Emiliano Trizio: Philosophy’s Nature: Husserl’s Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics

Philosophy's Nature: Husserl's Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics Book Cover Philosophy's Nature: Husserl's Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Emiliano Trizio
Paperback £28.80

Reviewed by: Gregor Bös (King's College London)

1           Introduction

The Crisis might be Husserl’s most widely read work, and within the Crisis, §9 on Galileo’s invention of modern science has captivated generations of readers. It raises a host of questions:

What does it mean that mathematized science offers only a method, not the true being of nature? How can science both be founded and contained in the pre-scientific lifeworld? How does Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology offer an alternative to Galileo’s conception of nature?

This critique of Galilean science comes from a mathematician-turned-philosopher, who staunchly defended the possibility of objective knowledge in the Prolegomena and sought to turn philosophy into a rigorous science. Husserl’s last work is as puzzling as fascinating, and it is easy to see why it remains one of the most popular entry points into Husserlian phenomenology and interpreters keep coming back to it.

Emiliano Trizio’s new monograph Philosophy’s Nature is a case in point, culminating in an extensive commentary on §9, where different threads of the book find together. The discussion of Galileo is embedded in, as the book’s subtitle announces, Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, natural science, and metaphysics. Trizio establishes this context not only by drawing on Husserl’s earliest writings from 1890s, but also the 19th century ignorabimus debate about the limits of scientific knowledge. Husserl is cast as offering an alternative to Mach’s phenomenalism and Helmholtz’ critical realism, which is a refreshing alternative to framing Husserl’s account in terms of the later scientific realism debate. When addressing classical questions about the relationship of lifeworld and natural science, Trizio emphasizes the role of teleology, and offers a carefully argued extrapolation from the Crisis fragment.

After presenting the book, I raise some questions: about mathematization and the sensible plena, Trizio’s distinction between causal and categorial inference in science, implications for empirical psychology, the aprioristic account of phenomenology, and the metaphysical status of correlationism.

2          Summary

2.1         The 19th Century Background

The first chapter sketches a background debate. Rather than beginning from contemporary standard debates about scientific realism, Trizio reaches back to the 19th century, when debates about the limits of physical knowledge were already in full swing. The mechanistic world picture led to the well-known thought experiment of the Laplacian demon. The original question was whether astronomers’ successful predictions could be expanded to the entire world, given enough knowledge and intellectual resources. DuBois-Reymond turned this into an argument about the limits of scientific knowledge: If the intrinsic nature of physical objects, or the origin of conscious experience from physiology were forever hidden from the Laplacian demon, must also remain hidden from human scientists. Thus, there must be an ignorabimus, a domain that “we will never know”.

Mach argues that DuBois-Reymond relies on metaphysical assumptions of the mechanistic world picture. That picture came under more and more pressure from electromagnetism and thermodynamics (before quantum mechanics and relativity theory upended classical physics altogether). Mach’s phenomenalism is an anti-metaphysical programme that requires a reinterpretation of what physical theories are about–rejecting things beyond their presentations in experience.

The critical realists need no such “dissolution” of the object of physics into series of experiences. Trizio focuses on Helmholtz and Planck, who take the thing of perception to be a “sign” that is distinct from, but lawfully related to the real, physical thing. This view is realist about the existence of the external world and our possibility of knowing about it. But it is critical rather than naïve for separating the thing of perception from the thing of physics.

This is the background for discussing how Husserl relates the external world, the world of physics, and world of sensory perception. But we have already seen that an important difference in the critical realist and phenomenalist responses to the ignorabimus is their different tolerance for metaphysics. The next chapter therefore discusses the disputed relation between metaphysics and epistemology in Husserl’s work.

2.2             Epistemology and Metaphysics

The role of metaphysics in phenomenology has long been disputed. Especially Husserl’s late work seems to discuss overtly metaphysical questions, such as whether the world could exist without an actual consciousness. But especially in the Logical Investigations, Husserl declares the metaphysical neutrality of his considerations. The reduction is also described as a way to shed the metaphysical prejudice of the natural attitude.

An easy way out would be to say that Husserl’s commitments change, but Trizio resists the narrative of separate periods and “turns” (this alone is an impressive achievement). He begins with a text about the nature of space from the 1890s where Husserl distinguishes between the Theory of Knowledge—asking “how is knowledge of the objective world is possible?”—and metaphysics—asking what the actual world is ultimately like. Depending on how we understand the possibility of knowledge, we end up with a different metaphysical picture of the world, e.g. a phenomenalist, rather than a critical realist account.

Trizio presents Husserl’s later metaphysics as a consistent expansion from this idea. The metaphysical commitments are a consequence of the adopted theory of knowledge. He grants that there is a shift of emphasis from the question “how knowledge is possible” to the question of the “sense of being” which is clarified in transcendental phenomenology. But while seeking the “sense of being” sounds like a metaphysical task, it can also be understood as: “what must be the sense of being, for knowledge of it to be possible?”, so the primacy of epistemology can be maintained (cf. 59f.).

With this clarified relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, we can now reconsider natural science. The natural sciences operate with the well-known presupposition of the natural attitude. The metaphysical clarification from phenomenology addresses not immediately whether particular theoretical terms like “electron” refer to unobservable objects, but investigates the sense of “natural world” that the empirical sciences presuppose. Via the phenomenological clarification, the natural sciences become a metaphysics of nature. Transcendental phenomenology provides the “a priori framework underlying all possible factual realities” (86), which provides the “ontological closure of the sciences”. This closure amounts to the rejection of any ignorabimus, or hyperphysical reality, that would lie beyond these sciences. Slightly later, Trizio summarizes this metaphysical picture as “the world is a unit of sense constituted in transcendental intersubjectivity and nothing beyond that”. (107) Once the ontological closure of the empirical sciences has been achieved, the room for metaphysics is exhausted.

2.3             Transcendental Phenomenology

What separates the empirical sciences from ultimate metaphysics is “a clarification of the sense of their fundamental assumptions, […] most important among them, the positing of the world.” (99) Chapter three therefore turns to the phänomenologische Fundamentalbetrachtung (consideration fundamental to phenomenology, §§27-62) of the Ideas I. Husserl here argues that consciousness is an absolute region of being, independent of the posit of the world.

The book remains focused on the relation between perception and the thing of physics. According to the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, only the primary qualities carry over from perceptual appearance to the thing of physics, whereas secondary qualities originate in the subject. But Husserl distinguishes between the intuitive space of perception and the ideal space of geometry. A drawn triangle exists in an intuitive space, but it only serves as a sign for an ideal triangle in the space of geometry. What mathematized science discloses are such idealized properties; therefore, they are not a subset of the perceivable properties. Applied to the relation between perceptual and physical thing, this means that even the intuition of spatial properties does not remain without a contribution from the subject (103f.). Neither Husserl nor Trizio put it this bluntly, but it seems like all perceptual qualities turn out to be secondary.

Without overlap between the properties of physics and perception, one might expect a form of critical realism, where the perceptual object is only a sign for the physical thing. But one of the most poignant passages in the Ideas I reads: “The physical thing which [the scientist] observes, with which he experiments, which [he puts] in the melting furnace: that physical thing, and no other, becomes the subject of the predicates ascribed in physics.” (Husserl [1913] 1982, §52, 120) Trizio takes this identification of physical and perceptual seriously and argues that it shows a rejection of critical realism; the perceptual thing is rather a “sign for itself” (114). The key is Husserl’s notion of the “empty X as the bearer of all objective properties, whether they are disclosed in perception or in empirical science. The critical realist distinguishes an object X that bears the perceptual properties, and an object Y, which is determined by scientific theory. Husserl however argues that such a “hidden” cause leads to a regress. If we can know an object Y only inferentially, then a more competent observer could know Y on the basis of perception–but then for this observer, the appearances of Y would indicate an object Z, and so forth. (cf. 112)

This argument relies on the essential perceivability of all physical things which has led to an association between Husserl and anti-realist philosophers of science. A main feature of Trizio’s book is that it here steers a more realist line, according to which also scientific theories about unobservable entities can achieve a true, metaphysical insight into nature. The key is Trizio’s distinction between the causal inference that leads to the posit of observable things—say, a planet—and the inferences that lead to explanations in unobservable terms, like atoms (111). To treat the latter as causal inference to an unobservable world creates the “causal depth” of the critical realist picture, and the mentioned regress. The theoretical inferences of microphysics instead provide a categorial determination of the world of perception. The sense in which nature transcends our subjective experience has already been established at the level of perception, and scientific theories do not force us “to accept a different account of the ‘externality’ of the world” (115).

Once more emphasizing continuity through Husserl’s work, Trizio here relies on an account of categorial determination from the Sixh Logical Investigation. Pre-scientific judgements already contain meanings that do not allow for fulfilment in sensory intuition. “Just as the ‘and’, the ‘or’, and the ‘is’ cannot be painted, the physico-mathematical concepts cannot be ‘turned’ or ‘translated’ into sensuous determinations of whatever kind.” (122) Instead, the sense in which a microphysical theory is true has to be understood according to the truth of categorial determinations. These have nothing to do with our perceptual capacities and neither has the goal of scientific theory. “Accordingly, God’s physics would amount to the same true, complete mathematical physics that we human subjects strive to achieve, the one that describes matter as it is in itself, in its real, intrinsic nature, by means of categorial unities of thought”. This account of microphysical being is exegetically convincing, interesting, and sets Trizio’s account apart from other interpreters—I will comment on it below.

The rest of the chapter develops more critical responses to recent secondary literature, especially Harvey, Wiltsche and Hardy. Whereas the first two err on the side of instrumentalism, Hardy’s proposal aims to make transcendental idealism and metaphysical realism compatible, which for Trizio is a non-starter. The common error, so Trizio appears to say, is the imposition of “ready-made ‘philosophical problems’ as hermeneutical frameworks to interpret Husserl’s thought.” (138) Doing so “wreak[s] havoc on the internal articulation of a philosophy meant to generate its own task and method” (ibid.). The reader might want to consider for themselves: Can we approach Husserl with a philosophical topic or question, or must we let Husserl define the goal of philosophy? It is hard to see how an interpretation as comprehensive as Trizio’s could be achieved without granting Husserl to define the goals, and the complaint about ready-made philosophical problems is understandable. But one might equally worry that Trizio’s alternative stays confined by a philosophical edifice and its internal questions. Zahavi (2017, 184f.) for example appears less restrictive, and can point out interesting parallels, such as between Husserl’s correlationism and Putnam’s internal realism.

2.4             Ideas II

The fourth chapter focuses on the Ideas II, and the constitutional role of the lived body (Leib), intersubjectivity, and the relation between the natural, naturalistic, and personalistic attitude. Trizio here also refines the previous discussion of space, distinguishing between the subjective sensuous space, the objective perceptual space, and an idealized objective space. “The objective but not yet idealized space is the link between what is given to us in perception and the idealized language of physics” (161) Whereas the sensuous space is oriented around a perceiver’s body, the objective perceptual space has no such orientation. Intuition of objective perceptual space is only possible through founded acts: movements, rotations, and acts of empathy (ibid.). This is not an idealization, rather the objective perceptual space is constituted as “every-body’s space” (ibid.).

The chapter also discusses Rang and Ingarden, and thereby offers more detail about the interpretation of microphysics. While “it is true that concepts such as ‘atoms’ and ‘ions’ do not refer to ‘Dinglichkeiten an sich’, this is not because atoms and ions do not exist, but because they exist qua endpoints of the constitution of material nature in transcendental consciousness.” (170) Such endpoints are categorial determinations of the sensible world that also a divine physics would be compelled to. This is only one of several places where teleology features centrally.

Trizio now briefly returns to the challenge from DuBois-Reymond. That atoms cannot be the objects of experience does not mean that they comprise an ignorabimus: imperceivable atoms are still knowable as the ideal limit of categorially determining the perceivable world. The account of idealizations is what undermines DuBois-Reymond’s connection between the imperceivable and the unknowable (187f.).

Then, within five pages, Trizio discusses challenges from quantum mechanics and relativity theory. The discussion of quantum mechanics relies on a short appendix to the Crisis, one of very few places where Husserl ever talks about non-classical physics. Trizio argues that Husserl’s sees no conflict between quantum mechanics and the scientific goal of an objective description of nature. What quantum mechanics reveals is rather that some objects can only be studied as ensembles, not individually. This means that some idealizations stay tied to typical environments, and therefore particular scales. In turn, the relevant idealizations for our scientific descriptions can be scale-dependent (191f.), and there is no guarantee that we have a reductive basis for the idealizations of higher-level theories (such as physiology and biophysics). This is an interesting discussion, but stays at a very high level of generality.

The challenge from relativity theory is more obviously problematic. It undermines the idea that the “essence of space” could be studied a priori, independently of empirical theory. Trizio admits here that Husserl’s silence on the issue—despite the work of Weyl and Becker—is disappointing. In conclusion, Trizio thinks that relativity theory shows that intuitive and objective space are farther apart than we thought, but that this affects neither the rejection of critical realism nor the identity of perceptual and physical thing. I discuss below how relativity theory might require to rethink the relation between phenomenology and empirical science.

2.5             Life-World and Natural Science

The fifth chapter is by far the longest, running to almost a hundred pages. We now turn to the Crisis of European Sciences, and the discussion of Galileo in §9. Trizio further emphasizes the role of teleology, as in the account of categorial determination and in some earlier work (Trizio 2016). The crisis of the European sciences is explained as an “uncertainty and disorientation with respect to the essence inhabiting such a cultural formation [as empirical science] as its telos” (204) That the natural sciences have suffered a “loss of meaning” is a consequence of their separation from philosophy: as part of philosophy, empirical investigation had a context in which it was meaningful for life (206).

The chapter is comprehensive because part of its ambition is to discuss parts of the Crisis that remained a sketch: how spirit relates to nature, and the relationship between the objective spirit investigated in the human sciences, and the absolute spirit described in phenomenology (214f.) Trizio distinguishes three scientific endeavours: the natural sciences (naturalistic attitude), the positive sciences of objective spirit (personalistic attitude), and the phenomenological science of absolute spirit (transcendental attitude, 215). Natural and spiritual world have their own principles of unity, causal relations in the former, motivational relations in the latter case. (210)  Natural and spiritual world are different aspects of the lifeworld, but since the entire lifeworld has been replaced by mathematized nature, the world of spirit has been forgotten (247, 250). This misinterpretation is spelled out in the central §9, which is honoured with 36 pages of reconstruction and discussion. For anyone interested in Husserl’s account of Galileo, this commentary alone is a good reason to consult this book.

After recovering the world of spirit, Trizio finds a priority of human sciences over natural sciences: “the naturalistic attitude is subordinate to the personalistic attitude because it is the personal Ego that performs the operations necessary to render nature thematic as the sphere of mere natural objectivities” (258). This relation between these theoretical endeavours also leads to an ontological relation between their domains. “If nature is an abstract stratum of the life-world, it cannot be ontologically prior to it. It is an abstract layer of what for us has meaning in terms of our aims, among which its scientific explication also finds a place.” (260f.) It seems easy to vacillate here between nature as a “Zweckgebilde” of natural science, and nature as the domain of empty Xs that bear perceptual and scientific determinations: a domain that is factually indeterminate, but already determinable (this seems to require at least that the “Zweckgebilde” of natural science does not change with scientific theories or political environments).

Trizio then addresses the classic question how a scientifically true world could both be grounded on and encompassed by the lifeworld. The offered solution again relies on teleology: “the mode of being of scientific nature is that of an end of a specific human praxis” (270). The lifeworld itself however is independent of any specific aims (268); it is in this sense prior to any scientifically disclosed worlds, because the motivation to begin a scientific endeavour begins from the lifeworld. However, the lifeworld has no “outside”: whatever turns out to exist has to exist as part of the very same world that we were already determining by the means of perception.

Trizio here disagrees with interpreters who distinguish the transcendental reduction from a preliminary “reduction to the lifeworld” which brackets scientific theory and practice but leaves the natural attitude intact (e.g. Bitbol 2020). What makes the lifeworld pre-scientific in Trizio’s account is not the absence of scientific culture, but the lack of a telos. Whereas the objective determination of nature is the telos that for the scientific world, the lifeworld has no such practical goal. But even though this allows to distinguish different worlds, the world of science still is an objectivation of the lifeworld, not an independently constructed scientific image. When we are bracketing scientific culture, this focuses our attention on a pure layer of the lifeworld, rather than revealing the lifeworld in its entirety (269).

En passant, Trizio again discusses competing anti-realist interpretations, leading to a clearer picture of his own account. Antirealism here is glossed as the claim that science can only arrive at correct prediction of appearances, but not at knowledge about true nature as it is in itself. If Husserl were an antirealist about scientific knowledge, no account of nature would be compatible with transcendental phenomenology. a) Husserl cannot be claim that the objective world does not exist (only that it is not a mathematical manifold) b) nature cannot be in principle unknowable, because that is incompatible with the principle of correlation, c) natural science is also not to be replaced by a new science of nature, d) agnosticism is like skepticism a “deadly enem[y] of philosophy”. (256f.) Since Husserl is not a metaphysical realist, this rejection of anti-realism is not a commitment to scientific realism in the standard contemporary sense. The condensed discussion again reveals importance of the principle of correlation: unknowable aspects of nature are excluded from the start.

In the last paragraphs, entitled “Nature as the correlate of Absolute Spirit”, Trizio edges towards some further metaphysical conclusions. The premise is that nature can only be constituted as an abstract core of the life-world, which is personal in character. (275) Therefore, nature can only appear through intentional acts that are abstract components of the concrete unity of constituting life. It is not possible to think of a constitution of nature that was not embedded in a constituting life, and such constituting life must know a personal attitude. Unfortunately, Trizio does not make explicit whether this means that he concurs with Husserl’s proof of idealism: that a world which never develops constituting forms of life is metaphysically impossible. (Husserl 2003)

3          Commentary

It is clear that this is a work of serious scholarship. Trizio draws on an impressive range of sources, from before the Logical Investigations to the Crisis. Well known parts of Husserl’s work are central, such as the consideration fundamental to phenomenology, or §9 of the Crisis. But also the Ideas II and the less known 1917 treatise Phenomenology and Theory of Knowledge (Husserl et al. 1987, 125–205) are central points of reference. Framing Husserl in the ignorabimus debate is well done and sets up an interesting angle for the discussion.

The production quality of the digital edition is good. References and endnotes are listed per chapter, endnotes are conveniently two-way linked to the main text. There are a number of avoidable editorial oversights and Typos, especially in German quotations (e.g. 76, 258) and names (e.g. 122, 148), but the overall typesetting is pleasant. With these descriptive points out of the way, I can now turn to the content.

3.1              The Mathematization of Plena

One of Husserl’s main claims in §9 of the Crisis is that the “sensible plena” (sinnliche Füllen) cannot be directly mathematized, unlike the shapes of objects. Hence, Galileo has to make the hypothesis that all determinations of the plena will be implied by a completed account of the shapes—the plena will be indirectly mathematized. When Trizio reconstructs why the plena do not allow for mathematization, he connects this with the impossibility of finding a compositional basis to construct the plena. “There can be no analogue of the ruler in the case of a color, or of a warmth-property, no smaller standard that, via a certain method of composition, could “build” the original quality out of smaller parts, not even approximately, ‘with a rest’.” (232)

There is, however, no discussion of established practices for precise communication of colours. When colours are communicated as RGB or CMYK codes, they are specified exactly in terms of the combination of red, green and blue light (or the densities of standardized inks). Why does this not count as the construction of a colour-space from basic elements? It seems to me that the difference between shapes and plena is not so much in compositionality, but in the convergence to an ideal limit. Shapes can be put in line to approach a flat surface or a straight line or a sphere. This ideal reference point is never reached. A series of colour patches, however, does not approach an unintuitable “ideal red”: an orange patch can be more or less close to a red patch, but the limit remains intuitable. Colour similarity only compares to an intuitable limit that retains some indeterminacy. This is not the kind of convergence that we have in the case of geometry, where intuitive shapes can approach a precise, unintuitable ideal.

3.2             Causal inference and inference to categorial determinations

Trizio’s realism about scientific knowledge depends crucially on the distinction between two kinds of scientific inference. To reiterate, scientists sometimes make “causal” inferences, such as “there is a planet Neptune” which introduce new, in-principle observable entities. In the case of microphysics, however, their inference is a categorial determination of nature, and does not introduce new entities. I am not sure what the principled grounds are to declare scientific inferences to be one kind or another. It seems clear that we can sometimes infer that there are things we cannot perceive ourselves, for example after losing a sensory modality, or observing reactions of animals. Now, when we explain a disease through a virus, is this a causal inference, or a categorial determination? It is implausible that the limit of causal inference coincides with a contingent limit of human perception, and I would therefore expect that viruses would still be something where we can make causal inferences. But where does it stop? Trizio would presumably have to give an answer in terms of essential imperceivability—but it would be good to know what it is exactly.

3.3             Foundations of Psychology

It remains somewhat unclear whether Trizio advocates a revisionist programme for empirical sciences. He is explicit that he has no such intention for physics, but what about psychology? Is a main cost of forgetting the lifeworld a psychology that dehumanizes its subjects, because it starts from the naturalistic attitude? I take this to be Husserl’s ambition, but of course in view of the psychology of his time. If Trizio here departs from Husserl, this is not made explicit.

3.4             A priori knowledge of space and general relativity

Much of the book appears to work towards marrying two claims:

  1. Transcendental Phenomenology is the founding, universal science that is before all empirical science.
  2. Empirical sciences are capable of generating metaphysical knowledge.

What Trizio promises is nothing less than a First Philosophy that can do without instrumentalism about the empirical sciences. As Trizio admits, this comes to limits with the theory of relativity, where Husserl’s silence “is embarrassing” (193). Already in special relativity, temporal and spatial distances lose their independence. The death of two stars might appear simultaneous when observed from the earth, but their temporal order changes with the location of the observer. This is not just another fact that tells us more about which of the a priori possible worlds we inhabit, but it redefines the interaction between phenomenology and empirical theory. Throughout the book, Trizio gives phenomenology an authority over the commitments of empirical sciences: phenomenologists can point out when scientists “naïvely” rely on assumptions of the natural attitude. But in the case of relativity theory, physicists could retort that the phenomenologist is not so independent from theory after all. The assumption that space and time are independent might be one such assumption. It looks like a theory of physics can serve as a valid criticism of a distinction of transcendental phenomenology. But on what grounds could transcendental phenomenology then still be considered to be “before” empirical science?

Trizio points in a similar direction when he concedes that “the only way out is to use the theory of relativity as an indication that the phenomenological account of idealization must be revised” (193). But conceding such limits to first philosophy should also affect the relation to contemporary philosophy of science. Trizio is certainly right when he argues that Husserl’s account cannot simply be “placed” within an existing body of literature about scientific realism, because this debate takes the dominance of logical empiricism as its starting point.

Given Trizio’s emphasis on historical contextualization, one might have expected more optimism about this historical situation. The nascent logical empiricism and Husserlian phenomenology touched in the 1920s, when Carnap studied with Husserl, and Felix Kaufmann was part of both movements. By contrast, Husserl never actually writes about an ignorabimus. The historical arc to philosophy of science seems neither more ambitious nor less promising than the 19th century context which Trizio sets up. It would be too much to attempt both in the same book, and the 19th century context is a welcome addition, but why should an explication of Husserl’s account not be commensurable to debates in the philosophy of science?

One might of course worry that philosophers of science are too busy discussing the content of particular scientific theories, rather than less easily formalizable questions about the structure of thing-consciousness. But what is gained from playing out those philosophers who want to attend to the perceptual phenomena against those who emphasize scientific theory? Trizio’s take here is more negative than most recent literature in the general area (see especially Hardy 2013; Zahavi 2017; and essays in Wiltsche and Berghofer 2020) and from those who work closely with cognitive scientists. All these authors seem more open to two-way interaction between empirical theory and phenomenological clarification, or at least between phenomenology and philosophy of science.

3.5             Correlationism

A final point concerns the explication of metaphysical commitments. While the book contains much discussion of what metaphysics means for Husserl, and in what sense phenomenology is not deciding but undermining the metaphysical debates, it is not always clear what Trizio endorses. I already mentioned the question whether a world without a factually constituting consciousness is possible.

Husserl’s correlationism on the other hand is a commitment on which Trizio relies much more openly. The rejection of Husserl’s correlationism by speculative realists is now well known. (Meillassoux [2006] 2008) But also metaphysics in the tradition of analytic philosophy raises difficult questions. Husserl’s correlationism commits him to the knowability of all true propositions. But such a knowability is surprisingly difficult to spell out, as the debates around the Church-Fitch paradox and metaphysical anti-realism show. (Fitch 1963; Salerno 2009; Kinkaid 2020) Philosophy’s Nature focuses more on defending the account presented as the correct interpretation of Husserl than it does to raise and address general questions from semantics or metaphysics.

3.6             Conclusion

Trizio’s book is nothing short of impressive for the clarity and depth in which it discusses Husserl’s works from the 1890s to the 1936 Crisis and the 19th century context. The rejection of anti-realist readings of Husserl’s philosophy of science is forceful and a very welcome addition to the current debate.

Because of its dismissal of contemporary philosophy of science, however, it can occasionally seem like a book on Husserl for Husserlians. Given the complexity and range of literature discussed, this is not surprising, but there are places where a greater departure from internal questions would have been natural: most clearly, through a more extensive discussion of the lessons from relativistic physics, and by anticipating some questions about the distinction between causal and categorial inference. Husserl’s account is complex and disputed enough to warrant treatment through a book, and Trizio fills an important gap. Those who wish for a connection to contemporary philosophy of science, however, will see room for another.


Bitbol, Michel. 2020. ‘Is the Life-World Reduction Sufficient in Quantum Physics?’ Continental Philosophy Review, October. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-020-09515-8.

Fitch, Frederic B. 1963. ‘A Logical Analysis of Some Value Concepts’. The Journal of Symbolic Logic 28 (2): 135–42.

Hardy, Lee. 2013. Nature’s Suit: Husserl’s Phenomenological Philosophy of the Physical Sciences. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. (1913) 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book. General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Translated by Fred Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

———. 2003. Transzendentaler Idealismus: Texte Aus Dem Nachlass (1908-1921). Edited by R. D. Rollinger and Rochus Sowa. Husserliana 36. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Husserl, Edmund, Thomas Nenon, Hans Rainer Sepp, and Edmund Husserl. 1987. Aufsätze Und Vorträge: 1911-1921. Husserliana 25. Dordrecht ; Boston: M. Nijhoff.

Kinkaid, James. 2020. ‘Husserl, Ideal Verificationism, and the Knowability Paradox’. presented at the Boston Phenomenology Circle Workshop, Boston, MA, November 21.

Meillassoux, Quentin. (2006) 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Raymond Brassier. London: Continuum.

Salerno, Joe, ed. 2009. New Essays on the Knowability Paradox. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Trizio, Emiliano. 2016. ‘What Is the Crisis of Western Sciences?’ Husserl Studies 32 (3): 191–211. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10743-016-9194-8.

Wiltsche, Harald A, and Philipp Berghofer, eds. 2020. Phenomenological Approaches to Physics. Cham: Springer.

Zahavi, Dan. 2017. Husserl’s Legacy: Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Robert Sokolowski: Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology

Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology Book Cover Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology
Robert Sokolowski
Catholic University of America Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by:  Chad Engelland (The University of Dallas)

The fourteen essays in this volume are exercises in what the author terms “applied phenomenology” (ix) in contrast to the formal analyses found in his Presence and Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being. The aim of both volumes is to recover the question of being by reclaiming the truth of appearances.

The essays in this book are attempts to describe various ways in which things can appear: as pictured, quoted, measured, distinguished, explained, meant, and referred to, and also as coming to light in moral conduct. The description of each of these forms is made more vivid and exact by being placed alongside the descriptions of the others. And because appearance always involves that which appears and the one to whom it appears, my essays are meant to be not only an analysis of appearance but also a venture into the question of being and a clarification of what we are. (xiii)

The fourteen essays, arranged in six parts, cover central topics of interest to students and specialists in phenomenology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and ethics. Sokolowski exercises a sovereign philosophical voice that plainly and without fuss lays bare the being of things—and in doing so infectiously invites us to do the same.

In the first part on representations in image and in speech, Sokolowski explores ways of referring to absent things as well as to beliefs other than our own. Picturing requires a unique intentional relation that makes present something that is absent. Naming, by contrast, targets something whether present or absent without making it present in any way. Quoting allows us to target things as intended by others so that we can toggle between our own present articulation of things and those of others without, however, necessarily adopting others’ views as our own.

In the second part on coping with intelligibility, Sokolowski reflects on the explanatory power of strategically distinguishing one thing from another: making sense is not principally a matter of argument or dialectic; it is principally a matter of elucidation by identification with the appropriate kind. For example, pictures are other than quotations and sense is other than reference.

In the third part, Sokolowski details the part-whole structure of time and space and considers themes that arise in the ambit of science concerning the intentionality of timing and of measurement. He also includes a rewarding essay on the relation between the complex world in which we live and the exact one arrived at through the idealizations of science.

In the fourth part, Sokolowski turns explicitly to the philosophy of language and develops, in a phenomenological voice, the difference between sense and reference. He argues that we should “exorcise concepts” as nothing more than a baleful prejudice that, while explaining nothing, generates a host of intractable pseudo-problems. Philosophy’s habitual appeal to concepts comes from a continual failure of nerve, a continual failure to realize that we can and do refer to absent things without the mediation of some sort of present mental entity; in fact, the positing of such an entity is a matter of falling prey to what Sokolowski calls a “transcendental mirage,” a matter of thinking something is there when it is not. Instead, we can handle everything about the phenomenon of language by positing a speaker, speaking about something, to someone. The speaker presents something to someone by means of a “slant” on things. Positing concepts undermines the intentional relation to things; slant-talk reestablishes the fact that speaking is at bottom an issue of the presentation of something to someone. Sokolowski’s analysis of referring nicely displays the advantages of the phenomenological method for exploring the intentionality of naming; it defends both the integrity of ordinary ways of reference and the value of philosophical idealizations of the sort operative in mathematical logic.

In the fifth part, Sokolowski attends to the part-whole structure of sentences and images. Grammar signals not only the thoughtful activity of the speaker but also the need for the listener to undertake the same activity to achieve understanding. Despite a surface similarity between words and pictures, they present things with different conditions of satisfaction.

In the sixth and final part, Sokolowski presents a phenomenology of ethical performance, which develops themes from his Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study. Abstraction stands in the way of moral understanding, which is by nature embodied in the very behavior of morally good agents: “To be able to respond to the natural law—indeed to let it become actual as law, to show by one’s actions what can be done, and thus to make others see what should be done—is to be a certain kind of person: not one who simply conforms to things set down, but one who lets the good appear, to himself and to others, in what he does” (291).

With Sokolowski, the practice of philosophy may be fruitfully understood as a matter of explaining or exhibiting intelligibility by means of carefully distinguishing one thing from another, and of doing so for ourselves and each other together. Hypothesized mental entities only gum up our understanding of language and being; exorcising them allows language to spring again to life so that the wonder-inducing operation of presentation and articulation can once again be registered and appreciated. Those who wish to follow concrete paths into the heart of being could not do better than to pick up this illuminating collection. Highly recommended. 

Maria Gyemant: Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun

Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun Book Cover Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun
Philosophies contemporaines, n° 14
Maria Gyemant
Classiques Garnier
Paperback 29,00 €

Reviewed by: Rayyan Dabbous (University of Toronto)

Psychoanalysis and phenomenology are the two fruits of the same seed – except different gardeners cared for their roots. That image encapsulates Maria Gyemant’s objective in Husserl and Freud: a common heritage, a book with historical and philosophical relevance.

In this review, I walk you through the author’s main discussions: the psychological theories of 19th century philosophers, the status of the unconscious prior to Freud, the relevance of truth before Husserl, the notion of trauma between psychoanalysis and phenomenology, and whether either two thinkers can fairly be called philosophers.

It is a history of philosophy that is at stake in Maria Gyemant’s account – a history intimately related to the origins of psychoanalysis and phenomenology. In 1900, Europe was simultaneously discussing the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams and that of Logical Investigations. Thanks to Maria Gyemant, we now have a proper explanation as to how the rival creeds that divided the 20th century – psychoanalysts and phenomenologists – have common origins.

I. Freud and Husserl, a question of generation

Maria Gyemant first immerses us in the post-Kantian world to which Freud and Husserl belong. “Since all human thoughts unfold in the psyche of subjects,” she notes of the intellectual rationale of the time, “and since the sciences cannot produce except within mental activity, it is the laws of psychology that govern all other human activities,” (15). The Kantian revolution, at the turn of the nineteenth century, severed the bond between objectivity and subjectivity, and Gyemant populates that century of the fractured ego with a set of characters who wished to pick up the pieces; to re-stitch the link between pure mental life and pure reality.

For example, in the post-Kantian response of Wilhelm Wundt, a predecessor to Freud and Husserl, his objective is not to “be dragged into the excess of its opposite and deal with nothing but the will and emotions, but rather to consider that voluntary and intentional action is the paradigm of all psychical processes,” (23). It is a “dynamic vision of psychic life” that Wundt is promoting, as though the presuppositions of his own processors did not allow that dynamism to occur. We notice a similarly-withdrawn intellectual position in Frantz Brentano who “advocated prioritizing description over explanation,” (24) which is also a way to let the psyche speak for itself; rather than repeat what we wish it to speak. These intellectual positions are fertile from a gender studies angle. Were these two thinkers unwittingly responding to the masculine posture of psychology at the time? Or is it rather against the individualistic ethos of Kant’s philosophy – masculinity and individualism belonging together – that the Wundt-Brentano backlash targets in the field of 19th century psychology?

One would assume, at this point, that the responses of Wundt and Brentano suffice to deliver psychology from its Kantian shackles. Yet it is hard to see where the smoke is coming when   one stands too close to the fire – and indeed Gyemant succinctly shows the reasons that psychoanalysis or phenomenology could come not from the generation born in the 1830s but the one quarter of a century later. Gyemant indeed notes how “according to an idea traced back to Kant, the psychic cannot be the object of science because it is not measurable,” (39). The objective of Wilhelm Wundt would be to “show that psychology can be an exact science.” With this goal, “the objective of Wundt, like Brentano’s, was to banish all forms of metaphysics that postulated the existence of a soul,” (40). Of course the problem arising from this banishment is not the taboo against the soul, but the taboo to discuss metaphysics at all; talking about an invisible unconscious or an all-encompassing phenomenological method included. One could argue that such a taboo remains alive nowadays after the usefulness of exact science triumphed post-Einstein.

Gyemant’s book is insightful because it sees Freud and Husserl not as our contemporaries, us who still dabble in psychoanalysis or phenomenology, but as standalone figures who were part of a lost generation. This generation, more or less, is stuck between the philosophically-informed scientific ambitions of the 1830s generation (Wundt, Brentano, but also Ernst Mach, who thought the ego could not be ‘saved’) and the mathematical geniuses born after the mid 1870s, Einstein among them; the generation that abolished metaphysics (and philosophy) for good when physics became the most exact way to measure the world.

We also notice in Gyemant a marriage between these two generations. A student of Wilhelm Wundt, Moritz Geiger (b. 1880), wrote how “it is impossible to describe emotions when they are lived out,” (48). It would take an astute historian to analyse the use of the word ‘impossible’ around the time of Einstein’s revolution. Yet Husserl’s critique against Geiger meant to focus rather on the possible: he “shows that it is not emotions, but reflection in general, that causes the problem,” (49). This inversion – from the im/possibility of quantifying human emotions to the im/possibility of counting on our human intellect – is not only typical of Husserl and Freud, but also their contemporary Henri Bergson, whose critique of the intellect, and quarrel with Einstein, are well known. In any case, whether with Husserl, Freud, or Bergson, we are facing the limits not of ungraspable nature of human emotions (or the human soul) but the limits of the human intellect.

The subject of time, so central in Bergson’s controversy with Einstein, is also what distinguishes Husserl or Freud from the generations that preceded and followed them. For Gyemant notes how “for Husserl as much for Brentano it is time that creates the necessary distance for introspection, but unlike Brentano’s view, it is not because emotion has passed that it is over,” (52). Bergson held a similar view of time, and though Freud will not go as far in words, the continued liveliness of memories is central to his psychoanalysis.

II. Freud, defending the unconscious

After situating Freud and Husserl in their common intellectual context, Gyemant moves to isolate the psychoanalyst and explore the novelty of his theory of the unconscious. The idea that Freud’s unconscious is not new is an attractive topic for all philosophically-minded students of history, who will find parallels with Nietzsche or Schopenhauer. Freud’s snobbery is well known about this subject – he does not read philosophers, he often repeated. Gyemant’s account, in some way, justifies Freud’s claim of uniqueness. She keenly focuses on Brentano’s rejection of the unconscious, manifest in the following claim: “on the question of whether there exists an unconscious consciousness […] we can therefore respond with a categorical no,” (55). For Brentano, “psychical phenomena are all conscious,” (68).

Between a categorical no and the use of all, we begin to understand the animosity against the underground level of our mind which would vindicate Freud’s snobbery against the philosophers. Wundt, him, would also dismiss the unconscious by “relegating it to the rank of physiological processes,” (79). Or there is worse – Gustav Fechner’s view, that “the unconscious is another name for psychical phenomena that are too weak in intensity to cross the threshold of consciousness.” (80). This dismissal should strike us in the same way philosophers since Freud have downplayed his psychoanalysis. Clearly it is a chief concern of philosophy, to ban the unconscious. Perhaps philosophy itself, to preserve its legitimacy, requires its banishment.

It is one thing to be deemed a heretical philosophy – but a hysterical philosopher! Of course Gyemant rightly shows that it is not the philosophers who are heretics – a kind of philosophical establishment rises in her account, one keen on the motto, ‘all is conscious!’ Here we have strayed from the anti-masculine posture of contenting oneself with the description of phenomena rather than its explanation. Even a concession to masculinity remains masculine! Perhaps the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was right, that it is masculinity itself, diluted or not, that is epistemologically restrictive.

But Gyemant points to one predecessor to Freud who accepted the unconscious: Theodor Lipps. Lipps is not too older than Freud, so he does belong to relatively the same generation, but Gyemant makes sure to note that “before Freud, Lipps said in his conference that the unconscious ‘does not appear as an occasional fact but rather as the general base of psychical life,” (77). This is an important claim to locate because within Freud’s originality lies his insistence that the unconscious is constantly working, namely through how “repression does not happen once and for all but it is must be permanently maintained,” (83).

Gyemant very well pins down the important facet of Freud’s psychoanalysis, whose emphasis on the unconscious, ironically, will be downplayed by future psychoanalysts as Elizabeth Young-Bruehl analyzed in her own works. But Gyemant interestingly shows that Freud still has claim for originality over Lipps, for whom “it is essential to preserve a continuity between the conscious phases and the unconscious phases of psychical processes,” (85). Meaning, there cannot be for Lipps an independent unconscious operating on its own. Freud himself would not be opposed to the idea of continuity between conscious and unconscious, but it is true that there cannot be any psychoanalytic methodology if the unconscious is not given its rightful throne through which it could exercise its powers. In some way, with Freud, there must be an impasse in the psyche, there must remain one road or channel of communication completely blocked between the conscious and the unconscious (otherwise, the unconscious itself would be overthrown).

It may be in Freud’s acquiescence to the unconscious, in giving it a throne of its own, that lies philosophy’s aversion to psychoanalysis, for it is philosophy who ought to be the queen of thinking. In some sense, what Freud was claiming for the unconscious was the right for its own empire. The journey of his unconscious, so long persecuted by philosophy, is therefore not unlike the story of prince Abd al-Rahman, whose family, the ruling Umayyads, were overthrown in Damascus by the Abbasid Revolution. Alone this disinherited prince would flee to the extremity of the rising Abbasid Empire, Spain, to establish his own caliphate. Does psychoanalysis not continue to live in a similar way today, it ruling discretely from Cordoba, whereas philosophy rules the lands and the seas comfortably from Damascus?

III. Husserl, defending truth

After sketching the reasons that lead Freud to assiduously defend his theory of the unconscious, Gyemant moves onto tracing the path that led Husserl to defend truth. That truth needed to be defended at all in the nineteenth century is a complex landscape draw out. Reasons for confusion surely arose when the search for objective facts under the emerging scientism of the time collided with the prevailing individualism of the century. How could we assert that truth existed if everyone – poets, philosophers, peoples – claimed their own? Hannah Arendt, herself affiliated to Husserl through Heidegger, was right when she characterized the nineteenth century as a clash between individualism and collectivism, ego mentality and class mentality.

Husserl, according to Gyemant, is cognizant of that clash between subjectivity and objectivity. She interestingly reminds us his interest in the work of his predecessor Bernard Bolzano, who “concludes that truths must have an existence in themselves, whether they were thought or not,” (91). This is a great quote, because it points us to the those few voices in the early-to-mid nineteenth century (Bolzano was born in 1781) who had to insist against both the prevailing subjectivism and idealism of the time that truth did exist. But would Husserl, through Bolzano, be ushering a return to Platonic Ideas, which have an existence of their own? According to Gyemant, it would be the work of another predecessor, Hermann Lotze (b. 1817), which helped Husserl understand that “while Ideas are not, since only things are, they are also not nothing, they have their own ontological status: a validity,” (93). Thus Husserl synthesized his readings of Bolzano and Lotze to reach the conclusion that “it is not the subjective character of acts that are primary when it comes to knowledge, but the objective character of its truths,” (94).

It is not surprising that philosophically-minded mathematicians at the time wondered whether a square existed. Following another student of Brentano, Alexius Meinong, “some philosophers wished to attribute a certain form of minimal existence to inexistent objects,” (94). We learn thanks to Gyemant that Husserl solves this debate in a very cheeky way: “an “inexistent object is not an object at all,” (98) which might be another way of saying that existence is not necessarily the imperative of objects alone. For sometimes “this projection does not meet its target in the real world,” meaning that for Husserl, “even when there is nothing to refer itself to, there is always, in all acts, an objective content,” (99). All acts have an objective content – that is a provocative thought, because it denies the futility of any action, but also of any thought; and hence it is strange that existentialism, concerned with nothingness, would branch off from Husserl’s own disciples, Heidegger and Jaspers, and from them through Sartre and the French existentialists. That is why I qualified Husserl and Freud as belonging to a lost and lone generation – Gyemant’s account demonstrates how their ideas were as strange and revolutionary to those who preceded them as to those who followed them.

Moreover, Gyemant dwells on Husserl’s notion of ‘filledness’ – and that is reminiscent once again of Bergson, who in Creative Evolution deemed ridiculous that philosophers opposed the whole with nothingness, since according to him that meant to oppose the whole with the whole. We are still here circling around the notion of existence; and how could we not think about Rene Descartes’s I think, therefore I am? Of course both Bergson and Husserl (and Freud, but through a detour) stand opposite of Descartes, since they wish to surpass the ego, the I, and look at existence from a general viewpoint.

But Gyemant rightly paints Husserl as a kind of heir of Descartes, when she singles out one quote from his journal: “I have tasted enough the torments of obscurity, of doubt which comes and go. I must arrive to an intimate assurance,” (107). These two sentences encapsulate the brave journey Descartes embarked on to find a similar assurance; except that while Descartes found himself to exist, it seems Husserl landed upon the existence of everything. By finding that totality existed, truth, that last bastion Husserl wished to defend against the scepticism, romanticism, and idealism of his time, appeared to exist along with it.

IV. The notion of trauma

One of the last and curious inquiries Gyemant wages in her book is the question of trauma. She is very right to square Freud and Husserl against each other on the issue, and frankly this moment in her inquiry is the gem in the crown. Gyemant postulates that “psychical trauma, understood as such, seems radically incompatible with the phenomenological idea of an absolute consciousness, which encompasses all psychical possibilities,” (120). Yet trauma, under Freudian inquiry, is precisely that which escapes the conscious; Gyemant rightly notes that it is that which “is impossible to integrate without bringing with it the collapse of the coherence of our world,” (114). Hence why we repress traumatic events; it is a trade-off which our unconscious brands for the greater good. What should we then make of Husserl’s loyalty to the conscious, to its professed ability to grasp everything, including traumatic events?

The disagreement between Freud and Husserl here is about categories and degrees as Gyemant points out: whereas there is a qualitative difference in Freud, between the conscious and the unconscious; for Husserl, there is only a quantitative difference; there is “never night but always dawn,” that is, “there is no distinction of categories but only a gradual distinction,” (128-129). Admittedly, this is a very poetic difference between Freud and Husserl; because their disagreement is about rupture or continuity, the beginning of sin following the irredeemable departure from Eden or the continued love of God in spite of human fault, the final collapse of a long-standing empire or the refusal of nostalgia for a reign not completely lost.

If anyone brought forth such a distinction to Freud’s ears, it would have been Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose psychoanalysis seems to follow a similar aversion to rupture as Husserl’s phenomenology. Hence the disagreement about trauma is not so much between psychoanalysis and phenomenology as between Freud and Husserl, between the founders of these two disciplines, as though the problem were indeed about the very act of founding something; that the founder must decide on very essential laws to their enterprise.

It is a philosophical question on its own to begin musing over whether Freud or Husserl was right, whether categories should exist or whether changes in degree are not neutral. But I do want to dwell on a very provocative insight that Gyemant draws from the debate. “Shouldn’t we then conclude,” she asks, “that trauma is an experience that is inconceivable unless it is attached to an individual subject, imprisoned in a personal history?” (121). Gyemant is telling us that it is only when feel to be individually ourselves, separate and isolated, that trauma becomes relevant to us; that the I feels traumatized only when there is an I.

Here is a very common example illustrating Gyemant’s argument. Many of us will say, after a breakup with a love partner, that we did not feel the pain that the relationship caused throughout its life. We will say, ‘gosh, this was so toxic, I don’t know why only now I am feeling the pain it caused.’ This common experience reveals that when we are not individuals, when we are with someone, as a twoness, trauma does not knock on our doors; it does not or cannot make itself felt, not even symptomatically. It is only when we regain our individuality that pain begins to make sense to us, both psychically and physiologically.

Where does this push our Husserl-Freud debate? For Gyemant, the subject of trauma “creates a hole in the phenomenological coherence of the transcendental ego,” (123). But does it? I am not sure, and I don’t fault Gyemant for not probing further, because the matter appears to be an intellectual rabbit hole. Yet it is so interesting, and we might need another Freud and another Husserl to settle the debate in outlandish terms; for the next frontier of that debate, clearly, has to do with seemingly mystical notions of the self that neither Freud neither Husserl wished to entertain. And maybe they were right not to go there? Jung did, and the rest was history!

V. Freud, Husserl… philosophers?

The last subject Gyemant entertains in her book concerns Freud’s status as a philosopher. She tells us the Freud’s earliest ambitions, regardless of his later dismissal of philosophers, was a “step toward philosophy,” (139). When I read this sentence, I felt compelled to write in the margin: “or poetry?”. For after reading Gyemant’s book, our view of philosophers is rather poor. Freud and Husserl strike to us as anomalies in their epochs, misunderstood poetic insights, and it is of the ironies of history that we remember them both very well today though we might have better understood them had their works remained in obscurity. Husserl is part of the philosophical canon, Freud to a lesser extent – but what does it mean for their respective revolutions, when their works were finally ‘admitted’ into the academy? Gyemant’s book, after all, is a reminder that we misread them both equally. But at what cost do we wish to rehabilitate the images of these two figures; and does rehabilitation mean to call them philosophers?

It may be loftier, to call them poets! But it is also fairer, for while Husserl is regarded as a philosopher, his thinking defied, like Freud’s, the regal innocence of philosophy; or more generally that of the human intellect. But Gyemant’s hunch at the end of her book is right, that after clarifying our relationship with Freud and Husserl, it is our / their rapport with philosophy that should be made clear. This task, too titanic to embark on, might be more suited to the philosophers themselves, who, if we understand Gyemant well, should be critical of their reliance on Husserl if they dismiss Freud, their loyalty to Freud if they dismiss Husserl.


How often did Freud think of Husserl and Husserl of Freud? That is a question Gyemant rightly chooses to ignore: her book brought them closer together in the same way one reminds two estranged brothers that their origins are common. If Freud and Husserl are deemed irreconcilable, it is because they are in some way brothers; that is, by growing up so close, it was natural for them to grow apart. I salute Gyemant’s effort, because she did not succumb to the lassitude with which we normally distinguish both thinkers; a too intellectual lassitude which we ought to discard, and replace with the childlike confidence that no, sometimes, two things, so seemingly different, are one and the same.

Wolfgang Gleixner: endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie, Karl Alber, 2022

endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie Book Cover endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie
Wolfgang Gleixner
Karl Alber

Simone Aurora: Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale, Orhtotes, 2022

Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale Book Cover Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale
Simone Aurora

Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought

Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought Book Cover Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Cultural Memory in the Present
Ethan Kleinberg
Stanford University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg
(Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

Reading Dialectically

1. Content and Structure

To begin, and with consideration for the nature of the journal in which this review appears, it should be acknowledged what this book is not: the work is weakest when it comes to philosophical analysis, for the most part providing descriptions of Levinas’ thought rather than interactions with it (although the latter is not entirely absent). I had expected otherwise and so this was somewhat disappointing, but – to slightly alter the old saying – perhaps we should not judge the book by the subtitle on its cover. The biographical information listed for the author tells us that Ethan Kleinberg is “the Class of 1958 Distinguished Professor of History and Letters at Wesleyan University” (this is also what is given on his institution’s faculty page), and a social media profile (for what such is worth, ours being the digital age) cites his PhD as being in History and Critical Theory. Thus, we should gear ourselves for history, and on that account the work is highly interesting and the reader does indeed gain much insight into Levinas the man from a careful reading of the text. This precisely – the act of careful reading – is the theme which I drew most from Kleinberg’s engaging and enjoyable presentation of Levinas’ Talmudic lectures as I journeyed alongside and through them, and the same shall become our concern in what follows.

A word or two must be given on the unique format that the book employs. Composed of six sections it is divided into four chapters that are flanked naturally enough by an introduction and a conclusion; the chapters, however, are “doubled” in the sense that each contains two separate columns of text which run parallel to each other: picture a single page with prose X on the left side and an entirely disconnected prose Y on the right; turn the page and X continues on as it had been still on the left with Y too carrying forwards on the right. In each of the chapters the right handed Y column ends before the left handed X, and therefore the final few pages simply have that side of the paper blank. It is admittedly not perfectly accurate to describe these two portions as “disconnected” however, for there is a thematic crossover between them which is related to Levinas’ life and personal educational mission. The left side sections offer biographical and institutional narratives connected to Levinas’ series of lectures on passages from the (Babylonian) Talmud delivered to the Colloque des intellectual juifs de langue française in Paris from 1960 to 1989, with an emphasis on what Kleinberg calls the “braid” of Levinas’ influences from and emphases on the trio of Western philosophy, French Enlightenment Universalism, and the Lithuanian Talmudic tradition. (See p. 12; Levinas had learned Talmud study under the mentorship of the well-known but perhaps mysterious Lithuanian master Shushani, being originally of Lithuanian stock himself although his family was forced to flee there for Ukraine after the German invasion of Lithuania in 1915, returning finally in 1920, only for Levinas to decide to leave again to attend university in France in 1923; these and other fascinating details are given in Chapter 1.) The right side sections relate to the content of the lectures themselves, titled respectively: “The Temptation of Temptation” (Shabbath, 88a and 88b); “Old as the World” (Sanhedrin, 36b-37a); “Beyond Memory” (Berakhot, 12b-13a); and “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Sanhedrin, 99a and 99b; note that the transliteration for these tractate names varies slightly from source to source, here I am simply following the spelling given in Kleinberg’s book).

The biographical (left) portion is further categorized as “Our Side” and the Talmudic (right) as “The Other Side” at the opening of each chapter, and these divisions are references to what Kleinberg outlines in the introduction as Levinas’ formulae – after Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, founder of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva – of “God on our side” and “God on God’s own side”: that is, for the “God as revealed in our finite and imperfect world and as such limited by that which we can conceive or imagine” and “the infinite and absolutely transcendent qualities of God that lie beyond our finite abilities to define, conceive, or even name God” (p. 5). We are additionally warned that we must take care (this from Levinas’ thinking) not to presume that what we know from “our side” can be understood as “the essence of God or we reduce God to a mere product of our imagination” (also p. 5). Clearly this makes for a healthy alert prior to any approach for or about the numinous, but there is also a methodological risk here in that these alignments could become useless if taken too seriously, such that the attempt to query and seek God on “God’s side” – however tentatively – is thereby perfunctorily given up; we must have some tools to work with, and moreover the courage to so work. We will therefore try; initially by taking Kleinberg’s “our side” texts before shifting to his “other side”, and finally offering some general summative remarks.

2. “Our Side”

Levinas is probably best remembered for his ethics, and as Kleinberg relates it this in part formed the impetus for Levinas’ pre-war move from Husserl to Heidegger, that it was “through the realization that there was no place for ‘others’ in Husserl’s phenomenological program” and hence the shift to a Heideggerean perspective (one thinks here of Heidegger’s emphases on embedded “world” issues, on Dasein as entering a historical trajectory already “in progress”, and on the necessity of a subject-bound hermeneutics as opposed to (the illusion of) objectivity) which provided Levinas with “themes [that] returned in Levinas’s later writing and in his Talmudic readings when they were recast in relation to his renewed emphasis on Jewish thought” (p. 29). After the war, in the dreadful awakening to the horrors of what came to be called HaShoah (The Catastrophe: the Holocaust) which confronted every thinking and feeling person, but of course most forcefully Europe’s surviving Jews, Levinas re-situated his own commitments to begin to place “his philosophy in terms of his Judaism: ‘My philosophy [this is a quote from Levinas found in the collection Carnets de la captivité (Notebooks from Captivity) published in 1946; he was a prisoner of war] is a philosophy of the face to face. The relation with the other without an intermediary. This is Judaism.’” Hereafter he also withdrew from Heidegger, and he enacted “the substitution of ‘Being-Jewish’ for Dasein” (p. 36).

This particularization and un-finitizing (this blurring) of the self and its place in the cosmos moreover entailed for Jewish identity a necessary tie to the past (election, and therefrom responsibility) within the still-not-yet of the promised messianic future, and it is this orientation to time that distinguishes “Being-Jewish” from, for example, the present focuses of Christianity with its “born anew”, or science with its discovery, or politics with its revolution. Therein lies “the fundamental difference between the ontological meaning of the everyday modern world and the ontological meaning of Being-Jewish” (p. 50). It might be objected at this point that Christianity, science, and politics do each clearly look to their own futures – and in the instances of “new birth”, discovery, and revolution especially so – but perhaps the idea here is that the stresses are on something akin to “May we have it now (new birth, discovery, revolution)” rather than the “split” “Being-Jewish” mindset which always has one eye over its shoulder, as it were, gazing both to the was-then and simultaneously the will-be.

On this issue of identity Kleinberg also locates what he describes as a “blind spot” for Levinas, a level at which he “conserves aspects of the authentic/inauthentic distinction inherited from the philosophy of Heidegger”; evidently this is through the relating of an assimilation into the broader culture with an inauthentic mode of “Being-Jewish” (p. 52). There is an interesting argument here in the sense of assimilated life as less “validly Jewish”, and therefore as juxtaposing with Heidegger’s inauthenticity as less philosophically realized, but for Heidegger inauthenticity was the “thrown” and default condition of the “they” (i.e. everyone) and Dasein needs to make (great) efforts to achieve authenticity, whereas the opposite is the case if one is born into the Jewish lineage: there the efforts required are for assimilation (moving out of one’s heritage, and having to try to be accepted as having so moved out by the “mainstream”), and hence the conceptual matching that Kleinberg asserts is not a perfect fit. Then too we might ask how thin the line is (or should be) between embrace and exclude when it comes to matters of identity, a question that ethically and existentially matters tremendously. Concern for the other is certainly at the core of Judaism, but if each other is always viewed in terms of “Being-Jewish” and vis-à-vis the kind of ranking system thereby implied, then that concern must become colored or even tainted; yet again, if we place ourselves historically in post-war Europe we find our sympathies are unreservedly extended to this manner of thought. It might be that the us/them aspect of any identity simply cannot be rid of the paradoxes and double-edges that adhere: that to ever assert any version of “we” is always and necessarily to negate it in a “they”. Whatever the case may be, this is a critique that Kleinberg returns to in his fourth chapter wherein he cites scholars who have been critical of what they label a hierarchy of people and cultures within Levinas’ writings and, as Kleinberg illustrates, his Talmudic lectures.

Let us though transition from ethics as point of view into ethics within/by/as text (scripture and exegesis), mindful of our stated theme of a “careful reading”. The Talmud came to be central to Levinas for his project of an ethical humanism – the responsibility for the other, facing the other and the taking on of accountability beyond the mere confines of one’s own acts – and that, “For Levinas, ‘the Bible clarified and accentuated by the commentaries of the great age that precedes and follows the destruction of the Second Temple, when an ancient and uninterrupted tradition finally blossoms, is a book that leads us not towards the mystery of God, but towards the human tasks of man’” (p. 73; emphasis in the original). It is the reading of the book (Bible) and the reading of the writings on the book (Mishnah, Talmud, et cetera) that properly conditions one to become a creature who can care, and this understanding both motivated Levinas in his pedagogical objectives and in his – shall we say – seizing of the Talmud away from its customary place in the yeshiva and thrusting it into the academy. Levinas, Kleinberg informs us, “wanted to take control of the chain of transmission, to prolong the spirit of Shushani, and thus to fulfil the call to transmit what has been heard. In essence, Levinas sought to start a new tradition, a new chain of transmission, in keeping with his goals for Jewish education, his reformulation of Judaism as a humanism” (p. 83). This then places us back at the beginning, and the Talmudic lectures themselves.

The initial 1959 lecture that Levinas delivered to the series of colloquia (given at the second commencement, he did not speak at the inaugural meeting) was on the influential philosopher and theologian – or maybe more properly: philotheologian, or theophilosopher – Franz Rosenzweig, but at the third event he presented a Talmud lesson opposite another’s biblical lesson (André Neher; see p. 94). At the time this was quite remarkable; Ady Steg, who would become the president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle from 1985 to 2011, recalled that: “The Bible was familiar to the intellectual world, to the non-Jewish world as well. But the Talmud was something totally ignored, reserved for those good Jews with long beards from Poland to Morocco. The idea that the Talmud could be studied in French, in public, and in the same manner that it was studied by Jews from eastern Europe or from Maghreb [northwest Africa] was extraordinary” (pp. 94-95). This was to become the motif for the years that followed. To Levinas, who accepted the being of God/“God” (I add the scare quotes to allow this concept some attitudinal flexibility), and the subsequent central position God/“God” attains through recognition, an associating with and/or orienting towards the divine was not to be done in the kind of non- (or anti-)rationalist ways that are typical of traditional religion, but instead via the same critical and reason-based thinking which is common in scholarship (p. 112). At numerous points Kleinberg refers to this as Levinas’ “religion for adults”, and the notion seems to have been one that was both dismissive and upholding vis-à-vis faith: denigrating “feeling” faith while lauding “thinking” faith would perhaps be one way to put it. Thus, for Levinas the sacred books were that – sacred – and were moreover of greater value than their interpreters and the schools of interpretation which history has granted alongside them; it is “the text that serves as the conduit or pathway to God on God’s own side” (p. 111). Kleinberg, commenting in general but also specifically about Levinas, remarks that we as readers should not depend upon “the genius of the reader or the writer” but rather “we should look to the transcendent meaning of the text, the opening to the Other that always retains the potential to say more than it says” (p. 126).

There is surely much wisdom in this, but it should also be noted the way that such an approach leaves the door ajar for relativism; Levinas did, it appears, insist on a proper training for taking from the Talmud (adhering to and promoting the method he learned from Shushani), but to bequeath the text (any text) with a “something beyond” is to give it a mysticism that supersedes its actual content (such as is signaled by “conduit”, “pathway”, “opening”, et cetera), and this is a facet of reading that both Levinas and Kleinberg seem comfortable with. Thereby the word can be made to “say” anything, and thusly to actually mean nothing. Yet there is, I think, another possibility here, and that is not to be bothered by this relativism so much as to embrace it in a particular way, to adopt a hermeneutics of the moment, and in this phenomenological reading to take care for the written meaning that one finds from within one’s place at one’s present, without making the additional move of affixing definitiveness to that. We are all, I suppose, postmoderns in this denial of a single, permanent interpretation, but in this latter now-construct just offered it is not a case of everything being there because no-“thing” is “there”, rather that what is there is indeed there but its instantiation rests within a spectrum of potentialities. The text is rooted, what it offers is limited, but even so with a depth that the surface might mask.

These thoughts call to mind Levinas’ concern for dissociating oneself from the prejudices of time, and as we suggested that a reading can be repetitious without ever being repeated (returned and returned to for re- and re-readings without ever finding the same set of results), Levinas advised that we leave aside “what we might call the bias of the modern that includes the presumption that we now know more and better than those who came before us” (p. 161). We do not of course, we merely know differently (as regards the humanities at least, for empirical matters the case is naturally distinct). In such a way Levinas was prepared to let the Talmud, through his “religion for adults”, speak its archaic words to contemporary readers and hearers, and in this he found too (the idea of) God/“God” as the “ethical ground or backstop that keeps reason from devolving into sophistry or the will to power…as the inspiration for good, for Ethics” (p. 138). It will be recognized how close this is to God/“God” as the “call” of writers like John D. Caputo, although on my understanding I suspect that Levinas would give a “meatier” rendering to God/“God” than Caputo might. On this note of the other, then, let us now turn to Kleinberg’s second (the right hand side) column of text – his “The Other Side” – in order to better explore the Talmudic lectures themselves.

3. “The Other Side”

The talk which Kleinberg chooses to begin with concerns itself with what Levinas calls “the temptation of temptation”, namely “the need to make the determination and offer an answer [which then] ascribes that meaning and, in doing so, wrests the event and the possibilities latent in its occurrence away from the Other…creating a closure instead of an opening” (p. 18). As we have here been contemplating, this is quite deleterious to a reading (now-constructed or not) that would be able to take – and be enabling of – an ancient source and apply its voice to the present. Whatever the participants whose discussions are recorded in the Talmud may have had to offer on this or that, the instant we affix Correct Interpretation M to such data then A through L along with N through Z disappear into the aether, leaving us not only the poorer for it but the text itself too greatly reduced. The passage on the page might “be” M now, but we must by all means resist the urge to make it ever-M; and, we may add, the related prompting to make my M forcefully become yours (after all, you could be reading N or O or P, and then let us talk about that and see if we do not in the end arrive at Q, or L). Such dialogical/dialectical proceedings (we will have more to add on this below) are of course not only in accord with the way of the Talmud, they are the way of the Talmud, and as Kleinberg writes, “Levinas instructs us to ‘enter into the Talmud’s game, which is concerned with the spirit beyond the letter, and is, for this reason, very wonderful’” (p. 64).

As an example of this, Kleinberg remarks that for Levinas the history of an institution such as the Sanhedrin “is unimportant, even its historical existence. What is important are the lessons that have been drawn from the Sanhedrin” (p. 55); and by reflecting on this once again we may find our now-construct reading with its rooted but broad word-trees, its textual branches. It does not matter one bit if the Sanhedrin sat in deliberation as is described, nor if its hallowed judges ever lived, what does are the manners by which these stories have been taken and applied to the lived situations of those who read and heard them. This is how the book attains (or is given) timelessness, how it instructs from its own side the reader as hearer as interpreter who then must do something with it today, irrespective of the “when” of its contents. However, in thinking thus we need to also recall the above caution about the inherent spectrums within the words and passages, the caveat that whatever the beauty and the intuited or claimed transcendence of a text, such will never be capable of fully standing outside history (arguably nothing can) and therefore will always be connected to the era of its production and the subsequent recorded interactions of the person(s)/community(ies) with the word. Again, Levinas’ “Being-Jewish” (we might substitute “reading-Jewish(ly)” here) that is at once backwards and forwards-facing. Kleinberg summarizes this aspect with: “the memory need not correlate to an ‘actual’ historical event. This is to say that the ‘memory’ of the exodus from Egypt need not be a memory of something that actually happened but instead the memory must be such that it carries the future within it. The promise for the future is more important than the fidelity to the past” (p. 96). This, I think, is not only indicative of the value a perspective can have but also of that for narratives, for myths and storytelling, for those repeated and beloved tales whose truths are in the virtues they (seek to) impart rather than the information they present. Superman, for instance, never “happened”, but his call for social justice and the championing of the weak (incidentally, highly biblical qualities) are as relevant today as they were when the comic first appeared in 1938; Levinas would no doubt make a very similar remark about the more complex and venerable biblical and extra-biblical incidents with which the Talmud concerns itself (not to compare the two!).

Within this very aspect of the text as having value and being loved, however, lies another danger which Kleinberg introduces in the final lecture he considers: “Contempt for the Torah as Idolatry” (Chapter 4). This is to take the Torah as itself an item due veneration, and Levinas counters this tendency (or temptation) by advising that – as Kleinberg puts it – “The general or universal rule is never enough and must be brought into contact with the actualities of the day [i.e. the reader’s time and place]. Invariable conceptual entities are to be avoided, perhaps, as one resists an idol” (pp. 130-131). For Levinas, a Jewishness which is based on a book (Torah) is that in which one is perforce a student, a reader, and it seems transparent enough that this is the kind of “Being-Jewish” that Levinas wishes to promote. The way, then, to avoid crossing the identity-based matter of “reader” with the commingled risk of an excessive reverence for the object of study is to seek to always read through what might be called a properly dialectical procedure, to move beyond mere dialogue with the words (itself already an improvement on a simple imbibing of the words) and into a realm where the text becomes an Other both affirmed and negated in a synthesis which produces something ever-ongoing: Kleinberg explains, “It is not the context in which the Torah was given that is important nor its status as a religious object. It is the act of reading and interpreting the Torah that brings Revelation to life” (p. 146), and therefore the “right and productive way [to engage the Torah] sees that the Torah must be studied, argued, and debated to be maintained. The wrong way is to take the Torah as a finished product worthy of worship in itself” (p. 148). A good reader, a non-idolatrous reader, will be someone who takes the pages as partners for interaction, who finds in them promptings that are always new and timeless precisely because they are timely, because they are connected to and responsive towards the needs of the moment: unlocked, unshackled from the past which birthed them and which must still nevertheless be known yet without allowing that information to circumspect their potential today. Kleinberg very colorfully describes the opposite of the dynamic approach just outlined as a version of “dogmatism” that “results in a harvest that cannot be consumed because the sowing has ceased” (p. 150). The message – its meaning, exercise, possibly even assessment – must be queried, argued, and found from what thereby emerges: again and again, world without end. The summary Kleinberg gives for Levinas’ focus is that, “Studying must not be a devotion in the sense of piety to an immobile code or rote memorization but a motion forward that reveals the way that such a self is always a work in process, a construction, an other me that can be a better me. As such, it is also an opening to the other” (p. 151).

It will be realized that the “self” of these concerns – for Levinas – is naturally connected to “Being-Jewish”, and Kleinberg transitions in his conclusion to contemplate some critics of Levinas’ work on these matters who find a (perhaps unbeknownst) favoritism or elitism within them that promotes his own in-group above all others. This is a matter of deep gravity for any system that would orient itself ethically, as both Levinas and the Talmud itself does, and moreover for one also dedicated to the legacies of Western philosophy and French Enlightenment Universalism (as Levinas was, outlined above), but it is also one terribly complicated by the “facts on the ground” of Jewish existence that at least in its Diaspora but possibly – in this globalized world – even in Eretz Yisrael faces regular threat and pressure to “be” elsewise. Levinas had lived through the Second World War, he had lost his family to the horrors of its pogroms, and he took it upon himself to struggle to assert a Jewish identity that could be proud and noble without retreating into either what he viewed to be a naïve form of Orthodoxy or a self-negating assimilation in the wider European (or other) culture: both of which would be a disappearance. Kleinberg wonders if these longings might not be extended further than the default exemplarism that comes part and parcel with membership-by-birth, reasoning that it is perhaps via a personal approach wherein such could be found: “He [Levinas] sought to make the past present for the future by blowing on the coals and reigniting the fire that he believed lives within the sacred texts of Judaism. It is in the relationship that we each can have with the text and not through the institutions that guard them” (p. 179). I sympathize with these thoughts, and certainly agree that almost limitless wisdom can be mined from the vast catalogue of writings that Judaism in its many formations has produced over the millennia, but I judge that too much structuring of self and personhood occurs from inside a belonging to permit a similarity of (let alone an equality of) reception to take place. “Being-Jewish” is something one cannot have without the constructive accoutrements that affix from the multitudinous angles of a people and a culture. Levinas wished to help his half-assimilated and/or “hidden” cohorts embrace themselves through his “religion for adults”; and with that as goal, and seen from inside that mindset, I think the preferentialism we can find in these lectures is probably inevitable. For the purposes they serve, moreover, that might not be a negative point.

4. A (Re-)Return to (Re-)Reading

In his turn to Talmud we find in Levinas a “return”, and thus we must invoke the concept of teshuvah, the “turning back” from having “gone astray” or – more colloquially – from “missing the mark”. We have not done what we ought to; we have not been as much as we could have; we have not lived up to our potential, or our calling. The challenge, the beckon, is always there: do (be) better, more. Levinas’ was a mission of education and encouragement, to go back and back and back to the text to seek from it what one may need in the moment for that moment, knowing full well that there can never be a mastery and that each re-reading is a confrontation anew. Kleinberg has given us an excellent snapshot of this facet of the great philosopher, of this piece of time within the man’s life, the concerns that enshrouded it and the motivations that animated it. The “stacked” or “doubled” nature of the four chapters that each contain biographical narratives alongside excerpts from and comments on the Talmudic lectures compel the reader to decide which he will engage with first (a strategy Kleinberg outrightly states in his introduction: this is the point of his arranging the book this way), and the choice may be self-revelatory in one way or another. Whether that is the case or not though, the opposite tack can thereafter be taken upon a second reading (“Our Side”/“The Other Side”: “The Other Side/“Our Side”; or vice versa), a notion one suspects Levinas would agree with (and probably Kleinberg be pleased by). The issue is a fittingly Jacobean one of “wrestling with God” (Genesis 32), of trying and trying and trying, of never giving up despite openly recognizing that there can be neither a completion nor finality. Kleinberg demonstrates how the Talmudic talks can be placed into Levinas’ broader oeuvre, and thereby how the treatments given in their contents might be matched with our own era and struggles for identity, purpose, and meaning. Levinas, along with his earlier contemporary and fellow imaginatively thinking European Jew Martin Buber, was an intellect of the other, of ethics, of relation. This too is a journey that does not end, but through our constant revisiting – and re-pondering – of the texts that help us on the way, may it be we find companions as provocative as these.

Sara Heinämaa, Mirja Hartimo, Ilpo Hirvonen (Eds.): Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity, Routledge, 2022

Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity: Norms, Goals, and Values Book Cover Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity: Norms, Goals, and Values
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Sara Heinämaa, Mirja Hartimo, Ilpo Hirvonen (Eds.)
Hardback £96.00

Stefano Micali: Tra l’altro e se stessi

Tra l’altro e se stessi: Studi sull’identità Book Cover Tra l’altro e se stessi: Studi sull’identità
L'occhio e lo spirito
Stefano Micali
Paperback 29,00 €

Reviewed by: Francesca Righetti (Ruhr-University of Bochum)

Tra l’altro e se stessi di Stefano Micali si propone di indagare il rapporto tra l’identità singolare e l’alterità attraverso temi e prospettive eterogenee incorniciati all’interno degli studi fenomenologici. L’indagine riguarda non solo il rapporto dialettico tra il proprio e l’estraneo, ma anche l’alterità che appartiene alla nostra stessa soggettività, e che può presentarsi nei termini della sorpresa dell’incontro con l’altro.

Probabilmente chi compra un libro che promette un’analisi fenomenologica sull’intersoggettività, non si aspetta di trovarsi a leggere un elaborato che inizia presentando un lavoro comparativo tra Kant e Ginzburg; che passa poi allo studio della soggettività attraverso la stupidità e il senso comune; e infine si conclude con un’indagine sulla preghiera rivolta a Dio. L’autore, tuttavia, riesce a mettere insieme argomenti e metodi eterogenei dentro la stessa cornice dell’indagine sull’io e sull’altro.

Va subito precisato che Tra l’altro e se stessi è una raccolta di articoli precedentemente pubblicati, i quali sono stati rielaborati  per questa pubblicazione, approfondendo la complessità della soggettività e dell’alterità attraverso prospettive e ambiti diversi. Per questa ragione, l’opera presenta una ricchezza argomentativa che non sarà possibile riportare nella sua completezza e complessità in questa recensione. Il mio scopo, piuttosto, sarà quello di evidenziare il filo rosso che lega i capitoli e presentare trasversalmente l’argomentazione di Micali.

Il libro si divide in tre parti. La prima, composta da due capitoli, approfondisce alcune questioni metodologiche della fenomenologia, come intitola Micali, “dall’esterno” o “dal di fuori”, volendo leggere La Critica del Giudizio di Immanuel Kant e le opere di Carlo Ginzburg attraverso le lenti del metodo fenomenologico. Questa prima parte si rivela interessante perché pone l’accento sulle domande riguardo cosa sia la fenomenologia e come identificarla: indagini metodologiche condotte, per l’appunto, da una prospettiva  esterna e  utili per riflettere criticamente sulle pratiche fenomenologiche stesse. La seconda parte è composta da tre capitoli ed è intitolata “aspetti della soggettivazione”, il cuore stesso del libro. Attraversando tre argomenti differenti (la stupidità, il riconoscimento del bisogno e il ruolo del terzo mediante nell’etica), Micali mette a fuoco la genesi della soggettivazione e il rapporto del soggetto con l’alterità. Infine la terza parte, che comprende gli ultimi due capitoli, risponde a due criticità identificate nella seconda sezione e presenta alcuni casi estremamente particolari del rapporto tra il soggetto e l’altro: il fenomeno della depressione e della preghiera a Dio, al fine di studiare tale rapporto ex negativo.

Parte I – La fenomenologia dal di fuori

Il filo rosso che lega i primi due capitoli del libro riguarda il concetto di straniamento, presentato utilizzando i metodi filosofici di Kant e Ginzburg come oggetto di studio. Nello specifico, per quanto riguarda il primo capitolo sul carattere del giudizio di gusto in Kant (1997), cercherò di far emergere il carattere tautegorico e l’attenzione verso la singolarità, che mi permetteranno di identificare il rapporto tra il bello e lo straniamento.

Nel primo capitolo, Micali propone una rilettura della Critica del Giudizio in cui gli elementi dell’opera possano essere utili in ambito fenomenologico e nella filosofia contemporanea. Per farlo, suggerisce di affrontare la questione seguendo quattro diversi momenti di analisi: 1) introdurre il concetto di giudizio riflettente estetico; 2) analizzare il carattere di finalità e la pretesa di universalità; 3) discutere l’articolazione tra sentire e pensare; e infine 4)  riflettere sul carattere disinteressato del giudizio di gusto comparato all’attitudine fenomenologica.

Il carattere tautegorico si riferisce al terzo momento dell’analisi, ovvero all’articolazione tra sentire e pensare. Per chiarire questo concetto, dobbiamo prima concentrarci brevemente sulla definizione del giudizio di gusto. Esso è 1) sintetico, “poiché il piacere oltrepassa tanto il concetto quanto l’intuizione dell’oggetto” (p. 15); e 2) a priori, perché intende essere condiviso da ognuno universalmente: “Chi afferma che qualcosa è bello intende definire una qualità dell’oggetto come se si trattasse di un giudizio logico” (p. 19).

Tuttavia, il problema dell’universalità del piacere è uno scomodo dilemma con cui Kant ha dovuto confrontarsi, poiché parte dal presupposto che l’universalità non appartiene al piacere – che invece è sempre particolare e particolarizzante – ma esclusivamente alle facoltà conoscitive, all’uso della logica e dell’intelletto. Come è possibile allora motivare che il giudizio sul bello abbia una vocazione all’universalità?

Per rispondere a questa domanda, l’autore propone l’interpretazione di Lyotard (1991), il quale afferma che l’analisi kantiana del giudizio di gusto, nei termini di qualità, quantità, relazione e modalità, tradisce un presupposto di fondo: ovvero che “i giudizi estetici possono essere analizzati soltanto attraverso un riferimento alle categorie dell’intelletto” (p. 23). Ed è qui che interviene il carattere tautegorico. Lyotard chiarisce che il piacere è un effetto del nostro essere riflettenti: del nostro sentirci pensanti o pensiero senziente nel momento in cui il bello si manifesta. Tale sensazione ci segnala il nostro proprio modo d’essere: di conseguenza, il piacere è una risonanza dell’atto del piacere. Il carattere tautegorico si collega al concetto di straniamento presentato nel capitolo successivo, in quanto  durante la percezione dell’arte o del bello si riconosce un’alterità in se stessi: in altre parole, si assume una prospettiva esterna, in cui il soggetto si compiace e stupisce di essere in grado di percepire e di riconoscere il bello.

Micali conclude che “questa risonanza […] non deve essere interpretata in relazione all’auto-rapportarsi del sé con se stesso” (p. 24), bensì come un sentire incompatibile con l’io trascendentale, che invece ospita il sé. Micali non approfondisce l’analisi su questo sé “ospitato”, ma invita le future ricerche a indagare i rapporti affettivi che modellano il sé, in analogia alla sensazione descritta nel giudizio riflettente estetico.

Un’osservazione rilevante dal punto di vista metodologico dell’analisi di Micali riguarda il giudizio estetico riflettente. L’attenzione si rivolge alla “fenomenalità precipua della singola apparizione nella sua fatticità, ovvero rispetto a quanto nella sua unicità e contingenza appare improvvisamente come bello” (p. 25). Questo interesse per l’emergenza del fenomeno nella sua singolarità, insieme al carattere disinteressato del giudizio riflettente del gusto, richiamano due fondamentali principi della pratica dell’analisi fenomenologica: lo studio del fenomeno nelle sua modalità di apparizione originaria e singolare, e il metodo dell’epochè, volta a sospendere l’attitudine naturale verso il mondo. L’incontro con il fenomeno nella sua singolarità porta allo stupore e allo straniamento, che a sua volta ci conduce alla sospensione del giudizio. Il concetto di straniamento viene poi approfondito nel capitolo successivo.

Chi come me è affascinato dalla microstoria e dalla scrittura di Ginzburg, sarà meravigliato dal capitolo a lui dedicato. Il capitolo è diviso in due parti: nella prima viene analizzato lo stile di ricerca di Ginzburg, nella seconda si considera il modello epistemologico dello straniamento.

Micali sostiene che lo stile di Ginzburg della polifonia e del mantenimento di tutte le voci dei protagonisti delle sue storie, senza un appiattimento sotto un’unica coscienza narrativa, è lo strumento stilistico che permette di comprendere l’alterità. In altre parole, Ginzburg sorprende il lettore, attraverso uno stile conduttore di contenuti che permettono di atterrire e di provocare un disorientamento di fronte all’alterità (sociale, culturale e identitaria). Tutti i presupposti di senso comune vengono sovvertiti attraverso l’incontro di microcosmi, di vite e di epoche molto lontane,socialmente e culturalmente, da noi.

Secondo la ricostruzione di Micali, l’interesse di Ginzburg per lo straniamento nasce dallo studio di Sklovskij (1976) sulla questione della natura dell’arte nel contesto del formalismo russo. Secondo Sklovskij, “l’arte è in grado di sospendere gli automatismi che caratterizzano il nostro rapporto con il mondo circostante” (p. 52). In questo modo, il problema dell’attitudine naturale verso il mondo si definisce più chiaramente: il nostro rapporto con il mondo cade sotto l’influenza dell’abitudine e lo straniamento diventa uno strumento a favore della sospensione di questo rapporto. Il momento sovversivo e fanciullesco di incontrare la realtà come fosse la prima volta: è una prospettiva che ci permette di dubitare del senso comune che noi stessi abitiamo.

Secondo Micali, attraverso il suo stile e particolare approccio alla ricerca, Ginzburg compie lo stesso lavoro di straniamento, che ci permette di assumere prospettive nuove per guadagnare “una distanza critica da quanto è immediatamente vissuto in modo così ovvio da rimanere invisibile” (p. 38). Da una parte, lo stile polifonico conduce al lavoro etico di dare voce a ogni personaggio, soprattutto quando marginalizzato. La motivazione che muove il lavoro di Ginzburg infatti è stata probabilmente determinata dall’idea di Benjamin di riscattare il passato degli oppressi: “riscattare la voce sofferente (e molto reale) dell’altro, dello sconfitto, del perseguitato” (p. 39). Curiosa è d’altronde la nota tra parentesi, “molto reale”, sottolineando un altro aspetto filosofico del lavoro di Ginzburg: ovvero l’obiettivo di contrastare le derive post-moderne e decostruttiviste che conducono alla confusione tra realtà e finzione, tra testo ed evento. “Se il confine tra realtà e finzione diventa completamente fluido, si perde la possibilità di rendere giustizia alle flebili voci degli sconfitti” (p. 40).

Dall’altra, si rileva un inaspettato ponte tra Ginzburg e Merleau-Ponty: entrambi mirano a indagare l’essere umano all’interno della “intersezione tra attività simboliche e la nostra costituzione corporea” (p. 72). Contrapposto all’universale verticale, approccio antropologico che ha la pretesa di cogliere tutte le culture attraverso categorie universali, l’approccio di ricerca filosofica che accomuna Ginzburg e Merleau-Ponty è l’universale laterale, che accetta le differenze incompatibili di tipo simbolico e culturale, ma mira “alle identificazioni universali ancorate alla nostra costituzione corporea” (Ivi).

Per concludere, l’analisi attraverso le opere di Ginzburg e la microstoria risulta essere rilevante in due direzioni: metodologica ed etica. A livello metodologico, il percorso che procede dall’identità storica a quella personale, da Ginzburg a Levinas, sembra calcare la tradizione ermeneutica di Ricœur (2004), considerando l’epistemologia della storia e la fenomenologia come “due facce della stessa medaglia” (Dessingué 2019). A livello etico, la microstoria ci dà la possibilità di guardare con occhi diversi la nostra identità e la cultura entro la quale l’abbiamo costruita. All’interno dell’etica e della filosofia (vengono in mente autori come Marcuse 1999, Simmel 1976, Rorty 2008), lo straniero è considerato un potente medium per guardare alla propria identità culturale da un nuovo punto di vista.

Parte II – Aspetti della soggettivazione

La seconda parte del testo è dedicata ad alcuni modi fondamentali della soggettivazione, ovvero della formazione dell’identità attraverso dinamiche esistenziali di individuazione. Il terzo capitolo è uno studio sulla stupidità che ha l’obiettivo di avere uno sguardo privilegiato sul senso comune e sul nostro rapporto con esso, facendo così da ponte fra la prima e la seconda parte del libro. Con il quarto e il quinto capitolo Micali presenta il cuore del tema indagato e che motiva il titolo stesso del libro, “tra l’altro e se stessi”: lo studio dell’identità attraverso l’interlocuzione, il rapporto tra l’infante e l’adulto, il ruolo del terzo mediante, l’aspetto della giustizia etica attraverso lo sguardo del terzo. Prendiamo ora in esame i singoli capitoli.

Secondo Micali, l’indagine sulla stupidità deve partire dalle seguenti considerazioni. 1. Bisogna rimanere fedeli al principio fenomenologico di ritenere la stupidità un fenomeno specifico che non va ridotto al suo opposto, l’intelligenza. 2. Non si deve, tuttavia, ignorare la sua relazione con l’intelligenza, in quanto influenzerà il nostro modo di considerare la ragione. Per questi motivi, l’autore suggerisce di adottare un approccio olistico (Goldstein 1939, Canguilhem 1991), nonché di affrontare i fenomeni della mente da un punto di vista ecologico: fenomeni come la stupidità non hanno un valore assoluto in termini negativi, ma risultano funzionali o disfunzionali esclusivamente in rapporto all’ambiente circostante.

Innanzitutto, come evidenzia Micali, ogni tentativo di definire la stupidità sembra essere riduttivo: l’essere umano si trova ad affrontare infinite situazioni e, di conseguenza, infinite dovranno essere le forme di stupidità generate. Il suo obiettivo è quello di concentrarsi esclusivamente sulla forma di stupidità che riguarda e influenza la dimensione dell’identità e della soggettività.

Per questo, Micali presenta il contributo di Alain Roger (2008) sulla stupidità. Nonostante le criticità del suo lavoro, particolarmente interessanti sono i suoi meriti secondo Micali, in particolare l’aver evidenziato il ruolo della tautologia all’interno del paradigma del senso comune e della stupidità. Sia a livello sintattico sia a livello contenutistico, la tautologia è un potente strumento di violenza identitaria: si prenda come esempio il caso di alcune minoranze che sono costrette a sentirsi definite da membri esterni, con l’utilizzo di tautologie  che veicolano stereotipi e pregiudizi.

In seguito, Micali esplora l’idea che la stupidità possa appartenere a due estremi dell’identità soggettiva: alla coscienza assoluta anarchica che fa e dice tutto ciò che pensa senza freni oppure al polo opposto dello spirito di serietà, che si sovra-identifica con un ruolo sociale. Secondo Roland Breeur (2015), tale sovra-identificazione tradisce una segreta angoscia e paura nell’assenza di volto della coscienza assoluta. Contrariamente a questa linea di pensiero, adottando la metafora del fondo di Deleuze (2011), Micali vuole esplorare l’idea opposta, ovvero che chi dice o si comporta in modo stupido si possa compiacere di se stesso. Nonostante originariamente complesso, il fondo deleuziano va compreso nei termini del senso comune, nonché “inteso come insieme infinitamente complesso di eterogenei dispositivi sociali e di paradigmi epistemici che ci prendono e da cui proveniamo” (p. 99). Attraverso il linguaggio, assorbiamo dall’altro il senso comune in cui siamo immersi sin dalla nascita. Partendo da questa nozione, l’autocompiacimento dello stupido consisterebbe quindi nello sguazzare nei comportamenti trasmessi dalla società al fine dell’appiattimento alla norma: “Questa risalita del fondo può manifestarsi come auto-compiacimento del (e nel) triviale, triviale intersoggettivamente condiviso” (Ivi).

In conclusione, l’analisi di Micali mira ad argomentare che il fastidio provato di fronte all’incontro con la stupidità consisterebbe nel ricordare “l’indifferenziato punto di partenza” o il fondo a cui tutti apparteniamo. L’incontro con la stupidità sembra riportarci a quel senso comune da cui ci eravamo allontanati con la soggettivazione e la formazione identitaria. In questo modo Micali è in grado di concludere che:

Nella stupidità dell’altro vediamo riemergere quel fondo di luoghi comuni, di atteggiamenti affettati, di valori che sono stati da noi incorporati prima ancora di poter porre in essere una qualunque distanza critica verso di essi (p. 100).

In continuità con la costruzione dell’identità individuale dal fondo sociale a cui tutti siamo appartenuti (o continuiamo ad appartenere per certi aspetti), i due capitoli successivi mirano a indagare il concetto della terza persona in rapporto all’ordine di giustizia. Inizialmente, nel quarto capitolo, si approfondisce il rapporto tra la prima e la seconda persona, presentando il problema dell’appropriazione dell’essere da parte dell’altro. Questa appropriazione avviene attraverso il logos, o detto altrimenti attraverso la semiotica del bisogno. Usando l’accurata descrizione di Olivetti (1992), Micali presenta quattro stadi della dinamica dialettica del riconoscimento del bisogno nel rapporto infante-adulto, che conduce alla genesi della soggettività e in cui l’ultimo stadio coincide con la nascita dell’autocoscienza. Egli sostiene che l’interlocuzione permette di esplorare la nascita del soggetto, senza la necessità di dare valore fondativo all’autocoscienza. All’interno di questa relazione dialettica “si manifesta la traccia della terza persona” (p. 110): sia in rapporto al dire, sia in rapporto al rispondere. Nel dire, la società (la terza persona) si impone attraverso il linguaggio, ereditando significati, storie e memorie della comunità (un noi a cui si comincia ad appartenere). Nel rispondere, il soggetto misura la sua responsabilità nei confronti della società. Quest’ultima viene affrontata nei termini di giustizia etica nel capitolo successivo.

Nel quinto capitolo, infatti, questa distinzione del ruolo del linguaggio tra dire e rispondere viene presentata di nuovo nei termini di “donazione di senso” e “senso etico” facendo riferimento al lavoro di Levinas (1998). L’incontro con l’alterità si presenta attraverso il linguaggio e le espressioni linguistiche che dichiarano le manifestazioni infinite dell’altro. Queste ultime mettono in dubbio “il proprio mondo e se stessi:  tramite l’incontro con l’Altro affiora un senso di ordine differente […] che mi chiama e mi ordina di sacrificare la mia felicità” (p. 117). Infatti, in Totalità e Infinito (1998) Levinas introduce una dualità e un’ambiguità sul ruolo della terza persona: esso non è solo il sofferente che ci appella per il riconoscimento della sua fragilità, ma è anche lo sguardo sociale che ci chiama alla responsabilità verso l’alterità.

Da una parte, nell’incontro, la fragilità dell’altro nella sua esistenza mortale (“l’Altro nella sua nudità” p. 119) mi fa vergognare delle possibilità e potenzialità che ho di ferirlo in quanto essere umano. Secondo Levinas, da un lato, questo senso di fragilità permette all’io di trovare il suo senso ultimo: la sua propria umanità. Dall’altro, lo sguardo (giudicante) dell’Altro deforma le mie responsabilità nei confronti del mio interlocutore. In altre parole, l’Altro “mi fa dono di ciò che non era in me” (Ivi), ovvero mi introduce a una nuova dimensione di senso e attua l’etica della responsabilità che possiedo nei confronti del terzo: in questo dono o in questa anteriorità del terzo che mi precede nell’introduzione di senso, si può rintracciare l’analogia tra l’Altro e Dio.

Dall’altra, lo sguardo della società è costantemente assente e presente nel verbo e nel linguaggio: “esso non si esaurisce nel mettere in discussione il mio essere, ma include il momento della predica, dell’esortazione, della parola profetica” (p. 123). Al doppio ruolo del terzo, corrispondono due diverse forme di responsabilità. Al terzo come “umanità che ci guarda” (cfr, p. 124), bisognerà presentarsi nella forma della parola profetica; diversamente, verso il terzo nei termini del sofferente, il rapporto di responsabilità dovrà attuarsi nell’ eccomi.

In Altrimenti che essere (1983), Levinas abbandona uno dei due ruoli della “terza persona”, ovvero quello dello “sguardo”, e conseguentemente modifica il rapporto tra la prima e la seconda persona che precedentemente aveva bisogno del terzo perché il soggetto venisse a conoscenza del suo proprio senso. Tuttavia, in quest’opera, Levinas rileva e presenta un secondo conflitto, determinato da due ruoli della terza persona: l’appello del Volto e l’appello del terzo. Conflitto che, come sottolinea Micali, non è risolvibile pacificamente. A differenza che in Totalità ed infinito, dove il soggetto è sin da subito “votato per l’altro”, arrivando al punto dell’annichilimento della persona e della sostituzione all’altro; qui sembra presentarsi un annichilimento della volontà, per “rimettersi alla volontà del Padre” (cfr. p. 123) o del Padrone che mi comanda. L’altro in questo caso è rappresentato dal Volto, che nei termini di Levinas significa obbedienza a un ordine di giustizia e di volontà. Va ricordato che in Levinas tale obbedienza è una costrizione alla bontà “per servire Altri e per sostituirmi a loro” (p. 125). In questo contesto, però, il soggetto diventa ostaggio del Volto, ossia è costretto a essere votato all’altro ancora prima di cominciare a esistere in quanto soggetto.

A questo punto si inserisce l’altro ruolo della terza persona: quello di “limitare la mia soggezione” nei confronti dell’altro. “Il terzo introduce l’ordine di giustizia: io non sono solo responsabile nei confronti del mio prossimo, ma di chi è assente, del prossimo del mio prossimo” (p. 126). Moderando questa sostituzione introduce un ordine di giustizia diverso da quello del Volto.

Nell’architettura di Levinas, Micali tuttavia rileva due criticità, ben condivisibili. La prima criticità riguarda il ruolo del terzo e il suo rapporto con il soggetto. Per quanto Levinas sia interessato esclusivamente all’attuazione dell’etica e a quello che è stato definito “costrizione di bontà”, rimane il temibile problema del male. In un’intervista del 1982, intitolata Filosofia, giustizia e amore, viene posta la seguente domanda, che riassume paradigmaticamente il problema dell’architettura di Levinas: ha il carnefice un Volto? La risposta di Levinas esclude l’io dall’ordine di giustizia tramite la resistenza al male. Il rischio della sostituzione e del sacrificio – osserva Micali – è quello però di una “scrupolosità esacerbata, pericolosamente prossima a disturbi di tipo psicopatologico” (p. 130). In contrasto con la posizione di Levinas, Micali suggerisce di includere il soggetto nell’ordine di giustizia, e cioè dare la possibilità al soggetto di rispettarsi come terzo del proprio terzo, e di preservare se stesso dall’arbitrio dell’altro.

Come diretta conseguenza dell’analisi presentata, ritengo, tuttavia, che Micali avrebbe potuto proseguire rilevando un altro aspetto problematico della costruzione dell’identità individuale. Riepilogando, abbiamo detto che il Volto rappresenta un ordine di giustizia e si declina nei termini dell’annichilimento della volontà personale a favore di quella del Padre. Questa retorica dell’annichilimento diventa rischiosa durante il processo di costruzione identitaria: ovvero quello della pressione ad aderire a modelli determinati esclusivamente dal Volto, nonché dall’ordine sociale prestabilito. Potrebbe qui essere utile fare riferimento al concetto di “bisogno di riconoscimento” utilizzato da Micali nel capitolo precedente. Anche al giungere dell’autocoscienza e della soggettivazione, questo bisogno potrebbe non esaurirsi nell’identità riconosciuta per se stessi, ma potrebbe estendersi e approfondirsi: in larghezza e in profondità, il riconoscimento del bisogno diventa bisogno di essere riconosciuti nei propri modi di soggettivazione dalla società. Quando questo riconoscimento viene negato, quello sguardo a cui si riferisce Micali potrebbe non declinarsi nella spinta etica al rispetto della vita dell’altro, ma potenzialmente nella marginalizzazione.

La seconda criticità rilevata dall’autore, infine, è quella della riduzione della manifestazione di Dio esclusivamente ai termini della mia responsabilità dell’Altro. Come Micali osserva, ci sono altri modi di manifestazioni di Dio, per esempio l’atto della preghiera.

Parte III – Affezione e intersoggettività

L’ultima parte di questo libro si muove a partire proprio da queste due criticità: da una parte, la necessità di definire il rapporto tra se stessi e l’altro ex negativo, ovvero attraverso il caso disfunzionale della depressione; dall’altra, la manifestazione di Dio attraverso la preghiera.

Il settimo capitolo è tra i più interessanti e meglio argomentati. Micali riprende il problema posto nei capitoli precedenti e lo rilegge all’interno della dinamica fra il soggetto depresso e gli altri. Come nelle altre sezioni, l’autore parte dal presupposto che il rapporto tra due soggetti si basi su un’asimmetria originaria che tradisce una priorità dell’altro rispetto al sé. Lo aveva mostrato esplicitamente nel capitolo quinto quando aveva evidenziato che l’infante dà significato al proprio bisogno partendo dalle risposte dell’adulto. Lo aveva espresso poi eticamente attraverso l’incontro con l’altro che dà il senso ultimo alla propria umanità. Adesso, nel rapporto con il depresso, l’asimmetria diventa particolarmente chiara in rapporto a determinate condizioni affettive, come la vergogna.

Nel caso della vergogna, il processo di identificazione inizia dagli occhi di colui che mi osserva: “nella vergogna si acuisce il senso di ritrovarsi a essere quanto è riconosciuto dall’altro” (p. 138). Tuttavia, come ben riporta Micali attraverso Kierkegaard (1993), è necessario considerare che il sé è un rapporto: ciò significa che non vi è una lettura unidirezionale dell’altro sul sé. Di fronte alla lettura dell’altro sul mio comportamento e la mia identità, io ho la possibilità di rispondere e di modificare questo sguardo. Inoltre, non bisogna dimenticare che le considerazioni dell’altro sul mio comportamento nascono certamente dal mio comportamento stesso. Per concludere: questa asimmetria relazionale ha un fondamento comunque bidirezionale, in cui il soggetto ha la possibilità di modificare lo sguardo degli altri e di presentarsi agli altri nella sua esclusiva volontà di identificazione.

Partendo da queste premesse, Micali si pone l’obiettivo di fornire un’analisi fenomenologica della depressione, indagando il fenomeno attraverso le categorie husserliane di Innenleiblichkeit e Aussenleinblichkeit (Husserl 1973). Successivamente procede con l’analisi della mancanza di senso, tipica della depressione, e della mancanza di affettività, che si riassume con la sensazione di vuoto. Infine mette in relazione queste due caratteristiche della condizione depressiva con il rapporto con l’altro.

In un articolo del 2013 (Micali 2013), aveva già analizzato questo rapporto chiasmatico nei termini delle menzionate nozioni husserliane. Il termine Innenleiblichkeit è una categoria che accompagna il sentire delle funzioni propriocettive e affettive. Invece, Aussenleinblichkeit riguarda l’espressività del proprio corpo. Naturalmente, “il proprio sentire interno si manifesta in espressioni visibili all’altro ma non coincide mai con esse” (p. 140). Nel rapporto non patologico, i soggetti di un’interazione sono consapevoli dello scarto tra ciò che si vive e ciò che si manifesta. Per esempio, non si è mai assolutamente certi se e in che misura il disagio provato in una situazione sia visibile. Nel rapporto chiasmatico con un soggetto depresso, Micali sostiene che questa comprensione tra Innenleiblichkeit e Aussenleinblichkeit viene meno o “produce un corto-circuito” (p. 141). In altri termini, il depresso crede che la sua condizione interna disperata sia visibile a tutti. Tra i pazienti intervistati da Micali, c’è una certa persistenza nel dichiarare che non riescono a sostenere l’incontro con altre persone, perché queste ultime possono vedere chiaramente la loro condizione disperata. Micali suggerisce che l’indagine deve procedere mettendo in relazione il senso di vergogna con il rapporto chiasmatico tra Innenleiblichkeit e Aussenleinblichkeit.

Infine, è molto interessante l’ultimo argomento del capitolo, dove l’autore presenta il rapporto affettivo che il soggetto depresso ha con gli altri, declinato nella sensazione di vuoto e di aggressività. La relazione con l’altro è caratterizzata per lo più dalla sensazione di vuoto affettivo, paradigmaticamente raccontato da una delle pazienti di Micali come un reale vuoto spaziale che non permette al soggetto di raggiungere gli altri. Così come il soggetto si sente visto e caratterizzato esclusivamente per la sua condizione disperata, e quindi in un certo senso stereotipato per un unico aspetto (ovvero quello dell’inabilità a partecipare al farsi del senso presso gli altri e presso il mondo), allo stesso modo vede gli altri come altamente stereotipati (cfr. p. 153), ovvero come persone che si sentono bene nella propria pelle e sono ancorate al farsi del senso degli altri. Questo scatena la percezione di ingiustizia, di invidia e quindi di aggressività. Tuttavia, il depresso non può fare a meno di paragonarsi alle azioni degli altri, nel tentativo di confermare le attese sociali. Come riassume Micali, queste considerazioni diventano fondamentali in riferimento a quanto presentato nei capitoli precedenti: il soggetto depresso tende a stereotipare l’altro, che perde la sua identità e diventa un altro indifferenziato, che lo guarda e lo giudica. Al contempo, cerca salvezza nella gratificazione altrui, nella possibilità di legarsi alla vita altrui. Come conclude Micali, questo tentativo di legarsi è un modo di compensare il vuoto e nello stesso tempo è “espressione di una fuga dal proprio sé” (p. 155).

Infine, l’ultimo capitolo riguarda l’interlocuzione con Dio tramite la preghiera. L’obiettivo di Micali è quello di evidenziare il modo in cui il credente si rivolge a Dio attraverso alcuni passi dei Vangeli sinottici. Se la preghiera è un particolare tipo di interlocuzione, allora l’autore ha anche la possibilità di ripensare gli studi precedenti attraverso questo straordinario tipo di interlocuzione. Egli infatti si pone la seguente domanda: come si differenzia l’incontro del volto dell’altro dall’incontro di Dio nella preghiera?

L’incontro con Dio, in questo caso, avviene nella presenza dell’assenza: a differenza dell’incontro con l’altro, che invece si qualifica nello spazio dell’ intercorporeità. Nella presenza dell’altro, quest’ultimo inevitabilmente mi sorprende nella differenza tra le mie aspettative su di lui e la manifestazione di se stesso attraverso le sue espressioni linguistiche e gestuali. Rispetto alle altre forme di interlocuzione, completamente diverso è il sentirsi al cospetto di Dio, seppur nella sua assenza. Secondo l’autore, si entra in uno stato febbrile, di trepidazione, in cui i sensi si affinano nella consapevolezza del contatto con Dio tramite la preghiera.

In questo rapporto di trepidazione, si presenta un’intima connessione tra preghiera e fede. Nella preghiera esiste infatti una contraddizione tra la propria volontà e la volontà di Dio: da una parte, la richiesta di salvezza dai problemi mondani o del miracolo e, dall’altra parte l’accettazione dei piani di Dio per ognuno di noi. In questo spiraglio, si manifesta la fede: quest’ultima risulta essere il presuppposto ultimo per ottenere quanto richiesto. Attraverso la fede nell’essere ascoltati e nell’affidarsi alla volontà di Dio, Micali è in grado di enfatizzare la complessa relazione tra il credente e Dio.

Considerazioni finali

L’opera di Micali presenta un originale punto di vista sulla relazione della soggettività con l’alterità. Intrecciando fenomeni e argomenti diversi, questo libro permette al lettore di farsi strada nella complessità dei temi dell’identità individuale e dell’intersoggettività, potendo nondimeno ricavare gli elementi essenziali del soggettivo ed individuale rapporto con l’alterità. Nella ricerca fenomenologica, c’è attualmente un crescente interesse verso la genesi della soggettivazione, il rapporto con l’alterità, l’intersoggettività e l’identità collettiva: un interesse che si risolve spesso con l’indagine sul primato dell’alterità sulla soggettivazione. Per questa ragione, nei capitoli centrali del libro, sarebbe stato utile avere una panoramica comparativa tra il lavoro di Levinas e quello di altri autori su questi temi rilevanti. Ciononostante, il percorso investigativo, presentato da Micali attraverso punti di vista eterogenei, ha permesso di approfondire alcuni aspetti che altrimenti non avrebbero avuto spazio di analisi.

Se l’eterogeneità e la complessità elaborata dall’analisi sono il punto di forza di questo libro, la sua debolezza consiste nell’assenza di una più lunga e dettagliata prefazione che avrebbe aiutato il lettore a destreggiarsi nei cambi di argomento, di prospettiva e metodo. Nonostante questo limite, ritengo che il libro esponga un interessante e originale intervento per le attuali ricerche sulla genesi della soggettivazione e del rapporto con l’alterità.


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Husserl E. 1973. Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Zweiter Teil 1921-1928, Husserliana XIV, Nijhoff, The Hague.

Kierkegaard S. 1993. Opere, C. Fabro (a cura di), Sansoni, Firenze.

Kant I. 1997. Critica del Giudizio, Laterza, Bari.

Levinas E. 1983. Altrimenti che essere, tr. it. a cura di S. Petrosino, M. Y. Aiello, Jaca Nook, Milano.

Levinas E. 1998. Totalità e infinito, tr. it. a cura di Adriano dell’Asta, Jaca Nook, Milano.

Lyotard J.-F. 1991. Leçons sur l’analytique du sublime, Galilée, Paris 1991.

Marcuse H. 2009. L’uomo ad una dimensione, Einaudi, Torino.

Micali S. 2013. The transformation of intercorporeality in melancholia. in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science 12, 215–234.

Olivetti M. M. 1992. Analogia del soggetto, Laterza, Bari.

Proust M. 1983. Alla ricerca del tempo perduto, tr. it. di G. Raboni, Mondadori, Milano.

Ricoeur P. 2004. Memory, History and Forgetting, traduzione di Blamey K. e Pellauer D., Chicago, IL: University Chicago Press.

Roger A. 2008. Bréviaire de la bêtise, Gallimard, Paris.

Rorty R. 2008. La filosofia dopo la filosofia, Laterza, Bari.

Sklovskij V. 1976. Una teoria della prosa, Einaudi, Torino.

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Dominique Pradelle (Hrsg.), Pierre-Jean Renaudie (Hrsg.): Intentionnalité, sens, antipsychologisme, Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2022

Intentionnalité, sens, antipsychologisme. Hommage à Robert Brisart Book Cover Intentionnalité, sens, antipsychologisme. Hommage à Robert Brisart
Europaea Memoria, Reihe I: Studien, 134
Dominique Pradelle (Hrsg.), Pierre-Jean Renaudie (Hrsg.)
Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung
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Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita: Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio

Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio. Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry Book Cover Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio. Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry
Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita
Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by: Bruno Cassara (Fordham University)

The title of the book reviewed here can be rendered in English as On Husserlian Legacies; Chair, Body, Dynamics of Desire: Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry. The book traces a philosophical genealogy seen seldom, if ever, in Anglophone scholarship. It is customary to read English-language works about Husserl’s influence on Heidegger or Derrida, or others on Husserl and one of the thinkers named in the title, or again on the significance of Heidegger’s thought for Lévinas or Sartre. But this book stands out in that it follows the fate of some of Husserl’s most significant but problematic ideas as they were translated, inherited, and transformed by Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry—an unusual yet fascinating mélange.

In this sense, the book complements its philosophical finesse with accurate historical work and (sometimes daring) philological speculation. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is that its three chapters do not simply discuss the Husserlian legacy to be found in each of the three French thinkers in turn, but rather treats the three themes put forth in the title—chair (flesh or Leib), corps (body or Leib/Körper depending on the context) and the dynamics of desire.[1] This thematic approach allows Spagnuolo Vigorita to uncover not only the way in which Husserl is received in the thought of these French authors, but also how they received, reinterpreted, and even rejected each other’s work.

On Husserlian Legacies will be of interest to phenomenologists working on Husserl, as well as those whose scholarship concerns any or all three French philosophers. But it provides crucial material also for historians of philosophy interested in Husserl’s impact at the international level, as well as in the genesis of French phenomenology. Finally, scholars who work on the philosophies of embodiment, affect, or desire are sure to find valuable insights in Spagnuolo Vigorita’s penetrating book.

Before I proceed to summarize the book, however, it should be known that the contents of the book rest on a fundamental assumption of which the reader should be aware for a full appreciation of the book’s accomplishments and shortcomings. The assumption is that

“the publication of Husserl’s unpublished materials does not keep us from continuing to consider the Méditations Cartesiennes not only the most complete formulation of transcendental phenomenology, but also—and this is the more relevant aspect for this work—the privileged and most detailed instance [luogo nevralgico] of the dialectical tension between own-body and object-body” (136).

In other words, the Méditations would remain the most complete account of the tension between Körper and Leib, as it was for Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, even if Husserl’s unpublished materials are taken into consideration. But when made in the context of a work that mainly offers a historical and philological account of Husserl’s reception among these French thinkers, this statement becomes ambiguous. It has been thoroughly established that the first generation of French phenomenologists based their interpretations mostly on Ideen I and Méditations, as Spagnuolo Vigorita herself mentions. But the statement above appears in the context of a comparison between Merleau-Ponty, who visited the Husserl Archives in 1939 to study Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts (especially Ideen II) precisely to investigate the role of the body in the process of constitution, and our three thinkers, who limited their reading to Husserl’s published works and give rise, with respect to Merleau-Ponty, to “an alternative history of the body” (153). In this context, the comments on this divergence risk sounding apologetic rather than historical, especially when the author quotes an article that claims that “Husserl’s unpublished materials do not contain significant deviations from or explicit contradictions of his published works, but rather present a source of indications, developments, and insights into the themes already dealt with in his publications” (135). Thus, as much as the reading of Ideen II contributed to a broader understanding of the phenomena of embodiment and intersubjectivity, it would nevertheless be legitimate to treat the Méditations as Husserl’s definitive account of these phenomena. While the reader should defer to the author on the point that Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry believed this, from a theoretical perspective this position remains more than debatable. At the same time, this theoretical disagreement does not make the history of the body analyzed in the book any less relevant or legitimate.

The book is divided into three chapters. The first treats the transition, pioneered by our three thinkers, from epistemology to life as the central theme of phenomenology. The second gives an account of the “alternative history of the body” mentioned above; and the third chapter is devoted to the dynamics of desire. The first chapter opens with a prefatory section on Lévinas’ role in the reception of Husserl in France. This is not simply a historical account, however. The tacit argument here is that, although others before Lévinas had taken up Husserl in France (the author mentions Jean Hering and I would add Gabrielle Peiffer), the Lithuanian-born philosopher was the one who brought an epochal change to the French philosophy of that time: “Emmanuel Lévinas, translator and interpreter of Husserl: this is the philosophical shock that, in the 1930’s, marked the genesis of the receptive process of phenomenology in France” (26). This receptive moment begins, on one hand, with the publication of Lévinas’ doctoral dissertation (La théorie de l’intuition dans la phénomenologie de Husserl), and on the other, with his re-elaboration and translation of Husserl’s Paris Lectures of 1929, which were published under the title Méditations Cartesiennes. These publications would leave an indelible mark on French philosophy, as the phenomenologies of Sartre (especially in his La transcendence de l’ego) and Henry (in particular his Phénomenologie materielle). Spagnuolo Vigorita does not shy away from the complexity of the genealogy she traces, rightly acknowledging that Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is deeply influenced by Heidegger’s factico-existential phenomenology. Still, Lévinas’ anti-intellectualistic interpretation of phenomenology is not only to Heidegger’s credit, but depends just as much on Lévinas’ encounter with Husserl’s Paris Lectures, lectures that emphasized the lived body, intersubjectivity, and the lifeworld.

  Lévinas’ mediation of Husserl’s philosophy thus begins from concepts that allow him to recast the phenomenological enterprise as one that must be thoroughly embodied, affective, and relational. As such, phenomenology in France cannot but move away from the Bergsonism that tacitly reigned at that time. And yet, Bergson’s intuitionism presented “not only a method that contained a certain proximity to the thematic nucleus of Husserlian speculation, but also, in a certain sense, a disposition of thought that had already sensitized the French spirit to a philosophy hostile to all abstract structures and purely rational deductions” (41). In this sense, Lévinas’ interpretation of Husserl is ambiguous in that, on one hand, it heralds phenomenology as an authentic return to the things themselves, but, on the other, it rejects the centrality of representation that Husserl—at least in Lévinas’ reading—confers to the intentional relation. This does not allow a true follower of Husserl to account for the situation of the living, worldly, historical human being during the process of reduction. In this sense, Théorie de l’intuition is just as much an enthusiastic introduction of phenomenology as it is a rejection of some of Husserl’s most central themes. Intentionality “in the strong sense of the term” (66) means making explicit the point of convergence of thought and life, and in this way to understand intentionality more properly as transcendence toward and into the world. While Lévinas never forsakes his critique of Husserl’s reduction of lived experience to what is present for consciousness, he does find in the German philosopher’s unpublished writings the resources to push phenomenology away from representationalism and toward an account of transcendent life as first and foremost embodied and affective: “Reduction, intentionality, embodiment, [pre-predicative] perception: new themes [which], from now on, offer themselves as the fundamental concepts of phenomenology (81).

Sartre’s first works of phenomenology are also critical of Husserl’s intellectualism even as they praise the notion of intentionality. For Sartre as for Lévinas, it is a matter of actualizing the possibilities that the phenomenological revolution brought to French philosophy, and of thus being, as the saying goes, more Husserlian than Husserl himself. And the affinity between the French thinkers is no mistake, the author claims, as the determining moment for the Sartrean appropriation of phenomenology is his reading of Levinas’ Théorie de l’intuition. This is a daring moment of philological speculation, since there are hardly any references to Lévinas in Sartre’s entire oeuvre, but Spagnuolo Vigorita argues convincingly for it. The main themes of Lévinas’ interpretation—the emphasis on contingence, the historical situatedness of the subject, the importance of the reduction, and most of all the understanding of intentionality as a veritable explosion toward the world—all find a home in Sartre’s phenomenological work. And here, too, one cannot but notice that Husserl’s philosophy is filtered through Heidegger’s. For Sartre, phenomenology offers a third way that would evade both (subjective) idealism and scientific naturalism, and can even prepare the way for a new philosophy of emotion and passivity. “What seems to me indubitable,” the author writes, “is that the identification of affect as the privileged means of self-transcendence toward the world…became Sartre’s weapon against the false myths of the ‘interior life’” (85). It is not a matter of denying the cogito as much as it is a matter of scaling down its constitutive-representational powers in favor of the spontaneous self-revelation of the worldly phenomenon and the subject’s living praxis. Yet Sartre goes further than Lévinas. Where the latter sees in intentionality the possibility of thinking the primordial “how” of the relation to the world, Sartre appropriates the concept in order to sweep away any “thingly” aspect of consciousness that takes away from its absolute spontaneity. This, for Sartre, is the true sense of the reduction: the elimination of the ego as the last psychical remainder that characterizes consciousness as self-positing. After all, if the ego is absolutely self-transcendent, then it is a worldly thing posited along with the rest and, as such, it must be excluded.

A particularly brilliant part of the author’s analysis of Sartre shows that “his pre-reflective remodulation of phenomenology that begins with his works…seems to be inextricably tied to bodily experience” (97) even as the early Sartre seeks to expel all transcendent objects from the field of consciousness, even the ego. The body, as the most transcendent part of egoic experience, should be the first aspect of the ego to be reduced away, and yet there necessarily must be an “implicit body” (98) that plays a tacit but crucial role in Sartre’s early phenomenology. In La Transcendence de l’Ego, the body would thus be given as a visible and tangible sign of the ego understood not as the result of reflective thinking—the “I myself”—but as the unreflective pole of spontaneous praxis. After all, “it is evident that the support for…the motor functions [implied in praxis]…cannot but be the body” (101). Spagnuolo Vigorita’s argument for this implicit body is well grounded in the text and convincing.

The section on Henry is shorter than the previous two for two reasons. First, Henry himself is much more critical of Husserlian phenomenology than the others. If Lévinas and Sartre find in intentionality the conceptual resources for a philosophical revolution despite their disagreements with Husserl, “for Henry it is precisely in this concept that the forgetfulness of a more originary kind of manifestation, i.e., that of life, is accomplished” (110). In other words, there is less negotiation to be found in Henry’s engagement of Husserl because, for him, the intentional relation is what obscures life’s phenomenality. In this sense, Henry’s Phénomenologie Materielle and many of his subsequent works seek to unbind the conditions of phenomenality from the “outside” (dehors) or externality of the world. The title of this first chapter, “From Epistemology to Life,” fits Henry’s trajectory perfectly.

Nevertheless, the author gives an informative account of how Henry argues for his phenomenological rebellion and how Husserl’s thought informs it. As with Sartre and Lévinas, Henry certainly rejects the primacy that Husserl bestows upon representative and predicative thinking. Furthermore, he follows the two in recasting the process of phenomenological reduction, so that, for Henry, “the radicalization of the reduction coincides with the suspension of the ecstatic dimension of visibility” (115). A more radical reinterpretation of the reduction and its uses, since Henry does not seek to suspend only the representative powers of consciousness, but the very equivalence, always taken for granted, of visibility and manifestation. In other words, it is not only a matter of helping consciousness in making the phenomenon of sense visible through a sinngebenden Akt, but rather of letting manifest what most originarily self-manifests of its own accord—and this is life. As much as this might seem a complete rejection of Husserl’s thinking, it is through Husserl that the phenomenology of life becomes possible at all. In fact, Henry takes up Husserl’s account of hyletic givenness to argue that there is an intelligibility in the immanent passivity of hyletic affection that precedes and founds all active sense-giving. This precedence of affection over activity shows that the visibility of all objects appearing in the world necessarily depend on the invisible, immanent, and self-affecting life. As soon as consciousness “reduces the hyletic impression to the mere content of a noetic act…the material stratum becomes nothing but an opaque dimension subordinated to the higher functions of intentional apperception” (118, 119). The absolute scission between immanent life (with its material self-affection) and transcendent world (with its sense-receiving objects) is not an oppositional dualism, but a relation of founding and founded strata.

For all three philosophers, then, it is a matter of bracketing predicative, sense-giving activity, which Husserl is seen as privileging, in order to make manifest the living, practical, and carnal dimensions of experience that make manifest the more authentic themes of phenomenology.

The second chapter, titled “Between Ownness and Alterity: With and beyond Husserl,” takes up Husserl’s well-known account of the experience of other subjects in the fifth Cartesian Meditation and shows how Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry modify it in their own accounts of alterity. It is here that the author traces the “alternative history of the body” that, in her view, is not as widely recognized as Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of embodiment and intersubjective.

“To dispel the danger of the solipsism that the transcendental path of the pure ego necessitates,” Spagnuolo Vigorita states, “the fifth Méditation begins by  asking whether, in a gnoseological sense, the experiences of self-identity and alterity are reconcilable” (140). Husserl’s reduction to the sphere of ownness is here interpreted as a methodologically necessary step—one that excludes all traces of other subjects—that paves a via negativa to the experience of the other as someone who is not myself. In this sense, it is necessary to start from what belongs purely to the ego if the experience of the alter-ego is to be possible. The experience of one’s own body is the basis of all possible action, most crucially of actions aimed upon oneself. In touching my hand with my other hand, I discover the interchangeability of agent and patient that is unique to my Leib, and thus that the experience of my own body is constituted as an inescapable commixture of ownness and alterity, Leib and Körper. My body is not only available to me as the organ of my action, but always and also in the way that another subject would experience it, i.e., as extraneous. The alterity that my own body can always present me with is just as foundational as its ownness. Thus, there is no essential difference between my experience of an alter-ego, who manifests primarily through its physical body as Körper, and my experience of my own body as Körper. The similarity between my body and the other’s makes possible my recognition of it as always also the Leib of another subject and not merely a Körper indistinguishable from all other worldly objects.

The problem with such a “proof” of the alterity of the alter-ego, as Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry recognize, is that it makes this alterity depend on my experience of ownness: If Husserl can conclude that the alter-ego is not simply a duplicate of myself, it is because their objective body reproduces the mode of appearance that my own body would have if it were “there” rather than “here.” In other words, the existence of the alter-ego is always mediated by the objective experience of two Körpern. For this reason, Lévinas proclaims himself “très embarrassé” (171) by Husserl’s fifth Meditation. The alter is not truly alter if their very possibility is deduced through an analogy with myself. On the contrary, it is my ownness that is jeopardized by the experience of the Other, an experience that precedes all possible self-reflection. Material, embodied experience constitutively contains a degree of passivity in which alterity (and not just that of the alter-ego) is always active. Otherness affects the self so intimately that the very status of the “mineness” of my body is no longer a certainty, “because the existent, in the very moment in which it comes to itself, is already confronted with the internal sundering that constitutes it” (166). In this way, Lévinas rejects the Husserlian dictum that the “I-can” is the most distinctive characteristic of Leib, thus substituting for the principle of praxis a more original bodily ambiguity. Furthermore, Lévinas’ later reflections on the Face of the Other must be read against this phenomenological critique of Husserl, lest we take his mature philosophy to reject all lived experience in favor of an ethics that precedes all manifestation. That the Face precedes me is not simply an abstract ethical starting point, but most properly names the original vulnerability of the self to alterity in general and to the Other most of all.

As with Lévinas, so for Sartre the phenomenological experience of embodiment is most properly understood as a being vulnerable to others. When Sartre writes of the visage, he is referring to the way in which the corps vécu differs from the massiveness of worldly objects: “before any gnoseological definition, each movement of the body, that is, of the face, is first of all a gesture with a specific orientation and temporality that escape universality” (178). However, Sartre parts ways with Lévinas in that the former’s account of intersubjectivity revolves around sight and the visual. My own face shows its liveliness only when another looks at me and thus offers me his own face. The reverse is also true: when I see the other, I immediately recognize the excess of the human over the world of things, because the voracious eyes of the other betray their transcendence toward the in-itself. As far as Sartre is concerned, then, Husserl’s error would be in ascribing an extended, material body to the ego when, in fact, these objective attributes are only apparent to the gaze of another.

In the transition from Husserl’s idealism to Sartre’s existential phenomenology, the separation of Körper and Leib becomes sharper. This is true of Henry as well, for whom “the praxis of the body, an event that takes place in phenomenological silence, is accomplished in its pathos” (187). It is only when I take up a representational attitude that I can grasp my body as an object, for the lived body has nothing to do with the physical body composed of cells, molecules, and atoms. For both authors, the lived body has absolute precedence over the known body, but each will resolve the Leib/Körper aporia differently: where Sartre holds that bodily sensations, e.g., touch, only reveal something about the transcendent world of the in-itself, Henry sees in sensation the absolutely immanent self-sensation of Life. In both cases, the sensing body as liminal space between the immanent and the transcendent, is directed only one way, be this outward or inward, but never both at once—sensation is not double sensation. It is on this question of double-sensation that the path of French phenomenology splits. The “alternative” history of the body that the author sketches is an alternative to Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment and its influence in the French phenomenological scene. The sections on Merleau-Ponty close with remarks on the critiques that our three thinkers develop in response to his ideas of chiasmus and chair du mond.

If Sartre and Lévinas agree that bodily experience is the dimension in which all possible self-identity is always already contaminated, Henry’s position is significantly different. This discrepancy of views stems from Henry’s peculiar understanding of subjectivity. For where Lévinas and Sartre both conceive this contamination as a challenge to the ego’s self-coincidence, Henry holds that all difference and separation can only yield a false account of the subject, who is uniformly compact in its absolute immanence. The possibility of self-transcendence toward the world and toward others is not constitutive of subjectivity, but rather a modification of it insofar as it entails separation. Henry’s subject begins to resemble Sartre’s in-itself in that his affirmation, “je suis mon corp,” does not require any further analysis: to say “I am” is to say “I feel myself in my self-coinciding immanence.” Sartre cannot but appear, in Henry’s philosophy, as its foe. In this diametrical opposition between the two philosophers of transcendence (Lévinas, Sartre) and the philosopher of immanence (Henry), we can observe just how fruitful it is to trace the effects of the French reception of the Méditations Cartesiennes.

And yet, while radical transcendence and absolute immanence cannot coexist in one and the same phenomenology, Husserl’s account of the intersubjective relation provides a foil that brings the three French authors closer together. In all three, in fact, we find instances “that coincide with the common preoccupation of safeguarding the threads of pluralistic life against objective and objectifying knowledge” (258). For Sartre, this can be seen in the experience of shame where the separation between eyes and gaze is most evident; for Lévinas, the Face is the ungraspable mystery of the Other that nullifies and reverses the directionality of intentional consciousness; and for Henry, the experience of alterity is, paradoxically, an experience that takes place purely within myself, i.e., the ultimate test of his doctrine of absolute immanence. Perhaps, in rejecting all transcendence even in the experience of alterity, Henry necessarily misses the most captivating dimension of otherness (259), but his phenomenology of life does not fail to transform the Husserlian account of intersubjectivity into a philosophy that overcomes the paradigm of objectivity.

The third and final chapter discusses the “dynamics of desire” in our three thinkers, though the phrase “vicissitudes of desire” is just as appropriate a title. While the first two chapters contained detailed historical and philological research, along with relevant comparisons between the father of phenomenology and his French interpreters, this chapter is somewhat less admirable on these points. There is no discussion here on the fate of Husserl’s account of desire in the works of the three French authors, which would have been the most original analysis in the book and would keep to the promise of its title. Indeed, the only mention of Husserl that appears at all in this chapter is in reference to the French phenomenologists who saw fit to investigate the erotic phenomenon “as a privileged starting point for denouncing the ineffectiveness of the visual and cognitive relation, [which is] the presupposition of the classical notion of intentionality” (268). Nevertheless, this section is not limited to a simple exegesis of the texts where Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry discuss desire and its dynamics. It also offers fruitful comparisons between these three and shows how Lévinas’ account of eros succeeds in mediating between the carnal and transcendent aspects of desire where Sartre and Henry can only fail. The Lévinasian position is the successful culmination of the analyses of life and embodiment that the author carried out in the previous chapters.

This chapter begins with Sartre’s lengthy account of désir as it is discussed in L’Être et le Néant. In Sartre’s view, and as the reader might expect, desire fails to accomplish what the for-itself hopes it would do, because the carnal aspect of existence can only ever be constituted as an objectification of myself on the part of the other. The author warns us here not to reduce this account to a Sartrean version of Hegel’s master-bondsman dialectic, where two self-consciousnesses seek to achieve the desired recognition by reducing one another to material, servile existence. While Sartre certainly draws from Hegel here, he goes beyond the Phenomenology of Spirit by capturing the drama that carnal, specifically sexual desire implies for both the lover and the beloved. This drama is best understood as a cloudiness that contaminates water that would otherwise be limpid and transparent. In this sense, desire threatens the freedom of the for-itself by affecting it and thereby rendering it passive to its own carnality. The relation to the other is thereby already compromised and destined to fail. Nevertheless, through desire I attempt to objectify the other by possessing their body, and the other does the same with me. However, the use of my own carnality (read: facticity) as the means by which the other is objectified inevitably places my own freedom in peril: “the for-itself chooses its being-there on the basis of a process in which passivity does not mean a pure undergoing of affection and in which, at the same time, self-projection does not completely overcome the inertia [of the other’s facticity]” (282).

Desire, for Sartre, carves out a liminal space wherein carnal encounters are not immediately objectifying, though they will eventually result in objectification. The example of the caresse shows this well. Inasmuch as it is an expression of the will to subjugate the other, the caress remains an instance of carnal contact. However, the caress is not only this because it also signifies a will to express one’s own carnality, i.e., one’s vulnerability. Erotic desire thus represents the unique possibility of reciprocally abdicating one’s freedom in order to feel, through one’s own flesh, the flesh of the other. The “magic” of the caress inevitably fails, but “between the genesis and end of desire, something out of the ordinary takes place and it has to do neither with possession nor with the instrumentalization of the other. Rather, the space of a reciprocal desire is the possibility to make oneself and one another present as chair and to discover the event of incarnation” (296).

The dynamics of désir in Sartre’s works thus have an inevitable fate—not because of a pre-established teleology, but because in Sartre’s hands, desire must be a contradictory endeavor in the same way that the for-itself seeks to become like a god (a for-itself-in-itself) but can never accomplish this because of the opposition between the two structures. But Lévinas offers an alternative analysis in which desire, understood as eros, has a happier fate. Already in his Carnets de Captivité, he makes observations about the relation between eros and caresse that contradict Sartre’s erotic fatalism. The caress is the concrete form of the hope for the present. It does not say that things will get better (nor would anyone expect it to do so, given the context in which the Carnets were written), but it redeems from within the present.

In fact, the whole dynamics of eros promises, for Lévinas, to be the first gesture toward a true intersubjectivity, toward a communal existence. The Carnets offer a glimpse into the tormented reflections that would become the foundation of an ethics beyond ontology, and as sketches of living thought rather than crystallized publications, they sometimes go beyond what Lévinas restated for all to read. A particularly pregnant phrase, for instance, states “sexuality as the origin of the social,” a phrase that contains the aspiration to found communal being on desire, the body, the carnal relation with another: “because there is such a thing as sexual ‘intimacy,’ there is the phenomenon of the social as something more than the sum of individuals” (301). Far from being doomed from the start, bodily desire is for Lévinas the possibility of a relation that overcomes the fundamental ontology of the Daseinsanalyse. This is not limited to sexual desire or eros, but bodily needs [besoins] in general are the first step toward happiness. “If, in the case of bodily needs, satisfaction leads to an absorption of the object on the part of the subject…the peculiarity of the erotic relation lies in the impossibility of overcoming the separation [of subject from subject]” (302). But unlike in L’Etre et le Néant, this impossibility must be read positively in the sense that it always refers to something beyond simple fulfillment.

Where does Henry fit in here? The author compares three texts side by side, one from each philosopher, to show that Lévinas acts as mediator between the extreme positions of Sartre and Henry: “From the being-there of chair that Sartre’s caresse aspires to, to the secret of a sexuality hors du monde, through Lévinas and the violation that does not unveil” (329). It is difficult for Henry to account for the sexual relation, since a relation that is outside of the world-horizon and understood as something subjective and immanent, then it is hard to see how it is a relation at all. Henry is aware of this difficulty, but the author again proposes that the Life-World distinction must be read not oppositionally but foundationally: the non-appearing Life is what makes the appearing world and its objects possible. On the basis of autoaffective Life, all human gestures and not only the sexual relation must be rethought, according to Henry. The body of the other is a transcendent and objective body, but within its finitude I cannot help but glimpse something more. “This is the unspoken presupposition of sexual intentionality,” writes Spagnuolo Vigorita. “To seek, by means of something objective, what could never be touched nor seen because it is something essentially transcendent” (333). Here the reader cannot but intuit a certain closeness between Henry and Sartre, for in the works of both authors the essence of desiring consciousness is to seek the absolute beyond, or within, the contingent. But while Sartre thinks a consciousness so transcendent that its relation to others is part of its facticity, Henry seems unable to respond to the urgency of a phenomenological account of the carnal relation.

And yet, the phenomenology of Life does answer the question of inter-carnality, if only in an almost mystical, almost unintelligible manner: “Even when we go into the world, when we cross a space, we move—this is Henry’s conclusion—toward something that already exists in each living: the instinctual, impulsive community [comunità pulsionale] of which Life is the essence. We might assume that, if all relations obey the laws of originary autoaffection, the erotic community is no exception” (335). Pleasure would be the limit-experience that clarifies this conclusion. It is the same Life that pulses within each of us and that affects itself in perfect immanence, but a desiring consciousness that comes out of itself and into the world in order to feel the pleasure, the Life of the other, cannot but fail because it is precisely in the gesture of self-transcendence that Life is no longer given. In this sense, Sartre and Henry reach the same conclusion while standing at opposite extremes of the intentional spectrum.

On Husserlian Legacies is a work that has a lot to offer to scholars of phenomenology, for it has something to say on many issues surrounding questions of embodiment, affectivity, desire, and the phenomenological possibility of an authentic intersubjectivity. While its comments on Husserl serve more as a background for the investigation of points of contact between Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry, the study proposed by Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita fills several lacunae in Anglophone research in phenomenology. Its historical acuity, philological depth, and theoretical grasp of the three French figures analyzed therein, will no doubt renew phenomenological research on the themes of embodiment, intersubjectivity, and affect, and will have Anglophone scholars reaching once again for the works of Lévinas, Sartre, and Henry.

[1] It should be noted that the English term “desire” is not perfectly equivalent to the French désir or to the Italian desiderio. The latter two are broader than the former and include connotations of yearning, longing for, aspiring to, or wishing, as well as connotations of craving, needing, lusting for, feeling an urge for, or coveting. The English “desire,” on the other hand, strikes me as more restricted in its extension, leaning more toward the appetitive than the aspirational.