The terms “mysticism” and “mystical experience” were commonly used in twentieth century scholarship, particularly in psychology of religion studies. These terms, highly loaded and ambiguous as they are, were gradually replaced by references to “religious experience” in English-language scholarship by the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. What is meant by “religious experience?” How is it distinguished from our other, everyday kinds of experiences – is it something that can be clearly separated from mundane experiences, and if so, how? Do such experiences vary cross-culturally, and are they conditioned by specific religious traditions? What of religious experiences that lie outside of institutional religious settings? These questions continue to cause controversy and lively debate from multidisciplinary perspectives. Applied phenomenology is particularly relevant for this ongoing mystery.
Related to these questions are the issues of context: what religious experience(s) are we referring to? How is this understood in theistic systems – and how might this appear in non-theistic traditions? is there such a thing as a universal human religious experience, or do these experiences differ cross-culturally and across world religious traditions?
The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries, edited by Olga Louchakova-Schwartz, represents a massive, multivolume undertaking to address some of these contextual issues. An extensive study of the intersection of phenomenology and religious experience is much needed, and we are fortunate to be gifted such a voluminous work. The editor includes generous notes and reflections, including a detailed introduction, where she notes that this work stems from a collaborate research effort from the Society for the Phenomenology of Religious Experience. The editor is an extremely accomplished scholar who displays true expertise in the phenomenology of religious experience. Professor Louchakova-Schwartz clearly states a foundational question regarding this research in the introduction: “a question of what exactly makes religious experience what it is – that is, gives it a specific quality distinguishing it, for its subject, from all other experiences – remained open” (3). Given over a century of robust phenomenological studies, the question of subjective experience generally and religious experience specifically continues to invoke confusion and mystery, and this ambitious work turns to various case studies and theorizing to respond to this confusion.
The introductory section effectively sets out a cohesive structure for this multivolume study. An initial confusion I encountered in the introduction is: what is the scope of the analysis here? The word “God” is referenced, and it is made clear that Abrahamic and South Asian religious studies are included, as well as both phenomenological theory and theologically-centered studies. However, what religions are specifically covered in the comparative analyses, and what, if any, constraints and issues were encountered when including cross-cultural studies?
Relatedly, having so much material in one book may prove to be daunting. This is split into two volumes with four parts: the first volume containing The Primeval Showing of Religious Experience while the second volume is explicitly theological, entitled Doxastic Perspectives in the Phenomenology of Religious Experience. I am concerned about such a broad spectrum of content lacking cohesion; fortunately, dividing the book into parts and respective case studies helped to preserve an overall cohesive structure. The notion of the concretum or concrete aspects of religious experience is invoked in the introduction. Yet quickly in the introductory sections, a nearly incomprehensible web of nested phenomenological jargon is spun – this is clearly a common feature of modern philosophical theory, also a feature in the many phenomenological subtraditions stemming from the master of incomprehensibly dense prose himself, Edmund Husserl. This caused another concern; after I turned to the first case study presented in Chapter Two, I wondered if non-specialists in this subject would be able to make sense of the material. As the subject of religious experience is multidisciplinary, this work may attract those who are not specialized in phenomenological technical terms, such as the various reductions. Nonetheless, Professor Louchakova-Schwartz is particularly clear in her writing and unpacks the incredible amount of debate and abstraction surrounding the phenomenology of religious experience with deftly precise prose. She includes helpful reflections at the conclusion of each Part, from Part I – IV.
Proceeding the critiques of Cartesian mind-body dualism and subsequent focus on embodiment found in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and modern thinkers such as Natalie Depraz and Thomas Csordas, the notion of embodiment and embodied religious experience is germane to this research. It is encouraging to see this topic approached multiple times, including in Chapter II of Volume I, “Reconnecting the Self to the Divine: The Role of the Lived Body in Spontaneous Religious Experiences” by Shogo Tanaka. This first volume, The Primeval Showing of Religious Experience, sets out what is to be “presuppositionless” accounts of religious experience, contrasted with theological or “doxastic” approaches found in volume II – hence the “showing” of experiences mentioned in the title.
Tanaka presents the oft-neglected domain of “spontaneous” religious experiences – those experiences falling outside the purview of institutionally-structured traditions. Inspired by William James’ famous analysis of mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience, Tanaka focuses on the notion of mystical “passivity” and how this may lead to shifts in one’s sense of embodied experience, also referred to phenomenologically as “the lived body.”
Beginning primarily with Plato and Parmenides among ancient Greek thinkers, thriving throughout medieval European Scholasticism and culminating with Rene Descartes’ philosophy, the history of Western philosophy is that of dualistic tension: tension between the status of mind and matter, spirit and corporeality. Descartes’ famous formulation of res cogitans and res extensa formalized the ontological separation of spirit or mind from “mindless” matter. The directly visceral experience of living itself is consistently denied in the Western philosophical tradition, brushed aside as irrelevant compared to the power of reasoning. A critique of this dualistic orientation is found initially in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological work, continued in the religious analyses of the “lived body” in Tanaka’s chapter. The role of embodiment is a crucial aspect within religious experience accounts that will hopefully continue to inspire future phenomenological religious studies.
Tanaka concludes his chapter with a critique of body-mind dualism and apt observations regarding a false dichotomy often posited in religious experience studies between “ordinary” and “nonordinary” states of consciousness: “. . . the distinction itself seems to reflect a tacit, dichotomous understanding of the sacred and the secular, the supernatural and the natural, the other world and this world, and the religious and the nonreligious. This dichotomy may foster the view that religious experiences are essentially different from ordinary experiences” (35). This essentializing of different modes of experience contrasts with Tanaka’s emphasis on spontaneous religious experiences, which may occur in perfectly mundane situations and contexts, outside any specifically institutional religious setting. One is reminded of the quotidian, simple imagery often employed in Zen Buddhist poetry and parables to refer to ultimate awakening – which is not fundamentally distinct from everyday experience.
One insightful aspect of this book is the clarification of phenomenological methods and key terms, including the often-invoked method of “reduction.” Espen Dahl defines and clarifies a few of these reductions in Chapter 4, “Preserving Wonder Through the Reduction: Husserl, Marion, and Merleau-Ponty.” These include Husserl’s Cartesian-influenced reduction, Marion’s reduction, and Merleau-Ponty’s method of reduction. Husserl’s notion of epoché, the “bracketing” of our presuppositions about what constitutes our universe, is described by Dahl as “the way inward” (60). This is certainly a fitting way to describe the process of bracketing, and it is a key feature that marks the unique orientation of Husserl’s innovative philosophy. Such an inward turning also parallels aspects of stilling the mind during certain meditation exercises, which is addressed in Chapter 5, written by Olga Louchakova-Schwartz. Louchakova-Schwartz focuses on the transmutation of emotion in numerous Buddhist meditation practices, what she refers to as “neo-Buddhist” practices. Processes underlying the emotional transformation in these practices are compared to numerous phenomenological methods, including the reductions and epoché. The array of comparative phenomenological studies is a particularly impressive feature of this anthology, and there is still much insightful cross-cultural analysis to be gained by applying the phenomenological methodologies to varied cultural religious practices.
Volume I continues with other nondoxastic approaches, focusing on themes of Lebenswelt or the “lifeworld,” intersubjectivity and transcendence. As previously stated, Volume II shifts the focus by including doxastic, explicitly theological frameworks. These by and large draw influence from Christian theistic perspectives and philosophers such as Kierkegaard, in addition to an intriguing analysis of Raimon Panikkar’s intercultural, pluralistic philosophies in Leonardo Marcato’s “Mystical Experience as Existential Knowledge in Raimon Pannikar’s Navasūtrāni.” The anthology is two hundred pages in by Volume II, and this book culminates with over three hundred pages. Despite this substantial amount of material and plethora of topics, the cohesively structured flow of thought is even more apparent by the end of Volume II. This is a particularly ambitious project to complete and subdividing the content into two main volumes helped to break the material into manageable sections, with clear demarcations in analytical foci.
I am quite impressed by the plurality of themes and lucid unpacking of densely abstruse phenomenological topics found within The Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology, with Reflections and Commentaries. Dr. Olga Louchakova-Schwartz’s commentary and original contributions greatly assist in making sense of this complex territory. There is an impressive array of cross-cultural religious analyses explored. Again, this ambitious work may overwhelm readers who are not previously familiar with the many developments of phenomenology within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nonetheless, the various methods, reductions, and “bracketing” are clearly explicated in relation to the ongoing mysteries of religious experience. This anthology leaves us with further reflections on wonder, mystery, transcendence – even with silence, outside the conceptually symbolic constraints of language itself. At the crossroads of these conceptual fringes, the explanatory methods of phenomenology can effectively shed light on the enigmatic nature of cross-cultural descriptions of religious experience.
Among the many poignant lines one encounters in Emmanuel Housset’s Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation, perhaps none gives more to think than does a passage in chapter two’s “Travailler et Œuvrer,” which, exhibiting this stunning work’s deeply spiritual undercurrent permeating every page, reminds us of the sacred responsibility our having received the gift of hands in turn entrusts us: “[L]a première préocuppation de la main humaine doit être la justice, et c’est elle qui fait de l’homme un collaborateur de Dieu. L’homme cultive le monde et Dieu cultive l’homme” (67). If, as Housset says elsewhere in the text, “le monde n’a pas d’autres mains que les notres” (153), this is because of our manual vocation to shelter and steward what encounters us as God intends. For as he states further on in one of the work’s middle chapters “Parler et Écouter,” “Le Créateur n’a donc pas donné des mains à l’homme pour remplir une simple function naturelle, mais afin d’assurer une tache spirituelle, qui est de répondre du monde comme totalité” (141). Thus, Housset will say of our hands what Jean-Louis Chrétien in The Ark of Speech has said of our voice. Making the parallel claim that human hands (no less than the human voice) are co-participants with God in creation, or better, laborers alongside God in the current task of restoring it from the Fall, Housset says that with them we can work to accomplish the establishment of the kingdom of God. Throughout its meditations on the hand’s innumerable dimensions, Housset’s work hence puts to us the same question gently but incessantly, one no human life ever succeeds avoiding from asking itself forever: Have you been working what is good, or not?
The hand speaks, says Merleau-Ponty. The hand listens, says Chrétien. So, too, it thinks, says Heidegger. These themes are for phenomenology far from novel, but Housset gives them new life, showing why they have justifiably commanded the philosophical attention they have for so long. As he notes at his study’s outset, and as he will underscore time and again in the chapters that follow, if the hand speaks and listens, its is a transcendence through which man encounters the world and its things, as well as others too. It is, to invoke the term he uses at least once, the “hinge” (charnière) between the world and ourselves. Neither a thing, an instrument, a mere organ, nor even the organ of organs par excellence, the hand is rather the power by which we touch and our touched, that with which we give and receive, build and make, release and grip, grope and explore. As Housset says, “La main n’est pas une simple partie du corps de l’homme et, à elle seule, elle peut manifester toute l’existence de l’homme dans son caractère charnel et temporel” (7). The hand both opens and discovers the world. And not only does it open the world through a transcendence that takes us beyond ourselves whereby we meet things and others, the hand possesses a past and so a future also, a time accordingly making the present one whose presence to the world is ours indelibly. As Housset with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger never ceases to emphasize, the manual nature of existence means each of us expresses our individual unsubstitutableness through it, a distinctive style evident in the attunement toward being that very style exhibits, one incorporated in every gesture of the general posture by which we inhahbit the world and thereby decide to meet it. As Housset says of the hand,
“Elle n’est donc pas un outil d’outil, car elle ne se rencontre pas dans le monde, elle n’apparait pas dans le monde comme un organe dont je pourrais me servir. Son mode de donnée est tout autre: elle est ce qui ouvre au monde, le lieu d’une rencontre avec les choses” (159).
What, then, shall we say of this capacity of the hand to meet the world?
Placing the human hand within a frame of reference related to the question concerning the nature of man as a whole, Housset accordingly thinks starting from a number of themes explored by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Henri Maldiney, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion. In so doing, however, Housset does not consign himself to exegesis. There is very little textual interpretation simply for interpretation’s sake in this work. His attention, rather, turns to what is visible in the world, not what remains just ink on a page. Enacting one of the work’s central theses (namely, that all writing and every writer have their styles), he transforms familiar philosophical material creatively, revealing subtleties we had not yet noticed, deepening insights we thought we already understood, and surprising us by bringing to words what we believed must remain unsaid, things we ourselves had felt before but struggled to express. In encountering what Housset shows, we find often that he gives clear voice to what we felt had persisently been eluding ours. And when these delightful moments of clarity dawn courtesy of his words, what a relief it is!
It is not by chance the work achieves everything it does that we are about to recount. The insights making it such a joy to read are won meticulously, with precision and remarkable attentiveness and foresight. Its unusual thoughtfulness is evident immediately from the start, in how for instance Housset self-consciously conceives of the treatise to begin with. In the introduction, he notes an astonishing fact. What, he asks, explains why there is no true philosophical treatise on the hand alone? As he says, “si la main est vraiment la synecdoque de l’homme, comment se fait-il qu’il n’existe pas un véritable traité des mains comme s’en étonne Valéry?” (7). There are many works that have touched on the hand, to be sure. Yet no comprehensive work on the hand as such exists. One might speculate such a treatise has not been undertaken due to a difficulty Housset himself had addressed a few pages previously in the work’s preface. Any study aiming to embark on an analysis of the hand in its totality, he observes there, must first ask itself whether such a treatise is even possible. The issue concerns a matter of access to the phenomenon, and hence a matter of method. How is one to approach the hand’s essence systematically and in a way that remains properly philosophical without reducing to an anthropological, biological, or cultural perspective? The task, then, is posing the question of the human hand without collapsing that question completely into one asking what man is. While the two questions do overlap, as Housset himself acknowledges, there still is something of a distinction between them worth preserving however intertwined they are. Housset explains,
“Néanmoins, dans mon projet d’ensemble d’une éluciation du caracère manuel de l’existence, je me suis heurté à deux difficultés: d’abord celle de l’immensité du champ à étudier et la nécessité de le circonscrire pour ne pas perdre. Le danger était que la question “Qu’est-ce que la main?” soit simplement reconduite à la question “Qu’est-ce que l’homme?” et que dans une étude indéfinie des representations de la main et de ses usages, ni l’essence de la main, ni l’essence de l’homme ne soient étudiées” (5).
In addition to this danger of obscuring the essence of both the hand and man himself by posing the question of the former in a way that eliminates it, by reducing it entirely to a question of the latter, Housset notes a further danger that must be avoided. One could make the mistake of dissolving the question of the hand’s distinctive sense into the more general question of what man is, yet one might also take too piecemeal of an approach to the hand itself. The danger here, in short, is taking an approach that gets bogged down in what amounts to an “analyse régionale” of the hand, one calling for the specialism of the art historian, anthropologist, or theologian. Were this to happen, the hand’s essence is lost amid the various analyses sketched of its figures from their correspondingly various theoretical perspectives. What Housset seeks, instead, is a truly philosophical account of the hand. And yet, this analysis also comes fraught with its own hazards. After all, even if one were able to approach the question of the hand from a strictly philosophical perspective, there is then the danger of traditional philosophical assumptions and prejudices about the nature of man (and hence the hand) intruding. Rather than revealing the phenomenon as it is, might not the philosophical tradition’s treatment of the hand obscure or even distort it? To uncover the essence of the human hand, thus, it will be necessary, Housset suggests, to question (and often abandon) the dominant philosophical horizons through which the question of our existence has been posed. And as for the hand itself, it will be necessary to find a logos that thinks it otherwise than how philosophy sometimes has. For Housset, this means first of all overcoming aspects of philosophy’s Greek and German anthropological inheritance:
“La deuxième difficulté était proprement philosophique: pour ne pas simplement raconteur des histories de mains, pour ne pas s’en tenir à des considérations anthropologiques, aussi importantes soient-elles, et pour parvenir à developer une ontologie de la main ou pour defender l’idée que la verité de la main est au-delà de l’ontologie, il me fallait une véritable these sur le devenir corps du corps, sur l’incorporation, et cela supposait de pouvoir montrer que l’identité de la main, comme identité d’exode, puisque la dignité des mains, leur glorie, est de s’oublier dans l’action, ne pouvait pas relever de la comprehension parméndienne de l’être. Ce travail a donc pris son temps afin de deployer une conception de l’incorporation qui ne soit ni grecque, ni nietzschéene, ni husserlienne, et qui défende l’idée qu’il faut manier pour voir, pour parler et pour répondre.” (5-6).
The aim, then, is to take an approach that liberates the phenomenon from whatever traditional philosophical assumptions are occluding it, while doing so in a way that gets to the heart of the hand as the regional analyses of other theoretical disciplines do not. In a word, Housset proposes a phenomenological treatise of the hand.
“En consequence, une parole philosophique sur la main ne peut être qu’une description phénoménologie de la main à partir de son mode de donnée propre; la main se donne à la conscience, après reduction, comme un ensemble d’actes: manipuler, apprehender, travailler, œuvrer, toucher, se toucher, parler, tâtonner, caresser, tendre, écrire, donner” (8).
As the first chapter “Prendre et Manipuler” makes clear, the resulting analyses exemplify that approach, for they are neither haphazard nor disjointed. There is a logic governing the hand’s acts to which Housset attends, a logic his exposition renders explicit by tracing the eidetic laws interconnecting the acts in question. In turning to the basic acts of taking and manipulating, for instance, Housset is doing so while simultaneously formulating a background question that he works out as the chapters progress. By first examining the acts of taking and manipulating, Housset invites us to wonder whether the paradigm of power they presuppose is truly the best way to understand the hand’s essence. Is this the deepest dimension of the hand? As Housset writes, “Tel est le cœur de la question: la main vraiment main est-elle celle qui prend, qui decide, qui impose, ou bien est-elle celle qui est toujours un dialogue, qui si comprend toujours comme une réponse dans la poignée de main comme dans le soin?” (10). In the same spirit of Heidegger’s own criticisms of representational thinking, here Housset thematizes the hand as something whose way-of-being undercuts the modern cult of power, control, and independence, the technological conception of man as the measure of things, as the one who gives to himself his own destiny by mastering what encounters him through his own desire and strength alone. As Housset says,
“Une telle question ne va pas de soi aujourd’hui et demande à être construite, dans la mesure où l’homme moderne, issue des Lumières, se prend pour la mesure de toute chose et, dans son reve d’un pouvoir fondé sur le savoir, il se définit d’abord par le projet de se prendre en main, d’être son propre projet et d’être ainsi le créateur de lui-même” (Ibid.).
Very early on, as we see, Housset is already carefully crafting the foundation for the work’s later critical reflections on the modern technological era’s mishandling of our humanity. For as he notes, any faithful description of the hand’s openness to the world entails a recognition of the limits to the hand’s powers, and so in turn our finitude. This recognition is one that we today, with the Enlightenment philosophical tradition epitomizing it, dislike to admit: “Cela dit, cette reconnaissance de l’essentielle finitude de l’action humaine est peut-être ce qu’il a aujourd’hui de plus difficile, car elle suppose un renversement complet de la représentation de son être” (11). Even when the hand is considered in light of its capacity to grasp or manipulate things, it must not be forgotten that this capacity presupposes a more originary receptivity to what already first encounters and solicits it. Whereas we tend to conceive of ourselves as subjects able to take and do, Housset’s opening chapter initiates a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the modern myth of the will to power. A self-understanding that sees itself as an autarkic being capable of creating itself by imposing its virility on its surroundings, as he says, overlooks the hand’s true fragility. In a comment reminiscent of Michel Henry’s observation regarding life’s inability to be the origin of its own powers, so Housset emphasizes how nobody has given his hands to himself. Furthermore, nor is anyone immune from the constant threat that its powers will suddenly abandon us: “Ainsi, la main n’est pas un bien don’t l’homme disposerait toujours déjà, mais une possibilité qu’il n’a qu’à la developer sans cesse, dans la conscience de pouvoir la perdre à tout moment, volontairement ou involontairement” (12). According to Housset, this fragility means the manual nature of existence is normative. One can succeed or fail at having hands! As he says, “nous devons apprendre à avoir des mains, comme nous devons apprendre à marcher et à penser, dans la conscience de leur fragilité” (12). By this Housset does not mean that everyone is (or is not) an amputee, is (or is not) a paralytic. Rather, insofar as the modern notion of self-sufficient and invulnerable man is a myth, Housset means to accentuate how in turn it falls to each of us to recognize and embrace that weakness. The point is we may do so to better or worse degrees:
“En effet, encore une fois, il est difficile et necessaire de déconstruire l’idéal modern de la main conquérante, invulnerable, qui sait trancher dans le vif, en montrant quelle image de l’homme est à l’origine d’un tel ideal, et cela de facon à pouvoir retrouver une certaine humilité des mains” (13).
This deconstruction of Camus’s Sisyphean rebel who persists in trying to forge meaning on his strength alone serves to underscore Housset’s original phenomenological purpose. The hand, we see indeed, is neither simply a thing, an instrument, or an organ, but a way of standing open to the world. Highlighting the sense in which the hand is something more, Housset alludes to the notion of style, a theme from Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophies to which he will often himself recur in the pages that follow:
“La main n’est donc pas une chose ni une partie du corps, mais elle un movement, un verbe, une puissance de manifestation du sujet agissant, et en cela elle est pleinement esprit et pleinment corps, sans qu’il soit possible de dissocier en elle ces deux dimensions de l’existence” (13).
Here already, if only obliquely, Housset has introduced into the account of the hand’s power to take and manipulate the more primary notion of style, a phenomenological notion denoting a fundamental dimension of human existence he in turn will explore at length in later chapters.
The hand, which thinks, and which is not simply the expression of a mind but rather the expression of the whole of one’s existence as man, cannot thus be reduced to a marginal or regional analysis. If we cannot think without hands, and if thinking itself distinguishes us from the animals, reflection on the human hand leads to a consideration of the ancient conception of the difference between man and the animals. Whereas man dwells and builds amid a world, animals simply live in an environment. The hand explains this difference, for in our case the hand possesses a power of touch whose sensitivity far surpasses what is known to the animals. Following Aristotle, Housset notes that of the five senses, touch is the most basic, for as the power of refinement and taste, it most marks the humanity of man:
“Ainsi, comme l’explique Jean-Louis Chrétien dans L’appel et la réponse, le toucher n’est pas d’abord pour Aristote l’un des cinq sens, mais ce qui fait que l’homme n’est pas un simple spectateur et qu’il est par le toucher engage dans le monde, cet enagement étant à la fois ce qui l’expose et ce qui lui permet d’agir dans le monde” (82).
Yet if Housset agrees with the classical distinction between man and animal, he is not completely satisfied with the common picture of it. At this point in the text, his many mentions of working and building will have brought to the reader’s mind Hannah Arendt’s famous analyses of these acts. And in chapter two, “Travailler et Œuvrer,” Housset indeed takes up Arendt directly. Man acts with his hands. He works with them. Such work takes many forms: work of the farmer, the surgeon, the writer, the carpenter, the painter, or the postman. What are we to make of this work? Were one to follow Arendt’s line of reasoning in The Human Condition, accepting its firm distinction between the private and the public, the oikos and the polis, and hence a corresponding further distinction between labor (travailler) and work (œuvrer), one will be inclined to conclude with her that, in our modern society, work as the ancients produced it no longer is. As Arendt and Heidegger (or Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman) have noted, today most of what we fabricate is not a work in the classical sense, but an object, a product made only with an eye to consumption. But if it is correct that the ancient work of art is irreducible to a product, must it be said with Arendt that only artists remain true handworkers? Housset is unconvinced, for he doubts it is so easy to distinguish the labor of the body and the work of the hands absolutely. Here he aims to subvert the Greek logos in the name of a view that instead sees value in all work, at least in principle. He says,
“La main chrétienne se distingue donc de la main grecque par cette idée que le travail n’est pas une simple nécessité, mais participe à l’accomplissement de l’homme et que le corps participe au salut dans l’union de l’homme à la terre” (58).
Overturning the modern myth of man as the measure, it is also necessary to jettison the idea according to which there is a clear dividing line between a domain of manual labor somehow less noble than work. In the name of a more thoroughgoing humility, it must be recognized such a distinction does not hold, for everything (evil excepted) done with the human hand has its dignity. Having encountered this stretch of text, one inevitably will have called to mind the biblical story of toil’s origin. A page over, Housset fulfills the reader’s expectation, mentioning the Genesis account explicitly:
“[S]elon Genèse I, 28 ‘Emplissez la terre et soumettez-la,’ le don des mains n’est plus le don par la nature de l’organe de tous les organs, mais un don de Dieu pour achever la Création […] le travail n’est ni une simple soumission à la nécessité, à laquelle il faudrait idéalement échapper pour être libre, ni ce qui simplement sauverait de l’oisiveté et de tous les vices quis sont liés” (59).
Work (and labor) takes on a spiritual dimension, says Housset, for in putting them to use, our hands become “armes de vertu, de justice et de beauté” (Ibid.). Against the Greek view, it is not that man attends to life’s necessities in the home only then to act freely in public. To the contrary, paradoxically, he is always already free in virtue of his placing himself in submission to God. Neither the servant of the world nor a human master (or today a corporate employer), he is the servant of God. It is this reversal of perspective on work that gives a new understanding to labor, and hence a greater exigency to even our most quotidian or unrefined of deeds. From the eternal perspective humbled in the sight of God, the smallest deeds are a work too.
In the opening segment of chapter three, “Toucher et Se Toucher,” Housset observes how the question of taking and work show that the hand opens us beyond ourselves while always returning to itself: “la main est à la fois ce movement de s’avancer vers le monde et de la ramener à soi” (79). Equally reflexive and transitive, the hand’s movement entails we recognize that touch is self-implicating and self-transcending. Housset’s rigorous account of the way the hands touch and are touched (and even touch themselves) is of such complexity that doing its nuance justice exceeds the scope of what is here possible. Better anyway for oneself to look and see what Housset does to rework a longstanding phenomenological problem that commanded the attention of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Maybe the greatest importance of Housset’s analysis of touch lies further on, when, in chapter four’s “Parler et Écouter” attention turns directly to a number of themes that occupy the book’s remaining pages: time, history, speech, listening, writing, and others. For if, as we read, “la main est en elle-même un movement de transcendence vers les autres et vers les choses” (158), far from being only what puts us in touch with things, the hand “elle est également ce qui lie l’homme aux autres hommes” (119). And an encounter with others is crucially different than one with mere things. It is because we are linked to others, for instance, that we have a personal history. For our encounters with others leave their mark: “Ma main en tant qu’elle est la mienne porte mon histoire, mais également ma manière d’être, le style de ma relation au monde” (124). And if the hand links us to others, giving us a history, this is so because the hand, which is itself entwined with the word, allows us to both speak and listen. Hence, in order to understand the hand’s history, its relation to others, and so with an eye to the later question of style, “pour la comprendre plus largement comme une capacité de parole et d’écoute” (124). Now as Housset notes, for someone as Husserl, one’s personal history is a matter of a temporal synthesis, one whose passivity sediments past perceptions and experiences into memories and thus a stable identity that in turn can serve as the basis for further free deliberative action and thought: “Sans reprendre ici les analyses de Husserl sur la synthèse passive, il est possible de s’appuyer sur elles pour élucider l’historicité de la main: elle a ses perceptions sédimentées, ses souvenirs, les actes qu’elle a poses” (125). Passive synthesis, as Husserl would call it, explains habit’s formation. Without it, the hand would not remember or know as it does. The Husserlian analysis is sufficient so far as it goes. It accounts for a crucial dimension of human embodiment successfully. According to Housset, however, it does not go far enough, for its description of manual habit as owing to temporal synthesis remains beholden to the idea that the hand is an expression of the mind, and hence still just an organ. But more importantly, Husserl’s account of the hand’s history overlooks a paradox Housset stresses must be addressed. It is one Housset describes as a circle: “Tel est le cercle: le monde ne peut apparaitre qu’à un sujet qui s’éprouve dans l’unité de son historicité, néanmoins le sujet ne peut se saisir dans son historicité qu’en agissant dans le monde” (128). Here again, for Housset the point is to see in this circle a radical fragility of the human hand and mode of being, one the myth of modern man discussed earlier neglects to acknowledge:
“Au-delà de toute téléogie organique ou rèflexive, l’expérience ne reconduit-elle pas à une absolue contingence du don des mains, à savoir qu’elles ne peuvent pas se réduire à une capacité innée du corps et de l’esprit, mais sont plutôt une capacité recue d’ailleurs?” (133).
The hand forges its identity by welcoming what lies outside itself and beyond its control. In this sense, it comes to be what it is, not through an auto-constitution, but through a movement of transcendence into the world where, meeting what it does, it answers to what has addressed it. The hand’s mode of presence to the world, thus, is not one of virility and initiative, but dialogue, as it always is in conversation with what it hears. As Housset says, “Elle devient radicalement autre, elle trouve son identité dans son envoi dans le monde, une identité qui est donc toujours fragile, sans point fixe et stable, car elle se construit à partir de l’appel des choses” (139).
If the preceding chapter four explores the eidetic link between hand and word, that bond inevitably leads to a consideration of writing, “dans la mesure où l’écriture engage toute la capactité du corps à render visible le monde” (153). Housset opens chapter five “Écriture et Style” by observing with Husserl (and Derrida too who comes up now and again) that “le champ d’écricture est un champ transcendental sans sujet actuel” (154). Writing assures the objectivity of ideality, by in effect establishing a repository of sense where such sense is available, waiting to be activated by anyone who comes across it. And yet, as Housset notes, there is an empirical fragility at work even here in the constitution of this transcendental language. Books, after all, can be lost, censored, buried, or burned. Housset will here criticize Husserl for failing to emphasize the sense in which even the incorporation of an ideal geometric language’s sense in writing is still for all that a work of the hand, or better, a work of the whole body. The blindness, says Housset, is due to Husserl’s decision to characterize the hands themselves in terms of the subject’s auto-constitution. Husserl, he will say, has introduced a kind of universalized architectonic where there is not one. The cost of this intellectualism, he continues, is evident in Husserl’s struggle in the Crisis to account for today’s epistemic, moral, and spiritual waywardness. Husserl fails to come to terms with radical evil. And if Merleau-Ponty himself never addresses the moral dimension of the hand squarely, neither says Housset does Husserl, who, despite his elaborate analyses of embodiment in texts as Ideas II, still maintains an ocular stance toward things. As Housset comments,
“Autrement dit, en dépit de toutes ses analyses sur le corps, Husserl en reste à une philosophie de la vision dans laquelle la seule réponse au mal est l’exigence d’une vision plus rigoreuse de l’universel. Il est possible de voir là un manque de prise en considération de la radicalité du mal, mal qui est plus qu’une erreur, un oubli ou une fatigue, et qui peut se comprendre comme une volonté délibérée de mainmise et de destruction, voire comme une jouissance de la negation” (157).
In the wake of this discussion of modernity’s inability to explain radical (but banal) evil, it is here that Housset takes up Heidegger’s later work on thought and speech explicitly. If, as Housset with Heidegger says, “Toute pensée est une œuvre des mains,” this is because the hand, which is more than an instrument to manipulate things, is “qui est une écoute du logos” (159). In an accompanying footnote to this stretch of text, Housset quotes with approval Heidegger, who himself in the passage in question emphasizes the essential connection between man and the hand: “Ce n’est pas l’homme qui ‘a’ des mains, mais la main qui porter l’essence de l’homme, car la parole comme domaine d’essence de la main est le fondement de l’essence de l’homme” (162). Now as Housset observes, if thought is a work, a work of the hands even, this is because of writing: “ce travail de la pensée, qui est un travail des mains, suppose l’écriture” (163). Housset’s early disagreement with Arendt should not be misunderstood. Here, it is clear how one should not take Housset’s criticism of Arendt’s position to mean he believes that there is nothing deeply disturbing about our modern condition. Far from it! Housset addresses this lingering potential misunderstanding when, emphasizing the interlacement between hand and word, he goes on to explain how modern technology attenuates that connection, thereby dehumanizing man. According to Housset, technology treats the hand as an organ. And what is the danger of doing so? If the Heideggerian formula according to which the hand thinks in fact is true, so too writing takes place with and through the hand itself. Housset’s concern, then, is that modern technology which veils our relation to being, leads us to forget writing is an act of the hand. And so, as he says, we consequently lose touch with our humanity: “Une main qui n’est qu’un organe pour taper sur un clavier, ou encore pour ‘textoter’, etc., réduit nécessairement le mot en moyen de communication et le perd comme espace de pensée” (167). Housset is mounting a criticism of the technological era’s thoughtlessness in terms of its corresponding mishandling of the human hand. In a world of touch screen devices, there is less space for the work of the hand, and so too there is an absence of thought. The hand, whose true integrity consists in its capacity to hear and respond to the word, instead is deformed into a machine tool that manipulates. Hence, thought recedes and language wanes.
“Sans entrer dans toutes les analyses du Gestell, il s’agit de montrer que l’essence de la technique modern correspond à une degradation de la main en simple organe qui s’adapte à l’évolution de la technologie, mais qui n’a plus sa place dans le travail de la pensée; elle ne fait plus apparaitre, elle communique” (165).
Alluding to a thesis that will be familiar to readers of Jean-Luc Marion’s account of love in Prolegomena to Charity and The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset for his part claims it is love that puts the hand to work in a way worthy of what calls it. Only then are the world and its things no longer reduced to unfeeling and thoughtless manipulation. To anticipate another gesture Housset will explore two chapters on, here it is a matter of the caress. One must have a loving touch: “Le main manie vraiment quand elle se laisse prendre et organizer par l’armour, donc dans le paradoxe d’une dépossession et d’une possession” (167). Love’s delicate touch, as Housset stresses, makes possible a writing that overcomes the banal communication of technological chatter, by instead showing what has not been seen or else reminding us of what we have forgotten. It turns us from a virtual world, redirecting our attention back to the visible world. Writing, then, when it accedes to its task of giving voice to the things which have spoken to it, lets things speak rather than cancelling out what they say: “écrire, ce n’est pas imposer sa mesure à la chose, mais c’est laisser la chose être sa propre mesure, c’est en user dans un respect, qui est une reconnaissance de sa parole” (169). Concurring with what Jean-Yves Lacoste has said in Thèses sur le vrai of Angelus Silesius’ rose or Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sky, Housset’s analysis reminds us the written word is able to show what we had not seen. True speech shows.
Following on this description of writing as a work of the hand, Housset turns next to the notion of style. For here, to begin with, the term is not to be taken in its “usage en rhétorique or en historie” but rather “comme une structure de l’existence.” Style, in the existential sense, is a matter of one’s distinctive being-in-the-world: “La question du don des mains va ainsi conduire à decrier le style comme une manière d’être au-devant de soi en agissant dans le monde” (171). Contrary to a line of argument that would dismiss the notion of style as unfit for philosophical analysis because of its ambiguity, Housset argues that the notion’s polysemy is precisely what makes it so fecund. Taken in a first sense, style is a linguistic feature. As Housset says, in that regard every writing bears a unique signature. Style in this way concerns the fluctuation around a norm—what Housset terms a “catégorial-objecif” notion concerning the work’s general form of expression and the singularity of the author. But Housset notes style, taken as a general structure of the intentional mode of being-in-the-world, does not alone suffice to explain how writing is an act of the hand. Further at stake, in short, is one’s personal history, but not, as we had seen with Husserl in the context of passive synthesis, a history constituted by oneself. Instead of an auto-constituiton of a self in its own history, Housset has in view an irruptive history, one that shattering the enclosure of the self exposes whoever it calls to a future which would otherwise have remained closed. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, Housset sometimes will use the term “verticalité” to denote this rupture. Now, if here existential style concerns a personal rhythm, it is an attunement no longer reducible to a subjective perspective of what is otherwise objective (as if style were a mere lens or gloss), but rather a mediopassive mode of encounter. This style is a “tonalité fondamentale,” a manner of adjusting oneself to the manifestation of being. With this other history freed, man stands open to a destiny calling him. Adjusting himself to the truth of being, the work of his hands accordingly becomes neither an act of prideful strength nor a pure act of freedom, but a free response to a call. As for writing, it becomes the hand’s vocation, our answer to what has first addressed us.
If in his reflection on style Housset mentions Husserl and Heidegger first and primarily, in turn he invokes Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty, Housset notes, not only observed acutely that style is an expression of our relationship to the world, but also that there is a connection between style and the hand. As readers of the Phenomenology of Perception know, for Merleau-Ponty a gesture’s meaning does not consist in some intention residing in the mind initially, for its sense is to be found nowhere else but in the gesture itself. The hand (or the entire body) speaks, which is why even the sleeping body, assuming the pose it does, is never entirely mute. It is this excess of sense underlaying the propositional domain of discourse that Merleau-Ponty claims the writer and painter express. According to Merleau-Ponty, the world itself has a style. Summarizing the upshot, Housset concludes,
“On comprend bien alors que le style n’est plus ici un écart par rapport à une norme ou un mode singulier de constitution, mais est cette charnière entre ma chair et la chair du monde qui m’envoie dans le monde; il est cette cohesion sans concept, antérieure à toute synthèse d’indentification et sans laquelle cette synthèse demeurerait une intellectualistation de la sensibilité” (185).
Housset’s study of the hand has to this point shown why the hand cannot be understood as a tool or an organ, a lesson chapter six’s “Tâtonner et Caresser” magnifies. Returning to the work’s earlier chapter on touch, here the issue is that of the caress. In keeping with the work’s central thesis that our existence takes form only in response to what encounters it, so here Housset will insist that this is so with the caress: “l’étude de la caresse va venir confirmer que la main est une capacité reçue de l’autre corps” (191). For as he continues a few lines down, if the hand in the caress “touche l’intouchable” (192) this is so because the hand is constantly groping for what always retreats in the face of the hand’s advance. Following Jean-Luc Marion’s paradoxical statement in The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset notes accordingly how the caress touches nothing: “la caresse il ne s’agit plus vraiment d’un contact, ou même du toucher, et on peut risquer le paradoxe selon lequel la main qui caresse ne touche pas une autre chair, puisque cette chair se dissipe quand on s’en approche” (201). As Housset goes on to say, it is this hand’s act of groping for what it cannot find that “donne à toutes les autres leur signification véritable” (Ibid.). In language deliberately reminiscent of Levinas and Ricœur, Housset attempts to pass from ontology to ethics, claiming that this constant retreat of what encounters the hand is nowhere felt more profoundly than in the encounter with the human other, who, no matter how close we get, still recedes as one approaches. As he explains,
“plus on approche l’autre la caresse, plus le mystère de son existence corporelle se dévoile. L’autre homme n’est pas une énigme qui se dissiperait peu à peu un fonction des syntheses d’identification successives, mais il se rencontre comme un mystère qui ne cesse de se refuser” (193).
In characterizing the reciprocity between call and response structuring the fundamental tenor of human existence, Housset shows how this conversation between things and ourselves is manual, ever unfurling through the hand that gropes for something to hold onto.
For this reason, Housset declares it is Levinas who above all has come the closest of the phenomenologists to revealing the hand’s truth. Unlike Husserl for whom the hand remains the power of perception and freedom, Merleau-Ponty for whom the hand is what gives things to be seen in the world, or Sartre for whom the hand participates in the drama of desire, Levinas sees how the hand’s fundamental dimension consists in “dolence, capacité à souffrir, à éprouver la douleur, mais également affliction par rapport à cette douleur” (211). Here Housset quotes with approval Levinas’s assessment of the hand in Totality and Infinity: “La main est par essence tâtonnement et emprise” (216). The hand trembles in its ache for contact. And so, the other is there, always appearing within the horizon of indeterminateness forever soliciting the hand that seeks to traverse its mystery.
Taking up the manual acts it has, Housset’s work as a whole, we have seen, undertakes a reversal of the modern myth of self-sufficient man, a deconstruction culminating in the work’s final chapter “Recevoir et Donner.” We grope for stability and assurance. And when we receive that assurance, it is always given to us, which is to say, it arrives as a gift we must receive. Now, the subject of the gift is not new to phenomenology. At least in the phenomenological context, indeed, the term has almost become synonymous with the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Housset’s own dissertation director. It is only proper, then, that a study of the human hand as this one should end as it does, with a meditation on receiving and giving and thus the gift, the very phenomenon to which the study owes its title. At the beginning of the last chapter, Housset will speak of “la main nue,” a hand having nothing but its own possibility of becoming what it will through responding to what it encounters. This is not the hand of a superhero, says Housset, but a fragile, humble, and weak hand dispossessed of everything. These are the hands of someone who has accepted the realization he has never given himself his own beginning. In this resulting humility of the hands abandoned to their own weakness, this powerlessness, says Housset, “ouvre sur une autre forme de puissance, qui est la puissance même de l’amour” (235). Love allows one to give without concern for a return. And just the same, love is also what strengthens us to receive, since, in impatience or pride where love is absent, too often we consequently refuse to receive what is offered us—there is nothing more pride despises than to be helped! This ingratitude, which here takes the figure of the modern subject who thinks he is in charge of himself, encloses itself within itself, refusing stubbornly to receive assistance from anything beyond itself or what its fellow man can provide. Such a figure, hence, refuses the greatest gift our hands may receive. For these closed hands refuse to receive grace. This, then, Housset will suggest so boldly, is the final position of the human hand that, succumbing to the cul-de-sac of defiance, knows no power but its own. This is the hand that does not take hold of God’s hand. Cut off from “l’amour de Dieu,” it is one that finds no destiny to which it is able confidently to consecrate its works. For, everything it does is destined only to fade.
Here, concluding our review with the gift and work in mind, what are we thus to say of Housset’s own work as a whole? Shall it endure? Bemoaning the embarrassing state of the philosophial literature of the time, Hannah Arendt in correspondence with Karl Jaspers said, “The academic journals are full of nonsense that not even the author believes but that is necessary for his career. None of these journals pays a red cent; very few of them are read.” Housset’s book is not nonsense; neither can the author’s sincerity, which can be felt on every page, be doubted; and his writing makes plain it was born of aspirations rising high above the petty ones known to those who write for an academic career. With a work as this, thus, it is entirely fitting to conclude with a note of prognostication. What future awaits this work? To be sure, Housset largely remains a name unknown to Anglophone readers. In the face of that unfortunate obscurity, an author could be forgiven the temptation to doubt the use of writing, especially when the truly philosophical works that result are bound to be less understood and appreciated now by reading audiences than in Arendt’s day. One imagines hearing Housset in Caen groaning: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc 2:11). Is, however, this sigh of futility warranted here? Perhaps not! In an age when a work as this one receives far less attention than it deserves, that very neglect just serves to underscore its importance, for the relative obscurity in which it is received belies its fidelity to the philosophical spirit. Work of good that it is, Le don des mains will stand the test of time, and it will be read long after so much else written today is not. May there be readers who enjoy it now!
 Analytic philosophy currently is undergoing an “normative turn,” particularly in ethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of action. Meanwhile, in the phenomenological milieu, Steven Galt Crowell, my dissertation supervisor of record, has more than anyone explored the normative dimension of human existence, first, in Husserl, Heidegger and the Space of Meaning: Paths towards a Transcendental Phenomenology (Northwestern: 2001) and, again more recently, in Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (Cambridge: 2013).
 Hubert Dreyfus’s overview of technology in Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (MIT: 1991) still provides an excellent statement of this concern that today everything increasingly is being reduced to the measure of flexibility and efficiency.
 Crucially, it should be noted that for an ideological program as transhumanism to succeed, it is as necessary for humans to become like machines as for the machines themselves to become humanlike. The melding of man and machine depends essentially on the dehumanization of the former.
 There are many fascinating overlaps between what Housset will say here of style and what Claude Romano, taking up the history of authenticity, says of Cicero, Castiglione, Montaigne, Rousseau, and others in Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie (Gallimard: 2019).
Marguerite La Caze’s aim as editor of the volume, Phenomenology and Forgiveness (2018), is to enhance phenomenology by investigating ways that it could examine forgiveness as an experience (La Caze 2018, vii). Forgiveness, she claims, has become an increasingly important issue in philosophy given recent developments such as the global reconciliation commissions in South Africa and the Solomon Islands (vii). Moreover, La Caze believes that phenomenologists can offer insightful analyses of first-person experiences of forgiveness, not least because many of them have struggled intensely with the issue of forgiveness themselves (e.g. Husserl, Sartre and Stein) (vii).
Two key aspects inform the approach to phenomenology adopted in this volume. First, the volume features an open-ended, comprehensive view of phenomenology that La Caze terms “wild phenomenology”; this view explains why thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology (e.g. Jankélévitch, Camus, Arendt and Derrida) have also been included (x). Second, the volume features “critical phenomenology”, continuing a tradition established by philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and developed by more contemporary thinkers like Matthew Ratcliffe, Havi Carel and Jill Stauffer (La Caze 2018, xiv; Murphy 2018, 199). While adherents of critical phenomenology retain phenomenology’s traditional emphasis on first-person experience, they also diverge from its emphasis on subjectivity by focusing instead on intersubjectivity (Murphy 2018, 199). Here, La Caze refers to Lisa Guenther’s notion that critical phenomenology is not simply a theory but a “practice of liberation”; that is, it conceives of phenomenology as a philosophy that is constantly transforming, and which, in turn, transforms the world (Guenther 2017, 203, cited in La Caze 2018, xiv). Hence, contrary to the common view that phenomenology is purely “descriptive” (Murphy 2018, 199), this volume insightfully demonstrates how it has real-world application through its capacity to inform and motivate action. The volume has a facilitative tripartite structure encompassing: (1) “Experiences of forgiveness”, (2) “Paradoxes of forgiveness”, and (3) “Ethics and politics of forgiveness”. Before evaluating the volume further, I will discuss the key claims posited by the writers of each section.
- Experiences of Forgiveness
The writers of section one reveal how the complexities of forgiveness are accentuated when it is examined in terms of the lived experiences of individuals and collectivities. They also reveal how the specificity of these experiences may prompt us to question those conventional notions of morality and religion that are intended to have universal application. In chapter one, Shannon Hoff examines what constitutes a morally “good” action in relation to Hegel’s account of conscience, confession and forgiveness in Phenomenology of Spirit (Hoff 2018, 4). According to her interpretation, this complex issue of moral action is staged as a confrontation between a moral agent who performs what she considers a “good” act and a judge who assesses its morality (or lack thereof) (4). Importantly, this confrontation embodies a necessary contradiction. Theoretically-speaking, applying moral standards is meant to be universal, unambiguous and objective (7). However, in actuality, realising a moral law through action is necessarily performed from a biased standpoint because a specific agent must devise her own understanding of this law in a highly distinctive situation (4-5). In this situation, both the agent and judge are human and thus imperfect; lacking omniscience, they can only view things from their own perspectives, perspectives that are necessarily shaped by their own experiences, projects and interests (4-6). Rather than self-righteously reproaching an agent for her biased standpoint, Hoff argues that we should assess an action’s moral value through intersubjective means, that is, by simultaneously empathising with others’ situations and being open to their criticisms, and vice versa (15).
Importantly, Hoff offers valuable insights into how Hegel’s account of forgiveness can be applied to tackle controversial political issues. Her analysis is particularly relevant to a political environment increasingly characterised firstly by “intersectionality” (17), wherein multifaceted and often conflicting notions of identity render pursuing justice even more complex. Secondly, the political terrain has also been significantly altered by the rise of social media (12), whereby the “public naming and shaming” that occur, for example, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram often only permit a reductive response to complex political issues. Consequently, productive public discourse is stifled; one is either praised or condemned for supporting or dismissing a viewpoint. By contrast, Hoff demonstrates how one could respond constructively to sensitive socio-political issues like adopting another’s perceived oppression as one’s own cause (12). She provides the example of a Westerner (e.g. a “middle-class, white, Canadian man”) combatting what he perceives as the mistreatment of women in a manifestly different cultural environment (e.g. a “specific, conservative, Muslim culture”) (11). Hoff claims that such an individual’s desire to perform a “good” act should neither be ridiculed nor dismissed (8 and 14), for instance, by claiming that he is not equipped to help just because he is neither Muslim nor a woman. Rather, she argues that we should view his pursuit in a positive light as his chance for further education, self-interrogation and change; ideally, he would seek to learn more about the other’s situation (from the other) and critique his own actions based on any newly-acquired knowledge (14).
In chapter two, Nicolas De Warren explores how Arendt’s phenomenological approach to forgiveness emphasises its temporal, intersubjective and ontological dimensions (De Warren 2018, 25). Understanding Arendt’s conception of forgiveness, de Warren claims, requires an understanding of how it is bound up with two other key concepts in her philosophy: “natality” and “plurality” (25). Forgiveness, for Arendt, firstly entails plurality because the act of forgiving requires at least two people (the forgiver and the forgiven); one cannot forgive one’s own act of harming the other (33). Secondly, Arendt grounds her concept of natality in the interrelated notions of “respect” and “distance” (37-38). For De Warren, Arendt’s emphasis on respect means that she thereby departs from traditional moral or religious conceptions of forgiveness. Rather than emphasising conventional concepts like “salvation, charity” and “intimacy”, Arendt highlights the gap that respect (re)institutes in the self-other relationship that allows the other (whom one has forgiven) to appear “unequal to her appearance” (38-39, emphasis in original). That is, the other is thereupon presented as different from her past self; her identity no longer coincides with her misdeed/s (34). This reinstitution of distance, de Warren claims, is essential to natality as it allows the self-other relationship to begin anew; the other reacquires her “agency” and capacity for action, aspects she effectively gave up by doing us wrong (33-34 and 39). By thus freeing us (or in Arendt’s terms, “redeeming us”) from the immutability of the past, forgiveness brings about the “re-temporaliz[ation]” of interpersonal relationships (25-26, 30 and 34). As will become apparent, many writers in the volume also draw explicitly or implicitly on this concept of forgiveness as renewal; indeed, Arendt’s philosophy seems to form the volume’s undercurrent.
In chapter three, Simone Drichel draws on Emmanuel Levinas’ writings to explore how forgiveness is experienced during and after trauma. Drichel finds it curious that forgiveness does not feature more prominently in Levinas’ philosophy, given its relevance to his account of “traumatic subject constitution” in more mature works like Otherwise than Being (Drichel 2018, 43-44). Importantly, she challenges what she views as Levinas’ “‘counter-intuitive’” claim in his notion of “ethical relationality” that one’s “vulnerable exposure” to others is always experienced as a “‘good trauma’” (44 and 55). Indeed, Levinas even suggests that this vulnerability should be embraced instead of dreaded or evaded (46). In her challenge to Levinas, Drichel investigates the links between his later idea of the “traumatic force of the il y a” (in Otherwise than Being) and psychoanalytic accounts of trauma (44 and 52). While acknowledging that Levinas himself was unsympathetic towards psychoanalysis, she also argues that there are key similarities between Levinas’ conception of the “il y a” and the psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott’s conception of “early infantile traumatization” (50-51). In both notions, Drichel claims, the reaction to trauma is a “flight into monadic existence” or a defence mechanism that the individual employs to protect herself against trauma (52).
Such a reaction, Drichel claims, is problematic because it is damaging to both ethics and relationality. By fleeing into a state of “invulnerability”, the traumatised individual thereby becomes insusceptible to the other’s “ethical demand”, rendering her effectively “‘ethically impaired’” (50 and 52, emphasis in original). Drichel argues that this “unethical ‘inversion’” undermines Levinas’ ethical framework and is thus something to which he should have paid more attention (52-53). To increase its robustness, Drichel suggests that Levinas’ trauma-based ethics needs to be supplemented by a psychoanalytic interpretation of trauma’s devastating impact (51). She draws on the Hungarian psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi and the Austrian author and Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry’s suggestions that forgiveness is only possible through restoring ethical relationality, that is, by restoring the self’s capacity and willingness to leave its fortress of invulnerability and be rendered vulnerable to the other once again (54-57). As with Arendt, forgiveness for Drichel thus involves the renewal and transformation of the self-other relationship, which she conceives broadly as reinstituting an “ethical” relation with the “world of others” (58). Moreover, for Drichel, this willingness to re-experience vulnerability in turn relies on the community’s establishment of a secure, “‘holding environment’” around the individual (an expression she borrows from Winnicott) which tempers the sense of isolation that follows the traumatic event (45 and 55).
In chapter four, Peter Banki takes up this theme of trauma by examining how a devastating event like the Holocaust can dramatically change one’s views of forgiveness. To do this, Banki investigates the contradiction between Vladimir Jankélévitch’s position on forgiveness in Forgiveness (Le Pardon) (1967) and his later work, Pardonner? (1971), a contradiction acknowledged by Jankélévitch himself (Banki 2018, 66 and 72). In his earlier work Forgiveness, Jankélévitch argues for a “hyperbolical ethics of forgiveness” based on love, whereby even the unforgivable must be forgiven (66). However, later in Pardonner?, Jankélévitch claims instead that the unforgivable cannot be forgiven; indeed, for him, the mass murder of Jews (the Shoah) marked forgiveness’ demise (72). Banki, however, does not view this contradiction as a weakness of Jankélévitch’s philosophy, claiming instead that it is an appropriate response to the “hyper-ethical” nature of the Holocaust (66). The inhumane crimes of the Shoah cannot be forgiven because neither proportionate punishments nor specific offenders can be attributed to them (73).
For Banki, if forgiveness can be said to be found in such circumstances, it involves acknowledging Jankélévitch’s contradiction for what it is rather than trying to resolve it (66). This form of forgiveness, Banki suggests, is apparent in Jankélévitch’s decision to reject a young German’s invitation to visit him in Germany (74-75). In his letter, the German expressed feelings of accountability for the events of the Holocaust but challenged the idea that he himself was guilty for crimes he had not committed (74). Partly responsible for Jankélévitch’s refusal of the invitation was his radical view that virtually all Germans and Austrians were “Nazi perpetrators and collaborators” (72). Banki approves of Derrida’s interpretation of Jankélévitch’s refusal as the confrontation between two conflicting discourses: the reconcilable and the irreconcilable, whereby the unforgivable (e.g. mass murder) ultimately cannot be forgiven (75).
Interestingly, Banki also takes Jankélévitch’s thought even further by claiming that, in the context of forgiveness, lesser and more mundane wrongdoings can be viewed in the same way as inhumane crimes like the Shoah (77). This is because any wrongdoing cannot be entirely forgiven; a trace of the unforgivable will always remain. This leads Banki to the radical conclusion that forgiveness does not exist and may have never existed (77). In saying this, Banki’s reading of Jankélévitch departs from religious accounts of forgiveness (e.g. the Judeo-Christian account) which assume that forgiveness occurs whenever it is undertaken in the spirit of good will and magnanimity (77). Banki’s suggestion that forgiveness may have never existed is perhaps the most radical view of forgiveness or unforgiveness presented in the volume. While Banki does suggest that an “impure forgiveness” based in Jankélévitch’s thought may yet be created in the future, he does not really expand on what this might look like (77). His chapter thus ends with a promising suggestion for future research.
- Paradoxes of Forgiveness
The writers of section two take up the previous notion of contradiction as their overall theme when exploring collective forgiveness, self-forgiveness and the role of forgiveness in politics (or lack thereof). In chapter five, Gaëlle Fiasse demonstrates how Paul Ricoeur’s account of forgiveness, for example, in Memory, History and Forgetting, displays interesting points of similarity and difference to/from Derrida, Jankélévitch and Arendt’s (Fiasse 2018, 85 and 88). Like certain aspects of Jankélévitch and Derrida’s philosophies, Ricoeur conceives of forgiveness as an “unconditional gift” of love (91). As Fiasse explains it, Ricoeur’s innovative conception of forgiveness is represented by the intersection of two asymmetrical axes, with the asymmetrical aspect implying that a wrongdoing does not automatically imply forgiveness of it. The upper and lower poles of the vertical axis are occupied by the unconditional gift of forgiveness and the “depth of the fault of the wrongdoer”, respectively (87). Influenced by Jankélévitch, Ricoeur begins his account with the gravity of the misdeed rather than the unconditional gift of forgiveness to emphasise the magnitude of the wrongdoing and the need for the wrongdoer to be held accountable for his/her unjust actions (88). Moreover, like Arendt, forgiveness, for Ricoeur, implies a renewal of the self-other relationship through the reinstitution of agency and action to the wrongdoer (90).
On the one hand, Fiasse acknowledges Ricoeur’s claim that forgiveness can only be realised between people rather than political and juridical institutions (87 and 92). (In my later discussion of chapter seven, I will show that this specific view of Ricoeur’s is also shared by Edith Stein.) On the other hand, Fiasse also posits that the above-mentioned institutions may play a larger role in Ricoeur’s own philosophy than he sometimes suggests through his notion of the “incognito” (an expression she borrows from Klaus Kodalle) or “spirit of forgiveness” (87 and 93). She highlights how, in these institutions, the “incognito” of forgiveness tempers the violence involved in punishments, for instance, by allowing the wrongdoer a fair trial and access to rehabilitation, and also facilitates the resumption of regular interpersonal relationships voided of hatred and vengeance (87, 93 and 95). In emphasising this possibility of renewal, Ricoeur, Fiasse claims, thereby departs from Derrida’s belief that forgiveness is unattainable (85 and 87).
In chapter six, Jennifer Ang explores this key theme of renewal from the perspectives of both forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Like Banki, she investigates how experiencing a traumatic event like the Holocaust can prompt a serious reconsideration of one’s position on forgiveness. To do this, Ang draws on the Italian-Jewish writer, chemist and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi’s notion of the “gray zone”, a notion she applies to challenge the supposedly clear-cut distinction between “innocent” victims and “morally reprehensible” collaborators under totalitarian regimes like Nazism (Ang 2018, 103). Levi, Ang claims, questions one’s right to morally condemn collaborators if one has not lived through the traumatic events of the Holocaust. Accounting for Levi’s disapproval of hasty moral condemnation, Ang is not interested in whether we could or should forgive the Nazis or collaborators. Rather, she uses key concepts in Sartre’s phenomenology such as bad faith, shame and guilt to explore how individuals responded to morally ambivalent situations during World War II (103).
Ang attributes different types of “bad faith” to different types of Holocaust collaborators, depending on the type and degree of their “collaboration, complicity and compromises” (108). Active collaborators who held privileged positions like the president of the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rombowski, were in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they could act with absolute freedom, that is, completely unconstrained by their facticity (105-106). Ang claims that these collaborators engaged in self-deception; despite recognising that they were accountable for their immoral decisions, they chose to believe that they could not have acted otherwise (106). Turning to the other extreme, Ang claims that Holocaust survivors like Levi who were severely plagued by guilt and shame were also in “bad faith” because they erroneously believed that they were fully defined by their facticity, of which their past choices were a large part (106 and 108). They also mistakenly believed that those who died by suicide or other causes during the Holocaust were better and more courageous people than themselves (108 and 113). Recovery for these tormented survivors, Ang argues, entails realising that their past does not fully define them because they had been thrown into a “gray zone” wherein any decision would have been morally ambiguous (112). Acknowledging this would allow these survivors to reconfigure their perception of themselves at the end of the Other’s “look”; they would gradually be able to release their feelings of self-hatred and project themselves towards an open future (109-12). Viewed from this reconfigured perspective, survival, Ang suggests, could be perceived not as shameful but rather as an act of defiance against the anti-Semite’s machinations (113).
In chapter seven, Antonio Calcagno explores Edith Stein’s social ontology, redirecting the reader’s attention from how individuals experience forgiveness/self-forgiveness to the phenomenon of collective forgiveness (Calcagno 2018, 118). On the one hand, Stein concurs with Max Scheler that collective responsibility and forgiveness are possible (117). On the other hand, Stein disagrees with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person” whereby individual members “identify” and merge with each other to form a “super-individual”; these members genuinely “feel themselves as one person” (117 and 121). According to Calcagno, understanding Stein’s position on collective forgiveness requires understanding her distinction between two types of sociality: society and community (118). Societies are formed when their members come together to attain a specific objective whereas communities are characterised by a more potent lived experience of sociality whereby people are connected by a “shared sense or meaning”, such as grieving over a mutual friend’s passing (119-20 and 126). While acknowledging that forgiveness in a community can be similarly conceived as a shared sense or meaning, Stein, like Ricoeur, maintains that acts of extending and receiving forgiveness can only transpire between individuals, not groups (118). What prevents Stein from agreeing with Scheler’s notion of the “collective person”, Calcagno suggests, is her “strong sense of individuation” (121). This in turn arises from her view that the combination of “body [and affect], psyche and spirit” that is expressed in an individual’s “personality” is idiosyncratic to that individual (121), thereby implying the impossibility of attributing a singular combination of traits to multiple unique individuals.
Calcagno’s innovative move here is extending Stein’s account to consider how forgiveness can also feature within a society as a common goal (124). He provides the example of the Canadian government’s commitment to achieving reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. This involved formulating, accepting and adhering to, the recommendations set forth by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the latter of which was responsible for investigating injustices within the residential school system (124-25). As my imminent discussion of chapter eight will demonstrate, Geoffrey Adelsberg, by contrast, views the Canadian government’s attempt at reconciliation with a more critical eye. Nevertheless, Calcagno’s overall suggestion about forgiveness’ role in a society highlights forgiveness’ potential contribution to socio-political change and thus warrants further investigation.
In chapter eight, Adelsberg’s analysis of forgiveness revolves around a real-world event, namely the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota (Adelsberg 2018, 131). Adelsberg uses this event as a case study to support his claim that causing enduring harm to others is damaging to, and defeats the purpose of, appeals for forgiveness. During the protests, a group of military veterans represented by Wes Clark, Jr., requested forgiveness for past injustices caused by settler colonialism in the Oceti Sakowin Territory (131). On the one hand, Adelsberg acknowledges the positive aspects of this request; it was a gesture of respect towards the natives and constituted the first steps towards showing regret and accountability for the settlers’ unjust actions (133 and 138). On the other hand, Adelsberg claims that Clark’s appeal for forgiveness ultimately fell short of its aim to renew the relationship between both parties (131-32). Justifying this claim, he refers to Glen Coulthard’s critique of the Canadian politics of reconciliation, drawing especially on Coulthard’s claim that the discourses of transitional justice had been misused therein. According to Coulthard, such discourses had been wrongfully mobilised to forgive past injustices rather than to recognise the devastating truth of present and continuing wrongdoings (134). Applying similar criticisms to the Standing Rock protests, Adelsberg claims that current issues like land rights, Native sovereignty and self-governance have been similarly overlooked (131 and 134). Taking a phenomenological perspective, Adelsberg concludes that Clark failed to achieve a “renewed moral relationship” between the parties because he neither recognised the gravity of continuing wrongs nor sought collective ways to rectify them (132).
Adelsberg makes his second main criticism of Clark by drawing on Leanne Simpson’s critique of Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau’s approach to reconciliation (138). Like the figure of Trudeau depicted in Simpson’s critique, Clark’s response, Adelsberg claims, failed to transcend a “gestural politics of juxtaposition”; that is, his appeal for forgiveness attained its significance mainly because it embodied a different and improved approach to reconciliation and forgiveness from the past (138-39). For Adelsberg, this entails that Clark’s message lacked real-world effect. It did little to advance the movement towards taking collective responsibility for injustices because Clark was not sanctioned by his peers to deliver his message of forgiveness; the views he expressed were thus mainly limited to his own (132 and 139-40).
- Ethics and Politics of Forgiveness
Further exploring themes already introduced in the volume, the writers of section three examine the role of forgiveness in morally and politically ambivalent situations created under totalitarian rule. In chapter nine, Matthew Sharpe examines Camus’ notion of forgiveness in works written after L’Homme Revolté (1951) that were influenced by the events of World War II (Sharpe 2018, 149). Sharpe identifies three key features of Camus’ account of forgiveness in these later works: (1) an emphasis on self-forgiveness, (2) the separation of forgiveness from notions of both “absolute innocence” and “objective guilt” or “original sin”, and (3) the important role of forgiveness in establishing and sustaining cohesion amongst people (160-61). Like Ang and Banki’s analyses, Sharpe’s interpretation of Camus features the perspective that the inhumane world created by totalitarian regimes like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia significantly reconfigured how thinkers perceived forgiveness (153 and 155). In Camus’ own view, totalitarianism “institutes a world without innocents, and without innocence”, thereby rendering forgiveness impossible (153).
In chapter ten, David Brennan investigates how Václav Havel’s views of forgiveness were developed against the background of the turbulent post-Communist period in Czechoslovakia and were informed by his phenomenological conception of political morality (Brennan 2018, 166). Prior to its downfall in 1989, the Communist Government employed informants to uncover possible dissidence amongst its citizens to secure maximum control (165). Havel, a dissident himself, became President in 1990 and thus had to address the challenging issue of collaborators, some of whom had severely mistreated their fellow citizens (166 and 170-71). Brennan focuses on the ambivalence of Havel’s response to the collaborators. While Havel denounced the witch-hunt provoked by the newly instituted “lustration act” (1991), he nevertheless did not stop the “public naming and shaming” of those who had committed severe wrongdoings (170-71). According to Brennan, this is because Havel recognised that those who had been mistreated deserved justice and that he could therefore not mandate all citizens to forgive the collaborators (174). Nevertheless, influenced by Arendt, Havel was keenly aware of the centrality of forgiveness to renewal, both for individuals and within the wider political domain (170 and 173-75).
Havel’s inclusion of forgiveness in his response to the dilemma was heavily criticised by some (166 and 172). Brennan claims that Havel’s response was firstly influenced by his mentor, Jan Patočka’s notion of “living in truth”, that is, ensuring that our actions are governed by our relationships with, and accountability to, other humans rather than political exigencies. Under this view, politics is not the main determinant of action, but rather one consideration among many (167). Secondly, Havel, Brennan claims, was influenced by Tomáš Masaryk’s humanist philosophy and thus believed that morality could not be separated from politics (167-68). Accordingly, Havel was sceptical of passing hasty “guilty” or “not guilty” judgements on collaborators who had been placed in a morally compromising position by the government (169). Lastly, Brennan astutely points out that both Arendt and Havel recognised that many wrongdoings were committed unconsciously because collaboration was so deeply embedded within social relationships that it was hard to detect (174-75). Like Ang’s interpretation of Levi, then, Brennan’s analysis of Havel also raises the issue of whether one could be required to request forgiveness for wrongdoings over which one had little awareness and control.
In chapter eleven, Karen Pagani, like Hoff, contextualises her Heideggerian analysis of collective, political forgiveness within the rise of information technology and social media (Pagani 2018, 181). Central to this development for Pagani is the ability for anyone to engage in public discourse, however informed their opinions may be (181-82). Pagani does not critique this development due to her belief that public discourse on political forgiveness must admit a diversity of views from various disciplines (182-83). Although recognising the challenge of trying to achieve agreement in this discourse, she, like political theorists such as Donald Shriver, stresses the need to establish “shared, conciliatory narratives” (181-82).
Pagani’s account nicely complements Ang’s analysis of individual self-forgiveness by demonstrating how self-forgiveness can also be collective. Pagani draws on Heidegger’s notions of “care, resoluteness, and the call of conscience” in Part II of Being and Time (1927) to explore the place of “self-reflexive ‘forgiveness’” in Dasein’s existence (181 and 190). Dasein, she claims, forgives itself when it accepts that it had diverged and will continue to diverge from its authentic self by being influenced by the “they-self” (190). Self-forgiveness is necessary to Dasein’s existence because Dasein can neither completely divorce itself from the world where the “they” reside nor remain permanently in an authentic state. For Pagani, forgiveness in Heidegger’s philosophy thus constitutes the path by which Dasein transitions between the “I-self” and the “they-self” (190). To advance her argument, Pagani extends this notion of self-forgiveness to the Dasein of a collectivity, arguing that a group of individuals can also be deceived by the “they-self” (191). Linking collective self-forgiveness to politics, Pagani, like other writers in the volume, emphasises renewal, which she conceives as the generation of new collectivities through the process of reconciliation (193).
In chapter twelve, Ann Murphy departs from the approach of other writers in the volume by not performing a phenomenological analysis of how forgiveness is experienced but concentrating instead on how forgiveness could enhance the phenomenological method (Murphy 2018, 197). While acknowledging the common view that the phenomenological method is primarily descriptive, Murphy is nevertheless more interested in how it could be carried out in a critical, “ameliorative” spirit to support and thereby advance ethical and political endeavours (197). Murphy begins her analysis by reminding us that even Edmund Husserl’s writings adopted this critical, ethical and political approach because he perceived the crisis in the European sciences as a wider “crisis of humanity” (197-98). Husserl, Murphy claims, thus endowed phenomenology with a “redemptive” power, an aspect shared by notions of restorative justice and forgiveness (198). Moreover, like Arendt, redemption for Husserl is achieved through renewal, which he conceives as critically examining the past to enhance the future (198).
For Murphy, the more contemporary practice of critical phenomenology draws further on this redemptive or “restorative spirit” that often remains concealed in phenomenology (199). Murphy claims that analysing shame as a “philosophical mood” is key to understanding how forgiveness can bring out phenomenology’s ameliorative potential (201-202). Drawing on the work of Michèle le Doeuff, Judith Butler and Levinas, she argues that philosophy’s shame stems from its misguided attempts to reject other disciplines by maintaining the illusion that it is the superior discipline (201-202). Furthermore, central to the redemptive potential of philosophical shame is its “ambivalence”; philosophy can either try to remain self-contained or it can engage in a constructive self-critique that acknowledges the merit of other disciplines (202). Influenced by Robert Bernasconi, Murphy concludes the volume on the hopeful note that this ameliorative approach will project phenomenology into an open future (204 and 206-207).
I conclude with some overall evaluative remarks about the volume that have been derived from the critical overview presented above. First, given its adoption of the “wild phenomenology” approach, this volume might be of more interest to readers with a similarly broad and open-ended understanding of phenomenology rather than those with a stricter understanding. Being sympathetic to the volume’s approach, I believe that the addition of thinkers not typically associated with phenomenology, especially Arendt and Derrida, produces an intricate, dialogical and consequently enriched discussion of forgiveness.
Second, while the volume covers both theory and practice (La Caze 2018, xv), its focus on critical phenomenology effectively highlights the practical implications of the phenomenological method in terms of how ideas of forgiveness are exemplified in, and can be applied to, real-world situations. Adelsberg’s phenomenological analysis of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests is a case in point. While critical phenomenology may not appeal to those interested in a primarily theoretical discussion of phenomenological ideas, I believe that this “practical” emphasis makes the volume highly accessible and engaging and provides promising openings for future research. (See, for example, my earlier comments on Banki and Calcagno’s chapters.)
Third, the volume offers important philosophical insights into the complexities of forgiveness by combining diverse and sometimes conflicting views of similar types or modes of forgiveness such as individual and collective forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Diverse views of the same real-world events (e.g. the Holocaust and Canada’s attempts at reconciliation) are also provided, highlighting that there is rarely a clear-cut answer to how and when forgiveness might be given or not given. Indeed, the inclusion of an entire section on the “paradoxes of forgiveness” demonstrates La Caze’s appreciation of forgiveness’ complexities and nuances.
Lastly, despite the diversity of perspectives presented, continuity is maintained throughout the volume because central themes like trauma, conflict, renewal and futurity are regularly revisited. The choice of these themes is commendable in two main ways. First, and related to point three above, the writers’ analyses of trauma and conflict remind us that forgiveness is not a straightforward concept by directing our attention to situations where forgiveness’ limits are tested. Second, the focus on renewal and futurity highlights the important point that forgiveness is rarely an end in itself; rather, it is a pathway towards revitalised relationships and socio-political advancement. Overall, the volume provides an insightful, nuanced and frank exploration of forgiveness and was a pleasure to read.
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De Warren, Nicolas. 2018. “For the Love of the World: Redemption and Forgiveness in Arendt.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 25-42. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Drichel, Simone. 2018. “’A forgiveness that remakes the world’: Trauma, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness in the Work of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 43-64. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
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