Rosa Spagnuolo Vigorita: Di eredità husserliane: chair, corps, dinamiche del desiderio

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

Reviewed by: Bruno Cassara (Fordham University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.): Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature

Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature Couverture du livre Phenomenology to the Letter: Husserl and Literature
Volume 7 in the series Textologie
Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, Rochelle Tobias (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback 109,95 €

Reviewed by: Fermín Paz (CIN / FFyL - UBA)

Phenomenology to the Letter. Husserl and Literature (2021), is a collection of thirteen essays that make explicit multifaceted theoretical implications between literature and Husserlian phenomenology. Volume number 7 of the collection Textologie by De Gruyter is edited by Philippe P. Haensler, Kristina Mendicino, and Rochelle Tobias.

Each of the papers making up this work present an original insight. Together they advance a common goal: a deep exploration of the immensely rich work of the father of phenomenology, tracing back what, in the words of the editors, are logical and poetological (1) implications between literature and his writing. Through the different articles that constitute it, this volume presents a broad and varied series of issues. In each essay, phenomenology and literature are presented as fields that are not a priori differentiated, but branch from diverse modes and axes of analysis.

The position the book confronts is characterized in the introduction by the editors: from the formula “to the things themselves” as key to Edmund Husserl’s proposal, phenomenology would have been accused of being “negligent” about language and other forms of mediation. Phenomenology to the Letter draws a historical line to characterize this reaction against phenomenology that has its more characteristic points in the deep oblivion of the language (abgründige Sprachvergessenheit) as proposed by Gadamer (1986, pág. 361), up to the Foucault’s accusation about the logophobie of phenomenology (1971). Moreover, this differentiation can also be read in the linguistic turn of analytic philosophy, or in the post-structuralist philosophy of Derrida. This work aggregates this accusation and highlights its incorrectness by linking Husserl with classic rhetoric, modern literature, aesthetic theory, and cultural criticism. However, the goal of the book implies a task that is not easy to solve. The response to these 20th Century accusations is not provided from a theoretical reconstruction of an exegesis of Husserlian corpus, but with a reading proposal from the collaborators of this volume that updates and explores the own limits of the phenomenologist’s task.

The logical and poetological implications of Husserlian writing are analyzed from a conjunction of literature and phenomenology. This conjunction not only revisits the inscription itself of the very same Husserlian letter as theoretical and textual corpus but also analyzes a phenomenological inscription in a wide range of literary works. Thus, this volume analyzes an implicit link between modern writers as Proust, Flaubert, Kafka, Rilke, Benjamin, Beckett, Olson, and Blanchot with certain modes of inquiry in the operations of the conscience, specifically phenomenological ones. The link between phenomenology and literature is not unilaterally constructed “outwards” from the Husserlian phenomenology towards the literary work, instead this volume draws a relation of reciprocal involvement that vindicates a literary task within the construction of phenomenology. The editors even discuss phenomenography[1], as they argue that for Husserl, “literature constitutes the medium in which the phenomenological analyses of transcendental subjectivity attain objective existence” (4). In this sense, literary language itself constitutes an immanent question to phenomenology as “both the method and existence of phenomenology depend upon a literary medium that cannot but be foreign to it” (5).

In its structure, the book is divided into four parts, each part addresses specific topics with a group of essays. In the first part, Husserlian phenomenology’s own language is thematized. Then, the second part discusses the relationship between experience and language, and the enrichment or challenges that the latter imposes upon the former. The third part focuses on the relationship between experience and literary works, fusing phenomenology and literature. Lastly, the problem of fiction is further explored as central to the methodological determination of phenomenology.

The first part of the book, Rhetoric and Thought: The Language of Phenomenology, addresses the issue of phenomenology’s own language in four essays that focus specifically on Husserl’s writing. The first part offers a series of explanations between Husserlian language and the developments of his phenomenology.

The first article is entitled Husserl’s Image Worlds and the Language of Phenomenology, by Michael McGillen. The author resumes the concepts used by Husserl to present his phenomenological method to establish that the technical language of phenomenology is built from a metaphorical language. McGillen suggests that the linguistic and pictorial aspects of images are briefly connected. To focus on this relation, the author resumes the theory of image consciousness by Husserl and proposes its applicability to literary metaphors. Thus, he links the experience of a metaphor with the experience of image-consciousness. In this point, it may be argued that the application of Husserl’s theory of image consciousness to metaphors or textual images requires further clarifications in light of the loss of frame (Bild) as a shared character between the object and the subject of the image. Nevertheless, this problematic parallel between metaphor and image, letter and experience, anticipates the theoretical position that guides the book proposal. 

In Au Coeur de la Raison: la phénomenologie, Claude Romano claims that material a priori can only be conceived from a theory that fundamentally has an anthropological base for essential determination. In the essay Auch für Gott: Finitude, Phenomenology and Anthropology, Tarek R. Dika argues that Romano holds two mutually contradictory theses: firstly, that the negation of material a priori necessities is inconceivable and secondly, that these necessities, due to their anthropologic bases, are only conditional and therefore, their negation must be conceivable. If the Husserlian material a priori is postulated as a necessity for any kind of experience, it is done to disengage the sense of experience from the sense of language. Only then can phenomenology propose a prelinguistic sense. Dika’s argumentation in favor of a priori material à la Husserl is a reassurance for the cornerstone of the phenomenological experience: informed perception with a prelinguistic sense, described with pretension of universality.

The third essay, irgend etwas und irgend etwas: Husserl’s Arithmetik and The Poetics of Epistemology, is written by Susan Morrow, who reads Husserl’s first published monograph, Philosophy of Arithmetic, accused of psychologism as a poetics of epistemology. This work establishes a relationship between the concerns of a young Husserl, focusing on the analysis on the concept of multiplicity, to the ones of maturity, that focus on the historicity of geometry and science as such, revealing a certain consistency. This consistency allows Morrow to articulate her reading proposal from a key term for the book proposal as a whole: the status of a poetics of the epistemology is supported by a reading that traces poetological implications in the arithmetic’s justification of the philosopher that pursued a rigorous science.

The last work, by one of the editors, Philippe P. Haensler, is titled Fort. The Germangled Words of Edmund Husserl and Walter Benjamin. With great erudition, Haensler’s comparative reading between Husserl and Benjamin chases a twofold goal: on the one hand, to reveal Benjamin’s anticipation of certain Husserlian developments, and on the other hand, the essay establishes for Husserl’s phenomenology a deep interest in the question of literary translation. Haensler reads      Husserl’s transhistorical concern for the foundation of sense and Benjamin’s messianic reconceptualization of the relationship between an original and its translation as “two pieces of the same vessel” (85).  However, this essay is not limited to the historical reconstruction of mutual readings between Husserl and Benjamin. With the presence of Jaques Derrida as a key mediator between the two authors, Haensler evidences for phenomenology, translation as a trans-performative act,      and the letter of the father of phenomenology as a subject for discussion in itself.

The second section, Phenomenology and Incommensurability: Beyond Experience is concerned with the issue of an experience possible through language, one that defies (and, in some cases, even exceeds) the limits of the described experience from a strictly phenomenological perspective.

This section begins with the work of Jean-Sébastien Hardy, Beyond Experience: Blanchot’s Challenge to Husserl’s Phenomenology of Time, who finds in the concept of disaster (desastre) by Maurice Blanchot a key for what the author calls a “phenomenology of anticipation”. Hardy maintains that Husserlian expectation has traces of an implicit prophetic paradigm and that the affectivity of protension may well be a product of an institution that is at the same time, original and historic. Meanwhile, the Blanchotian disaster as something that is “outside experience, outside the realm of phenomena” (Blanchot, 1986, pág. 9) does not answer to any expectation and constitutes a challenge for Husserl. Hardy wonders if the immanent consciousness of temporality is really as pure as Husserl desired or whether a radically different temporalization is possible (118). In line with Blanchot, Hardy concludes that our intern and immediate sense of time “is not so much constituted as it is instituted, when it comes to the anticipation of what is about to come” (130).

In the next essay, Absehen – Disregarding Literature (Husserl/Hofmannsthal/Benjamin), Henrik S. Wilberg reads Husserl’s famous letter to Hofmannsthal, retrieving the frequently exposed link between the phenomenological method and the purely aesthetic attitude, as both imply a deviation from the natural attitude. The artist and the phenomenologist share before the world the neutralization of the positionality of the objects of experience. What is new in this article is the incorporation of a young Benjamin into that dialogue. Wilberg affirms that “when the Young Benjamin first enters into the orbit of phenomenology, he does so accompanied by the same figure who – and the same text that – occasioned Husserl’s reflections on the relation between literature and philosophy” (139/140). The historical reconstruction of mutual readings between authors is at the service of the “poetized” as the foundation of the experience of reading. There is therefore a link between the Husserlian modification of neutralization with what Benjamin calls Gedichtete as the indecipherable, the unanalyzable, specific to a reading experience. Benjamin’s reading of Husserl goes beyond direct mentions and is in the notion of “poetized” where affinities with Husserl can be read, a notion used to characterize a new dimension of the poetic. For Wilberg, it is in this state or in the modification of the view of the reader towards the poeticized of the poem where the potentialities of the Husserlian modification of neutralization comes into play, transcending the explicit comments of Husserl himself.

This conceptualization of a      reading experience       shares its goal with the work of another editor, Kristina Mendicino. In Drawing a Blank – Passive voices in Beckett, Husserl and the Stoics, Mendicino links Husserl’s phenomenology with Stoicism on the basis of the theorization of the material aspect of language, finding the most extreme consequences of the position that both schools would share in The Unnamable, by Beckett. That concern that Beckett takes to the extreme is homologated with the Stoic notion of lékton, which characterizes the discursive instance as an ambivalent phenomenon. If the materiality of language offers an experience that surpasses the meaning of language, both for Husserl and for the Stoics, the link with Beckett can be read when he affirms that “the things that language speaks of may always be elsewhere, speeches may seduce with their movement, and words can take wing so as to fly from the strictures or comprehensive grasp” (150). Mendicino recognizes the links between Frege, Bolzano, Meinong and, evidently, Husserl, with the Stoics. However, the Beckettian way acquires a new sense within this volume. Beckett’s reference to the Stoics is made in poetological terms. In the Stoics, Mendicino traces back an importance to the thetic character within phenomenology and inherent to perception: “between sense and expression comes a moment of making sense that resists translation into categorial forms of predication and whose logical character cannot be rendered with a predicative syntax” (167). The author finds an “aphenomenal páthos of language” (171), being the use of the passive voice in Beckett the master expression of a poetology of the experience of language.

The link between literary works and phenomenology is more strongly established in the third part of the book. In Phenomenology of the Image and the text Corpus, literature appears as a corpus with which a wide group of theoretical developments of phenomenology is faced. At the same time, the link between the experience of the image and its description in a literary language is further analyzed.

The first work is Charles Olson: Phenomenologist, Objectivist, Particularist by Stefanie Heine exposes the poetry of Charles Olson as a complement of Husserl’s philosophy of language in Logical Investigations. The essay reconstructs in Olson a theoretical development inseparable from the practice of writing, taking as a starting point the work of unpublished manuscripts, transcribed or attached in this book. Even though Olson echoes Merleau-Ponty, this work shows Olson’s complement to Husserlian phenomenology, borne from his interest as a poet, of considering words as physical entities, and of taking the word as Leib before taking it as Körper in the specific moment of writing. On the one hand, is the sensible experience of words that comes at play in his “poeticness”. On the other hand, the Husserlian notion of “Wort-Leib” is revealing for the execution of Olson’s writing, where language is left behind to grasp the material sense of the physical word, the gap between words, and even shapes, and written lines that are not associated with specific words.

In the second work, Icon as Alter Ego? Husserl’s Fifth Cartesian Meditation and Icons of Mary in Chronicles of the Teutonic Order, Claire Taylor Jones examines two chronicles of the Teutonic Order: Chronica terrae Prussiae (1326) and Kronike von Pruzinlant (1340). These texts offer a narrative of the conversion to Christianism from an experience of acknowledging the suffering and spiritual agency in icons of the Virgin Mary. Taylor Jones finds in these chronicles, taken as literary corpus, issues for the perception of the alter ego that Husserl describes in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation. From artistic cultural objects, imbued in certain “saintly presence” in this case, the distinction between Leib and cultural objects must be revisited. The author finds in these texts a challenge to the Husserlian theory that demands a new description of intersubjectivity, one that does not rest in the apperception of an animated body, but recognizes this apperception of suffering, that does not require movement in order to be perceived.

Complements to Husserlian phenomenology can also be read in the cultural critique, as Thomas Pfau illustrates in the last work of this section: Absolute Gegebenheit: Image as Aesthetic Urphänomen in Husserl and Rilke. The author reads Rilke’s texts about Rodin and Cézanne’s letters, where he finds a phenomenology of image experience that would complement Husserl’s one. If, as Pfau asserts, Husserl focuses on the noematic pole of experience, it is the noetic dimension that Rilke centers his attention on when he reflects on the aesthetic experience. In the Rilkenian comments on Cézanne’s works Pfau reads an anticipation of the idea of transcendental reduction. The point here is that the epistemological contribution to the theory of image occurs, as demonstrated again and again in the volume reviewed here, in poetological terms, intended as a supplement to phenomenological description.

The funding relation between phenomenology and fiction insistently tematized in this volume finds greater depth in the fourth and final section of the book: Fictional Truths: Phenomenology and Narrative.

The section is inaugurated with The Virtuous Philosopher and the Chameleon Poet: Husserl and Hofmannsthal, by Nicolas De Warren. De Warren rereads Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal, in which the philosopher reveals the inspiration he received from the poet for his phenomenological method. However, De Warren’s reading examines how Husserl imagined this source of inspiration, and from that conception, offers an aesthetic for Hofmannsthal’s work. De Warren reconstructs the context of the encounter between Husserl and Hofmannsthal, the poet’s assistance to the reading of the phenomenologist, and the epistolary exchanges between these figures. The point that De Warren makes is that Hofmannsthal’s silence demonstrates that his aesthetic would have been a source of inspiration for the phenomenological method merely imagined by Husserl himself. The importance of this reading lies in putting the attention on fiction as a basis for Husserlian inspiration, while the letter could itself be read as literary fiction. De Warren undertakes this task, carrying out a detailed analysis that evidently could be described as literary, from Husserl’s letter to Hofmannsthal and reconstructing in that same letter the appearance of elements belonging to the philosophical method that Husserl would have arrived for his phenomenology.

The second paper of the section is A Now Not toto caelo a Not Now: the “Origin” of Difference in Husserl, from Number to Literature, by Claudia Brodsky. The paper draws a historical path in Husserlian thinking in which, through a series of “steps”, Brodsky explains that the understanding of the notion of number is achieved in relation to other concepts. For the author, this overlapping of theories, in a formal excursus of Husserl’s conscience, is quite similar to the developments made by Lukács and Proust. In their formal aspects, there would be common issues between Husserl and the literary theory.

The last essay of this volume is written by its third editor, Rochelle Tobías. In Gregor Samsa and the problem of Intersubjectivity, the author exhibits how The Metamorphosis by Kafka presents certain issues to the Husserlian perception of the alter ego. The challenge to the Husserlian theory is not found in the acknowledgment of another body as an alter ego, but in the recognition of another conscience like mine. Tobias’s paper does not focus on this difference of positions, but on the fiction as a privileged mode of representing other minds in the third person. Thus, what is thematized is a method for thinking based on fiction as proposed and shared by Kafka and Husserl.

As I have outlined thus far, Phenomenology to the Letter does not directly answer the concerns presented in its introduction. The aim of the book is achieved through a comprehensive reading that implies a work from the reader that does not demand little effort. On this point, it is important to highlight that each one of the parts neither offers a justification of the articles assembled therein nor a conclusion that determines an explicit conjoint thesis. To be able to answer the accusation put forward in the introduction, it is necessary to undertake a global reading that surpasses the questions posed by each essay. Thus, the enormous project proposed in this volume loses the strength of a joint individual answer. This is not however a limitation, but rather a demonstration of the fruitful possibilities of relating Husserlian phenomenology with literature, via a multiplicity of papers that address various goals and issues. This book clarifies that there is no oblivion of the language but rather that language, literature, writing, and fiction are present from the origin and during the development of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology to the Letter is not a book about literature and phenomenology in general: there is no development of the conception of language by Merleau-Ponty or Heidegger, nor is there an offering of the problems of a phenomenological aesthetic that recovers Dufrenne’s, or an ontology of literature as Ingarden thematized. This volume focuses specifically on the Husserlian work and when links are established with other authors, they do not properly belong to the phenomenological school. The rejection of the phenomenological thematization of literature following its greatest exponent, Roman Ingarden, explains the general proposal of the book. According to the editors, Ingarden starts from phenomenology, when, as read in this volume, it is all about mutual implications between phenomenology and language, to the point of claiming a philological complement for phenomenological investigation.

While the essays contained in this book are written at a sophisticated academic level, including quotations in their original languages and detailed works in a scholar register, the volume offers something beyond a series of exegetical articles about phenomenology. Still with Husserlian phenomenology as a topic, the novelty of this volume is neither a proposal of building a Husserlian literary theory, a treaty about language theory by Husserl, nor is limited to a series of examples of Husserlian theory within the literature. To my understanding, the methodological proposal that guides these essays has an interdisciplinary character; what is pursued are the theoretical constructions in fields that are traditionally separated, without abandoning the specificities of each one.

This volume offers then, an actualization of Husserlian thinking. The philosophical importance of Phenomenology to the Letter nowadays, claim its editors, lies in its proposal facing biological and psychological paradigms that dominate praxis and current thinking. It is not only a proposal of actualization of phenomenology or the determination of an aesthetic movement, but rather a path to rethink affections, experience, and language. A proposal can be read to extend the Husserlian contributions so present today in the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences, whose     approach to “the mind” confront several Husserlian warnings, as the editors state. The challenge to mind studies has its weight from fantasy and fiction as the cornerstone of the phenomenological method, both for the eidetic variation from the Logical Investigations as well as the reduction from Ideas I. In sum, the starting point for this book can be read in Husserl’s affirmation in Ideas I: “‘fiction’ is the vital element of phenomenology, as all its eidetic knowledge” (Hua III/I, 148).

In thirteen essays, Phenomenology to the Letter achieves its goal where the relationship between phenomenology and literature has been at the heart of reflection and it has not been seen as a point of arrival. The specificity of the issues that each essay addresses, together with a great variety of resources and different textual corpora does not introduce a relation between Husserlian phenomenology and literature, it simply puts it into evidence. The project proposed by the book is accomplished not by the refinement of each essay in light of the objectives established separately but rather because of the reading as a whole they offer, made possible by the excellent job of the editors. The reader is offered a collection of essays that implies an astute reading exercise, an essential task whose effort can be well compared to the reading of a literary work.


Blanchot, M. 1986. The Writing of the Disaster. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Foucault, M. 1971. L’orde du discours: Leçon Inaugurale au Collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970. Paris: Gallimard.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Destruktion und Dekonstruktion. En H.-G. Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke. Vol 2. (361-372). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Husserl, E. 1976. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie I: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, 2nd edn. Den Haag: Nijhoff.

[1] Following Detlef Thiel. 2003. “Husserls Phäenomenographie” in Recherches Husserliennes 19: 67 – 108.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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