Breaking the Ontological Circle
Keiling’s study addresses the following problem: according to Heidegger, philosophy should become totally historical and should totally focus on things at the same time. How is that possible? Keiling provides an answer by developing what he calls “phenomenological realism” through a close reading of central texts from Heidegger’s late period. Phenomenological realism according to Keiling is a “context-sensitive category, asking to orient philosophy towards things” (289) by way of a “basal, pre-ontological, quasi metaphysically neutral reference” (293) to these very things. Phenomenological realism calls for a “thematisation of the real” (348), of res, i.e. things qua things irrespective of any ontological preconception. We will clarify what this entails in the following three sections. The first section gives a rough overview of the book, the second section highlights its central claims, which are discussed in the third section.
The book consists of three parts and an introduction. The fairly substantial introduction lays out the problem and clarifies certain hermeneutical issues regarding Heidegger’s late work. Rather than giving up on the later Heidegger’s texts as ‘mystical’ or otherwise unintelligible, Keiling sees them as legitimate philosophical engagements with the history of being and the thingness of things – two strands of Heidegger’s thought he contends are intimately, though not obviously connected. The introduction also provides a synopsis of the themes developed throughout the book and locates them in a wider systematic context.
The first part, “Phenomenology and Ontology” is in some sense negative as it consecutively disentangles the notions of phenomenology and ontology as well as metaphysics. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Keiling doesn’t proceed chronologically in his reading of Heidegger’s texts but aims to present a coherent argument drawing from sources after (and including) Being and Time. In §1 Keiling establishes Heidegger’s topological analysis of the “end of philosophy” as a meta-theory or “overview” (108) of philosophy, where the end of philosophy does not mean its dissolution but rather the point at which philosophy can look back on its history and uncover the historicity of ontology. Famously Heidegger holds that throughout the course of philosophical thought, being has been understood in different ways, where each specific way of understanding being, namely each ontology, constitutes an “epoch”; Descartes and Kant are prime examples of the epoch of the object or objectification, in which being is equal to being an object.
§2 accordingly contains a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of “epoch” and how it is related to Husserl’s notion of “epochê”. One result of the discussion is that while it is presupposed that different ontologies all conceptualise the same topic (being) or answer the same question in different ways, this assumption of a unitary common theme is in need of an argument without which “the unity of Being [across ontologies] remains speculative.” (123)
That issue leads Keiling to discuss different ways of posing the so-called “question of being” in §3. While what Heidegger calls the “guiding question” calls for a concrete, totalising answer of the form “being is …, therefore all beings are …”, which then constitutes an epoch in the history of being, the “basic question” opens up a pre-ontological, i.e. phenomenological discourse (137). Whenever we understand the question of being as a guiding question and accordingly supply an answer to it, we remain intra-epochal. Extra-epochal and therefore pre-ontological access to the appearance of things is possible only through the basic question, which does not require any answer in the sense of a concrete ontology but, reversely, makes it possible to translate different answers to the guiding question into a common language.
The relation between the basic question and phenomenological accounts of the subject matter of philosophy is the topic of §4. While earlier phenomenologists have simply predefined the “matter of thinking” (Sache des Denkens) by answering the guiding question, thus subscribing to a specific ontology, Heidegger leaves the matter of thinking open by posing the basic question. The basic question disallows philosophy to settle on any specific definition of being and it also prevents philosophy from any claims about being as a totality of beings. If we understand ontology as the business of defining being (or existence) and metaphysics as the effort to think the totality of being, the basic question uncouples philosophy from both ontology as well as metaphysics.
As Keiling writes in §5, phenomenology knows ontological totality only in the mode of questioning (179). This pre-ontological, pre-metaphysical stance turns out to be the expression or effect of a genuinely phenomenological freedom, namely the ability of bracketing ordinary thought (which Husserl achieves through the epochê) or stepping outside the history of being (an operation Heidegger calls the ‘step back’, Schritt zurück). As Keiling points out in §6, this step back is not “sigetic” (201), i.e. no lapse into mystical silence, but simply the stepping back from any ontological projection of an epochal understanding of being unto entities. The step back is the appropriate reaction to the basic question; it lets the open appear as condition of manifestation and within it the things qua things, yet it nevertheless structures this appearance propositionally (200), making it available to philosophical, though non-ontological, non-metaphysical discourse. This discourse is phenomenology, oriented towards the manifestation of things in an ontologically unprejudiced way; it reflects on and negates the bias induced by any epoch of the history of being to enable descriptions that are not ontologically naïve but allow for the ontological pluralism the history of being has established. In Heidegger’s terminology, the critical impact of phenomenology on ontology allows particulars to appear not as “objects” (Gegenstände) but as “things” (Dinge).
This progression from the end of philosophy through the reflection on the two ways the question of being might be conceived of, to a step back, can be construed in two different ways: first, it can be understood (macrologically) as the historical development of philosophy in general, Heidegger’s own philosophy in particular. Yet it can also serve as the (micrological) description of what needs to be done to de-ontologise any given discursive context: through the step back as radicalized epochê, the end of philosophy and the turn to phenomenological realism can be initiated at any moment within a philosophical conversation.
The second, positive part, “Phenomenological Realism”, constitutes a discussion of core issues of phenomenology, starting from a discussion of the canonical phenomenological understanding of the phenomenon in §7. Any appearance (phenomenon) is always of something, it contains presentational and representational elements, most importantly, according to Heidegger’s discussion in the introduction to Being and Time, it presupposes an identical point of reference to understand the very idea that a phenomenon can at first be covered (or not-yet-discovered, unentdeckt), then discovered (entdeckt) by phenomenology or covered over (verdeckt) again. The history of ontology is the history of the way the manifestation of things is covered over by different ontologies. These deliberations lead to a discussion about the nature of phenomenology itself in §8 where Keiling portrays Heidegger’s critique of thinking as representing (Vorstellen) in his reading of Hegel in “The Age of the World Picture” and post-war lectures. As opposed to Husserl, Hegel (according to Heidegger) loses both sight of the transcendence of the things qua things as well as his phenomenological freedom, due to his immanentism. Freedom for Hegel is just participation in or even just contemplation of the absolute process; this however is no the step back (269), but contains ontological determinations of the absolute, namely as of a will. Hegel therefore fails to achieve a proper phenomenological stance.
§9 then consists of a close reading of the end of Husserl’s Ideas I and “Mein Erlebnisstrom und Ich” from the Bernau Manuscripts. Keiling points out that things are paradigmatic objects even for Husserl; they are themselves Leitfäden for phenomenological investigations (314) and their dissolution into their constitutional levels impossible (316, 319). Husserl is himself a phenomenological realist in Keiling’s sense (309, 332). §10 sees Heidegger dealing with Kant as well as the late Heidegger dealing with the early Heidegger dealing with Kant. While the early interpretations lapse into (fundamental-)ontological reductionism, the later interpretations allow for a “pluriparadigmatic phenomenological ontology” (360). For, if “being is not a real predicate”, the reality of things can be discussed without a predefined ontology, including the temporal ontology of early Heidegger. The meaning of predicates is independent of a prior answer to the question of being. This raises the question of how such meaning is to be described. In §11, Keiling turns to language. It is in the variety of spoken and written language(s) that phenomenology finds a first freedom from ontological discourse (386). The experience of things itself is lingual and therefore open for hermeneutics; thus, Heidegger’s realism is hermeneutical realism (406). In light of this interpretation, Heidegger’s infamous linguistic speculations, rather than being absurd efforts at a form of mystical etymology, simply afford different ways of describing thing-ness (420).
The task of the third part, “A World of Things”, is to re-interpret three core-concepts of phenomenology from the perspective of phenomenological realism. Keiling accepts a realistic version of Husserlian horizonality in §12, according to which horizons belong primarily to the thing themselves, rather than our experience of them. Also, the horizonality of things is independent of any given ontology. Keiling identifies Husserl’s horizons with the late Heidegger’s topology and conceives of them as the place where experience takes place. Yet he sees Heidegger himself in danger of trying to reduce things to the metaphysical process of an unfolding of the “Gegnet” (438) or of truth. Similar concerns pertain to the notion of the world, voiced in §13, since Heidegger as well as Husserl stand to fall back into dogmatism or metaphysics when dealing with the world: either it is conceived of along the lines of subjectivist ontology (Husserl), the temporal ontology of Dasein (early Heidegger) or the ontology of the four-fold (late Heidegger). Against this reductionism, Keiling introduces Heidegger’s notion of “worlding” (das Welten) to describe the dynamic interplay of the horizons of things as opposed to the “world” as a unique, definite and static totality of things. In §14, Keiling then treats Heidegger’s topology in the same vain. While Heidegger himself tends to prioritise the spacing of space ontologically, thus degrading the appearance of the things to an “epiphenomenon” (462), Keiling argues that things remain “necessary descriptive factors [Beschreibungsgrößen]” (477) in all contexts of building, dwelling as well as thinking.
II. Central Issues
Throughout the dense and detailed study, two main themes emerge. The first revolves around phenomenology as meta-theory of ontology (a), the second concerns things as necessary descriptors (b).
a) As we have seen, phenomenological realism disentangles philosophy from ontology where ontology is identified as a way of answering the guiding question. Any such answer constitutes an epoch in the history of Being, but according to Keiling they necessarily fall prey to the “ontological circle” (35): starting from the question of Being, we choose one paradigmatic entity or a region of entities to start the investigation. We then – following the ontological difference – focus on the Being of this entity. Under the assumption that Being is Being no matter what entity we look at, we commit an act of “ontological generalisation” (33) through which we arrive at a dogmatic and overgeneralised account of what it means for all things to be. Since this account will break down in the face of entities that are very different from the one whose Being we have overgeneralised, we are forced to go back to raise the question of Being once again. As Keiling notes repeatedly (33, 81, 110, 129, 132), Heidegger himself falls prey to the logic of the ontological circle, firstly when he tries to establish a temporal ontology through his analysis of Dasein, as he simply overgeneralises the temporality of his chosen paradigmatic entity; secondly when he outlines his ontology of the fourfold.
Phenomenological realism avoids the ontological circle in two ways. It eschews overgeneralisation since it is not interested in providing a philosophical explanation of the totality of entities, and it does not try to give a definite answer to the guiding question. This is why, surprisingly, the absolute is still in play for phenomenological realism, although it does away with traditional ontology (and arguably metaphysics and even epistemology as well): the “un-thinged/un-conditioned (das Unbedingte)” (386) – as Kant puts it – is not something behind or above all entities, as onto-theology has it, but the reality of each thing itself. Taken this way, phenomenological realism remains a theory of the absolute, but not of the totality of entities.
This stance in turn enables phenomenology to investigate different totalising ontological claims from a non-internalist but also non-externalist viewpoint (288); it avoids the “encroachment of history” (379) on the appearance of things by simply focusing on how things appear in a given situation, without presupposing any specific ontological vocabulary. In this sense, phenomenological realism is still beholden to the idea of phenomenology as a descriptive rather than a speculative endeavour. For Keiling this also constitutes the difference between Speculative Realism as presented by Meillassoux and his own position developed in the reading of Heidegger, for while the speculative realist sees speculative realism as (just another, although) radical alternative to classical ontology, realist phenomenology can treat different ontologies as possible “patterns of descriptions” (64) of the appearance of things and integrate or reject them due to their respective descriptive plausibility. Phenomenological realism thus guards philosophy against empty speculation by tying all ontological theories back to the pre-ontological appearance of things. This is the central negative claim of phenomenological realism.
b) Things have thereby turned out to be meta-philosophically necessary descriptors: without reference to things as they appear we cannot judge any ontological effort. The main arguments for phenomenological realism proceed along similar (transcendental) lines, insofar as the reference to things and their appearances constitutes the condition of intelligibility for certain philosophical moves: “thingness is the focus of very different contexts” (397). This idea has at least two meanings: an intra-epochal sense and an extra-epochal sense.
Intra-epochal, the experience of things is the “condition of possibility of objectivity” (cf. 435). In things, space and time instantiate themselves. Also, units of validity (Geltung) can only be described if they are conceived of as based or centred around things of experience (210), which is why Husserl’s descriptions of the levels of the constitution of objects presuppose the appearance of the thing as the focal point of those very levels (319). In his reading of Husserl, Keiling goes as far as to state that only the reference to can stop the regress-problems surrounding the Ego (331). Even temporal (fundamental) ontology has to presuppose things in order to phenomenologically explicate different modes of Dasein (374), since things are always already present as that from which Dasein can understand itself authentically or inauthentically. Things are the starting point of most if not every ontological universalisation (376), as the ontological circle encompasses the move from a given thing, conceived of as an entity, towards its Being along the lines of the ontological difference.
Extra-epochal, epochs of Being can only be identified as different answers to the same question if the non-ontological phenomenology of the appearance of things is presupposed. For only the reference to things qua things allows to justify and differentiate ontological theories (336) as different descriptions of the very same things. They mediate phenomenological presence and representation as well as their shifts (397). The concept of the world can only be elucidated phenomenologically if things are presupposed (447). A real “why”-question is only possible for the phenomenological realist, since only the realist lets things appear before applying any given ontological framework (456); only the basic question allows to ask for a (final) ground of something without distorting the appearance of the thing in question.
The study primarily sets out to provide a comprehensive and systematic reinterpretation of the later writings of Heidegger. It achieves this admirably by developing the framework of phenomenological realism as a perspective that allows to read the texts of the later Heidegger as systematic efforts of understanding the appearance of things and its ontological-historical distortions. I will not engage in a comparison with competing readings, although these are discussed throughout the book. However, Keiling himself also locates phenomenological realism in regard to the “discussion about metaphysical and ontological realisms” (16) and therefore raises a claim to offer a systematic contribution to philosophy. As he argues in the introduction, any interpretation of philosophy at some point becomes a philosophical position that is itself susceptible to be checked against what it aims to describe. (5) So instead of engaging with the intricacies of Heidegger exegesis, I would like to conclude this review by pointing out one particularly pressing issue.
This issue is the identity of things. Supposedly things are “invariants of experience, the reference to which requires no identity-criteria” (52). But while it is true that in everyday life we do not need to know a sufficient and necessary set of attributes to reference a thing, Keiling himself points out that phenomenology needs to show that the things it deals with on a pre- or non-ontological level are the same as the objects of ontology (200). So, while it might sound intuitive to assume that one identical thing allows for very different appearances, how do we actually know that two phenomena are of the same thing? How do we know we can “carry over” a thing’s identity from one “explanatory and descriptive context to the next” if the “meaning of the thing” changes “radically” and different “truths” apply to it in different contexts (388)? Keiling seems to lean towards a foundationalist solution. With Heidegger, he stipulates a “definitive context of explication [maßgeblichen Explikationszusammenhang]” (388), a pure experience of things below all “epistemic paradigms” (388), i.e. an experience independent of ontological contamination. Since Keiling assumes with Heidegger that experience is in some sense tied to language (and language to things, 477), this pure experience cannot be conceived of as non-lingual, though it need not involve a strong notion of subjectivity. And as it is supposed to ground judgements about the descriptive quality of different ontologies (482), it should even be conceptual. Yet to substantiate these meta-philosophical claims of phenomenological realism, this foundational discourse needs to be fleshed out and put into critical use over and beyond what Keiling already presents in part 3 of his study.
To me this effort would include not only dealing with the issue of the identity of things, securing a foundation and showing how exactly it grounds judgements, but answering a few of the following questions. If phenomenological realism is not thing-fundamentalism, what other categories – apart from “thing”, “horizon”, “world”, “place” – could be in play in such foundational discourse? Is every thing embedded in a “universal horizon” (431) even in the weaker form of a ‘worlding’? Keiling himself notes that Heidegger’s descriptions are always threatened whenever he tries to establish the truth of universal processes without grounding his accounts in concrete phenomena (476), so the supposed universality of the world itself seems suspicious. Also, is the perspective of phenomenological realism available for all ontologies? Phrased differently: are all objects just things in ontological disguise? What about mathematical objects? Should we speak about mathematical things in opposition to mathematical objects? Or fictional things?
These remarks should not be understood as criticisms of Keiling’s book, since they go way beyond his main effort to re-read the later Heidegger. They rather show that to solve the problem of the identity of things and further develop phenomenological realism, we might need to turn to sources other than Heidegger. Keiling himself hints at the author whose work might be the most promising resource for phenomenological realism: Hans Blumenberg.
Phenomenology and Intercultural Understanding: Toward a New Cultural Flesh unites texts based on studies which Kwok-Ying Lau presented at conferences between 1996 and 2016. Despite the fact that the volume is a collection of essays, it does read as a unified work particularly since the author took care to emphasize the studies treating what is indeed the most original contribution in this work, the notion of cultural flesh. He deals with the notion of cultural flesh both at the very beginning of the work and the end, that is, in Chapters, 1, 10 and 11. In the intervening chapters the reader is lead through a variety of discussions of possibilities for intercultural understanding in light the work of mostly European phenomenological thinkers. Although his approach cannot really be characterized as post-colonial since he does not draw on post-colonial theory in any explicit manner, Kwok-Ying Lau reads and re-reads mostly 20th century thinkers – Hegel, Husserl, Lévi-Strauss, Merleau-Ponty, Patočka (and in a kind of appendix in the last chapter Lévinas, Deleuze, Michel Henry) – from an extra-European perspective in a critical and constructive manner with a view to understanding how their approaches might serve in intercultural understanding.
Merleau-Ponty represents Kwok-Ying Lau’s primary source of inspiration and in contrast to many other European thinkers addressed here, is revealed to have real intercultural sensitivities. Kwok-Ying Lau devotes two chapters to Jan Patočka whose significance for the Chinese community he underlines (Chapters 5 and 6). In Chapter 5 Patočka is examined as a ‘Non-European Phenomenological Philosopher’ and the ‘Critical Consciousness of the Phenomenological Movement’. Chapter six works with Patočka’s interpretation of the Platonic notion of care for the soul and compares it to Mencius theory of the ‘four roots.’ These chapters read very well and show how Patočka models certain possibilities for non-eurocentric (even post-european) approaches to Phenomenological research with applications to intercultural understanding.
Several chapters deal with some classical Chinese philosophy. As already mentioned Kwok-Ying Lau refers to Mencius’ theory of the four beginnings in Chapter 6 (p. 99). He comes back to this text in Chapter 8 (p. 134) while Chapter 3 is entitled ‘To What Extent Can Phenomenology Do Justice to Chinese Philosophy? A Phenomenological reading of Laozi.” Kwok-Ying Lau also devotes a chapter to Buddhism and the manner in which it was viewed by Hegel and by Husserl. Kwok-Ying Lau shows how, in spite of having enunciated a very Eurocentric conception of Philosophy, Husserl in fact demonstrated an appreciation of the philosophical (and even phenomenological) depth of early Buddhist writings, particularly in so far as they represent a philosophy of consciousness not without relation to Husserl’s. Overall, although he does have some good insights into East-Asian thinkers, Kwok-Ying Lau seems more interested and familiar with the European authors he works on than the Chinese and Indian texts which he discusses in these chapters.
Chapter 8 ‘Self-Transformation and the Ethical Telos: Orientative Philosophy in Lao Sze-Kwang, Foucault and Husserl’ is devoted to demonstrating how Lao Sze-Kwang’s characterization of the nature of much East-Asian philosophical thought as ‘Orientative’ rather than a ‘purely cognitive and theoretical enterprise’ (p. 125). Here Kwok-Ying Lau shows how certain developments in Foucault’s later thought inspired by Pierre Hadot’s work on Ancient philosophy as Spiritual Exercise go in the direction of Lao Sze-Kwang’s Orientative Philosophy. Kwok-Ying Lau seem to suggest that the future of Phenomenological research will go in this direction which is more amenable to intercultural understanding.
In both Chapters 2 and 7 Kwok-Ying Lau sketches out what he takes to be the premises for doing intercultural philosophy. His approach involves what he calls a double epoché of language. He explains as follows:
The person in question must perform a double epoché with regard to language used. First of all she must abandon her native language, at least temporarily, and speak an international language which in most cases is English … she must perform a second epoché with respect to the philosophical language through which her thought is expressed (p. 23).
I have to admit that I am not entirely comfortable with Kwok-Ying Lau’s approach here. Nor am I convinced by the argument unfolded in Chapter 7 which asserts that intercultural philosophy can only take place in a ‘Disenchanted World’. In both, Chapters 2 and 7, in fact, Kwok-Ying Lau seems to embrace what many might take to be Eurocentric positions on universality, language and rationality, positions which are very controversial and have received much discussion by feminist and post-colonial thinkers. (It is particularly unfortunate that Kwok-Ying Lau takes a Palestinian suicide bomber as an example of someone who ‘lives under the domination’ of what he calls an ‘un-disenchanted world-view’ (p. 108), not only because of the rough handling of very sensitive political issues, but also since he more or less baldly asserts that anyone who believes in certain kinds of transcendence – including, it would seem, almost any practitioner of an Abrahamic religion – is disqualified from participation in intercultural thought!).
This reader was also somewhat disappointed by the absence of reference to other thinkers who work on intercultural philosophy. One might mention the work of the likes Hall and Ames or the kind of scholarship which is published in the Journal Philosophy East and West. The work of Francois Jullien is dismissed rather uncharitably in a footnote to page 213, while not single work of his is cited in the Bibliography.
In any case, with the notion of ‘cultural flesh’ Kwok-Ying Lau has forged a useful conceptual means to facilitate intercultural understanding, and even, I might add, intercultural philosophizing. (I would have liked to see the notion of cultural flesh elaborated in greater detail, since it is genuinely a novel concept but is only sketched out in this book. Perhaps this might be something Kwok-Ying Lau could deal with in a future monograph.) More generally, Kwok-Ying Lau has made a valuable contribution to phenomenological research and intercultural philosophy with all of the studies which constitute this volume in so far as they re-evaluate Phenomenological thought from an extra-European perspective. This book will be of interest to those who seek to better understand what kind of resources Phenomenology can contribute to intercultural philosophy.
Carl Sachs identifies himself a Kantian naturalist (2). What he means by this is that he accepts as plausible the transcendental standpoint and that its task is one of cognitive semantics, identifying the minimally necessary conditions for an utterance to be expressive of a thought. He identifies as a naturalist in the sense that he aims to provide an account of intentionality that is fully naturalizable. He argues that transcendental naturalism is the view that “transcendentally-specified roles must have empirically-specifiable role-players” (9). Sachs frames his book not only around the Myths of the Given, but around the question of how to account for original intentionality as opposed to derived intentionality. In laying out his solution, he favors a two-fold sense of original intentionality, what he calls bifurcated intentionality. He argues “both discursive and somatic intentionality must be considered as equally original…because discursive intentionality and somatic intentionality are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for judgments with empirical content” (8). This is endorsed in order, Sachs argues, to answer the naturalists challenge. It is a cornerstone of Sachs’s attempt to realize John Haugeland’s claim that there is a position between neo-behaviorists (Quine, Dennett) and neo-pragmatists (Sellars, Brandom). In contrast with Haugeland, Sachs approaches his challenge by relying heavily on the work of Merleau-Ponty. This, he believes, enables him an opportunity to construe one form of original intentionality as both non-social and non-linguistic, namely somatic intentionality: the intentionality of the body in its lived engagements and comportments.
Sachs makes a reasonable case that Wilfrid Sellars’s Myth of the Given has traditionally been too narrowly interpreted in terms of its scope. He argues that the problem is not just with an empirical given, but rather whatever sort of thing one treats a given. What’s more, Sachs argues that to understand Sellars’s criticisms of C.I. Lewis, one needs to appreciate that the given in question is not an epistemic given, but a cognitive-semantic given. To clarify, “the epistemic given has both epistemic efficacy (it plays a justificatory role in our inferences) and epistemic independence (it does not depend on any other justified assertions). The semantic given is both efficacious and independent with regard to cognitive semantics” (22). The Myth of the semantic Given is “the thesis that cognitive significance, objective purport, requires something with a semantic status, or a kind of meaning, independent of and yet bearing on the meaning of objectively valid judgments” (29). Sachs’ view of these two Givens is that his account of bifurcated intentionality opens room for non-conceptual content that does not violate the Myth of the semantic Given. Sachs believes a benefit of his account is that it preserves “transcendental friction,” which is “that it must be possible, by reflecting on our most basic conceptual and perceptual capacities and incapacities, to guarantee that we are in cognitive contact with the world we discover and do not create” (13).
Chapter one provides a lot of the groundwork for the book. This includes defining terms like non-conceptual content and transcendental friction. By the former, Sachs means “personal-level representational cognitive-semantic content that does not conform to the Generality Constraint [that a subject cannot conceive of a is F if she cannot also entertain the thought that a is G and that b is F]” (12). The latter is the requirement that “it must be possible, by reflecting on our most basic conceptual and perceptual capacities and incapacities, to guarantee that we are in cognitive contact with a world we discover and do not create” (13). The first two chapters are basically dedicated to explicating and defending a view of C.I. Lewis’s thought. It is done to establish a basis for the thesis of bifurcation. One might contend that Sachs is establishing a neo-Lewisian view. Indeed, the entire setup seems to leave one the impression that Lewis was very close to the truth, but lacked a sufficient understanding of somatic intentionality to make his semantic foundationalism work. In particular, Sachs argues at the close of chapter two, that one of Lewis’s critical errors was to adopt an Augustinian conception of language.
Chapter three is broken into three subsections. The first section outlines the dispute between Roy Wood Sellars and C.I. Lewis, specifically between the former’s physical realism and the latter’s conceptualistic pragmatism. The middle section establishes how this contextual backdrop informs Wilfred Sellars’s formulation of the Myth of the Given and his criticisms of Lewis. The final section establishes the place of non-conceptual content in lieu of the arguments presented by the younger Sellars. This chapter should be of immense historical value to the history of analytic philosophy. In terms of phenomenology, I believe that there is substantial potential for further engagement. The first section in particular has much in common with disputes between Husserl and Heidegger. This is in no way to assert that the disagreements or their terms are the same, only that there are sufficient parallels to warrant further comparison. The middle section might provoke an interest in drawing Mikel Dufrenne’s work on the a priori into dialogue with the analytic literature on the synthetic-analytic distinction in fruitful ways. As for the final section of the chapter, its concern for transcendental structures bears clear interest to the phenomenologist, even if the latter is not generally concerned for the causal role of said structures. That said, the way Sachs frames the chapter could be helpful for phenomenologists in thinking about how their work relates to work in other fields. That said, there is one clear complaint that anyone with a phenomenological background would raise. At the end of the chapter, Sachs quotes Sellars’s remarking: It is by the introduction of visual sensations that we transcend phenomenology or conceptual analysis. They are not yielded by phenomenological reduction but postulated by a proto-(scientific)-theory” (Sellars in Sachs, 69). Puzzlingingly, no relation of this passage to phenomenology is ever provided. Given the care in which Sachs works through the analytic literature, this is very surprising. This idea only returns directly in the Appendix. In either case, no mention is made of Sellars’s relationship to Marvin Farber or that Sellars is clearly claiming to have bettered both Husserlian phenomenology (Husserl, Farber) and conceptual analysis (Ryle, Lewis) on the question of non-conceptual content. It is disappointing that this comes at the end of the chapter without discussion or more critical attention.
Chapter four outlines the Brandom-McDowell dispute, and their shared rejection of non-conceptual content. It ends with a discussion of Dreyfus’s and McDowell’s exchanges. All of this seems to serve the purpose of establishing that non-conceptual content is rightly dismissed where one begins from discursive intentionality as paradigmatic. However, it is not clear that discursive intentionality is the (sole) original form of intentionality. Hence Sachs’s advocacy in the fifth chapter for Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on somatic intentionality as a co-original form of intentionality.
This all leaves open a position that might challenge Sachs. One might argue that somatic intentionality is original and that discursive or linguistic intentionality is secondary. This challenge does get a response at the end of chapter six, when Sachs offers his reasons for rejecting this sort of position in the work of Dreyfus and Todes. I’m not convinced that this possibility is so easily rejected, as it seems to hang on the requirement that defining intentionality in terms of language and not vice versa is true. While the latter is at odds with the Sellarsian approach, one might want more careful reasons for rejecting that alternative. Alternatively, why not think that something like somatic intentionality – or a system of affectations that might grow more and more sophisticated – is more basic? This certainly would make more sense of the evolutionary continuity one finds across species, and would help make sense of human development as well.
Chapter five brings Merleau-Ponty into the discussion. Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of intellectualism and empiricism are used by Sachs to ground the necessity that somatic or motor intentionality is distinctive from discursive intentionality. For Sachs, discursive intentionality consists of both directedness and aboutness, especially since he couches it in terms of Sellars’s community of language users, i.e. the deontic scorekeepers. Somatic intentionality, on the other hand, lacks aboutness but consists of directedness. It is also non-apperceptive. Sachs presses the distinction between the “I think” and “I can” in accentuating this difference. Discursive intentionality is associated with intellectual activity and judgments; somatic intentionality with the habitual deployment or execution of embodied postures or gestures. Habits are understood as quasi- or proto-normative. With regard to somatic intentionality, Sachs argues that the Myth of the Given – in either epistemic or semantic form – is avoided only insofar as one appreciates a distinction between pre-personal and sub-personal senses of non-conceptual content. If one locates non-conceptual content at a sub-personal level, then, he argues it cannot take on an intentional structure. That point is not consistent with Merleau-Ponty’s broad application of intentionality to the natural world (Merleau-Ponty 2003; see also Hamrick 2011). However, Sachs believes that conceiving of non-conceptual content in pre-personal terms avoid this problem.
Sachs makes a surprising, if subtle, error in his discussion of Merleau-Ponty (107-108). He correctly indicates that motor intentionality is directedness without aboutness. A dog might be directed towards the object of play, even if it might not experience play as something about which it participates. However, he misapprehends what is meant by Merleau-Ponty identifying it as non-apperceptive. Apperceptive contents in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty – unfortunately ambiguously used by both – refer to the adumbrated profiles associated with the object of experience, or to the pre-reflective mineness of experience. That is apperception refers to the unity of the experience of this or that both in relation to the “object” and to the “subject.” Motor intentions aren’t necessarily constituted through profiles. Nor are they the sorts of things that one generally recognizes their self to be enacting or embodying in an explicit, voluntaristic manner. The later part Sachs gets right, though his interpretation is perhaps a little intellectualist, thinking this is about a reflective “I think.” It’s more a comment for Merleau-Ponty about the absence of the pre-reflective sense of an “I” in the experience of these intentional states. For example, one affects a posture, but one is neither aware of one’s affecting one’s posture nor is one’s affectation of a posture something that’s adumbrated. There are no posture-profiles intended in absence of the intentional affectation of the posture itself. By denying that there are profiles, absences co-constituting internal horizons of the intention, one does not deny that motor horizons have temporal dimensions that involve action-possibilities.
Chapter 6 pulls all of the parts together firmly and offers closing arguments. Interestingly, Sachs believes that it is worthwhile retaining Sellars’s non-relational conception of discursive intentionality over Merleau-Ponty’s relational conception, though he concedes that somatic intentionality is by its nature relational (136). Sachs offers a succinct three thesis summary of what he’s arguing for, which is helpful for his pointing out how he resolves both the Sellars-McDowell and the McDowell-Dreyfus debates. They are:
(a) discursive intentionality is non-world tracking;
(b) perceptual episodes have somatic intentional content (phenomenologically considered);
(c) perceptual episodes have world-tracking representational content (naturalistically considered) (138).
Sachs insists upon preserving (a) on the basis that rejecting (a) “leads one right back to all the problems of ‘intentional inexistence,’ realism about universals, and so on” (ibid). I’m not sure why that would have to follow, though Sachs seems to treat language games as abiding by their own internal rule-systems without necessary reference to the world. The deontic scorekeepers track whether one’s usage is correct, not whether one’s claims track true. Sachs understands our embodied coping skills in terms of “sheer receptivity” (ibid). It should be warned that Sachs does not equate receptivity with passivity (139). Rather it is a spontaneous non-conceptual, non-inferential state of affairs. Phenomenology’s role in this line of reasoning is to dislodge the assumption that “rational conceptuality is the paradigm of intentional activity” (139). Rejecting the view attributed to Dreyfus and Todes that somatic intentionality grounds discursive intentionality, Sachs does accept that the former constrains the latter. By this he understands that “the normativity of bodily habits constrains (but does not determine) the normativity of social norms” (139). More formally, somatic intentionality is necessary, but not sufficient for discursive intentionality. As noted above, one is wont perhaps for a more complete set of reasons why one should reject the thesis of somatic-intentionality’s grounding discursive intentionality. Sachs is skeptical in no small measure because, he argues, were somatic intentionality necessary and sufficient for discursive intentionality, one would succumb to the Myth of the Given again. I’m not sure why that would have to be the case, even if I accept the reasons he offers. In other words, I don’t see why one can’t agree that the relationship is as Sachs states – that somatic intentionality is necessary but not sufficient for discursive intentionality – and not still prioritize somatic intentionality as more basic. Granted, that might require going with Merleau-Ponty in denying (a) and affirming a relational account of language.
The book closes with an Appendix, addressing the question as to whether or not phenomenology commits itself to the Myth of the Given. In brief, Sachs’s argument is that Merleau-Ponty successfully avoids the Myth in either form, but that the early Husserl commits to the Myth. Specifically, Husserl commits to the Myth through the correlation of noesis and noema. Says Sachs, “Correlationism is Mythic dues to its foundational role within the total system as the presuppositionless condition of possibility of cognitive experience, just because our awareness of the correlation is achieved when all presuppositions are suspended, i.e. when the phenomenological reduction is complete” (161). Sachs believes this fits Sellars’s metaphor of the “seal on melted wax.” I’m not sure how this is supposed to be, as it strikes me as a misunderstanding of Husserlian phenomenology. That we discover noetic-noematic correlation while maintaining the phenomenological reduction is not a problem in this manner. Sachs forgets that the reduction effects the suspension of the natural attitude. That is, our everyday comportments in the world are focused on the objects themselves as given. The reduction enables us to step back from that naïve standpoint in order to identify and explicate the subjective roles played in consciousness in experience. A shift of attentional focus is a necessary condition for discovery of the workings of consciousness. Nor does presuppositionless mean suspension of contents, only suspensions of interests and judgments. I suspend my affirmations and negations, specifically my existential commitments. Husserl never asserts that “the categorial structure of the world imposes itself on the mind as a seal on melted wax” (Sellars in Sachs, 161). What Husserl does argue is that the categorial structure of consciousness arises in relation to the experienced contents of lived experience. What’s discovered is that our epistemic and semantic starting points involve an exchange or relation between the subject and the world – which is precisely the thing Sachs praises Merleau-Ponty for discovering. I can appreciate that if one interprets Husserl’s reduction as violating the demand for transcendental friction, that one might argue that he is committed to the Myth. However, Husserl is careful to articulate how the content of consciousness involves the relationship between the subject and her world. That relationship grounds his consistent concern for evidentiary fulfillment. There could be no concern for fulfillment unless it were possible that both that the subject be mistaken – either noetically or noematically – and that evidences be possible. Husserl’s neither granting justificatory nor semantic roles to the given. One might think that noema can stand in isolation and that this is precisely what the reduction realizes or reveals. However, that cannot be the case, because Husserl is clear that noema emerge from out of a horizonal network, i.e. meanings are the results of interactive relations between categorial elements (see Logical Investigation VI) and the subject’s comportment within and towards the world. Unfortunately, it may be the case the Sachs is inheriting mistaken attributions about Husserl’s philosophy from Sellars, who received those mistakes from Marvin Farber (1943).
A quibble with Sachs’s book might be raised about the book’s approach on the whole is how quickly Sachs is to brush over applying categories associated with historical figures. For example, much of the book involves consistent usage of Kantian v. Hegelian labels to distinguish different positions or thinkers in their disputes. Given that these labels aren’t always defined, and that they represent potentially niche interpretations of those labels, one wonders if they might not obscure things at times. For example, in one of the early chapters, Sachs associates Kantianism with Lewis White Beck’s translation. While that was an influential translation of Kant’s Critique, it is now generally regarded as excessively Humean in its interpretive approach. More recent Kant scholarship is far less enamored of the Beck paradigm that Kant was directly responding to Hume. Rather, Kant is far more grounded in the development of the Leibniz-Wolff tradition, and in responding to Baumgarten’s work. This isn’t to say that Kant is not influenced by empiricism as well, just to note that Hume’s role in spurring Kant’s philosophical development is much less important than Beck and cohort asserted. What’s more, the term Hegelian has different meanings in different circles as well. Within British Idealism it meant one thing, and variants from that school of thought inform the American Hegelian lines. But this is not obviously the same Hegel that one finds in Marx or the German tradition. None of this is Sachs’s doing, historical chains of influence are intrinsically complex. But the plurality of these interpretive lineages do raise questions about the efficacy of using the labels so freely.
A more substantive question I have is whether or not Edmund Husserl’s account of the genetic origins of judgment in Experience and Judgment poses a challenge to Sachs’s approach. Not only does Husserl offering a rather robust account of how judgments – discursive intentionality – arise from out of non-discursive origins; but it is well known that Merleau-Ponty was familiar with most of Husserl’s later works – as Sachs acknowledges in The Appendix. As such, there is a possibility that Merleau-Ponty has an intrinsic objection to how Sachs is approaching bifurcated intentionality. This is in no way an argument here, only to raise the consideration – as such scholarship is beyond the scope of this review.
On the whole Sachs’s Intentionality and the Myths of the Given is a worthwhile text. It provides careful and precise elucidations of Sellars’s Myth. It deepens the historical context and understanding of important debates in contemporary philosophy, especially analytic philosophy – for which Sachs’s contribution might be invaluable. And it joins a growing chorus of works that bring phenomenological philosophers into prominent dialogue with more widely read philosophers. The book’s aim to outline an approach to intentionality without succumbing to the Myths of the Given and to preserve transcendental friction both succeed. While the book is often very technical and dense in the usage of terminology that would be potentially prohibitive for a broader audience, I believe it merits recommendation for those working on issues relating to the nature of intentionality or the Myth(s) of the Given.
Dufrenne, Mikel. 1966. The Notion of the A Priori. Edward S. Casey, trans. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Farber, Marvin. 1943. The Foundation of Phenomenology. Albany: SUNY Press.
Hamrick, William. 2011. Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought. Albany: SUNY Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. J.N. Findlay, trans. London: Routledge. Husserliana (Hua) XIX/1 and XIX/2: Logische Untersuchungen. Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Theorie der Erkenntnis, Zwei Bänden, ed. Ursula Panzer. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2003. Nature: Course Notes from the College de France. Robert Vallier, trans. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Sachs, Carl. 2014. Intentionality and the Myths of the Given. New York: Routledge.
There is a growing concern in the world today, especially in contemporary philosophy, regarding nature. However, despite the strong concern, few texts adequately address the topic. In his work The Return of Nature, John Sallis attempts to show just how imperative it is that we reflect on nature and come to a new understanding of the relationship between humans, the current state of our world, and nature. This book serves as a solid call to arms, forcing us to reevaluate the meaning of nature and compelling us to take up the challenge of re-envisioning a future that is both sustainable and more fulfilling of our being.
The work emerges at the forefront of an ever growing concern with nature. With increased awareness of climate change and other environmental issues we face today, scholars from a wide array of disciplines have sought to address ways we can combat the evolving crises. In philosophy, nature has long been subject to investigation. Up until recently, the focus on nature was aimed at understanding its relationship to being or law, and related issues. Today, much of the focus has been on reconsidering various perspectives of nature in an attempt to account for the current movement to “return to nature,” with advocates for natural medicine, ecological living and energy.
This is indeed where Sallis fits; the goal of his text is to raise awareness to the necessity of accounting for nature in such a way that a paradigm shift occurs from man vs. nature, to man with nature. As with any text in this field it must not only provide a coherent and valid argument, but it must also draw from the tradition out of which it arises. Sallis utilizes German Idealism and American Transcendentalism to establish differing conceptions of nature as well as to interpret what a return to nature might mean for us today. Specifically, he focuses on the works of Emerson, Hegel, and Schelling in order to give an account of nature.
I believe that Sallis’ book can be broken down into three major sections based on the goal of each chapter. These are as follows: understanding nature, evaluating nature, and connecting nature to man. The first of these is the objective in the first three chapters, the second the middle three chapters, and the last the final two chapters. I will consider each of these sections as I see them in greater detail.
First, Sallis must provide a detailed background for viewing nature in the many ways that it has been understood. Accounting for the pre-Socratics through Nietzsche, he has done precisely this. In the first section, Sallis discusses the various ways in which nature can be said to “return.” He points out changing seasons, abandoned cities or buildings, and other instances in which nature may return – the meaning of return changing in different senses. In addition, “There are occasions when nature lets its beauty appear, when it shines forth in a scene so wondrous that it draws us into a contemplative repose in which we linger before the scene” Sallis writes (7).
Having set forth an explanation of the ways in which nature can be said to return, that is, the various meanings of “return” such that nature may do so, Sallis attempts to outline, in the second chapter, the origins of thought regarding nature, or what the Greeks termed φύσις, which reveals the etymological origins of the word to mean “birth” (28). Sallis then seeks to explore the foundations of nature in theoretical thought. He suggests that nature is “the place from within which natural things are born and determined as such” (29). Tracing nature in thought through German Idealism, and specifically through the philosophy of Schelling, Sallis concludes that nature tends to serve as grounding, a replacement for God. With this, “God can no longer be regarded as the causa sui but rather as progeny of the ground, as given birth by nature” (42).
Next, Sallis insists upon stablishing a distinction between the phrasing a “return of nature” and a “return to nature,” the former having been dealt with in the first chapter. The return to nature represents an often philosophical assertion, that we must derail the current trend of societal development and instead return to a state in which we give more regards to nature. As Sallis writes, it is an imperative which “presupposes that its addressees either have themselves retreated from nature or somehow been withdrawn from it, so that in either case they have been separated or at least distanced from nature” (44). Sallis considers the focus on a ‘return to nature’ through the theories of natural man in Rousseau, aesthetic judgment in Kant, and nature in Emerson. Following this, he briefly continues on into the German idealist tradition, as well as its successors in Nietzsche and Heidegger.
In accounting for Rousseau’s position on natural man as a starting point for a ‘return to nature’, Sallis notes that it “opens the way to a condition that, though not that of a savage, in a way accordant with modern life, approximate the state of nature” (46). It is thus theoretical and descriptive in content as it describes the state of nature, with the goal of leading to a method of critiquing or analyzing the modern political state. In the case of Rousseau then, the notion of a ‘return to nature’ is not asked on a sharp contradistinction between the separation of nature and this return. However, the opposite is true in Kant.
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant “begins by acknowledging the dependence of knowledge on experience, the primary movement enacted in the critical project consist in a regress from experience – primarily the experience of nature – to the a priori conditions of such experience, conditions that lie not in nature but in the subject,” Sallis notes (49). The separation of man from nature is evident in Kant’s theoretical philosophy, but is perhaps more profound in his practical, moral theory. According to Kant, morality consists in acting in accordance with the categorical imperative and goes against nature. Sallis writes “morality itself lies in self-determination that, utterly detached from natural inclination, is carried out in accordance with the moral law” (49).
Stemming out of this separation, this fierce distinction between man and nature, Emerson’s essay Nature, argues in favor of a ‘return to nature’ considering that man has so far removed himself from nature due to his entrapment in urban atmospheres. Emerson, Sallis suggests, saw “the human spirit is expanded by coming into proximity to nature, by returning from the detachment from nature inculcated and enforced by city life” (50). Thus nature serves as the means through which spirit manifests itself and presents itself contrary to its becoming subservient to materialism and the goals associated with materialism.
While I will not comment further on the general outline of the views of a return to nature as it develops in the German idealist tradition, it is clear the direction which it is headed. As Sallis writes, “From nature one is displayed to oneself in some specific manner” and that “The return to nature also awakens a sense of the elemental in nature and of our capacity to master and control it,” we can already note the progression this takes (51). For example, Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘Will to Power’ is easily traced and tied into this development of a ‘return to nature.’
In the first section of the text, Sallis has set-up the background for the ability to analyze the concept of ‘nature’ as such, a task which I have described as understanding nature. He has provided a detailed history of the development of ‘nature’ as a concept, including its ancient Greek origins as well as its changing tone in German Idealism. Additionally, he examined the conceptions of “return of nature” and a “return to nature” differentiating the two and clarifying the concern over nature in contemporary continental philosophy. In doing so, Sallis has given the reader the ability to understand nature such that they may critique and analyze nature along with the next aim of the text: evaluating nature.
The goal of evaluating nature is one of analysis and critique, through examining in detail the theories in which a certain conception of nature is presupposed. This section is condensed into a single chapter, chapter four, “Return to Nature from a Beyond Nature,” though it penetrates into the remainder of the work. In this chapter, Sallis argues that nature is, in one sense, reduced to mere sensation, i.e., colors and shapes. In this case, nature is no longer ‘nature’, i.e., landscapes and environs. In order that the former can be determined to be “reconstituted” as the latter, “determinacy must supervene upon it from elsewhere, from somewhere beyond nature,” and so thus, “posits a nature beyond nature” (61). Sallis traces this ‘beyond nature’ through Nietzsche’s thought and notes that the metaphysical ground of the beyond nature is shifted to a subjective ground. “Nature is thus recalled to nature,” or, in other words, nature is not constituted by a “nature beyond nature” anymore, but instead contains its own self-determinacy, nature as such (63).
Sallis then shifts in chapter five, “The Elemental Turn,” to applying philosophy to practical political and ecological concerns. This final section of the book, which I have termed, connecting man to nature, seeks, by making philosophy contemporary in its goals, to illustrate ways the philosophical conception of “return to nature” may be applied to a revised concern for nature and the environment. Thus, this section serves ultimately as a “call to arms,” a militancy, with the objective of eliminating a particular mode of living in the world that is not only contrary to, but ultimately destructive of our nature. It is the task of philosophy to “dismantle the frame of this turn so as to return to a nature,” which we have neglected throughout the whole of philosophy (74).
Overall then, this book is one of many in a push to reconsider and reevaluate nature, and our place within it. More importantly however, it joins the contemporary effort to utilize humanities research, especially philosophical research, to impact the global effort to combat our own actions that have proven devastating to the environment as well as to our very own nature. With that said, while this book expertly provides insight into how we ought to conceive of ‘nature’ such that a “return of nature” is possible, and even necessary, little is done to suggest where this might lead. The one effort made to provide a suggestion is what Sallis calls the “disintegration of difference” which involves the elimination of being a particular of being, and instead focused on the “plurality of being.” It is, Sallis writes, “precisely in being the kind it is, it would be devoid of selfsameness and so would not be a kind. There would be a disintegration of difference at the very heart of being” (119).
Sallis ends with questioning what this would lead to, but does not himself posit this future. Without this, the book almost feels incomplete. Unless, however, one considers this book amongst another which may perhaps put into perspective this emphasis on the plurality of being. Read together with the other works that complement each other in this emerging push for philosophy to influence practical issues, this book might be able to offer an alternative to our current mode of being in the world.
The Return of Nature is nevertheless an inspiring read which engages its readers from the very beginning. It can be read by anyone looking to open up their mind to the reflection on other ways to live more closely in tune with their own nature and to the nature that is around them.