Erik Norman Dzwiza-Ohlsen: Die Horizonte der Lebenswelt

Die Horizonte der Lebenswelt: Sprachphilosophische Studien zu Husserls 'erster Phänomenologie der Lebenswelt' Book Cover Die Horizonte der Lebenswelt: Sprachphilosophische Studien zu Husserls 'erster Phänomenologie der Lebenswelt'
Phänomenologische Untersuchungen, Band 37
Erik Norman Dzwiza-Ohlsen
Wilhelm Fink
Hardback $193

Reviewed by: Matías Graffigna (Göttingen Universität)

Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s book presents us with a thorough, systematic study of Husserl’s phenomenology along two axes of problems: on the one hand, it reconstructs—and argues for—a developmental history of the central phenomenological concept of lifeworld in Husserl’s works, following Manfred Sommer in tracing its roots back to a first “Göttingian” conception. On the other hand, the study focuses on language and particularly on Husserl’s theory of essentially occasional expressions (OE) from the Logical Investigations (LI, Hua XIX-01), which, further reconstructed, developed and complemented by the author, comprises a fundamental tool of analysis for the structure and levels of the lifeworld, both in its first Göttingian manifestation and in its mature “Freiburgian” form. The book thus proceeds in a zig-zag manner between, on the one hand, an exegetical and historical reconstruction of Husserl’s intellectual development, and a conceptual, critical analysis of the different problems related to the lifeworld, horizon-intentionality and OE on the other, consequently arriving at the main thesis of the work: that the concept of lifeworld in Husserl’s intellectual history represents a continuous development and reveals in all stages the idea of an occasional horizon.

The first section reconstructs the path from the LI to the Ideas (Hua III, IV and V), starting with an analysis of OE as “lifeworldly disturbances” [lebensweltliche Störungen] to pure logic. OE are known in the analytic literature as indexical expressions, such that vary their meaning according to the context of the utterance: “here”, “now”, “I” are typical examples. According to Dzwiza-Ohlsen, the LI are marked by a stark focus on pure logic and particularly on a logical conception of truth as apodictic and immutable, which renders Husserl’s analysis of OE, as Husserl himself would later claim, an “act of violence” [Gewaltstreich] against pure logic. The core of the argument is that, while OE are essentially situated and context-sensitive, pure logic does not admit of such variability and therefore Husserl lacked the appropriate theoretical tools to successfully analyze them. Though both theses are true, it is not quite clear that the context of the LI would prevent an interesting analysis of the OE. The author relies for this thesis on two premises, which are, in my opinion, a bit too strong.

First (28), he takes—following Derrida—Husserl’s analysis of expressions in solitary life (LI, §8) to be an anticipation of the phenomenological reduction and elevates it to the status of a methodological principle. Dzwiza-Ohlsen ends up criticizing Husserl for violating this “methodological restriction”: “Husserl analyses occasional expressions within a conversational situation […] and thus violates one of his central methodological premises, namely the reduction to solitary life” (35). So even though Husserl does analyze OE within communicative contexts, Dzwiza-Ohlsen criticizes that analysis on the ground of violating a methodological restriction. Arguably, there is no such methodological restriction in LI, but in any case, since the solitary life is not explicitly presented by Husserl as a methodological principle, it would fall upon Dzwiza-Ohlsen to make the case for such an interpretation, which he does not do. Given that Husserl does not declare himself beholden to such a restriction, as the case analyzed by the author and many others show, I do not see this claim as justified.

The author’s second premise is that the LI only present a logical notion of truth and, therefore, are unable to account for the truth of perception-based statements about individual objects: “For the appropriate interpretation [of OE], he would have needed a concept of truth that could apprehend the concrete, such as individual objects, people and their relations in events, insofar as he is reflecting on the conditions for reference. Because he does not do this, the determination of their empirical significance remains a riddle” (38-9). But we do not find in Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s analyses any mention of §§ 9-14 of the first LI, where Husserl presents his conception of reference and of meaning-fulfillment, or of § 5 of the sixth LI, appropriately titled “Perception as significance-determining act”, or of § 39, where Husserl presents four different conceptions of truth.

After arriving at the conclusion of OE as lifeworldly disturbances to pure logic, Chapter Two presents OE as a framework to interpret the history of the Husserlian conception of the lifeworld. The author makes use of Karl Bühler’s theory of language, introducing the notion of a ‘here-now-I-’ system of orientation under the rubric of “origo”. This term, sometimes used in pragmatics, stems from the Latin for “origin” and designates the point of reference for a given speaker. The OE are divided into four classes: spatial, personal, temporal and others. Together with Husserl’s original conception of OE in the LI, the theoretical tools presented by Bühler open the door for an exhaustive and example-rich analysis of the different classes of OE. Dzwiza-Ohlsen’s analysis of each class culminates in a general analysis (§ 7), where OE are defined as situated, context-sensitive, horizon-dependent and praxis-oriented. OE are no longer seen as somehow faulty or incomplete, but their possible vagueness and variability are vindicated as elements that necessarily belong to our everyday communication practices and, to that extent, as essential for our relation to the lifeworld.

Chapters Three to Five provide a further, in-depth analysis of OE mediated by a “triple jump” (69): (1) temporally, from the LI to 1907; (2) methodologically, from a logic-oriented phenomenology to the first considerations for a transcendental phenomenology as the basis of universal knowledge and (3) content-wise, by presenting the first concrete descriptions of lifeworldly situations within the natural attitude. Thus, Chapter Three focuses first on the spatial class of OE by drawing on Husserlian materials going back as far as the early, mathematical studies on space from 1894. It then moves to the Main Pieces [Haupstücke] (Hua II/XVI) and the lectures on Thing and Space (Hua XVI), where we find the first descriptions of the phenomenological reduction and an explicit thematization of the natural attitude as the terminus a quo of phenomenological philosophy: our world-experience as a reference point for phenomenological description and source for all eidetic analyses. Here Dzwiza-Ohlsen sees “the correlate of the natural attitude named by its later name: the lifeworld” (81). § 1 of Thing and Space, in which Husserl offers a very detailed description of the “natural spiritual-disposition” [natürliche Geisteshaltung], is offered by Dzwiza-Ohlsen as a clear anticipation of what would later be named the lifeworld.

Chapter Three concludes with further analyses of spatiality based mainly on the constitution of perceptual objects, which is taken as a point of departure for the analysis of our experience of reality and, in turn, of the lifeworld itself. The relation between intersubjectivity (as the source of objectivity) and perception marks the passage to Chapter Four, where the personal class of OE (such as personal and possessive pronouns) are analyzed in connection with empathy, motivation and the social world. Basing primarily on the Fundamental Problems of Phenomenology (Hua XIII), the close relation between the spiritual world, our “deictic” experience of our environment and, primarily, other human beings, is revealed as central. Dzwiza-Ohlsen proposes to understand our experience within the natural attitude as a kind of “index”, leading to an eidetic ontology of the lifeworld. The important point the author argues for is that our lifeworldly experience in the natural attitude already makes certain concepts available which can later be more rigorously or scientifically clarified. But the task of clarifying them in their lifeworldly being is precisely the task of phenomenology and the ontology of the lifeworld.

Chapter Five closes Section One of the book with the remaining class of OE: the temporal indexicals. The analysis of these is understood as the key for a theory of empirical meaning (as opposed to the theory of ideal meaning of the LI). The analyses are based on the Lectures on inner Time-Consciousness (Hua X), going through the innovations of the 1908 Lectures on Theory of Meaning (Hua XXVI), arriving finally at the revised sections of the LI (Hua XX/2) and Ideas I. An in-depth analysis of temporality allows the author to describe an “occasional horizon of empirical reference” (148), which together with a theory of meaning for empirical objects, aims to complement the otherwise logically one-sided conceptual elaborations of Husserl in the LI.

The terrain is thus set for Section Two: early and late phenomenology of the lifeworld. The Göttingian early concept of lifeworld is located in Ideas II (Hua IV), where concepts such as “social world”, “cultural world”, “surrounding world” and especially “communicative world” serve as candidates for an early version of the concept of lifeworld. The author focuses on the intersection of three dimensions to analyze this early concept: (i) phenomenological analyses of constitution; (ii) regional ontology, with a special focus on nature and spirit; and (iii) the theory of attitudes. Thus, the early concept of lifeworld is to be phenomenologically analyzed via constitutive performances within the region of spirit and in the corresponding personal attitude. An interesting, critical point raised by the author concerns how to understand the relation between the natural and the personal attitudes. While it is clear that the naturalistic (as opposed to the natural) attitude and all other scientific ones imply an active change and an abstraction of the objects and corresponding regions being thematized, both the natural and personal attitudes are those in which we typically find ourselves in our daily lives. All scientific attitudes also imply a reference to the natural attitude and to our experience within the lifeworld. If the natural and personal attitudes are not to be conflated, then the personal must imply a specific focus on, precisely, personal elements of the lifeworld.  The personal attitude abstracts from certain elements that appear in the natural attitude so as to make salient what is properly personal.

In Section Two, Chapter Two, the differences between the early and late conception of the lifeworld are explicitly treated. According to the author, the core difference is that the late conception “has less to do with a phenomenology of the lifeworld, but rather with a critical theory of the historical misdevelopment [Fehlentwicklung] of the sciences departing from the lifeworld” (242). For Dzwiza-Ohlsen, Husserl’s project in the Crisis (Hua VI) consists in analyzing the crisis of European humanity, science and culture through a teleological history, but lacks “detailed phenomenological descriptions and constitution-analyses of our natural, personal attitude within our cultural lifeworld” (249). Dzwiza-Ohlsen extracts and reconstructs seven desiderata for a science of the lifeworld according to Crisis (247-8), which he sees as better realized—“more detailed and universal” (253)—in the phenomenology of the lifeworld found in Ideas II than in the theory of the lifeworld presented in Crisis.  This is because the descriptive results of Ideas II hold true in any world, even if there were no science at all, while the Crisis project is dependent both on the analysis in Ideas II and on the existence of a science that can be diagnosed as being in crisis and offered a therapy through self-reflection [Selbstbesinnung] and teleological orientation. Thus, the basic thesis of Crisis can only be properly understood against the background of an analysis of persons living in the natural and personal attitude within the spiritual lifeworld. And such analysis is precisely what we find in the early conception of the lifeworld.

This main point of comparison could profit from some further argumentation by the author, since many questions remain open: by stating that the project of Crisis is not really a phenomenology, what conception of phenomenology does the author assume? Phenomenology is an eidetic science and Crisis presents us with countless eidetic analyses of the a priori structure of the lifeworld and of its being a ground for sense and experience, and not “just” the reconstruction of the history of science. In the third section of the Crisis, Husserl aims to develop precisely an ontology of the lifeworld that is previous to and independent of science. This ontology is the one that explains how it is that science can emerge on the basis of our experience, and how it remains always tied to it. On the other hand, the question arises: is the project of Ideas II focused exclusively on offering “situated” descriptions within the natural attitude? Is it not the attempt to clarify the constitutive performances foundational to the distinction between natural sciences and the humanities? In this regard, it is therefore not clear at all that the analyses offered in Ideas II would hold true in a world without science.

The Section Two, Chapter Three deals with the “skipped nature-concept of the lifeworld” (255). While Husserl’s analyses of the constitution of natural objects in Ideas II focus almost exclusively on these objects as conceived from the perspective of natural science, Dzwiza-Ohlsen claims that the constitution of these objects should also be phenomenologically clarified for the personal and natural attitudes within the lifeworld, which mainly means including not only the theoretical, but also the evaluative, practical and aesthetic attitudes. Thus, Husserl “skipped” a “nature-concept” that accounts for our natural (as opposed to theoretical) experience of nature, where nature is understood as the correlate of our personal, spiritual, lifewordly experience and not as the correlate of natural science. The chapter closes by going deep into the analysis of our experience in the natural attitude, with its focus on natural objects. Aesthetics, praxis, will and feelings are analyzed as essential elements permeating our daily life and the way in which we experience the world.

The third and final section of the book is a “concluding meditation” about Husserl’s contributions regarding the language, structure and truth of the lifeworld and of science in his late period. These fundamental dimensions of the lifeworld are now presented in an integrated fashion, making use both of Husserl’s own earlier analyses presented in this book as well as the scheme of OE. Thus, we learn that the structure of the lifeworld is situated in an intentional-horizon that is both typical and occasional; that the language we use is correlated with this typicality and occasionality, allowing us to express ourselves in relevant, situated ways; that truth is understood in reference to a notion of normality that emerges from the different communities, meaning that what matters in the lifeworld is the optimal realization of goals rather than an accurate description of an external reality. For this last purpose, our natural, lifeworldly language is said to be perfectly well suited.

Finally, in the “concluding meditation”, lifeworld and science are contrasted following the foundational thesis of the Crisis, and the notion of truth is treated in its own right for each domain. The objective truth of science rests upon intersubjective agreement which takes place in the praxis of the lifeworld and especially communicative praxis. Communicative praxis is disclosed as a condition of possibility for science and objective truth or, as the author says, “supra-occasional truth” (296).

Dzwiza-Ohlsen deals with several fundamental and significant problems in phenomenology from both a historical, reconstructive perspective and from a philosophical, critical attitude. The book offers rich analyses for those interested in the concept of lifeworld and its historical development, but is also to be noted for bringing the dimension of language to the foreground. The analyses of OE, abundant in examples, and its subsequent application to the diverse elements treated in the book, results in an in-depth phenomenological and historical description of one of Husserl’s most important philosophical contributions: the notion of lifeworld.

Lawrence J. Hatab: Proto-Phenomenology, Language Acquisition, Orality and Literacy. Dwelling in Speech II

Proto-Phenomenology, Language Acquisition, Orality and Literacy. Dwelling in Speech II Book Cover Proto-Phenomenology, Language Acquisition, Orality and Literacy. Dwelling in Speech II
New Heidegger Research
Lawrence J. Hatab
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Hardback $130.00, eBook $43.99

Reviewed by: Lawrence Berger (New School for Social Research)

This second volume of Lawrence J. Hatab’s Dwelling in Speech demonstrates the power of phenomenology to challenge both mainstream philosophy and the cognitive sciences which emeploy its metaphysical assumptions. Considerable progress has been made in this regard by Dan Zahavi, who demonstrates the contemporary relevance of Husserl, and the enactivist literature which features scholars such as Shaun Gallagher and Evan Thompson. While the latter draws largely on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Hatab’s contribution lies in bringing Heideggerian insights to bear together with a focus on the question of language. Heidegger’s influence is just beginning to be felt in this literature, and Hatab makes significant progress as a well-known Heidegger scholar. The same goes for language, although in this case there is the distributed cognition literature (e.g., S. Cowley (ed), Distributed Language, Benjamins Current Topics, 2011; and S. Cowley and F. Vallée-Tourangeau (eds), Cognition Beyond the Brain: Computation, Interactivity, and Human Artifice, Springer-Verlag, 2013) which takes a related ecological approach. Hatab largely avoids Heideggerian terminology to make the work more accessible, developing his own lexicon which calls for some effort but rewards the reader with a wealth of insights into questions of philosophical and scientific import.

The book consists of six chapters, where Chapter 1 reviews the first volume (Proto-Phenomenology and the Nature of Language, 2017) on proto-phenomenology and the lived world, Chapters 2 and 3 apply it to child development, and the final three chapters focus on the distinction between orality and literacy. Hatab puts forward a proto-phenomenology that examines the “first,” or pre-reflective world of normal everyday existence. The focus is on immersed engagement in practical and social environments (in the Heideggerian spirit) rather than cognition and intentionality as in other versions of phenomenology. The title Dwelling in Speech thus points to the fact that we are meaningfully immersed in the myriad worlds that language discloses. For Hatab, language presents the world before it can be represented (36). In this regard he says that language should be understood as a constellation of engaged practices, not an idealism, which is part of an overall orientation to the concrete, factical world in which we dwell.

Much effort goes into focusing on experience as we live it holistically rather than reflection and analysis (or “exposition”) of articulated components. Of course, Hatab admits that as a philosopher he is himself engaged in the latter sort of analysis, and he navigates that tension over the course of the work, arguing that proto-phenomenology provides the resources to gain access to realms such as the child’s world and ancient worlds of orality without unduly importing reflective conceptual assumptions. The approach is ecological in nature, focusing on fields such as the personal-social-environmental world over which existence extends, rather than being ensconced in private realms. Hatab argues that dichotomies such as subject-object and mind-body are derivative of such ecologies.

At the heart of the approach lies the notion of world disclosure, which is the basis for originary presentation which enables any derivative representation. Disclosure has to do with the ways in which we engage and comprehend how the world manifests itself (73), and language is paramount in this regard. It is the “the opening up of the world and the precondition for thought,” the “window to the world” and its meaning (36). Thus rather than viewing language as referring to a world of nonlinguistic entities, Hatab argues that such a view is produced by way of exposition (which tends to reification) out of the speech worlds in which we dwell. Exposition arises in turn by way of disruptions (“contraventions”) in the course of immersed dwelling, along the lines of Being and Time’s relation between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand.

Hatab puts forward the related notion of indicative concepts which, rather than seeking abstract definitions, point to and gather an implicit sense of lived experience which is already present. That is, rather than assuming that experience is fundamentally inchoate, indicative concepts mean to gather senses of dwelling which are always underway (13). As already intelligible it has no need for explication; indicative concepts simply show what is already in play in the factical worlds in which we dwell, rather than disengaging reflectively and reifying abstractions that are so produced. In the terms of the later Heidegger (Hatab prefers the early Heidegger), they seek to “speak from” the phenomena by staying within the realms in which we dwell rather than speaking about them from a distance. With such concepts in hand, Hatab poses a significant challenge to representationalism and physicalism by delving into the philosophical and applied literatures in which they are operative.

Turning to the discussion of the child’s world in Chapters 2 and 3, philosophers generally pay little attention to the question of human development, assuming that these early stages merely exhibit primitive versions of adult capacities. Hatab however provides a convincing argument that many features (which are accessible by way of proto-phenomenology) are still operative in the adult world and must be considered to provide a more robust vision of what it is to be human. He first notes the importance of imitation in infants, which he refers to as an example of original immersion where the self is constituted by way of external prompts, which supports the use of the field concepts that he puts forward (4). A focus on childhood learning provides support for the primacy of the lived world, and indicates the shortcomings of philosophical notions such as representational thinking, subject-object divisions, and the primacy of theoretical reason (56). In fact, we can see how the lived world is operative in adulthood given that it is the basis for the development of the factical bearings that enable rational knowledge (60). In particular, the role of the environment can be seen in providing scaffolding for the development of adult capacities (62), along with the senses of undivided co-being and we-feeling that remain in potentia as the basis for more robust bonds that may hold between us (66).

Hatab argues for the priority of immersion within childhood, and illustrates various features of the lived world that are made manifest there, such as the ecstatic (or extended) nature of existence in that ecology. He shows how childhood learning begins with an intrinsic interest in communicating and interacting with caregivers, which suggests that neonates are not tabula rasa as often assumed. For Hatab, children learn by way of mistakes (contraventions) made in the course of trial and error experiments in environments that are saturated with norms and values (81), thereby forming habits which become second nature (enabling further immersed activity). From this perspective he engages in a critique of theories of child-development which assume adult capacities, examining experimental procedures which mismeasure competence as a result (60) and calling instead for observation in natural settings. He critiques the notion that infants can be understood by way of the presumed operation of concepts and theories, and interrogates the mentalistic biases that proto-phenomenology can uncover (83).

Hatab discusses how the phenomenon of joint attention, where individuals focus on the same object and are aware that each is doing so, precedes the acquisition of language (as recognized in the large literature on the subject, e.g., A. Seemann (ed), Joint Attention: New Developments, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011). Infants have a natural capacity for joint attention, which he characterizes as one of the earliest stages of the personal-social-environing world because of the confluence of individual attention, social interaction, and a joint relation to the environment. Hatab refers to this as an “engaged co-disclosure,” which is more original than later developments of individual mentality, which puts a significant challenge to the predominant theory of mind approaches. Indeed, some joint attention theorists emphasize an immediacy and embeddedness in joint attention which also challenges representational approaches, for a focus on attention can unearth a more original “co-minded” dimension where we approach the world jointly in common endeavors.

We also see the connection between joint attention and indicative concepts, as Hatab notes that pointing to something for someone else’s attention makes communication possible (126). He goes on to critique theories which miss this background and rely on representational and referential notions, which conceal the fact that speech is a matter of shared attention, understood as such, and functioning by way of reciprocal effects (127). Moreover, Hatab says that the disclosive power of language is grounded in a shared impulse to communicate which shows itself in the joint attention that supports it (126). The intimate relation between joint attention and language that is indicated here would suggest that attention and language are equiprimordially disclosive, the import of which will be considered below.

Hatab argues that indicative concepts can provide new insight into how language emerges in a child’s world, and how the social environment of language speakers prepares that emergence long before words are first spoken by children (93). He demonstrates the power of phenomenology in this context, providing insight into the factical existence of children which continues to make itself manifest as we mature. For instance, children are exposed early on to the somatic, sonic, and affective forces of speech, which are still operative later in life (94). In this context speech shows itself as a world forming power (103), and dwelling manifests as a more original mode which is immersed in the world disclosive power of language. We see the primacy of language over thought, and as the basis for the meaningful shaping of experience as a whole (112).

Hatab argues against notions of cognitive nativism, individualism, autonomy, and self-sufficiency that are imputed to children (105), and delves into problems in the philosophy of language such as the notion that language is limited to expressing thought, arguing rather that thought is itself an internalization of speech. The world disclosive power of speech is made quite vivid with the example of Helen Keller’s opening to a new world by way of the sense of touch (118). He argues further that extant theories of concepts and mental states conceal the dwelling dimension that still has a hold on us (111).

The final three chapters argue for the primacy of speech over writing, in keeping with the emphasis on the role of the lived world. Writing for Hatab is not a natural phenomenon, but becomes second nature after the expository learning process. It provides a richer mode of disclosure but is susceptible to reification that ends up obscuring the ongoing functioning of the lived world. For instance, the ancient world had oral poetry as a source of its cultural bearings, and aurality of course remains important after the introduction of writing (162). Indeed, the face to face interaction that is so important in childhood and beyond provides the generative background for literacy itself (157). Orality is closer to the lived world in the sense of being subject only to the power of memory and thus associated with flux and becoming, whereas writing is static and permanent which enables abstractions and reification in the foundation of philosophical thought (165). We also see a process of disembodiment in writing (166) which leads to the emergence of inner mental domains that are cut off from the lived world, producing the disengaged reader who can focus on abstract linguistic forms and lend credence to the notion of truth as representation.

We now turn to a fascinating discussion of the emergence of philosophy and written literature in the Greek world. Oral poetry and its story worlds were a source of meaning that enabled a sense of collective identity for the ancients (189). With the introduction of literacy we have the potential conflict between critical thinking and the captivating language of poetry (197) as one aspect of the affective dimension that is so important in ancient (and contemporary) life. We see an excess of such captivation, for instance, in myths such as the Sirens who prevent the accomplishment of vital tasks (198), while on the other hand we see in Plato how myth and poetry and philosophy can complement one another (212). Plato puts forward ideals of autonomous selfhood which stand in contrast to the ecstatic immersion in forces and mimesis that occurs in oral myth and poetry, all of which must be harmonized in the actualized human being.

Hatab argues that although reading and writing skills become second nature, the oral as first nature still has priority (216), and we see this in the fact that philosophy cannot do without insights from speech in the lived world, which is its ground (225). He sees merit in some features of Derrida’s notion of arché writing, but his thought misses the importance of the lived world and orality (213). Hatab argues that the possibilities inherent in literacy lead to the suppression of factical experience by philosophical thought (192), with its decontextualized written systems, logical structures, and propositions (220). He is particularly critical of what he refers to as the predominant hyper-literacy which suppresses facticity (227).

The final chapter traces the development of literacy from Rome to the present day. Learned Latin as more technical results in an impoverishment relative to the wealth of meanings that are present in Greek thought (238). In this context Hatab continues the critique of features of contemporary thought such as the subject-object divide and representation as stemming from the development of literate technologies, such as the printing press and dictionaries (253). We see the development of thinking as representation, and writing as representations of a writer’s mind. The subject-object divide in particular serves to conceal the more primordial sense of extended selfhood that is associated with dwelling in the ecological personal-social-environing world, and Hatab launches into a critique of posited timeless philosophical concepts which rest on the bedrock of literate technologies (260).

A stimulating and wide-ranging work such as this will produce a variety of directions for further thought. Hatab’s focus is on applying insights from the early Heidegger to the question of language in the context of an extensive review of the empirical literature, and readers will undoubtedly have questions regarding the concept of proto-phenomenology, such as how one goes about it as a practical matter and where phenomenological reflection fits in. Moreover, he relies heavily on the immersion-contravention-exposition process that is put forward with considerable nuance, but some readers may believe that more support is required for such a setup.

One approach could focus on the role of attention, which is quite prominent in the text even though its thematization is well beyond the scope of the project. It appears early in the work when Hatab says that first-person attention to normal experience is the gateway to a proto-phenomenological account, as it enables an opening to (or disclosure of) the personal-social-environing world (2). It also plays a large role in the form of joint attention, which as discussed above is a key precondition for language acquisition. Thus, not only is attention essential for the practice of phenomenology, as also evident from Husserl’s treatment of the subject, but it is ontogenetically prior to language acquisition. This could argue for a sort of primacy relative to language, or at least an equiprimordiality with respect to disclosure. Indeed, I would argue that attention in its various forms must appear in first person accounts, and in fact it is often ubiquitous in such literature and taken for granted as such. For, as Hatab indicates, it is the gateway, the essence of the first person perspective, which has historically been of philosophical interest but has only become so recently in contemporary philosophy of mind. As he puts it, “The first-person standpoint in phenomenology cannot merely be a matter of introspective mental states, of intentional consciousness, of beliefs and desires related to actions in the world, but rather indicative attention to ecstatic immersion in fields of action” (15).

Attention appears many other ways in the text, which suggests a deep and intricate relation between attention and language. We have seen that indicative concepts function by pointing, or directing attention to features of the lived world, which Hatab refers to as indicative attention (15). One implication is that language directs attention, rather than being directed by, say, a Husserlian transcendental ego. Attention also appears in the form of expositional attention (e.g., 29, 49, 65) and reflective attention (e.g., 36, 103), and these concepts are all related in the helpful glossary definition of “indicative concepts and analysis”: “Reflective attention that simply points to immersed, factical experience on its own terms, without reducing it to expositional analysis or abstract categories” (283). Immersion is also defined in terms of “actual doing without reflective attention,” and is considered to be tacit or habitual. There is need, however, to consider the relation between attention and the tacit, for it is the essence of the explicit itself.

Hatab distinguishes between a variety of types of attention in particular circumstances, such as exposition as a more focused type of attention, which can range from ordinary attention to refined examination (29). He notes that objectification and reification take place by way of “a concentrated focus of demarcation” (236), considers patterns of infant attention (63), and talks about how learning to write involves “piecemeal attention” to the different words (202). Notions of focal concepts and meanings are also quite prevalent, such as the focal meanings of proto-concepts in which words make sense in usage rather than formal classification (112), and how children learn by way of focal indications that guide and shape ecstatic performance in meaningful circumstances. In distinguishing between speech and writing he notes how alphabetic script focuses attention on words as sonic units, which enables an expositional focus (164), and how vision enables sustained attention and a pinpoint focus, whereas sound is less focal when engaged (165), all of which has implications for the sort of worlds that emerge from such media. These deployments of attention suggest an essential role in engaging the factical worlds in which we dwell, and indeed it would appear to be intimately related to the notion of dwelling itself.

One way to conceive the general relation between attention and language would be in terms of the foreground-background distinction, where attention is how we are centered at the foreground of worldly engagement. Proto-phenomenology is conceived as attending to the factical background of reflective thinking (30), and such philosophical activity itself operates at the foreground in many forms, as has just been indicated. A broader phenomenological approach would therefore include the interaction between foreground and background, or between attention and the tacit/habitual. As noted above, Hatab recognizes that as a philosopher he is engaged in an expositive practice, and thinking in terms of the foreground-background distinction would be helpful in sorting out some of the dichotomies that are present in the text, such as immersion-exposition and habit-reflection, which are subject to the foreground-background distinction that operates in the lifeworld.

For instance, Hatab frequently points to the primacy of the lived world in terms of the habitual practices that always function in human engagement, but are often overlooked in philosophical analysis. He discusses background understanding (“intimation”) versus focused cognition (31), and says that immersion is non-reflexive performance without directed attention (17). He notes the dichotomy between reflective attention and skilled activity (16), and indeed when attention is diverted from its tasks performance will suffer, as in the case of Chuck Knoblauch’s famous throwing problems. Hatab also says that habits function without explicit attention (82), and that there is no reflective attention to components of speech when talking (36), but this does not mean that attention is inessential in the course of such engagement. For instance, chess players are often considered as examples of experts who rely on habitual skills in the course of activity, but a cursory look will show that they are extraordinarily attentive to patterns that appear on the board, and go through intensive thought processes in the course of their games. Speed chess is often cited as a case where there would appear to be little room for reflective engagement, but this ignores the powers of pattern recognition that apply under those conditions, which call for intensely focused attention.

Thinking of the movement of attention in terms of the foreground-background distinction enables dynamic shifts of context to come to the fore. Hatab provides an example in an extraordinary elaboration of the dimensions of factical existence that come into play in bringing about an orchestra performance, which includes a “mix of factical, practical, individual, social, environmental, temporal, historical, objective, factual, evaluative, and experiential elements” that proto-phenomenology incorporates in philosophical inquiry, and “hermeneutical shifts of perspective directly intimated by participants as contextually relevant in the foreground and background of a musical performance” (268). Hatab indicates elsewhere that disturbance turns attention (16), and that contravention draws attention to specific aspects of engaged activity that were in the background (37), both of which suggest that it was operative somewhere else. The implication is that attention is essential in the functioning of the lived world and must be recognized as such.

Thus we see that language plays a large role in the direction of attention and in the form that it takes in articulating the shape of engagement, but it must be recognized that it does not have to be passive in this regard. Indeed, Husserl notes the freedom of attention to move across intentional fields, which is essential for phenomenological exploration of the lived world. The joints of the world are not given in advance, but await upon the interplay of attention and language in order to make their appearance. Hatab notes a bidirectional relation between immersion and exposition in the course of establishing second nature capacities (37), but I would argue that the relation between attention and language is more general than this. For attention is the site of disclosure that comes about in conjunction with the action of language. Indeed, disclosure must be for someone, and attention is how the self is made manifest, or so I would argue (e.g., L. Berger, “Attention as the Way to Being,” Gatherings: The Heidegger Circle Annual (2020) 10:111-156).[1] Instead of immersion-contravention-exposition we have the deliverances/disclosures of attention which disturb the prevailing understanding and its associated terms. These are revised accordingly and attention is redirected as a result. Attention and language are thus world disclosive in intricate relation to one another, which determines how disclosure occurs in general as well as exposition, reflection, and all other types engaged activity.

Hatab distinguishes between engaged immersion and disengaged exposition, but the question arises as to when reflection in general is disengaged. Indeed, Hatab discusses some forms of reflection which are not, such as the sort that can occur in writing. He also discusses the notion of “dwelling on,” which would suggest such a mode of reflection in volume I (107): “In the midst of human dwelling, philosophy can help us dwell on things more carefully, attentively, and perspicuously.” Dwelling on is thus a form of attentiveness, which can be characterized as phenomenological reflection without the assumption of transcendental structures. Thus attentiveness in the course of immersed activity can enable an immanent sort of reflexivity, the benefits of which are sidelined in the digital age (270). Disengagement will now be a matter of the lack of a certain kind of attentiveness, not simply exposition or reflection, for these can proceed with an accompanying cognizance of one’s embodied presence in the world. Instead, instances of thoughtless absorption and philosophical alienation (Vol I, 78) will be associated with disengagement from immersion in the lived world, in what is a more nuanced conception.

Any work that examines a vast empirical literature from a phenomenological and ecological point of view is bound to rely on notions of attention, which in the present case has unearthed a most intriguing relation between attention and language. This is just one direction that can be pursued out of such an important work. Thus in the two volumes of Dwelling in Speech, Lawrence Hatab has applied Heideggerian conceptions such as world disclosure and dwelling to a wide array of philosophical and empirical questions, thereby demonstrating the power of phenomenology to examine underlying metaphysical assumptions and recommend concrete research directions as a result. In particular, the notion of language as world disclosive is most powerful. We also see the richness of the lived world, which is what originally excited Heidegger about Husserl’s work. Hatab helps to bring that vision to fruition with this effort.

[1] Available at

Robin D. Rollinger: Concept and Judgment in Brentano’s Logic Lectures: Analysis and Materials, Brill, 2020

Concept and Judgment in Brentano's Logic Lectures: Analysis and Materials Book Cover Concept and Judgment in Brentano's Logic Lectures: Analysis and Materials
Studien zur Österreichischen Philosophie, Volume: 48
Robin D. Rollinger
Brill | Rodopi
Hardback €124.00 $149.00

Jocelyn Benoist: Toward a Contextual Realism, Harvard University Press, 2021

Toward a Contextual Realism Book Cover Toward a Contextual Realism
Jocelyn Benoist
Harvard University Press
Hardback £31.95 • €36.00

Elliot R. Wolfson: Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis

Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis Book Cover Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis
Elliot R. Wolfson
Indiana University Press
Paperback $60.00

Reviewed by: Alexandre Couture-Mingheras (Université de Bonn – Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Dans son nouvel ouvrage, de très haute facture, Elliot R. Wolfson met sa connaissance précise des textes de la tradition kabbalistique et plus largement son érudition dans le domaine des études juives, dont il figure aujourd’hui l’un des plus grands spécialistes, au service de l’étude, aussi précise qu’ambitieuse, de la phénoménologie de Heidegger, ressaisie essentiellement à partir de Sein und Zeit en 1927 jusqu’aux textes de maturité, dont Beiträge zur Philosophie (vom Ereignis) paru à titre posthume en 1989 en Allemagne. Cette comparaison, étonnante au regard du contexte houleux qui entoure la publication des Schwarze Hefte – je parle bien sûr de l’attitude de Heidegger à l’égard du National-Socialisme et de la question de l’antisémitisme, que certains thuriféraires s’efforcent, en vain, de gommer -, n’a évidemment rien d’arbitraire.

Le rapport de Heidegger au judaïsme fait l’objet, depuis quelques années, de plusieurs études, dont celle, remarquable, de Marlène Zarader, La dette impensée : Heidegger et l’héritage hébraïque : si Heidegger affirme l’opposition principielle entre la pensée, d’origine hellénique, et la foi, d’héritage biblique, en réalité les choses sont loin d’être simples, comme l’atteste la similarité entre ses propres écrits et certains tropes de la tradition hébraïque. Le judaïsme, exclu thématiquement de la pensée heideggérienne, pourrait bien en constituer « l’impensé » opératoire, non au sens de ce qui n’a pas été pris pour objet de pensée, mais ce qui sous-tendant et irriguant la pensée, terre d’accueil, en constitue l’arrière-plan, nécessairement voilé. S’amorce ainsi, après les propos dirimants de Derrida et de G. Steiner par exemple, une excursion hors du commentarisme crypto-phénoménologique qui fonctionne souvent en vase-clos. Ce tournant dans la recherche, qui suppose que l’on rompe avec une propension exégétique à rapporter sa phénoménologie au nazisme (au fond, question d’apparence provocatrice : quid du judaïsme de la philosophie de Heidegger ?) se trouve ici approfondi par un travail comparatiste prenant pour base la mystique juive, à savoir la Kabbale. De même que le Vedanta constitue la dimension « ésotérique » de l’hindouisme, sous l’angle de la theoria à titre de Métaphysique (l’Absolu même, le Sans-Nom), sous l’angle de la praxis à titre de mystique d’ordre sotériologique de l’Unio mystica avec ce qu’il y a de plus Haut en soi, de même la Kabbale est-elle la partie « occulte » du judaïsme.

Pourquoi cette étude comparatiste, qu’est-ce qui le justifie, et, surtout, que gagne-t-on à lire Heidegger au prisme de la Kabbale ? La Kabbale n’est évidemment pas un « thème » pour Heidegger, raison pour laquelle, dès l’introduction, l’auteur, au terme d’un état des lieux de la recherche mais aussi d’une justification philologique, déclare ouvertement son projet : non l’analyse « positive » (au sens du positivisme, de ce qui se fonde sur les faits) du rapport d’un auteur à la mystique juive du point de vue des textes car s’il est bien un jeu d’influence, avec notamment la mystique rhénane et l’idéalisme allemand, surtout schellingien, son importance tient à « l’arrière-plan » théorique, à une forme de Stimmung épocale ; une telle analyse est menée, bien sûr, mais là n’est pas l’essentiel : le rapprochement tire sa justification de ce que l’auteur appelle la corrélation de la mêmeté (Sameness) par la différence, à distance aussi bien de la recherche à tout prix de ce qui est commun (au prix d’une perte de la singularité – identité – de chacun des deux termes), que de l’exhibition stérile de la différence : en ce cross-over monographique, inédit et le premier à sérieusement établir une telle comparaison sur la base de critères philologico-textuels, c’est en effet tout aussi bien Heidegger qui se trouve éclairé par la Kabbale que la Kabbale qui se trouve introduite pour la première fois par le biais de l’outillage conceptuel heideggérien. Cet éclairage conjoint de la Kabbale et de Heidegger, en une méthode de variation thématique et perspectivale, ainsi que l’absence de présentation liminaire de la Kabbale, expliqueront sans doute qu’un tel ouvrage, dense et massif, ne soit pas d’un abord aisé pour qui est totalement étranger à la mystique juive. Cette absence se justifie néanmoins tout d’abord par le statut particulier de la Kabbale et la façon dont elle se rapporte à elle-même, se concevant en termes de différenciation diachronique d’une même vérité pour ainsi dire synchronique, à l’image de sa conception du monde comme manifestation en de multiples formes d’un seul et même être – le Seul qui soit; ensuite par la façon même dont Heidegger conçoit la tradition, non comme l’objet passé de la conscience historique, mais comme son avenir et, pour tout dire, son destin, parallèle à la rupture avec la conception linéaire et causaliste du temps. Mais, on le sait, tout ce qui est beau est aussi difficile que rare, et c’est là, par l’originalité de ses thèses et la manière dont Heidegger s’en trouve éclairé, un très beau livre.

Venons-en directement à la Chose même, aussi bien pour la Kabbale que pour Heidegger : l’Être. L’ouvrage se compose de huit chapitres, que je n’ai nullement l’ambition de restituer de façon thétique, comme si chacun d’entre eux constituait une Thesis que l’on eût pu dès lors résumer en quelques lignes, pour des raisons qui tiennent à la méthode dialéthéique (littéralement la « double vérité ») mise en œuvre. Cette méthode s’impose, c’est certain, du fait de l’inobjectivabilité de son sujet de recherche : le Seyn ou l’absolu kabbalistique nécessite un mode d’exposition qui chaque fois permette de l’éclairer ponctuellement sans le trahir, c’est-à-dire sans le travestissement qu’entraîne un mode d’exposition étranger à son objet ; la logique classique qui procède par identification (quand l’être est Ereignis) et par opposition (l’absolu sera transcendant ou immanent) ne saurait fonctionner ici. Si bien que l’ouvrage, fait rare et beau, fait ce qu’il dit et à mesure qu’il le dit, opérant une réduction, ou neutralisation, de la logique dualiste (l’être ne sera ni immanent ni transcendant), à la mesure donc de l’Être, Neutre, qui est par-delà toute opposition, et sans qu’il puisse faire l’objet d’une relève en un troisième terme synthétique : dire que l’être ou le divin n’est ni immanent au monde comme chez Spinoza ni transcendant (comme, en dépit de ressemblances, chez Plotin, avec le système d’émanation à partir de l’Un, Principe dont tout découle mais qui est lui-même absolument transcendant), c’est non pas indiquer un troisième terme, mais montrer la non-vérité même de l’opposition, autrement dit l’inexistence même de l’immanence et de la transcendance depuis la perspective de l’infini. Autrement dit, si le but est le chemin, en l’occurrence ici la méthode est la thèse elle-même, qu’on ne saurait dissocier de son récit, avec tout ce qui, en lui, donne l’impression de constituer un excursus.

Les divers thèmes abordés au gré des huit chapitres de l’ouvrage (la question de la circularité herméneutique qui ouvre l’ouvrage, la pensée du commencement, le rapport à l’altérité et au néant, l’auto-érotisme de l’être, du divin qui, par désir de Soi, caprice originel, se « manifeste » par le monde) s’articulent ainsi autour de l’Ain Soph (le « correspondant » kabbalistique du Seyn heideggérien) ainsi que de son exposition, de la façon dont on s’y rapporte par la parole, tant il est vrai que la réflexion « sur » le réel emporte avec elle, ou idéalement doit intégrer, le sujet réfléchissant : il y va pour le Sein d’être Da, comme pour le Dasein d’être ce qu’il est du fait de son ouverture à la question du Sein. Cette corrélation entre les deux pôles, qui en constitue la trame théorique, donne son titre à l’ouvrage : entre la « Gnose cachée » et la « Voie de la Poiesis », entre d’une part ce qui, comme lumière, illumine en restant soi-même voilé, ce qui manifeste sans être manifeste, l’Aimé Sans-Visage derrière tous les visages, bref, l’être en tant qu’être, et, d’autre part, la promotion d’un discours qui déjoue le partage même entre apophantique et apophatique, déjouant celui-là même entre néant et être, entre présence et absence, dont l’ouvrage constitue la patience méditation : tout se jouera donc dans cette atmosphère crépusculaire d’entre-deux, il est vrai au prix parfois de la clarté du propos (l’auteur est parfois prisonnier du style heideggérien), mais on comprend que se joue là l’Essentiel et que l’Être ne saurait être abordé si ce n’est par les voies indirectes du langage : méta-ontologique la « présence n’est pas l’absence de l’absence » pas plus que l’absence « l’absence de la présence » mais « la mise en présence (presencing) est plutôt l’absentement (absencing) de l’absentement de la mise en présence » (7).

Mais pourquoi rapprocher l’Être, le Seyn, ce qui, comme le dit Heidegger, l’emportant sur tous les êtres (tout être participe de l’Être, mais l’Être ne saurait être trouvé en aucune forme), est ce qui est le plus digne de penser, et l’Ain Soph kabbalistique, littéralement « l’infini » ? Cette question n’a rien d’anodin car elle engage bien la philosophie de Heidegger et, sans nul doute, de toute philosophie véritable. Or on le sait, la philosophie, chez Heidegger, présente des limites qui sont celles-là même de son histoire et du régime objectivant du langage. C’est pourquoi, afin d’éclairer la question de l’Être, il s’agit de procéder à la déconstruction des catégories sédimentées et dualistes du langage : l’oubli de l’être, rabattu sur un étant éminent, est corrélé à l’impropriété du langage à nommer ce qui échappe à toute dé-finition et ce qui partant ne saurait être pensé en termes de « transcendance » ou « d’immanence », à savoir ce qui n’obéit pas aux lois de la pensée, de non-contradiction et de tiers-exclu. Autrement dit, Heidegger quitte le palais de cristal du logos pour une parole qui, voulant dire l’origine, installée dans le silence du muthos, dit moins que, pareil au dieu dont parle Héraclite, elle ne « montre », se situant résolument dans la nuit compacte du mystère de l’être (de l’être comme mystère). Camper au niveau de l’aporie ontologique, sans la vouloir lever, telle qu’elle a été formulée par Aristote (l’être n’est ni un genre ni ne s’identifie à l’une de ses catégories, i.e. modes d’être : il n’est ni immanent à ses modes ni transcendant, « à part », en un autre lieu, ce qui reviendrait à en faire une « chose », à confondre, dans le lexique de Heidegger, l’être avec l’étant), c’est ainsi même se mettre à l’écoute de ce qui, à être dévoilé, échappe : l’être se médite, au crépuscule de la raison, à l’ombre des objets, parce qu’il y va de sa propre « essence » que de ne pouvoir souffrir la lumière objectivante du concept.

Sous cet angle, l’apport de la mystique juive pour l’exégèse heideggérienne tient à la manière dont elle pense l’Être, loin de toutes les figures qui instancient, selon Heidegger, la métaphysique comme onto-théo-logie, à savoir comme oubli de l’être par pensée de l’étant (le summum ens, ou Dieu comme super-héros de l’ontologie, porte le poids de l’ens commune). Le philosophique se trouve éclairé par ce qui en est devenu l’ombre : le « philosophal ». C’est là du moins un apport passionnant à la lecture de Heidegger, décentré par ce qui s’avère lui être le plus « propre », un ailleurs qui en détient la vérité. Je donnerai deux exemples, qui sont les deux axes qui structurent l’ouvrage (la Gnose cachée et la Poiesis). Le premier concerne le Seyn, ressaisi à partir du Ain Soph, à savoir l’essence infinie qui ne saurait elle-même avoir d’essence : la différence ontico-ontologique se trouve ressaisie à partir de la différence entre le Ain Soph et ses émanations séphirotiques. De même que Dieu est le lieu du monde sans que le monde soit le lieu où trouver Dieu, de même, dans le lexique du phénoménologue, l’être est-il au principe de l’étant sans pour autant que l’étant puisse le figurer ; et pourtant, l’étant n’est pas l’Autre de l’être. L’être chez Heidegger, est l’absolument Autre (être et étant) dans la Mêmeté (l’être est : seul l’être est, telle est la voie lumineuse qu’ouvre la déesse chez Parménide) ; la mystique juive nous fait mieux saisir, par contraste aussi avec le néo-platonisme, la nature de l’absolu ou de l’être : n’étant essentiellement présent que dans le retrait, se dissimulant soi-même dans les étants qui le manifestent, il est la Présence (le « il y a »)  absente, qui se dévoile sur le mode du voilement. L’aletheia, qui dit la vérité comme mise en présence, se trouve ainsi éclairée à l’aune de la gnose. Si la gnose est secrète, c’est bien parce qu’il y va de la vérité de l’être que d’être secret, non-manifesté, soustrait à toute parole qui le voudrait circonscrire. Mais cette différence se fait sur fond d’un monisme singulier, qui a neutralisé l’opposition entre l’un et le multiple, celui pour lequel le Monos, l’Être, Seul est (court-circuitant le partage entre être et non-être) : de même que la vague et la mer sont de la même substance, que l’ornement n’est que la mise en forme de l’or informe, de même l’Ain Soph éclaire-il le jeu interne à l’Être de l’être et des étants, jeu avec Soi-même qui, pour la finitude, est celui d’une perte et d’une errance (l’oubli comme destin occidental), mais qui, en dernière instance, est le Jeu différentiel de Cela qui a toujours été. De même que l’absolu, ou le divin, se révèle comme secret, car n’étant rien il n’a rien à révéler ni qui devrait être démasqué, de même l’être chez Heidegger apparaît-il ressaisi en son obscurité native par rapport à un Dasein dont la vérité est, à titre de sujet séparé, de n’être pas. A Bikkhu Maha Mani, moine bouddhiste de Thaïlande qui lui explique que la méditation consiste à se concentrer et, se rassemblant en soi, à déloger la racine du « Je », renvoyé à son caractère ontologiquement illusoire, par la réalisation de sa nature véritable, de Soi, qui est un Rien qui est tout (fullness), Heidegger répond : c’est ce que j’ai essayé de dire toute ma vie. Il y a dans, dans cette riche comparaison, une thèse implicite : que la mystique juive ne fait pas qu’éclairer la philosophie de Heidegger ; point culminant d’une pensée qui œuvre pour l’Impensé qu’elle ne peut approcher qu’en se dessaisissant d’elle-même, la mystique dit et fait ce que la philosophie, renvoyée à son propre mode discursif, ne peut que sourdement faire deviner, sauf à elle aussi mourir à elle-même, jetant l’échelle au terme de son ascension, en un dernier grand saut, de la pensée à l’impensé. C’est dans ce silence, cet « espace » de présence pure en lequel seul peut naître une parole authentique (non celle du « on »), qu’on atteint la « Gnose cachée » de l’être : il n’y a jamais eu de voile à lever, car le voile est celui de l’ignorance ontologique première : l’épreuve du fleuve du Léthé n’est pas celle de l’oubli de son être (de soi) mais de l’Être (de Soi). Caché, l’être l’est à qui le cherche ; mais à qui, dans le silence de la Présence, s’oubliant ne s’excepte pas de ce qui est, il Est, de l’ordre du That inqualifiable et non du What, selon la formule qu’utilise William James pour désigner l’expérience pure (à laquelle l’auteur fait référence du reste en de beaux passages sur Nishida Kitaro).

L’élucidation du statut de cette Gnose cachée appelle, comme je l’indiquais, une réflexion sur le langage lui-même qui l’articule, qui, à l’image de l’être, se trouve sous-tendu par la dialectique de la présence et de l’absence. Qu’est-ce que la connaissance véritable en effet (celle de l’être), comment opère-t-elle ? Il ne s’agit pas d’agrandir le stock de connaissance en y introduisant de nouvelles représentations, car ces dernières concernent uniquement les étants, mais bien d’une assignation du sujet à la vérité de son être, d’une connaissance de l’être qui est à la fois connaissance de soi (l’ontologie fondamentale ou analytique existentiale du Dasein) : la spiritualité n’est pas l’autre de la philosophie, mais son essence, comme le silence l’est du son (le son se détache sur le fond silencieux, toujours présent, tout comme l’être qui se manifeste quand les étants disparaissent dans la nuit du monde dans l’expérience de l’angoisse), ce qui explique l’aspect méditatif des Wege de Heidegger, chemins sinueux qui tournent autour d’un même centre qui illustrent le type de parole, poétique, tendu vers l’être comme non-manifeste, au bord du silence : car de même que la plus belle du bouquet est la fleur absente, celle qu’évoque la parole du Poète, de même l’être, inobjectivable, trouve en la Poiesis son abri. La parole véritable, en parlant, conduit au silence dont elle n’est que l’ornement. Le langage a pour sujet véritable, chez Heidegger, l’être même : le poète véritable ne dit pas l’être : son être est comme une conque dans laquelle faire résonner l’Ereignis, l’évènement de l’être, de l’ordre du es gibt. On ne saurait donc reprocher à Heidegger d’abandonner la logique au profit d’un irrationalisme non-scientifique, dans la mesure où il remonte à sa racine et que, par fidélité à son principe, il pense la vérité de l’être de façon plus fidèle et précise : car, loin d’être une technique formelle, la logique est le biais par lequel on s’exerce à dévoiler la vérité. A condition que le logos, loin de la parole codifiée et structurée par l’opposition, regarde en arrière de soi et, inventif, se situe au bord de ce qui, en en étant la vérité, en signe la disparition. Le langage, poétique, montre dans une parole qui déjà se laisse envahir par le silence, hors du régime objectivant du langage à valeur communicationnelle (qui dit le « what », l’objet). Cette thèse « gnostique » sur le langage et la vérité comme dévoilement du voilement du voilement (le passage, chez Platon, de la double ignorance – je ne sais pas que je ne sais pas – à la simple ignorance), gagne ainsi en clarté à la lumière de la compréhension mé-ontologique dans la Kabbale du Ain Soph et du statut du texte, à la fois spéculatif et dévotionnel, qui est autant commentaire de commentaire que Voie de Dévoilement (au sens d’aletheia) de l’Absolu. Le langage, sous cet angle, se laisse ainsi ressaisir à partir de la conception kabbalistique de la nature, comme abri de la signature secrète que Dieu a placée sur les choses.

 C’est, globalement, à l’aune de la mystique juive que la philosophie de Heidegger apparaît pour ce qu’elle est : comme une Poiesis, vaste méditation, essai d’une pensée sans lieu, utopique, ni suffisamment « logique », trop conceptuelle pour être poétique, trop philosophique pour être mystique. Certes, dans ce dépassement de la métaphysique, qui n’est autre qu’un saut hors de soi de la pensée, on y verra désormais bien des éléments de Kabbale, et il sera difficile au lecteur d’aborder de nouveau le Seyn, sans toute la richesse de compréhension qu’elle apporte. Mais, à tout le moins, c’est me semble-t-il la Kabbale elle-même qui fait l’objet des plus belles pages de l’ouvrage, et dans l’enthousiasme de l’auteur, mais aussi la profondeur de vue, fruit d’années de recherche, c’est le Feu sacré du Savoir véritable qui se révèle, contaminant jusqu’au lecteur lui-même. Quant à savoir si le destin historial de la philosophie ne serait pas du côté de la mystique, c’est là une question que nous maintenons ouverte. Comme si l’aridité et l’exigence conceptuelle de la philosophie servaient de tremplin à la simplicité du Verbe, que le philosophe n’était pas celui qui dit la vérité sur l’être (le totalisant, comme s’il le surplombait), mais celui qui, ouvrant à la vérité de l’être, doit désormais dans le silence se faire Myste. La Poiesis chez Heidegger est sans commune mesure avec la Poiesis véritable dans la mystique, avec le passage de l’Homme à l’Homme-Dieu, de l’existence éparpillée dans les étants à la réalisation de son essence. Mais cela, la phénoménologie de la finitude de Heidegger ne le pouvait penser.

Beata Stawarska: Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century

Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century Book Cover Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century
Beata Stawarska
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 53,49 €
IX, 133

Reviewed by: Jacob Rump (Creighton University)

In Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century, Beata Stawarska surveys for English-language readers important differences between the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure as presented in student lecture notes and other materials from his Nachlass, and the received picture of Saussure known to most of his twentieth-century readers via the 1916 Course in General Linguistics assembled and published by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. She highlights several important ways in which the received “Saussurean doctrine”—especially the oppositional pairings of signifier and signified, la langue and la parole, and synchrony and diachrony—is actually more complex and more open-ended than Saussure’s structuralist adherents and poststructuralist critics have claimed. She suggests that this revised understanding of Saussure’s ideas can lead toward a rapprochement between the traditionally opposed camps of structuralism and phenomenology.

I. Theme, Audience, and Approach

Stawarska has done a great service for those of us interested in these issues, but who may not have had the time (as in my case) to read her much larger, 250-page work on this topic, Saussure’s Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology: Undoing the Doctrine of the Course in General Linguistics (Oxford University Press, 2015). Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology is a much smaller book, published in Palgrave Macmillan’s “Pivot” series designed for works shorter than traditional monographs. The work is presented as a handbook “addressed at a wide, interdisciplinary audience,” which may be read on its own or alongside the text of the course, and Stawarska includes a helpful reading map linking specific chapters in her book to specific chapters in the 1916 published version of the Course. But the book is only partially a commentary on specific chapters of Saussure’s well-known published work. It is also, and indeed, primarily, an exercise in philosophical philology, cataloguing ways in which the published “Saussurean doctrine” differs from the views of Saussure available in the Nachlass. It is heavy on criticisms of the published version of his ideas and evidence intended to set the record straight, but rather light on details concerning the reasons Saussure actually held particular theses and on examination of those theses as self-standing philosophical claims.

Because of this approach, the first and much larger Part I of the book, “Legitimacy of the Saussurean Doctrine” (Chapters 2-10), is in an odd position: it presents the results of highly specialized, high quality research concerning the production and reception of a published work that would seem to be far too specific for “a wide, interdisciplinary audience,” and yet does not engage in the detailed examination of the theoretical issues her research raises for disciplinary audiences expecting critical engagement (e.g., philosophers, literary theorists, perhaps intellectual historians). Similarly, Part II examines Saussure’s “Contemporary Legacy” (Chapters 11-13), but is dominated by broad considerations of the text’s reception and only sketches arguments and positions concerning Saussure and later twentieth-century authors.

After comparing this book to the table of contents of Stawarska’s 2015 work, and reading Patrick Flack’s review of the latter in Phenomenological Reviews, I have the impression that this book is largely a rewriting, rearranging and abridgment of the same material. But that is not the work under review here. Thus, in what follows, I address Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology as the relatively self-standing handbook it purports to be, and ignore the question of whether Stawarska has more thoroughly defended her interpretation in the earlier-published version of these ideas (I suspect she has). Considered on its own merits, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into issues concerning the promulgation and reception of Saussure’s views, and the implications of these issues for a rapprochement between phenomenology and structuralism, but it offers little more than a glimpse: the book is lacking on the level of substantive philosophical discussion or historical contextualization of the relevant issues. Depending on its readership, this may or may not be a limitation of the work. In the next section of this review, I present a general overview of Part I, raising some critical points along the way. In the final section I turn to the treatment of phenomenological figures and themes, which occurs primarily in Part II, and raise some additional, more specifically phenomenological concerns.

II. Setting the Record Straight on Saussure

The first few chapters provide an overview and helpfully summarize the case against the received interpretation of the Saussurean doctrine. Chapter two outlines the key doctrinal elements that have made the course so influential in the history of twentieth-century intellectual movements, especially structuralism, and surveys various strands of its legacy. Here, Stawarska sets up an important tension that informs the rest of the book: on the one hand, there is good textual evidence that speaks against taking the published content of the book as representing Saussure’s views: “it can be documented that the editors or rather ‘ghostwriters’ of the Course introduced apocryphal content, reversed the order of presentation, projected a conceptual apparatus of vertical dichotomies, and adopted a dogmatic tone in their redacted version of general linguistics” (11).  If we want to get the real Saussurean doctrine rather than that of Bally and Sechehaye, we will need to follow Stawarska in diving into various texts in Saussure’s Nachlass, including the lecture notes of several students who actually attended Saussure’s courses in general linguistics (remarkably, the compilers of the published version did not attend any of the iterations of the course, though they did attend other courses taught by Saussure (16)).

On the other hand, the legacy of the published content of the course has become so important in the history of twentieth-century intellectual movements that simply to reject the received doctrine would be to neglect the very influence that Saussure has had: “a critical study of a Great Book is a testimony to its established legacy and enduring relevance. The force of the critique depends in part upon the recognized importance of the object being critiqued” (12). Twenty-first century readers thus find themselves in a difficult position: on the one hand, details concerning the problematic circumstances surrounding the publication of the course lead us to want to seek out the “real Saussure.” On the other hand—especially insofar as Saussure’s lasting legacy and importance has not been (or has not been exclusively) in the field of linguistics, but rather in fields such as literary theory and Continental philosophy and in broad discipline-spanning intellectual movements like structuralism and post-structuralism—what seems important is not so much figuring out what Saussure actually said, but rather understanding the course in the context of its influential reception—even if that reception is, from the standpoint of authorial intent, highly problematic.

Stawarska uses this tension to frame her own interpretation, which she characterizes as both a “deconstructive” and a “critical” reading of Saussure. And yet her exegesis remains mostly at the level of philological, this-is-what-the-author-really-said considerations. Thus, while Stawarska may be right to characterize the course as “a complex and multifaceted text that arguably deconstructs the very doctrinal understanding it seeks to espouse” (13), there is remarkably little attention paid—with a minor exception in her treatment of Derrida in Chapters Seven and Twelve—to the issues raised by a self-professed deconstructive reading whose main goal seems to be to set the record straight concerning the real intentions of the author. I return to this issue below.

Chapter Three is a useful guide to the shocking ways in which the editors of the published version of the Course both took liberties in the presentation of the material and promoted it through avenues such as publishing their own reviews of the work. There is one important element underlying Stawarska’s broader considerations introduced in this chapter that I wish she had spelled out in greater detail and with more precision. Stawarska is highly critical of Bally and Sechahaye’s concern to present Saussure’s doctrines in linguistics in the light of “complete objectivity” (18), and their efforts “to conform the then emerging science of general linguistics to the normative expectations within scientific disciplines” (11). She seems to suggest that this scientifically oriented presentation somehow leads to the problematic structuralist assumption “that cultural signification can be studied like an object within traditional physical sciences, that is, independently of users and/or observers and irrespective of historical change” (10). And she cites with approval Saussurean critiques, in the Nachlass material, of “naïve realism in linguistics,” of “an unexamined metaphysical commitment to entities assumed to exist independently of language use” and of  “a naturalist approach to language”—all phrases which seem to be references to the same phenomenon (28-29). At the same time, she presents her own antidote to the misreadings as resting on the firm ground of “standards of empirical validity” (26) and as offering “an empirically based understanding” (11) of Saussure.

But there is very little discussion of what exactly these broadly scientific notions, on either side—naturalism, the empirical, natural science, etc.—are taken to be. This is particularly surprising given that both structuralism and phenomenology are known for their detailed considerations of the contested terrains of science and objectivity in the face of considerations of our subjectivity as thinkers, speakers, experiencers and knowers. These are no simple matters, and Stawarska surely owes the reader a more detailed account of them. Scientific objectivity was no more a simple, uncritical, unquestioned doctrine in empirical and formal disciplines at the turn of the twentieth century than it is today. Stawarska’s simultaneous reliance on the authority of the “empirical” (does this mean the lived-experiential, in the phenomenological sense?) and suspicion of objectivity and scientific disciplines is strongly reminiscent of the sort of reactionary anti-scientism characteristic of some post-structuralist and deconstructive theory in the 1980s and 90s. If this is not her position, a more detailed treatment of these concepts would help to show it.

Perhaps the most damning example of Sechehaye and Bally’s violation of academic norms is detailed in Chapter Four, where Stawarska shows that the famous concluding statement of the published Course, “the only true object of study in linguistics is the language, considered in itself and for its own sake” (qtd in Stawarska 24), is apocryphal, and not warranted by the source materials. This influential statement, she shows, becomes a sort of guiding thread for the problematic interpretation of  Saussurean doctrine among structuralists. By singling out language as the sole object of study, and implying that Saussure believed it should be studied as a complete and self-standing system, independent of, e.g., social and historical contingencies, the editors set the stage for the problematic hierarchical and anti-historical presentation of core Saussurean concepts.

Against this hierarchical presentation in the published course, Stawarska presents a “horizontal” (67, 94) interpretation of Saussurean linguistics. For example, contrary to the received view, Saussure did not straightforwardly privilege la langue (the language system, considered in terms of the interrelations of signifiers but independently of its actual usages) over la parole (actual usage of the language in everyday social speech contexts) as the “true object of study in linguistics.” Saussure’s actual presentation of this distinction in the Nachlass is rather more nuanced and modest: he presents la langue as a “platform,” “viewpoint,” or “orientation”  from which to view the “complex, heterogenous linguistic terrain” of la langage, rather than as “a superior and self-standing object” (30). Thus whereas the published course overstates the distinction between la langue and la parole, Saussure’s own statements from the Nachlass lead Stawarska to conclude that, in his actual view, “linguistic study involves an intellectually complex and self-reflective process that, in principle, precludes the possibility of unmediated access to a simple object” (31).

One of the most informative sections of the book explains how the presentation of the well-known figure from Chapter One of the published Course, featuring images of a tree and a horse alongside “ARBOR” and “EQUOS,” was intended by Saussure to represent the traditional nomenclature view of language, according to which there is a separation between “an immutable order of things in the world” and “an immutable order of ideas and words” (38). On this nomenclature view, words stand in for things, and thus constitute a version of what Stawarska calls the  “classical metaphysical view” of representation, such as we find in Aristotle, the Port-Royal rational grammarians, and the Augustinian theory of language Wittgenstein criticizes in the introductory sections of the Philosophical Investigations (38). But the next figure in the published text, which is supposed to represent the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, imports parts of the previous figure (the image of the tree and the word “arbor”) even though there is no support for such importation in the manuscripts of the lectures. On the basis of such considerations, against the received view of the structuralists that Saussure’s treatment of the sign is static and represents a “complete doctrine,” Stawarska argues that Saussure’s actual view as recorded in the Nachlass materials “presents testable, evolving, and if need be, revised hypotheses” (35).

There is of course a tension between structuralist and classical representationalist views. One does not typically think of the structuralists as paradigmatic representationalists. To endorse the view that language or any other semiotic system operates as a system of differences is in fact to downplay, if not reject outright, the claim that words stand in for things. Thus the Saussurean view as presented in the published version of the course is not only unfaithful to Saussure’s actual doctrines, it is also in tension with itself: as presented, “Saussure’s conception of language seems to be divided between, on the one hand, the metaphysical idea of a sign as signans/signatum and, on the other hand, the novel differential understanding of signification developed later in the Course” (37). Setting the stage for her reading of Derrida on Saussure, Stawarska shows how this tension in the published Course is avoided in Saussure’s Nachlass via his account not of absolute but of “relative arbitrariness” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 43) at the level of the language system as a whole (45-46). The real Saussure, Stawarska argues, regards the sign system as always already engaged with the changing socio-historical world and thus open ended.

The socio-historical aspects of the real Saussurean view are investigated more closely by looking at Saussure’s conception of the speech community. Saussure recognizes “a historical fact at the origin of every state of the language” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 51), resulting in a conception according to which “language and the social world are co-constituting factors of cultural signification, and it would be impossible to posit one without simultaneously implicating the other” (51). This is in direct contrast with the way the role of society is downplayed in the published version of the Course. In effect, then, when we consider the unpublished source materials, the Course “effectively complicates the order of the hierarchical dichotomies (la langue and la parole; synchrony and diachrony) from the ‘Saussurian doctrine.’ It calls into question the view that modern linguistics is an ahistorical and formal science, and it suggests that subject and structure-based approaches to cultural signification advanced, respectively, by the traditions of phenomenology and post-structuralism, can be productively combined” (53).

But the chapter does not specify who holds (or held) this view of modern linguistics. The phenomenological and (post-) structuralist considerations that presumably supply the remedy are only gestured at, and the important notion of historicity, so central for phenomenology and arguably one the features that most clearly distinguishes it from structuralism, isn’t discussed in detail. The suggestion seems to be that historicity is dealt with via Stawarska’s Chapter Eight, on synchrony and diachrony. But as both Husserl and Heidegger have shown us, diachrony, temporality, and historicity are not identical concepts, even if they are interrelated. Here, in a pattern repeated throughout the book, at an obvious point of differentiation between structuralism and phenomenology, Stawarska marks the issue but does not further develop it via detailed philosophical discussion, essentially limiting her account to setting the record straight on Saussure.

The chapter on synchrony and diachrony argues that the relationship between the two planes of linguistic analysis is more complicated in Saussure than one would think from reading the published version of the Course. Rather than a hierarchy—la langue as characterized by synchrony over la parole as characterized by diachrony—Saussure’s actual view in the course is not hierarchical but “horizontal” between la langue/synchrony and la parole/diachrony: “what may seem like a single and simple object of study (the sign; la langue ; a synchronic fact) turns out to be crisscrossed with its other interlinked facet (the signified; la parole; a diachronic fact)” (74). Chapter Nine provides an intriguing further account of this interlinking in terms of the notion of creativity or “linguistic innovation.” Whereas the published version presents this material after introducing the synchrony/diachrony distinction, suggesting that “linguistic innovation is of purely diachronic interest,” Stawarska argues, following analysis of remarks in the Nachlass by several Francophone interpreters, that Saussure’s doctrine of linguistic innovation is actually intended to explain the way in which la parole affects la langue over time, thus “horizontally” connecting diachronic and synchronic aspects. This is accomplished primarily through an account of analogy as a creative principle, as exhibited especially in the norm-defying language use of children and literary writers. In phenomena such a false verb conjugations, children’s mistakes are still “operative within a given conjugational paradigm” (79). Such analogical innovation is presented more generally as a “motor driving historical change” (80). In short, “analogical innovation deploys grammatical principles of novel formation harbored within the language structure” (80), and is “intrinsic to the language system itself (81).

Here again, however, Stawarska seems to ignore obvious points for engagement with structuralism and phenomenology: How does this account square with the traditional structuralist concern with the language system? Aren’t such “conjugational paradigms” and “linguistic structures” precisely the sorts of concerns that most occupied the structuralists? And if the real Saussure thinks analogical innovation within such structures is a driver of historical change, surely the close parallel between this idea and the phenomenological notion that eidetic structures of experience help to determine the meaning content of lived experience without fully predetermining it merits closer examination.

Chapter Ten brings together the various threads in Part One to summarize Stawarska’s critique of the general presentation of the published version of the course as an account of “a central language structure… assumed a priori,” with diverse natural languages as a set of “factual consequences” of lesser importance (87). Against this view, Stawarska argues that Saussure’s actual view, as evidenced in students’ lecture notes, “moves from a detailed survey of several languages (les langues) to a concluding, hypothetical notion of language (la langue) as such. Presumably, this is what Stawarska means when she characterizes her reading, earlier in the book, as “empirical” rather than “objective,” and which she contrasts to the problematic view as presented in the published texts that “la langue can be construed as an a priori abstract idea to be couched in universal laws” (94).

The chapter again raises interesting interpretive points that beg for further engagement—especially, in this instance, vis-à-vis phenomenology. Is not, e.g., Husserl’s phenomenology an example of “an apriori abstract idea couched in universal laws,” and which yet is arrived at through “empirical” analysis—assuming this means analysis of lived experience? Doesn’t Husserl’s insistence that, in some sense, the a priori is to be found in experience speak against the dichotomy Stawarska implicitly endorses, between the a priori/ necessary/ universal/ objective, one the one hand, and the a posteriori/ contingent/ particular/ subjective on the other? Was it not a central theoretical concern of phenomenology (and, indeed, of post-structuralists such as Derrida and Foucault) to overcome the simplified reliance on just such dichotomies?

III. Engagement with Phenomenology

Part II, “Contemporary Legacy,” does not further explore these issues directly but does (along with Chapter Seven of Part I, which seems oddly placed in the ordering of the chapters) explore some related themes, via a brief engagement with one broadly structuralist (Lacan, Chapter Eleven) and two phenomenological (Derrida, Chapters Seven and Twelve, and Merleau-Ponty, Chapter Thirteen) authors, focusing on what they had to say about Saussure and how they read the course. Stawarska’s treatment of these issues, while fascinating, seems to me to fall short of the purpose expressed in the introduction, of offering a “rapprochement” between structuralism and phenomenology via the long-obscured actual doctrines of Saussure. This may be in part because it is oriented around readings of particular figures, rather than addressing the philosophical issues directly. Given the venue of this review, I will focus on the chapters engaging phenomenological figures.

Chapter Seven, “Derrida and Saussure: Entrainment and Contamination” interrupts the chain of chapters detailing the doctrines of the Course through engagement with Derrida, seeking a

rapprochement between his critique and Saussure’s actual, more nuanced views. Stawarska is skeptical of Derrida’s reading of Saussure as practitioner of the metaphysics of presence: “It is difficult to imagine how Saussure’s linguistics could have made a difference to the study of cultural signification in the twentieth century, if it were as burdened by the Western metaphysical legacy as Derrida claims it is” (56).  The chapter does not explain what exactly this burden is, why it would have inhibited Saussure’s influence, or why we should take Derrida to be right about any of this. It may be true that “few scholars have challenged Derrida’s indictment of Saussure’s linguistics as a species of metaphysics of presence…” (56), but it is not true that few have questioned this Derridean doctrine in its own right. It is also unclear whether Stawarska means to connect the critique of the metaphysics of presence with the critiques of the nomenclature view of the sign and of the striving for objectivity as discussed above.

Stawarska claims that Derrida’s critique of Saussure is misplaced—that he misinterprets the master on the basis of the published text of the Course—but at the same time that Saussure’s actual view is in fact relatively close to Derrida’s own, with its emphasis on “entrainment” and “contamination,” and its rejection of simple notions of purity or presence. Following Derrida’s Glas, Stawarska focuses on the potential objection raised by onomatopoeia. If Saussure’s claim is that there is no natural relation between the world and the sign-system (the thesis of arbitrariness), then it would seem that onomatopoeia presents a putative counterexample, insofar as such words appear to be modelled on natural sounds. The editors of the published version of the course go to great trouble to effectively rule out such cases and thus diffuse the objection, on the grounds that these sorts of words “are never organic elements of a linguistic system” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 60). But the latter phrase is an editorial insertion without basis in the manuscript (61).  In Saussure’s actual view, Stawarska argues, onomatopoeia does not constitute an objection to the claim that there are no natural signs. As Derrida argues, even onomatopoetic words are already contaminated by an outside, and are always already part of a sign system: the intralinguistic motivation by the language system enables individual signifiers like glas/knell  and fouet/whip to be heard as expressions indicating a sound (or an object capable of making a sound), rather than the external sound-source motivating these expressions directly” (62). Thus, for the real Saussure, as for Derrida, onomatopoeia is not an exception to the rule of the arbitrariness of the sign system, but rather an exemplification of that rule—so long as we recall, as argued in Stawarska’s earlier chapters discussed above, that the arbitrariness thesis applies at the level of the sign system as a whole, not at the level of individual signs.

Stawarska’s argument here—which is Derrida’s argument—is worth more consideration than it receives in the book. What proves that “there are no natural signifiers in language?” The claim is that any attempt to locate a putative exception to this rule will in fact reveal contamination and entrainment, and thus show that in fact the rule holds. But how does one identify cases of contamination and entrainment, except on the basis of the presupposition that the thesis always already holds? If the thesis is correct, there is no “nature” outside of the sign system available as an independent outside, as a neutral point of comparison: there is nothing outside the text. But if this is antecedently presupposed, then of course any attempt to find something that escapes the sign system will come up empty! If the thesis is incorrect, and there are neutral points of comparison for such questions—putative natural signs—then it will be said that “Following Derrida, the language system is worked from within by forces deemed external to it (be they sounds found in the physical world, phonetic evolution that is deemed merely fortuitous in the Course , or intertextual relations). Just as there are no ‘authentic’ onomatopoetic expressions based directly on the mimesis of sound, there are no absolutely arbitrary signifiers devoid of any and all external motivation” (63). The claim thus seems more dogmatic assertion than phenomenological description subject to verification via lived experience.

I don’t wish to question Stawarska’s exegesis of Saussure or of Derrida on this point, but surely, in a philosophical monograph, we are entitled to some considerations as to whether their views are correct. Potential counterexamples could be drawn, for example, from similar discussions in another of Derrida’s major source figures, Husserl (see, for example, the discussion of natural signs as a form of indication in §2 of the first Logical Investigation—particularly relevant given Husserl’s analysis in this section of the notion of “motivation,” a term Stawarska utilizes frequently, although it is unclear if she intends it in the technical phenomenological sense), or, venturing outside the world of Continental philosophy, from Paul Grice’s account of natural signs in “Meaning.” At the very least, some further clarification of what Stawarska means by “empirical” considerations could shed light on the method though which we are supposed to (fail to) discover natural signs.

Chapter Twelve, “Post-structuralism: The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing,”  attempts a slightly different sort of rapprochement with Saussure, focusing on Derrida’s reading of the Course in Of Grammatology. Stawarska’s claim is that, despite his deconstructive focus on the text rather than the author, and despite the well-known structuralist and post-structuralist rejection of the import of authorial intent, Derrida’s deconstructive critique of the “civilization of the book” in favor of a notion of “unbound text” or writing should have led him to examine Saussure’s unpublished manuscripts more closely. The notion of the open-endedness of the sign-system, which Stawarska plausibly takes as the marker that distinguishes post-structuralism from structuralism, should have lead Derrida beyond the published text of the course to discover Saussure’s own much more open-ended views in the Nachlass, of which there is evidence that Derrida was aware. Had he done so, Stawarska claims, Derrida would have found a Saussure whose views are in fact much closer to his own: “These writings went unpublished during Saussure’s life, and one could lament a rectifiable failure to deliver intellectual products or consider that the linguist was contesting scientific normativity and the civilization of the book. Saussure was performing the end of the book and the beginning of writing” (113).

Couldn’t the same be said of any author who left unpublished manuscripts? What is special or uniquely interesting about Saussure here, versus, say, other linguists of his day?  Beyond linguists, what of other authors in this time period (e.g., Husserl, Heidegger, Freud), who also wrote extensively and only published a fraction of what they wrote? Were they too contesting “scientific normativity and the civilization of the book?” If they were too, then which of their contemporaries were not? What was the source of the scientific normativity that was contested?  Again, my point is not that there is nothing to what Stawarska claims—these are interesting and important historical-philosophical issues that merit discussion. My point is, here again, we are not given that philosophical discussion, nor any engagement with Saussure’s contemporaries that might help to shed light on the intricacies and novelty (or lack thereof) of his views. Chapter Twelve is thus especially illustrative in bringing to the forefront the question of immanent critique, noted at the beginning of this review, that haunts Stawarska’s book as a whole: doesn’t this whole approach of establishing the “real Saussure” stand in some tension with Stawarska’s implicit endorsement of the poststructuralist, deconstructive project? Should it matter, from that perspective, whether the Course represents what Saussure himself actually thought, or even what he is “performing,” given that this is now the received view of his ideas—the text? Stawarska is of course aware of this tension. But here, as elsewhere, we are not offered any detailed philosophical account to justify or dissolve it. Is the absence of a detailed treatment of this rather central theoretical issue itself a performance that “deliberately contests scientific normativity,” or perhaps a rejection of the metaphysics of presence?

The final chapter of the book opposes structuralist and post-structuralist readings to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reading of Saussure. The chapter begins with some interesting considerations of Saussure’s notion of the “language phenomenon,” and suggests that this tells against the traditional notion (presumably of structuralist inspiration) that Saussure has nothing to say about the subject. For Saussure, Stawarska claims, “the subject is equal parts a ‘human being’ and a ‘social being,’ and speaking is an inherently communicative act which borrows from society and thanks to which one interacts with the community. The language phenomenon  belongs, therefore, to the individual speaking subject and to the greater social world of historically sedimented conventions. As such, the language phenomenon described by Saussure cannot be confined to the inner world of consciousness emphasized within the classical tradition of phenomenology” (119-120, my emphasis).

Stawarska seems to be opposing French phenomenological figures such as Merleau-Ponty and Derrida to earlier “classical” phenomenologists whom she takes to have held this view. But we are not told what this inner world is, or who exactly held such a view. What of Heidegger’s rejection of the subject in favor of Dasein and Being-in-the-World? What of Husserl’s oft-expressed rejection of the notion of the ego as a monadic, solipsistic subject? Given that Stawarska explicitly invokes the “classical tradition of phenomenology” as a foil, surely we are owed some account of these figures’ views. Even if Stawarska wishes to limit her consideration to the French tradition of phenomenology, surely she is aware of Sartre’s claim that it follows from the very idea of intentionality that “everything [even consciousness] is finally outside” (Sartre, “Intentionality: A Fundamental idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology”). There is no detailed discussion of these central phenomenological themes, and long-discredited caricatures of the classical phenomenological project are presented as accepted doctrines. That project is certainly not beyond reproach; the potential challenges that Stawarska gestures at are interesting and important. But she never does more than gesture. There is no philosophically detailed reproach for the reader (or this reviewer) to agree or disagree with. Beyond historical sources, given her focus on the social aspects of the sign system, Stawarska might also have engaged with the currently burgeoning phenomenological literature on normativity, collective intentionality, or social ontology, but her account of the “contemporary legacy” of phenomenology relevant for the desired rapprochement is limited to mid to late-twentieth century French figures and some occasional references to Agamben.

The subsequent treatment of Merleau-Ponty that concludes the book is interesting, but again frustratingly minimal (direct engagement with Merleau-Ponty makes up about 3.5 pages of the book). Stawarska devotes a few pages to Merleau-Ponty’s view of Saussure, primarily based on Signs, excerpts from the Lectures at the College De France, and The Prose of the World. Her discussion is centered on Merleau-Ponty’s “methodological subjectivism,” which focuses on the phenomenon of speech and sees in the synchronic an always-incomplete historical reside of the diachronic, of previous generations of speakers (121). In this sense, Merleau-Ponty recognizes in Saussure an “interdependency between la langue and la parole” (121) and in light of this proposes a “new, situated conception of reason where historical contingency goes hand in hand with an enduring logic of both mutual understanding and world disclosure that are attainted via an evolving linguistic medium… the signifying ‘body’ of language in the social and historical context” (122). Whereas Merleau-Ponty’s critics found this to be a misreading of the Course, the real Saussurean doctrine, as Stawarska has explicated it, in fact better accords with Merleau-Ponty’s view. Thus, as was the case with Derrida, Merleau-Ponty is actually closer to the real Saussure, if further from the Saussure we know from the published Course, and may even be seen as a reformer of the study of language in the Saussurean mould via his focus on the subjective experience of speech (123).

Stawarska concludes the book thus:

[T]he subject and structure-based approaches to cultural signification need not be opposed. Language construed as a phenomenon is individual as well as social, intentional and automatic, received and invented, contemporary yet ancient. Language construed as a phenomenon calls, therefore, for combined phenomenological and structural approaches to cultural signification. Saussure’s linguistics points a way out of the institutionalized antagonism between these two philosophical traditions of inquiry, and it enables a greater rapprochement than is traditionally acknowledged. Saussure’s linguistics can therefore be claimed as an important intellectual resource in contemporary research on how subjective experiences and structural arrangements continually intersect (123).

This passage nicely encapsulates the Stawarska’s overarching thesis: a re-reading of Saussure that goes beyond the problematic published version of the Course can help to accomplish a rapprochement between the traditionally opposed camps of structuralism and phenomenology. The book is a helpful outline of such rapprochement, if not on its own an accomplishment of it.

Hans Blumenberg: Die Nackte Wahrheit

Die nackte Wahrheit Book Cover Die nackte Wahrheit
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2281
Hans Blumenberg. Edited by Rüdiger Zill
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 20,00 €

Reviewed by: Sebastian Müngersdorff (University of Antwerp)

On Unbearable Reality and Beautiful Appearances


Ferdinand Hodler’s painting ‘Die Wahrheit’ features a naked woman dispelling six cloaked male figures as if they were dark thoughts. She finds herself standing on an isle of grass while the men – lies? – turn from her and look for shelter in barren lands. In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s depiction of the truth, titled ‘The Truth Coming from the Well with Her Whip to Chastise Mankind’, one sees exactly what the title promises. At least, presuming the beholder knows that truth always comes as a naked, angry woman ready to hysterically chase you down. I would hardly be surprised if the painter kept the words “How could you!” in mind, or, more accurately, “Comment peux-tu!”, when drawing the contours of her screaming mouth. Perhaps he even pictured the face of his wife at the moment he told her the truth about his many models and the adulterous state of affairs.

In other paintings, by Merson, for example, or Lefebvre or Baudry, lady truth brandishes a mirror instead of a whip. In the version of Édouard Debat-Ponsan, two men, one of whom is blindfolded, try to restrain her and her charged mirror, to no avail. Her clothes tear from the male grip while her flaming red hair blows bravely and unhinderedly, her gaze aimed at some point outside the frame: her holy mission? Ultimate victory in the Age of Reason?

Venus, Eve, Leda, the Sirens, Diana, Phryne, nymphs: figurative painting has always gratefully seized upon the offer to depict naked women. Nonetheless, it is not self-evident that Hodler’s ‘The Truth’ belongs to this list of subjects. Why is truth female? Why can she only show herself unveiled? Why is she angry? Why is she victorious? Why is she armed? Why is she white? And why does she have no pubic hair?

At least some of these questions spurred Blumenberg’s collection of small excerpts exploring the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ in Western thought, now published from his archives as Die Nackte Wahrheit by Rüdiger Zill. This book makes quite clear that the depiction of truth as naked is more than a mere representation. There is a longstanding tradition in which truth is deeply intertwined with a pure female nature understood as clarity, innocence, attraction and unapproachability. Such equation of truth with female nudity creates a variety of unuttered associations. Truth, for example, is accessible only to few – something that will play into the democratizing project of Enlightenment. It installs a connection between eros and the pursuit of truth, a desire, a libido sciendi. Prohibition is involved and it gives rise to the problem of whether truth is still truth when she presents herself dressed up. Truth becomes contaminated by male deception. The quest for truth becomes “an expedition to some exotic place”, as Kołakowski terms it in his text on nakedness and truth (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Truth becomes a capture, an ambiguous purpose of curiosity, an ideal of knowledge which is godlike, forever beyond reach yet nonetheless worth chasing, “a passion deserving of death” as Blumenberg calls it (NW 105). Just like in the story of Artemis and Actaeon (NW 104-6), the male gaze automatically becomes indiscrete and inappropriate, and curiosity becomes a kind of unacceptable voyeurism. Just like Actaeon, anyone who looks at the divine must die, an implication of a lethal danger of pursuing truth. It is worth considering that such a passion is rewritten in the expression “vedi Napoli e poi muori”, especially when bearing in mind how often a beautiful city – the word city, like truth, has a female genus in most European languages – is considered in similar female terms: the Jewel of Europe, La sposa del mare, the Pearl of the Orient, la Superba or Elbflorenz. In the case of Paris, it is expressed in terms of this other metaphor for truth: la ville lumière.

That in the European languages “truth appears on the stage as a female act”, Blumenberg writes, gives “truth an erotic-aesthetic trait […] which is not taken for granted by the misogynist” (NW 126). Whether this implies that skeptics must also be misogynists remains unclear. And whether this applies to the skeptic Blumenberg himself is a question that perhaps only a modern Diogenes might dare to ask Blumenberg’s daughter, Bettina.

Be that as it may, in view of the topic it is rather striking that this book devotes only a single page to a female writer, Madame du Châtelet. This one page, however, does not discuss her writing or thought; instead, it addresses an anecdote that tells how Mme du Châtelet shamelessly undressed in front of her servant Longchamp. Blumenberg links this behavior to the project of Enlightenment itself, in which “truth shows herself unembarrassedly in front of those who ought to serve her” (NW 103). In short, rather than her writings and ideas, it is only Madame du Châtelet’s indifference to her own nakedness that becomes a significant expression of the “new methodological ideal of objectivity” (NW 103).

Although Blumenberg does not render it explicitly, the short chapter on Actaeon following this page suggests that the divine nakedness of truth becomes human in the nakedness of Émilie du Châtelet. The hunter Actaeon, servant of the goddess Artemis, watches his mistress undress and consequently he must be punished for seeing her in her nudity. Someone who looks at Medusa, however, instantly dies. In other words, Acteon already signals an alteration in the mythic gaze upon a deity, which in Artemis’ bathing scene changes from tremendum into fascinosum. He doesn’t die immediately, he is punished for his violation. In the anecdote of Madame du Châtelet, then, a succeeding shift occurs. In contrast to Actaeon, the servant Longchamp is not punished, he is not even noticed. Longchamp becomes a subject “of conscious exposure” and is regarded as not being there: “in the witness of nudity an awareness is raised […] of remaining unnoticed in his presence” (NW 103).

This reversal in the relation of nakedness, fascinosum, between mistress and servant, punisher and the one punished, is still far from Nietzsche’s later take, “to think of the naked truth as a frightening and unbearable dimension” (NW 126). Whether a comparison of Nietzsche’s views on the ugly truth and his lashing attitude towards women – note the double inversion of Gérôme’s depiction concerning the appearance of lady truth and the one who is cracking the whip – could add something to the debate about his possible misogyny is merely a suggestion discerned between the lines.

Like this example, and completely in line with his longstanding interest in the non-conceptual (Unbegrifflichkeit), i.e. metaphoric, narrative, anecdotal and mythic substratum of conceptual thought, Blumenberg delves into the layers of implicit imagery and associations so as to note significant changes in meaning over time. Moreover, he lays bare – an expression which is itself already part of the semantics of the naked truth – inconsistencies in the rational discourse that is built on this metaphoric level and shows how it can be deconstructed and eventually turned against itself. He does so by discussing writers and philosophers such as Adorno, Kafka, Pascal, Fontenelle, Rousseau, Vesalius, Fontane, Schopenhauer, Kant, Kierkegaard and Lichtenberg. The seemingly incoherent order of these names mirrors both Blumenberg’s own avoidance of chronology and his preference of association. Although he refuses an all too systematic approach of the issue, the intrinsic connection of the different chapters is always clear: “How does the metaphor portray the position of the thinker, in which he maneuvered himself because of more or less compelling reasons and under more or less unavoidable conditions” (NW 127)?

Applied to truth, this question brings him to many considerations about the implications of viewing truth as naked: “If truth only is right when naked, then every cover is a disguise and eo ipso wrong” (NW 71). However, when we embrace the conviction that truth is true only when it is naked, we can never undo the threat that “even its nakedness is still costume” (NW 92). Nakedness then turns into “the illusion […] which is created by the gesture of tearing down dresses”, which in turn evokes “the scheme of the onion skin” (NW 97). “When once opened, nothing ever is something final” (NW 102). And at the same time, there is the thought that “truth might be as unbearable to humans as nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 51). In this case, “the cover of truth seems to grant us our ability to live”, a thought which appears in “Rousseau’s pragmatic exploitation of the metaphor of truth in the water well […]: leave her there. The depth of the well protects us from the problem of its nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 57).

In this regard, it is remarkable how rarely Blumenberg refers to the Christian tradition. In “The Epistemology of Striptease”, Leszek Kołakowski, for example, traces “the entire foundations of the theory of nakedness which has been so important in our culture” back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Kołakowski 2004, 225). The Book of Genesis indeed tells of an intrinsic connection between the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the shame which immediately manifested itself when the fruit was eaten. A shame “not of their crime, but of their nakedness” (Ibid., 223). Thus, “a double relation has been established: between truth and nakedness on the one hand, and between truth and shame on the other” (Ibid., 225).

Another absence which resounds throughout the book is that of the name Heidegger, which appears not even once. Nonetheless, Die Nackte Wahrheit can be read as an implicit yet fundamental critique of Heidegger’s conception of truth as alètheia. By dissecting the metaphor of truth, Blumenberg’s text offers a perspective which shows that Heidegger still fits perfectly within the dominant Western tradition, a tradition Heidegger himself sought to destruct by thinking beyond the ontological difference and the forgetting of being. Blumenberg, however, implicitly shows that Heidegger and his conception of truth as disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’, still wades through the Western waters that Heidegger himself thought he had traced to their source.

Despite this absence of Christianity and Heidegger, Blumenberg convincingly illustrates how metaphor functions “as a more or less easily fixable crack in the consistency of thought, a stimulant, and as such it refreshes reason; it also is, however, a sedative in other cases, where it covers up the failure of the concept or remedies its lack by a merely different procedure” (NW 127).

At this point, Die Nackte Wahrheit surpasses being just a study of the naked truth and begins to concern the project of metaphorology itself. As Rüdiger Zill notes, “already since the late 1960s, Blumenberg had been thinking about a detailed revision of his metaphorology” (NW 186). Concerning his distanced relation to his initial approach, Blumenberg wrote to his English translator: “The text is not only outdated – after a quarter of a century! – it is also poor” (NW 189).

In Blumenberg’s project of ‘metaphorology’, metaphor is always more than a disguise of truth or a thought expressed in non-conceptual language. “It is essentially aesthetic”, which means “that it is not something like the mere cover of the naked thought, of which one had to constantly think as the true purpose of its interpretation and unlocking that has to be reached in the end. Who constantly thinks beyond its limits, loses what he has without receiving what he cannot possess” (NW 176). In other words, there is no naked truth to be found beyond the metaphor. And more specifically, the power of metaphor is precisely this lack of precision sought by advocates of a clear and distinct conceptual language. Thus, Blumenberg argues, in contrast to the views of many thinkers he discusses, that “history” is not the “course of the self-exposure of the concept” (NW 155). Blumenberg’s associative selection of authors and topics stresses that metaphor, with its ambiguity and openness to many interpretations, is always “far more intelligent than its composer” (NW 176).


The first fifty pages of Die Nackte Wahrheit concern Nietzsche and Freud. The only other pieces that come close to even ten pages are those on Pascal, Kant and the Enlightenment. Thus, of all the names figuring in Blumenberg’s posthumous book, Nietzsche and Freud can be called his main interlocutors.

Nietzsche immediately shows a fundamental reversal of truth as a beautiful naked creature. When he writes that “Truth is ugly. We have art so that we are not ruined by truth” (NW, 14), it is clear that something in the metaphor of truth changes. We are no longer in pursuit of the naked truth – she lies within reach in her unbearable ugliness – and so our interest shifts to the beautiful veils that are produced to conceal her.

“There would be no science, if science would only care about this one naked goddess and about nothing else” (NW, 20). With this thought, both Freud’s concept of sublimation and Blumenberg’s apotropaic function of myth are prefigured: art and culture function as a “human safety device” (NW 15), a protective shield which safeguards us from something insufferable. Or as Nietzsche formulates it: “Every type of culture starts with an amount of things that are veiled” (NW 15).

Blumenberg’s text from 1971 on the relevance of rhetoric and anthropology directly evidences the strong influence of this Nietzschean thought: “Ah, it is impossible to have an effect with the language of truth: rhetoric is required” (NW 31). Nietzsche defends rhetoric as a right to deceive vis-à-vis an unbearable truth. For the sceptic Blumenberg, however, truth cannot be unbearable, because the very possibility of truth itself is bracketed and remains an open question. In his writing on Hannah Arendt and Freud it is “the absolutism of truth” which becomes unbearable, this intimate European conviction “that the truth will triumph” (Blumenberg 2018, 57). Yet, as Blumenberg proclaims, “[n]othing is less certain than that the truth wishes to be loved, can be loved, should be loved” (Blumenberg 2018, 3).

This critique of Freud, already present in Rigorism of Truth, is continued in Die Nackte Wahrheit. The notion that psychoanalysis lives from the metaphor of revealing and concealing and connects the intellectual with the sexual can only barely be called a renewing insight. Blumenberg, however, uses this as a step to a subtler point. He reproves Freud’s rigorism because his therapy prioritizes the affirmation of his theory rather than the well-being of his patients. In other words, via Freud, Blumenberg criticizes the longstanding tradition “in which truth is justified at every cost” (NW 38), the same rigorous conviction that resonates in Thoreau’s famous phrase that “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

Read from within the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’, Freud’s quest for truth – a quest strongly intertwined with the centrality of sexuality and the prudery of the society in which he lived – shows that it is not at all clear when something is yet more ‘resistance’, a symptom, a still-clothed kind of nudity, and when exactly someone has encountered the bare piece of the reality they are searching for. “The general premise for resistance as a criterion might be (this): what people gladly accept cannot be the truth” (Blumenberg 2018, 59). In discussing this central concept of resistance as an element of Freud’s “para-theory” (loc. cit.) he comes rather close to Popper’s rejection of Freud’s methodology. In his archive there are two manuscripts with the respective abbreviation TRD and TRD II, in which Blumenberg shows how ‘resistance’ is a kind of parachute that recuperates elements falling from or even objecting to Freud’s main theory (Zill 2014, 141-43). This way, even the critics of his theory can still be fitted within it. Blumenberg points out how Freud’s quest for countering resistance and his rigorist search for truth, his urge to reveal secrecy after secrecy, eventually lead to a “hysteria of revelation for which history has an analogy in hysteria of confession” (NW 47).


Die nackte Wahrheit is certainly not Blumenberg’s first engagement with either Nietzsche or Freud. He had already dealt with both authors extensively and quite similarly in his earlier writings: reading them through the lens of their own imagery in order to criticize them from within the logic of these images and metaphors. In Arbeit am Mythos, for instance, both authors receive ample treatment on several occasions and are the focus of important passages. Freud and Thomas Mann, for example, are bound together in a trenchant and meaningful anecdote: Mann reading his lecture on Freud to Freud himself during his visit to Freud’s villa in Grinzing on Sunday, May 14, 1936. Blumenberg calls this a “great scene of the spirit of the age, which hardly had another scene comparable to it”, and notes that one of the “preconditions” of this “incomparable event” precisely “is the relationship to Nietzsche that both partners shared” (Blumenberg 1985, 516).

Other important passages include Blumenberg’s extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s approach of Prometheus against the light of his aesthetic conception of reality and of Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In the last section, ‘The Titan in His Century’, Blumenberg’s analysis of Freud’s use of Prometheus follows his assessment of Nietzsche’s use of Prometheus, such that Freud and Nietzsche, joined by Kafka, share the final page of Work on Myth. In Die nackte Wahrheit Kafka likewise follows upon Nietzsche and Freud, although it would surely be mere speculation to look for further significance here. Nonetheless, despite his longstanding and rather critical occupation with Nietzsche and Freud, Blumenberg clearly incorporated and continued many aspects of their thought.

Blumenberg’s aesthetic conception of reality, his attention for rhetoric, myth and metaphor and his truth-sceptic attitude can all be directly linked to Nietzsche. Just as rhetoric gains importance when the conviction of “the one clear and whole truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350) is given up, so too does myth return to view when this ideal of truth is abandoned. And here Blumenberg, already in his earlier work, shows himself to be an heir of Nietzsche. As Blumenberg writes in his first text on myth, “Nietzsche’s affinity to myth begins with the rule of truth becoming problematic to him. The poets lie – this saying comes back into favor” (Blumenberg 2001b, 352). Blumenberg’s name can be perfectly interchanged with Nietzsche’s here. The shift towards the aesthetic, and the revaluation of the ancient Platonic reproach of the poets implied in this reference, is a central concern underlying all of Blumenberg’s aesthetic texts from the 1960s, as assembled by Anselm Haverkamp in his Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften. Moreover, Blumenberg‘s two important texts on rhetoric and myth from 1971 both start from the truth-sceptic premise he shares with Nietzsche and which spans his work from the very beginning to this posthumous publication of Die Nackte Wahrheit. And this last publication is probably inconceivable without Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. Indeed, Blumenberg’s general endeavor is essentially summed up in one of Nietzsche’s most famous sentences: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins”.

Blumenberg’s approach of die vakante Stelle and his descriptions of Umbesetzung, elaborated in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, can be read as a direct translation of Nietzsche’s worn-out coins and his dictum of the “Death of God”. Herewith, Blumenberg translates Nietzsche’s nihilism into a general philosophical endeavor of Entselbstverständlichung, a process marking “the great epochal revolutions of historical life” (Blumenberg 2017, 54). This endeavor, according to Blumenberg, eventually is “the basic process of philosophical thinking: for how could the inherent task of philosophical work be characterized more fittingly than as the persistent opposition of matter-of-factness with which our daily life and thought is interspersed, yes, substantiated into their very cores – much more than we could ever suspect?” (Blumenberg 2017, 54).

Furthermore, Blumenberg’s later, more literary and anecdotal style evokes Nietzsche’s claim that it is possible to present the image of a person with only three anecdotes, just as it should be possible to reduce philosophical systems to three anecdotes. When, for example, it comes to Blumenberg’s highly ironical and critical pieces on Heidegger in Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, he not only takes up Nietzsche’s challenge but even seems to have added something to it: the challenge becomes not only to render an image of the person and a summary of his philosophical thought, but also to get even with him in the same move.


Rüdiger Zill has wittily but quite perceptively characterized the sort of relation Blumenberg has with Freud: “Just like family members you sometimes hate and sometimes love, who from time to time grate on your nerves but who also occasionally inspire, yet always, however, still belong in the family, authors as well can be ranked among the intellectual family formation” (Zill 2014, 148). Zill’s assessment on this matter is clear: Freud undoubtedly belongs to Blumenberg’s intellectual family. However, the more he reads Freud, the more critical Blumenberg becomes, without Freud ever losing his force of fascination (Zill 2014, 128). Ironically, when Blumenberg received the Sigmund Freud Prize for Academic Prose in 1980, he did not refer to Freud in his acceptance speech. He mentioned Socrates, Diogenes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as exemplar thinkers who should be admired because they did not allow their thinking to be hindered by any safeguarding method.

There is, however, quite some common ground between Freud and Blumenberg which might be easily overwritten by Blumenberg’s recent critical works on Freud from the archives. When Blumenberg ascribes rationality to aspects of thought, such as metaphor and rhetoric, that have been banished to irrationality by the tradition of philosophy there is a general similarity to Freud’s Traumdeutung and his overall endeavor of psychoanalysis. Indeed, there are at least two specific and critically important points of contact between them: Freud’s idea of sublimation and detours.

In his text on rhetoric, Blumenberg refers to Freud’s analysis of the funeral repast: “Freud saw in the commemorative funeral feast the sons’ agreement to put an end to the killing of the tribal father” (Blumenberg 1987a, 440). It is the Freudian principle of sublimation that is evoked here and Blumenberg is explicit about the importance of this matter: “If history teaches anything at all, it is this, that without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind” (loc. cit.). Herewith an important crux of Blumenberg’s thought is laid bare: “The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all ‘metaphorical’” (Ibid., 439). This means that metaphor is not a deficit of rational thought, as it has been understood by Descartes or British empiricism (NW 110-1); nor is it even an aid of theory or merely a way of thinking in its own right; rather, it is a way of coping with reality. This “metaphoric detour by which we look away from the object in question, at another one” (Blumenberg 1987a, 439) immediately ties to the second important overlap between Freud’s and Blumenberg’s work: if Blumenberg acknowledges sublimation as the human capacity to have culture, and if sublimation – the possibility of taking a metaphoric detour – lies at the heart of this capacity, then Blumenberg’s concept of culture should be one of detours.

Blumenberg, in his 1971 text on myth, refers to Freud’s notion of Umwege. In his “Jenseits des Lustprinzips”, Freud classed the drives of self-preservation under the general concept of “detours to death”. As Freud states, “If we can accept it as an experience without exception, that all the living dies because of internal reasons, that it returns to the inorganic, then we can only say: the purpose of all life is death” (Freud 1940, 44). Everything working against this destruction and everything delaying “the achievement of the purpose of death” (Ibid., 45) becomes a “detour to death”. In this Freudian scheme, life itself is “a still more difficult and risky detour” (Blumenberg 1985, 90) and Blumenberg recognizes in these “detours to death”, this “final return home to the original state” (Ibid., 91), the same mythic circle underlying the Oedipus myth, the Odyssey and even Nietzsche’s thought of “the eternal return of the same” (loc. cit.). On the one hand, Blumenberg critically reveals the total myth (Totalmythos) of the circle underlying Freud’s thought; on the other hand, Blumenberg incorporates this notion of detour in his work as a life-spending mechanism opposing omnipotence. As he writes, for example, in his 1971 text on myth, “Essentially, omnipotence refuses somebody to tell a story about its bearer. Topographically represented, stories are always detours” (Blumenberg 2001b, 372).

Die Sorge geht über den Fluss, published in 1987, includes a short chapter titled Umwege, in which Blumenberg again stresses the importance of the possibility of taking detours: “It is only if we are able to take detours that we are able to exist. […I]t is the many detours that give culture its function of humanizing life. [… The] shortest route is barbarism” (Blumenberg 1987b, 137-8). In these descriptions of culture as Umwege, some of its psychoanalytical origin still sounds through: it is by means of culture, by the possibility of taking detours, that we can avoid our own self-destruction. As Blumenberg puts it, “Not to choose the shortest path is already the basic pattern of sublimation” (Blumenberg 1985, 93). Or as Freud states in the penultimate sentence of his letter to Einstein: “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war” (Freud 1950, 27).

This is the very basis of Blumenberg’s thought. Whether it is his approach to rhetoric and its power of delay, whether it is the apotropaic function of myth and the dynamic of storytelling vis-à-vis the absolutism of reality – man’s metaphoric way of dealing with the world – whether it is Blumenberg’s own elaborate and meandering writing style or his anecdotal and narrative philosophy as an effort to ironically undermine the authority of certain thinkers, whether it is the construction of his archive and the delayed publication of his own works or this metaphoric study of the naked truth aimed against the “Absolutism of Truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350), all of it falls under this “basic pattern of sublimation”, this decision “not to choose the shortest path”. In this specific sense and despite his highly critical piece on Freud in Die nackte Wahrheit, Blumenberg’s thinking remains Freudian at its very core.


As Blumenberg had noted in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie, “The metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ belongs to the pride of enlightened reason and its claim to power” (Blumenberg 1960, 54). Hence, it is clear that Die Nackte Wahrheit should be understood as a critique of this enlightened self-consciousness. And yet Blumenberg did not abandon the project of rationality entirely, despite paying profound attention to non-standard philosophical topics such as metaphor and myth. “Myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos’”, he points out in Work on Myth (Blumenberg 1985, 12) and Blumenberg himself employs this power of reason to trace the metaphor of the naked truth in thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau and Fontenelle. Herewith, a last characteristic of Blumenberg returns in Die Nackte Wahrheit: the correspondence of form and content. In Work on Myth, for example, Blumenberg offers a theory of how myth is a process of variation and, as he develops the theory, he himself engages in the same process of selection and rewriting. In his fragmentary book Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, in which Blumenberg exposes thinkers such as Heidegger, Freud and Wittgenstein and shows how they seduce their audience with rhetorical tools and attractive imagery; he himself tries to persuade his readers by rhetorically and wittingly affirming his own superiority of thought. The same applies for Die Nackte Wahrheit, where Blumenberg discusses the traces, consequences and changes of the metaphor of the naked truth, as he himself undresses other thinkers. As he emphasizes, the use of metaphor often indicates the “embarrassment of its theoretical situation” (NW 127). In other words, he seeks for the weak spots of thinkers such as Freud and Pascal in order to unmask them. If metaphor is indeed at work in the “front court of concept formation” (Blumenberg, 2001a), then Blumenberg clearly seeks to expose his interlocutors in their changing rooms. At the same time, he precisely questions these implications of thinking about truth in such terms of covering and uncovering. Certainly, Blumenberg does not claim that his disclosures touch upon “the naked truth” or a final word about these writers, yet nonetheless he somehow contributes to this enlightened topos of “tearing down the mask” (NW 134). He still partakes in what Kołakowski calls this “sadistic game” of “intellectual curiosity”, even as he precisely lays bare its rules and tools and does away with the purpose the game has pursued for ages. However, one asks after reading Blumenberg’s book, what use does this vocabulary preserve when the “reality” revealed under this mask is yet another mask, no more or no less reality than the one just dispelled. To make a final appeal to Kołakowski: Blumenberg involves us in a philosophical striptease, in which he exposes, “from a superior (clothed) position”, “another’s shame (nakedness)” (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Only it has become uncertain what happens with a philosophic tradition of revealing when the possibility of truth disappears, nakedness itself becomes yet more costume and the feeling of shame is revaluated. No purpose, no revelations, only detours and descriptions (Umschreibungen). Nonetheless, Blumenberg certainly exemplifies like no other that whenever philosophy thinks there will be a moment that Lady Truth will rise from her well and create clarity, philosophy, just like science, is once more deceived “by a pipe dream […] which its scholars pursue without ever achieving it” (NW 77).



Hans Blumenberg, Die Nackte Wahrheit, Hrsg. von Rüdiger Zill (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019).

–, Rigorism of Truth. “Moses the Egyptian” and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt, ed. by Ahlrich Meyer and transl. by Joe Paul Kroll (New York: Cornell University Press, 2018).

–, Schriften zur Literatur: 1945-1958, Hrsg. von Alexander Schmitz und Bernd Stiegler (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017).

–, “Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit. Im Vorfeld der philosophischen Begriffsbildung” in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001a), 139–171.

–, “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos“ in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001b), 327–405.

–, “An Anthropological Approach on the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric”, in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, ed. by Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987a), 429–458.

–, Die Sorge geht über den Fluss (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987b).

–, Work on Myth, transl. by Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985).

–, “Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie,” Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 6 (1960): 7–142.

Sigmund Freud, “Warum Krieg?”, in: Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke. Band XVI, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1950), 11–27.

–, “Jenseits des Lustprinzips” in Gesammelte Werke. Band XIII, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940), 3–69.

Leszek Kołakowski, “The Epistemology of Striptease,” in The Two Eyes of Spinoza & Other Essays on Philosophers (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 222–238.

Rüdiger Zill, “Zwischen Affinität und Kritik. Hans Blumenberg liest Sigmund Freud” in Blumenberg Beobachtet, Hrsg. von Cornelius Borck (München: Karl Alber Freiburg, 2014), 126-148.

Martin Heidegger: Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Gesamtausgabe 38 A), Klostermann, 2020)

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Sofia Miguens (Ed.): The Logical Alien: Conant and His Critics, Harvard University Press, 2020

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