Jörg Noller: Digitalität. Zur Philosophie der digitalen Lebenswelt

Digitalität. Zur Philosophie der digitalen Lebenswelt Couverture du livre Digitalität. Zur Philosophie der digitalen Lebenswelt
Schwabe reflexe Bd. 75
Jörg Noller
Schwabe Verlag
Paperback 23.00 CHF

Reviewed by: Gregor Bös (KU Leuven)

At a mere 100 pages, Jörg Noller’s little booklet traverses an impressive range of topics. Beginning with a philosophical conceptualization of virtual reality and its metaphysical status, it ends on digital ethics, aesthetics, and the digitization of education. This scope demands that some of these themes appear as philosophical appetizers, rather than main dishes. The order of that menu appears reversed, as the heaviest (and best) courses are served first. Here, Noller introduces his concept of virtual reality and demarcates it from the cognate notions of simulation, representation, illusion, and fiction. This part of the book should be digestible and useful to many readers. Some other features of the book might be matters of taste, especially the sometimes liberal use of technical vocabulary and the wide-ranging philosophical references and allusions. As a book aimed at a general audience, the metaphysical argument is informal and discussions of digital technology are set aside, although with philosophical reasoning for doing so. The goal is apparently to avoid a discussion of the details of transient technologies, and to focus on independent conceptual questions. This seems like a good idea, but it sometimes leads to a dearth of examples. At times, it can be surprisingly difficult to say whether Noller is talking about the present or a future state of technology. This is of course not helped by the rapid development in Large Language Models that led to new services like ChatGPT. Before my concluding comment, I now summarize the book in more detail.

Noller begins by introducing the concept of digitality (Digitalität): it is the layer of reality which only emerges on the basis of the cultural-technological process of digitization. Building on McLuhan, he argues that we have become not only blind to the medium of digital communication, but also this new layer of reality that this technology sustains (9). Here we encounter the first key metaphor: digitality emerges from the technological layers of digitalization like the phenomenon of life emerges from physico-chemical processes (22). Like the phenomenon of life cannot be described exhaustively as a physical phenomenon, objects of digitality have irreducible causal effects. This is an interesting line of thought, and metaphysically minded readers might be interested to see how it could address questions of causal exclusion. But given the intended audience of the book, it here remains as a conceptual proposal, without a technical in-depth treatment.

The other conceptual proposal concerns the process of virtualization. The metaphor here is the development of fiat currency: Whereas bank notes and coins are tied to a physical medium for exchange, the rise of digital banking systems has virtualized money. While it still serves as a universal medium of exchange, this economic role has become functionally independent of the material basis from money developed. Similarly, Noller argues, virtual reality can be considered independently of the technological basis that realizes it, since we are only interested in its functional roles. Surprisingly, there is no reference to debates on functionalism in the philosophy of mind, where parallel arguments (and debates) would be available.

Noller uses this causal independence of virtual reality to distinguish it from fiction, simulation, and illusion. Virtual reality is not a simulation because it does not only serve as a representation of an independent part of reality, and it has causal effects on reality that are not due to its use as a representation (32). The demarcation from fiction is more difficult. Noller refers only to the causal effects that virtual reality can have on analogue reality to draw it, but it would seem that fiction can similarly feed back into the non-fictional world. Committed fans set up conventions, or more drastically, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther inspired self-harming responses to unrequited love. It is not clear that a causal distinction offers all that is necessary here. But Noller’s discussion of computer games suggests how the distinction could be refined. While Noller considers computer games in single player to be fictions or simulations, they constitute a virtual reality when they become interactive and connect multiple players (42). In addition to the causal role of virtual realities, the relevant criterion seems to be also that virtual reality sustains the interaction of multiple agents.

Digitality is the domain of Noller’s investigation, and virtualization is how it achieves a level of independence from the technological infrastructure that realizes it. Noller proceeds to characterize digitality in terms of three categories. Objects of digitality are ubipresent because they can be accessed from anywhere and at any time. Agents in digitality constitute an interobjectivity, in contrast to an intersubjectivity, because artificial intelligences not only occur as tools for human agents, but as integrated into their actions and constitutive of their digital agency. Finally, digitality is transsubjective because it dissolves the distinction between creator and recipient of information.

The subject-object divided understanding of AI is instrumentalist, because it considers AIs to constitute only objects for human subjects. By focusing on augmented intelligence, a cooperative achievement of humans and machines, rather than humans as the users of machines, we lose the distinction between human and machine intelligence. Furthermore, this is supposed to also eradicate the distinction between strong and weak artificial intelligence, but this seems to be based on an idiosyncratic interpretation of that distinction (55). Instead of understanding it in terms of the generalizability of capacities, Noller ties it to a distinction between simulating and realizing human intelligence and then argues that this distinction disappears for interobjectivity.

Noller emphasizes again that we should question the distinction between subjects and objects of actions in digitality. Theorists who rely on that distinction are prone to misunderstand artificial intelligence as a tool for subjects. But since interobjectivity erases the subject-object distinction, it also undermines this conception of artificial intelligence. However, Noller himself goes on to discuss whether artificial neural networks can be ascribed capacities for knowledge and judgement.  While they have ‘determinative judgement’, they always act heteronomously (58). But the very discussion of that question seems to require conceiving of artificial intelligences as subjects after all. Noller does not say whether the limitation to heteronomy is due to legal and ethical reasons, or whether it depends on the technological state of the art. While it seems to be proposed as a limitation in principle, its only support comes from a polemic citation of Dreyfus from 1988.

Digitality is transsubjective because it changes the relations between consumers and creators of information. While an encyclopaedia clearly separates the roles of author and reader, the internet blurs this distinction. This of course glosses over the fact that for many people, the internet is structured by giant corporations. These can lock data into proprietary formats or close their APIs on a whim (see Twitter). Even explicitly open projects like Wikipedia are run by a minority. Insofar as digitality is integrated into our lifeworld, does it really appear as an invitation to contribute? This seems to be more than a description of what is the case. But Noller understands his account of digitality as ‘weakly normative’. It does not only aim to describe the digital environment and how it appears, but also to formulate a vision towards which we should work. The subsequent chapter on ethics spells this out a little further.

Noller’s proposal for an ethics of digitality is based on understanding the internet as a virtual action space (Handlungsraum). This is not a space that consists of possible actions, but a space in which they take place: the Internet, YouTube, Twitter (67f.). The ethics of digitality are governed by the ‘virtual imperative’: act such that you enlarge the virtual action space (69). While this sounds like a libertarian principle, Noller seems to have something more restricted in mind. The establishment of a ‘parallel space’ like the dark web, for example, is considered to contradict the virtual imperative (69). The only hint towards a principle for such restrictions is that parallel spaces, such as fake news networks, do not allow for a ‘coherent connection’ to the global internet. But this does not tell the reader where the expansion of the digital action space runs up against principles that limit the freedom of speech, for example, and where mere contradiction of assertion turns into incoherence. Since the virtual imperative is not intended as a libertarian or techno-anarchist answer, it is at least incomplete.

The section on ethics is followed by a brief discussion of aesthetics of digitality. This touches NFTs, generative AI and computer games, but treats these mostly through rhetorical questions. For a section on digital education, Noller has specific expertise through a longstanding experience in running hybrid seminars, starting long before the pandemic. The lessons for digital education offered here, however, remain surprisingly generic. The ‘concrete use’ (92) that hypertextuality offers to philosophy education is that the ‘giving and taking of reasons’ becomes ‘ubiquitous and independent of specific places and times’ (94). But was the giving of reasons not already decoupled from time and place through written language, or at least other means of mass communication? It is not easy to see how this characterization would help philosophy educators to leverage digital technology. On the other hand, there is surprisingly no discussion of more obvious aspects of the digitization of teaching, such as the interplay between synchronous and asynchronous modes of instruction. And for the topic that looms large at the time of (unaided) writing of this review, namely the impact of large language models like GPT4 on essay-based education, Noller’s booklet is already too old.

It follows a brief comment on digital enlightenment, where Noller understands immaturity as the use of the internet as a static repository of information or a medium of consumption (97). As expected, mature users contribute actively to the enlargement of the digital action space. The concluding chapter on anthropology runs at less than 2.5 pages. It argues that instead of seeing new technology as a threat to our sense of reality, it should be seen as another means of expressing our human freedom, but the consequences of this idea are not articulated.

As already mentioned, the book is written in a slightly idiosyncratic style. While the format is aimed at a broad audience and the philosophical arguments are not treated in technical depth, the language contains a fair amount of philosophical jargon. Throughout, there are references to classical works, mostly to Kant, but also to Aristotle, McTaggart, Leibniz, Schiller, and Wittgenstein. But these references are mostly playful, and it is not always clear how seriously some philosophical formulae should be taken—for example, when Noller claims that the internet is the ‘condition of possibility of mediality’ (65). I imagine that one group of readers will be irritated by the language of such claims, and a very different group will be surprised by how little follows them. Kantian vocabulary and aphorisms like ‘data based intuitions without algorithmic concepts are blind, algorithmic concepts without data based intuition are empty’ (48) create anticipations of something important, but then remain aside remarks. The question is whether there is an audience in the middle, who is keen to have the philosophical references, but happy to stay at the general level of discussion.

The booklet bears the subtitle On the philosophy of the digital lifeworld, and sometimes speaks of the priority of a phenomenological description of digitality, in lieu of discussing its technological basis. But the philosophical approach is not placed in a phenomenological context. The concept of lifeworld is not further specified, and phenomenological and postphenomenological debates of the concept and role of technology play no role, which might disappoint some readers of this journal. Lastly, there are two minor irritations that could have been avoided editorially: a quotation from Engelbart lost all punctuation and thereby becomes unreadable (52), and the word ‘interaction’ has a recurring typo (90, 93), which can be mistaken for a neologism.

Noller’s booklet is strongest in the conceptual clarification of digitality and virtualization. Here he argues on the basis of two clear metaphors to establish digitality as a domain of philosophical, and not just technological research. Whether the two metaphors can sustain the philosophical roles that Noller assigns them is worth further investigation. The later parts of the book remain comparatively generic. As it is such a compact book, it might be most useful to whet one’s appetite for new questions and perhaps as an antidote for readers who are used to a very technical approach to its subject matter. The book also offers a good starting point to motivate a philosophical treatment that focuses more on the description of our everyday digital lives than on what sustains them technologically. But there remains room for phenomenologists to carry out such a description, and to do so not in large notes, but ‘in small change’.

Byung-Chul Han: Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld, Polity, 2022

Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld Couverture du livre Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld
Byung-Chul Han. Translated by Daniel Steuer
Paperback $34.95

Gioia Laura Iannilli: L’estetico e il quotidiano

L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza Couverture du livre L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza
Esperienze dell’estetico
Gioia Laura Iannilli
Paperback 22,80 €

Reviewed by: Asia Brunetti (University of Bologna)

Questa è la storia di un tentativo di emancipazione: quello del concetto dell’”estetico”, o meglio, della cosiddetta dimensione estetica. Si tratta di un concetto che per lungo tempo ha rischiato di fossilizzarsi irrimediabilmente sullo scoglio della propria dimensione istituzionale e istituzionalizzata, e al quale oggi, invece, è finalmente concesso prendere aria. La concezione tradizionale dell’estetico, infatti, che lo voleva come membro dell’equazione quasi monolitica “estetico = artistico” – la quale ha segnato la storia dell’estetica filosofica per diversi secoli -, è stata fatta scendere finalmente dal piedistallo che l’aveva ospitata fin quasi alla metà del XX secolo. Oggi, fortunatamente, possiamo revocare in dubbio questa idea (pur ancora fortemente consolidata nell’opinione pubblica, oltre che in quella di alcuni esperti in materia); ci è concesso di guardare al di là dei rigidi bordi del concetto dell’estetico, di avvicinarci sempre di più a questi confini – un tempo concepiti come rigidi e netti – per scoprire, man mano che ci avviciniamo, che sono in realtà ampiamente sfumati e tutt’altro che ben definiti.

È bene ricordare inoltre come questa stessa sorte toccata all’estetico sia efficacemente rimbalzata anche sul secondo termine della nostra monumentale equazione: l’artistico. Anche il concetto di arte nell’ultimo secolo ha subito un affascinante ridimensionamento, volgendo la propria natura ad una nuova capacità inclusiva e di “apertura”, talmente evidente da garantire un’accoglienza entro il novero degli oggetti d’arte persino a quei prodotti di consumo costruiti in serie come risultato di un’opera di progettazione, ossia gli oggetti di design. Sarà allora possibile, in maniera quasi paradossale, elaborare persino un’estetica del design; oppure, rendendo all’estetico ciò che da sempre gli appartiene  ma che ha portato a lungo con sé solo nel nome come radice etimologica, – ossia il suo riferimento alla sensibilità, all’esperienza sensibile – pensare ad un’estetica che non comprenda più al suo interno solo il campo semantico dell’artistico, ma, letteralmente qualsiasi cosa, fino a ciò che più si discosta dalla straordinarietà delle opere artistiche, persino le cose ordinarie, quotidiane, la nostra everydayness.

Proprio di questi temi tratta ampiamente l’opera di Gioia Laura Iannilli, L’estetico e il quotidiano, che fa di “Design, Everyday Aesthetics ed Esperienza” i tre cardini o pilastri sui quali installare la riflessione, come recita appunto il sottotitolo del testo. Sono proprio queste tre grandi tematiche, appunto, a scandire il flusso delle considerazioni dell’autrice, nonché a dividere il testo in altrettante sezioni volte al loro approfondimento. Ciò che si vuole sostenere con fermezza è la preziosità che contraddistingue elementi di per sé difficilmente accostabili all’ambito dell’estetico – poiché esso è stato a lungo marcato dal profondo pregiudizio arte o natura-centrico – come l’ambito quotidiano, le pratiche ordinarie e la progettazione di oggetti quotidiani (il design), per una riflessione sull’esperienza estetica che voglia aspirare ad una certa completezza.

Per quanto riguarda il primo elemento di questa triade, il design, esso viene messo in rilievo nel testo per la sua potenzialità nel far emergere la dimensione pratica dell’estetico, una sfaccettatura di quest’ultimo raramente presa in considerazione negli studi dell’estetica filosofica. L’autrice, nel delineare le categorie concettuali – principalmente coppie di concetti, dicotomie – e tutto l’apparato interpretativo attraverso il quale è stato studiato il design a livello istituzionale (utile/bello; funzione/forma; consumo/immagine), rivendica una modalità nuova di avere a che fare con questo tema: «È necessaria un’analisi estetologica sul design che si concentri sulla categoria dell’esperienzialità (o della relazionalità) che trova riscontro nelle pratiche quotidiane». Il migliore amico del design, d’altra parte, è proprio il quotidiano, la dimensione della “everydayness”, dalla quale esso appunto risulta estremamente inscindibile. In secondo luogo l’autrice rivolge la trattazione verso l’analisi della genesi e degli sviluppi di un ambito di studi relativamente recente, sorto in seno all’indagine estetica; una linea di ricerca che si potrebbe quasi definire “oscura”, incerta, sulla quale l’autrice, perciò, vuole tentare di gettare un po’ di luce e di chiarezza: si tratta della cosiddetta “Everyday Aesthetics”, sub-disciplina dell’estetica sviluppatasi pressappoco negli ultimi tre decenni.

La valutazione dell’autrice in merito a questo nuovo ambito di studio risulta chiaro fin dalle prime pagine del testo: si tratta di un vero e proprio congedo. Infatti, pur mettendo in campo elementi essenziali nel gioco della riflessione estetica – in primo luogo proprio i fenomeni quotidiani – tuttavia essa tende a ricadere troppo spesso nella trappola dei pregiudizi e delle impostazioni tradizionali degli studi estetici; una grande “pecca” dell’Everyday Aesthetics sarebbe ad esempio, quella di conferire troppa poca importanza all’ambito del design. Tuttavia, l’analisi dell’Everyday Aesthetics compiuta dall’autrice in questa sede risulta molto accurata e particolareggiata; il suo intento principale è quello di sistematizzare quelli che sono i più importanti contributi sorti in grembo alla disciplina, scandendoli in base al criterio della loro vicinanza e adesione oppure rifiuto e lontananza rispetto alla tradizione estetica consolidata. Vengono a delinearsi in tal modo da un lato degli approcci “deboli, continuisti o straordinaristi”, cioè fedeli alla tradizione, e dall’altro degli approcci “forti, discontinuisti o familiaristi”, che appunto se ne distanziano in maniera evidente. Tra i grandi autori dei quali l’autrice esamina i contributi, cioè i maggiori esponenti dell’Everyday Aesthetics, si può rintracciare nel primo gruppo Thomas Leddy con la sua Aesthetics of Aura Experience e Ossi Naukkarinen con la sua Aesthetics of Everydayness, nel secondo Yuriko Saito, fautrice di una Aesthetics of Care, Arto Haapala, di una Aesthetics of Lacking e Kevin Melchionne, propugnatore di una Aesthetics of Well-Being.

Dopo aver trattato approfonditamente le posizioni di questi teorici, da considerarsi i veri e propri “pilastri” dell’Everyday Aesthetics, l’autrice passa in rassegna quelli che denomina i suoi “meta-teorici”. Questi ultimi, i quali si sarebbero spesi in una revisione critica degli approcci teorici dell’Everyday Aesthetics, sarebbero a suo avviso i responsabili della svolta normativa della disciplina in una direzione intersoggettivo-continuista. Tutto ciò vuol significare il rientro in campo con piena dignità di una colonna portante del discorso estetico tradizionale, specialmente di matrice kantiana: la dimensione della condivisione dei giudizi di gusto, dell’intersoggettività, appunto. Ma ciò non significa affatto che i “meta-teorici” dell’Everyday Aesthetics convergano tutti verso una medesima prospettiva: tutt’altro; anche per quanto riguarda i più recenti approcci “critici” ciò che emerge è un’aria di disaccordo ed un certo attrito. L’autrice prende in considerazione in particolare i contributi di Cristopher Dowling, Dan Eugen Ratiu, Jane Forsey e la prospettiva dell’Egalitarian Aesthetics avanzata nel 2016 da Giovanni Matteucci, i quali concordano appunto nel riconoscere la necessità di rintracciare un aspetto normativo entro la cornice della nuova sub-disciplina dell’estetica; inoltre essi tendono a condividere, non a caso, una linea di pensiero di carattere continuista.

Il binomio intersoggettività-continuità, che dunque qualifica in maniera determinante la linea teorica dei cosiddetti approcci “meta-teorici”, è evidentemente sotteso ad una fondamentale dimensione dell’estetico, ossia al suo carattere di relazionalità. Scrive infatti l’autrice: «La relazionalità […] è indubbiamente cifra specifica dell’estetico in quanto è proprio in un contesto fondamentalmente intersoggettivo, ossia espressivo (sia esplicito sia implicito, sia proposizionale sia gestuale), che l’esperienza estetica ha luogo». Ma, come ribadisce l’autrice in un altro punto, questa relazione che connota l’estetico in quanto tale in ogni suo dispiegarsi, è sempre “da qualche parte”, cioè è sempre situata, e quindi «specificata e vincolata topograficamente». Quest’ultimo aspetto ci spinge ad aprire un ulteriore contesto di riflessione: quello che riguarda gli “spazi estetici”, e in particolare gli spazi estetici quotidiani. Essi vengono ripartiti dall’autrice nelle seguenti categorie: gli spazi estetici privati, pubblici, istituzionalizzati, virtuali-globali e commerciali. Si vuol far emergere in tal modo una caratteristica di fondo dello spazio estetico quotidiano, ovvero la dimensione di benessere che esso tende a produrre: «Gli spazi estetici quotidiani sono spazi in cui “si sta bene”», che garantiscono una qualche gratificazione, e far risaltare inoltre l’intreccio che attraverso questi spazi viene a configurarsi tra l’estetico e l’economico.

L’autrice sofferma infine la propria attenzione su una configurazione del design di origine molto recente: il cosiddetto Experience Design – risultato del recentissimo processo (cominciato all’incirca negli anni ’80 ma sempre più diffuso) di «smaterializzazione, diffusione e integrazione del design nelle pratiche quotidiane» -, facendone un caso esemplare per dispiegare ulteriori concetti sottesi alle dinamiche estetiche quotidiane. Esso consiste generalmente nella produzione di esperienze nelle quali la componente materiale decresce progressivamente d’importanza a favore di una dimensione interattiva sempre più rilevante. Tale ambito viene introdotto dall’autrice soprattutto al fine di rimarcare e giustificare la caduta e risoluzione delle dicotomie e delle storiche antinomie tra “soggetto” e “oggetto” e tra “natura” e “tecnica” o “artificio”. I due settori ai quali l’autrice fa riferimento nell’esame di questo recente sviluppo del design sono quelli della moda e dell’interazione con le interfacce.

L’Experience Design viene analizzato alla luce di una contrapposizione di fondo tra due concetti: quello di Lebenswelt e quello di Everydayness, proprio per sottolineare l’impatto che esso produce su tali dimensioni. L’intento dell’autrice è mostrare l’inadeguatezza ai nostri scopi di questi termini e proporre dunque una sostituzione di questi ultimi con le nozioni di “habitus” da un lato e di “campo” dall’altro, dove la prima dev’essere intesa sulla scorta di Bourdieu come «strutture strutturate predisposte a funzionare come strutture strutturanti, cioè in quanto principi generatori e organizzatori» e la seconda come «contesto dinamico in cui interagiscono energie significative», o meglio, bisognerebbe parlare di: «Mondo della vita, dinamicizzato in habitus, e quotidianità restituita alla sua funzione di campo di gioco». L’autrice ritrae tale nuovo settore come una vera e propria radicalizzazione odierna del design, la quale porta con sé l’«intreccio tra esteticità e quotidianità in una prospettiva centrata sulla intersoggettività e sulla continuità tra i vari livelli dell’estetico». Scrive inoltre che: «L’Experience Design […] plasma in modo sempre più significativo la nostra realtà proponendo un tipo di esperienzialità basata sulla “immediatezza”, sulla “superficialità”, sulla disponibilità, e sul piacere che deriva proprio dalla facilità con cui è possibile realizzare le esperienze che esso progetta, propone o innesta nella vita quotidiana».

Alla luce di quanto emerso è facile notare come il problema fondamentale per noi sia quello di cercare una risposta ad un tale interrogativo: se, dato che la progettazione (il design) sembra orientare sempre di più e in modo maggiormente pervasivo le nostre esperienze estetiche, tale circostanza conduca ad una alienazione oppure consenta, al contrario, dei margini di spontaneità e libertà. L’estetico può essere inteso come un mezzo di emancipazione dell’individuo contemporaneo oppure no? Per usare le parole dell’autrice: «Non potrebbe forse l’estetico rivelarsi un fattore di disincantamento dalla metafisica dualistica, piuttosto che propriamente di alienazione, e dunque essere un mezzo di emancipazione per l’individuo contemporaneo?».

Oggi le dinamiche esperienziali quotidiane sono modellate con un’incidenza sempre maggiore dal design, dalla progettazione, spesso attaccato come se fosse causa dell’estinzione della spontaneità. È innegabile quanto l’esperienza sia «oggi sempre più evidentemente in oscillazione tra spontaneità e natura progettata»; ma questa dinamica, risultata dallo sviluppo sempre più incredibilmente rapido e inarrestabile delle pratiche umane, ed in questo caso specialmente delle arti, ci accompagna davvero necessariamente di fronte ad un baratro oltre il quale non c’è più umanità (intesa qui come spontaneità naturale dell’uomo)? Per quanto possa sembrare difficile rispondere a questi interrogativi, ciò che è evidente – e questa è l’opinione portante del testo – è il bisogno di elaborare ai nostri fini «un’estetica generale che si occupi anche di quotidianità avendone acquisito i motivi al proprio interno senza farli diventare caratteri essenziali, ma relazionalmente e dinamicamente strutturali dell’estetico»; infatti «è proprio su queste basi, ovvero su basi relazionali, o intersoggettivo-continuiste, che andrebbe elaborata una teoria generale dell’estetica (del quotidiano), di fatto non ancora disponibile». Solo in tali condizioni, infatti, potremmo essere in grado di riflettere ampiamente ed apertamente sulle recenti acquisizioni dell’ambito estetico e sulle sue nuove promesse, liberati finalmente dal giogo del pensiero più tradizionalista e diretti verso un nuovo mondo, il mondo ordinario, quello che da sempre tutti abbiamo ed abbiamo avuto sotto gli occhi, ancora tutto da scoprire.

Enzo Paci: Journal phénoménologique, Éditions Conférence, 2021

Journal phénoménologique Couverture du livre Journal phénoménologique
Lettres D'italie
Enzo Paci
Éditions Conférence
Paperback $31.95

Chung-Chi Yu: Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels

Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels Couverture du livre Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels
Orbis Phaenomenologicus, Band 47
Chung-Chi Yu
Königshausen & Neumann

Reviewed by: Alexis Gros (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)


Chung-Chi Yu, Professor of Philosophy at the National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan, counts as one of the most prominent phenomenology scholars in Asia. He specializes in the works of Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schutz and has translated both the Husserliana IX, Phänomenologische Psychologie, and Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt into Chinese. The philosophy of Bernhard Waldenfels, who was his Ph.D. supervisor at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum during the 1990s, is also included in his field of expertise and has decisively influenced his thought.

Life-world and Cultural Difference, published at the end of 2019 in the collection Orbis Phaenomenologicus, reflects the research work conducted by Yu in the last two decades. The book consists of thirteen chapters, which deal with three main topics that are at the heart of the preoccupations of the author: the relationship between transcendental phenomenology and phenomenological psychology in Husserl’s thought, the discussion of central issues in Schutzian phenomenology, and the analysis of the problem of cultural difference from the perspectives of Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels. In this review, I will exclusively focus on the latter topic, which, as the title already reveals, plays the leading role in the structure of the book.

The radicalization of globalization taking place since the end of the 20th century has produced an intensification of contacts among different cultures. This, in turn, brought about the emergence of a number of theoretical debates on issues such as “interculturality”, “multiculturality”, and “transculturality” (69). These discussions, which are at the core of contemporary cultural philosophy and social theory, center around questions such as the following: How can one explain or account for cultural differences? Are all cultures “equal” or some are “better” or “more developed” than others? What is the desirable relation between divergent cultural groups? Is intercultural communication and understanding possible? If so, how does it work? Are there commonalities between cultures beyond their heterogeneities? Should one endorse a universalist or a particularistic and relativistic account of culture? Chung-Chi Yu’s Life-world and Cultural Difference has the merit of showing that phenomenology has much to say concerning these and similar questions.

As Chung-Chi Yu explains, Husserl and Schutz provide illuminating insights on cultural difference qua life-worldly experience which can enhance current discussions on the topic. Interestingly enough, however, Yu does not endorse an orthodox Husserlian or Schutzian position, as many Husserl and Schutz scholars tend to do. Instead, in a critical and original way, Yu resorts to Waldenfels’ reflections on “the alien” [das Fremde] as a corrective for the problematic universalist, foundationalist, and Eurocentric motifs that, to different degrees, permeate the work of both thinkers (ix).

Yu’s argument concerning cultural difference—which is clearly sketched out in the Introduction of the book and unfolded in eight of its thirteen chapters—is structured in three main moments. First (1), Yu expounds upon Husserl’s position, criticizing its Eurocentric, logocentric, and foundationalist motifs. Second (2), Yu scrutinizes Schutz’s account, identifying problematic universalistic traits within it similar to those found in Husserl. And finally (3), Yu presents Waldenfels’ conception of interculturality as a non-Eurocentric and non-foundationalist approach able to overcome Husserl’s and Schutz’s shortcomings. In what follows, I will briefly reconstruct each of these argumentative steps.

Chung-Chi Yu on Husserl

Chung-Chi Yu chooses the Kaizo articles (a set of papers on ethics written between 1922 and 1924) as a starting point for his explanation of the Husserlian position (17-26). Based on an exhaustive analysis of these texts, Yu shows that Husserl’s Eurocentric account of the relationship between European and non-European cultures partly rests upon ethical considerations. For Husserl, an ethical life is one that is lived according to reason: “[t]he content of the categorical imperative is ‘to lead a life based on practical reason’” (19). More precisely, living a rational life entails overcoming the unreflective naivety of the natural attitude and achieving a reflective and self-determined conduct based on well-founded knowledge (18f.). In this way, philosophy plays a key role, insofar as it provides human beings with access to “reason” [Vernunft] (18ff.).

As Yu shows, Husserl conceives ethics on the collective level in a structurally analogous way. A cultural form of life is good, so to speak, when it frees itself from the irrational bonds of religious-mythical “tradition” and commits instead to the demands of Vernunft (22). And this, in turn, is only possible if philosophers get a big say in the organization and regnancy of social life: “the cultural elevation should be achieved through the introduction of philosophy […]. Philosophers provide a method by which society can be conscious of itself” (18, 22). Against this background, Husserl argues that the European culture, as the birthplace and one and only home of philosophical reason, has an ethical supremacy over all non-European forms of life (29f.). More precisely, in this view the birth of Europe, understood not as a geographical location but as a “spiritual world” (30), coincides with that of philosophy in ancient Greece. The emergence of the “theoretical attitude” [theoretische Einstellung] in the 7th Century BC constitutes a turning point in human history, insofar as it marks the advent of the “willingness to live by the ideal of reason” (29). As the unique spiritual carrier of philosophy – “nothing similar developed in other ancient cultures like India or China” (29), – European culture has a “historical mission”, namely, that of rationalizing or enlightening the entire world (44). By this token, the Kaizo papers recommend non-European peoples to embrace the philosophical rationality of Europe, which is deemed to be “universally valid” (17f., 27). Cultures such as Japan, China or India should leave behind their underdeveloped “religious-mythical thought” (29) and Europeanize themselves, as it were, by organizing their collective forms of life according to the demands of absolute reason: “To become European is to advance to a higher level of rationality” (37). As Yu rightly points out, the “Eurocentric arrogance” entailed in his position goes without saying (25).

It is important to emphasize, as Chung-Chi Yu himself does, that the Husserlian discourse on Europe takes shape within the context of his diagnosis of a “cultural crisis” of humanity in the aftermath of the First World War (28, 30). Especially in the Krisis, a classical text from 1935-1936 which takes on some of the arguments from the Kaizo papers (17), the father of phenomenology characterizes this crisis as a crisis of reason and therefore of the European culture in toto. Philosophical Vernunft, he says, has lost its way, being truncated by the overwhelming advance of “objectivism and naturalism.” Accordingly, it is necessary to “recover” its original ethical sense, as founded in ancient Greek, and to accomplish its universal mission (30).

From all this follows that Europe plays a key role in Husserlian thought, while non-European cultures have merely a residual status therein. As Yu claims, Husserl was not interested in seriously understanding other civilizations apart from the European. He only refers to them, in a rather undifferentiated way, as curious examples that serve as a contrasting foil to define Europe (43). “[T]he ‘non-European’ is lumped together into a single category with no room for distinction between India or China, Papua New Guinea or Patagonia” (38). More precisely, in some of Husserl’s writings millenary civilizations such as China or India are denigrated as “mythical-religious”, or even “magical”, cultures that have not developed scientific-philosophical forms of thinking (48f.). Now, as Chung-Chi Yu points out, despite his unacceptable ethnocentric ideas, Husserl never lost sight of the cultural differences among divergent social groups: he “is well aware that all people live in different cultures and that accessing each other’s culture is difficult” (50). Moreover, according to developments on Husserliana XV by contemporary phenomenologists Anthony Steinbock and Berhard Waldenfels, “pluralism” may have a place Husserlian thought insofar as the distinction between “homeworld” [Heimwelt] and “alienworld” [Fremdwelt] is useful for reflecting on intercultural relationships from a non-Eurocentric perspective (38-39, 157ff.).

For Husserl, the concept of homeworld refers to the “normal”—i.e., the established, familiar, and quotidian “world-horizon” which is common to a specific social group (32). The “homecomrades” live and act in one and the same meaningful environment because they share a “tradition” which they have inherited from past generations (32). More precisely, they are an experiential community, or “Erfahrungsgemeinschaft”, insofar as they share a “noetic a priori” (57). What they have in common is a specific “Umwelt-Apperzeption”, that is, a habitualized “mode of apperception” which enables them to “easily understand” the typical meaning of both cultural objects and other people’s actions (32).

By contrast, Husserl characterizes the alienworld as the experiential environment of a foreign group as seen from the perspective of the homeworld. The homecomrades perceive the alienworld as an abnormal and unfamiliar milieu, meaning they have difficulties in grasping the typical meaning of the events, things, and actions they see within it. This is so because they do not belong to the alien group’s generative tradition and therefore do not share the same Umwelt-Apperzeption  (32f.). In this sense, “Husserl imagines that he would feel dizzy if he were in a town in China, since all the essential types of people’s behavior and all kinds of objects would be unfamiliar to him” (32).

However, although the father of phenomenology acknowledges the divergences among cultures and the difficulties entailed in intercultural understanding, his main theoretical interest lies in the possibility of “overcoming” cultural difference (vii ff.). To put it in Yu’s terms, Husserl’s position is closer to “cultural universalism” than to “cultural particularism” (vii) in that he is mainly concerned with answering the following questions: “Are cultural differences to be surpassed or overcome? Is there a common core shared by both the homeworld and the alienworld?” (57). Husserl answers these questions positively by resorting to the idea of “the one world” [Die eine Welt] (159). Behind the surface of cultural differences, he says, there is “an underlying commonality”, namely, the “universal structure of the life-world”, which is equally experienced by all persons, irrespective of their sociocultural provenience (viii, 34). Arguing from a questionable Eurocentric and logocentric perspective, he suggests that only those subjects able to adopt a philosophical or “theoretical attitude”, i.e., Europeans, can access this “common ground” (50). Only philosophy qua “universal science”, a distinctly European endeavor, can work out the basal dimensions of “the one world” (37). As Yu shows, Husserl identifies this “common ground” with “pure nature”—not in the positivist-objectivist sense but, rather, as the world of nature as it is (inter)subjectively lived by pre-scientific subjects (36, 58). “If we keep to […] what in the world is perceptually accessible to everyone, then we come to nature” (Husserl on p. 58). More precisely, the spatiotemporal world of nature, which is structurally perceived in the same way by everyone, is that what constitutes the “core of human experience” (60) and thus the most basal stratum of the life-world (30).

In Husserl’s own terms, despite cultural differences, “there is commonality, earth and heaven, day and night, stones and trees, mountain and valley, diverse animals…” (Husserl on p. 58). For instance, the hardness of marble is an experiential fact universally valid, regardless of cultural differences (p, 97). Thus understood, universal nature is “composed of the world of space-time and natural objects, which are not yet culturally interpreted and reconstructed” (31). Far from being amorphous, this pre-cultural layer of the world shows a certain typicality, i.e., a stable and regular style of manifestation (60). Now, although concretely experienced by all pre-scientific subjects, these fundamental structures can only be unearthed philosophically, that is, by means of reflective, rational, and abstractive procedures such as the ones developed by transcendental phenomenology (30). To use Yu’s own words, the “world-nucleus of nature is to be distilled by abstraction” (30). For Husserl, this can only be carried out by Europeans, since they and only they, as unique inheritors of Greek Reason, are able to perform the necessary switch from the natural to the theoretical attitude.

Husserl argues that cultural objects are composed of two strata, namely, the “sinnliche Unterlage” and the “aufgestufte Kultur-Bedeutung”, i.e., a material substratum that can be sensually perceived just like natural things and a layer of non-sensual meaning, which is founded upon the former (54). Both strata are equally “essential” dimensions of a cultural thing. On the one hand, without a certain materiality a book would not be “readable”; and, on the other hand, if it did not support some kind of spiritual content, e.g., a novel, it would not be a “book” at all (54). To be sure, in everyday life we experience both layers together in an undifferentiated manner: we immediately see a “book” as a corporeal-spiritual object. The distinction between these two strata is a product of abstractive activities (54).

When characterizing the respective modes of manifestation of these two layers, Husserl draws upon the differentiation between “real” and ideal or “irreal” objectivities developed in Logische Untersuchungen (54). The material substratum of the cultural object counts as a “real physical unit” [reale physische Einheit] which is “individualized” in spatio-temporality, while its cultural stratum constitutes an “irreal, ideal unit of significance” [irreale, ideale Einheit von Bedeutung] that does not occupy a specific location in the spatiotemporal world (54). For this reason, one and the same novel as ideal unit, say, Herman Hesse’s Demian, can be embodied in different material books qua real objects produced in divergent times and places.

Yu points out that the distinction between Husserl’s two strata of cultural objects plays a crucial role in Husserl’s account of cultural difference. The physical substratum of a particular cultural object, as a part of material nature, is perceptually available for people from all cultures (56). By contrast, its ideal-irreal layer, i.e., its meaning and purpose, can only be seen and understood by those belonging to the culture that produced and uses it. In this sense, Husserl says that, for the Bantu people, the “aesthetic or practical ‘meaning’” of our cultural things would be “beyond comprehension” (56). When examining Husserl’s take on cultural difference, Chung-Chi Yu gives special attention to his analysis of the mode of manifestation of so-called “cultural objects”—i.e., of things that were created by human beings for certain purposes, such as books, tables, maps, computers, football balls, etc. (ix, 53ff). According to Husserl, cultural objects have a double ontological status: they constitute “corporeal-spiritual objects” [körperlich-geistige Gegenständlichkeiten], meaning they belong both to “material reality” and to the ideal-intellectual realm (53). On the one hand, they are real things but, on the other hand, they carry a non-sensual meaning. A book, for instance, has a certain hardness, weight, color, smell, etc. just like trees or rocks, but, at the same time, it supports ideal-spiritual objectivities that cannot be seen, touched or smelled: poems, stories, theories, and so on.

Chung-Chi Yu on Schutz

In a second argumentative step, Chung-Chi Yu expounds Schutz’s account of cultural difference, focusing especially on his analysis of cultural objects as presented in the 1955 paper “Symbol, Society and Reality” (61). As Yu shows, Husserl’s notion of “appresentation” plays a key role in the Schutzian approach (viii, 61, 80). More precisely, Schutz maintains that the “in-group” has a different objectual environment than the “out-group”, and this because they operate with different “system[s] of appresentational references” (viii).

According to Yu, Schutz adopts the Husserlian concept of “appresentation” [Appräsentation] as developed in the 5th Cartesian Meditation. By this notion, Husserl means a “mediated intentionality” [Mittelbarkeit der Intentionalität] that makes empathy possible (62). It is, more specifically, a passive synthesis of consciousness thanks to which something directly experienced, i.e., the body of the other, makes “co-present” something which is non-perceivable: the other’s inner life (62). In our actual experience, however, the alter ego appears as a unitary psycho-physical phenomenon: “appresentation is coupled with presentation and together they make a ‘functional community’ [Funktionsgemeinschaft]” (70).

In line with his teacher, Schutz understands appresentation as a “pairing association between appresenting and the appresented” (62). As he argues, however, this passive synthesis is not only at work in empathy but in all kinds of experiences of “transcendence”, i.e., of phenomena that cannot be directly experienced (62). Going beyond Husserl, and arguing from a sign-theoretical approach, Schutz uses the concept of “appresentational references” for depicting all “means” used by everyday subjects for overcoming transcendences, namely, “marks”, “indications”, “signs”, and “symbols” (64, 80). “These so-called appresentational references”, he thinks, “are rooted in the consciousness structure of appresentation” (80).

Furthermore, Schutz argues that both the “appresenting item” and the “appresented item” (70) always appear as embedded within “horizon[s]” or “orders” of phenomena (63). “Each side of the appresentational relationship must rely on its background or order” (63). Take, for instance, the case of a flag as a symbol of a country. The appresenting item, say, a piece of light blue and white fabric, belongs to the physical-material world, while the appresented item, e.g. the idea of Argentina as a country, is part of a horizon of cultural-spiritual notions.

As Yu has it, Schutz argues that cultural objects are characterized by bearing specific appresentational references only visible to those belonging to the in-group that produce and use them on a daily basis (viii). Differently put, the members of a certain group share a “system of appresentational references” that allows them to immediately understand the meaning of their objectual environment (viii). These appresented meanings manifest themselves as “inherent” to the objects and are thus perceived as “real components of the ‘definition of situation’” (Schutz in p. 99). In this sense, according to Schutz, “[t]he world of everyday life is […] permeated by appresentational references which are simply taken for granted” (Schutz in p. 65).

In a similar vein to Husserl, Schutz seems to think that the appresenting item of cultural objects, i.e., their material layer, is able to be perceived by all human beings regardless of their cultural origin, while the appresented side is only available for the in-group members (p. 70). Consider, for example, a message in Chinese language written in black in a piece of white paper. Everyone can see the black-ink figures against the white background and even interpret them as some kind of linguistic signs, but only those who speak or understand the language, and hence belong to some extent to the Chinese culture, can comprehend the meaning of the message, i.e., that what those signs appresent.

Schutz, thus, understands cultural difference primarily as a result of divergent systems of appresentational references. More specifically, in his view the system of appresentational references is an essential component of the particular cultural pattern or “Kulturmuster” of each in-group, i.e., of the “guiding principle of cognition and behavior” in light of which its members define quotidian situations (98f.). Operating in natural attitude within this interpretive framework, in-group members see the appresented items without further ado and take them for granted as immanent aspects of the objects. By contrast, outsiders do not perceive this surplus of meaning or only consider it as something externally “added” to material things (ix).

Against this background, Yu points out that “the pure experience of the life-world” in Husserl’s sense, that is, the experience of pure nature as described above, is also possible from a Schutzian perspective (ix, 64). According to Schutz, this experience emerges “automatically” when, lacking the adequate system of appresentational references, out-group members are incapable of understanding the meaning and purpose of an object (ix, 64). This happens, for instance, when someone unfamiliar with modern art cannot grasp the appresentations “normally” awaken by a certain painting, that is to say, when the “appresentational scheme” does not function properly (64). In this case, says Schutz, what the person perceives are merely real-material phenomena such as shapes, lines, and colors (64).

As Yu suggests, although Schutz deals with the issue of cultural difference more exhaustively than Husserl and does not share the latter’s Eurocentrism, he seems to endorse a cultural universalist and foundationalist position as well (ix, 66). That is, he does not abandon Husserl’s ideas of “universalism” and “grounding” [Grundlegung] (ix, 66). To begin with, Schutz also postulates a pure experience of the life-world as the common experiential ground for all cultures. However, in contrast to Husserl, he believes this layer of experience only comes up in abnormal cases, namely, as a result of intercultural divergences or misunderstandings (pp, ix, 66).

But this is not all. Especially in his later writings, the Viennese phenomenologist speaks of a “universal symbolism” shared by all cultures, which would be ultimately rooted in the conditio humana (ix). As Chung-Chi Yu emphasizes, Schutz argues that certain features of the life-world are common to all cultures because “they are rooted in the human condition” (66). In this sense, “Schutz’s idea of universalism is similar to that of Husserl” (ix). Both postulate a common ground underlying the different homeworlds or in-groups (69).

Chung-Chi Yu on Waldenfels

The final pages of the book show that Bernhard Waldenfels’ phenomenology of the alien can serve as a corrective to the deficits of both Husserl’s and Schutz’s accounts of cultural difference. In the two last chapters, Yu exhaustively reconstructs Waldenfels’ criticism of the universalist and foundationalist “idea of grounding” [Grundlegungsidee] which is at the heart of the Husserlian approach and also informs the Schutzian one (162).

Bernhard Waldenfels objects to Husserl’s ethnocentric and logocentric claim that European philosophy can overcome cultural divergences, insofar as it is able to reach a plane of “universality” with the help of Reason (163). For Waldenfels, this idea reflects one of the main deficits of European culture, namely, its systematic neglect and underestimation of the “otherness [Fremdheit] of non-European cultures” (164). Europe sees the alterity of other cultural groups as an obstacle to be surmounted, and not as a voice worthy to be heard and understood.

More precisely, Waldenfels criticizes the European notion of universality at work in Husserlian thought. As he argues, “no culture”, not even Europe, the alleged birthplace and home of Vernunft, “can ever claim to have created the universal order”, since it is impossible to observe and compare all different cultures from an acultural perspective, as it were (164). In other words, all conceptions of universality, the European one included, are inevitably particular accounts,  meaning they are always the result of “processes of universalization” in which something particular is presented as universal (163ff). However, “Europeans have not always been conscious of their position-taking” (163). That is to say, they do not always acknowledge that their conception of universality is inescapably particular. According to Waldenfels, this is the main deficit of “philosophical Eurocentrism” as paradigmatically embodied in Husserl’s position. According to Waldenfels, it miraculously “‘starts from the self, goes through the other and ends in totality’” (Waldenfels in p. 175). Waldenfels also argues, however, that it is still possible and even useful to work with the notion of universality, as long as one recognizes its insurmountable limits. First and foremost, one has to admit that no particular social group has access to the universal ontological, moral, and epistemological order of the universe (164). As paradoxical as it sounds, “[u]niversality must remain contextual”, since it is always a cultural product. In this sense, Waldenfels suggests the interesting idea of a “universalization in plural”, i.e., of divergent “processes of universalization” performed by different cultures (Waldenfels in p. 164).

Yu gives special attention to the Waldenfelsian criticism of Husserl’s account of interculturality. Within the framework of his phenomenology of the alien, Waldenfels understands interculturality in a structurally analogous manner as intersubjectivity (171). In many of his writings, he rejects classical accounts of intersubjective relationships, such as the one developed by Husserl in the 5th Cartesian Meditation, for starting from a false premise, namely, the absolute separation between self and other. In this classical view, the self has a pure “sphere of owness” [Eigenheitssphäre], which is not contaminated by otherness (167). And, accordingly, intersubjectivity is not conceived as preceding but as following the existence of monadological subjectivities.

Against this account, Waldenfels emphasizes that the self is always already and inescapably mediated by otherness, being this what makes intersubjectivity possible in the first place. My own subjectivity, thus, has moments of “inner otherness” (171). And this not only because I am, from the outset, interconnected with that of other persons, but also because I am neither totally aware nor completely in control of my own thoughts, feelings, actions, and perceptions (167). For this reason, the “between-world” [Zwsichenwelt] of intersubjectivity precedes individual subjectivities (171).

For Waldenfels, interculturality, i.e., the relationship between the homeworld and the alienworld works in a very similar way. Just like there are no absolutely separated and independent subjects, there are no pure cultures that are not hybridized with others (171) – and this holds true even for Europe (51). The homeworld is essentially intertwined with the alienworld and therefore full of otherness. Accordingly, the primary form of interculturality is to be found in the “borderline-play” [Grenzspiel] taking place in the Zwischenwelt that emerges between cultures. According to Waldenfels, this intercultural borderline-play produces experiences of anxiety, “shock”, and “amazement” (173). Husserl’s idea of a universal common ground, which is partly adopted by Schutz, can be interpreted as an attempt by the (European) homeworld to evade this uneasiness by rationally domesticating the alienness implied in cultural difference (172f.). It is, in other terms, an egocentric/Eurocentric process of universalization that entails an imperial expansion of the homeworld into the territory of the alienworld (173).

The final pages of Life-world and Cultural Difference make clear that Chung-Chi Yu’s own position on cultural difference draws heavily on Waldenfels’ thinking. According to the Taiwanese scholar, a non-Eurocentric account of interculturality must operate within the so-called “Zwischenwelt”. True intercultural communication is only possible if one abandons the egocentric/Eurocentric stance of “appropriation”, or Aneignung, and adopts a humble, respectful, and comprehensive attitude towards other cultures, that is, if one is willing to “learn from others” and “broaden” one own’s “horizon” (ix).

Maren Wehrle: Phänomenologie: Eine Einführung, J.B. Metzler, 2021

Phänomenologie: Eine Einführung Couverture du livre Phänomenologie: Eine Einführung
Philosophische Methoden
Maren Wehrle
J.B. Metzler
Softcover 22,35 €

Chung-Chi Yu: Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels, Königshausen & Neumann, 2019

Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels Couverture du livre Life-World and Cultural Difference. Husserl, Schutz, and Waldenfels
Orbis Phaenomenologicus Studien, Band 47
Chung-Chi Yu
Königshausen & Neumann
Paperback 48,00 €

Frode Kjosavik, Christian Beyer, Christel Fricke (Eds.): Husserl’s Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity, Routledge, 2018

Husserl’s Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity: Historical Interpretations and Contemporary Applications Couverture du livre Husserl’s Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity: Historical Interpretations and Contemporary Applications
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Frode Kjosavik, Christian Beyer, Christel Fricke (Eds.)
Hardback £115.00

Dan Zahavi (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology, Oxford University Press, 2018

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology Couverture du livre The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology
Dan Zahavi (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £110.00

Jan Patočka: The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem

The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem Couverture du livre The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Jan Patočka. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Lubica Ucník. Translated by Erika Abrams. Foreword by Ludwig Landgrebe
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by: Michael Deckard (Lenoir-Rhyne University)

There is something slightly mysterious about reading this book, like finding a notebook in a desk in the attic in a drawer full of cobwebs. Or searching the archives for something you only have an inkling of what you might find (see below for a further description of the Patočka archives in Prague). Even though everything in this book besides the Translator’s Note has previously been published before in other languages, this collection of texts provides in English an insight into a thinker’s life hitherto inaccessible, or at least forgotten. Hence, the mystery. Erazim Kohák’s work in the 1980s brought forth a life story and a philosopher, but focused on the phenomenological and Czech thinker. The dates of the texts from The Natural World as a Philosophical Problem are fascinating in themselves. The main text is Patočka’s habilitation from 1936, Přirozený svét jako filosofický problém, first translated into French forty years later in 1976 (a year before he died), Le monde naturel comme problème philosophique, and then in German in 1990 as Die natürliche Welt als philosophisches Problem. Now the English in 2016, some eighty years after the original publication and forty years after his death. I mention these three translations because the nature of the natural world, for Patočka, is at issue: why is this a philosophical problem, and not an historical or scientific one? What has become of this problem in the intervening eighty years since he wrote the text? Normally, one does not review a book published eighty years earlier, but besides the main text, there is a “remeditated” supplement to it written 33 years later (1970), and then an afterword to the first French translation (1976). But that still leaves a mystery: what can be recalled anew about such texts?

The mystery begins with the foreword, written by a close friend of over forty years, who speaks to the life of the man himself and not just his thought: “our conversations were never purely philosophical,” and that these took place “for nights on end in my Prague years between 1933 and 1939”, Ludwig Landgrebe writes. These years seem to haunt this book, and perhaps the life and country if not all of Europe itself. Experiencing these years in “a kind of exile” in Prague, Landgrebe says, “Talk of personal life, family, comments on the alarming political situation in Europe, common concern for the future of Germany…For me, the development of Patočka’s philosophy is inseparably linked with the history of a friendship.” (ix) This is not a normal foreword. In fact, it was written as memories right after Patočka’s death in 1977. In being guided through the homeland and Prague in particular, “History came alive on these occasions in its interwovenness with art and literature” (x). The foreword is a document in history concerning a time “near and far, familiar and alien,” (xv) and according to Landgrebe, it was the first book on the problem of the life-world (Lebenswelt) (xiv). And yet, the title of the work is not the lifeworld as a philosophical problem, but the natural world. Is this only a problem of translation? Should this 1936 book be interpreted as truly a book about the problem of the lifeworld, or rather as one regarding the natural world, which is a broader problem in philosophy and science than the “well-nigh uncatalogable” literature on the life-world problem. (See the recent review on this site by Philipp Berghofer of The Phenomenological Critique of Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-World).[1]

The introduction to the main text begins thus: “Modern man has no unified worldview. He lives in a double world, at once in his own naturally given environment and in a world created for him by modern natural science, based on the principle of mathematical laws governing nature. The disunion that has thus pervaded the whole of human life is the true source of our present spiritual crisis.” (3) The one philosopher mentioned in this introduction is Descartes—but isn’t Descartes himself a kind of founder of phenomenology as well as science? In a certain sense, then, this book is about “the history of the development of modern science” (113) for which he points to “Leonardo the engineer, Bacon the insatiable political practitioner and visionary, Descartes the mechanistic physician, and even Galileo himself” in the conclusion. Instead of calling it a disenchantment of the world, it is a “dehumanization of the world.”

Chapter 1, “Stating the Problem,” expands upon this fundamental “disanthropomorphization” (6), speaking to how one can philosophise again not just “through mere wonder (thaumazein), but rather on account of the inner difficulties of his spiritual life.” (7) The problem is simply that humans who have experienced modern science “no longer live simply in the naïve natural world; the habitus of his overall relationship to reality is not the natural worldview.” (8) If this book is considered a debate with the founders of modern philosophy, then after stating the problem, Patočka poses some answers: a return to the feeling of life (9-11), an historical typology of possible solutions (11-19), and Patočka’s own proposed solution (19-22). To put it as simply as possible, “to state what we expect from this philosophical anamnesis and why we look upon the subjective orientation as a way to reestablish the world’s unity, the breaking of which threatens modern man in that which, according to Dostoyevsky, is most precious to him: his own self.” (19) There are thus three parts to his solution: subjectivity, the natural world (through history), and language. All of these are meant to unify the self from its fractured nature.

Chapter 2, “The Question of the Essence of Subjectivity and Its Methodical Exploitation,” begins from Descartes, and follows a trajectory of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and finally the method of phenomenology as recapturing subjectivity. Several guiding clues are given as to this method, reduction and time consciousness being two of the most important. Regarding the first,

“the reductive procedure applies, of course, to each and every particular thesis, but above all to the so to say general theses, which are already presupposed in singular judgments, and so on, e.g., the thesis that the world exists with its specific real structures. The reduction applies thus not only to propositions about what is but also to propositions about the structure of what is: not only to ontic but also to ontological propositions. Reduction should not be regarded, as is sometimes the case, as a method for acquiring a priori knowledge.” (38)

By means of this guiding clue, both subjectivity and knowledge are saved through “abstaining” (Epoche), and thus purifying experience of sedimentation in order to achieve some singularity in “pure givenness” or “pure consciousness” as “lived-experience.” (41) It is worth pointing out here that occasionally an endnote by the editors mentions the “recently discovered personal copy of his habilitation thesis” in which there is a penciled note. (201n52) Part of Patočka’s thesis of this chapter is thus to show similarities between phenomenology and the “Platonic-Aristotelian noesis.” (203n71) Due to ideation’s relationship to time-consciousness, the human is intersubjectively constituted. Differentiating this view from Fichte, Schelling, Kant, and Descartes, to go in reverse historical order, nevertheless allows a “passage through phenomenological reflection.” (51)

Chapter 3, “The Natural World,” the heart of the book, entails that subjectivity is not enough, but rather that man is in relation to a world. Erazim Kohák has already written of this work in his 1989 collection of Patočka’s writings, touching upon the difference between přirozený svét and English or German or French: “the world of nature, the entire realm of animate being, including humans in their mundane dimension, with its vital order and natural teleology…the world—now in the sense of the coherent, intelligible context of our being rather than as a sum of existents—which comes ‘naturally’ to us, the prereflective, prepredicative coherence of our context which we take so much for granted.” (Kohák 1989: 23) The point, going back to Patočka’s text, is a conscious co-living with others, with regard to them, and common to all. Criticisms of his 1936 conception, even mentioned 33 years later in his French afterword, is that it was too human-centric. The references are to “home”, “refuge”, “alien”, but he is still aware of the human and the extrahuman dimension. While animals are mentioned within “living nature,” as well as “generations,” “traditions,” and even “myth,” there seems to be no references to fossils. minerals, or flora as part of this natural world. The historical development of the problem accentuates this absence in which something of German idealism is still too stuck in human sensibility, despite mentions of biologists like von Baer and Uexküll or philosophers like Bergson.

Chapter 4, “A Sketch of a Philosophy of Language and Speech,” takes up the third aspect of his proposal, basing language in sensibility, history, and acoustics. While using insights from the Czech school of linguistics, as Landgrebe says in his foreword, “the whole chapter can be read as echo of the discussions that took place in the 1930s in the Prague Linguistic Circle. Many issues of fundamental philosophical import discussed at that time have disappeared from current linguistics under the influence of the nominalist tradition.” (xvii)

When Patočka added a supplement to this main text 33 years later (115-180), he later wrote about that supplement, “Written in haste, under the pressure of circumstances, the added text falls short to this aim, i.e. to clarify and update our view of the problem.” (182) The main problem is thus whether to listen to him or not. If we did, we would only read the afterword, some nine pages long (181-190) Most Patočka scholars ignore this, as did the German edition as well as the editors and translator of this book “despite his openly stated criticism of the first of the two and its omission from the 1976 French edition.” (191) Now, in reviewing this whole text from the perspective of eighty-years later, the sense of mystery returns. The translator’s note, then, should really be read first, or at least at the same time, as Landgrebe’s foreword, since she concludes that “the two afterwords are mutually complementary.” (192) Remembering that for most of Patočka’s life he was under great scrutiny, Kohák points out: “Altogether, of the forty-six years of his active life as a philosopher, Jan Patočka lived only eight years free of censorship.” (Kohák, 1989: 27) This is not an arbitrary point of history. “Man is not only thrown into the world but also accepted. Acceptance is an integral part of throwness, so much so that being-at-home in the world is made possible only through the warmth of acceptance by others,” Landgrebe writes (xvii). It is not without irony and a sense of sadness that Patočka died, having been arrested and interrogated for over eleven hours, forty years ago this year and that we can now read his earliest book for the first time in English.

My own experience, having spent a few days this year in the Patočka archive, was remarkable. Upon discovering a 200+ page manuscript on Ficino with pages and pages of drawings, astrological and artistic, hidden in the 1940s in the Strahov Library in Prague, the content of the archive can truly astonish and surprise one. A few pages of this ms. have been translated into German in Andere Wege in die Moderne: Studien zur europäischen Ideengeschichte von der Renaissance bis zur Romantik by Ludger Hagedorn. The amount of time Patočka spent studying and researching this period from the Renaissance to Romanticism is incredible. Any good phenomenologist or historian wanting to understand the richness of Patočka should visit the archive. The mystery of the text mentioned at the beginning of this review concerns the prophetic style of the philosopher, and how such a text brings out a renewal of thought. Once the cobwebs are blown off, and the archive uncovered, thought and even resistance can begin anew.

[1] Philipp Berghofer. Review of The Phenomenological Critique of Mathematisation and the Question of Responsibility: Formalisation and the Life-World by Ľubica Učník, Ivan Chvatík, Anita Williams (Eds.), Springer, 2015.