The 88th volume in the series Contributions to Phenomenology — Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis deals with the unconscious as a phenomenological concept. The volume, edited by Dorothée Legrand and Dylan Trigg, contributes to the discussion of how different interpretations within phenomenology deal with unconsciousness. The focus is on the manifestation of an unconscious within the phenomenological tradition, both explicit and implicit. This way of working with a psychoanalytic concept within phenomenology is described by the editors in the introduction as, “all authors let themselves be informed by psychoanalysis and are oriented by phenomenology.” (ix). The first chapter examines this from within the phenomenological framework developed by Husserl, while the second chapter does the same with phenomenology as developed by Merleau-Ponty. After these two chapters, the following chapters describe and examine the limits of phenomenology, together with what might lie beyond these limits. In the third chapter, questions concerning the status of the unconscious within the limits of phenomenology are dealt with; the fourth chapter starts to move beyond these limits. This chapter deals with topics such as anxiety, affect figurability, and non-linguistic modes of thinking. The fifth and last chapter briefly looks at what is beyond phenomenology, examining the notion of surprise as an unconscious phenomenological marker and the unconscious in both psychoanalysis and surrealism, relieving psychoanalysis of its insistence on interpretation.
In the first part, Within the Husserlian Framework, Dermot Moran and Alexander Schnell examine the unconscious within Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl is considered as dealing with an unconscious in the sense that, for him, “patterns of intentional behaviour that have ‘sunk down’, through habituation, so as to be unnoticed or ‘unremarked’ (unbewusst),” (15) evidently closely resemble Freud’s own description of the unconscious.
“Bernheim had given the injunction that five minutes after his [the patient] awakening in the ward he was to open an umbrella, and he had carried out this order on awakening [from hypnosis], but could give no motive for his so doing. We have exactly such facts in mind when we speak of the existence of unconscious psychological processes.” (Freud, 2012[1916-1917]: 234-235)
In addition to this, Moran writes that “Both [Freud and Husserl] have a conception of human life as the harmonization or balancing of conﬂicting forces”, (12) suggesting that there is an unconscious to be found, opposed to consciousness. For Husserl, as for Freud, unnoticed behaviours constitute how humans “saturate situations with meaning including imagined intonations and implications.” (22). This point is close to the psychoanalytical claim that we tend to instil meanings and desires on situations or people unconsciously. In these situations, psychoanalysis would, through analysis, come to make these unconscious processes part of our conscious experience. This means that psychoanalysis would often confront us with desires, wishes or fears we did not know we had, or that run counter to what we perceive. Schnell, in his text, takes the perspective that “if consciousness is defined by intentionality, the unconscious can only refer, in phenomenology, to a non-intentional dimension of consciousness.” (27). Thus, he links the conflicting forces to a difference between intention and non-intention.
Such an understanding seems to be in line with Moran’s notion that the similarity between Husserl’s and Freud’s views is their claim that life is filled with unconscious meaning. Schnell generalizes three kinds of phenomenological unconscious, based on the works of Husserl, Levinas and Richir. The first is an unconscious he describes as being constituted when moving beyond the “immanent sphere” (45). He calls this generative unconsciousness, signifying an unconscious that has “a surplus of meaning both beyond and below phenomenology’s descriptive framework” (25). The second kind of unconsciousness is hypostatic unconsciousness, which, according to Schnell, relates to genetic unconsciousness much as Freud’s death drive relates to the life drive. This is a relationship between a drive to be a self and a drive to be with the Other (viz. to be social). Freud, prior to postulating the death drive, had written only of the libidinal drive, but in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the death drive was added. The death and life drives relate to each other as creation and destruction, and in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud again develops the death drive to explain the aggressiveness (the death drive) of some civilizations. The third kind of unconscious phenomenology is the reflective unconscious, reflecting not only on itself but also on the two other types of the unconscious. Hence, this third kind of unconscious brings with it a totality of all these variations of the unconscious.
The second part, From the Specific Perspective of Merleau-Ponty, elaborates on the unconscious in relation to the writings of this French philosopher. Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, in his essay, argues that the unconscious, as proposed by the late Merleau-Ponty, is not constituted by repressed representations. Instead, the unconscious is understood by Merleau-Ponty as cited by de Saint Aubert (50): “the fundamental structure of the psychological apparatus … [and as our] … primordial relationship to the world.” In this understanding of the unconsciousness, Merleau-Ponty posits the idea of “the body as mediator of being” (as cited by de Saint Aubert ). Such an understanding breaks with the classical Freudian notion of the unconscious. For Freud, the unconscious was composed of repressed representations, forbidden desires, and unfulfilled wishes. By breaking with this understanding, Merleau-Ponty reveals an interpretation of the unconscious that equates it to a bodily aspect of lived life. This is taken up by Timothy Mooney, who expands on the assertion that habits are modes of the unconscious, as already posited by Moran and Schnell in their essays on Husserlian phenomenology. In his essay, Mooney uses Merleau-Ponty’s examination of phantom limbs, where “a patient keeps trying to walk with his use-phantom leg and is not discouraged by repeated failure.” (63) This is an example of how bodily habits, in Merleau-Ponty, become unconscious. Hence, an amputee can attempt to move an amputated arm repeatedly because such an action has become habitual, even if the arm is no longer there.
By examining the way in which one’s past experiences shape bodily habits, and how these habits come to influence one’s future, Mooney argues that the unconscious nature of habitual bodily functions constitutes an unconsciousness that, at the very least, shares some similarities with unconsciousness in psychoanalysis. These are bodily (unconscious) habits: a “common embodiment” (xi) shared by all, meaning that we all have unconscious bodily habits. As examples of these, the fact that I am hardly aware of breathing, or that most of us use hand gestures when speaking, seem to be instances of such habits. However, this is a radically different notion of the unconscious from the one proposed by Freud, who claimed that the unconscious is created by a repressive culture that ties us together. Lastly, James Phillips examines the notion of a nonverbal unconsciousness in Merleau-Ponty. This understanding of the unconscious interprets it as being the nonverbal part of ordinary thoughts. Such an understanding of the unconscious is, however, a development of the Freudian concept of unconsciousness, which is more of a repression of desires and wishes.
The third part, At the Limit of Phenomenology, examines whether it is possible to talk of a phenomenological unconscious. Questions pertaining to this inquiry are dealt with over four essays. In the first essay, one of the editors of this volume, Legrand, examines both how the unconscious in psychoanalysis and phenomenology deal with revealing the/an unknown as a way to examine how the unconscious in psychoanalysis breaks the defined limits of phenomenology. Legrand, in her essay, clearly expands upon what was already stipulated by Schnell, for whom the unconscious in phenomenology constitutes those instances where habits have become second nature, i.e. unconscious. In Danish, there is an idiom: jeg gjorde det på rygraden (trans. I did it on my spine, viz. without a second thought.) This is an example of how we accept that some things come to us from an unconscious place, e.g. that we often do things without being aware of many of the underlying processes. However, Legrand argues that there are problems with relating phenomenology and psychoanalysis to each other. This problem becomes clearer in the essay by François Raffoul, who continues Legrand’s line of thought by examining Heidegger’s ‘Phenomenology of the inapparent’ and Levinas’ claim that ‘the face of the Other’, understood as a secret, an unknown, posits an ethical dimension that creates a limit for phenomenological inquiry.
In this essay, the limits of phenomenology are tested by Levinas’ claim that ethics is first philosophy. In Levinas, the face of the Other is an unknown: it cannot be reduced to an object by the conscious perceiver. This is the limit of phenomenology mentioned by Legard. By claiming that the Other is unknown, Levinas’ phenomenology brings up an ethical aspect in its phenomenological investigation; an ethical aspect that also constitutes an unconsciousness. In his introduction, Raffoul writes that “What the term ‘unconscious’ designates, perhaps improperly, is such an alterity escaping presentation, an alterity that frustrates any effort of presentation by a phenomenological disclosure.” (114) This alterity is what Levinas posits in the face of the Other, which comes to frustrate any further phenomenological disclosure because it is an inapparent, or unknown. Thus, if it is impossible to get rid of the unconsciousness in phenomenology, Joseph Cohen’s essay expands on this by seeking to answer the question of whether there could be an unconsciousness that will not let itself become conscious. Or, as Cohen poetically frames this question, is there a night which is not followed by a day? Husserl, Cohen posits, did not see this being a possibility, as for Husserl there “always lies the possibility of conversion … of transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar, the improper into the proper, the ‘un-world’ into the world.” (135) However, as Cohen explains, there is an unconscious in Husserl that precedes any self-consciousness: an unconsciousness of the night. Husserl claims that this awakes in the morning as a consciousness, but in Cohen, this conversion of the unconscious to consciousness does not happen.
Following Cohen down into the night, Drew M. Dalton, in line with de Saint Aubert, insists upon the unconscious nature of bodily experience. Thus, he comes to regard the body (the dead body, a corpse) as an entity that can be recognized by consciousness, without being a consciousness. A corpse, in this view, is “an inhuman asubjective unconsciousness,” (xiii) and the dead body comes to confront a subject with an ethical dilemma, namely its own vulnerability. This ethical dimension is similar to how the face of the Other, in Levinas, brings ethics into the phenomenological endeavour. Hence, the corpse comes to constitute an unconscious unknown to us, but which nonetheless fills us with dread: an experience of our own mortality. Following Freud’s claim that the corpse is the uncanny par excellence, Dalton, in concord with both Freud and Lacan, concludes that the face of the Other, and the corpse, constitute a traumatic presentation, captivating us, perhaps, much as a deer is captivated by a light rushing towards it.
The fourth partr, With Phenomenology and Beyond, begins with the second editor’s essay. Here, Trigg elaborates on the experience of not fully being ‘me’. By examining states of consciousness where this very fact, of being conscious, is ambiguous, Trigg examines unconscious bodily states. As an example of such an experience, Trigg offers up hypnagogia: a state wherein the subject might experience lucid dreams or sleep paralysis. In such a state, Trigg argues, one is simultaneously both conscious and unconscious. Trigg describes this in the following way: “the hypnagogic state is a liminal state, it occurs in-between dreaming and waking, such that there is an overlap between the two spheres.” (164). Consequently, hypnagogia is a bodily unconscious experience, similar to that already discussed by Cohen and Dalton. There seems to be a clear resemblance between a dead body (Dalton) and the body of someone experiencing sleep paralysis, since neither body, to any perceiver, constitutes a conscious subject. On this topic, Freud wrote that “The state of sleep is able to re-establish the likeness of mental life as it was before the recognition of reality.” (Freud, 1911: 219) Hence, in Freud’s own writings, we are also able to find a description of sleep that relates it to the realm of the unconscious, or the unreal. This interpretation is echoed by V. Hamilton, who, in her book Narcissus and Oedipus writes that “For Freud, the sleeplike state of withdrawal involved ‘a deliberate rejection of reality’” (Hamilton, 1982: 30). It is not only during sleep, or in hypnagogia, but also in actual sleep and in sleeplike states of (mental) withdrawal, that we reject reality in favour of something else. In all of these instances, Trigg argues, we encounter a phenomenon that might constitute an unconscious state of being within (and beyond) phenomenological inquiries. That this point is also found in Freud’s writings suggests that this unconscious, which Heidegger claimed could not be dispelled from phenomenology, is to be found in psychoanalysis. It should be added, however, that the unconscious for Freud is a mental process, and not, as it is here, an unconscious state or phenomenon.
Whereas the unconscious for Freud is created by culturally repressed drives, Thamy Ayouch posits an unconscious that is not created by the cultural repression of natural drives. Instead, Ayouch suggests an unconscious which is an instituted affectivity: “This notion bridges the gap between past and present, the self and the Other, activity and passivity, but also nature and culture.” (199). By reformulating the unconscious in this way, Ayouch deals with non-binary gender configurations far more convincingly than Freud, who thought that homosexuality and heterosexuality develop based on a child’s successful resolving of the Oedipal complex. An unconscious not understood as in a binary relationship with consciousness greatly differs from Freud’s perspective. This critique of Freud has also been put forward by others: an example of such can be found in works by Judith Butler (see, for example, Subjects of Desire, 1988, or Gender Trouble, 1999.) Ayouch writes that the concept of institutional affectivity, as taken from Merleau-Ponty, leads to the conclusion that “sleep would be only a content of the transcendental subject, the Unconscious only a refusal to be conscious, and memory only a consciousness of the past.” (200). This line of argument (refusing to be conscious) is taken up by Dieter Lohmar, who sets out to examine non-linguistic modes of thinking using the phenomenology of Husserl. One such mode of thinking is called scenic phantasma, or daydreams (211). These are modes of thinking that Lohmar describes as allowing a subject to play out different life scenarios. Thus, in such instances, “we are playing out possible solutions to a problem, mentally testing our options, their usefulness for a solution and their respective consequences.” (211) Daydreams are unconscious acts, and Freud saw these as an escape from reality. But for Lohmar they are also private, and therefore not located within the consciousness of anyone other than the person experiencing the daydream. Another kind of unconscious day-to-day experience is examined by Line Ryberg Ingerslev. In her essay, Ingerslev examines how many habits have become unconscious processes in our day-to-day lives (see: Moran, Schnell, and Mooney.) Habits, in this sense, are understood by Ingerslev as unconscious processes that prevent us gaining self-familiarity. Hence, habits allow us to ‘automate’ functions that relieve us of familiarity with ourselves, freeing up our mind for other tasks. Ingerslev argues that our lack of unified control over many aspects of our bodily life, constitutes breaks with a unified conscious experience of life. This, Ingerslev claims, is the effect of an unconscious phenomenon at work. As an example of this, one might think of riding a bike, or similar actions. During such feats of motor control, the subject is hardly aware of the minor adjustments being made unconsciously to maintain balance. We might also add that if one attempts to be conscious of this activity, it probably becomes even harder to cycle. This is not unlike the earlier claim by Mooney. Ingerslev concludes by positing that one does not consciously act, but instead responds to actions already instigated unconsciously by habits.
The fifth and last part, Beyond Phenomenology, concludes this volume by examining those experiences located beyond phenomenological inquiries. Both of the texts examine the notion of surprise, either as a biological response to outside stimuli, a response which can be measured, or as a way to create art within the surrealist art movement. Natalie Depraz argues that surprise constitutes a disturbance of one’s conscious life, which is both objective and measurable. As an example of this, she states that the pounding of the heart due to a shock might be a way to measure the unconscious, since this is an unconscious reaction to outside stimuli. This she relates to Freud’s notion of ‘slips of the tongue,’ a concept developed by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). In this idea, the unconscious thought comes to reveal itself to the subject by (unconsciously) forcing its way into verbal language. A racing heart, according to Depraz, opens up the possibility of examining the unconscious as the cause of a bodily reaction. The beating of the heart is like a slip of the tongue in Freud’s example. Both are posited as measurable evidence of an unconscious, in the sense that the reaction is instigated unconsciously. But there are also differences between the two examples: the beating of the heart is an objectively measurable fact, whereas a slip of the tongue could (possibly) be a wilful act.
Another kind of unconscious is scrutinised by Alphonso Lingis, who examines artistic creation within the surrealist movement as a form off unconsciousness. Lingis begins by questioning the role of the unconscious in orthodox psychoanalysis, asking how the unconscious could function if freed from psychoanalysis’ insistence on using interpretations to root out the cause of the unconscious. Such an examination leads to an exposé of the surrealist movement, whose adherents, inspired by the theories of Freud, used the technique of automatic writing (among other techniques) to stimulate their production of art. Lingis writes that the technique of automatic writing is similar to Freud’s technique of free association, a technique grounded in the inquiries made by Freud and Bernheim in the early days of psychoanalysis. Freud and André Breton (a key figure from the surrealist movement Lingis focuses on) differ considerably regarding the importance of the latent content in dreams. While Freud was interested in this content, Breton was, on the other hand, “interested in the manifest images for their irrational and marvellous, poetic character.” (264) By focusing on the manifest content, Breton moved the focus from interpretation to experience, thus breaking with the orthodox psychoanalytic focus on the latent dream content and the primacy put on interpretation.
In conclusion, this volume succeeds in its aim of describing and examining the psychoanalytic unconscious from within, at the limits of, and beyond phenomenology. The authors and editors have written a contribution to the field of phenomenology that clearly examines what a phenomenological unconscious is, how one can think of an unconscious as a concept within phenomenological discourse, and how the notion of the unconscious can push beyond the limits of phenomenology. In particular, I would highlight the fourth chapter, as it deals with phenomena that are also central to psychoanalysis and the works of Freud. By connecting seminal works within phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Lavinas, and Merleau-Ponty) with different psychoanalytic works (particularly the works of Freud and Lacan) this volume brings these two disciplines into a fruitful relationship with each other. I do, however, wish to point out that the theoretical breadth of the psychoanalytic notion of an unconscious is dealt with in a limited fashion, but this is in line with the overall goal of this volume. Specifically, I would have liked to see more discussion of the differences between Freud’s and Jung’s conceptions of the unconscious. It would also have been interesting to incorporate an examination of the disagreement between Freud and Ferenczi: a difference of opinion relating to the technique of free association, or some discussion of the Rorschach test as a way of measuring unconscious processes. Notwithstanding these minor flaws, this volume is of interest to anyone concerned with either phenomenology or psychoanalysis (both clinical and theoretical), as it bridges the two disciplines over an impressive span of topics, without becoming trivial. The themes tackled might cover a broad spectrum, but what they all have in common is a questioning and engaging examination of how an unconscious might be found within, at the limits of, or beyond phenomenology. In addition, the volume is written in clear and accessible language, making it a useful starting point for anyone who might be interested in a phenomenological examination of the unconscious.
Freud, S. (2012). Eighteenth Lecture: Traumatic Fixation — the Unconscious. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1916-1917), 231-242. Wordsworth Editions Limited.
Freud, S. (1911). Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII, Case History of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works (1911-1913), 213-226. Hogarth Press.
Hamilton, V. (1982). Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Any attempt to practically apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy within the domain of normative or applied ethics is bound to be controversial. In considering recent attempts to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to the fields of nursing and psychology, for instance, Diane Perpich has argued that it is a mistake to think that Levinas’s philosophy can be read as a ‘constructive ethics that offers ethical norms that can be put to work in care-giving professions’ (Perpich 2012: 128): Levinas’s ethics, Perpich continues, ‘is not a defence of our inherently ethical nature nor a guarantee of our ethical responsibility’ (Perpich 2012: 128), rather what one finds in Levinas’s philosophy, above all, is a painstaking attempt to excavate the ‘constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life’ (Perpich 2012: 128). That is, while the resonant – if often baroque — terminology employed by Levinas may seem eminently relatable to certain clinical settings, the metaphysical complexities and phenomenological ambiguities lying behind this terminology precludes any straightforward practical application. On first blush, then, the conception of Ronald C. Arnett’s Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics, which sets out to find ‘practical application of Levinas’s work…in explicating communication ethics’ (Arnett 2017: 4), is apt to invite considerable suspicion from Levinasians.
Yet, there are two reasons why such suspicion may be misplaced. Firstly, while some construals of communication ethics may aim at providing a constructive ethics composed of ethical norms for communication, construed more broadly communication ethics concerns the study of ‘communication phenomena from the standpoint of ethics and morality’ (Cheney et al. 2011: 1). And it is evident even from a cursory reading of Levinas’s key works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974), that Levinas himself was centrally concerned with the ethical significance of language and interpersonal communication. So the practical application of Levinas’s work in explicating communication ethics initially looks to be a more natural fit than those attempts to apply Levinas’s ethics to other practical domains isolated for criticism by Perpich. Secondly, the central insight Arnett that hopes to import from Levinas to the field of communication ethics is that ‘our responsibility to and for the Other has no demarcation or conclusion’ (Arnett 2017: 1). That is to say, for Arnett, ‘communication ethics from a Levinasian perspective admits the challenge, ambiguity, and necessity of learning in the performative enactment of responsibility’ (Arnett 2017: 2). Thus, what Arnett’s study promises to provide is an attempt to apply Levinasian insights concerning the constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life to the domain of communication ethics. And, in this respect, Arnett’s study initially looks to be consonant with Perpich’s claim that ‘if practical professions are to make anything practical of Levinas’s thought, it is this fragility and vulnerability that must arguably become central to their self-understanding and to their appropriation of texts like Totality and Infinity’ (Perpich 2012: 129).
Importantly, then, the conception of Arnett’s study looks to be philosophically fruitful, in that it proposes a plausible application of Levinas’s ethics to a relevant practical domain, and exegetically sensitive, in that it resists the temptation to derive a system of norms from Levinas’s ethics and instead focuses on the uncertainty and fragility of ethical life emphasised by Levinas. However, in terms of its execution, Arnett faces some not inconsiderable difficulties: Centrally, we might wonder what, if anything, Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life can offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? On the one hand, to attempt to derive any practical guidance from such Levinasian insights risks descending into vague, pious exhortation. Yet, on the other hand, to refrain from proposing any direct practical applications of Levinas’s ethics within the domain of communication risks exposing the limited utility of a Levinasian perspective for explicating communication ethics, and, thus, the limited interest of Arnett’s study as a whole. Does Arnett manage to avoid these two risks in the execution of his study?
The book begins with a foreword by Algis Mickunas comprised of ‘a brief introduction to the main trends in Russian literature and aspects of phenomenology, relevant to understanding Levinas’s encounter with “the other”’ (Arnett 2017: vii). Presumably, the aim of the foreword, then, is to provide orientation for readers new to Levinas to his complex and involved path of thinking. As such, however, while not without interest, Mickunas’s strategy is curious and provocative. The majority of the discussion is devoted to developing the provocative claim that Russian literature, which Levinas often emphasised as being a formative influence on his thinking, occupies a ‘point of crisis’ between two worlds – the industrial, enlightened West and the spiritualized and provincial East. Mickunas claims that it is from this point of crisis that a vantage point opens up within Russian literature whereby the comparative worth of these respective life-worlds is adjudicated by a third factor – namely, intrinsic human worth. Thus, Mickunas appears to be suggesting that Levinas’s philosophical focus on the pre-cultural ethical significance of the Other germinated in his readings of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. Both aspects of Mickunas’s argument – concerning the spiritual impetus of Russian literature and its effect on Levinas’s thinking – are contestable. But for the purposes of this review, the important point is whether this discussion provides a helpful and illuminating way in to Levinas’s thought. And it seems to me that it does not. This worry is only compounded by Mickunas’s comparatively brief and rather curious discussion of the ‘phenomenological issues’ at stake in Levinas’s thinking, which constitutes the second part of the foreword. Rather than providing a context for Levinas’s thinking within the phenomenological tradition, perhaps by explaining the ways in which Levinas critically appropriates elements of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s respective philosophies or the ways in which Levinas tests the limits of phenomenology by drawing on religiously loaded terminology, Mickunas engages in rather curious discussion of ‘corporeity,’ mythology and kerygma. Again, it seems to me that if the purpose of this foreword is to provide the reader with some orientation and context for Levinas’s thinking then it is not particularly helpful.
The main body of the text is composed of ten chapters which tend to repeat a similar structure: Beginning with a ‘case study’ relevant to the domain of communication ethics, Arnett then goes on to draw on different aspects of Levinas’s ethical thought in order to explicate the communication phenomena at stake in the case study before concluding each chapter by proposing a set of Levinas-inspired theses to be adopted by communication theorists. These chapters are framed in the introduction by two guiding principles concerning (1) Arnett’s basic conception of communication ethics and (2) his interpretive approach to Levinas. Concerning the former, Arnett writes that ‘this work understands communication ethics [as] an obligation to discover multiple means of understanding and ratifying communication ethics action in the depths of attentiveness to uniqueness and particularity’ (Arnett 2017: 5-6). Plausibly, this definition is already imbued with certain Levinasian emphases, but the point is nonetheless clear: Communications ethics, for Arnett, aims to make explicit the ethical significance of communication through careful phenomenological analyses of the interpersonal context of communication. As for Arnett’s approach to Levinas, he writes that ‘Levinas’s work has practical application when met as an awakening guide about responsibility that refuses to shelter “me” from accountability in my actions to and for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 5). Here, the point seems to be that all interpersonal communication has ethical significance which can be specified in terms of a ‘rhetoric of demands’ (Arnett 2017: 9) made on the self by the Other. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy will be used in this text as a resource to give shape and definition – in the form of ‘awakening’ — to the nature of this rhetoric of demands putatively intrinsic in interpersonal communication. The aim of the following chapters, then, will be to bring Levinas’s ethical philosophy to bare on certain prototypical instances of communication in order to explicate their ethical significance.
Before moving on to the arguments, I want to register two ambiguities present in Arnett’s introduction. The first concerns to whom the arguments of the text are addressed: Is the ethical awakening putatively provided by Levinas’s philosophy an awakening for communications theorists or for us qua communicators? This question may sound facetious, but it is compounded by further ambiguities concerning Arnett’s heavy use of the term ‘rhetoric’ in his introduction. While Arnett admits that in Totality and Infinity, Levinas ‘offers a contentious response to rhetoric’ (Arnett 2017: 1), Arnett nonetheless asserts that, from a Levinasian perspective, ‘one must respond to the rhetorical demands of the face of the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 2). But, one wonders, isn’t this move exegetically illegitimate? In Totality and Infinity, Levinas states that ‘Our pedagogical or psychological discourse is rhetoric, taking the position of him who approaches his neighbour with ruse…It approaches the other not to face him, but obliquely…[I]t is pre-eminently violence, that is, injustice — not violence exercised on an inertia (which would not be a violence), but on a freedom…’ (Levinas 2012: 70). Given Levinas’s associations of rhetoric with a violence which, rather than facing the other tries to manipulate her and rob her of her freedom, Arnett’s claim – inscribed in the title of his book – that Levinas advocates for a rhetorical demand at the centre of interpersonal communication looks interpretively problematic. However, read in a different way, it might be the case that Arnett’s claim here is a subtler, reflexive one: Namely, that communication ethics as a practically-oriented discipline is a form of ‘pedagogy’ or ‘psychological discourse’ which, for that reason, must, in Levinas’s eyes, take the form of rhetoric. As such, the practical import of Levinas’s ethics to communication ethics is to impress on communications ethicists the limitations of their practice and to encourage greater restraint and sensitivity when it comes to proscribing codes of conduct for communication. In either case, the major claim of Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand is not made ideally clear in Arnett’s introduction.
The first chapter compares Levinas to the work of George Herbert Mead and Jeffrey Murray in developing the claim that ‘the human being is defined by ethics, not as first philosophy, but via a communicative first gesture of responsibility toward and with another’ (Arnett 2017: 38) in which ‘communication ethics is a primordial gesture that ignites a series of ethical events performed within a difficult freedom, a world without assurance or clarity of formulas that demands urgency of response from no one by me’ (Arnett 2017: 40). In other words, the work of the first chapter is devoted to emphasising (1) the primitive ethical significance of symbolic gestural interaction for communication and (2) the fragility and uncertainty intrinsic to such primordial forms of interaction. What is surprising about this claim is that Arnett seems to immediately discard Levinas’s central claim that ‘ethics is first philosophy’ in favour of Mead’s behaviourist theory of symbolic interactionism. It is left unclear what motivates this unexpected move and, indeed, whether Mead’s sociological method is at all compatible with the parts of Levinas’s phenomenology that Arnett seeks to appropriate.
In chapter 2, Arnett provides as his case study a rich and interesting discussion of Levinas’s life, aimed at describing how Levinas’s life influenced his ethical thinking. It is comprised of a discussion of Salomon Malka’s biography of Levinas, Phillipe Nemo’s interviews with Levinas, published as Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo, and Levinas’s autobiographical fragment, ‘Signature,’ published in Difficult Freedom. The chapter, ‘working under the metaphors of footprints and echoes, reminds us of the importance of concrete experiences in conjunction with ideas of weight and height that infuse time before time with ethical import’ (Arnett 2017: 65). While it is not ideally clear what Arnett means by this, the thrust of the claim appears to turn on Levinas’s distinction between the Saying and the Said. As Michael Morgan aptly describes the distinction, the Said refers to the construction of languages, ‘the form and content of linguistic systems of systems of symbols’ (Morgan 2011: 135), that enable interpersonal interaction, while the Saying is the ‘ethical matrix in which language as communication takes place;’ it describes the ‘social, concrete context for language’ which has at its core ‘the call of the other person to the self to accept and acknowledge it’ (Morgan 2011: 135). And, without wanting to be reductive, Arnett’s claim in this chapter could perhaps be summarized as arguing for the need to take account of both the Saying and the Said in the practice of communication ethics.
The third chapter meditates on Levinas’s claims concerning the enigma of the face of the Other and the ethical importance of remaining attentive to this enigmaticalness rather than reducing the Other to a caricature. The case study for this chapter is Levinas’s relationship with a fantastical and legendary Jewish mystic called Chouchani. Chouchani cultivated an air of mystery about himself; he ‘functioned as an enigma to those he taught; he intentionally kept his life a mystery from others’ (Arnett 2017: 71). The lesson Levinas drew from Chouchani’s cultivated mysteriousness, Arnett avers, was the importance of ‘patience and waiting’ (Arnett 2017: 77) — what Arnett sometimes describes as ‘existential trust’ — in interpersonal communication. That is, ethical communication requires cultivating in oneself a sensitivity to the thought that the Other always exceeds the pictures, theories and prejudices one may naturally impose on them, where the ethical task of communication is to refrain from imposing meaning on the other and rather to learn from them. As Arnett puts it, ‘the task was to learn from Chouchani, not to violate the infinity of learning. To understand from the enigma of Chouchani, one had to watch and learn without the assurance of one’s assessment of this man of difference’ (Arnett 2017: 84). The appeal to Levinas’s relationship to Chouchani is interesting and informative. But it leads me to wonder how much of an exemplar Chouchani actually is for communication ethics: Is cultivating a sense of mystery around oneself and refusing to answer other’s questions in a straightforward way ethically commendable? This seems debatable. Furthermore, to my mind, there is a philosophical worry arising from the lesson taught by Chouchani – at least as it is presented by Arnett — namely, that interpersonal communication requires patience and waiting. The worry is that by overstating the enigma of the Other, one will be lead to confusion and paralysis in one’s interpersonal communications. Surely there are many things about the Other that are self-evident? This is not to contest the important point made in the chapter, but just to urge caution and restraint in stating it: The point, surely, is not simply that we should behold the deep enigma of the other, but, more modestly, that we should remain sensitive to the other’s alterity in our encounter with them.
Chapter 4 looks to Levinas’s text Proper Names. The chapter is comprised of an informative reconstruction of the text, in which Levinas discusses his relations with the thought of figures that influenced his way of thinking, such as Kierkegaard, and his philosophical, theological and literary contemporaries, like Martin Buber. The philosophical point made in this chapter is that proper names occupy a particular place in language in that, while they are part of linguistic system of symbols that make up the Said, they resist full incorporation into the Said and retain a ‘trace’ of Saying. Arnett illustrates this point by way of an episode in To Kill a Mocking Bird in which Scout manages to keep an angry mob at bay by calling on the proper names of some of the members of the mob. In a sense, the philosophical point made here compliments and tempers the one made in the previous chapter: While there is an intrinsic enigmaticalness to the Other, they also have a name, and that name has an important ethical resonance that seems to bridge the distinction between the Saying – and the enigma of the Other more generally — and the Said.
The fifth chapter turns to a discussion of ‘the impersonal’ and ‘the sacred.’ The chapter aims to investigate ‘the pragmatic limits of a personal consideration that seeks to possess certainty of answers for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 115). As its case study, this chapter looks to Gregory Bateman’s book Angel’s Fear: Towards and Epistemology of the Sacred. The central insight of Bateman’s text taken up by Arnett is the thought that it is sometimes important to leave certain dimensions of interpersonal communication inexplicit and unarticulated, where this sometimes involves acknowledging, rather than trying to overcome, one’s epistemic limitations and embracing forms of ‘metaphorical understanding’ (Arnett 2017: 119). Turning to Levinas, Arnett pursues a comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant based on Catherine Chalier’s text What Ought I to Do? Morality in Kant and Levinas. Arnett’s aim here is to elucidate Levinas’s emphasis on the importance of a disinterested – rather than self-interested – stance and the correlative importance of embracing an impersonal rather than personalized relation to the other in interpersonal communication. Arnett concludes by claiming that ‘for Levinas, the sacred embraces ethics devoid of reification and imposition. Ethics has an impersonal cast of disinterest that nourishes the sacred dimension of the human condition’ (Arnett 2017: 128). The difficulties of this chapter stem initially from the fact that it is not clear in what way Arnett’s introduction of notions such as the sacred, the impersonal and disinterestedness move the discussion forward: How does the conclusion reached in this chapter add to the conclusion in chapter 3 concerning the importance of remaining sensitive to the enigma of the Other? Moreover, Arnett’s introduction of such loaded terms as ‘the sacred’ and his comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant may seem to muddy the waters: The introduction of a dimension of the sacred into his discussion invites familiar worries concerning the secular intelligibility of Levinas’s theologically-inspired ethics, and his comparison of the impersonal in Kant, which is based in the impersonality of reason, with the impersonal in Levinas, which is based in the face of the Other, invites a different set of difficulties concerning the normative foundations of Levinas’s ethics.
Chapter six concerns Levinas’s conception of justice, where Arnett draws on Umberto Eco’s celebrated novel The Name of the Rose as a case study. Arnett notes that justice is a protean term in Levinas’s oeuvre and, for that reason, is difficult to pin down. However, Arnett focuses on one core feature of Levinas’s notion of justice, namely, that it involves an attentiveness to ‘the Third,’ or the wider community of individuals, who temper the face-to-face relation in important ways. More specifically, Arnett emphasises that Levinas’s notion of justice draws our attention to the disempowered and voiceless members of the community. The importance of this point for Levinas’s philosophy and, Arnett suggests, for communication ethics more generally, is in balancing one’s immediate obligations to the Other in the face-to-face relation with the wider demands of the community – and specifically the oppressed and the voiceless within society. As Arnett explains, Levinas’s notion of justice introduces ‘a form of equality and measure’ (Arnett 2017: 147).
The seventh chapter considers the News of the World phone-hacking scandal from a Levinasian perspective. The moral failings exemplified in the phone-hacking scandal are obvious: They reflected an intrusive invasion of privacy for the sake of producing sensational news stories that, in some cases, seriously affected the lives of those involved. However, from a Levinasian perspective, Arnett avers, the phone-hacking scandal ‘functions as an exemplar of Levinas’s critique of the West seduced by the demand for totality. This story displays possession at work with little resistive creative thought that invites space for reflection on the “should”; instead decisions emerge from the technological “can,” alone’ (Arnett 2017: 159). In other words, for Arnett, the phone-hacking scandal is seen to be symptomatic of a need to know everything, so to speak; to recuperate everything into the totality of the Same. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy ‘awakens’ us to this damaging tendency through his critique of the primacy of ontology. Construed as a chapter about the lessons to be learned from the phone-hacking scandal, this point is pretty uncontroversial. However, it seems to me that the force of this argument would be stronger if Arnett had devoted more space to explaining why Levinas’s ethical philosophy helps us to expose the distinctive wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal in a way that, say, the public reaction that led to the newspaper’s closure missed. As it stands, the specific Levinasian contribution to our understanding of the wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal remains unclear.
Chapters 8 and 9 consider Levinas’s fraught relation to Heidegger. Chapter 8 considers Levinas’s experience of, and subsequent reflection on, the infamous Davos conference, where Heidegger debated the prominent neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer. There are many dimensions to the discussion in this chapter: For instance, it involves a discussion of Levinas’s reflections on his own behaviour at the conference, of his relation to humanism and to Cassier’s cosmopolitanism; and of his relation to Heidegger’s meditations on ‘dwelling’ and enrootedness. However, the central point of the chapter is that, in contrast to Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of culture’ (Arnett 2017: 184), Levinas proposes an analysis of the ethical significance of the face-to-face encounter that is pre-cultural. Chapter nine continues the discussion of Heidegger by turning to Heidegger’s notorious rectorate address in 1933, which is often seen as the moment where Heidegger was most aligned with the Nazi project. In discussing Levinas’s response to Heidegger, Arnett claims that, on the one hand, Levinas was concerned to move away from the kind of existential phenomenology promoted by Heidegger — which focuses on dwelling and enrootedness — by ‘re-transcendentalizing’ (Arnett 2017: 214) his own philosophy in terms of an analysis of the transcendence of the Other. However, curiously, on the other hand, Arnett concludes with the thought that ‘Levinas understood ethics as dwelling within the concrete in contrast to Heidegger’s notion of dwelling, which is “spare” and seeks to “preserve”’ (Arnett 2017: 218). From an exegetical perspective, the claim that Levinas understood ethics as dwelling seems very dubious: While it is true that ‘the dwelling’ forms part of Levinas’s architectonic in Totality and Infinity, it is treated as a function of separated being – not as the place of ethics as Arnett implies. Furthermore, when compared with Arnett’s earlier claim, that Levinas sought to ‘re-transcendentalize’ phenomenology, and, thus, move away from Heidegger’s focus on dwelling and enrootedness, Arnett’s argument in this chapter is apt to confuse.
The final chapter discusses Levinas’s thinking on death, as laid out in God, Death and Time, in conjunction with Jacques Derrida’s text Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. In contrast to Heidegger, for whom resolutely facing up to one’s own death is a central aspect of authenticity, Levinas emphasises the death of others. As Arnett puts it, ‘the death of another awakens my ethical responsibility, and my own death calls forth responsibility in another’ (Arnett 2017: 231). More specifically, on Arnett’s reconstruction, Levinas holds that the Other’s calling us to responsibility survives their death. We might think, for instance, how the memory of a loved one who has passed away exerts an influence on our behaviour. Then, without much ceremony, Arnett finishes his text, concluding that ‘communication ethics, for Levinas, resists an apriori metaphysic, the imposition of a code or procedure, and, fundamentally, the self-righteous smirk of a knowing do-gooder. Communication ethics dwells in an immemorial space before, beyond, and ever more powerful than death itself’ (Arnett 2017: 245).
In concluding this review, I will return to the framing questions specified in the introduction. Namely, (1) what, if anything, can Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? And (2) to whom is this book addressed? Concerning the first question, Arnett’s book is successful in raising some important Levinasian issues relevant to communication ethics. In particular, Arnett’s discussions of the enigma of the face and its pre-cultural ethical significance are interesting and relevant. Yet, the practical applicability of these Levinasian insights always remains in doubt. Arnett should be commended for his inventive use of examples and illustrations in attempting to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to concrete communication phenomena: Attempting to illustrate Levinas’s high-altitude and often ponderous path of thinking through examples is a difficult task, and Arnett’s efforts in this direction are valiant. But, in the end, it seems to me that what Arnett’s discussion demonstrates above all else is the limited applicability of Levinasian ethics to practical domains: Levinas’s ethical philosophy is descriptive and speculative, and resists direct and prescriptive application to empirical events. Whether this signals a weakness in Arnett’s text or a limitation of Levinas’s philosophy, of course, remains debatable.
Concerning the second question, there seems to be an unresolved issue in the text concerning how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a critique of communication ethics as it is often practiced and how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a modification of it. If Arnett intended the former, then he certainly shies away from making this explicit. Yet, if he intended the latter, then lingering issues concerning Levinas’s reservations towards ‘rhetoric’ and the compatibility of Levinas’s methodological framework with the more empirically-focused resources and methodologies on which Arnett draws remain unanswered. Moreover, I feel the text often sacrifices the task of detailed exegesis of Levinas’s texts for the sake of discussions of empirical case studies and their Levinasian resonances. As a result, there is a surprising omission of any sustained discussion of Levinas’s important interventions into the nature of language and discourse in Totality and Infinity and communication in Otherwise than Being, for instance, where such discussions would, to my mind, have contributed to a more satisfying argument. Nonetheless, Arnett’s text contains many interesting and important insights and will surely stimulate further discussion within the field of communication ethics.
Arnett, R. C., Review of Ronald C. Arnett Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 2017
Cheney, G., et al., ‘Encountering Communication Ethics in the Contemporary World: Principles, People, Contexts’ in Cheney, G., May, S., & Munshi, D., Eds., The Handbook of Communication Ethics. London: Routledge. 2011: pp. 1-14
Janicaud, D., ‘The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology.’ Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn:” The French Debate. Trans. B. G. Prusak. New York: Fordham University Press. 2000: pp. 16-103.
Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo. Trans. R. A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 1985.
Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012.
Morgan, M. L., The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: CUP. 2011.
Perpich, D., ‘Don’t try this at home: Levinas and Applied Ethics’ in Davidson, S., & Perpich, D., Eds. Totality and Infinity at 50. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012: pp. 127-152
Stern, R., The Radical Demand in Løgstrup’s Ethics. Oxford: OUP. Forthcoming.
 Cf. Levinas (1985): 22.
 Cf. Janicaud (2000) and Stern (forthcoming), Ch. 9 for two examples of these criticisms.
 Cf. Levinas 2012: ‘The primary agreement, to live, does not alienate the I but maintains it, constitutes its being at home with itself. The dwelling, inhabitation, belongs to the essence –to the egoism – of the I.’ (143)
‘Packaged as Meat, Frenchman Jean Wahl Flees Nazi Captors in Dramatic Escape’. So reads the 1942 newspaper headline reporting one of the more sensational escapades in the philosopher’s life (6–7, n. 15). Jean Wahl is one of a number of neglected existentialist thinkers who were opponents or victims of the Nazi régime. Philosophers in this tenuous position could no longer (if they ever had) regard their philosophy as separable from the concrete life that made it possible and otherwise informed it. For this reason, the editors’ thoroughly researched introductory essay, drawing on unpublished biographical material, is one of the most valuable features of the collection under review. After the Vichy Statute that excluded Jews from teaching, as the essay explains, Wahl continued to lead seminars from his hotel room on rue des Beaux-Arts. On the day that the area was seized by the Gestapo, Wahl, who was reading Heidegger with a small group of students, is reported to have quipped, ‘If the Gestapo comes, it will not hurt to say that we are studying Heidegger. The Nazis at one time thought highly of him.’ (4).
The memorable newspaper headline refers to Wahl’s eventually successful attempt to escape from occupied France in a ‘butcher cart’, ‘wrapped in the same kind of cloth that wrapped the sides of meat’ (Green cited on 6). This earthy image of the philosopher, the archetype of consciousness and reflective thought, packaged up as inanimate, unthinking flesh is astonishing and suggestive. It may even express the quintessence of the human condition. Is there not a sense in which to be ‘packaged as meat’ is simply to be human?
The question is at the centre of the main theme of this collection of essays: the relationship between transcendence and the concrete. In the volume’s final essay, Wahl explains his and his contemporaries’ preference for the word ‘existence’ over the more archaic ‘soul’:
it is because the soul was too often considered to be a permanent substance, was too clearly separated from the body, too clearly separated from the world. The union of soul and body, of soul and world—this is what is meant by the idea of existence. (267)
As the editors point out, Wahl was ‘a sensitive and insightful reader’ and interpreter of the work of his contemporaries (2). Notably, he promoted in France German philosophers, including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers (24–5), but his own philosophical voice can be heard in the engagements with other thinkers’ work that are presented in this collection (2). Wahl’s extensive engagement with Jaspers is of particular interest (chs. 6 & 7).
The volume partially reprints ‘The Problem of Choice: Existence and Transcendence in Jaspers’s Philosophy’ (Chapter 6), in which Wahl engages in detail with Jaspers’s complex philosophical system, focusing on those aspects which are of most relevance to his own thinking and which matter to him the most. He begins with the important observation that ‘Jaspers’s philosophy is both the negation of every system and the affirmation that a system is necessary for the intensity of the life of the mind.’ (134) Jaspers’s thought, as Wahl sees it, is based on two propositions, the first of which forms the basis for the second, even as the two propositions oppose and strive to negate one another. Wahl thus makes sense of an otherwise puzzling feature of Jaspers’s work: the tension between its apparently systematic form and its profoundly anti-systematic content. ‘There is…a struggle,’ Wahl says, ‘between philosophy and the form of the system; it always stands outside of the system and breaks it.’ (136)
Wahl’s essay on Jaspers shows just how thoroughly this collection has been edited. References are given to the German edition of Jaspers’s three-volume Philosophy and also, where possible, to E. B. Ashton’s English translation (134, n. 4). The editors also provide an English translation of Wahl’s French translations of Jaspers’s German, which can differ significantly from the published English translations of Jaspers. They also helpfully correct apparent errors in Wahl’s references. However, sections III and IV of the Jaspers essay (‘Transcendence’ and ‘The World of Ciphers’) have been cut ‘for reasons of length’ (147, n. 46). This is unfortunate, because these are the sections that are of most relevance to the theme of the volume as a whole. In these excised sections, Wahl sets out some of the formulas used by Jaspers to articulate the relationship between ‘transcendence’, which is ineffable, and the essentially ambiguous and unstable ‘ciphers’ in which, for Jaspers, transcendence is embodied in the world of concrete experience. In the conclusion to the essay, Wahl holds up Jaspers’s ‘cipher of failure’ as a major link between Jaspers’s theory and some of his own deepest philosophical concerns. But, for Wahl’s explanation of that theory (which is located in the excised section IV), the reader must look elsewhere (147 n. 46). The editorial decision to omit these two sections of Wahl’s text left this reader with the sense that the editors have at times focussed on details at the expense of the broader picture.
‘Subjectivity and Transcendence’ (ch. 7), offering a valuable transcript of the December 4, 1937 session of the Société Française de Philosophie, shows Wahl in living dialogue with some of the most important philosophers of the day. We hear Wahl’s philosophy emerging out of conversations with Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Levinas and others—either in person or by letter. Of particular interest are the lengthy transcribed conversation between Wahl and his friend, Gabriel Marcel and Wahl’s insightful articulation of a particular reservation he has about Jaspers’s thought. On the latter, Wahl states:
it is a general theory of philosophies, it is the work of an observer of philosophies, it is not the act of a philosopher himself choosing his symbol, his cipher [chiffre]. Or, if it is such an act, it loses its general value and is no longer a theory of philosophies in general. (164)
While Wahl acknowledges the importance of Jaspers’s work, for the reason given above, he regards it as ‘no longer necessary to place his philosophy within the same framework as the others’ (164). Rather than being ‘one of the most serious reproaches one could make against Jaspers’s theory’, this is a profound insight into the distinctive nature of his philosophy (164). For what could ‘a general theory of philosophies’ be, if not itself philosophy? And is this not precisely the most authentic kind of philosophy that we need, as opposed to the unreflective choice of a particular cipher, made in ignorance of the fact that ciphers are what are being chosen or even (our inescapable rootedness in traditions notwithstanding) that there is a choice to make? As Jaspers says in his letter to Wahl (on a different point), ‘what you designate as dangers is exactly what I would like to achieve, at least as I conceive it’ (191).
Overall, Transcendence and the Concrete makes an important contribution to the study of the life and thought of Jean Wahl and his contemporaries. Its transcript of the 1937 session and detailed biographical essay will be of particular value to scholars and students working in the field.