Karsten Harries: The Antinomy of Being

The Antinomy of Being Book Cover The Antinomy of Being
Karsten Harries. Preface by: Dermot Moran
De Gruyter
Front matter: 22. Main content: 246

Reviewed by: Richard Colledge (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University)

Karsten Harries’ The Antinomy of Being, which is based on his final Yale graduate seminar, is a deeply ambitious study that brings to the table vast scholarship across a range of philosophical, as well as literary, theological, early modern scientific, and art historical sources. Focusing especially on what he presents as a key problematic in the work of Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Harries demonstrates the way that this notion of the antinomy of Being is at the heart of the condition of possibility of truth, and thus for any response to the spectre of nihilism. When taken as a whole, his arguments make a compelling case not only for the centrality and irreducibility of this issue across a range of philosophical fields, but also for any rigorous meta-philosophical reflection. This welcome development in Harries’ work is a text that challenges contemporary thought across various fields.

The idea of the antinomy of Being is one that Harries has presented and discussed numerous times in his writings over the last decade and a half in particular, generally as part of a more finely focused argument that opens into this larger underlying set of concerns.[1] However, in this 2019 monograph, Harries provides a fully developed account of what he describes as “the unifying thread of [his] philosophical musings” from over half a century of teaching, even if the term itself appeared in his work only comparatively recently (AB, 1).

“Antinomy” is associated with paradox; aporia; the limits of language; cognitive dissonance; and possibly even the limits of logic. More specifically (especially in a Kantian context), it relates to the clash between two apparently contradictory beliefs, each of which is entirely justifiable. Two of the four famous antinomies in Kant’s first Kritik (relating to space and time, freedom, substance and ultimate necessity) are the subject of explicit attention in this book, as is the way that the same fundamental problematic can be seen as being deeply at play in the work of Martin Heidegger and various other post-Kantian thinkers. The ways that these more specific cases arise in Harries’ text will be surveyed below. However, it is important also to note that Harries’ concern is not to simply paint his topic as an issue in the thought of a particular group of philosophers. To the contrary, his larger and more basic project is to show that the antinomy of Being is an irreducible element in all thought, cutting across all disciplines and genres. Consequently, its denial amounts to the distortion of thought, while coming to terms with it is the only pathway to intellectual (perhaps also existential) authenticity. For ultimately, it is a question of how it is possible to respond to the ever-present threat of nihilism (the topic of his 1962 doctoral dissertation). As he puts it early in his Introduction:

[O]ur thinking inevitably leads us into some version of this antinomy whenever it attempts to comprehend reality in toto, without loss, and that a consequence of that attempt is a loss of reality. All such attempts will fall short of their goal. What science can know and what reality is, are in the end incommensurable. Such incommensurability however, is not something to be grudgingly accepted, but embraced as a necessary condition of living a meaningful life. That is why the Antinomy of Being matters and should concern us. (AB, 2)

What is the nub of Harries’ contention? In a sense, the book is something of a manifesto for hermeneutical realism, and in such a way that places equal weight on both hermeneutics and realism as complementary poles of the antinomy of Being as a whole. On one hand, there is an absolute insistence on the finitude of all understanding (“hermeneutics goes all the way down” as the old adage has it), while on the other hand there is an equally strong insistence on the real as that which is finitely understood. In this way, the twin disasters of nihilism – i.e., idealism (nothing can be known; or there is no real as such) and dogmatism (in its many guises, be it scientism, religious fundamentalism, etc) – are both variations on the theme of denial of the ineluctable antinomy of Being. Both idealism and realism contain kernels of truth, but in canonising one side of the antinomy and marginalising the other, both are ideologies that destroy the balance required to underpin the possibilities of knowing in any genuine sense. On one hand, idealism absolutizes the rift between mind and world so that it is portrayed as an unbridgeable chasm that makes knowledge of the real impossible. On the other hand, in its claim to have captured and represented the real, there is something absurd and self-undermining in rationalistic realism, and in presenting a shrunken parody of the real it too vacates the space for nihilistic conclusions.

In seeking to do justice to both sides of the antinomy, Harries is not afraid to defend what he sees as the key insight of the Kantian antinomies that he links respectively (if unfashionably) to the transcendental and the transcendent dimensions of the real:

[T]he being of things has to be understood in two senses: what we experience are first of all phenomena, appearances, and as such their being is essentially a being for the knowing subject. Science investigates these phenomena. But the things we experience are also things in themselves, and as such they possess a transcendent being that eludes our comprehension. The identification of phenomena, of what science can know, with reality is shown to mire us in contradiction. (AB, 1)

I suggest that Harries’ stance invites comparison with other contemporary forms of hermeneutical realism, such as that developed by Günter Figal.[2] Figal’s approach places the focus on the problem of objectivity: of the thing’s standing over against the subject as irretrievably other, even in its being understood and grasped. As Figal puts it, “[h]ermeneutical experience is the experience of the objective [das Gegenständliche]—of what is there in such a way that one may come into accord with it and that yet never fully comes out in any attempt to reach accord.”[3] Similarly, it is this simultaneous knowability and unknowability of things that Harries highlights in his observation of the antinomy that characterises all understanding of the objective, of that which shows itself – only ever finitely and incompletely – as the real.

In the first chapter of the book, Harries sets out his account predominantly with reference not to Kant, but to Heidegger. These pages provide a condensed summary of some of the major aspects of his previously published readings of Heidegger that gather around this theme. For Harries, the confrontation with the antinomy of Being is at the heart of a key tension in Being and Time, a tension that Heidegger repeatedly returns to for the rest of his life. Even if Heidegger never used the term, Harries asserts that it is directly evoked in his notion of “the ontological difference” (the difference between beings and their Being [Sein]), for to attempt to think this difference Heidegger, he claims, “had to confront the Antinomy of Being” (AB, 15). As Heidegger outlines in §§43-44 of Being and Time, but more directly in his summer 1927 lecture course, there is a formidable problem here. On one hand, without Being, there would be no beings, and so Being is transcendental. Further, there is Being only when truth (and thus Dasein) exists, for without Dasein, there would be no revelation of beings. But on the other hand (and here the antinomy becomes evident), it cannot be said that beings, or nature as such, only are when there is Dasein. Nature does not need to be revealed to Dasein (there need be no event of truth) in order to be what it already is. We do not create beings; they “are given to us,” and our “experience of the reality of the real is thus an experience of beings as transcending Being so understood” (AB, 15). Being “transcend[s] … the Dasein-dependent transcendental Being to which Being and Time sought to lead us” (AB, 14). The antinomy of Being thus arises in this distinction Heidegger implicitly notes “between two senses of Being: the first transcendental sense relative to Dasein and in this sense inescapably historical, the second transcendent sense, gesturing towards the ground or origin of Dasein’s historical being and thus also of Being understood transcendentally” (AB, 15-16).[4]

To be sure, with this Heidegger interpretation Harries intervenes in well-established debates within (especially American) Heidegger scholarship. However, unlike the way much of that debate circles around early Heideggerian thought (and sometimes only Division 1 of Being and Time), Harries is concerned with the way that this same issue continued to play out – albeit in different terms –  in Heidegger’s later works. For example, he makes the interesting (unfortunately undeveloped) suggestion that Heidegger sometimes looks to differentiate these two senses of Being via the introduction of the Hölderlin-inspired spelling “Seyn” or in placing “Sein” under erasure. “Sein and Seyn are the two sides of my antinomy,” he explains: “Being understood as the transcendent ground of experience (Seyn) transcends Being understood transcendentally (Sein)” (AB, 16). However, the attempt to comprehend … the presencing (das Wesen) of Seyn will inevitably “become entangled in some version of the Antinomy of Being. Thus:

Any attempt to conceptually lay hold of that originating ground threatens to transform it into a being, such as God or the thing in itself and must inevitably fail. Here our thinking bumps against the limits of language. Being refuses to be imprisoned in the house of language. And yet this elusive ground is somehow present to us, calls us, if in silence, opening a window to transcendence in our world. (AB, 16)

For Harries, the notion of the Kehre in Heideggerian thought – understood as Heidegger himself presents it, as “a more thoughtful attempt to attend to the matter to be thought” –  is a step made necessary by “the antinomial essence of Being, which denies the thinker a foundation.” Indeed, Harries goes still further in doubling back to Kant: the “Antinomy of Being shows us why we cannot dispense with something like the Kantian understanding of the thing in itself as the ground of phenomena, even as the thing in itself eludes our understanding” (AB, 16-17).

In Chapter 2 (“The Antinomy of Truth”), Harries continues his engagement with Heideggerian thought, specifically concerning the paradox of language. Accordingly, language is both the way that beings are revealed and thus (transcendentally) come to be for us, whilst also limiting us to a finite encounter with the real that in itself transcends the limits of linguistic and thus worldly presentation. In other words, as Heidegger emphasised time and again (though it is also an insight voiced throughout philosophical history, from Plato to Wittgenstein and beyond), language both reveals and conceals the real, both revealling and “necessarily cover[ing] up the unique particularity of things” (AB, 25). Harries illustrates this point by opening the chapter with citations from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s evocative 1902 “Letter of Lord Chandos,” before then showing how Hofmannsthal’s insights were already voiced by figures as diverse as Aquinas, Kant and Nietzsche. After focusing on “the truth of phenomena” through a Kantian lens (in the course of which he illuminatingly quotes Copernicus on his own distinction between appearance and actuality in planetary observation), Harries then provides an extended analysis and critique of Heidegger’s account of truth. In partially sympathising with Tugendhat’s critique of Heidegger’s early notion of truth as alētheia, Harries goes on to maintain that transcendental subjectivity only makes sense in the context of transcendental objectivity. The real is only ever encountered and uncovered perspectivally, but the (infinite) array of possible perspectives (via the contingencies of worlding) points to a transcendent whole that is nonetheless inaccessible in its completeness to the finite subject:

To understand the subject as a subject that transcends all particular points of view is to presuppose that consciousness is tied to perspectives but transcends these perspectives in the awareness that they are just perspectives. The transcendental subject has its foundation in the self-transcending subject. (AB, 45)

In Harries view, in its focus on the finitude of phenomenological access, Heidegger’s early position fails to do justice to this larger context: Heidegger’s fundamental ontology “suggest[s] that the perspectival is prior to the trans-perspectival without inquiring into the meaning of this priority.” Further, it must be recognized that “the perspectival and the transperspectival cannot be divorced,” for human self-transcendence “stands essentially in between the two” (AB, 45). Nonetheless, even given this critique, Harries continues to insist, with Heidegger, on the ineluctability of finitude:

[T]he transcendental philosopher remains tied to a given language and subject to the perspectives it imposes, even as he attempts to take a step beyond them. The absolute of which he dreams must elude him. The pursuit of objectivity cannot escape its ground in the concrete. (AB, 45)

Chapter 3 (“The Architecture of Reason”) is largely devoted to the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche on this question. Focusing especially on the latter’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense,” Harries is in agreement with Nietzsche in his staunch opposition to linguistic realism: words do not simply express the inner essence of the things they re-present. “What we can grant him is that the thing in itself remains quite incomprehensible,” and so “what we are dealing with are always only appearances.” However, Harries also wants to insist on the key distinction between the thing-in-itself and objective appearance as such. After all, if the phenomenon just is the self-giving of the thing as it is – albeit finitely and perspectivally – then this makes sense of the possibility of similar perceptions; and this in turn is what makes shared concept formation possible. Furthermore, he argues, it is only thus that Nietzsche is able to sustain his own “social contract theory of language” (AB, 55). But on the other hand, Nietzsche’s linguistic idealism produces a savage critique of scientific rationalism which, he suggests, fails to see that its concepts are really metaphors, the product of the imagination. Concepts are “the ashes of lived intuition”, and scientific rationalism is therefore nothing other than a chasing after shadows. In leaving behind lived experience, science leaves us with death: a “columbarium of concepts” (AB, 63).

This link between science and loss – of the dangers of intellectualism that imperils the natural human experience of the real – is accentuated in the following chapter (“The Devil as Philosopher”) that presents an intriguing diptych of Fichte and Chamisso. Harries’ engagement with the former – who is his major philosophical interlocutor in this chapter – surveys the train of thought that led Fichte to the nihilism of his absolute idealist conclusions. But he also addresses the sense in which Fichte’s path of thought equivocally led out the other side through his conception of “conscience” by which a disinterested intellectualism is replaced by a spirit of conviction. It is thus that Harries sees Fichtean thought as subject again to “the call of reality, which is submerged whenever the world is seen as the desiccated object of a detached, theoretical understanding” (AB, 77). The hinge of the aforementioned diptych is made possible by Fichte’s historical exile from Jena to Berlin, where he met and befriended the romantic poet Adelbert von Chamisso, author of the cautionary tale of Peter Schlemihl. In Harries’ interpretation, Schlemihl – a character who (Faust-like) bargains with a demonic (Mephistopheles-like) philosopher to trade his shadow for unending wealth – is emblemic of the dark side of Enlightenment reason that would have us lose our natural embodied selves, our cultural and social particularities, our “homeland,” in pursuit of the ashes and emptiness of objectivity, soulless freedom and universal reason. Only disembodied ghosts cast no shadows. As Nietzsche would later suggest, disembodied reason is a form of living death. The rationalistic road by which Fichte would propose the inescapable mirror of consciousness that posits the world through its own volition is yet another form of failing to think through both sides of the antinomy of Being.

This leads Harries the full circle back to Heidegger, in a chapter titled “The Shipwreck of Metaphysics”, but also to a very contemporary application of the Heideggerian problematic. He begins by recalling his diagnosis of the antinomy of Being that emerges from Heidegger’s early thought (two irreducibly opposed senses of Being), and he notes Heidegger’s own admission (in his 1946/47 “Letter on Humanism”) that “[t]he thinking that hazards a few steps in Being and Time has even today not advanced beyond that publication.” Harries has us dwell on this impass with Heidegger. Was the whole incomplete project of Being and Time was therefore a dead-end? For Heidegger, it was not simply a “blind alley” (Sackgasse), but something far more telling: a Holzweg. The path of his thought was a very particular kind of losing of one’s way that is typical of “a genuinely philosophical problem” as Wittgenstein would put it (AB, 86). The Holzweg of Heideggerian thought leads us directly into the to the aporia of Being as such.

Harries goes on in this chapter to provide a very contemporary and “concrete” illustration of how this plays out in our own time with regard to the contortions of scientific materialism. He might have chosen any number of interlocutors in this field, but instead (in another hint of Harries’ intellectual generosity) he selects an interlocutor close at hand: a philosophically-minded colleague from Yale’s computer science department, Drew McDermott. With a nod to the medieval doctrine of “double truth” (condemned at Paris in 1277), Harries notes the way that his colleague is completely committed to the basic proposition that the natural sciences hold the key to all that is, can be, and will be understood, even as he admits that science cannot explain key aspects of our first-person experience of the world, including values we hold to be true. In this, he was inspired by Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world (that undermined a materialist “present-at-hand” projection of the world) , even though his commitment to the scientific attitude puts him at loggerheads with Heidegger. Harries sees in McDermott’s apparent cognitive dissonance the very aporia with which Kant and Fichte wrestled, and to which Heidegger’s own work was also to point.

The following chapter (“Limits and Legitimacy of Science”) expands upon this problem of the incompatibility of science with meaning, seen through the lens of the nineteenth century German physicist Heinrich Hertz (in his search for simple comprehensive scientific principles to comprehend the world), the early Wittgenstein (who despite similar aspirations famously concluded that “the sense of the world must lie outside the world”), and Kant (who similarly wanted to entirely affirm the scientific attitude even as he affirmed the truth of dimensions that transcend, and are precluded by, the sciences: freedom, immortality, God).

What begins to emerge in Chapter 7 (“Learning from Laputa”) are twin themes that will come to dominate the later parts of the book: the notion of seeking to escape from the confines of earthly existence through rationality and scientific application, and the theme of being-at-home. Harries’ major inspiration here is Swift’s portrayal of the Laputians in Gulliver’s Travels, who in creating their flying island revel in their (albeit ambiguous) transcendence of standard physical constraints and social bonds. These men of Laputa literally “have their heads in the clouds,” as they exist detached from their earthy home. Indeed, Harries notes the allusions here to Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and he sees both productions as parodies of rationalistic hubris (AB, 119). Here we see the link made to Heidegger’s critique of technology, which not only involves the triumph of curiosity (seen also in the Laputians), but also the flight from grounded human dwelling. Like Peter Schlemihl, with technological enframing, we lose our shadows.

Harries’ upward orientation continues in Chapter 8 as he turns to the cosmological revolution of the sixteenth century. A key figure here is Giordano Bruno, whose execution is understood in the context of an absolute commitment to the sovereignty of rational freedom, and more specifically the implications of his championing of the idea of infinite time and space. In such a universe, conceptions of boundedness, constraint, society, embodiedness, home and homecoming – one might say facticity –  are lost. As Nietzsche pointed out, there is no longer any horizon, no up or down. But Harries similarly points to the earlier tradition of Germanic mysticism (from Walther von der Vogelweide, to Ruysbroeck, to Eckhart and Suso) that made similar gestures toward the power of self-transcendence and freedom of thought to leave the body behind and even challenge the boundary between the human and the Divine. Here the thinking of space through intellectual freedom leads to antinomy. On one hand, space must be limited, since otherwise location would be impossible; but on the other hand, space cannot be limited since there can be nothing outside of space.

On the basis of this extensive groundwork, in Chapters 9 and 10 Harries turns, respectively, to other Kantian antinomies: concerning freedom and time. With reference also to Fichte, he sets out the terms of Kant’s antinomy of freedom: that on one hand there are two kinds of causality in the world (via laws of nature, and via the law of freedom, since otherwise it would be impossible to account for spontaneous events that are not reducible to natural cause and effect), while on the other hand freedom is clearly precluded by the necessary laws of nature (since otherwise the flow of events would lose their regularity). He follows this line of thought into Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which freedom is defended “from a practical point of view” in terms of the experience of persons (AB, 159). But again, Harries is keen to show the perennial nature of this problem, returning to the Paris Condemnations to show that these same irresolvable issues are at play both in terms of the understanding of God’s freedom (Divine voluntarism vs rationalism) and human freedom (in the context of knowledge and sin).

The richly textured chapter on Kant’s antinomy of time (that draws in also Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle, Rilke and Heidegger), takes a series of perspectives on the theme. On one hand, time must be bounded (and the world must have a beginning), since otherwise there could be no foothold in time within which events could occur. But on the other hand, it makes no ordinary sense to conceive of an event outside of time, so time must be infinite. As Harries points out concerning the latter, Kant is thinking here of the idea of time as a complete and infinite whole, an incomprehensible “noumenal substrate.” Here the notion of the sublime in the third Kritik is helpful. Sublime nature, for example, cannot be phenomenonally comprehended as a whole, but it can be thought, and here reason comes to the fore even as imagination and understanding are outstripped. This power of reason to think the infinite, points to the human capacity to transcend its finitude in a certain sense at least that nonetheless conflicts with the ongoing finitude of understanding. The noumenal is thinkable, but not understandable.

It is perhaps something of a shortcoming of the book that Harries doesn’t do the detailed work of relating the structure of the Kantian antinomies in general to his proposal about the antinomy of Being as such. However, the main outlines can be inferred. The logic would seem to be that the “thesis” and “antithesis” sides of Kant’s antinomies speak to the two senses of Being that Harries delineates: the transcendental and the transcendent (or the phenomenological and the noumenal). If, for Kant, transcendental idealism was the means by which these two were held in tension, Harries would seem to be suggesting that we need a robust sense of the Holzwege that both joins and separates what Heidegger wrote of as Realität and des realen: worldly reality and the inaccessible real.[5]

The final chapters of the book (Chapter 11 on “The Rediscovery of the Earth”, and Chapter 12 on “Astronoetics”) focus on this notion of the tension between human finitude and our attractedness to the heavens, to the infinite. We live with a double truth here: we are at home in our local domestic communities even as we are aware that we dwell on a planet that is spinning through space at extraordinary speed. Some of us long to realise the ubiquitous human desire to transcend our earthly dwelling place (as seen in ancient theories and myths, from Thales, to Vitruvius, to Icarus, to Babel, to modern hot air balloons and space flight), and the recent innovation of literal astronautical transcendence of the earth’s atmosphere has given us a taste of what this might mean. In our own times, there is talk of humanity becoming a space-travelling, multi-planetary species. However, Harries insists that we remain mortals, and (for the foreseeable future) creatures of the earth. The brave new world of space flight remains parasitic on the rich and nurturing resources of our home planet. He goes on to reminds us of the long tradition of Christian suspicion of pagan hubris (Augustine vs Aristotle): yes, we are made in God’s image, but human curiosity is also at the root of the fall.

These many themes are continued into the chapter on Astronoetics. The key question here concerns the human relationship to our origin: our earthly home. Are there limits to human self-manipulation and our manipulation of the earth? In order to think through such questions, aeronautics needs to be complemented by what Hans Blumenberg termed astronoetics: the act of thinking or dreaming our way imaginatively through space while remaining “safely ensconced at home.” (AB, 189). This is eventually a matter of thinking deeply about what is at stake in human ambition. Harries presents Jean-François Lyotard and the artist Frank Stella as representatives of the alternative he terms “postmodern levity.” This approach is uninterested in what they characterise as the modern (philosophical and artistic) nostalgic longing for a “lost centre or plenitude,” instead freely revelling in immanence and innovation. If modern art, in its “unhappy consciousness” is “never quite at home in the world,” the post-modern is characterised by a resolute this-worldliness (AB, 204). If modernity looks to evoke that which is finally unpresentable, artists like Frank Stella strive to create works of art that simply satisfy, are fully present, and eschew any ambition to point beyond themselves to obscured dimensions of truth or reality. Needless to say, such an approach is the antithesis of Harries’ account of the incomprehensible presence of the real in things as ordinary and precious as the experience of other human beings and the beauty of nature (see AB, 209).

It cannot be said that Harries’ Conclusion (titled “The Snake’s Promise”) succeeds in pulling together the various threads of his rich and ambitious book. But then again, for a book that deals with the the irreducible antinomy of Being, this seems apt. There are no neat resolutions to be had here. Perhaps this is already intimated in the re-encapsulation of the meaning of the antinomy of Being with which the chapter begins: that “reality will finally elude the reach of our reason, that all attempts to comprehend it will inevitably replace reality with more or less inadequate human constructions.” (AB, 216) In musising further on Heidegger’s critique of technology, Harries shows himself to be largely on the same page as Heidegger, though he is slightly sceptical about a simplistic nostalgic call to return to a pre-industrial golden age. Science and technology have profoundly changed our context, and there is no lineal return.

However, what the final pages do provide is a concluding and scathing critique of the distortions and banishments of the real by science, by art, in education and in popular culture. Science “seeks to understand reality in order to master it” (AB, 233), but in this never-ending quest, it reduces the real through perspectivalism and objectification, alienating us from it. Second, “aestheticizing art” obscures the real insofar as in simply looking to entertain it asks nothing of us. In both cases, the real lies inaccessible and largely forgotten behind the image. In fact, neither the artist, nor the scientist, are second Gods (as per the snake’s promise in the garden), for the work of both is parasitic on the underlying reality that make them possible. Third, and worse still, is the aestheticization of thinking itself: “the transformation of humanistic scholarship into an often very ingenious intellectual game.” (AB, 233) Fourth, and worst of all, is the attempt to aestheticize reality, especially by technological means, for in this way, reality is counterfeited; the real becomes the surreal.

Where does Harries’ extraordinary book leave us? Perhaps most of all with a plea to respect the real, by making a space for its unexpected appearings, to await its uncontrolled showings, and to resist the temptation (driven by our own anxieties) to partialize or even falsify it. I can do no better than to end with Harries’ own appeal:

[E]very attempt to [manipulate reality] … makes us deaf to its claims, denies us access to its transcendence in which all meaning finally has its ground, a ground that by its very essence will not be mastered. To open windows to that reality we must find the strength to abandon the hope to take charge of reality, the hope to be in this sense like God. Only such strength will allow us to be genuinely open to the claims persons and things place on us, will let us understand that we do not belong to ourselves, that we cannot invent or imagine what will give our lives measure and direction, but have to receive and discover it. (AB, 233-34)

[1] See Karsten Harries, “The Antinomy of Being and the End of Philosophy,” in Division III of Heidegger’s Being and Time: The Unanswered Question of Being, ed. Lee Braver (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 133-47; Harries, “The Antinomy of Being: Heidegger’s Critique of Humanism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, ed. Steven Crowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 178-198; and Harries, Wahrheit: Die Architektur der Welt (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2012). For a thoughtful engagement with the last of these, see Steven Crowell, “Amphibian Dreams: Karsten Harries and the Phenomenology of ‘Human’ Reason,” in Husserl, Kant and Transcendental Phenomenology, ed. Iulian Apostolescu and Claudia Serban (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020), 479-504.

[2] For more on this, see my “Thomism and Contemporary Phenomenological Realism: Toward a Renewed Engagement,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 95, no. 3 (2021): 411–432 (esp. 417ff).

[3] Günter Figal. Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy. trans. Theodore George (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 2.

[4] For a not dissimilar reading of the dynamics at play in this area of early Heideggerian thought, and of how this plays out in his later thought, see my “The Incomprehensible ‘Unworlded World’: Nature and Abyss in Heideggerian Thought,” forthcoming in The Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology.

[5] See, e.g., Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 255 [SZ: 212]; Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 217 [GA20: 298].

Andrew M. Jampol-Petzinger: Deleuze, Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Selfhood, Edinburgh University Press, 2022

Deleuze, Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Selfhood Book Cover Deleuze, Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Selfhood
Andrew M. Jampol-Petzinger
Edinburgh University Press
Hardback £80.00

Alexander Schnell: Zeit, Einbildung, Ich: Phänomenologische Interpretation von Kants “Transzendentaler Kategorien-Deduktion”, Klostermann, 2022

Zeit, Einbildung, Ich: Phänomenologische Interpretation von Kants "Transzendentaler Kategorien-Deduktion" Book Cover Zeit, Einbildung, Ich: Phänomenologische Interpretation von Kants "Transzendentaler Kategorien-Deduktion"
Klostermann Rote Reihe 148
Alexander Schnell
Paperback 24,80 €

Publisher Page

Simon Truwant: Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos, Cambridge University Press, 2022

Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos: The Philosophical Arguments Book Cover Cassirer and Heidegger in Davos: The Philosophical Arguments
Simon Truwant
Cambridge University Press
Hardback £ 75.00

Dietrich von Hildebrand: What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy? Book Cover What is Philosophy?
Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introduction by Robert Sokolowski
Hildebrand Project
Paperback $18.25

Reviewed by: Peter Shum (University of Warwick)



Any philosopher’s epistemology will exert a considerable influence on his or her attitude toward the place and significance of religion in human life. Even for non-philosophers, and those of us who may not be academically inclined, our openness and receptiveness toward religion will be implicitly influenced by numerous general epistemological considerations. These might include our understanding of what kinds of things are amenable to being known, the possible modalities of their disclosure, and the appropriate criteria for confirming the validity of any ostensible discovery.

Dietrich von Hildebrand attaches particular significance to the place of religion in our lives, and to the kind of philosophical enquiry that can be conducive toward religious conviction and commitment. He thinks not only that philosophical knowledge has its climax in its knowledge of the existence and attributes of God, but that philosophy itself is the fundamental activity of the mind turned toward God, and that the proximity of an object’s relation to God is the yardstick by which philosophers ought to rate the importance of the objects of philosophical knowledge. He maintains that religious convictions count as knowledge, and that God is able to disclose Himself to, and communicate with ordinary religious practitioners who may not themselves have the requisite intellectual capacities for critical philosophical enquiry.

Impartial readers of What is Philosophy? are entitled to ask themselves whether Hildebrand’s epistemology has the resources to warrant such a trenchant affirmation of the importance of religion. Of particular relevance here is Hildebrand’s response to Kant’s revolutionary claim that human knowledge about the universe is necessarily delimited by subjective a priori features of the mind. An important part of Hildebrand’s reply centres on the idea that synthetic a priori truths can be discovered during metaphysical enquiry because at least some objects are capable of being given to us in their essential being. Let us examine closely how Hildebrand develops his position, before trying to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

Knowledge in General

An important starting point for Hildebrand lies in the anthropological question concerning the distinction between humans and animals. Hildebrand observes that humans, unlike animals, are inclined to wonder about the meaning of life, and the destiny of their own species. This is part of what it means to say that humans are “ordered toward eternity”. Philosophical questioning of this kind is an intrinsic part of being human. For this reason, Hildebrand regards epistemology as first philosophy, and begins the book with an account of knowledge in general. As the book proceeds, the epistemological enquiry narrows its focus to seek to clarify the true nature of a priori knowledge.

When Hildebrand accords knowing the status of a foundational phenomenological datum, he means that knowing as such is an act of consciousness that cannot be reduced to anything else. He seeks to investigate the phenomenology of knowing: to consider “what it is like” to know something, and to bring to light the essential structures of this fundamental act. For Hildebrand, knowing is an intentional participation in the world. In the first instance, knowing is essentially receptive: it is a receiving, not a producing. Yet this is not the whole story, for if knowing is receptive, it is not purely passive. Knowing has an active element, in that there is a mental “going with” the object. This “going with” the object is an intellectual penetration of it. It is a “making common cause” with the object. We find, then, that while it is true that the object discloses itself to the subject, there is an active cooperation on the part of consciousness with the self-disclosure of the object. Knowing is in this sense a mental possessing of the object, an intentional participation in the object’s being. I note en passant that there is a connection between Hildebrand’s  “going with” account of knowledge and the topic of empathy.

The subject’s response to the object may be an affective one, such as love. On the other hand, a response could be theoretical, like conviction or conjecture. Hence an important difference between conviction and knowing is that knowing is a receiving, whilst conviction is a response to that receiving. In other words, conviction is secondary with respect to knowing. Conviction posits not only the existence of the object, but a state-of-affairs pertaining to the object. The question of the metaphysical positing of the object of knowledge over against merely affirming that there is a fact of the matter about the object’s properties turns out to be an important theme in Hildebrand’s epistemology as the book proceeds.

Taking cognizance of something is predominantly passive, but judging and asserting are more active. A precondition of judging and asserting is a prior act of taking cognizance. The object of an act of judging is a state-of-affairs, i.e. a putative fact. Asserting objectifies knowing (taking cognizance) into a proposition.

Basic Forms of Knowledge

We find, then, that there are different kinds of knowledge, which can take place in different ways, and with different possible kinds of object being known. One kind of knowing involves the epistemic state of knowing about something, or knowing a fact, a set of facts, or a body of information. This kind of knowing can have varying levels of certitude. It is said to be superactual in the sense that I might happen to know [wissen], for example, that the capital of China is Beijing, regardless of whether I am thinking about this fact at the present time. Superactual knowing is possible due to the conserving power of the human mind. Superactual knowledge can influence my understanding of a given situation in an implicit manner, i.e. a manner which is not consciously foregrounded. Hildebrand wants to include religious convictions in this kind of knowing.

An important distinction that Hildebrand wishes to emphasise is between a static knowing and a dynamic coming to know something. An episode of taking cognizance is said to be (epistemically) dynamic because the subject comes to know something during the episode, something s/he did not know before. Static cases of knowing are normally the outcome of a dynamic episode of taking cognizance, or of multiple such episodes. An epistemological theme that Hildebrand develops is this idea of a dynamic taking cognizance “giving birth” to a static possessing.

The Nature of Philosophical Knowledge

In Chapter 3, Hildebrand elaborates in more detail upon his taxonomy of different types of knowledge. Two key distinctions that he draws attention to are (a) the distinction between pre-systematic and philosophical enquiry; and (b) the distinction between naïve and theoretical pre-systematic enquiry. As far as (a) is concerned, pre-systematic enquiry is the kind of enquiry we often undertake that falls short of the rigorous requirements of philosophy. As far as (b) is concerned, theoretical pre-systematic enquiry involves reflection, whilst naïve pre-systematic enquiry does not.

When Hildebrand looks more closely at instances of naïve pre-systematic enquiry, he discovers that they come in several different types. Some instances are completely unthematic, whilst others are tacitly thematic. Some instances are what Hildebrand calls “pragmatic”, such as a cook checking to see if a pan of water is boiling. Pragmatic object thematicity sees the object in instrumental terms. There is a particularly important form of non-pragmatic enquiry, which Hildebrand calls “special naïve taking cognizance”. When special naïve taking cognizance takes place, an object becomes “crystal clear […] in its deepest nature” to the observer. An example of this is suddenly seeing the true nature of someone’s personality.

Theoretical knowledge is knowledge that stems from reflection, over against knowledge that stems from perception. This is to say that in the transition from naïve enquiry to a theoretical attitude, something is gained, namely reflection, but something is also lost, namely proximity to the object. So-called “organic” theoretical knowledge grows “organically” out of episodes of naïve taking cognizance. It is a kind of condensation of episodes of naïve taking cognizance.

The foregoing discussion of non-systematic enquiry positions Hildebrand to specify some of the distinctive characteristics of a truly philosophical form of enquiry. In philosophical enquiry, the degree of certitude attached to a state-of-affairs is always commensurate with its level of givenness. Philosophical taking cognizance seeks to penetrate to an even deeper level of the concrete givenness of the object than naïve taking cognizance. Philosophical knowledge is always self-critical in the sense of examining its own (a) well-foundedness of premises; (b) stringency of arguments. (It is interesting to note in this context that notwithstanding the stress Hildebrand places on self-criticality and rigour in philosophy, he also maintains that there is a place under certain conditions for the transmission of philosophical truths by tradition.) A particularly high degree of knowledge thematicity is present during philosophical enquiry. Yet philosophical cognizance very often also foregrounds enquiry into the object in its own right. So there is in operation in philosophical enquiry both thematicity of enquiry and thematicity of the object. Sometimes the thematicity of enquiry predominates, and sometimes the thematicity of the object predominates. In all cases, however, there needs to be an organic stemming of philosophical conclusions from episodes of naïve taking cognizance.

We might say that Hildebrand perceives a “snake in the grass” threatening the philosophical project. He places this threat under the rubric of “superficial thinking”. Superficial thinking can be unself-critical, unsystematic, and liable to lose all authentic contact with the object. Hildebrand discusses a variety of possible causes of superficial thinking. Superficial thinking may rely on arguments that one has learned unquestioningly from someone else. It may involve an unjustified generalisation taken from a single perceptual episode. It may involve the unconscious acceptance of premises that are mistakenly presumed to be self-evident. Another mistake is to import a statement from science into philosophy and then treat the statement as metaphysical. An example of this would be claiming that miracles are impossible. The outcome of such lapses is often a prejudicing, impairment, or interruption of the accuracy of attempts at naïve taking cognizance. The superficial thinker’s enquiry fails to penetrate to the concrete givenness of the object.

The Object of Philosophical Knowledge

In Hildebrand’s phenomenology, there emerges an alignment of truth with being. One example of this alignment is to be found in Hildebrand’s view that the principle of non-contradiction is true not by virtue of being a tautology, but instead on the grounds that it is established by rational intuition. Hildebrand’s justification here is that when an existent object is brought to givenness, its existence is intuitionally self-evident. In this context, one sees that it is not possible for something to both be and not be. This renders the principle of non-contradiction synthetic (i.e. not analytic) in the Kantian terminology. Hildebrand thus upholds Kant’s synthetic/analytic distinction, even though he may on occasion use the term “tautological” in the place of analytic, and “non-tautological” in the place of synthetic.

In Hildebrand’s view, one of the most important aims of philosophy is to discover a priori states-of-affairs. But what exactly does Hildebrand mean by a priori? An a priori state-of-affairs is one which is intrinsically necessary. This does not mean that all a priori states-of-affairs are restricted to logic and mathematics. On the contrary, Hildebrand considers propositions like “Moral values presuppose a person as bearer”, “Love includes a desire for union”, “Moral guilt presupposes responsibility”, and “It is not possible for an object to both be and not be” to be synthetic a priori. When it is discovered, an a priori state-of-affairs is known with certainty. This view of a priori knowledge is strongly influenced by that of Plato in Meno. It is distinct from another sense of the a priori that is common in philosophy, which is that of a formal prerequisite.

For Hildebrand, it is certainly not the case that all a priori knowledge is obvious at first sight. Instead, a priori knowledge can be acquired by intuitional contact with the object, or by logical deduction, or by some combination of the two. Yet philosophers should be able to explain their a priori findings to others in such a way that they can become either self-evident or strictly proved by deduction. Deduction itself is ultimately founded upon an intuitional grasping of the truth of the laws of logic.

A priori givenness is completely different from empirical givenness. Ascertaining an essentially necessary state-of-affairs does not depend upon empirical evidence. It depends only upon the givenness of a necessary essence. A necessary essence could be given in a dream or in an act of the imagination. The foundation of the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge is the faculty of the intuition of a necessary essence. So experience is involved here, but not empirical experience.

There are different types of unity. A heap of trash is an accidental unity. Secondly, the essence of gold, and of the lion species are known as morphic unities. Thirdly, in Hildebrand’s terminology, there are necessary essential unities, which are the same as intrinsically necessary unities. Hildebrand also refers to these as genuine essences. Examples of genuine essences are love, triangle, person, number, moral value.

This brings us to Hildebrand’s notion of intelligibility. The heap of trash mentioned above is intelligible as a unity, but only just. It is lacking in meaningfulness. It has the character of being accidental or contingent. Of greater intelligibility are the morphic unities and the regularities in nature that can be discovered by science. These entities and patterns have a kind of necessity to them, but it is a natural necessity as opposed to an intrinsic necessity. We might say that they are naturally intelligible. Hildebrand reserves the highest level of intelligibility, which he calls incomparable intelligibility, for entities and states-of-affairs that are intrinsically necessary. Entities and states-of-affairs having the property of being incomparably intelligible are capable of being known with certainty. They become self-evident in the course of phenomenological enquiry. An example of an incomparably intelligible state-of-affairs is “Moral values presuppose a person as bearer.”

Having intuitional access to a genuine essence is not the same as being able to define it. The essence of love, for example, is amenable to phenomenological investigation, but it is not amenable to being defined. In Hildebrand’s view, it is a mistake to think that the intuition of genuine essences is somehow less philosophically respectable than (a) finding a definition; (b) formulating a concept; or (c) deductive reasoning. A genuine essence, by virtue of its incomparable intelligibility, can be known with certainty by philosophers. This, however, is not the same as indefeasibility on the part of the knower. This is to say that philosophers are justified in attributing certainty to their knowledge of a genuine essence in the case that it becomes self-evident to them, but the findings of philosophers always remain defeasible. Hildebrand regards it as an absolutely certain philosophical discovery that genuine essences have their own autonomous being in their own ideal metaphysical sphere.

Hildebrand understands metaphysics to be the philosophy of real being, both possible and actually existing. The metaphysical picture that he sets out involves a concrete sphere of individual objects and an ideal sphere of essences. Both the concrete and the ideal spheres count as real in Hildebrand’s metaphysics. Hildebrand’s main criticism of Kant is that Kant was wrong to think that metaphysical enquiry could not disclose synthetic a priori truths about the noumenal world. Hildebrand argues that he has disproven this key Kantian tenet, by showing that it is possible to acquire a priori knowledge of genuine essences. Statements affirming what we intuit about genuine essences are synthetic a priori truths about the way things are in themselves, which will hold true in any universe.

Hildebrand admits that he does not provide a very detailed explication of how the ideal and concrete spheres interact with each other, saying that this is a very mysterious problem. What he is prepared to say on this matter is that the two spheres are “bonded” very closely, and that there is significant variation between such things as numbers, colours, moral values, and persons, in their modes of existence, and in the modes of “bonding” that can take place between the concrete and ideal spheres. The relation between the concrete sphere and the ideal sphere is one of “partaking”. Hildebrand also maintains that it is plausible to hypothesise that genuine essences exist “in God” in some sense or senses that remain to be clarified.

This brings us to the question of the place and significance of God in Hildebrand’s philosophy. Hildebrand’s concept of God is that of an infinite person who is the ground and source of all existence. Hildebrand believes the Cosmological Argument validly shows the existence of such a God. This God has a sui generis mode of existence that Hildebrand calls “necessary real existence”, which is a different mode of existence from that possessed by genuine essences.

Objectivity and Independence from the Human Mind

One of the main questions considered in Chapter 5 concerns the relation between electromagnetic waves and colours. Are they the same kind of thing? Is one more real than the other? Are colours fully objective? This discussion helps to illuminate Hildebrand’s metaphysics, clarifying his view of which entities can be regarded as metaphysically real, and the place of the objects of science in this metaphysical picture.

Hildebrand’s investigation into the phenomenology of perceiving a colour concludes that colours are different from the objects of science, on the grounds that something cannot be such-and-such a colour mind independently, but instead can only be such-and-such a colour for a perceiving consciousness. Colours, then, cannot be said to be mind independent, because truth claims about the colour of objects presuppose the cooperation of the human mind. Hildebrand notes that the term “subjective” has many possible senses in philosophy, and that it is for this reason ambiguous to assert that colours are subjective. However, if “subjective” is taken strictly and solely in the sense of presupposing the cooperation of the human mind, then propositions of the form “X is subjectively such-and-such a colour” are capable of being objectively true or false, with the proviso that such statements do not belong to science. This is sufficient, in Hildebrand’s view, to make colours objectively real. An important corollary of this latter conclusion is that some things are objectively real without being mind independent. Colours and electromagnetic waves are on different “levels” of being, because electromagnetic waves are mind independent whilst colours are not.

One of the most distinctive and unusual features of Hildebrand’s account of our perception of the natural world lies in his view that some (and only some) phenomenal properties are capable of bearing a “message” character. The message characteristic consists in the relevant phenomenal property appearing as if it were a message, ostensibly from God. Colours are capable of bearing this characteristic. For a believer in God, this message character amounts to “God-willed”. If something is “God-willed” it is thereby meaningful. Possessing a message character is evidence for the observer that an object is real. An example of this message character could be an apprehension by an observer that a blue sky is intended by God to look blue to humans. This gives the blueness of the sky an objective validity.

Hildebrand’s account of the message characteristic of certain phenomenal properties is bound up with his view that God created the world, and that humans are intended by God to be masters of creation. The manner in which an object appears to humans is held to be pertinent to its objective meaning, on the grounds that God created this world for humans. This line of reasoning supports Hildebrand’s conclusion that colour has an objective meaning for humans. According to this view, one of the reasons God created electromagnetic waves was to make colours visible to humans. The red colour of a rose is no mere illusion. Instead, if a rose looks red, it does so because it is intended to look like that by God.

The Two Basic Themes of Knowledge

The title of Chapter 6 turns out to be somewhat ambiguous, since it could refer either to the distinction between perceptual and non-perceptual knowledge or to the distinction between cognitive and contemplative knowing, both of which are relevant to what is discussed. Perceptual knowledge is more foundational than its non-perceptual counterpart, in Hildebrand’s view, on the grounds that during perception [Wahrnehmung] the object is given presentationally to consciousness. Perceptual knowledge is what preoccupies Hildebrand in this chapter, and his main finding is that perception can contain both cognitive and contemplative moments. These are supplementary to the moment of “taking cognizance” that is discussed earlier in the book. Intellectual intuition supports both the cognitive and the contemplative parts of knowing an essence. Cognitive knowing, which precedes contemplative knowing, is a grasping or apprehension of the object for what it is. Cognitive knowing, in Hildebrand’s terminology, is “notional”, enabling the subject to “appropriate” the object. Contemplative knowing, by contrast, is more intimate, involving a “dwelling within” the object by consciousness. Contemplation is only appropriate in relation to certain kinds of “spiritual” object, such as an artwork, a personality, or a value. Taken collectively, Hildebrand proposes that the three perceptual moments of taking cognizance, cognition, and contemplation are able to “fecundate” the subject’s mind in an especially “intimate” and “plentiful” way.

Characteristic Features of Philosophical Knowledge and Enquiry

When it comes to the question of philosophical method, Hildebrand sets great store on rigour. This is what Hildebrand means when he says that philosophical enquiry must always be “critical”. Premises must be justified; intuitions must be evident; arguments must be stringent. There can be no place for whimsical or fanciful thoughts. Indeed, philosophy, in Hildebrand’s view, should be no less rigorous than science. However, Hildebrand does recognise that there is a difference between scientific rigour and philosophical rigour. Science and philosophy go about their business in different ways, and have differing methods. When it comes to valuing scientific and philosophical rigour, Hildebrand regards the form of exactness to be found in philosophy to be superior to that of science.

Hildebrand recognises that this attitude toward rigour in philosophy raises a problem. If the highest quality philosophy really does proceed in such a rigorous way, why do so many philosophical questions remain mired in controversy? One would have thought that if the kind of rigour Hildebrand aspires to were attainable, then the field of philosophical knowledge would be expanding in much the same fashion, and with as little controversy, as mathematical and scientific knowledge. To be sure, controversies do arise from time to time in mathematics and science, but they are normally resolved relatively quickly. The situation is quite different in philosophy.

In the course of Chapter 7, Hildebrand indicates three ways of defending himself against this objection. The first way is to argue that the view that philosophical debates seem to be intractably mired in controversy is excessively bleak. He contends that many important philosophical insights are completely uncontroversial. Examples of these are Augustine’s “Si fallor, sum”, Plato’s distinction between a priori and empirical knowledge, and Kant’s distinction between synthetic and analytic propositions. Such great philosophical discoveries are never “dethroned”. This claim leads Hildebrand to suppose that there is no reason in principle why philosophical controversies should not be resolved satisfactorily, even if the time it might take for such controversies to be resolved should happen to be de facto longer than is the norm in mathematics and science.

Hildebrand’s second line of response is to argue that there are two special reasons peculiar to the way humans carry out philosophical activity that are conducive to controversies arising. Firstly, not everyone develops the requisite philosophical capacities properly. This can result in some so-called “philosophers” departing from the strict requirements of critical philosophy. Secondly, some philosophical truths are opposed because people have a subconscious reluctance to accept the implications of such truths for their personal and moral life.

Hildebrand’s third line of response is to suggest that science is more controversial than we might think. From an historical perspective, we find that science continually replaces one theory with another. So science is “controversial” in that sense. Hildebrand fails to note, however, that mathematics is not “controversial” in this sense.

The Meaning of Philosophy for the Human Person

In the concluding chapter of What is Philosophy?, Hildebrand makes the case for an especially central role for philosophy in human life, by arguing that philosophical knowledge has its climax in our knowledge of the existence and attributes of God. Philosophy is continuous with the pre-scientific view of the world, which is a naïve living contact. This means that instead of pulling the rug away from under the naïve understanding of the world, as science often seems to do, philosophy starts from, and clarifies what is already given in, our naïve living contact with the world. Philosophical enquiry is for this reason a more fundamental “position” of the human mind than the scientific attitude, and is able, furthermore, to grant the subject a participation in the being of its objects.

Only from the philosophical standpoint does the real meaning of things become clear. This affects our understanding of their relative value and consequently shapes the human personality in accordance with philosophical truth. Grasping philosophical truth, or coming into contact in some way with others who have themselves grasped philosophical truth, helps the individual to maintain and deepen his living contact with the world. The complaint that philosophy may seem abstruse and disconnected from real life is therefore mistaken.

Not everyone can be a philosopher. Hildebrand considers some ways in which the enormous benefits flowing from philosophical knowledge might be shared with those who lack the intellectual wherewithal to grasp it directly. The answer is to begin at the level of naïve living contact and then distil out of it the philosophical principle. Ordinary people rooted in a naïve living contact with reality are endowed with a latent sense for truth. Such non-philosophers have a “receptivity” to philosophical truth since it is continuous with their own naïve experience. This receptivity makes possible an encounter between the ordinary person and genuine philosophical findings. The bringing of philosophical truth to ordinary people is important in Hildebrand’s eyes, since he regards philosophy as constituting the proper foundation for the formation of people’s political views, and the foundation of a society’s culture, art, and literature. Philosophy is thus capable of exerting a pervasive influence on the lives of ordinary people.

The most important role that Hildebrand assigns to philosophy, however, is that it should be a preamble to faith. It orientates the mind toward the eternal, and prepares the soul for God’s revelation. Yet it is worth noting that for a book stressing the foundational importance of philosophy for human life, the final chapter has a surprising claim embedded within it, for Hildebrand maintains that that which “[…] is disclosed by revelation remains beyond what is accessible to philosophy.” This raises the problem of epistemological justification for what is putatively disclosed by revelation.

Objection 1: The Question of Philosophical Rigour

In support of his claim that philosophy is in the process of building up a generally accepted and uncontroversial body of knowledge, Hildebrand cites a number of important philosophical findings that attract few objections. This line of reasoning is not compelling for two reasons. Firstly, I note that the list of uncontroversial philosophical discoveries that Hildebrand cites is very short. Secondly, the premise that there exists a set of core philosophical discoveries that all or most philosophers can agree upon does not imply that the philosophers involved are working in a highly rigorous fashion. A group of art critics may agree, for example, that Shakespeare’s King Lear and Mozart’s The Magic Flute are indisputably great works of art, but it does not follow from this that the activity of art criticism is proceeding in a manner capable of building up a generally accepted and uncontroversial body of knowledge.

One of the drawbacks of Hildebrand’s intuitionism is that it can in itself be conducive toward philosophical controversy arising. If one philosopher affirms the intuitional self-evidence of X and another denies it, it is difficult to see how the matter can be settled, either by empirical evidence or the evidence of rational argumentation. Hildebrand’s claim that some philosophers may be disinclined to accept self-evident moral truths due to a subconscious reluctance to accept the implications of such truths for their personal life seems speculative and unverifiable. It would have been more prudent of Hildebrand to investigate the reasons that such dissenters have provided for doubting the truth of such allegedly “self-evident” claims.

Objection 2: Existence of God     

An important part of Hildebrand’s overall philosophical system is the view that there are good grounds for believing in the existence of God, understood as an infinite person who is the ground and source of all existence. This premise is not treated as a given by Hildebrand, but instead is found to be amenable to investigation and justification by philosophical activity itself. This is why Hildebrand inserts into Chapter 4 a brief two page discussion supporting the validity of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God [136-7]. I wish to suggest that Hildebrand’s discussion of the Cosmological Argument is inadequate for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I would have expected some response from Hildebrand to Kant’s objection to the cosmological proof of God contained in his First Critique. Kant argues that the cosmological proof relies on an ill-founded concept, namely that of an absolutely necessary being. Kant also objects that the cosmological proof applies the category of causation beyond the realm of possible experience. More generally, Hildebrand must have been aware of the significant philosophical controversy that has built up over many centuries surrounding the Cosmological Argument. A twentieth-century philosopher whose system relies heavily on the presumed existence of God cannot simply wind back the clock and pretend he is writing in the Middle Ages.

Secondly, the God that Hildebrand believes in is a personal God, and the Cosmological Argument, even if valid, does not purport to show the existence of a personal God, merely a first cause. This is another reason why Hildebrand’s decision to cite the Cosmological Argument in Chapter 4 is slightly puzzling, when alternative philosophical arguments exist in favour of the existence of a personal God.

Thirdly, if there were a personal God, one would have thought that such a God would wish to make Himself accessible to us in the expressly intuitional fashion that Hildebrand places so much emphasis upon. I would have expected Hildebrand’s argumentation in support of the existence of God to be intuitional and phenomenological, as opposed to cosmological.

Objection 3: Colour

The phenomenology of colour perception is a topic Hildebrand returns to on numerous occasions throughout this book. It is, however, not essential to the book’s main theme, which is the perception of genuine essences. Hildebrand thinks colour in general, and individual colours, count as examples of genuine essences. I find Hildebrand’s discussion of colour problematic for the following reasons.

Firstly, there is the claim that one of the reasons God created electromagnetic waves was to make colours visible to humans. This is a speculative claim about the content of God’s thoughts. No evidence, be it phenomenological, empirical, or rational, is provided to support it. The claim is philosophically baseless.

Secondly, there is the claim that colours are among the phenomenal properties of an object capable of bearing the so-called “message” character, which consists in a colour appearing as if it were a message, ostensibly from God. This, in contrast to the claim about electromagnetic waves just discussed, is a phenomenological claim, but one which I believe is mistaken. I do not concur with it, on the grounds that an investigation into the phenomenology of colour perception could at best make the case for colours possessing an expressive quality, as opposed to a communicative quality. Communication is distinct from expression. Hence Hildebrand’s claim about the communicative quality, or message characteristic, qua phenomenological claim, is in my opinion at odds with the descriptive facts.

Objection 4: Ideal and Concrete Spheres

One way of objecting to a metaphysical position is to point out that it raises a new problem, one which would not have arisen if a different metaphysical approach had been adopted. Hildebrand’s metaphysical position is susceptible to this line of objection, for it raises the question of how the ideal realm of essences and the concrete realm of individuals are supposed to interact. If the essence of the colour red is metaphysically real, and a red rose is metaphysically real, then the nature of their interaction also becomes a metaphysical question. Hildebrand registers his awareness of this problem in at least two ways. One way is to claim that he wishes to avoid a two-world metaphysics. Another way is to concede that the nature of the interaction between the ideal and concrete spheres must be very mysterious, and that he is unable, in this book at least, to make much headway in explicating it.

Objection 5: Purely Subjective Transcendence

According to Hildebrand, there is an essence not only of triangle as such, but an essence of every triangle. I have a worry, however, that Hildebrand is overlooking the distinction between the existence of an essence of a triangle T, and there being a fact of the matter about the properties of the triangle T. Suppose T is the triangle whose vertices are at the points (2,1), (5,9), and (17,3) in the plane. Mathematicians are able to investigate and meaningfully discuss the properties of T because T is fully defined and there is a fact of the matter about its properties, such as the length of its sides, and the internal angles at its vertices. I am not free to imagine the properties of T being anything I like, but am instead constrained by the facts of the matter. This is to say that T is subjectively transcendent to my mind, or any other mind. There is no obvious reason to commit ourselves to the claim that T exists metaphysically or that the essence of T exists metaphysically. T is a construct of the mind, a purely notional thing. T is an idea, and hence ideal, but not real. There is no obvious reason to think that ideal things such as T are real. On the contrary, T is what Husserl would term irreal, that is, something that can be the object of meaningful intersubjective discussion and investigation, but which need not exist metaphysically. This line of reasoning seems to suggest that to assert that a genuine essence is real is metaphysically inflationary.

Objection 6: Relation between philosophy and religion

In Chapter 8, Hildebrand concludes his book’s discussion by sharing with us his understanding of the relation between philosophy and religion. Man has an innate orientation toward God and the eternal. The overarching mission of philosophy is to be a “preamble to faith”, by cultivating this orientation. This is what Hildebrand means when he refers to philosophy’s obligation to prepare our souls “for the acceptance of the revelation of God”. Yet what is disclosed by revelation remains “beyond what is accessible to philosophy.” By this Hildebrand means that the contents of such revelation are not amenable to discovery by the modalities of enquiry discussed in earlier chapters of his book.

There is a problem here. The truth of such putative revelation is treated by Hildebrand as a given. Revelation from God is held to be true on the grounds that God is the source of all truth. Yet even in theological circles, there is legitimacy in a discussion concerning how any putative revelation can be confirmed as genuine. It is not clear why Hildebrand would regard such a discussion as non-philosophical, and why he chooses not include the premises and constraints of any such discussion within the parameters of his epistemology. This leads the reader to conclude, in particular, that the account of knowledge in general that is contained in Chapter 1 is incomplete.


From an historical perspective, Hildebrand’s What is Philosophy? can be situated within the context of a twentieth-century realism-idealism controversy sparked by Husserl’s turn toward a version of transcendental idealism. Realists like Hildebrand had previously seen Husserl’s early phenomenology as offering a potential way of returning to a form of enquiry that might overcome the constraints placed by Kant upon the limits of metaphysical knowledge. Unfortunately Hildebrand’s attempt to break out of the Kantian epistemological constraints turns out to be susceptible to the objections that I have detailed: (1) Hildebrand’s advocacy of philosophical rigour is undermined by the conduciveness of his intuitionism toward controversy; (2) Hildebrand does not make a convincing philosophical case for the existence of a personal God; (3) Hildebrand’s phenomenological claim about the communicative quality of colour is at odds with the descriptive facts; (4) Hildebrand does not provide an adequate metaphysical account of the supposed interaction between the ideal realm of essences and the concrete realm of individuals; (5) It is metaphysically inflationary to think that it follows from there being a fact of the matter about the properties of X that X exists metaphysically; (6) Any putative revelation from God remains liable to a confirmation condition, and Hildebrand fails to include a discussion of such a confirmation condition within his epistemology.

Antoine Grandjean: Empirisme et philosophie transcendantale selon Kant, Vrin, 2022

Empirisme et philosophie transcendantale selon Kant Book Cover Empirisme et philosophie transcendantale selon Kant
Bibliothèque d'Histoire de la Philosophie
Antoine Grandjean

Felix Ó Murchadha: The Formation of the Modern Self, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022

The Formation of the Modern Self: Reason, Happiness and the Passions from Montaigne to Kant Book Cover The Formation of the Modern Self: Reason, Happiness and the Passions from Montaigne to Kant
Felix Ó Murchadha
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback $103.50

Dennis Schulting: The Bounds of Transcendental Logic, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021

The Bounds of Transcendental Logic Book Cover The Bounds of Transcendental Logic
Dennis Schulting
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 106,99 €
IV, 196

Jean-Claude Gens: La philosophie uexküllienne de la vie et ses enjeux écologiques, Mimésis, 2021

La philosophie uexküllienne de la vie et ses enjeux écologiques: Jakob von Uexküll, Le sens de la vie Book Cover La philosophie uexküllienne de la vie et ses enjeux écologiques: Jakob von Uexküll, Le sens de la vie
Jean-Claude Gens
Paperback 16,00€