Harald Seubert: Philosophiegeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Das Strahlen im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils, Nomos, 2021

Philosophiegeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Das Strahlen im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils Couverture du livre Philosophiegeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts: Das Strahlen im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils
Harald Seubert
Hardback 98,00 €

David Carr: Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History

Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History Couverture du livre Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History
Routledge Approaches to History
David Carr
Hardback £96.00

Reviewed by: Quentin Gailhac (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

“History is not something separated from life or remote from the present” (5). It is within the horizon of Dilthey’s affirmation that David Carr resolutely sets out to think about historical experience in a book gathering twelve of his articles, published between 2006 and 2021, under the title Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History. The book approaches the question of historical experience from various points of view, and in particular from that of the philosophy and theory of history. The classical problems of this point of view are treated here with the means of a phenomenology open to the exploration of many other traditions of thought. In the introduction (1-7), Carr follows in the footsteps of Dilthey and Ricoeur. He starts from the observation of the irreducible historicity of the human experience in order to identify the various ways in which history embraces us. For Carr, we can only make known and experience a historical event on the condition that we ourselves are involved in history.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which interrogate themes and concepts central to historical experience. The first part deals with three key concepts: historicity, narrative and time, through a fruitful dialogue with Dilthey, Koselleck and Levi-Strauss, among others. The second part confronts the problem of teleology in history, which, as is well known, has occupied Husserl and his commentators. Finally, the third part, entitled “Embodiment and Experience”, focuses on the corporeal, spatial and temporal aspects of historical existence. The relation of embodiment to intersubjectivity, the notion of orientation in history, the concept of Erlebnis in Dilthey, and the relations that exist between experience and history constitute the research directions of this third part.

In the first chapter of Part I, entitled “On historicity” (11-23), Carr attempts to grasp the meaning that the concept of historicity has had in Europe, from Dilthey to François Hartog. The central point of the chapter is to find a way of understanding historicity in the distinction made by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck between two historically attested ways of linking the past and the future. On the one hand, a relationship marked by the idea of a history magistra vitae, typical of pre-modern worldviews. On the other hand, a relationship that rather gives the future as a human reality to be constructed, typical of the Enlightenment. What François Hartog has called “regimes of historicity” (Hartog, 2015) serves here to identify the type of historicity that has gradually been imposed in Europe, thanks to the turning point constituted by French structuralism in the reversal of the relationship between the past and the future. Lévi-Strauss’s famous distinction between cold, non-historical societies and warm, historically marked societies is thus re-characterised, since we are dealing here with two very specific forms of historicity. The decline of the idea of progress in the twentieth century gradually reoriented the question of history within the horizon of heritage and memory (Ricoeur 2006; Nora 1997), to the point of suggesting, with Lévi-Strauss, that Western society, in its fear of progress and becoming, had transformed itself into a cold society. This is a step that Lévi-Strauss himself did not take, but that Carr’s study encourages us to consider, based on a study of the vocabulary of historians, particularly French historians, of the second half of the twentieth century (Pierre Nora’s “places of memory” are thus understood in all their historical depth).

The second chapter (24-33), while not directly addressing the issue of historicity, does approach it from a slightly derivative point of view, by focusing on the issue of temporal perspective. Carr does so through a study of the advantages and disadvantages of hindsight, which Arthur Danto said was the very essence of historical discourse. The main risk of hindsight is to fall into the trap of presentism, whereby the past is judged solely by the present. The present point of view, while it may have the advantage of distance from the event, also condemns us to an exit from time, since the event appears there once and for all. But the time of the past historical event is never the only one to exist, since it is in fact superimposed on the time of the person who recounts it. Thus, Carr devotes a brief section to “superimposed temporalities” (31-32) in history. Historicity is thus implicated in the historian’s own work, insofar as the writing of history is itself a temporal process that can never quite be taken out of history.

The third chapter, “Stories of our lives. Aging and narrative” (34-45), focuses on the unity to which our life in time can aspire, despite differences and by virtue of consciousness and experience itself. It is about bringing out the temporal aspects of awareness and self-awareness. We live in the present, and it is of this that we are aware. The question is, however, to characterise the awareness we can have of the past and the future. Carr thus proposes to distinguish between “awareness of past and future, on the one hand, and our memories and expectations and plans, on the other” (35-36). Through a phenomenological approach that the author himself calls “undoctrinaire”, the question of the relationship between life and time is extended by a study of the narrative, in its link with life, which leads to questions about biography and autobiography. The author insists on their difference by considering the impossibility for the autobiographer to possess a complete point of view on his or her life. The writing is always situated in a point of time of the life, and that this irreducible situation implies that the point from which one speaks determines the very interpretation of events as well as the (re)construction of the unity of the life itself.

Autobiographical reflection is thus confronted with two pitfalls, that of an insufficiently coherent succession, and that of an overly coherent succession. This is why the search for coherence amounts to rewriting a story. The concept of autobiographical reflection is therefore not unrelated to the idea of a narrative identity, and it is regrettable that Carr makes no study here of Ricoeur’s philosophy (see however, Carr 2014, 223-231). Narrative identity is described at length, notably in Time and Narrative (Ricœur 1984-1988). For Carr, Narrative identity, far from being fixed in stone, is always being rewritten, and this is due to the fact of the ever-changing temporal situation from which identity (i.e. also uniqueness) thinks itself, tells itself in autobiographical reflection. Narrative identity thus implies, in the horizon of the philosophies of authenticity (Heidegger 1996; Sartre 2003), thinking oneself as the author responsible for one’s own life, to the point of giving Charles Taylor’s “ethics of the authenticity” (Taylor 1991) to be understood in narrative terms (44). The third chapter closes with a reflection on the notion of aging, which the author tells us is in fact the main topic of the whole chapter, since it designates, not an accumulation in time, but the very becoming of the point of view we can adopt on our life. In this sense, the notion of aging must be understood in the perspective of narrative identity and autobiographical reflection. It also implies that the awareness of our finitude is itself changing and cannot be fixed once and for all. Aging is therefore a personal and creative way of thinking about the relationship between past and future on the scale of an individual life. The phenomenological point of view adopted here by Carr comes close to a hermeneutical perspective. Aging, together with narrative identity and autobiographical reflection, could constitute the bases, not indicated by the author, of a new phenomenological hermeneutic of our individual life in time.

It is to a theme of wider scope that chapter four, “On being historical” (46-58), is devoted, as it attempts to answer the question “What is it to be historical?” This question emerges from the inadequacy of the philosophies of history, in its two main orientations. The first orientation, of the Hegelian type, wants to find a global meaning to what happens in history, ultimately seeking to give a moral meaning to events as a whole. This metaphysical orientation is rivalled by a second, epistemological one, which is more concerned with the conditions of possibility of historical knowledge. However, both orientations assume in the same way that the past concerns us, without explaining why. The concept of historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) comes into play precisely in order to answer this question left unanswered by the philosophy of history. The discussion shows Dilthey’s perspective, developing the idea that the historical world “is always there” (47). What it is to be a historical being. Our interest in the past is thus explained here on the basis of the difference in principle between the past and the future, a difference that has its origins in Jewish thought. By showing in what sense interest in the past is not unique to all societies, Carr thus questions the fundamental cultural presuppositions of our relationship to the past.

The question of historicity then takes a more properly phenomenological path. Carr considers the unity of the subject in time, not as a given, but as an act of projection, with regard to my own temporal coherence and my relation to others. The question of my being with others is therefore not primarily a relationship between an I and a Thou, but is inscribed, as Husserl and Heidegger already wanted, in the horizon of the concept of historicity. Carr, translator of Husserl’s Krisis into English (Husserl 1970), briefly returns to the role given to intersubjectivity in the theoretical investigation, insofar as the research of others forms the starting point of the present research. The notion of group thus appears fundamental to understanding in what sense scientific enquiry can be linked to intersubjectivity, since this research is first and foremost that of a community, and not that of a set of isolated individuals. Carr thus engages in a brief phenomenology of “we”, understood as the capacity of an individual to identify with a group (53-56), and to maintain a direct and living relationship to history. The very suggestive character of this chapter would have deserved, it seems to us, more extensive developments on Husserl and on the generative horizon that the thesis of the chapter seems to imply. If it is true that “to be historical” is to be integrated into a “We” that possesses its own heritage, then we find precisely Husserl’s reflections on the necessity of a generative orientation of the phenomenological method, as an explicitation of the “at home”, of the familiar and historical world carried by a succession of generations that form the unity of historicity (Husserl 1973).

It is, moreover, an eminently Husserlian question that underpins the whole of the second part, namely the question of teleology in history. The fifth chapter, “Teleology and the experience of history” (61-74), starts from the observation that the idea of teleology has a certain longevity, from Hegel and Marx to Francis Fukuyama or Niall Ferguson, via the last Husserl of the 1930s. It is therefore a question of understanding the reason for the maintenance of teleology despite his numerous factual and theoretical refutations. The idea supported by Carr is to assert that teleology functions as a transcendental illusion, in the Kantian sense of the term. Beginning with a brief history of the idea of teleology since Hegel, he then focuses more specifically on the experience of history, which he clearly distinguishes from the representation of history (to which the idea of teleology belongs). The question of the experience of history is thus first of all that of its possibility and its distinction from other types of experience. Our experience is both temporal and intersubjective, and the experience of the most common objects is always linked to a horizon of the past that we experience in the present. History is thus a dimension of our very experience. Here Carr uses the Husserlian concept of retention to explain how this history and past are involved in all present experience (67-69), even though retention is different in nature from memory. Indeed, retention is not dealing with past itself (Husserl  1991). On the other hand, the end of the chapter proposes an interesting re-characterisation of the idea of teleology. Doubly determined by the past and by the future, by our memories and by our expectations, the present must be thought of within the framework of a temporal structure which is also, by its very orientation, a teleological structure: “we can call this temporal structure a teleological structure in that the whole complex of mutually determining meanings is oriented toward the fulfillment of our expectations and plans” (73). This structure must thus apply not only to individual experience, but also to social experience. Historicity is thus understood from a reorientation of the controversial notion of teleology.

Carr expands his reflection on teleology in the sixth chapter, entitled “Husserl and Foucault on the historical a priori. Teleological and anti-teleological view of history” (75-85). The title of this 2016 article is very close to the title of an article, not mentioned by Carr, by Wouter Goris (Goris 2012), also on the subject of the historical a priori. Despite the proximity of the title, Carr takes a significantly different view and method. Goris proposed a very precise reconstruction of the notion of historical a priori in Husserl and then in Foucault, showing that the variations in the meaning of this notion to Husserl corresponded to the different stages of the internal evolution of his phenomenology. On the contrary, Carr looks “from a broader perspective at the views of history that are reflected in the different uses of this expression” (75). The aim is to understand in what sense this expression was born from the topicality of a Europe in crisis, to which Husserl gives an epistemological meaning, by proposing a reconstruction of the birth of European science. In doing so, Carr gives an account of Husserl’s subjectivation of teleology, as opposed to Foucault’s antisubjectivism, which he considers incoherent and based on an apocalyptic vision of history. Goris note that the difference in the meaning attributed to the historical a priori in Husserl and Foucault stemmed from the fact that both diagnosed the crisis itself differently, and that the Husserlian solution of a reactivation of meaning was, for Foucault, the very consequence of the crisis to be overcome. Carr, who more explicitly takes sides against Foucault, nevertheless seems to want to reconcile the two authors on certain points, despite the strong differences between them and criticisms that he addresses to the French philosopher. Indeed, Foucault’s rejection of the teleology of history is related to the subtlety of the Husserlian thesis on this question, to such an extent that Carr seems to bring the two philosophers closer together in their understanding of what a historical a priori is:

“As for Husserl, while he seems at first glance to subscribe to a teleological view of history, his position, as we’ve seen, is actually much more subtle. He sees that his own historicization of the philosophy of science could open him to the charge of historical relativism, as if he were arguing that each historical epoch or people has its own truth and can never escape its boundaries. On this view, “every people has its ‘logic’ and, accordingly, if this logic is explicated in propositions, ‘its’ a priori” (Husserl 1970, 373). What Husserl describes here is, I think, very close to Foucault’s idea of the “historical a priori.” Husserl’s use of scare-quotes makes clear that such a historically limited a priori is for him a contradiction in terms. For him such historical configurations would be instances of a genuine historical a priori, that is, an essential structure of any and all historical configurations: “historical present in general, historical time generally” (372). That is, any array of historical a prioris in Foucault’s sense (he uses the plural) would presuppose the historical a priori which is not itself historically variable” (84).

By considering the historical a priori as an unexplained presupposition, Foucault would thus only be reiterating Husserl’s essentialism. That is why the critique of teleology is studied through a very critical reading of Foucault, and this allows us to understand the status of Carr’s essay on the question of teleology. In the review of the collective book intitled Historical Teleologies in the Modern World (Trüper, 2015) which constitutes the seventh chapter of his book (86-96), Carr considers that the various authors of the collective work (among them Peter Wagner and Etienne Balibar) have not engaged, unlike him, in an evaluation of the teleological view of history. Far from reducing teleology to a question of the history of ideas or the history of philosophy, which would consider the notion obsolete, our author really seeks to examine it as a living notion, even giving it validity under certain conditions.

The question of teleology has been intimately linked to the philosophy of history since the 19th century. This is why the second part closes with a chapter entitled “On the metaphilosophy of history” (97-111), devoted to a study of the classical philosophy of history, based on a new characterisation of the “metahistory” of the famous American historian Hayden White. In his book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe (White 1973), White defined historical work as a narrative discourse, focusing on the interpretation of the works of nineteenth-century historians. However, by showing that White’s sources were not only historians, but also philosophers of history such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche or Croce, Carr proposes to rename White’s enterprise as “metaphilosophy of history, or the philosophy of the philosophy of history” (98). Rather than a reading of White’s work, this chapter is a study of the philosophy of history, after its critics, and aims to overcome the idea that the philosophy of history is dead. This implies, moreover, a slightly different understanding of the philosophy of history, moving us away from the idea of a purely speculative philosophy to one of a practical enterprise. The philosophy of history is thus brought closer here to the historical discipline, contrary to the traditional opposition. The idea of a philosophy of history “not as a cognitive or theoretical embodiment of the teleological structure, but as a practical embodiment of it” (105), allows Carr to read the philosophy of history in a different way, first by opposing the speculative orientation of Hegel to the practical orientation of the philosophy of history and teleology of Kant and Marx, and finally by re-reading Hegel in the sense of a practical narrative, directed towards the realisation of human freedom. Although White’s theses are not directly discussed for their own sake, they guide the whole chapter, and especially this new and very suggestive reading of Hegel. This reading could be the subject of a whole book, by taking into consideration the work of Hegel on the philosophy of history.

The interest in the philosophy of history will continue in the third part, although the general orientation of its four chapters is quite different. Indeed, this third and final part, “Embodiment and experience” (113-167), returns to what is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of historical experience, namely the question of the body. Historical experience is essentially an experience of the common. It is phenomenology that has studied, since Husserl, the role of the body in the question of intersubjectivity. This evidence is however questioned here by Carr, in the ninth chapter that opens the third part, entitled “Intersubjectivity and embodiment” (112-127), and which constitutes a deepening of the phenomenology of the “We” outlined in chapter 4. This chapter establishes the question of whether the body is always a necessary condition of intersubjectivity. While the experience of the face-to-face encounter with another has become a classic starting point in the problem of intersubjectivity, it does not resolve the question. The face-to-face encounter is indeed an encounter of my body with the body of another, but this direct bodily relationship cannot be applied to the we-experience, which requires a different point of view. Where the face-to-face encounter started from the first-person experience, the we-experience implies expanding this starting point to the idea of a non-metaphysical, but properly phenomenological Gemeingeist, in the way Husserl tried to think it. This superpersonal subject is, in fact, linked to the possibility for the I to identify itself with a group, and which precisely characterised the “we” in the fourth chapter, “On being historical”. Therefore, the we-subject, instead of being thought of as a metaphysical hypostasis, is rather phenomenologically constituted by the individuals who produce it. However, what role exactly should the body play in such a subject? By means of numerous examples taken from recent and contemporary history, Carr attempts to determine phenomenologically the role of the body in the we-subject, starting from different Husserlian points of departure (the organism, the community of will), in order to finally attest to the intentional character of the embodied we-subjectivity. The embodiment thus appears essential to collective subjectivity, although it is not necessary for all forms of intersubjectivity, as can be seen, for example, in the communities that are created in the Internet sphere.

Without an explicit transition to the question of embodiment, the tenth chapter, entitled “History as orientation. Rüsen on historical culture and narration” (128-143) is a review of two books of the German historian Jörn Rüsen, respectively Geschichte im Kulturprozess and History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation (Rüsen 2002, 2005 respectively). The connection is actually ensured by the starting point of Rüsen’s research, in that knowledge of the past, far from being of interest only to historical studies, must be understood in its context, which is that of our historicity and our intersubjective historical experience. The three concepts of Rüsen on which Carr chooses to focus thus find the fundamental themes of the whole book. The concept of “historical culture” is linked to the developments on historicity, as is the concept of “orientation”, which implies inscribing our present in a certain relationship to the past and the future. Finally, the concept of “narrative” is intimately linked to Carr’s developments on historical knowledge and consciousness. Moreover, the typology of modes of narration proposed by Rüsen allows, according to the German historian himself, the deployment of a theory of the “ontogenetic development of historical consciousness” (132), within which the form of critical narration constitutes a historical pivot, between pre-modern and modern historical thought. In this sense, Rüsen’s study gives decisive importance to nineteenth-century historicism in its various forms (especially Ranke and Dilthey). Carr emphasises the links between Rüsen’s three concepts in the historical context of the nineteenth century, since the upheavals of that period were significant. The way in which history is told is thus linked to the way in which we orient ourselves in it, which in turn shapes our historical culture. By recalling the many criticisms that have been levelled against historicism since the beginning of the twentieth century (starting with Husserl himself), Carr attempts to go beyond the postmodern critique of historicism and to find a way to make it more effective. In order to do so, Carr defends the compatibility of narrative and objectivity, against the idea of a pure fictionalization of historical narrative, but also against the idea of an opposition between historical objectivity only interested in the restitution of the past for its own sake and the concept of orientation. According to this concept, knowledge of the past is linked to our future and to our situation in time.

These considerations lead Carr, in chapter 11, entitled “Erlebnis and history” (144-152), to clarify the meaning of the phenomenological emphasis on experience for history. This involved first returning to Dilthey’s relationship to the philosophy of history. Indeed, Dilthey is not a speculative philosopher of history in the sense of Hegel, but a philosopher of history in a much more contemporary sense which, rooted in a critique of historical reason, is understood as an epistemology of our historical knowledge, close to what the analytical philosophy of history does. Working on the key concepts of representation and memory in the contemporary philosophy of history, from Ricœur to White, Carr asks “the problem to which the philosophy of history addresses itself: how does history bridge the gap, overcome the distance, which separates it from its object, the past?” (147), in order to find a way out in the phenomenological approach, based on experience. Critiquing the linguistic turn in the philosophy of history, this approach restores the notion of experience to history, but not without ambiguity. According to Carr, it is Dilthey’s concept of Erlebnis that provides a better understanding of what experience can mean in this context. Responding to the ambiguity of the term Erfahrung, Erlebnis allowed Dilthey to designate not only the unity, coherence and connectedness of the individual life, but also the link that we necessarily have with a social and historical context. Erlebnis is thus inseparable, for Dilthey, from the notion of historicity, to which Carr devotes the last remarks of the chapter, against all forms of relativism.

The book concludes with a chapter significantly entitled “Experience and history” (153-166), in which Carr returns to the temporal, intersubjective and historical dimension of experience, in order to answer the question that has animated the whole book: what is the experience of history? The originality of this last chapter consists, in this respect, in giving an essential function to the notion of discontinuity, according to four orientations. The discontinuity inherent in the question of the We-subject, the discontinuity implied by intergenerational continuity, the discontinuity of historical events, and finally the discontinuity inscribed in temporality itself. These different types of discontinuity, which allow us to enrich the contemporary philosophical debate on history and time, lead Carr to assert three fundamental things, joined together, that any phenomenology of history must be able to take into account, and which constitute an “ontology of our lives” (163). 1) Historical events are experienced as historical events. 2) We are conscious of time by being conscious of events in time. 3) The subject of these historical experiences is a collective subject, a We-subject.

The phenomenological interest and significance of these twelve studies by D. Carr thus lies, in our view, in the re-qualification of the starting point of phenomenology itself when confronted with the problematic question of history. Against the accusations of anhistoricism sometimes levelled at Husserl’s philosophy, Carr restores the importance of phenomenological perspective to the fundamentally historical understanding of our experience. He inscribes this perspective in a decentred and irreducibly collective subjectivity, which constitutes both the ground and the horizon of our relationship to the past.


Goris, Wouter. 2012. “Das historische Apriori bei Husserl und Foucault – Zur philosophischen Relevanz eines Leitbegriffs der historischen Epistemologie.” Quaestio, 12: 291-342.

Hartog, François. 2015. Regimes of Historicity. Presentism and Experiences of Time, tr. S. Brown. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1996. Being and Time, tr. J. Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and the Transcendendal Phenomenology, tr. D. Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973. Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Dritter Teil: 1929-1935. The Hague. Nijhoff.

Husserl, Edmund. 1991. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, tr. J. Brough. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Nora, Pierre (ed.). 1997. Les lieux de mémoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Ricœur, Paul. 1984–88. Time and Narrative, 3 vols, tr. K McLaughlin and D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ricœur, Paul. 2006. Memory, History, Forgetting, tr. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2002. Geschichte im Kulturprozess. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Bohlau Verlag.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2005. History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2003. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, tr. H. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1991. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trüper Henning, Chakrabarty Dipesh, Subrahmanyam Sanjay (ed.). 2015. Historical Teleologies in the Modern World. London: Bloomsbury.

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Michel Foucault: Phénoménologie et Psychologie, Seuil, 2021

Phénoménologie et Psychologie Couverture du livre Phénoménologie et Psychologie
Hautes Etudes
Michel Foucault
Paperback 26.00 €

Jean Cavaillès: On the Logic and Theory of Science

On Logic and the Theory of Science Couverture du livre 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

Reviewed by: Massimiliano Simons (Ghent University)

Why read an obscure, enigmatic and technical treatise on philosophy of science by a half-forgotten philosopher of mathematics, let alone translate it? It seems that there are plenty of reasons to do so. The work of Jean Cavaillès (1930-1944), and especially his final work Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, is typically seen as the starting point of a ‘philosophy of the concept’. Together with Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault, Cavaillès is labeled as one of the main representatives of the French tradition of historical epistemology.

The project of a philosophy of the concept mainly gained fame due to Foucault, who popularized it in his foreword to the English translation of Canguilhem’s The Normal and The Pathological in 1978. Here he claims that to understand Canguilhem, one needs to fall back on the work of Cavaillès. Taking Husserl’s Paris 1929 lecture series as their starting point, phenomenology was developed in France in two radically different ways. On the one hand there is the well-known existential phenomenology, starting with Sartre’s ‘Transcendence de l’Ego’ (1935). But on the other hand there was Cavaillès, who put Husserl’s philosophy of science and mathematics at the center. According to Foucault, these two opposing phenomenological projects shaped 20th-century French philosophy:

It is the line that separates a philosophy of experience, of sense and of subject and a philosophy of knowledge, of rationality and of concept. On the one hand, one network is that of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty; and then another is that of Cavaillès, Bachelard and Canguilhem. In other words, we are dealing with two modalities according to which phenomenology was taken up in France, when quite late – around 1930 – it finally began to be, if not known, at least recognized. Contemporary philosophy in France began in those years. (Foucault 1978, 8)

The source of this ‘philosophy of the concept’ lies in the last few, rather enigmatic pages of Cavaillès ultimate work, here delivered in a new translation by Robin Mackay and Knox Peden for Urbanomic Press. The notion itself is in fact only introduced in the penultimate line of the book: “It is not a philosophy of consciousness but a philosophy of the concept that can yield a doctrine of science. The generative necessity is not that of an activity, but of a dialectic.” (p. 136) The book itself, which is both dense and short, is mainly a critique of the existing philosophies of science in early 20th-century philosophy with a focus on Kant, Carnap and Husserl. Only in the final pages Cavaillès makes some suggestions on what his alternative would be. For sure, Cavaillès intended to develop this alternative elsewhere, perhaps in the intended introduction he wanted to write. These plans did not materialize due to his early death.

Nevertheless, his promise of an alternative to the ‘philosophy of consciousness’ was taken up in French philosophy, in the form of a mythology around the figure of Cavaillès. When I say ‘myth’ I do not so much mean ‘wrong’ or ‘false’, but first of all that it functions as a myth. This means that the truth value of the myth is secondary to its effects – which have been plenty in the self-understanding of a number of French philosophers. The myth consists of three parts: (1) Cavaillès’ essay contains a set of devastating arguments against Husserlian phenomenology, making any phenomenological philosophy untenable; (2) Cavaillès replaced phenomenology with his own alternative, a philosophy of the concept; and (3) this alternative boils down to a form of Spinozism. Let us have a closer look at these three components of this mythology.

The first part is that Cavaillès’ work contains a number of knock-out arguments against Husserlian phenomenology. The final part of the book indeed deals with Husserl’s philosophy of science, as developed by the latter in Formale und transzendentale Logik (1929). Though Cavaillès formulates numerous criticisms, two main objections stand out: the issue of incompleteness and the dilemma of Cavaillès.

The incompleteness issue concerns Husserl believe that it is both possible and desirable to develop a fully-formalized mathematics in the line of David Hilbert’s formalism. That entails that it is capable to articulate and prove its own completeness: any true statement that can be articulated within the formal axiomatic system concerning its object of research can also be proven within that system. And though a common belief when Husserl’s book was published, a few years later it was radically shattered when in 1931 Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, showing that Hilbert’s program was impossible. Cavaillès was one of the first who saw the consequences of Gödel’s theorems for the Husserlian project, since it too relied on Hilbert’s program, endorsing its ideal of completeness as a central aspect of the phenomenological logic:

For we are familiar with Gödel’s result: any theory containing the arithmetic of whole numbers – which is to say basically any mathematical theory – is necessarily non-saturated. […] For the Husserlian conception of logic and mathematics this affair is particularly serious. In the first place, the very notion of a theory that can be fully dominated and isolated can no longer be maintained. (pp. 128-129)

A second issue consists in a fundamental dilemma that Cavaillès presents to Husserl. The latter aims not only for mathematical completeness, but also for a foundation of science that is both transcendental and absolute. Husserl had the ambition to ground all logical norms in the transcendental subject and its subjective acts. But simultaneously, Husserl hoped for an absoluteness of these norms: they cannot be questioned or relativized in any way. For Cavaillès the trouble arises if one combines both claims: if logical norms are constituted through subjective acts, these acts themselves call for a set of norms to ground them. But these underlying norms would in turn demand a foundation in subjective acts. To avoid an infinite regress, Husserl has to choose between the transcendental and the absolute character of his project. Hence the dilemma of Cavaillès: “If transcendental logic truly grounds logic then there is no absolute logic (i.e., a logic governing absolute subjective activity). If there is an absolute logic it can draw its authority only from itself; it is not transcendental.” (p. 120)

Similar to Husserl and Hilbert, and many other early 20th-century philosophers and scientists, Cavaillès was concerned with the new scientific developments, provoking a foundational crisis of mathematics: if radical historical transformations of mathematics were possible, what then was the foundation of rationality, mathematics, science? In a typical French manner, Cavaillès searched for the answer not in the atemporal, but in the historical: mathematics was rational not despite, but because of its history. The normative force, required to elevate mathematics above contingency, was to be found in its historical developments, where each new result bolstered the past results, but also provoked the next steps. In his primary thesis Méthode axiomatique et formalisme, Cavaillès would define understanding in a similarly dynamic way: “to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it” (Cavaillès 1994, 186). Mathematics, and science in general, is understood, not so much as a set of thoughts, but rather in terms of gestures, which Cavaillès often referred to, somewhat misleadingly, under the banner of ‘experience’ (see Cortois 1996).

While terms such as gesture and experience suggests a philosophy of consciousness, this is countered through the third part of the mythology: Spinozism. Cavaillès was the face of a revival of interest in Spinozism, again seen as the alternative to phenomenology. In the words of Gilles-Gaston Granger, another proponent of this myth, it came down to “Jean Cavaillès or the climb to Spinoza” (Granger 1947). Cavaillès, sive Spinoza. The Spinozist reading it provided must have indeed sounded as music in the ears of the anti-humanist turn in the 1960s. Cavaillès, according to this reading, “set out to develop a philosophy without a subject” (Canguilhem 1994, 686).

We thus have a philosophy of science seen from the perspective of gestures. But these gestures are not grounded in a transcendental subject, but, following Spinoza, in the effective development of the successive theoretical concepts. The legitimacy of the concepts is found in these concepts themselves, in the normative force by which they call forth, by a form of necessity, one another. It is in this sense that another famous passage of the book is typically read:

Yet one of the essential problems for the doctrine of science is precisely that progress cannot be a mere increase in volume by juxtaposition, the prior subsisting with the new, but must be a perpetual revision of contents by way of deepening and erasure [rature]. What is after is more than what was before, not because it contains it or even because it extends it, but because it exists from it necessarily and bears within its content the singular mark, each time, of its superiority. There is more consciousness in it – and not the same consciousness as before. (pp. 135-136)

As a result, and especially from the 1960s onwards, Cavaillès’ work was used in French philosophy as an argument for the obsolescence of phenomenology. For instance, when Sartre attacked Foucault’s Les mots et les choses as a reactionary work, Canguilhem responded by invoking the authority of Cavaillès:

Cavaillès assigned the phenomenological enterprise its limits even before that enterprise had exhibited its unlimited ambitions – even in France itself, which is to say, with a certain lag – and he assigned, twenty years in advance, the task that philosophy is in the process of accepting today – the task of substituting for the primacy of experienced or reflexive consciousness the primacy of concepts, systems, or structures. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

This mythological authority similarly found its way in to the work of many prominent French scholars, ranging from Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Gilles-Gaston Granger, Étienne Balibar to Alain Badiou. Despite the lack of any substantial elaboration by Cavaillès’ of what this philosophy of the concept entailed, his work was nevertheless used as a shovel to bury the philosophies of the past, most notably phenomenology and existentialism. Cavaillès’ alternative was indeed often quite easily equated with the structuralism and anti-humanism of the 1960s. These ideas not only inspired Canguilhem or Foucault, but were central to the Marxism of Louis Althusser as well, who mobilized Spinoza to purge Marxism from any form of Humanism. When Althusser, in his later self-criticisms, turned his gaze to his previous work, he could proudly proclaim that he was no structuralist: “We were guilty of an equally powerful and compromising passion: we were Spinozists.” (Althusser 1976, 132)

But Cavaillès’ biography gave this Spinozism an additional, political dimension. Similar to his friend Albert Lautman and Canguilhem, Cavaillès joined the resistance. While Canguilhem survived, both Cavaillès and Lautman tragically died. In the case of Cavaillès, he was first arrested in Narbonne in 1942, by the French police and ended up in a prison camp in Montpellier. It was during this imprisonment that he wrote this book, which partly explains the dense character of the text and the often liberal quotations, since Cavaillès was restricted in time and resources (though Lautman brought him several books). But with the manuscript in hand, he soon escaped from the prison camp though, due to betrayal, he was arrested again in August 1943 and eventually shot. The book On Logic and the Theory of Science was thus only published posthumously in 1947, by Georges Canguilhem and the mathematician Charles Ehresmann, who also picked the generic title for the book. In a letter of 1941 to Brunschvicg, Cavaillès announced that he was writing a work called L’expérience mathématique, while to Canguilhem and Ehresmann he spoke of a Traité de la logique. The truth seemed to be somewhere in between.

This political dimension of Cavaillès’ biography has been mobilized extensively in this mythology. Raymond Aron, who was a good friend of Cavaillès, later reported how Cavaillès entrusted to him in 1943 that “I am a Spinozist. I believe that we are seizing the necessary everywhere. The necessary in the sequences of mathematics, the necessary even in the stages of mathematical science, the necessary also in this struggle that we lead.” (quoted in Canguilhem 1976, 31) Or, in a variation that Aron cites in his own preface to Cavaillès’ Philosophie mathématique: “I am a Spinozist, we must resist, fight, face death. This is what truth and reason demand.” (Aron 1962, 14) Philosophers such as Canguilhem or Foucault did not hesitate to use this political activism against their opponents. In the same reply of Canguilhem to Sartre, he immediately added:

Shot by the Nazis for his Resistance activity, Cavaillès, who called himself a Spinozist and did not believe in history in the existential sense, refuted in advance – by the action he felt himself impelled to undertake, by his participation in the history that he lived out tragically until his death – the argument of those who seek to discredit what they call structuralism by condemning it to generate, among other misdeeds, passivity in the face of reality. (Canguilhem 1994, 92)

Foucault, in a similar vein, invokes this image in an interview in the 1980s, when he was focusing on Greek philosophy and techniques of the self:

The key to the personal poetic attitude of a philosopher is not to be sought in his ideas, as if it could be deduced from them, but rather in his philosophy-as-life, in his philosophical, life, his ethos. Among the French philosophers who participated in the Resistance during the war, one was Cavaillès, a historian of mathematics who was interested in the development of its internal structures. None of the philosophers of engagement – Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty – none of them did a thing. (Foucault 1984, 374)

It is thus this triple mythology – Cavaillès burying phenomenology, replacing it with a philosophy of the concept, inspired by Spinoza – that still motivates many philosophers to take up this otherwise challenging and technical treatise on the philosophy of science. The fact that this book is now translated in English (again) testifies to a similar growing interest in the Anglo-American world. There has indeed been a booming cottage industry of Anglophone papers dealing with Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept, and its criticisms of Husserlian phenomenology (e.g. Hyder 2003; Thompson 2008; Peña-Guzmán 2020). Most of this literature tends to take over this mythology, though often stressing more continuity with phenomenology – an element already found in Foucault. The most exemplary case, perhaps, is an earlier book by Knox Peden, who helped realize this novel translation of Cavaillès and provided it with a helpful introduction. In his Spinoza Contra Phenomenology (2014) Peden repeated this mythology of how Cavaillès is the source of an anti-phenomenological tendency in France, continued by Bachelard, Desanti, Althusser and Gilles Deleuze.

Ironically, while this productive mythology is spreading in the Anglophone world, it is more and more problematized in France. The last decades of scholarship on Cavaillès have further substantiated a number of doubts concerning this triple narrative. First of all, the central role of Spinoza have been questioned, or at least completed with an acknowledgment that Cavaillès’ philosophy of the concept was inspired by other authors as well, such as Hegel (e.g. Sinaceur 2013).

The second main question is whether Cavaillès’ criticisms of Husserl are indeed as devastating as often portrayed. For instance, the young Jacques Derrida already tried to defend Husserl’s project against Cavaillès’ use of Gödel. In his master thesis on Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl (only published in 1990), he suggested that completeness is merely a kind of regulative ideal for Husserl, one that does not need to be realizable. Another option is offered by the daughter of Gaston, Suzanne Bachelard (1957) who suggests that there are multiple notions of completeness at work in Husserl’s philosophy, and that only some of them were refuted by Gödel. Hence, Husserl’s project can remain meaningful, even if one acknowledges the incompleteness theorems.

As part of the secondary literature has noticed, Cavaillès is at many points not that far off from phenomenology itself. It could thus be read, not so much as the destruction, but as a transformation of phenomenology. This is also announced in the lines immediately following Cavaillès’ dilemma: “Perhaps subsequent phenomenological investigations will allow us at least to contest such a brutally posited dilemma.” (p. 120) And to his credit, Peden seems to follow this suggestion in his introduction, playing down his earlier claims in Spinoza contra Phenomenology, and acknowledges that “it is both anachronistic and an overstatement to suggest that there was anything anti-phenomenological about Cavaillès’s work in its original conception. Moreover, criticizing Husserl for his errant steps is par for the course in the phenomenological tradition and Cavaillès is no exception to this tendency.” (p. 11)

And indeed the work of Cavaillès is a reminder of an alternative way phenomenology could have been developed in France, one not focused so much on anthropology and daily experience, but one that continued the Husserlian ambition to explore science in a phenomenological manner. In fact, this tradition exist, but not so much associated with a philosophy of the concept, but rather with authors such as Suzanne Bachelard, Trần Đức Thảo and Jean-Toussaint Desanti. Each in their own way attempted to use phenomenological methods to analyze the methods and products of science.

But even such a reappraisal of Cavaillès as a phenomenologist still risk to fall for another form of anachronism, as if phenomenology was the dominant and only philosophy around in France in the 1930s. This is indirectly suggested by Peden’s introduction (as well as most other Anglophone literature), ignoring Cavaillès’ interactions with other forms of philosophy of science. In the secondary literature, the motivation to focus on phenomenology seems to be one of relevance: given that Cavaillès is nowadays anachronistically classified as continental philosophy, the audience expects a focus on Husserl, not David Hilbert or Rudolf Carnap. This is somewhat surprising, since most of Cavaillès’ essay is focused on other theories, ranging from Kantianism to Logical Positivism. What is therefore perhaps missing in the introduction of Peden, is a sketch of these debates as well.

Moreover, in its current form, the book risks to fall prey not only to a form of anachronism, but also to a typical Anglophone tendency to canonize. The danger is not only to forget minor philosophers (a fate that Cavaillès shared for a long time), but also to immediately canonize newly discovered philosophers in an abstract, contextless hall of fame. This leads to abstract discussions where Cavaillès is compared to Spinoza, Kant, Husserl and Heidegger in a ahistorical fashion, as if they were all part of an eternal and continuous philosophical debate. This tends to forget that the history of philosophy is often more fragmentary.

First of all, it is necessary to ask how the work of the ‘great’ philosophers reached Cavaillès: who introduced him to Spinoza or Kant? The main interpreter of Kant and Spinoza in the early 20th-century was Léon Brunschvicg (1869-1944), supervisor of, among others, (Gaston) Bachelard, Cavaillès, Lautman and Aron. Brunschvicg was the most influential French philosopher at that time, with the possible exception of Henri Bergson (see Terzi 2022). But both Brunschvicg and Bergson were two very divergent products of the French tradition of spiritualism, the specific way how Kant was taken up in France, with a stress on the faculty of judgment and the notion of reflexivity. Though originally opposed to scientific philosophy, it transformed itself at the end of the 19th century, under the name of reflexive analysis (analyse réflexive), represented by authors such as Jules Lagneau and Jules Lachelier, in a Kantian philosophy that developed an interest in science as well, exemplified by the work of Émile Boutroux and Brunschvicg. It was this French Kantianism that fundamentally shaped the thought of Bachelard, Cavaillès and Canguilhem.

Being a clear form of subject-centered philosophy, it is most likely that Cavaillès’ attacks on a ‘philosophy of consciousness’ are not merely aimed at the new, and at that time in France still mostly ignored movement of phenomenology, but at French spiritualism as well. From this angle, the fact that he starts his book with Kantianism appears in a new light, and Cavaillès does extensively engage with the work of his supervisor, Brunschvicg (59-61). Therefore the claim that the philosophy of the concept came into being through a confrontation with phenomenology might be misleading. Quite telling, when Foucault later published a French version of his introduction, he left phenomenology out of the picture and broadened his claims: “Without doubt, this cleavage comes from a long way and we could trace it back through the 19th century: Bergson and Poincaré, Lachelier and Couturat, Maine de Biran and Comte.” (Foucault 1985, 4)

Such a broader history of the philosophy of the concept raises a number of additional questions, well-articulated by Cassou-Noguès and Pascale Gillot (2009): is the philosophy of concept a normative project, to be realized in a future philosophy, or a descriptive claim, referring to an eternal and recurrent constant in the history of philosophy? And against what is a philosophy of the concept precisely opposed? Too often terms such as consciousness, subjectivity, experience and meaning are simply used interchangeably in these often rash oppositions. It becomes especially difficult once one acknowledges that several of the early protagonists of the philosophy of the concept, such as Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré or the early Canguilhem, defended philosophies that had a clear place for the subject, exemplified perhaps best by Bachelard’s ‘new scientific spirit’ (Bachelard 1934). Only after the Second World War did the anti-humanism and anti-psychologism, that are typically associated with the philosophy of the concept, become dominant.

The originality of Cavaillès resides in the fact that his philosophy was indeed one of the first French philosophies who did – but never as radical as later generations would have it – take a distance from a philosophy of science centered around the subject. Cavaillès’s motivations to do so most likely were linked to the fact that he was one of the first in France to really engage with the new German developments in logic and philosophy of science. But again, it would be misleading to simply assume that this was bound to happen and that France was simply one of the last resisting strongholds doomed to fall for the new logic. The real history of philosophy of science is more contingent. That these developments would become so central for philosophy of science’s self-identity was never a necessity. Cavaillès’ fate could equally have been one of complete oblivion.

This leads us to our second correction of the mythology: there was also an atmosphere of complete ignorance and even dismissal of what was going on in philosophy outside of France. Though it was Brunschvicg who co-invited Husserl to Paris in 1929, he was not that interested. He did not even attend his lectures, but only met Husserl a few days later, when the latter went to the doctoral defense of Alexandre Koyré (who had studied with Husserl). Gaston Bachelard was similarly absent. It highlights how far apart philosophical worlds at that time were.

Cavaillès’ interest in and familiarity with German philosophy was rather exceptional at that time. In 1930-1931 he would stay in Germany on a Rockefeller scholarship to study German Protestantism, during which he met Husserl. He also attended the infamous Davos debate between Cassirer and Heidegger (see Cavaillès 1929) and the Wiener Kreis Vorkonferenz in Prague in 1934, where the Vienna Circle presented itself to the international philosophical scene for the first time (see Cavaillès 1935). Though Brunschvicg and Bachelard were invited, they declined. This highlights another perhaps underappreciated dimension of Cavaillès book, namely that the main perceived threat for Cavaillès was perhaps not so much phenomenology or French spiritualism, but the new movement of logical positivism. More than phenomenology, logical positivism challenged French philosophy, even at home. In 1935, logical positivism held its first international conference in Paris. And despite attempts by French representatives of logical positivism, such as Louis Rougier, to invite Brunschvicg, Bachelard and Cavaillès, most French philosophers responded with indifference and hostility (see Dewulf and Simons 2021). French philosophers of science, exemplified by Brunschvicg, had a distaste for logic, rejecting the idea that science and mathematics could be reduced to them.

Again Cavaillès was the exception in taking this movement seriously. But again this engagement should not be simply understood as the moment when the great lessons of German and British philosophy – Cavaillès discusses Russell and Wittgenstein as well – finally seeped into French philosophy. Cavaillès absorptions of these developments was one that immediately also digested them in order to produce something new. Cavaillès was not the only to do so. In fact, in 1938 Rougier reported to Hans Reichenbach how, in response to the 1935 conference, French philosophers were closing ranks and aimed for a counteroffensive. One first step towards this project was a gathering in September 1938 at Amersfoort in the Netherlands. Ferdinand Gonseth, the central organizer, would write about this conference: « We were quite a large group, from which I still recall Bachelard and his daughter Suzanne, Barzin, Bayer, Dupréel, Destouches, Paulette Février, Ebbinghaus, Tarski, Tatarkiewicz, and especially Jean Cavaillès.” (quoted in Emery 2000, 177-178)

Whether and in what form such a French counter-alliance would have taken shape could never be tested, since it was interrupted, literally during the conference, by incoming news: the first mobilization. Germany and France were at the brink of war. Cavaillès and some others, such Bachelard, decided to leave the conference and return to France. Bachelard returned to Paris and mainly start writing on poetics and imagination; Gonseth went back to Switzerland; both Cavaillès and Lautman joined the war effort and tragically died. No genuine French counter-alliance was formed, but for both Cavaillès and Lautman it was clear that the Vienna Circle was the adversary, and hence the reason why it plays a prominent part in the second part of this book. Especially Carnap was the opponent. While in captivity, Cavaillès would write to Lautman about Carnaps as “their old enemy of the Logische Syntax der Sprache” (quoted in Ferrières, 1950: 164).

Cavaillès’ On Logic and the Theory of Science is thus misleadingly technical in its content, as if what is at stake is nothing but highly specialized arguments in philosophy of science and mathematics. In truth, the stakes were higher and the book is a witness to a genuine struggle for identity: what is the task of philosophy of science? What is the correct way to approach scientific practices and their history? This little book is the battleground of all the major candidates at the beginning of the 20th century: spiritualism, logicism, phenomenology, logical positivism, intuitionism, formalism, and so on. Cavaillès did not pick sides, but attempted to develop his own alternative. In that sense, he practiced what he preached: to understand is to capture the gesture, and to be able to continue it. It is this aborted continuation that, though often shed of its contextual skin, has been the fertilizer for the philosophy of the concept in France and historical epistemology in general.


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Bachelard, S. 1957. La logique de Husserl: étude sur logique formelle et logique transcendantale. Paris: PUF.

Canguilhem, G.  1976. Vie et mort de Jean Cavaillès. Les Carnets de Baudasser: Villefranche d’Albigeois.

Canguilhem, G. 1994. « The Death of Man, or Exhaustion of the Cogito? » In: Gutting, G. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Michel Foucault, 74-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cassou-Noguès, P., and Gillot, P. 2009. Le concept, le sujet et la science: Cavaillès, Canguilhem, Foucault. Paris: Vrin.

Cavaillès, J. 1929. « Les deuxièmes Cours Universitaire de Davos. »  In: Die II. Davoser Hochshulkurser. Les IImes Cours Universitaires de Davos du 17 mars au 6 avril 1929, 65-81. Davos: Kommissionsverlag, Heintz, Neu, & Zahn.

Cavaillès, J. 1935. « L’école de Vienne au Congrès de Prague. » Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 42(1), 137-149.

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Cortois, P. 1996. The Structure of Mathematical Experience According to Jean Cavaillès. Philosophia Mathematica, 4(1), 18-41.

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Iso Kern: Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie, Schwabe Verlag, 2021

Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie: Zu einer Synthese von Husserl und Leibniz Couverture du livre Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie: Zu einer Synthese von Husserl und Leibniz
Iso Kern
Schwabe Verlag
Paperback $29.95

Maria Gyemant: Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun, Classiques Garnier, 2021

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

Emmanuel Alloa: Looking Through Images, Columbia University Press, 2021

Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media Couverture du livre Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media
Emmanuel Alloa. Translated by Nils F. Schott. Afterword by Andrew Benjamin
Columbia University Press
Hardback $145.00 £112.00

Rodolphe Gasché: Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?

Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? Couverture du livre Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?
Rodolphe Gasché
Indiana University Press
Paperback $30.00

Reviewed by: Jacob Saliba (Boston College)

Rodolphe Gasché’s latest book Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a collection of interrelated philosophical essays which employ the phenomenological and post-phenomenological traditions in order to answer the question of what it means to live in Europe or, to put it more precisely, what Europe means in itself.  The fundamental premise of the text is that many today have taken for granted the ongoing layering process of meaning within Europe since Greek antiquity. Europe, as Gasché sees it, requires an intellectual recalibration in which it can come to terms with its prior heritage, overcome its past mistakes, and enable its hopes for the future. In today’s climate that is keen on pursuing either reparations for past mistakes or protections for previous agendas, it is altogether fitting to approach these judgments on theoretical grounds thus laying bare the inner motivations for guilt or defensiveness. In so far as Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? answers the question in its own title it also helps us better understand political and cultural turmoil today. Importantly, what makes this text unique is that it is sophisticated enough to confront present problems in a manner that avoids hyperbole and remains rooted in philosophical insights. In other words, Locating Europe is a much-needed investigation of Europe’s role in not only strengthening appeals for progress and reform but also emboldening calls for self-criticism and reevaluation.

The book’s elevens chapters challenge older attempts at a phenomenology of Europe and reposition more recent ones. Indeed, as the title suggests, there are three basic sections to the text: Europe as a figurative meaning, Europe as a conceptual meaning, and Europe as an idea. Gasché constructs each sphere (i.e., figure, concept, or idea) and shows their implications in relationship to the past, present, and future. The overall argument is that Europe is more than a political or economic entity; it is a highly dynamic expanse in which all forms of life are embraced in thought and deed. According to Gasché, Europe is a mode of living and thinking which opens itself up to new beginnings and harnesses the discoverability of new paths despite threats of decay or degeneration. In the twenty-first century, some critics assert that Europe no longer has a legitimate place in the world due to its imperial projects since the onset of Western colonialism. Others, paradoxically, argue that Europe’s trajectory as a political project is too self-consumed in utopian ideals such as the European Union.  Gasché rejects the false choice between dismissal and idealization by teasing out deep continuities in European culture that have remained since ancient Greece: “rationality, self-accounting, self-criticism, responsibility toward the other, freedom, equality (including for the different sexes), justice, human rights, democracy, and the list goes on” (ix). To question these values would be to question Europe itself.

Following Maria Zambrano’s line of thought, Locating Europe begins by showing that Europe’s origins come from the periphery, namely, Classical Greece and ancient North Africa. This preliminary point is integral. If it is true to say that Europe’s way of thinking and living is conducive to the ‘new’ or the ‘different’, then one must be able to locate these standards within the structures and narratives of Western thought. The point is to say neither that Europe is privileged in nature nor that it is monolithic in scope (xi). Rather, what is imperative is showing that the plane on which this issue is discussed and debated is itself a demonstration of what Europe’s inherent purpose is all about. In other words, the make-up of Europe as debatable, as contestable, as a forum of reflection serves as the self-evidence for its redemptive qualities for the purpose of “constant renewal” (xi). It is, thus, the perennial goal of Europe to maintain an unrelenting reflection of itself without which it could not achieve a conscious understanding of its traditional inspirations, creative aspirations, and lived ambitions.

So, what does it mean for Europe to be a figure, a concept, or an idea? Which rubric offers the best representational status?  Gasché asserts that a figurative Europe revolves around notions of intuited spaces or interactive intelligible schemas such as “the archipelago, the horizon, or indistinguishable from light” (xiv). Or, perhaps Europe is more aptly understood as a concept linked to language development, idiomatic gestation, or universal communicative capacities. Lastly, Europe as an idea—which Gasché primarily focuses on as most feasible—manifests the highest form of representation in the sense that it provides a regulative function for understanding which “does not exhaust itself” and perpetually leaves open opportunity as a metaphysical possibility. As Gasché puts it: “It is, in particular, this identification of Europe as an idea that undergirds all the distinct essays collected in this volume, which also feature studies such as the intrinsic interweaving of the notion of Europe with the question of responsibility to the other, primarily Europe’s responsibility toward its twofold (and aporetic) heritage of Greek and Christian and Judaic thought” (xiv). In effect, by lending legitimacy to this last approach of Europe as an idea, Gasché allows for conceiving Europe in a more dynamic cognizable space.

Europe as a Figure

The first major section of the text involves three chapters: “Archipelago,” “Without a Horizon,” and “In Light of Light.”  Though distinct in their own rights, each chapter coheres with the first proposition of Europe as a figure.  “Archipelago” centers on the notion of plurality and diversity of figures as intrinsic to Europe’s trajectory and growth through history since its inception in the ancient Mediterranean world. For instance, drawing from the philosophy of Massimo Cacciari, the Archipelago stands as the perennial figure by which the dialogue of home and abroad, far and near, different and same all synchronize with one another to formulate an origin story of variance and similarity that can still account for progress. In other words, the ancient traditions which speak of an archipelago of nations, ports, and tribes co-existing with one another despite their differences and distances seems to suggest that it may very well still be possible today, especially in view of the fact that Us versus Them mentalities remain. The essential issue at hand is how Europe can account for basic individuality while at the same time foster interconnectivity. Can the figurative meaning of the Archipelago still be operative to answer urgent cultural questions of divisiveness today? Or, to put it in metaphysical terms: how can the part cohere with the whole, how can the One bond with the Many?  For Gasché this possibility is rooted in a conversion, a movement to self-transcendence (6). Although this movement may come with the dangers of loss of identity, of conquest of the Other, or even inter-subjective friction, the very acceptance of this kind of fractious reality may be the key to unlocking a bright future. By accepting difference as fundamental to the origin of Europe—as seen in the Archipelago—then perhaps the notion of self-transcendence will appear all the more intelligible as a purposive task rather than an accidental fate.

“Without a Horizon” further expands the notion of spatial perception as it relates to Europe’s figurative meaning. Here, Gasché employs the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the components and impediments latent in a ‘universal vision’ (15). If the gaze of the twenty-first century European is cast forward as a conscious aim, then it is also possible to redirect it as a lived reappropriation. ‘The look’ as construed by Nancy is that which can go beyond as well as move within. In short, the look has the deepest proximity with itself. “It is a seeing that before having the power of sight, ‘sees’ seeing nothing. It is seeing affected by itself in advance of all ‘itself’, and, hence, before all seeing that sees something particular” (16). Accordingly, the goal of self-identity is made further dynamic once realized as a perceptive consciousness endowed with the capacity to both look from itself as well as look at itself.  In this way, the viewer can touch the vision and maintain intimacy with the act (17-18). More than this, the viewer stretches the outer limits of the horizon, thus, going beyond what was previously held to be a self-contained universal scope. In this way, the infinite becomes intelligible and the beyond appears possible.  “At the extreme border of the horizon, the world appears in its horizonless infinity, a finite world, and hence an infinite one” (24). If there is a blind spot of the European gaze, then Europe need only to recast its look beyond the status quo horizon into darker untested spaces.

“In Light of Light” marks the final portion of the book’s first section. Though it moves in the direction of Europe as a concept, it nonetheless maintains the character of Europe a figure. Gasché starts by framing the chapter in terms of Husserl’s work “The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.” If Husserl is correct to assert that Europe is the idea of progress par excellence he inherently upgrades Europe to a conceptual level in which case the entity (i.e., Europe) represents the task of knowledge acquisition itself (i.e., philosophy or science properly construed). On the flip-side, however, perhaps Europe as an idea is nothing more than a spiritual figure with a mythical pregnancy and legendary birth. This philosophical dilemma, according to Gasché, is an intrinsic tension to Europe as figure, concept, and idea. Either Europe is a conceptual standard on universal grounds, or it is particular only to itself and its own figurative germinations. Gasché, therefore, employs Jan Patočka’s seminal work Plato and Europe in order to reorient Husserl’s conception of Europe from theoretical grounds toward more pragmatic attitudes. Patočka marks a departure from Husserl’s ‘things in themselves’ to a form of how things ‘present themselves’, most especially the human being (35). What was previously held to be non-real or non-phenomenological in the Husserlian sense now functions in a deeply human way that, as Patočka suggests, centers on the Greek conception of the soul. “The soul is what properly distinguishes the human being; that precise instance in us to which the totality of being shows itself, hence becoming phenomenon” (36). In so far as the soul is the ‘becoming’ of the human it is also that which summons a response and realization from the non-real to the real. In other words, the importance of the Greek conception of the soul was not so much its theoretical insights but rather the intimacy and transparency by which the human being manifests itself in the world through actualization. Furthermore, this manifestation process is the guiding light that the Greeks sparked first and through which hidden appearances become truly tangible. Just as the care of the soul persists, so, too, does the light continue to beam forth.

Europe as a Concept

The second set of texts deals with Europe as a concept. In “The Form of the Concept,” Gasché employs Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy as a way to frame a conceptually robust representation of Europe by utilizing the phenomenon of ‘world-shaping’. For Gadamer, Europe’s role as an arbiter on the world-stage is more than simply a political or economic intervention; it is one that holds together the fabric of higher questions in which disagreement, synthesis, and transformative change can cohere with one another in a dynamic unity.  Understood conceptually, Europe is the “differentiation that calls for science” as well as the “unifying power of science that allows differentiation to take place from within” (51). In short, a conceptual Europe is one that can account for the Other in a way that also enables a revivifying encounter with Oneself. Additionally, European philosophy and science have allowed for such progression since the birth of Greek theoria so that ‘higher questions’ maintain within themselves an inertia of enlightening proportions. Moreover, Indo-Germanic languages have facilitated a form of knowledge-seeking that relies fundamentally on the Western grammatical form. To the extent that meaning is extracted from its deep, hidden deposits by virtue of transmittable grammar, it also allows for its recognition as a continuous human affair.  Literature, religion, and history testify to this reality in the sense that they all rely on a communicability which allows for the unfolding of the meaning in an intelligible manner—whether it be in the mold of storytelling, theological mystery, or accounts of human events.  Europe as a civilization would not be what it is if it could not muster a unity between the diversity of disciplines. The form of Western disciplines is the center of gravity—the glue of togetherness—by which Europe can determine itself conceptually. “The discovery of the form of the concept is Europe’s most distinguishing trait” (57).

“Axial Time” relies on Karl Jaspers interpretation of the Axial Period, an era or event that goes to the historical root of itself. “The Axial Period is an empirically evident formation of meaning that can be intuited by everyone and can be understood as a measure against which to judge history” (67). Its purpose, or, rather its parameters, involves that of renewal or the process by which renewal can be an empirically possible reality. For Jaspers, the Axial Period is a Greek phenomenon in which for the first time Western man reached beyond itself into the realm of Being and participated in issues larger than natural life; moreover, it was mirrored by break-through ideas in the Middle East and Asia. It is “the emergence of the individual person in the shape of the philosopher, the traveling thinker, the prophet, and so forth” (69). However, Jaspers laments that twentieth century humankind has lost touch with this prior Axial Period. According to Gasché, this has occurred because modern man has forgotten that the conceptual project of Europe is as much tied to others (e.g., the East) in as much as it is linked to Europe (e.g., the West).  What was so incredible about the Greek breakthrough is that it was carried forth and intimated in ways that resembled the Middle East and Asia. In so far as the Greeks vied to go beyond practical and mythical attitudes, so, too, did the great minds of the Eastern world. Though two distinct worlds, each sphere constitutes each other on a more profound level in which cohesions succeeds not because of isolation but by an appreciation of uniqueness.  “In fact, it is a difference that is constitutive of Europe and implies the recognition that every spiritual phenomenon is divided, and comes to life only when the spiritual heeds the difference that divides it from within, thus establishing it in relation to another recognized as capable of truth” (83). The question is to what extent Europe can live up to its end of the bargain.

“Eastward Trajectories” encompasses nicely what the previous two chapters laid forth. In short, Gasché traces how major thinkers in the twentieth century shifted their philosophical lens to the East in order to improve what was most prized in the West.  The principal example is Karl Löwith’s travels to Japan during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s.  Fundamentally, Löwith asserts that to grasp Europe conceptually in the modern moment requires that it be approached from the outside looking in. What is perhaps most surprising about his account is that the more he explored Japan the more that he realized the similarities between it and Europe. The spiritual affinities at the level of the natural world, the preoccupation with the cosmos, and mythical attitudes toward the divine each resembled structures which he found to be true also in Greek antiquity. Moreover, Löwith blames the ‘new Europe’ of the contemporary situation for forgetting these essential qualities of Europe’s origin story. In so far as hyper-nationalism parallels the grave travesties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so, too, does a naïve self-love incur loss of identity on a metaphysical level. Simply put, what Europe lacks is an awareness of being wrong—of being conceptually mistaken. In dialectical terms, Europe is impoverished by its inability to accept that which is other and outside of itself—another consciousness without which its own consciousness could not realize itself (102). A renewed philosophical attitude “is predicated on a critical self-distancing of the human being that allows for a contemplation of this order in all its otherness, as other than the passing concerns of humans within the historical world, but that also makes it possible for human beings to be, as Hegel put it, with themselves precisely in being-other” (106).

Europe as an Idea

The third and final section of Locating Europe is that of Europe as an idea; it is the largest and most intellectually striking part of the book. Each chapter is preoccupied with the challenge of Europe as an idea which, for Gasché, is either a doubtful illusion or an empowering authenticity.

In “Feeling Anew for the Idea of Europe,” Gasché sets the stage for what an idea of Europe might possibly look like and if it can hold as the identity of Europe. Following Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive focus on difference, Gasché asserts that Europe as ‘a heading’ (i.e., trajectory) cannot ignore the possibility of there being another ‘heading’ that proliferates all around us in everyday terms (114). If the goal is to achieve an idea of Europe that can account for all modes of living and thinking, then perhaps it is worthwhile to destabilize the previous concept of Europe and bring about new ideas of it. In so far as Europe differs from its own Europe-ness as well as from Eastern cultures, it discovers what kind of identity it could be tomorrow rather than remain with its conceptual stagnation of yesterday. As Gasché writes: “It is about the always possible change of that identity” (116). In short, feeling for a new Europe amounts to what it is as much as what it is not. “Differently put, this feeling that registers an essential debt to the other heading, and the other of the heading, a debt so essential that the possibility of change is intrinsically tied into the positivity of identity, hence, that an element of unpredictability is inevitably part of identity, is the ‘new’ felt identity of what it means to be European” (117). Although Europeans may feel their identity, they feel it in differences and not in sameness. Alas, they have lost sight of what is unique about all perspectives available in the landscape of the everyday.

Gasché also permits the reader to consider Kant’s definition of the idea or, as the title of the next chapter suggests, ““An Idea in the Kantian Sense?.” The premise is that if Europe is a task to be fulfilled, then it follows that one must have ‘an idea’ of what needs to be done. In this way, Kant’s notion of the idea as regulative might shed some light; the idea is not self-contained slice of information but rather the ground for further reflection. Or, as Gasché defines it: “an idea in the Kantian sense is not only a representation to which no congruent sensory or empirical object corresponds but which, nonetheless, is necessary to the function of reason” (135). Kantian ideas supposedly maximize psychological space and push the boundaries by which reason can operate, irrespective of empirical reality.  However, Gasché argues that to accept an idea of Europe in the Kantian sense presupposes that all regulation of reason succeeds in its aims towards systematic unity. In other words, Kant misunderstands that purposive unity cannot account for all thoughts and deeds; what it forgets is the everyday. And, to Derrida’s point, it is the everyday that Europe has forgotten.

“Responsibility, a Strange Concept” appears to be Gasché’s own way of answering the call to the everyday, suggested in the previous chapter. In short, this chapter demonstrates the inner complexity of an appeal to responsibility—meant absolutely as well as inter-personally. In this way, Europe might be better positioned to balance its heritage of moral philosophy, on the one hand, and current demands for decentering arcane laws of morality, on the other. The modern subject is indebted to previous notions, but it does not de facto obey them. “Our relationship to heritage is a critical relationship” (153). To render an ethics proper to the contemporary situation requires that it be put in doubt, that is, experimented and tested for its cultural endurance. If Europe is to have a future, it must be responsible. At the same, however, responsibility is not synonymous with obedience. Rather, it is more germane to the notion of response. By stepping outside of rules and duties and into the domain of intuitive contact, one opens up what a response could and ought to be. The goal is to meet the Other as the Other rather than to create or define them. Therein, lies the truth of responsibility.

Importantly, if the previous conception of responsibility is compelling, then it follows that Derrida’s phenomenological approach deserves more investigating. Or, to put it differently, what actually remains of Derrida’s deconstruction of Europe? Such is the subject-matter of “An Immemorial Remainder: The Legacy of Europe.” According to Gasché, there is something that remains with us from Derrida: “It is a legacy that concerns the formal possibility of legacy itself, or, more precisely, since without such remaining no such thing as a heritage would exist, it concerns the very (‘performative’) imparting of legacy itself” (169). What is crucial to the legacy of Derrida is the way in which he pushes abstraction into contestation with itself in order to render lived experience more conducive to the inter-subjective world. His goal is to open up a khora (i.e., a place of middle-ground) so indefinable yet indispensable that it resists appropriation and therefore remains a place of sacredness. Indeed, this place’s unconditional purpose is that of tolerance which respects singularity and allows for distance.  Moreover, it is: “a place where each discrete singularity would be able to have a place, or rather, to take place” (188). For Gasché, the khora allows for the idea.

Having considered Gasché’s three options of Europe as figure, concept, and idea, it is necessary to point out a significant tension within the text. This tension is not an adverse feature of Gasché’s phenomenology, rather its appearance serves more as a reminder of the deep complexity within his question. Gasché admits that he is partial to the notion of Europe as an idea (xiv). However, he also confesses that if Europe is taken as an idea in the Derridean sense and not in the Kantian sense, then the stance leaves itself vulnerable to vague representation or naïve abstraction, even if the idea of Europe is grounded in responsibility to the Other as Other.  “It reveals itself as incapable of sufficiently and adequately thematizing what responsibility is and must be,” he writes (165). In this case, the Derridean idea of Europe as responsible cannot provide logical cohesion for its future operations; it becomes mere accident. A proper idea of Europe would have to meet the richness of what Europe actually means. It would need to go beyond itself in this regard.

According to Gasché, it is precisely phenomenology itself that not only tolerates this dilemma but also is equipped to respond to it. In other words, to be able to identify the problem (e.g.., the idea of European decay) necessitates a discourse that can support this endeavor for all its intricacies, rather than subsuming the problem into traditional philosophical positions (e.g., Kant’s definition of the idea of reason). “This is the very reason why [phenomenology], more than any other one, has the necessary resources to think responsibility otherwise. Paradoxically, it is the motifs of giving and appearing that are so dominant in phenomenology that permit us to bring our attention to what it is in responsibility that necessarily escapes thematization and phenomenology itself” (166). Moreover, it is due to phenomenology that responsibility has attained such a championed status in the history of Western thought.  “Given all that we have seen, it now seems obvious that if responsibility has been able to become a thematic priority in phenomenological reflection, then it is because the character of its response to a prior demand—one that emanates from the other— corresponds to a structure of phenomenal being insofar as the latter offers itself to an intuitive look and issues the demand to understanding as such that which then manifests itself” (164). The issue is not that Europe is an idea, the issue is what we have turned the idea of Europe into (216). “The end of Europe and the beginning of a post-European world makes it incumbent on Europe, which has understood itself so far from the idea of reason and universality, to revisit the concept of the idea with which it represented itself” (217). This is fundamentally the essential character of phenomenology in the twentieth and twenty-first century—to open up the totality of lived experience and enter into the various essences that comprise it for the betterment of each.

Overall, Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a superb addition to the European phenomenological tradition. The collected essays demonstrate the multiple attitudes one might take in responding to the European question as well as defend the privileged role of phenomenology in reflecting on that question. In so far as the reader encounters divergent positions, they also become familiar with major streams of Western thought in a new and improved lens. Gasché further emboldens continental philosophy to assert its ability to ask profoundly urgent questions in the hopes of arriving at sound conclusions. Indeed, this text is a testament to the effort necessary to unveil the inner brilliance of such an approach.

James Jardine: Empathy, Embodiment, and the Person, Springer, 2021

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Christoph Staub: Reden über etwas: Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur Sprachphänomenologie, Academia, 2021

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