We know Edmund Husserl not only through his rigorous attempts to set forth the phenomenological method but also from his brilliant disciples from various countries: Stein and Heidegger, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, Landgrebe, Ingarden, Patočka are only a few. The Russian/Ukranian philosopher Gustav Shpet, whose works have been discovered not long ago, appears among them as the introducer of Husserl’s phenomenology into Russian philosophy. Not unlike any other student of Husserl, however, he carries the phenomenological thinking further by elaborating its main themes and questions with a rather peculiar perspective. In this regard, Springer’s new volume of the series “Contributions to Phenomenology,” the new translation of Shpet’s Hermeneutics and Its Problems (Germenevtika i ee problemy, 1918), gives the reader a broader picture of his philosophy that inaugurates the problems of the hermeneutic tradition to phenomenological investigations. Unlike his previous work, Appearance and Sense (Javlenie i smysl, 1914), which was a commentary of Husserl’s Ideen I, Shpet turns his focus away from the development of the study of hermeneutics from its roots in Biblical interpretations toward his contemporaries, such as Bernheim, Lappo-Danilevskij, Spranger, Dilthey, and Simmel.
In so doing, Shpet aims to not only provide a historical presentation of the topics of hermeneutics but also to scrutinize the shortcomings of the theories so far suggested, so that he manages to explain why hermeneutical inquiries need a method at least as rigorous as Husserl’s. In contrast to the empirical and natural foundation of human experience, hermeneutics devotes its attention to comprehending the written words as historical signs that can be interpreted. Thus, with respect to understanding the sense and significance of the historical objects (namely texts), history for Shpet (let alone other candidates for hermeneutical inquiries such as philology and psychology) becomes a problem of logic with respect to the part-whole structure: that is, history as a model of knowledge for the individual with the integrity of the whole. The second half of the book includes essays from different dates, which on the other hand, appeals by and large to the task of reversing the question at hand back to phenomenology: given the historicality of consciousness, any kind of cognition is an interpreting cognition, indeed, that necessarily entails historical understanding. For this reason, Shpet pursues an overturning of Husserl’s phenomenology into a hermeneutic phenomenology wherein the written text is recognized not as a physical object, but as a historical object that calls for an interpretation of the reader. After the foundation of the theory of historical knowledge, which is nothing but the act of “understanding” in Shpet’s opinion, the task of hermeneutics as a rigorous science will finally be an achievement of the entire logic of semasiology, i.e., the hermeneutic logic of words as the expressions of interpreting cognition. Shpet’s hermeneutic phenomenology, as a result, contains not only a critical history of the questions of understanding and interpretation in the hermeneutic tradition but also notable elements predating the linguistic turn in the 20th-century philosophy.
As just mentioned, Hermeneutics and Its Problems is comprised of two parts: the translation of Shpet’s work itself and the five essays added to the main body of the text. His highly praised essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner” (1916); a meditation on Husserl’s project of phenomenology, “Wisdom or Reason?” (1917); another important essay, “Philosophy and History” (1916), “Skepticism and Dogmatism of Hume” (1911), and an encyclopedic entry written by Shpet depicting his own philosophical portrait. The editor and translator of the book, Thomas Nemeth is a well-known scholar of Russian philosophy, and of Shpet in particular, stretching back to his earlier translation of Shpet’s Appearance and Sense as well as other essays and entries. Nemeth’s editorial work is satisfying; not only does he meticulously handle the various editions and copies of Shpet’s book but also in the introductory remarks added to the main text and to each appendix, all succinctly written. These introductions are worth reading to grasp their context in terms of the frame of references and historical background.
The main body of the text, Hermeneutics and Its Problems, begins with a short preface that clearly points out the author’s task: if we succeed in critically assessing the significance of “the history of hermeneutics as a scientific discipline” (xxv), hermeneutics as the epistemology of history will pave the way for an authentic methodology for historical knowledge, which remained Shpet’s ultimate project in the following years. The first chapter, “Origin of the Idea and the Methods of Hermeneutics,” opens a discussion on the necessity of the emergence of hermeneutical inquiries in understanding the written texts. In order to grasp the allegories and moral senses in epic poems, such as Homer’s myths, fragments from the Sophists to dialogues from Plato and Aristotle, Ancient Greek thought made the first effort to address the question of the role of the word (slovo) in moralistic, allegorical and historical interpretations of written texts. The encounter of the West and the East in Hellenistic culture formed the next phase of the need for different methods and techniques particularly because of the translation of the Old and the New Testament into the Greek language. The task of hermeneutics, rendered as a theological discipline in this period, was to distinguish between different kinds of interpretations. Here Shpet examines how St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, Dante, and more thoroughly Origen and Augustine make their distinctions in terms of the contrast between literal/grammatical/historical interpretation and allegorical/spiritual interpretation of Biblical texts.
Even more to the point, the early Christian theologian Origen identifies the problem of interpretation to the extent that there are not only ordinary and historical but also ambiguous and arbitrary senses of the Holy Scripture itself. Thus, hermeneutic techniques are required to address this variation in order to reach consistency in the text. Augustine, on the other hand, is the most important figure in the history of Biblical hermeneutics because of his theory concerning the role of signs in achieving the meaning and sense of the Holy Scripture. Shpet diligently analyzes the two works of Augustine, De doctrina Christiana and De magistro, in order to make manifest Augustine’s psychological theory of understanding: a sign (e.g., a word that signifies in this case) is “a thing that not only conveys its appearance to the senses, but also introduces something into thought along with itself.” (9) Thus, understanding the meaning of written texts is the process of transfer from the thought (i.e., the idea) of the author through signs (written by their writer, perceived by the reader) toward the thought of the reader. It is true that understanding what is written, for Augustine, is to grasp what is intended by the author (11), but once it is asked how the reader’s reception is even possible, Augustine foreseeably brings the theory of anamnesis into view: understanding takes place in the divinatory act of recollecting ideas. Shpet does not find Augustine’s theory satisfactory precisely because of its unclarity on the “originary act” of understanding (12). That there seems no criterion for verifying the accuracy of what is understood leaves the interpreter in the shadows of subjectivism.
A resolution of this arbitrariness in interpretation is achieved as the main concern of Flacius in the 16th century. Though he pursues practical (meaning, rhetorical) goals of the hermeneutical endeavor in reading Biblical texts, the chapter “Flacius and Biblical Hermeneutics in the Renaissance” argues that Flacius makes the first genuine attempt at a theoretical understanding of the “sense” of the text by revealing the part-whole structure. A theory of sense, in this regard, delineates the ways of discerning a harmonious sense between each particular element of the context, the undivided end, and the intention of the whole text (16, 19). Despite the fact that Flacius does not confine himself to Augustine’s unascertained methods of interpreting the Holy scripture, his theory of understanding the sense of the text in Shpet’s final assessment does not suffice in proving its principles as explicitly unbreakable: it gives us neither any clear analysis of the act of understanding (i.e., how we pass from the signs to what they signify) nor any reason why we have to penetrate into the subjective ideas and thoughts of the author (20).
The next chapter, “General Remarks on the Relation of the Sciences to Hermeneutics as a Transition to Ernesti,” has two objectives: explicating the place of hermeneutics within the rise of the natural sciences after the Renaissance and giving an account of modern philosophers dealing with the question of the nature of linguistic signs. As for the former, hermeneutics loses its priority in grammatical and allegorical interpretations of the written text, yet obtains a subsidiary role in deciphering the nature of words as communicative signs. Hence, in the 17th and 18th centuries, hermeneutics, as the logic of communication, inquires into the correspondence between the signs of the written text and the meaning intended and understood. Here we read a concise history of modern philosophy related to the topics of hermeneutics so much broader than what can be found in any other book of the history of hermeneutics. Shpet carries out a critical inquiry on, respectively, Locke’s theory of communication in human understanding, Berkeley’s conceptualism, Hume’s analysis of habit as an explanation of understanding, Reid’s theory of the social object, Leibniz’s idea of meanings as possibilities, Wolff’s rationalist philology, and Meier’s ontology of signs.
Of these figures, Wolff holds a special position in the history of hermeneutics since he is the first theorist breaking the divinatory explanation of understanding and relieving the interpreter of the burden of receiving the intention of the author. Understanding, therefore, is not any kind of reproduction of the “ideas” of the author, as seen in Augustine and Flacius; rather, it is “knowledge of truth itself.” (42) Since “truth” is now the main concern of hermeneutics, we can even argue that the interpreter can understand an author better than the author understands himself. But what is the supervisor of the execution of the task of interpreting? What controls and verifies the reader’s understanding of the sense of the text? As Wolff replies, it is purely and simply “reason” itself. Shpet criticizes this strict rationalism for the reason that the concept of truth is considered limited only to the achievement of “someone who [already] has in mind a certain system of truths.” (42) As he maintains, “this reader will be immediately disappointed upon learning that the entire problem amounts to a very narrow demand, namely, to connect the author’s individual words to precisely the same concepts that the reader connects to them.” (42)
In chapter four, “Ernesti and Ast: The Reorientation of Hermeneutics from Theology Toward Philology,” Shpet concentrates on the philological period of the development of hermeneutical thinking. The problem of ambiguity is restored by the 18th-century philologist Ernesti to be solved with the help of explaining the structure and historical discoveries of the author’s language. On this account, understanding the sense of the text is a scrupulous explication of the multiple circumstances of the author: time, geography, social and economic status, community, and the state, all set of conditions that shape the author’s language used in the text. Hence, in order to find an answer to the ambiguity of meaning, the task of the interpreter should be devoting themselves to the singularity of the author’s particular application of the meaning of a word. Every different use of a word is another application in a different context; ergo, the hermeneutical inquiry should divulge the particular usage of the author. Besides the fact that Ernesti carries the focus of hermeneutics backward to the problem of authorial intention, Shpet is also discontent with Ernesti’s failure of addressing the primary questions: “What is the act of understanding?” and “What is the role of the sign in that act?”
Ast, on the other hand, assigns a new task to philology as the empirical foundation of hermeneutics by following the premises of 18th century idealism and the Romantic dignification of words: “the philologist,” explains Shpet, “should not limit oneself to an investigation merely of the letter and form of language, but should also disclose the spirit that permeates them as their higher meaning.” (50) The method Ast offers is a classical one; the part-whole structure. From the particularity of the letter and the originality of the intention of the author, the interpreter must discover the unity of these parts with the spirit of the text’s sense. In other words, all the particular inquiries must lead to the whole idea of the interpreted work. Shpet’s analyses of Ast’s hermeneutics are quite accurate: because spirit only replaces “reason” in modern philosophy, understanding cannot be explained in terms of the eligibility of spirit. Thus, Ast explains the process of how we come to understand the meaning of a text by appealing to the idea of divination. No more clarification is given concerning the questions of how the reader apprehends the spirit of the text and from what criteria we have correct understanding. In Shpet’s words, that is to say that the very act of understanding remains a mystery in Ast’s hermeneutics (55-56).
The chapter on “Friedrich Schleiermacher” elaborates the biggest leap of hermeneutics. Schleiermacher is the most key figure in the hermeneutic tradition, not only because of extending the sphere of applicability of interpretation toward philosophical and literary texts but also because of his meticulous attempts to establish a methodological technique for all hermeneutical inquiries. Here is not the place to go into details of Schleiermacher’s distinction between explanation and interpretation and his famous division of interpretation into grammatical and psychological moments. These are only the obvious portions of his comprehensive method that has still been accepted and defended with revision, even after Gadamer’s harsh criticisms. What is worth mentioning for our present purposes is Shpet’s making manifest the shortcomings of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics: To begin with, for Schleiermacher, as for many others before him, the difference between interpretation and understanding is unclear (62, 64). Where interpreting begins, where it ends, where it differs from understanding… These critical points are never issues for the German philosopher. As a recurrent theme in Shpet’s critical history of hermeneutics, the lack of ambiguity concerning the quiddity of understanding “as such” is what Schleiermacher’s method remains inadequate in its claim.
Shpet carries his search for clarity in method further by responding to the very grounding of hermeneutics: the language of the author and the original audience, on the one hand, and the part-whole structure between the sense of every word and the sense of the context, on the other (66-67). According to Shpet, however, Schleiermacher’s inquirer does not have a clear map to easily follow: studying the language of the author and its first readers seems to be a historical one, and yet it also needs grammatical and even psychological interpretation. Likewise, the connection between words and their context requires both grammatical and historical investigations employing the study of logic and philology. That is to say, grammatical and psychological moments of interpretation are utterly indistinguishable from each other (73). Where things get complicated, Shpet always shows a discomfort with any ambiguity in the method. Instead, since the rigorous method for hermeneutical sciences has to be pure and precise, what Schleiermacher’s method needs is further explication concerning the definitions and extents of the various kinds of interpretation. As Shpet writes, “By separating the grammatical from the psychological moment of interpretation and ascribing an independent role to each of them, he made a very important distinction. However, considering that a single understanding underlies both, i.e., a single type of lived experience, he deprived his division of much of its significance.” (72)
The chapter entitled “Hermeneutics After Schleiermacher” mostly focuses on Boeckh’s philological hermeneutics and his elaboration of different kinds of interpretation. Philology, however, is no longer simply an account of grammatical structure and historical developments of words. With Boeckh, philology bears a renewed assignment concerning all systems of knowledge: a knowledge of the known, which is simply, “understanding.” Thus, Boeckh, in Shpet’s opinion, holds the first genuine consideration of the act of understanding and the moments of comprehension together with the real question of philology: the role of the written word as a communicative sign. But Boeckh aims to expand the field of philology aided by the study of history: philological hermeneutics concentrates on the historical reconstruction of what is understood (81). Despite its impressive attempt at the act of understanding and comprehension, Boeckh’s theory, for Shpet, still seems to be unsatisfactory because of the unclarity of transitioning between philology and history, and even between philology and psychology. The method of philology becomes an indeterminate in hermeneutics’ penetration into the responsibilities of other provinces. The chapter ends with a circumstantial presentation of the kinds of interpretation mostly suggested by Schleiermacher and Boeckh (92-97).
“Hermeneutical Moments of Historical Methodology” is a chapter on how 19th-century historians took part in the methodological foundations of hermeneutical sciences. Shpet begins with Steinthal’s insightful conclusion that one interprets in order to understand the historical object. Understanding, therefore, is not an immediate occasion taken for granted; rather, it is the goal of the business of interpretation. Shpet also touches upon Steinthal’s division of interpretation into three processes: psychological/philological, factual/historical, and stylistic. The next historian, Droysen, is the key figure for hermeneutical development of the study of history as opposed to Rankean historical positivism. For Droysen not only lays the foundations of a logical methodology for understanding and interpretation of the historical objects, but also employs the part-whole structure to find out the dynamic structure between the individual and the community. That being so, as an expression of the community, the individual person is not only a psychological subject but also an objectively social phenomenon. Shpet’s favorite historian Bernheim separates the task of interpretation in terms of its object: an interpretation of historical remnants, in this regard, differs from that of tradition as well as the interpretation of one source by means of another. Since the scope of interpretation becomes much broader, provided that the study of history occupies the center of the investigation, the historian should now take into account the complementary facts and knowledge obtained by other fields, such as linguistics, anthropology, statistics, and so on. The chapter ends with Shpet’s contemporary, Lappo-Danilevskij and his theory of historical interpretation. The remarkable move of this Russian historian is the idea that the interpreter of historical materials first presupposes the existence of the “other I” whose psychic activity is similar to my own. The principles and techniques of the historical interpretation are based upon this psychic significance, which is predetermined between the interpreter and the author of the work. Shpet’s main criticism of these 19th-century theorists, let alone Steinthal’s highly critical perspective, is their negligence of a proper explanation of the act of understanding per se. According to Shpet, they mistakenly thought that one reads the historical text and then understanding comes by itself; the only task of the reader thereby is to interpret. Shpet also disapproved the aforementioned methodologies based on their faulty subjectivism. Since the historical text owes its being to the author, the only way to understanding its meaning contains two registers: the interpreter’s penetration into the personality of the author or the historical study of how the text was received by the original audience (114). For Shpet, this can only mean to limit the interpreter’s original act of understanding to the psychology of the individual “represented” in the text.
The order of chapter eight, “Dilthey’s Development of Hermeneutics,” is somewhat complicated. It begins with a section on the philosopher Prantl’s idea of understanding as an immediate apprehension. After discussing the middle years of Dilthey’s hermeneutics, Shpet focuses on Spranger’s psychology of the individual with the integrity of the whole and goes back to the later philosophy of Dilthey. The last figure he deals with is rather peculiar: Simmel and his idea that the object of history is the psychological and social conditions of the individual person. Despite the subtle arguments of other theorists that are slightly touched upon, Shpet truly does justice to Dilthey’s finalization of an elaborate hermeneutical method for human sciences. In addition to enlarging the hermeneutical pursuit concerning the question of understanding, Dilthey rephrases the goal of interpretation for the objective character of scientific inquiry. Unencumbered by psychologism, Dilthey’s methodological hermeneutics focuses on the hermeneutic circle formed in between the individual’s lived experience, the objectified expression of the historical subject, and the inquirer’s understanding the objective spirit (i.e., the commonality of the individual) through the processes of interpretation. Shpet concurs with Dilthey’s attempt to resolutely modify the hermeneutical inquiry from the subjective level to the objectivity of the social individual. However, Dilthey too cannot escape Shpet’s razor of purity in descriptions: “Dilthey fails to provide an answer to the question that once again arises before him, namely, what, properly speaking, is the essence of understanding as a sui generis source of knowledge in the human sciences.” (130) Since Shpet believes the question, what understanding is is blurred once again, Dilthey’s hermeneutics too cannot be the final destination of our search for an unshakeable foundation for hermeneutics.
After all historical accounts of the hermeneutic tradition, the final chapter entitled, “The Contemporary Situation,” epitomizes what Shpet’s project was in Hermeneutics and Its Problems. It begins with the conclusion that the theories dealing with historical knowledge have failed to provide a “clear” analysis of the originary act of understanding. Until Shpet, the act of understanding is taken for granted: when you read the historical text, understanding comes by itself; what the reader needs to do is now to interpret it. In Shpet’s opinion, conversely, the question concerning understanding underlies every possible hermeneutical inquiry (149). He rightly argues that we cannot solve hermeneutical problems without such clarification; namely, the problems of authorial intention, ambiguity, arbitrariness in interpretation, the part-whole structure, the kinds of interpretation, the role of the word as a communicative sign, and so on.
For this reason, in concert with Husserl’s project, Shpet reveals in these last pages what he suggests for hermeneutics actually turning out to be “a material-logical foundation for the historical sciences in the broadest sense.” (97) Shpet’s exhibition of hermeneutics as a rigorous science includes three tokens: first, new developments in contemporary psychology accommodate the ways in which the inquirer transfers the psychic content of what the text says by reading signs as communicative media. This latter issue leads us to the second leg of Shpet’s theory: semasiology, i.e., the study of the determination of the role of the sign in the act of understanding, which requires a logical methodology to prevail over the objective character of the task of interpretation. Shpet does not hesitate to refer to Husserl’s and Meinong’s efforts, nor does he confine his study only to a search for a phenomenological method. This is where the Russian philosopher makes his last step toward hermeneutic phenomenology: turning the question of method to the semasiological inquiry on the objective logic of truth. The written text, for Shpet, is a historical residue for the present reader to make sense out of signs by recognizing the unity of the particularity of the reader’s lived experience and the spirit of the to-be-understood text. Understanding, therefore, cannot be reduced to the reader’s penetration into the psychology of the author represented in the text. Far from these subjectivist and psychologistic attitudes of the contemporary era, hermeneutics now adopts a new task of disclosing the intentional structure between the noetic understanding of the reader and the noematic content of the text.
Shpet relates the intentional structure between understanding and spirit to the historical reality subjected to hermeneutical inquiry. For what is historical (the written text, in this case) is the concrete object by which the reader reaches an understanding of what is realized. “Only in such a sense,” he writes, “can we speak of reality itself as history, for history has to do only with what has been realized. The reason that comprehends is not an abstract reason, but a reason that has been realized in this history.” (150) To put it differently, even before Heidegger’s lecture “The Idea of Philosophy and the Problem of Worldview” (1919) where he introduced the requirement of hermeneutical intuition in Husserl’s phenomenological method (Heidegger, 2008, 83-90), Shpet had highlighted the historical character of phenomenological investigation, which requires a method of its own in order to reflect historical consciousness. Consciousness is historical, thereby it always appeals to an interpretation of the object of consciousness and that of itself.
All that is left to be answered by Shpet is our basic question of what understanding truly is. Hermeneutics and Its Problems gives us a history of hermeneutics at length, scrutinizes how it has developed and dealt with the question of understanding, makes manifest where all attempts have failed. And yet, Shpet’s work falls short of delivering a consistent description of “the act of understanding,” because, like Husserl’s many introductive works to the phenomenological method, Shpet’s project too seems to be suffering from incompleteness in the sense that he did not find a chance to write the third volume of his History as a Problem of Logic, whose main task would be “an examination of strictly logical and methodological problems in our investigation of the fundamental problems of understanding.” (147) However, I believe, Shpet’s momentous essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner,” published in 1916, compiled in the present volume, provides an indirect suggestion to answer the basic question concerning understanding. The essay examines the extent to what we call “the I” is transcendent in terms of its irreducibility in the phenomenological reduction. This is important for our concern because the essence of consciousness directly relates to the interpreting reader, who understands the sense of a written text: what kind of “I” carries out the act of understanding?
The opening statement of Shpet’s argument in the essay is the uniqueness of every single, concrete “I.” In its own empirical life surrounded by other objects, the I is “this haecceity” of which it is unable to be generalized (161-62). This, however, leaves us with a conundrum: if uniqueness pertains to the peculiarities of an individual I, we can maintain that “each” I is distinct from other Is, so that all Is “share” a nature of uniqueness. In other words, every singular I is replaceable with other Is as irreplaceable (202). From this conundrum, Shpet unearths a non-egological conception of consciousness as opposed to the subjectivist and psychologist understanding at the time: the I as the bearer of lived experiences is not a “general subject” centered among other objects; rather, it is a unity of consciousness with regard to the surroundings, the historical situation, and the social conditions in which the I itself exists. Therefore, Shpet disapproves of Husserl’s constitution of the pure I as a foundation of consciousness: no “general I” can embrace the entire consciousness that is specific to “singular I.” What is this plurality of the singular individual, then? Shpet says in response that the I is a particular so-and-so, which is conditioned with a social milieu (191, 196). The I cannot exist without its social relations; that being so, the significance of haecceity lies at the specific unity of the experiences lived by “the communal I.” As Shpet continues, consciousness is a communal consciousness, i.e., the primary “we” rather than the pure I. In this sense, the singular I is plural.
Getting back to the basic question, i.e., that of understanding, we can conclude that the historically situated interpreter is the one who reads and understands the sense of a written text within the circumstances that determine one’s unique relations with the community. These constituents of consciousness (i.e., historicality and sociality) describe how the reader (as the “social we”) intersubjectively carries out the act of understanding. As opposed to the psychologistic and subjectivist accounts of the task of interpretation, Gustav Shpet brilliantly suggests a non-egological theory of hermeneutic phenomenology that precedes Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Nancy’s attempts.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. Towards the Definition of Philosophy, translated by Ted Sadler. London and New York: Continuum.
 In the second appendix, “Wisdom and Reason,” adopting the premises of Husserl’s project of “philosophy as a rigorous science,” Shpet examines the great disparity between philosophy as pure knowledge and the metaphysics of scientific philosophy. Shpet concludes the essay with another dichotomy, namely between the European sophia and the Eastern wisdom.
In their introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics, editors Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal immediately make clear that the volume differs in approach from other, similar guides to hermeneutics. Whereas there are a number of volumes available that offer histories of hermeneutics or treatments of individual hermeneutical theorists, this book focuses on the question of how hermeneutical issues relate to different fields of study, such as theology, literature, history and psychoanalysis. In this way, the authors aim to demonstrate how hermeneutical thinking thrives and develops through concrete interdisciplinary reflection.
The book opens with an article on “Hermeneutics and Theology,” written by Christoph Bultman. In this essay, Bultman offers a historical overview of different approaches to the interpretation of religious texts and focuses in particular on the various approaches that were developed and debated during the German Enlightenment. Although Bultman offers a clear overview of different approaches within biblical hermeneutics, to a certain extent his precise aim and argument remain unclear, with the central questions behind his overview not made explicit.
In an interesting contribution in the second chapter, Dalia Nassar focuses on the way in which the study of nature in the eighteenth century involved hermeneutical methods and insights that transformed the way in which we approach and represent the natural world. In her essay, “Hermeneutics and Nature,” Nassar directs attention to the ideas of Buffon, Diderot and, especially, Herder. Nassar starts her investigation by highlighting the fact that the emergence of a hermeneutics of nature that can be found in their works must be understood in light of the liberalization of science in the mid-eighteenth century. This liberalization meant that science was no longer understood as founded on mathematics, which led to the introduction of new modes of knowledge in scientific research. According to Nassar, one of the important ideas within the development of a hermeneutics of nature in the eighteenth century was Herder’s concept of a “circle” or a “world.” If we want to understand the structure of a bird or a bee, we should focus on their relationship to the environment or world. Instead of being devoted to classifying animals or other forms of life into different categories, Herder thus directs his attention to grasping the particular “world” a certain creature inhabits and to the way this world is reflected in the structure of its inhabitants. Interpreting nature thus implies seeing the parts in their relation to the whole and, in turn, seeing how the whole is manifest in the parts.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Romanticism,” Fred Rush focuses on the form that hermeneutics took in German Romanticism, and in particular in the works of Schlegel, Schleiermacher and Humboldt. It is in their works that hermeneutics becomes concerned explicitly with methodological questions. Rush sketches the historical and philosophical circumstances in which this turn comes about.
In his chapter on “Hermeneutics and German Idealism,” Paul Redding also focuses on the emergence of a philosophical hermeneutics in the wake of an era of post-Kantian philosophy. In particular, he explores the different stances taken by hermeneutical philosophers such as Hamann and Herder, and idealist philosophers such as Fichte and Hegel, towards the relation between thought and language. Particularly interesting is his reading of the later Hegel, in which he emphasizes that Hegel can be read not as the abstract metaphysician he is often seen to be but as a philosopher engaged with hermeneutical issues.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and History,” John H. Zammito explores the disciplinary self-constitution of history and the role of hermeneutics in that disciplinary constitution. Through this exploration, Zammito aims to show a way out of contemporary debates on the scientific status of disciplinary history. By investigating the views of Herder, Schleiermacher, Boeckh, Humboldt, Droysen and Dilthey, Zammito argues that the hermeneutical historicist’s attempt to give an account of the past is a cognitive undertaking and not a mystical one. The historian thus does not aim to relivethe past but to understand it. As Zammito’s exploration makes clear, such a view acknowledges the importance of the imagination in this practice, but at the same time ensures that this imagination is harnessed to interpretation, not unleashed fantasy.
Frederick C. Beiser also connects a contemporary debate to the period in which disciplinary history emerged. He starts his chapter on “Hermeneutics and Positivism” with the statement that the distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy has a harmful effect on many areas of philosophy and that one of worst affected areas is the philosophy of history. Beiser notes that, starting in the 1950s, there was a sharp rise in interest in the philosophy of history among analytic philosophers in the Anglophone world, but that these analytic discourses almost completely ignored the German historicist and hermeneutical tradition. The main cost of this, Beiser argues, has been the sterility and futility of much recent philosophical debate, and in particular the long dispute about historical explanation. The dispute has been between positivists, who defend the thesis that covering laws are the sole form of explanation, and their idealist opponents, who hold that there is another form of explanation in history. One of the reasons this debate has now ended in a stand-off can be found in the neglect of alternative perspectives, and in particular that of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition. Beiser argues that if these perspectives had been taken into account by analytic philosophers, they would have recognized that there are goals and methods of enquiry other than determining the covering laws. Had they done so, their focus of attention may have shifted in the more fruitful direction of investigating the methods of criticism and interpretation that are actually used by historians. Beiser therefore concludes that the philosophy of history in the Anglophone world would be greatly stimulated and enriched if it took into account these issues and the legacy of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition.
In the subsequent chapter, “Hermeneutics: Nietzschean Approaches,” Paul Katsafanas explores several key points of contact between Nietzsche and the hermeneutical tradition. As Katsafanas notes, Nietzsche is deeply concerned with the way in which human beings interpret phenomena, but also draws attention to the ways in which seemingly given experiences have already been interpreted. By highlighting these two aspects, Katsafanas argues that it is not wrong to characterize Nietzsche as offering a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur suggested, but that this statement can easily be misinterpreted. As Katsafanas notes, the hermeneutics of suspicion is often understood as a stance which discounts the agent’s conscious understanding of a phenomenon and instead uncovers the real and conflicting cause of that phenomenon. Nietzsche is clearly doing more than this. According to Nietzsche, the fact that a conscious interpretation is distorting, superficial or falsifying does not mean that it can be ignored. On the contrary, these interpretations are of immense importance, because they often influence the nature of the interpreted object.
The following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis,” also deals with one of the thinkers who Paul Ricoeur identified as developing a hermeneutics of suspicion, namely Sigmund Freud. In this chapter, Sebastian Gardner argues that there is an uneasy relationship between hermeneutics and Freud’s own form of interpretation. As Gardner shows, Freud may be regarded as returning to an early point in the history of hermeneutics, in which the unity of the hermeneutical project with the philosophy of nature was asserted. In line with this thought, which was abandoned by later hermeneutical thinkers, Freud can be seen as defending the idea that in order to make sense of human beings we must offer an interpretation of nature as a whole.
In “Hermeneutics and Phenomenology,” Benjamin Crowe explicates some of the fundamental insights and arguments behind the phenomenological hermeneutics developed by Heidegger and brought to maturity by Gadamer. Crowe shows how Heidegger opened up a radically new dimension of hermeneutical inquiry, because his conception of hermeneutics as a phenomenological enterprise intended to be a primordial science of human experience in its totality, and in this way took hermeneutics far beyond its traditional purview. By building on Heidegger’s approach, Gadamer developed this thought further, thinking through the distinctive role and value of humanistic inquiry in an age that prized exactitude and results above all else.
In “Hermeneutics and Critical Theory,” Georgia Warnke focuses on the critique of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics by Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, two thinkers from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Warnke starts her investigation by returning to Horkheimer’s description of critical theory and shows how these ideas form the basis of Habermas and Honneth’s philosophical framework. Taking Horkheimer’s framework as his starting point, Habermas seems to see many virtues in Gadamer’s philosophical ideas. Gadamer’s theory, for instance, begins with the social and historical situation, and in this way provides an alternative to the self-understanding of those forms of social science that assume they can extract themselves from the context. Habermas and Honneth nevertheless see Gadamer’s attitude to reflection as a problem, because his emphasis on the prejudiced character of understanding seems to give precedence to the authority of tradition and immediate experience instead of emphasizing the importance of reason and reflection. As Warnke shows, Gadamer’s response to this critique consists of showing that the dichotomies between reason and authority and between reflection and experience are not as stark as Habermas and Honneth suppose. We can, for instance, only question the authority of aspects of our tradition on the basis of other aspects, such as inherited ideals and principles that we do not question, just as we can only reflect on our experiences if we do not begin by distancing ourselves from them. Full transparency is therefore not possible.
In “Hermeneutics: Francophone Approaches,” Michael N. Forster focuses on the French contributions to hermeneutics during the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first part of the chapter, Foster argues that the roots of German hermeneutics were largely French. German hermeneutics, for example, arose partly as a response to certain assumptions of the Enlightenment, one of which was the Enlightenment’s universalism concerning beliefs, concepts, values and sensations, etc. According to Forster, this anti-universalism of German hermeneutics was largely a French achievement and was exported from France to Germany. In particular, Montaigne and the early Montesquieu and Voltaire had developed an anti-universalist position, which emphasized, for example, profound differences in mindset between different cultures and periods.
In the second part of the chapter, Forster focuses on some key figures within twentieth-century French philosophy who contributed to the development of hermeneutics, despite not describing themselves as hermeneutical thinkers. One of them is Jean-Paul Sartre, who gave a central role to interpretation in his early existentialism developed in Being and Nothingness, where he included what Forster calls a hermeneutical theory of radical freedom: although we do not create the world itself, we do create the meanings or interpretations through which we become acquainted with it.
Paul Ricoeur is the only French thinker Forster discusses who not only contributed to hermeneutics but also regarded himself as a hermeneutical thinker. Forster, however, does not seem to regard Ricoeur’s philosophy as very attractive. According to Forster, Ricoeur’s most important contribution to hermeneutics lies in his development of the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in this way drawing attention to the fact that three major philosophical developments in the nineteenth century, namely Marx’s theory of ideology, Nietzsche’s method of genealogy and Freud’s theory of the unconscious, can be classified as forms of hermeneutics. It is, however, somewhat strange that Forster does not give much attention to the way in which Paul Ricoeur, as the only philosopher he discusses who also regarded himself as working in the hermeneutical tradition, described his own philosophical project as a hermeneutical one. In particular, Ricoeur’s idea that understanding and explanationshould not be regarded as opposites but rather as being dialectically connected, perhaps deserved more attention.
In “Hermeneutics: Non-Western Approaches,” the topic of which is rich and broad enough to be the subject of a companion of its own, Kai Marchal explores the question of whether modern hermeneutics is necessarily a Western phenomenon. As Marchal points out, philosophers in Western academia only rarely examine reflections on interpretation from non-Western traditions. Marchal therefore offers a very short overview of some of the most important scholars and texts on interpretation from non-Western cultures, while at the same time pointing toward the problem that arises from the use of the word “non-Western,” insofar it refers to a multitude of cultures and worldviews which do not have much in common. Instead of presenting an overview of the different hermeneutical theories and practices around the globe, Marchal therefore focuses on one particular example: the history of Confucian interpretive traditions in China.
After this first part, Marchal changes the scope of his investigation and focuses on the possibility of a dialogue between Western and non-Western hermeneutics. As Marchal shows, Western hermeneutical thinkers from the eighteenth century, such as Herder and von Humboldt, engaged with non-Western thought and languages, while most representatives of twentieth-century hermeneutics highlighted the Greek roots of European culture and emphasized the idea that we are tied to this heritage. Many non-Western philosophers, however, have engaged with ideas that were formulated by Heidegger and Gadamer. Nevertheless, such non-Western philosophers often unfold their understanding of European philosophical problems in their own terms. Furthermore, they are encouraged to do so by Gadamer’s claim that understanding is necessarily determined by the past. Marchal concludes his short introduction to non-Western approaches to hermeneutics by emphasizing the value of engaging with hermeneutical thinkers from other traditions. This engagement may result in an awareness of the Other’s understanding of ourselves against the backdrop of their traditions, and even in becoming open to the possibility of a radically different outlook on things.
In a chapter on “Hermeneutics and Literature,” Jonathan Culler aims to answer the question of why the tradition of modern hermeneutics has not figured significantly in the study of literature. Culler starts his investigation by noting that in literary studies there is a distinction between hermeneutics and poetics: while hermeneutics asks what a given text means, poetics asks about the rules and conventions that enable the text to have the meanings and effects it does for readers. Poetics and hermeneutics therefore work in different directions: hermeneutics moves from the text toward a meaning, while poetics moves from effects or meanings to the conditions of possibility of such meanings. In his historical overview of literary criticism, Culler highlights two important evolutions that enable us to explain the absence of modern hermeneutics within contemporary literary studies. The first is the revolution in the concept of literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this period, the concept of literature as mimesis shifted to a concept of literature as the expression of an author. Although this means literary criticism no longer assesses works in terms of the norms of genres, of verisimilitude and appropriate expression, most discussion of literature nevertheless remains evaluative rather than interpretive. The change in the conception of literature, however, also inspired German thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher to propose a general hermeneutics, as opposed to the special hermeneutics that had focused on biblical or Classical texts. Once the mimetic model of literature is displaced by an expressive model, Culler writes, the question of what a work expresses also arises.
The arguments about what kind of meaning a work might be taken to embody or express seldom draws on this hermeneutical tradition. One of the reasons for this is the second evolution that Cullers highlights, which occurred in the twentieth century when hermeneutics itself changed. Modern hermeneutical thinkers such as Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer shifted their focus to the understanding of understanding. In this way, their hermeneutical theories offer little guidance on interpretation or in distinguishing valid interpretations from invalid ones.
In “Hermeneutics and Law” Ralf Poscher starts from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s claim that hermeneutics in general could learn from legal hermeneutics. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer about what exactly can be learned. As Poscher summarizes, Gadamer thought that what could be learned from the law is that an element of application must be integrated into the concept of interpretation. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer’s idea that hermeneutics is a monistic practice consisting of interpretation, and he argues that what can be learned from law is that hermeneutics is a set of distinct practices that are of variable relevance to different hermeneutical situations. Poscher develops this thought by exploring the different hermeneutical activities in which a lawyer must engage when applying the law to a given case, such as legal interpretation, rule-following, legal construction and the exercise of discretion, and he highlights the important distinctions between these different means for the application of the law to a specific case. To prove the point that hermeneutics is not a monistic practice but rather a complex whole of different practices applicable to hermeneutics in general, Poscher draws some minor parallels between the different hermeneutics applied in law and in art. These parallels are often very clear, although the fact that they are often reduced to brief remarks means that Poscher does not really engage with debates on the interpretation of art. Nevertheless, these remarks do indicate that such a profound comparison between legal hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of art could be an interesting subject for further investigation.
In the final chapter, “Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,” Kristin Gjesdal explores the question of how best to conceive of the relationship between philosophy and other sciences through the lens of hermeneutical theory and practice. Gjesdal reveals that different responses can be given to the question of what hermeneutics is, and she explores the various answers. First, she outlines the Heideggerian-Gadamerian conception of hermeneutics, in which philosophy is identified with hermeneutics and hermeneutics is identified with ontology. According to Gjesdal, this tendency is concerning because it takes no interest in the different challenges emerging from within the different areas of the human sciences, nor does it acknowledge different subfields of philosophy or textual interpretation. When looking for an answer to the question of how the relationship between hermeneutics and the human sciences might be understood, an investigation of hermeneutics in its early, Enlightenment form, seems to be more fruitful, Gjesdal argues. Through such an investigation, Gjesdal shows that hermeneutical thinkers such as Herder, Schleiermacher and Dilthey combined an interest in hermeneutical theory with hermeneutical practice and in this way can be seen as an inspiration to explore our understanding of the relationship between philosophy and the other sciences. Philosophy would then no longer be seen as the king among the sciences, and our thinking about the relationship between philosophy and the human sciences would start with a more modest attitude and a willingness not simply to teach but also to learn from neighboring disciplines.
It is clear that for a large share of the contributions to this companion, the history of hermeneutics itself and the way in which this history has been constructed by later hermeneutical thinkers is under investigation, leading to new insights into contemporary debates. In this way, this companion as a whole can be seen as engaging with the question of what hermeneutics is, with the various approaches leading to the formulation of different answers to this question. Furthermore, the different readings of the history of hermeneutics also means that a number of contributions go beyond the traditional understanding of hermeneutics, drawing attention to thinkers who are not commonly associated with the field. In this way, the approach to hermeneutics does not remain limited to an investigation of the works and ideas of those thinkers who are generally understood as belonging to the hermeneutical tradition, which also makes the relevance of hermeneutical thinking to diverse contemporary disciplines and debates more apparent. Although the diverse contributions to this companion engage with the fundamental question of what hermeneutics is in different ways, this book as a whole will probably not serve as a good introduction for someone who is not already familiar with philosophical hermeneutics and its history to some extent. Some of the contributions are successful in offering the reader a clear introduction to the subject and discipline they discuss, but this is not always the case, with some authors presupposing a lot of prior knowledge on the subject. Nevertheless, for those already familiar with the subjects discussed, several contributions to this companion will offer the reader fruitful insights and perhaps provoke thought that invites further research.
Why we hesitate
Halfway through Heteronome Subjektivität, Eldracher explores Derrida’s idea of différance in order to engage it for a restoration of the subject in a heteronomous understanding. In a footnote in the same chapter the author indicates that this appropriation of Derrida’s work is not self-evident:
The late works (of Derrida) (after around 1985) are often marked by an indecisiveness (Unentschlossenheit) concerning the question whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role in deconstruction or whether it was so disrupted by Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein that there is no place for it anymore. (52)
It is true. Not without reason, Heidegger had dismissed the term from his thinking and instead replaced it with the notion of Dasein. Certainly, as Heidegger himself writes, “Da-sein is a being which I myself am, its being is in each case mine.” (Heidegger, 1996: 108) It experiences its own self primarily by distinguishing itself from all other beings it comes across in the world. This determination however indicates an ontological constitution: the assumption of the substantiality of Dasein describing it as the ontological interpretation of a subject is nothing more than that, an assumption. Any notion of an “I” must consequently be understood as a noncommittal formal starting point for a hermeneutical examination of the Dasein’s being, always being aware that it might well not be me that is the who of the everyday Dasein. As Dasein is in-the-world there is no such thing as a subject behind it which is isolated from its surrounding world.
In order to justify his endeavor, Eldracher therefore appeals to Heidegger’s earlier work in which he still speaks of an exit out of a philosophy of subjectivity without having to give up the “subject” as a term.
There is world only in so far as Dasein exists. But then is world not something “subjective”? In fact it is! Only one may not at this point reintroduce a common, subjectivistic concept of “subject”. Instead, the task is to see that being-in-the-world, which as existent supplies extant things with entry to world, fundamentally transforms the concept of subjectivity and of the subjective.  (108)
Eldracher demonstrates how the figure of Dasein opens up the metaphysical subject toward its temporal dimension. The subject is decentered and temporalized as it only understands itself in its throwness into a world which it shares with others. Subjects are therefore not understood as initially autonomous actors whose subjectivity is grounded in the subject itself; instead its constitution rests in the subject’s existence.
Still, Heidegger falls back into an individualized understanding of the subject by interpreting this existence from the perspective of the subject’s constitution. After his turn he shifts the perspective from Dasein to Being (Sein), which suggests that ontological phenomena are no longer thought as aspects of Dasein, but instead as moments of withdrawal. Being is now depicted in the figure of an abyss (Ab-grund). It is Being that brings beings and therefore Dasein into existence. Yet it cannot be grasped as a foundation (Grund) due to Being’s temporal character. In the moment of founding, Being is always already withdrawn. Being moves between presence and absence. With this deconstructive gesture Heidegger is able to capture how the impossibility of foundation is the condition for its possibility. The metaphysical moment of foundation becomes temporalized and with the gift of Being man too becomes temporalized: man ek-sists (ek-sistiert) (cf. 87).
Eldracher argues that Heidegger himself misses the decisive conclusion from his analysis: The subject owes its constitution as a subject to an experience which is profoundly foreign to it (49). With that the metaphysical opposition between the subject and the world collapses. Yet Heidegger himself does not realize the possibility of a re-interpretation of the subject, because the subject as a term and concept is liquidated.
Heidegger’s critique of the subject is therefore ambivalent: It provides us with all essential movements for evading the philosophical tradition of the subject and to re-think subjectivity as heteronomous; it however resists this venture as a project which focuses on ontology neglects freedom (to act, Handlungsfähigkeit), responsibility and self-understanding. (16)
Eldracher’s book commits to the subject as a philosophical category and therefore to the enterprise of an affirmative turn in Heidegger’s subject critique which is appropriated for a re-interpretation of the subject as heteronomous. This understanding aims to respond to an aporia which lies at the heart of the metaphysical idea of an autonomous subject: even though autonomy is assumed as being immanent to the subject, the subject constitutes itself through a liberation from all those dependencies that threaten the subject’s autonomy. This however implies an existential dependency on something other than the subject itself: “without the heteronomous there is no opponent, against which it needs to be fought” (10). Eldracher therefore attempts to comprehend those heteronomous aspects which are constitutive for the subject’s constitution in the concept itself. With this heteronomous subjectivity Eldracher hopes to write a counter-narrative against the dominant idea of autonomy.
Eldracher chooses Heidegger’s subject criticism as the bedrock for his venture because he was “the first philosopher who alludes to exposure of human beings to something other” (90). Although, for a heteronomous understanding of subjectivity, Heidegger’s figure of the abyss still needs to be radicalized. It needs an appropriation of it from an ontic, rather than ontological perspective in order to open up the subject towards alterity.
With this prospect in mind, Eldracher first adheres to the ethical turn in the work of Levinas which is meant to renounce Heidegger’s ontology. Levinas reproaches Heidegger for still attempting to incorporate alterity into an underlying structure of Being. The unity and symmetrical movement of the ontological structure ultimately rejects alterity and thereby makes it impossible for a philosophical analysis to take into focus the exposure of the subject towards the Other. According to Levinas, it is not Being but the Other that touches and thus forms the subject.
With that Levinas is able to break with the notion of totality by describing alterity with the experience of infinity over the “absolute Other” (119). It cannot be grasped by the subject; it evades our language. The Other obstructs the closing of totality, it disrupts the homogeneity of the order and does not integrate within its logic. Here, Levinas connects Heidegger’s explication of temporality with the idea of infinity. The face of the Other is the (non)place where infinity and temporality meet, and at the same time constitute subjectivity. Levinas translates the abyssal relationship found in Heidegger’s thought: the subject encounters the Other at the very border of the world which means that the encounter has already happened before the subject identifies itself, and is identified as a subject. The Other repeatedly divides and thus re-constitutes the subject which is therefore always disrupted in its autonomy and self-referentiality. Levinas is thereby able to avoid Heidegger’s individualizing notion of the conscience and instead interprets the possibility of responsibility as originating in the constitution of a heteronomous subject (137). According to Levinas the call to responsibility which Heidegger originated from within Dasein, reaches the subject from a constitutive externality, namely the Other. The subject cannot determine whether it is called or not – the (non)relation to the Other is always already there. Yet it can still choose whether it responds to the calling and this is where the freedom of the subject can be located. Freedom arises in dependence and the subject’s limitations and is only experienced in the burden of an infinite responsibility for the Other. The responsibility which cannot be refused becomes the content of identity. The subject becomes singular not through its inner unique personality but the fact that it is not able to delegate its guilt to someone else.
For Eldracher, this suggests that Levinas proceeds Heidegger because with the ethical turn to the Other he is able to address the question of how subjects can develop an idea of the self. The quasi-normative conclusion the author draws is that subjects can understand themselves best in their experience of alterity (148). He locates the corresponding decisive shift from the deconstructive towards the affirmative aspects of Heidegger’s subject criticism in the work of Michel Foucault.
While genealogy describes Foucault’s rather deconstructive project, his later works explore the possibilities of resistance and freedom by including the constitutive aspects of power. Close to Levinas’ account, freedom here needs to be understood as relational and not an inherent capacity of the subject. It happens in the very resistance against, thus dependence on, those powers to which the subject is already subjugated. Foucault’s understanding of freedom further allows us to consider the participation of the subject in the process of its constitution. In fact, it constitutes a decisive step to understand how subjects can form self-referentiality which allows them to understand themselves as agents in a historical and cultural context (249).
Foucault draws upon the Ancient concept of self-care to describe how the subject forms itself in taking on a stance to the given moral codes and thus a certain way of life. Instead of the sole subjugation to moral laws and norms, social practices such as relation of power and truth are understood as a framework within which the self cultivates itself. In this context, the idea of parrhesia indicates the subject being open to the world, which does not stand opposed to him as its object, but instead always already asserts itself in the subject. With this, Foucault is the first to introduce an affirmative notion of subjectivity into his thought which enables him to address the role of self-relationality in the subject’s constitution (260).
The chapter on Foucault’s work heralds a decisive hinge for Eldracher project: A deconstructive tradition which breaks down the concept of subject by laying bare moments of alterity meets a hermeneutical approach which is used to incorporate these moments of alterity in the constitution of self-understandings. According to Eldracher, it needs both traditions for an affirmative turn of Heidegger’s critique of the subject. Deconstruction aims to destruct erroneous self-understandings by demonstrating the impossibility of a fixation and naturalization of subjectivity and point out how the self of subjects always relies on alterity. It thereby intervenes when the hermeneutical approach risks to close the openness of the subject. Similarly, hermeneutics aims to reveal all those obstructions due to which the subject is not able to understand itself as being open to the world and others, but instead understands itself (erroneously) as a substance. It steps in where deconstruction risks to losing sight of the constitution of self-understandings of the subject, or in fact the subject itself. For Eldracher hermeneutics and deconstruction hence describe two sides of the same coin. The proximity of both approaches is already illustrated by Heidegger himself: “Hermeneutics is destruction!” (62).
For this reason, the project leads towards Taylor’s work to which Eldracher turns in order to develop the participatory aspect of subjectivation which Foucault already touches on in his analysis of self-care. Eldracher uses Taylor’s concept of moral ontology in order to demonstrate how being human is always a being. Moral ontology in this context is understood as fundamental and ontological condition of potentiality. Every subject is always somehow thrown into the world, which the subject cannot determine and which stipulates its existence. Taylor emphasizes that world always appears in historical concrete relations; there are thus always worlds. At the same time, moral ontology is bound to the ontic: it depends on its reproduction and interpretation through subjects. With that, the self-understanding of the subject is thus always captured between past and future. The self-understanding has always already formed but simultaneously needs to be actualized through future interpretations. Eldracher claims that with this ontologically re-interpreted humanism Taylor is able to address freedom and self-understanding without understanding them as belonging to the substance of a subject (315f).
Taylor and Foucault take on different perspectives on the genesis of modern subjectivity which is why they can complement each other. While Foucault reveals illegitimacy of subordinating processes of subjectivation, Taylor’s affirmative genealogy draws out how self-understandings are stabilized and how they overcome previously dominant self-understandings. Like Foucault, Taylor draws on the contingency of certain self-understandings; however, he does not follow Foucault’s move to simply delegitimize them. Instead, a genealogy needs to affirm positive historical narratives in order to keep identity in the sense of a reference point for subjectivity (333).
Similar to deconstructive authors before him, Taylor reveals which narratives have laid the discursive ground for the idea of autonomous subjects. He overlooks problematizing how those narratives and in particular the narrative of nature as the source for morality not simply ground autonomy, but further suppress any notion of heteronomy. Nevertheless, Eldracher argues that Taylor’s anthropology of being human is able to avoid falling back into a metaphysical humanism as it is bound to a moral ontology. It is not transcendental but instead always refers to a certain historical praxis.
Eldracher insists on the contribution Taylor’s approach made by including the inner perspective of the subject and the role of self-interpretation. He argues that without an affirmative re-interpretation of the subject the criticisms raised by deconstructive works remain politically insignificant. This is why the author is rather dismissive of Derrida’s work as being limited to a structural analysis (197).
Derrida follows Levinas’ criticism in his venture to open up metaphysical thought towards alterity. He resumes Heidegger’s explication of temporality on the structural level asking how language subjugates the three-dimensionality of time under presence and thus affirms the closure of metaphysics into totality. Derrida attempts to demonstrate this supremacy of presence in language though the notion of différance. Like Heidegger’s figure of the abyss and Levinas’ call of the Other, différance describes a play of withdrawal and reference. It puts metaphysical logic into question as it exposes the supplement or the doubling in any transcendental signified. In every meaning of a signified there is subsequently a surplus of meaning; this surplus is contained in the meaning of the signified itself at the same time breaks with its unity. The identity of any phenomenon including the subject therefore always already relies on something which is foreign to it; the phenomenon is never identical to itself (175).
Derrida’s critique focuses on how the criticism of the metaphysical subject is consequently interwoven with a deconstruction of our understanding of meaning. According to Eldracher, it therefore appears to be more precise than Heidegger’s critique of the subject because not only does it reject the category of the subject as a metaphysical construction, but it further problematizes a specific, historically contingent understanding of subjectivity (160). He concludes that it needs a heteronomous understanding of the subject which is able to acknowledge those traces of alterity and non-identity which can be discovered by différance.
As stated above there is an indecisiveness to be found within Derrida when it comes to the subject, similar to the hesitation we can also detect in Heidegger’s work. For Eldracher, this moment of indecisiveness constitutes an important juncture in the deconstructive project. It needs a decision as to whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role. Eldracher’s response is yes. He commits Derrida’s thought to a re-constitution of the subject in a heteronomous understanding and thereby attempts to comprehend Derrida’s notion of différance to utilize it for his own endeavor. It seems however that by that Eldracher misses the depth of Derrida’s venture and the extent to which he radicalizes Heidegger’s subject criticism.
Let us take a moment at this juncture to take Derrida’s indecisiveness more seriously. Taking the named conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy as a whole, Derrida’s indecisiveness is not simply a transitory moment. He is not temporarily torn between an acceptance or rejection of the term because, according to Derrida, there no such thing that could be accepted or rejected. In fact, what has been shown by deconstructive work is that there is no agreement of those thinkers who speak of the subject on what the term actually means. Instead it seems that once certain predicates have been deconstructed, we cannot be sure anymore what we are even designating with the term; the unity and the name have been radically affected. As it turns out, “the subject is a fable” (Derrida 1991, 102).
For Derrida something happened when Heidegger introduced the idea of Dasein, a gap opened. For the first time, thinking was decentered, it moved away from the subject. But it did not go far enough. Ultimately, his endeavor was still restricted and came with new problems as Dasein ultimately repeats the metaphysical logic of subjectivity. Derrida reminds us that “We know less than ever where to cut – either at birth or at death. And thus means that we never know, and never have known, how to cut up a subject” (Derrida 1991, 117), or Dasein in fact.
He hence follows Heidegger’s late shift of perspective away from human beings as those carrying language, to language itself. Certainly, there is a possibility that there is a who as the power to ask questions (which is how Heidegger defines Dasein). But Derrida is interested in how the question of the who? itself is overwhelmed if language is no longer defined as being reserved for what we call man. He speaks of an “originary alliance”, an affirmation, a “yes, yes” of language (Derrida 1991, 100). Before any question can be raised, language is already there. This original alliance is why, according to Heidegger, language cannot be anymore an attribute which characterizes the human. Instead language withdraws itself from us: “In its essence, language is neither expression nor a confirmation of man. Language speaks.” (Heidegger 1950 cited in Eldracher, 105) Derrida continues this by asking: “What if one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompasses it but mark irreducibly from inside, everything changes.” (Derrida 1991, 116).
Derrida does not go beyond a structural critique as there might be nothing behind the subject. It remains a metaphysical construction. This however does not support the argument that such a structural critique remains ethically and political neutral thus insignificant, as Eldracher states. Derrida puts into doubt Eldracher’s assertion that the traditional position of the subject is the self-evident center for any inquiries on political and ethical dimensions of freedom (Handlungsfreiheit) and responsibility (345).
Derrida warns us to not rush into those words because they risk to over-hastily reconstituting the program of metaphysics together with the suffering that comes from its “surreptitious constrains” (Derrida 1991, 101). Instead he intends to start with responsibility itself, a responsibility which cannot first come after a subject has been established, but is an axiom that must be assumed (108). The reason for this is that there simply is no understanding of the subject, in fact no concept at all, which could be adequate for the responsibility Derrida emphasizes; a responsibility which is “always more and to come” (108). Any endeavor to reconstitute the subject, even in a heteronomous understanding would still assert a calculation and therefore a limitation of responsibility.
For that reason, Derrida demands to eschew the term to some extent. Certainly, he agrees with Eldracher that it is impossible to forget it; yet one might be able to re-arrange it in a way that it no longer dominates the center of ethical or political enterprises.
Against Eldracher’s perception, Derrida’s work does not simply languish indecisiveness, instead it declares an undecidability when it comes to the subject which is demanded by responsibility itself: “there is no responsibility, no ethico-political decision, that must not pass through the proofs of the incalculable or the undecidable. Responsibility demands an “unconditional commitment to deconstruction” (107). It appears that Eldracher’s project seems to struggle with its own indecisiveness: Accepting the aporias of subjectivity which have been laid bare by deconstructive ventures, he still holds tight to the term of the subject. Let us therefore turn the question on its head for a moment: Eldracher seems to acknowledge the extent to which certain predicates of the subject have been deconstructed, in Heidegger’s critique as well as in the works of Levinas, Derrida and Foucault. What is the benefit, and to what right then does he still speak of the subject? Throughout the book, Eldracher only mentions the “traditional connection” of the term to discussions of political and ethical dimensions of freedom and responsibility to defend the subject, as well as the idea that the metaphysical discourse of subjectivity could never be eliminated and corrected (349). But is this enough? In light of Derrida’s work these arguments appear rather rash. Disregarding potential flaws for a moment, both Heidegger’s and Derrida’s ventures remind us to slow down, to take a moment before throwing oneself into the enterprise of re-interpreting the subject. They demand to first ask oneself to what questions such a project even intends to answer. And at times, it might even be the rightly posed question, and not the answer that can prompt political consequences.
Derrida, Jacques. ‘“Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’. In Who Comes after the Subject?, edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, 96–119. London: Routledge, 1991.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
 All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.
 Translation found in Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 195.