Wanda Torres Gregory’s latest book, entitled Speaking of Silence in Heidegger, explores the conceptual links and deep undercurrents at work in Martin Heidegger’s often unforthcoming thinking on silence. In typical chronological fashion (as with her previous book Heidegger’s Path to Language) she charts the course of Heidegger’s thoughts on silence, from Being and Time in the period of 1927–29, to the collection of essays in the 1950s On the Way to Language, and ending in Chapter 9 with critical conclusions about Heidegger’s thinking on silence from the 1950s onward. On this basis, Torres Gregory critically assesses Heidegger’s later ideas on silence in terms of “autonomous forces that define our essence as the beings who speak in word-sounds” (as described on her homepage for Simmons University where she is Professor of Philosophy).
This book plays an important role in prioritising non-visual phenomena. Both Don Idhe and Lisbeth Lipari have pointed to a visualist habit in phenomenology as well as western epistemologies in general. Idhe writes in Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound that there is a sense of vision that “pervades the recovery of the Greek sense of physis by Heidegger [where] ‘lighting,’ ‘clearing,’ ‘shining,’ ‘showing,’ are all revels in light imagery” (2007: 21). In this context, Idhe explores how auditory phenomena might be studied in a phenomenology of sound and listening that also gives way to “the enigma… of the horizon of silence” (2007: 23). Torres Gregory’s Speaking of Silence in Heidegger contributes richly to this genealogy of phenomenological scholarship that gives precedence to non-visual phenomena and their enigmatic relationship to hearing, listening and silence.
As I read Speaking of Silence in Heidegger, I was stimulated to question, ponder, and reason carefully about the great problem of silence. The contents page enticed me to read with chapter headings such as: Toward the Essence of Silence (Chapter 2); Quiet Musings in the Project toward the Stillness (Chapter 7); and The Soundless Peal of the Stillness (Chapter 8). I was immediately drawn into a sense of mystery and a longing to know more about essence, poetics, stillness of silence and its relationships to language. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in silence and the philosophy of language.
Reading the Introduction, titled “On the Way to Silence,” a wordplay on Heidegger’s “On the Way to Language,” we know that Torres Gregory is a good teacher (she is a recipient of the Simmons University Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching). She can say complex things relatively simply and map out her terrain with ease. The Introduction charts the thesis of the book well, pinpointing the author’s main claims, giving us a background to Heidegger’s ideas of silence in its links with truth and language as well as a comprehensive summary of chapters to follow.
A main focus of the book is the importance Heidegger places on the following terms: being silent (Geschweigen), keeping silent (Schweigen), hearkening (Horchen), and reticence (Verschwiegenheit) (Torres Gregory, 2021: xiii). Implicated in this theme, Torres Gregory’s interpretation focuses on what Heidegger says and doesn’t say (or hints at) concerning silence. “I make the effort to let him speak and intimate in his own words,” she writes (xiii). In this respect, Torres Gregory’s methodology follows similar enigmatic patterns to the concept of silence itself. Here, her folding of methodology and content is a powerful and original aspect of her writing. While some readers might find this overly speculative, this reader found it a productive mode of thinking in its own right, enabling an expansion of Heidegger’s ideas. However, given Heidegger’s emphasis on human silence as relating to a refraining from speaking about certain things or withholding certain words, his public silence concerning the Holocaust will come to mind for many readers. Torres Gregory does not shy away from this challenge, but the issue is by no means centre-stage in the discussion.
The Introduction identifies three distinct schematic forms of silence in the works of Heidegger: human silence which applies to speaking in word-sounds that can occur when we refrain from speaking, withhold words or when we are at a loss for words (xv); primordial silence, which is “deeper than human silence in that it pertains to being/beyng and to language in its being” and applies to the “essence of language as the soundless saying that shows or to the word as the silent voice or clearing of being/beyng”; and finally, primeval silence which is the “deepest silence that determines all silences, including the primordial silence of the word and, ultimately, the human silence” and “[p]ertains to the stillness and to the originary concealedness of being/beyng” (xv). Torres Gregory further explores three different levels at which silence occurs in language as speech: linguistic, pre-linguistic and proto-linguistic which move from language in word-sounds, the word as belonging to being/beyng, and the essence of language “as the soundless saying that shows or the word as the clearing” (xvi). Torres Gregory argues that this proto-linguistic level includes the stillness and relates to forms of primeval silence. This continues the work of scholars such as Alexander Garcia Düttmann in The Gift of Language who in asking “What does it mean to experience silence as the essence of language and as the completely condensed word (das ganz gesammelte Wort)?” answers via Rosenzweig, that the silence experienced is “unlike the muteness of the protocosmos (Vorwelt), which had no words yet” (2000: 23). Silence, Düttmann continues with reference to Heidegger, “marks the path which leads from proto-cosmic or pre-worldly mutism to trans-worldly silence” in which silence “no longer has any need of the word… is more essential than the word, which is the word as such” (2000: 24).
With reference to Being and Time, Chapter 1 articulates being-in-the-world through words (language) as significations, verbalising Da-sein’s mood and understanding. However, talking and listening are not necessarily characteristic of all discourse. Discourse has the possibility of silence when it is not fully vocalised; by not speaking about something, for example. Thus, hidden interpretations can remain silent and this silence is already part of vocalised discourse (Torres Gregory, 2021: 3). Moreover, silence can occur across authentic and inauthentic modalities. For example, idle talk and listening to idle talk (gossiping), Torres Gregory claims, imposes silence about beings talked about “by treating them as something that we already understand and have no need to inquire into any further” (4).
Levels of silence in language become even more complex as Torres Gregory follows Heidegger’s argument that silence can also occur in regard to the self in everyday being-in-the world. While the “authentic self has taken hold of and is its own self,” Da-sein’s everyday way of being-in-the-world involves covering itself up which is the inauthentic they–self (4). So, idle talk of the ‘they’ has potential to sever Da-sein from authentically relating to itself; it “drowns out the call of conscience through loud and incessant chatter and hearing all round” (8). The ‘they’ can talk loudly and endlessly provoked by its curiosities, and idle talk can silence authentic experiences. It can even cover up its own failure to hear the call of conscience (4). Furthermore, this chapter explains well the possibility that keeping silence is based on Heidegger’s notion of “having ‘something to say,’ which involves an ‘authentic and rich’ self-disclosedness and thereby can contribute to an authentic uncovering with others” (5). In this sense, authentically keeping silent in dialogue with others can mean silencing idle talk, counter-discourse and all linguistic/verbal language, which equates to a keeping silent and hearkening (8). But the “deepest silence lies within Da-sein, in what Heidegger refers to as ‘the stillness of itself’ and identifies as that to which it is ‘called back’ and ‘called back as something that is to become still’” (7).
Following Heidegger’s 1933–34 winter course “On the Essence of Truth,” Chapter 2 emphasises that language is the necessary medium of human existence and that the “ability to keep silent is the origin and ground of language” (19). Torres Gregory traces moments of Heidegger’s own keeping silence and reticence, thus mapping out a philosophical and pedagogical method in Heidegger that reflects the topic itself. This includes his ability to stay on the surface and provide minimal necessary clarification as if part of keeping silent and reticence. In this context, problems are described such that: “If we talk about ‘keeping silent,’ then it seems that we know nothing about it. If we do not talk about it, then we may end up mystifying it” (20). In turning to another problem, that animals cannot speak, questions are asked about whether “the ability to talk [is] the precondition for the ability to be silent” (20). Here, Heidegger argues that authentically keeping silent relates to the possibility of speaking and alludes to “what one has to say, one has and keeps to oneself” (21). It is at these junctions that Torres Gregory articulately claims an essential relationship between silence, truth and language in Da-sein’s being (21). Through a further reading of Heidegger’s 1934 summer course, Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, Torres Gregory sets up subsequent directions for future chapters as Heidegger poses preliminary questions concerning language: “Is language only then, when it is spoken? Is it not, when one is silent?” and “Does it cease to be, if one is silent?” (26).
In Chapter 3, Torres Gregory shows how Heidegger develops a distinction between idle talk and keeping silent through Hölderlin’s poetry, helping him to define primordial silence as the origin of language, as well as language as the originary site of the unconcealedness of beyng, which pertains to what Torres Gregory identifies as primeval silence (31). The disclosive powers of poetry ‘thrusts’ us out of everydayness (32). Torres Gregory argues that Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin’s poetic verse “Since we are a dialogue,” allows him to revisit the notion of “talking-with-one-another” as a way of “being-in-the-world” as an event or happening determined by language (33). Importantly, this image of “humans as a dialogue” or “the dialogue that we are” includes an ability to keep silent as the authentic form of silence (34). Thus, an ability to speak is unified with an ability to keep silent (34). In this context, Torres Gregory notes that, for Heidegger, a poetic telling (which Hölderlin’s poetry exemplifies) or a philosophical lecture (where the most significant is kept silent or unsaid) are the authentic models of keeping silent, and also therefore of the possibility of saying and talking (34). In contrast, idle talk is incapable of keeping silent. Quoting from Heidegger’s Hölderlin’s Hymns “Germania” and “The Rhein,” Torres Gregory notes: “It is thereby a way of talking everything to death to which we become enslaved. Thus, he admonishes that ‘one cannot simply ramble on,’ if one is ‘to simultaneously preserve in silence what is essential to one’s saying’” (35). This important chapter finishes with a comparison between keeping silent and forms of hearing. Inauthentic mortals in their idle talk flee from hearing and have a “horror of silence” (38). So, a poetic or genuinely philosophical hearing involves “a keeping silent as well as an anticipatory readiness” (37). Here, Torres Gregory furthers the scholarship of Lisbeth Lipari who introduced the concept of ‘interlistening’ to describe how “listening is itself a form of speaking that resonates with echoes of everything heard, thought, said, and read,” while referencing Heidegger’s claim in Poetry, Language, Thought that “every word of mortal speech speaks out of such a listening, and as such a listening. Mortals speak insofar as they listen” (2014: 512).
Chapter 4 discusses Heidegger’s private manuscript from 1936 to 1938, Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) where he initiates a transition from a metaphysics of objective presence to the thinking of the truth of beyng in the ‘appropriating event’ or Ereignis (Torres Gregory, 2021: xix, 41). Torres Gregory discusses the different forms of silence that unfold in the appropriating event. For Heidegger, thinking takes the form of a “thoughtful speaking” (41) and Torres Gregory pursues the thoughtful speaking of sigetics (to keep or to be silent) who “bears silence and is reticent in its co-respondence with the primordial silence of the word and the primeval silence of beyng” (xix-xx). As with other chapters in this book, one of Torres Gregory’s original contributions is to acknowledge Heidegger’s own tendency towards sigetics, forcing her to interpret what he intimates about the “deeper silences of beyng and the word when he identifies silence as the ground and origin of language in its essence” (xx). While exploring attitudes of restraint, shock, and diffidence, Torres Gregory argues that stillness, as the ability to hear beyng, involves the ability to be silent (43).
Chapter 5 analyses Heidegger’s 1939 graduate seminar, On the Essence of Language. The Metaphysics of Language and the Essencing of the Word Concerning Herder’s Treatise On the Origin of Language. Torres Gregory first establishes Heidegger’s resistance to Herder’s metaphysics of language where the word is reduced, for example, to signification as representation and objectification associated with ‘mark-sign’ and ‘sign-production’ (56). Herder’s failure to differentiate between human and animal (in a sounding of sensations) urges Heidegger to emphasise how the word has or takes us, rather than it being a communication device that the human has (58). In this context, Heidegger builds on Herder’s thinking on the ear as “the first teacher of language” to include “what is unsaid” (58). Torres Gregory has extremely valuable insights into Heidegger’s thinking as she notes that Herder misunderstands silence as an absence of noise rather than a more essential silence (59). For Heidegger hearing is the “hearkening that pertains to Da-sein’s silencing” (59). Again, Torres Gregory extracts extended (often reticent) meanings from Heidegger’s thinking, arriving at claims that the word is silent in a primordial sense, as it harbors or silently discloses beyng it is unconcealedness, (59) resulting in a claim that the silence of the word is the origin of language (60-1).
Chapter 6 explores the 1944 summer seminar “Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos”. Torres Gregory aligns silence with the unsaid, and the unsayable in Heraclitus, where Heidegger identifies ‘the true’ with ‘the unsaid’ (68). And in future chapters this will develop, for Torres Gregory, as “the essence of language as the peal of the stillness” (68). Here, hearkening to the word, or Logos, involves listening to the silent address of being, rather than listening to the chatter of human speech (69). Such attentive listening to the Logos is only possible, Torres Gregory argues, through Heidegger’s “thoughtful and poetic saying,” which is marked by silences. In this context, silence draws limits on what can be said. Silence or quiescence (the state of being temporarily quiet) is interpreted by Torres Gregory in its close association with concealedness (74). Word-sounds originate in quiescence and permeate speech as a hearkening and reticence of thoughtful and poetic sayings (71). In this regard, Torres Gregory draws attention to Heidegger’s term ‘fore-word’ and its relationship to quiescence as a stillness that is a deep and primeval silence (72). Thus, verbal word-sounds that occur in speech are grounded in soundlessness which is grounded in the stillness. Importantly, Torres Gregory highlights Heidegger’s differentiation between hearkening and listening as acoustic perception, noting that hearkening is “originary listening” that enables the hearing of sounds. As Torres Gregory writes: “the tones of the harp (to use one of [Heidegger’s] own examples), is thus based ultimately on our openness to the soundless and inaudible voice of being” (75).
Chapter 7 discusses two sections of Heidegger’s On the Essence of Language and On the Question Concerning Art produced just after 1939. Torres Gregory writes: “Heidegger sketches out his thoughts on silence, particularly in its primeval relation to beyng itself in the appropriating-event and as the origin of the essence of language” (79). With typical care, Torres Gregory discusses the translation of three key words: Verschweigen, Schweigen and Erschweigen which correspond to keeping secret in relation to the sayable, keeping silent in relation to the unsayable, and silencing in relation to the unsaid as such (79, 83). She reiterates the positive dimension that Heidegger lends silence as a positive force. She writes: “Keeping secret can be a way of sheltering what is sayable. Being silent can arise from our ability to leave the unsayable in its unsayability. As for our silencing, it inherently involves the positive acts of preserving and conserving saying with its ground in unsaidness” (83). Torres Gregory is at pains to show how these notions of ‘soundlessness’ or ‘non-sonorousness’ in Heidegger’s vocabulary are not negative concepts; not a lack, but a fullness from which sounds emerge, predicated on a stillness, as primeval silence (82). Because chapters 1 to 8 form a complex analysis of Heidegger’s thinking, with any criticism reserved for the final chapter, we are left at points in this book wondering how these philosophical concepts of language and silence might relate to different genders and cultures. For many women and/or indigenous peoples, silencing inherently involves negative acts of being silenced or being made to keep secrets as forms of disempowerment. As Torres Gregory briefly mentions in her concluding Chapter 9, this raises questions about how Heidegger’s thinking excludes bodies that differ.
Chapter 8 discusses the ways in which the collection of essays On the Way to Language and the idea of the ‘peal of the stillness’ unfolds as Heidegger ponders the relations between language and silence (95). Torres Gregory reiterates her three main foci on silence from the previous chapters (human hearkening and reticence, the primordial silencing of the word, and the stillness of primeval silence) (96) in relation to Ereignis, a term that has been translated diversely as ‘event,’ ‘appropriation’ or ‘appropriating event’. While Heidegger constantly refers to the disclosive power and necessity of language in its essence “as the appropriative speaking, saying, showing, letting-appear, clearing, and calling” (98), Torres Gregory notes his insistence that it is only through ‘authentic’ listening (in the manner of thinking and poetry) that humans have the ability to speak (100). In other words, all authentic saying must be attuned to restraint. Quoting Heidegger, she writes: “The reticence and reserve of poets and thinkers in their responding is thus appropriated by the peal of the stillness: ‘Every authentic hearing holds back with its own saying. For hearing keeps to itself in the listening by which it remains appropriated to the peal of the stillness. All responding is attuned to this restraint that reserves itself’” (102). And this chapter ends with a warning that language can only speak in relation to how the appropriating event reveals itself or withdraws. If this corresponds to our ability to quietly listen, Torres Gregory emphasises the significance of stillness within the “dangers that challenge-forth in the noisy and frenzied age of the ‘language-machine’” (103).
One problem with Speaking of Silence in Heidegger is a lack of contextualisation of the literature on silence. Torres Gregory’s book is definitely a specialist book on Heidegger rather than an analysis of the recent history of scholarship on silence in relationship to Heidegger’s thinking. For example, key texts on silence are relegated to the footnotes (albeit with brief analysis) and never appear in the discussion of the main text. These include Max Picard’s The World of Silence (1948), Bernard Dauenhauer’s Silence: The Phenomenon and its Ontological Significance (1980), Luce Irigaray’s “To Conceive Silence” (2001), Don Idhe’s Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Silence (2007), and Niall Keane’s “The Silence of the Origin” (2013). As a reader, I would have benefited from further incorporation of these texts into the discussion. This would have enabled Torres Gregory’s book to be a more significant contribution to the overall scholarship on silence. But, make no mistake, her book is a very significant contribution to Heideggerian scholarship and the notion of silence. It should also be pointed out that, apart from one footnote to Dauenhauer in Chapter 2, all these key texts on silence just mentioned appear in the footnotes for Chapter 9.
This attests to the importance of Chapter 9 in the overall argument of the book. In this concluding chapter, Torres Gregory expands the significance of her research in three different ways. Firstly, she questions whether the only way to silence and silencing experiences is through sonorous speech and asks how various non-linguistic achievements and co-responses to and with silence such as music might operate. In this vein, she questions Heidegger’s narrow focus on poetry and philosophical thinking as the only authentic models of keeping silent and also therefore of the possibility of saying and talking. Here, Torres Gregory explores Heidegger’s failure to incorporate the lived body in his philosophical concepts of language and silence, including the “gender neutrality of Da-sein, the homogeneity of the Volk as a ‘We,’ and the one world of the Mitdasein (being-there-with)” as ideas that exclude bodies that differ (113). Torres Gregory does not shy away from Heidegger’s antisemitism and the silencing of bodies that suffer oppression and extermination (114). Secondly, she argues that Heidegger “leaves open the possibility of a mysticism that is not ensnared in metaphysics” (115) in both content and his repetitive incantatory methods of writing. Thirdly, Torres Gregory critiques Heidegger’s emphasis on language with respect to animals who are rendered languageless and therefore silenceless. In this section, her critique that sheds light on contemporary dilemmas, such as our lack of relationship to the earth, is all too brief and could be the focus of another book: “Perhaps we would be better at letting the earth be the earth, if we tried to transpose ourselves into the animal’s intrinsically meaningful experiences, including that of its own extreme possibility” she writes (120).
Chapter 9, and this whole book, highlights the challenges faced in accommodating Heidegger’s thinking for our current times. For example, quantum physicist and philosopher Karen Barad questions the animate/inanimate dualism that places inorganic entities such as rocks, molecules and particles “on the other side of death, of the side of those who are denied even the ability to die” in her 2012 interview for Women, Gender & Research (Juelskjær et al, 21). And from a related but different perspective, Donna Haraway’s ideas of ‘companion species’ in her 2003 book The companion species manifesto: dogs, people, and significant otherness, argues for emergent ‘naturecultures’ in dog-human worlds, embracing linguistic ‘metaplasm’ as a way of avoiding human/nonhuman dualisms in language. These approaches lie in stark contrast to Heidegger’s insistence in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that “The stone in its absorption ‘does not even have the possibility of dying,’ because ‘it is never alive’” (Torres Gregory, 2021: 120). And in contrast to Heidegger’s determination (again, as quoted by Torres Gregory) that animals, who do not possess human sonorous speech, “cannot die in the sense in which dying is ascribed to humans, but can only come to an end” (120). Barad and Haraway are the kinds of scholars that many of our postgraduate students are referencing as they embrace more-than-human modalities in the crisis of the Anthropocene. If Heideggerian scholarship wants to remain relevant, it needs to urgently critique and explore different approaches to Heidegger’s anthropocentrism.
Finally, in less than one page, this book addresses how Heidegger’s prophecies concerning gigantism and machination have a bearing on our current situation. Quoting Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), Torres Gregory writes: “At issue is whether the human being will be ‘masterful enough’ for the ‘transition to the renewal of the world out of the saving of the earth’” (121). And in the last paragraph, we glimpse the promise of what ‘releasement’ (Gelassenheit) toward things might hold for our times; a concept that Hans Ruin explores as a ‘mystical’ comportment of Heidegger’s writing as a heightened openness and awareness in relationship to the work of Meister Eckhart. Given the proximity of thinking about silence and mysticism, I was hopeful that this book might have dedicated more words to the striking relations thrown up through Torres Gregory’s exploration of being silent, keeping silent, hearkening, and reticence. For example, the discussion in Chapter 1 concerning the authentic and inauthentic self relates in a powerful way to spiritual/mystical traditions that address the heedless and worldly desires of the ego as it muzzles an authentic relationship with the divine essence. This is not far removed from Torres Gregory’s discussion relating to Da-sein’s everyday way of being-in-the-world that covers itself up (the inauthentic they–self) and where internal idle talk of the they distracts Da-sein from authentically relating to itself (4). Torres Gregory’s claim that publicness and idle talk characterise an inauthentic silence—as well as the hearkening to the silent call of conscience involving the possibility of authentically keeping silent and reticent—resonates deeply with mystical traditions in their quest to quieten the ego in favour of compassion and spiritual forms of love towards the self and the world/earth. How would ‘releasement’ operate as an openness to the truth of Being? This is an example of how Speaking of Silence in Heidegger might have made more productive links within its own structure and towards broader fields of literature, especially pertaining to silence and mysticism.
Torres Gregory’s Speaking of Silence in Heidegger makes a profound and timely contribution to thinking about silence and its essential relationship to language. It guides us through complex registers of silence including forms of hearkening and reticence as a listening that is deeply attentive to the unsaid and the unsayable. It gives timely warning vis-à-vis the idle talk of the world and our own internal idle talk, reiterating that saying must be attuned to restraint or our ability to quietly listen. Furthermore, a deeper silence is a ‘calling back’ and lies within Da-sein as ‘the stillness of itself’. Moreover, our capacity for ‘the dialogue that we are’ to emerge in community depends on our capacity for attentive stillness within the dangerous noise of the ‘language-machine’.
Düttmann Alexander García. 2000. The Gift of Language: Memory and Promise in Adorno, Benjamin, Heidegger, and Rosenzweig. Translated by Arline Lyons. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Ihde, Don. 2007. Listening and Voice Phenomenologies of Sound. 2nd ed. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Juelskjær, Malou, Nete Schwennesen, and Karen Barad. 2012. “Intra-active Entanglements – An Interview with Karen Barad.” Kvinder, Køn & Forskning NR (Women, Gender & Research) 1-2: 10-23.
Lipari, Lisbeth. 2014. “On Interlistening and the Idea of Dialogue.” Theory & Psychology 24, no. 4: 504–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354314540765.
Ruin, Hans. 2019. “The Inversion of Mysticism—Gelassenheit and the Secret of the Open in Heidegger.” Religions 10, no. 15: https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10010015.
Torres Gregory, Wanda. 2021. Speaking of Silence in Heidegger. London, UK: Lexington Books.
The Ernst Cassirer renaissance is in full order. Since Massimo Ferrari’s anticipation and prediction that the German philosopher would be lifted from the realms of semi-forgottenness in 1994 different lines of reception have swept through the German-, Italian- and English-speaking world. (cf. Ferrari, 1994) It was only a matter of time until this resurgence would carry over to Anglo-American departments, where, along with a renewed interest in Neo-Kantianism, more and more research on Cassirer is being conducted. The newly translated and edited edition of his three volume magnus opum The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms by Routledge is a case in point here. Accordingly, the present work by Samantha Matherne, assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard University, is perhaps only the logical conclusion to a new wave of Cassirer reception in the English-speaking world, appearing in the renowned The Routledge Philosophers series edited by Brian Leitner. Primarily aimed at undergraduate students, the book will surely complement many syllabi on the German philosopher in the English-speaking academy for years to come, especially as the hitherto existing English introduction to Cassirer, John Michael Krois’ Symbolic Forms and History, is by now 34 years old.
In the contemporary reception Cassirer’s philosophy is explicitly advertised as being able to bridge “gaps not only between the so-called ‘analytic-continental divide’ in philosophy, but also between philosophy and other disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences” (p.2) Indeed, apart from purely historical considerations the primary aim of contemporary research on Cassirer seems to be the development of a transcendental philosophy of culture as the investigation of the conditions of possibility that enable cultural artifacts and their world by means of an analysis of the different modalities of symbolization. (cf. Endres et al., 12f.; Luft 2021, 215) Following the influential studies of Peter Gordon (Gordon, 2010) and Michael Friedmann (Friedmann, 2000) the peculiar position of Cassirer in 20th century (German) philosophy is recognized and contextualized and with it a philosophy that seemingly does not outright reject modernity’s proliferation of cultural and life-forms in either a rural conservative individual flight to authenticity (Heidegger) or a detached logic-semantical analysis of scientific propositions (Carnap). Hans Sluga, a reviewer of Gordon’s book, however, expressed his doubts about deriving a reconciliation of culture via Cassirer:
Cassirer was no doubt an accomplished philosopher, an influential teacher, and above all a thoroughly decent and admirable human being, but he does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure. (Sluga, 2011)
However, the contemporary reception of Cassirer wagers that the German philosopher has still a lot to offer for present-day problematics. (cf. Gordon 2021, xiv; cf. Luft/ Ferrari 2021, passim)
How the background of this reception and its repercussions along with the different ‘geophilosophical’ context vis-à-vis existing German introductions (Sandkühler/ Pätzold, 2003; Graeser, 1994; Recki, 2004, 2013; Paetzold, 2014) have shaped the task of presenting a summary and overview of Cassirer’s philosophy will form the frame of this review. The author’s aim to “offer an overview of Cassirer’s philosophical system as a whole that can help the reader navigate his corpus” will determine its immanent threshold of success. (p.2) I will provide a summary of its contents before engaging in a more critical reading.
After setting out from a brief biography of Cassirer, the book unfolds via a historical contextualization of Cassirer within the broader movement of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as the general frame of reference and conceptualization Cassirer worked and philosophized within. “For all the shifts and developments in Cassirer’s body of work, his philosophical system remains, throughout, that of a Neo-Kantian.” (p.18) It is transcendental spontaneity that for Matherne is the central motif of Cassirer’s effort for a philosophy of culture and in connection with the methodological impetus of accounting for the conditions of possibilities of cultural facts the decisive trait of his intellectual lineage. Hence this, after setting the general picture of Marburg Neo-Kantianism as being primarily scientifically oriented right, amounts to a transcendental investigation of the conditions of possibility of meaning-creating/ – making in a shared world. In this sense, (Marburg) Neo-Kantianism tout court had always already been on the way to a philosophy of culture, though it is Cassirer’s merit to conduct this investigation in a way that would do justice to the concept of culture. (cf. p. 31f.)
In practice, this configures the subject’s capability to confer meaning- and form – making processes freely and spontaneously upon the world. Matherne decisively accounts for this by contextualizing Cassirer’s indebtedness to Cohen’s and Natorp’s intellectualist interpretation of Kant’s theory of cognition – the actual conceptuality of what had been forms of intuition, space and time, in Kant. (cf. p. 39ff.) In other words, all forms of cognition and perception remain relative to the transcendental subject’s employment of a range of categories. On this view, Cassirer’s central philosophical innovation consists in invoking the ‘softer’ notions of form and symbol/ function against ‘law’ – the former two permitting a greater range of phenomena attributable to the ‘world of meaning’. (cf. p. 37.)
Accounting for this in more detail, Matherne sets out to retrace the younger Cassirer’s work on epistemology and a theory of concept-formation, largely neglecting the first published monograph Leibniz’ System in its Scientific Foundations and the first volume of Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Rather, Cassirer’s first central philosophical innovation is said to have first and foremost occurred within the theory of concepts and the adjacent philosophy of mathematics to form conceptual and scientific basic distinctions, which, insisting on the continuity of Cassirer’s thought, remain invariant up to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and beyond. In this way, Cassirer’s elaboration of the distinction between substance-concept and function-concept in the eponymous book are employed to account for the respective processes of objectification (Ver-gegenständlichung) yielding the symbolic forms and their ranges of perception and cognition. This amounts essentially to the primacy of the category of relation over substance from Kant’s transcendental logic to prevent a notion of concepts as being mere copies of pre-existing objects attained by way of abstraction. (cf. Truwant 2015, 291) A spontaneously conceived function – later to be extended as symbolic form – posits a law of succession and orders a series of representations according to it. (cf. 53ff.)
The remaining chapter presents Cassirer’s consequent views in the philosophy of arithmetic and geometry. Matherne summarizes the attained position under the heading of ‘logical structuralism’, “according to which mathematics has its basis in functions of relations that belong to logic and mathematical objects are ideal structures generated on the basis of those functions or relations.” (p. 75) Although introducing Cassirer’s first philosophical innovation in this way diminishes the methodological role of the Neo-Kantian’s historiography of philosophy as a history of problems (Problemgeschichte) in relation to the historization of the a priori and its relevance for the establishment of the function-concept, the presented difference between the two respective views is presented clearly and convincingly.
The historical character of functions comes back in Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of natural science’, which is the topic of the ensuing chapter. In dialogue with the natural scientist, it is the transcendental philosopher’s task to account for the conditions of possibility of the facts of science by means of a reconstruction of the corresponding transcendental functions, which remain relative to the overall scientific context of experience (cf. p. 81 In the context of natural science this task amounts to the elaboration of the fundamental concepts employed by the natural scientist and the positions the yielded concepts occupy within their empirical theories. Hence the elaboration of a taxonomy of the scientific statements of measurement, laws and principles as instantiations of a different order of generality. In turn, the philosopher should, according to Cassirer, make out the invariant relations on a purely conceptual level. (cf. p. 98.) In the last instance, these figure as the transcendental categories, that is, the functions continuously employed in all scientific endeavors such as time, space, or number. Although these may be configured differently over history they serve as the functional a priori building blocks of any scientific theory.
Subsequently, the discussion moves on to the philosophy of symbolic forms proper, that is, not just the elaboration of the eponymous trilogy, but also the dispersed articles and texts written between 1920 and 1945. Matherne chooses to frame the philosophy of symbolic form as a philosophy of culture throughout, and, although not outright neglecting its later transformation into a philosophical anthropology, takes her “cue from his early formulations of it in The Philosophy Symbolic Forms and other texts from the 1920s”. (p. 116) While it is conceded that Cassirer’s thought evolved in newer directions at a later stage of his career, the conception of a ‘philosophy of culture’ is by definition a narrower one than that of a philosophical anthropology. And although the reason for this concession is provided for in the continuity of the central status of symbolization as seen in the dictum of the human as animal symbolicum, questions why this should not compel one to conceive of his philosophy of culture as a philosophical anthropology are unanswered. (cf. 116f.) It is perhaps by way of the general relevance of Cassirer for a contemporary philosophy of culture that this conception is motivated. Rather than going the whole way of conceiving of the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophical anthropology the more modest task of investigating meaning-making processes fairs equally well with the ascribed position of the German philosopher with regard to the analytic-continental split. Thus, the task of the philosophy of symbolic forms “is ultimately organized around an effort to elucidate the conditions of culture.” (p. 119)
Matherne follows the common distinction between the different forms of culture along the subjective and objective lines. The former is comprised of the different modalities of representation as the triad of expressive, presentative and significative functions, the latter as the continuous progression of objective spirit, that is, culture’s overall context of signification as an “a priori intersubjectively shared structure and activity, which unites human beings […] together.” (p. 120) The different symbolic forms encompass respective “perceptive, intuitive and cognitive” structures and in this way the philosophy of symbolic forms aims to tie an analysis of the transcendental functions of the subject with its objective cultural expressions together (p.125) In contrast to the discussion of the cognitions of mathematics and natural science, the investigation shifts to the broader notion of the various kinds of ‘understanding’ in the human cultural sciences. (p.121) Cassirer posits their specific modality of concept-formation as being aligned with the general model detected in the natural sciences, foreclosing an anticipated discussion of their status as form- or style-concepts. (Form- oder Stilbegriffe)
Matherne then goes on to discuss the methodological requirements to conduct an analysis of the conditions of possibility of culture. The transcendental method is once again evoked, this time in Natorp’s “bi-directional conception”. (p. 124) The correlation of objective and subjective spirit is bifurcated along a reconstructive axis for the subjective side of the equation and constructive axis for its objective side. The latter posits a specific analysis of culture (‘constructive’) and the former accounts for the conditions of possibility of it by reconstructing a corresponding synthesis of transcendental subjectivity. (cf. Freyberg/ Niklas 2019, passim) It would perhaps have been worthwhile to extend and contrast the presented account with the manuscript for a Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms and its thoughts on ‘Basis Phenomena’ for a more rounded account. Matherne’s presentation gives the impression that Cassirer’s seems to privilege the reconstructive side over their correlativity or ‘work-relatedness’ (Werkbezogenheit), though the account remains thus firmly faithful to her overall interpretation of Cassirer. Subsequently the details of symbolization by means of categorial function-concepts, such as cause, time, thing or property, to yield the respective symbolic forms are discussed. (cf. p. 129) These figure as “the concepts that remain constant across all our spiritual activities because they are the a priori conditions that make all spiritual ‘forming’ possible in the first place.” ( p. 129) Matherne takes up Cassirer’s distinction between a category’s quality – its basic logical impetus of ordering series – and its modality, the particular ‘content’ “indexed to ‘regions of culture’ a[s] context” that orders representations. (p.130) With regard to spirit, Cassirer draws attention to ongoing discussions concerning the autonomy of the respective symbolic forms vis-à-vis the others (‘irreducibility thesis’) and whether their consecutiveness is to be conceived of teleologically as progress (‘teleology thesis’), although the latter question is answered affirmatively.
After the determination of the general functional context, Cassirer moves on towards the elaboration of the individual symbolic forms. The triad of expressive, presentative and significative symbolization as different functional modalities of representation provide the guidelines for this elaboration, relating the individual to respective realizations of her own freedom as spontaneity. Accordingly, religion and myth are relegated toward the expressive, language, history, and technology toward the presentative and mathematics, the natural sciences, morality and right toward the significative function of consciousness. (cf. p. 152) Philosophy entertains neither a position of a totalized god-like view of their overall cohesion nor does it count as one symbolic form among the others but figures as a toll to reflect on the symbolic forms. The specific functions and ‘worldviews’ of both myth and religion are presented in clear and minute detail before going over to art as the ‘objective’ demonstration of ‘subjective’ presentation – thereby “revealing to us that we are not passive with respect to our affects and emotions.” (p. 166) Objectification is reflected from the objective side of the dichotomy by the symbolic form of language, which, while still remaining bound to intuition and a substance-based view of categories, fosters the recognition of self-consciousness by the liberated understanding of reality it enables. It is interesting that Matherne specifically mentions that language and technology foster both practical and theoretical recognition of freedom and one wonders to what extent that can be said of the other symbolic forms. While this realization would be imaginable for myth, religion and the latter distinction between specific recognitions of this contention in morality and natural science, respectively, is left unaccounted for.
Both history and technology remain tied to the presentative functions of consciousness and spirit, the former by revealing reality’s distinctively human texture by means of the objective presentation of the past, the latter as the realization of the will’s striving for power toward the free configuration of the world. (cf. p.175f; p.178f.) Lastly, it is, on the side of theoretical reason, mathematics and natural science, that exemplify the significative functions of spirit. Following Cassirer’s views on the philosophy of mathematics, it is the fact that these symbolic forms are devoid of any relation to intuition or perception as to the yielded concepts and ‘things’ that elevates them towards the highest ranks of culture as most grasped realizations of transcendental freedom. It is precisely because these forms remain purely self-referential as expressions of freedom that “spirit truly discovers itself”. (Cassirer in Matherne, p. 184.)
The elaboration of the theoretical accomplishments of subjectivity is followed by their practical counterpart and the question over their position within the overall cohesion of the philosophy of symbolic forms. Recounting Cassirer’s refutation of emotive cognitivism in Axel Högerstrom Matherne insists on the employment of the transcendental method in the realms of morality and right. “ Cassirer endorses a critical approach [to practical philosophy] in which he analyzes morality and right in terms of ‘functions’ that serve as conditions of the possibility of the ‘facts’ of the ‘world of willing and action’. (p. 193, my amendments, N.S.) This deployment of the transcendental method is thereby connected to the demand of a regulative principle, the categorical imperative its claim to a universal, objectifiable moral principle. “Thus, a universal principle is one that enables us to most closely approximate the idea of ‘unity of willing’” thereby conferring objectivity on the ethical progress of consciousness via Sittlichkeit.(p. 194) Right, on the other hand, functions as a symbolic form in the overall context of Cassirer’s philosophy as self-binding to juridical lawfulness. Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of right’ posits a version of natural right that fosters the practical recognition of freedom by means of the postulation of and adherence to collective autonomy via laws. (cf. p. 214) Lastly, the teleological underpinnings of Cassirer’s progressivist understanding of theoretical and practical consciousness are posited as contingent. This is demonstrated in Cassirer’s analysis of National-Socialism in his The Myth of the State. Fascism re-introduced myth in modern consciousness via the symbolic form of technology and the ideas of hero worship, race and the dominance of the state. It is these late analyses that prompted Cassirer to also revise his conception of philosophy late in his career. Against the merely scholastic concept of philosophy, he brought forward its ‘cosmopolitan’ counterpart. Culture’s contingent accomplishments are not to be taken for granted but are to be achieved and upheld by means of struggle. To assign the task of this struggle had been the last innovation of Cassirerean philosophy.
The last chapter aims to reconstruct Cassirer’s influence on the development of not only philosophy but also (art) history, social science, ethnology, and Critical Theory. The presentation is focused on direct engagements with and influences of Cassirer on figures and movements. Accordingly, one learns about, for instance, the German philosopher’s influence on such diverse figures as Langer, Goodmann, Merleau-Ponty, Panofsky, Blumenberg, Habermas et.al. Cassirer’s possible inspiration to contemporary positions in the philosophy of science, such as logical structuralism and ontic scientific realism are addressed. (cf. p. 249f.)
It is puzzling, though, that, given the general narrative of Cassirer, an explicit contextualization of Cassirer within and relation to ‘philosophy of culture’ and its major movements and figures is lacking. This is even more relevant as, despite presenting the philosophy of symbolic forms as a philosophy of culture, Cassirer’s specific concept of culture remains unaccounted for. It appears that, following his Neo-Kantian heritage, the latter can only ever be the constructed empirical totality of culture at a given moment in history. Accordingly, one wonders whether the philosophy of symbolic forms is not prone to becoming ‘sociologized’: an investigation of the constituents and subsequent diversity of culture that would, by means of the quid iuris, be retied to an investigation of the correlative conception of subjective spirit. In the German context, this could be understood along the lines of Luhmann’s project of a ‘system theoretical’ approach to culture and society and its ‘autopoietic’, subjective sources.
Whether one concurs with Matherne’s way of framing Cassirer and his philosophy as being ‘organically’ culturally oriented or not, it is unquestionable that she is an informed and avid reader of the German philosopher. Via the transcendental method, Matherne is able to provide a coherent narrative of Cassirer’s philosophy. The book neatly ties the multi-faceted aspects of the oeuvre together in a rigorous and convincing manner and presents them in a remarkably cohesive way. Indeed, another title for it could have been: Cassirer: A Study on the Unity of his System. It is beyond doubt that the new reception of Cassirer has found a corresponding introduction to its subject.
Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo. 2016. “Cassirer, globalized.” In Philosophie der Kultur- und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen, edited by Endres, Tobias/ Favuzzi, Pellegrino/ Klattenhoff, Timo, Philosophie im Kontext von Gesellschaft und Wissenschaften, vol. 78, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 9 – 22.
Ferrari, Massimo. 1994. “La ≫Cassirer-Renaissance≪ in Europa“, Studi Kantiani 7: 111–139.
Friedmann, Michael. 2000. A Parting of the Ways. Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger. Chicago/ La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Freyberg, Sascha, Niklas, Stefan. 2019. “Rekonstruktive Synthesis. Zur Methodik der Kulturphilosophie bei Ernst Cassirer und John Dewey.” In Ernst Cassirer in seinen systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie Sonderbände Vol. 40, edited by Breyer, Thiemo and Niklas, Stefan, 47-68, Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter.
Graser, Andreas. 1994. Ernst Cassirer. München: Beck.
Gordon, Peter. 2010. Continental Divide. Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Cambridge, MA/ London: Harvard University Press.
Gordon, Peter. 2021. “Foreword.” In Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume 3: Phenomenology of Cognition. Trans. by Steve G. Lofts. viii-xv. Oxon/ New York: Routledge.
Luft, Sebastian. 2021. “Cassirer’s Place in Today’s Philosophical Landscape. ‘Synthetic Philosophy,’ Transcendental Idealism, Cultural Pluralism.” In Interpreting Cassirer. Critical Essays, edited by Simon Truwant. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 214-236.
Luft, Sebastian/ Ferrari Massimo. 2021. “Cassirer’s Children”, Special Topics Issue, Journal of Transcendental Philosophy 2(1):1-5.
Paetzold, Heinz. 2002. Ernst Cassirer zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius.
Recki, Birgit. 2004. Kultur als Praxis: eine Einführung in Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
Recki, Birgit. 2013. Cassirer. Stuttgart: Reclam.
Sandkühler, Hans Jörg and Detlev Pätzold (Ed.). 2003. Kultur und Symbol. Ein Handbuch zur Philosophie Ernst Cassirer. Stuttgart/ Weimar: Verlag J.B. Metzler.
Schwemmer, Oswald. 1997. Ernst Cassirer. Ein Philosoph der europäischen Moderne. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
Sluga, Hans. 2011. “Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos.” Review of Continental Divide, by Peter Gordon. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/continental-divide-heidegger-cassirer-davos/.
Truwant, Simon. 2015. “The Concept of ‘Function’ in Cassirer’s Historical, Systematic, and Ethical Writings.“ In The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer: A Novel Assessment, edited by Friedman, J. Tyler and Luft, Sebastian, 289-312, Berlin: De Gruyter.
 See cf. Endres et al, “Cassirer, globalized”, in: Philosophie der Kultur – und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen. Endres/ Favuzzi/ Klattenhoff (Eds.), pp. 9 -22. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Edition, 2016, for an overview of recent research conducted on Cassirer.
 Where in text citations refer to page numbers only the addressed book is Matherne, Cassirer. Routledge, 2021.
 For cf. Schwemmer 1997, it is precisely the case that Cassirer’s philosophy of culture is always already a philosophical anthropology – “because that which defines the human being – spirit – consists in the configuration and usage of cultural symbolisms. (Ibid., p. 3145, my translation, N.S.)
The aim of Frank Schalow’s book is to offer a valid alternative to all those political readings of Martin Heidegger that, from Farías (1989) to Faye (2009), from Trawny-Mitchell (2017) to Di Cesare (2018), focus their analysis on the relationship of the author of Sein und Zeit to Nazism or, more recently, on the disruptive impact of the Black Notebooks on Heidegger’s Denkweg. “Yes, Heidegger was a Nazi, not a very important Nazi, just an ordinary one, a provincial petit-bourgeois Nazi”, wrote Alain Badiou, adding however that, “Yes, Heidegger is unquestionably one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century” (Badiou-Cassin, 2014: 14). Schalow’s work thus seems to adhere to such a thesis, explicitly aiming to open up a new path of thought that attempts to draw on Heideggerian conceptual tools without necessarily running into the outcomes mentioned above. The author’s aim, made clear since the preface, is in fact to “elicit new pathways of thinking that begin to reappear from the shadows of the most poignant criticisms,” using Heideggerian writings “as harboring untapped possibilities for future interpretation” (Schalow, 2022: IX).
Schalow is aware of how his work – and perhaps this is one of its merits – goes against the current with respect to his contemporaries. In a framework in which “most of the scholarly terrain is overgrown with numerous books, which proceed from the same premise of condemnation and foreclose other attempts to re-open what remains ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 10), he tries in full awareness to open the way to a different operation. Going against the tide of the “vitriolic climate” (Schalow, 2022: 1) in which current Heideggerian studies move, the question, a direct consequence of Badiou’s remark just mentioned, is therefore the following: “How do we stand towards Heidegger’s thinking?” (Schalow, 2022: 1). Can Heideggerian thought still have something to give us? The answer, for the author, is positive: “We cannot preclude the possibility of appropriating Heidegger’s texts in a positive way, in order to elicit insights that withdraw within the subterranean recesses of what is ‘unsaid’ and ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 6-7).
A necessary consequence of this perspective is the awareness that Schalow’s work proposes itself as an original interpretation of Heideggerian work, explicitly taking on what is “an unconventional way to ‘read’ Heidegger” (Schalow 2022: 7). Drawing on multiple places in his Denkweg, in a theoretical operation that denotes an excellent command of the author, his complexity and his traditional periodizations, Schalow establishes, over the course of five chapters, a reinterpretation of how Heideggerian work can provide the conceptual tools for the development of a new, non-anthropocentric ethics that, by leveraging the notions of dwelling and stewardship, gives rise to a new conception of the political that can cope with the current environmental crisis. Defining the question of the political as “the open-ended question of the origin of law, to its enactment as a measure rooted in the ethos (of dwelling) and the re-inscribing of a language to address the elements of the polis according to formally indicative concepts which underscore our capacity to be free (e.g., by ‘letting-be’), albeit as finite human beings” (Schalow, 2022: X), the author, analyzing Heidegger’s work, wonders whether this does not offer the theoretical tools necessary to answer the following question: “Is it possible to create a space for the polis, which through our capacity to dwell (on the earth) engenders openness outside the dominant paradigm of technocratic rule?” (Schalow, 2022: 2). Beginning with some insights we find in Heidegger’s Letter on “Humanism”, we read that “thinking builds upon the house of Being, the house in which the jointure of Being, in its destinal unfolding, enjoins the essence of the human being to dwell in the truth of Being”, and that, for this reason, “this dwelling is the essence of ‘being-in-the-world’” (Heidegger, 1998: 272). Schalow intends to follow up on Heideggerian statements such as the thesis that “nómos is not only law but more originally the assignment contained in the dispensation of Being”, and consequently “only the assignment is capable of dispatching man into Being”, in the conviction that “more essential than instituting rules is that human beings find the way to their abode in the truth of Being” (Heidegger, 1998: 274). If Heidegger writes that “one day we will, by thinking the essence of Being in a way appropriate to its matter, more readily be able to think what ‘house’ and ‘dwelling’ are” (Heidegger, 1998; 272), Schalow intends to pursue this suggestion. On this bases, he illustrates how “the development of a community must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: XI), giving rise to a socio-biotic community such as to respond positively to the challenge to which we are called by today’s environmental crisis. The intent, very concrete, is to outline the tracks of “a new nexus of political engagement”, to allow that “the fissure of Heidegger’s thinking (of being) opens the ‘other’ side of praxis” (Schalow, 2022: XIII). The purpose of Schalow’s work thus goes in a pragmatic direction, towards the delineation of a praxis that results in the necessary redefinition of our relationship with the world – in other words, “are we to continue using and exploiting the earth only as a resource, or are we to safeguard the earth as a place of dwelling?” (Schalow, 2022: 5).
It is clearly a matter, as already remarked, of taking Heidegger beyond his limits. It is evident, first of all, as Schalow himself acknowledges, that “his [Heidegger’s] understanding of the political remains limited” (Schalow, 2022: XII), just as it is trivially obvious that “Heidegger did not address specifically ‘climate change’, the ‘greenhouse effect’, ‘global warming’, and the ruptures in the ecosystem from which the virus (or other pathogens) of pandemics may arise” (Schalow, 2022: XII). The intent, however, is precisely to focus on das Ungedachte, on the unthought of Heideggerian thought, thus amplifying some elements that, starting from the aforementioned passages of the Letter on “Humanism”, allow Schalow to argue that, “put simply, in the overturning and subversion of anthropocentricism, we see the beginnings of what we today would call an ‘ecological turn’” (Schalow, 2022: XII).
The first chapter (Seeking New Guidelines for Interpretation, pp. 12-39) serves as a necessary methodological premise to justify the reappropriation of Martin Heidegger’s thought for the purposes previously indicated. Deepening the dialogue with Kant around which the 1928 course entitled Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is centered, Schalow, moving from the metontology that here arises, outlines a “new topography” from which to question the political without slipping into that “‘monological reductionism’ that falsely equates his philosophy with Nazi ideology” (Schalow, 2022: 13-14). Heidegger, through “his ‘destruction’ of Kant” (Schalow, 2022: 21), arrives at “unraveling the presuppositions on which the metaphysical tradition rests”, presuppositions that, “beginning with the static conception of being as permanent presence, lay the sediments of tradition, which erects rigid metaphysical dichotomies”, thus laying the foundations for “the attempt to undo each of these metaphysical dualisms” (Schalow, 2022: 18). The Kantian dichotomy between freedom and nature, in particular, is subverted by Heidegger through our connection to the earth, with the author of Sein und Zeit explicitly writing that “the problem of freedom arises from and as the problem of world” (Heidegger, 2002: 145), allowing Schalow to express the crux of the matter by arguing that “Heidegger relocates the origin of freedom in Dasein’s way of belonging to and reciprocal responsiveness to being” (Schalow, 2022: 24). What emerges is our role, an affinity with the ecological framework in the guise of “earthbound creatures”, as Schalow points out, referring to Hannah Arendt (Arendt, 1992: 27). Cartesian dualism is overturned through the reference to our belonging to the earth, in turn made possible by the changed conceptual framework within which, instead of the dichotomy between subject and object, Heidegger replaces the notion of Dasein with its in-der-Welt-sein. Human freedom comes then to make its own deeper roots, anchoring itself directly in Being and in its relationship with Being and giving rise to the centrality of the notion of ‘responsiveness’, which Schalow defines as “the fostering of a reciprocal relationship with what is radically other, as conferred by being, rather than as a power discharged by an exclusively human capability such as the will” (Schalow, 2022: 29), from which it follows that “this act of reciprocating, then, defines the first and foremost overture or primarily gesture of freedom” (Schalow, 2022: 30). It is evident where Heidegger, in Schalow’s reading, is going to aim when it comes to the ethical and practical side: “Human freedom now no longer means freedom as a property of man, but man as a possibility of freedom” (Heidegger, 2002: 94).
The second chapter (A New Leaping-Off Place for Ethical Inquiry, pp. 40-66) develops the peculiar proprietorial relation to Being that emerges from the belonging of Dasein to Being mentioned above. In the light of that overcoming of anthropocentrism inherent in the Kehre, which, as mentioned, Schalow interprets as “the vestiges of an ecological turn (if only in retrospect he may be considered a proto-ecologist)” (Schalow, 2022: 41), the author of the text wonders what role is now concretely due to the ‘subject’ of his discourse, answering with reference to the notions of stewardship or guardianship as diriment models to outline the practical guidelines of living. As we have seen, for Heidegger, in spite of Kantian ethics and its opposition between freedom and nature, it happens that “the presencing of nature reserves to animals their own potential for flourishing”, and that “it is the source of that flourishing, or what is ownmost or endemic to it, which turns the pendulum of his ethical inquiry in an ecological direction, namely, the allocation of a habitat (requisite for the livelihood of any animal)”. Switching to a Heideggerian lexicon, this means that, “ontologically speaking, the earth provides the grounding for any such habitats, and, indeed, in connection with our capacity for dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 44). It is as a consequence of such dwelling that a more original ethics, which Schalow calls the “ethos of situated dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 43) can finally develop and which the author addresses in relation to the possibility of a socio-biotic community and with reference to future generations. The mirroring of ethics and politics is the consequence of all this. In this sense, “the political must be addressed anew through the development of that site – in connection with the unconcealment of being – through which Dasein’s capacity to dwell first becomes apparent, namely, the ethos” (Schalow, 2022: 51). In this sense, “to do so is to allow the possibility of the ethos of dwelling to inform the political, rather than vice versa” (Schalow, 2022: 51). Through his analysis of the notion of measure and of the difference of readings of history between Heidegger and Marx, Schalow answers the question related to “how to rediscover the origin of praxis outside the self-contained sphere of human identity, […] that is, a form of pure (self-)presence” (Schalow, 2022: 59) through the proprietorial relation between being and man, with stewardship assuming the role of “the highest level of formality that is emblematic of specific instances for exercising care over beings, i.e., in our comportments in being-in-the-world” (Schalow, 2022: 60). The thesis proposed is therefore that of dwelling as a fundamental notion to justify our role on earth and consequently the political implication that derives from it. For Schalow, in short, “dwelling has the key perquisite for the enactment of any governance of the polis” (Schalow, 2022: 64), consistent with the Heideggerian statement that “mortals dwell in that they save the earth” (Heidegger, 1971a: 148). The determination of the new role of the politician can only pass through this constitutive bond of ours with the earth.
The third chapter (The Global Stage of Politics and the Return to the Earth, pp. 67-84) considers “the assimilation of the political to the ends of techno-capitalism”, which “unleashes the forces of machination on a global state, assimilating all human activities to the cycle of production and consumption” (Schalow, 2022: 67), showing how an appeal to Heidegger allows one to disengage from such a reading of the political. Through a comparison with the Heideggerian overcoming of the Marxist vision of history, Schalow comes to argue that “the phenomenological maxim ‘back to the things itself’ reverberates anew as a call to a ‘return to the earth’”, thus outlining “an eco-phenomenology, or alternatively, a phenomenology that speaks of a ‘return to the earth’”, which stands as “a form of attunement, an environmental ‘listening’ to nature and its diverse habitats” (Schalow, 2022: 68).
The fourth chapter (Temporality, Freedom, and Place, pp. 85-132) focuses on two crucial themes. On the one hand, the “deconstruction of modern politics as legitimizing the anthropocentric ends of domination, exploitation”, and, on the other, “the emergence of a trans-human perspective of freedom as a countermeasure to the assimilation of the political to the gestalt of machination” (Schalow, 2022: 86), both of which are necessary in view of the ecological turn mentioned above. As a consequence of Dasein’s peculiar relationship with freedom, already outlined in the first chapter, there is a shift of the axis of the political in a non-anthropocentric direction, in which governance must be built on the observation of our constitutive being-with-others. Schalow therefore identifies “three corollaries that comprise the ‘pillars of the polis,’ namely, the elements for its construction on a trans-human axis of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 87): the reciprocity of freedom (pp. 100-109), the people of future generations (pp. 109-118) and the epochal character of a measure (pp. 118-129). It is clear, however, that if “the polis brings to fruition, as a distinctive historical act, the challenge posed to man to fulfill the mandate of belonging to being and thereby build a political realm that is anchored in humanity’s capacity to dwell” (Schalow, 2022: 92), the reconfiguration of the political can only start from an analysis of this notion, central to delineating the dwelling and consequently a trans-human community. The thesis advanced is that leaving the technocratic rules prevailing today, the authentic notion of polis finds a new reconfiguration: “Being is not to be determined via the authoritarian rule of the polis”, but, on the contrary, it now means that “to re-establish the polis is to seek its origin in compliance with a new ‘measure’, which can counterbalance human and animal interests, the claim of future generations and the task of safeguarding the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 129). In this way, therefore, the polis manages to be anchored to human dwelling.
The fifth chapter (The Turn Toward Stewardship. Is a Socio-Biotic Community Possible?, pp. 133-184) extends what emerged in the previous chapter to a collective dimension, namely the possibility of belonging to a socio-biotic community, since “the stewardship by which we inhabit the earth calls into question the priorities of any (world-) citizenship, such that the development of a community (das Gemeinwesen) through the grounding of a site must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: 134). With reference also to topical elements, such as the Covid-19 pandemic (p. 137) or the racial divisions in the U.S. (p. 147-150), Schalow focuses on that “further social-political dimension as the flipside to the responsiveness, the responsibility, by which mortals become answerable to or heed the voice of being” (Schalow, 2022: 137), a necessary consequence of that “counter resonance of the earth, nature, and animal life” (Schalow, 2022: 138) that has emerged since the first chapter. Schalow argues that “environmental practice is intrinsic to dwelling […] not as a value, but rather as an extension of freedom as ‘letting-be’” (Schalow, 2022: 150). What emerges is the thesis that “the task assigned to us through our dwelling” is to be “tenants of the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 161). Rewriting Protagoras’ famous statement for which “man is the measure of all things” (Plato, 1973: 17), the author argues that, “when divested of his anthropocentric focus, and thereby embracing his/her transience, ‘man’ become the ‘measure’ again”. It is enough not to lose sight of the fact that “Dasein is simultaneously ‘measured-by’ the proprietorship of ‘belonging to’ and thereby can ‘set the measure’ for any compliance and possible governance” (Schalow, 2022: 162) in that “poetic dwelling” that echoes Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin (Heidegger, 1971b: 209-227). The notion of measure, recurring in several places in Schalow’s text and fundamental “to offset or counter the one-sidedness of human interests” (Schalow, 2022: 169), is essential to the conclusion reached by the author: “The socio-biotic community provides a setting in which human beings can ‘think globally, act locally’ (through their enactment of building, dwelling, thinking)”, with the proprietorship of dwelling that “restores limits, by granting space non-human dimensions of the earth to thrive and flourish” (Schalow, 2022: 166).
The call for a trans-human egalitarianism that flows from Heidegger’s overcoming of anthropocentrism is also the crux of the work’s conclusion, with Schalow arguing how, in light of the creation of that socio-biotic community that flows from our dwelling on earth, “a new kind of equality becomes possible as mortals protect the habitats of the diverse creatures that ‘co-habit’ the earth with us” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Once again, it is the notions of stewardship and dwelling that redefine our peculiar role on this planet: “The ‘to be’ of mortals as ‘tenants of the earth’ deepens the meaning of the ‘who’ of human beings as ‘world-citizens’” (Schalow, 2022: 178). The way of belonging to the earth that is proper to Dasein leads the author to think of a “new ‘egalitarianism’” with the role of “formal indicator of how we can characterize practices that prioritize environmental concerns over against the anthropocentric focus of modernity” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Thus, only in this way “a concern for the welfare of the earth and nature, humans and animals, can spark a conversation about the future of our historical sojourn and the fate of those generations still to come” (Schalow, 2022: 179). Through the five chapters of which the text is composed, we understand how the theses stated in the preface and introduction – above all, “the political must be housed in the eco-logical, that is, in the ‘eco’ or residence of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 3) – are confirmed through a careful reading of Heidegger’s work.
The overall result of Frank Schalow’s work can only be valued in a positive way. In an age in which Martin Heidegger’s thought seems to be more and more the exclusive prerogative of a type of literature aimed at illustrating his complicity with Nazism, this book certainly stands out for the original and proactive use that can still be made today of the complex Denkweg of the author of Sein und Zeit. Obviously, some questions remain open. In the first place, one could raise doubts about the legitimacy of basing, from a theoretical and methodological point of view, the guidelines of such a project on ontological justifications advanced by someone who, like Heidegger, is moved by theoretical interests apparently unrelated to similar intentions – in short, one might ask, “why refer to Heidegger?”. Similarly, as far as the moral side is concerned, we could question the opportunity, repeatedly highlighted by today’s detractors of his work, to make a figure such as Martin Heidegger, whose compromise with the Nazi regime went far beyond the convenience of the facade and career of many of his contemporaries, the ‘tutelary deity’ of an ethical project. On the other hand, however, Schalow makes no secret of his aim to propose an interpretation that from the beginning is subordinate to practical purposes; a rereading that intends to “reap tangible results” and “not to become merely an “academic’ exercise” (Schalow, 2022: 8). From this point of view, Heidegger’s Ecological Turn can be seen as a perfectly successful attempt.
Arendt, Hannah. 1992. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Edited by Ronald Beiner. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Badiou, Alain; Cassin, Barbara. 2016. Heidegger. His Life & His Philosophy. Translated by Susan Spitzer. New York: Columbia University Press.
Di Cesare, Donatella. 2018. Heidegger and the Jews. The “Black Notebooks”. Translated by Murtha Baca. Cambridge-Medford: Polity Press.
Faye, Emmanuel. 2009. Heidegger. The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935. Translated by Michael B. Smith. New Haven-London: Yale University Press.
Farías, Victor. 1989. Heidegger and Nazism. Edited by Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1971a. “Building Dwelling Thinking”. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 141-159.
Heidegger, Martin. 1971b. “‘… Poetically Man Dwells…’”. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 209-227.
Heidegger, Martin. 1998. “Letter on ‘Humanism’”. Pathmarks. Edited by William McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 239-276.
Heidegger, Martin. 2002. The Essence of Human Freedom. An Introduction to Philosophy. Translated by Ted Sadler. London-New York: Continuum.
Plato. 1973. Theaetetus. Edited by John McDowell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schalow, Frank. 2022. Heidegger’s Ecological Turn. Community and Practice for Future Generations. New York-London: Routledge.
Trawny, Peter; Mitchell, Andrew J. (Ed.) 2017. Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks”. Responses to Anti-Semitism. New York: Columbia University Press.
In a recently published very short introduction to philosophical method, a British philosopher recounts an Italian continental colleague wondering about the Anglo-Saxon’s understanding of philosophy not being primarily confined to historical research and conduct. His line of thought proceeds as follows: “I am sometimes asked which philosopher I work on, as though that is what any philosopher must do. I reply Oxford-style: I work on philosophical problems, not on philosophers.” (Williamson, 2020, 103)
With regard to philosophical methodology, however, one’s understanding need not be confined to the exclusivity of either the formation of a problem or a purely reconstructive-historical approach. Rather, how problems and historicity are interwoven and, in particular, what counts as a contemporary problem is more often than not determined by a particular understanding of historical conjectures or, at a more abstract level, of historicity itself. A case in point is the work of Martin Heidegger, whose understanding of the relation between historicity and philosophical methodology is put to the test in the recently published dissertation of Karl Kraatz, Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie. This work constitutes an exciting case in quarrels concerning the alleged irrationality of Heidegger’s work and questions over the absence of methodology. This discussion, arguably in place ever since the publication of Being and Time in 1927, becomes much more pronounced with the idiosyncratic later philosophy and culminate in Heidegger’s complicity, it is argued, with National-Socialism and his status as a main inspiration for the alleged ‘postmodern‘ destruction of reason and the legacy of the enlightenment. Notwithstanding the constructed character of some of these allegations, Kraatz’s work serves as a defense of Heideggerian philosophy against its harsher critics by offering a walkthrough of selected texts and lectures of the German philosopher’s oeuvre tied together by the questions of truth, justifiability, and cognition. Kraatz’s underlying premise is the ongoing continuity of Heidegger’s work, whose transition from Heidegger 1 to Heidegger 2 is less motivated by a fundamental ‘turn’ than by a deepening and radicalization of previous concerns. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie serves, in this sense, as a reminder to envision the radicality and uncompromising – though by no means impeccable – impetus of its protagonist, all the while offering a compelling interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy. To demonstrate the continuing allegiance of Heideggerian philosophy to justifiability, it is Kraatz’s aim to show its necessary thematization of the philosophizing I, something that he terms the “methodological necessity for the experience of individuation” (17, [methodische Notwendigkeit der Vereinzelungserfahrung]). The Heideggerian ontologization of the I and the connection of world to I constitute, for Kraatz, the fundamental thread running through the work of the German philosopher. In particular, it is the I’s avoidance of the full responsibility that is thereby conferred upon it that leads to the formation of various ‘defense mechanisms’, whose negativity is to be overcome to drive the process of philosophizing further (19). It is this thesis that will guide the author’s reconstruction of Heideggerian method throughout the book. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie is comprised of four parts, with part two being further partitioned into a and b, and accordingly, they don’t amount to equal argumentative importance. I will provide a summary of each of the parts before going to comment more on the composition of Kraatz’s book and his reconstruction of Heidegger’s methodology.
Chapter one acts as an introduction to Kraatz’s thesis, the individual’s retreat of being by way of various mechanisms of delusion or typification so as to yield a ‘happy consciousness’. This is developed primarily through a historical reconstruction of Heidegger’s early lectures and culminates with Being and Time. These reflections are ignited through the central problem of phenomenology: the self-reflective exploration of to what extent cognition is structured by its origin in factual life (30f). Tying together transcendental philosophy with an investigation of the structures of experience it is the question of the scientific nature of this enterprise that proved pathbreaking for the young Heidegger. Phenomenology’s primary subject matter, factical life, preserves character traits that are irreducible to conceptions of modern scientific rationality, for which, in conjunction with the reifying character of science and the corresponding mediocrity of the everyday, a particular method is necessary to philosophize adequately (38). Heidegger proposes an equivalence between the tendencies for typification (or the reification of daily life through routine and mundane monotony) and the continuous prevalence of the theoretical in life. Both cause the suppression of the I. This deadlock can be broken through the merger of a hermeneutic of facticity, or factical life, and a hermeneutic of the self so as to methodologically ground cognition and non-reified objectivity (47). It is the motivational character of the hermeneutic of facticity that elaborates the next step in the argument. Having located the common denominator in the suppression of the I, of which the aforementioned tendencies are examples, these typifications need to be removed to arrive at a true conception of self – a methodological requisite (54f). ‘Something’- as of yet unobtainable – causes the self to seek the bios theoretikos and to avoid self-knowledge, which, in this tradition, amounts to a proper knowledge of the world altogether (68). One can anticipate the central method of Heidegger in its relation toward recovering the I: destruction. Phenomenologically, destruction is accomplished by removing the layers of typification, which are of one common origin, and are the condition of possibility for reencountering the I. What initially sounds like armchair psychology becomes, however, more elaborated upon over the course of Heidegger’s philosophical development and it is to Kraatz’s credit that he pushes the texts for an actual rationale that ties the hermeneutic of the self and of facticity together in a convincing manner (106). It is the conception of the self’s relation to being that eventually enables the German philosopher to merge the hermeneutic of facticity with the self and, subsequently, the further identification of the tendencies for the suppression of the I with the reified status of life as antecedents to the suppressed I (108). The world’s dependence upon the being of the I accounts for the former’s transformation in terms of the configuration of the latter. In Being and Time, where these concerns are most explicitly developed, the method of destruction becomes initiated through the function of care, which drives the investigation further to the negativity of anxiety and being-towards-death (112). Anxiety’s undirected negativity reverses into a positive function, once Dasein grasps its individuation from das Man and can be authentically. This existential is, however, nothing more than the further realization of one’s being as being-towards-death (141). Kraatz puts this into perspective with the consciousness of Dasein’s empty groundlessness. The lack of Dasein is the fact that its thrownness amounts to nothing more than being-towards-death. Inauthentic Dasein takes flight from this realization through the described tendencies of typification, which constitutes its culpability (154). Conversely, if realized, these characteristics function as modes of foundation in the double sense for Heidegger. Because the world is functionally dependent upon the being of the self, whose access is phenomenologically obstructed, it has to be recovered by realizing its lack, which accomplishes destruction and sets the self free to found the disclosure of the world. In turn, the task is set for Dasein after accomplishing destruction to answer to being’s groundlessness through an authentic grounding of being, letting-be. Only the authentic realization of this relation can ground a true opening of sociality, justifiability for being and, in turn, community.
Kraatz’s reconstruction of Being and Time makes the case to conceive of uncanniness, anxiety and being-towards-death as inhabiting a productive negativity and is, in this sense, of quintessential methodological importance. It is, however, rather negligent of the role of temporality in this process. Insofar as being is time the inversion of the self is to be accompanied by the temporal ecstasies whose elaboration takes place at the end of the book. The precise role of Dasein’s temporal self-differentiation for the role of methodology are, given Kraatz’s concerns regarding his thesis of flight, however, underdeveloped. This significance has been elaborated upon in relation to methodological issues brilliantly by Karin de Boer’s Thinking in the Light of Time. Whereas Kraatz views the counter-ruinant tendency of anxiety and being-towards-death as experiences, de Boer manages to address the temporality of these functions as the opening up of the horizon through which the formal indications of these concepts can be attained (De Boer, 2000, 106ff). For instance, once destruction is initiated through the realization of being-towards-death, Dasein has already entered a mode of ecstatic temporality, being-ahead-of-oneself (De Boer, 2000, 110). This thematic focus notwithstanding, Kraatz’s account of the methodological position of these paragraphs is convincing. The ensuing manifold of conceptions of being is termed Seinsrelativität (being’s relativity), establishing Being and Time as the metaontological fundamental ontology, comprising different regional ontologies (165). Through it, beings remain relative to respective conceptions of the I. This is the methodological function granted to the self-knowledge, which is preceded by the yet ahistorical enforcement of destruction, the removal of the layers of typification, yielding disclosure.
The avoidance of potential misunderstandings and the overall cohesion of the first chapter is the aim of the second. To do so, the need of the Heideggerian account of the relativity of being and his conception of the I to others is underscored. Clearly, the constitution of Dasein is not to be understood as a Tathandlung but binds the conception of a ground of being sui generis together with the concrete engagement of phenomenology. Kraatz deploys the notion of an originary synthesis so as to render intelligible the constitution of the self through being (173). The danger of circularity is managed through the notion of thrownness, which acts as an anchor towards facticity and responsibility. Keeping the original insight of transcendental philosophy, Dasein entertains a ‘theoretical’ and an ethical side to it. Kraatz subsequently draws on the work of fellow Heidegger scholar Steven Crowell to demonstrate Dasein’s sociality and the justifiability constitutive of normative claims, a characteristic allegedly lacking from Being and Time and one taken to be missing from Heidegger’s work generally. The being of the self is taken to be an essentially normative one, leading to the cultivation of a true ethical life and an ideally well-founded community on responsible conceptions of being and self by way of the truthful character of letting-be as disclosure (183ff). Because the I is the ground of the world in the sense of fundamental ontology, Dasein bears responsibility for the being of others, which Kraatz circumscribes, citing Crowell, with the dictum that care is prior to reason (182). Attention is drawn to the similarity of Adorno’s conceptions of a non-instrumental rationality and the interplay between contemplation and normativity and it is in this sense that responsibility functions as the properly a priori foundation for any rational discourse – at least as Kraatz, following Crowell, develops it (195). Against claims for the incoherent character of Heidegger’s work, Kraatz rather demonstrates that it renders legible the constitutive aspects of rationality and normativity altogether. This line of thought, again very much inspired by Crowell, appears almost Brandomian in intention as the making explicit of the conditions of possibility of normativity and rationality.
Part b of the second chapter elucidates on the notion of the relativity of being more broadly conceived and takes the published writings after Being and Time into account. Kraatz summarizes its content aptly by the “fact that the being of the world is dependent on the being of the I,” a move attainable through the ontologization of the I (165). Letting-be functions as a stand-in for the Heideggerian notion of truth as disclosure and ties the ethical and temporal-existential (‘theoretical’) sides together. In passing, Kraatz addresses the frequent strawman that labels Heidegger as a fatal relativist by both sketching out the merely potentially disagreeable properties of relativism and demonstrating how the transcendental approach avoids them. Through the accountability of Dasein, the Heideggerian self is rather the precise opposite of the threat the relativist bogeyman is supposed to embody. Rather, morality and rationality are jointly implicated in this fundamental approach (203). The remainder of the second part of chapter two is devoted to Heidegger’s philosophical development from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, where the relation of the grounding self and the historicity of factical life is expounded. This is further developed through the metaphysical ontic, metontology, which asks fundamentally – ontologically after beings (221). Dasein’s self founds its own thrownness. So as to further thematize Dasein’s relation to thrownness, the modalities of ground take center stage. Sketching a theory of ontological constitution leaves Dasein as the placeholder for the responsibility of ground that is conferred upon it. This decision is described in inherently voluntaristic terms, as one toward transcendental freedom and ground. Hence, responsibility functions as a methodological concept, as it ties the decision towards freedom and the grounding function together (254ff.). As fundamentally tied to facticity this decision takes, however, not place in pure sphere of principles, but in the historical realm of freedom, leading to the formation of a “transcendental-ontological genealogy” (224). The thesis of the flight remains intact, largely unaltered. The tension between thrownness and transcendentality remains constitutive of the ensuing reflections, in particular the three-fold modality of ground or grounding. Part two is concluded with the transition to beyng-historical thought, wherein primary thrownness is attained by way of the event of beyng (283ff.). Accordingly, the responsibility and the concomitant culpability that is conferred upon Dasein is only potentialized: “It is now localized in the ontological dimension, which deals with the possibility of letting-be logical spaces of modalities” (286, [Sie wird nun in der ontologischen Dimension verortet, in der es um das Seinlassen und Nichtseinlassen von Möglichkeitsspielräumen geht].)
Part three carries this walkthrough almost seamlessly forward. Kraatz’s reconstruction commences until Contributions to Philosophy, where these issues are elaborated in a new manner. Relatively little attention is devoted to Heidegger’s second major work regarding its composition and re-formulation of older investigations. The distinction between the ontological and historical dimension of the event, so central to Contributions to Philosophy, appears somewhat flimsy and neither the terminological shift from Dasein to Da-sein is mentioned or explained. (Heidegger, 2012, passim) Rather, convinced to have demonstrated the possibility to move past these shifts and accentuations, Kraatz devotes his attention almost exclusively to the diagnostical parts in Heidegger’s book. Clearly, paragraphs on machination serve more than a cursory function, something that Kraatz acknowledges when he speaks of them as methodological (294). Subsequently, Dasein is stripped of its (however weak) voluntarism and the relativity of being reconfigured as the release of beyng in historical epochs or conceptions. This later conception aims at filling out all possible onto-logical spaces while itself remaining mostly obscured or, as Heidegger would say, withdrawn. Kraatz devotes comparatively little attention to the historicization of truth this conception accomplishes, other than by way of invoking the transcendental ontological genealogy, but no attention is devoted to whether this undertaking might be in need of new methodological underpinnings other than remaining relative to the self. Taking only Heidegger’s ‘critical accomplishments’ into account, the fourfold or the later seminars in Thor and Zähringen are not mentioned at all. Having conceptualized beyng as the totality of all logical spaces of possibility he continues his critique of the tendencies of typification, the now historical configuration of modernity, to prove the continuity of destruction and its relevance for the self as method (286). Individuation, which the aforementioned process is to accomplish, pushes forward into the concrete, historical situation which can then, presumably, be transformed (288ff.). Kraatz follows Heidegger in declaring modern science as the best possible option for Dasein to conduct its flight successfully. The method deployed mirrors in this respect the one already used beforehand: demonstrating that an otherwise merely negative aspect of analysis is, in fact, crucial to an elaborated issue or could not have been adequately theorized at all were it not to be counter-posed through its negation
Having demonstrated the need for the self to take flight from the ontological responsibility the ground (beyng) confers upon it, modern science and modernity, whose essence the former is supposed to constitute, come into the picture. The ground of all regional ontological spaces – beyng – and the accompanying culpability and responsibility are too much for the lacking being that the I is and, accordingly, invents a mode of worldmaking that obscures this characteristic (278). Kraatz terms this product the ‘implicit ontology’ that underlies modern science and that becomes further obscured as it progresses (308). While the author admirably demonstrates the overall cohesion of said critique in the greater context of the Nietzsche lectures and attempts to relate enframing to the formation of data-science as the pinnacle of that process, the chapter appears rather tame in comparison to its precursors both in terms of significance for the book’s overall topic and contribution to scholarship (385ff). It acts, rather, as an exemplary demonstration of the possibility of this beyng-historical destruction, tying together the critique of technology or machination with the reading of Nietzsche as the closure of metaphysics and the advent of modern science. Though admirable in depth and rigor, it does rather little in comparison to push the investigation of methodology further in thematic terms.
Chapter four ties the aforementioned questions over methodology and justifiability together. Refuting the influential claims of the irrational character of Heideggerian philosophy made by Habermas in the Philosophical discourse of modernity acts as the threshold for setting Heidegger’s philosophy and functions as a summary and conclusion of the survey – something that is achieved thoroughly and convincingly. To recap, Heidegger’s method is conceptualized as a process of individuation through the mechanism of an experience of destruction which aims at removing layers of said experience and enables a formal indication of different concepts. The conceptuality of philosophical cognitions is thus not abandoned; Heidegger merely transforms the concept sufficiently so as to yield a different understanding of experience and of itself. What it achieves is a conceptual demonstration of the freedom of Dasein. Kraatz frames this as individuation and the struggle of a self toward existential orientation or, more negatively, the avoidance of that experience. The later Heidegger’s chief merit lies in historicizing that experience or relation between Dasein and its ontological epistemology by making recourse to an inaccessible origin or absolute ground, beyng. As has been mentioned, the different ‘negative’ instances of typification drive the analysis itself forward as ‘obstacles’ to be overcome and are, in this sense, themselves of methodological relevance, as Kraatz repeatedly insists with regard to, for instance, modern science. For the author, the innovation and radicality of the German philosopher lie thus in the possibility to provide justification of both practical and theoretical instances while avoiding the counter-intuitiveness and abstraction of more traditional framings of transcendental philosophy. Against what might be perceived as an all-too sympathetic approach, Kraatz does lament the tendency of Heidegger to largely abstain from clarifying these methodological and grounding theoretical attitudes as well as his continuing denial to expose oneself to criticism from other philosophical positions. While this abstinence is philosophical it does make for appearance of esotericism and a secret doctrine.
While Kraatz’s book is admirable for its insistence for justification towards and competence of Heideggerian philosophy, what remains missing, however, is an explicit reconstruction of the Heideggerian methodology within the greater context of historical approaches to the subject. Although a brief paragraph addresses the “historio-philosophical place of Heidegger’s philosophy” (416) this glance refers only to Husserl and, given the similar thematic of a critique of reified life, developments from the Frankfurt school. This is all the more surprising given the title of the chapter. In the following one, Kraatz once again reiterates the basic concepts of Heidegger’s philosophical methodology cognition, truth and justifiability. An elaboration of the extent to which the method of the German philosopher is to be conceived of as a radicalized version of neo-Kantianism, phenomenology or existentialism would have shed light on its novelty. This would involve a negotiation of these different forms of philosophy and their respective methods, read with recourse to Heidegger’s engagement with the former two and how he remains potentially indebted to them. Despite the fact the Heidegger’s philosophical development marked of course decisive breaks with both Neo-Kantianism and phenomenology it would have been interesting to see the extent to which his attempt of releasing himself from the metaphysical tradition was eventually reflected in his approach to methodology. This concerns in particular the Neo-Kantian notion of a history of problems whose similarity to the ‘history of beyng’ is rather apparent. This omission is all the more unfortunate given the various programmatic titles of Heidegger’s lecture courses and publications such as The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, and the frequent invocation of philosophy as ‘questioning’. This reflects in the last instance Kraatz’s own concept of methodology, which, although frequently invoking the triad of justifiability, cognition and truth, does not seem to take this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy worthy of further investigation. Hence, terms such as ‘problem’ or even the more Heideggerian ‘question’ are largely absent in terms of thematic concern. Guiseppe Bianco contraposes this difference and similarity succinctly:
Heidegger’s philosophy started to be dominated by a series of structuring oppositions: he juxtaposed the Neo-Kantian conception of the history of problems (Problemgeschichte) with his history of being (Seinsgeschick), and philosophical “problems” (Problemen) with a set of ontological “questions” (Fragen). In a regressive series he related the “guiding question” (Leitfrage) proper to philosophy qua metaphysics (“what is the being of entities?”) to a “basic question” (Grundfrage) concerning the ground of metaphysics (“what is the meaning of being?”), which he then related to a final “ontological question” (Seinsfrage) concerning being (“what does it mean to be?”). […] Heidegger’s dual operation of the “repetition” (Wiederholung) of problems and “destruction” (Destruktion) of concepts inherited from the philosophical tradition consisted in the syncretism of religious hermeneutics and philology, resulting in an erudite but mostly uncontrolled appeal to etymology. This method attempted to remove (from the Latin de-struere) layers (or strues) that, through time, ossified as concepts, in order to return to “original experiences” and “grounding questions.” (Bianco, 2018, 20f.)
While it would seem unfair to demand a properly historical recontextualization of Heideggerian method in the overarching trajectory of early twentieth century philosophy from a book whose primary concerns are exegetical, such an undertaking would perhaps, with the advantage of hindsight, make of Heidegger a more conventional and, in turn, more a comprehensible author. While Kraatz does achieve an eventual tying of the philosophy of Heidegger with the themes of rationality and reasonability it remains open whether historicizing him would not have been the more fruitful approach rather than to provide textual coherence. This circumstance is reflected in the literature the author draws primarily on: with the few exceptions of avowed names of Heidegger scholars or pupils the book makes reference primarily to the quasi-analytical reconstruing of Heidegger in certain places of Germany and the United States. Crowell is a case in point here. This fact is not necessarily one to be lamented – it just puts Heidegger closer to someone like Brandom than, say, Derrida.
This criticism notwithstanding, Kraatz’s study is remarkable in its rigor, clarity and cogency. Whether one concurs with Kraatz’s central thesis that Heideggerian philosophy ultimately occupies a therapeutic, almost ‘eudaimonic’ relevance for the self or not, his reading is remarkably coherent in terms of exegesis and formulates a new approach in Heidegger scholarship. Although the later part of the oeuvre is put in second place pursuing the outlined approach and devoting an independent study of it might shed even more light on the constructive part of Heidegger’s work and Kraatz’s reconstruction. While the aspect of methodology proper is primarily viewed in the purview of destruction and its relation to the negativity of the tendencies of typification, or their methodological position, the account exposes various options for developing its approach further and in different directions. The book constitutes a valuable resource concerning the legacy and continuing relevance of its subject and puts a challenge to all those negligent approaches and readers who dismiss Heideggerian philosophy out of hand because of its mere appearance.
Bianco, Guiseppe. 2018. ‘The Misadventures of the “Problem” in “Philosophy.” Angelaki 23 (2): 8-30.
De Boer, Karin. 2000. Thinking in the Light of Time. Heidegger’s Encounter with Hegel. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Feher, Istvan M. 1997. ‘Die Hermeneutik der Faktizität als Destruktion der Philosophiegeschichte als Problemgeschichte. Zu Heideggers und Gadamers Kritik der Problembegriffes.’ Heidegger Studies 13: 47-68.
Heidegger, Martin. 2012. Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Kraatz, Karl. 2020. Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann.
Williamson, Timothy. 2020. Philosophical Method. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Feher provides an elaboration of the preference of questions over problem for Heidegger’s methodology, although this issue would need to be configured differently for the later philosophy.
Why is there being instead of nothing? Hanneke Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking takes this Heideggerian question as it’s starting point. Like Martin Heidegger, Grootenboer’s task is to reflect on what constitutes philosophical thinking about being. In a discipline like philosophy, with its wide array of methodological approaches, traditions, and applications, it is easy to lose sight of simple yet profound questions like Heidegger’s. In this sea of approaches, Grootenboer’s book provides an accessible, clear, and innovating means of thinking about being by revealing a new philosophical subject: artworks.
In a succinct five chapters, Grootenboer describes a means of doing philosophy with pensive images. This is an ambitious task; however, for all its brevity (its body is approximately 170 pages), The Pensive Image remains philosophically vigorous and firmly rooted in the philosophical traditions that precede it, including German idealism, romanticism, phenomenology, post-structuralism, and of course, modern and contemporary art history. It is a blend of modern Western philosophy and art history; while Grootenboer discusses some contemporary artworks (like Richard Estes’ photorealism in chapter five), their focus is on seventeenth century Dutch artworks and modern continental philosophy. Its blend of continental philosophy and modern art produces a hybrid means of philosophizing and expands our conception of what is philosophically relevant to include modern artworks.
Despite their blend of philosophy and art, Grootenboer’s attention to detail and clear prose is consistent throughout, making The Pensive Image a valuable resource for art historians, philosophers, students, and the general public. Its clarity and wide range of commentary makes The Pensive Image interesting and accessible for a general audience, while its theoretical contributions to philosophical methods makes it valuable to the undergraduate and highly trained researcher alike.
Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes a novel philosophical subject—the pensive image—and prepare it for application in art history (15). Grootenboer justifies this task by arguing that philosophy (insofar as it is interested in reflection, being, essence, and thinking) needs artworks to articulate complex and layered clusters of concepts that are difficult, or impossible, to articulate with words (5). Visual arguments articulate clusters of concepts that are related yet cannot be systematically explained using cause and effect, logic puzzles, or thought experiments. Therefore, visual arguments add invaluable tools to our philosophical tool belts; however, this methodological implication is not the book’s sole source of value.
The Pensive Image does not only describe a new philosophical subject and means of thinking about being. Grootenboer’s meticulous invocation of the Western philosophical tradition, ranging from Descartes to Deleuze, offers us clear and descriptive secondary literature on great philosophical minds. The Pensive Image provides excellent commentary on those whom Grootenboer builds their theory (including Descartes, Diderot, Kant, Locke, Hegel, Herder, Goethe, Heidegger, Barthes, Lessing, Rancière, and Deleuze, amongst others). For example, the description of Heidegger’s conception of uncanniness [unheimlich] from Being and Time in chapter three is as clear and succinct as the description of dewdrops on flower petals in chapter four. Its balance between commentary and description makes The Pensive Image an indispensable handbook to anyone interested in the history of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of art, and their intersection in the Western continental tradition.
While The Pensive Image provides clear and detailed commentary on other thinkers, it is primarily methodological. Despite its engagement with artwork, it is not hermeneutical. Instead, it follows Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenological directive: to pay close attention to things themselves. Grootenboer’s approach depends on describing artworks as autonomous philosophical subjects. Through a careful consideration of images and their effects on their viewers, Grootenboer describes a relationship between artwork and viewer that does not depend on interpretation, cracking a code, or deciphering a message. Instead, Grootenboer pays close attention to the visuals presented—a open door, a vast black background, the translucent shine of dew on a flower petal—and how these direct our thoughts. Throughout The Pensive Image, Grootenboer acknowledges that these effects may or may not have been the intension of the artist (5, 59, 60, 97, 99, 122, 146). Either way, intentionality (or lack thereof) does not change the artwork’s effect, its capacity to mediate our process of reflection, or to direct our thoughts (10-11). Whether or not Grootenboer’s description and conclusions are possible without an interpretive element is the topic for another book; regardless, Grootenboer describes interactions with artworks readers have likely experienced themselves. It is their description of our shared experience of artworks that makes Grootenboer’s conception of the pensive image and its application so compelling.
What exactly is a pensive image, and what are its effects? Grootenboer’s first section, “Defining the Pensive Image,” describes this philosophical subject and justifies its relevance to modern continental philosophy and art history. Grootenboer sets up their description with an account of the relationship between philosophical thinking and artworks over time. They situate the pensive image in two related traditions: the phenomenology and the relationship between modern artworks and contemplation. Thus, Grootenboer does more than simply revive Heidegger’s question of why there is being. They also situate the pensive image in a tradition of phenomenological approaches to art taken by Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1-5).
Grootenboer then surveys the historical relationship between modern artworks and philosophy. Grootenboer describes their thesis as a secular extension of the medieval tradition of contemplation, which uses images as mnemonic devices to transcend the secular domain (3). Grootenboer also notes how many modern philosophical ideas were explained using visual representation, though the intimate relation between art and philosophy generally declines after the seventeenth century (4). Thus, Grootenboer’s thesis revives and expands upon a previous philosophical tradition and is legitimized by its relation to phenomenological approaches to artworks.
The Pensive Image argues for the relevance of artworks to philosophy on multiple levels. Broadly speaking, it argues that artworks are a form of thinking. Artworks offer viewers entrance into a mode of thinking we would not enter on our own (1). This does not mean the artwork offers a particular narrative or meaning but that it inspires a new train of thought (22). Grootenboer writes that pensive images are “those that confront us in such a way that our wondering about the work of art—its subject of meaning—is transformed into our thinking according to it” (6). Rather than offering a narrative, a pensive image offers us the opportunity to think by guiding our thoughts in ways we might not have gone without its inspiration. This presupposes artworks can be effective: they do something to us. Therefore, pensive images are not meant to be interpreted but experienced.
Specifically, The Pensive Image argues that modern Dutch painting includes pensive images that guide our thoughts and reflections on being. (Though its focus is modern Dutch art, the book includes commentary on film and photography that helps us understand how different forms of art are concerned with different questions.) The first chapter, “Theorizing Stillness,” is devoted to describing the particulars of the pensive image as it applies to Dutch painting. The pensive image has two chief characteristics: firstly, while its meaning is indeterminant, a pensive image redirects our thoughts to contemplate being in new ways. It initiates a line of thinking we can follow indefinitely (9). It is not there to draw conclusions but to serve as an opening that allows a multiplicity of ideas to exist at the same time. Secondly, a pensive image visualizes a snapshot in time. This frozen moment, the anticipation of something more that is not visually articulated, is what directs our thoughts (24). A pensive image is therefore characterized by a movement paradox. Its stillness arrests us and from this arrest comes a flow of thought; pensive images generate “a passive, uneasy, and indeterminant state of openness that allows for the unthought to surface” (26). A pensive image is open, tense, and suggests the possibility of movement (37). It stops our thoughts to redirect them in a new direction undetermined by specific signs or signifiers, meanings or narratives.
If the pensive image does not signify meaning nor tell stories, what does it contain, or, in other words, what is its essence? Chapter two, “Tracing the Denkbild,” answers this question. Instead of a specific signification, the pensive image is the embodiment of thought. This chapter describes different means of understanding an image as embodied thought over time. Through an analysis of stillness, it argues that the pensiveness of a pensive image can be understood as a moment of anticipation (47). Here, stillness is characterized by the theoretical potential for movement, rather than a lack of movement. Thus, tension, anticipation, and potential define a pensive image; it is open, uneasy, and ambiguous. Its openness and ambiguity make the pensive image a valuable philosophical subject worthy of our engagement.
While the idea that painting can be more than images on a canvas is not new, Grootenboer invites us to see painting as a partner in philosophizing that guides us where ‘it’ wants us to go (11). This metaphor of movement, guidance, and journey is central to Grootenboer’s pensive image and recurs through the book. For example, landscape paintings are “maps” that help viewers shape their interior selves, “entrances” into the pictorial realm (2, 1). They invite us to “dwell” within them, they reach out and touch us, set things in motion, and vibrate with potential (5, 26, 43). We are invited to get lost in the image, to rest in it, or to bord it like a vehicle (77, 78). Like Lucy, Edmond, and Eustice in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who are literally pulled into a painting of an ocean, allowing the pensive image to direct our thoughts is like being carried away by a wave (58). The tension between stillness and motion, journey and rest are fundamental to the pensive image.
Chapter three expands upon these relationships to think through what Grootenboer pithily calls philosophy’s housing problem. In this chapter, Grootenboer’s philosophical subjects include paintings of bourgeois Dutch homes and a dollhouse. These artworks provide a place for our thoughts to dwell, or, in Grootenboer’s words, “a home for the philosophical self,” by offering the opportunity to reflect on the permeable membranes between publicity and retreat, inside and outside (79). This chapter describes how artworks serve as metaphorical spaces where we can house our thoughts and subjectivities, thereby solving philosophy’s housing problem.
Drawing theoretical support from René Descartes’ construction metaphor and Heidegger’s conception of dwelling, Grootenboer demonstrates how Emanuel De Witte’s Interior with Woman at a Virginal (c. 1660–1667) and Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (1686– 1710) host our thoughts. Descartes compares self-reflection to construction: in order to achieve self-understanding, we must clear away old foundations and build anew (81). Descartes himself formulated this approach while traveling. In his home-away-from-home, Descartes constructs himself a metaphorical home to house his thoughts and reflections (82). To philosophize is therefore conceived of as being on a mental journey while physically at rest. This implies that the philosopher’s home is not an actual resting place but their journey: the act of philosophizing itself.
Grootenboer builds on this tension between journey and rest by invoking Heidegger’s conception of dwelling. Heidegger argues that constructing something implies we already dwell there (85-86). To dwell implies a movement towards materiality. For Heidegger, dwelling is not a static condition but a constant movement towards something that cannot be achieved (to achieve it would no longer be to dwell). It is to be drawn towards something without ever arriving, a constant becoming (87). De Witte’s interior painting, as a pensive image, helps us understand this situation. It allows our thought to dwell within it. Our eyes and subsequent thoughts are drawn through doorways to the vanishing point beyond, a point we will never actually behold.
While we cannot inhabit De Witte’s painting, Oortman’s dollhouse appears inhabitable. Yet, because the dollhouse replicates Oortman’s home on a miniature scale, it is ultimately uninhabitable, what Grootenboer calls “a borrowed home” (105). That being so, the dollhouse contains elements, like a collection of seashells, that provide an opportunity to think through the dialectics of inside and outside and journey and rest. For example, what was once the travelling home of a sea creature is now an empty shell. The dollhouse allows us the opportunity to think through the uncanny nature of uninhabitable spaces that appear inhabitable. What these artworks offer us is not the ability to determine what is inside and outside, on journey or at rest, but to recognize that as philosophical subjects, we are wanderers (109). It is the pensive image, which offers a temporary place to dwell, that saves us from getting lost.
In chapter four, “The Profundity of Still Life,” Grootenboer analyzes pensive images that guide us through the relationship between finitude and infinity. For example, Adriaene Coorte’s Three Medlars and a Butterfly (1696-1705) mediates our understanding of the relationship between the infinitively large and the finitely small by visualizing a small butterfly approaching three fruits against a black background (119). The painting serves as a plot point between two extremes: the expansive background and the small butterfly. We can use this point as a reference when thinking through the implications of each extreme. This pensive image provides perspective; the butterfly and fruit in the foreground impose a sense of proportion, direction, and space onto a painting that would otherwise stretch into infinity. Grootenboer’s analysis suggests that as situated subjects, we are unable to think through the implications of limitlessness or infinity without a mental anchor or reference point. We can only understand infinity through its comparison with the finite, which Three Medlars and a Butterfly provides. By describing Three Medlars and a Butterfly in detail, Grootenboer demonstrates its philosophical relevance. By mediating our conceptualization of infinity, it embodies a form of thinking and self-reflection (133).
Grootenboer moves past self-reflection in the final chapter, “Painting as Space for Thought,” to invoke G. W. F. Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness. Hegel writes that painting’s function is not to reflect the world, but to provide some permanence for contemplation (135). For Grootenboer and Hegel, what inspires contemplation is shine. Painting is unique amongst artistic mediums in its capacity to represent light and to, therefore, shine (136-138). In this chapter, Grootenboer contrasts Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness with self-reflection, arguing that photorealism is a self-conscious genre whose self-consciousness helps us better understand Hegel’s concept. Grootenboer argues this point via an analysis of shine in Richard Estes’s photorealism.
Where does a reflection lie? In the object that reflects, or the subject that is reflected? Richard Estes’s Central Savings (1975) mimics a photograph of a storefront, in which the objects on the street are reflected and layered on top of each other so that we are unsure what is inside or outside the store. Estes’s painting serves as a means to reflect on reflection, visualizing both the reflected subjects and objects in which they are reflected. The painting is therefore both itself and its negation or mirror image, providing us an opportunity to think through the dialectic of self and other. The painting, whose self-consciousness comes from its ability to facilitate a synthesis of reflected and reflection, helps us think past this dialectic and synthesize the two (142-143).
Estes’ painting does not separate inside from outside nor opacity from transparency. Instead, it allows us to see how what is reflected always meets itself in its reflection, preventing an endless cycle of reflection in a synthesis of reflection and reflected (156). Central Savings, like Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness, is bold enough to think through and overcome oppositions (159). Grootenboer’s analysis of Central Savings reveals that the philosophical tradition of reflecting on reflection is not exclusive to written philosophy. It is enacted by pensive images as well.
Grootenboer concludes The Pensive Image with commentary on the relationship between philosophy and wonder. Grootenboer reminds us that according to Plato, Socrates believed wonder was the beginning of philosophy (167). Do artworks offer a similar starting point? For Heidegger, wonder is a basic element of ordinary life (168). According to Grootenboer, the association between wonder, philosophy, and ordinary life is what makes seventeenth century Dutch artworks such fruitful contributors to philosophical investigations of being. Their focus on the ordinary and their reward of slow looking leads us to new discoveries. Ultimately, the pensive image is a valuable philosophical subject because it provides the opportunity to philosophize from, and about, ordinary experience. They stop us in our tracks and suggest a new courses for our philosophical journeys. In contrast to trompe l’oeil, panorama, of other kinds of illusionism that overwhelm us by enchantment and delight to lift us out of our ordinary experience, pensive images slowly overtake us. They do not to lift from the ordinary but to push us deeper into it, guiding us home (169). The Pensive Image thus concludes with all the optimism a new philosophical approach deserves, the hope for new discoveries that bring us home to ourselves.
The Pensive Image has the potential for broad application. Its description of the pensive image, its commentary on painting, film, and material culture, and its overlapping imagery with literary analysis implies the possibility of using the pensive image to understand the philosophical importance of other cultural products. The pensive image, applied metaphorically to literary imagery, might reveal an intimate relationship between image, text, and mind, in which the text’s imagery compels us to follow its logic. This, combined with its phenomenological approach, provides a framework we can apply to the existential literature of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. For example, Beauvoir’s imagery of barren wastelands in her 1946 novel All Men Are Mortal guides us through a similar meditation on finitude and infinity as Grootenboer describes in chapter four, implying an opportunity for comparison and new perspectives. Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes an approach potentially more far reaching than its introduction’s humble proposal, which could potentially be applied to imagery in literature, film, performance art, and even music.
While it is sometimes difficult to discern whether Grootenboer argues in favour of artworks as aids to understanding philosophical ideas articulated elsewhere (as is the case for Heidegger’s dwelling or Hegel’s self-consciousness) or as containing autonomous philosophical arguments themselves (as is the case for Three Medlars and a Butterfly), their oscillation between the two demonstrates that for artworks to be taken seriously as philosophical subjects, we do not have to decide between one and the other. As a philosophical subject, a pensive image can clarify an idea articulated elsewhere without depending on others’ ideas to articulate its own arguments. Its status as independent philosophical subject does not preclude its ability to aid our understanding of others.
Some aesthetic purists might balk at the idea of using artworks this way. They could argue that art is meant to be enjoyed, valued for its own sake, rather than used for philosophical ends. Grootenboer successfully counters such arguments by describing how the pensive images’ effects are part of its being. We do not use a pensive image for our own purposes. Instead, we let it guide our thoughts according to its own logic. Grootenboer thus avoids accusations of the ‘use and abuse’ of artworks for philosophical ends by focusing on the artworks themselves, their effects, and their autonomous properties. Rather than using a pensive image to achieve our own goals, we enter into a relationship with it. We following it where it needs to go without the added baggage of hypotheses, interpretive frameworks, or ulterior motives. Engagement with pensive images allows us to engage in a philosophy of free play, curiously, and wonder, rather than one of hermeneutic or analytical investigation. It is an appreciation of the things themselves without contorting them by imposing artificial frameworks and hypothesis.
In addition to its methodological implications, The Pensive Image challenges the artificial distinctions between art and philosophy, perceiving and thinking, reason and emotion. It models how to challenge disciplinary boundaries, which can get in the way of innovative thinking. Grootenboer conceptualizes the pensive image as a “predisciplinary blueprint” because it directs the thinker on a journey that knows no disciplinary bounds, be they philosophical, historical, literary, or artistic (71). Its most valuable contribution to philosophy is its emphasis on philosophy as a conscious reflection unbound by discipline, subject, or object.
In chapter three, Grootenboer writes that their main concern is not what thought is but how artworks help house it. The Pensive Image might not focus on defining thought but implies a simple yet profound definition of philosophy: a free flow of reflection, contemplation, and investigation mediated by permeable boundaries, boundaries that allow for movement so that dwelling and journeying merge. The Pensive Image provides us with a vision of philosophy and art in a mutually constituting relationship, a roadmap to theoretical places yet unexplored, and thereby a philosophical home.