Reviewed by: Hikmet Unlu (Middle East Technical University)
In Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss, Beth Cykowski provides a novel discussion of Heidegger’s views on animality. In his 1929–30 lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (hereafter FCM), Heidegger presents three controversial theses: the stone is worldless, the animal is world-poor, and the human is world-forming. In her charitable interpretation of Heidegger, Cykowski pays special attention to the second thesis, according to which the animal is limited in its capacity to access the world. In so doing, she tries to defend Heidegger against what she calls the hierarchizing charge, which is advanced by several philosophers who have criticized Heidegger for attempting to secure human uniqueness by reinstating traditional hierarchies concerning the order of nature. One virtue of Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context and thereby tries to lay bare Heidegger’s broader philosophical agenda. Despite its several merits, however, the book is at best a partial success (i) because Cykowski’s attempt to dissociate Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis is not sufficiently backed up by textual evidence and (ii) because the book fails to clarify the traditional conception of the order of nature against the background of which Heidegger’s views on animality need to be understood and evaluated.
At the beginning of her monograph, Cykowski summarizes the different ways in which FCM has been interpreted and criticized by subsequent philosophers. She notes that some scholars have maintained that Heidegger’s reflections on animality are incompatible with the findings of evolutionary biology, others that despite his protestations to the contrary Heidegger ends up “succumbing to the traditional hierarchy of the scala naturae” (23; all references are to Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss unless otherwise indicated). Cykowski explains moreover that insofar as this latter charge is concerned, some commentators like David Krell have argued FCM to be an aberration in the (otherwise unproblematic) Gesamtausgabe (18), whereas for others like Derrida the evaluative prejudices contained in the lecture course are consistent with Heidegger’s reflections on animality over the course of his career (19). Cykowski points out that yet another charge levelled at Heidegger concerns his tendency in these lectures to treat all animals under one heading; she paraphrases the interpretation endorsed by Alasdair MacIntyre, according to whom Heidegger presents “a grossly oversimplified depiction of animal life” (24), disregarding “the many and complex differences between species” (35), which in turn amounts to overlooking the ways in which different species of animals can be said to have different kinds of world-relation.
One virtue of the opening chapter is that it familiarizes the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality. There is hardly any serious engagement with the argumentation of Heidegger’s critics, however, in the absence of which their conclusions seem too uncharitable to Heidegger. Moreover, the introduction as well as the first chapter of the book would have been the perfect place for Cykowski, who frequently refers to the “traditional hierarchies” concerning the order of nature, to offer a discussion of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, yet the author remains silent on these questions throughout her study.
In Chapter 2, which arguably contains the strongest sections of the book, Cykowski provides a discussion of Heidegger’s analysis of the concept of metaphysics. In one of his papers Walter Brogan has criticized those commentators who would consider “Aristotle as the metaphysician par excellence and…those who would understand Heidegger’s own work as an overcoming of the oblivion of being that begins with Aristotle’s distortion of Greek thinking” (Brogan 1984, 250). Cykowski’s Heidegger adopts neither an anti-metaphysical nor an anti-Aristotelian perspective. “Ancient philosophy thus meets its ‘acme’ with Aristotle,” Cykowski writes, rephrasing Heidegger, but “it has since been in a state of decline” (55), in the sense that the insights gained from metaphysics have long been obscured and trivialized (43), in which case, she argues, it is no wonder that the 1929–30 lecture course contains an attempt to uncover the profundity of the original conception of Aristotelian metaphysics.
In this part of her work, Cykowski stresses two important points about metaphysics. First, she correctly describes the Heideggerian view according to which the question of what metaphysics is sits within the question of what the human being is (45). Second, she spends a great deal of time discussing Heidegger’s remark that the human speaks about nature from within nature. As she puts it:
The human embodies a peculiar ambivalence to the extent that it is both part of physis and capable of ‘speaking out’ about physis in the logos.…Its own form of life is such that it ‘exists among’ natural beings, and it is also the being that, via its participation in the logos, is the medium through which physis is given expression. (47–48)
More or less the same idea can be found in a later passage, where Cykowski writes that “as a result of its endowment of logos, the human ‘speaks out’ about the totality of beings while belonging to this very totality” (97). In these and similar passages, Cykowski provides an interesting analysis of the strange predicament that the human being finds itself in, yet when she contrasts this “Greek” conception of the human’s position in nature to the life/spirit divide that allegedly characterize the contemporary epoch, which exemplify “the more superficial conceptions of the human” (54), it is not immediately clear how the two conceptions are supposed to be alternatives of each other, unless we are forced to make the further assumption that life and spirit—unlike physis and logos—are two alien realms that can never share anything in common. However, we are not forced to make this further assumption (nor is it clear that Heidegger makes it); it would be highly implausible to ascribe to all philosophers after antiquity a position according to which life and spirit are irreconcilably distinct concepts.
The next chapter picks up from the previous one, and Cykowski once again begins by rephrasing Heidegger’s remarks concerning the nature of metaphysics. This sets the stage for Cykowski to discuss Heidegger’s interpretation of the Kulturphilosophie of his time and, more specifically, of the views held by thinkers whom Heidegger considers to be the four spokespeople of the then contemporary epoch: Oswald Spengler, Ludwig Klages, Max Scheler, and Leopold Ziegler. In the lecture course, Heidegger briefly summarizes their “worldviews” so as to show that they all turn on the relation between the fundamental concepts of life and spirit. Cykowski correctly points out that “this foray into Kulturphilosophie is included because the four thinkers represent the received view concerning key characteristics of contemporary thinking, and not because they are philosophically enlightening on their own” (65) but adds in the same breath that “this examination is critical for piecing together the overarching metaphysical context of FCM” (65), which gives the impression that Heidegger’s treatment of the Kulturphilosophie of his time can serve as a model that encapsulates the essential orientation of FCM as a whole—that, in other words, the entire lecture course can be seen as an extended attempt to lay bare the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science.
In Chapter 4, Cykowski examines Heidegger’s discussion of the three forms of boredom. Lest it remains unclear how this excursus, how this journey through boredom pertains to the general progression of the lecture course, Heidegger maintains that profound boredom, which is one of the three forms of boredom discussed in FCM, is the fundamental attunement, the basic mood of the contemporary epoch. In Heidegger’s view, it is precisely this boredom, this indifference to beings as a whole that compels us to pursue the kind of insipid cultural diagnoses provided by Spengler and others. According to Cykowski, Heidegger’s message here is that for a philosophical restoration we must first begin to understand the fundamental attunement of our contemporary context of philosophizing. In her view, this understanding is meant to be part of Heidegger’s “philosophical restoration project, part of his attempt to bring about a philosophical confrontation with ourselves, a genuine ‘living philosophising’” (74).
The next chapter is the longest of the book, which should not come as a surprise given that Cykowski here tackles Heidegger’s reflections on the essence of animality. Cykowski understands the structure of the Heideggerian text to be one that proceeds from a discussion of the insipid worldviews held by Spengler, Klages, Scheler, and Ziegler to a discussion of the fundamental attunement of the contemporary epoch (profound boredom), which then would help explain their insufficient understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and spirit as well as the relation between them. Cykowski points out that “Heidegger’s critique of Kulturphilosophie…was an examination of the ‘outer expression’ of the contemporary situation…[and] is then replaced by an exposition of the internal character of the fundamental attunement that determines it” (96). If this is right, however, one may also expect what follows in the lecture course to be an attempt by Heidegger to steer us in the right direction this time and engage in a genuine living philosophizing—and what raises such expectations all the more is that Heidegger’s unmistakable praise of Uexküll, the famous biologist whom Heidegger next focuses on, starkly contrasts with his strong dismissal of the philosophers of culture—but this is not Cykowski’s interpretation. While she does not turn a blind eye to the passages where Heidegger speaks well of Uexküll, she maintains nevertheless that Uexküll, while in some respects wiser than his contemporaries, is nevertheless unaware of the metaphysical prejudices of his biology, in which case the principal objective of Heidegger’s discussion of Uexküll is to uncover the hidden assumptions behind contemporary science. As Cykowski puts it, “Having looked at the ‘worldview’ side of this dichotomy in his analysis of Kulturphilosophie in Part One, Heidegger now wishes to explore aspects of the ‘science’ side in Part Two” (99). In a later passage she adds even more clearly that “Heidegger is treating Uexküll in the same manner as he treats the four philosophers of culture he discusses in Part One” (121).
It is important to come to grips with what Cykowski believes to be the internal progression of Heidegger’s lecture course because the main message of Chapter 5 can only be understood from within this wider context. Simply put, for many of the key passages of FCM, which happen to be the very passages for which Heidegger has been criticized in the literature, Cykowski will claim that these do not reflect Heidegger’s own position, that in these passages Heidegger is in fact only describing the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary science. “If we pick up The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (FCM) and turn straight to Heidegger’s analysis of biology,” she writes, Heidegger will seem “uncharacteristically…to frame his discussion within a hierarchical understanding of life…[and to endorse] an evaluative ontology of life” (99). What she means to say here is that it would be wrong to ascribe to Heidegger this evaluative hierarchy; it would be more correct to understand Heidegger as trying to bring out into the open the metaphysical prejudices upheld by the scientists of his time.
In a nutshell, the main motivation behind Cykowski’s argumentation is to foist what she understands to be the difficulties associated with the thesis concerning the word-poverty of the animal to contemporary biology. Cykowski asserts in no uncertain terms that the thesis at issue here “is not Heidegger’s own distinct formulation” (123) but rather an attempt by Heidegger to lay bare the metaphysical presuppositions of biologists like Uexküll. Her view is that in such passages Heidegger is not clarifying his own position but rather rephrasing others, but arguably she makes this point without sufficiently showing the relative merits of this alternative reading, which dissociates Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis. While Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does contain many refences to FCM, there are hardly any references in this section of the book to back up Cykowski’s specific interpretation, in the absence of which she seems to rely too much on Heidegger’s treatment of Kulturphilosophie, which she believes serves as a model for the entire lecture course.
In FCM, Heidegger talks about the possibility of establishing a “communal cooperation” (Heidegger 1995, 190) and a “mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191) between science and philosophy. He writes, for example, that we can “discover a proper stance with respect to the connection between living philosophy and living science only if we can sow among us the seeds of an appropriate mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191). It is therefore natural to assume, especially considering Heidegger’s praise of Uexküll, that in the former’s discussion of the latter an attempt is being made to sow the seeds of a collaboration between science and philosophy, but according to Cykowski, Uexküll is not the profound biologist whose works can be utilized to render possible this communal cooperation and mutual understanding between science and philosophy. Rather, Uexküll is at best a successful biologist who “unwittingly renders explicit some of the defining themes of the contemporary zeitgeist” (120). If this is right, Uexküll must be credited not with important insights that enable a collaboration between science and philosophy but with an “incidental articulation of this zeitgeist” (120). In other words, Uexküll unwittingly and incidentally happens to be “one of the clearest articulators of the implicit metaphysical commitments of contemporary biology” (127).
Cykowski wants to stress time and again that the thesis that the animal is world-poor is not Heidegger’s own thesis, that it does not reflect Heidegger’s own position on the issue. As she puts it, “Heidegger’s thesis that the animal is ‘poor in world’ is an attempt to express, as specifically and baldly as possible, precisely what is metaphysically implicit in this Uexküllian account” (115). In a later passage she adds: “Heidegger bases his claim that the animal is ‘poor in world’ on what he considers to be metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s depiction of the organism as confined to a surrounding environment” (122). In a word, this controversial thesis must be ascribed not to Heidegger but to Uexküll. More precisely, the thesis in question explicates what is metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s biology. Hence, if there is something wrong with the thesis, we cannot blame Heidegger because, in Cykowski’s view, Heidegger was not speaking in his own voice.
In Chapter 6, Cykowski focuses on the spirit side of the life/spirit divide. This section of her study also features what appears to be Cykowski’s sole criticism of the 1929–30 lecture course, which she calls “Heidegger’s problematic neglect of anthropology in FCM” (141). She complains that whereas Heidegger “dedicates four chapters to life and biology, he is finished with anthropology after one or two sentences” (138). More precisely, Heidegger’s mistake is to turn a blind eye to “the connection between contemporary anthropological and ancient philosophical thought” (151). Cykowski argues that Heidegger’s quick dismissal of the philosophical-anthropological tradition is unwarranted because a closer analysis of the works of Scheler et al. could have paved the way toward a fruitful dialogue between philosophical anthropology and Heidegger’s own attempts to retrieve the insights gained in antiquity but has long since been trivialized. As she puts it,
had Heidegger looked with a more charitable, thorough, and imaginative eye at Scheler and the philosophical-anthropological tradition, he would have found that it is not only mindful and critical of the metaphysical prejudices that have been inherited throughout history, but that it reads, at certain points, like a direct rearticulation of the Greek conception of the human as a being that “speaks out” about physis from within physis, which he takes to be so illuminating. (151)
Let us keep in mind that, according to Cykowski, Heidegger “does not see any profound affiliation between biology and his own philosophical project” (150). It would have been natural, in fact, for the Heidegger that Cykowski has in mind to dedicate more pages to a discussion of Scheler than a discussion of Uexküll—the latter of whom only “unwittingly” and “incidentally” explicates the metaphysical prejudices of his time—so it is not difficult to understand Cykowski’s objection. It may be argued, however, that there is a simple reason for why Heidegger spends much more time on biology than on anthropology. Namely, the reason could be that the concept of world-poverty is, indeed, a Heideggerian concept and that, in his discussion of Uexküll, Heidegger is actually trying to sow the seeds for a “communal cooperation” and a “mutual understanding” between science and philosophy. After all, Heidegger states in no uncertain terms that Uexküll’s investigations have not been sufficiently appreciated for their true worth, that they “have not yet acquired the fundamental significance they could have if a more radical interpretation of the organism were developed on their basis” (Heidegger 1995, 263). In the same vein, Heidegger adds a few lines later that “the engagement with concrete investigations like this is one of the most fruitful things that philosophy can learn from contemporary biology” (Heidegger 1995, 263). Arguably, these insights to be gained from biology exemplify the communal cooperation between philosophy and science, in which case they cannot be confined to expressions of the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary thought.
In the final chapter of her book, Cykowski once again contrasts the original Greek conception of speaking about nature from within nature to what she calls “the delusions of modern metaphysics” (166), which is marked by “the derived, simplistic life-spirit categories” (162) as well as a “false dichotomy” (165) between these two concepts. This echoes her earlier discussion of “the divisions and categorisations that comprise the history of metaphysics” (151), which in turn is associated throughout her study with “the tradition.” What Cykowski has in mind with the tradition seems to be an undefined and ambiguous range of post-Greek thinkers, so it only seems natural to raise the following questions: Does this post-Greek tradition include Aristotle’s medieval commentators whom the Cartesians were reacting against? Does it include Hegel, whose philosophy of mind appropriates the Aristotelian model? Does it include Husserl and the entire phenomenological tradition? Cykowski does not provide an answer but suggests instead that somewhere along the way (and apparently without any exceptions) the profound philosophy of the Greeks has become trivialized. Cykowski’s unstated assumption is that—at least insofar as the human-animal relation is concerned—all the Greek philosophers had more or less the same view, but this is highly misleading. Nor is there a convergence between the views held by all philosophers after antiquity. At the risk of oversimplification, I should say that in discussions of life, soul, mind, and the like there are, in the main, two traditions: the Aristotelian tradition and the Cartesian tradition. Cykowski does not try to disentangle the one from the other, but the lack of such an attempt obscures her interpretation of Heidegger.
What further complicates things, however, is that Cykowski understands the tradition to be the source of hierarchies, and one would assume that in saying this she has in mind post-Greek philosophy in general, especially because she also writes that “the originary Greek conception…does not flatly, unambiguously promote the ontological superiority of the human” (168). But this is confusing, to say the least, for there is an even more unambiguous hierarchy—that is, an unmistakable ordering of the grades of soul—in Aristotelian philosophy. If so, however, how would a return to Aristotle help with the abolishment of hierarchies? The question is not addressed because, unfortunately, no sections of her monograph are devoted to the Greek conception of the soul, which is regrettable both because it would have helped clarify the background context in the light of which Heidegger’s discussion of animality can be better understood and because in a number of his lectures the early Heidegger himself devotes many passages to the analysis of the psyche.
To provide some of the missing context, Aristotle’s conception of the soul is one that incorporates a multi-layered structure. As Charles Kahn puts it,
Aristotle is not a dualist but a quaternist: he takes for granted four fundamental categories, not two. The conceptual scheme for Aristotle’s philosophy of mind is best represented by a pyramid with four distinct levels. The lowest level is that of body…[while] the three upper levels are marked off by different forms of psyche or soul: nutritive, sensory, and rational. (Kahn 2004, 194)
To state these levels more precisely, corporeality (i.e., the merely material/inorganic level of nature) contains in itself a suitability for life to emerge, life provides the foundations for the emergence of sentience/perception, and sentient life serves as the enabling condition for thinking to arise. In the words of Frederick Weiss, “Each grade of life has for its condition the grade below it, and in turn is a further development of that grade” (Weiss 1969, 14). In Hegel’s philosophy, Weiss adds, this would mean that “each grade of soul is aufgehoben in the grade above it” (Weiss 1969, 15). What is important to realize here is that the Aristotelian understanding of the actualization of that which exists potentially is such that the aforementioned levels are not “opposed” to one another in any straightforward way; what is at issue here, rather, is an appropriation (i.e., “further development”) of a suitable structure. Similarly, the sublation (Aufhebung) that Hegel speaks of can be understood in this context as an emergence of a grade of life from a lower stage (or “moment”) wherein the latter is preserved in the former.
This way of thinking is strictly antithetical to the Cartesian conception of the two substances (res extensa and res cogitans), which are two alien entities that somehow confront each other and that otherwise share nothing in common with one another. On this model, entities no longer fall under four categories (bodies, living things, animals, humans) but under two: extended substances (bodies, living things, animals) and thinking substances (humans). Hence, the Cartesian tradition perfectly exemplifies what some believe to be an unwarranted conception of “human uniqueness” that Cykowski often talks about, so she is quite correct, after all, in maintaining that a return to the Aristotelian model would provide a remedy in this context, but not by way of shattering hierarchies or abolishing essences, as her study sometimes seems to suggest.
There is an important extent to which Heidegger believes much of modern philosophy to be on the wrong track, and there is some extent to which the early Heidegger believes Aristotle and the phenomenological tradition to provide a remedy (on the condition, of course, that they are correctly interpreted). In my view, this is the background against which we must try to make sense of Heidegger’s attempts to uncover the hidden metaphysical assumptions lying behind much of contemporary philosophy and science. The biggest drawback of Cykowski’s work is the absence of an attempt to articulate this historical background, which she sidesteps to jump directly to a defense of Heidegger who she claims to have been unjustly subjected to a hierarchizing charge by several commentators. However, a sufficient evaluation of this charge would itself demand a more thorough discussion of the question of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, but the demand is not met in the confines of her study.
In the last few pages of her book, Cykowski calls Heidegger “an authority on the concealed danger of metaphysical prejudices” (180) and notes that one of the primary objectives of the lecture course is “to get us to appraise metaphysical principles that are buried in the recesses of contemporary thinking” (188). She concludes that FCM “aims, not at the institution of hierarchical principles, but at the indication of ones to which we are already held fast” (188). In her view, while it is true that Heidegger ascribes to human beings the unique capacity to speak out about physis from within physis, this does not entail that Heidegger is attempting to pursue “the idea of human uniqueness and superiority simply for its own sake” (171). According to Cykowski, FCM still presents us with “a hierarchical picture of things, but it is not one that simplistically celebrates human existence” (186). If we pay attention to the broader context of FCM, she argues, we will come to realize that the contrary is true, that “Heidegger is describing human Dasein as a being that must learn to cope with the fact that its life is not an animal life” (172). If so, the hierarchizing charge levelled at Heidegger is mistaken; it misses the nuances of Heidegger’s reflections on animality.
Despite the complexity of FCM, Cykowski’s discussion of the 1929–30 lectures features a clear prose that remains consistent throughout the work. In general, Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does a good job familiarizing the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality and the ways in which he has been criticized by subsequent philosophers. One of the most important virtues of Cykowski’s monograph is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context. Unfortunately, however, Cykowski does not provide us with sufficient textual evidence to support her specific interpretation of this context, in the absence of which she seems to have overstated the extent to which the entire lecture course can be seen as an attempt to uncover the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, Cykowski’s construal of the history of philosophy in terms of the difference between Greek and post-Greek thinkers is somewhat too simplistic; her study would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the history of philosophy, which arguably comprises several different traditions concerning the conceptualization of the order of nature and our place in it.
Brogan, W. A. 1984. “Heidegger’s Interpretation of Aristotle: The Finitude of Being.” Research in Phenomenology 14: 249–58.
Heidegger, M. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by W. McNeill and N. Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Kahn, C. H. 2004. “Aristotle versus Descartes on the Concept of the Mental.” In Metaphysics, Soul, and Ethics in Ancient Thought: Themes from the Work of Richard Sorabji. Edited by R. Salles. New York: Oxford University Press.
Weiss, F. G. 1969. Hegel’s Critique of Aristotle’s Philosophy of Mind. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.
Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (North-West University Potchefstroom, South Africa)
I came to this book because of the back cover’s promise that “for Derrida, salutation, greeting and welcoming is resistant to the economy of salvation”. Having written a book myself on the topic of greetings and salutations—a book that contested precisely this claim—I could not not be intrigued. There is no doubt that the salut, and especially the ‘salut sans salvation’ plays a central role in Jacques Derrida’s later writings. In fact, it would be really hard to doubt whether, for Derrida, this little word ‘salut’ could ever be sufficiently resistant to the economy of the salvation: many of his writings in effect question whether it is, for us late moderns, possible at all to distance ourselves from Christianity or any other matter that speaks of salvation.
Yet Saghafi promises (the promise being a salvific remainder in itself) to give us just this. In seven chapters and a prologue, all in one way or another devoted to mourning the death of the other, which arguably is the book’s main concern, Saghafi explores what happens when the other greets us and what happens when this no longer occurs—on the occasion of the other’s death for instance. The author is quite clear that a personal event had interrupted his writing: “a heartrending, ravaging event in ‘my’ world led me, forced me, in my grief” (xxiii, also 137, n.19) to think about these themes of mourning and departure—the latter theme inspired, though, by Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the other protagonists of the book. It is true that the death of the other is no small matter, not for Derrida, and not for any one of us. Derrida, in brief, claimed that the other’s death is not a ‘part’ of the world that disappears but that with the death of the other—every other—no less than an entire world crumbles.
The book argues that “Derrida’s taking up of the notion of ‘the end of the world’ […] dictates an engagement with the thought of salut, for if the death of the other—a parting—signifies the end of the world, this departure then necessitates, stressing the perfomative, a salut-ation” (xxvii). How to address the other once she has left and gone to ‘the other side’ and how, if so, does she greet us ‘from wherever she is’ (referring to Derrida’s final note saluting his audience at the gravesite ‘smiling at us from wherever he might be’)?
The first chapter comments on Derrida’s reading of Paul Celan’s verse ‘the world is gone, I must carry you’. One is reminded here of Ludwig Binswanger’s account of the death of the lover: when my lover dies, our relationship depends on me, and on the few friends that are similarly left behind. It is we who will have to carry (out) our relationship. Our love, the love between my lover and me, is upon the occasion of her death, in my hands entirely. Derrida’s comments on our mortal condition make us aware that it is only through our dealings with the other that there is world in the first place. We carry the world, in a sense, through and for the other. If the other is gone, the world no longer makes sense and one might rightly say: it is the end of the world—the world is gone indeed. Throughout the book teases out some of Derrida’s more familiar themes in his last seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, reception of which is only now beginning. Saghafi carefully reads into this seminar’s interpretation of ‘carrying the other’ a “remarkable description of an experience” (12). It is with this experience that Saghafi’s book will close.
Chapter two introduces to the debate between Derrida and Nancy. Where Derrida states that the reason for religion is to provide a safe space for the living, a promise that they’ll be safe and intact, Nancy’s notion of what is intact differs. It is for Nancy only the dead body, which for him attains a certain completion, a state of ‘being finished’, that is intact. Nothing can happen to or arrive for the dead. Derrida’s account of religion mentions that the sanctity, which provides and promises that the living will be safe and intact, assumes itself a position of perfect integrity: the holy is what will remain untouched—it is ‘at a distance’ and is what will save us without itself feeling the need to be saved. Yet to know about this safe haven over there, about this instance that is set apart from all the rest, some mediation is needed. This is what Derrida calls the “law of tact” (25). In a language echoing the tradition, one would need to say that the divine must first have ‘touched’ us whilst so instructing us not to touch the divine, that is, not to grasp, comprehend it in its immediacy. Saghafi adds: “what is tact but ‘knowing how to touch without touching’” (25, quoting Le toucher, 82). The tactful advance of what is saintly needs to be reciprocated similarly, on the part of us humans, with tact. One is reminded of the beginning of The Animal that therefore I am, where Derrida notes that reticence and restraint are at the origin of the religious attitude: Bellérophon is admonished not to expose and make public the nudity of a women imposing herself, which he had, of course, had already seen. Bellérophon needs to ‘unsee’ what he has seen and ‘untouch’ what had touched him. The latter movement Derrida calls the drive for immunity: to leave untouched what has touched us.
Both Derrida and Nancy here take Christic scenes from the gospels, particularly of Jesus’ supposed resurrection, as figurative of how we today could approach the question of death. Christ’s frequent insistence of touching the sick, for instance, illuminates the law of tact. Nancy has responded to Derrida’s stance in his Noli me tangere, insisting, for his part, on what remains (and needs to remain untouched) in these scenes. Well-known are the examples of the risen Christ ‘not to touch’ him—’for I will be with you for not much longer’. For Nancy, this departure of the Christ is a figure for the parting that we all experience, witness (and eventually undergo) in this span of eighty odd years granted to us. Christ so presents “the infinite continuation of death” (29 quoting Noli me tangere, 17) to us. For Nancy, what is untouched is what is intact and which will no longer touch. What remains with and for the living is the persistence of death and departure of everything which surrounds us. This is what Nancy’s secular notion of anastasis intends to convey: it is the attitude of the men and women who have seen death in life and are ‘still standing’. Derrida will however fiercely critique Nancy’s, well, stance, because this secular account of resurrection for Derrida cannot sufficiently distance this secular ‘salut sans salvation’ from its religious counterpart and will therefore continue to console and save. A deconstruction of Christianity as Nancy proposes is destined to repeat Christianity in its very gestures.
Chapter three focuses on Derrida’s deconstruction of death. Here Saghafi discusses Derrida’s Aporias where the latter questions the most common “figure” of death, namely as “the crossing of the line between existence and non-existence (45): one moment you’re here and the next moment you’re not. Noteworthy here is the parallel between death and the event: “both are unpredictable, radically other, lack a horizon, and come as an absolute surprise” (48). Death, for Derrida, is the great unknown: one cannot even say, with certainty, that through death one crosses a threshold between one place and the other or that one moves from one state to the other. Death, then, is not a threshold, not what crosses a threshold “but rather what affects the very experience of the threshold itself” (47, quoting Aporias, 34): death is no longer that instance that separates life from death, existence from non-existence but that skandalon that is ‘already here’ whilst ‘being over there’ and utterly other. Concretely this would mean that the living, somewhat like Nancy also argues, need to learn to live with death in the midst of their lives already. Like Heidegger, death for Derrida is not something that will happen later—’eventually’—but what happens ‘first and foremost’ to others; on the contrary, death is already here to the point of being the condition of a meaningful life. Life then is itself (a form of) dying constantly. It is, in short, a “living of death” (50, quoting H.C For Life, 89) while dying alive—a factum for a mortal being that is dying, ‘coming closer to death’ general opinion would say at every point in time. Saghafi states it nicely: “”the finitude of Dasein does not mean that it will die one day, but that is exists as dying” (85). Derrida’s difficult idea somewhat resembles the more popular opinion that it is only because of our mortality that life makes sense and that we undertake actions at all (an echo of which one, in turn, can found in John D. Caputo’s recent works).
Chapter four focuses on Nancy’s take on resurrection as ‘anastasis’. Nancy is quite clear that he seeks to retrieve the nonreligious meaning of resurrection, a sense utterly secular and mundane. In a text devoted to Maurice Blanchot—’Consolation, Desolation,’ part of Dis-enclosure—Nancy, Saghafi argues, responds to Derrida’s objection mentioned above. Nancy insists that no consolation is at issue here. At times one has the impression of a race between Derrida and Nancy to interpret death as the utmost foreign instance. For Nancy for instance the dead do not leave something behind as if something of them would remain in a certain place (64). One wonders whether Nancy is thinking of the place Derrida mentioned at his salutary note. On the contrary, Nancy argues, the dead do not depart to somewhere, we just “enter into the movement of leave-taking” (64, referring to Partir-le départ, 46): the dead one is the one who never stops leaving us (without a place to go to or to return from).
Here Nancy meets, in a way, Derrida again. For if the dead friend in a sense never stops leaving us (however painful), it is up to us to keep the dead alive. This is possible from out of a peculiar sensibility Nancy argues: “as soon as I name the dead one […] I grant her another life” (71). Another example might be the phone calls people make to the voicemails of deceased loved ones. This address and salutation is something we would need to think about when pursuing this sensibility. Yet it is not the end of religion, as Saghafi at the beginning of his book seems to imply, it might instead be its very beginning—no thought of salvation would perhaps ever occur without these salutes. In any case, this is where Nancy’s stance toward death arrives: “relations do not die” (71, referring to Adoration 92). There remains something of our relations to the dead as long as we speak about or address our dead ones. Again we find these difficult thinkers approaching a thought that has passed into cultural knowledge. A strange consequence of this kind of resurrection is, of course, that such a resurrection no longer befalls the good and the saintly only but the wicked ones just as well (and perhaps even more): after all, people still speak about (and thus relate to) Adolf Hitler too—an insight I owe to William Desmond, who mentioned this to me already a long time ago.
Saghafi concludes the chapter with mentioning that Nancy, somewhat oddly and unexpectedly, mentions “an unheard-of place” (72 in Adoration, 92) in which one could somehow encounter the (dead) other. It is clear then that both Nancy and Derrida are partaking in a thought of “the beyond of death” (74), however secular they are or wanted to be. With this, Saghafi suggestively and also somewhat provocatively, asks: “Would it be a strange hypothesis to suggest that Nancy’s [is] a reading of Derrida’s seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, 2?” (74). There is, to my knowledge, no direct reference to this seminar in Nancy’s most recent works.
Chapter five discusses Martin Hägglund’s recent interpretation of Derrida in his book Radical Atheism. It is safe to say that Saghafi is not a fan of Hägglund, who refuses to see any ethical or religious turn in Derrida’s thinking, whereas Saghafi’s account of Derrida’s deconstruction of death rather sees in Derrida a secular account of the ‘beyond’ of death, a ‘dying alive’ that, even though it might be a phantasm is no less real. The desire for survival can therefore not be, as Hägglund has it, a mere desire to live on, as long as possible, until our deaths. Saghafi does not spare harsh words when it comes to Hägglund: his work is supposed to be “shorn of subtlety, elegance and complexity” (79 and esp. 154, n.4).
There is a lot to say about Derrida’s atheism, but the best lines come from Derrida himself. Saghafi quotes from Penser ce qui vient (80), a talk given at the Sorbonne in 1994 just after the publication of Spectres of Marx. Here Derrida beautifully says that he is an atheist “who remembers God and who loves to remember God”. The quote is sufficient already to question Hägglund’s indeed rather straightforward account of a rudimentary—Dawkins-like—radical atheism in Derrida. Derrida knew very well what damage a thought of the absolute can do; yet he knew, similarly, that there is, as Nancy has it in Adoration, a genuine need for the absolute and that it, here and there, has done some good too.
Saghafi agrees with Hägglund that there is an “infinite finitude” to be detected in Derrida, but he differs from Hägglund’s interpretation about how the phantasm of infinity from out of finitude is to be conceived. With Geoffrey Bennington’s classic Derridabase, Saghafi states that différance has given us to think “the inextricable complication of the finite and the infinite” (83-4) just as it complicates, as we have seen, the boundaries between life and death. This complication, for Derrida, has an odd consequence: if our mortal condition is such that we exist and are alive as dying then death is the end of this possibility of dying. When dead, my possibility to die (alive, continuously) has come to an end. By dying, I stop dying alive. This also means that, as long as we are not dead, we are in effect “essentially survivors” (91, quoting Politics of Friendship, 8) like one says after a hard day of work that we have survived another day.
These subtleties aside, it is time to ask: from whence the phantasm of infinity in these mortal lives of ours? From what experience, say, a phenomenologist (which Derrida also was) might start? If we are here only ‘for a little while’, as Heidegger would have said, how does this while, this span between birth and death, this delay, this lapse and deferment of death—terms that are all linked to Derrida’s French sursis—dream up something of the infinite? For these questions, chapter 6 turns to Michael Naas’ magnificent Miracle and Machine (2012) and its elaborate discussion of survival and living on: “Derrida did not believe that we live on somewhere else or that we live again […] While we are not resurrected for another life […] ‘we’ do survive or live on for a time after death” (99, quoting Miracle and Machine, 270). What is this ‘for a time’ and in what sense goes it grant us a sort of delay from death? Saghafi here offers a reading of the second seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign: “Survivre does not refer to a state of life after demise […] but to a reprieve, an afterlife that is more than life or more life still” (100). General opinion would have: gone but not forgotten.
Derrida came to this idea, one might argue, through his idea of the originary trace and the traces we leave on, say, post-cards, in letters, home-movies and so on. There is something awkward about writing a few lines in a book, for instance, once one realizes that it is likely that these lines might survive my own very being and will be read by someone, likely a loved one, long after my demise. These traces of what I was, then, might even occur grief and pain on the other’s part (or joy if these few lines were funny). In that sense, these traces are ‘my’ survival and are already, in a sense, left there in this book, on this post-card, for the other. This ‘curvature of intersubjective’ space, to allude to Levinas, is present for Derrida in all friendly relations. One might even say that if I am not ready to mourn your loss, I am not really your friend either. This means that, from the very beginning, the possibility of loss is present in friendly and loving relations: the possibility that he or she parts and that one of us will have to mourn about this demise is always present. Yet the loss of the friend, as we have seen, is not the loss of the friendship altogether, except that he, she or me will have to carry the relationship forward. Friendship, Derrida says, “is promised to ‘testamentary revenance, the haunting return of […] more (no more) life’” (103, quoting Politics of Friendship, 3)—Derrida’s plus de vie means both no more life and more life. All this, of course, signifies that for Derrida “surviving begins before death and not merely after it. [Life] itself is originarily survival” (104). Since the infinite dying will always persist, we will always (at least for a while) be survivors of the other. In this way, Derrida takes the idea of a testamentary revenance to an ontological level.
Chapter six turns to Derrida’s treatment of the phantasm of living death, mostly through Derrida’s reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in, again, The Beast and the Sovereign 2. With the phantasm, Derrida (and Saghafi) are trying to understand “the phantasm of infinitization at the heart of finitude” (36, quoting Death Penalty 1, 259). Such a phantasm, in no way, can be separated from the real as the metaphysical tradition was wont to do. On the contrary, the phantasm (although dreamed up and imagined) is what exercises a power over us, what makes things happen (or not). It is this hold over us, of the idea of the infinite and of infinitization more general (which happens most often, these days, in the repetitive machine-like bad infinity of consumption culture) that Derrida sought to understand.
The phantasm of ‘living death’—the topic of the seventh chapter—is for Derrida most noteworthy in Robinson Crusoe’s constant fear of being buried alive by an earthquake or swallowed alive by wild beasts. Such a phantasm of ‘dying alive’ is, although imagined, no less than a lived experience. Derrida even argues that Robinson, because of his repeatedly imagined anxieties, has already lived through the experience of being buried alive. The phantasm is a performative: it provokes the event (Cf. 124). It is this experience (of the phantasm as phantasm) that Derrida tries to take seriously. Yet this, say, ontic and fictional phantasm in Defoe’s novel is a figure just as well for our ontological status as survivors who are, as long as we are living, dying.
This ‘shared sense’ of dying alive is, for Derrida, an affect and a sensibility: we sense that we are survivors now and will be survivors for a while later. It is with a finitude that reaches further than mere finitude that we are dealing here. A phenomenologist might compare this idea to the idea of breathing: with every breath I take, I am in effect closer to death. Yet every breath I take also entails that I am still alive and will live a bit more. In this sense, breathing too is an auto-immune pharmakon.
This leads us to a second somewhat odd consequence of Derrida’s thought of eternity, immortality or the afterlife. Robinson’s fear and phantasm are not the eternal life of the gods or of souls saved, but rather the fear of, come the moment, not being able to die. This ‘immortality’, if any, wavers between no longer able to live and not yet capable of death. This is also what separates Derrida’s idea of eternity from Nancy’s: where Nancy is influenced by a “Spinozist reading of eternity” (74) when arguing that eternal is what is independent of time, Derrida’s dealing with the phantasm shows a dying alive that still takes time. It is an eternity or a ‘beyond’ that arises from within time.
One might sense an idea of community in Derrida here: since I sense that something will survive (of) me, I sense the other as “the survivor of me” (126, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 131). Since, however, I am also the other of the other (as Derrida famously argued in his critique of Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics) I will necessarily also be a survivor of others. In every relation, then, there is survival and there will be survivors.
It is this “weave” (127) of life and death that the concluding pages of the book bring to bear. This weave is the ground without ground from which all ideas of infinity, all phantasms of infinitizations, spring: we believe that it will go on forever and act accordingly. And even though Derrida will not subscribe to any simple (bad) idea of infinity, such a groundless ground is nonetheless the base from which one can speak of “an excess of life that resists annihilation” (129, quoting Archive Fever, 60).
Does this thinking of survival offer anything to those who have lived through the experience of loss and death? Is there beyond the idea that I will survive my living body for a while anything that speaks ‘from beyond the grave’ as it were? The odd logic of community mentioned above, through which I live as if I will live eternally (or at least for an indefinite amount of time) also means that the logic of this (mortal) life surpasses the logic of thinking, rationality and consciousness. This, Derrida argues, entails that “this thinking of affect requires a certain ‘as if’, ‘as if something could still happen to the dead one’” (132, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 149). There seems to be developing a new sense of sensibility here which arises “if we allow ourselves to be affected [by a possibility of the impossible, [by] the impossible possibility that the dead one can be still affected or that we could still be affected by the dead one him- or herself” (ibid.). This, then, seems the final deconstruction that Derrida has left us with: “is being-affected excluded by death? Is there no affect without life?” (133). It seems that The Beast and the Sovereign permits us to doubt—and this is a lot. It means that although it might not be reasonable to believe in the afterlife, it is not altogether unreasonable to come up with the idea.
It is to Saghafi’s credit to makes us think about these issues. Yet one must also state that the book feels somewhat incomplete. At times, Saghafi gives us a cacophony of citations which leaves us guessing just a bit too much about the book’s overall argument. The two main themes of the book, namely mourning after ‘the end of the world’ and the question whether Derrida’s discourse can be dissociated from the discourse on religion are handled in a quite unbalanced way. In fact, after chapter two or so the latter theme disappears completely from the book’s focus (although there is a mention of it at p. 97). This bring us to two critiques.
Perhaps, first, the author realized that the two discourses, on salut and salvation, in Derrida cannot be dissociated? There is no way for Derrida that today, in contemporary culture, any discourse can be safely sheltered from the discourse of Christian religion (precisely because the idea of being saved and safely sheltered is the very idea of Christianity) and certainly not the discourse of greeting and address as being one of the very sources of religion for Derrida. This is at least what Derrida implies in Rogues where he speaks of two orders within the earthly Jerusalem: these orders, be they of the unconditional and conditional, of the salut with salvation as much as the salut sans salvation, are indeed ‘heterogeneous’ (which Saghafi notes) but also indissociable and inseparable (Rogues 114 and 172n. 12). The one time that Derrida actually mentions a “radically non-Christian deconstuction” (35, quoting Death Penalty 1, 245), one might also read: “can one think [such] a deconstruction?” “Nothing is less certain” (Death Penalty 1, 245).
Secondly, one cannot help to detect some romantic exaggeration in Derrida’s thinking of death as the end of the world, each time anew. Although it certainly is the case that every other death is absolutely other and a genuine loss for all the people around the deceased one, it also needs to be acknowledged that differences are to be noted between the deaths of a lover and a friend over and against the death of a long-lost friend, an acquaintance or, say, a former coworker. It rather seems the case that the sense and shape of the shared world with this particular other alleviates or strengthens rather our experience of his or her loss. One therefore also needs to ask whether Derrida is not, with the idea of every other death as a genuine ‘end of the world’ introducing some ‘sameness’ in the idea of death: is it true that all deaths, always and everywhere, would entail ‘the end of the world’ for us and for me?
Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)
This publication of Helmuth Plessner’s 1928 work marks its first translation into English. In fact, this text is one of only a few of Plessner’s many books that has seen English translation. As Plessner describes in the Preface to the Second Edition, from 1965, this book did not reach a wide audience upon its publication due to the long shadow of Max Scheler (xix), of whom Plessner was widely seen as a disciple. The present edition, translated from the German by Millay Hyatt, is a welcome appearance of a seminal text from German philosophy’s very productive engagement with anthropology and the philosophy of life in the first half of the twentieth century. Regarded by numerous scholars as Plessner’s masterwork, Levels of Organic Life and the Human synthesizes philosophical biology, phenomenology, existentialism, and social philosophy in the process of constructing a systematic philosophy of life from the ground up. The primary influence on Plessner’s composition of this work is not Scheler, as Plessner maintains in the Preface to the Second Edition, but Plessner’s teacher Hans Driesch, the biologist who favored vitalism as a framework for explaining the presence of entelechy in biological life. Plessner also cites Wilhelm Dilthey as a major source of inspiration. Indeed, much of Plessner’s approach seeks to tread a middle ground between the approaches of vitalism and mechanism in accounting for the principles of living things. Plessner’s aim in fact is not to identify a hidden ingredient, force, or principle driving living things, as much as it is to describe the foundations of life phenomenologically, “finding and testing an approach that would make it possible to characterize the specific modes in which animated bodies appear” (xxiv). In brief, he writes, the task is to reinvigorate dialogue on what we mean by terms such as “Iife,” “alive,” and “animate,” where supporting evidence can be drawn from what is available to intuition (xxxi). A task for the specifically anthropological dimensions of this study is to analyze human life from the perspective of the lived body, as opposed to separating human being into dualistic aspects of mind and matter, subjective and objective, or spirit and sensation (32-33). Plessner maintains that traditional dualism, inherited from the Cartesian paradigm, misconstrues the science underlying anthropology by virtue of separating science into the natural science of measurement on one hand, and the science of consciousness and self on the other hand (65). Plessner does not want to invalidate this dichotomy entirely; instead, he aims to show how human lived experience is built upon an overlap of both of these dimensions, where human being consists of inner being and outer being at the same time, with the human self centered biologically rather than spiritually. He stipulates that a specific aim of this anthropology is to highlight human life’s natural existence via a philosophical biology, arguing “The human is carried by living nature; no matter how spiritual he may be, he remains subjugated to it. From nature he draws the strength and material for any sublimation whatsoever” (71). In other words, “the construction of a philosophical anthropology has as its prerequisite a study of those states of affairs that are concentrated around the state of affairs of ‘life’” (Ibid.).
The primary thesis of Plessner’s study consists of two key claims. First, living things are defined by the possession of a “boundary” (Grenz), particularly in the manner that this boundary exceeds the physical space occupied by the object (84). Second, living things are defined by what Plessner calls “positionality” (Positionalität) (121). By this term, Plessner means the phenomenon of living things’ manner of depositedness or placement within themselves, such that they occupy a place relative to their surrounding environment. The primary “levels” of the organic Plessner reckons with are plants, animals, and human beings.
To drill down on these main features of Plessner’s thesis, his focus on the concept of boundary is motivated by the fundamental notion that living things are characterized by a divergence, exhibited to intuition, of inner and outer aspects, where this divergence is constitutive of the being of the thing (84). As Plessner summarizes, “[t]he relationship between outer and inner…determines the appearance of the thing-body as a whole” (92-93). In other words, living things manifest themselves to intuition such that the exterior’s appearance is a function of interior structure, and vice versa. Intuition can categorially comprehend an interior essence within the thing which is integral to its outward manifestation. This intuited, interior essence does not arise with the intuition of inanimate bodies. The concept of boundary is decisive here insofar as it expresses the phenomenon according to which living things direct themselves outward from inside while at the same time maintaining an inward center. Boundary is thus not a strictly spatial concept as traditional language tends to construe this term, although it does express a living thing’s way of transcending its own space (119). Plessner proffers the hypothesis that living things are constituted specifically by relating to their boundary, effecting the transition from where their being extends to where it ceases (94). He does not provide many examples at this stage, but he seems to have in mind, for instance, phenomena such as that whereby plants are characterized by non-static, outward extension, stretching beyond their physical contours seeking food, water, and the like, but where this seeking is driven by an inward principle.
“Positionality” is another concept Plessner introduces in describing the ontology of living things in terms of their spatiality. Though he expresses a wariness regarding the overtones of the notion of “position” or “positing” prevalent in German idealism, he selects positionality as a term for describing a living thing’s way of situating its specific way of reaching out of itself while at the same time maintaining its inward-turned character. He writes: “I mean by this [positionality] the fundamental feature of an entity that makes a body in its being into a posited one” (121). Again, as with the notion of boundary, the crux concerns the fashion in which a living thing self-relates in specifically spatial terms. A living thing possesses its boundary as its own, whereas a nonliving thing does not (121). This realization of boundary has the implication of the living thing setting itself into a place. Plessner describes this phenomenon as follows: “This being-for-itself or being-for-it…thus forms, as it were, the invisible frame in which the thing sets itself apart from its surroundings with the special distinctness of boundedness” (122). Alternately stated, Plessner continues, living things have the character of “claiming” their space rather than simply occupying it; they have a place of their own, a “natural place” (123). The Aristotelian slant of this last locution seems an intentional reference on Plessner’s part. Finally, a further implication of the phenomenon of positionality is the observation that for a thing to exhibit a positional character requires it to become, to be constituted by process (123ff). For a living thing cannot claim its space without actively doing so. It must grow beyond the boundary originally given to it. It must persist, pushing against the abandonment of its space (124). And on the note of becoming, time comes into the picture, insofar as becoming cannot be understood outside of a framework involving time. The positional character by which a living thing is always “ahead-of-itself” illustrates that living things are defined by existing in time (166-67). Although Plessner does not highlight it himself, there is ostensibly a Heideggerian flavor in this discussion of the relation between living things and time; his account here seems to echo Heidegger’s claim in Being and Time that the future [Zukunft] is the fundamental temporal mode. However, at this stage of the text, Plessner is discussing living things at large, and not yet human being. I will offer some further comments about Plessner’s encounter with Heidegger below.
Plessner differentiates plants, animals, and human beings with the distinction of a living thing’s “form.” “Form” characterizes for Plessner the specific way a living thing balances its self-sufficiency with its non-self-sufficiency as something alive (202). In other words, form describes the living thing’s way of managing the divergence of what it can provide for itself and what it needs from elsewhere. In this guise, the form of “plant” is characterized by “open” form. Open form characterizes the type of living thing that “in all its expressions of life is immediately incorporated into its surroundings and constitutes a non-self-sufficient segment of the life circle corresponding to it” (203). This observation describes a plant’s character of exhibiting total integration in its environment, such that everything it needs in order to persist is immediately available to its outward-directed boundary. In this light, the plant is completely “open” to and in contact with its surroundings; it does not close itself off from its surroundings because it is stuck where it is. The plant can only cope with the conditions posed by its surroundings by harmonizing with them, developing in coexistence with what the surroundings offer. In contrast, the animal is characterized by exhibiting a “closed” form. The closed form has its essence in the living thing sectioning itself off from its surroundings and maintaining a higher degree of self-reliance (209). In its closed form, the animal relates to its surroundings in a mediate fashion as opposed to the plant’s immediate contact with its surroundings (213). Particularly with animals possessing a central nervous system, which harmonizes the operation of organs and routes sense-data to the brain for processing, the closed form entails concentration of powers and drives, but at the expense of the immediate satisfaction of needs (215-16). For instance, whereas plants are able to obtain all nutrition from their immediate surroundings, animals must make provisions for themselves by finding their food. Finally, a feature of the closed form of life unique to animals which Plessner suggests is illustrative of the relationship between living things at large and their surroundings is the phenomenon of instinct. As Plessner describes it, instinct refers to a mapping of the animal’s sensations and needs to its lived surroundings, revealing a necessary coexistence between the animal’s body and the organized field of its surroundings (240). The occurrence whereby an animal’s instinct on one hand directs it to exhibit a kind of automatic intelligence or programmed behavior, and on the other hand, the ease whereby these patterns can be disrupted by the most miniscule changes in the animal’s field (ex. bees unable to find their hive if it is moved slightly), indicate that living thing and surroundings are reciprocal sides of being that cannot be separated. Plessner summarizes: “the living thing has itself and its positional field in advance” (236). The crux of this point is that, pace the theory of natural selection, the living thing’s surroundings are not a force that works against it or threatens its survival (240). The animal’s surrounding field simply is reflective of what its body perceives and uses; what the animal does not engage with by and large has no meaning for it.
Plessner’s account comes to a climax with his description of human beings in the final chapter. While this final chapter is the book’s briefest, the account of human beings also has implicit reference to all of the preceding material. Now that he has accounted for all manner of living things except the human, Plessner’s final task is to highlight what the human level of life possesses in addition to the preceding levels. In addition to unsurprising human features Plessner takes up here (memory, intelligence), a decisive move comes at the end of the book’s penultimate chapter, in which Plessner describes animal being. While animals and human beings share in the experience of the “lived body” (an experience not afforded to plants), nonhuman animals lack insight into the contrast of the invisible and the real. They lack categorial intuition of what is present but not perceived. Whereas human beings plainly possess this quality. Upon discussing Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments performed on chimpanzees, Plessner summarizes as follows: “The most intelligent living being in the animal kingdom, the animal most similar to the human, lacks a sense of the negative” (250). In brief, animals cannot penetrate the excess of negativity in their perceptions; they cannot intuit the “backs” of things (251). Here, Plessner shows a strong influence from Husserlian phenomenology on the features of human consciousness, although he does not acknowledge so. This observation paves the ground for Plessner’s principal thesis regarding the human being. This thesis holds that the human is defined by an “excentric” positionality (271), which is a way of saying that the human being is un-centered, removed from possession of itself, in contrast to the way that nonhuman animals are completely “centered” or at home in themselves positionally speaking. The nonhuman animal’s self does not exist at any remove from its lived body; these are one. As a result, interestingly, Plessner’s anthropology, while predicated on the elements of the philosophy of life leading up to it in the text, also contains a strongly Heideggerian overtone by virtue of its insight into the human being’s inherent disconnect with itself (what Heidegger labels in Being and Time with terms like “uncanniness,” “thrownness,” “falling,” and so forth). One can also observe some rudiments of the early Jean-Paul Sartre regarding the inherent ungrounded negativity of consciousness. But to reiterate, nonetheless different in Plessner’s model is the out-and-out derivation of the anthropological from the phenomenon of life, where human existence is founded in the lived body.
Two final features of Plessner’s account of the human in this last chapter of the book that are notable for their overlap with themes in German thought of the same period are “artificiality” and “expression.” These themes are treated amidst a subsection of the final chapter entitled “The Fundamental Laws of Anthropology.” Like Heidegger, Plessner observes that artificiality or technology is an ineradicable component of the human situation. However, different in Plessner’s view is that artificiality is a phenomenon driven directly by human finitude whereby human beings, given existential freedom (294), are driven to create in order to secure a stronger permanence beyond themselves. Plessner writes: “Since the human is forced by his type of existence to lead the life that he lives, to fashion what he is – because he is only insofar as he performs – he needs a complement of a non-natural, non-organic kind. Therefore, because of his form of existence, he is by nature artificial” (288). Similarly, “[t]he human wants to escape the unbearable excentricity of his being; he wants to compensate for the dividedness of his own form of life, and he can achieve this only with things that are substantial enough to counterbalance the weight of his own existence” (289). One particular direction this urge for creation pushes the human being is to create what Plessner terms the “unreal,” or the antithesis of the impermanence of the real. Ultimately, Plessner maintains, this eventuates in the creation of culture (289).
“Expression,” which Plessner regards as an ontological precursor to language, reveals a phenomenological law of “mediated immediacy” (298-99). Expression is the phenomenon in which the human being articulates the correlativity between the situation of one’s self and the world. It is not limited to interpersonal communication or language in the conventional sense, but more broadly includes any type of creative, inventive act. Plessner calls this occurrence the “fortunate touch,” insofar as it metaphorically manifests a moment of human contact with or grasping of the world (299). As with the account of artificiality, which parallels Heidegger’s description of technology, similarly here with the notion of expression there is an overlap with bread-and-butter phenomenological accounts of language or signification read as the mode through which the human articulates the state of understanding, or the presencing of what is given in one’s intentional state. Notable about Plessner’s overlap with Heidegger on these issues and several others are the fact that Heidegger is the philosopher Plessner criticizes the most in this work’s prefatory materials, especially the Preface to the Second Edition. There is much one could explore here regarding the grounds of Plessner’s criticism, which to its credit is well-informed by the central claims of Being and Time. However, the brunt of Plessner’s critique of Heidegger appears to lay in the latter’s failure to include any look at embodied life in his account of Dasein.
Much more could be said about Plessner’s account of the human, which, although relatively brief in the grander scheme of the book, covers significant ground and offers many avenues for further exploration. This relative brevity is also what I see as a shortcoming of the book’s treatment of the human. This treatment is almost too brief, to the point of being underdeveloped, although, as Plessner asserts in various prefatory passages of the text, this work aims to describe the human specifically as a manifestation of life and as one “level” or form among living things. So Plessner cannot be blamed too much on this angle, especially given that the final chapter of this text sets the stage for the premise of his next work, Macht und menschliche Natur (published in English translation as Political Anthropology), which appeared shortly after Levels of Organic Life in 1931. Another challenge posed by the book is its difficulty. Because the author frequently neglects to include examples, much of the writing is quite abstract (in the vein of the more difficult texts of G.W.F. Hegel or Hans-Georg Gadamer), requiring focused concentration from the reader. A further complicating factor here is that Plessner frequently adopts the voice of a position he in fact aims to criticize without making this move explicit or providing citations to outside texts and authors. As a result, in many instances the reader can easily be given the impression that Plessner endorses a given position that he actually means to undercut. With these challenges in mind, the reader will be advised not to pick this book up casually; one should be prepared for many hours of close reading and revisiting of passages.
This book’s foremost asset is its rich account of the philosophy of life and the various structures that correspond to the “levels” of organic life. It is a major work in the history of the philosophy of life and should be read alongside other seminal works in the subject, such as Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, Hans Jonas’ The Phenomenon of Life, and the writings of Hans Driesch. In addition, its lively engagement with major philosophers of early 20th-century German thought provides a wonderful snapshot of the intellectual atmosphere of the time and the influence of Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, and many others during their own lifetimes. Levels of Organic Life was published one year after Heidegger’s Being and Time and in the same year as Scheler’s The Place of the Human in the Cosmos.
Reviewed by: Dong Yang (The University of Georgia)
“This book is not a translation of La vie la mort,” McCance states in the introduction of The Reproduction of Life Death—a study of Jacques Derrida’s series of lectures conducted at the ENS from 1975 to 1976– “Nor is the book an exegesis of the seminar” (McCance, The Reproduction of Life Death, 5). Without offering further clarification, the author seems to have posed a curious riddle for the reader: after all, this work appears to be a translation of sorts, given the multiple inserted and interlaced quotations from various seminal works of Derrida; and it appears to be an exegesis of Derrida’s consistently deconstructive effort within and beyond the seminar to problematize the oppositional logic that renders the form of reproduction as a repetition of the identical and that lends theoretical and scientific force to the eugenic movements, exemplified chiefly in the thoughts of Aristotle, Hegel and François Jacob, by tracing the lines of thought of Nietzsche and Freud that consider the relational difference between life and death as interdependent and mutually inclusive. Already there is a curious aporia between the author’s aim and the organization of the text, a struggle that perhaps reflects McCance’s careful effort to keep her study of La vie la mort from becoming an ironic proof of what Derrida attempts to refute in the seminar: a programmed form of inheritance that strictly follows a predetermined nonliving model and consequently subjects difference to identity. Hers is a dynamic double gesture of both reworking the Derridian positions on biology and pedagogy and breaking the spell of “technoscientific and philosophical ‘modernity,’” a time of experimental science in which “invention has become less a ‘discovery’ than a ‘production’” (9). Following the author’s winding attempt to decode a work of Derrida’s that defies simplistic explication, therefore, surpasses the intellectual pleasure of the source text, especially when Derrida’s principle task—to critique the mode of biological or educational reproduction as repetition of an identical model–seems to echo what Gilles Deleuze formulated in Difference and Repetition years before Derrida’s seminar. In that work, Deleuze strives to overturn the ruling primacy of identity in the history of philosophy and thereby restore the significant function of difference in weaving together an image of thought prior to any static formation of concepts and repetitions. In such a spirit Deleuze writes, for instance, “When we define repetition as difference without concept, we are drawn to conclude that only extrinsic difference is involved in repetition; we consider, therefore, that any internal ‘novelty’ is sufficient to remove us from repetition proper and can be reconciled only with an approximative repetition, so called by analogy” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 27). The invisible Deleuzian presence in La vie la mort thus weakens the joy of deconstruction one usually feels when reading a Derridian text, but at the same time, it separates McCance’s study from its source text and continues the inquiry into its nature and grounding, as the publication of this neither-translation-nor-exegesis precedes the real English translation of the seminar. McCance’s overall methodology of approaching Derrida’s seminar in a thematic rather than a linear way implies a relational inquiry, that is, instead of treating La vie la mort as a stand-alone text, McCance examines how Derrida’s central thesis fits into his oeuvre, and it is the rhizomic effort to trace the course of the envelopment of an idea that constitutes the primary significance of the book.
Before delving fully into the seminar, McCance begins the first chapter with a detour of Derrida’s suspicious attitude towards the telos of modern experimental science by revisiting his account of the change of meaning in the notion of invention in Psyche: Inventions of the Other. No longer is invention related to unearthing something new, rather, it has become a mode of production that follows a programmed and oppositional logic (9-10). McCance then helpfully underscores the key line of thought in Derridian philosophy, the concept of heritance, and then links it to a provocative work of biological science—La logique du vivant— by Nobel Laureate biologist François Jacob, provocative because of its declaration of “biology’s release from metaphysics and its coming of age as a science” (11). With McCance’s careful reminder of the unsatisfactory English title of the book, The Logic of Life, which obscures the departure of the study of life from its metaphysical tradition, we come to understand the inherent opposition in modern biology that aims to demystify living life via nonliving entities (that is, DNA), an effort that consequently establishes juxtapositions between life/living and death/nonliving. She captures what is at stake in Derrida’s account: the relation between life and death, be it connective or predicative. As already suggested in the title of the seminar La vie la mort, inserting an undecidable difference or “trait blanc” is thus necessary—Derrida speculates in the spirit of Freud and Nietzsche—for launching a qualitative transformation of the dynamism between life and death from oppositional or dialectical to supplementary. McCance writes “Derrida chooses the titles La vie la mort, he says, not in order to suggest either that life and death are not two, or that one is the other, but rather that the difference at stake between the two is not of a positional (dialectical or nondialectical) order” (11-12). Situating the book back in the mid-70s context where poststructuralist momentum was thriving in France, such an attempt to break with binary oppositions would not seem revolutionary or overly creative; rather, it reads more like an affirmation of philosophical trends of the era. But McCance extends our interest by drawing on the power of such oppositional logic in the process of auto-reproduction by associating La vie la mort with Derrida’s critique of the Hegelian family in Glas, where Hegel claims the privilege of the father-son lineage while crossing out the role of the female. It is precisely this coded mechanism in familial reproduction that finds its echo in the writing of François Jacob and Georges Canguilhem, where the meaning of heritage becomes understood as mere transmission of hierarchical information (26-27), with the result that eugenic measures would proceed to eliminate unwanted differences. The grounding of such a critique comes from Derrida’s explication of an analogy Jacob makes between DNA and text, a view that helps him initiate the accusation of phonologocentrism in Jacob, and McCance concurs: “Indeed, to refer to DNA as a ‘text’ is to borrow a metaphor, in Jacob’s case, an all but outdated metaphor of text drawn from structuralist semiotics, a metaphor through which he reduces ‘text’ to a phonologocentric communicative entity” (30). Hence Derrida’s understanding of DNA’s function: it is the difference along with sameness that get processed and extended through sexual reproduction (31).
Derrida’s critical objective in the seminar not only aims at cultivating an awareness of the problem of inheritance in biological science, but also—and perhaps more interestingly and convincingly—at highlighting the application of such an oppositional logic in biology in modern philosophical institutions, in particular the ENS, where Derrida—teaching then as an agrégé-répétituer–likens the way the philosophy program operates at the institution to the concept of genetic program Jacob proposes, a logos-like message that instructs and repeats generation after generation. Drawing on this theoretical resemblance, in the second chapter McCance then walks us through Derrida’s theory of pedagogy and reemphasizes the unavoidable power inherent in the process of teaching where structural signs are passed along. One problematic function of teaching, especially teaching philosophy, as Derrida diagnoses in his essay “What Is a Teaching Body,” is exactly the auto-productive program that transcribes the coded and repetitive information via the teaching body of the agrégé-répétituer. The act of teaching, therefore, must base its effectiveness on a kind of machinic institutional power “presented as a defense against mutant or contraband influences that threaten the death of the biological or institutional body” (47). By highlighting the mutually supportive roles of the two Derridian texts, McCance, instead of overly emphasizing the rather trite thesis of La vie la mort regarding the oppositional logic of the repetition of the same, directs our attention to the analogy that reveals the pervasiveness of such a biological model on which Jacob relies in educational institutions; we learn from her concluding statement that:
In his reading of Jacob’s program as an apt description of the aggregation program, Derrida demonstrates that both the biological and pedagogical institutions, attempting to ward off difference, constitute reproduction as repetition of the same, although as he remarks every reproduction involves selection and thus the failure of philosophical-biological-pedagogical metalanguage. (50).
Given Derrida’s predicament regarding the presence of ideological power in both academic and scientific institutions, McCance unpacks further the working mechanism of such effort to automate and rigidify the process of teaching and biological reproduction in the following chapter, by invoking Derrida’s curious rendering of Nietzsche’s name and philosophical legacy in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. This reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo functions as an apology for Nietzsche’s posthumous negative influence by arguing that the dissemination of the autobiography depends not on the author’s own signature but the ear of the other who cosigns with differences in hearing or translating the original text. The riddle with which Derrida begins his text—the death of Nietzsche’s father and the life of his mother at the moment he is born—helps foster the sense of self in Nietzsche’s course of life, which, in turn, leads to Derrida’s association of Nietzsche’s description of his life with the process by which one obtains an identity and becomes oneself. Such a process is represented through the development of the name:
“There, this is who I am, a certain masculine and a certain feminine. Ich bin der und der, a phrase which means all these things. You will not be able to hear and understand my name unless you hear it with an ear attuned to the name of the dead man and the living feminine—the double and divided name of the father who is dead and the mother who is living on” (Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, 16).
But the continuation of the name after death—the living, namely—depends not on the bearer of the name but on the persons who listen to the name and revive it in the process of infinite eternal return; hence, according to Derrida, one cannot ascribe to Nietzsche the atrocities that the Nazi perpetrated: “One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness” (30). To emphasize the fluidity of life death that refuses any form of consolidation of Nietzsche’s thought under the unity of his proper name, as Heidegger reads and interprets Nietzsche through the “Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition” (The Reproduction of Life Death, 57), McCance aptly connects the three seminal concepts Derrida exploits to contest the institutional or scientific subjectivity grounded by oppositional and hierarchical logic: autobiography, the ear, academic freedom (53), of which the ear is given special emphasis in the rest of the book. After a brief characterization of the Hegelian-Heideggerian line of thought that shares a synthetic tendency to fold and classify an identity within an unchanging personal proper name, McCance explains the Derridian alternative that sees heritance as a process, with the remark that
“The temporal deference upsets the linear notion of time, making the writing of autobiography an ongoing life death affair, an alliance between the living and the dead, a case of death in life […]” (61).
An intriguing idea that appears near the end of the third chapter and runs throughout the rest of the book—perhaps the most memorable elements of the text—is the (re)formulation of Derrida’s view that the study of the relation between life and death demands an interdisciplinary effort. Modern biologists’ efforts to decode the living by treating it as text, Derrida argues, by no means simply the methodology; quite the contrary. The texualization of life inserts a third term—the text—between life and death, and thus, “the referential subject/object paradigm no longer suffices, a changed situation for all disciplines—or at least, a change that would be required for revitalization of the academic institution” (69). An interdisciplinary transition of the academic institution–in the spirit of Nietzsche–is necessary for the future collaborative study of life, a key point McCance proposes here: “The radical ‘interdisciplinarity’ that, for want of a better term, I read La vie la mort to recommend is as much needed today as it was in the 1970s and as it was in the German university of Nietzsche’s day” (69). In such a spirit, Chapter 4 traces the transdisciplinary effort of an oppositional logic that may be found in Marxist political economy, the Jacobian biological theory of life, Alexander Graham Bell’s speech reproduction theory, and the eugenics movements in American history. Centering on the notion of production that entails man’s distinct cerebral ability to control products and eliminate the redundant and undesirable, Derrida surmises that interchanging usages of production and reproduction in Jacob’s work indicates his belief that “man distinguishes himself from animals by assuming control over the products of evolution” (77). In a similar fashion, McCance adds, phonetic speech is reproduced via Bell’s invention of the phonautograph, a speech producing apparatus preceding the appearance of the telephone that makes visible the phonetic signs by a “mechanical theory of hearing” (87). Bell’s essentialist momentum of reproducing the same speech by reducing its abnormal patterns finds its echo in the American eugenics movement, where inheritance is controlled in accordance with a mechanical model that helps produce offspring of desired types.
Chapter 5 develops in detail an essential line of thought Derrida addresses in La vie la mort, the dangerous power of scientific knowledge that is in part unavoidable. McCance finds inspiration in Derrida’s final seminar, “The Beast & the Sovereign,” where a consciousness of knowledge-as-sovereign is always present alongside the process of scientific inquiries, a demonstration of man’s hierarchical and theological power over the beast that lends force to a Catholic ethics, one that “reproduces a double body, an imperishable life worth more than natural or animal life, even as, paradoxically, the church reduces ethics to the automaticity, to the technics or technical reason, from which, at least since Vatican I (1869-1870), it has sought self-protection” (116). However, for Derrida, such a religious goal of self-protection or immunization—standing in line with the oppositional logic criticized in La vie la mort—causes an internal conflict: “religion’s efforts at immunization end up attacking, as an external contaminant, what is already internal to its own body, and indeed necessary for its survival” (116). This self-destructive tendency within religious bodies (similar to the concept of “the politics of politics” that Geoffrey Bennington has recently proposed) finds its secular recurrences in the contemporary “non-speciesism” ethical theories developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, two modes of thought that primarily concern the rights of the animal. Conjoining other works of Derrida, such as The Animal Therefore I Am, The Beast & the Sovereign, McCance returns to the principal theme in La vie la mort and contends that Derrida’s formulations provide “a critical resource for developing non-sovereign, non-prescriptive, non-oppositional and non-anthropocentric approaches to ethics in the age of the Anthropocene” (122).
By way of Freud’s implicit counter to the Hegelian and Jacobian oppositional logic of the living in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, McCance offers a holistic account of an earlier theme that the study of life requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is beyond the capacity of science or philosophy. Derrida was intrigued by the Freudian methodology of speculation, a view that tends to explicate the meaning of pleasure in terms of the variation of quantitative energy, an economic theory that concentrates on the relation between two quantities with unknown essences (130). Grounded by such a model, Derrida moves on to note that the Freudian theory of life death—or Eros Thanatos—defies the Hegelian-Jacobian program that reproduces only the same. On the contrary, Freud writes with a sense of confusion that also surprisingly breaks with the logocentric convention of the production of sameness: “[…] Derrida reads Freud’s account of reproduction in Beyond as offering an alternative ‘logic’ to Jacob’s, an alterity on the side of life and living on” (146). Life, therefore, is not opposed to death in the form of an either/or, but supplements and becomes interdependent with it, with a nexus of difference that always moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and binary judgements.
The Reproduction of Life Death is a strange book, precisely because McCance writes it in deconstruction but at the same time out of Derrida. We read an anxious awareness of the not-so-spectacular source text with a rather trite thesis along with a rhizomic effort of McCance’s to move beyond the scope of La vie la mort—just as Derrida tries to move beyond the limitations of the life/death opposition in the process of the continuation of heritance—to make the seminar itself an intertextual nexus in relation to Derrida’s oeuvre. McCance rigorously highlights the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of life and the living—a central theme of La vie la mort and, perhaps most importantly, reveals Derrida’s courage in the text to confront the dogmatism and sacredness of modern science, a spirit of the spur that is increasingly difficult to find in the weakening voice of the humanities.
McCance, Dawne. The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.