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.
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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
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.
In the 21st century, the landscape of philosophical methods and orientations seems increasingly complex. Reference to ‘schools of thought’ may be misleading, suggesting more internal coherence than exists. Yet, (non-)allegiance to certain ideas about style and method can have real institutional consequences. At present, one can observe an increasing number of debates focused on the reliability of certain philosophical methods. Some attention is being given to how the ever-changing methods and scope of philosophy set it apart from the sciences. Lastly, there have been attempts to understand certain philosophical disagreements as disagreements on a meta-philosophical level, i.e. disagreements about the proper scope, data, standards, and goals of philosophy itself. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology situates itself in this context of increasing reflection on methods and on the role of philosophy itself.
The editors Giuseppina D’Oro and Søren Overgaard have gathered an admirable roster of twenty authors with the aim to exhibit the contemporary wealth of positions and debates regarding philosophical methods. Quite generally, nearly all the contributions can be described as normative in scope, i.e. as giving arguments for why one should espouse certain methods. The collection gives a very good cross section of contemporary orientations in philosophy, with some of the essays aimed at a general philosophical readership and others more focused on issues internal to certain traditions. Although the collection is naturally heterogeneous (given the heterogeneity of the philosophical field itself), there is plenty of implicit conversation between the essays, including between those from adherents of different traditions.
The volume is organized into four main parts. The first section concerns broad views of philosophy. It includes essays on the merits of philosophy for the individual, the need for a systematic impulse, the centrality of the human perspective, and on disagreement in philosophy. The second part is concerned with the central thesis of analytic philosophy, which is that the proper method of philosophy is conceptual analysis. Here, different versions of this claim are defended and criticisms from naturalism and experimental philosophy are considered. The third part gathers essays about philosophical methods/orientations (e.g. Kantianism, pragmatism, and quietism) which are not classifiable as continental or analytic. The final part gathers essays clearly continental in orientation (concerning the methods of phenomenology, deconstruction, existentialism, and hermeneutics).
This division into parts befits the content of the essays well. It has the disadvantage of reifying the analytic/continental divide somewhat, perhaps discouraging cross-reading the essays, despite the editors’ reservations regarding the usefulness of this divide. Hence, the remainder of this review is organized around certain dominant themes which appear throughout the volume and which mostly disregard the organization into parts by the editors. Instead of giving detailed summaries of all twenty essays here, which would be beyond the scope of this review, the following will be an impression of the contents of the book in a single account.
The Data of Philosophy
One of the recurrent themes of the volume and a good start when orienting oneself in the vast field of philosophy is the question regarding the data for philosophizing. As Nicholas Rescher points out in his chapter, the available data for philosophy are very diverse, ranging from common sense beliefs, to recent scientific findings, to history, to empirical experience of the world around us, to ideas delivered to us from the philosophical tradition – as he says: “we always begin with a diversified cognitive heritage.” (34) The choice of a method for philosophizing seems to correlate with a preoccupation with certain data. This, of course, is reflected in the other essays in the volume as well, where very different data are considered key to the conceptual work that philosophers engage in. One may extend Rescher’s idea somewhat by recognizing that some philosophers consider the artistic productions of past and present times among the most important data for their philosophizing. This is common in continental philosophy, were one can expect philosophical books about the meaning of Franz Kafka’s work, among others. Also, for some philosophers, transformative first-person life experiences are among the key data to philosophizing (as for Sartre and Adorno, discussed in the essays of J. Reynolds & P. Stokes and Fabian Freyenhagen).
Apart from a positive choice, I would submit that a philosophical method may include the choice to disregard certain sorts of data in favor of others. In the example of methodological doubt (Descartes), the negative aspect of choosing to limit oneself to certain data only is clear. One can find similar tendencies in varieties of ‘critical philosophy’ such as Kantianism and in Wittgenstein’s quietism (explored in the chapter by David MacArthur). The latter chooses to view with suspicion the doctrines of classical ontology and favors observations of actual language use as more reliable data for philosophizing. As a philosophical approach, this is clearly powered by a negative (yet enabling) decision regarding the ‘correct’ data.
Another example of a disagreement about the data of philosophy is between proponents of naturalism and proponents of conceptual analysis, where the former advocate the primacy of phenomena over our concepts and the latter advocate the primacy of linguistic meanings for settling philosophical disputes. That said, as the essay by Hans-Johann Glock about ‘impure conceptual analysis’ shows, intermediate positions are possible. He sketches a form of conceptual analysis where concepts are still regarded as a priori, but where empirical and ethical concerns are put into play. The downright naturalistic perspective, where thinking about knowledge becomes inseparable from the cognitive sciences, is sketched by Hilary Kornblith in his chapter.
Another important theme in the volume concerns the reliability of data. Even if philosophers largely agree on the choice of data for philosophizing, there may be worries about how reliable those data really are. In analytic philosophy, one commonly employs the method of cases, where a short vignette is presented to establish or put into question certain intuitions about philosophical claims. In recent years, so-called ‘experimental philosophers’ have put into question the reliability of this method. The main issue is that one can show, using statistical methods, that certain choices made in the design of the vignette may influence the outcome, even if those choices should be irrelevant. If the outcome of such tests is not stable upon changing seemingly irrelevant details, it may be called into question whether the case reliably prompts the kind of intuition which was taken as evidence for the philosophical claim under discussion. This theme is taken up in detail in the chapter by Jonathan M. Weinberg. Far from criticizing the method of cases in its entirety, Weinberg explains that experimental philosophy aims to exercise a type of ‘quality control’ having both a restrictive and constructive side. This debate is best understood as internal to the tradition of philosophy as conceptual analysis in the armchair.
The question of the accessibility of philosophical data also emerges in phenomenology, addressed in the chapter by David R. Cerbone. In short, there is a gap between the ‘natural attitude’ (when we engage with our surroundings without reflecting on the role of consciousness) and the act of phenomenological reflection (when we consider the active role consciousness plays in constituting reality). But clearly, when engaging in the latter, one reflects on what is ‘given’ in consciousness – the question of data. The next question then becomes: what is it in the natural attitude that permits or calls us into the mode of phenomenological investigation? Cerbone draws attention to how Husserl and Heidegger try to bridge this gap differently. He points out that with both authors, an act of phenomenological reflection must be performed by the reader if she wants to understand a phenomenological text; she must somehow recall that the ideas in such a text also adequately describe her own experience.
Several of the chapters focus on understanding the nature and extent of philosophical disagreement. As has often been noted, disagreement seems to be a rather pervasive feature of the philosophical field, especially when compared to the sciences. One can readily find ways to account for this. It may be that philosophy is simply harder than regular science. Alternatively, it may be that for many problems, it has not found the proper perspective (a sentiment that is strong in Kant’s philosophy, who thought that he had for the first time found the right perspective on the relation between intuition and understanding). The essays in the volume explore more subtle explanations.
Amie L. Thomasson presents an interesting perspective which accounts for at least some of the lasting disagreement. She builds on the already mentioned idea from Wittgenstein, Carnap, and others that philosophy is ultimately a form of conceptual analysis and thus primarily concerned with the proper use of concepts. This perspective has the great advantage that it does not put philosophy in a position rivalling physics (our best way of explaining ‘reality’), by focusing on language and not directly on reality itself. However, as she points out, according to the classical analytic conception, this type of work has a strictly descriptive character. Hence, it remains somewhat obscure how there can be lasting disagreement if all one needs to do is analyze the meaning of a concept. Also, if it is merely descriptive, this type of work is not so easily distinguished from linguistics after all. Her proposal to counteract these worries is to regard conceptual analysis as not only descriptive, but also prescriptive in nature. In other words, on her view, philosophers do not only debate about how words are used, but also about how they should be used – they engage in “metalinguistic negotiations” (David Plunkett quoted by Thomasson, p. 109). This proposal amounts to admitting that our conceptual schemes are often malleable and open to “ameliorative” revision (Sally Haslanger quoted by Thomasson, p. 115).
Questions that could be debated on this level are, for example, whether alcoholism is a disease, or what the best definition of ‘a person’ is. In both cases, wider societal, legal, and ethical concerns may inform our attempts at conceptual revision. An advantage of this view is that it does allow us to reinterpret a lot of ‘heavyweight metaphysics’ as negotiations of this sort. Often, it indeed seems to be the case that debates are so heated because participants are not merely trying to hit upon the one ‘correct’ usage of a pre-given concept but are advocating the best analysis among possible candidates. This opens the door to an ethical and at times imaginative type of conceptual analysis. (Thomasson suggests some compatibility between this notion and Foucault’s work on madness.)
Another essay concerned with the question of philosophical disagreement is Giuseppina D’Oro’s. The dispute she focuses on is between causalists (those who believe there are only events) and anti-causalists (those who believe there are events and actions). She asserts that on an abstract level, there seems to be little hope of resolving such debates, since there are respectable discourses which are causalist in character (engineering, physics, biology) and discourses which also speak of actions (history, sociology, psychology). D’Oro’s proposal, which follows suggestions from R.G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history, is that this debate is “best understood as a conflict between methodological practices which govern different forms of enquiry and the conception of reality that is entailed by them.” (221) The role of philosophy becomes not so much to settle the debate in favor of either of the positions, but to recognize that reality admits of several ontological schemes, dependent on the mode of inquiry undertaken (e.g. history or physics). Since both modes of enquiry are deemed legitimate as sciences, the two ontological schemes are ‘conditions of possibility’ for those modes of enquiry. Certainly, this seems to be applicable to the example debate, but one wonders whether other debates may be recast this way.
A chapter by Robert B. Talisse on pragmatism documents how the relation of pragmatist philosophies (Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty) to the rest of philosophy is decidedly meta-philosophical. That is, the pragmatists related to other philosophies not on the level of first-order ideas but by developing intricate meta-ideas about philosophy itself. Talisse proposes this as a distinctive feature and risk of pragmatism. Finally, the chapter by Herman Cappelen, most explicitly about disagreement, tackles the claim that philosophy seems plagued by deep disagreements on a more empirical level. By and large, he puts into question the evidence for this claim in a convincing yet somewhat apologetic manner.
The Aims of Philosophy
Another important marker of methodological orientation appearing throughout this volume is the aim one ascribes to philosophy. Again, I would submit that one’s views on the aims of philosophy will generally correlate to some first-order philosophical ideas and with some view regarding philosophy’s data. For example, a scientifically inclined philosopher (‘science is our best way to describe reality’) might declare philosophy to be an “underlabourer to the sciences” (Locke), helping to elucidate the workings of science (epistemology, philosophy of science) whilst warning not to go above and beyond science. On the other hand, the larger one considers the conceptual and experiential territory outside of the bounds of science strictu sensu, the larger one may consider the task of philosophy. Also, there is the recurrent theme of the irreconcilability of internal and external perspectives on such phenomena as consciousness. Certainly, philosophers must not be oblivious about such external investigations (e.g. cognitive sciences) but they need not hand over the keys just like that either. Both the philosophy of mind and phenomenology seem to agree on this. On such views, the aim of philosophy may become to reconcile the findings of cognitive science with our first-person experience of our life-world (as advocated in the chapter by Jean-Luc Petit).
Although the volume has a section which is sort of devoted to the aims of philosophy (Part I: Visions of Philosophy), the theme certainly resonates throughout the entire volume. We already saw Amie L. Thomasson’s extension of conceptual analysis into normative and ameliorative territory. Along similar lines, Robert Piercey presents a case study of the analytic-continental divide, focusing on Richard Rorty (allegedly on the analytic side) and Paul Ricoeur (allegedly on the continental side), who share certain metaphilosophical convictions. Piercey calls these the metaphilosophy of hope and the metaphilosophy of historicity. The former designates that a central goal of philosophy should be to theorize for a better future. He shows us in some detail how this view takes shape in both thinkers and suggests that such metaphilosophical views are ultimately more helpful to orient oneself in the larger philosophical field (beyond the analytic-continental divide). Fabian Freyenhagen’s essay about critical theory and Adorno’s relation to philosophy can be taken along similar lines. There, Adorno is shown to both criticize classical philosophy to work towards its unfulfilled promises. The aim of critical theory is to soften the all too rigid hold certain problematic conceptual schemes have on society at large. This procedure both borrows from philosophy and criticizes it wherever it is found to be complicit in reinforcing the present social order. All of this also raises the questions how creative (in the sense of producing novelty) philosophy should aim to be. As A.W. Moore points out in his essay, the enduring influence of Wittgenstein in analytic philosophy has turned that tradition away from the creative conception of philosophy, an idea which is well alive with continental thinkers such as Deleuze & Guattari.
Beyond such collective aims, philosophy may also have real consequences for individuals engaging in it. Alessandra Tanesini explores a broadly Socratic view of philosophy on which the central aim for the individual is to find a way to live beautifully. She promotes the idea that this requires one to train one’s epistemic self-confidence. This includes skills pertaining to argumentation and concept-formation as well as the emotional capacity to defend unorthodox views within one’s community. Philosophy, construed as such, can greatly contribute to this effort and hence help an individual aiming to live beautifully.
The volume offers a diverse and valuable cross section of discussions regarding philosophical methods. By and large it focuses on methodological ideas which are supported by tradition. The essays display a healthy degree of implicit conversation between them. Reading the entire volume at once will sharpen even the advanced reader’s sensitivity and appreciation of the matter. All the essays are directed at an uninitiated readership, fulfilling the aim of facilitating conversation between different methodological orientations. Let me now close this review with some minor criticisms.
The volume may be found wanting with regards to methods of formal logic. Positions on the role of logical methods for philosophy differ greatly, but it seems that a sufficient segment of academic philosophy attaches great value to them (especially in connection to conceptual analysis and philosophy of language). Many of the classical philosophical paradigms went hand in hand with views on logic. At a more mundane level, logic plays into the (re)construction of arguments, which is part and parcel of philosophical activity. The volume lacks any discussion of the role of logic in the narrow or wide sense.
A more nuanced worry is the following. By focusing on established methods which seem to be shared between many philosophers, the volume furthermore risks neglecting that the history of philosophy is often marked by a degree of methodological extremism. That is, it sometimes seems like each philosopher invents his/her own methods anew. It may be that the volume, despite its pluralist stance, ends up portraying the philosophical field as more unified than it really is. Relatedly, it does not always recognize the negative experience of not understanding an opponent’s position – an experience surely at the heart of philosophical activity since Plato’s Euthyphro.
Here is a final question regarding the evolution of new methods that the essays in the volume suggest but do not really breach. Consider the following: Let us say that upon reading the works of a certain philosopher X, we discern that she is a proponent of the new method Y. Such schemes are by now familiar, and the Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology offers an abundance of examples. Now consider the following question: before X committed their thoughts to paper, what was their ‘method’ Z for arriving at the method Y? In other words, is there a useful distinction for methods understood as internal to philosophical programs and methods used to develop new ones? Given the plurality of different philosophical methods that have accompanied philosophy since its inception, is not deliberation about (new) methods among the key tasks of the philosopher? Far from suggesting an infinite regress, I merely want to express that there may be more dynamism to the philosophical practice than an evaluation of framework-internal methodologies will be able to bring to the surface. If, as Stanley Cavell puts it “philosophy is one of its own normal topics” (Cavell cited in D’Oro & Overgaard, 4), one might add that reflection on philosophical methods is one of philosophy’s normal methods. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology is a recommendable way into this terrain.
- Cavell, S. Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays. updated edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Collingwood, R. G. The Principles of History. eds. W. H. Dray and Jan van der Dussen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy. trans. D. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
- D’Oro, Giuseppina, and Søren Overgaard, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
- Foucault, M. Madness and Civilization. trans. R. Howard. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
- Haslanger, S. Resisting Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Glasgow: Collins and Sons, 1964.
- Plato. Complete Works. Ed. J. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
- Plunkett , D. “Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and the Methodology of Philosophy,” Inquiry 58, no. 7-8 (2015): 828-74.
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.
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.