Being, he was no longer in Being, that the access to or participation in Being had become obscured by the mode of questioning, and in the consequent objectification, had become construed merely as a being, another being, rather than Being itself. This is the problem of ontological difference, between beings and Being. To approach Being in itself, it was necessary to find a new way of questioning; a new way of thinking which would escape the representational mode of Western metaphysics, grounded in its epistemology of subject and object, and guaranteed in assertions which could be assessed as more or less true or false. In a sense, Heidegger’s task would necessitate speaking forth Being from within. This, in his estimation, would require a complete revision of the concepts of truth, thinking, and knowing, and a radical new approach to language, which he attempts in the Beiträge, and which has led to the decades of controversy since its publication in 1989.

So, the question is whether the work of a book on the Beiträge should be assessed on how it attempts to interpret or clarify the meaning of Heidegger’s work, or whether it should ultimately be judged on what it does, how it takes up the “directive” (Heidegger 1999, 4), of the former work, and contributes to opening the way of thought that the Beiträge demands. If the latter were to be the case, the measure of Kovacs book would need to be assessed in terms of what it contributes to the possibility of the proposed rethinking. How does it move Heidegger’s project forward?

Before addressing Kovacs’ contribution, I would note that there are a number of fine commentaries on the Beiträge, most notably: Daniela Vallega-Neu’s Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: An Introduction (Vallega-Neu 2003); Richard Polt’s The Emergency of Being; On Heidegger’s ‘Contributions to Philosophy (Polt 2006); Parvis Emad’s On the Way to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Emad 2007); and Companion to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Scott et al. 2001) , edited by Charles E. Scott, Susan Schoenbohm, Daniela Vallega-Neu, and Alejandro Vallega. These works have undeniably added clarity to the wider understanding of Heidegger’s intention in the Beiträge, and rendered its accomplishments available to a wider audience, but they remain commentaries and guides to the understanding of the work.

Kovacs, on the other hand, seeks to take up Heidegger’s directive, acknowledging “that it would be a mistake to simply reconceptualise and resystematize Heidegger’s insights, the open and free play of moves and ventures of his journey of thought” (Kovacs 2015, 67). Rather, he seeks to think “through and with” Heidegger’s work, taking a “’step back’ from the closure of metaphysics at the center of the philosophical tradition…and ‘step into’ the thinking of Be-ing as enowning from the closure of metaphysics” (67). For an avid reader of the Beiträge, this is an exciting prospect, and one that Kovacs’ book fulfils amply.

A primary value of Kovacs’ book is in the regathering of the main concepts and movements which are dispersed, repeated, varied, and counterpointed throughout the fugal structure of the Beiträge. Kovacs piles them up, rearranges them, and takes them to places Heidegger had not ventured. His emphasis, pertinent to the intent of the original work, is on what Heidegger is attempting to do, or more accurately, to prepare for what needs to be done to make the leap the new beginning of thinking. Rather than a secondary interpretation, this book, at its best, is an effective and illuminating activation of Heidegger’s intention.

An example of Kovacs picking up Heidegger’s intimations to open new ways into thinking the leap beyond metaphysics, can be found in the link between questioning and believing in a relationship of faith (116). One of the more provocative aspects of the Beiträge and other works by Heidegger in this period, is the redefinition of truth, not as correspondence or certainty, but as Being coming into its ownmost through the process of Be-ing. The definition of faith is rethought, from within the Turning (Die Kehre), the moment of its coming forth. Faith is defined through its relationship with knowing. From within its ownmost, knowing is understood in terms of enowning, one of the shades of meaning of ereignis, (in everyday German, event) as the play of coming into its own and withdrawing. Thus, the understanding of faith becomes holding for true what is completely withdrawn from any knowing (117). To understand this, the reader must have a familiarity with Heideggerian expressions such as “withdrawal”, “turning”, “enowning”, and “what is ownmost to truth”. Moreover, it is necessary to become accustomed to dwelling with radical redefinitions of everyday taken-for-granted terms such as “knowing”. The Beiträge requires a long slow apprenticeship and a patient stillness of thinking. Kovacs takes this course in his analysis of faith. To the uninitiated reader, the language of Kovacs’ book appears as repetitive, murky and apparently incomprehensible as Heidegger’s own. In a review of this length it is impossible to offer sufficient detail to the multiplicity of neologisms, redefinitions, and connotational complexity in this phase of Heidegger’s writings. To understand these concepts requires an attunement with the thinking of the Beiträge itself. Kovacs dwells in the relationships and definitions with the steady tread of someone who has spent time in the stilling silence demanded by this path of thinking.

The renovated idea of truth mentioned above relies on a rethinking of the relationship of language and Be-ing, in which truth is no longer about holding something for true, but of holding oneself in the truth. In the final chapter, “The Thinking of Being and Language”, Kovacs takes Heidegger’s observations on the need for a language of Be-ing which differs from the everyday “language of beings, from utilitarian, instrumentalized, machinational language”; and which also, more importantly, addresses the “need for restoring the full saying-power to language (416). Kovacs begins with the observation that “the thinker of Be-ing itself…runs up against the boundaries of the language of beings, of the system of metaphysics”, and finds himself with the question: “Is it possible to say ‘something’ of the unsayable. Of that which is not ‘something’ at all?” (413).

Kovacs claims to enact Heidegger’s understanding of language as the site of “the shock, the powerful shift in understanding of the ‘to be’”, which constitutes a “‘leaping into the essential unfolding of Be-ing’ in such a way that Be-ing itself unfolds its essential power as en-owning”, (Heidegger, cited in Kovacs 2015, 82). This occurs because, in the Beiträge, language is figured not as a semiotic or representational enterprise, but rather as the means of attunement of the thinker to Be-ing. “The human being, as speaking and thinking being, is ‘guardian…of the truth of Be-ing’, and both language and human being ‘belong equally originarily to Be-ing’”; thus, human being is “‘essential’ for determining what is ownmost to language’”.. (Heidegger, cited in Kovacs 2015, 451). “In Language…Being is coming to word; thinking listening to the voice of Be-ing” (Heidegger, cited in Kovacs 2015, 452).

This relation of human being, language, and Be-ing is central to the Beiträge, and central to the task of taking up the directives of the Beiträge. By entering the relation between human, language, and Be-ing, the thinker participates in the coming forth of Be-ing, rather than staying in the metaphysical representational function of language. Heidegger calls this enthinking, enowning, inceptual thinking. Kovacs seeks to enter this mode of thinking-saying-writing. According to Kovacs, the speaker here enters “the inner dynamics and the range of the saying, disclosing potential of language” and its “capacity to say the unsayable”. The key to this enterprise is the hermeneutic temporality of the human and language belonging “equally originarily” to Be-ing. (452).

At this moment of equal originariness, “knowing, i.e. what is ownmost to truth, is the clearing opening for the self-sheltering concealing of Be-ing. Knowing awareness is the holding oneself in this clearing” (117). This is the temporality of participation in the presencing of the moment of the coming forth, rather than the depicting of a past which has already occurred. This temporality allows a knowing, a truth, which is “not a mere representation of an encounter but a persevering within the breakthrough of a projected opening, which through enopening comes to know the very Abgrund that sustains it” (Heidegger 1999, 258).

For the purposes of my own sojourn with the thinking of the Beiträge, Kovacs’ venture into the question of the Abgrund, in “Chapter II, Rethinking Thinking”, takes me further into being underway than any previous account I have read. The most important moment, for me, in this section, is the relationship between questioning and the Abgrund. If one is in questioning, then one is not in certainty, one is in that which is withdrawing, the unknown. And then, to stay in the unknown, to stay in the questioning, to stay in that which is withdrawing, is to hold fast to what is ownmost to truth, the play of concealment and disclosure. Because questioning is precisely not knowing with certainty, but finding a way to dwell in the slow craft of that which is ownmost to thinking, the aforementioned clearing opening for the self-sheltering concealing.

Finding home, abiding, and thus truly being there in the course or movement (lived experience) of questioning, as Heidegger’s Beiträge and his other texts teach the attentive, listening reader, steak (sic) out the range and sense of direction, the worth and power (the ways and craft) of thinking, of essential, being-historical, and more and more mindful thinking (Kovacs 2015, 100)

Here, the sense of Kovacs’ appropriation of Heidegger’s concepts and use of language comes to life in taking up his own abode in thinking, to hear, respond, and listen to that which “calls us to think” (Kovacs 2015, 97). In this, I find clear evidence that, for me, as a baffled, hesitant, mostly silent wanderer on the path of thinking, Kovacs’ book succeeds in Heidegger’s task of the foray into the participation of the coming forth of the enowning and the preparation for the transition from metaphysical speculation to being-historical thinking. This is the great worth and excitement. of Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis).


Emad, Parvis. 2007. On the Way to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: University of Wisconsin Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill, Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1999. Contributions to Philosophy: (From Enowning). Translated by P. Emad and K. Maly, Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kovacs, George. 2015. Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis). Bucharest: Zeta Books.

Polt, Richard F. H. 2006. The Emergency of Being : On Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Scott, Charles E., Susan Schoenbohm, Daniela Vallega-Neu, and Alejandro Vallega. 2001. Companion to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy, Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Vallega-Neu, Daniela. 2003. Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: An Introduction, Studies in Continental thought. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Paul Ricoeur: Philosophie, éthique et politique: Entretiens et dialogues, Seuil, 2017

Philosophie, éthique et politique: Entretiens et dialogues Book Cover Philosophie, éthique et politique: Entretiens et dialogues
La Couleur des idées
Paul Ricoeur. Préface de Michaël Fœssel
Broché 21.00 €

Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy

The Beginning of Philosophy Book Cover The Beginning of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
Ancient Philosophy, History of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Academic
Paperback $20.66

Reviewed by: Zachary Isrow (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Where does philosophy begin? Often, in the West, Thales of Miletus is considered father of philosophy. Yet, if one looks Eastward towards India and China, or South towards Egypt, there are surely philosophical origins long before Thales existed. Still, in the West the presocratics are where we look to uncover the beginning of philosophical thought. While many texts have been written addressing and interpreting the presocrates and their thought, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s The Beginning of Philosophy is not one of these – at least not in the typical sense. Gadamer’s book, based on the lectures he gave in 1988 at the Naples Institute for the Study of Philosophy in Italy, does not strictly seek to explore presocratic philosophy in its own regard, but rather hopes to address the hidden origins of philosophy.

Gadamer, a renowned philosophy of the 20th Century, with these lectures, introduces a new approach to ancient philosophy. Much of the current literature on presocratic philosophy focuses strictly on the ideas generated and discussed in relation to their influence on the future development of philosophy. While Gadamer does not fall far from this in his lectures, the book’s beginning two chapters “The Meaning of Beginning” and “Hermeneutic Access to Beginning” pave the way for a unique approach to thinking about presocratic philosophy. For this review, I will focus on this new approach Gadamer suggests and then briefly discuss how this new approach to presocratic thought lends itself to a more complete system of thought, rather than a series of seemingly sporadic fragments.

When we ask ourselves “where does philosophy begin?,” it is often question answered by reference to a time, place, or individual. Interest in actual interpretation of presocratic philosophy was never really a task set forth by intellectuals until the nineteenth century romantics in Germany, with Hegel and Schleiermacher (10). Still, none questioned the very origins of presocratic thought. Why did it develop the way it did? Was it mere curiosity? Was it the myths that sparked interest in things unseen? Gadamer, thinks that there is a secret origin to which “beginning” refers. He writes that “there is yet another, far more obscure precursor – something that lies prior to all rich in tradition, prior to medical literature as well as presocratics, namely, the language spoken by the Greeks” (13).

The Greek language is well-formed to investigate philosophical questions. Gadamer notes two aspects of the Greek language which make it most suitable for philosophic inquiry as being, in the first place, the use of the neuter, and in the second, the existence of the copula (14). Regarding the former, he writes that “It has to do not with the quality of a being, but the quality of a whole space, “being,” in which all beings appear” (14). This poses Greek as a language not only capable of abstraction, but rooted in an abstraction. The copula, which relates to the actual sentence structure in Greek, refers to the “use of the verb ‘to be’ to link the subject and the predicate” (14). Together, these two important distinguishing characteristics of the language used by the presocratics, positioned them to be able to immerse themselves into what would become philosophy.

The second sense of “beginning” is reflective, in that it already presupposes an end. “The anticipation of an end is a prerequisite for a concrete beginning” Gadamer suggests (15). In other words, beginnings always have an end or goal towards which they progress. There is, then, a teleology at work in the development of history, particularly in the history of philosophy. However, this development, already contains its end within its beginning and as such, nothing given to it along its progression is innovative or unexpected. So long as “nothing new, no innovation, and nothing unforeseen is present, there is also no history to relate” and so thus the “primordial opposition between nature and spirit” enters into philosophical discourse (16).

Gadamer here offers a final consideration of the meaning of “beginning,” which is most suitable for discussing the presocratics and their role in the history of philosophy. This is “beginning” as incipience, rather than the incipient entity. This allows that “many eventualities – within reason, of course – are still possible (17). More so, it escapes a predetermined or a presupposed path – it signifies an element of “uncertainty”. Gadamer thinks this is true of presocratic thought, in which there is “a seeking without knowledge of the ultimate destiny” that their seeking will have or at which it may conclude.

After setting up the three meanings of beginning as his premises, Gadamer shifts to focusing on the history of philosophy from a hermeneutic standpoint. This is what he calls ‘effective history’ and approaches the issue of scholarship through problemgeschichte, or, “problem history.” “In this sense,” writes Gadamer, “a problem is something that impedes the progress of knowledge” (25). Thus, in different fields and disciplines, the problemgeschichte is different. In more scientific fields we must continuously seek additional confirmation, never feeling fully satisfied by the current theory. Likewise, in most fields, if we disprove a theory, it is of little to no more use.

Philosophy, unlike other disciplines, does not disregard the problem simply because any possible solution has also been eliminated. It is, then “not correct to say that if a problem admits of no falsification then it presents no question to the thinker” (26). We must therefore approach the presocratics differently than has been previously attempted. Rather than interpreting the texts out of our own vantage point, that is, via reflection, we should instead let the text itself provided us with an interpretation. This means simply that “it is not correct to assert that the study of a text or tradition is completely dependent upon our own decision making” (28).

As Gadamer continues on with his lectures on the presocratics, he uses this approach so as to only use what the text itself allows for, without filling in gaps with speculation and reasoned interpretation. Only what the texts suggest does he consider to be a valid method of understanding the presocratic philosophers and their views. In doing so, he offers a unique approach to the contemplation of the very origin of philosophic thought.

Overall, this work provides an attempt to reconsider the presocratics in a way not typically found. The approach offered by Gadamer is one which enables the reader to reconnect with the texts themselves rather than resting only upon various interpretations. While this gives one a different method with which they can approach the presocratic texts and philosophies, it does not actually result in a new way of perceiving the presocratics. No real new insight is offered into the presocratics and their views, other than some details which have perhaps at times been overlooked due to the current “survey” methods used.

Due to its depth, I would not recommend this book to anyone altogether unfamiliar with ancient Greek thought as much of the value of the book would be lost in such a case. However, this text is valuable, especially for those who study philosophy and ancient philosophy in particular. It carries with it not only the new approach offered throughout, but also a new appreciation for the presocratics which are so often overlooked or by-passed.

Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy

The Beginning of Philosophy Book Cover The Beginning of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
Ancient philosophy
Paperback $20.66

Reviewed by: Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)

The textual history of The Beginning of Philosophy is long and convoluted. Its origins are in Gadamer’s final lecture course as Professor Emeritus at Heidelberg delivered shortly before his retirement at the end of 1967. 20 years later, Gadamer delivered a series of Italian lectures on the same topic without a script. These were recorded and transcribed by Vittorio DeCesare. Reclam published a German translation by Joachim Schulte (Der Anfang der Philosophie (1988)). The present volume is based on Gadamer’s own ‘definitive revision’ of Schulte’s translation (ix).

It is perhaps appropriate that there should be such ambiguity about whether, and in what way, we can reasonably hope to have the authoritative version of this text. For rendering such questions explicit was Gadamer’s life’s work.

Gadamer’s theme is the beginning of Western philosophy, which he says also represents the beginning of Western culture (1). But what is most illuminating about the volume is the way in which Gadamer approaches his subject. He claims early on that ‘the sole philosophical access to an interpretation of the Presocratics’ is not Thales, Homer, or the Greek language but Plato and Aristotle. ‘Everything else is historicism without philosophy.’ (2) And, as he explains towards the end of the book, ‘I would not by any means want to be understood as though I did not appreciate the method of the historians. It is just that philosophy is something different.’ (102)

This ‘something different’ is a way of thinking that, rather than trying to eliminate the prejudices that are integral to all understanding, acknowledges them and works within their constraints. For, as Gadamer defines them, our prejudices are simply our rootedness in a tradition (38). Gadamer’s insistence on Plato and Aristotle as our sole hermeneutic access to the Presocratics is motivated by his recognition of the inadequacy of the concept of method ‘in the sense of guaranteeing objectivity’. For when they spoke of their predecessors, ‘Plato and Aristotle did not have our historical scholarship in mind but were guided by their own interests, by their own search for truth’ (22). Therefore, the sense of ‘beginning’ that Gadamer has in mind is ‘that of the beginning that does not know in advance in what way it will proceed’ (12). True research is not about finding answers as much as it is about discovering new questions and imagining fruitful new ways of posing them (17). Thus Gadamer embarks on his discussions of the Presocratic conception of the soul and its relationships to life and death.

His distinctive philosophical approach to these discussions, however, draws attention to his key point. Every text has at least two contexts: that in which it was created and that in which it is read. It follows from the fact that it is impossible, in a given case, to know whether these contexts align that, ‘torn out of its context,’ a quotation can be used for any purpose whatsoever. ‘Whoever quotes,’ Gadamer says, ‘already interprets by means of the form in which he or she presents the text of the quotation.’ (13) Witness the quite different purposes for which the Presocratics were quoted by the Stoics, Sceptics, and patristic writers. While there are significant difficulties involved in using the texts of Plato and Aristotle (which were not written for this purpose) to find out about this other tradition, Gadamer believes that Plato’s transparent use of that tradition to depict ‘his own turn toward the Idea’ (31) permits him to ‘guess at certain tendencies of the culture of this bygone era’ (30) in a way denied to the compilers of compendia of Presocratic quotations.

With regard to the first context, that in which the ancient Greek texts were created, Gadamer displays an erudition that is rare today. But it is their second context, that of contemporary philosophy, that impresses this reader with greater urgency. Through his engagement with Greek culture, Gadamer hopes to realize his ideal of philosophical research as ‘a movement that is open at first and not yet fixed but which concretizes itself into a particular orientation with ever-increasing determinateness’. What this engagement shows is that the supposed freedom of modern science to stand at a distance from the object being investigated simply does not exist. ‘We all stand in the life-stream of tradition’, Gadamer writes, ‘and do not have the sovereign distance that the natural sciences maintain in order to conduct experiments and to construct theories.’ (19) Rather than a philosophically problematic relation between subject and object, which is simply presupposed by the empirical method, Gadamer stresses ‘participation’, ‘like the believer who is faced with a religious message’ (22). While this may read like a challenge to the natural sciences’ ideal of objectivity, which they threaten to extend even to the human subject, Gadamer reassures us that the human sciences are properly occupied with quite different tasks (21).

In instructive contrast to the contemporary academy, where not only the social sciences but also the human sciences and philosophy have arguably been infected by these naturalistic inclinations, Gadamer identifies the ‘highest point of Greek philosophy’ as the idea of a ‘mutuality of participation existing between object and subject’. ‘For the Greeks,’ he writes, ‘the essence of knowledge is the dialogue and not the mastery of objects’. (60)

Such thoughts emerging from Gadamer’s reading of the Presocratics via Plato and Aristotle, will be familiar to the readers of phenomenologists like Karl Jaspers, who explicitly described the nature of the subject–object split [Subjekt–Objekt Spaltung] in similar terms. Subject and object are not to be reified, considered as entities or substances, each of which could possibility exist without the other. A Spaltung, usually translated as ‘split’ or ‘cleavage’, is not a dichotomy. It is a distinction between aspects of reality that are, at the most primordial level, unified. In form as well as content, then, The Beginning of Philosophy leads us to the perhaps unexpected conclusion that it is the phenomenological method, for Gadamer represented by Husserl and Heidegger, that has ‘pointed the way for contemporary philosophy’ (60).

Giuseppina D’Oro, Søren Overgaard (Eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology, Cambridge University Press, 2017

The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology Book Cover The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology
Cambridge Companions to Philosophy
Giuseppina D'Oro, Søren Overgaard (Eds.)
Cambridge University Press
Paperback £ 23.99

Social Imaginaries: A Journal and a Project

Social Imaginaries Book Cover Social Imaginaries
Suzi Adams, Jeremy Smith (Coordinating Editors)
Zeta Books

Reviewed by: Angelos Mouzakitis (University of Crete)

Not long ago, Social Imaginaries (Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring 2015) appeared, with a volume that is both imaginative and ground-breaking. The journal aspires to open up a discursive space for different branches of the humanities, the social sciences, and philosophy. And at the same time it aspires to contribute to the further development and enrichment of an emergent field of research, presenting itself as a “paradigm in the making” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 7). Drawing primarily on the works of Castoriadis, Arnason, and Charles Taylor, as well as on (post-) phenomenological currents of philosophy, the journal aims, as its very title suggests, to rekindle interest in the elucidation of the enigmatic field of collective and individual imagination, this “field of intersecting labyrinths,” of human creations and doings (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 7). It is also devoted to the study of “the intertwined problematics of modernity, multiple modernities, and the human condition,” while it promulgates “an understanding of society as a political institution, which is formed – and forms itself – in historical constellations, on the one hand, and through encounters with other cultures and civilisational worlds, on the other” (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 7). The first volume of the journal is organized in such a manner that it does justice to both the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural character of the project, and to the need to delineate the journal’s and the project’s subject-matter and theoretical origins.

Although the editorial note duly announces the purpose and the aims of the journal, the objectives of the whole project and the delimitation of the field of study takes place in a systematic and thorough manner in the introductory article entitled “Social Imaginaries in Debate,” which is co-authored by Suzi Adams, Paul Blokker, Natalie J. Doyle, John W.M. Krummel, and Jeremy C.A. Smith. In their attempt to theorize the field of the “imaginary,” the authors draw explicitly on Castoriadis, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 18-19) and Charles Taylor, whom they merit with the distinction of having published the most comprehensive study in the field of social imaginaries. See the 2004 work Modern Social Imaginaries (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 24).   

With Castoriadis as one of the main influences behind the social imaginaries project, it comes as no surprise that the authors consider the links between the formation of meaning and creative imagination as “a central innovation of the social imaginaries field,” while they wish also to account for wider dimensions of the social, such as “power,” social action, or praxis. (Vol. 1, Issue 1, p. 20). At the same time, central to the social imaginaries field is the concept of the “world” as it emerges from both the writings of Castoriadis and the phenomenological tradition, especially Husserl’s notion of the lifeworld and Heidegger’s understanding of the co-emergence of “world” and Dasein. The brief historical overview of the way in which imagination has been treated in the course of the philosophical tradition is also invaluable, as is the discussion concerning the various forms of modern imaginaries.

Castoriadis’ essay on the “Imaginary as Such,” a seminal text that prefigures Castoriadis’ so-called “ontological turn,” is also a precious addition to the contents of this issue. Apart from translating the text from French and rendering it amenable for publication, Johann Arnason authors a brief, yet enlightening introduction to this text and to Castoriadis’ project in general. Arnason’s presence in the issue is actually even more pronounced, as he has also contributed an article on “The Imaginary Dimensions of Modernity,” an essay on Castoriadis’ understanding of imagination, translated and introduced by Suzi Adams.

The same strategy is followed in two more instances, as the articles by Nakamura Yusiro and Marcel Gauchet are translated and introduced by John W. M. Krummel and Natalie J. Doyle, respectively. Nakamura’s contribution has the merit of bringing into dialogue the philosophical tradition of the West and modern Japanese philosophy, as he advances interesting interpretations of the notions of “common sense” and “place,” drawing on the works of Nishida Kitaro. As someone who is rather unacquainted with modern Japanese philosophy I found this article indispensable both as a guide to the way in which this great civilization has received and appropriated western philosophy and for the unique manner in which it attempts to transcend the subject-object bifurcation with the introduction of the notions of place and common sense.

Gauchet’s article, “Democracy: From One Crisis to Another,” attempts to come to terms with the widespread feeling of crisis that has befallen contemporary democracies and culminates in a plea to shed light to the very notion of human rights as a remedy to the various disorders of modern democratic regimes. The issue also contains Peter Wagner’s essay “Interpreting the Present: A Research Programme,” which inquires into the experiences of time and space in the period following the end of “organized modernity” and which in my view is quite informative also in relation to Wagner’s most recent research on progress. Finally, the issue concludes with a vivid discussion on “Modern Social Imaginaries,” between Charles Taylor, Craig Calhoun, Dilip Gaonkar, Benjamin Lee, and Michael Warner.

The second issue of the journal (Vol. 1, Issue 2, Autumn 2015) is equally rich and compelling in its scope and aims. The phenomenological element is again quite strong.  Two of the articles address issues related to Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology, another couple of the contributions draw their inspiration from Levinas, while Husserl and Patocka are also in the center of two essays. The volume also comprises an article by Fred Dallmayr with the telling title “Man Against the State” and Johann Arnason’s “Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilization.”

George H. Taylor’s essay “The Phenomenological Contributions of Ricoeur’s Philosophy of Imagination” is an excellent attempt to open up Ricoeur’s philosophy toward the problem of collective and individual aspects of productive imagination and their transformative potential. Taylor’s interpretation relies on the one hand on Ricoeur’s best known works like The Rule of Metaphor and Time and Narrative, but on the other hand it owes much of its subtlety to a combined reading of Ricoeur’s series of lectures at the University of Chicago during the 1970s, especially the well-known Lectures on Ideology and Utopia and the less famous Lectures on Imagination (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p.14). Central to Taylor’s argument is Ricoeur’s concept of iconic augmentation, which the author masterfully links both with praxis and with the need to explore the space between language and lived experience, sense, and vision.

Timo Helenius’s “Between Receptivity and Productivity: Paul Ricoeur on Cultural Imagination” draws on Ricoeur’s essay Ideology and Utopia as Cultural Imagination in order to establish that cultural imagination provides the “basis for a sociocultural poetics of human action and, therefore, a condition for the birth of a situated subject in the positive fullness of belonging” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 32). Importantly, through the employment of the notions of ideology and utopia Helenius offers yet another challenging interpretation of the role of productive imagination in Ricoeur’s works and argues that “l’ imagination culturelle” is the very core of productive imagination that informs human action (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 49-50).

Adam Konopka’s “Embodiment and Umwelt: A Phenomenological Approach” is a fine study of Husserl’s attempt to understand the Natur-Geist distinction and his theory of world-constitution. This article aspires to refute Merleau-Ponty’s thesis that Husserl was ultimately unable to move beyond the nature-spirit dichotomy. The notions of the Umwelt and of “embodied experience” are central to his argument, which also involves the consideration of Husserl’s “engagement” with the relevant debate between Dilthey and the Baden School. As the author shows, this “culminated in Husserl’s later articulation of the life-world in the Crisis writings of the 1930s” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 58).  The great merit of Konopka’s essay is that it underlines Husserl’s acknowledgment of the existence of pre-reflective, embodied elements that actively contribute to sense-making processes (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 68). In other words he traces in Husserl’s works a theory concerning the formation of individual and collective habitus before this notion became available in the vocabulary of the social sciences.

“The Problem of Morality in a Mathematized Universe: Time and Eternity in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the Concept of ‘Love’ in Patocka’s Last Essay” is a quite interesting attempt to conceptualize the possibility of ethics in the post-Kantian era, when the universe and the social world and human have lost their divine grounding. The author, Lubica Ucnik, reads Dostoevsky’s masterpiece as a response to the Kantian conception of morality and as a critique of the utilitarian conception of ethics, while she argues that Patocka’s reflections on “Masaryk’s Theological Philosophy” pave the ground for a conception of love and openness towards the Other that is not grounded on the existence of a supreme being but on the sort of responsibility that emanates from the acknowledgment of human finitude.

In a way, there is an affinity between Ucnik’s essay and Kwok-ying Lau’s contribution entitled “War, Peace and Love,” as they both turn to a vulnerable element in the constitution of the human being in order to ground ethics and politics. In Lau’s essay this vulnerability is best exemplified by what – expounding on Levinas’s Totality and Infinity – he calls the “pathetique cry for love and peace” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 122). Since the adjective “pathetique” is used as the author explains in line with “its Greek origin ‘pathetikos’, which means emotional with a strong power of affectivity” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 125, n. 1), it becomes clear that the heroic “logic” of violence that according to Levinas governs human history is here denounced – in Levinasian fashion – in favour of the only kind of love that the author finds worthy of its name: a love that is vulnerable to the presence of the Other, that has the Other as its very origin.

Bernhard Wandenfels’ essay “The Equating of the Unequal” (translated by W.M. Krummel) draws in a wide spectrum of philosophers, thinkers and novelists in order to attack what the author perceives as being the two “extremes,” i.e. on the one hand “any sort of normalism fixed on functioning orders” and on the other hand “any sort of anomalism dreaming of mere events and permanent ruptures” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 92).

Fred Dallmayr’s contribution “Man Against the State: Community and Dissent” conceptualizes the intricate relationship between individual freedom and communal solidarity as it argues against egocentric conceptions of liberty, promulgating instead “ethically grounded conceptions of individual freedom, civil disobedience and dissent” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 127). Dallmayr’s essay starts and closes with quotes from Nietzsche.  In the opening paragraph, a quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra presents the state as a cold monster (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 127), exemplifying from the outset the author’s concern that totalitarianism is always present in new – perhaps subtler or even almost unperceivable – guises. The final quote from Nietzsche’s “The Wanderer and His Shadow” shows the essay’s true spirit: “rather perish than hate and fear” (Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 143), a call for a sort of resistance that refuses to succumb to ressentiment.  Dallmayr’s examples of resistance to totalitarian – or blind – authority are as telling as the key thinkers that inform his own position, for instance Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Camus. Indeed, Socrates’ condemnation by the Athenians, Antigone’s tragic figure, the resistance of Germans against Hitler, are all examples of resistance inspired by belief in the common good, not by a narrow conception of securing one’s well-being.

Johann Arnason’s “Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilization” is a fine conclusion to this issue. With unfailing scholarship and great insight, Arnason brings the works of Elias and Eisenstadt into a fruitful dialogue by revealing their common Durkheimian-Maussian origins, while showing that Weber’s influence in their works is less significant than it is commonly assumed.

Johann Arnason features also in the third published issue of the journal (Vol. 2, Issue 1, Spring 2016), in a long and very informative interview with Suzi Adams that concludes the volume. Readers are sure to find interesting points for reflection both regarding Arnason’s own intellectual trajectory and their own projects.

This last volume opens with John W. M. Krummel’s “Introduction to Miki Kiyoshi and his Logic of the Imagination.” As the title suggests, this essay serves as an introduction to Miki’s philosophy and it gives a brief account of his life and major ideas, as well as serving as an indispensable introduction to Miki’s article that follows. It is obvious even to someone as unfamiliar with Japanese philosophy as myself that Krummel is perfectly at ease with the Kyoto School. I sincerely believe that readers should read his introductory essay before delving into Miki’s text, which is translated by Krummel himself. Miki’s Kiyoshi’s text, “Myth,” is in effect the first chapter of his book The Logic of Imagination. In Krummel’s essay readers can get a glimpse of the main points advanced in the other chapters, such as “institution,” “technics,” and “experience.”

Miki Kiyoshi’s chapter on “myth” is in effect a daring attempt to re-conceptualize “imagination” and it draws both on Japanese and Western sources, while Kant plays a pivotal role in the construction of the argument. It could be said of this first chapter that it is on the way to the construction of a logic of imagination, and in this respect it precedes Castoriadis’s explicit acknowledgement of the need for the advancement of a logic of magmas in The Imaginary Institution of Society. Like Castoriadis, Miki explicitly links imagination with creation and social action (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 28) and questions the relationship between subjective and collective manifestations of imagination with the aid of anthropological accounts available at his time and with Durkheim’s notion of collective representations. Importantly, Miki argues that the creation of “historical forms” is the outcome of “the unity of things in terms of logos and pathos.”  With this definition Miki brings to the fore the psychical, emotional, tactile, and kinetic aspects of the psyche as preconditions of socio-historical praxis.  Among the many interesting points raised in this article, readers won’t fail to notice Miki’s discussion of the connections between myth, utopia, and science (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 44) and his insistence that “imagination is at the root of the human will” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 43).

Guanjun Wu draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis and its appropriation by Zizek in his attempt to reveal the hidden “psychical mechanism” that underlies modern discourses in the field of Sinology. In his “The Lacanian Imaginary and Modern Chinese Intellectuality,” the author identifies a striving for social harmony at a very early stage in the formation of Chinese civilization and argues that the fundamental fantasy of Confucianism “attempts to suture the ontological gap between the real [in the Lacanian sense] and reality.” It goes without saying that the promise of this realization “is always deferred” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 79). Contemporary Chinese intellectuals are also seen as “projecting fantasmatic visions” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 82) and their academic debates are said to represent “a clash of fantasies” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 92), as Wu draws a vivid and quite interesting picture of Chinese academia.

Craig Brown’s “Critiques of Identity and the Permutations of the Capitalist Imaginary” is an investigation into the antinomies of the capitalist imaginary through the comparison of Adorno’s and Casoriadis’ critiques of instrumental rationality, or “identity thinking.” Brown finds in Weber a common source of influence for both Adorno and Castoriadis and argues that in spite of their differences and their limitations, Adorno’s and Castoriadis’ critiques of “the logic of identity remain relevant and that the capitalist imaginary can be recognised in domains that were sometimes thought to be separate from it and oriented by other values” (Vol. 2, Issue 1, p. 115).

Finally, Werner Binder’s “Shifting Imaginaries in the War on Terror: The Rise and Fall of the Ticking Bomb Torturer,” takes Niklas Luhmann’s “Ticking Bomb” dilemma as its point of departure, as it explores the impact of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and that of the Abu Ghraib scandal in the shaping of the American social imaginary.

I am well aware of the fact that it was impossible to do justice here to the richness and complexity of every single contribution that features in the three first issues of Social Imaginaries. However, I sincerely hope that I did manage to point to some of their merits and to convey to the reader the feelings of pleasure and intellectual gratification that the texts generated in me. Social Imaginaries is certainly not just another journal; it rather is a space open to new and challenging ideas about the social world(s), and I do hope that it will get the warm reception it clearly deserves by academics and the wider reading public alike.


Lee Carruthers: Doing Time: Temporality, Hermeneutics and Contemporary Cinema

Doing Time: Temporality, Hermeneutics, and Contemporary Cinema Book Cover Doing Time: Temporality, Hermeneutics, and Contemporary Cinema
Horizons of Cinema
Lee Carruthers
SUNY Press
Paperback $20.95

Reviewed by: Diane Stringer (University of Adelaide)

In her ‘Doing Time’, Lee Carruthers provides a clear and accessible discussion that will be relevant to a range of readers: philosophers of time who are interested in a novel account of temporality and temporal experience as it is represented in film; philosophers of film looking for a fresh approach to the topic, in this case a comprehensive exploration of a hermeneutic approach to how we understand filmic texts; and those engaged in Film Studies and film theory who enjoy a fillip of philosophy in their reading. It is a work grounded in hermeneutics and phenomenology, and while philosophers working in the Analytic tradition may find the book interesting and informative, it is not intended for this readership.

Carruthers’ aim throughout this book is offer us a deeper understanding of how we ‘live’ in and through time, via her interpretation of a selection of relevant films. Her approach to this task, a kind of philosophical, phenomenological hermeneutics, is, as she puts it: ‘…a way of being thoughtful about our contact with cinema’s temporal forms, and the time we take to interpret them’ (14). The hermeneutical approach she adopts is informed by the work of Paul Ricoeur, who in turn draws from the works of Heidegger and Gadamer (15). Her discussions of temporality and film are also influenced by the work of André Bazin and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (17-32 passim.).

The work of Gilles Deleuze, often associated with the analysis of film, is explicitly excluded from her discussion (7). Unlike Deleuze, Carruthers does not use the films she analyses in this book as a means of articulating concepts, her aim is the articulation of temporal experiences, her focus is on how we ‘do’ time in films, on how a viewing a film can be a means of living in, and through, different experiences of time.

Throughout her discussion Carruthers emphasises the word ‘timeliness’ (16), linking the word to Heidegger’s ‘Dasein’ and identifying it as particularly relevant to her hermeneutics of cinematic time (11, 16). ‘Timeliness’ has connotations of activity; it captures her view that in films time is ‘actively mediated by films and viewers’ (16). She also emphasises the importance of the Heideggerian idea of the ‘immersiveness of lived experience’, the sense that we are engaged in interpreting our experiences of time in a dynamic way as time unfolds around and within us. Put simply, watching a film and being immersed in a film is taken to be an exemplary ‘experience of temporal duration’ (13). Carruthers adopts the Heideggerian idea that understanding occurs ‘within this situation’ of immersiveness rather than being abstracted from it, or (as we saw in the reference to Deleuze, above) conceptualised (15).

This ‘understanding’, based on our immersion in the temporality of a film, allows Carruthers to demonstrate that films are relevant to studies of how we are affected by time more generally. She argues that by manipulating the temporal aspects of the films we view, we are able to add to our understanding of the relationship between our perception of time and our lived temporal experience, a relationship that we subjectively experience as viewers.

Her Heidegger-Gadamer informed hermeneutics privileges understanding above all else. For Gadamer, ‘Hermeneutics turns out to be universal, not merely in regard to knowledge…but to all understanding and, indeed, to philosophy itself’ (Malpas, 2016), and Carruthers also seems to be making the connection here between the universality of time and temporal experience, and the universality of hermeneutics. However, as she notes, ‘Doing Time’ aims to better understand the importance of time in film, but the understanding of film thus gained is not itself fixed in time but remains revisable in the future (15). Cinema ‘…allows us to see the world anew…’ but in a contrived way (18-19), a way that is not necessarily like any real world event we can experience. A film can manipulate the ‘clock time’ within a movie and thus our subjective experience of the time as it is represented within the film (17), but not, of course, the time in which we are viewing the movie. As I see it, this process of reflecting on the understanding we gain after our immersion in a film seems to be somewhat analogous to working through a philosophical thought experiment, or doing ‘armchair philosophy’. Carruthers argues that looking at film is the ‘best’ way of experiencing time; in doing so we are getting to ‘know temporality better’ (16-17). So, filmic time may not be like our lived experience of time, but perhaps it’s better, for we can go back into that constructed filmic world, relive it and analyse it in a way we cannot do in real life. However, it’s not so clear how the information we glean from this kind of analysis can be generalised (or tested).

‘Doing Time’ is interesting in the context of recent work that explains our lived experiences of time in terms of it being projected and constructed by our mind, rather than simply a direct response to physical properties of time. We are passive perceivers of (some of) the temporal aspects of a film, its formal, objective properties, but we are also constructors of our subjective temporal experience of the films Carruthers discusses, with some of this construction and projection presumably happening below the level of consciousness. However, as Carruthers does not develop this line of enquiry, I will simply note this book’s relevance to current work in this area.

Having set out her main aim in writing this book, and explained her influences and her methodology, Carruthers offers four case studies to demonstrate different ways in which we can be immersed in ‘filmic time’ and the interpretations that can be drawn about time and temporal experience from each study. In each case this involves interpreting the narrative of the film and understanding the temporal aspects of this narrative, subjectively, as we view it; as well as experiencing its affective influences: how the objective temporal forms within the film makes us feel and think about time.

The first case study is centred on Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Limey’ (1999). Carruthers uses this film as a means of foregrounding our ability (or otherwise) to see ‘elements of the past’ as features (‘aspects’) of our present situation and as ‘determining factors’ of the future (39). The film moves back and forth between scenes which are set in earlier or later times and places and not ordered in temporal sequence, nor are visual cues or conventions used to make the temporal order clear. The viewer is faced with the task of discerning a linear order and narrative from a series of repetitions in the film that form a pattern for the astute viewer to latch onto (45). The work of temporally ordering these temporally diverse scenes brings to the fore our capacity to see the shadows of the past in the present, and (more controversially) as determining the (our?) future. Yet in the end Carruthers argues that this insight is less important than ‘The Limey’s’ other contribution to our understanding of time. This contribution is the idea that the past events of our lives inform the present but they do this because the past occurs ‘through us’ and this ‘…is an aspect of the present that we so often fail to see…’(56). Put simply, we are not always in control of our current beliefs about the past, nor can we always control how (or if) we remember past events.

The second case study is Francois Ozon’s ‘5×2’, (2004), a study of time reversal. The focus is squarely on the past and present: the future is not part of our experience, within the film. The reversed temporal order of scenes and events in ‘5×2’ allows the viewer to become aware of the work we need to do to make sense of a narrative that begins in the present and works its way backwards, a time order that is strange and unfamiliar to us (83). In doing this work we are forced to notice time. Interestingly, while we are explicitly noticing time because it is so unfamiliarly ordered, and it feels so strange, we still feel the normal emotional responses to the events and situations portrayed by actors within a scene (72, 84), even while we strive to work out where that scene fits in the overall temporal order of the film. This, I think, is the key point made in this case study — our normal emotional responses are not affected by our immersion in a strange and unfamiliar temporal experience where the past, present and future are presented in unfamiliar ways (84).

The third case study, Tsai Ming-liang’s ‘What Time Is It There?’ (2001) focuses on our experience of duration. Using the method of ‘slow cinema’, objective time is ‘bracketed’ so that time has no direct role in explaining and understanding the world within the film. We, the audience, are invited to focus on the different ways in which time is represented within the film and are meant to discern what these different representations of time might explain about the role of time in the internal narrative and in the ‘world’ portrayed in the film itself (86). In fact, while clocks and watches are described and used numerously and obsessively throughout the film they ultimately seem to serve no real purpose within the film’s internal world (95-97). It is the viewer who, having privileged information divulged in the film but unknown to the film’s protagonists, is invited to seek and find meaningful correlations between the slow moving representations of time portrayed within the film, and the film’s narrative (98-99). The message of the film seems to be that in our own lives our perspective on time and our grip on time are very limited, just as it is for the characters of the film (113), who despite attempting to keep, own and control time in the form of timepieces (clocks, watches), inevitably find any control over time eludes them.

The final case study is based on Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ (2011). This film uses a technique described as a ‘montage system’ (127-129), where images, shots and footage are cropped, juxtaposed, cut abruptly, and importantly, subject to ‘chronological rupture’ (131) defined as a chaotic temporal ordering.

Time, in this film, proceeds holistically rather than incrementally (132). In order to convey what this means, and to bring out what is of particular interest in this film, an analogy is drawn between time and music: the artistic techniques used in the film present temporal experience as ‘…a shared flow of sensation that shows us temporal experience as something embracing — something that surrounds us like music, or carries us forwards in its dance’ (134).

In summary, ‘Doing Time’ offers a well-researched and penetrating discussion, developed within a Continental philosophy framework, but with something to offer curious Analytic philosophers and other academics (and an interested general readership). Phenomenological hermeneutics is revealed to be an appropriate and interesting way to approach the analysis of film. The book focuses on time and temporality in film, but the theme and discussion of ‘timeliness’ is the real focus here and it yields interesting ways of interpreting filmic texts that resist any final reading, they remain open and up for new interpretations and revisions. It outlines a number of interesting ideas and directions that could be taken up and developed in the future. The book is very accessible, and provides interesting examples that may be of use to philosophers and other writers interested in time and temporal experience. There are many more positives that space does not allow me to set out in detail here, and I heartily recommend this book.


Malpas, Jeff, “Hans-Georg Gadamer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Frank Schalow: Departures: At the Crossroads between Heidegger and Kant

Departures: At the Crossroads between Heidegger and Kant Book Cover Departures: At the Crossroads between Heidegger and Kant
Quellen und Studien zur Philosophie 112
Frank Schalow
De Gruyter
Paperback 19,95 €
viii, 243

Charles Taylor: The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity

The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity Book Cover The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity
Charles Taylor
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Hardcover, $35

Reviewed by: W. Clark Wolf (Department of Philosophy, Marquette University)

Charles Taylor’s new book places the meaning-making capacity of language in service of a philosophical anthropology that has been at the heart of his influential work for decades. In general, Taylor’s hermeneutical approach to philosophy emphasizes the essential character of “human meanings” for any explanation of our world. Taylor has long been concerned that the naturalistic approach dominate in mainstream analytic philosophy has no room to accommodate these uniquely human – “metabiological” – meanings. His new book suggests that a central aspect of the naturalistic failure to understand the human world is due to a faulty conception of language that has been dominant since Frege, and indeed for a lot longer.  Taylor places blame on the empiricist view of language common to Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac (HLC).  Since, as Taylor argues, language plays an indispensable role in the constitution of the human world (especially in its ubiquitous normativity), an impoverished view of language has resulted in an impoverished conception of ourselves.  Taylor proposes that an alternative historical tradition of reflection on language—for which he credits especially Hamann, Herder, and Humbolt (HHH), but which includes the Romantics and phenomenological thinkers like Heidegger as well—provides an understanding of language that simultaneously underlies an adequate philosophical anthropology.  Using insights from this tradition as well as his own gift for apt description, Taylor attempts to demonstrate what mainstream philosophical reflection on language has missed and what an appreciation of “the full shape of the linguistic capacity” has to say about the kind of “animal” we are.

The Basic Argument

The core argument of the book concerns the distinction between the “designative” and “constitutive” function of language.  Taylor argues that both the HLC tradition of linguistic thinking as well as post-Fregean philosophy of language rely on a model of language wherein its primary (even exclusive) function is to provide signs for designating objects.  Accordingly, the existence and characteristics of which can be noticed and known quite independently of those signs.  Taylor calls this an “enframing” theory of language, since here language merely puts a framework of human life in place that exists without its help (p. 3).  The central doctrine of the enframing theory is that words are signs for prior thoughts.  Thus, according to HLC, words are at best obtrusive windows into thought, necessary expedients.  This view works hand in hand with a firm rejection of any “Cratylean” dimension to language, a sense that words can “fit” the things they express.  Though Taylor acknowledges the modifications to the early modern conception of language within analytic philosophy, he thinks that the mainstream tradition has preserved the central elements of that doctrine.  Despite Frege’s appreciation of the fact that words themselves cannot function as signs or meanings of anything apart from the context of a sentence or proposition, analytic philosophy maintained a primarily epistemological interest in language (p. 117), and for this reason seemed only or primarily to notice its assertive dimension.  As Robert Brandom puts it, the “assertion game” of language is the one that could be played “though one played no other” (p. 127).  Thus, even if other aspects of language are acknowledged, they turn out to be subordinate to its role of enabling the communication of veridical thoughts.  According to Taylor, this perpetuates the notion that the function of language is merely to designate what is otherwise available.

Happily, Taylor contends that this impoverished view of language is not the only one on offer. Developed partially in response to the designative view as developed by Locke and Condillac, thinkers like Hamann and Herder inaugurated a conception of language which recognizes its constitutive dimension. Taylor explains this idea using the concept of “articulation,” which was especially significant for a later figure in this tradition, Wilhelm von Humboldt.  To articulate, for Taylor, is not simply to express some feature of the world already in the open, but to make it possible to notice this feature in the first place.  As Humboldt took pains to demonstrate, human speech uniquely allows for the inscription of differences that allows for the production of diverse thoughts[1] (an insight further developed by Saussure).  For this reason, a determinate thought cannot precede a word as its mere sign, but the thought can only emerge coevally with the articulation of the word.  If thought does not precede a merely instrumental language, language itself must play a productive role.  Taylor argues that it is “human meanings” that are constituted by language.

Human meanings are the modes of significance possible for us on a “metabiological” level, integral features of our ordinary lives such as music, morality, and political community.  In each of these cases, language (understood in a broad sense) plays a role in “enacting” a meaning that becomes bound to a certain feature of life, but goes beyond anything merely given.  Language for Taylor is thus the clue for the discontinuity between ourselves and the “extralinguistic” or natural world.  As he writes,

“We can’t explain language by the function it plays within a pre- or extralinguistically conceived framework of human life, because language through constituting the semantic dimension transforms any such framework, giving us new feelings, new desires, new goals, new relationships, and introduces a dimension of strong value.  Language can only be explained through a radical discontinuity with the extralinguistic” (p. 33).

In a strong sense, for Taylor, language provides the basis for all human meanings that transcend our mere naturalness.  This is why I suggest that Taylor here proposes something like the foundation of a “philosophical anthropology.”[2]

Taylor’s critical task is to demonstrate the weaknesses of the “enframing” theory as an account of language as it actually features in human life.  His positive task is to convince us of how the productive and constitutive function of language is an ever-present (but easily ignored) dimension of ordinary life.  To address these tasks, the book is divided into three parts.[3]

Part I, “Language as Constitutive,” argues for the existence of a constitutive dimension of language in contrast to a merely designative function.  Taylor informs his perspective here both with classic and contemporary linguistic theory, as well as onto-genetic accounts of language development in children.  This research shows that the HLC account of language has underestimated the way in which language is embedded and embodied in broader contexts of human life.  Taylor emphasizes, for example, the way language figures in human life as essentially accompanied by bodily gesture and social ritual.  The empiricist conception of language as designative simply has no room for such considerations, but this deprives it of explanatory and even descriptive power.  The HLC conception of language is fed by a “narrow diet of examples.”

Part II, “From Descriptive to Constitutive,” begins by addressing more specifically the historical roots of the “enframing” theory of language as it originates in empiricism.  For Taylor, the key element of this theory lies in its commitment to the notion that thought is prior to language, so that language should be at best an “unobtrusive” window into individual minds.  Taylor then considers the merits of Frege’s revolutionary work in the philosophy of language but suggests that, despite crucial innovations, he (and the tradition following him) preserved two mistakes of the empiricists.  First, the post-Fregean tradition continues to suppose that words denote features of the world that have already come to our attention (p. 133).  In this sense, language does not constitute genuinely new meanings.  Second, the analytic tradition ignores what Taylor calls the “Cratylean” dimension of language.  By this, Taylor means the ability of language to seem somehow “fitting” to the world.  We can experience a metaphor, for example, as getting it right, as articulating a new aspect of things that we couldn’t have noticed without its help (p. 137).  Taylor continues Part II by giving a positive account of the constitutive dimension of language that is missed by the HLC tradition.  His focus is on what he calls “human meanings,” which always belonging within a network of significance for us.  Human meanings are thus intimately interconnected with our practices, values, and emotions.  Since language does not describe human meanings that exist prior to their linguistic articulation, Taylor shows that this dimension simply cannot be captured by a designative view of language.

The final part, “Further Applications,” takes a look at how appreciating the constitutive dimension of language helps to understand two more specific issues.  Taylor first discusses a thesis central to Paul Ricoeur’s work, that narrative is hermeneutically irreplaceable.  That is, narrative understanding cannot be reproduced in the temporally neutral language of facts.  This shows how the insights gained from a literary work, for example, cannot be stated without reference to narrative context that gave them rise.  The final chapter addresses the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis that each language creates an incommensurable conceptual world, or “linguistic relativism.”  Taylor’s distinction between the designative and constitutive dimensions of language enables him to take a nuanced view of this thesis.  He suggests that the application of linguistic relativism to designative contexts is unconvincing, that where language serves as a vehicle for signifying objects, different practices do not support the idea of radically different linguistic worlds.  On the other hand, in language’s constitutive dimension, where elements of our “ontology” are brought to light by our linguistic practices, we should expect a measure of incommensurability (325).  This serves as a warning to the “imperialistic” temptations of enframing theories of language (like Davidson’s, for example), which suppose that we can understand someone’s language without a thick mutual understanding.

The Humanization of “Meaning”

Taylor’s book serves less to introduce a totally new approach to the philosophy of language or “philosophical anthropology” as to remind of the founding insights of the hermeneutical tradition and to provide them with further support, especially from recent empirical studies.  I hesitate to say that those familiar with the work of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer on language, not to mention the prior work of Taylor himself, will find little of groundbreaking significance here.[4]  Moreover, despite Taylor’s passing mentions of Ernst Cassirer’s theory of “symbolic forms,” Cassirer himself develops a more systematic and arguably more persuasive account of the unique function of “human meaning” in the constitution of culture and knowledge.  This is only to say that the function of Taylor’s book is pedagogical and perhaps therapeutic, rather than didactic.  The virtue of Taylor’s writing is the way he “assembles reminders” for the sake of his purpose (as Wittgenstein describes the work of a philosopher).  That is, Taylor tells us what we already know but easily forget, especially amidst the tendency to over-intellectualize so tempting to philosophy.  Taylor’s work is therapeutic in the way he attempts to reconcile us to our way of life in the “immanent frame.”  Taylor wants us to notice how we already live, rather than to change our lives.  His anti-naturalist stance relies simply on the sense that a de-humanizing theory requires forgetting the way in which we “always already” depend on a structure of human meanings that cannot be explained from the outside.  While Taylor’s book may not be obligatory for the specialist, it is rewarding for the sympathetic enthusiast as well as the hermeneutical neophyte.

            Nevertheless, I think there are significant causes for concern with Taylor’s project.  I will discuss a few briefly.  First, Taylor’s work exemplifies a commitment to a hermeneutical style of philosophy that may strike phenomenologically (not to mention analytically) oriented readers as lacking method.  While Husserl’s phenomenology employs a descriptive method in service of the elucidation of “essences” or eidetic invariances, Taylor’s hermeneutics seems to license the use of anecdotal description for any generic project of sense-making or understanding.  As Taylor describes hermeneutical reason, it is characterized by drawing together a “constellation” of meanings within some larger whole, against which the parts find greater significance (pp. 317-18).  This implies, to a certain extent, that nothing is off-limits for Taylor.  Anything, so long as it can claim to be a part of the whole under consideration, can make a demand to be explained.  In particular, Taylor’s approach allows him to include a number of surprising features under the banner of language—feelings, gestures, rituals, music, etc.—that are obviously connected with the phenomenon of language in ordinary life, but don’t seem to be essential to a conceptual articulation of language.  Taylor can then condemn rival accounts of language for failing to include such elements in their consideration, but their inclusion seems dependent on a holism so broad it starts to spread thin.  Taylor seems to forget that that hermeneutical holism can be maintained even while it is bracketed in favor of topical specificity.  On occasion, Taylor’s criticisms of rival philosophers amount to a complaint that they are not doing everything all at once.

            A second concern relates to Taylor’s concept of “human meanings,” the central target of his book.  Taylor’s concept of human meanings seems vague and this almost as a matter of principle.  Namely, Taylor resists any distinction between the conceptual articulation of human meanings from their embodiment in human practice.  To speak of “human meaning” is to speak of “the significance things have for us” (p. 179), and this in a way that seems viciously subjectivist.  While one can agree with Taylor concerning way the genesis of human meanings is coeval with their embodied “enactment,” this does not imply that these human meanings cannot be discussed on a level of abstraction (our rightful caution of this word should not deny it a legitimate place in thought).  Failure to distinguish the conceptual level from the mode of its embodiment leads Taylor to bind human meanings to a thorough vagueness or indeterminacy.  It is because he does not allow for an (at least notional) abstraction of conceptual meaning that he can say of human meanings, “These meanings cannot escape the circles which help determine their significance; and these circles are always changing.  Hence they defy final and decisive definition” (p. 257).  Taylor means that our inevitably human concepts concerning morality, mind, custom, and language itself always resist genuine determinacy, since they are bound to personal significance.  This seems to reinstate a stereotypical contrast between rationalistic science and fuzzy humanism.  Taylor fails to recognize the legitimate rational stratum in human meanings, which is precisely necessary for the critical evaluation of such meanings.

It is here that Husserlian phenomenology holds out a promise.  For Husserl, the eidetic clarification of fundamental concepts is not restricted to those that figure in “hard” natural sciences, but includes those that figure in the “life-world” just as well.  Husserl writes,

“As regards this, nothing prevents starting at first quite concretely with the human life-world around us, and with man himself as essentially related to this our surrounding world, and exploring, indeed purely intuitively, the extremely copius and never-discovered Apriori of any such surrounding world whatever, taking this Apriori as the point of departure for a systematic explication of human existence and of world strata that disclose themselves correlatively with the latter.”[5]

For Husserl, the natural human starting point provides the basic material for inquiry, but phenomenological inquiry employs it for the constitution of clarified concepts (though they are founded intuitively).  My concern with Taylor’s understanding of human meanings is that he takes their naïve and unclarified role in human life as their ultimate truth.  His account leads us to resist ultimate clarification of these meanings, since such a clarification could only abstract from the particular contexts in which these meanings have their genetic origin for us.  Taylor’s humanization of meaning is a shelter for the vagueness of meaning, while Husserl suggests that the normatively structured concepts of the human world are those that ought to be most clear.[6]

            In short, the fact that language (even taken in Taylor’s broad sense) helps constitute a world for us that goes beyond the reach of natural science does not have to have the consequence that Taylor suggests, that this world is one that can be felt but not conceptually grasped.  This is of course a Hegelian point, and, from that point of view, it seems telling that Taylor’s Romantic turn has led him to undervalue conceptuality.  We have seen that this puts Taylor at odds with a Husserlian conception of phenomenology as well.  Still, while Taylor’s work will do little to sway those with rationalist leanings, he provides a thorough and engaging account of an embodied approach to language, meaning, and human life.  His book is especially recommended as an insightful reminder of the ways in which we inhabit a world which larger depends on our own making.

[1] See Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, trans. Peter Heath, ed. Michael Losonsky (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), §§ 8-10.

[2] This tendency of Taylor’s makes a close analogy with Ernst Cassirer’s use of his philosophy of “symbolic forms” as the basis for a philosophical anthropology in his An Essay on Man: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944).  Taylor often alludes to Cassirer’s notion of symbolic forms, but the influence is clear throughout.  Cassirer, too, uses the inspiration of the linguistic theories of Herder and Humboldt his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 1: Language, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).

[3] I will forgo the typical chapter-by-chapter summary, a version of which is easily accessible in Michael Forster’s review of the same book:

[4] See especially, Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977); Charles Taylor, “Language and Human Nature” and “Theories of Meaning,” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1: Human Agency and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[5] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorian Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 138; Hua. I, 165.

[6] Notice that just later in Husserl’s text we find the conceptual aim of his investigations clarified: “Thus the investigations concerning the transcendental constitution of the world, which we have roughly indicated in these meditations, are precisely the beginning of a radical clarification of the sense and origin (or of the sense in consequence of the origin) of the concepts: world, Nature, space, time, psychophysical being, man, psyche, animate organism, social community, culture, and so forth.” Ibid., 154; Hua. I, 180.