Martin Heidegger: Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance”

Hölderlin's Hymn "Remembrance" Book Cover Hölderlin's Hymn "Remembrance"
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger, translated by William McNeill and Julia Ireland
Indiana University Press
2018
Hardback $50.00
187

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

This text originates in a lecture course Heidegger gave at the University of Freiburg in the winter semester of 1941-42.  This course preceded a second course, on Hölderlin’s “The Ister,” which Heidegger later gave in Summer 1942.  As reported in the Editor’s Afterword, Heidegger originally conceived these courses as a single course covering the poetry of Hölderlin, but ended up using the entire winter 1941-42 semester to develop his reading of “Remembrance.” This work comes seven years after an earlier course Heidegger gave on Hölderlin, in winter 1934-35, on the hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine.”  This very readable translation of Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance” furnished by eminent Heidegger scholars McNeill and Ireland completes the English translation of the entirety of Heidegger’s Hölderlin courses, the others having appeared intermittently over the last several years.

The majority of this lecture course shows Heidegger providing a very close reading of Hölderlin’s important hymn “Remembrance,” often dissecting it line by line and word by word.  However, equally important are the introductory sections, which comprise a significant portion of the course and which engage at length the correct mode of access for reading a poet such as Hölderlin.  The correct way into understanding Hölderlin, Heidegger says, is not to focus on Hölderlin the person, or his life and times, or even his mental illness.  Nor does the task involve getting a grip on the images or content of Hölderlin’s poetry, as if the primary obstacle is simply to understand what the poems are about.  (Throughout the course, it will be clear to the reader that constructing a “correct” reading of the poem is not of significant interest for Heidegger.)  He asks rhetorically on this note, are we sure that the content of the poem “coincides with what this poetizing poeticizes” (19)?  Heidegger emphasizes instead that in order to comprehend Hölderlin’s poetry, one must “think into the poetizing word” (22) encountered in the poem.  One cannot appropriate the meaning of Hölderlin’s poetry without entering into the proper hearing of what has come to language in the poet’s work.  The task involves appreciating the poetized moments, the disclosures of being that were occasioned to the poet and which gave themselves to expression in words.  In a way, then, Heidegger’s point here about comprehending what has been poeticized echoes the methodological claims one also finds in his writings on ancient thinkers such as Heraclitus and Parmenides from the same period, to wit, that there is no understanding to be gained of the thought at hand solely through an analysis of the philosopher’s words alone.  Instead, the task calls for appreciating the matter of thought [das Zu-Denkende] – the disclosure under whose sway the thinker operates – or in the present case, the poeticizing of what has been poetized.  Much of the territory explored in Heidegger’s reading of “Remembrance” has its focus in this approach.

On Heidegger’s reading of “Remembrance” proper: Heidegger suggests at the outset that Hölderlin’s hymn thematizes the concept of thinking [Denken] just as much as it connotes a notion of commemoration or memory.  Heidegger highlights the root word at work in the poem’s title: “Remembrance” in German is An-denken.  For Heidegger this entails an overlap in the notions of thinking and poetry; “thinking” [Denken] in the genuine sense involves tracing the poetic disclosure and movement of being.  He says in a passage well into the text: “Poetizing and thinking is authentic seeking” (114), where seeking is questioning, with the poet’s vocation to question the holy.

While the ins and outs of Heidegger’s analysis of “Remembrance” are too complex for me to summarize in a short space, in what follows I will highlight some of the principal themes and contours of Heidegger’s reading.  I begin at the end of the course, in view of his claim that the last lines of the hymn connect it with its beginning and reinforce its message.  Overall, as Heidegger reads it, “Remembrance” is a description of the poet’s experience as a poet.  The hymn’s last words read “Yet what remains the poets found” (18).  As Heidegger reads this line, the poets preserve and keep alive the time-space of the historical being of the human, the things that have come to pass and those that remain to be borne (165).  Heidegger interprets the hymn as poeticizing a narrative of the poet’s sojourn and homecoming, such that the hymn illustrates the poet’s experience as one of figuratively departing from one’s own land, and then returning to it.  (On this score Heidegger observes the correspondence between the hymn’s travel narrative and Hölderlin’s own return to Germany, on foot, after a period in Bordeaux.)  The poet is the one who can appropriate this very crossing from the foreign to the homely, recognizing the foreign and the homely in their own right.  Heidegger highlights several images in the poem that articulate metaphorically the poet’s sojourn: the northeasterly wind’s promise of the sun’s return; the turning of the equinox; a footbridge crossing a narrow valley (from France to Germany, and more distantly, Germany to Greece); the Garonne river of France joining the Dordogne and spreading to the sea.

Heidegger does not spend much time in this lecture course discussing what the poem means.  The reader should not expect that Heidegger’s analysis will enhance their understanding of what Hölderlin was trying to say, or of the metaphorical allusions Hölderlin gives to the various places and phenomena mentioned in the hymn.  Heidegger’s interest is much more to isolate the poeticizing, historically significant moments that phenomenologically condition the poem’s principal images and overall composition.  In other words, Heidegger attempts to highlight within specific concepts and themes of “Remembrance” the primordial disclosures that were poeticized for Hölderlin and which received some voice in his poetry.  One such theme is that of the “festival” or “holiday,” and the relation of these to the more fundamental notion of the “holy.”  As Heidegger describes it, the festival constitutes a commemoration of a momentous event in the past, a celebration of a god’s presence in and consecration of the human domain.  In its original instantiation, “[t]he festival is the event in which gods and humans come to encounter one another” (62).  For Heidegger, this commemorated moment originates with the dawn of history in Greece and the advent of the Greek gods.  Accordingly, the festival and the holiday occasioning it are a reflection of the presence of the holy in the historical being of the present.  Phenomenologically speaking, Heidegger’s meaning seems to be this: the existence of the festival as articulated by the poet is significant because the festival and its holiday illustrate the extraordinary quality of certain days and times by which they command celebration, revealing their own consecration.  More broadly, Heidegger interprets the festival and holiday to commemorate historical being itself, including the circle of life to which human beings belong as the receivers of this being.

Another theme for which Heidegger gives a rather idiosyncratic, yet ostensibly phenomenological account is that of dreams.  This treatment is noteworthy given that dreams are a subject that does not figure prominently in many other texts of Heidegger’s corpus.  He takes up dreams here in the course of discussing the ending lines of the second strophe of “Remembrance.”  These lines read “And over slow footbridges/Heavy with golden dreams/Lulling breezes draw.”  In the wider context of this citation, Heidegger interprets this image as a reference to the poet crossing over to the homeland, where “golden dreams” convey the slumbering but still extant, “lulling” presence of ancient Greek culture (103ff).  However, Heidegger gives a deeper analysis of how dreams are to be understood in their own right and outside the framework of modern psychology.  He emphasizes that we should consider dreams “nonscientifically,” an approach that stands to be “more scientific” than traditional science by virtue of interpreting dreams outside of any standard point of reference.  Heidegger offers a phenomenological description of dreams, citing for illustration two passages from the Greek poet Pindar, whom he identifies as an ancient counterpart of Hölderlin.  In the first cited passage, taken from Pindar’s eighth “Pythian Ode,” the key phrase reads: “Shadows’ dream are human beings” (95).  Human beings are the dream of shadows.  Heidegger interprets this phrase to portray dreams as a vanishing within an appearing, but an appearing which itself is constituted by a darkening, a shadow-character.  In Heidegger’s words:

Pindar wants to say that the dream is the way in which whatever is itself in a certain way already lightless, absences: the dream as the most extreme absencing into the lightless, and yet nevertheless not nothing, but in this way too still an appearing: this vanishing itself still an appearing, the appearing of a passing away into that which is altogether devoid of radiance, which no longer illuminates (98).

So Heidegger’s account of dreams sets about attempting to describe the underlying phenomenological character of dreaming, particularly as dreams are characterized by an evanescent but nonetheless definite, illuminating appearance from a hidden source.  In claiming that he aims to give a nonscientific account, Heidegger’s emphasis seems to rest in the fact that dreams are first-person experiences.  As such, the most one can provide in a genuinely philosophical reckoning must be formulated on the basis of how dreaming presents itself.

On the relation Pindar’s ode sketches between the dream and the human being (“Shadows’ dream are human beings”), Heidegger goes on to comment as follows:

The shadow’s dream is the fading presence of that which is faded, lightless; by no means a nothing; to the contrary, perhaps even that which is real – that which alone is admitted as real where the human being is stuck only with that which is constantly vanishing, the daily aspect of the everyday, insofar as the latter counts as the only thing that life knows as proximate and real (Ibid.).

Heidegger offers something profound here in his citation of Pindar.  He casts dreams more broadly as reflecting the vanishing of the original illumination that constitutes the open of human being itself (100).  Dreams echo the original, yet always withdrawn presence of being.  The evanescent character of dreams simply is the character of the human experience of meaningful intelligibility, and of everyday human life.  This observation yields at once a metaphysical sketch of everyday human being, and a cloaked criticism of modern culture, on the ground that every moment of life is a fleeting instantaneous juxtaposition of consciousness and forgetting.  Heidegger concludes that dreams reflect the presence-in-absence constitutive of human being itself: “And so it is that what the human being is, as presencing in the manner of a shadow, he is not in the manner of mere presence and cropping up….  That which presences stretches itself as such…in accordance with its essence – into absencing” (100).  In sum, to call human beings the dream of shadows is a way of sketching the temporally stretched, yet self-negating character of human existence.  While this interpretation stands on its own and greatly fills in the opaque meaning of Pindar’s words, Heidegger also explains the significance of this excursus for Hölderlin’s mention of “golden dreams.”  Here Heidegger cites a fragment from Hölderlin’s philosophical treatise “Becoming in Dissolution,” where Hölderlin describes the freedom realized in the creation of art as a terrifying yet divine dream, straddling the line between being and nonbeing, possible and real, and actual and ideal.  Heidegger explains: “the dreamlike concerns the becoming real of the possible in the becoming ideal of the actual” (103).  As Heidegger writes elsewhere in his own accounts of the origin of art, art’s creation articulates the interplay of one’s own place and time with the presence of the divine.  Thus, the “golden dreams” of the “lulling breezes” blowing across the footbridge convey the historical presence of Greece’s golden age, which in turn also represents the dawn of historical meaning occasioned in the advent of art, poetry, and language.  So while Heidegger provides an exhaustive hermeneutic analysis of dreams and their presence in human being, he also interprets Hölderlin’s lines regarding the lulling breeze crossing the footbridge to express at once the poet’s experience of straddling the homely and foreign, and more broadly, the essence and meaning of the existence of art.

On a related note, another example of Heidegger’s preoccupation with the phenomenological disclosure bound up with the birth of poetry and art is visible with his highlighting of Hölderlin’s emphases in “Remembrance” of phenomena as they occur to him.  In the first strophe, Hölderlin describes the “northeasterly” as the most beloved of winds “to me” (16).  A few lines after, he invites the reader to “go now and greet/The beautiful Garonne” (Ibid.).  And in the second strophe, Hölderlin says “Still it thinks its way to me” [Noch denket das mir wohl] (17), suggesting a notion of being reminded, of having a thought occasioned from outside oneself.  For Heidegger, Hölderlin’s use of these locutions indicates that the poetic experience involves heeding moments that disclose themselves, rather than actively seeking out words that describe experiences.  In this light, the northeasterly wind, or the Garonne, are poeticized phenomena that self-present, as it were.  They are not discovered by the human agent’s searching or cataloguing of geography or atmospheric patterns, or finding aesthetically pleasing ways to describe these.

What results from Heidegger’s often tangential explorations in this lecture course are as penetrating and exhaustive discussions as one will find in his oeuvre on the nature of poetry and particularly, what it means for disclosures of being to be “poeticized.”  This book will make a fine companion to Heidegger’s other writings on poetry such as On the Way to Language, “Poetically Man Dwells,” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  Also noteworthy in this volume, several early sections of the course address at length the biography and legacy of Norbert Von Hellingrath, the young Hölderlin scholar who, before his untimely death in the first World War, collected the edition of Hölderlin’s poems Heidegger deems essential.  Although many of Heidegger’s other writings of this period, especially those on Hölderlin, exhibit a nationalistic streak, the presence of this dimension in Heidegger’s analysis of “Remembrance” is for the most part rather muted.  In this vein, Heidegger primarily takes his cues from Hölderlin’s historical conceptions of Germania and does not develop much material from out of his own voice.  These topics feature most prominently in Part Three of the text, which is entitled “The Search for the Free Use of One’s Own.”  I do not believe this text will provide a major contribution for understanding themes of nationalism in Heidegger’s work.

I will finish by highlighting one last issue to which Heidegger gives attention in this lecture course that I believe is very interesting vis-à-vis his treatments of art and poetry elsewhere.  Heidegger gives repeated attention to the concept of images [Bild], particularly in the context of the visual representations one experiences in reading and hearing poetry.  In these passages, Heidegger emphasizes that the images evoked by poetry cannot function as a vehicle for understanding what is poeticized.  Similarly, he argues that images are not simply the visible counterpart of an unspoken, invisible form or essence comprising the real truth of the poem, as if the poem were some kind of derivative, lesser version of a true reality not possible to capture in words (29-30).  As Heidegger describes, images have this limitation because what is poeticized transcends the poem altogether.  What is poeticized is not something the poem represents or symbolizes.  Thus, the fact that a piece of poetry contributes to the formation of images in the hearer has no bearing on a poem’s meaning or the disclosure of being that occasioned the poem’s composition.  Interestingly, Heidegger does not speak here of the actual ontology of images, or of the human capacity for image consciousness.  Nor does he comment on the western tradition of privileging visual perception among the sources of knowledge, as he does more critically elsewhere in writings such as “The Age of the World Picture” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  In those works, Heidegger’s position is that artworks (which, as he says, have their origin in poetry) do not merely represent; art in the genuine sense does not simply re-produce a subject by placing it in front of the viewer in the manner of a copy.  Instead, artworks have the function of preserving the eventuation of historical truth for a particular time, place, and culture.  Artworks wrest truth from oblivion and bring it into light, albeit not permanently.  In view of his comments on images in the course on “Remembrance,” I believe one can take issue slightly with the dichotomy Heidegger draws between the images occasioned through poetry, and the question of whether such images represent a more original meaning or not.  In other words, Heidegger’s suggestion that images are merely representative, and not reflective of a deeper disclosure, is perhaps overly restrictive.  As Karen Gover has written on this topic, Heidegger perhaps ought to say that art and poetry do in fact represent their subjects (in the manner of re-presenting), but in a way that goes deeper than merely copying their subjects.  Maybe the key is that they simply represent in a more originary way, and not that they do not represent at all.  In the case of Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s “Remembrance,” Heidegger would seem to allow that the hymn re-enacts some trace of the primordial disclosure that was given to the poet; one simply needs to be in the correct mode of hearing to appreciate the offering of this disclosure.  On the other hand, the equally decisive point emerging from Heidegger’s interpretive framework in the lecture course seems to be that the images Hölderlin’s hymn affords us must not distract us from the fact that poetry’s origins transcend both images and words; poetry (or poeticizing) is the moment of being coming into language.  Understanding Hölderlin’s hymn therefore concerns heeding the eventuation of being that precedes both the poem and its images.

Works Cited:

Gover, K.  “The Overlooked Work of Art in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art.’”  International Philosophical Quarterly 48 (2) (2008): 143-53.

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Reviewed by:  Rhonda Siu (University of New South Wales)

Françoise Dastur’s aim in her most recent monograph, Questions of Phenomenology, is to examine how various phenomenologists have responded to the essential questions of philosophy, especially those which challenge the phenomenological approach (Dastur 2017, xiii-xiv).  The background to Dastur’s project is the transformation of the meaning of “phenomenology” in the early twentieth century from a specific philosophical discipline to a new understanding of philosophy itself (ibid., xiii).  This new understanding is based on the view adopted by Husserl from the ancient philosophers that philosophy is a collective enterprise that brings different thinkers together (ibid.).  Dastur thus emphasises not individual theorists but rather the interconnections between them that revolve around their shared concerns (ibid.).  A broad range of concerns underlie the fourfold structure of Dastur’s monograph: (1) language and logic, (2) the self and the other, (3) temporality and history, and (4) finitude and mortality.

There are several particularly meritorious aspects of the monograph.  Despite the considerable ground she traverses, Dastur’s discussions are highly integrated; she moves fluidly from one to another by drawing connections between the themes that emerge throughout the work.  For example, Dastur notes that the difference between Husserl and Heidegger’s emphases on the immortality of the “transcendental ego” and finitude, respectively, also results in different perspectives of history, and of the threat that technology poses to human existence (in Patočka’s thought).  Equally as fluidly, Dastur weaves phenomenologists’ views into an intricate tapestry of different but interconnected perspectives.  Rather than seeking to eliminate the conflicts between viewpoints, Dastur acknowledges the existence of “irreconcilable positions” (ibid.) and immerses herself into the complex relationships between them.

This fluidity is also embodied in Dastur’s own approach to phenomenology, which allows for a nuanced and sustained analysis of the central themes.  Two main influences underlie her approach.  Following Husserl and Heidegger, Dastur also believes that phenomenologists share “the practice of a method” rather than a particular “doctrine” or “school” (ibid.).  Following Merleau-Ponty, she conceives of phenomenology as a constantly evolving “movement” rather than a finished or fixed structure (ibid.).  Consequently, rather than pitting different phenomenologists against each other, Dastur establishes a conversation between them by examining how each has participated in, and thereby contributed to, this movement by developing, critiquing and even diverging from the ideas of his predecessor/s.  To her credit, Dastur explores not only the movement between different philosophers’ views, but also within each philosopher’s views as they evolve.  While Dastur’s analysis centres on the complex relationship between Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenologies, she also explores the notable contributions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Eugen Fink, Jan Patočka and Emmanuel Lévinas.  Whereas she recruits the first five philosophers as mediating figures between Husserl and Heidegger, she enlists Lévinas as her main interlocutor in her unifying endeavour.  Given her focus on phenomenology as a movement, Dastur does not argue that Husserl’s views are superior to Heidegger’s, or vice versa.  Rather, she acknowledges that Heidegger is indebted to Husserl for providing the groundwork for his own phenomenological views and for prompting him to “designate his own mode of thinking as ‘phenomenology’ until the end of his career” (ibid., 46).

Commentators such as Burt Hopkins note that such unbiased approaches are “conspicuously lacking” in the analyses of the Husserl-Heidegger relationship in the existing scholarship (Hopkins 1993, 4, emphasis in original).  Instead, Hopkins claims:

The literature treating the relationship between the phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger has not been kind to Husserl.  Heidegger’s “devastating” phenomenologically ontological critique of traditional epistemology and ontology, advanced under the rubric of “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time, has almost been universally received, despite the paucity of its references to Husserl, as sounding the death knell for Husserl’s original formulation of phenomenology.  (ibid., 1)

In part one, Dastur begins by examining Husserl’s views of language, logic and knowledge before turning to the transition of Husserl’s approach to phenomenology to Heidegger’s through the inclusion of the hermeneutical dimension.  In chapter one, Dastur investigates Husserl’s early theory of knowledge, focussing on how his epistemological views in Logical Investigations were influenced by the German philosopher, Rudolph Hermann Lotze’s theory of “validity”.  Lotze’s work, Dastur claims, was a key contributing factor in Husserl’s transition from the “psychologism” he adopted from Franz Brentano to “logicism” and its attendant Platonic underpinnings (Dastur 2017, 5).  What Husserl takes from Plato (and Lotze) is the notion that the validity of a proposition (when understood as “universality”) is based on its being a “truth in itself” (ibid., 14).  Dastur claims that it is this idea of “truth in itself” and the wider “logicism” wherein it is embedded that Husserl will later abandon following his “idealist ‘turn’” in 1905-07 (ibid.).

Continuing her investigation of Husserl’s epistemology in chapter three, Dastur provides a reading of Husserl’s more mature text, Experience and Judgment which focusses on the “genealogy of logic” (ibid., 29).  She distinguishes between Husserl and Heidegger’s notions of “originary experience” (ibid., 35).  Whereas Husserl associates this experience with the “individual”, she argues that Heidegger associates it with Dasein’s “originary openness to a world”, which also includes its relations with others (ibid., 35 and 40).  Also in this chapter, Dastur expands on the reasons behind Husserl’s departure from Brentano’s psychologism.  She claims that psychology, for Husserl, approaches its limits when it attempts to go back to “originary experience”; it can only reach an experience that has already been informed by “idealizations” originating in the “modern natural sciences” (ibid., 29).  In departing from this psychological perspective, Husserl, Dastur argues, does not dismiss science but rather seeks to attain a more comprehensive understanding of it by revealing the implicit assumptions behind its idealizations (ibid.).

In chapter two, Dastur examines Husserl’s enterprise of developing a “pure logical grammar”, focussing on the fourth Logical Investigation (ibid., 15).  Departing from the modern linguists of his time who relied heavily on empirical methodology, Dastur claims that Husserl seeks to revitalise the former notion of “‘universal’” and “‘a priori grammar’” through revealing the “conditions of possibility for all language and all meaning” (ibid., 15-16 and 19, emphases in original).  Dastur also astutely challenges Husserl’s privileging of the “category of the substantive” in this enterprise due to his (questionable) assumption that it underlies the grammatical forms of all languages (ibid., 25-26).  She employs Johannes Lohmann’s observation that while “Indo-European languages” may have the “predicative structure of the proposition” as their basis, this does not apply to other languages like Chinese (ibid., 26-27).

In chapter four, Dastur details Heidegger’s combination of phenomenology with hermeneutics to form the notion of “hermeneutic phenomenology” (ibid., 52).  This, she claims, partakes in Heidegger’s endeavour to show more emphatically than Husserl how phenomenology, rather than being a new direction in philosophy, is actually an extension of Plato and Aristotle’s “philosophical project” (ibid.). As commentators like Günter Figal (2012, 525) observe, “the hermeneutical dimension of phenomenology remains at the margins” of Husserl’s philosophy.  Although acknowledging that hints of this dimension can be found in the first Logical Investigation and the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Figal maintains that “Husserl never discussed the hermeneutical aspects of his conception of phenomenology; he never clarified what precisely he meant by ‘explication’, and how it should be practiced” (ibid., 525-526).

Dastur claims that a key difference between Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies lies in their views of how the subject initially experiences the world.  In what she refers to as Husserl’s “philosophy of the pure gaze”, the world first appears to the subject as impenetrable and perplexing; the meaning-giving act of the “constituting consciousness” is required to render it intelligible (Dastur 2017, 51).  By contrast, Dastur suggests that in Heidegger’s “hermeneutic phenomenology”, the subject is from the very beginning already embedded in, and engages with, the world and thus finds it comprehensible upon first contact (ibid., 51-52).  Aligning himself with the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, Heidegger believes that the world cannot be reduced to a “pure sensuous given” inasmuch as perception is already a reaction to, and the initiation of a conversation with, the world (ibid., 43-44).

Part two of Dastur’s monograph is multifaceted, comprising analyses of: (1) Husserl’s “transcendental reduction”, (2) the self-other/patient-therapist relationship in the medical domain from a Heideggerian perspective, and (3) the crucial question of intersubjectivity in Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenologies by way of Levinas’ distinctions between the same and the other, and between ethics and ontology.  In chapter five, Dastur outlines the ways that Husserl distinguishes his method of “phenomenological reduction” from that employed by the positive sciences (ibid., 57-58). Positive science assumes a pre-existing object that will be subjected for analysis, but Husserl’s “reductive method” does not (ibid., 57).  Dastur also analyses how Husserl departs from Descartes’ “representational” view of knowledge when he develops the notion of the “constituting consciousness” that marks the “transcendental turn” in his philosophy (ibid., 62-63).  Whereas the object and consciousness are completely distinct in Descartes’ epistemology, they are interrelated in Husserl’s philosophy (ibid.).  Dastur argues that, for Husserl, this does not entail that the constituting consciousness is responsible for founding the object; rather, the object initially becomes meaningful to us through the interpretative activity of consciousness (ibid., 63).  She also argues that what eventually motivated Husserl to distance himself even further from Descartes was his perception of Descartes’ inability to adequately address the issue of intersubjectivity, which Husserl regarded as essential to grasping the meaning of subjectivity (ibid., 65).

In chapter seven, a highly distinctive and interesting section of the monograph, Dastur examines how Heideggerian phenomenology can be applied to the medical domain, especially the possibility of deriving from it a “‘doctrine of human illness’” or a “therapy and preventative medicine” (ibid., 84).  Her analysis concentrates on two Swiss psychiatrists, Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger, who applied Heidegger’s ideas to their psychiatric practice in different ways.  Heidegger, Dastur claims, approved of Boss’ method of Daseinsanalyse because it forged a potential bridge between the ontological and ontic domains (ibid., 83).  By contrast, Heidegger claimed that Binswanger’s “psychiatric analysis of Dasein” constituted a “complete misunderstanding” of his thought as it did not progress beyond “an ontic and existentiell interpretation of factual Dasein” (ibid., 83-84).  A Heideggerian therapy that avoids the shortcomings of Binswanger’s approach, Dastur suggests, would necessitate a deeper engagement on the doctor’s part than the simple application of the ontological to the ontic by requiring the doctor to actually “experience himself as Da-sein” and perceive “all human reality” through this lens (ibid., 84).

In chapters six and eight, Dastur takes up the crucial “question of the other” in phenomenology by examining the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger’s views of intersubjectivity.  In both chapters, Lévinas serves as Dastur’s main interlocutor as she critiques his strict distinction between Being and ontology, on the one hand, and Ethics and the Other/alterity on the other.  In chapter six, she argues against Lévinas’ contention that the “question of the other” is adequately accounted for in Husserl’s philosophy but not in Heidegger’s, claiming instead that this question should be further examined in both their philosophies in an unprejudicial way (ibid., 69-70).  Temporality is central to Dastur’s investigation of intersubjectivity here insofar as she bases her analysis on what she perceives as Lévinas’ worthwhile contention that the “alterity of the other” is entwined with the “alterity of time itself” (ibid., 70).  She claims that Husserl’s notion of “self-constitution” relies on the alterity of time because the ego is necessarily constituted at a moment other than the present, meaning that the “constituting” and “constituted” cannot coincide (ibid., 71).  Dastur suggests that for Husserl this also applies to the self-other relationship.  Just as the ego cannot have immediate or direct access to its “past ego” (i.e. it can only recollect its past experiences later through reflection), in Husserl’s notion of “empathy”, the self only has indirect access to the other through “appresentation” (ibid., 74).  Moreover, just as the self’s recollection of its “past-ego” assumes that it shares a “community of consciousness” with the latter, so too does the “appresentation” of the other to oneself presuppose an “originary co-presence of the other” within the flux of time (ibid.).

In Heidegger’s philosophy, Dastur suggests that we find an even more intimate relationship between the self and time because the self is not simply subject to, and in, time, Dasein is time (ibid., 76).  As Heidegger’s well-known analysis of “being-toward-death” illustrates, Dasein’s finite nature means that time is essential to how it understands and interprets its own Being.  Dastur emphasises that, for Heidegger, the term, “being-with”, does not simply entail the fact that other people exist (ibid., 76-77) but is rather implicated and presupposed in how the self understands, and engages with, its finite existence.  Refuting Lévinas and those who accuse Heidegger of “solipsism”, she argues that “[i]t is therefore not at all a paradox to claim that in Being and Time, the question of the other is posed everywhere.” (ibid., 77-78, emphasis in original)

In chapter eight, Dastur recruits ideas from Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another to present a mediating position that adheres neither to Heidegger’s “thought of being” nor to Lévinas’ notion of “otherwise than being”, but rather contains and contests elements of both (ibid., 93 and 101-102).  She challenges Lévinas’ distinction between ontology and ethics by using Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism as an example (ibid., 92).  There, Heidegger combines these two notions by reanimating an ancient notion of ethics, namely, “ethos” (or “place of habitation”), which he conceptualises as the study of the “truth of Being” (Dastur 2017, 92 and Heidegger 1977, 234-235).  Positioning herself against Lévinas, Dastur claims that ontology, for Heidegger, is already “practical”, “engaged” and “ethical”, qualities which help to explain why he did not explicitly produce an ethics (Dastur 2017, 93).

In part three, Dastur establishes a dialogue between Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenological accounts of time by way of Merleau-Ponty’s views of temporality and the notion of the “event”.  Ricoeur and Gadamer’s views of the entwinement of hermeneutics and narrativity in history are also examined.  In chapter nine, Dastur designates Merleau-Ponty as the “figure of the phenomenological movement situated ‘between’ Heidegger and Husserl” by tracing the “movement” of the section on “Temporality” in Phenomenology of Perception (ibid., 112).  There, Merleau-Ponty refutes both the realist and idealist responses to the problem of time.  On the one hand, Dastur claims that the realist view, for Merleau-Ponty, posits that the “subject is in time”, whereby time regarded as an object (ibid., 107, emphasis in original).  In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (2002, 481) suggests that this conventional notion of “objective time” is unviable because it would simply consist in a “series of instances of ‘now’, which are presented to nobody, since nobody is involved in them”.  Rather than being supposedly applicable to everyone, objective time would in fact be inapplicable to anyone.  On the other hand, Dastur claims that the idealist view, for Merleau-Ponty, posits that the subject is “outside” of time and thus supposedly liberated from its confines (Dastur 2017, 107-108, emphasis in original).  For Merleau-Ponty, Dastur argues, this so-called “freedom” is misleading because the subject can only conceive of time’s “passage” or flow by inhabiting time rather than remaining completely detached from it (ibid., 108-109).  Merleau-Ponty’s alternative phenomenological response to the problem of time is that the “subject is time” (ibid., 107, emphasis in original).  By this, he means that an account of time must take the lived experience of the particular subject as its starting point.  It is the subject that either connects, or distinguishes between, the events of his/her past, thereby organising them into an integrated and meaningful narrative.

Dastur suggests that Merleau-Ponty formulates his phenomenological account of time by taking up an unconventional mediating position between Husserl and Heidegger’s views of temporality (ibid., 110 and 112).  Whereas Merleau-Ponty, she claims, follows Heidegger in interpreting Husserl’s notion of “intentionality” as “transcendence”, he follows Husserl in interpreting “ek-stasis” as pertaining to the subject rather than to existence (ibid., 110-111).  Moreover, she continues, by emphasising the subject’s “ek-static rather than synthetic character”, Merleau-Ponty reinforces Husserl’s notion of the “‘living’” or “‘enlarged’” present which, unlike the conventional notion of the present, comprises both the “retentional and protentional horizons” of the past and future (ibid., 113 and 115).  Dastur deems this marriage of Husserl and Heidegger as “the proper singularity of Merleau-Ponty’s work, which manages to give an eminent sense to the unity of what we have rightly called not the ‘school’ but the ‘movement’ of phenomenology” (ibid., 115).

In chapter ten, Dastur tackles the challenging question of how phenomenology can conceive of the “event”.  Specifically, Dastur claims that “the question is to show how a phenomenology of the event (if it is possible) constitutes the most proper completion of the phenomenological project rather than an announcement of its destitution or impossibility, as thinkers of absolute exteriority and alterity (such as Levinas and Derrida) sometimes suggest” (ibid., 120).  In her view, the event poses a challenge to philosophy (including phenomenology) because it exemplifies the “contingency” of time (ibid., 116).  The event, she argues, is brought about through an unexpected rupture between the past and future, which, in turn, is crucial to human experience because it allows for its transformation (ibid., 120).  Dastur investigates the significance of the “event” by examining the “phenomenology of expectation and surprise” that she finds in both Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies (ibid., 121).  Influenced by Heidegger’s characterisation of death as “possibility” (or an “impossible” paradoxically made “possible”), Dastur links the “phenomenology of eventuality” with the “phenomenology of mortality” (ibid., 121).  Husserl’s philosophy intersects with Heidegger’s in Dastur’s analysis through her claim that Heidegger’s delineation of the possible as “a structure of existence” is grounded in Husserl’s “intentional analyses”, with the notion of “excess” being common to both (ibid., 122).  Just as the “possible” exceeds the “real” in Heidegger’s existential analysis, the “intentional aim” exceeds the “intentional object” in Husserl’s intentional analysis (ibid., 121-122).

Dastur perceptively raises a potential objection to developing a “phenomenology of the event”, namely, the possibility of confronting events of such magnitude (e.g. the death of a lover and “religious conversion”) that they provoke not only a “reconfiguration of possibles” within human experience but the total annihilation of them (ibid., 123).  In such circumstances, Dastur suggests, our ability to even confront the event becomes doubtful insofar as what “we experience in moments of crisis is our incapacity to experience the traumatizing event in the present” (ibid., emphasis in original).  Dastur’s counterargument is that the fact that we attempt to attribute meaning to the event in the first place presupposes that we are already in the process of engaging with it (rather than simply being at its mercy) (ibid., 124).  She argues that, “[w]e must therefore not oppose phenomenology to the thought of the event, but rather conjoin them, so that the opening to the phenomenon can be merged with the opening to the unforeseeable.” (ibid., 124-125).

In chapter eleven, Dastur turns her attention to the issue of “historicity”.  Her analysis centres on the “philosophies of historicity” that arose as a reaction against the undesirable relativism that followed the demise of Hegelianism (ibid., 128).  She claims that these philosophies presented a new way of conceiving the link between “truth and history”, which had previously been overlooked by relativistic approaches (ibid.).  The beginnings of this new conception, Dastur suggests, can be found in Husserl’s phenomenology and, to a certain extent, in the “life-philosophy” of theorists such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Yorck von Wartenburg (ibid.).  However, she also argues that a common weakness amongst these “philosophies of historicity”, including in Husserl’s thought, is their inability to situate history fundamentally in the concepts of “death and finitude” (ibid., 129).  For example, Dastur suggests that Husserl is ultimately unable to grasp the “absolute historicity of consciousness” because he maintains that the transcendental ego is immortal (ibid., 130-131).  By contrast, Dastur believes that “only in Heidegger are finitude and historicity thought as essentially linked to one another, with mortality constituting the hidden ground of the historicity of existence” (ibid., 131).  Dastur stresses here (and in other chapters) that Heidegger’s view of history is not solipsistic because the finite subject is embedded in a community of other finite subjects with whom it remains in conversation (ibid., 132-133).  Aligning herself with Heidegger, Dastur concludes that mortality is the basis of truth and history, and that the acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of “human finitude” and the wider “finiteness of being” signals the opportunity for developing a “new alliance of truth and history” (ibid., 137).

In chapter twelve, Dastur begins by discussing David Carr’s interpretation of Ricoeur’s views on the philosophy of history, concentrating on the relationship between the “ontological” and “epistemological” aspects of narrative (ibid., 138).  Dastur sets out Ricoeur’s view that epistemology and ontology are entwined in narrative in such a way that epistemology transforms into ontology, in turn effecting the “opening of the hermeneutic dimension itself” (ibid., 139-140).  This uncovering of the hermeneutic dimension is possible in Ricoeur’s philosophy, Carr claims, because he departs from the traditional “representational” view of historical knowledge whereby the latter is said to mirror the “real past” (ibid., 139).  By contrast, Carr stresses that historical knowledge for Ricoeur is transformative, maintaining a “‘re-creative’ or reconfigurative” relationship with the past with which it actively engages (ibid.).  As Dastur explains, for Ricoeur it is through the act of interpretation that a profound relationship is established between the historian/interpreter and the past (ibid., 140).  This relationship permeates his/her “fundamental mode of being”, encompassing his/her connection with the texts s/he interprets, other people and to himself/herself (ibid.).

To advance her analysis of history and hermeneutics, Dastur turns to Gadamer’s philosophy, believing that he “most forcefully expressed the linkage of epistemology and ontology in the intermediary dimension of hermeneutics” (ibid.).  She argues that, for Gadamer, the historian’s relationship with the past is not one of domination, but is instead “dialogical” in that the past “speaks” to the historian who simultaneously interprets it (ibid., 140-142).  Dastur claims that, due to the time lapse between the moments of composition and interpretation, the meaning of a text for Gadamer is neither completely foreign nor completely understandable, but is rather situated between “strangeness and familiarity” (ibid., 140 and 142).  Gadamer (2002, 330-331) himself views this “temporal distance” not as an obstacle to be eliminated, but rather as “a positive and productive condition enabling understanding”.  Dastur concludes by concurring with Carr’s contention that “hermeneutics and narrativity” are implicated in each other, such that one can no longer “‘clearly separate life and the activity of recounting this life’” (Dastur 2017, 146).

In the final part of the monograph, Dastur explores the interrelated themes of finitude, worldliness and the divine through Patočka and Fink’s interpretations of Heidegger’s thought.  In chapter thirteen, Dastur further investigates the linkages between Husserl and Heidegger, this time recruiting Jan Patočka as a mediating figure.  While recognising both philosophers as important figures in the phenomenological movement, Dastur claims that Patočka highlights “the unifying elements subtending their opposition…by adopting a critical attitude with respect to both doctrines, to make the profound meaning of phenomenology appear as a ‘reflection on the crisis of thinking,’ which is also a crisis of humanity” (ibid., 151, emphasis in original).

In chapter fourteen, Dastur analyses three of Patočka’s texts that focus on Heidegger’s philosophy.  In the first text, The Crisis of Meaning, Patočka explores the similarities between Heidegger’s work and that of Thomas Masaryk, a Czech politician and philosopher (ibid., 157).  Patočka, Dastur claims, perceives in both Heidegger’s “eminently practical philosophy” and Masaryk’s act of establishing the state, prime examples of “‘engaged thought’” based on Heidegger’s notion of “resoluteness” (ibid., 158-159).  The second text, “Martin Heidegger, Thinker of Humanity”, is the “immediate posthumous elegy” that Patočka wrote for Heidegger (ibid., 160).  There, Dastur claims, Patočka portrays Heidegger as a “thinker of humanity” instead of a “thinker of being”, which is aligned with Heidegger’s own views in Letter on Humanism (ibid.).  Finally, Dastur examines a text that Patočka wrote following his “Varna lecture from September 1973” (ibid., 163).  According to Dastur, Patočka claims that Heidegger’s philosophy constitutes the “‘first truly radical attempts to situate philosophy in finitude’”, with the latter constituting the primary theme in both his early and more mature writings (ibid.).  Based on this assessment, Patočka distances himself from Husserl’s version of phenomenology, with its insistence on the immortality of the transcendental ego, and draws closer to Heidegger’s version.  In Dastur’s reading of Patočka, Heidegger’s emphasis on mortality also means that he perceives technology as a more ominous threat to humanity than Husserl (ibid., 164).  Technology contributes to the illusion of our domination over nature, which is perceived simply as a measurable resource for indiscriminate exploitation (ibid.).  According to Dastur, Patočka’s Heideggerian viewpoint is that technology obscures how “sacrifice” brings the “human nonmastery over beings” to light, thereby tempering the illusory “unconditional mastery” over beings that technology seeks to promote (ibid., 164-165).

In chapter fifteen, Dastur focusses on Eugen Fink’s course, “World and Finitude”, which is based on ideas from Heidegger’s course, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (ibid., 167).  Fink explores in it the interconnections between the themes of finitude and “worldliness”, that is, our relationship with “nonhuman” entities in the world (ibid., 168).  Whereas Heidegger characterises this issue as “ontological difference”, Fink characterises it as “cosmological difference” (ibid., 167).  Fink, Dastur claims, avoids formulating his notion of “cosmological difference” based on Heidegger’s notion of “ontological difference” because he regards cosmology as more fundamental than ontology whereas Heidegger argues for the reverse (ibid., 169).  When investigating cosmological thought, Fink posits the notion of the “‘double experience’ of death” as a counterpart to Heidegger’s notion of death as the “condemnation to extreme individuation” (ibid., 173).  When confronted with death, Fink believes that we experience both “solitude” and “love”, where love is a means of liberating ourselves from solitude (ibid.).  In Dastur’s view, Fink conceives of “love” as an intersubjective experience that emphasises the regeneration of life, that is, the experience of merging with the “‘original and unformed ground of all life and being’”, such as is featured in Nietzsche’s “philosophy of life” (ibid., 173-174).  Dastur argues that, “[i]n opposition to the unilaterality of the Heideggerian interpretation that […] gives primacy to death, Fink wants to give value to the double aspect, individual and social, of death and to conjoin the perspective of the dying with the perspective of the survivor.” (ibid., 176)

In the final chapter, Dastur explores the role of the divine in the phenomenological movement.  Dastur claims that Husserl, like Kant, abandons the traditional philosophical notion of “a metaphysical God” who acts as a “supreme ontological guarantor” (ibid., 180).  Rather, Husserl conceives of God as subject to the “laws of intentionality” in the same way as humans (ibid., 178).  However, Dastur suggests that this conception of God proved problematic for Husserl when he attempted to subject it to the transcendental reduction, because it did not fit neatly into his categories of “immanence” and “transcendence” (ibid., 179-180).  Husserl ultimately arrived at a conception of God as “a perfect and totally rational humanity” constituting the “absolute logos” towards which humans are heading (ibid., 181).  However, Dastur emphasises that this development does not signal “a ‘religious’ turn for phenomenology” in the context of his philosophy (ibid.).

Turning then to Heidegger, Dastur claims that he formulates his own notion of the “last God” based on the experience of the “death of God” in Nietzsche, and the “flight of the Gods” in Hölderlin’s poetry (ibid., 183). Dastur identifies several aspects of this “last God” that Heidegger believes would allow us to develop a more profound grasp of the divine than past conceptions of God (ibid., 184).  First, unlike the “God of revelation”, the “last God” “passes” into time, meaning that it only interacts with us as it retreats (ibid.).  Second, being subject to the flux of time, the “last God” reveals to us “‘the most intimate finitude of being’” rather than the “divine infinitude” of the Christian God (ibid.).  Lastly, unlike the “moral God”, the “last God” does not decree anything (ibid.).

As stated at the beginning of this review, Dastur’s exploration of key phenomenological questions is fluid, nuanced and engages with, rather than avoids, the complexities that emerge from such an investigation.  There are a few more evaluating remarks I want to make to conclude this review.  First, this monograph would be most useful to those seeking an analysis of diverse issues in the phenomenological movement from various perspectives rather than a detailed analysis of a particular issue.  Second, although Dastur raises some astute criticisms of the theorists she examines (e.g. her critique of Husserl’s privileging of the substantive in chapter two), besides Lévinas, I felt that a few more figures who clearly distinguish between Husserl and Heidegger could have been included to render the analysis more balanced.  Lastly, although there are clear lines of argument within the individual chapters that render them cohesive, the reader may sometimes feel frustrated at the lack of an overall topic that unites all parts of the work.  This, however, is probably a result of the approach that Dastur has chosen to adopt, and, moreover, part of the point she wants to make.  As she continually emphasises, phenomenology should be viewed as an evolving movement that encompasses diverse perspectives rather than a doctrine whose followers are assumed to share a common subject-matter or common principles.  The notably diverse nature of phenomenological contributions has been noted by commentators like Dan Zahavi (2012, 1), who observed that sometimes, despite Husserl’s crucial status as the forefather of phenomenology, “virtually all post-Husserlian phenomenologists ended up distancing themselves from most aspects of Husserl’s original program” (ibid.).  He even goes so far as to ask whether “there really [is] something like a phenomenological tradition, let alone a phenomenological method” (ibid.).  From this perspective, then, Dastur’s approach is not flawed but rather an attempt to contribute to the phenomenological movement by tackling a key challenge to it.

References

Dastur, Françoise. 2017. Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude. Translated by Robert Vallier. New York: Fordham University Press.

Figal, Gü 2012. “Hermeneutical Phenomenology”. In The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology, edited by Dan Zahavi, 525-542. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2002. “Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience” from Truth and Method. In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney, 314-338. London and New York: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977. Letter on Humanism. In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, 189-242. New York: Harper and Row.

Hopkins, Burt C. 1993. Intentionality in Husserl and Heidegger: The Problem of the Original Method and Phenomenon of Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2002. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge Classics.

Zahavi, Dan. 2012. “Introduction” to The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology, edited by Dan Zahavi, 1-4. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmanuel Alloa: Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty

Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty
Emmanuel Alloa, Translated by Jane Marie Todd, Foreword by Renaud Barbaras
Fordham University Press
2017
Paperback $28.00
152

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

This book is the first English-language translation of Alloa’s 2008 text, which originally appeared in French under the title La résistance du sensible: Merleau-Ponty critique de la transparence. Emmanuel Alloa is a student of the prominent Merleau-Ponty scholar Renaud Barbaras, and an occasional editor of Chiasmi, the leading journal for Merleau-Ponty studies.  Although the length of its body chapters comes in under 100 pages, this book is less of a standard introduction to Merleau-Ponty than a dense thematic, historical study of key issues figuring into the philosopher’s development from the early works up the unfinished texts in progress at the time of his death. The three principal chapters analyze the transformation and interior narrative of Merleau-Ponty’s thought across the three subjects that figure foremost in his legacy.  Chapter One examines the notion of perception in the context of the early texts The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception. The second chapter takes up Merleau-Ponty’s conception of language, with particular attention to the essays in the middle-period Signs and the abandoned work The Prose of the World. The third chapter, entitled “Ontology of the Visible,” studies Merleau-Ponty’s late attempts to formulate a phenomenological ontology centered in the visible and sensible. The book does not cover any aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s political or social philosophy. Throughout, Alloa discusses in depth the philosopher’s engagement with numerous influences and contemporaries including Husserl, Sartre, Fink, and Saussure. Methodological emphasis is likewise placed on the genesis behind Merleau-Ponty’s shaping of central concepts and terms.

Alloa’s statements in the Introduction of the book provide an overview of how he understands the core idea of Merleau-Ponty’s thought: while perception is ultimately the philosophical concept that overtly engaged Merleau-Ponty, it is the resistance of the sensible that the philosopher actually grappled with. By this notion of resistance, Alloa indicates that the sensible is what is obvious to perception, yet which cannot be penetrated by analysis (5-7). In highlighting the concept of the “obvious,” (or ob-vious) Alloa refers to what is in front of one and standing against one. For the sensible characterizes not merely what perception encounters, but also the experiential world as a whole (7). In Alloa’s view, this is decisive for Merleau-Ponty’s work because it provides a more focused approach than Husserl’s epistemological project of uncovering the conditions of knowledge. As Alloa sees it, Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental insight in this regard is recognizing that what is sensible, what is in front of one, resists; it is not transparent and never will be so. (In making this observation, Alloa is cueing upon the important difference Merleau-Ponty demonstrated from Husserl early in his career: the view, contra Husserl, that a complete reduction is never possible.) As Alloa observes on this score, treating the sensible as the entry point for philosophy is a more tangible and direct method than Husserl’s approach of beginning phenomenological description with the structures of consciousness. Moreover, Alloa suggests that for Merleau-Ponty, the perspectival limit of perception characterizes the essence of philosophizing as well, viz., to philosophize means to grapple with what resists and refuses transparency. This consequence results because thought is by nature also conditioned by the sensible; thinking is permeated by vision, and vice versa.  Therefore, to return to the things themselves, as is phenomenology’s mantra, entails thought becoming sensible (9, 11).

In the book’s first chapter, Alloa sets up the premises of Merleau-Ponty’s early studies on perception. He suggests that the first two major works, The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, are of a piece insofar as the former attempts to show why a phenomenological account of experience cannot be reduced to a behavioral psychology, while the latter describes the phenomenology of sense experience in a positive fashion (16-17).  Structure describes human perception critically, from the outside looking in, whereas the Phenomenology is written with an emphasis on the first-person perspective of sense experience.  Alloa sees here not so much a tension in approaches as much as Merleau-Ponty’s developing recognition of a conflict between body and soul; the concept of behavior comprises the locus for Merleau-Ponty’s insight that sense experience is contingent on the milieu of the living being, which Alloa later identifies as the body (24). The phenomenon of behavior reveals an unnoticed synthesis of inner and outer, mind and body, such that this concept is seen as operative prior to any sort of dualism, yet not transparent to perception either. To parse Alloa’s claim here just a bit, the notion is perhaps not unlike Heidegger’s observation in Being and Time that to be a Dasein entails already existing in a world of immediate surroundings where things have their essence in their use; Dasein is neither an inner nor outer, but instead projective being-in-the-world.  Alloa sees a link between Structure and the Phenomenology in Merleau-Ponty’s implicit emphasis on the opacification of perception, or the notion that perception is underwritten by a lack of transparency.

Alloa similarly regards Merleau-Ponty’s career-long dialogue with Gestalt psychology as having its seeds in these early works.  For Merleau-Ponty, the concept of Gestalt is decisive for highlighting the world’s very appearing as structured (20), where perceptual consciousness is the “site” of this emergence.  The forms of the ready-made world of experience are not merely in the world, but emerge with the world.  For similar reasons, the mind-body relationship is not an instrumental one.  This observation brings to the fore the concept of “milieu”, which Alloa regards as a cornerstone of Merleau-Ponty’s early development.  The mind-body relation is founded on embeddedness in a milieu, where phenomenology entails describing an inventory of that milieu (20).  Yet Alloa highlights that Gestalt psychology in its traditional guise is insufficient for Merleau-Ponty because it fails to adopt a way of thinking about life; Gestalt psychology overlooks the dialectic between the living thing and its milieu, failing to recognize the dynamic identity of the physical and mental structures of experience (22-23).  The milieu comprised by embodiment functions as Merleau-Ponty’s corrective to the shortcomings of Gestalt psychology and scientific mechanism, for embodiment comprises the union of life and environment.

The topic of transcendence takes Alloa into Chapter Two.  Alloa suggests that Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with language during and after the early works epitomizes his effort to describe the unity of bodily movement and creative freedom (38).  “When the subject is collapsed to its corporeal condition alone, there is no longer any possibility of explaining how one moves beyond oneself” (33).  Transcendence, Alloa writes, is for Merleau-Ponty less important in the manner of establishing a new notion of epistemological or metaphysical foundation; more important in Merleau-Ponty’s view is the very act of transcending.  The act of transcending is coextensive with the opacity of the world (33).  Citing the Phenomenology, Alloa observes that an a priori ecstasy of the human subject orients one fundamentally toward this opacity, toward what one is not (33).  The first section of Chapter Two, entitled “Expression,” suggests that human expression for Merleau-Ponty comprises the extension of idealization or intellect into the embodied state.  Human movement is not merely a bodily activity but includes gesture (35).  In this light, following the Phenomenology, the body is the actuality of expression and represents the movement of expression (35).  As a result, language for Merleau-Ponty is forever to be subordinated to the phenomenon of expression as bodily act (39), which is to say, Merleau-Ponty does not endorse a pure grammar or universal linguistics.  Whereas, these are notions that for instance would be familiar to readers of Husserl’s Logical Investigations.  Moreover, Alloa highlights that the diacritical character of language, which Merleau-Ponty adopts from Saussure, further justifies the claim that language can never be made pure or universal.  Citing the abandoned text The Prose of the World, Alloa highlights that this character of language means signs, morphemes, and words only convey meaning in their assembly; language constitutes the practice of discriminating signs from one another.  And given language’s origin in the embodied state, these features have a coextension with the sensible.  Language’s diacritical character “will acquire the value of a perceptible interval forming a pattern on the sensible fabric itself” (45).  Yet, the transparency of language in human experience also reveals its resistance, echoing Alloa’s leading claim at the book’s start.  Namely, like the sensible, language’s character is to efface itself through its very transparency (51).

Alloa finishes this chapter by taking up the lines of questioning that permeate Merleau-Ponty’s middle works, especially Signs, Prose of the World, and the Nature lectures, on the issue of exactly where language resides.  Language does not reside in mere signs, symbols, or words, nor does it reside in meaning.  Where does language have its being?  Alloa sketches Merleau-Ponty’s position this way: “We must place ourselves at the very site of language in the process of making itself – between the given and what makes possible the act of giving – without conceiving of Saying on the basis of the already Said but also without relegating language to a sphere of pure potentiality, without isolating an abstract linguistic structure of yielding entirely to a completed embodiment in a concrete signifying formula” (53).  In brief, as Alloa describes it, the meeting of embodiment and linguistic signs requires one to describe the immaterial but not simply ideal birth of sense-making (53).  Alloa finds that painting for Merleau-Ponty provides one such avenue, to the extent that it comprises a “silent” form of expression, originative in the bodily gesture of the hand, yet also indicative of a verbal lack of mastery of the world and the world’s means of expression.  As such, painting exemplifies the birth of sense-making.  “The painter’s canvas becomes the site of an experience of relinquishment, an exposure to an outside where the protective envelope of everyday language disintegrates” (55-56).

The third and final chapter offers a focused account of the genesis leading to Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy, particularly his interest in developing an “ontology of the visible.”  Texts of especial importance are the philosopher’s final published work “Eye and Mind” and the posthumously edited Visible and Invisible.  In Alloa’s description, this late period of the philosopher engages the question of how something can be given to one as visible, and of how words can function to describe this occurrence (60).  Merleau-Ponty’s task during this period is to uncover the roots of the visible. Again, painting is decisive because the thought-process shown in work of masters such as Cezanne reveals the visible as resistance to transparency.  Alloa characterizes the philosopher’s stance this way: “Thinking as a painter means submitting to the laws of resistance and experiencing feelings within the limits of the sensible” (61).  The ontology of painting consequently affords Merleau-Ponty an entry point into the ontology of the visible not by way of what is seen, but by way of what is becoming-seen, becoming-visible (64).  This last brings Alloa to the crux of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh.”  Because art has its essence not in works but rather in realizing the sensible bonds of experience and world, art helps to instantiate the “flesh” binding the world and human being (65).  Given that “flesh” is an obscure concept in Merleau-Ponty, difficult to pin down precisely, Alloa devotes significant discussion to it.  Flesh is not a physical or atomistic substantial presence (which may be implied in Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of it in Visible as an element) but it is materially immanent in the sensible (65).  Yet flesh is not to be understood as a Leibnizian monad, transposing the principles of life onto nonliving materiality.  Alloa cites an unpublished note written by the philosopher in 1960 to the effect that the flesh of the world is not derivative from an understanding of the flesh of the body (67).  Rather, the human body we know is made of this very flesh of the world.  But again, one can ask, what is flesh and where does it come from?  Alloa concedes that Merleau-Ponty’s position on this issue could be ambivalent at best, given that the philosopher was still exploring this question at the time of his death.  One compromise, Alloa suggests, is to follow a clue from the Nature lectures, namely Merleau-Ponty’s remark that the sensible is the flesh of the world.  In other words, the sensible is the bond uniting experience and world, inner and outer, just insofar as it emerges in the interstices of the subjective and objective, not lying in just one or the other.  On the other hand, Alloa also suggests that the more ambiguous “flesh” perhaps better expresses what is neither subjective nor objective, but beyond these, that through which something sensible is sensed (68).  Alloa’s meaning seems to be something like the following: the sensation I experience through touching an object such as a pine cone is not merely fostered through my hand’s affectivity nor through the pine cone’s sensible characteristics (e.g. prickly, resinous, woody).  Rather, this experience have of the sensible is fostered by a “between” that allows sensible and sensing to meet.  I find Alloa’s discussion of flesh to be especially helpful and an illuminating part of the book.

Alloa rounds out the final chapter with some reflections on the underlying commitments of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible.  Alloa writes that Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception must become an ontology of the sensible because this is the only way to obviate dualism.  And conversely, the sensible must be the seat of ontology because the sensible is the ultimate ground of experience, the medium in which being inheres without needing to be posited (80).  Here, Alloa’s characterization of the sensible is not unlike Heidegger’s observations that being in its guise of ereignis comprises the groundless ground.  For Merleau-Ponty, the sensible is the ultimate, yet ungrounded given.

In summary, this short but dense book by Emmanuel Alloa is a challenging read. It is also a rewarding one for those willing to do the work to digest carefully his many insightful observations on Merleau-Ponty’s thought and development. Alloa makes a very good case for the notion that despite Merleau-Ponty’s stops and starts with various issues, there is nonetheless a guiding thread to his thought’s development.  To be truthful, however, there is an aspect in which this book is frustrating to use as an “introduction” to the philosopher, just because it is written at an astute historiographical level, not one for beginners.  One might wonder why the book’s title was altered for this English-language edition.  Alloa does not provide extensive exegetical readings of any specific books of Merleau-Ponty, opting instead for frequent citations of one or two lines of text, whose meaning Alloa typically takes as self-evident.  There is a measure in which these frequent citations seem taken out of context or otherwise lacking in justification for the lay reader. There is also a noticeable dearth of examples that might help to illustrate for a novice what is at stake in crucial distinctions. This is a book that will much better serve those who are already decently versed in Merleau-Ponty and who possess a workable understanding of at least some of Merleau-Ponty’s key themes. To that end, Alloa’s book will offer potential as a guide for connecting the various topics in Merleau-Ponty’s works and establishing a beginning-to-end narrative.

 

Ginette Michaud: Derrida, Celan: Juste le poème, peut-être, Éditions Hermann, 2017

Derrida, Celan: Juste le poème, peut-être Book Cover Derrida, Celan: Juste le poème, peut-être
Le Bel Aujourd'hui
Ginette Michaud
Éditions Hermann
2017
Paperback 25,00 €
192