Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Levinas
Michael L. Morgan (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £125.00

Reviewed by: Tyler Correia (York University, Canada)

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas provides another key step on the way to entrenching the possibility of continued scholarship on the rich thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as well as providing an accessible entry-point into the ever-growing body of commentary on his works. Although at times the structure of the handbook makes gestures toward necessary contributions that are currently absent, both in outlining the field of Levinas’s influences or interlocutors, and in terms of key engagements with contemporary concerns, it has also amassed an exciting range of discussions from a diverse array of scholars. Contributions are well-researched, insightful, and make Levinas’s notoriously difficult thought comprehensible and intriguing. Further, certain departures with conventions of reference texts in the composition of contributions—he articles being of comparable length to those of scholarly journal’s—creates space not only for informative but critical treatments, as well as facilitating dialogue and challenge.

The editor, Michael L. Morgan is a prolific scholar in his own right in Jewish studies and on Levinas specifically. He has authored other introductory texts including Discovering Levinas (2007), The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), and recently published on his ethico-political thought and practice in Levinas’s Ethical Politics (2016).

There are certainly benefits to a handbook both of this magnitude and this breadth. The text is a nearly nine hundred page collection of thirty-eight entries, including contributions from notable Levinas scholars such as Robert Bernasconi, political philosopher Annabel Herzog, Levinas translator Bettina Bergo and editor of The Levinas Reader (2001) Seán Hand. Also certainly, a text of this kind provides a crucial opportunity for a multiplicity of scholars of varied backgrounds to contribute—scholars of history, religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, classics and art, who contextualize Levinas’ expansive works and biography through critical, interpersonal, dialogical, feminist, hermeneutic, theological frameworks. It is divided into six section with entries on a wide range of topics and themes by which one could enter into scholarship: covering Levinas’ life and influences, key philosophical themes, religious thought, ethics, and critical assessments of his work.

One of the potential drawbacks of a ‘handbook’—and consistent with all genres of reference texts more broadly—is the prefiguration of a conversation as one in which specialists communicate information to non-specialists, rather than opening the possibility of dialogue and interpretation. The pragmatic context of a ‘handbook’ still makes it unlikely that professional scholars will refer to this text as an entry-point into key controversies and as a site of engagement even over more specific collected volumes. A text like this, then, fills the space of a general reference and guide into the multiplicity of avenues that Levinas’ thought might open, and in its capacity as a general reference book it does well, even though it is competing with a number of more specific works on Levinas—whether reference volumes, essay collections or single-author monographs—that are also available for Anglophone scholars with an equally wide breadth; works on Levinas’ engagements with Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers, with Asian thought and with ancient philosophy, on Levinas’ contributions to hermeneutics and theological exegesis, a swath of texts on Levinas’ ethics, on his interlocutions with poststructuralist and deconstructive thought, and texts that (re)situate and seek for his ethics to speak to their own and our socio-political contexts. In this way, a reference text of this sort helps best to locate oneself in relation to a veritable library of Levinas scholarship, and to identify those signposts, even if often as an index to an index.

Accordingly, the handbook attests to an emerging polarization of Levinas scholarship concerned with two key conceptual constellations in his ethical thought; on responsibility and vulnerability. The former has perhaps been considered the central aspect of Levinas’s work traced to the importance of the text most often called his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (2011 [1961]). Not merely the outline of ‘responsibilities,’ Levinas’s conceptualization of responsibility grounds his fundamental claim that ethics is first philosophy. Not just in the content of responsibility, but in the provocation or the desire (later he will call this intrigue) to respond to and respond for the Other, Levinas finds the opening of ethics as an infinitely asymmetrical relation grounded in the unconditional command to be for the Other. In its poetic force and uncompromising gesture, one’s responsibility for the Other and on their behalf is perhaps the aspect of Levinas’s work that draws most scholars to him. It also becomes the rich ground from which he rejects conventional and general  practices of philosophy as projects of securing, organizing and reorganizing both ontology and metaphysics as the totalizing structure of ‘the Same.’ Beyond the sort of A=A identity, the structure of the Same is all that operates under the heading of ‘Being’ and at the disposal of the privileged Self. Thus, where philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular meet, Levinas finds a notion of the Self within a world that they might appropriate, incorporate, or otherwise violate as if it were exclusively ‘their own.

In contrast, Levinas finds an entirely unappropriable and thus infinitely transcendent disruption of the structure of the Same in the encounter with the Other, where the face to face meeting and the very face of the Other themselves, escapes all such appropriative attempts to fix them in place within the horizon of the world of the Same. Instead, the face of the Other seems to call to the Self with a commandment, the fundamental interdiction “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” further disrupting the absolute enjoyment (jouissance) that would otherwise be the prerogative and entitlement of the Self within its own world. In place of this enjoyment is the unsatisfiable desire to be with, and be for, the Other, the ground upon which an infinite and unconditional responsibility emerges. Then, all subsequent thought is a matter of bearing out the implications of this unconditional and infinite responsibility for the Other in its applications and tensions.

Incrementally, this picture, as outlined by readings of Totality and Infinity, has expanded as more scholarship has turned toward the ‘other pole’ of Levinas’s work as represented by Otherwise than Being (2016 [1981]). No longer willing to accept the ‘Self’ as originally in a position of comfort, chez soi, or at home with oneself, Levinas reconsiders the place of the encounter with the Other as both fundamental for thought and fundamental to the very existence of the subject before subjectivity can be claimed. In the exchange of the ‘word’—even the word that proclaims ‘I am I’—the Self is less so in proximity to an unchallenging world of their own, than they are in proximity to an Other. In this most basic sense, vulnerability is the fundamentally disruptive trauma of recognizing that the self comes after an encounter with the Other (see Bergo’s chapter as well as Staehler’s). Robert Bernasconi theorizes vulnerability in two particularly interesting ways. On the one hand, he notes that responsibility operates on the subject as disruptive enough to veritably tear the subject apart, what Levinas calls dénucléation. He explains, “Dénucléation is apparently a word used to refer to the coring out that doctors perform when, for example, they remove an eyeball from its socket while leaving everything intact. Levinas used this same word to describe breathing as a dénucléation of the subject’s substantiality, albeit in this context it also has an association with transcendence” (pp. 268-69).

Although Bernasconi will motivate a reading of Levinas that prefigures the need to defend both the subject and its subjectivity, he summarizes his exploration of the notion of vulnerability that is too traumatic to ignore: “I showed that he went out of his way to say that the exposure to outrage, wounding, and persecution was an exposure to wounding in enjoyment. This is what qualifies it as a “vulnerability of the me.” It touches me in my complacency. But vulnerability extends to the trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point where that hostage identifies with others, including his or her persecutors” (p. 269). He continues that this fact of vulnerability, then, is compelling enough to enact an experience of substitution in the subject, as if the subject is provoked to experience themselves as Other.

Following these considerations, I would like to make note of two particularly useful aspects of the handbook, and to applaud Morgan and the contributors for them. Firstly, some of its richest content is the contribution to an Anglo-American readership on the scope of Levinas’ writings of which we currently do not have complete access. Pieces by Sarah Hammerschlag and Seán Hand rectify this condition with stimulating discussions of his wartime notebooks and his early poetry and novel fragments respectively. Still an English-speaking public does not have access in particular to either the Carnets de captivité, nor to his wartime literary works in Éros, littérature et philosophie, both of which were recently posthumously published in French.[i] With Hammerschlag’s survey of Levinas’s wartime notebooks, though, (spanning, in fact, from 1937-1950), and Hand’s reconceptualization of Levinas in light of the literary dimensions of these personal writings, they make stellar contributions to Anglophone Levinas scholarship by filling those gaps. For this alone, the handbook is already an invaluable resource for scholars of all sorts.

Secondly, the fourth section of the handbook, dedicated to applications of Levinas’ thought beyond his own sphere is truly effervescent. Special attention should be paid to this section in its eclectic reach, where the very notion of a foundation (the presumed objective constraining any ‘handbook’ faces) opens up into a display of generative and rich ideas. Exactly where the ‘cut and dry’ necessity of a text of this kind breaks down, we are treated to an array of interventions and interpretive supplements that carry Levinas scholarship forward in great leaps. Again, Seán Hand’s resituating of Levinas’ works in light of early literary engagements is a delight, as well as Kris Sealey’s far-reaching discussion of Levinas’s contributions to critical race theory (which I will discuss further below). Moreover, not a single contribution in this section fails to illuminate and extend the possibilities of scholarship—from more traditional surveys of the possibilities of attending to philosophical thought within other domains of academic inquiry, such as psychology (David M. Goodman and Eric R. Severson), law (William H. Smith) and Levinas’ comments on war (Joshua Shaw), as well as his contributions to pedagogy (Claire Elise Katz), film (Colin Davis), and his use of food metaphors (Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft).

Similarly, Kevin Houser’s attempt to position Levinas across the Continental-Analytical divide is admirable. This is similar to Morgan’s attempts himself to have Levinas’ work placed in proximity to Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Christine Korsgaard, Stanley Cavell and others. In this piece, Houser finds Levinas speak to concerns of linguistic objectification embedded in the notion of reason as metaphysics against which he poses what he calls the ‘absolute interlocutor.’ He extends this discussion by placing him in conversation with P.F. Strawson on freedom and resentment. Houser’s claim is that “de-facing reason,” and not “reason itself as the practice of de-facing generalization,” is what is at issue in Levinas’s work. However, perhaps Houser’s reading can come off as reductive given that he seems not to be willing to take his own critical stance as far as Levinas would. That ultimately an analytical account of reason is valorized through a complementary reading of Levinas and Strawson would also be a grounding condition for the possibility of such reconciliation between reason and the face of the Other. Yet, this is something Levinas seems consistently to reject, and why Houser must work so hard to reconcile the positions in the first place; the position of reason itself with the positioning of a refusal of reason (not merely an ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘pre-rational’ stance).

Houser’s final discussion regarding the generalizability of ‘reason’—as something that is specifically not my reason, but a reason (p. 604)—bears many possibilities to build from, perhaps also anticipating a challenge to Levinas by deconstructionist linguistics. One can also imagine such a reading figuring importantly into the prefiguration of Otherwise than Being, which seems to bear out the not-yet-subject specifically in light of the pre-existence of language in the demand to speak as ‘giving reasons’ (see Baring, Coe and of course Bernasconi’s chapters). It also helps to reconcile how, for example, in Oona Eisenstadt’s chapter, she finds Levinas capable of saying that three rabbis in the Talmud—Ben Zoma, Ben Nanus and Ben Pazi—can offer three different answers to the question, “which verse contains the whole of the Torah?” where each will make a different universal claim as a manner of expanding upon the last (p. 462). Nevertheless, it would seem that the reason-and-objectivity oriented language of analytical thought does not prepare one to bear out this tension between the particular and the general in a way that is non-totalizing; it answers the question of responsibility rather than responding to it. As such, it substitutes the sphere of representational description in place of the vocative dimensions of language as address. In the end, even capturing the dialogical subject in relation to the absolute interlocutor, one is still speaking about language as if no one else is there, a sort of monological ‘dialogue,’ lest the reason they give may be contradicted. The Other seems to have faded into the background.

I would like to address, though, a potential drawback of the handbook. What is at times a lack of much needed general study of Levinas’ engagements not merely with particular thinkers—both predecessors and contemporaries, if not friends but fields of scholarship—can often leave the reader without proper orientation. No doubt, the task of presenting an exhaustive groundwork specifically for Anglo-American scholarship is at best aspirational, and to his credit, Morgan himself identifies certain oversights in the handbook that should be noted. In terms of groundworks, he rightly mentions that the handbook would have benefited from contributions that survey Levinas’s engagements with foundational Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig. There is also no specific account of Levinas’s debts to Russian literature. Finally, general overviews of both Levinas’s situation within French thought broadly from the 1930s to the 60s would have been extremely helpful to orient readers, even if they still find much needed context especially in Kevin Hart’s discussion of the relationship between he and Blanchot, and Edward Baring’s account of his encounters with Derrida. This is so as well for the absence of a general account of Levinas’s predecessors ‘at large,’ although one is able to orient themselves with texts on Husserl (Bettina Bergo), Heidegger (Michael Fagenblat), as well as Platonic or Aristotelian thought (Tanja Staehler), early modern thought (Inga Römer), and the German Idealists (Martin Shuster).

There are other oversights that a large reference text is especially beholden to ensure don’t go unnoticed that we might categorize as ‘essential additions’ to these groundworks. Increasingly important is a critical appraisal of eurocentrism and colonialism. It would also be imperative to outline Levinas’ reading of the Torah on ‘Cities of Refuge,’ something only tangentially touched upon by Annabel Herzog in her daring discussion of Levinas and Zionism.  One might argue that Levinas’s statements on the State of Israel in particular are critical for understanding some of the most recent explorations of a sort of Levinasian cosmopolitanism—especially where it intersects with Jacques Derrida’s (1999) explorations on the issue (and because it would seem Derrida’s encounter with the notion of cosmopolitanism is in large part due to their relationship). This is perhaps a particularly difficult oversight to reconcile because, as Morgan notes, readers of Levinas “…are drawn to him by the centrality of his insight that our responsibilities to others are infinite. To them, Levinas is the philosopher of the dispossessed, the displaced, the refugee, the impoverished, the suffering, and the hungry. He is the spokesperson for the weak and the oppressed; his philosophy, for all its difficulty and obscurity, in the end speaks to our most humane and caring sentiments” (pp. 4-5). Unfortunately, these concrete engagements are conspicuously absent in the handbook.

Kris Sealey has the sizeable task, then, of orienting readers looking for critical responses to Levinas relating to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and theories of race and racism. In that measure, Sealey does a spectacular job finding inroads between Levinas with both critical race and postcolonial scholars including Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Monahan. She also performs such an important task of bridging scholarship on critical race theory and Levinas studies by focusing her discussion on a review of literatures published in the 2012 volume of Levinas Studies contending with race, which included contributions from  Lisa Guenther, Oona Eisenstadt (also present in this handbook), John Drabinski and Simone Drichel.

Sealey’s contribution, though, may also give pause especially insofar as there remain some crucial tensions in her work with Levinas’s. Particularly, she draws her conclusions in a way that notions of race are ‘reified’ not on biological but communal and relational grounds that are perhaps difficult to square with Levinas’ statements on the ‘nudity of the face’—as much as they are in tension with Paul Gilroy’s (2000) rejection of both biological and cultural formations of ‘race.’ Sealey’s turn toward Michael Monahan seems to authorize the possibility that, “we can be against racism without being against race” (p. 653 n. 41). The statement from which this note arises is quite important, and perhaps should be quoted at length:

In an important sense, a creolizing subjectivity bears witness to her rootedness in the world, insofar as she is constituted by the ways of that world. But, as creolizing, she also bears witness to her transcending of that world, insofar as her antiracist praxis will invariably be an active contestation of the meaning of race. In other words, she is both obliged to her materiality and positioned to take a critical stance against that materiality as well. That critical stance calls for a vigilance that never ends, lest she succumbs to the inertia of a purity politics and the racist structures for which it codes. Might we not see, in this, echoes of what Levinas calls for in “The Philosophy of Hitlerism”? Is this not a recognition of incarnation (of one’s rootedness in, or entanglement with, history) without the essentialization and stagnation of biological determinism? (p. 644)

Here we might identify a key contention—the ground for what may be a generative controversy in the transposition of Levinas’ thought to an Anglo-American context. Levinas’ contention against the ideology of Hitlerism is not reducible to its relation exclusively to biologism, but speaks to a desire to escape the very notion of ‘incarnation’ itself (see Eaglestone, Fagenblat, and Giannopoulos’s chapters). Hitlerism itself is not exclusively a biologist ideology; rather it binds a notion of spirit with the materiality of the ‘body as much as it fetishizes that body as the material symbol of ‘racial purity,’ or the ‘spirit of a people,’ as an incarnation—the becoming-flesh of spirit. It’s not clear if any notion of identity, not even one proposed to be hybridized, socially and historically determined, or relational escapes this logic. One might point out how Sealey’s creolizing subject, recognizing their rootedness and transcendence, isn’t necessarily difficult, as both are already coded as positive identifiers in an unambiguous metaphysical structure, even if they contradict one another, and occlude the disruptive primacy of the Other. Being rooted—rather than being imprisoned or entangled—and transcendence—above, beyond, outside of the world—both already speak to their own ideals. But one finds in Levinas’ work instead both a potentially failed desire to escape (On Escape [2003/1982]being an aptly titled expression of this unabiding arrest in his early works), and an uneasy navigation of the rooted interior of identity.

We find further that the not merely biological implications of Hitlerist ideology entails also that—as Annabel Herzog notes of Levinas’ critical stance against the State of Israel—the entrenchment of the ‘Self’ within the soil (as in the Nazi slogan, ‘blood and soil’), and the attachment to land or territory remains also a critical site upon which Levinas rejects this manner of reification. That is, rather than being—or under the pretense that one ‘recognizes themselves to be’—rooted in their world, Levinas finds instead in political practices of justice a certain exilehood on Earth represented in the call of the Other and the asymmetrical responsibility that follows. This grounds the particularity of his claims on Judaism and often against the State of Israel (see below), even when he concedes that an otherwise uncompromising ethic needs account for survival. Thus, there remains a tension between justice and survival that is not comfortably set aside in order to commend one’s being ‘rooted in their transcendence,’ but always uneasily attested to as the disruptive and traumatic condition upon which a foundational ethics preceding ontology, an ‘ethics without ground’ which refuses to appeal to the world and the comfort of being rooted in it is asserted.

We might fashion two contrapuntal examples of scholarship that refuse these dynamics in the extremely careful readings offered by Annabel Herzog on Levinas’s relation to Zionism and Cynthia Coe’s feminist analysis of his works. Herzog has quite admirably explored a controversy well beyond even the scope of the academy by contending squarely with Levinas’s writings on Zionism in relation to his conceptions of ethics and politics. Even in the form of her analysis we can see a principled refusal to allow her representation of him to be anything other than embroiled in a complex set of concerns, where she presents first his defense, and then his criticism of the State of Israel. Of the former, it would seem that Levinas finds in the State of Israel the every-present possibility—a particularist possibility for Judaism—for the concrete actualization of his ethical ideal as justice. Such a state could make an ethic of dialogical solidarity, refusal of violence, and refuge for the Other practically real. It is also one that merges these ideals with the enduring need for survival following the Holocaust. Perhaps this rendering bears similarities to Sealey’s account of a creolizing subject.

On the other hand, though, the State of Israel is also always in a position to reject or neglect these ideals; where notions of space and place are re-instituted in the territory, in the very soil, or where the Other is banished from that territory. This is much like Sealey’s comment that valorizations of the logic of ‘race’ demands constant vigilance lest one find themselves once again under the inertia, and in the realm of a politics of purity. Herzog cites a telling instance in which Levinas refused to leave the tour bus while attending a conference on Martin Buber after hearing that Bedouin communities in Be’er-Sheva were required to burn their tents to be eligible to receive stone houses from the government (p. 478).[ii] She follows this tension up until the events of the First Lebanon War, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 when his statements on the matter of Israel become dispersed and infrequent, even if he does not waver in his defense by the time of his 1986 interview with Francois Poirié. It would seem, in this case, that the vigilance Sealey advises, and the enduring possibility of ‘purity politics’ reemerging finds a real example in Levinas’s subsequent silence. But leaving this possibility open seems already to speak to the need to refuse attenuation of a Levinasian ethic in the first place both in practice, and in the theoretical refusal of ‘rootedness’ or ‘incarnation.’

Cynthia Coe’s reading of Levinas is equally nuanced in its ability to balance a careful analysis of his works with an unwavering commitment to feminist scholarship. This is so even where she marks a delineation between—and within—texts of his that represent heterocentric and masculinist presumptions in his philosophy, and where concepts and arguments are coded in gendered language, while also being potentially capable of disrupting those structures. Particularly early Levinas (as Simone de Beauvoir attests regarding Time and the Other) seems to find ground for a narrative framework where a masculine protagonist is compelled to depart from totality. He does so by situating him in the dichotomy of a conception of the feminine as inessential and inabsolute alterity to a totalizing and interiorized masculine counterpart.

However, in this, and especially in her reading of Otherwise than Being, there remains a seed from which the disruption of this framework is enacted or can be enacted. Firstly, the reversal of values in Levinas’s work—rejecting totality in favour of a more ambiguous infinity, and subsequently masculinity for the feminine—begins this process, if in a way that remains deeply flawed. Secondly, Levinas’s subject is increasingly characterized, even by the time of Totality and Infinity, by events and experiences that are wildly outside of their control, not least of which is the face to face encounter with the Other. Thus, the notion of a masculine subjectivity ‘always in control’ is undone by their vulnerability to the Other. Finally, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas begins with the incomplete subject, one who is subjected to a responsibility primordial to themselves, before themselves as a traumatic disruption Coe also terms vulnerability. As well, she finds in Levinas (without romanticizing) the possibility that a mother might pass away in childbirth to be an expression of vulnerability which demands one reckons with a responsibility that interrupts their self-possession. This, by the way, is rendered also in Giannopolous’s discussion of Levinas and transcendence in terms of ‘paternity’; where one—coded as the ‘father’ in this case—must reckon with the birth of their child as “a way of being other while being oneself” (p. 230).[iii]

Potential tensions one might identify in one or another contribution are perhaps another way of branching some key difficulties the handbook faces on a structural level with its own self-contextualization. Morgan identifies the handbook as being a resource specifically for Anglo-American scholarship on Levinas—perhaps because in English-speaking contexts globally, or in the European context, Anglophone philosophy is already in proximity to Francophone and multi-lingual continental thought to ignore it. However, the reductive potential of such a translation—not merely into an English idiom, but into an Anglo-American one—seems to allow the possibility that conclusions like Housers’s which valorize rather than critique a notion of reason, and Sealey’s which affirms rather than contending with the logical structures of race, find little response in other places in the handbook. Morgan should be lauded for gathering together a diverse array of scholars from many backgrounds, even when he already notes that most are located in North America. It is also, perhaps, not feasible to engage a global scope of scholarship for a project like this. However, the implications of a foundational reference-work bearing such absences are reflected in the non-universal dialogue that manifests itself within its pages.

Even with these problems in view, there is no doubt that The Oxford Handbook of Levinas makes an important contribution to scholarship in the diversity and richness of its philosophical engagements, and in the explorations and controversies attested to. If it is any indication, studies of the profound works of Emmanuel Levinas are likely to continue, and perhaps even to expand in new and unforeseen ways. If so, this handbook will stand as a testament and signpost for all those looking to enter the field.


Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 2000. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. 2009. Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses. Edited by Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011. Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites. Edited by Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011 [1961]. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

———. 2013. Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2016 [1981]. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Malka, Salomon. 2006. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Morgan, Michael L. 2007. Discovering Levinas (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. Levinas’s Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Morgan, Michael L. ed. 2019. Oxford Handbook of Levinas. Oxford University Press.

[i] Emmanuel Levinas, 2009, Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, ed. Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). Emmanuel Levinas, 2013, Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, ed. Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). These two texts were issued as part of a (currently) three-part collection by publishing house, Éditions Grasset, of the complete works of Levinas. The other volume gathers early lectures given at the invitation of jean Wahl to the Collège Philosophique. See: Emmanuel Levinas, 2011, Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites, ed. Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur).

[ii] This anecdote was quoted from: Salomon Malka, 2006, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 217.

[iii] The passage is a quotation from: Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 282.

Alexander Schnell: Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ?

Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ? Fondements d’un idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique Book Cover Qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie transcendantale ? Fondements d’un idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique
Alexander Schnell
Jérôme Millon
Paperback 22.00 €

Reviewed by: Alexandre Couture-Mingheras (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne – Université de Bonn)

La force d’Alexander Schnell tient à ce qu’il est l’un des rares philosophes de notre temps à défendre l’idéalisme transcendantal, idéalisme dont on sait qu’il constitue pour Husserl l’essence même de la phénoménologie, en le rapportant d’une part à l’idéalisme allemand et plus particulièrement à la Bildslehre de Fichte, dont il est l’un des plus éminents spécialistes, et d’autre part au « réalisme » dominant aujourd’hui et plus particulièrement au réalisme spéculatif de Quentin Meillassoux. La défense du projet husserlien se fera donc dans ce nouvel ouvrage, ambitieux et de haute facture, sous deux angles.

Tout d’abord, une auto-fondation de la phénoménologie à la fois sujet et objet de la démarche de légitimation, de sorte que l’on pourrait parler d’un « discours de la méthode » à condition que le methodos soit son propre telos (sans quoi, à raison, il faut avec l’auteur en rejeter l’expression) : il s’agit là de la perspective indiquée par le sous-titre de l’ouvrage, à savoir des fondements, dont le pluriel lui-même indique qu’il ne saurait s’agir d’un simple retour à l’unique fundamentum inconcussum de la subjectivité absolue, et de fait la réflexion sur l’anonymat du sens se faisant, dans l’horizon heideggérien de l’herméneutique, invitera à un dépassement de la structuration purement égologique de la phénoménologique. Ensuite, et c’est le sens de « l’idéalisme spéculatif », cette auto-réflexion méthodologique – étant entendu que la méthode encore une fois ne s’applique pas de l’extérieur à un objet mais est le Tout même de la phénoménologie comme la réduction transcendantale en est l’Alpha et l’Omega, l’objet de la phénoménologie en en étant le Sujet -, doit être elle-même ontologiquement fondée, la réflexivité fondementielle du projet étant sise en l’autoréflexivité de l’Être. La spécularité de l’essai de « phénoménologie de la phénoménologie » transcendantale dont l’auteur reprend à Fink le projet, jamais conduit à terme, se trouve donc associé à une pensée de la spécularité ontologique, la réflexion sur ce qui est reposant sur l’essence -flexive de l’être : pas de retour sur soi – ce qu’est la philosophie en son essence -, sans être spéculaire, ou, pour le dire autrement, pas de fondation disciplinaire sans spécularité réelle, pas de réflexion sur le phénomène sans réflexivité de la phénoménalité.

Le projet, qui a ici un caractère inaugural – appelant à une reprise et collaboration, dans la droite ligne de la réflexion husserlienne -, et qui pose les jalons de l’idéalisme spéculatif en ramassant sous forme « systématisée » (ou plutôt « méthodologique ») ce qui avait été exposé dans les ouvrages précédents de l’auteur, est assurément original. Au-delà même du dialogue fécond qu’il instaure avec le passé et notre temps, il surmonte l’opposition entre le phénoménologique et le spéculatif : c’est d’ailleurs la force de l’essai que de montrer – il s’agit là du fil rouge à mon sens qui en traverse les sections -, que le dehors historique de la phénoménologique, le spéculatif, est en réalité non tant un dehors qu’un dedans non surmonté qui en constitue la vérité insigne. S’annonce en filigrane l’ouverture de la phénoménologie à son Autre comme à ce qui lui est le plus intérieur, le Métaphysique comme « interior intimo » de la phénoménologie, ce dont témoigne le dernier chapitre sur « le sens de la réalité », réel qui n’est ni dedans ni dehors, comme une torsion spéculaire où l’extase est l’envers de l’enstase, ce que l’auteur exprime en termes d’« endo-exogénéité de l’être ». Cette originalité est d’autant plus saisissante lorsqu’on confronte le projet de l’auteur à l’orientation majoritairement réaliste aujourd’hui de la phénoménologie : au réalisme qui prend pour fil directeur l’objet prédonné s’oppose l’idéalisme qui passe de l’objet à la réflexion sur la phénoménalité du phénomène, en une réflexion sur la possibilité de la phénoménologie qui appelle l’interrogation sur la possibilité même de la phénoménalité, en un transcendantalisme spéculatif qui se démarque, A. Schnell y insiste, du transcendantalisme kantien qui concerne les conditions de possibilité non de l’être mais de la seule connaissance. Encore cet idéalisme se donne-t-il moins pour l’opposant du réalisme que pour son fondement puisque la question posée d’entrée de jeu est celle de la conciliation entre d’un côté la reconduction à la subjectivité transcendantale (l’idéalisme) et de l’autre la fondation d’un concept fort d’être ou de réalité capable de rendre compte de la transcendance du monde (le réalisme), que si on ne saurait faire l’économie du sujet – contre cet appel généralisé au XXème siècle à la « mort du sujet » (et de « l’auteur ») -, on ne saurait pas plus résorber l’absoluité de la transcendance en l’intentionnalité d’une visée. On comprend que l’agent de liaison, ou de sursomption de l’opposition, sera établi par la redéfinition spéculative de l’idéalisme transcendantal, et que le spéculatif sera la clé permettant de sortir du conflit entre l’approche essentiellement gnoséologique de Husserl avec son projet de légitimation de la connaissance et l’ontologie phénoménologique de Heidegger où l’horizon du sens et du comprendre est irréductible au schème de la constitution transcendantale.

Est en jeu, cela est évident dès l’introduction, l’avenir même de la phénoménologie, qui se trouve forclos par une double attitude, de soumission à l’empiricité d’un objet pré-donné – c’est là le positivisme au double sens de ce qui sert la science mais aussi de ce qui est de l’ordre du « trouvé-d’avance » -, et de subordination historiographique de la philosophie à son passé. Le transcendantal, c’est précisément cet arrachement de la pensée au règne du fait déjà tout fait au profit d’une pensée pensante. Si la philosophie consiste à retourner à l’originaire, alors la phénoménologie en assume-t-elle la vocation, elle qui, « science des premiers commencements », ne cesse de recommencer pour interroger l’origine du sens et de l’être ou de ce que Husserl appelait « l’Énigme du Monde », c’est-à-dire non un problème mais une aporie qui exige que l’on se place à sa hauteur : le retour aux « choses mêmes » n’est pas de l’ordre d’un retour aux « faits » – en une dangereuse mythologie du Fait qui semble sous-tendre aujourd’hui bien des « ontologies » plates ou feuilletées orphelines de leur Sujet -, mais, suspendant l’en-soi à titre de préjugé, il consiste à faire de l’a priori de la corrélation entre ce qui se donne et son appréhension subjective son thème propre comme l’écrit Husserl dans un passage célèbre de la Krisis (§ 48). En effet, interroger l’être c’est questionner le sens d’être, ce en quoi la corrélation est a priori, originaire, irréductible qu’elle est au rapport entre deux termes hétérogènes. La corrélativité constitue la structure interne de la phénoménalité, ce que met au jour l’épochè phénoménologique, laquelle opère le passage de l’objet à la conscience d’objet. La corrélation désigne la structure sujet-objet inhérente à tout étant apparaissant, faisant tomber l’évidence apparente de la chose, la naturalité précisément d’une perception dont le propre est de s’effacer devant son objet. En d’autres termes, il s’agit de réfléchir la perception, de conduire la vision, obnubilée par la chose vue, à se saisir en un voir du voir : bref, le spéculatif est bien l’essence du phénoménologique, et l’enjeu de l’ouvrage est d’en décliner le thème en trois sections – qu’il est bien sûr impossible de « résumer » : il s’agit, encore une fois, d’un methodos et non de micro-thèses dont on pourrait transposer le contenu de façon ramassée -, la première exposant des considérations méthodologiques, la deuxième établissant un dialogue « historico-systématique » avec l’idéalisme allemand et l’empirisme anglo-saxon (humien), la troisième enfin, affrontant l’idéalisme spéculatif au réalisme spéculatif de Q. Meillassoux.

Le premier temps est consacré au concept même de méthode en phénoménologie et à ce qui fait la spécificité de l’attitude transcendantale, laquelle engage les notions de science eidétique (contre la « cécité spirituelle » des empiristes selon Husserl), d’expérience transcendantale (contre le transcendantal abstrait – apagogique – de Kant), de sens (contre l’être « en-soi ») et enfin de corrélation, en vue d’une rapproche renouvelée du problème de la compréhension, dans l’effort de conciliation de l’approche herméneutique chez Heidegger et de la légitimation transcendantale de la connaissance chez Husserl : l’idéalisme spéculatif met en jeu ce « comprendre transcendantal » irréductible à la face subjective et psychologique d’un savoir dont la connaissance objective et scientifique serait l’autre face, comme ce « sens se faisant » de l’ordre de l’entre-deux, inassignable à une instance, subjective ou objective, entre l’activité de l’esprit (il faut un interprétant) et un champ prédonné de compréhension (qui oriente l’interprétation, la soustrayant à tout arbitraire). Autrement dit, la description qui était définitoire de la phénoménologie se trouve dépassée par la construction : le spéculatif, c’est déjà ce « comprendre », cette monstration du sens – occulté dans l’attitude naturelle -, une « donation génétisée ». Spéculer, ce n’est pas spéculer dans le vide, mais ce n’est pas non plus, tel est l’enjeu de cette section, rapporter une construction à un étant qui lui préexisterait.

La deuxième section vise à rapporter la phénoménologie comme idéalisme spéculatif à l’idéalisme postkantien, passant de l’approche strictement méthodologique à une approche historique dont l’objectif est clair : justifier l’idéalisme spéculatif en inscrivant le projet de fondation de la phénoménologie dans l’horizon de l’idéalisme allemand, permettant ici encore de dépasser le caractère descriptif de la phénoménologie – le « principe des principes » qu’est l’intuition et qui est eo ipso légitimante pour Husserl -, au regard de la Wissenschaftslehre – et de l’image – de Fichte où il s’agit bien de construire le fait et ses conditions de possibilité de façon génétique, non à partir de faits (pure description) mais à partir d’un acte de construction (ici de la Tathandlung) par quoi la construction (ou spécularité) coïncide avec l’intuitivité de ce qu’elle construit et donne à voir. Comme le dit A. Schnell, l’intuitivité est ici un voir de la genèse. Cette interrogation sur les fondements spéculatifs de l’unité de la phénoménologie – conditionnement mutuel, possibilisation, construction génétique, redoublement possibilisant, autant de concepts analysés par l’auteur -, se double d’une confrontation subséquente de la phénoménologie à l’empirisme humien sous l’angle de la thématique de la Lebenswelt. Si le mérite de Hume est en effet d’engendrer le monde, montrant que ce qui paraît aller de soi n’a rien d’assuré, que les vérités objectives sont des formations de vie – une subjectivité voilée -, bref de retourner au monde de la vie comme sol de notre rapport au monde et a priori subjectif au fondement de l’a priori objectif de la science, il s’agit en revanche pour Husserl, on le sait, de concilier cette « fiction » du monde à son projet de légitimation de l’objectivité de la connaissance en intégrant le débat de la validité menée par le néo-kantisme de l’école de Baden dans la problématique de l’être. Contre l’objectivisme, l’auteur étudie la formation transcendantale du sens en prenant en compte le concept de vérité exposé dans la Sixième recherche logique et la thèse heideggérienne de la vérité comme existential. L’idéalisme spéculatif se trouve ici approfondi, permettant de sortir de la perspective purement gnoséologique en vue d’un « rendre compréhensible transcendantal » – mis en avant surtout par la Krisis -, et la mise en avant du plan anonyme, pré-égotique, de la Sinnbildung. Autrement dit, de la seconde section ressortent l’irréductibilité de la phénoménologie à la description et intuition, le rôle fondamental joué par les modes de conscience « non-présentants » (la fameuse phantasia) et enfin le primat du plan du procès du sens sur la constitution égologique (le spéculaire), idée d’un auto-anéantissement du moi conduisant à une « Sinnbildung anonyme » pré-égotique (ou « subjectivité anonyme ») – ici évoquée seulement mais dont on peut imaginer la fécondité à la rapporter par exemple au champ transcendantal sans ego (Sartre) ou au plan d’immanence de conscience absolue et impersonnelle (Deleuze), c’est-à-dire à ce dont Jean Hyppolite avait avancé l’idée en 1959, à savoir la possibilité de dériver le « Je » transcendantal – le « Je » comme pôle qui accompagne toutes mes représentations -, d’un champ antérieur au partage entre Moi et non-Moi, pré-subjectif et pré-objectif, et ce contre l’égocentrisme de la donation transcendantale.

Mais c’est à l’aune de la confrontation au réalisme spéculatif dans la troisième section que l’on saisit l’un des motifs au principe de l’essai : sauver la phénoménologie contre l’attaque menée par Q. Meillassoux contre ce qu’il a appelé dans Après la finitude le « corrélationisme ». Si on comprend mal la référence au « Nouveau Réalisme » de Markus Gabriel dans la mesure où il s’agit d’un réalisme sans Réalité – « tout existe, sauf le Tout » -, qui ouvrant l’ontologie aux sens de l’être et aux laissés-pour-compte de l’ontologie traditionnelle comme les licornes se détourne de son principe et abolit l’idée de « réalité du réel » et de nature fondamentale de ce qui est, au nom d’un pluralisme ontologique et épistémologique si radical qu’il en perd tout sens – l’ouverture de l’être aux fictions reposant sur l’idée de fiction de réalité -, en revanche la discussion menée avec le réalisme spéculatif permet, par contraste, de légitimer le projet de fondation de l’idéalisme spéculatif phénoménologique. Au-delà de la critique de l’argument de l’ancestralité qui fait fond sur une confusion selon l’auteur entre l’empirique et le transcendantal – l’expérience possible ne doit pas être confondue avec la possibilité empirique, si bien qu’il n’est de sens à inscrire la survenue du sujet (transcendantal) dans la ligne temporelle objective -, c’est bien à mon sens la façon dont l’absolu se trouve revisité à l’aune de l’idéalisme allemand qui ressort de l’analyse : d’un absolu qui n’est plus pensé comme absolu objectif mais comme réel subjectif et pré-égotique contre l’ontologisation de l’irraison et l’absolutisation de la contingence de la corrélation. La réflexivité de l’être – sa « corrélativité » -, le procès du sens comme structure transcendantale tendant à l’auto-explicitation réflexive du réel, d’un être se réfléchissant comme sens sans en passer tout d’abord par la figure de l’ego, tel est au final ce qui justifie ontologiquement le projet de fondation de l’idéalisme spéculatif, l’auteur répondant au défi lancé par Q. Meillassoux qui invitait la phénoménologie à s’élever aux hauteurs spéculatives de l’idéalisme kantien et postkantien. Pari tenu.

Que serait un en-soi qui serait pensé non comme chose mais comme sujet, en-soi comme Soi ? Si l’on se plaît depuis Wittgenstein à parler d’un « mythe de l’intériorité », la démarche radicale d’immanentisation chez Husserl consistait au contraire, tirant le fil cartésien, à interroger ladite « réalité du réel » et à rebours de l’attitude naturelle à mettre au jour ce qu’on pourrait appeler un « mythe de l’extériorité », révélant le dehors du dedans au sens du génitif subjectif. La phénoménologie procédait à une libération spectaculaire (mais n’est-ce pas le sens même de l’amour du Vrai, de la Philalethia en son sens originaire, i.e. initiatique ?) : libération de la conscience à l’égard du monde, renvoyé à son insuffisance ontologique et au caractère immanent de sa transcendance, libération de la conscience à l’égard d’elle-même dans son auto-appréhension limitante comme « moi psychophysique » – si l’épochè est l’acte inaugural de la philosophie c’est bien en tant que nul ne saurait se mettre en quête de Vérité qui reste prisonnier du sens de son identité -, et libération contre la philosophie moderne à l’égard de Dieu en tant qu’absolument Autre. Il ne faudra plus chercher le fondement ailleurs qu’en soi-même, quitte à ce que cet en-soi soit le lieu de révélation de la Vie divine, que l’égologie soit un théocentrisme, que l’ego soit porté par ce qui, plus haut, est ego transsubjectif, en un solipsisme transcendantal au fondement de l’intersubjectivité, intra au principe de l’inter. C’est là une direction qui me paraît passionnante, en une pensée de l’intériorité transcendantale et « cosmique », comme l’appelait Ravaisson, dont une confrontation cette fois-ci avec la Métaphysique du Veda, le Vedanta, permettrait de renouveler l’approche. Au-delà du cercle strictement phénoménologique ainsi tracé – avec son style parfois sibyllin et elliptique -, la phénoménologie eût pu s’ouvrir à un public plus large, dans le renouvellement urgent de la question originaire de la Vérité de Soi et de celle du Monde dont l’identité ouvre le rationnel à son autre en un rationalisme élargi. Mais c’est là ce dont le positivisme encore latent – mais Husserl était aussi fils de son temps – de la Strenge Wissenschaft, ce qu’engage la thématique de la validité, de laquelle participe l’essai de fondation de la phénoménologie, nous détourne. Certes Husserl concluait ses Méditations cartésiennes par un passage aussi beau qu’exigent : « L’oracle de Delphes gnôthi seauton acquiert alors une signification nouvelle. La science positive devient science en perdant le monde. Il faut commencer par perdre le monde avec l’épochè pour le reconquérir dans l’auto-réflexion universelle. Noli foras ire, dit Augustin, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas ». Ce serait toutefois emprunter une voie différente, celle d’un philosophique roulant sur l’écume des catégories de l’entendement occidental et nourri par l’océan du philosophal : la « porte du dedans », ainsi que l’appelait Rûmî, conduirait alors à un immanentisme radical, intériorité qui n’est plus celle d’un « moi » mais d’un « nous » qui n’est Nous que d’être Un, et dont la réalisation, sans doute, nécessiterait de déchirer le voile des phénomènes – l’image dudit « réel » – de faire de la phénoménologie le tremplin vers son auto-dépassement.

Jean Cavaillès: On Logic and the Theory of Science, Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2021

On Logic and the Theory of Science Book Cover On Logic and the Theory of Science
Jean Cavaillès. Introductory notice by Georges Canguilhem and Charles Ehresmann. Introduction by Knox Peden. Translated by Translated by Knox Peden and Robin Mackay
Urbanomic/Sequence Press
Paperback $18.95

Hans Jonas: Memoirs, Brandeis University Press, 2021

Memoirs Book Cover Memoirs
Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry
Hans Jonas. Translator: Krishna Winston
Brandeis University Press
Paperback $40.00

Frank Chouraqui: The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021

The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide Book Cover The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide
Frank Chouraqui:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Paperback $31.95

Chung-Chi Yu: Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels

Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels Book Cover Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels
Orbis Phaenomenologicus, Band 47
Chung-Chi Yu
Königshausen & Neumann

Reviewed by: Alexis Gros (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)


Chung-Chi Yu, Professor of Philosophy at the National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan, counts as one of the most prominent phenomenology scholars in Asia. He specializes in the works of Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz and has translated both the Husserliana IX, Phänomenologische Psychologie, and Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt into Chinese. The philosophy of Bernhard Waldenfels, who was his Ph.D. supervisor at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum during the 1990s, is also included in his field of expertise and has decisively influenced his thought.

Life-world and Cultural Difference, published at the end of 2019 in the collection Orbis Phaenomenologicus, reflects the research work conducted by Yu in the last two decades. The book consists of thirteen chapters, which deal with three main topics that are at the heart of the preoccupations of the author: the relationship between transcendental phenomenology and phenomenological psychology in Husserl’s thought, the discussion of central issues in Schutzian phenomenology, and the analysis of the problem of cultural difference from the perspectives of Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels. In this review, I will exclusively focus on the latter topic, which, as the title already reveals, plays the leading role in the structure of the book.

The radicalization of globalization taking place since the end of the 20th century has produced an intensification of contacts among different cultures. This, in turn, brought about the emergence of a number of theoretical debates on issues such as “interculturality”, “multiculturality”, and “transculturality” (69). These discussions, which are at the core of contemporary cultural philosophy and social theory, center around questions such as the following: How can one explain or account for cultural differences? Are all cultures “equal” or some are “better” or “more developed” than others? What is the desirable relation between divergent cultural groups? Is intercultural communication and understanding possible? If so, how does it work? Are there commonalities between cultures beyond their heterogeneities? Should one endorse a universalist or a particularistic and relativistic account of culture? Chung-Chi Yu’s Life-world and Cultural Difference has the merit of showing that phenomenology has much to say concerning these and similar questions.

As Chung-Chi Yu explains, Husserl and Schutz provide illuminating insights on cultural difference qua life-worldly experience which can enhance current discussions on the topic. Interestingly enough, however, Yu does not endorse an orthodox Husserlian or Schutzian position, as many Husserl and Schutz scholars tend to do. Instead, in a critical and original way, Yu resorts to Waldenfels’ reflections on “the alien” [das Fremde] as a corrective for the problematic universalist, foundationalist, and Eurocentric motifs that, to different degrees, permeate the work of both thinkers (ix).

Yu’s argument concerning cultural difference—which is clearly sketched out in the Introduction of the book and unfolded in eight of its thirteen chapters—is structured in three main moments. First (1), Yu expounds upon Husserl’s position, criticizing its Eurocentric, logocentric, and foundationalist motifs. Second (2), Yu scrutinizes Schutz’s account, identifying problematic universalistic traits within it similar to those found in Husserl. And finally (3), Yu presents Waldenfels’ conception of interculturality as a non-Eurocentric and non-foundationalist approach able to overcome Husserl’s and Schutz’s shortcomings. In what follows, I will briefly reconstruct each of these argumentative steps.

Chung-Chi Yu on Husserl

Chung-Chi Yu chooses the Kaizo articles (a set of papers on ethics written between 1922 and 1924) as a starting point for his explanation of the Husserlian position (17-26). Based on an exhaustive analysis of these texts, Yu shows that Husserl’s Eurocentric account of the relationship between European and non-European cultures partly rests upon ethical considerations. For Husserl, an ethical life is one that is lived according to reason: “[t]he content of the categorical imperative is ‘to lead a life based on practical reason’” (19). More precisely, living a rational life entails overcoming the unreflective naivety of the natural attitude and achieving a reflective and self-determined conduct based on well-founded knowledge (18f.). In this way, philosophy plays a key role, insofar as it provides human beings with access to “reason” [Vernunft] (18ff.).

As Yu shows, Husserl conceives ethics on the collective level in a structurally analogous way. A cultural form of life is good, so to speak, when it frees itself from the irrational bonds of religious-mythical “tradition” and commits instead to the demands of Vernunft (22). And this, in turn, is only possible if philosophers get a big say in the organization and regnancy of social life: “the cultural elevation should be achieved through the introduction of philosophy […]. Philosophers provide a method by which society can be conscious of itself” (18, 22). Against this background, Husserl argues that the European culture, as the birthplace and one and only home of philosophical reason, has an ethical supremacy over all non-European forms of life (29f.). More precisely, in this view the birth of Europe, understood not as a geographical location but as a “spiritual world” (30), coincides with that of philosophy in ancient Greece. The emergence of the “theoretical attitude” [theoretische Einstellung] in the 7th Century BC constitutes a turning point in human history, insofar as it marks the advent of the “willingness to live by the ideal of reason” (29). As the unique spiritual carrier of philosophy – “nothing similar developed in other ancient cultures like India or China” (29), – European culture has a “historical mission”, namely, that of rationalizing or enlightening the entire world (44). By this token, the Kaizo papers recommend non-European peoples to embrace the philosophical rationality of Europe, which is deemed to be “universally valid” (17f., 27). Cultures such as Japan, China or India should leave behind their underdeveloped “religious-mythical thought” (29) and Europeanize themselves, as it were, by organizing their collective forms of life according to the demands of absolute reason: “To become European is to advance to a higher level of rationality” (37). As Yu rightly points out, the “Eurocentric arrogance” entailed in his position goes without saying (25).

It is important to emphasize, as Chung-Chi Yu himself does, that the Husserlian discourse on Europe takes shape within the context of his diagnosis of a “cultural crisis” of humanity in the aftermath of the First World War (28, 30). Especially in the Krisis, a classical text from 1935-1936 which takes on some of the arguments from the Kaizo papers (17), the father of phenomenology characterizes this crisis as a crisis of reason and therefore of the European culture in toto. Philosophical Vernunft, he says, has lost its way, being truncated by the overwhelming advance of “objectivism and naturalism.” Accordingly, it is necessary to “recover” its original ethical sense, as founded in ancient Greek, and to accomplish its universal mission (30).

From all this follows that Europe plays a key role in Husserlian thought, while non-European cultures have merely a residual status therein. As Yu claims, Husserl was not interested in seriously understanding other civilizations apart from the European. He only refers to them, in a rather undifferentiated way, as curious examples that serve as a contrasting foil to define Europe (43). “[T]he ‘non-European’ is lumped together into a single category with no room for distinction between India or China, Papua New Guinea or Patagonia” (38). More precisely, in some of Husserl’s writings millenary civilizations such as China or India are denigrated as “mythical-religious”, or even “magical”, cultures that have not developed scientific-philosophical forms of thinking (48f.). Now, as Chung-Chi Yu points out, despite his unacceptable ethnocentric ideas, Husserl never lost sight of the cultural differences among divergent social groups: he “is well aware that all people live in different cultures and that accessing each other’s culture is difficult” (50). Moreover, according to developments on Husserliana XV by contemporary phenomenologists Anthony Steinbock and Berhard Waldenfels, “pluralism” may have a place Husserlian thought insofar as the distinction between “homeworld” [Heimwelt] and “alienworld” [Fremdwelt] is useful for reflecting on intercultural relationships from a non-Eurocentric perspective (38-39, 157ff.).

For Husserl, the concept of homeworld refers to the “normal”—i.e., the established, familiar, and quotidian “world-horizon” which is common to a specific social group (32). The “homecomrades” live and act in one and the same meaningful environment because they share a “tradition” which they have inherited from past generations (32). More precisely, they are an experiential community, or “Erfahrungsgemeinschaft”, insofar as they share a “noetic a priori” (57). What they have in common is a specific “Umwelt-Apperzeption”, that is, a habitualized “mode of apperception” which enables them to “easily understand” the typical meaning of both cultural objects and other people’s actions (32).

By contrast, Husserl characterizes the alienworld as the experiential environment of a foreign group as seen from the perspective of the homeworld. The homecomrades perceive the alienworld as an abnormal and unfamiliar milieu, meaning they have difficulties in grasping the typical meaning of the events, things, and actions they see within it. This is so because they do not belong to the alien group’s generative tradition and therefore do not share the same Umwelt-Apperzeption  (32f.). In this sense, “Husserl imagines that he would feel dizzy if he were in a town in China, since all the essential types of people’s behavior and all kinds of objects would be unfamiliar to him” (32).

However, although the father of phenomenology acknowledges the divergences among cultures and the difficulties entailed in intercultural understanding, his main theoretical interest lies in the possibility of “overcoming” cultural difference (vii ff.). To put it in Yu’s terms, Husserl’s position is closer to “cultural universalism” than to “cultural particularism” (vii) in that he is mainly concerned with answering the following questions: “Are cultural differences to be surpassed or overcome? Is there a common core shared by both the homeworld and the alienworld?” (57). Husserl answers these questions positively by resorting to the idea of “the one world” [Die eine Welt] (159). Behind the surface of cultural differences, he says, there is “an underlying commonality”, namely, the “universal structure of the life-world”, which is equally experienced by all persons, irrespective of their sociocultural provenience (viii, 34). Arguing from a questionable Eurocentric and logocentric perspective, he suggests that only those subjects able to adopt a philosophical or “theoretical attitude”, i.e., Europeans, can access this “common ground” (50). Only philosophy qua “universal science”, a distinctly European endeavor, can work out the basal dimensions of “the one world” (37). As Yu shows, Husserl identifies this “common ground” with “pure nature”—not in the positivist-objectivist sense but, rather, as the world of nature as it is (inter)subjectively lived by pre-scientific subjects (36, 58). “If we keep to […] what in the world is perceptually accessible to everyone, then we come to nature” (Husserl on p. 58). More precisely, the spatiotemporal world of nature, which is structurally perceived in the same way by everyone, is that what constitutes the “core of human experience” (60) and thus the most basal stratum of the life-world (30).

In Husserl’s own terms, despite cultural differences, “there is commonality, earth and heaven, day and night, stones and trees, mountain and valley, diverse animals…” (Husserl on p. 58). For instance, the hardness of marble is an experiential fact universally valid, regardless of cultural differences (p, 97). Thus understood, universal nature is “composed of the world of space-time and natural objects, which are not yet culturally interpreted and reconstructed” (31). Far from being amorphous, this pre-cultural layer of the world shows a certain typicality, i.e., a stable and regular style of manifestation (60). Now, although concretely experienced by all pre-scientific subjects, these fundamental structures can only be unearthed philosophically, that is, by means of reflective, rational, and abstractive procedures such as the ones developed by transcendental phenomenology (30). To use Yu’s own words, the “world-nucleus of nature is to be distilled by abstraction” (30). For Husserl, this can only be carried out by Europeans, since they and only they, as unique inheritors of Greek Reason, are able to perform the necessary switch from the natural to the theoretical attitude.

Husserl argues that cultural objects are composed of two strata, namely, the “sinnliche Unterlage” and the “aufgestufte Kultur-Bedeutung”, i.e., a material substratum that can be sensually perceived just like natural things and a layer of non-sensual meaning, which is founded upon the former (54). Both strata are equally “essential” dimensions of a cultural thing. On the one hand, without a certain materiality a book would not be “readable”; and, on the other hand, if it did not support some kind of spiritual content, e.g., a novel, it would not be a “book” at all (54). To be sure, in everyday life we experience both layers together in an undifferentiated manner: we immediately see a “book” as a corporeal-spiritual object. The distinction between these two strata is a product of abstractive activities (54).

When characterizing the respective modes of manifestation of these two layers, Husserl draws upon the differentiation between “real” and ideal or “irreal” objectivities developed in Logische Untersuchungen (54). The material substratum of the cultural object counts as a “real physical unit” [reale physische Einheit] which is “individualized” in spatio-temporality, while its cultural stratum constitutes an “irreal, ideal unit of significance” [irreale, ideale Einheit von Bedeutung] that does not occupy a specific location in the spatiotemporal world (54). For this reason, one and the same novel as ideal unit, say, Herman Hesse’s Demian, can be embodied in different material books qua real objects produced in divergent times and places.

Yu points out that the distinction between Husserl’s two strata of cultural objects plays a crucial role in Husserl’s account of cultural difference. The physical substratum of a particular cultural object, as a part of material nature, is perceptually available for people from all cultures (56). By contrast, its ideal-irreal layer, i.e., its meaning and purpose, can only be seen and understood by those belonging to the culture that produced and uses it. In this sense, Husserl says that, for the Bantu people, the “aesthetic or practical ‘meaning’” of our cultural things would be “beyond comprehension” (56). When examining Husserl’s take on cultural difference, Chung-Chi Yu gives special attention to his analysis of the mode of manifestation of so-called “cultural objects”—i.e., of things that were created by human beings for certain purposes, such as books, tables, maps, computers, football balls, etc. (ix, 53ff). According to Husserl, cultural objects have a double ontological status: they constitute “corporeal-spiritual objects” [körperlich-geistige Gegenständlichkeiten], meaning they belong both to “material reality” and to the ideal-intellectual realm (53). On the one hand, they are real things but, on the other hand, they carry a non-sensual meaning. A book, for instance, has a certain hardness, weight, color, smell, etc. just like trees or rocks, but, at the same time, it supports ideal-spiritual objectivities that cannot be seen, touched or smelled: poems, stories, theories, and so on.

Chung-Chi Yu on Schutz

In a second argumentative step, Chung-Chi Yu expounds Schutz’s account of cultural difference, focusing especially on his analysis of cultural objects as presented in the 1955 paper “Symbol, Society and Reality” (61). As Yu shows, Husserl’s notion of “appresentation” plays a key role in the Schutzian approach (viii, 61, 80). More precisely, Schutz maintains that the “in-group” has a different objectual environment than the “out-group”, and this because they operate with different “system[s] of appresentational references” (viii).

According to Yu, Schutz adopts the Husserlian concept of “appresentation” [Appräsentation] as developed in the 5th Cartesian Meditation. By this notion, Husserl means a “mediated intentionality” [Mittelbarkeit der Intentionalität] that makes empathy possible (62). It is, more specifically, a passive synthesis of consciousness thanks to which something directly experienced, i.e., the body of the other, makes “co-present” something which is non-perceivable: the other’s inner life (62). In our actual experience, however, the alter ego appears as a unitary psycho-physical phenomenon: “appresentation is coupled with presentation and together they make a ‘functional community’ [Funktionsgemeinschaft]” (70).

In line with his teacher, Schutz understands appresentation as a “pairing association between appresenting and the appresented” (62). As he argues, however, this passive synthesis is not only at work in empathy but in all kinds of experiences of “transcendence”, i.e., of phenomena that cannot be directly experienced (62). Going beyond Husserl, and arguing from a sign-theoretical approach, Schutz uses the concept of “appresentational references” for depicting all “means” used by everyday subjects for overcoming transcendences, namely, “marks”, “indications”, “signs”, and “symbols” (64, 80). “These so-called appresentational references”, he thinks, “are rooted in the consciousness structure of appresentation” (80).

Furthermore, Schutz argues that both the “appresenting item” and the “appresented item” (70) always appear as embedded within “horizon[s]” or “orders” of phenomena (63). “Each side of the appresentational relationship must rely on its background or order” (63). Take, for instance, the case of a flag as a symbol of a country. The appresenting item, say, a piece of light blue and white fabric, belongs to the physical-material world, while the appresented item, e.g. the idea of Argentina as a country, is part of a horizon of cultural-spiritual notions.

As Yu has it, Schutz argues that cultural objects are characterized by bearing specific appresentational references only visible to those belonging to the in-group that produce and use them on a daily basis (viii). Differently put, the members of a certain group share a “system of appresentational references” that allows them to immediately understand the meaning of their objectual environment (viii). These appresented meanings manifest themselves as “inherent” to the objects and are thus perceived as “real components of the ‘definition of situation’” (Schutz in p. 99). In this sense, according to Schutz, “[t]he world of everyday life is […] permeated by appresentational references which are simply taken for granted” (Schutz in p. 65).

In a similar vein to Husserl, Schutz seems to think that the appresenting item of cultural objects, i.e., their material layer, is able to be perceived by all human beings regardless of their cultural origin, while the appresented side is only available for the in-group members (p. 70). Consider, for example, a message in Chinese language written in black in a piece of white paper. Everyone can see the black-ink figures against the white background and even interpret them as some kind of linguistic signs, but only those who speak or understand the language, and hence belong to some extent to the Chinese culture, can comprehend the meaning of the message, i.e., that what those signs appresent.

Schutz, thus, understands cultural difference primarily as a result of divergent systems of appresentational references. More specifically, in his view the system of appresentational references is an essential component of the particular cultural pattern or “Kulturmuster” of each in-group, i.e., of the “guiding principle of cognition and behavior” in light of which its members define quotidian situations (98f.). Operating in natural attitude within this interpretive framework, in-group members see the appresented items without further ado and take them for granted as immanent aspects of the objects. By contrast, outsiders do not perceive this surplus of meaning or only consider it as something externally “added” to material things (ix).

Against this background, Yu points out that “the pure experience of the life-world” in Husserl’s sense, that is, the experience of pure nature as described above, is also possible from a Schutzian perspective (ix, 64). According to Schutz, this experience emerges “automatically” when, lacking the adequate system of appresentational references, out-group members are incapable of understanding the meaning and purpose of an object (ix, 64). This happens, for instance, when someone unfamiliar with modern art cannot grasp the appresentations “normally” awaken by a certain painting, that is to say, when the “appresentational scheme” does not function properly (64). In this case, says Schutz, what the person perceives are merely real-material phenomena such as shapes, lines, and colors (64).

As Yu suggests, although Schutz deals with the issue of cultural difference more exhaustively than Husserl and does not share the latter’s Eurocentrism, he seems to endorse a cultural universalist and foundationalist position as well (ix, 66). That is, he does not abandon Husserl’s ideas of “universalism” and “grounding” [Grundlegung] (ix, 66). To begin with, Schutz also postulates a pure experience of the life-world as the common experiential ground for all cultures. However, in contrast to Husserl, he believes this layer of experience only comes up in abnormal cases, namely, as a result of intercultural divergences or misunderstandings (pp, ix, 66).

But this is not all. Especially in his later writings, the Viennese phenomenologist speaks of a “universal symbolism” shared by all cultures, which would be ultimately rooted in the conditio humana (ix). As Chung-Chi Yu emphasizes, Schutz argues that certain features of the life-world are common to all cultures because “they are rooted in the human condition” (66). In this sense, “Schutz’s idea of universalism is similar to that of Husserl” (ix). Both postulate a common ground underlying the different homeworlds or in-groups (69).

Chung-Chi Yu on Waldenfels

The final pages of the book show that Bernhard Waldenfels’ phenomenology of the alien can serve as a corrective to the deficits of both Husserl’s and Schutz’s accounts of cultural difference. In the two last chapters, Yu exhaustively reconstructs Waldenfels’ criticism of the universalist and foundationalist “idea of grounding” [Grundlegungsidee] which is at the heart of the Husserlian approach and also informs the Schutzian one (162).

Bernhard Waldenfels objects to Husserl’s ethnocentric and logocentric claim that European philosophy can overcome cultural divergences, insofar as it is able to reach a plane of “universality” with the help of Reason (163). For Waldenfels, this idea reflects one of the main deficits of European culture, namely, its systematic neglect and underestimation of the “otherness [Fremdheit] of non-European cultures” (164). Europe sees the alterity of other cultural groups as an obstacle to be surmounted, and not as a voice worthy to be heard and understood.

More precisely, Waldenfels criticizes the European notion of universality at work in Husserlian thought. As he argues, “no culture”, not even Europe, the alleged birthplace and home of Vernunft, “can ever claim to have created the universal order”, since it is impossible to observe and compare all different cultures from an acultural perspective, as it were (164). In other words, all conceptions of universality, the European one included, are inevitably particular accounts,  meaning they are always the result of “processes of universalization” in which something particular is presented as universal (163ff). However, “Europeans have not always been conscious of their position-taking” (163). That is to say, they do not always acknowledge that their conception of universality is inescapably particular. According to Waldenfels, this is the main deficit of “philosophical Eurocentrism” as paradigmatically embodied in Husserl’s position. According to Waldenfels, it miraculously “‘starts from the self, goes through the other and ends in totality’” (Waldenfels in p. 175). Waldenfels also argues, however, that it is still possible and even useful to work with the notion of universality, as long as one recognizes its insurmountable limits. First and foremost, one has to admit that no particular social group has access to the universal ontological, moral, and epistemological order of the universe (164). As paradoxical as it sounds, “[u]niversality must remain contextual”, since it is always a cultural product. In this sense, Waldenfels suggests the interesting idea of a “universalization in plural”, i.e., of divergent “processes of universalization” performed by different cultures (Waldenfels in p. 164).

Yu gives special attention to the Waldenfelsian criticism of Husserl’s account of interculturality. Within the framework of his phenomenology of the alien, Waldenfels understands interculturality in a structurally analogous manner as intersubjectivity (171). In many of his writings, he rejects classical accounts of intersubjective relationships, such as the one developed by Husserl in the 5th Cartesian Meditation, for starting from a false premise, namely, the absolute separation between self and other. In this classical view, the self has a pure “sphere of owness” [Eigenheitssphäre], which is not contaminated by otherness (167). And, accordingly, intersubjectivity is not conceived as preceding but as following the existence of monadological subjectivities.

Against this account, Waldenfels emphasizes that the self is always already and inescapably mediated by otherness, being this what makes intersubjectivity possible in the first place. My own subjectivity, thus, has moments of “inner otherness” (171). And this not only because I am, from the outset, interconnected with that of other persons, but also because I am neither totally aware nor completely in control of my own thoughts, feelings, actions, and perceptions (167). For this reason, the “between-world” [Zwsichenwelt] of intersubjectivity precedes individual subjectivities (171).

For Waldenfels, interculturality, i.e., the relationship between the homeworld and the alienworld works in a very similar way. Just like there are no absolutely separated and independent subjects, there are no pure cultures that are not hybridized with others (171) – and this holds true even for Europe (51). The homeworld is essentially intertwined with the alienworld and therefore full of otherness. Accordingly, the primary form of interculturality is to be found in the “borderline-play” [Grenzspiel] taking place in the Zwischenwelt that emerges between cultures. According to Waldenfels, this intercultural borderline-play produces experiences of anxiety, “shock”, and “amazement” (173). Husserl’s idea of a universal common ground, which is partly adopted by Schutz, can be interpreted as an attempt by the (European) homeworld to evade this uneasiness by rationally domesticating the alienness implied in cultural difference (172f.). It is, in other terms, an egocentric/Eurocentric process of universalization that entails an imperial expansion of the homeworld into the territory of the alienworld (173).

The final pages of Life-world and Cultural Difference make clear that Chung-Chi Yu’s own position on cultural difference draws heavily on Waldenfels’ thinking. According to the Taiwanese scholar, a non-Eurocentric account of interculturality must operate within the so-called “Zwischenwelt”. True intercultural communication is only possible if one abandons the egocentric/Eurocentric stance of “appropriation”, or Aneignung, and adopts a humble, respectful, and comprehensive attitude towards other cultures, that is, if one is willing to “learn from others” and “broaden” one own’s “horizon” (ix).

Olivier Massin, Kevin Mulligan: Décrire. La psychologie de Franz Brentano, Vrin, 2021

Décrire. La psychologie de Franz Brentano Book Cover Décrire. La psychologie de Franz Brentano
Analyse et philosophie
Olivier Massin, Kevin Mulligan
Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin
Paperback 27,00 €

Hans Blumenberg: History, Metaphors, Fables

History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Book Cover History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader
signale|TRANSFER: German Thought in Translation
Hans Blumenberg. Edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll.
Cornell University Press
Paperback $29.95

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (PhD. Department of Philosophy, University of Nevada, Reno)

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life and the Freedom of Thought: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Review

The Cornell University Press edition of the History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader is a first of its kind volume, masterfully edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll. Continuing to widen the Hans Blumenberg (1920 – 1996) readership in the English-speaking world, the wide-ranging collection includes Blumenberg’s “most important philosophical essays, many of which provide explicit discussions of what in the large tomes often remain only tacit presuppositions and often act as précis for them, as well as selections of his nonacademic writings” (5). The editors organize Blumenberg’s writings thematically, beginning in Part I with Blumenberg’s accounts of the historical significance of secularization and his assessment of the concept of the real. Part II encompasses select writings on language and rhetoric including Blumenberg’s seminal and groundbreaking conceptualization of metaphoricity (e.g., Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology 1960 and Observations Drawn from Metaphors 1971). Unique in his thinking about the metaphorical process, Blumenberg is a contemporary of Ricoeur, whose own analyses of metaphor begin to appear in the mid-seventies in French (e.g., La Métaphore vive 1975). Moving from Blumenberg’s examination of new modes of poetic, rhetorical, and metaphoric thinking and writing (what Blumenberg refers to as “nonconceptuality”), Part III of the book offers several key compositions on the meaning of technology and nature. The volume closes with Part IV that contains Blumenberg’s literary varia and more whimsical pieces that reflect Blumenberg’s interest in playfulness and riddles as entryways to a revivified philosophical reflection that breaks free from canonical meaning and form.

There are “two criteria” that the editors of the Reader cite as determining their “selection: the centrality of the texts for Blumenberg’s oeuvre as such—the core canon, as contestable as this notion is—and their illustrative value for the genres, topics, or types of question he was engaged in but for which no such canon has yet crystallized” (20). The editors situate their selections in the historical background of Blumenberg’s intellectual development, which they discuss in the Introduction. There Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll remind us that Blumenberg’s father worked extensively on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and that Blumenberg’s 1950 Habilitation thesis, Ontological Distance, an Inquiry into the Crisis of Edmund Husserl‘s Phenomenology, examined Husser’s ideas at length. Being half-Jewish (Blumenberg’s mother was Jewish) just as Husserl, Blumenberg suffered during the reign of the National Socialists in Germany. This background makes Blumenberg’s criticism of Carl Schmitt’s take on law, politics, and exceptional power (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, originally published in 1966) all the more poignant.

Blumenberg’s own understanding of the task of thinking – and especially philosophical thinking – arrives early on, in one of the opening selections in Part I, entitled World Pictures and World Models (1961), where Blumenberg writes, “countless definitions that have been given for philosophy’s achievements in its history have a basic formula at their core: philosophy is the emerging consciousness of humans about themselves” (42). However, this externalizing power of philosophical reflection, which takes us out of our cultural and historical belonging in order to allow us to examine both, according to Blumenberg, results if not in utter alienation, then at least in a loosening of national and political convictions. Paradoxically, the pluralism of cultures and views, and the resultant inability “to adopt one of these worlds obviously and unquestionably as our own” (42), makes us all the more malleable when it comes to political manipulation. On Blumenberg’s view, “beneath the competing world pictures, interests stemming from rather less rarefied spheres interpose themselves imperceptibly. World pictures are becoming pretexts under which interests are advanced. This type of substitution is implied when one speaks of world pictures as ideologies” (50). Blumenberg contrasts the world picture with a more theoretical and scientific construction such as a “world model” (43), and which he defines as an “embodiment of reality through which and in which humans recognize themselves, orient their judgments and the goals of their actions” (43). The possibility of a successful substitution of a world picture for an ideology makes Blumenberg’s critique of the sort of political theory that Schmitt proposes all the more salient. For Blumenberg, “Whoever campaigns for the state as a “higher reality” and whoever identifies himself with the state thinks it as a subject of crises—and is easily inclined to think it into crises” (84), and as we know already from Plato’s Republic, which both Blumenberg and Schmitt studied at length, a tyrant, who identifies with and as the state is “always stirring up war” (567a).

However, the observation that Blumenberg fails to make is that his own take on the meaning of the Republic makes this dialogue out to be, precisely, the kind of tool of ideological manipulation against which he warns us to start, i.e., in his remarks on the world picture. Blumenberg reads the dialogue literally, which is clear from his own gloss on the supposed function of the Kallipolis. He writes, “Plato had derived his Republic from the three-tiered structure of the human soul; at the center of the work stood the theory of ideas, and the famous cave allegory illustrated the necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87). Blumenberg directly attributes to Plato those images and ideas that are a part of the city in speech that is a construct and a product of the dialogical exchanges between the interlocutors. Any product of the discussions among the dialogical characters cannot be directly identified with what Plato may have thought or believed. If Plato wanted us to think that a surface and literal reading was the correct one, he would have written in the first person, and straightforwardly recommended his ideas as being correct and true. Instead, Plato writes dialogues and there is not a single dialogue of Plato’s where we have him address us in the first person. Blumenberg’s claim about Plato’s alleged prescription of the “necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87) allows Blumenberg to set Plato up as a subject of Machiavelli’s discontent and attacks, but it makes Plato’s thought out to be much too simplistic and brings it in the vicinity of ideology. Another problematic set of connections that Blumenberg makes has to do with his swift excursus through the history of ideas – from Aristotle to Husserl. Blumenberg’s take on this tradition in The Concept of Reality and the Theory of the State chapter is set in the epistemological key. In other words, Blumenberg omits the ontological register. This omission allows him to establish a clean and clear-cut, but mistaken view of the conceptual continuities between ancient philosophy, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and then also late 19th Century German thought. Blumenberg thinks that

Aristotle’s dictum that, in a way, the soul is everything, was the maximally reduced formula that was still prevalent in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To this formula corresponds the expectation that experience is, in principle, finite and can be reduced to a catalog of distinct Gestalten, each of which communicates its reality in the instantaneous self-evidence of a confirmed ought-to-be. The Platonic theory of ideas and the notion of anamnesis [recollection] are merely consistent interpretations of the basic fact that such instantaneous self-evidence, such confirmation in propria persona [Leibhaftigkeit], might exist.  Even Husserl tried to rediscover this self-evidence in his phenomenology by choosing the metaphor of an experience in propria persona for the original impression. (122)

Blumenberg misses the fact that, for Aristotle, psyche ta onta pos esti panta (Peri Psyche 431b20) – the “soul somehow is all beings” – is a hard ontological claim. In Aristotle, the soul is not a totality of knowledge in terms of a faculty of the mind, but in terms of the very reality and being of things. This oversight skews Blumenberg’s interpretation in the direction of an epistemic clarity, rather than in the direction of thinking about a nascent possibility. In other words, Blumenberg thinks of the soul as something that both undergirds and grants access to the always already existing and knowable noetic reality. Given Blumenberg’s direct attribution to Plato of the “Theory of Ideas,” he then establishes a simple continuity between the reality and the world-forming status of the “Ideas”; the epistemic status of the soul in Aristotle; the hypostatization of divine and noetic reality in the human world (the Middle Ages and Renaissance); and lastly, Husserl’s philosophy. The last, being an epistemologist, misunderstands Aristotle in his own right. Husserl treats psychology as phenomenology, i.e., as a mode akin to Wesensschau. It is Heidegger, who in a sense, offers a corrective to Husserl’s program and sounds out the ontological significances of the Greek language and, in particular, of Aristotle’s thought. Blumenberg’s interest in establishing philosophical continuities that inform the history of the Western world from antiquity to the modern era is a leitmotif of The Concept of Reality and the Theory of State (1968/69), which along with the Preliminary Remarks on the Concept of Reality (1974) concludes Part I.

Part II, which is entitled Metaphors, Rhetoric, Nonconceptuality, showcases Blumenberg’s interest in rethinking the traditional notion of concept-based philosophy through the lens of poetry, rhetoric, and the power of metaphor. It opens with a chapter on Light as a Metaphor for Truth: At the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation (1957). In this essay, Blumenberg takes the Schellingian idea of mutually belonging, but opposing tendencies or states, i.e., light and darkness, as being at the heart and at the beginning of the all. Following Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Blumenberg claims that “despite an abundance of gods of nature, Greek religion did not have a deity of light” (129). The intimation is that this designation is saved for the monotheistic god and especially of a Christian religion. However, this is an oversight, because the ancient Greeks not only had Apollo Phanaios or Apollo of Light, but also in the Orphic cosmogonies we have an androgynous god, Phanes – a deity of light. In any case, Blumenberg’s consequent analysis of the way in which light, as a metaphor, operates in the history of Western thought is fascinating. For example, turning to modern thought, Blumenberg sees that

in the idea of “method,” which originates with Bacon and Descartes, “light” is thought of as being at man’s disposal. Phenomena no longer stand in the light; rather, they are subjected to the lights of an examination from a particular perspective. The result then depends on the angle from which light falls on the object and the angle from which it is seen. It is the conditionality of perspective and the awareness of it, even the free selection of it, that now defines the concept of “seeing.” (156)

This is Blumenberg’s conclusion, i.e., that with the onset of modern thought we experience a reversal in the dynamic of revelation. Heretofore, things revealed and presented themselves to human beings, but now we engage in the kind of experimental and scientific examination whereby human beings control the revealing potency of light and use this power at will. The next step, as Blumenberg sees it, is the pervasive and subjugating power of technology, which speeds up our work, extends our work-day well into the night, and depends – largely – on “artificial light” (156). Technology subjugates us and permeates our lives through and through. Blumenberg wonders whether we can find an opposing power to counterbalance this advance of technicization. He sees this opposing force in metaphors. According to Blumenberg, they can loosen the hold of technocracy on our thinking and on our lives. The Reader offers Blumenberg’s ideas on this theme in the chapter entitled, Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960).

Blumenberg seeks to uncover the “the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language” (173). In the first place, he wants us to note that “Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time” (173). In other words, just as Descartes’ Discourse on Method offers provisional Maxims of Morality, likewise Blumenberg wants metaphors to fulfill a similar function. Metaphors would serve as a temporary measure of thought or as a passage from the already by-gone to the not-yet established way of philosophizing and living. It is questionable whether Descartes means for us to take his Maxims of Morality – of which the thinker famous for his discoveries in geometry and algebra tells us there are “three or four” (Discourse on Method Part 3) – as provisional. An alternative reading of Descartes, which does not undermine Blumenberg’s comparison, is that morality and its maxims are always only provisional; subject to re-examination and re-valuation depending on the place and time we find ourselves in. Descartes’ insistence that we continuously seek to rejuvenate our ethical outlook and relations agrees with Blumenberg’s interest in finding a surreptitious element that would allow us to undermine, undo, and then recast outmoded ways of thought. “Metaphorology,” he writes, “would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also—hypothetically, for the time being—be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality” (173). It is this “resistance” to the structure of accepted, logically-sound language and presentation that attracts Blumenberg to the metaphorical process.

Blumenberg probes and pivots our understanding of the philosophical value of poetic, metaphoric, and rhetorical expression in the consequent selection that the Reader offers, which is entitled An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric (1971).  Blumenberg’s claim about rhetoric is that its “modern difficulties with reality consist, in good part, in the fact that this reality no longer has value as something to appeal to, because it is in its turn a product of artificial processes” (202). There is a need, in other words, to get to the underlying truth-structure of reality, which moves past the artificiality of social engineering, the technocratic state, or simply the sedimentation of interpretive layers that dictate what reality is supposed to be for us. However, this need in the guise of an imperative (and here Blumenberg again recalls Husserl and his “Zur Sache und zu den Sachen!” 202) and issued as “an exhortatory cry” (202) itself becomes rhetorical. The latter is a technology in its own right, i.e., that of language, of shaping opinions, and influencing emotions. In this estimation, Blumenberg comes close to a Derridean position, which offers us both the elemental and complex nexuses of the world, including the world of nature, in terms of the techniques, expressions, and formations that can only be reached because of and by means of language. Thus, both for Derrida and for Blumenberg (at least on this presentation in An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric), as central as the logos is, it must be displaced to give way to a possibility of re-interpreting our relation to our thinking and to our world. This insight, along with his thinking about metaphors, allows Blumenberg to proceed to a discussion of “nonconceptuality.” This discussion, which concludes the selections in Part II of the Reader is preceded by two other pieces: Observations Drawn from Metaphors (1971) and Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality (1979).

In the very last essay in Part II, which is an excerpt from the 1975 Theory of Nonconceptuality, Blumenberg outlines his program.  Prior to giving us this outline, he entertains the meaning and pitfalls of theoretical reflection in the context of ancient Greek theoria. Blumenberg’s take on theoria, which equates it with motionless and stilling contemplation of eternal reality written in the starry sky, misses the important sense that the Greeks themselves attributed to theorein (at least prior to the arrival of Pythagorean thought). This term, theorein—to  contemplate or to spectate—includes spectatorship of various religious,  theatrical, and athletic events. As such, it is much more immersive and emotionally engaged than the purified, rarified sense of theorein, which comes into play after Pythagorean beliefs and practices take hold. The self-possessed, reserved, and calm theoretic practice (although we have allusions to it made by various characters in Plato’s dialogues, e.g., Timaeus, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Phaedo) is not a good representation of the originary meaning of theorein. Nonetheless, Blumenberg takes the meaning of theoria, which  is already purified of its sensual alloys, to be representative of the Greek understanding of this practice. He writes, “for the Greeks, contemplating the sky meant not only contemplating a special and divine object of the highest dignity, but the paradigmatic case of what theory ought to be, what is at stake for it. The ideal of theory is the contemplation of the sky as an object that cannot be handled” (260). Blumenberg then takes this sense of theory as what has been handed down through the history of Western thought and what must be counteracted by a new engagement with the non-conceptual, emotional, sensible, sensitive, and intuitive dimension of life. It is this latter recommendation that we must heed in order to follow Blumenberg’s intimations on the point of nonceptual philosophizing.

To state the key moments of his program briefly, 1) “The turn away from intuition is wholly at the service of a return to intuition. This is, of course, not the recurrence of the same, the return to the starting point, and certainly not anything at all to do with romanticism” (262). This interest in re-inscribing thinking by retracing the intuitive dimension – a retracing, which is not a simple repetition, but a deepening of our reckoning with it – is the first postulate. Then comes a key aesthetic and emotional attunement 2) “Pleasure [which] requires the return to full sensibility [Sinnlichkeit]” (262). This call to pleasure hearkens us back to the Greek beginnings of contemplation as both a mental and an emotional immersion in and an attunement to the world – the kind of activity that pleasure properly completes (e.g., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, esp. Bk. X). And finally, a medium or passage that must go between the noetic and the aesthetic, for Blumenberg just as for Riceouer, is 3) “Metaphor [which] is also an aesthetic medium precisely because it is both native to the original sphere of concepts and because it is continually liable and has to vouch for the deficiency of concepts and the limits of what they can achieve” (262). This, then, is the basic outline of Blumenberg’s program in the excerpt from Theory of Nonconceptuality with which Part II of the Reader ends.

Part III, entitled Nature, Technology, and Aesthetics, begins with Blumenberg’s The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem  (1951), and proceeds historically to show how a distinction between nature and being insinuates itself in philosophical reflection. Blumenberg then traces out a further divide between nature and divinity in Christian thought. A short section on enjoyment in this essay is reminiscent of Hegel’s analyses in the Phenomenology of Spirit (VI. B. II. b. § 581 – Spirit, Culture, Truth of Enlightenment). In Hegel, this section on the totalizing function of “utility” leads to a situation in which “heaven is transplanted to earth below” (§ 581), which are the last words of the section that precedes Hegel’s discussion of “Absolute Freedom and Terror” – a discussion that is informed by Hegel’s reflections on the French Revolution. Blumenberg’s analyses, too, lead up to a revolution, but of a different kind, i.e., to the revolutionazing, but also totalizing, and not altogether salubrious power of technology.

In part 7. Of The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem, entitled “The ‘Second Nature’ of the Machine World as a Consequence of the Technical Will,” Blumenberg speculates about the way in which the displacing effect of technology or the “technical ‘out-of-itself’” (302) can be understood as “second nature” (302) for us. Blumenberg frames his reflections on this possibility in terms of Heidegger’s thinking and poses them in the form of a question. He asks:

does the concept of a “second nature” really carry the implications of the modern age’s understanding of nature to their conclusion, to the end of all its possible consequences? Is the claim to “unconditioned production,” as Heidegger has called the technical will, enacted in the “second nature” of a perfected machine-world? Or does such unconditionality imply that it will suffer nothing else alongside it—which is to say that not only has “second nature” provided the potency for the nullification of the first nature but that the former’s essence also pushes toward the latter’s realization? Man’s experience of this ultimate stage of possible technical fulfillment is only just beginning. (302)

This prescient formulation and the possible danger it expresses is all the more worth exploring in our world – today – permeated, navigated, run, and shaped by a heretofore unseen proliferation of virtual communication and technology. Blumenberg, having offered for us this portentous problem, then goes on to lay out its roots in the relationship between nature, divinity, and creative power – both divine and human, the latter of which is largely a power to imitate. These reflections appear in the essay that follows in the Reader next and which is entitled Imitation of Nature: Toward a Prehistory of the Idea of the Creative Being (1957).

In the immediately following essay, entitled Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization (1963), Blumenberg traces out the transformation of the intuition of life into a totalization of world-horizon and the consequent objectification of the life-world. This transformation sets the stage for the thoroughgoing displacement of nature by the “second nature.” The displacement that Blumbenberg outlined in The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem. Concretely, Blumenberg explains that “the intentionality of consciousness is fulfilled in the most comprehensive horizon of horizons—in the ‘world’ as the regulative pole-idea of all possible experience, the system that keeps all possibilities of experience in a final harmony, and in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356). This unification and fulfilment of intentionality as and in the world prepares the stage for the transformation of the world into an object. This happens because of the identification that takes place between the world-totality “in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356) and the fact that, for Husserl, according the Blumenberg, it is “in the ‘world’ as the horizon of all horizons [that] objecthood is likewise isolated and stressed” (356). Not only that, but also “’Nature,’ [which] is essential for our topic—is the result of such emphasis. It is thus not equiprimordial to world but a derivative, already constricted objective horizon. Nature, so much can already be seen, cannot be the counterconcept to technology, for already in the concept of nature itself we find a deformation—an emphasis—of the original world-structure” (356). Since the latter is object-skewed, also nature is not free from objectification and is already prepared for being worked over and substituted with or nullified through the “second nature,” i.e., through the all-encompassing technological transformation. However, Blumenberg does not assign to Husserl the blame for this transformation, instead Blumenberg’s “Husserl is only concerned with making visible in exemplary fashion how disastrous in the broadest sense human action can be where it no longer knows what it is doing, and with exposing what one might call active ignorance as the root of all those disoriented activities that have produced human helplessness in the technical world” (367). The counterpoint and a saving force to this onslaught of “active ignorance” and in the face of a thoroughgoing technicization, has to do with our reorientation toward the intuitive, sensible, and aesthetic dimension of life.

The remaining essays in Part III, as well as Blumenberg’s engagement with various literary and philosophical figures and thinkers such as Socrates, Valéry, Kafka, Freud, Faulkner, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Aesop (among others) point the way to this aesthetic reorientation. For example, in Socrates and the Object Ambigu: Paul Valéry’s Discussion of the Ontology of the Aesthetic Object and Its Tradition, Blumenberg engages with Valéry’s Eupalinos or the Architect and the accounts of noetic construction and the role of necessity in the Timaeus; Aristotle’s unmoved mover; as well as reflections on beauty and finitude from the point of view of the Phaedrus. Blumenberg concludes that “the Socrates of Valéry’s dialogue does not arrive at an aesthetic attitude toward the objet ambigu because he insists on the question, definition, and classification of the object—thereby deciding to become a philosopher. The aesthetic attitude,” Blumenberg continues as he contrasts it to the Socrates of Valéry, “lets the indeterminacy stand, it achieves the pleasure specific to it by relinquishing theoretical curiosity, which in the end demands and must demand univocity in the determination of its objects. The aesthetic attitude,” in the final analysis, “accomplishes less because it tolerates more and lets the object be strong on its own rather than letting it be absorbed by the questions posed to it in its objectivation” (434). The attitude for which Blumenberg argues, then, is a kind of intuitive, aesthetic, deeply pleasurable – and having offered a reconstruction of theoria, I can also say – an originary contemplative attitude that immerses us into the world and thereby allows the world to show itself to us anew.

The closing set of selections in Part IV of the Reader offers Blumenberg’s analyses of philosophically significant literature, which I see as a kind of propaedeutic to the aesthetic, metaphoric, nonconceptual, but originarily theoretical thinking and being in the world. Thus, in The Concept of Reality and the Possibility of the Novel (1964) essay, Blumenberg examines the relationship between truth, poetry, nature, and imitation in its literary and historical unfolding. This multi-disciplinary and cross-historical examination is characteristic of Blumenberg’s style of analysis. He moves through Plato, Aristotle, Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and on to the emergence of the concept of the absurd. In the final analysis, Blumenberg claims about the novel that it does not need to take on the guise of the absurd or be guided by it as a concept (502). The sphere of possibilities that the novel encompasses and iterates surpasses the straightforward mimetic schema where culture seeks to imitate nature. Because of this, the novel does not run aground once this schema shatters against the absurdity of life where nature has become infused with culture through and through; subtended in the conceptual delimitation of its object within a world-horizon; or displaced by means of technological dissolution of the natural being of the world. These latter eventualities call for a break-through and an overcoming by means of the absurd, but the novel circumvents this need, because the novel serves as “the extension of the sphere of the humanly [and not naturally] possible” (502). What does this mean concretely in terms of the philosophical mode of reflection and thought? Blumenberg’s answer is forthcoming in the essay entitled Pensiveness (1980), which is both a prelude to the more whimsical selections in this Reader and also offers Blumenberg’s estimation of the task and value of philosophy. Blumenberg first lets us know that “pensiveness is … a respite from the banal results that thought provides for us as soon as we ask about life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, being and nothingness” (517). In this formulation, pensiveness evokes both Descartes’ resolve to waver and to be of a wandering, instead of a weak mind (Discourse on Method Part 3) and also Heidegger’s call to authentic openness in anticipatory resoluteness or Entschlossenheit (Being and Time Sect. 54). Blumenberg goes on to offer us his “conclusion—since I must present one because of my profession—is that philosophy has something to preserve, if not revive, from its life-world origin in pensiveness” (517). This is both lyrical and evocative, as well as a methodologically rigorous a conclusion.

Although the Reader does not end here, I would like to close my review with the following quotation that expresses both a recommendation and a challenge that Blumenberg issues to us. “Philosophy must not be bound, therefore, to particular expectations about the nature of its product. The connection back to the life-world would be destroyed if philosophy’s right to question were limited through the normalization of answers, or even through the obligation of disciplining the questions by beginning with the question of their answerability” (517).

Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.): Phenomenological Approaches to Physics

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics Book Cover Phenomenological Approaches to Physics
Synthese Library, Vol. 429
Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.)
Hardback 103,99 €
VI, 263

Reviewed by: Mahmoud Jalloh (University of Southern California)

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics is a welcome attempt to bridge the gap between two areas of philosophy not often mentioned in the same career, let alone the same breath. The collection provides fertile ground for further work on phenomenological approaches to physics—and science more generally—however, as much as the collection is promising, it is also disappointing in the preparatory nature of much of the material. While this is a general vice of the phenomenological tradition—consider how many of Husserl’s published works are introductions to phenomenologyin order to appeal to one of the primary audiences of the collection, phenomenology-curious philosophers of physics, further developments with clear consequences are needed. Many of the papers stop just as they’ve really started. This collection is of value for many purposes: as a general introduction to phenomenology, as a guide to the consequences of phenomenology for science and physics, as a pointer to areas of application for the budding phenomenologist, but it also provides some indications of particular lines of further development.

The editor’s introduction is relatively long, but deservedly so, as it does a lot, providing expositions of ten themes from Husserl’s oeuvre: anti-psychologism, intentionality, descriptions and eidetics, the epistemic significance of experience, phenomenology as first philosophy, anti-naturalism, the life-world, historicity and genetic phenomenology, embodiment and intersubjectivity, the epochē, transcendental reduction, and transcendental idealism. The sketch of Husserl produced is that of an epistemological internalist who develops a theory of the objective from fundamental subjectivity, who denies empiricism about logic and mathematics, and who holds that phenomenology is a first philosophy which comprises analyses of the essential structures of subjectivity, the ground of all knowledge, therefore legitimizing all other forms of knowledge, sciences. Any reader interested in a first pass at the role of these themes in Husserl’s work could probably do so no more efficiently than looking through the first half of this introduction. A highlight of the introduction is a sketch of the relevance of other phenomenologists, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, to the philosophy of physics. The themes brought up in the introduction and elsewhere are suggestive: Heidegger’s pluralism regarding scientific standards and the difference in the concepts of time in physics and history; his preemption of the theory-ladenness of observation; his praise of Weyl; his primacy of practical understanding over theoretical knowledge; Merleau-Ponty’s participatory realism; his analysis of measurement and rejection of instrumentalism, realism, and idealism, in favor of structuralism.

Part 1: On the Origins and Systematic Value of Phenomenological Approaches to Physics

Robert Crease’s “Explaining Phenomenology to Physicists” is a response to philosophy-phobic physicists, like Hawking, and aims to show how the projects of phenomenological philosophy and physics differ. This amounts to a sort of introduction to the Husserlian distinction between the natural, or naturalistic, attitude of the physicist in her workshop and the more skeptical attitude of the epochē adopted by the phenomenologist. Note that Crease makes the same point that Maudlin and other metaphysically oriented philosophers of physics often emphasize, that mathematical formulae do not comprise a theory but require an interpretation, an ontology (57). How this interpretation is established and justified is the common project of the phenomenologist and the analytic metaphysician. But herein lies a problem with the Crease essay, which is that it while it distinguishes analytic (narrowly focused on the logical analysts of science of the early 20th century), pragmatic, and phenomenological approaches to the sciences, Crease does not say enough to distinguish a defense of phenomenological approaches to physics from a defense of a philosophical approach to physics whatsoever. Now Crease may make the point that phenomenology preempted concerns with the metaphysics of physics or concerns regarding the applicability of mathematical idealization to nature that have more recently become central to the philosophy of physics. Further, it is not clear that this is a fair reading of the aims of the logical empiricists. What is the logical empiricist project of establishing how scientific, “theoretical” terms get their meaning if not a concern with the “framing” of scientific theories and “the reciprocal impact of that frame and what appears in it on their way of being” (55)? This is not to say there is no distinction to be drawn, but the discussion here is not fully convincing as an argument for the value of phenomenology in studies of physics in particular.

Mirja Hartimo’s contribution, “Husserl’s Phenomenology of Scientific Practice,” fills out Crease’s sketch of the phenomenological approach and specifies how Husserl preempts the naturalistic, practice-oriented turn in contemporary philosophy of science. This “naturalism” is to be opposed with ontological or methodological naturalism, both of which Husserl rejected. Hartimo recapitulates the difference between the natural and phenomenological attitudes and its production by the epochē, in which existence is “bracketed.” The case is made that the phenomenological attitude is not inconsistent with the natural attitude (indeed Husserl had, for the most part, the same natural understanding of the sciences as did his contemporaries in Göttingen). The Göttingen view comprises a pre-established harmony between mathematics and physics, “the axiomatic ideal of mathematics served for Husserl, as well as for his colleagues, as an ideal of scientific rationality, as a device that was taken to guide empirical physical investigations ‘regulatively’.” (67) This influences the focus on Galileo in Crisis: physics is fundamentally mathematical in nature (68). Harmony amounts to an isomorphism of the axioms and the laws, with the axioms of physics being a formal ontology, a formal definite manifold (69). Husserl’s two differences with the Göttingen consensus are: (1) scientists should also develop material ontologies, which provide specific normative ideals for the mathematization of nature and its connection to intuition; (2) the normativity of the exact sciences does not extend to all scientific domains, a normative pluralism. (2) is particularly important because phenomenology itself falls short of the axiomatic ideal, due to the inexactness of the relevant essences.

Pablo Palmieri’s contribution, “Physics as a Form of Life,” is an odd fish. It presents itself not as a presentation of Husserl’s account of the lifeworld and its relevance to physics but rather as focusing on a foundational question raised by Husserl: “why is it that the axioms of mathematical physics are not self-evident despite the evidence and clarity that is gained through the deductive processes that flow from them?” (80) To answer this question Palmieri embarks on an analysis of physics as a form of “Life” in the sense of some historical development. The three epochs of physics which characterize its form of life are (1) the youth of Galileo’s axiomatic physics, (2) the senescence of Helmholtz’s work on the anharmonic oscillator and the combination of tones, and (3) the “posthumous maturity” of physics following quantum physics. These historical studies are interesting and valuable in themselves, especially the Galileo study, particularly regarding the influence of Galileo’s aesthethics on his mathematization of nature (84). Unfortunately, how these studies relate to the overall aim of the essay is unclear and is shrouded by the sort of allegorical and flowery prose that turns away many from “continental” approaches more generally. Palmieri’s description of the third stage of physics’ life as “posthumous maturity” describes a “disarticulation” in physics that comes to a head for Palmieri in Heisenberg’s use of (an)harmonic oscillator framework for quantum mechanics. The result of such a “translation” is not a direct analog to the classical treatment of spectra, due to the lack of rules for “composition of the multiplicity into the unity of an individual, by the interpretation of which we might generate the individual utterance that once performed will elicit in our consciousness a corresponding perception in any of the sensory modalities whatever” (100). The obscurity of such bridge principles to observation is, again, exactly the crisis of which Husserl was concerned. The upshot seems not to be, as it was for Husserl, a call to action for phenomenological analysis, but rather the essential mystery of nature as “[i]t is nature herself that precludes herself from knowing reflexively her own totality of laws” (83). While this is supposed to have the status of an explanation it is only buttressed with metaphor:

This being hidden of nature as a totality, or her desire or necessity to hide herself from further scrutiny, which I would be tempted to qualify as nature’s vow of virginity, explains why the axioms of mathematical physics must appear to our intuitions as obscure (84).

This pessimistic conclusion conflicts with phenomenology’s self-conception as a progressive research programme, leaving Palmieri’s own position mysterious, and one suspects that is how he wants it.

Norman Sieroka’s “Unities of Knowledge and Being—Weyl’s Late ’Existentialism’ and Heideggerian Phenomenology” is a fascinating exposition of Weyl’s latter existentialist turn and his engagement with Heidegger’s work. Weyl claims that physics is dominated by “symbolic construction”, of which axiomatic mathematics stands as paradigm, which are empirically evaluated holistically. Weyl’s account of symbolic construction is dependent on the understanding that these symbolic systems are constructed out of particular concrete tokens. Similarly it is essential to the symbolic construction that it is intersubjective and the practitioners of a symbolic system are peers embedded in a wider public. The core of mathematics and the sciences is not logic, but rule-bound “practical management” of symbols (109). This practical level must be fundamental or else we fall into a circle of physical reduction and symbolic representation.

Weyl’s 1949 paper “Science as Symbolic Construction of Man,” explicitly invokes Heidegger’s concept of the existential basicness of being-in-the-world as a point of agreement. Weyl does not, however, accept Heidegger’s anti-scientific attitude that concludes from this, that science is “inauthentic”. Weyl held that scientific practice and philosophical reflection were mutually enriching — particularly moral reflection in the shadow of the bomb. Heidegger’s rejection of science is due to symbols being merely present-at-hand, as they do not figure in the “care-taking encounter of daily life” (114). The weight of evidence and experience clearly sides with Weyl here. Sieroka raises examples of bridge-building and experimental physics. More simply, even the manipulation of symbols in themselves is care-taking in that they are to be interpreted and not only by oneself, in a dubious “private language”, but by some community. Here is a missed opportunity to engage with Heidegger’s later work, though it cannot be said to have influenced Weyl. Something like “The Question Concerning Technology” shows that Heidegger did not think that modern science and technology were independent of daily life, but rather have a radical and destabilizing effect that inhibits Dasein from encountering its own essence. Though, it is not clear how much this is a rejection of the verdicts of Being and Time, or should correct Sieroka and Weyl’s intepretations. The extension of the critique by way of Fritz Medicus, Weyl’s colleague, to a critique of “thrownness” and the general receptivity or passivity of Dasein to Being seems beside the point and reliant on a misunderstanding of Heidegger. Medicus’ “piglets” complaint about the thrownness of Dasein can only rest on a misunderstanding of the role of historicity in Dasein’s being (see Division 2, Chapter 5). Intersubjectivity is fundamental to Dasein. Being-with is “equiprimordial” with Dasein’s Being-in-the-World and is an existential characteristic of Dasein, even when it is alone (149-169).  Being-with defines Dasein’s inherent historicity. Dasein is thrown into a culture, into a way of life.

Sieroka’s comparison of Weyl and Cassirer, that Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms provides a unity of knowledge, while Weyl’s provides a unity of being, owing to his existentialist inflection, is interesting but perfunctory. It makes one wonder what such a distinction could tell us about the difference of method between phenomenology and neo-Kantianism, how this might relate to the interpretational dispute at the center of the Davos debate, and how Weyl’s conception of physics and mathematics could have played a role in such rifts.

Part 2: Phenomenological Contributions to (Philosophy of) Physics

“A Revealing Parallel Between Husserl’s Philosophy of Science and Today’s Scientific Metaphysics” by Matthias Egg aims to show how the crises that Husserl saw as central to the contemporary sciences and his solution are echoed in the scientific metaphysics of Ladyman and Ross (2007). The crisis is rooted in the substitution of the lifeworld for mathematical idealities, which amounts to a forgetting of the “meaning-fundament” of the sciences, undermining their own epistemological standing. Egg frames his comparison of Husserl and the scientific metaphysicians with Habermas’ critique of Husserl’s project of making science presuppositionless, providing a basis for absolute practical responsibility. The supposed failure is that it is left unexplained how a more perfect theoretical knowledge is to have practical upshot. The lacuna is Platonic mimesis, wherein the philosopher “having grasped the cosmic order through theorizing, the philosopher brings himself into accord with it, whereby theory enters the conduct of life,” (129), which is in direct ontological opposition with Husserl’s transcendental idealism, as Habermas sees it. (Does Habermas commit the naturalistic fallacy?) Husserl’s model claims only that the procedure or methodology of theoretical knowledge provides normative force on our practical affairs, in Egg’s example, our doing of physics. Egg presents Ladyman and Ross as agreeing with Husserl’s science-cum-Enlightment project, particularly, that science must be central to our worldview as it allows for a unified, intersubjectively valid approach to world even beyond theoretical practice. This too, falls short of Habermas’ mimetic ideal —their project could only be preserved in the “ruins of ontology” (130). Ladyman and Ross share some skepticism about strong metaphysics but accept weak metaphysics. Unfortunately, Egg stops just before saying anything more substantive than an observation of convergent philosophical evolution. There is more to be said particularly regarding the link between this sort of communicative conception of the scientific project and structural realism which puts Ladyman and Ross and Husserl in the same camp. The metaphysical essays to follow cover some of what I would like to say, but let me gesture at a possible development. In Ideas II and the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Husserl develops an account of scientific objectivity such that it is constituted by intersubjective agreement via “appresentation.” What is intersubjectively available are the appearances of objects, but what is agreed upon are the invariant structures supposed to explain the experiences of the community. Heelan’s (1978) hermeneutic interpretation of Husserl provides a picture in which the infinite tasks of mathematization and measurement link together the lifeworld and the scientific image which is constituted by it. There is a structural realist position to be examined here which could provide a unified account of everyday and scientific perception.

Lee Hardy’s “Physical Things, Ideal Objects, and Theoretical Entities: The Prospects of a Husserlian Phenomenology of Physics” attempts to square Husserl’s phenomenology with scientific realism. Husserl’s seeming positivism is especially problematic given that Husserl argues “that the objective correlates of the mathematical laws of the physical sciences simply do not exist in the physical sense. They are ideal mathematical objects, not real physical things” (137). Hardy restricts Husserl’s instrumentalism to scientific laws rather than scientific theories tout court. Husserl’s view is that knowledge of physical objects is gained by mathematical approximation, leaving room open for the positing of actual physical entities. Hardy’s argument, a rational reconstruction of a path not (explicitly) taken by Husserl, depends on a distinction that seems both interesting and suspicious. Hardy wishes to distinguish instrumentalism about the laws from instrumentalism regarding theories, the difference between the two lies in the fact that laws specify functional interdependencies of physical quantities which state how empirical objects behave, but theories explain why physical quantities behave as they do. So then, the instrumentalist holds that the semantic value of theories is limited to that of the laws, which predict observable behavior. The realist holds that scientific theories have as semantic values the behavior of unobservables. Husserl’s radical empiricism is in apparent tension with the realist’s explanation, Hardy reconstructs the received view:

(1) A obtains if and only if p is true.

(2) p is true is and only if p is evident.

(3) p is true if and only if A is intuitively given in an act of consciousness.

Ergo, (4) A obtains if and only if A is intuitively given in an act of consciousness.

Theoretical entities cannot be so given, so statements about them can never be true, so we ought not be committed to them. This interpretation Hardy rejects in favor of one which changes the role of experience from semantic-metaphysical to epistemic:

S is justified in believing p if and only if the correlative states of affairs A is given to S in an intuitive act of consciousness (143).

Hardy specifies that the perceivability condition on existence was meant to be dependent on an ideal possibility, not an actual possibility (dependent on sensory apparatuses). This point goes some way towards specifying the meaning of transcendental idealism, though this seems to go astray in attempting to recover realism. Transcendental idealism requires that possible perception by a transcendental subjectivity constitutes (the preconditions for) existence. Hardy picks up the thread in the Crisis regarding the essential approximative nature of the sciences as their conclusions are mediated by ideal, mathematical constructions:

Exact, objective knowledge is possible only by way of a passage through the ideal; and for that very reason will never be more than approximative knowledge of the real (146).

In  Crisis, Hardy claims, Husserl distinguishes the ideal, physical object and the perceived object ontologically: the objects of ordinary life are not  “physical” objects.  It is these limit-idealized objects that Husserl is anti-realist with respect to. The trouble with Hardy’s distinction between theories and laws and between real objects and idealized objects is that the approximation relation is left unexplained. There remains an explanatory gap as to why physical objects should be subject to laws that properly only have idealities as their subjects.

Arezoo Islami and H. A. Wiltsche’s “A Match Made on Earth: On the Applicability of Mathematics in Physics” shows how phenomenology can provide a response to Wigner’s puzzle, “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,” by moving on from why-questions to how-questions. The puzzle arises from a rejection of Pythagorean mathematical monism towards which the phenomenologist is officially neutral, due to the epochē, setting aside why-questions altogether. To answer the how-questions, the phenomenologist must also provide both synchronic and diachronic accounts of how we apply mathematics. The authors explicate constitution and replacement. They show what is meant by the horizon of experience, all the non-actual aspects of some experience which frame one’s interpretation of it, one’s anticipations. From this constitution is explicated:

It is this process of intending objects through specific noemata and then constantly projecting new sensory data against horizons of possible further experiences that phenomenologists call constitution. Of particular importance in this context are those aspects of experience that remain invariant… (169)

From these invariances of the noemata, lawlike relations are found and suitably objective properties can be described of the noema. This structure generalizes to scientific constitution from the example of perceptual constitution. Aiming to intend all of reality through mathematical noemata is Galileo’s great leap forward. Doing so is to replace the lifeworld with the scientific image. Nature is mathematical because we have made it so. While I am largely sympathetic with this approach, and hold that it contributes to a structuralist view that is worth developing, to satisfy mysterions like Wigner specific accounts of such constitution is needed.

Thomas Ryckman’s essay, “The Gauge Principle, Hermann Weyl, and Symbolic Constructions from the ‘Purely Infinitesimal’,” provides a mini-history of Weyl’s development of the gauge principle (a fuller history in Ryckman 2005), in which Weyl is motivated to investigate Lie groups and algebras by phenomenology on the one hand and Naturwirkungphysik on the other.  Naturwirkungphysik is a standard explanation, “that all finite changes are to be comprehended as arising through infinitesimal increments” (182). In practice this is to take locally defined tangent spaces to be explanatorily fundamental. For Weyl, this standard of locality is justified by appeal to not just phenomenological epistemology, that direct givenness to the ego is the ground of all essential insight into the structure of things, and this givenness is attenuated at spatial distance, but to full blown transcendental idealism:

insofar as symbolic construction of the “objective reality” of the purportedly mind-independent objects of physics is, per Husserl, a constitution of the sense of such objects as having “the sense of existing in themselves” (184-5).

Just as the previous essay establishes, the objects of mathematical physics are constructions which intend transcendent objects. However these objects are only fixed up to an isomorphism, any further “essence” is beyond cognitive grasp and therefore unreal (188). Ryckmann provides an able and clear derivation of the gauge principle in QED and a quick rundown of how this generalizes in the Standard Model. While this is a valuable contribution to the collection, those familiar with Ryckman’s past work will wish that the closing remarks regarding the standard model and the Weyl-Nozickean (2001) slogan, “objectivity is invariance,” were expanded upon. I look forward to further development of the alternative view implied by Ryckman’s interpretational challenge this slogan, which centers locality as the source of gauge transformations (199).

Part 3: Phenomenological Approaches to the Measurement Problem

Steven French’s “From a Lost History to a New Future: Is a Phenomenological Approach to Quantum Physics Viable?” does well to show that the phenomenological background of Fritz London was deeply influential on his approach to the measurement problem (with Bauer) and that this influence has been covered over by misinterpretation. The measurement problem is essentially the apparent inconsistency of deterministic dynamics of quantum mechanics and the collapse of the wave function. London and Bauer have been taken to merely restate von Neumann’s notorious solution, that the uniqueness of the interaction of the system with a conscious observer explains how and when the “collapse” occurs. French shows this picture presented by Wigner, which fell to the criticism of Shimony and Putnam, to be a straw man. French argues that London and Bauer’s phenomenological account of quantum measurement can stand up to such criticisms and for London.  Quantum mechanics presupposes a theory of knowledge, a relation between observer and object “quite different from that implicit in naive realism” (211). Measurement, considered subjectively, is distinguishable from the unitary evolution of the quantum state by introspection giving the observer the “right to create his own objectivity” (212). This is not some (pseudo-)causal mind-world interaction that creates a collapse but rather a precondition for the quantum system to be treated objectively and by a different mathematical function, the precondition being a reflective act of consciousness in which the ego-pole and object-pole of experience are distinguished, not a substantial dualism, “thereby cutting the ‘chain of statistical correlations’” (212-3). The discussion that follows, while suggestive, shows that it is not clear how this general phenomenological view about the nature of objectivity is supposed to remove the particular quantum measurement problem. Whether this is the fault of French or of London and Bauer is unclear; the most direct quotation from London and Bauer suggests that this distinction of the ego and the object somehow licenses the transition from representing the measurement situation by the wave function, ψ, to representing the system as in a particular eigenstate. This is much too oblique, given that the nature of such fundamental acts of consciousness is, even to the phenomenological initiate, obscure, and requires some substantive claims about the determinate nature of consciousness. French too must find the explanation as given by London and Bauer incomplete as he invokes decoherence, decision theory, and the “relational” interpretation as elements of a fuller story, presenting something, protestations aside, very close to Everettianism indeed. If such a distinctive and useful interpretation can be fleshed out on phenomenological grounds, it would be the most direct and substantive proof of the progressive nature of a phenomenological programme.

Michel Bitbol’s “A Phenomenological Ontology for Physics: Merleau-Ponty and QBism” is another breath of fresh air in the collection, exploring a phenomenological approach other than Husserl’s. Taking the primacy of lifeworld and Bohr’s challenge to traditional scientific epistemology as starting points, the essay sets up correspondence between Fuch’s participatory realism and Merleau-Ponty’s endo-ontology. More generally Bitbol takes recent developments in the philosophy of quantum mechanics, like Peres’ no-interpretation and Zeillinger’s information-theoretic approach, to “all seem to be pointing in the same direction,” in line with the phenomenological approach to the sciences as tools for navigation in the world. These are the pragmatists, as distinguished from the interpreters. Bitbol goes on to describe how the anti-interpretational approach is phenomenological by establishing an epochē for quantum physics. Rather than understand the states of quantum systems in a Hilbert space as properly predicative, we bracket any ontological posit and treat these states functionally as informational bridges between the preparation and outcome of experiments. Bitbol then considers a question a level up:

[W]hat should the world be like in order to display such resistance to being represented as an object of thought? Answering this question would be tantamount to formulating a new kind of ontology, a non-object-based ontology, an ontology of what cannot be represented as an object external to the representation itself (233).

For Merleau-Ponty (and Michel Henry), the non-objectual ontology is provided by the priority of the body and raw, original experience.

This is an ontology of radical situatedness: an ontology in which we are not onlookers of a nature given out there, but rather intimately intermingled with nature, somewhere in the midst of it… we cannot be construed as point-like spectators of what is manifest; instead, we are a field of experiences that merges with what appears in a certain region of it. This endo-ontology is therefore an ontology of the participant in Being, rather than an ontology of the observer of beings (236).

Here the central self-consciousness of transcendental idealism becomes self-perception of the body. In physics, this is translated into a participatory realism, wherein the observer is involved in the creation of Being.  Merleau-Ponty’s own statement of the relationship between his phenomenology of embodiment and physics starts from the observation that physics always attempts to take in the subjective as a part of or a special case of the objective. This is something of a category error, and in quantum mechanics it seems that there is a concrete proof of the impossibility of eliminating the subjective, or better yet shows that the objective-subjective distinction is not well formed. These are interesting points and one wishes that Bitbol (and Merleau-Ponty himself) would have spelled out this metaphysical picture in more detail. While the correspondence with QBism seems somewhat plausible, it is not shown that either view commits one to the other or that this endo-ontology provides an advance on the anti-metaphysical orientation of the QBist. The remarks regarding probability are paltry and given the significance of probabilities in quantum mechanics, a full account of it is necessary if there is to be much uptake—the primary limitation here seems to be that Merleau-Ponty did not get to consider this matter much prior to his death.

In contrast, “QBism from a Phenomenomenological Point of View: Husserl and QBism” by Laura de La Tremblaye is one of the fullest contributions in the collection. This essay serves as an able introduction to non-denomenational QBism, presented as a generalization of probability theory and cataloged as a participatory realist, -epistemic “interpretation” of quantum mechanics. QBism “stands out as an exception” (246) in this category because it focuses on belief, adding the Born Rule as an extra, normative rule in Bayesianism (the axiomatization is not explicitly shown). QBism removes the ontological significance of the collapse of the wave function, the state description and reality are decoupled, the collapse is a statement of some (ideal) agent’s belief state. Accordingly, “knowledge” yielded by measurements is redefined as information about the system that is accepted via measurement (250). While the probabilities assigned are subjective, the updating rules are objective.

It is no trivial task to draw a clear line between the subjective and the objective aspects of the Born rule… Fuchs and Schack invoke a completely new form of intersubjectivity. It is through the use of Bayesian probabilities that the multiplicity of subjectivities elaborates a reasoning that can be shared by everyone, and that, consequently, can be called “objective” in precisely this limited sense… this leads to the new conception of knowledge: knowledge is no longer understood in terms of an objectively true description of the intrinsic properties of the world; it is rather understood as the kind of knowledge that is needed to guide the future research of any agent, thus implying a weaker form of objectivity (251).

For Fuchs, the measuring device is analogous to a sensory organ, measurement  is an experience. This leads de La Tremblaye to consider two notions of experience, one from Husserl, the other from William James, who influenced Chris Fuchs. de La Tremblaye argues that it is Husserl’s model of experience as involving a normative, intentional horizonal structure, that better coheres with the Qbist view. This shows a positive contribution phenomenology may offer to QBism: an explanation of the source of the Born Rule’s normativity. Another would be an adequate explanation of how it is that the rules of Bayesian probability can be objective via the intersubjective constitution of objectivity essential to Husserl’s model of the sciences.

In sum: this collection is promising though deficient in some respects. It will provide a number of starting points for a further development of a phenomenology of physics and provides the curious or sympathetic philosopher of physics something to chew on, but it is not a full meal. Many of the contributions would do well as additions to a graduate seminar or undergraduate course on phenomenology or the philosophy of science, with the materials on quantum mechanics showing the most potential for further development.[1]


Heelan, P. A. 1987. “Husserl’s Later Philosophy of Natural Science.” Philosophy of Science 54 (3): 368-390.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977/1993. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, David F. Krell (ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

———. 1962. Being and Time. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.). New York: Harper and  Row.

Ladyman, J. & Ross, D. et al. 2007. Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nozick, R. 2001. Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ryckman, T. 2005. The Reign of Relativity: Philosophy in Physics 1915-1925. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]    Thanks to Porter Williams for reading the collection with me and sharing his thoughts with me, which allowed me to sharpen my own.

Sebastian Luft: Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 2021

Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology Book Cover Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology
Sebastian Luft
Northwestern University Press
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