It is a unique quality shown in philosophical books, when they manage to treat topics which concern philosophy in a fundamental sense without falling prey to banal commonplaces or turmoil by endlessly adding relevant contexts. “A study in relation” (3), as Peter Hanly refers to his recent book Between Heidegger and Novalis, would precisely fulfil the criteria for such a topic. Yet, Hanly demonstrates stupendously well how to avoid said dilemma. His study is guided by a specific thinking of «between-ness» that “introduces a dynamic tension into the category of relation by conceiving it in terms of contradictory energies of separation, dispersion, pulling- apart, and gathering or converging” (3). Said between, as Hanly wants to show, comes from a heraclitean idea of harmonia which Heidegger and Novalis share as the common source for core elements of their thinking (7). The book is divided into two parts, eight chapters and an epilogue. Chapter transitions will be marked by the end of the paragraphs in the review at hand. Each part of Hanly’s study highlights an aspect of the between, the former its “Fertility” in Novalis and the latter “Pain” in Heidegger (16). Both parts explore these aspects in various philosophical areas, be they materialistic, idealistic, linguistic, or ontological, but also performative, rhetorical, or dramaturgical. Furthermore, by reconstructing historical and systematic contexts, Hanly gives insight into developments of both thinkers individually. In doing so, Hanly provides the reader not only with a vividly detailed depiction of each philosopher’s thinking regarding the question of between, but he also indirectly shows how the ambiguous relation of Heidegger and Novalis displays itself said between-ness. To outline the most important arguments of the book, I shall give a summary of both its parts followed by a few critical remarks at the end of the review.
Oftentimes, Novalis is neglected as an autonomous philosophical thinker. Heidegger, for example, illegitimately associates him with Hegel’s dialectical idealism (11) or merely uses him as authoritative reference (8). The first part of Hanly’s book makes it clear, among other things, that this view is not tenable. Quite the contrary, there is a highly original torsion of speculative philosophy and empirical naturalism in Novalis’ thinking.
The first context in which Hanly elaborates the notion of between is Novalis’ account on metaphor. Phrases such as “all is seed” (19) and the frequent use of terms like “dissolution”, “elasticity” or “fluidity” (22) demonstrate an affinity with the natural world that Novalis incorporates in his writings. For Novalis, however, metaphor is not simply an instrument that allows the illumination of abstract concepts. Much rather, it works as an “interweaving of registers such that a movement of exchange takes place, one in which the relations between concrete determination and ideational figuration seem to dissolve.” (24) Already here we find an implicit criticism of a hierarchical order between philosophy and poetry. Nonetheless, Hanly underlines that Novalis does not simply invert their relation. His understanding of metaphor derives itself from a philosophical endeavor, where philosophy becomes “the poem of the understanding” (26). To fully grasp the new fashion of this interpretation, one must trace back Novalis’ thinking to its roots in the early Fichte-Studies and, at the same time, not reduce his style of writing to an abstract ground (26). According to Hanly, the relation of I and not-I is the “crucible” (29) for Novalis. In Fichte there is the positing activity of the I which has already occurred in formalizations such as I = I or also I = not-I. This logic of activity or productivity becomes fragile for Novalis because the formalizations as such do not reveal any prioritization (29) and, counter to that, they explicitly stand for a limitation (33) that renders their relation less unilateral. While Fichte himself senses these problems, only Novalis shows the rigor to contest the recourse to an ultimate principle consequently. Instead, he keeps an “insistence on movement, on the motility of the exchange between I and not-I that governs their equivalence” (34). As Hanly underlines, abstraction from then on will be the transforming work of thought for Novalis, “effecting ‘logarithmic change’ upon both the obduracy of the sensible world and the ideality of the I” (36), where everything is unified or “chaos is transformed into a manifold world” (36) but unified only as free and self-determined beings. Novalis develops his very own “rigor of variation and combination” that he will retain throughout his oeuvre and most fully in his encyclopedic project Das Allgemeine Brouillon (59). Therein, abstraction becomes a specific task of the imagination. Other than just picturing things, imagination keeps various polarities in the state of hovering or, as Hanly puts it, of between (38).
The aforementioned philosophical consequence of Novalis becomes comprehensible if one understands where his thinking is initially situated. Reaching for a better understanding of the faculty of imagination and its hovering especially, Hanly addresses himself to Kant’s concept of «ideal» and Fichte’s «intellectual intuition» (39). Kant tries to understand the ideal as an Urbild without further instantiation that excludes any sort of oscillation which he then allocates to the so-called “schwebende Zeichnungen” (40). Whereas Fichte develops different models, circular and linear, to solve the problems of the oscillatory imagination that he himself recognizes. However, each of the models serves the purpose of banning the characteristic instability of the “hovering” by attributing a clear function to the faculty of imagination. It is only Novalis who unhinges the hovering of the between by revealing the inconsistencies of Fichte’s approach and by asking of the hovering: “What if we were really to take seriously its determinative instability, and orient our account around the effects that such an uncertainty introduces?” (47). Thus, I and not-I are not to be understood as “mutually determining poles, mediated by a “between” space” (50) but as markers, as words of coalescence which are the result of the perpetual movement of a between (52). But as Hanly carves out in several of Novalis’ writings, the overall approach goes further. By questioning why there are dichotomous oppositions everywhere (52), Novalis extends his criticism towards a primordiality of dichotomic relations in general. At last, this leads him to an “absolute sphere” of relation, of connectivity or of not-word (52) that synthesizes dichotomies (53). Based on this, the idea of an oscillatory movement between nodes (55) becomes predominant for Novalis. From “zones of visible and invisible, ideal and real” (56) or abstract and concrete, philosophy and poetry, Hanly lists the numerous nodes which are mutually exchangeable, involved in a constant reciprocal movement (56).
“Fragile and Fundamental” (56), as Hanly poses it, this between becomes the axis around which Novalis’ writing evolves. As an act of non-reductive mapping and intertwining, he ceaselessly advances to new territories. With his Encyclopaedia project, Novalis attempts a writing that abides by a “Combinationslehre” (62) about the scattering and dispersion of word-seeds and which at the same time gathers “into a totality” (61). In this regard, Hanly also finds Novalis’ “close involvement with the Schlegel brothers and with the sympraxis of the Athenaeum project” (68). But as demonstrated, he goes even one step further. In concordance with Blanchot’s criticism, Novalis does not only use the fragment in a way that the content works as “the mere illustration of a dynamics of the formal dance of writing.” (69) Much rather, he “pushes precisely towards a fusion of form and content” (70), where through the gathering of their between-space both mirror each other and dissolve their boundaries (72). As the overarching experience in the background of this phase, Hanly reconstructs the time Novalis spent at the Mining Academy under the influential presence of Abraham Gottlob Werner (74). Engaging with his studies, Novalis gains important insights in mineralogy and the natural sciences. For Werner, there is a “natural order” of description that “involves the coordination of a series of sensible traits with a certain kind of linguistic ordering” (75). While on the one hand Novalis shares the same kind of interest as Werner, he sharply criticizes him on the other. In analogy to his Fichte-Studies (79), Novalis spots a lack of engagement with the question of the between in Werner as he
fails to discern the possible transition — from the external characters to the inner constituents, or from symptomatics to chemistry, and yet this is the main approach for solving this problem. (78)
Just as minerals, stones and solid-state objects in general are exposed to transformative chemical processes, in his “Encyclopaedia” Novalis subjects the solidity of the word to liquefaction, to “fluid rhythms of gathering and dissolution” (80).
With that in mind, Hanly lastly turns to Novalis’ novel Die Lehrlinge von Saïs, which he says is best interpreted through the lens of Schelling’s First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (82). Other than Kant, who constructs nature as an interaction of active and passive forces, Schelling tries to abolish this dichotomy by grasping nature as “determining itself in and through its activity” (83) and as a force that dissolves everything (86). Drawing inspiration from here, Novalis wants to realize this nature of between at the level of writing (88) and planned, as noted in a letter to Tieck, great transformations of his project (89). He died the following year and so Die Lehrlinge von Saïs was left unrealized in that respect. Nonetheless, Hanly sees the written word as explicitly responsible for the rhythm of natural liquefication here, because
like Schelling’s natural object, but seemingly intimately bound up with writing: each figure, emerging from the play of gathering, seems to “belong to that great cipher- script” [Chiffernschrift ] that we “glimpse” everywhere (92).
The sense of lost plenitude, of dispersion (95), introduces a longing into the world and can only ever be restored “in the form of new ‘mixings’, new bindings— new configurations of connectivity” (96). At the end of the first part, Hanly requires us to ask for the resonance that Novalis’ thinking might have in our own. For Hanly, turning back to the very motif of his study, it is a “poetics of materiality: poetry names the word insofar as it emerges from and as a zone of relation between the human and the natural world. Poetry, thought thus, is relation” (98).
In the second part of his study, Hanly starts off with Heidegger’s reflections on Trakl. The primary intention of this second part is to map out the subject of pain as another facet of between. In this regard, pain is “the tension of a play of belonging such that what is kept apart is joined in that very separation, and what is joined is kept apart in its very joining” (103). However, with pain, the tensioned between-space we found at the core of Novalis’ thinking “is possessed of an entirely different affectivity” (104). Thus, Hanly follows the path of Heidegger’s thoughts on pain and its “semantic complex” (106) starting off from its most explosive appearance in the Bremen Lectures from 1949, then back to texts from the seynsgeschichtliche phase such as Das Ereignis, and to its later occurrence in Unterwegs zur Sprache (106). Pain in Heidegger is the rift “— a rending or tearing, an opening, a gap —” (108) as a central possibility of the human. As a rift it exceeds the limits of how the human being is construed. This results from an “’opening’, in which the differential structure that Heidegger calls ‘the fourfold’ emerges as such” (108), as a grounding structure of the world. However, leaving aside this notion for a moment, Hanly initially focuses on the concealment that suffering brings about pain which actually “is closer to us, more intimate” (109). It has the capacity to expose this danger of concealing, thereby acknowledging its own “hidden proximity” or “nearness” (109). Other than in Sein und Zeit (112), as Hanly mentions, nearness here is not to be understood in spatial terms. The positioning of a coffin, for example, implies a different nearness because “what is effected in this nearing is the determination of a world that gathers itself around an absence” (113). With Hanly’s elaborations on the first two of the Bremen Lectures, the coffin is much rather a “thing” than an “oppositionally objective” (114). It “draws together like a net” (115) the different interrelations of the world to let them eventuate and thus manifests the same dynamic of between around which Hanly’s study revolves (116). The consonances in which Heidegger expresses this dynamic such as «das Dingen des Dinges» are not merely rhetorical according to Hanly (117). Instead, “the rhythm of their sounding” (118) tends towards an «Einklang» (117) or a concordance of thing and world. This concordance could dissolve any sense of difference which is why Heidegger himself in the Appendix begins to suspect a “collapse of ’nearness’” (118).
As opposed to the «thing», pain as the rift and rending will be “the insistent reinscription of difference” in the third lecture. For Hanly, this contrast corresponds with a language of pain “that both considers pain and makes it manifest” (120), and for which he seeks out first signs in Das Ereignis but that “first comes clearly to the fore” (122) in the texts of the 1950s. As already indicated in the Beiträge, the between will no longer be the thread that connects structural elements of the world and that in so doing “remains subordinate to the poles it conjoins, […] fixing and reinforcing their complementarity” (125). Instead, it will “be given a kind of priority, to speak in a voice that does not defer to the complexes it separates” (125). The locus of said between will then be Dasein itself, not in a spatial sense but because it is the between more strictly (126), e.g., between men and God as elements of worldliness. Hanly investigates the experience of pain in Dasein along different aspects. He shows that while Heidegger rejects the tendency of Jünger to reify pain as the object of a relation (128), he resonates with the ideas of Nietzsche as he interprets pain as the erratic betweenness or oneness of terror and bliss (130, 135). Affiliate notions of pain are also identified by Hanly in Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin. This especially concerns the Hyperion, where Hölderlin explores the subject of leave-taking both narratively and metaphorically (140) and what is then, as affective domain, brought into a connection with the thinking of difference or Unterschied by Heidegger (142). Furthermore, in this context, pain must be thought in its relation to Stimmung, that constitutes the possibility of «there» in Da-sein as it “hears the pain of its dislocation, and thus ‘accords’ with that pain” (133). As Stimmung belongs to Dasein, it is equally irreducible to oppositional poles and therefore to be understood as “a pulling-away from the stable orderings of sensible and intelligible and into the unstable domain of a between” (134). Having followed the path of Heidegger’s thinking through all these different stations, Hanly arrives at a question:
[W]hat, fundamentally, is the relation of pain and language […] The question, then, will be whether it is possible to hear in language the same tension of gathering and pulling apart, the same primal movement of a one always differentiated in itself that seemed to mark out the space of pain in Heidegger’s discourse (134).
The cited question is of major importance for the rest of his book but before arriving at this language of pain, Hanly wants to approach the subject of «inception» or «beginning». He does so in the so-called “seynsgeschichtlich project”, (144) which “is never far from the question of difference, of the pain of difference” (144). Apart from describing the «there» of Dasein as an “agonistic between-space” (145), Heidegger also offers another way to think it. In the seynsgeschichtlich treatises, “Dasein is the crisis between first and other beginnings” (145). But as Hanly underlines with regard to the Beiträge, the relation of «first» and «other» beginnings “must be seen to break out of the constraints a chronology would impose on them” (148). They are therefore beyond a metaphysical narrative of progression. The goal is to think another kind of confluence between being, event and inception, where «what is» no longer precedes «what occurs» (149). According to Hanly, the inception describing the there-ness of Dasein is a singularity which “must be given over to an original multiplicity.” This multiplicity consists in the fact that “in the ‘uniqueness of its incipience’, the inception is fractured, sundered” (152). Hanly then approaches this problem of inception from three different perspectives, “the thought of repetition, the thought of confrontation, and the thought of belonging” (153). Repetition signifies the inherent structure of inception. It means that inception is never just «the same», but it becomes itself by self-division, “it reaches ahead and thus encroaches differently each time on that which it itself initiates” (155). From the aspect of confrontation, it is important to note that neither are different inceptions opposed to one another in the sense of a counter-direction, nor does one of them sublate the other. Much rather, as Hanly puts it
Inception, we are told, is “assigned” or “allotted” (zugewiesen) to its other. The sense of this assignment seems to be that of an ineluctable and necessary gathering: Heidegger says indeed that the “other inception” “must be the only other” in relation to the uniqueness of the first beginning. (159)
Thirdly, the aspect of belonging is the other side of this specific form of non-oppositional negation. First and other belong together, because they are different, “but yet cannot be withdrawn from the fracture that binds them” and not resolved in the unicity of a whole (160). All three aspects undermine a logic of timely progression. In their light, and because of the multiple senses of the word «inception», Hanly says that “perhaps words themselves halt, reaching a kind of limit, a breaking-point in which a silence, a Sprachlosigkeit will come to dominance” (161).
For the last chapter of his book, Hanly elaborates more deeply on the relation of language and pain. To this end, Hanly argues for an “irruptive pain of the word” (163) that Heidegger foregrounds with a particular style of writing. A central influence here comes from Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Language. In Herder’s thinking, it is crucial that human experience is unspecified, “his forces of soul [Seelenkräfte] are distributed over the world” (165). Hanly sketches out how this dispersion is linked to the origin of language, because “the word, for Herder, will be torn out of this dispersive field: a mark, scarring the indifferent surface of sensation” (165). However, this word or mark cannot simply be reduced to the acoustic. Hanly shows how, according to both Heidegger and Herder, there is a dimension of gathering between the multiplicity of the sensually given and the expressed sound. This dimension is the mark understood as hearing and thus hearing “is to be of the non-sonorous as much as of the sonorous” (168). Coming back to the subject of Dasein, the point is that it is itself the mark of hearing. The «there» of Dasein is thus a figure of between that avoids metaphysical opposition. It carries silence in and as breaking, in-between, being “precisely the index of this movement, the crossing that the mark effects” (169). Finally, this ambivalence of the mark, the word as joining and tearing apart becomes manifest in a new sense of system. With Heidegger’s view on Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom in mind, Hanly interprets the Beiträge as the execution of this systematicity. Hanly says that when Heidegger is writing “’a legitimate renunciation of system can only originate from an essential insight into it’ (GA 42: 46/24), what he is requiring of us is an experience that fully acknowledges the necessity of system before it can move beyond it” (172). Pursuant to the etymology of «sunistemi», which translates to “placing together”, system can mean two things: on the one hand, it merely means “accumulation and patchwork” of extrinsic, indiscriminate elements (173). On the other hand, it refers to the order, manner, or content according to which elements are intrinsically composed. What the Beiträge are purposefully exposing after Hanly is that at the very core, any gathering will produce both kinds of joinings, extrinsic and intrinsic (173). Regarding each gesture of thinking, Heidegger says that “they unfold, on the one hand, necessarily in sequence, each adding to the force, the urgency (Eindringlichkeit) of the others, while at the same time, each says always ‘the same of the same’” (174). This movement of thought in language is enabled by the fundamental attunement which is “in a tense relation with that “coming to word””(175), although there is no word for itself. The fundamental attunement hovers between verbal determinations, it is characterized by a principal namelessness, by a failing of the word which makes it “accessible only to a thinking that belongs in a primary way to silence” (175). Therefore, the style of this thinking is one of restraint, as only “Erschweigung, as Heidegger calls it, can play out fully the demands of the systematic” (176) as it circulates around silence, unfolding it each time anew. Only with this writing and its peculiar rigor the task of philosophy can be most fully realized.
In the epilogue, Hanly underlines for one last time the importance of the motif of harmonia in Heraclitus that guides his study time and time again. The join of harmonia appears in multiple different configurations, which explains the plenitude of contexts that Hanly references throughout his book (178). However, there is a danger that lurks precisely in this multiplicity, namely that the harmonia is “just another metaphysical structure, a form that underpins or overlays the multiple modes of its encounter: a schema, in other words” (178). But it implies a specific nothingness, as it is nothing but joining, only apparent in multiple concrete contexts without “coalescing into a uniform conceptual structure” (178). Also, Heidegger and Novalis are historical possibilities of its appearance and perhaps even the between of them, “the resonance of their work is best felt together, conjointly” (179). Through Hanly who, one could say, produces this resonance with his book, “it could be that, if we listen, we will hear it too” (181).
In conclusion, Hanly’s study is convincing in various respects. The abundance of the collected material, the depth of the connections made regarding the subject of between-ness and the original dramaturgy of the book as an indirect comparison being only some of them. From a critical perspective, there are nonetheless two objections that I want to raise in the following. The first concerns a programmatic issue. Although Hanly says that the relation between Novalis and Heidegger is itself manifold, he divides his book in respect of a very univocal claim towards their contrast (16). Novalis thinks the between as fertility, Heidegger thinks the between as pain. First and foremost, Hanly does not really treat fertility in Novalis as a concept of its own right, whereas regarding Heidegger he gives an in-depth reconstruction of an explicit line of thought that makes pain its subject, giving numerous explanations and references. This imbalance is further mirrored in the mere amount of mentions of “fertility” in the first part of the book on Novalis. Here, the reader finds the expression only three times (60, 98) and even the reason for its usage remains opaque. One time, Hanly links it to the motif of seed (60), which is used several times as a specific, non-reductive thought-image of the between (20, 36), and the other time he speaks of it is when it occurs together with notions such as generative force, increase, words that blossom, proliferation, germination, or explosion (96), appearing almost synonymously with them. Furthermore, the claimed divergence between fertility and pain does not really hold up to scrutiny. When I and not-I, for example, become the poles of a movement of exchange that is a “chaotic motility” (50) then it remains questionable why this chaotic character is particularly fertile and not equally well limiting or determining. The same applies when Hanly names the between a “zone of fragility” (56) that is characterized by “porosity” and “volatility” (56), or when he highlights the «word» as between-space that is “amid the fluid rhythms of gathering and dissolution” (80). All these aspects stand against the highlighting of the aspect of fertility because they speak just as much for the opposite side of pain. This is also true if we do not presuppose our own understanding of pain but that to which Hanly’s study itself relates to, namely Heidegger’s. Not only because Heidegger speaks of a “pain of inceptual separation” which is precisely between gathering and separation or fracture (136) but also vice versa, as the pain in Dasein always already implies bliss as well as it marks a point of transition in its «there» which hovers “between ‘recollective energies’ and the possibilities of an ‘other inception’” (174). Considering these things, the reader finds no clue why they are not exemplary aspects of fertility alike. For all these reasons, the claimed contrast between fertility and pain appears as if it would only serve dramaturgic purposes of the book and as a means of dividing it into parts, parts that by their content however deconstruct this very dramaturgy.
The second of my objections concerns a methodological problem. It appears repeatedly as if Hanly would presuppose the central thesis of his study as an implicit hermeneutic method. I will try to illuminate this by pointing out two examples, one concerning Novalis and one Heidegger. Firstly, while searching for the philosophical grounds of Novalis’ thinking, Hanly cites the fragment that goes: “like us, the stars hover alternatingly between illumination and darkening” (27). Without giving a reason in the same context, he says that this fragment must be seen as something different than just a poetic ornamentation of a philosophical ground. Afterwards, he suddenly generalizes the argument and says that regarding the thought of between, its philosophical ground is being forsaken and still must be considered (27). And then, lastly, from the same fragment it is said that it can be used as a passageway back to these philosophical grounds. Shortly after, the hovering of the fragment is itself the between and should moreover negotiate the relation of philosophy and poetry (37). Then, eventually, the hovering will be thematized all from Kant’s theory of drawing to Fichte’s thoughts on intellectual intuition and Novalis’ Fichte Studies. Here it turns out to be not just a passageway but the very core of Novalis’ speculations (55). My critique is not about right or wrong, but about the way in which Hanly creates his line of thought. He both gathers several contexts in which variations of his major thought appear and disjunctive as the steps therein are often mediated vaguely. With regard to Heidegger, one can perceive something similar. Heidegger says that inception retains a multiplicity of senses and only thereby keeps open its incipience, meaning the principal possibility of (new) inceptions. In the face of this, Hanly says that “perhaps words themselves halt” and that a speechlessness will be dominant (161). Although it is only ‘perhaps’ the case, Hanly proceeds to the next chapter of his book and assumes this premise categorically, so that he can now reflect on speechlessness. Then, referencing Heidegger who says “In the first inception: wonder. In the other inception: foreboding” (162), he links inceptions to fundamental attunements. Again, he leaps from ‘wonder’ and ‘foreboding’ to the gathering of terror and bliss (162) who are supposed to be analogous and map closely with each other. The reader does not find any other reason for this than the fact that Heidegger speaks of wonder and foreboding in terms of “recoil, of shock, of horror” (162). But neither is the analogy suitable, because bliss is not mentioned in this context at all, nor does speaking of something in the same words imply that the matter talked about is the same. Especially so, if the subject of gathering which is of central relevance for the relation of terror and bliss does not occur at all on the other side of the analogy. Nevertheless, this enables Hanly to move on to pain as a gathering of terror and bliss and finally to the question of a language of pain at which he aimed beforehand (134). Here, citing Heidegger’s saying that “pain has the word” (163), Hanly again categorically claims it would mean that the word itself is pain. He does not consider different interpretations, e.g., that pain has the word because as an attunement it discloses the understanding of the world in a certain manner. Hanly says that his remark is an iteration of an earlier passage, although he did not justify his interpretation even the first time (143). However, it allows him to equate pain with word and thereby proceed to the irruptive pain of the word that is “to be most clearly felt” (163) in the seynsgeschichtliche treatises. To put it briefly, oftentimes it seems as if Hanly would have his conclusion already in mind, whereupon he collects, not always justified, elements of Heidegger’s text that are suitable to arrive there. In other words, he conjuncts and separates textual material in the modus operandi of the very between-ness he wants to prove in these texts.
Academic philosophy’s self-conception has long been dominated by divisions: between “analytic” and “Continental,” Frege and Husserl, Russell and James. In Pragmatism and the European Traditions, editors Maria Baghramian and Sarin Marchetti offer an alternative narrative of 20th-century philosophy, one defined by meaningful exchanges and intersections rather than clearly defined opposing camps. Analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology are presented as “three philosophical revolutions,” as the editors write in their Introduction, whose “comprehensive story” of “multivoiced conversations” has gone untold (3). As the title suggests, the editors unite these divided histories by emphasizing pragmatism’s historical role “as a facilitator” of “dialogues and exchanges” (5). This structure lends welcome coherence to the collection: pragmatism’s influence on both phenomenology and analytic philosophy allows a narrative that intertwines all three traditions to naturally unfold.
But the editors do not see pragmatism’s role as mediator as an accident of history. Rather, they argue, pragmatism “possesses a distinct intellectual temperament that lies equidistant between the analytic demand for clarity, rigor, and respect for the natural sciences and the Phenomenological emphasis on lived experience and its subjective manifestation” (2). The implication seems clear: pragmatism as a methodology may serve us today in bridging the silent chasms that still divide academic philosophy. This volume’s purposes are thus both descriptive, as a history of forgotten connections, and normative, as a guide to forging new connections today.
I believe that Pragmatism and the European Traditions largely succeeds in its first task but less so in its second. I accept their distinction between analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology as three traditions as articulating a reality of how philosophy is often taught. For a scholar of any of the three traditions under discussion, many chapters are thus illuminating, particularly Chapter 5, by James Levine on Russell, and Chapter 9, by James O’Shea on Lewis and Sellars. It is also understandable to position pragmatism as a mediator: this is pragmatism’s self-conception. But several articles on classical pragmatism are undermined by their lack of attention to neopragmatic criticisms. The editors intend to write a “companion volume” (6) that focuses on neopragmatism. But in this volume, they neglect a pressing problem for their normative task of mediation: as the volume exposes, pragmatism itself remains a house divided.
In Chapter 1, Richard Cobb-Stevens argues that the divergent readings of William James by Husserl and Wittgenstein better explain the methodological differences between phenomenology and analytic philosophy than the more commonly cited Husserl-Frege debate over psychologism. Cobb-Stevens convincingly shows not only the well-known connections between James’s concept of “fringes” and Husserl’s “horizons,” but between their accounts of time-consciousness. The “first-person” methodology beginning in lived experience which the pragmatist and phenomenologist share in this account is contrasted with Wittgenstein’s claim that linguistic competence better explains our sense of time. Wittgenstein’s approach yields a “third-person” methodology that rejects intuition, in Wittgenstein’s quoted words, as an “unnecessary shuffle” (34). Cobb-Stevens bridges this divide by defining a concept as “the intuited intelligibility of a thing or situation (its look) as disclosed in language” (32) and suggesting, following Thomas Nagel, that the task of philosophy is to reconcile these two methodologies, perhaps thereby reconciling the traditions under discussion.
I note two criticisms. First, Cobb-Stevens’s discussion of Husserl and James’s views on the ego does not distinguish between the transcendental and empirical egos, a distinction central to Husserl’s transcendental method and arguably in tension with Jamesian pragmatism. The notion of a “first-person” methodology may be overly reductive if it blurs this difference. Second, Cobb-Stevens’s criticism of Wittgenstein misses the distinction between causal mechanism and normative justification. It may be that the structure of perception has some causal effect on the structure of predication. But does “intuitive intelligibility” count as knowledge? Is a discursive appeal to it necessary to make the use of a concept count as correct? If not, isn’t inserting intuition into the definition of a concept an “unnecessary shuffle”? This is the gist of Sellars’s critique of the “myth of the given.” Cobb-Stevens cites Sellars positively without acknowledging the possibility of this Sellarsian criticism. Cobb-Stevens claims that James, unlike the British empiricists, is not vulnerable to Wittgenstein’s similar “shuffle” objection, but his defense of James centers on claims like: “We have something to say only because we have pre-linguistic experiences that we bring to language” (32). This is a claim about how knowledge originates, not how it is justified. At stake in this methodological divide is the justification of knowledge claims. If what counts as knowledge is settled in the public domain of linguistic concepts without appeal to intuition, then “first-person” philosophy will take at best a subordinate role in this philosophical reconciliation.
In Chapter 2, Kevin Mulligan shifts the focus from Husserl’s reception of pragmatism to Scheler’s lesser-known but comprehensive response. Mulligan neatly categorizes Scheler’s position: distinguishing between the “world of common sense and the world of science” (37), Scheler concedes to pragmatism that objects in both worlds are relative objects, the former relative to human bodies and drives and the latter to living beings in general. This “essential interdependence of types of act and types of object” (46) is for Scheler a truth of phenomenology and an insight for which he praises pragmatism. However, Scheler counters pragmatism by claiming that truth and knowledge are absolute and, moreover, that the objects of philosophy are these absolute and essential truths.
I welcome Mulligan’s sophisticated analysis of Scheler’s still-relevant perspective on classical pragmatism, long untranslated into English. As to Mulligan’s legitimate concerns with the epistemic or ontological status of existential relativity in Scheler, it may help to consider that the objective truth that Scheler defends against pragmatism is what grounds his ethics. If Scheler is thinking of values when he discusses existentially relative objects of which we have absolute knowledge, then Mulligan might look to Manfred Frings, who cites Scheler’s dissertation to claim that there cannot be for Scheler an ontological account of value. I add only a gentle note that in rigorous scholarship, I hope authors will cease to use, or editors will question, phrasing like “crazy” (37) and “wears the trousers” (59).
Chapters 3 through 5 are thematically linked and so I will not consider them individually, but instead reflect on how their authors might inform one another’s positions. In Chapter 3, Colin Koopman sidesteps the traditional conflict between classical pragmatism’s emphasis on experience and neopragmatism’s emphasis on language, asserting that James and Wittgenstein’s most relevant commonality is their emphasis on conduct. To think in terms of conduct is to think contextually and, in contrast to metaphysical idealism, to think of context-change or expansion as contingent and not logically necessitated. Koopman contrasts this resistance to idealism and emphasis on contingency in Wittgenstein and the early James against Brandom’s focus on the semantic. Conduct is for Koopman not reducible to speech-act pragmatics: there is “conceptual richness” even where we “remain rapt in our silence” (81). But he also claims that this comparison exposes a divide between the earlier pragmatic James and the later metaphysical James, whose radical empiricism succumbs, like classical empiricism, to the Sellarsian critique of the myth of the given. If pragmatism “cashes out metaphysics into practical differences” (73), then, according to Koopman, James should reject his Bergsonian appeal to pure knowledge disconnected from use.
In Chapter 4, Tim Button considers the contrasting responses of James and Schiller to the Russell-Stout objection and concludes that Schiller’s humanism falls to the objection whereas James surmounts it by an appeal to naïve realism, at the cost of undermining a pragmatic argument for God’s existence. The Russell-Stout objection concerns an account of the content of the claim “Other minds exist”: if the validity of this claim depends on a fact external to my own experience, and if its truth is distinct from that of the claim “For me, other minds exist,” then a “locked-in phenomenalist” (86) account of truth and meaning which cannot appeal to external facts is erroneous. Button argues that Schiller is effectively a locked-in phenomenalist and that his distinction between primary (internal) and secondary (external) reality is an inadequate defense against Russell-Stout because, for Schiller, references to secondary reality are still references to what I have constructed. James, despite some mixed messages, overcomes the objection by identifying as a naïve realist and enabling reference to a reality external to the individual subject’s constructions. However, Button continues, if the claim that other minds exist appeals to an external reality, then plausibly so too does the claim that God exists. To be consistent, then, James must reject a pragmatic justification of claims for God’s existence.
In Chapter 5, James Levine provides a comprehensive history of the evolution of Russell’s thought that portrays him not as an implacable foe of pragmatism, but as eventually and intentionally incorporating pragmatic ideas to become a forerunner of linguistic pragmatism. Levine categorizes Russell’s thought into three periods: after his Moorean break with idealism, in which he strongly opposes pragmatism; after the Peano conference, wherein he rejects the foundationalism of his Moorean epistemology in favor of fallibilism and coherentism; and during and after prison, in which he begins to privilege use over meaning and, further, claim that meaning “’distilled out’ of use” is ineluctably “’vague’ or indeterminate” (112). Russell initially makes a strict distinction between the meaning and the criterion of truth, arguing that the latter depends upon the former’s having precise content. But this hierarchy inverts as Russell comes to reject his theory of acquaintance, for which acquaintance with an entity is a prerequisite for labeling it, “thereby securing a precise meaning for the word we now use to stand for that entity” (130). By claiming that meaning follows use, Russell trades precision for vagueness and anticipates the insights of Quine and the later Wittgenstein by taking a, in Quine’s words, “’behavioral view of meaning’” (112). On this basis, Levine challenges Brandom’s history of philosophy, which emphasizes Russell’s early views in opposition to pragmatism.
Taking the previous three chapters together raises two questions for Button. First, if Koopman is right that James’s radical empiricism conflicts with James’s pragmatism, then does naïve realism not also conflict with pragmatism? If so – if one of the strengths of pragmatism is its rejection of what Rorty calls “sky-hooks,” guarantees of discursive truth that are external to discourse, which naïve realism serves to provide and which are notoriously vulnerable to skepticism – then the problem that ascribing to naïve realism raises for a pragmatic justification of God’s existence extends to pragmatic justification in general. Moreover, if James’s overcoming of Russell-Stout comes at the cost of an unwitting rejection of pragmatism, I would hesitate to call it a success. Second, does not the weight of the Russell-Stout objection depend implicitly on Russell’s theory of acquaintance, which secures the precise content of “Other minds exist”? If we reject the theory of acquaintance, as Levine says that Russell eventually does, then the proposition “Other minds exist” may not be functioning as a direct reference to an external reality, in which case I suspect that the objection could be defused. Perhaps pragmatism must reject naïve realism to remain coherent, and perhaps that is a strength.
In Chapter 6, Cheryl Misak discusses Ramsey’s reception of Peirce’s pragmatism and how, were it not for Ramsey’s untimely death, the analytic reception of pragmatism and the debate over the relation between truth and success might have been reshaped for the better. Misak compares Peirce’s account of truth to deflationism and claims that Peirce contributes the normative insight that asserting truth means also “asserting that [the belief] stands up to reasons now and we bet that it would continue to do so” (159). Ramsey, following Peirce, does not think that claiming that one’s belief is true is merely redundant, but distinguishes between what Misak refers to as “the generalizing and endorsing functions of the truth predicate” (164). Ramsey thus teaches the contemporary disquotationalist to become a pragmatist and to consider the multiple functions of the concept of truth. Misak’s account is a succinct and compelling summary of a neglected and informative intersection between pragmatism and the analytic tradition.
In Chapter 7, Anna Boncompagni hones in on an overlooked 1930 remark by Wittgenstein on pragmatism and develops the historical account of Wittgenstein’s reception of pragmatism and of Ramsey’s influence on Wittgenstein. In the remark, Wittgenstein identifies “’the pragmatist conception of true and false’” with “the idea that ‘a sentence is true as long as it proves to be useful’” (168). Boncompagni explains that Wittgenstein is concerned with accounting for the “hypothetical nature of sentences” (170) in ordinary language: propositions point to the future, not to the present moment of verification, because they embody “expectations of future possible experiences” (172). She concludes that though Ramsey’s conversations with Wittgenstein likely induced the latter to be more receptive to pragmatism, considering Ramsey’s positive reception of Peirce, Wittgenstein continued to reject pragmatism as “an encompassing vision of the real meaning of ‘truth’” (179) due to the influence of the prevailing Cambridge response to Jamesian pragmatism. Boncompagni adds nuance to the historical account of the analytic reception of pragmatism and encourages greater attention to Ramsey’s role, which Misak’s previous chapter elucidates.
In Chapter 8, John Capps refocuses the relation between pragmatism and expressivism away from Dewey’s rejection of Ayer’s emotivism and toward C. L. Stevenson’s 1944 Ethics and Language, which was shaped by Deweyan pragmatism. Dewey’s Theory of Valuation objects against Ayer that ethical assertions do not merely express feelings because there is no “mere” expression of feeling that does not also involve a response to circumstances and a request for a response. Capps rightly observes that this conflict comes down to the fact/value distinction: whereas for Ayer science “deals with facts alone” (194), for Dewey science can play a normative role in developing ethical judgment. Capps positions Stevenson as reconciling this conflict: though ethical judgments are primarily attitudinal rather than expressions of beliefs, ethical judgment may also serve a “descriptive function” that is “sensitive to evidence and argument” and “tempers the idea that ethical assertions are neither true nor false” (Ibid). Capps attributes Dewey’s strong position on science’s ethical relevance, and thus his greatest difference from Stevenson, to his working with the logical empiricists on the topic of unified science.
While I appreciate Capps’s attention to this philosophical juncture, I worry that he underrates the significance of the divergent Deweyan and logico-empiricist views of science. This divergence arguably drives the rise of neopragmatic accounts of normativity. It is tellingly Rortyan for Stevenson to turn to persuasion over science as driving the rational development of ethical judgments. Consider: How is Dewey’s belief that science can drive ethical development to be understood? It’s one thing to claim that science is a practice of inquiry itself normatively structured by values such as coherence, undermining a strict fact/value distinction. But it would be another thing, which does not follow from the first, to be able to leap from a scientific conclusion to an ethical conclusion. For example: No matter how precise an account of climate change a scientist offers, that account alone will not show that climate change is “bad.” That value judgment is justified otherwise. So how exactly does scientific explanation bear on ethical (or political) justification? It may be that a broad definition of science-as-inquiry obscures more about ethical judgment and deliberation than it reveals. As a Deweyan, I think the burden is on the Deweyan to carefully distinguish naturalizing ethics from committing the naturalistic fallacy.
In Chapter 9, James O’Shea offers a highlight of the volume: a clearly presented account of how Sellars improves on C. I. Lewis’s Kantian epistemological account of alternative a priori conceptual frameworks. The possibility of change in conceptual frameworks does not square easily with Kant’s claim for the universality and necessity of synthetic a priori principles. Lewis affirms the possibility of holistic conceptual redefinition that “must ultimately appeal to broadly pragmatic grounds” (208) while also recognizing that some generalizations have the status of inductive hypotheses open to falsification by evidence, not a priori criteria. However, O’Shea argues, contra Misak, that Lewis relies upon a flawed analytic/synthetic distinction that blurs the line between logical analyticity and the pragmatic a priori, and further upon an immediate grasp of a “real”/”unreal” distinction in experience, which is vulnerable to Sellars’s critique of the myth of the given. Sellars replaces the Kantian synthetic a priori with “material inference principles” that rest on his view of conceptual content, whereby having a concept is a “a matter of one’s perceptual or ‘language entry’ responses … and one’s relevant intentional actions, conforming to certain overall norm-governed patterns” (219). O’Shea concludes that Sellars provides a plausible alternative to Lewis and Quine’s views on analyticity and a priori knowledge. The chapter demonstrates significant historical and theoretical links between thinkers sometimes divided between pragmatic and analytic camps.
In Chapter 10, Alexander Klein defends a Jamesian epistemology of discovery against Quine’s epistemology of justification, stating approvingly that unlike Quine, “James cannot draw a sharp distinction between discovery and justification” and that this is essential to pragmatism itself: “all pragmatists share an emphasis on discovery as a (perhaps the) crucial locus for epistemological inquiry” (229). Though both Quine and James view knowledge as holistic and agree that “pragmatic considerations like simplicity and elegance” (228) may determine what beliefs to adopt, Quine rejects James’s position that emotions may also play a role in adopting beliefs. Klein rightly notes that this is because Quine is concerned with the justification of beliefs and does not see the emotional appeal of a belief as an acceptable justification for it. Klein argues for a “strong reading” of James as a “wishful thinker” that is incompatible with Quine: emotion is not only “useful for hypothesis generation” but may influence “belief choices” (236). In defense, Klein cites the example of Barry Marshall, a scientist who was emotionally driven to take a personal risk on research that led to his earning a Nobel Prize. According to Klein, this demonstrates that an epistemology of justification must not reject the emotion that can be central to discovery: he compares such a dispassionate epistemology to “an evolutionary explanation of a biological trait” (243) that does not account for that trait’s history and so is incomplete.
I am persuaded that Klein’s “strong reading” of James is correct, but I am not persuaded that James’s position is defensible. There are three major problems with Klein’s argument. First, even if Marshall was led to his scientific discovery by his emotions, his emotions played no obvious role in justifying his findings as true to the scientific community, which is the process of “belief choice” that concerns Quine. If I make a lucky guess about a fact, the reasons why I make the guess have nothing to do with what makes the guess true or false. Only if one denies this claim does one blur the discovery-justification distinction and engage in “wishful thinking.” Second, in defense of his view of justification, Klein cites an explanation, which is not a justification. This confusion is an unfortunate pattern in this volume. Explanations involve descriptive claims about causal mechanisms, not normative accounts of why one should take those claims to be true. If I’m asked why it rains, I describe the rain cycle; if I’m asked how I know, only then am I called to make normative claims about what one should believe and why. This double conflation of the descriptive and the normative intensifies the third problem: the implication that “all pragmatists” define epistemology in terms of discovery excludes neopragmatists like Rorty. Intentional or not, this gatekeeping serves to preserve the aforementioned confusion and evade a critical challenge. Do emotions themselves make scientific claims true? If not, how is it epistemologically relevant if emotions happen to lead to someone making scientific claims that come to be otherwise verified as true?
I cannot overstate the importance of pragmatists taking these questions, and the distinction between the descriptive and the normative, seriously in our current intellectual climate. Consider, as Klein does, evolutionary biology. The claim that values like fairness or mating preferences might causally trace their origin to our evolutionary history does not straightforwardly justify those values or preferences in any way. Why, absent a teleological (anti-Darwinian) view of nature, should what is natural be what we take to be good? This question is left unasked by influential public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson. It is worth our asking.
In Chapter 11, Sami Pihlström develops a historical narrative that presents logical empiricism as developing pragmatic ideas and themes, focusing on the less-considered relations between neopragmatism and logical empiricism. Pihlström considers what he calls “Putnam’s residual Carnapianism” (253): though Putnam rejects the logical empiricist doctrines of the analytic/synthetic and fact/value dichotomies, Putnam inherits his critique of metaphysics from that philosophical legacy. Pihlström argues that scientific realism unites the concerns of pragmatism and logical empiricism, citing the Finnish logical empiricist Eino Kaila, whose embrace of James’s “will to believe” highlights the tension shared by those traditions between advocating for scientific realism and a “romantic” concern with “the possible dominance of science over other human practices” (260). This chapter weaves together seemingly disconnected themes in an intriguing and illuminating manner. I was, however, left unsure why Pihlström takes it to be necessary that pragmatists reinterpret and engage in metaphysical theorizing.
In Chapter 12, Dermot Moran surveys two intersections between phenomenology and pragmatism, detailing the Husserlian reception of James on consciousness and the neopragmatic reading of Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein. Moran notes that both intersections involve a shift toward greater contextuality, the former away from Brentano’s theory of object-intentionality toward Husserl’s horizon-intentionality and the latter away from “Cartesian style representationalist ‘spectator’ thinking” (270) toward Dreyfusian skillful coping. Moran is also careful to point out tensions between pragmatism and phenomenology. He cites Schutz’s observation that Husserl’s transcendental method is antithetical to James’s empiricism, and on neopragmatism, he emphasizes that the analytic of Dasein involves more than Zuhandenheit or readiness-to-hand: Heidegger’s “contrast between authenticity and inauthenticity” (280) suggests he is less concerned with the functioning than with the overcoming of implicit practices of the sort that Brandom theorizes or the “socially established and mutually accepted norms” (282) that operate in Rorty’s ethnocentrism. This balanced piece would have served well as an introductory chapter. Unfortunately, Moran only hints at the deeper tension between pragmatic naturalism and the transcendental phenomenological method or Heidegger’s later anti-humanism. He might have elaborated on what Husserl and Heidegger share: a transcendental move away from the starting point of everyday experience, from which one departs to discern the structures that constitute said experience.
For many analytic philosophers and neopragmatists, those experience-constituting structures are linguistic. From their perspective, an appeal to lived experience in defining a concept can be an “unnecessary shuffle” when that experience only informs discursive practices to the degree that it is already subsumed under linguistic concepts. There are potential counters to this criticism: perhaps not all relevant practices are discursive or not all of what we should call knowledge is conceptual. But this conversation can only be developed to the degree that tensions are taken seriously: not only between pragmatism, phenomenology, and analytic philosophy, but within pragmatism itself.
The normative project of this volume is vital and promising. I think its promise can only be fulfilled in the coming companion volume, where neopragmatism is said to take center stage. If pragmatism’s intersections with analytic philosophy and phenomenology are more than historical curiosities, if pragmatism also provides a method for meliorating current divides between philosophical traditions, it must show that it can meliorate the divide between classical and neopragmatism still visible in this volume.
 Frings, Manfred. S, The Mind of Max Scheler: The First Comprehensive Guide Based on the Complete Works (Marquette University Press, 1997), 23.
 Pinker was challenged on this point directly by Rorty in “Philosophy-Envy,” Daedalus, Vol. 133, No. 4, On Human Nature (Fall, 2004): 18-24.
 This critique of classical pragmatism by neopragmatism parallels the post-structuralist and deconstructionist critiques of phenomenology. I hope this parallel is considered in the companion volume to come.
The first phenomenologist?
Recent years have seen a growing interest in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) among English-speaking philosophers. New and reliable translations of Fichte’s major works from the so-called Jena-period (the years between 1794-1800 when Fichte was employed at the University in Jena) and of his subsequent writings and unpublished manuscripts from his years in Berlin (the period from Fichte’s dismissal from Jena in 1800 to his death in 1814) have made his philosophy available to a different and broader audience than previously. Furthermore the tireless work of especially Daniel Breazeale, who have translated and written about Fichte in English for many years, has done much to dispel traditional misinterpretations and misgivings about Fichte’s philosophy.
Though Fichte is not yet (and may never be) as well-known or respected among English-speaking philosophers as e.g. Kant and Hegel, his reputation today is far better than it was just 15 or 20 years ago. Fichte is no longer viewed as merely a transitory figure within the development from Kant to Hegel, or as a radical subjective idealist who subscribes to the implausible idea the world is nothing but a projection of the human mind, but as an important and influential philosopher in his own right. In a recent book Allen Wood even goes so far as to claim that Fichte “is the most original figure in the development of post-Kantian German idealism. In fact, Fichte is the most influential single figure on the entire tradition of continental European philosophy in the last two centuries”. According to Wood most, if not all, distinctive ideas within the continental tradition can thus plausibly be traced back to Fichte (Wood 2016, Preface).
One does not necessarily have to agree with Wood in order to acknowledge the importance and influence of Fichte on the development of post-Kantian and continental European philosophy. One important, but also neglected and somewhat obscure, aspect of Fichte’s influence, is his role in the development of phenomenology as a distinct and significant philosophical approach. As is well-known there are strong links between modern-day phenomenology in the tradition from Husserl and Heidegger, and the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, although there is little agreement on the precise nature of these links. On the one hand Kant and Hegel are historical figures which phenomenologists often explicitly seek to somehow transcend or move beyond. On the other hand Kant, and perhaps in particular Hegel, presents a view of the relation between mind and world which seems to open up the possibility of, perhaps even invite, a phenomenological interpretation.
The importance (be it positive or negative) of Kant and Hegel for the development of contemporary phenomenology is thus often explicitly acknowledged. Fichte’s contribution to this development on the other hand is most commonly either ignored or simply overlooked. However a number of philosophers have recently begun to emphasize the inherent phenomenological character of much of Fichte’s work. Tom Rockmore for instance has argued that Fichte’s reformulation of Kant’s Copernican Revolution makes three important contributions which subsequently influenced the development of phenomenology: 1) a decisive elimination of the thing in itself; 2) a revisionary account of the subject; and finally 3) an incipient turn to history. (Rockmore 2006). According to Rockmore the first point leads to a theory of knowledge based on phenomena, not on appearance; the second point heralds a philosophical anthropology of human finitude incompatible with Kant’s strict anti-psychologism and the third point implies a conception of human beings, and thus also of human knowledge, which sees them as situated within and limited by their historical context.
For Rockmore Fichte’s main contribution to the development of phenomenology thus consists in his radical reformulation of certain basic Kantian presuppositions; reformulations which indirectly “opens the way for phenomenology understood as a science of phenomena that are not appearances since they give up any claim to represent things in themselves or again the mind-independent reality.” (Rockmore 2006, p. 24). Fichte may not have been a phenomenologist himself, but he paved the way for subsequent philosophical developments which ultimately resulted in the full-blown phenomenological theories of the 20th century.
There is however good reasons to think that Rockmore does not go far enough in his reassessment of Fichte’s phenomenological credentials. Most of Fichte’s work thus has an implicitly phenomenological character in so far as it is concerned with detailed analyses of the relation between human mindedness and the way certain phenomena necessarily must appear to human consciousness. For Fichte, as for later phenomenologists, world, phenomena and mind are necessarily and inextricably intertwined and the primary tasks of the philosopher is to reflect upon and describe the intricate operations and activities of the human mind through which these dependencies and relationships are simultaneously constituted and become apparent to us. This (at the very least proto-)phenomenological approach can, to some extent or another, be found already in Fichte’s major work from the 1790’s (Science of Knowledge(1794/95); Foundations of Natural Right (1795-96) and The System of Ethics (1798)), but seems to become more prominent and distinctive in his later, post-Jena writings.
One clear example of this approach can be found in Fichte’s notes for his final series of lectures on his system of ethics from 1812, which have recently been translated into English by Benjamin Crowe. As Crowe notes in his ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Fichte himself explicitly views his own account of moral normativity as a form of phenomenology (p. xx). More precisely Fichte believes that in order to account for the “ought” of morality we first need “a theory of appearance of the true and real I; a theory of the I, hence, a phenomenology that, since previously we were dealing with a theory of being, is nevertheless an absolute phenomenology, not simply a phenomenon of a phenomenon as is physics.” (Lecture 11, p. 61). To understand moral normativity we first need an account of what it is for an I to be an I, and of what it means for an I to appear to itself as an I.
For Fichte such an account is an “absolute phenomenology”, since it concerns a phenomenon, namely the I or (self-)consciousness, whose existence is defined by and constituted through its own self-appearance. The I thus differs from other phenomena (e.g. the phenomena described by physics) in that there is no difference between the appearance and the reality of the I. The I exists because and in so far as it appears to the I as an I. This, of course, is simply another way to spell out Fichte’s original insight from § 1 of the 1794 Wissenschaftslehre, which defines the I as a self-positing activity which “posits itself by merely existing and exists by merely being posited” (Fichte 1991, p. 98; I, 97). “a theory of the I” is thus “an absolute phenomenology”, because it concerns a phenomenon which exists precisely because and in so far as it is a phenomenon, and not with “a phenomenon of a phenomenon”, which is what physics deals with.
What then more precisely is the relation between moral normativity and the phenomenology of the I? This question brings us directly to the center of Fichte’s ethical theory. Unfortunately Fichte is not as clear on this point as one might have wished. In fact many of the passages in the Lectures on the Theory of Ethics1812) which deals with this topic are so difficult to interpret and understand that they border on the obscure.
In the 1798 System of Ethics Fichte derives the normativity of morality at least partly from the I’s eternal striving for absolute self-determination. The I is a self-positing activity which strives to free itself from all external determination by gradually incorporating and transforming all externality so that it becomes an extension of (or at least coheres on a deep level with) the I. It is this striving for unity between subject and object, self and other, which ultimately accounts for the inherent normativity of morality. (See Fichte 2005, Part 1 (pp. 19-63; IV 14-63)).
This idea also makes an appearance in the 1812 lectures in the form of the idea of “the pure concept” as the determining ground of both the world and the I. The pure concept is “pure” (or “absolute” because it is not derived from the world but is a necessary precondition for there being a world (and an I) in the first place. The distinctive moral significance of this pure, absolute concept is, that Fichte defines “will” as self-determination through and in accordance with this concept, and believes that such self-determination necessarily involves the capacity to effect changes in the world; to bring about through one’s actions particular states of affairs. (Lectures 1, 3 and 5). Moral actions are thus actions which are determined solely by the pure concept. And since only actions determined by the pure concept are free, self-determining actions, moral actions simultaneously both determine and serve to unite the world and the I.
One problem with the pure concept is that it is purely intelligible and hence beyond what human beings can rationally cognize. Moral actions are thus only possible if the pure concept somehow appears before or presents itself to the I. In the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) it is this “appearance” of the pure concept which constitutes the basic “ought” of morality. The pure concept, Fichte argues, appears before the I as an image of a specific form of determination, which the I is to retroactively apply to itself. “This image of its determination is supposed to become its actual determinacy. […] The image of determination is supposed to become the actual being; the image is supposed to make itself into a being immediately and through itself.” (Lecture 7, pp. 39-40). Differently put: The pure concept appear as an image of a formal norm of self-determination; a norm through which the I ‘ought’ to determine its own activity.
Fichte’s account of moral normativity thus consists in a phenomenology of the appearance of the pure concept in and for consciousness, and an analysis of the I simultaneous self- and world-constituting activity. Fichte’s lectures thus represent (one of) the first explicit attempts to ground man’s practical (and, Fichte would probably argue, his cognitive) relation to and engagement with the world on an explicitly phenomenological analysis of consciousness. This is what makes (or at least ought to make) the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) of great and enduring interest to phenomenologists.
As already mentioned Fichte’s arguments and formulations in the lectures are often extremely difficult to follow. This makes it exceedingly hard for even an experienced philosophical reader to get a grip on the text. To some extent this is because Fichte’s original text is not a finished manuscript but is precisely a set of lecture notes; notes which Fichte used as a guide-line and starting point for his lectures on ethics. As Crowe notes in his introduction “Fichte’s manuscript often reads more like a series of shorthand notes to himself than a polished text. The 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics is a challenging text; indeed, it represents some of the most difficult prose Fichte ever produced.” (pp. xxiv).
Crowe’s translation goes some way towards remedying these defects. First of all Crowe supplements his translation of Fichte’s own notes with substantial excerpts from two student transcripts: One by Jakob Ludwig Cauer, the other by an unknown author. These excerpts are included in the text as footnotes and often throw an illuminating light on the darkness of particular passages of Fichte’s own text.
Secondly Crowe’s lengthy introduction not only places Fichte’s lectures within the social, political and philosophical context in which they were originally presented, but also locates the lectures within Fichte’s own philosophical system. This makes the lectures relatively accessible to non-Fichte scholars, although the inherent difficulty of the text remains. Unfortunately Crowe only provide a brief summary of the lectures, which does not go into much argumentative detail. Furthermore Crowe’s introduction seems to suggest that Fichte’s educational theory and account of the structure and hierarchy of academic disciplines at the university somehow provides an interpretative key to the 1812 lectures on ethics. I personally do not agree with this, and while I found many of Crowe’s remarks on these topics interesting and illuminating in their own right, they did not really help me find my way through the text.
Thirdly Crowe provides a comprehensive bibliography of selected English and German literature on Fichte’s philosophy, in particular his ethics. The references to the German literature on Fichte’s later writings are particularly useful, since there is hardly any English literature available on these texts.
Finally of course Crowe’s translation itself serves to open up Fichte’s text to the reader. Crowe has done a lot of work to fill in the blanks in Fichte’s text. This of course means that he has had to make a lot of interpretative choices along the way. I have not done an extensive or systematic comparison between Fichte’s original German version and Crowe’s translation, but my general feeling, based on the overall coherence of the text, is that Crowe has gotten things more right than wrong. Given the state of the original text and the difficulty of Fichte’s thought Crowe’s translation is at any rate an impressive accomplishment which should be applauded.
In conclusion: Fichte’s Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) should be of interest to both phenomenologists, students of German Idealism in general and Fichte-scholars. The text presents Fichte’s last words on ethics, a topic which Fichte himself viewed as central to and crucial for his own philosophical system. It also represents one of the first, if not the first explicitly and recognizably phenomenological analyses of (moral) consciousness, and raises a number of interesting questions and problems which should be of interest to contemporary phenomenological discussions. The text is extremely difficult, but Crowe has done an excellent job in making it accessible to a contemporary, English-speaking audience.
Fichte, J. G. 1991. The Science of Knowledge. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Fichte, J. G. 2005. The System of Ethics. Edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Rockmore, Tom. 2010. ‘Fichte and Phenomenology’. In Fichte and the Phenomenological Tradition, ed. by Violetta L. Waibel, Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore, De Gruyter: Berlin.
Wood, Allen. 2016. Fichte’s Ethical Thought, Oxford University Press: Oxford.