Mahon O’Brien: Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy

Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy Book Cover Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy
Mahon O'Brien
Rowman & Littlefield International
2020
Paperback $19.99
140

Reviewed by: Christos Hadjioannou (University of Cyprus)

Introductions are historical pieces of work conditioned by the tendencies and urgencies of the moment, and that means they need to be rewritten again and again. Still, one might be excused for thinking that the world doesn’t need another introduction to Heidegger. After reading O’Brien’s excellent book, though, one will be convinced otherwise. Accessible and intellectually honest, this critical introduction to Heidegger’s life and works is a timely contribution to the field, which I recommend highly to beginners as well as specialists.

Today, undergraduates and other first-time readers of Heidegger do not come to his works empty-handed. We can assume that most of them have been exposed to “the Heidegger controversy.” Preserving Heidegger’s legacy requires addressing that controversy. O’Brien is therefore wise not to bypass it, but instead tell the story of Heidegger’s thought partly against that political backdrop. Nor does the book pretend to offer a guide to Heideggerian philosophical concepts from a “neutral standpoint.” It is a polemical introduction, taking a stand on the political issues as well as important interpretive questions that haunt Heidegger scholarship.

In his preface, O’Brien clarifies what he takes to be uncontroversial about Heidegger’s works, and what remains contentious to this day. Instead of painting a sacrosanct picture, he thematizes the controversies and presents a nuanced picture—one that cancels out neither the controversies and weaknesses in Heidegger’s thought, nor the immense value of Heidegger’s philosophical insights.

O’Brien identifies two extreme positions in Heidegger interpretation and rejects the squabble between them as a false dilemma. One position holds that Heidegger is “the greatest scourge to have afflicted academic philosophy,” while to the other, he is “the most important philosopher to have emerged from the Western tradition since Hegel” (ix). O’Brien offers an interpretation that accepts a version of both positions. He argues that while it is undeniable that Heidegger’s association with National Socialism was neither brief not incidental to his thought, and that his commitment to it was based on some of the core elements of his magnum opus, Being and Time (BT), this does not justify “the extirpation of Heidegger’s thought from the canon” (ibid.). Heidegger’s impact remains profound, and striking him from the canon obliterates his intellectual achievements and makes it impossible to explain the origin of subsequent thinkers, who were influenced by him. But O’Brien also warns against the extreme devotion displayed by some commentators, who are “guilty of all kinds of intellectual acrobatics and apologetics in an attempt to rehabilitate Heidegger’s image” (xi). He vows to avoid such misplaced loyalty, which risks alienating prospective readers of Heidegger “who will eventually learn for themselves that Heidegger was a Nazi and a selfish, arrogant egomaniac to boot” (ibid.).

In Chapter One, entitled “Ways Not Works,” O’Brien addresses Heidegger’s methodology and influences, and takes a clear stand on the Kehre debate, which concerns the relationship between the early and later works. Although this issue is decisive in determining what narrative is offered not only regarding the late works but most crucially regarding BT, it is often set aside in introductory texts. O’Brien warns against the two extremes that see either radically disjointed efforts over the course of his oeuvre or an overt systematicity. Instead, he supports the so-called “continuity thesis,” which finds unity across the Heidegger corpus. Thus he sees Heidegger’s work as “a continuous, evolving, if not entirely seamless, enterprise” (xi). Invoking Heidegger’s maxim “ways not works”, O’Brien presents his oeuvre as a series of attempts at thematizing the question of the meaning of being (2-3), which question he addressed most rigorously in BT. This approach helps us appreciate the reasons why Heidegger moved beyond that central work without ever actually rejecting it. O’Brien’s narrative thus rejects a distinction between “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II,” and counters the assumption that the later works are incompatible with the earlier (5).

O’Brien also does a fine job in this chapter of acknowledging the most important influences on Heidegger’s work without giving a reductive account that denies his philosophical originality. As he argues, Heidegger’s work cannot be categorized under any of the movements that influenced him. Nonetheless, O’Brien identifies Husserl’s phenomenology as having exerted the most influence on his early thought.

Chapter 2, “Early Life,” covers the most significant biographical information with bearing on Heidegger’s philosophical ideas (and is actually not confined only to his early years), including his attempts at a political philosophy. What is crucial to take away from this chapter is the connection between Heidegger’s philosophical confrontation with modernism and his sense of belonging to his native region and its heritage. O’Brien argues that Heidegger himself made it “very clear that the biographical details of his own life […] were crucial to an understanding of the manner in which his thinking developed” (8). Accordingly, he relates the basic facts about Heidegger’s upbringing and family: his father’s vocational connection to the Catholic Church, and his many ties to the countryside and peasant communities, including his mother’s farming background. Thus he contextualizes Heidegger’s distrust of city life and cosmopolitanism (9), which he associated with inauthenticity.

O’Brien draws attention to the interpretive difficulty that hampers any serious attempt to distinguish between those of Heidegger’s philosophical discoveries that resulted from honest thinking, and ideas he espoused disingenuously, ad hoc, in order to justify his private proclivities. It is challenging to identify and appreciate some of Heidegger’s important philosophical ideas on their own merit when he himself attaches them to ridiculous personal views. As a result, some interpreters end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater (12), allowing these associations to discredit profound insights.

In the chapter, O’Brien does not shy away from commenting on Heidegger’s bad personality traits, such as his feigned humility, his extraordinary arrogance and pretentiousness, his serious messiah complex, as well as his philandering (12). The chapter closes with references to his wife Elfride’s antisemitism and nationalism, and shows that also Heidegger himself was fiercely nationalistic (14).

Chapter 3, “Rumours of the Hidden King,” tracks Heidegger’s intellectual development from the early Freiburg period, when he served as Husserl’s teaching assistant, to his years lecturing at Marburg, in the early 1920s. Once he took up employment at Marburg, Heidegger begun formulating his own ideas and themes, moving away from neo-Kantianism and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, and recognizing “the importance of time as history for the philosophical project he wished to inaugurate” (21).

One topic stands out in this chapter: Heidegger’s break from Husserlian phenomenology. Here the book’s characterizations of Heidegger’s person are again harsh: O’Brien claims that while Heidegger was indeed at one point deeply inspired by Husserl, nevertheless he “carefully choreographed” the impression that Husserl was his mentor, dedicating BT to him as part of a “calculated piece of manipulation designed to win the favour of one of the most important and influential philosophical voices in Germany at the time” (19).

Chapter 4, “The Hidden King Returns to Freiburg,” is the longest and most important chapter of the book. Here, O’Brien discusses BT and tries to properly contextualize its main arguments in relation to the entire corpus. Discussing the structure of BT, O’Brien analyzes its incompleteness in terms of both philosophical motivations and purely professional-strategic ones. He finds a deep consistency between the projected (missing) second part of BT with the work of his later period. Proponents of the discontinuity thesis, he argues, misinterpret the idea of a “turn” (Kehre), supposing that the new approach and language characteristic of Heidegger’s later texts represent a “reversal,” a “turning away from” and thus a repudiation of BT. But on the contrary, O’Brien points out, the later works constantly invoke BT in order to explain key developments. Heidegger himself recommended that the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics (IM), be read “as a companion piece to Being and Time” (30). While the later works are not reducible to the earlier, still “Heidegger never fully relinquishes some of the key ideas that he was developing in Being and Time” (28).

Having made his case for continuity, O’Brien is free to turn to important texts that postdate BT in order to clarify some of the latter’s central arguments. Interpreting BT as a book that tries to address the ontologically suppressed interplay of presence and absence, O’Brien refers to the 1949 introduction to “What Is Metaphysics?” (WM) (1929) in order to clarify the purpose that animates BT, which is none other than “to prepare an overcoming of metaphysics” (33). According to Heidegger, the meaning of being as traditionally understood in philosophy privileges presence, something which O’Brien says “distorts the nature of reality for us and indeed our own self-understanding” (30). Part of what Heidegger tries to do is challenge the prejudice that the word “being” and its cognates mean that something exists or is present (ibid.). In fact, when we say that things “are,” “it is not clear that that means that they exist as fully present or actualised before us” (32).

In WM, Heidegger would blame this “metaphysics of presence” for misrepresenting the way we actually experience the world (33). WM’s discussion of nothingness targets the principle of non-contradiction, O’Brien says—a principle “routinely invoked to dismiss all talk of the nothing as simply wrong-headed, illogical, unscientific, in short, as contradictory” (34). The tradition has decided in advance that being reduces to presence and that it itself is not nothing. According to O’Brien, this treatment of nothingness is anticipated early on in BT, specifically in the account of moods as the site which throws open the interplay of presence and absence (34). “Heidegger returns to and defends this idea in 1929, in 1935 and again in his 1940’s introduction and postscript to the 1929 lecture [WM]” (ibid.). Heidegger, O’Brien writes, is trying to show that “traditional approaches miss out on all of the possibilities inherent in what we ‘mean’ when we say that a [an entity] is here, or there, or is something or other” (39). Being means possibility—a multiplicity of possibilities—and although beings stand in Being, they never overcome the possibility of not-Being, something that the philosophical tradition has missed by conceiving being in terms of continuous presence. As O’Brien explains, “[w]hat is suppressed is the role that absence or nothingness plays in our experience and how most of our experience involves a constant interplay of presence and absence” (40).

O’Brien concedes that the existential analytic of Dasein does tend toward anthropocentrism or an excessive prioritization of human subjectivity, but he draws attention to the methodological reasons that led Heidegger to begin with Dasein. Heidegger was convinced that “a new brand of phenomenology, unencumbered with the transcendental baggage of the later Husserl, was the appropriate method, while recognizing that time (or temporality) should be central to any attempt to begin to investigate the meaning of being” (42). Rather than “beginning with some abstract theory or idea, Heidegger insisted that we should begin with ordinary, everyday existence, before any abstractions” (ibid.).

In the same chapter, O’Brien also critically responds to realist readings of Heidegger’s late work, which—as he convincingly argues—rely on a misreading of BT. Without attributing to Heidegger the view that Dasein actively creates meaning, O’Brien disagrees that the meaning of being subsists in the absence of Dasein. He clarifies that Heidegger does not deny that entities exist “out there,” only that their meaning (i.e. the phenomenological “world”) exists independently of Dasein. Here the analysis would benefit from a reference to Taylor Carman’s work, whose use of the term “ontic realism” could help O’Brien consolidate his position further.[1]

In the rest of the chapter, O’Brien offers an eloquent explication of the basic structures of Dasein as presented in BT, without ever becoming tiresome or overly technical. Thus he explains how “understanding” works in terms of projects and possibilities, how “affectivity” (Befindlichkeit) works in terms of moods in which we already find ourselves, and how “falling” works in terms of understanding being as presence.

As regards the focus on death in BT, O’Brien argues that Heidegger is not interested in the actual event of death per se, but rather in the fact that our manner of understanding everything in the world around us is conditioned by our own finitude (47). Heidegger wants to move from the metaphysics of presence to an ontology which reckons with the role that absence or nothingness plays in the meaning of a thing’s being (48).

Chapter 5 is entitled “The 1930s – Politics, Art and Poetry.” The chapter begins with Heidegger’s so-called “linguistic turn,” in which the poetic use of language in particular emerged as a key concern. While some commentators see Heidegger’s focus on language, and particularly his preoccupation with Hölderlin’s poetry during the 1930s and 40s, as a shift away from the project of BT, O’Brien argues that if we remain faithful to the fact that BT is about the meaning of Being, then there’s no surprise in the linguistic turn. In my opinion, O’Brien’s thesis here would benefit from a reference to Heidegger’s early notion of “formal indication,” which is also a precursor to poetic language.

Next O’Brien turns to Heidegger’s linguistic chauvinism, which he argues contributed to shaping his political views. Heidegger believed that German and Ancient Greek were philosophically superior languages that could grasp the world in the origin of its being, and that other languages, such as French and English, were philosophically destitute (57). O’Brien brings up the worrisome recurrence of Heidegger’s prejudice about a supposed inner affinity between Germany and Ancient Greece. He also discusses Heidegger’s intense criticism of “everything in the Western tradition that has led to modernity and eventually the age of technology” (60). It is in this context, argues O’Brien, that Judaism is thrown “into the melting pot along with everything else that he sees as a consequence of the history of the metaphysics of presence, a metaphysics which he believes the German people alone can overcome” (ibid.).

One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when O’Brien questions whether Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity is really as unique as we have been taught to think. Thus he calls for an excavation and identification of the sinister and at times disappointingly derivative motivations behind ideas that many have taken to be unique features of Heidegger’s critique (60-61). Some aspects of Heidegger’s critique of modernity, O’Brien says, are but “a variant on what were ultimately a series of stock antisemitic prejudices that proliferated in Germany from the late 1700s onwards” (59). In some of the most nationalistic and antisemitic remarks to be found in the 1933-1934 seminar Nature, History, State, Heidegger argues that for Slavic people, German space would be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to Germans, and that to “Semitic nomads” it would “perhaps never be revealed at all” (62). O’Brien argues that these attempts to relate philosophical views to a renewal of German spiritual and cultural life under National Socialism can be registered under a certain tradition to which also Fichte belonged (ibid.). Yet Heidegger’s conviction that this “revolution” must be based on key elements of his own philosophical vision, i.e. the attempt to overcome the metaphysics of presence and the inauguration of a new beginning which was specifically tied to the destiny of the German people, makes him stand out in this tradition. Heidegger was “as naïve as he was megalomaniacal” (63), O’Brien says, while reminding us not to dismiss the philosophy just because of the political ends the philosopher thought it could serve.

The final part of the chapter turns to the topic of art and follows Heidegger’s engagement with Hölderlin’s poetry in his 1934 lectures, as well as his 1935-1936 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” According to O’Brien, Heidegger was keen to distance his discussion of the origin of art from any conventional aesthetics, and previous analyses of this work have overlooked how Heidegger situates his treatment of art within his larger political vision. Invoking the unique destiny of the German people, Heidegger identifies Hölderlin as the poet the Germans must heed in order to foster an authentic happening, a new political and cultural beginning (65).

In chapter 6, “The Nazi Rector,” O’Brien addresses the apogee of the “Heidegger controversy”: his involvement with Nazi politics and his rectorship at the University of Freiburg. His appointment as rector came as a complete surprise to his students, the Jewish ones included, because as far as they were concerned, “there had been nothing in his demeanor or attitude to that point to suggest that he might be sympathetic to Nazism” (71). On the other hand, argues O’Brien, it’s unlikely that Heidegger happened upon his political allegiances overnight in 1933 (71). He draws attention to the fact that Heidegger reportedly read and was impressed by Mein Kampf, and that he held  antisemitic and reactionary views from early on (ibid.). Thus on O’Brien’s view, the Black Notebooks only confirm previously available evidence that Heidegger was an antisemite who thought he could articulate antisemitic views from within his own philosophical framework.

The whole controversy, argues O’Brien, “should have and could have been dealt with comprehensively and exhaustively a long time ago” (74). He identifies two key factors that contributed to the unnecessary protraction of the whole issue: firstly, the drip-feeding of problematic texts, which created the impression that further revelations, which might complicate the picture, were continuously underway; secondly, the fact that the most critical voices were philosophically weak or obviously biased, resulting in a superficiality that “managed to conceal the deep underlying philosophical questions which must be put to Heidegger’s thought” (ibid.). The chapter offers a critical review of the most influential books on Heidegger’s Nazism, analyzing their scope and breadth and ideological bents, and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Here, O’Brien shows his prowess, and demonstrates an excellent grasp of the topic.

As regards the political philosophy, O’Brien argues that Heidegger was not a bloodthirsty biological racist, but an archconservative and traditionalist “prone to some rather bizarre provincialist notions which he sought to justify philosophically” (74). Heidegger unsuccessfully tried to marry his own provincialism with a philosophical antimodernism and ethnic chauvinism, thinking this political philosophy was the way to resist the growing dominion of technology (74-75). O’Brien’s verdict is that Heidegger failed to articulate a coherent political philosophy, “owing in part to the fact that his philosophy doesn’t really admit to being employed in the manner in which he wants to use it” (75). O’Brien also finds that Heidegger’s flawed character must have played a role in his stint with National Socialism (76).

Chapter 7, “Return from Syracuse,” covers the period following his banishment from teaching after the denazification proceedings, especially his philosophical output of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It discusses Heidegger’s musings on language, poetry and technology, specifically his analysis of technology, of releasement (Gelassenheit) and the notion of “appropriation/enownment” (Ereignis) (79). While in chapter 5, O’Brien argued that some aspects of Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity might not be as original as initially thought, here he argues against a reductionist misapprehension that his work on technology is simply a symptom of his antimodernism (80). Instead, he says, Heidegger’s essay on technology stands today as the single most important philosophical work on some of the issues concerning the philosophical age we live in (81).

Turning to the Bremen lectures, O’Brien offers a nuanced analysis of the infamous “Agriculture Remark.” The point of the remark, he argues, is not to liken the Holocaust with the harvesting of grain, as some commentators have suggested, nor is Heidegger arguing that agricultural methods are morally equivalent to genocide. What interests him is the role that the essence of technology (Enframing) has figured into everything that has taken place in the twentieth century, including genocide, war and agriculture (82).

Next O’Brien discusses “The Question Concerning Technology”—a good text for a first-time reader of Heidegger to begin with, he says, because in this essay Heidegger touches upon most of his fundamental concepts and views, such as “equipmentality,” “publicness”, das Man, etc. (83). Here, O’Brien’s continuity thesis is on full display, as he argues that Heidegger’s worries about technology are already hinted at in BT: “it is clear that Heidegger’s thinking about technology was there in embryonic form in Being and Time” (85).

O’Brien interprets Heidegger’s critique of (the essence of) technology as a critique of eliminativism, i.e. a critique of positivist approaches that posit that classes of entities which do not fall within the horizon of their investigation do not exist (89). The problem of Enframing is its eliminative character, namely that it is a mode of revealing that governs the way beings come to presence. Other forms of revealing, like poetry, are necessary in order to “allow people to see things coming to presence in ways other than what is rather aggressively demanded by Enframing” (93). O’Brien then discusses “releasement” (Gelassenheit) as the appropriate comportment of human beings that will enable such a non-eliminative, pluralist disclosure of beings, and closes the chapter by contextualizing Enframing in the history of Being (94). Acquainted as I am with O’Brien’s earlier books,[2] I think he could have spent a few more paragraphs elaborating in greater detail how Gelassenheit relates to Entschlossenheit and the project of dismantling of the ontology of presence.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Heidegger ‘Abroad’.” This is a rather short chapter that breaks up into three sections. The first covers Heidegger’s remarkable success on the French intellectual scene, especially among the existentialists, and gives some historical context to that success. The second concerns Heidegger’s relation to Eastern thought and covers his interactions with a number of Eastern intellectuals, briefly also referring to the body of secondary literature devoted to the intersection between Heidegger’s philosophy and Eastern traditions. The third section covers the impact his thought has had in the United States.

Chapter 9, “The Final Years,” is only three pages long, and provides biographical details of the peaceful and happy years at the end of Heidegger’s life. It notes that he faced his own death with a certain “grace and serenity” (109), and that in the end he arranged a Christian burial for himself after all.

In the tenth and final chapter, “Heidegger’s Legacy,” O’Brien sums up his verdict as regards the “Heidegger controversy.” The recent publication of the Black Notebooks refuelled the controversy, O’Brien says, because it discredited Heidegger’s own “official story” about his association with National Socialism. Heidegger was a committed Nazi and an antisemite who “tried zealously to use some of his core elements of his thought to articulate a philosophy of National Socialism, for a period of time at least” (111). However, Heidegger’s own “political vision was ultimately at quite a remove from historical National Socialism, and he clearly became more and more disillusioned with the regime from the mid-1930s onwards” (ibid.). O’Brien reiterates his own position against other interpretations, insisting that despite claims made even by Heidegger himself, he did try to offer a political philosophy, and deep inside believed “he could be the spiritual and philosophical Führer of an awakening in Germany that would change the course of history in Europe and the Western world in general” (112).

In addition to the political controversy, Heidegger’s legacy is entangled in another controversy, argues O’Brien, namely the divide between analytic and continental philosophy. In analytic circles, “Heidegger is often portrayed as the arch-villain for having led philosophy astray through his promotion of ambiguity, imprecision, a lack of rigour and the proliferation of jargon, mysticism and bad poetry masquerading as philosophical profundity” (114). O’Brien defends Heidegger’s writing style, arguing that the subject itself demanded such a style, but lambasts those “disciples” who try to imitate Heidegger’s style simply because they themselves are unable to write more clearly.

O’Brien ends the book by reflecting on the future of Heidegger studies, saying that it is difficult to foretell what course it will take. He believes that the Heidegger controversy “is only truly beginning, as scholars face squarely the question of how to read the texts of a thinker whose work, while not reducible to National Socialism, was nevertheless twisted and manipulated in various ways owing to his own belief that a happy union could be forged between his own thought and the new awakening in Germany which he initially saw as an underlying possibility of National Socialism” (115).

References

Carman, Taylor. 2003. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2011. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2015. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2020. Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy. London and New   York: Rowman & Littlefield.


[1] See Carman, Taylor. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[2] See O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum, 2011; O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Theodore George: The Responsibility to Understand: Hermeneutical Contours of Ethical Life, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

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Contemporary Continental Ethics
Theodore George
Edinburgh University Press, 2020
2020
Hardback £80.00
240

William McNeill: The Fate of Phenomenology: Heidegger’s Legacy, Rowman & Littlefield, 2020

The Fate of Phenomenology: Heidegger's Legacy Book Cover The Fate of Phenomenology: Heidegger's Legacy
New Heidegger Research
William McNeill
Rowman & Littlefield International
2020
Paperback £24.95
168

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

Five Groundbreaking Moments in Heidegger’s Thinking Book Cover Five Groundbreaking Moments in Heidegger’s Thinking
New Studies in Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Kenneth Maly
University of Toronto Press
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Graeme Nicholson: Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and Is Fate

Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and its Fate Book Cover Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and its Fate
New Studies in Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Graeme Nicholson
University of Toronto Press
2019
Cloth $45.00
200

Reviewed by: Daniel Regnier (St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan)

In Heidegger on Truth Graeme Nicholson, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, provides a close reading of the Heidegger’s works published under the title “On the Essence of Truth” (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit: WW). Heidegger delivered lectures under this title on four occasions in 1930 and the work was published in written form first in 1943 and then in a second edition in 1949 (another version dating from 1940 also exists but is virtually identical to the 1943 version, Nicholson tells us (8)). Nicholson provides a developmental account of Heidegger’s thought on truth by identifying the differences between the 1930 lecture versions of WW and the later published essays.  Accordingly, the book is divided into two major parts.

Part I of Nicholson’s book is dedicated to the 1930 lectures and provides a very good detailed analysis of some of the key innovations in Heidegger’s view of truth developed in them. Nicholson explains the fundamental phenomenological strategy that Heidegger uses to account for truth writing, “A phenomenological account will treat experiences as the wellspring of statements and by the same token the birth place of truth” (31).  In this context Nicholson explains how in accordance with notions developed in Section 33 of Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) Heidegger points to “conduct” (Verhalten) as the point at which openness to a thing occurs. Conduct has a “revelatory power,” Nicholson points out (35).  And he rightly identifies a Kantian moment in Heidegger’s claim that “the essence of truth is freedom” (indeed, Heidegger also lectured on Kant’s notion of freedom in 1930). Graeme explains, “Our conduct can only adjust itself, accommodating the standard set by the thing, if it is free or open, ready to receive orientation” (39). This amounts to “letting-be” (Seinlassen).  And it is at this juncture that Heidegger moves from a relatively ahistorical phenomenological approach to truth to an analysis conditioned by historical considerations.  Heidegger writes,

It is in the letting-be of beings as such that such a thing as a being ever becomes unconcealed, that is, de-concealed. The unconcealed was known to Western philosophy in its decisive beginning with Heraclitus as ta alêtheia (47).

Nicholson defends Heidegger’s reading of alêtheia as unconcealedness and proceeds to show how this notion accords with Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein.

Nicholson addresses the difficult problem of the relationship between truth and non-truth in Heidegger (expressed as the “Non-essence” (Unwesen) of truth, and as “error” (Irre)).  Nicholson is at his best when interpreting texts such as the following where Heidegger writes,

Then, if the essence is to realize its full scope and authority over us, would it not have to retrieve this Non-essence, i.e. untruth, and admit it explicitly into the essence of truth? Certainly! (57)

Nicholson shows how Heidegger’s way of dealing with truth is grounded in a contextualism that takes account of a totality and can be better understood when seen against the background of the treatment of attunement (Gestimmtheit) from Section 29 of Being and Time. Nicholson remarks that attunement in WW is, in contrast to the account in Being and Time, “not phenomenally evident to Da-sein” (63).  This leads to the discovery that, as Nicholson puts it, “erring and the mystery are contained within that essence [i.e. of truth]” (73). And it is philosophy that is equipped to deal with this mystery according to Heidegger in 1930.  Yet, as Nicholson points out in his conclusion to Part I of his book, “Here and elsewhere through the 1930’s Heidegger tended to speak of philosophy as a body of ontological knowledge rather than the experience of questioning or the encounter with mystery” (87). This foundationalism in understanding truth is, Nicholoson suggests, related to Heidegger’s understanding of philosophy’s leading role in relation to the other disciplines. Nicholson essentially suggests that Heidegger had not yet fully developed the implications of his own thought which consequently contains certain inconsistency.

Before proceeding to Part II, Nicholson inserts a section entitled “Intermission: Political Storms” (83-94).  It is however, much more than an intermission, because it is a key in understanding the developmental account that is at the heart of the Nicholson’s reading of Heidegger. In this section Nicholson puts Heidegger’s work on truth in the context of his Rectorship of the Freiburg University 1933-34 and his relationship with the Nazi party.  Nicholson comments on the lectures Heidegger gave during this period, on the Black Notebooks as well as other documents.  In general, we might say that without releasing Heidegger of responsibilty, Nicholson argues that Heidegger’s thought is not compromised by the “Political Storms” of the period of the rectorship.  Nicholson writes,

But the “Heidegger Case” is not one of simple opposition between pro- and anti-phenomenology, or pro- and anti-Nazism, or even pro- and anti-Heidegger. I would suggest instead that Heidegger’s life and work exhibited a cleft or bifurcation that many of this readers, especially his critics, have not noticed, have not understood, and consequently have misunderstood grievously. (93)

This position serves Nicholson as a hermeneutic principle. Accordingly, Part II of his book is entitled “Later Work: the Pathway Rectified.”

Nicholson writes “After 1930, or rather 1934, Heidegger moved to correct the overconfident doctrine of this earlier period that an a priori Seinsverstgeriod that an a prioir 4, Heidegger moved to correct the overconfident doctrine of thi searlier s, have not noticed, have not uändtnis (“understanding of being”) gave guidance to the sciences but can be traced in every human encounter with the world.”  Nicholson’s treatment of truth in the later Heidegger follows a historical structure from the Plato lectures (of 1931-32) which begin to expose Plato’s role in distorting the original Greek experience of truth (Part II, A) a section dealing with Medieval thought (Part II, B) and a section dealing with the present-age (Part II, C).

In Part II, A Nicholson shows how Heidegger understands Plato to have compromised truth as alêtheia by mixing with it the idea of truth as correctness (Richtigkeit, orthotês), a problem which subsequently became embedded in Western thought (105). Nicholson argues that Heidegger revises his understandings of freedom, unconcealedness and Dasein. Here Dasein functions differently than in Being and Time, Nicholson tells us, insofar as it the “hidden essential grounding of the human being” (129).  Heidegger writes, “In Da-sein, the essential ground, long ungrounded, on the basis of which human beings are able to ek-sist, is preserved for them” (125). The notion of the “clearing” (Lichtung) which does not appear in WW but elsewhere in later Heidegger serves for Nicholson to better understand the idea of openness expressed in the Da- of Dasein. As Nicholson puts it, “Da-sein brings us, through ek-sistence, to belong to the Da-, or the open region” (131).

In Part II, B Nicholson deals with the notion of truth as adequatio rei ad intellectum and various permutations of this formula. Nicholson says that the idea of truth as adequatio persists in Western thought even when detached from notions of creation and God. In this section Nicholson deals briefly with truth as certainty in Descartes, grounding in Leibniz and with Hegel on certainty.

Nicholson opens Part II, C with consideration of the following undated marginal note which Heidegger had written in the 1943 edition: “Between 5 and 6 the leap into the turning (Kehre) (whose essence unfolds in the event of appropriation (im Ereignis wesende)” (142). The numerals refer to chapters of Heidegger’s text. Readers familiar with Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy will recognize the terminology of the marginalium, and it is precisely to this work that Nicholson turns to explain the way in which Heidegger deals with truth in the context of his later thought.  Nicholson explains why Heidegger begins to spell being (Sein) with a “y” beyng (Seyn), namely “because he which to speak not of an object of thought, noumenon, but of what might prompt thought and give rise to it after the concealment of all the beings” (146). That is, being is thought as en-owning (Ereignis) (146).

Overall, Nicholson provides an insightful and very useful reading of WW. This reader found Part I of Nicholson’s book to be more successful than Part II. No doubt, this is largely a matter of the difficulty of later Heidegger. (Trying to explain WW by referring to Contributions could be considered an attempt to explain obscurum per obscurius!)  But the brevity of some explanations towards the end of Part II seem to me unjustified (for example, the one sentence paragraph labeled “On Psychology” on page 164). A remark on the book sleeve suggests that this might be a good pedagogical tool. I am not so sure about this. On the one hand, there are very lucid discussions of key notions in Heidegger. On the other hand, certain aspects of the text assume a lot on the part of readers: knowledge of the certain debates in the secondary literature and knowledge of key Heideggerian works. I do think that the work would certainly be of interest to graduate students and scholars. When the book does deal with secondary literature it tends to be recent secondary literature in English. One might have hoped for somewhat more attention to scholarship in other languages. Nicholson suggests at the beginning of the book (5) that he will apply contemporary issues and the Conclusion is entitled “Against Self-Expression.”  However, the conclusion is very brief. One gets the sense that either the author might either have simply left out reference to contemporary issues or developed this section more.  In sum, Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and Is Fate is a very welcome addition to Heidegger studies.

Michel Foucault: „Discourse and Truth“ and „Parresia“

"Discourse and Truth" and "Parresia" Book Cover "Discourse and Truth" and "Parresia"
The Chicago Foucault Project
Michel Foucault. Edited by Henri-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini. With an Introduction by Frédéric Gros. English edition established by Nancy Luxon
University of Chicago Press
2019
Cloth $35.00
295

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

This book consists of two lectures given by Foucault in the last years of his life. The first, a recently discovered recording of a talk on Parrēsia at the University of Grenoble in 1982. A transcript of this lecture was originally published in 2012 in the journal Anabases. It was preceded by a study of the text by Henri-Paul Fruchaud et Jean-François Bert, not included in this volume. The second consists of transcripts of a seminar given in English by Foucault at Berkeley in 1983. These lectures have been published earlier, with the title Fearless Speech (2001). This volume is based on a new and more accurate transcription of the original audio recordings.  According to the ‘Preface,’ Foucault’s preparatory French notes, today deposited in the BNF, have been consulted and were relevant, printed as notes (xii).

The original impulse for this publication was to make the Berkeley seminar available to the French public. The English version follows the text established for the 2016’s French translation. This book is part of a sustained effort to create an authoritative Foucauldian text, one that is as close as possible to the original voice and to delegitimize and marginalize the independent publications made over the years following his death.

We will later deal with some of the differences between this new edition and the precedent one. Still, we can point out to the quantity and quality of the Editor’s notes, which not only refer the reader to parallel sections in the lectures in the Collège de France but also to Foucault’s sources.

The book is introduced by Frédéric Gros, who also edited many of Foucault’s Collège de France’s lectures.  Gros retraces the history of Foucault’s interest in the concept of parrēsia, first developed in the three last lecture series in the College de France. Parrēsia (in previous publications, the term was transliterated ‚parrhesia’ and in French parrhêsia) is a Greek term that means to ’say everything,‘ in an unfiltered and uncensored way. Parrēsia can also be translated, according to Gros, as ‚frank speech,‘ ‚courage of speech‘ or ‚freedom of speech.‘  Foucault pays a lot of attention to the transformations of this concept from its Greek origins, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and finally early Christian forms. Foucault claims that earlier references can be found in Euripides’ tragedy Ion, where parrēsia refers to the prerogative of a citizen to speak his mind publicly. Later, in Plato, the concept indicates the freedom that a wise king grants its counselors to express themselves. Finally, in philosophical circles in the Hellenistic and Roman period, parrēsia becomes a quality or virtue of a person that assumes the role of a ’spiritual director.‘ Gros shows that Foucault explores the concept of parrēsia in two directions: a re-evaluation of wisdom in antiquity and a redefinition of philosophy in the sense of critique.  Gros claims that ‚for Foucault, from the clarity of the Greeks to the “Enlightenment” of the moderns, philosophy finds something like a metahistorical resolve through its critical function, one that refuses to dissociate questions of the government of self, the government of others, and speaking-truly…’ (xix).

As Gross points out, Foucault’s understanding of parrēsia evolved in this period. In Grenoble’s lecture, Foucault rejects the idea of a Cynic or Socratic parrēsia. Still, in Berkeley, he discusses for the first time Plato’s Laches and shows interest for the Cynics.  Furthermore, in Berkeley, he adds an analysis of Euripides’s Orestes. Foucault will develop these ideas further in the 1983-1984’s lectures in the Collège de France.

Parrēsia (Grenoble conference)

According to Fruchard and Bert, Foucault was invited to lecture in Grenoble in May 1982, shortly after the last session of the Hermeneutique du Sujet lectures. His host was Henry Joly, a Greek philosophy specialist also interested in the study of language. Joly and Foucault knew each other from their previous postings at the University of Clermont Ferrand in the early 1960s. Joly was curious about Foucault’s ‚Greek turn,‘ and Foucault was interested in Joly’s feedback.

Foucault asked not to publicize the venue to allow a more intimate gathering and discussion, but more than one hundred people attended. However, as Foucault needed to return the same night to Paris, no real discussion ensued except for some general exchanges between Foucault and Joly (Fruchard and Bert, 2012).

Foucault starts the Grenoble lecture with a programmatic statement connecting his current interests and his previous work.  He formulates his project as an inquiry into the question, central in our occidental culture, of the ‚obligation to tell the truth,‘ obligation to tell the truth about oneself. This probe into the forms of truth-telling about ourselves, Foucault explains, is what he researched in the domain of 19th century psychiatry, in the modern judicial and penal institutions, and finally in Christianity and the problem of the flesh (2).  It is by looking at the history of the forms of telling the truth about ourselves in Christianity that Foucault discovers the existence, before the institutionalization of the sacrament of confession in the 12th century, of two different forms of truth-telling in Christianity.  One, the obligation to manifest the truth about ourselves, which originated in the sacrament of penance (exomologesis). Penance consists of dramatic representation of oneself as a sinner. Penance, it was not primarily verbal but rather dramatized in external symbols, such as torn clothes, fast, and corporal expression.  Foucault explored this practice in his 1981 lectures at the University of Louvain, now collected in Mal faire, dire vrai (2012). The other form of telling the truth about ourselves originates in the monastic practices (exagoreusis).  It consists of the novice’s obligation to disclose to his spiritual advisor every thought, desire, and agitations of his mind.  This ‘obligation to tell everything’ retains Foucault’s attention and will serve as a unifying thread for his research in pursuit of the roots of this extraordinary demand and its aftermath in the development of the Western concept of subjectivity. For Foucault, the origins of this confessional practice are correlated with changes in the function of parrēsia, and with the shift on the responsibility to tell the truth from the master to the pupil.

In the Grenoble conference, Foucault proposes to limit himself to the two first centuries of the Roman empire.  However, before the Roman, he introduces the early Greek forms of parrēsia. Foucault mentions Polybius, Euripides, and Plato.  In Euripides, parrēsia refers mostly to a political right of the citizen, whereas in Plato’s Gorgias seems to refer to a test and touchstone for the soul. In the Roman empire, ‘franc speech’ operates primarily in the context of the techniques of spiritual direction. Even in the political context, advice given to the sovereign does not apply to the conduct of the affairs of the State, but to the prince’s soul. Parrēsia is here restricted to a context of spiritual direction.  Foucault explains that his approach would be that of a ‚pragmatics of discourse,‘ but he does not elaborate on the meaning of this expression (15). The same claim appears in more detail in the Hermeneutics of the Subject and the Berkeley seminar, but also in those occurrences, Foucault prefers not to develop his position. Regarding the Roman period, Foucault refers to texts from Epictetus’ disciple Arrian, and Galen. Arrian’s problem is the effect of the words of Epictetus on his students and how to communicate them in writing in a non-rhetorical way. In Galen, the problem is how to identify a person who can help us in our self-examination.  Instead of a list of technical capabilities, Galen suggests that a proper choice is a person who is capable of speaking the truth, who is not a flatterer, etc.

Summing up, Foucault emphasizes three features of parrēsia: (1) is the opposite of flattery, in a context of self-knowledge; (2) is a discourse attuned not to the rules of rhetoric but of Kairos (the right timing); (3) is a technique used in an asymmetrical interpersonal relation intended to foster the self-knowledge of the student.  (20-21). The lecture concludes with a brief exchange with Joly and others regarding the exact meaning of parrēsia in Plato and Aristotle. Foucault and Joly also disagree whether the ‘obligation to tell it all’ has its roots in the judicial sphere.

Foucault’s reply to Joly incidentally reveals how this ancient notion comes to have such an essential place in his late thought:

Notwithstanding the etymology of parrēsia, telling all does not seem to me, really or fundamentally, entailed in the notion of parrēsia…I think it is a political notion that was transposed, if you like, from the government of others to the government of oneself, that it was never a judicial notion where the obligation to say exactly the truth is a technical problem, concerning confession, torture, and so on. But the word parrēsia and, I think, the conceptual field associated with it, has a moral profile (37; my emphasis).

The Berkeley Seminar:

Foucault taught this seminar at Berkeley during October and November of 1983. The ‘Note’ to the English edition explains some of the editorial considerations and also refers to the previous edition of these texts.  The editors state the criteria used to select English translations of the classical texts quoted by Foucault. This is important because Foucault used some translations, which in the meantime, have been superseded by new ones.  We are told that the criteria finally employed were to retain the translations chosen by Foucault whenever those have been identified, and otherwise to use the ones selected for the English translation of the Lectures in the Collège de France.  There is also a discussion of how the Editor decided to render Foucault’s English.

In one of his concluding remarks to the last session of the Berkeley seminar, Foucault explains that:

The point of departure: my intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller or of truth-telling, or of the activity of truth-telling. I mean that it was not for me a question of analyzing the criteria, the internal or external criteria through which anyone, or through which the Greeks and the Romans, could recognize if a statement was true or not. It was a question for me of considering truth-telling as a specific activity, it was a question of considering truth-telling as a role. But even in the framework of this general question, there were several ways to consider the role of the truth-teller in a society. For instance, I could have compared truth-telling, the role and the status of truth-tellers in Greek society and in other Christian or non-Christian societies— for instance, the role of the prophet as a truth-teller, the role of the oracle as a truth-teller, or the role of the poet, of the expert, of the preacher, and so on. But in fact my intention was not a sociological description of those different roles for the truth-teller in different societies. What I wanted to analyze and to show you is how this truth-telling activity, how this truth-teller role has been problematized in the Greek philosophy (222-223).

Elsewhere in the text, Foucault describes his project as the study of the history of the obligation of telling-all, and its roots in Greco-Roman philosophy and the in the theoretical practices and techniques related to the ‚care of the self.‘

Foucault opens the first seminar declaring that the subject of the seminar is parrēsia and proceeding to describe the meaning and grammatical forms of the word.  Only after, he proposes some English translations. This initial examination leads to a preliminary finding: parrēsia does not refer to the content of what is said, but to the personal relationship between the speaker and his speech. For the Greeks, according to Foucault, such a personal relationship guarantees the truth of the content. Parrēsia also involves an element of danger. There is danger in exercising parrēsia.  Parrēsia is the courage of speaking the truth when facing risk from the potential reaction of the interlocutor.

As in Grenoble’s conference, Foucault sets up to study the first two centuries of the Roman empire, and as in Grenoble, he provides some additional background, referring to Euripides, Plato, and Polybius. As in the conference, Euripides’ references to parrēsia are mostly framed as the problem of citizenship. Who is a citizen, why it is vital to be one, what is the relationship between citizenship and being able to speak one’s mind? But Euripides also knows the meaning of parrēsia in the context of unequal relationships between a servant and his master.  Foucault summarizes his views: parrēsia is a verbal activity in which the speaker has a particular relationship to truth, to danger, to law, and to other people in the form of critique. This can take the form of self-criticism or of criticism of other persons.  We see here how Foucault connects the dots between all the seemingly diverse areas he is exploring at that time: ‘criticism’ as in his reading of Kant,  ‘care of the self’ and its eventual metamorphoses in Roman, Christian, Modernity and as  forms of resistance. The evolution of parrēsia from its early Greek forms to the Christian form follows three main stages: a) parrēsia as opposed to rhetoric; b) parrēsia in relation to the political field; c) parrēsia as part of the art of life or ‚care of the self‘.  For Foucault, parrēsia is not the only form of truth-telling. Foucault refers to different roles of truth-tellers, such as prophetic, wise man, teacher, etc.  These forms of truth-telling, which in some cases overlap, are also present in our societies.  A section of Foucault’s manuscript, placed as a note by the editors, explains that the role of the parrhesiast (here the transliteration adopted for this form is different of the one chosen for the noun) shows in specifics figures like the moralists, or social and political critics (69).  The rest of the seminar studies parrēsia in the relationship between man and the Gods.

The main difference with previous analyses are the repeated references to Sophocles‘ Oedipus. Foucault evoked in several Collège lectures the figure of Oedipus. Foucault sees in Oedipus the emergence of a new paradigm of truth, as opposed to the old model of the seer. Comparing Euripides’s Ion with Sophocles’ Oedipus, Foucault claims that in Ion, the gods are silent, they cheat, etc. It is not the divine but the emotional reaction of the human characters that opens up the path to truth. However, truth itself requires inquiry, because the inquiry is the specific human way to get to the truth. Foucault sees in Euripides tragedy examples of two different forms of parrēsia: a discourse of blame, which is addressed against somebody that has much more power, and the second in which somebody tells the truth about himself. It is the combination of these two discourses that make possible the disclosure of the total truth at the end of the play (98).

The next session of the seminar refers again to Euripides, but now the context is political. Foucault introduces the term Athurostōmia, as the form of speech that is the opposite of parrēsia. Athurostōmia is to speak in an uncontrolled way.  According to the editors, this opposition is idiosyncratic of Foucault and not shared by other scholars. He uses the opposition to illustrate the criticism of democracy, and the emergence of a different relationship to truth, one that is not solely based in courage and frankness, but in attributes that require a process of personal development (114). This section also contains an interesting discussion of the difference between Foucault’s approach –which he calls in this text ‚history of thought‘ and ‚history of problematizations’– and the ‘history of ideas’ (115-116; cf. also 224-226).

Foucault turns then to Plato’s criticism of parrēsia. Foucault is trying to illustrate the turn from a relatively unrestricted right to free speech to a situation were ‚franc speech‘ is more dependent on the personal qualities of both speaker and receiver. In Laches, Plato introduces a different form of the parrhesiastic game.  In this form, bios (life) appear as the main element, besides the traditional elements of logos, truth, and courage (146).  The second novelty that Foucault detects in this platonic account is the dyadic element, two individuals, only two, that confront each other.  There is a harmony between logos and bios, which serves as ground, as the visible criterion of the parrhesiastic function, and as the goal of the parrhesiastic activity (147).

The following two sessions of the seminar look into the development of this new form of parrēsia, and with the relations individuals can have with themselves.  Foucault claims that our moral subjectivity is rooted, at least partially in this relations.  To that effect, Foucault looks into the forms of parrēsia that developed in the different philosophical schools of late Greek and Roman society.  He differentiates between: a) community relationships in the framework of small groups, characteristic of the Epicureans; b) parrēsia as an activity or attitude in the context of community life, which is typical of the cynics; c) finally, parrēsia in the personal relationships between individuals, like in the stoa.

The first part of the November 21 session explores the first two.  Foucault refers to the discussion of the Epicureans using Philodemus’ book in an account similar to that of the Grenoble conference.  Foucault dedicates a large section of the November 21 session to a discussion of the cynic practice of parrēsia.  Then, finally, on November 30 and the last session, Foucault addresses the interpersonal dimension of franc speech.

Foucault ends his presentation with remarks about the shift between a paradigm were franc speech meant to be able to say the truth to other people, to a different practice, which consists of telling the truth about oneself.  This new model appears as askēsis or practical training.  Foucault explains that asceticism came to mean a practice of renunciation of the self, and explains the difference between the Greek and the Christian take on this notion.

‘Discourse and Truth’ versus ‘Fearless Speech’:

The Berkeley conferences were published in 2001, and this version was used for a number of translations.  As this new edition seems to relegate the former one to oblivion, it is worthwhile to look at some of the main differences between these two editions.

First of all, both editions are based on the same audio recordings (deposited in Berkeley and the IMEC, and also available on the Internet.  The new edition benefited from the recent opening of Foucault’s archives, and of a better understanding of the preparatory work, bibliography and alternatives weighted by Foucault.

Beyond those differences, the main difference is that Fearless Speech has the aspect and organization of a summary rather than of transcription of Foucault’s lectures.  Particularly in the first lecture, but also to some extent on the next ones, Foucault’s dialogue with the public is wholly elided in Fearless Speech. We miss not only the livelihood of the event but also the background to Foucault’s comments that are made in answer to questions and not part of a prepared text.  Therefore, Fearless Speech appears as a more compact text, whereas Discourse on Truth is more rumbling and dialectic.

Bibliography:

Engel, Pascal. Michel Foucault. 2011. „Verité, connaissance et éthique.“ In: Artières, Phillipe, Jean François Bert, Frédéric Gros, Judith Revel (Eds.), Cahiers de l’Herne: Foucault, Paris, 318-325.

Foucault, Michael. 2012. Mal faire, dire vrai: function de l’aveau en justice, edition etablié par Fabianne Brion et Bernard E. Harcourt. University of Chicago Press and Presses Universitaires de Louvain.

Fruchaud, Henri-Paul et Jean-François Bert. 2012. Un inédit de Michel Foucault: ‘La Parrêsia’. Note de présentation, Anabases, 16: 149-156; (http://journals.openedition.org/anabases/3956; DOI: 10.4000/anabases.3956;

Consulted on September 11, 2019. Their account follows the statement of Patrick Engel, who was at that time teaching in Grenoble. Cf. Pascal Engel (2011), p. 324 note 6.

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