Susi Ferrarello and Nicolle Zapien’s book Ethical Experience: A Phenomenology is an ambitious and thought-provoking attempt to show how philosophy (and, especially, phenomenology) and psychology can collaborate concretely towards the achievement of shared aims.
The book, as a whole, has two core aims. On the one hand, it aims to offer a phenomenological analysis of the experience of decision-making, as it occurs in everyday life and as individuals recognize it in their personal narratives. The authors conceive this approach to moral psychology and the phenomenon of decision-making in open contrast to the approaches of cognitive science and contemporary analytic philosophy (2). On the other hand, the book aims to argue that the understanding of the multiple ways in which individuals approach time and intimacy contributes to shaping our ethical choices and can even improve our well-being (10).
The book is conveniently divided into two parts: Part One is written by Ferrarello and is philosophical in nature; Part Two is written by Zapien, instead, and is (mostly) psychological.
Part One clarifies fundamental methodological and theoretical points, which are mainly taken from Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. In particular, in Part One, Ferrarello illustrates the distinction between different layers of reality, of time, and of identity and thematizes individual approaches to time and intimacy. Crucially, these distinctions and themes will be employed in the philosophical interpretation of the empirical findings of Part Two.
Part Two presents qualitative studies concerning three kinds of ethical decisions (unexpected leadership decisions, parental decisions, and those of individuals who face the choice of engaging in extramarital affairs), as well as offering philosophical interpretations of their findings. The general approach of Part Two involves the application of Amedeo Giorgi’s phenomenological research method for psychology.
Chapter I.1 of Part One opens with an intriguing explanation of the method employed throughout the book – that is, the phenomenological method. More precisely, the phenomenological method is understood as a method that aims towards the reactivation of sedimented meanings or the production of new meanings. It consists of two parts, which should not be considered as chronologically separated moments, but, rather, as complementary halves of one process operating simultaneously: one is the pars destruens and the other is the pars construens. They correspond to Husserl’s static and genetic methods, respectively. The goal of the pars destruens, which is the expression of the static method, consists in grasping the essential traits of the phenomenon whose meaning the phenomenologist aims to question and reactivate. This operation can be accomplished only if the phenomenologist is able to free himself or herself from prejudices and hasty associative habits he or she might have, and to “challenge any previous authority and the meanings that have been accepted in previous investigation” or “by the intersubjective community” (21). The goal of the pars construens, which is the expression of the genetic method, is to relate the new meaning produced (or awakened) with the passive layers of sense. With this goal in mind, the phenomenologist establishes whether the newer meaning can appropriately substitute the older.
Importantly, Ferrarello stresses that the attempt to attribute new meaning to phenomena is not just embedded in a general epistemological goal, but also in a specifically ethical one. According to Ferrarello, there is, indeed, a strong connection between ethics and the project of the amelioration of meanings.
After the clarification of the general methodology employed in the book, Ferrarello moves on to distinguish between three different layers of reality, of time, and identity in Chapter I.2 and Chapter I.3. Such descriptions constitute the theoretical core of the book.
Ferrarello explains that our life features three layers to which correspond three forms of temporality and three forms of identity (or ego). One of these is the layer of the passive, ego-less life, which Ferrarello also describes as the natural or psychological life. This level is characterized by a linear sense of time. Another layer consists of the practical and ethical life of the “just-awoken ego”. This ego, embodied in a “volitional body”, lives and acts in the time of the here-and-now. Lastly, a third level is identified with the layer of the philosophical life; the life lived from an absolute standpoint and from an absolute, timeless time.
The layer of the practical ego or volitional body is particularly important, since without this level it would be “neither ethical awareness nor an actual effort to become responsibly self-reflectively aware of our deeds” (37). However, Ferrarello also claims that these layers are all present in the life of an individual and that, typically, individuals continuously shift from one level to another. Ferrarello’s idea is that the balance that we find between these three layers of reality, time and identity, “is what shapes our sense of goodness, normal behavior and knowledge” (47).
In Chapter I.4, she expands on this idea by reference to the examples of the schizophrenic and the mystic who display, each in their own way, a unique between the three layers of life, time, and identity. For example, people with schizophrenia are not able to float from one layer of reality to another, but they are rather mostly stuck in the layer of absolute, timeless time. Because of this, they lack intimacy with their passive selves and, this, in turn, prevents them from finding a fulfilling meaning for their lives. Ferrarello insists that the schizophrenics’ relation with reality and time should not be stigmatized, because this would intensify the schizophrenics’ struggle to become intimate with their passive selves. On the contrary, it is pivotal to acknowledge that there are a variety of perspectives and ways to relate to reality and time (as that of the person with schizophrenia) so one can develop empathy towards others and be able to build a sense of intimacy with others.
The first part of the book closes with stimulating and original analyses delving into the central issue outlined in Chapter I.2 – that is, the volitional body. More specifically, Chapter I.5 clarifies the notion of practical intentionality introduced in Chapter I.2. Practical intentionality refers to the intentionality displayed in the moment in which the ego awakes and enters into a responsible contact with its passive habits and instincts. Ferrarello clarifies practical intentionality in relation to love and intimacy.
Following Husserl’s phenomenology, Ferrarello claims that that love is the force guaranteeing the true awakening of the ego and putting our passive selves in contact with our active life. Love opens a space of intimacy through which the subject can regain touch with his or her passive self and his or her factual existence, while, at the same time, shaping his or her identity and values. Intimate love allows us to break old habits and, as a result, it finds new sensuous lower matter (90). As such, love is a meaning- and value-giving activity. Unfortunately, the possibility that things take the wrong turn in this regard is an ineliminable live possibility, as in the case of intimacy forced through violence. This issue is explored in Chapter I.6, together with the notion of existential sexuality.
Part Two, the second part of the book, revolves around the analyses of the qualitative psychological studies carried out by Nicolle Zapien. Her research focuses on three kinds of ethical experiences of decision-making: unexpected leadership decisions, parental decisions, and those of individuals who face the choice of engaging in extramarital affairs despite the promise of monogamy. Importantly, the first kind of experience concerns the sphere of external relationships, whereas the second and third kinds concern the private sphere of our life – that is, the first kind concerns a comparatively less intimate dimension of personal relationships with respect to the dimension of the second and third kinds.
In the introduction, Zapien illustrates Giorgi’s phenomenological research method for psychology and the reasons why she decided to carry out her research by employing this method rather than the phenomenological psychological methods of van Manen, Moustakas, and Colaizzi. Moreover, and notably, Zapien carefully reviews all the choices made in the process of collecting and interpreting the data.
Zapien selects and publishes in the book large excerpts of the interviews that she performed, for each kind of the experiences of decision-making that she discusses. As Zapien explains, the participants of the three groups involved in the case studies were interviewed (orally or in writing), and they were left free to choose and explain the experience of decision that they preferred, as it came to their minds.
After the presentation of these personal narratives, Zapien then arranges in the following order: first, her interpretation of the findings; second, the explication of the constituents of the experience(s) at stake; third and lastly, a short philosophical commentary of the relevant experience. Each of Zapien’s philosophical commentaries puts to use the theoretical points that Ferrarello presents and clarifies in Part One of the book.
For example, the unexpected decisions that the leader must face for his or her own good and for his or her employees’ good are interpreted as a transformative experience that helps him or her to come into deeper contact with his or her identity as a leader.
The second case study, which concerns parents’ decisions for their children, makes explicitly evident the relevance of the dimension of time that Ferrarello stresses in Part One of the book. The realization that there is some problem that can dangerously affect their children’s future leads parents to rekindle the meaning of parenting and their identity as parents. This is, once again, a transformative experience that breaks the natural organic relation that parents have with their children and the daily linear time that characterizes such an experience. When facing such problems, parents feel the need – and the pressure – to make choices on behalf of the volitional body of their children, so to protect them and their natural life. If they otherwise refrain from making such choices, they feel that they are bound to lose their identity of good parents (159).
Similar considerations seem to hold with respect to the third kind of experience examined by Zapien – that is, the decisions of individuals partaking in marital relations who decide to engage in extramarital affairs. As for the previously examined cases, Zapien identifies the essential structural elements connecting the narratives of individuals with similar experiences. Specifically, she notes that individuals starting an affair fail to have active access to their passive intentions. Indeed, the volitional body of the person who starts the affair decides to negate active access to his or her passive self, so as to maintain a view on reality that is ethically acceptable to the self (180). The affair is only later acknowledged as such, when it could not be lived passively anymore.
Moving on to the critical assessment of the book, one of its most remarkable elements consists of Ferrarello and Zapien’s intent to engage with the book’s core themes in an original manner and without being afraid to voice their own opinion on these matters. This is clear, among other reasons, from Ferrarello and Zapien’s attempt to rejuvenate Husserl’s analyses, to recover their current relevance, instead of presenting these as valuable for specialized scholarship only. The authors show to have internalized phenomenology’s core points well enough to succeed in this difficult task.
Further, the book is well organized, and the authors take notable care of its pedagogical aspects. For example, the reference apparatus placed at the end of the book is extremely detailed, and it contributes to give solid ground to the claims advanced in the main parts of the book. Moreover, each chapter ends with a summary, and both the introduction and the conclusion summarize both the entire book’s structure and the main theses defended.
Yet, the care that the authors devote to the structure of the book for the purpose of conveying their views in an intelligible way is sometimes counterbalanced by the book’s confusing formulations, which run the risk of hindering the general understanding of the authors’ theses. This risk is also embodied in the authors’ choice to resort to metaphors at crucial points in their analyses, and doing so without further clarification using comprehensible terminology. For example, at the conclusion of Chapter I.4, Ferrarello uses the metaphors of the “static eye” and of the “genetic eye” in relation to the schizophrenic’s experience.
On a related note, one may be puzzled by some of Ferrarello and Zapien’s terminological choices, as, for example, the use of the adjective ‘trinitarian’ in relation to Husserl’s philosophy in a number of parts of the book. This and other theoretical choices should have been better justified.
As far as the content of the book goes, my main concern lies with the authors’ attempt to describe a large variety of experiences related to decision-making, by resorting to only one theoretical device – that is, the multi-layered dimensions of time and intimacy. Surely, the authors demonstrate that their approach has a certain explanatory power, given that the three kinds of ethical decisions investigated by their book permit, indeed, interpretations grounded in the relations occurring between time and identity. One might, however, be left with the impression that more examples of analogous and dissimilar ethical experiences and more phenomenological descriptions relying on a broader variety of theoretical devices would have been necessary to clarify the meaning of the phenomenon in question fully. Ferrarello and Zapien themselves seem to acknowledge the need for further investigations in this regard and, in fact, they explicitly consider some of their analyses presented in Part Two of the book as open-ended and merely provisional in nature.
Overall, Ferrarello and Zapien’s book is a very-welcomed and much-needed attempt to show how phenomenology and psychology can collaborate concretely with each other towards the achievement of a shared aim and how theoretical and applied analyses can be meaningfully combined. The book constitutes Ferrarello and Zapien’s challenge for their contemporary peers – that is, the challenge to develop a comprehensive phenomenological understanding of ethical experiences, such as that of decision-making. Furthermore, it provides a first attempt to rise to this interesting challenge.
There is more than one way to conceptualize the development of North American phenomenology. An image of “transplantation” would take the classical phenomenological tradition extending from Brentano to Husserl to be essentially the product of a European cultural sphere exported to the New World. In this view, Husserl’s thought is a seed planted in foreign soil and cultivated by his students. An image of “absorption” would portray North American philosophy as an autonomous enterprise enriched in stages by the themes and problems of classical phenomenology. On this conception, its origin in the European university is a contingent historical fact about phenomenology rather than a feature of its essential nature.
The choice between these images has consequences for how one reads the archive of phenomenological texts produced in North America. For example, in the course of a series of letters in 1940 discussing William James’ psychology, Aron Gurwitsch remarks to Alfred Schutz that they share the “goal of using James to present motives leading to phenomenology to a public which is unfamiliar with phenomenology.” Though Gurwitsch takes James never to have escaped completely the atomistic and sensualistic understanding of consciousness he criticized, he insists that James’ thought leads to and motivates the phenomenological project. American philosophy may therefore be translated into the language of phenomenology and “both parties gain infinitely with this translation.”[i] While the transplantation image implies that the gain is the ability of the phenomenologist to communicate to an American audience, the absorption image suggests that there are indigenous forces in American philosophy that could add to the phenomenologist’s project of fundamentally clarifying the structures of intentionality.
I approached Michela Beatrice Ferri’s new volume, The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America, with the hope of gaining tools for understanding this transition of a set of philosophical problems and methods from one surrounding world to another. Indeed, in his elegant if somewhat enigmatic Preface, Robert Sokolowski claims that the book is an “exercise in hermeneutics” concerning the displacement of phenomenology from one cultural-historical setting to another (vii). Continuing this theme, Ferri’s Introduction portrays this displacement as a “transplanting of Husserl’s thought” occasioned by the rise of Nazism (xvii) and as an “endeavor to graft phenomenology into American intellectual culture” (xxiv). Ferri suggests that by examining the reception of Husserl’s phenomenology in the United States and Canada (for reasons that are unclear to me, Mexico is excluded), the book will contribute to an understanding of “the division of philosophical discourse in North American [sic] that has been called the ‘Analytic-Continental Divide’” (xviii). The book proposes, then, to cut to the root of the divergence between the “analytic” and “continental” traditions in North American philosophy.
Unfortunately, the book is organized and edited in a way that does not contribute to a unified description of American phenomenology. Even worse, most of the discussions of the reception of Husserl’s philosophy remain on the level of merely factual history, without providing phenomenological analyses of particular receptive acts. Since I cannot discuss every one of the book’s twenty-six chapters here, this review will focus on those parts most salient to gaining an understanding of phenomenology in North America.
Jonathan Strassfeld’s meticulously researched opening chapter shows how the professionalization of philosophy at Harvard beginning in the 1890s required that the department offer a diverse curriculum rather than establish a single school. Indicative of this diversity effort, seven of the ten North American students who studied with Husserl before 1925 were associated with Harvard (7). Among them, the Canadian-born Winthrop Pickard Bell went to work under Husserl in Germany in 1911. With the internment of foreign nationals at the outbreak of the first World War, in 1914 “Bell became the first Anglo-American to receive a doctorate from Husserl; but only after defending his thesis inside a detention facility” (12). The chapter continues by offering a chronology of how other early notables – Marvin Farber, Dorion Cairns, Charles Hartshorne, and V. J. McGill – studied with Husserl during the interwar period. Drawing on Farber’s 1925 dissertation, Strassfeld argues persuasively that Husserl’s foundational program was not understood as part of a separate, “continental” tradition until at least the 1930s, when the work of Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein began to hold sway at Harvard (16-20).
Jason Bell’s chapter proposes the project of examining Winthrop Bell’s 1927 Harvard course, “Husserl and the Phenomenological Movement,” the first class on phenomenology offered in North America. Perhaps the most interesting question raised in this chapter is whether logic is “purely a priori” or “dependent on induction,” a discussion of which would allow for a comparison of the phenomenological and pragmatistic theories of truth and evidence (33). But the chapter neither offers a phenomenological analysis, nor makes of any use of primary texts by Husserl, Peirce, Royce, or James. Consequently, this question is never addressed. Moreover, although the chapter is clearly written, it really examines only the first week of the course, and thus fails to give a comprehensive view of the earliest phenomenological curriculum in North America.
After discussing the seeding of phenomenology at Harvard, the book turns to the growing of phenomenology at the New School for Social Research. Judith Friedlander’s chapter offers a careful institutional history of the philosophy department at the New School. Lester Embree and Michael Barber’s chapter on the “Golden Age” of phenomenology at the New School is more anecdotal, but likewise contains interesting information on the role of three major figures associated with the school – Schutz, Gurwitsch, and Cairns. But although these chapters offer insight into the history of the New School, they are not recognizably concerned with Husserl’s thought – hardly any mention is made of his specific works, much less how his ideas were received or modified by North American philosophers.
The chronological orientation of these early chapters is not incidental to the structure of the book. Ostensibly, the chapters are organized into seven sections, beginning with the introduction of phenomenology at Harvard, and its establishment at the New School, and then proceeding to discussions of individual figures, centers and societies, phenomenological journals, regional schools, and finally to a comparison of the phenomenological and analytic traditions. Inexplicably, however, treatments of individual figures spill over into the first section (a chapter on Gurwitsch), and into the penultimate section (a chapter on Dallas Willard). Moreover, it is difficult to characterize what is going on in many chapters of the book that focus on phenomenological publications, societies, and centers. For example, Nenon and Ferri’s chapter on “Important Twentieth Century American Husserl Scholars” (145-149) is a mere list of “leading researchers” working in North American universities. A chapter by McKenna and Hopkins on the journals Husserl Studies and The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy (337-341) provides only very brief editorial histories of these journals, quoting extensively from the publishers’ websites.
What do these chapters contribute – if anything – to an understanding of the reception of Husserl’s phenomenology? They certainly do not employ a phenomenological method. But nor do they draw on themes that have been investigated by well-known phenomenologists.
Even a clearly written and informative chapter, such as Jeffrey McCurry and Chelsea R. Binnie’s history of The Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center at Duquesne University seems out of place in series of “contributions to phenomenology.” In this chapter one learns, for example, how Erwin Straus’ office furniture was saved due to an encounter in 1938 with an SS Officer who had been his patient. Out of gratitude, the officer made special arrangements to ship the physician-phenomenologist’s possessions to the United States, which after Straus’ death in 1975 were donated to the Silverman Center (300-301). But what was the significance of the furniture within the face-to-face encounter between a Jewish physician and a Nazi Officer? How does the intact collection today allow one to reenter the embodied space of a working phenomenologist? What is the meaning of removing a culturally meaningful object – Straus’ Victorian music stand, for example – from one surrounding cultural world to another? This story could provide the starting point for a phenomenological investigation that would be appropriate to Straus as an emigre and as a theorist of embodied thinking. But the discussion remains merely factual, without exploring the meaning of the preservation of the furniture that constituted Straus’ workspace.
Though as mere catalogues of facts, these central chapters fail to elucidate how Husserl’s thought made inroads in North America, the chapters focusing on phenomenological figures have a more recognizably philosophical content. I shall focus on these chapters in the remainder of the review.
Daniel Marcelle’s chapter argues that Aron Gurwitsch’s “field theory” of attention advances the project of Husserlian phenomenology by breaking with Husserl’s own “searchlight” theory of attention. On Marcelle’s reading, Husserl focused on the noetic or “act” aspect of attending, which he described metaphorically as a “ray of regard” directed towards the object of thought (65-66). This spatial metaphor led Husserl to assume that noematic parts of the object remain constant as the consciousness undergoes attentional modifications, for example, that individual notes remain the same, whether they are heard separately or as part of a melody (67). By focusing instead on the noematic or “object” aspect of attention, Gurwitsch offers a richer descriptive theory that dispenses with this presupposition. Gurwitsch distinguishes among theme, the focal point of consciousness, thematic field, the content of which is not thematic but is contextually relevant to the theme, and margin, the content of which is not relevant to the theme but which is nevertheless featured in the stream of consciousness (50). This theory rejects the constancy implicitly assumed by Husserl, while offering richer resources for the description of attentional change (68). Marcelle’s reconstruction of these positions, as well as his characterization of Gurwitsch as promoting the project of phenomenology even while criticizing some of Husserl’s views, is on the mark. Phenomenology as both philosophers conceived it was not a static set of doctrines but a research program intended to uncover the fundamental structures of consciousness. My only objection concerns the chapter’s use of the “Freiburg Encounter” between Husserl and Gurwitsch to frame the discussion. Surely it was his decades of work at the intersection of classical phenomenology and gestalt psychology, rather than his brief 1927 encounter with the person of Husserl, that provides the proper context for understanding Gurwitsch’s field theory of attention.
Eric Chelstrom’s chapter examines Marvin Farber’s “idiosyncratic” understanding of Husserl. On the one hand, Farber wrote a dissertation on Husserl, advanced Husserl’s work for an English-speaking audience, and edited Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, a journal that, in its early period, was dominated by research conducted in a Husserlian phenomenological vein. On the other hand, Farber disagreed fundamentally with Husserl’s idealism, going so far as to separate the “logical” works as the only acceptable texts in Husserl’s corpus (109). Chelstrom makes a convincing case that Farber harbored doubts about Husserl’s methodology from early in his career, though they later emerged as more definite criticisms of Husserl’s idealism. According to Chelstrom, Farber saw the epoché as a valuable method of logical criticism, but argued that the turn to idealism smuggled in metaphysical assumptions that revealed Husserl’s “absolutist and eternalist” political views (112-113). Chelstrom holds that although Farber understood his own materialist and pluralist commitments to be opposed to pure phenomenology, the separation of Husserl’s logical and metaphysical doctrines was arbitrary. I am not so convinced. Doesn’t Husserl’s conception of a transcendental ego speak against the primacy of the empirical self? Likewise, Farber’s pluralism requires that he accept more than one method in philosophy, not that he accepts Husserl’s method. Though Chelstrom’s chapter raises important questions about a difficult figure, it does not explain how Farber used phenomenology within his own naturalistic and pluralistic project.
Though it offers a nice overview of Dorion Cairns’ career, Richard Zaner’s chapter also seems philosophically thin. Its central conceit is that Cairns introduced a novel and helpful principle into phenomenological philosophy, according to which “no belief is philosophically acceptable unless it is established on the basis of adequate evidence. This is a condition of the legitimacy of any epistemic claim” (139). But who would disagree with that? The principle is so general that, on its own, it adds nothing interesting to epistemology. The real question is: what counts as adequate evidence for a belief? In order to answer that question, one would need a more substantive phenomenological analysis of evidence and its adequacy than is available here.
Carlo Ierna’s chapter on Herbert Spiegelberg takes a biographical approach, outlining the phenomenologist’s education, studies, emigration to the United States, and finally his polemical exchange with Farber in the wake of the publication of Spiegelberg’s The Phenomenological Movement (Farber complained that phenomenology did not have the internal consistency to count as a “movement” but would be better described as a “tendency.” Spiegelberg disagreed.) (163-164). The most interesting part of the chapter concerns Spiegelberg’s phenomenological “workshops,” in which participants would attempt to enter sympathetically into one another’s perspectives. This is an alternative model to the current lecture- and text-based practices of most American phenomenologists. Indeed, it would have been interesting to read more about the methodology and content of these workshops.
Gabriel R. Ricci’s chapter focuses on Jitendra Nath Mohanty’s decades-long project of comparing Indian philosophy to Husserlian phenomenology. For example, whereas in the Vedantic tradition consciousness plays the logical role of mobilizing sources of knowledge but not of judging, in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology consciousness is taken to have “judicative authority” (176). However, without a strong background in the various traditions of Indian philosophy, it is difficult to understand what is at stake in such a comparison. Moreover, since it neither quotes not cites any primary text of Indian philosophy, nor includes a bibliography, this chapter serves more as an encomium of Mohanty than as a critical engagement with his work.
The chapter on Robert Sokolowski by Molly Brigid McGrath presents similar problems. To be sure, McGrath makes an excellent case for Sokolowski’s anti-solipsistic interpretation of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, according to which the epoché exposes “not a solitary ego” but an intersubjective intentionality (197). But in attempting to summarize nearly a half-century of philosophical scholarship, it is not clear how this essay contributes to the volume’s stated purpose. As attractive as Sokolowski’s interpretation may be, what is the broader lesson concerning the reception of phenomenology? Would this understanding of the epoché have been acceptable to Husserl himself? What does it add to the phenomenological project that is not already available in Husserl’s philosophical writings?
Daniela Verducci’s chapter, which purports to show how Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka wove together pragmatic and phenomenological traditions, likewise strays from the topic of Husserl reception. An extended section on Scheler’s critique of pragmatism (210-214) is illustrative of this lack of focus. Indeed, the main point Verducci attributes to Scheler, that “the basic error of pragmatism” is “identifying knowledge exclusively as the knowledge of control” (212) rests on a misunderstanding of pragmatism. More importantly, it is unclear what this has to do with Tymieniecka’s reception of Husserl. The last section argues that the synthesis of phenomenology and pragmatism requires, in Tymieniecka’s words, that “not constitutive intentionality, but only the constructive march of life that supports it can reveal to us the beginning of all things” (215). But Husserl’s use of epoché, insofar as it reduces the field of phenomenological inquiry to the constitution of meanings, should block any claims about the beginnings of things. It is hard to read Tymieniecka’s statement as respecting this “immanent” orientation of phenomenological inquiry. However, given Verducci’s references to a plethora of philosophical figures, free use of Greek, Latin, and German technical terminology and neologisms, and large number of creative capitalizations and typographical errors, it seems that the issue is less philosophical than editorial. The editors should have worked more on the chapter before it went to print, which might have led to a more lucid treatment of an interesting topic.
California Phenomenology, a chapter co-written by Jeffrey Yoshimi, Clinton Tolley, and David Woodruff Smith, offers an historical outline of the development of Husserlian phenomenology on the west coast beginning in the 1960s. Interestingly, the founding figure of this movement was not a Californian but the Norwegian-born, Harvard-educated philosopher Dagfinn Føllesdal, who trained a generation of phenomenologists at Harvard and Stanford. Among those who attended early meetings in the Bay Area, most of whom were once Føllesdal’s students, were Hubert Dreyfus, David Woodruff Smith, Ronald McIntyre, and Robert Tragesser; they were later joined by such notables as Izchak Miller, John Haugeland, and Richard Tieszen. The authors note that the California school of Husserl interpretation is marked by an emphasis on exploring the relationship between analytic philosophy and phenomenology, and a “reading of Husserl as developing a semantic theory that can be viewed as a generalization of Fregean semantics, from language to consciousness” (372). As opposed to the “orthodox Gurwitschian” understanding of the noema as the object of thought, this “Fregean semantic” interpretation takes the Husserlian noema to be an abstract object mediating between the act and object of reference (372-373). For the California phenomenologists, your act of thinking of a tabby cat is able to pick out the furry thing on your doormat in virtue of its instantiating a noema or “sense” in you that puts your thinking of the cat into potential inferential relations with the other noemata you constitute. The fact that the noema can be pre-predicative makes it more general than Frege’s notion of Sinn: a noema enters into any description of thinking, regardless of whether that thinking is propositional. Unfortunately, the authors do not develop the consequences of this view but continue the memoir, which relies heavily on direct quotations of emails from various members of the group. However, this memoir is somewhat marred by the fact although the reader can usually tell who is writing, it is unclear which author was the recipient of the email. Another idiosyncracy is that although the chapter is dedicated to Richard Tieszen, precious little discussion of his work is included in the piece.
Micah D. Tillman’s chapter stands out as one of the strongest in the collection, managing to introduce Dallas Willard’s work, while offering fruitful suggestions for attaining a unitarian reading of Husserl’s corpus. On Tillman’s reconstruction, Willard pursued a realist interpretation according to which Husserl’s fundamental aims are at once to provide an ontology of objects, and to account for the possibility of objective knowledge. This attempt to account for objective knowledge is faced with two fundamental paradoxes. The first is that although knowledge must be objective, it is only realized in a subject’s mental acts. The second is that while any such realization must be immediate (in Tillman’s terms, “intuitive”), most of our scientific knowledge is not immediate but is grasped through symbols (393). On Willard’s reconstruction, Husserl resolves the first paradox by developing an account of universals as modes of intentionality that can be fulfilled. Thus, Willard maintains that universal meanings have objective validity but in their fulfillment are apprehended by a subject. The second paradox is also resolved via the notion of fulfillment, which ensures the validity of mechanical or symbolic reasoning not through direct inspection, but through the possibility that any symbolic mathematical proof could be “reactivated” or intuitively “fulfilled” (396). Even for those who, like this reader, are not versed in Willard’s thought, Tillman’s presentation is lucid and philosophically compelling. Though the rest of Tillman’s paper is too rich to be summarized here, one can only hope that Tillman continues this line of inquiry, perhaps by exploring the theological consequences of Willard’s view that are merely signaled at the beginning of the essay (390).
Several chapters are less relevant to the reception of classical phenomenology. Ihde’s chapter is a reprint of a somewhat polemical article on the analytic-continental divide from the 1980s, which now seems dated. Rescher’s chapter on Pittsburgh philosophy has little to do with phenomenology. Calcagno’s chapter on Edith Stein is interesting, but has no direct bearing on Husserl reception in North America.
The final essay in the collection, by Paul M. Livingston, argues that there is a fundamental methodological difference between Husserlian phenomenology and analytic philosophy, in virtue of which the two cannot be directly reconciled (435). According to Livingston, analytic philosophy since Frege has looked to linguistic patterns of public usage to understand the structure of thought (442). Exploiting the work of several figures central to this tradition, Livingston argues that a “characteristic methodological and ontological” assumption of analytic philosophy is that “the objective explanation of mental phenomena requires locating them in an intersubjectively and publicly available network of causally related phenomena” (453-454). Though there is much to be said for Livingston’s use of this literature, it seems to me that the entire weight of this latter claim rests on how one construes the word “objective.” If “objective” here means “true,” then all first-personal statements must indeed be excluded as subjective and false. This leaves no place for Husserl but amounts to the extravagant claim that in order to do philosophy at all, one must forfeit one’s first-personal grasp of the world. In distinction, if “objective” here means “empirical,” it is hard to imagine that Husserl or anyone else would object: surely the mark of an empirical explanation is its causal relation of a phenomenon to other publicly observable phenomena. Of course, there is a residual question of whether there are non-empirical explanations, that is, whether priori knowledge is possible. And some philosophers have answered this question negatively. But this denial could never be a general methodological commitment of analytic philosophers, some of whom have made non-empirical claims, including claims about logic.
I have suggested that in privileging facts over analyses of the reception of Husserl’s thought in North America, the volume includes too much information. But one may also remark on what it excludes. The lack of a chapter relating Husserl to James is strange, especially given Geniusas’ work in the same book series exploring the connection between James’ “fringes” and Husserl’s “horizon.”[ii] There is very little discussion of the work of Alfred Schutz, despite the fact that his work in phenomenology exerted tremendous influence in the social sciences, particularly through The Social Construction of Reality, the bestselling sociology text by Luckmann and Berger, who studied under him at the New School.[iii] Likewise, though his furniture is described in some detail, a chapter dedicated to Straus’s work would have been a welcome addition, and might have provided an opportunity to examine the theme of embodiment that haunts the history of phenomenology and is a concern of current work in philosophy. Another figure who is ignored is Hermann Weyl, who drew from Husserl and had an influential career at Princeton. Finally, it is surprising that there is no chapter on Kurt Gödel, who both attended meetings of the Vienna Circle and, while in the United States, dedicated himself to the study of Husserl. An examination of his views on phenomenology could be used stage an encounter between the mid-century analytic philosophy that stemmed from logical positivism and the continental tradition, which is one of the acknowledged aims of the volume.
This theme of the relationship between, and potential rapprochement of phenomenology and analytic philosophy is an important one, and merits further discussion. Analytic philosophy began as an approach that, like phenomenology, aimed to provide an ultimate clarification of the problems of philosophy. But traditional analytical topics like the problem of mental causation, the justified true belief theory of knowledge, or the metaphysical “debate” between three- and four-dimensionalists today look like artefacts of a stagnant and outmoded philosophical methodology. One’s sense of disappointment is not alleviated by observing the plethora of new philosophical research programs – formal philosophy, experimental philosophy, and critical theories of race and gender – that ape the methods of mathematics, experimental psychology, and sociology. The shattered hegemony of linguistic analysis leaves American philosophers in need of new, distinctively philosophical methods. While the wholesale revival of classical phenomenology might be a tall order, the critical and judicious use of first-personal description and a commitment to elucidating the meanings of lived experience may have much to offer practicing philosophers today.
This book has the virtue of discussing a number of figures in phenomenology who have received less attention than they deserve. In doing so, it shows that despite a common prejudice that takes phenomenology to be primarily a Western European phenomenon, phenomenologists have also been doing interesting work on this side of the Atlantic. However, the book ignores some key figures and leaves important questions unanswered. Indeed, it never makes thematic the fundamental questions about phenomenology in North America. In being received on this continent, how have the interests and methods of phenomenology been transformed? Is this transmission better conceived as the transplantation of a European cultural product to the New World, or as the absorption of a way of theorizing by North American philosophers? What sort of enrichment of philosophy was envisaged by figures like Gurwitsch and Schutz that could justify the countless hours they spent working out the details of a phenomenological philosophy, even while their families and friends were in danger of extermination at the hands of the Nazis? In failing to address these questions, the The Reception of Husserlian Phenomenology in North America misses an opportunity to raise the radical problems that would allow one to grasp the telos of the phenomenological project.
[i] Grathoff, R. [Ed] Philosophers in Exile: The Correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch, 1939-1959. Indiana University Press, 1989, 30-31.
[ii] Geniusas, S. The Origins of the Horizon in Husserl’s Phenomenology. Dordrecht/New York: Springer (Contributions to Phenomenology, Vol. 67), 2012.
[iii] Berger, P. L. and Luckmann, T. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966
Brill’s Companion to German Platonism explores how Plato was interpreted and appropriated by some of the leading thinkers of the history of German philosophy, from Nicholas of Cusa to Hans Georg Gadamer. The book includes fifteen chapters, each of them devoted to one author or school, written by outstanding scholars. While most of the contributions deal with the reception of Plato’s epistemology and ontology, some others also—or only—address the long-disputed issue of how to interpret Plato’s philosophy. Since it is not possible to discuss all the topics in this almost four-hundred page volume, the review is limited to discussing how Plato’s most famous and controversial doctrine, the so-called theory of forms, was interpreted by German philosophers. More specifically, I will pay special attention to what we might call—to use the terminology suggested by the editor—the ‘transcendental interpretation’ of Plato’s theory of ideas. In the following lines, I focus on how this reading emerged and was developed by German philosophers in their various ways of endorsing, modifying, or rejecting Plato’s thought.
Alan Kim’s Introduction (chapter 1) provides an overview of the topics discussed by each of the contributors and identifies the two conflicting interpretative models already mentioned: the ‘transcendental’ or ‘functional’ reading of the ideas, on the one hand, and the ‘transcendent’ or ‘substantial’, on the other (2). According to the latter, which is the most common interpretation of Plato, ideas are separated substances that exist in a transcendent sphere of reality. Under this view, the forms are conceived as the true objects of knowledge and the soul is said to gain access to them through intellectual intuition. On the other hand, the former reading does not understand the forms as objects, but rather as ‘transcendental conditions of possible experience’ (3). The transcendental reading thus rejects the realism and dualism associated with the transcendent one and does not consider ideas as objects of intuition, but rather as functions of understanding. Among the figures examined in this volume that ascribe to Plato the substantialist view are Kant, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. On the other side, the functional interpretation was anticipated to some degree by Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, Mendelssohn and Hegel, and explicitly supported and developed by Cohen, Natorp and Husserl.
In the first chapter after the introduction (2), Claudia D’Amico presents a detailed study of the manifold connections between Nicholas of Cusa and Platonism. She also provides a valuable survey of German authors that in one way or another were influenced by Cusanus’ thought. As for the understanding of Platonic forms, Nicholas of Cusa criticizes Plato for conceiving ideas as separated forms, suggesting instead that while forms are real, they do not exist separated from things. Cusanus thinks that real forms are inaccessible to human reason, only capable of forming conjectures.
In chapter 3, Jack Davidson examines how Leibniz incorporates Plato and Platonism into his own philosophical system. Among the most remarkable points of agreement between both philosophers, Davidson points out Leibniz’s rejection of materialism and his conviction that reality ultimately consists of immaterial, intelligible substances, of which sensible things are appearances (53). After indicating other points in which both philosophers converge, the author devotes epigraph 5 to show how Leibniz’s epistemology reshapes some Platonic themes. More precisely, this section focuses on the agreements and disagreements regarding the role and nature of innate ideas. As it is well-known, Leibniz holds that some of the most fundamental concepts are known innately. At the same time, however, he rejects two positions he ascribes to Plato: the pre-existence of the soul and the presupposition that every truth one knows has been explicitly known by the soul before (63). Despite the emphasis that Leibniz puts on his differences with Plato at this point, both philosophers agree on a fundamental level, as Davidson suggests, that sensible experience does not suffice to account for our knowledge of necessary truths. Thus, the human soul must be equipped with a special potential to know them (ibidem).
The next chapter, written by Bruce Rosenstock, studies Moses Mendelssohn’s appropriation and reworking of Plato’s Phaedo within the framework of his ‘Leibnizian Platonism’ (79) in his own Phädon. Rosenstock focuses on the ‘infinitesimal calculus of the soul’ as Mendelssohn applies it in his own version of the dialogue. The application of Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus leads Mendelssohn to endorse a functionalist view, since he believes that the soul’s process of knowledge works—like that type of calculus—by progressively ‘integrating’ the initially indistinct mass of representations’ (83). Thus, following Leibniz, Mendelssohn understands the soul as an active Platonic idea that brings unity into multiplicity (84). However, as Rosenstock indicates, this is only one side of the story. Under Mendelssohn’s view, the Platonic ideas do not only account for the integrative nature of human knowledge; they are not merely abstract objects of understanding, but also and at the same time ‘the object[s] of the soul’s authentic (philosophic) desire for happiness’ (92). In this sense, the soul’s capacity to unify the multiplicity of appearances through conceptual unities is the ‘expression’ of the soul’s desire for happiness (93). Hence, according to Mendelssohn, the search for knowledge is necessarily entangled with the quest for the good (92).
In chapter 5, Manfred Baum examines Kant’s appropriation of the theory of ideas in both the pre-Critical and the Critical period. It is worth noting, first, that Kant never attributes the two-world doctrine to Plato, even though his primary source, Brucker, does it. The Kantian pre-critical reading of the Platonic idea assimilates it with a ‘common standard of perfection’ for measuring all other less perfect realities (115). In the critical period, Kant’s well-known differentiation between understanding and reason leads him to reshape his reading. Under this new light, Plato’s ideas are interpreted as anticipating to some extent Kant’s concepts of reason, the regulative ideas, in contrast with the concepts of understanding, the categories (123-124). According to Baum, both Kant and Plato agree that ideas do not originate in the senses and that their object is not found in the empirical world (ibidem). However, Kant rejects the alleged hypostatized nature of Platonic forms, that he presumably takes from Bruker’s Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato (126-127). The result of Kant’s appropriation of Plato’s theory of ideas, then, is twofold (as Kim also puts it in the introduction ): Kant attributes to Plato a substantial or transcendent view of ideas, while at the same time he sees Platonic ideas as the first attempt towards a transcendental consideration of human knowledge.
Hegel’s reading of Plato can be seen, as Jere Surber persuasively presents it in chapter 6, as the first modern philosophical interpretation of the Platonic corpus (133). The most distinctive features of the Hegelian approach to Plato are, first, Hegel’s direct and detailed engagement with the dialogues and, second, his distinctive appropriation of the Platonic ideas. According to Hegel, Plato’s ideas anticipate in a still unsystematic way his own systematic account of genuine Begriffe (concepts) as “concrete universals” (141). Relying on his interpretation of Parmenides, Timaeus, and Republic, Hegel rejects the dualistic, transcendent interpretations of the forms. He suggests instead that the Platonic idea should be understood as an ‘identity-in-difference’, and therefore as a genuine concept in Hegelian terms, that is, one that unifies in itself the formal and material aspect of reality (136). On the other hand, Hegel also dismisses the psychological transcendentalism according to which the ideas are mere constructs (or mere concepts, as opposed to genuine concepts) of the human mind since this view fails to account for the essential connection between the ideas and the sensible things (p.136). Therefore, as Surber points out, Hegel thought of his own philosophy as the articulation of Plato’s ‘in a modern systematic form’ (142).
The following two chapters (7 and 8) are devoted to Schleiermacher’s influential approach both to Plato’s philosophy and its interpretation. In chapter 7, André Laks provides an insightful discussion of Schleiermacher’s both philological and philosophical reading of the Platonic dialogues. Regarding the interpretation of Plato’s ideas, Schleiermacher rejects Aristotle’s criticisms and defends that the forms are real concepts that actually possess causal force and can directly affect both the physical and the moral world, given that they derive from God’s power (155). Chapter 8 is at odds with the rest of the contributions since it does not offer a reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s reading of Plato, but rather presents the author’s (Thomas Szlezák) main reasons for disagreeing with it. While the philological arguments provided by Szlezák are highly illuminating, and many of his objections to Schleiermacher are indeed very persuasive—see, for instance, his detailed analysis of Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus (172-179)—, one cannot but wonder why Schleiermacher’s interpretation is the only one subject to such critical scrutiny. Besides, the main objections of the Tübingen School–to which Szlezák belongs– to Schleiermacher are again developed and argued for in chapter 14 by Vittorio Hösle. In his contribution, Hösle also provides a valuable survey of some of the most representative advocates of the abovementioned school and provides a summary of the main points of Krämer’s pioneering dissertation Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, still only available in German (337-339).
Robert Wicks’ chapter on Schopenhauer (9) stresses the role of Plato’s account of time in the former’s metaphysical account of human consciousness and reality. More specifically, according to Wick, the Platonic conception of time as ‘the moving image of eternity’ in the Timaeus inspired Schopenhauer’s consideration of the spatio-temporal world as a prison of human consciousness (192 and 215). In his mature philosophy, Schopenhauer regards Plato’s ideas as essentially dependent on the Will, which constitutes the core of reality, the thing-in-itself, which lays beyond any form of representation and time (209). Under this view, ideas are said to play an intermediary role between the thing-in-itself as Will, on the one hand, and the objects of the spatio-temporal world, on the other (210). Therefore, as Wick suggests, Schopenhauer’s reading of ideas within this framework attributes them a twofold nature: as long as they are objects, they ultimately belong to the world of representation and, to this extent, they are high-ranking illusions; however, considered in their relationship to the thing-in-itself, ideas are ‘timeless acts of Will’ (213-214). In this last sense, Plato’s forms are placed behind the veil of the ordinary experience of the world, and thus they are only apprehended by a certain timeless intuition that Schopenhauer identifies with an intense awareness of the present moment (200-201). Philosophy is thus conceived as a form of asceticism whose aim is to reach such timeless, transcendent, and even mystical awareness (215). As Richard Bennett stresses at the beginning of chapter 11, Nietzsche regards this ascetic approach to reality—that he attributes to Plato—as anti-natural, coward, and decadent (249-252). In the second section of his contribution, Bennet proves that Nietzsche’s consideration of Plato goes far beyond this one-sided evaluation and is more multi-faceted and less consistent than usually acknowledged.
The transcendental reading of Plato’s ideas was explicitly defended for the first time by the two leading figures of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism: Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp. In chapter 10, Karl-Heinz Lembeck examines both authors’ attempts to mediate between Kant and Plato in their ambitious philosophical-historical interpretations (217). Cohen’s early reading of the forms as psychological categories radically evolved in the mid-1870s into a purely logical-transcendental interpretation of them. Under this new approach, and drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, ideas are now viewed as ‘regulative concepts’ guiding knowledge. Within this picture, the form of the Good is not seen as a real entity, but rather as ‘the function of a unifying synthesis of appearances’ (223-224). Cohen extracts this interpretation from Plato’s alleged identification of ideas as hypothesis, that is, as ‘pre-sub-positions’ which thinking anticipates in order to be able to apprehend reality (228). In other words, ideas are said to be a priori conditions of knowledge.
Unlike Cohen’s, Natorp’s appropriation of Plato is grounded on a deep engagement with the texts. In Platons Ideenlehre (Plato’s Theory of Ideas), Natorp develops his reading of Plato’s theory of ideas as a theory of the constitution of experience (231-232). From this standpoint, Natorp downplays the ontological significance of the ideas, stressing their epistemological relevance as ‘laws’ that govern the dynamisms of knowledge (233). In his late systematic philosophy, Natorp modifies his reading of Plato’s ideas, as he seems to come under the influence of Neo-Platonism. Now, forms are understood as categories and, as such, as secondary functions unable to grasp the ultimate level of reality. Such level corresponds to Plato’s form of Good, which is radically transcendent and, therefore, inaccessible by means of articulated knowledge (237).
In the next chapter (12), Alan Kim explores Husserl’s ‘productive appropriation of Plato into phenomenology’ (273), relying on the fact that Husserl considered himself a phenomenological Platonist. By doing this, Kim provides an original, perceptive reading of the theory of ideas from a phenomenological perspective and, at the same time, a compelling presentation of the Husserlian account of eidetic intuition. In a way akin to Cohen and Natorp, Husserl endorses a transcendental interpretation of Platonic ideas, rejecting the ‘static’ Platonism of separated substantial forms along with its subsequent metaphysical dualism and mystical intuitionism (274). According to Kim, Husserl’s ideas or eidê refer to the object of the apprehension of the what-ness of a given thing. Such eidê, however, differ from the empirical universal concepts derived by abstraction from contingent facts. Eidê also relates to facts, but not because they derive from them, but rather because they constitute the rule of any possible apprehension of them. In order to illustrate the process by means of which consciousness moves from facts to eidê, Kim draws on Plato’s Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave. The first is meant to represent the different psychic states, while the second focuses on the soul’s progression from one to another. Here, eidê are presented as logical structures or essential meanings ‘that had always been co-intended in my aesthetic grasp of the phenomenon as actual thing, but which had been, as it were, eclipsed by the glare of ‘reality’’ (278). The ascension of the soul towards the realm of ideas is thus understood as a progressive detachment and liberation from the blinding glare of sensible appearances of things, so as to be able to perceive the essential features of them. This interpretation explains both the fact that the highest form of knowledge according to Plato, namely, dialectics, is said to deal only with ideas, and also that the knowledge of ideas allows the ex-prisoner in his return to the cave to recognize images as what they really are (280). In the following pages, Kim equates both Husserl’s and Plato’s account of the vision of eidê with the ‘understanding of the F-ness of many f’s’ (281). As the author points out in a footnote, the state of consciousness in which we grasp an eidê is not adequately described as a learning process, that is, as certain acquisition of knowledge, but instead as some sort of perceiving or, even more accurately, re-cognizing (erkennen) (281, n. 70). In this sense, the phenomenological method of purifying the mind from its factual intentions and redirecting it towards the essential turns out to be very similar to Plato’s account of dialectic as a process of remembering (anamnesis) what one already knows in his or her soul (281). Within this framework, Kim forcefully argues that Husserl’s basic idea of a ‘noematic form implicitly governing the coherence of sense experience’ can be paralleled with Plato’s account of the relationship between noêsis and aisthêsis in the passage on the summoners in Republic VII, as well as with the role attributed to sensibility in the recollection argument offered in the Phaedo. Finally, the author points out that the Husserlian reading was deeply influenced by Lotze’s thesis that ideas do not possess existence (Sein), but rather validity (Geltung) (294).
The two remaining chapters are devoted to Heidegger’s confrontation with Plato (chapter 13) and Gadamer’s productive reshaping of the Heideggerian reading (chapter 15). Francisco J. Gonalez begins his chapter on Heidegger’ reading of Plato by focusing on the 1924/25 course on Plato’s Sophist. In these lectures, it becomes apparent a tension that characterizes how Heidegger will read Plato the rest of his life. On the one hand, the Heideggerian approach reveals several points where Plato’s understanding of being comes very close to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. On the other, the German philosopher insists that Plato interpreted being as presence, that is, as the object of logos, and therefore that Plato’s philosophy is to be seen as the first of a long series of reductions of truth to correspondence (306). As Gonzalez clearly shows in his contribution, this tension will persist until the late Heidegger, although the latter approach will become the ‘official’ reading. The author suggests that one of the most remarkable exceptions to the official reading can be found in the Parmenides seminar of 1930/31. Drawing on both Heidegger’s class notes and Herbert Marcuse’s transcript of this seminar, Gonzalez clearly shows that Heidegger saw Plato’s discussion of exaiphnês (instant) in the Parmenides as a genuinely ontological comprehension of the problem of ‘being and time’ (314-315). We find a similar exception in Heidegger’s interpretation of erôs in the Phaedrus seminar of 1932 (319 ff.). Gadamer’s appropriation of Platonic philosophy, discussed by François Renaud in the final chapter (15), reacts against Heidegger’s official reading. Gadamer claims that ‘Plato is not a Platonist’ and argues that the theory of forms and the method of dialectic are meant to make explicit the conditions of Socrates’ practice of dialogue in the early dialogues (356). According to Renaud, Gadamer seems to think that the forms are objects independent from representation, though he also speaks of them as if they only were transcendental principles (374).
This volume is worth reading for both historical and philosophical reasons. Each of the fifteen chapters provides the reader with valuable insights into the history of German philosophy in line with the most updated research and effectively supports the general thesis of the book that Plato exerted a decisive influence over the most relevant German philosophers (1). On the other hand, anyone interested in the interpretation of Plato’s works will surely find this book an exciting source of inspiration. In particular, as I hope to have shown, it will prove especially helpful for those intrigued by the possibilities of a transcendental reading of Plato’s theory of ideas. Last but not least, this collective work reminds us of both the risks and benefits of a philosophical reading of Plato, that is, one that attempts to identify and rethink the core issues of Platonic philosophy anew.
The story often told about the birth of phenomenology begins with the perceived proto-phenomenological tendencies of philosophers of antiquity, before the discipline eventually found its proper explicit expression in Edmund Husserl. Following in the footsteps of Husserl comes his young student Martin Heidegger, who takes his basic insights, expands on, develops them and revises them, which eventually results in a ‘phenomenological ontology’, as opposed to Husserl’s ‘transcendental phenomenology’. Though Heidegger disagrees significantly with Husserl on some issues, when it comes to how Heidegger became the kind of philosopher he did, the debt he owes is largely to Husserl. However original Heidegger goes on to be, he is ultimately, to some extent, a Husserlian revisionist. However, as more of Heidegger’s early lecture courses have appeared, another figure’s considerable influence on the young Heidegger became increasingly difficulty to deny, at the expense of Husserl and the line of interpretive thought I just described. This figure is Wilhelm Dilthey, a German historian best known in philosophical circles for his contribution to the epistemological debate surrounding ‘understanding’ and ‘explanation’. The fact that Dilthey influenced Heidegger, and that Heidegger thought his work was especially promising, is uncontroversial: even in Being and Time he wrote that “the researches of Dilthey were, for their part, pioneering work; but today’s generation has not as yet made them its own.” The extent of Dilthey’s impact on Heidegger’s philosophical formation, however, has not been adequately understood, nor its primacy over the influence of Husserl. Correcting this oversight is the central aim of Robert Scharff’s Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological. Using the wealth of evidence from Heidegger’s early lecture courses and the clearly Dilthey-influenced language and theoretical framework found in them, Scharff not only elaborately illustrates Dilthey’s impact on the formation of Heidegger’s thought, but shows how it is this impact that informs his subsequent reading of Husserl. It is only based on his prior reading of Dilthey that Heidegger ‘destructively retrieves’ Husserl. The dominant interpretive line of thought with respect to the history of phenomenology from Husserl through Heidegger is therefore mistaken, a fact that is perhaps not necessarily new to us but has never been as comprehensively expressed and well-demonstrated as Scharff does here. His text is a welcome addition to the New Heidegger Research series, with its clear writing, thorough scholarship and nobly motivated project making it of interest to anyone looking to learn about the history of phenomenology.
On the one hand, Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is a historical, scholarly work concerned with the genesis of Heidegger’s phenomenology and the specifics of his engagements with Dilthey and Husserl. But on the other hand, it is also about what it is to philosophize at all, and what kind of philosophers we need to be, or become. Its expositions of Heidegger, Dilthey and Husserl are driven and bookmarked by an impassioned call for philosophers to question the predominantly materialist/objectivist, ‘technique-happy’, scientifically-minded condition in which much philosophy finds itself, where the “primacy of the theoretical” (158) reigns. In this climate, there is a dominant tendency to conceive of ourselves as knowing subjects, rational animals, as cognizing consciousnesses to which objects appear — at the expense of the wealth of phenomenological life-experience that this conception of ourselves ignores. The effect of this ‘loss of touch with life’ on philosophers, on Scharff’s view, is particularly damning:
their work grows to be an embarrassment, increasingly displaying a tendency to become excessively logical, formalistic, or simply clever; and this is so even if in the beginning, some insightful encounter or concern that is actually lived-through was the source of hat are now just empty exercises. (153)
It is these ‘insightful encounters or concerns’ that Scharff, through Heidegger and Dilthey, insists we must get back to. But this cannot be done as long as we are mired in the normal (read, broadly analytic, scientistic) way of doing philosophy, where philosophers ‘inquire, argue and claim’ (159), ‘take positions, promote theories and influence others’ (xii) and the worth of their viewpoints are evaluated. (xvi) Here, claims are either true or false, arguments are sound or unsound, theories are coherent or incoherent, changing your mind is inconsistent, new ways of speaking perhaps ‘incoherent’, ‘obscurantist’ or ‘unscientific’, and everything a philosopher says in their work is taken at face value. It is this superficial way of doing philosophy that we must overcome, and another strength of Scharff’s text is its emphasis on and drawing out of Heidegger’s way of overcoming it – his way of reading other philosophers in a ‘destructive retrieval’. The bulk of Scharff’s text is dedicated to explicating, in detail, how Heidegger engages in such a ‘destructive retrieval’ of Dilthey and Husserl. I will briefly summarise how the book proceeds chapter by chapter before spelling out some of its most significant points in greater detail.
Chapter 1 frames the book in terms of Heidegger’s early preoccupation with how we should philosophize, his ‘preliminary question’ of what kind of philosopher one needs to be in order to be phenomenological. For Heidegger, this will involve a destructive retrieval of both Husserl and Dilthey, with the emphasis on ‘destructive’ with Husserl and ‘retrieve’ with Dilthey. The retrieval of Dilthey is the starting point of chapter 2, which begins ‘part one’ of the text. Here, Scharff introduces Dilthey’s central ideas of ‘the standpoint of life’ and ‘understanding life in its own terms’ as they arise in the most familiar contribution Dilthey has been known to make to philosophy, which is his attempt to delineate between the natural and human sciences and provide epistemology for the latter. Out of this project arises Dilthey’s idea that the human sciences attempt to understand human history from ‘the standpoint of life’, an idea that gets ‘phenomenologically replaced’ in Husserl with the ‘transcendental consciousness’, a de-historicised, de-contextualized cognizing subjectivity to which objects appear. Heidegger sees certain ‘intuitions’ in Dilthey’s idea that promise far more philosophically (for phenomenology and ontology) than even Dilthey himself realised. Chapter 3 shows how Heidegger sought to appropriate Dilthey and carry his work far beyond the epistemology of the human sciences, which Dilthey confined himself to. Here there are interesting discussions of how Heidegger engages with other philosophers, in terms of ‘appropriation’ and the ‘formal indications’ we might find implicit in their work even if they do not realise it. ‘Formal indication’ is a notoriously difficult concept in Heidegger, one that normally gets fleshed out from its application in Being and Time and beyond, so it is interesting to see its treatment in the 1920s lecture courses. Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey’s ‘standpoint of life’ leads us into ‘part two’ of the text, which deals with how Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey informs the ‘destructive’ element of his engagement with Husserl. Dilthey helps Heidegger realise that Husserl’s phenomenology is not genuine phenomenology, but an enactment of the theoretical-scientific attitude, containing an unhelpful opposition to Dilthey’s alleged ‘historicism’, which for Husserl leads to obscurity and relativism, and does not “a proper philosophical response to the empirical facts of historical-human life.” (98) Phenomenology, on Husserl’s view, must ‘get behind’ historical life to the transcendental consciousness which experiences it. However, an immersion in the historical, as Heidegger learns from Dilthey, turns out to be a requirement for genuine phenomenology, not something to be opposed by it. Chapter 5 turns to the positive retrieval of Husserl, in which Heidegger attempts to salvage Husserl’s ‘principle of all principles’ in a way that is compatible with Dilthey’s historically-immersed ‘standpoint of life’. Heidegger’s destructive retrieval of both Dilthey and Husserl for the purpose of becoming genuinely phenomenological lead Scharff to the conclusions he draws in chapter 6, about the always-ongoing nature of phenomenology, something that necessarily ‘becomes’ without ever reaching a complete state of ‘being’. The point of phenomenology is to become attuned to our historical being, a process which is always ongoing, never finished – the point is therefore to continuously ‘become’ phenomenological, not try and ‘be’ it.
Arguably, the most important term in Scharff’s book, both for understanding how Heidegger conducts his philosophy and for understanding the project of the book itself, is ‘destructive retrieval’. Heidegger’s notion of ‘destruction’ is long-familiar to us, especially in the form of the ‘destruction of the history of ontology’ he proposes in Being and Time. But in his earlier lecture courses, which are the sole focus of Scharff’s analysis, Heidegger speaks rather of ‘destructive retrieval’, emphasizing both the positive and negative aspects of the task he would later refer to only as ‘destruction’.
Sometimes, one encounters texts whose author seems to be “on the way” toward a topic or insight that outruns, or perhaps even casts doubt on the aptness of – what they say or even consciously intend. In such cases, it is especially desirable to try to understand the text “in its own terms” (xviii)
To destroy, or destructively retrieve, a philosopher’s work, does involve a negative dismantling of it, but always with an eye towards retrieving the positive possibilities latent within it, the tools it might (in spite of itself) afford us for moving beyond it. Rather than a strict emphasis on whether someone is right or wrong, coherent or incoherent, destructive retrieval aims at ascertaining what about their historical context might drive a philosopher to say what they say and what worth this motivation might have in the long run, even if the expression this motivation was given and the work it was put to turns out to be mistaken or inadequate. It is not just about dismantling inadequate systems of thought, but “stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition” (BT, 44) in which they are situated, ascertaining what we can learn from it about how to do philosophy as well as how not to do it.
This is precisely what Heidegger does with both Dilthey and Husserl, but it is Dilthey who Heidegger owes a greater philosophical debt to, and Dilthey who informs Heidegger’s subsequent reading of Husserl, not the other way round. Scharff’s book therefore finds a happy home alongside other texts in the New Heidegger Research series such as Thomas Sheehan’s Making Sense of Heidegger, since it also aims at overturning a long-dominant interpretive tendency in Heidegger scholarship. Scharff argues at length that the influence of Husserl on the young Heidegger has been overemphasized for far too long, with “the two main interpretive options […] [being] that he is either a revisionist Husserlian or a radically revisionist Husserlian.” (vii) Scharff’s contention, backed up by the relatively recent availability of Heidegger’s 1920s lecture courses, is that both of these alternatives are wrong, and it is in fact Dilthey who helps Heidegger take up a position on how it is that he should philosophize, a position which goes on to inform his reading of Husserl.
But this is not to say that Husserl had nothing to offer Heidegger, or that Heidegger has no issues with Dilthey – Heidegger engages in a destructive retrieval of both, though “it is more a matter of critically dismantling in the case of Husserl and more a matter of appropriation/retrieval in the case of Dilthey.” (xxii) Ultimately, Husserl saw the potential of and necessity for phenomenology but was gravely mistaken in his articulation of how it should be practised. Phenomenology, for Husserl, must rise above our “concrete circumstances […] of scientific practice […] of culture, society, history” (40) in order to be able to train itself exclusively on what appears to a ‘transcendental consciousness’. Only then will we have returned ‘to the things themselves’, as his famous slogan suggests. But as anyone familiar with the Heidegger of Being and Time will know, this ‘rising above’ is precisely a step in the wrong direction. Rather,
historical-human life […] belongs to us and is possessed by us as an endlessly rich, diverse and multiply interested environmental experience that is an already meaningful and understandable process before it gets theoretically sliced up and conceptualized. (xx)
Husserl’s basic motivation to return to the things themselves as we experience them, is a noble and necessary one. However, his idea of what this means is gravely mistaken. According to Husserl, we must strip away the trappings of historical life, culture and experience in order to experience the world ‘as it really is’, and so he remains trapped in a Cartesian-Kantian framework that amounts to an “enactment of the current (predominantly scientific and philosophically scientized) ways of conceptualizing” (xxi) life as we live it. To be phenomenologists, according to Husserl, we have to become the disinterested, objective cognizing observers that science would have us be, and record our experience this way. Heidegger’s problem with this is not just that the stripping-away Husserl proposes is impossible, but that even if it were possible, would be a far from accurate reflection of our existence and experience. We are fundamentally historical beings, and this being-historical fundamentally conditions our existence and experience of it at every step. To attempt to rise above it to describe our experience of our existence, therefore, is gravely misconceived and would miss out on a constitutive element of our existence. Rather, any phenomenology worthy of the name must involve an attempt to understand our life ‘in its own terms’, cultural-historical trappings and all. And it is this insight that Heidegger gets from reading Dilthey.
Through Dilthey, Heidegger arrives at a conception of how to do phenomenology that far surpasses Husserl’s, but this is not what Dilthey had in mind. Dilthey’s original project, as chapter 2 explains, was originally to construct an epistemology of the human sciences, such that they can be shown to be distinct rom the natural sciences and yet still be called a science. Readers unfamiliar with Dilthey’s well-known contributions to the human sciences and the ‘explanation vs. understanding’ debate will learn a lot from this chapter, which reconstructs some of the most salient points before phenomenologically recasting this territory as Heidegger does. In the course of Dilthey’s project, Heidegger detects “a [very non-traditional] philosophical concern”, namely, the concern to understand the living-through of historical existence and all of its manifestations “in their own terms.”” (xxii) According to Heidegger, waiting to be retrieved in this idea is the basic attitude one must adopt if one wishes to be a phenomenologist, something Dilthey ultimately was unable to realise because of his own historical situation, and his own self-conception as an epistemologist of the human sciences. Indeed, understanding how a thinker’s work is an expression of its own historical-cultural situation is a key element of a destructive retrieval – the point is not only to understand what a philosopher got right or wrong, but what it is about their situation that drove them to say what they said in the first place and how it ‘expresses’ their situation. Dilthey’s idea of understanding life in its own terms, and working out what this might mean for phenomenology, becomes Heidegger’s primary destructive-retrieving concern in the 1920s, up until the writing and publication of Being and Time. His response to Husserl’s conception of phenomenology may initially seem obvious, but it is not without reason that Husserl opposes Dilthey, in fact this points to a deep disagreement between philosophers of all stripes over a key issue: the nature and danger of relativism.
Husserl sees Dilthey as engaging in a kind of ‘historicism’, which brings with it the danger of relativism. If everything must be understood out of and related back to our historical life, everything is relative to whichever historical period it arises out of, none of which are ‘better’ or ‘more fundamental’ than any other. Practitioners of natural science, and anyone that adopts a ‘theoretical-scientific attitude’, would obviously want to oppose this, since the very point of science is to achieve knowledge that would be true no matter what historical period we are in. But Heidegger is not advocating for (at least this kind of) relativism, as this quote shows:
those who cry, “Relativism!” typically have things backward. It is factical life in its primordial sense that is “absolute,” and the particular expressions of practice that emerge from it are “relative” (59)
Heidegger, along with Dilthey, is keen to relate everything back to “the facts of consciousness” (60) for this is where all human practises originate and have their grounding. To say this is not to say that experiential knowledge is more fundamental than natural-scientific knowledge, or that one is ‘better’ than the other, just that they are different and one emerges out of the other, as all human practises do. A phenomenology, to be truly phenomenological, must get to grips with our historical existence as that kind of being out of which disparate human practises, indeed any human practises, arise. The point of phenomenology is not to invalidate or undermine science or the knowledge it discovers, but one of its functions is to explicate science’s origin out of human life and its being grounded therein, in the facts of historical consciousness.
But this task of phenomenology, as Scharff deals with later in the book, is always a necessarily unfinished one, something we are always on the way towards but never quite reach completely because of the ever-changing historical landscape. Phenomenology is always ongoing, always ‘responsive’ to the changes of our existence as we experience them. This is where the second sense of the book’s title comes into play – the first sense emphasizes that it is a book about how Heidegger becomes the sort of philosopher he is by 1927, and the second emphasizes the unfinished nature of phenomenology as something that is always ‘becoming’, never ‘being’ in itself, complete. This is also another reason behind Husserl’s opposition to Dilthey’s ‘historicism’ – because history is ever-developing, to remain immersed in it in the course of our philosophical investigations implies an insusceptibility to a definite method or single way of proceeding, which dooms us to remain trapped in indefiniteness and obscurity. Indeed, because of the problem of history there will have to be as many or phenomenological methods or techniques as is required by whatever new challenges to it that history throws up as it proceeds. But this is not necessarily a negative consequence, but rather testifies to phenomenology’s status as a process: “no method or training regimen can protect even a well-intentioned phenomenologist from the never-ending struggle to become phenomenological” (157). Because human existence is ever-changing, developing and dependent on the whim on history, phenomenology must be ever in the process of becoming ‘responsive’ to these changes in order to capture them adequately. Though Husserl’s basic motivation of getting back to the things themselves is noble, his enactment of it precludes the required kind of attitude to phenomenology, where Dilthey’s openness to historical being better equips us for attaining it.
These are, I would suggest, the most important and salient points Scharff makes throughout the book, but this is not to mention some other interesting issues that arise along the way. The way Scharff grapples with Heidegger’s notoriously difficult idea of ‘formal indication’, and the array of formally indicative concepts and phrases in Heidegger’s early work, is admirable. So is the inclusion of Heidegger’s much-less-discussed engagement with Paul Natorp, a prominent philosopher of the time. How Heidegger uses Natorp’s criticisms of Husserl as a springboard for making a case for “a non-theoretical “immanent illumination of life experience that remains in this experience and does not step out and turn it into objectivity” (122). This is likely not to be familiar to most readers.
Which brings me to some perhaps more negative aspects of the text, of which there admittedly are not many and do not eclipse its overall merits. The influence of Dilthey on the young Heidegger, owing largely to the relatively recent publication of the lecture courses Scharff discusses, has been evident for quite some time now. Readers that are familiar already with Dilthey and Heidegger’s early lecture courses are therefore unlikely to find much that is surprising or new here. However, I find it hard to imagine that the link between Dilthey, the early Heidegger and Husserl has been as comprehensively expressed elsewhere, which is a merit in itself. The book would therefore be especially suited to students of Heidegger looking to learn about his relationship with Dilthey. This is especially the case because a basic grasp of Heidegger (and Husserl’s) work would be beneficial to have before approaching Scharff’s text, which can be dense at times. But these are not necessarily criticisms of the text itself, which is well-researched and well-constructed, and the complicated parts about the nuanced ideas of the three philosophers involved are explained in detail and at length, ultimately leaving little room for misunderstanding.
Furthermore, because of the nature of the text, some of the most interesting issues that arise within it – about the phenomenological ‘method’ and attitude, and whether it can fully escape the trappings of theoretical attitudes – do not ultimately get much attention. Scharff admirably reconstructs this specific area of phenomenological scholarship and points towards the surrounding issues it raises, but leaves the discussion open at some interesting points. To what extent can phenomenology be rigorous if it has no single method? Can we ever really escape the ‘analytic’ way of doing philosophy, where claims are made, positions analysed, etc.? What exactly is the nature of the ‘responsive’, ‘mindful’ attitude to our historical life we must attain, and how do we attain it? These are questions that the text circles around but does not try to solve definitively. Obviously, by the time he writes Being and Time, Heidegger has some ideas about how to answer these questions, but since Scharff’s aim is to ascertain how Heidegger becomes the kind of philosopher he is by that point, he does not go into this. This is part of what makes the text a good springboard toward further research and reading for whoever engages with it, and because it points to the fact that it is in the very nature of phenomenology to be unfinished, and these supposed ‘difficulties’ or ‘deficiencies’ that actually keep it alive, and allowed to develop along with our historical being.
Anyone interested in the history of continental philosophy, the interconnection of Husserl, Heidegger and Dilthey, or the history of phenomenology in general, will find much of worth in Scharff’s text. It would be especially informative for those in the early stages in their acquaintance with these topics, but those with a familiarity will undoubtedly find something worthwhile here too, if only because of the sheer detail Scharff goes into with Heidegger’s 1920s lectures, or the discussion of Dilthey’s epistemological writings, or the specifics of Husserl’s conception of phenomenology. This also because it serves as a good indicator of several interesting areas of discussion about the possibility of a phenomenological method (or methods), the nature of phenomenology and its relation to our historical nature, and how we should do philosophy at all. In fact, it is on this point that Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is at its most admirable, passionately defending philosophy that opposes the dominance of the scientific-attitude, which questions philosophy’s reliance on established theoretical frameworks, and refuses to rely on technique-happiness and generally-accepted ways of doing things. Surely, philosophy should be an enterprise that questions itself all the time, and questions the methods and conceptions of itself that have become dominant within it. Philosophy should always be something the resists complacency, never being completely satisfied with what it has achieved, because the questions that it deals with are eternal questions, ones that we must continuously work towards a better understanding of but always in the knowledge that a complete solution of them is impossible. This is what drives philosophy forward, or at least the most interesting and philosophical kinds of philosophy, no matter where in the world it is from. The divide between analytic and continental philosophy is beginning to become more blurred, with analytic philosophers doing metaphysics, and there is more dialogue than ever between philosophers across the divide (Heidegger and Wittgenstein being a key example), Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is also a powerful reminder of why this is a good thing, and how much continental and analytic philosophers have to learn from each other.
 Martin Heidegger. 1962. Being and Time (BT). Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, London, 429.
We know Edmund Husserl not only through his rigorous attempts to set forth the phenomenological method but also from his brilliant disciples from various countries: Stein and Heidegger, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, Landgrebe, Ingarden, Patočka are only a few. The Russian/Ukranian philosopher Gustav Shpet, whose works have been discovered not long ago, appears among them as the introducer of Husserl’s phenomenology into Russian philosophy. Not unlike any other student of Husserl, however, he carries the phenomenological thinking further by elaborating its main themes and questions with a rather peculiar perspective. In this regard, Springer’s new volume of the series “Contributions to Phenomenology,” the new translation of Shpet’s Hermeneutics and Its Problems (Germenevtika i ee problemy, 1918), gives the reader a broader picture of his philosophy that inaugurates the problems of the hermeneutic tradition to phenomenological investigations. Unlike his previous work, Appearance and Sense (Javlenie i smysl, 1914), which was a commentary of Husserl’s Ideen I, Shpet turns his focus away from the development of the study of hermeneutics from its roots in Biblical interpretations toward his contemporaries, such as Bernheim, Lappo-Danilevskij, Spranger, Dilthey, and Simmel.
In so doing, Shpet aims to not only provide a historical presentation of the topics of hermeneutics but also to scrutinize the shortcomings of the theories so far suggested, so that he manages to explain why hermeneutical inquiries need a method at least as rigorous as Husserl’s. In contrast to the empirical and natural foundation of human experience, hermeneutics devotes its attention to comprehending the written words as historical signs that can be interpreted. Thus, with respect to understanding the sense and significance of the historical objects (namely texts), history for Shpet (let alone other candidates for hermeneutical inquiries such as philology and psychology) becomes a problem of logic with respect to the part-whole structure: that is, history as a model of knowledge for the individual with the integrity of the whole. The second half of the book includes essays from different dates, which on the other hand, appeals by and large to the task of reversing the question at hand back to phenomenology: given the historicality of consciousness, any kind of cognition is an interpreting cognition, indeed, that necessarily entails historical understanding. For this reason, Shpet pursues an overturning of Husserl’s phenomenology into a hermeneutic phenomenology wherein the written text is recognized not as a physical object, but as a historical object that calls for an interpretation of the reader. After the foundation of the theory of historical knowledge, which is nothing but the act of “understanding” in Shpet’s opinion, the task of hermeneutics as a rigorous science will finally be an achievement of the entire logic of semasiology, i.e., the hermeneutic logic of words as the expressions of interpreting cognition. Shpet’s hermeneutic phenomenology, as a result, contains not only a critical history of the questions of understanding and interpretation in the hermeneutic tradition but also notable elements predating the linguistic turn in the 20th-century philosophy.
As just mentioned, Hermeneutics and Its Problems is comprised of two parts: the translation of Shpet’s work itself and the five essays added to the main body of the text. His highly praised essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner” (1916); a meditation on Husserl’s project of phenomenology, “Wisdom or Reason?” (1917); another important essay, “Philosophy and History” (1916), “Skepticism and Dogmatism of Hume” (1911), and an encyclopedic entry written by Shpet depicting his own philosophical portrait. The editor and translator of the book, Thomas Nemeth is a well-known scholar of Russian philosophy, and of Shpet in particular, stretching back to his earlier translation of Shpet’s Appearance and Sense as well as other essays and entries. Nemeth’s editorial work is satisfying; not only does he meticulously handle the various editions and copies of Shpet’s book but also in the introductory remarks added to the main text and to each appendix, all succinctly written. These introductions are worth reading to grasp their context in terms of the frame of references and historical background.
The main body of the text, Hermeneutics and Its Problems, begins with a short preface that clearly points out the author’s task: if we succeed in critically assessing the significance of “the history of hermeneutics as a scientific discipline” (xxv), hermeneutics as the epistemology of history will pave the way for an authentic methodology for historical knowledge, which remained Shpet’s ultimate project in the following years. The first chapter, “Origin of the Idea and the Methods of Hermeneutics,” opens a discussion on the necessity of the emergence of hermeneutical inquiries in understanding the written texts. In order to grasp the allegories and moral senses in epic poems, such as Homer’s myths, fragments from the Sophists to dialogues from Plato and Aristotle, Ancient Greek thought made the first effort to address the question of the role of the word (slovo) in moralistic, allegorical and historical interpretations of written texts. The encounter of the West and the East in Hellenistic culture formed the next phase of the need for different methods and techniques particularly because of the translation of the Old and the New Testament into the Greek language. The task of hermeneutics, rendered as a theological discipline in this period, was to distinguish between different kinds of interpretations. Here Shpet examines how St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, Dante, and more thoroughly Origen and Augustine make their distinctions in terms of the contrast between literal/grammatical/historical interpretation and allegorical/spiritual interpretation of Biblical texts.
Even more to the point, the early Christian theologian Origen identifies the problem of interpretation to the extent that there are not only ordinary and historical but also ambiguous and arbitrary senses of the Holy Scripture itself. Thus, hermeneutic techniques are required to address this variation in order to reach consistency in the text. Augustine, on the other hand, is the most important figure in the history of Biblical hermeneutics because of his theory concerning the role of signs in achieving the meaning and sense of the Holy Scripture. Shpet diligently analyzes the two works of Augustine, De doctrina Christiana and De magistro, in order to make manifest Augustine’s psychological theory of understanding: a sign (e.g., a word that signifies in this case) is “a thing that not only conveys its appearance to the senses, but also introduces something into thought along with itself.” (9) Thus, understanding the meaning of written texts is the process of transfer from the thought (i.e., the idea) of the author through signs (written by their writer, perceived by the reader) toward the thought of the reader. It is true that understanding what is written, for Augustine, is to grasp what is intended by the author (11), but once it is asked how the reader’s reception is even possible, Augustine foreseeably brings the theory of anamnesis into view: understanding takes place in the divinatory act of recollecting ideas. Shpet does not find Augustine’s theory satisfactory precisely because of its unclarity on the “originary act” of understanding (12). That there seems no criterion for verifying the accuracy of what is understood leaves the interpreter in the shadows of subjectivism.
A resolution of this arbitrariness in interpretation is achieved as the main concern of Flacius in the 16th century. Though he pursues practical (meaning, rhetorical) goals of the hermeneutical endeavor in reading Biblical texts, the chapter “Flacius and Biblical Hermeneutics in the Renaissance” argues that Flacius makes the first genuine attempt at a theoretical understanding of the “sense” of the text by revealing the part-whole structure. A theory of sense, in this regard, delineates the ways of discerning a harmonious sense between each particular element of the context, the undivided end, and the intention of the whole text (16, 19). Despite the fact that Flacius does not confine himself to Augustine’s unascertained methods of interpreting the Holy scripture, his theory of understanding the sense of the text in Shpet’s final assessment does not suffice in proving its principles as explicitly unbreakable: it gives us neither any clear analysis of the act of understanding (i.e., how we pass from the signs to what they signify) nor any reason why we have to penetrate into the subjective ideas and thoughts of the author (20).
The next chapter, “General Remarks on the Relation of the Sciences to Hermeneutics as a Transition to Ernesti,” has two objectives: explicating the place of hermeneutics within the rise of the natural sciences after the Renaissance and giving an account of modern philosophers dealing with the question of the nature of linguistic signs. As for the former, hermeneutics loses its priority in grammatical and allegorical interpretations of the written text, yet obtains a subsidiary role in deciphering the nature of words as communicative signs. Hence, in the 17th and 18th centuries, hermeneutics, as the logic of communication, inquires into the correspondence between the signs of the written text and the meaning intended and understood. Here we read a concise history of modern philosophy related to the topics of hermeneutics so much broader than what can be found in any other book of the history of hermeneutics. Shpet carries out a critical inquiry on, respectively, Locke’s theory of communication in human understanding, Berkeley’s conceptualism, Hume’s analysis of habit as an explanation of understanding, Reid’s theory of the social object, Leibniz’s idea of meanings as possibilities, Wolff’s rationalist philology, and Meier’s ontology of signs.
Of these figures, Wolff holds a special position in the history of hermeneutics since he is the first theorist breaking the divinatory explanation of understanding and relieving the interpreter of the burden of receiving the intention of the author. Understanding, therefore, is not any kind of reproduction of the “ideas” of the author, as seen in Augustine and Flacius; rather, it is “knowledge of truth itself.” (42) Since “truth” is now the main concern of hermeneutics, we can even argue that the interpreter can understand an author better than the author understands himself. But what is the supervisor of the execution of the task of interpreting? What controls and verifies the reader’s understanding of the sense of the text? As Wolff replies, it is purely and simply “reason” itself. Shpet criticizes this strict rationalism for the reason that the concept of truth is considered limited only to the achievement of “someone who [already] has in mind a certain system of truths.” (42) As he maintains, “this reader will be immediately disappointed upon learning that the entire problem amounts to a very narrow demand, namely, to connect the author’s individual words to precisely the same concepts that the reader connects to them.” (42)
In chapter four, “Ernesti and Ast: The Reorientation of Hermeneutics from Theology Toward Philology,” Shpet concentrates on the philological period of the development of hermeneutical thinking. The problem of ambiguity is restored by the 18th-century philologist Ernesti to be solved with the help of explaining the structure and historical discoveries of the author’s language. On this account, understanding the sense of the text is a scrupulous explication of the multiple circumstances of the author: time, geography, social and economic status, community, and the state, all set of conditions that shape the author’s language used in the text. Hence, in order to find an answer to the ambiguity of meaning, the task of the interpreter should be devoting themselves to the singularity of the author’s particular application of the meaning of a word. Every different use of a word is another application in a different context; ergo, the hermeneutical inquiry should divulge the particular usage of the author. Besides the fact that Ernesti carries the focus of hermeneutics backward to the problem of authorial intention, Shpet is also discontent with Ernesti’s failure of addressing the primary questions: “What is the act of understanding?” and “What is the role of the sign in that act?”
Ast, on the other hand, assigns a new task to philology as the empirical foundation of hermeneutics by following the premises of 18th century idealism and the Romantic dignification of words: “the philologist,” explains Shpet, “should not limit oneself to an investigation merely of the letter and form of language, but should also disclose the spirit that permeates them as their higher meaning.” (50) The method Ast offers is a classical one; the part-whole structure. From the particularity of the letter and the originality of the intention of the author, the interpreter must discover the unity of these parts with the spirit of the text’s sense. In other words, all the particular inquiries must lead to the whole idea of the interpreted work. Shpet’s analyses of Ast’s hermeneutics are quite accurate: because spirit only replaces “reason” in modern philosophy, understanding cannot be explained in terms of the eligibility of spirit. Thus, Ast explains the process of how we come to understand the meaning of a text by appealing to the idea of divination. No more clarification is given concerning the questions of how the reader apprehends the spirit of the text and from what criteria we have correct understanding. In Shpet’s words, that is to say that the very act of understanding remains a mystery in Ast’s hermeneutics (55-56).
The chapter on “Friedrich Schleiermacher” elaborates the biggest leap of hermeneutics. Schleiermacher is the most key figure in the hermeneutic tradition, not only because of extending the sphere of applicability of interpretation toward philosophical and literary texts but also because of his meticulous attempts to establish a methodological technique for all hermeneutical inquiries. Here is not the place to go into details of Schleiermacher’s distinction between explanation and interpretation and his famous division of interpretation into grammatical and psychological moments. These are only the obvious portions of his comprehensive method that has still been accepted and defended with revision, even after Gadamer’s harsh criticisms. What is worth mentioning for our present purposes is Shpet’s making manifest the shortcomings of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics: To begin with, for Schleiermacher, as for many others before him, the difference between interpretation and understanding is unclear (62, 64). Where interpreting begins, where it ends, where it differs from understanding… These critical points are never issues for the German philosopher. As a recurrent theme in Shpet’s critical history of hermeneutics, the lack of ambiguity concerning the quiddity of understanding “as such” is what Schleiermacher’s method remains inadequate in its claim.
Shpet carries his search for clarity in method further by responding to the very grounding of hermeneutics: the language of the author and the original audience, on the one hand, and the part-whole structure between the sense of every word and the sense of the context, on the other (66-67). According to Shpet, however, Schleiermacher’s inquirer does not have a clear map to easily follow: studying the language of the author and its first readers seems to be a historical one, and yet it also needs grammatical and even psychological interpretation. Likewise, the connection between words and their context requires both grammatical and historical investigations employing the study of logic and philology. That is to say, grammatical and psychological moments of interpretation are utterly indistinguishable from each other (73). Where things get complicated, Shpet always shows a discomfort with any ambiguity in the method. Instead, since the rigorous method for hermeneutical sciences has to be pure and precise, what Schleiermacher’s method needs is further explication concerning the definitions and extents of the various kinds of interpretation. As Shpet writes, “By separating the grammatical from the psychological moment of interpretation and ascribing an independent role to each of them, he made a very important distinction. However, considering that a single understanding underlies both, i.e., a single type of lived experience, he deprived his division of much of its significance.” (72)
The chapter entitled “Hermeneutics After Schleiermacher” mostly focuses on Boeckh’s philological hermeneutics and his elaboration of different kinds of interpretation. Philology, however, is no longer simply an account of grammatical structure and historical developments of words. With Boeckh, philology bears a renewed assignment concerning all systems of knowledge: a knowledge of the known, which is simply, “understanding.” Thus, Boeckh, in Shpet’s opinion, holds the first genuine consideration of the act of understanding and the moments of comprehension together with the real question of philology: the role of the written word as a communicative sign. But Boeckh aims to expand the field of philology aided by the study of history: philological hermeneutics concentrates on the historical reconstruction of what is understood (81). Despite its impressive attempt at the act of understanding and comprehension, Boeckh’s theory, for Shpet, still seems to be unsatisfactory because of the unclarity of transitioning between philology and history, and even between philology and psychology. The method of philology becomes an indeterminate in hermeneutics’ penetration into the responsibilities of other provinces. The chapter ends with a circumstantial presentation of the kinds of interpretation mostly suggested by Schleiermacher and Boeckh (92-97).
“Hermeneutical Moments of Historical Methodology” is a chapter on how 19th-century historians took part in the methodological foundations of hermeneutical sciences. Shpet begins with Steinthal’s insightful conclusion that one interprets in order to understand the historical object. Understanding, therefore, is not an immediate occasion taken for granted; rather, it is the goal of the business of interpretation. Shpet also touches upon Steinthal’s division of interpretation into three processes: psychological/philological, factual/historical, and stylistic. The next historian, Droysen, is the key figure for hermeneutical development of the study of history as opposed to Rankean historical positivism. For Droysen not only lays the foundations of a logical methodology for understanding and interpretation of the historical objects, but also employs the part-whole structure to find out the dynamic structure between the individual and the community. That being so, as an expression of the community, the individual person is not only a psychological subject but also an objectively social phenomenon. Shpet’s favorite historian Bernheim separates the task of interpretation in terms of its object: an interpretation of historical remnants, in this regard, differs from that of tradition as well as the interpretation of one source by means of another. Since the scope of interpretation becomes much broader, provided that the study of history occupies the center of the investigation, the historian should now take into account the complementary facts and knowledge obtained by other fields, such as linguistics, anthropology, statistics, and so on. The chapter ends with Shpet’s contemporary, Lappo-Danilevskij and his theory of historical interpretation. The remarkable move of this Russian historian is the idea that the interpreter of historical materials first presupposes the existence of the “other I” whose psychic activity is similar to my own. The principles and techniques of the historical interpretation are based upon this psychic significance, which is predetermined between the interpreter and the author of the work. Shpet’s main criticism of these 19th-century theorists, let alone Steinthal’s highly critical perspective, is their negligence of a proper explanation of the act of understanding per se. According to Shpet, they mistakenly thought that one reads the historical text and then understanding comes by itself; the only task of the reader thereby is to interpret. Shpet also disapproved the aforementioned methodologies based on their faulty subjectivism. Since the historical text owes its being to the author, the only way to understanding its meaning contains two registers: the interpreter’s penetration into the personality of the author or the historical study of how the text was received by the original audience (114). For Shpet, this can only mean to limit the interpreter’s original act of understanding to the psychology of the individual “represented” in the text.
The order of chapter eight, “Dilthey’s Development of Hermeneutics,” is somewhat complicated. It begins with a section on the philosopher Prantl’s idea of understanding as an immediate apprehension. After discussing the middle years of Dilthey’s hermeneutics, Shpet focuses on Spranger’s psychology of the individual with the integrity of the whole and goes back to the later philosophy of Dilthey. The last figure he deals with is rather peculiar: Simmel and his idea that the object of history is the psychological and social conditions of the individual person. Despite the subtle arguments of other theorists that are slightly touched upon, Shpet truly does justice to Dilthey’s finalization of an elaborate hermeneutical method for human sciences. In addition to enlarging the hermeneutical pursuit concerning the question of understanding, Dilthey rephrases the goal of interpretation for the objective character of scientific inquiry. Unencumbered by psychologism, Dilthey’s methodological hermeneutics focuses on the hermeneutic circle formed in between the individual’s lived experience, the objectified expression of the historical subject, and the inquirer’s understanding the objective spirit (i.e., the commonality of the individual) through the processes of interpretation. Shpet concurs with Dilthey’s attempt to resolutely modify the hermeneutical inquiry from the subjective level to the objectivity of the social individual. However, Dilthey too cannot escape Shpet’s razor of purity in descriptions: “Dilthey fails to provide an answer to the question that once again arises before him, namely, what, properly speaking, is the essence of understanding as a sui generis source of knowledge in the human sciences.” (130) Since Shpet believes the question, what understanding is is blurred once again, Dilthey’s hermeneutics too cannot be the final destination of our search for an unshakeable foundation for hermeneutics.
After all historical accounts of the hermeneutic tradition, the final chapter entitled, “The Contemporary Situation,” epitomizes what Shpet’s project was in Hermeneutics and Its Problems. It begins with the conclusion that the theories dealing with historical knowledge have failed to provide a “clear” analysis of the originary act of understanding. Until Shpet, the act of understanding is taken for granted: when you read the historical text, understanding comes by itself; what the reader needs to do is now to interpret it. In Shpet’s opinion, conversely, the question concerning understanding underlies every possible hermeneutical inquiry (149). He rightly argues that we cannot solve hermeneutical problems without such clarification; namely, the problems of authorial intention, ambiguity, arbitrariness in interpretation, the part-whole structure, the kinds of interpretation, the role of the word as a communicative sign, and so on.
For this reason, in concert with Husserl’s project, Shpet reveals in these last pages what he suggests for hermeneutics actually turning out to be “a material-logical foundation for the historical sciences in the broadest sense.” (97) Shpet’s exhibition of hermeneutics as a rigorous science includes three tokens: first, new developments in contemporary psychology accommodate the ways in which the inquirer transfers the psychic content of what the text says by reading signs as communicative media. This latter issue leads us to the second leg of Shpet’s theory: semasiology, i.e., the study of the determination of the role of the sign in the act of understanding, which requires a logical methodology to prevail over the objective character of the task of interpretation. Shpet does not hesitate to refer to Husserl’s and Meinong’s efforts, nor does he confine his study only to a search for a phenomenological method. This is where the Russian philosopher makes his last step toward hermeneutic phenomenology: turning the question of method to the semasiological inquiry on the objective logic of truth. The written text, for Shpet, is a historical residue for the present reader to make sense out of signs by recognizing the unity of the particularity of the reader’s lived experience and the spirit of the to-be-understood text. Understanding, therefore, cannot be reduced to the reader’s penetration into the psychology of the author represented in the text. Far from these subjectivist and psychologistic attitudes of the contemporary era, hermeneutics now adopts a new task of disclosing the intentional structure between the noetic understanding of the reader and the noematic content of the text.
Shpet relates the intentional structure between understanding and spirit to the historical reality subjected to hermeneutical inquiry. For what is historical (the written text, in this case) is the concrete object by which the reader reaches an understanding of what is realized. “Only in such a sense,” he writes, “can we speak of reality itself as history, for history has to do only with what has been realized. The reason that comprehends is not an abstract reason, but a reason that has been realized in this history.” (150) To put it differently, even before Heidegger’s lecture “The Idea of Philosophy and the Problem of Worldview” (1919) where he introduced the requirement of hermeneutical intuition in Husserl’s phenomenological method (Heidegger, 2008, 83-90), Shpet had highlighted the historical character of phenomenological investigation, which requires a method of its own in order to reflect historical consciousness. Consciousness is historical, thereby it always appeals to an interpretation of the object of consciousness and that of itself.
All that is left to be answered by Shpet is our basic question of what understanding truly is. Hermeneutics and Its Problems gives us a history of hermeneutics at length, scrutinizes how it has developed and dealt with the question of understanding, makes manifest where all attempts have failed. And yet, Shpet’s work falls short of delivering a consistent description of “the act of understanding,” because, like Husserl’s many introductive works to the phenomenological method, Shpet’s project too seems to be suffering from incompleteness in the sense that he did not find a chance to write the third volume of his History as a Problem of Logic, whose main task would be “an examination of strictly logical and methodological problems in our investigation of the fundamental problems of understanding.” (147) However, I believe, Shpet’s momentous essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner,” published in 1916, compiled in the present volume, provides an indirect suggestion to answer the basic question concerning understanding. The essay examines the extent to what we call “the I” is transcendent in terms of its irreducibility in the phenomenological reduction. This is important for our concern because the essence of consciousness directly relates to the interpreting reader, who understands the sense of a written text: what kind of “I” carries out the act of understanding?
The opening statement of Shpet’s argument in the essay is the uniqueness of every single, concrete “I.” In its own empirical life surrounded by other objects, the I is “this haecceity” of which it is unable to be generalized (161-62). This, however, leaves us with a conundrum: if uniqueness pertains to the peculiarities of an individual I, we can maintain that “each” I is distinct from other Is, so that all Is “share” a nature of uniqueness. In other words, every singular I is replaceable with other Is as irreplaceable (202). From this conundrum, Shpet unearths a non-egological conception of consciousness as opposed to the subjectivist and psychologist understanding at the time: the I as the bearer of lived experiences is not a “general subject” centered among other objects; rather, it is a unity of consciousness with regard to the surroundings, the historical situation, and the social conditions in which the I itself exists. Therefore, Shpet disapproves of Husserl’s constitution of the pure I as a foundation of consciousness: no “general I” can embrace the entire consciousness that is specific to “singular I.” What is this plurality of the singular individual, then? Shpet says in response that the I is a particular so-and-so, which is conditioned with a social milieu (191, 196). The I cannot exist without its social relations; that being so, the significance of haecceity lies at the specific unity of the experiences lived by “the communal I.” As Shpet continues, consciousness is a communal consciousness, i.e., the primary “we” rather than the pure I. In this sense, the singular I is plural.
Getting back to the basic question, i.e., that of understanding, we can conclude that the historically situated interpreter is the one who reads and understands the sense of a written text within the circumstances that determine one’s unique relations with the community. These constituents of consciousness (i.e., historicality and sociality) describe how the reader (as the “social we”) intersubjectively carries out the act of understanding. As opposed to the psychologistic and subjectivist accounts of the task of interpretation, Gustav Shpet brilliantly suggests a non-egological theory of hermeneutic phenomenology that precedes Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Nancy’s attempts.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. Towards the Definition of Philosophy, translated by Ted Sadler. London and New York: Continuum.
 In the second appendix, “Wisdom and Reason,” adopting the premises of Husserl’s project of “philosophy as a rigorous science,” Shpet examines the great disparity between philosophy as pure knowledge and the metaphysics of scientific philosophy. Shpet concludes the essay with another dichotomy, namely between the European sophia and the Eastern wisdom.