Gregory Desilet plunges his readers into a hypothetical debate between the early Jacques Derrida, especially of the ’sixties and ’sevembeenties, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, mainly of the ’thirties and ’forties. It is a debate that seeks comparable concerns with language, meaning, and metaphysics by both intellectuals before pursuing significant contrasts between them. For all his interests in theories of communication and rhetoric, Desilet avoids the vagaries of thematic adaptations or rejections of decontextualised, often provocative statements by paying closer attention to published and unpublished writings emanating from the above-mentioned decades.
The Enigma of Meaning is divided into three main parts preceded by “The Life of Signs” (5-12) and succeeded by “The Signs of Life” (161-177). The first part (14-81) comprises six chapters centred upon Derrida’s response to Wittgenstein on the role and significance of mind, use, interpretation, rules, limits and justification. The second part (84-107) devotes three chapters to contrasting terms informing Wittgenstein and Derrida, specifically public and private, family resemblance and dissemination, and games and “economies” (or degrees of predictability) respectively. Chapter by chapter the third part (110-160) explores both thinkers on five central philosophical themes: other minds, metaphysics, time, truth, and “violence” (introduced by the selective categories of language).
Desilet’s ultimate aim is to view Wittgenstein and Derrida despite their differences as not confronting us with a choice between their respective accounts of language, between their “metaphors of the tool and the trace” (169). Such a choice “refuses to reduce to either/or as it continually slips into both/and” (169-170). Why? Because the “nature of language as a tool changes when supplemented with the … trace” (176). Why, in turn, should this be? Because the “trace changes the essence of the tool by placing it within a temporal, moving context” and by doing so “the tool’s identity becomes mobile and divided as it acquires aspects from every new context through which it is used” (176). The mutual “entanglement” between trace and tool leads Desilet to declare:
Wittgenstein without Derrida can make language appear misleadingly whole. And yet Derrida without Wittgenstein can make language appear misleadingly broken. Wittgenstein calls forth Derrida, not as opponent but as supplement, drawing out the both-and/neither-nor complementarity of difference. (177)
This review essay on The Enigma of Meaning will initially pursue two complementary points of view regarding a pivotal argument exploited by Derrida without which readers unfamiliar with him could quickly lose their moorings. Next, we shall briefly focus upon the twelfth chapter on time; temporality for Derrida being so crucial to comprehending not only experience but also the nature and role of “the trace.” At the same time, our first three sections shall incorporate passing references to the early transcendentally weighted phenomenological stance taken by Edmund Husserl. In our fourth and final section, we shall examine two alternative approaches to understanding Wittgenstein that appear not to have been fully recognised by Desilet. The first draws upon a student of Husserl, Helmuth Plessner, and the second, upon another interpretation of Wittgenstein misconstrued by Peter Hacker which Desilet omits in his appendix (179-189) devoted to the latter. Considering such alternatives is warranted by a volume that could well become the standard defence for upholding how Derrida’s contribution “to understanding the complexities of language” explicitly “emerges with a metaphysical depth beyond the positions Wittgenstein occupies” (177).
Beneath the wealth of topics probed by Desilet’s monograph lies a pivotal line of argument deployed by Derrida which can be construed from at least two perspectives. We shall call the first point of view verbalizable experience and the second revisable binaries or hierarchies. Applied rigorously, both undermine any philosophical attempt to uphold if not access reality, be it questioning “What is …?” (119) in the case of essential meanings and phenomena or first principles and conditions. Let us begin, albeit briefly, with the first perspective.
Desilet’s eleventh chapter takes Derrida’s La Voix et le Phénomène (in the 1973 David Allison translation rather than the 2011 Leonard Lawlor one) as exemplifying Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological avoidance of the question “What is a sign?” However, as quickly becomes apparent, Husserl’s avoidance is quite unlike that in Wittgenstein’s 1933/1934 notes popularly known as the Blue Book (or the Nachlass Ts-309):
If we say thinking is essentially operating with signs, the first question you might ask is: “What are signs?” – Instead of giving any kind of general answer to this question, I shall propose … to look closely at particular cases which we should call “operating with signs.” (16; Ts-309, 26)
Husserl in his First Investigation of Logische Untersuchungen, by contrast, seizes upon a “twofold sense” of the term “sign” which can apply to an experiential “indication” (Anzeigen) and a semantic “expression” (Ausdrücke) (Vol. 2, Ch. 1, §§1-16). Its twofold character need not exclude the possibility that the one sign can convey both aspects. For instance, “signal” may indicate the event or occurrence of conveying an utterance as well as the expression of the meaning of an utterance. Does the same apply to the use of idioms popularly thought to distinguish one language from another? However, to adapt an example from Lawlor (2021, §2, para 3), idioms can confront us with distinct meanings even within the one language without identifying the experience undergone and without ensuring which meaning might act as the actual or essential, proper or true one:
After Héloïse overheard her studious brother Hugues muttering “Il y va d’un certain pas,” she wondered whether he meant “One goes there at a certain pace or with a certain step” or “What’s at issue is a certain kind of ‘not’ or negativity.”
As Derrida (1967) insists, indicative and expressive signs whether idiomatic or not prove to be “a difference more functional than substantial” since they are “signifying relations, not terms” (p. 20; cf. p. 37). This is because the same phenomenon can be apprehended as an expression or indication, “a discursive or nondiscursive sign,” depending upon “the intentional experience [vécu intentionnel] which animates it” (p. 20). Although Husserl regards communication itself as “a stratum extrinsic to expression,” “each time an expression is in fact produced, it communicates, even if it is not exhausted in that communicative role” (p. 20). Furthermore, in Derrida’s terms, “the discursive sign, and consequently the meaning, is always involved, always caught up in [or “contaminated” with] an indicative system” of sounds, marks, and so forth, although “the reverse … is not true” (pp. 20 & 21). Husserl himself (Vol. 2, Ch. 1, §1) concedes the expressive and the indicative are “always interwoven (verflochten),” yet “must not …cut off the possibility of a rigorous distinction of essence” (p. 20). However, as Derrida (1967) asserts, this appeal to what is the essential is at best discoverable through and relies upon “the possibility of language” (p. 21); an assertion reminiscent of Wittgenstein (1945, §§371 & 373): “Essence [Wesen] is expressed in grammar” and “Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is.” Moreover, claims Derrida, the “entanglement” of the expressive and the indicative is “always produced” in mutual discourse or actual conversation for two reasons. Firstly, “expression indicates a content forever hidden from … the lived experience of another” (1967, p. 22). Secondly, “the ideal content of the meaning” has been attributed by Husserl to “sensibility”; his phenomenological project having already committed itself to “intentional consciousness” only becoming “revealed … in the reduction of the totality of the existing world in general” (p. 22) (see, e.g., Logische Untersuchungen, Vol. 1, Ch. 8, §49).
So far, Derrida has set the scene for detecting “entanglement” or “contamination” as the norm for all communicative acts which Desilet connects to Derrida’s “law of contamination” where, although “oppositional relations do not dissolve oppositions and thereby do not support the use of terms without their antitheses, they nevertheless alter the structure of oppositions by way of supplementation to the structure” (126). The first perspective we labelled verbalizable experience above now begins to be re-enforced by the second one labelled revisable binaries or hierarchies.
Desilet next focuses upon Derrida’s 1966 Baltimore lecture, “Structure, Sign, and Play…” which sees Derrida (by way of Claude Lévi-Strauss) indirectly pursuing the intersection of signifier and signified propounded by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Although de Saussure, unlike Derrida, gives priority to speech (la parole) against the derivative standing of writing (l’écriture), both he and Derrida argue that a sign in sheer isolation cannot signify: it can only do so in relation to other signs. To that extent, the basically syntagmatic and syntactic sequential arrangement of individual signs in intersection with the largely semantic and phonic open-ended association of other signs (see, e.g., de Saussure, 1922, Part 2, Ch. 5 & 6) seems to imply the systemic, self-referential nature of language (la langue). For both theorists, the detectable patterns language incorporates indisputably points to its capacity for repetition. As we find Derrida declaring, “A sign which would take place but ‘once’ would not be a sign” because as an “event” it would “mean an irreplaceable and irreversible empirical particular” (1967, p. 50). He then concludes,
A signifier (in general) must be formally recognizable in spite of, and through, the diversity of empirical characteristics which may modify it. It must remain the same, and be able to be repeated as such, despite and across deformations which the empirical event necessarily makes it undergo …. But it can function as a sign, and in general as a language, only if a formal identity enables it to be issued again and to be recognized. This identity is necessarily ideal. (1967, p. 50)
Why does Desilet focus upon the Baltimore lecture? Because it illustrates the oppositional relationship between signifier and signified of the sign itself to the point of modelling “the structure of every opposition” (127). To cite Derrida himself on the paradoxical consequences of attempting “the metaphysical reduction of the sign” which “needed the opposition it was reducing”: “The opposition is systematic with the reduction. And what we are saying here about the sign can be extended to all the concepts and all the sentences of metaphysics, in particular to the discourse of structure” granted that there were and still are “several ways of being caught in this circle” (1966, p. 281). Without the opposition between signifier and signified, there can be no sign; without the sign, there can be no discourse, leaving Desilet to elaborate that the
nature of the particular oppositional structure between the signifier and the signified is … complementary such that the signifier and the signified form a system where one cannot exist without the other and each cannot be reduced to the other without effectively destroying the system, without destroying the sign and its functionality. (127; cf. Derrida, 1967, p. 51)
Furthermore, he continues, the “logic of opposition … posits no pure instance of either pole of the opposition” which, in turn, implies that “every presumed singular identity contains the seed of its other within its essence” (128). Even casual occasions can reveal how postulating, say, a hierarchy of culture over nature is by virtue of their binary interdependences always revisable:
When Héloïse began teasing Hugues by saying, “Culture can always destroy nature,” he immediately retorted, “Yet without nature there can be no culture.”
At this juncture, we shall leave aside the transcendental and eidetic reductions comprising the phenomenological reduction characterising Husserl’s project pursued by Derrida and succinctly summarised by Desilet (e.g., 121). Nonetheless, readers may well question why Desilet’s eleventh chapter does not overtly confront the accusation notably raised by Martin Dillon (1995) that Derrida remains guilty of assuming another kind of reduction. In effect, this suggests that both Husserl and Derrida exploit a methodology of reduction. According to Dillon, Derrida employs a methodology of “semiological reduction,” one which involves an “ontological bifurcation which sets language in a realm apart from perception and denies reality” to the “world as perceived” because it is “displaced by the world as inscribed in language” (1995, p. 100). (Here, Derrida, as previously discussed, disputes the realm of indicative signs which, even in moments of self-directed monologues according to Husserl’s First Investigation of Logische Untersuchungen, are communicatively prelinguistic because “we live in the experience of the object” (Vol. 2, Ch. 1, §8).) Alternatively expressed, Dillon regards semiological reduction as “driven by an argument based on the transcendental function of signifiers” (1995, pp. 19 & 35). Why? Because cognition if not consciousness “presupposes identification which presupposes a formal ideality,” be it a concept, an essence, or a signifier (p. 19). As Dillon warns his readers from the outset of his monograph, a semiological reduction appears to beg two questions. One is “the question of the re-identification of signifiers themselves” and the other is “the question of how the play of signifiers temporalizes and makes history possible” (p. 13).
Before briefly turning to Derrida on temporality in our next section, what follows were Desilet to accept Dillon’s critique? Would he need to concede the degree to which “intentional consciousness” implies that there is an experience of something? By so doing, would he also need to concede that the experiencing subject need not be entirely removed from the “world as perceived,” from the community of persons, especially when the expressive, as distinct from indicative signs visible in nature, “extends beyond mere indication in its capacity to communicate meaning from one subject to another by means of a system of exchange … organized through structure (grammar, syntax) and categories (meaning, concepts)” (120)?
For those still searching for a singular absolute transcending all possible oppositional relationships, not only must they transcend the signifier-signified nexus of language but the quest for absolute unity also needs “the absence of time” (131). Returning to the “most disconcerting” First Investigation of Husserl’s phenomenological project, according to Derrida (1967, p. 56), particularly where the temporality of experience is juxtaposed with deictic or indexical expressions such as “I” and “now” which “shift with the occasion” of their utterance, they also have a fixed meaning such as “the person currently speaking” and “the present time” respectively. Yet, semantically speaking, as Husserl realises, shifting and fixed meanings cannot be invariably substituted for each other in all circumstances (Logische Untersuchungen, Vol. 2, Ch. 3, esp. §26). Derrida criticizes the conflation of “pure ideality” with temporality in Husserl which “signifies the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal form of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the present” (1967, p. 53). On the contrary, suggests Derrida, “The I am, being experienced only as an I am present, itself presupposes the relationship with presence in general, with being as presence. The appearing of the I to itself in the I am is thus originally a relation with its own possible disappearance. Therefore, I am originally means I am mortal” (1967, p. 54). Whether such an original meaning holds in indexical or deictic cases—for example, Hugues’ present statement (to Héloïse’s query “Are you there”?) “I am there,” let alone the past “I was there” and the future “I will be there”—remains open to debate.
Given that time and experience are interwoven, it is commonly understood that every experience occurs in present time, in the “now.” Although what happens now is a distinct event different from any other we have ever experienced, yet, in the present, we can recollect the recently past and/or anticipate what is about to happen. Because what we experience now can be immediately recalled, it is repeatedly re-identifiable, such repeatability enabling us to anticipate the same thing happening again. Hence, from Derrida’s perspective, what is happening now also does not differ from every other “now” experienced. In other words, the present experience is both an event and, owing to its repeatability, not an event. Consequently, we cannot have experience in time that does not contain both event and repeatability.
Derrida’s argumentative trajectory ultimately carries the same kind of implication for time as it does for language. Experience of the present (“now”) is not simply reducible to a single experience of something present to us because it contains the re-iteration of what has passed, but no longer present, as well as what is about to occur, but not yet present. In brief, the present, to quote Lawlor (2021, §3, para 3), “is always complicated by non-presence.” This basic instance of repeatability residing in every experience is what Derrida (1967) calls “the trace” (e.g., pp. 67 & 85) which has already been implied in our previous section by the minimally re-identifiable signs of language itself.
Some readers may still have misgivings over a gap in Desilet’s treatment of re-identifiability. For example, how, in practice, does re-identifiability work when, say, Héloïse insists, “That’s my signature, Hermione”? If “signature” is in dispute, then Héloïse’s remark suggests that she is not only drawing a significant distinction between authenticity and forgery, but she is also appealing to her actual role in its inscription. Alternatively expressed, she has in effect adopted what Nelson Goodman explores as the “autographic” conditions for re-identifying her signature, whether she happened to etch or paint it, “if and only if even the most exact duplication of it does not thereby count as genuine” (1968, p. 113). By contrast, if the sign in question is Héloïse’s above utterance in full, but now embedded within her draft playscript, performative instantiations of this playscript operate independently of its history of production. In this case, Goodman explores the sign as one of a set of complex “allographic” conditions for its (re)identification. Mistaking “what’s” for “that’s” and “bi-” for “my” in a misreading of the playscript by someone, say, an actor, director, or understudy, does not comply with the syntactic and semantic characteristics of its governing “notational” system. From a metalingual point of view, “What’s bi-signature, Hermione” has become a wh-question in the language system.
This and the previous section have concentrated upon Derrida and have particularly alluded to one of his better-known critiques of Husserl’s phenomenological project with which Desilet is obviously familiar. The next section shall shift the focus to alternative approaches to understanding Wittgenstein that appear not to have been fully recognised by Desilet notwithstanding his contention that
Both Wittgenstein and Derrida belong to metaphysical positions presenting forms of dualism, but Wittgenstein, despite his opposition to Cartesian mind/body dualism, still belongs more in the Cartesian modern tradition of oppositional structure whereas Derrida offers a genuinely different metaphysical alternative. (130)
The alternative, Desilet continues, lies in recognising oppositional relations “maximally anticipating the shifting ground of meaning under the influence of temporal succession and changing contextual boundaries” (138) irrespective of whether “temporal succession” is construed as temporal direction of past, present, and future, or as temporal order between earlier and later. Desilet then concludes:
For Wittgenstein, time affects everything, including language, but does so from the outside … For Derrida, time affects language, and everything else: without time there is no thing, no event, no position, no being—nothing. Time and space, time and matter, time and being—these oppositions name a complementarity such that each does not exist without the other. (138-139)
When Wittgenstein contrasts what “behaves like a human being” with a stone or a corpse, he simultaneously raises the question of “how can a body have a mind?” (1945, §§283-284). According to Desilet, this “positions human beings as mind/bodies embedded within the world and community” before making any inferences about “the separation of mind and body” (117). So, let us begin somewhat indirectly at first by recounting the way in which Peter Hacker and colleagues interrogate the longstanding binary distinction between mind and body, between mental and physical phenomena.
Maxwell Bennett and Hacker (2003, e.g., pp. 72-74, 103-106) claim that past and present followers of René Descartes are guilty of committing the mereological or part-whole fallacy. The fallacy is traceable within, for example, Part One of Descartes’ Les Passions de l’âme where the passion of the soul is a mental state or thought which directly results from the activity of the brain that causes us to act. However, that body and mind, or that which has spatial extension and that which has not, can causally interact remains puzzling. After all, as Harry Smit and Hacker (2014, pp. 1080 & 1084) argue, conceptually speaking because “the mind is not an entity of any kind,” the mind having “a relation to the brain” simply does not apply and “makes no sense,” although the brain’s neuronal activities are “a causal condition,” a precondition, for, say, our capacities for remembering, rehearsing, and reciting things. Hacker and his co-authors consequently cleave to Wittgenstein’s contention that an “‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria” (1945, §580). In his 1949 “Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment,” Wittgenstein separates the criteria demonstrating someone’s capacity and “the criteria for ‘inner states’”: “Even if someone had a particular ability only when, and only as long as, he [or she] had a particular feeling, the feeling would not be the ability” (vi, §36).
Equally puzzling for Hacker and colleagues is that the mind and/or the brain is predicated as having psychological attributes which belong to the person as a whole. This, in effect, upends the former conception of person in which the psukhē (commonly but misleadingly translated as “soul”) was reconfigured. To quote an earlier article by Bennett and Hacker, the psukhē is no longer construed “as the principle of life, but as the principle of thought or consciousness” (2002, p. 12). After noting that Aristoteles upheld “the principle that only living beings have a psuchē,” Smit and Hacker (2014, p. 1091) describe the psukhē, by contrast with Cartesian conceptions of mind, as “a biological principle.” By identifying psukhē solely with the thinking mind (res cogitans), its other functions as enumerated by Aristoteles were frequently reclassified by Cartesian adherents as material or bodily features (res extensa). Because Descartes conceives of thinking as awareness or consciousness, thinking therefore comprises volitional, ratiocinative, and imaginative powers as well as sensory apprehensions ranging from perceptions to passions. In the first book of the Peri psukhës (On the Soul), we find Aristoteles articulating the conceptual conflation in question:
We speak of the soul [psukhē] as being pained or pleased, being bold or fearful, being angry, perceiving, thinking …. Yet to say that it is the soul which is angry is as if we were to say that it is the soul that weaves or builds houses. It is doubtless better to avoid saying that the soul pities or learns or thinks, and rather to say that it is the man who does this. (408b, 11-15)
It is a conceptual confusion which, outside “secondary” uses typical of child-play, Wittgenstein also depicts by virtue of our enactive and verbal interchanges as follows: “only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious” (1945, §§282 & 281).
On reviewing Hacker and his co-authors, Jasper van Buuren (2016, pp. 226-227) questions what they understand by the mereological relationship between brain and person and between mind and person. To contend, following van Buuren, that Hugues’ brain is part of Hugues suggests that it is not part of the person Hugues so much as part of the person Hugues’ body. In other words, Hugues not only has a body of a particular size and weight which includes mouth and hands, lungs and brain, blood and bones, but he also is and, so to speak, lives through his body. Again, the person Hugues, whilst he continues to live, has a mind, a mind which can be said to belong to him. What the foregoing omits is that Smit and Hacker distinguish the concept of a person and that of a human. Whereas a human is a “rational, language-using” creature with “powers of intellect and will,” a person “is not a substance but a status concept,” a creature “capable of participating in a culture” and assuming “moral agency and responsibility” (2014, pp. 1092-1093 passim). Furthermore, Smit and Hacker warn us against conflating two senses of the human body, namely, “the body (the living organism) that a human being is with the body (the somatic features) that a human being has” (2014, p. 1083). That Bennett and Hacker elsewhere conceded that they are primarily concerned with “human beings qua possessors of those characteristics that render them persons” so that the brain “would be part of the human being” not the person leaves van Buuren unconvinced (2016, p. 226). Without considering whether mental properties might supervene upon physical ones (see, e.g., Robert Francescotti (c.2009)), van Buuren surmises, “Even if the mind is not literally a ‘part’ of the person, there must be some kind of mereological relationship between person and mind” (2016, p. 227). However, given Bennett and Hacker’s appeal to the unifying role of the psukhē “as that which encompasses and transcends the opposition between the mental and the physical,” then how, van Buuren asks, do they explain a person as both a physical and mental being whilst being “encompassed” by that which is “not reducible to the physical or mental” (2016, p. 228)?
In the apparent absence of an answer to this question, van Buuren looks to a student of Husserl whose philosophical anthropological theory has gained increasing interdisciplinary attention (see, e.g., Shawn Loht (2020) in this Journal). Drawing upon the largely non-Cartesian anthropological theory of Helmuth Plessner (1928) regarding “levels of organic life,” van Buuren argues that Hacker has overlooked the “threefold structure” of “our bodily existence” in the world (2016, p. 230). Baldly summarised, at an objective “level” (die Stufe des Objekts), our physical bodies are, firstly, “things among other things in the world” as are plants despite their variability (2016, p. 230). Secondly, at a subjective “level” (die Stufe des Subjekts), each organic body is “a center of sensorimotor activity” in the sense of being “open to the world” in a manner befitting most animals (2016, p. 230). Thirdly, from a positional or perspectival “level” (technically called exzentrische Positionalität), humans are distinctively “at a distance to both the body as object and the body as subject” because generally “we can always distance ourselves from any relationship we have to ourselves or the world” including other persons (2016, p. 230).
For readers more familiar with Wittgenstein, the positional capacity for distancing oneself in order to make connections, perceive relationships, resolve disparities, and the like complements his “concept of a surveyable representation [übersichtliche Darstellung]” which “characterizes the way we present things, how we look at matters” (1945, §122). Surveyability equally underpins Wittgenstein’s dual methodological attention that subsequently comes to the fore upon the interpretive role of interlocutors’ beliefs and upon logico-syntactic rules (1945, §§185ff.). Desilet’s initial focus, it is worth noting, centres upon the latter (45ff. & 179ff.) before summarising others’ arguments for the former (48ff. & 181-186 passim). For Wittgenstein in a critique not unlike Derrida’s, the distortion of surveyability emerges when “the question of the essence” of phenomena, be it thinking or language, feeling or literature “sees the essence of things not as something that already lies open to view, and that becomes surveyable through a process of ordering, but as something that lies beneath the surface” which somehow “an analysis is supposed to unearth” and where the answer claims “to be given once for all, and independently of any future experience” (1945, §92).
However, as Beth Savickey (2014) cogently argues, the foregoing translation of übersichtliche Darstellung endorsed by Hacker is highly contestable. She has at least two reasons, the first concerning the very phrase and the second concerning the Philosophische Untersuchungen itself. Translations of Űbersichtlichekeit are not merely “surveyability” or “overview,” but possibly more so “clarity” or “perspicuity,” “plainness” or “transparency” (2014, pp. 101-102). Similarly, not only “representation,” but also “account,” “depiction” or “portrayal” can translate Darstellung (2014, p. 112). For Hacker, Savickey continues, “the central preoccupation of the Investigations is the nature of language”; for Wittgenstein “it is life (i.e. all the expressions of life in language)” making a “representation of life … inherently dynamic” (2014, pp. 111-112). As Wittgenstein himself pointedly remarks, “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – In use it lives. Is it there that it has living breath within it? – Or is the use its breath?” (1945, §432). Further elaboration can readily be found in Wittgenstein’s Zettel, including, for example, how “to explain our understanding of a gesture by means of a translation into words” and vice versa (1948, §227). This then elicits the remark:
How can these gestures, this way of holding the hand, this picture, be the wish that such and such were the case? It is nothing more than a hand over a table and there it is, alone and without a sense. Like a single bit of scenery from the production of a play, which has been left by itself in a room. It had life only in the play. (1948, §238).
In fact, the Zettel constantly applies other examples of understanding wrought by übersichtliche Darstellung to the arts, especially music and poetry (1948, §§155-176).
Now, let us return to Plessner’s tripartite approach as summarised by van Buuren. It ultimately reveals the limits of the mereological fallacy employed by Hacker and colleagues. Owing to the positional or perspectival capacity to “distance from our relationship to the external world,” we can focus upon “an inner world” and “a social world” in mediated rather than immediate, idealised rather than perceptual ways, a focus conducted as mental thinking rather than as embodied processing (2016, p. 232). Moreover, the above-mentioned subjective and objective senses of the body in effect are dual “aspects of the one and same body” without necessarily implying that one sense is reducible to the other (2016, p. 234). That Héloïse, for example, has a brain and two hands is one way of classifying parts of her body. However, brains are not perceived, possessed, or deployed in the way hands are. Why? Because, as van Buuren succinctly contends, “our hands are part of our first-person world” whose bodily appearance has “immediate practical” meaning when feeling, gathering, moving, touching, and so forth (2016, pp. 234 & 238). However, the “appearance of the brain,” which fulfils its complex functions independently of us, “presupposes the third-person perspective of science” (2016, p. 234). If the foregoing account holds, then Hacker’s mereological accusation falls short. According to van Buuren, it needs to differentiate between two different kinds of part-whole relationships in terms of parts and aspects, namely, that “between a part of the body and the body as a whole” and that “between a partial aspect of our bodily existence and this existence as a whole, whereby the whole is the person” (2016, p. 237).
In conclusion, Desilet’s volume extolling the “metaphysical depth” achieved by Derrida in comprehending “the complexities of language” beyond the logico-linguistic explorations of them by Wittgenstein (177) demands our attention. Nonetheless, one might wonder whether both philosophers were aiming at the same metaphysical trajectory with greater or lesser success. Those sympathetic to Desilet’s conclusion may well question how to determine what counts as “the same” here. Of course, none of us can definitively determine, to echo Bernard Williams,
what counts—what will have counted—as going on in the same … way. Nothing can do that, finally, except the future itself. The Last Word, as always, will lie with what actually comes about. (1998, p. 44)
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As Steven Cassedy notes in the introduction to this fascinating, wide-ranging, and unique book, meaning is everywhere, and yet it seems no one ever stops to define it (1). Through a series of chapters tracing the history of “meaning” from ancient Greek and Hebrew sources to contemporary English usage, Cassedy tells a story in which notions of meaning were originally limited to words, signs, and interpretation, but usage gradually expanded to a present-day context in which meaning means… well… almost everything. The book succeeds in something that, in my view, is not often enough done in contemporary philosophy or intellectual history: connecting past philosophical ideas—in broad, easy-to-understand brushstrokes—to popular culture and the popular uptake of those ideas in the present and recent past.
The book is, indeed, more appropriately considered a work in intellectual history than in philosophy in a narrow academic sense. Cassedy works in comparative literature, and the primary method of the work is close reading rather than philosophical argument. His overarching claims are developed via helpful etymological discussions and readings of texts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and Danish, as well as selective attention to secondary literature on these figures and associated key texts. These treatments, taken as a whole, offer an extremely helpful overview of the evolution of the notion of meaning over the longue durée of Western intellectual history, with some fascinating (if necessarily selective) detailed accounts of key ideas and authors.
I begin with a chapter-by-chapter overview of the more broadly historical Chapters One through Five, then turn to more detailed critical treatment of some major themes, where I also survey Chapters Six through Nine, which are devoted to more recent and popular treatments of meaning.
The concept of meaning as we have come to know it in contemporary English is more recent than we might expect, and does not, on Cassedy’s reading, have an exact equivalent in ancient writings. Chapter One, as its title suggests, argues that the ancient world “got along without” meaning “until the rise of Christianity.” Cassedy surveys Hebrew and Aramaic terms appearing in the Hebrew Bible and concludes that there is simply no word corresponding to our “meaning” to be found there, though there is some interesting discussion of translations of Ecclesiastes using “meaning” in an attempt to get at the sense of value or “meaning in life” that Cassedy is interested in (14-15).
Cassedy then turns to ancient Greece, where he finds significant semantic commonality with regard to the English verb to mean, and ample evidence of diverse theories of signification, signs, interpretation, and the function of language in authors like Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and as far back as Heraclitan fragments about the Delphic Oracle. But the focus remains on the verb, and on the notion of signification: Cassedy finds little evidence of a noun form of “meaning,” and little attention paid to the “something that gets signified” corresponding to a sign (19). Cassedy also insists, with regard to Platonic forms (ideai) that “nowhere are they likened to a meaning that we retrieve as we do from words in a written text” (23).
It is only in Chapter Two, with Latin-language authors of early Christianity, that we “first find meaning used as the object of a metaphysical interpretive quest into a mysterious, invisible realm separate from the realm of direct experience” and where the meaning of “meaning” begins to expand beyond the literal. The key notion here is “the readability the world,” and Cassedy largely follows the work of Hans Blumenberg and New Testament scholar Harry Gamble in his extended analysis of meaning in Augustine. Here, helpfully, we find an early touchstone for the distinction between natural and conventional (“given”) signs (30)—a distinction that would be important in twentieth-century accounts from Husserl (2001, I.§2) to Grice (1957, 378-79). Divine scripture for Augustine consists of given signs with authorial intent, but the interpretation of those signs involves usage of “ideas/thoughts/meanings (sensa) by means of signs, and those signs relate to our various senses (sensūs)” (31). This anticipates the idea—central to Cassedy’s interpretation of the German Sinn as discussed below—of a close relationship and intermingling between meaning and sensation. It also introduces the important distinction, central to Augustine, on Cassedy’s interpretation, between the actual reading of books, such as the scriptures, and the figurative “reading” of the world or nature, and ultimately of heaven, whose signs are—at least for human beings— “shrouded in mystery and subject to interpretive acts that can never be guaranteed to reveal an absolute truth” (33). This for Cassedy is the central step that clears the way for the contemporary usage of meaning in phrases like “meaning in life.”
Cassedy then notes a shift from the medieval idea of reading the “text of the world” as well as written passages to the later idea—which Cassedy argues, following the historian of science Peter Harrison, arises as a result of the Protestant Reformation—of reading as applying to passages only: “under the older conception, both words (in Scripture) and things (in the world of nature) had meanings. Under the new, Protestant conception, only words had meaning; objects didn’t” (37). The result, according to Harrison, was that “The natural world, once the indispensable medium between words and eternal truths, lost its meanings, and became opaque to those hermeneutical procedures which had once elucidated it. It was left to an emerging natural science to reinvest the created order with intelligibility” (Harrison, qtd. in Cassedy, 37).
The notion that the world itself contains meaning is reasserted, Cassedy argues, in Berkeley’s work on perception. Following Kenneth Winkler, Cassedy finds in Berkley a “semiotic theory of vision,” “founded on the notion that seeing is a matter of recovering meanings from signs whose connections with those meanings are purely conventional and arbitrary” (39). This notion is reminiscent of medieval “book of nature” ideas, but with the crucial difference provided by Berkley’s (in)famous immaterialism, which, Cassedy argues, sets the stage for idealism and romanticism.
Chapter Three, “Idealism and Romanticism,” was for me the most intriguing and the most helpful of the book. It begins from an extended discussion of Johan Georg Hamann, who “embedded language in the very fabric of the world itself, which he viewed as God’s text” (44). This leads a naturally to the idea of a close connection between the perceptual senses (die Sinne) and sense (Sinn), an idea which Cassedy takes up in the next subsection of the chapter. His short history of the German Sinn invokes its early connotations of movement, change of place, and direction, and traces its development through to a more modern conception that builds in a certain “fuzziness” or indeterminacy.
Chapter Three focuses especially on one of the twenty four definitions of Sinn provided in the Grimm Brothers’ mid-nineteenth-century Deutsches Wörterbuch, which notes that “[i]n modern times, Sinn is customarily and commonly [used] for the meaning [Bedeutung], the opinion [Meinung], the spiritual content, the intention [Tendenz] of an expression, a work, or (more rarely) an action, as distinguished from its wording [Wortlaut] or its outward appearance” (qtd. in Cassedy, 49). In this later usage, Cassedy notes, Sinn is most often connotative, whereas the German bedeuten and Bedeutung—like the English meaning—is more likely to be denotative. This of course tracks both the well-known distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung as marked by Frege in the essay of that name (Frege 1892), and also discussions of denotation and connotation in English from, e.g., Mill (1843, I.2.§5). Puzzlingly, there is no treatment of these obvious touchstones in this chapter or elsewhere in the text, despite the fact that Frege’s is concerned with precisely the same German terms, and Mill falls into precisely the same historical period as the German authors discussed in Chapter Three.
Chapter Three then further traces the notion of Sinn in Kant, through pre-Critical writings such as Dreams of a Spirit-seer and into the first Critique, where “Like the Latin sensum/sensus/ sentientia, Sinn conveys both the receiving, sentient mind and the properties of objects that the mind cognizes and interprets” (56-7). Kant’s use of the term stands in stark contrast, Cassedy reports, to that of later romantic-era figures such as Novalis (whose “grand, mysterious statements” about meaning are treated by Cassedy at great and somewhat puzzling length), Goethe, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and Herder. It is in these romantic-era figures that we first encounter sustained engagement with the German phrase “Sinn des Lebens,” the philosophical and intellectual precursor to contemporary English’s “meaning of life,” and with the call to rediscover the original sense or meaning of the world by re-enchanting or romanticizing it (64). Herder’s 1772 Treatise on the Origin of Language is given strikingly brief treatment—especially in contrast to the expansive discussion of Novalis—and is discussed only in the context of its influence on Schleiermacher.
Chapter Four begins with a brief treatment of Kierkegaard, due to his explicit invocations of the “meaning of,” and sometimes “in” “life” (74-75), but his usage of these phrases is dismissed as relatively “uneventful.” (The influence of broader themes in Kierkegaard’s work on twentieth-century writers, due to the appearance of English translations of his work, is returned to in more detail in Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight). The bulk of Chapter Four consists of extensive discussions of Thomas Carlyle, including Carlyle’s engagement with Novalis, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Carlyle’s work represents for Cassedy the movement of German culture into British culture over the course of the nineteenth century (77), and in his partly satirical novel Sartor Resartus we find what Cassedy suspects to be the first use of the phrase “the meaning of life” in English, “where the phrase refers not to the meaning, or definition, of the word life but to the meaning of life itself” (82).
Emerson brought Carlyle’s novel to the United States, where it was influential for the American Transendentalists. Emerson was also influenced directly by earlier German mystics such as Novalis, as well as by the uptake of German romanticism in Coleridge, from whom he took the notion of the “book of nature” that would be influential in Emerson’s extended engagements with the theme of nature and humankind’s place in it. Emerson, Cassedy plausibly argues, “envisages a world in which we ‘read’ (metaphorically speaking) and interpret not just actual books but, well, that world itself, which he implicitly represents as yielding up meaning, significance, sense to our acts of interpretation” (90). This amounts to a form of idealism reminiscent of Berkeley and Kant, but in which “the mind or consciousness always bleeds over into a mysterious spiritual realm that appears to be simultaneously coextensive with and hidden from it” (92). For Cassedy, such a mystical, book-of-nature connotation of “meaning” in English is a major component of our contemporary usage and understanding of the term.
Chapter Five turns to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, including some intriguing comparison of the Russian smysl and the German Sinn (95). From Tolstoy’s increasingly religious writings—especially due to their popularity with readers of English-language translations appearing in the early twentieth century—and in references to Tolstoy in well-known works such as James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, we first get the close connection between meaning and purpose that is also part of our contemporary understanding of the word. Due to Dostoevsky’s existentialism and the centrality of mortality for so many of his characters, Cassedy suggests, readers find in his works a more secular treatment of meaning in life than in Tolstoy, despite Dostoevsky’s frequent association of the phrase “meaning of life” with the immortality of the soul. “‘The meaning of life,’ with its enormous potential for ambiguity, is a phrase that allows the secularist to form at least a partial understanding of what a person of putatively pure religious faith actually believes” (118).
As the above overview suggests, the real focus of Cassedy’s book is not the notion of meaning as such, but the way in which the word has come to be associated with concepts like value and purpose, as in the phrase “the meaning of life,” which would seem to be quite far from the ancient Greek usage of the verb “to mean” and from its later European-language verbal and nominal relatives. In all these earlier cases, “meaning” is primarily a matter of signification, of what signs, words, and language do (15). Cassedy thus seeks to understand the relationship between what we might call the semiotic or semantic connotation of “meaning” and its more recent purposive or axiological connotation. In this regard, the book is both original and important: he is one of very few recent authors who appears to have thought carefully and extensively about the relationship between meaning in these two senses. As Cassedy puts it, in a glib criticism of a passage from Charles Taylor, “telling us first that meaning means ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ and next that it means the same thing that it means in the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ doesn’t really narrow things down very much” (2).
Even in contemporary academic philosophy, discussions of these semantic and axiological conceptions of meaning continue to be worlds apart, with discussion of the former located in particular sub-domains of the analytic philosophy of language or (post-?) post-structuralist pontifications about signs and signifiers, whereas discussion of the latter is located primarily among philosophers writing in the domains of ethics, social-political philosophy, and related areas of value theory. The fact that philosophical treatments of meaning have become so divergent is intriguing and alarming, at least if Cassedy is right that these notions are related in more than merely homophonic ways. In this sense, I think the book can be read as a kind of call to action for the reintegration of philosophical (and not merely pop-cultural) investigations of meaning. This call to action is to be applauded, in my view, and indeed is one I have tried to take some small steps toward in my own work. I return to this theme toward the end of this review.
Unfortunately, Cassedy’s treatment of this issue is limited to a more-or-less genealogical account of how the change came about: the book answers the question, “How does a word that fundamentally has to do with signs, words, stories, and other things that, well, mean or signify something come to mean ‘purpose’ and ‘value’? How does it come to mean all the other things it appears to mean, apart from ‘signify’?” (4). While Cassedy offers us a detailed (if not always balanced, as I note below) historical account of the emergence of these additional connotations of the word, he doesn’t offer much beyond that genealogical account as to why this divergence occurred.
But perhaps this is part of his point: that there is really nothing ultimately beyond the genealogical account—there is no deep reason, at least none available to human beings—for why meaning came to have the meaning that it now, in Western popular culture, has. There is, perhaps, only something like the Nietzschean revaluation of values that it signifies (I’m putting words in Cassedy’s mouth here; there is actually strikingly little engagement with Nietzsche in the book, given its theme, and that minor engagement is only indirect, appearing in the context of discussions of Paul Tillich). This claim would seem to fit with Cassedy’s explicit thesis about the ambiguity of the contemporary usage of “meaning”: “what we mean when we talk about meaning” is ultimately, necessarily, “polyvalent” (8, 33, 182). “It’s the very fluidity that gives meaning its peculiar resonance and mystique and that allows it to live with equal comfort in the writings of secular scientists and the official decrees of Catholic popes. That’s the ambiguity that lends this word its peculiar and characteristic power—what makes it the quintessentially modern word” (10). The power of this polyvalence is that it allows meaning to refer to whatever it is that fills a void in the existential dimension of our contemporary lives, just as philosophical-religious figures like Tillich and Ulrich Barth suggested it should.
Hence the book’s extensive focus, in the twentieth-century portion of its historical genealogy, on such popularizing philosophical-religious figures—a treatment that turns increasing toward the popularizing, and increasingly away from the philosophical, with its coverage of each subsequent decade. For Cassedy, the meaning of “meaning” began to fracture in the twentieth century alongside (and perhaps because of) its more popular uptake. The fracturing begins, as discussed in Chapters Six and Seven, with the extensive employment of the term in the English-language writings of Tillich, Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr, and increases in the oft-announced “age of anxiety” in American culture—a term that Cassedy traces to W.H. Auden’s poem with that name published in the U.S. in 1947, and a term which was firmly entrenched in popular discourse by the early 1960s. “Meaning” has by this time come to serve an increasingly therapeutic purpose, a panacea for a variety of existential woes characteristic of modern American life in the post-war period. With regard to the source of these woes, Cassedy has much to say about contemporaneous changes in mainstream religious belief, but relatively little to say about the effects of the second World War, the Holocaust, or an increasingly capitalist, consumerist American society. In any case, in the post-war period, the term “anxiety,” like the “meaning” that is popularly believed to contain its cure, has come “to denote a remarkably wide range of things” (131).
In Chapter Eight, Cassedy documents a shift from religious to more popular, scientistic, and therapeutic conceptions of meaning, and a corresponding expansion of its usage as both cure-all and catch-all term. This change is tracked via an account of the development of existential psychotherapy in figures such as Victor Frankl and Rollo May (Frankl is singled out for particularly extensive and trenchant criticism, about which I am not qualified to comment), through treatments of recent biochemical approaches to meaning such as the work of Barbara Fredrickson (approaches about which I am skeptical, but again not qualified to comment), and in the contemporary proliferation of works that give center-stage to the notion of meaning, while hardly ever defining it, in the contemporary self-help movement (about which I think no additional comment necessary). Thus, Cassedy argues, from the late 1960s to the present, at least in mainstrem American society, meaning increasingly becomes “a suggestive term, undefined, unspecific, and preponderantly secular, designed to conjure in our minds the idea of something grand, mysterious, and unnamed that, owing to our particular life circumstances, we must strive for” (140).
In this light, Cassedy’s polyvalence thesis is both unique and refreshing, and certainly speaks to the era of human social and intellectual history that we find ourselves in today—an era which, Cassedy convincingly argues, has been presaged by the enormous uptick of concern with anxiety and meaninglessness beginning in the early twentieth century. However, there are points in the book where Cassedy’s polyvalence thesis comes off like the hasty conclusion of a student who has closely read the relevant texts, but not moved much beyond a survey of positions (with requisite fascination and awe) to the analytical work of crafting an original and nuanced thesis about them: the thesis is simply that they differ. The overarching claim that the meaning of meaning is ambiguous because it has to be thus comes off—at least to this reader—sometimes as thoughtful and sometimes as glib.
At some points, the book reads like a collection of essays held together loosely by their relation to meaning and more generally by the fact that the author happened to want to write and reflect on the texts they interpret. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, of course—all academics do this to some degree—but in this case it results in a book whose treatment appears uneven. While the entire period of Western thought from Augustine to Bishop Berkeley is surveyed in a single chapter, the period from the end of the second World War to the present takes up approximately one third of the book. This is natural, of course, given that things are often more interesting to us as we get closer to the present, but what is less natural is the change in focus as the book moves chronologically. Up through its treatment of the “Russian Titans” Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, in Chapter Five, the book deals entirely with what we might call “high intellectual culture” figures, from the worlds of theology, literature, and philosophy. But beginning in Chapter Seven, and even to some degree in the first treatment of Tillich in Chapter Six, Cassedy’s chronological narrative turns almost exclusively to a more “popular culture” orientation, discussing sources like self-help books, popular psychology, references to “meaning” in Time magazine, etc. This, in part, reflects Cassedy’s thesis: that in the later twentieth century, the obsession with meaning became a mainstream phenomenon, making its way, in light of growing existential concern in the “age of anxiety,” into popular culture and even into the marketplace via the contemporary self-help industry.
But the book almost entirely neglects the fact that meaning never diminished as a topic of conversation in more “high culture” domains in the twentieth century. There is no mention of, e.g., the linguistic turn in philosophy or the resultant projects of linguistic or conceptual analysis in the analytic tradition, and no substantial account of the consideration of meaning in late nineteenth and twentieth-century continental figures such as Dilthey, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, except as minor precursors to the thought of Tillich and Barth. There is, by contrast, extensive treatment of Tillich, and especially of his more popular writings, including his article in the 1966 issue of Time magazine with the iconic “Is God Dead?” cover, despite its status as, in Cassedy’s words, “quite possibly, in the history of American popular periodical literature, the most famous article that no one actually read—or remembers having read” (119). We are told that, by the time of the appearance of Tillich’s article in 1966, the word “meaning” “has traveled a winding path, in its guise as the German Sinn, from the nineteenth-century German philosophy and theology that we’ve examined so far, through such twentieth- century German and French thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Camus, and Sartre” (128-9). But little further treatment of these figures is offered, except, occasionally, in the footnotes.
Indeed, there is only the briefest mention and quick dismissal of Sinn-analysis among phenomenologists and neo-Kantians: in a discussion of German philosophical accounts of Sinn as influences on Tillich, Cassedy assures us that “[w]e can safely set aside the philosophical genealogy of the concept (it stems from Edmund Husserl and an obscure philosopher named Emil Lask), whose details need not concern us” (122). It’s not clear why this dismissal is “safe.” Why needn’t these details concern us, and in what sense are figures such as Lask too obscure to merit discussion? Given that earlier chapters of the book discuss historical philosophical figures—even less well-known ones such as Hugh of St. Victor (34)—in some depth, the decision to gloss over large swaths of late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth-century philosophical work that would seem relevant for Cassedy’s overall thesis and aims in the book seems to stem more from the whims of the author’s own reading than from any serious scholarly research strategy. It’s as if the robust and highly influential discussions of meaning in the twentieth-century analytic and phenomenological traditions never happened. This omission would be understandable in a book devoted to popular, rather than academic-philosophical conceptions of meaning throughout Western intellectual history, but given its extensive discussions of figures such as Augustine, Berkley, and Kant in earlier chapters, the sudden shift to exclusively popular conceptions of meaning in the twentieth century is quite jarring. Even if Cassedy’s point is to show how meaning in the twentieth century went mainstream, it seems odd for an academic monograph to downplay the persisting deeper academic undercurrents.
I do not doubt that there is much to learn from the way that the term meaning has functioning in the popular American imagination in recent decades. Indeed, I found the treatment of this theme in the last four chapters of the book to be both enjoyable and edifying. But earlier chapters are not limited to the American context, and do not offer extensive accounts of the usage of meaning in the popular imagination of, e.g., the farmer of the Middle Ages or the industrial worker of the nineteenth century. If the “we” in What Do We Mean When We Talk About Meaning? refers to popular rather than academic culture in the later decades of the twentieth century, it’s not clear why Cassedy addresses it with regard to the latter rather than the former in his treatment of previous centuries.
Cassedy returns to academic (as opposed to popular) work on meaning, to some degree, in Chapter Nine, “Meaning Bridges the Secular and the Sacred.” The chapter focuses primarily on appeals to meaning in the contemporary faith traditions of Catholics, Evangelicals, and Hasidic Jews (171-180), focusing on texts from Popes John Paul II and Francis, evangelical Pastor and popular author Rick Warren, and Rabbi Simon Jacobson, director of the Meaningful Life Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a philosopher and not a theologian or scholar of religions, I will not comment on these discussions, except to note that this chapter provides a nice bookend to the treatment of meaning in medieval theology in Chapter Two, and seems largely interested in exploring the relation between the secular and the sacred for its own sake, rather than primarily as a point of confluence in recent popular discussions of meaning.
Chapter Nine also includes some discussion of Charles Taylor (163-171), including a helpful tracing of Taylor’s diagnosis of contemporary “disenchantment” to the usage of that term in Max Weber’s 1919 “Science as Vocation” (166-168), and brief discussion of Phillip Kitcher’s recent work on secular humanism (169-171). At this point in the book, the reader might expect a return to the focus on philosophical and theological treatments present in the first few historical chapters, but this time from a contemporary academic perspective, and perhaps a more detailed treatment of the relation between the semantic and axiological senses of “meaning” noted above. Surprisingly, however, there is very little detailed treatment of the upswing in recent decades in philosophical literature on the meaning of/in life (e.g., Richard Taylor, Thomas Nagel, John Kekes, Susan Wolf, Terry Eagleton, Thaddeus Metz, John Cottingham, etc.). Metz, Cottingham, and Eagleton are discussed briefly in the introduction, where Cassedy admits that they have written whole books on the concept of meaning and living a meaningful life, but they are quickly dismissed for not offering summary definitions of the word “meaning,” whereas recent popular treatments are discussed at great length, even though the definitions on offer from these sources are often found to be “not helpful” (144, 179) or completely lacking (154, 158, 161, 169).
Throughout the book, Cassedy is laser-focused on definitions of the word “meaning,” and on which words (e.g., “purpose,” “goal,” “value,” “significance”) various authors appear consider synonyms. This is the primary form of evidence given in support of his polyvalence thesis, and perhaps this focus stems naturally from his training and orientation as a scholar of comparative literature. But Cassedy seems to neglect the possibility that—excluding the more popular treatments featured in the final few chapters, in which cases ambiguous usage is perhaps more permissible— “meaning” is not given a simple, easily quotable definition in the works modern philosophical or theological figures not because it is ambiguous but because it is complicated or beyond words.
This is, indeed, a central lesson of twentieth-century phenomenological treatments of meaning. Allow me to dwell on this point in concluding, given the venue of this review. Unlike their analytic counterparts, phenomenologists (especially, e.g., Husserl and Merleau-Ponty),
refused to limit their conceptions of meaning to simple definitions or even to accounts of linguistic meaning. This broader, phenomenological approach to meaning is a central component of the philosophical genealogy of Sinn that Cassedy assures us—as noted above— “we can safely set aside,” and “whose details need not concern us” (122). By refusing to treat meaning exclusively within the confines of a philosophy of language, phenomenologists such as Husserl indeed presage, in an intellectually more rigorous, if necessarily more complicated way, the very move to consider meaning as the antidote to existential crises in the later part of the twentieth century that Cassedy presents in painstaking detail in the second half of the book. What is Husserl’s Crisis, if not a call to recover the level of meaning that belongs originally not to our language or our systems of scientific abstraction but most fundamentally to the lifeworld of everyday experience, the “general ‘ground’ of human world-life” (1970, 155).
For Husserl, it is through the ongoing synthesis of sensory givens arising from individual perspectives that we uncover—and make—law-governed determinations of meaning:
[A]s bearers of ‘sense [Sinn]’ in each phase, as meaning something [Etwas meinende], the perspectives combine in an advancing enrichment of meaning [Sinnbereicherung] and a continuing development of meaning [Sinnfortbildung], such that what no longer appears is still valid as retained and such that the prior meaning which anticipates a continuous flow, the expectation of ‘what is to come,’ is straightaway fulfilled and more closely determined. (1970, 158)
In its focus on the concrete details of lived experience, phenomenology interrogates precisely the point of intersection Cassedy emphasizes in Augustine and later idealism and romanticism between sense (Sinn, sens) as the modality or content of perception (sensation), and sense as the basic unit of meaning or meaningfulness. Without simply equating meaning with sensory givenness, and thus avoiding the dreaded “myth of the given,” phenomenology insists on interrogating their complex and difficult connection. Seen in this light, phenomenology appears to be the ultimate return to the readability of the world, rather than just of the text, if ever there was one!
Indeed, in this light, classical phenomenology can also be interpreted as offering the last great attempt—prior to the hyper-specialization of philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century that made such attempts almost impossible—to theorize the relation between the axiological and semantic or semiotic dimensions of meaning. Meaning pertains both to language and to the value in living a life not simply because our experience is often mediated by language and concepts (though of course it is), but because lived experiences are themselves enactions of meaningfulness and value or “axiological nuance” (Scheler 1973, 18). Human beings are not just language-animals (Taylor 2016), concept-mongerers (Brandom 1994, 8, 620) or meaning-users, but meaning-makers. Our making sense of the world is a necessary component of our life projects. If sense (meaning) were not made, but simply found, our lives could not be meaningful—could not even, ultimately, make sense—for we could have no life projects. This point of connection between the axiological and semantic or semiotic is obscured when we think of meaning-making exclusively via models such as defining, naming, reading, writing or conceptualizing. It becomes much clearer when we include models of meaning-making that more fully reflect our ways of being in the world, such as ritual, dance, or everyday embodied movements like the blind man navigating the world via his cane, which is for him not merely a “sensitive zone” but also the “primary sphere” in which “the sense of all significations [le sens de tout les significations]” is given (Merleau-Ponty 2013, 143-44).
I do not mean to suggest that the phenomenological tradition has definitively explained this connection—I don’t think it has—but it may well be the last major movement in Western philosophy that seriously tried, without defaulting to the comfort of more isolated problems limited to examination in the domain of value theory or the philosophy of language. Cassedy’s neglect of this thread of the history of what we mean when we talk about meaning thus seems to me most regrettable, if perhaps understandable given the enormous ambition and historical scope of the book.
These criticisms aside, What Do We Mean when We Talk About Meaning? is an original, thoughtful, well-written, and wide-ranging examination a theme of major importance both for academic philosophy and for understanding our wider contemporary lifeworld. It should have broad appeal to philosophers, intellectual historians, students of comparative literature, and even theologians and sociologists. It helpfully synthesizes a wide breadth of historical and contemporary sources and is a welcome contribution for all of us interested in the perennial question of the meaning of meaning.
Brandom, Robert. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment Harvard University Press.
De Santis, Daniele and Danilo Manca, eds. forthcoming. Wilfrid Sellars and Phenomenology: Intersections, Encounters, Oppositions. Series in Continental Thought. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Frege, Gottlob. 1892. « Uber Sinn Und Bedeutung. » Zeitschrift für Philosophie Und Philosophische Kritik 100 (1): 25-50.
Grice, Herbert Paul. 1957. « Meaning. » Philosophical Review 66 (3): 377-388.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr Northwestern University Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Logical Investigations. Translated by J. N. Findlay, edited by Dermot Moran. Paperback ed. Vol. I. New York: Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald A. Landes. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Mill, John Stuart. 1843. A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive. University of Toronto Press.
Ogden, C. K., and I. A. Richards. 1923. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and the Science of Symbolism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
Taylor, Charles. 2016. The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. Harvard University Press.
 All parenthetical citations are to the reviewed text unless otherwise noted.
 Especially pertinent, given the Cassedy’s titular focus, is Ogden and Richards (1923).
 Along related lines, another issue that merits mention—this is not a shortcoming of the book by any means, but a necessary limitation—is that Cassedy’s treatment, while it focuses on historical precursors in a variety of Western languages, is ultimately focused on the English-language word “meaning.” The book is clearly intended primarily for an Anglophone readership, and while there are some helpful treatments of various senses of, for instance, the French sens and the German Bedeutung and Sinn (though, as already noted, no discussion of Frege’s important account, and only passing treatment of Husserl’s), these are offered as part of the historical-genealogical story rather than as standalone treatments of contemporary French and German authors and usages. And there is no comparative treatment of terms similar to meaning (historical or contemporary) in non-Western languages. In this sense, Cassedy’s treatment is necessarily (and, again, excusably) incomplete.
 On this important challenge to phenomenological approaches meaning, perception, and knowledge, see especially the essays collected in De Santis and Manca, forthcoming.
In their introduction to this volume, co-editors Stefano Marino and Andrea Schembari reveal how the idea for this book project was born at a 2017 Pearl Jam concert in Firenze while they were waiting for the band to kick off their gig. They emphasise how music, particularly rock music in this case, has the power to change and even save a life, echoing Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s remarks on how he is a living proof of this. Recalling their youth in Sicily, the co-editors note how the bands they followed afforded them “great passion, thrill, euphoria, exaltation, excitement, and enthusiasm” (3). As scholars and fans, the co-editors argue that there is a case to be made for considering Pearl Jam in the growing literature of pop culture and philosophy. Marino and Schembari point out that, rather than a philosophical system of Pearl Jam, what they attempted to point towards through this book was how Pearl Jam’s songs and career entail notions and themes that have troubled philosophers for centuries.These include themes of a particularly phenomenological nature such as the notions of experience, temporality, death, the human condition, significance and the meaning of life, authenticity and identity. Other, more broadly philosophical themes covered in this book also include the critique of mass society and the culture industry embodied by Pearl Jam, as well as resistance to conformist pressures. In their introduction, the editors present some pointers to Pearl Jam’s philosophy or, rather, their ethos: namely, their fight against censorship and oppression, their endorsement of democratic and progressive values, their attempt to be part of the culture industry without being swallowed by it, and their commitment to ecology, gender issues and human rights. The different chapters attempt different ‘gestures’. Some chapters engage with the ethos of Pearl Jam, what they stood for, their development over time as a band and the power of their music; while others conduct more specific ‘readings’ of particular songs or albums. Other chapters draw on Pearl Jam to reflect more broadly on political aesthetics, subcultural authenticity and postmodern fashion, while other authors attempt a more literary engagements with an aspect of Pearl Jam’s music.
The book opens with a foreword by Theodore Gracyk, himself the author of various books on the aesthetics of rock music. Gracyk connects Pearl Jam with ‘rockism’, which is a term that gained prominence in music commentary in the late 1980s. Rockism, as Gracyk explains, is the adoption of a core set of values associated with rock bands, such as refusal to define greatness in terms of commercial success, or an expression of progressive values by rock musicians and their audience, or recognising the value of music to unify, and, importantly, the use of guitars. By these criteria, Pearl Jam qualify as rockist. Gracyk recognises that rockism can also entail a lot of snobbery, sexism and whiteness. Hence, while Pearl Jam can be seen to be exponents of a kind of rockism especially in their early work, they are also a dynamic band that motivate us to go beyond the reductive understandings of rockism. So, if Pearl Jam supposedly moved away from ‘rockist’ tenets by obtaining commercial success, their ‘rockist’ ethos was seen in the way they challenged Ticketmaster for over-charging their fans. Pearl Jam defy easy categorisations. They embody contradictions, dynamism and fluidity; this is arguably what makes them a good band to ‘philosophise’ with.
In Chapter 1, “Contingency, (In)significance, and the All-Encompassing Trip: Pearl Jam and the Question of the Meaning of Life,” Marino takes his cue from Vedder’s lyrics questioning whether we are ‘getting something out of this all-encompassing trip.’ He connects this with Karl Jasper’s notion of ‘the encompassing,’ that is, reality in its richness and fullness. Marino reads Pearl Jam’s questioning of modernist narratives of progress and evolution through various twentieth century philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and Gadamer. In Pearl Jam, Marino identifies a preoccupation with the act of questioning itself, showing that, in their songs, Pearl Jam often refer to the insurmountable questions and the insufficiency of answers. Marino links this with Wittgenstein’s therapeutic understanding of philosophical questioning as being akin to trying to treat an illness, that is, to overcome the torment of excessive philosophical doubt. Similarly, in Pearl Jam, we encounter conflicting views on the role of philosophising in human life: on one hand, Pearl Jam point toward the questioning nature of mankind while at the same time highlight the eventual futility, if not harm, of excessive questioning which can come at the expense of life or experience. Marino points to the numerous questions asked in Pearl Jam’s lyrics – questions of what is real, what is truth, what is human, who are we? – yet ultimately the lesson he finds in Pearl Jam is that some questions remain open precisely because they are meant to remain open. Marino then turns to the notion of temporality, claiming that the western philosophical tradition (particularly in the modern age) has tended to place primacy on the temporal mode of the future. To show this, Marino foregrounds a section from Being and Time in which Heidegger identifies the futurality associated with being-towards-death, whereby anticipation is tied to Dasein’s authentic being. Marino notes that, through songs such as ‘Present Tense’, Pearl Jam challenge this privileging of the future at the expense of the present. Meaning is found not in omnipotence, but in finitude, contingency, imperfection and ephemerality. Instead of surrendering oneself to a defeatist attitude in the face of insignificance, Pearl Jam call for action, fueled also by anger against oppression. With apologies to Gramsci, Marino refers to how Pearl Jam’s intellectual pessimism is coupled with critical optimism of the will. Marino’s extensive essay ends with a reading of Pearl Jam’s ethos in light of Mark Fisher’s comments on Kurt Cobain. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher claims that alternative and independent music had become absorbed by the mainstream, recuperating its subversive potential by transforming it into a commodified lifestyle. For Marino, Pearl Jam recognise this tension and learn to dwell in the ‘in-between’ while surviving in a world of contradictions.
In Chapter 2, “‘Just Like Innocence”: Pearl Jam and the (Re)Discovery of Hope,” Sam Morris draws parallels between Pearl Jam and British Romanticism, arguing that the relationship between the two is not always a smooth and complementary one, not least because romanticism is not easily defined. The early material of Pearl Jam – for example, the Mamasan traumatic trilogy of ‘Alive’, ‘Once’ and ‘Footsteps’ – portrays a difficult relationship between the self and others, which Morris reads alongside some moments from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads that depict guilt, the inadequacy of society, and innocence as childlike wonder. Yet Morris also notes that in some of their early songs (such as ‘Rearviewmirror’) there is already a hint of a transition from childhood to adulthood, akin to the transition from innocence to experience described by Blake. There are also traces of hope, Morris writes, in songs such as ‘Leash’ and ‘Not for You’, echoing lines from Blake and Wordsworth about the joys of youth and the innocence of nature. Morris argues that No Code represents a turning point for the band, which also represents some divergences from the Romantic tradition. He reads Pearl Jam’s expression of longing for a lost past innocence as not completely in line with Wordsworth and Blake’s critique of the temptation of nostalgia, even if they too acknowledge that the feeling of childhood wonder fades as one grows. However, Morris argues that if the romantic poets placed their hope in embracing mature experience, Pearl Jam seem to go on a search for a lost innocence in No Code. Morris reads Pearl Jam’s engagement with feelings of anxiety and fear of death as attempts to overcome them so as to not forget the wonder of experience. This attempt to sustain hope in appreciating the beauty in the world is read by Morris as re-connecting Pearl Jam with the British Romantic tradition, even if they diverge from the romantic journey that leads from innocence to experience. The romantic impulse in Pearl Jam is read by Morris in their exhortation of listeners to turn inward for hope and a future-looking utopian energy to be ultimately turned outward to transform the world.
In Chapter 3, “Who’s the Elderly Band Behind the Counter in a Small Town?” Radu Uszkai and Mihail-Valentin Cernea reflect on the metaphysics of the transtemporal identity of a rock band. They ask questions on whether changes in band name, group composition or music style alter a band’s identity. Referring to John Searle’s notion, the authors point out that the existence of a band belongs to the realm of ‘institutional facts’, that is, bands can survive severe changes while still being recognized as the same thing, in the same way that a government would still exist despite a change in leadership. The authors draw on conceptual tools such as Robert Nozick’s ‘closest continuer’ theory and Saul Kripke’s notion of ‘rigid designator’ to discuss how metaphysical questions surrounding the transtemporal identity of rock bands can be approached. Uszkai and Cernea argue that the name of a band does not seem to be essential for the identity of a band over time, as otherwise the band Mookie Blaylock – the name under which Pearl Jam played their very first gigs – would not be the same band as Pearl Jam. With lineup changes, perhaps the question complicates itself further, as Pearl Jam had several changes in their drummers and have also been joined by guest musicians such as Boom Gaspar in their live shows. The authors discuss questions such as what happens in the case of a fission of a rock band into two bands, and both claim continuity with the original band. The authors also engage with what changes in music style do to a band’s identity. While some ‘die-hard’ fans may feel that a band is no longer that band if it deviates from its ‘original sound’, the authors argue that it is quite hard to argue that a band loses its metaphysical identity due to such aesthetic transformations. The authors conclude by indicating that the cultural recognition of bands is a crucial component of appropriately designating whether a band is the same band or not.
In Chapter 4, “Making a Choice When There is No ‘Better Man’,” Laura M. Bernhardt foregrounds the theme of compromised agency as it is presented in Pearl Jam’s song, ‘Better Man’. Bernhardt engages with the song’s portrayal of a female narrator anguishing about leaving an abusive relationship but ultimately opting not to. She reads this alongside the band’s own struggles with the pressures of commodification at the time when the song was released. Bernhardt analyses such compromised agency through the work of Carisa Showden on how compromised agents, such as victims of abuse, are required to choose from a selection of bad possibilities under circumstances that are not quite of their choosing. The author highlights the complexity of such situations because it is not a matter of the victim not knowing that the situation is not in her interest, but rather that her freedom is constrained in such a way that her autonomy is compromised. The author calls for an outlook to this issue that moves beyond denying the victim’s agency as well as implying that the victim is somehow complicit in her situation. One way out of this conundrum, Bernhardt suggests, is by looking at Simone Weil’s notion of affliction. For Weil, an afflicted person is someone abandoned to misery or isolation, and someone who is reduced to an object by powerful forces, such as a factor labourer working under oppressive and dehumanising conditions. The afflicted person, Bernhardt notes, would resign herself to unhappiness and feel undeserving of salvation from the wickedness to which she is subjugated. For this reason, apart from systemic and material solutions to improve her agency, the author argues that something more is also needed, namely, radical empathy. The author concludes by proposing that recognition of another person as afflicted may help us to better understand the complexity and ambiguity involved in situations involving compromised agency when people stay in situations where they would not necessarily want to remain, such as the character described in ‘Better Man’.
Chapter 5, “That’s Where We’re Living: Determinism and Free Will in ‘Unthought Known’,” by Enrico Terrone revolves around philosophical themes from FlashForward. This is a 2009-2010 sci-fi television series that engages with the question of what remains of human free will in circumstances where the future seems to be determined and the characters have had ‘flashforwards’ that showed them the outcome of their future. The Pearl Jam connection is that an edited version of their song “Unthought Known” is used in a scene from one of the episodes of this series. Terrone reminds us that the notion of ‘unthought known’ originated in Freud, and was later developed further by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. This concept describes how “one can know things about which one is unable to think” (97). Terrone notes that ample metaphysicians argue that science encourages a conception of the universe as strictly governed by natural laws. This view problematises free will as an epiphenomenon which we are unable to do away with simply because it is such a deep-rooted feeling which gives coherence to emotional responses and moral judgements that regulate societies. Various movies and fiction have engaged with the theme of free will and determinism, in which characters are given powers of clairvoyance. Yet, as Terrone argues, some of these artistic attempts are riddled with an obvious inconsistency, namely that although the characters become aware of the future, somehow they manage to contradict what they would have foreseen, which is, of course, untenable with the original clairvoyant ‘visions’. Such a move is often done in the spirit of critiquing the deterministic outlook by insisting on a sort of ‘humanistic’ sentiment that privileges free will over a cold deterministic universe. With regard to the Pearl Jam song and its use in the TV series, “Unthought Known” reflects on the human condition, finitude, the role of the human within the immensity of the cosmos, and ultimately the beauty of the richness of human experience. The author concludes by arguing that the way in which the song is deployed in the context of the narrative points towards the difficulties surrounding a notion of free will, but that its stakes within our practical thought may be too high to let go of it.
In chapter 6, “No Code Aesthetics,” Alberto L. Siani engages with Pearl Jam’s fourth album, No Code, noting that the heterogeneity that marks this album makes for interesting philosophical reflection, not least on the role of ‘codes’ and their rejection in art. The author reads the aesthetics of this album in terms of the ‘end of art thesis,’ which holds that the traditional conception of art as an expressive medium that transmits metaphysical and ethico-political content no longer exists. Siani maintains that this ‘end of art’ is not necessarily something to be decried, because it has emancipatory aspects that allow for veering away from traditional systems of values and embraces plurality. No Code complements this thesis insofar as it represents a rejection of various codes, including a break from the code of their preceding three albums. In a point that is also explored in other chapters, Siani reflects on whether this rejection of codes ultimately becomes a code in itself, that is, the code of rejecting codes, which would lead to a contradiction. However, Siani notes that “we should keep in mind that No Code is an artwork, not a logical investigation” (116). This is a welcome clarification; rather than excessive and intricate philosophical argumentation, Pearl Jam are embracing this unsolvable existential tension, and in this regard they represent the ‘madness’ of the decision, and the leap of affirming life in the face of uncertainty. For Siani, this is perhaps what ‘no code aesthetics’ stands for, that is, the aesthetics of heterogeneity and disharmony which may prompt the listener to a more reflective experience of the music.
Chapter 7, “Can Truth Be Found in the Wild?” by Paolo Stellino focuses on the story of Christopher McCandless, which was made into a movie in 2007 with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. In his early 20s McCandless set off wandering around North America until he hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in the wild. His decomposing body was found around four months after he entered the wild, with the cause of death being probably starvation or poisoning due to ingesting seeds that contained a toxin. Various critics claim that the story of McCandless is often romanticized, ideologized and commodified, with sympathetic commentators insufficiently calling out his naivety and arrogance. Stellino remarks that Vedder’s lyrics too can be seen as contributing to this idealization of McCandless. However, while acknowledging these critiques, Stellino highlights that the appeal of this story does not lie in the specific details of McCandless’ life but rather in its universal significance. Interestingly, Stellino also draws on insights from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to analyse McCandless’ story, particularly his notion of ‘the sick soul’. Stellino argues that McCandless was a ‘sick soul’ who suffered from the artificiality of consumer society, and thus opted to radically transform his life by seeking an asceticism through which he felt reborn. Drawing on Erich Fromm, Stellino writes that this transition marks McCandless’ preference for the authentic ‘being’ mode of existence, as opposed to the accumulative ‘having’ mode. The profound insight that McCandless seems to have had at the end of his spiritual search for truth is that authentic existence is relational; it requires the presence of others and is not a solitary mission. Hence, ‘happiness is only real when shared’, McCandless writes on the pages of the last book he was reading. This is why, Stellino concludes, although one may disagree with the specifics of McCandless’ diagnosis of society or with his decision to flee into the wild, what still remains admirable is the courage and honesty of the human pursuit of authentic existence. This is ultimately what Vedder gave voice to in the Into the Wild soundtrack, which highlights continuities with some of Pearl Jam’s lyrics.
Chapter 8’s title, “‘They Can Buy, But Can’t Put On My Clothes’: Pearl Jam, Grunge and Subcultural Authenticity in a Postmodern Fashion Climate” by Stephanie Kramer, makes reference to a verse from Pearl Jam’s song ‘Corduroy’. Kramer notes how the song was inspired from a corduroy jacket Vedder wore numerous times during his shows, including in their MTV Unplugged, and was remade by the fashion industry. According to Kramer, the song’s lyrics reflected the “band’s refusal to sell out as a grunge posterchild in the name of corporate greed” (158), with the jacket serving as a literal and metaphorical act of resistance. Kramer links the lyrics of this song with a ‘grunge’ fashion trend that picked up in 1992 where plaid flannel shirts, flamboyant hats, and other cheap and conventional clothing items that came to be associated with grunge were turned into fashionable icons and sold at higher prices. Kramer draws on the work of media theorist Dick Hebdige to note that although subculture fashion, like punk fashion, highlighted individuality, non-conformity, and resistance to mainstream social norms, with time these subversive trends become absorbed by the mass fashion industry and thus lost their subversive edge. According to Kramer, Pearl Jam refused to partake in the dynamic of fashion altogether and managed to resist artistic commodification itself. Pearl Jam always chose a convenient style of clothing comprising of t-shirts, shorts, boots or tennis shoes, with Ament wearing his flamboyant headdresses, and Vedder wearing plain t-shirts on which he could scribble political messages. Kramer argues that Pearl Jam did not give much weight to their outfits to the extent that the possible machismo associated with basketball jerseys and other sports symbols were in opposition to the feminist and political messages embedded in the band’s ethos and lyrics. The band members, ultimately, were after producing music and not becoming glorified symbols for imitation.
In Chapter 9, “Pearl Jam’s Ghosts: The Ethical Claim Made From the Exiled Space(s) of Homelessness and War – An Aesthetic Response-Ability,” Jacqueline Moulton considers Pearl Jam’s references to homelessness and war in their music and actions. She refers to the band’s 2018 gig in Seattle which they branded ‘The Home Shows’ since the band had not played in Seattle for some years. In fact, the juxtaposed theme of home/homelessness was central to this show as Pearl Jam raised money, awareness and knowledge on the homelessness crisis playing out at the time in Seattle. The author elaborates on what ‘home’ signifies in ethical terms, that is, “the ethical question of contemporary dwelling, the question of who is at home and who is not, of who is living exiled” (165). Referring to how the word ethos in ancient Greek signified both dwelling and mode of being, Moulton explores the ethical implications of being at home versus ‘not at-home’. She argues that this dichotomy unveils “the ideology of inside versus outside” (166). For this reason, those on the outside pose an ethical question to those on the inside, and for Moulton, the concept of home is always haunted by its constitutive outside – “the sense of being not at-home” (167). This unsettling and displacing feeling of foreignness and familiarity, for Moulton, is best grasped through Freud’s notion of the uncanny which brings this juxtaposed duality of homeness and foreignness into the realm of the aesthetic. According to Moulton, during ‘The Home Shows’, Pearl Jam conjured the audience to respond ethically and aesthetically to the ethical claim made from those who are ‘exiled’. The aesthetic displaces the hegemonic elements that structure language and helps to invert the antagonistic dichotomy between inside and outside. Indeed, Moulton follows Adorno’s assertion that ethics emerges from the outside. Moulton notes how Pearl Jam’s songs ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ and ‘Bu$hleaguer’ – embedded with references of war – echo the sense of ‘the uncanny’ as a haunting from within, “a fear that comes up from within, a fear which is familiar and therefore impactful, fear which is close” (169). For Moulton, this form of haunting cuts across the realms of ethics and aesthetics, and poses a new question of what the ethical claims and responses can be and how to translate them into “communal and equitable structures of living interdependently upon a shared world” (169).
Cristina Parapar’s contribution in Chapter 10, titled “Pearl Jam: Responsible Music or the Tragedy of Culture?” evaluates Pearl Jam’s ethos as a form of popular music. Parapar notes how Adorno distinguishes between responsible music and light music, arguing that light music is standardized, contributes to one-dimensional thinking and, unlike responsible music, plays into a capitalist system that seeks to alienate and passively entertain its consumers. Parapar challenges Adorno’s understanding of popular music through French philosopher and music Agnès Gayraud’s work, arguing that Adorno seems to ignore the fact that popular music denotes a broad variety of genres that can merge different traditions, scales, modulations, and influences from both high and low culture. Following from this defense of pop music, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music can at least on occasion speak to its listeners about their own situation in the same way Adorno speaks of dissonance. Following Terry Eagleton’s take on left aesthetics, Parapar argues that a piece of art is in itself subversive because it refuses identification and reveals the impossibility of the union between “form and content, between language and meaning, and between the artistic form and empirical reality” (190). Pearl Jam’s music, according to Parapar, serves this purpose. The ‘dirty’ sounds of grunge, with its partially out of tune music together with its form-content, reflect the Zeitgeist of disillusionment with American society in the 1990s. Parapar argues that while some pop music fits within Adorno’s critique, other types of music contain the potential for critique. Following Gert Keunen’s typology of pop mainstream, underground, and alternative mainstream, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music lies within the third category. This is because while they speak to a wider audience through mass distribution they still maintained “the authorship of their pieces, the less familiar sound of grunge, and the rejection of musical recipes” (197). Correspondingly, Parapar argues that Pearl Jam’s music requires a certain kind of listening. Pearl Jam listeners are, in a sense, negotiators, “negotiating between intellectualism and catharsis, between adequate and structural listening and enjoyment (jouissance)” (199). Thus, for Parapar, Pearl Jam’s listener can be best described as the ‘postmodern listener’, that is, a listener who enjoys the pleasure offered by the music, but at the same time is aware of the way in which the music reveals the ideological fantasy and its symptom. Ultimately, Parapar concludes that Pearl Jam’s music is both responsible and authentic.
In Chapter 11, “Pearl Jam/Nirvana: A Dialectical Vortex that Revolves Around the Void,” Alessandro Alfieri discusses the dialectic opposition of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Alfieri argues that, as opposed to the music scene of the 1980s such as glam rock, grunge represented a turn to a sober, existential and introverted music scene that expressed the void experienced by a whole generation. He notes that, paradoxically, this wave of existential dread came at a time of expansion of well-being as discourses around mental health expanded in the 1990s. According to Alfieri, Nirvana was one of the few bands that reflected this existential dissatisfaction with their “message of pain and death” (207), in comparison to that of, for example, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Although both Nirvana and Pearl Jam originate from this sense of existential crisis, the bands have long been seen as rivals. Alfieri notes how on many occasions Kurt Cobain was critical of Pearl Jam, although once he admitted that he actually liked Eddie Vedder and came to appreciate him more. Alfieri argues that Pearl Jam fall on the side of the vitalistic dynamic rock of the 1990s and 2000s, whereas Nirvana was more nihilistic, self-destructive, visceral and transgressive. Alfieri notes how the two bands are caught up in a dialectical vortex. Cobain’s aesthetic made Nirvana attractive to mass media even though their ethos was linked to the rejection to success and social prestige. Cobain himself was caught up in this unsolvable contradiction of detesting success while at the same time basking in it and becoming paranoid when it recedes. Pearl Jam turned to mass distribution, but were more reserved in front of the cameras, with Vedder turning down many interviews. Alfieri also argues that Pearl Jam had a more mature stance, with their music reflecting more intellectual and political awareness. For Alfieri, Pearl Jam manage to negotiate the melancholic existential dread of our time through a ‘nostalgia for the present’ set between “anhedonic nihilism and vitalism” (214) where rage, dissent and a dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs are expressed alongside the life-affirming pleasure that the experience of their music provides.
In the concluding Chapter 12, “The Tide on the Shell: Pearl Jam and the Aquatic Allegories of Existence,” Andrea Schembari notes how in their music Pearl Jam express the experience of living through aquatic allegories and metaphors, such as navigation, the ocean and the river. Schembari illuminates these dimensions through the work of other thinkers who, like Pearl Jam, recognized how these dimensions can express the condition of life. Schembari argues that the work of Pearl Jam often reflects an understanding of being as if one is navigating a ship out at sea. He reads this alongside the work of Blaise Pascal who maintains that to live one must always face the opposition between taking the plunge ‘into the sea’ and the inclination toward stability. However, stability and safety are never guaranteed, as depicted in the band’s song ‘Force of Nature’ and as expressed through the Roman poet Lucretius. The songs ‘Oceans’ and ‘Release’ reflect water as a form of energy that directs one to a desired goal, where nothing remains static or unmoving, whereas ‘Big Wave’ speaks of human adaptation – ‘surfing the waves’ – to whatever life brings. As Pascal’s wager reveals, one cannot avoid making choices, and this inevitability to make choices is outlined in the band’s song ‘Infallible’ which, according to Schembari, denounces “the arrogance and distortions of an economic progress disjointed from a true social and cultural progress” (226-7). The band also explores aquatic metaphors of love keeping swimmers afloat reflected in ‘Amongst the Waves’. From allegories of the condition of living to allegories of time, Schembari takes us through instances where Pearl Jam refer to the passage of time as “phenomenological time” and a “time of consciousness” (230) as outlined by Husserl and Heidegger respectively. These allegories of time become more apparent in Pearl Jam’s later albums, particularly their 2020 Gigaton but also in earlier songs like ‘I am Mine’. Finally, Schembari also engages with Pearl Jam’s aquatic metaphors on the meaning of life, such as like murmuring and hollow shells washed ashore, which he reads alongside reflections by Paul Valéry and Italo Calvino.
All in all, Marino and Schembari have completed an interesting curation of high-quality essays that capture the diversity of affects and themes in Pearl Jam songs, as well as their engagement, oftentimes critical, with the culture industry. The title of this project may, at first glance, raise an eyebrow (if not an eyeroll), for example, of those for whom ‘low culture’ is no place to look for serious theorising; or of those who perhaps due to an anti-intellectualist stance perceive such a project as unnecessary intellectual posturing. But this book strikes a good balance in this regard. In no way does it pretend that an appreciation of such chapters is necessary in order for one to understand the true depths of Pearl Jam. Yet, on the other hand, the authors appreciate that the band that originated in 1990 in Seattle during the golden days of grunge is one of those bands that lend themselves to theoretical engagement. Ultimately, the chapters that compose this book are written by scholars who are also fans. It is not incidental that some of the authors make references to the role, big or small, that Pearl Jam has played in their personal lives. In this positive way that this book seems like it was a labour of love.
This is a book for fans: the reader must have great familiarity with Pearl Jam’s music, as well as the band’s history, actions and position within rock history. Do some of the chapters engage in over-reading? Maybe. And if a listener knows what it is like to feel undone by ‘Black’, or to feel goosebumps during ‘Alive’, or to go crazy with ‘Porch’, then perhaps they may not need this book to tell them what they are feeling. But, nonetheless, the chapters that constitute this book will be appreciated by philosophically-inclined fans of the band who, for years, have lived with the band’s music, or perhaps have even witnessed the deep experience that is a Pearl Jam concert; have experienced the wild exhilaration that the band provides. In other words, if you get it, then you get it. Not unlike a lot of philosophy, ultimately, Pearl Jam can be seen to embody a fundamental question: what does it mean to be alive?
Edith Stein’s best known work is her phenomenological investigation of affectivity and philosophy of mind, and especially her treatment of empathy. Relative to these, her ontology is somewhat neglected even though it is of great interest, both as a transition between her academic and theological writings and as a development of concepts of essence implicitly present in phenomenology more widely. This is an acknowledged gap in Stein scholarship which Thomas Gricoski aims to bridge with Being Unfolded, a rigorous and insightful philosophical-theological interrogation of Stein’s Finite and Eternal Being (Endliches und ewiges Sein, hereinafter EeS).
Gricoski’s opening chapter lays the foundations for his characterisation of Stein’s ontology as a correlational realism. Contextualising Stein’s work within two philosophical traditions, the Husserlian phenomenology of her academic beginnings and the neo-Scholasticism with which she engaged in her later phenomenological inquiries, he argues that Stein developed a correlational philosophy in which phenomenological method is used to address traditional Thomist metaphysical questions. The result is an ontology of multiple modes of being whose common attribute is unfolding:
Finite being is the unfolding of meaning; essential being is the atemporal unfolding beyond the contraries of potency and act; actual being is the unfolding outward of an essential form, from potency toward act, in time and space. Mental being is unfolding in multiple senses… (10, citing Stein, EeS 284-285)
Stein’s own work is notoriously unspecific about the concept of Entfaltung, ‘unfolding’ or ‘blooming’, and it is this gap that Gricoski seeks to fill in Being Unfolded. He proposes that for the unfolding which characterises being throughout Stein’s ontology is a “self-transcending relationality”:
The key to understanding Stein’s sense of being…is the transcending nature of the relations between being and meaning, and between each mode of being. (32)
Clearly, such a proposal stands in need of further elaboration, and Gricoski unpacks it over subsequent chapters, offering a close reading of Stein’s texts which moves from the logical questions arising from the concept of being itself, through different aspects of being and meaning, to conclude with a reaffirmation of unfolding as transcendence.
The motivation for Stein’s concept of unfolding is located in the tensions in Aristotelian philosophy between actuality and potentiality, acting and resting. Traditional ontological formulations of this dichotomy tended to situate ‘real’ existence in acting; this was especially true of Scholastic interpretations, which drew parallels with Christian concepts such as creator and soul. Gricoski demonstrates in the second chapter how Stein’s own work on potency and act underpins her concept of unfolding. Refusing the need for selecting between potency and act, Stein insists that they are unique modes of being, potency as ‘resting’ essential being and acting as actual being, inextricably related in what Stein calls ‘close belonging-together’. Gricoski’s argument is careful in following Stein’s text so as to show that her ontological project retains a recognisably phenomenologist character in its recognition of a diversity of modes of being and meaning which, rather than being hierarchically related, are drawn together in her correlational principle of unfolding. Within this complex analysis, he argues, there is a harmony in which “a transcending relation holds the relata in a creative tension, without resolving the tension through overcoming difference” (59).
While Stein’s engagement with Thomist philosophy is her unique contribution, there is nonetheless an implicitly Aristotelian flavour to the phenomenological project of seeking to grasp essential meanings. Underlying Stein’s resolution of the acting-resting dilemma is the problem of how to characterise the meaning of essential being, and this is Gricoski’s theme in the third chapter. As with the potency-act question, Stein seeks to refute a philosophical tradition in which different elements of being are ordered as to precedence: in this case, the priority of essence over existence. Arguing that being is non-identical with existence, since existence is temporal whereas being can also be atemporal, and that essence without instantiation cannot count as being, she posits that essential being is irreducibly constitutive of meaning in all being. Gricoski clearly sees this move as pivotal to Stein’s philosophy. It enables her to avoid traditional critiques of essentialism while incorporating essential being into her ontology rather than simply ‘bracketing’ it in Husserlian mode. More significantly, it motivates her evocation of ‘unfolding’ as characterisation of the relation among different modes of being:
Without splitting being into apparently irreconcilable ‘modes’ and arranging them in such a way that the modes ‘overlap’ or coincide in beings, there would be no need for the correlational principle of unfolding to bring the modes together. (252)
Here one may query whether Gricoski imputes too much to Stein in his elaboration of her concept of unfolding. Stein’s own underdeveloped treatment of unfolding might seem to undermine the thesis that it cements her ontology in the way that he indicates. Indeed, Gricoski acknowledges that the more conventional reading of ‘unfolding’ is as a bridge between the demands of Stein’s dual philosophical tradition, phenomenology on the one hand and Thomism on the other. Whether Stein scholars will find his case for viewing unfolding in a strong ontological sense is an interesting question.
The defence of Stein’s concept of essential being provides a springboard for subsequent chapters where Gricoski, turns his attention from being to meaning. Like being, meaning in Stein’s later work is multiple and relational; the different modes of being are all meaning-bearing, as are the relations among them. Gricoski proposes that the relationality present in being is not only reflected in meaning is constituted by the connections among actual beings which derives from their participation in essential meanings:
Through actualised essential structures, every individual actual thing is related in some way to every other actual thing that shares one of the same essentialities. Actual things are connected to each other through the nexus of essential meanings. (109)
Again, the question arises of how far this is Gricoski’s picture and how far it is Stein’s. It seems as though the delicate balance and parity of ontological standing which Gricoski perceives in Stein’s philosophy is threatened by situating the source of their relationality in essential meanings and hence implicitly in essences. If actual things derive their meaning form the meanings of essences, then why not their being also? This is a question which Gricoski takes himself already to have settled but readers may find it pressed anew by chapter five, where Stein’s theistic commitments come to the fore in an exploration of the origin of meaning.
Here, Gricoski’s exposition of Stein’s work takes what appears to be a more traditionally Scholastic turn. Finite being is “the dim analogue of eternal being” (110); actual being qua act echoes the actus purus of divine being; the intrinsic meaningfulness of essential being resembles Logos. It is challenging to read this other than as a hierarchy of meaning, and thus as at least potentially reductive; this suggestion becomes more forceful in the claim that essentialities reflect only the meaning aspect of divine being, so that finite acts of actual being are closer to God than finite instances of meaning which have only essential being. With such a structure in play, can Gricoski uphold his thesis that Stein’s ontology avoids hierarchy by foregrounding the relationalities within being and between being and meaning? Stein’s own answer is reminiscent of theological mysteries:
We can only conclude that everything finite – its quid as well as its being – must be predetermined as being-in-God, because both [principles] come from him. The final cause of all being and quiddity must however be both in perfect unity. (111, fn3, citing Stein, EeS)
More compelling is Gricoski’s account of how Stein takes herself to have overcome not only the intrusion of hierarchy into her adaptations of ontological categories but also the problems of Aristotelian teleology. While the suggestion that every object has meaning which it unfolds is undeniably reminiscent of a form-matter ontology of substances, Gricoski persuasively proposes that Stein balances the priority of actual being in its closeness to God with the argument that essential being is prior to actual being insofar as actual being aims at a goal, and thus at the rest represented by essential being. While essentialities bear the meaning of finite beings, those meanings can only be unfolded by finite beings; further, since being and meaning are correlative and not reducible to one another, there are no unfolded essentialities waiting in some metaphysical realm to be unfolded into being. This delicately contrived equilibrium indicates the scale of the challenge inherent in Stein’s project of articulating a Thomist phenomenology.
In Chapter Six Gricoski moves to explore the implications of Stein’s posited mode of actual being in relation to meaning. The unfolding of essential, atemporal structures of meaning in temporal finite being is characterised as “an ontological ‘conversion’ or ‘translation’” (129). On this picture, the essences of existent things are properly understood as unfoldings of meaning, such that existence realises an “irreducible” relationality of co-dependence between being and meaning in the ontologically distinct domains of essential, actual and mental. Unfolding emerges as a self-relation in which being and meaning transcend themselves both within each ontological domain and beyond any one domain. Unfolding reveals both the limitations and the powers of actual being, which Gricoski characterises in terms of deficit and surplus: deficit, in that the temporal existence of an actual object can only partially or inadequately unfold its essence, but surplus in that Stein insists on the “ontological brilliance” of actuality, without which essence cannot be realised. Indeed, according to Gricoski, actual beings represent for Stein “a leap of transcendence”: an enacting in which essence retains its essentiality even while becoming actual and in which the actual qua activity also participates in the eternity of essence. This relation of temporal, changing existence to essence’s atemporality and intransience renders existent things intelligible, capable of bearing meaning.
The complexity of this parsing of the relations among different elements in Stein’s ontology is reflected in the following two chapters, which are perhaps less successful than others in the book. Chapter 7, Matter and Meaning, presents a detailed exposition of Stein’s explorations of the relation between form and matter. Gricoski seeks to defend Stein against interpretations which take her to prioritise essence over actuality, but this defence is only partially persuasive. The challenge, as Gricoski acknowledges, is that the tensions between Stein’s phenomenology and her later Thomism are not always fully reconcilable. This chapter effectively shows how Stein’s phenomenological focus on the uncovering of meaning through essences reads into her commitment to articulating a hylomorphism which synthesises immanent and transcendent (Aristotelian and Platonic) concepts of form and in which form and matter are reciprocal, co-sustaining aspects of actuality. However, while Gricoski sees unfolding as the key to appreciating how this works out in Stein’s ontology, it is not clear that he has defeated suggestions that form takes priority over matter, or essence over existence, as a source of meaning. This difficulty is reiterated in Chapter 8, Material Beings, in which Gricoski seeks to illustrate the workings of Stein’s hylomorphism in “case studies” of the unfolding of material things of different kinds.
The case studies demonstrate the sheer intricacy of Stein’s ontology and the complexities involved in using it to illuminate the meanings of phenomena – it is tempting to wonder whether Stein’s work shows the prudence of Husserl’s strategey of epochē towards ontological questions. Gricoski is diligent in drawing the different levels and elements of Stein’s treatments of essence and being into his case studies, perhaps at the expense of a full exposition of his own thesis that her ontology is ultimately relational, based in unfolding. To be sure, the examples of organic beings have unfolding baked into their descriptions, but this is hardly surprising given the Aristotelian roots of Stein’s hylomorphism. More insightfully, Gricoski elaborates unfolding as a relational term in that material beings of all kinds depend on external beings and essential structures in order to accomplish their unfolding: the nourishment that living things require for their development; the openness to meaning that enables emotional and intellectual experience and willful acting; the processes communication and interactions which generate fuller unfolding of meaning in all beings involved in them. This seems quite true to Stein’s emphasis on the exteriority in which spirit transcends itself and in which all meaning, knowledge and creativity reside, and it would have been good to see more clearly how Gricoski’s own thought develops the insights gleaned from his exegetical work.
In addressing the mode of mental being in Chapter Nine, Gricoski touches on one of the most interesting aspects of Stein’s philosophy, the ontological characterisation of concepts, creativity and knowing. The medium of mind, he proposes, exhibits unfolding analogously to the other spheres of being:
Between an actual thing and my knowledge of it, a gap or discrepancy necessarily emerges. This discrepancy likewise reveals the dynamic process of unfolding. (196)
The discrepancies alluded to here relate to given meaning given and acquired meaning, and themselves underlie familiar mental processes of experience, concept formation, creative thinking and so forth. In each case, meaning qua acquired unfolds relative to meaning qua given, as being unfolds relative to essence: that is, into something which only partially resembles or manifests the original. Gricoski reads Stein as holding that such gaps in meaning reveal that essence and being cannot be identical, and argues that their persistence through the different layers of Stein’s ontology points to both correlational unfolding and transcendence as intrinsic features of it.
It is not clear, however, that Gricoski does full justice to Stein’s philosophy here. While epistemologically Stein certainly speaks of a “discrepancy” of knowledge relative to meaning, of knowledge “lagging behind”, ontologically she imparts a greater reciprocity to the unfolding of mental being:
Mental being is unfolding in multiple senses: the original genesis of genuine mental constructs is as temporal as the thinking action through which they were constructed. The ‘finished’ structures have something of the timelessness of the beings according to which they were constructed, and in which they were predetermined as ‘possible’.” (200, citing Stein, EeS 285)
While Gricoski recognises this additional feature of mental being to some extent, he relates this primarily to the primacy of human minds and the intellectual capacity associated with spirit. This seems like a missed opportunity to further develop his insight of the significance of relationality in Stein’s philosophy, since the mental realm brings into relations of unfolding beings which otherwise – that is, in their actual or material existence – are not related.
The culmination of Being Unfolded comes in Chapter Ten, Unfolding, Analogy and Transcendence, where Gricoski lays out the motivation for his project of attributing to Stein an ontology of unfolding:
By unfolding, being ‘becomes’ meaningful, and meaning ‘becomes’ real. Even if being and meaning are considered analytically separable, then each ‘gains’ something in the process of unfolding…[T]he being/meaning dependent pair itself authentically ‘gains’ something by unfolding itself or being unfolded. Unfolding creates surplus even as it causes deficits.
In Stein, then Gricoski discerns an ontology of dynamism, (non-spatial) expansion and creativity. Stein’s allusions to ‘unfolding’ offer a means of elaborating this insight; and if the allusions sometimes sound metaphorical then on Stein’s own terms that is no reason for not taking ‘unfolding’ seriously:
The metaphorical figures of speech of our language express an inner correlation between the different genera of beings and thus also a correlation with the divine archetype. (176, citing Stein, EeS 213)
If unfolding pervades all the layers and entities of Stein’s ontology for Gricoski, then so does analogy, in that he takes analogy to be the relation between that which unfolds and that which is unfolded. Similarly, from the pervasiveness of analogy is inferred a universal transcendence which occurs as beings come into relation with other beings or with aspects of themselves. Transcendence and analogy are both constitutive and characteristic of unfolding: “Unfolding appears now as both transcending difference by maintaining similarity and creating difference by analogous similarity” (246).
While Gricoski’s project is firmly rooted in Stein’s ontology, the book could have benefited from greater acknowledgement of her philosophy of emotion and empathy, and from consideration of how that earlier work may have influenced her unique and productive perspective on Thomist metaphysics. If unfolding is relational, as Gricoski persuasively argues, then relations among beings will be of as much ontological significance as intra-being relations. Indeed, Gricoski emphasises that, in Stein’s ontology, “relationality respects difference in order to enable mutual enrichment” (p58). In Being Unfolded, however, there is a great deal more self-unfolding tha being-unfolded. This is a regrettable gap in Gricoski’s treatment of Stein’s philosophy, especially since one of his concerns is to demonstrate continuity between Stein’s academic phenomenology and her later work in Thomist metaphysics. Stein’s own life offers a stark illustration of just how significant are relations among beings for opening up or circumscribing the possibilities of unfolding. Nonetheless, Being Unfolded is a lucid and valuable work of scholarship. Despite the technicalities of Stein’s philosophy it is also engaging and readable for the non-specialist, offering an intriguing introduction to a relatively neglected twentieth-century thinker. Gricoski has demonstrated good grounds for taking unfolding as a pivotal element in Stein’s ontology and an ineliminable force in the creation of meaning.
This is the kind of book one hates to review. Not because it is bad; it is an excellent work, rich and profound and relevant at least to: the scholar of half a dozen areas in the history of philosophy (from medieval through early modern, modern, Kant, post-Kantian, to the early analytic philosophy), the philosopher of language, the metaphysician, the philosopher of logic, and the epistemologist. But it is complex – much more complex even than your average 1069-page philosophy collection. Perhaps this is to be expected: one way to think of The Logical Alien is as a commentary (on steroids) of James Conant’s 1991 “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus”, itself a long, seminal, profound and – dealing as it does with history and theory and some of the heavyweights of the last five hundred years of philosophy – multitasking paper. The papers collected in the book are written for one third by different authors engaging with Conant’s 1991 paper, and for two thirds by Conant engaging with his former self and with each of the other contributors, occasionally with more than one at the same time. The parts of the book end up being so interconnected at so many levels, that it takes several readings just to find one’s way through it – never mind figuring out what to make of even one of the numerous debates involved or convey it to prospective readers with something resembling accuracy. Yet the book is as difficult to review as it is exhilarating to read. Once you get hooked up (and you do get hooked up), you won’t be finished for a long time.
The central question is taken from Frege and is simple enough: Is there such a thing as thought which is logical but whose logical laws are different from, and incompatible with, ours? Put this way, there would seem to be an equally simple answer: yes. Consider systems with different and incompatible rules of inference: in a classical setting, Excluded Middle and Full Double Negation are laws; in an intuitionistic setting, they aren’t – yet nobody from either camp seriously thinks that the other just isn’t thinking logically. After all, intuitionistic and classical logic are equiconsistent (a proposition is classically provable if and only if its double negation is intuitionistically provable). Of course there is a qualification to make in this case: some logical laws are in common. For example, Non-Contradiction – which in any case seems to be needed for concepts like ‘consistency’, ‘incompatibility’ and ‘disagreement’ to even make sense. What about, then, thought which shares none of our logical laws – not even Non-Contradiction? Conant’s original paper, and much of the discussion in the book, revolve around this insight: that since at least some of what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, thought which does not conform to them is in fact not thought at all. In one form or another is attributed by Conant, past and present, to Frege, Wittgenstein and Putnam (or Putnam at some point of his career).
The insight – which we shall call the Insight – develops in interesting ways. Consider the following way of putting the central question: Are the laws of logic necessary? If the Insight is correct, then, one might say, they are. Not so – at least on the view Conant and his critics are interested in. Since what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, logically alien thought is an impossibility. Discourse about it, then, is what Conant calls philosophical fiction (768). The contrast is with empirical fiction. The latter invites us to contemplate a scenario which happens not to be the case, but which ‘falls within the realm of the possible’. The former invites us to contemplate something which is not even possible. So that in philosophical fiction we ‘only apparently grasp what it would be for [the scenario] to obtain: its possibility can only seemingly be grasped in thought’. But, the view concludes, if logically alien thought is philosophical fiction, then the project of establishing its possibility or impossibility is in fact a non-starter: for in order to affirm or deny that logically alien thought is possible, or even ask whether it is possible, we first need to grasp ‘it’ – the thought with content ‘logically alien thought’ – but that is exactly what we cannot do. Far from being able to answer the question, we seem to have no question to answer. It looked as though we had one; but it turns out we never did. It was a mock-question. Hence, for example and according to Conant (past and present), the austere – non-mystical – Wittgensteinian stance at the end of the Tractatus: the necessity of logic isn’t a question which logic cannot answer; it is a non-question. Hence, too, the Wittgensteinian idea that philosophy should be conceived of not as doctrine, not even as research, but as something called ‘elucidation’: the activity of recognising that some or all of what we take to be profound philosophical problems are in fact simply nonsense.
In the original 1991 paper, Conant follows the development of this line of thought – call it elucidativism about logic – from Descartes through Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant, Frege, to Wittgenstein and Putnam. He does not defend elucidativism, but he clearly favours it. In the first part of The Logical Alien, his critics either follow up on 1991-Conant’s historical claims in the paper (which is included in the book), or take issue with theoretical claims, or both. The following is an overview of the contributions. A.W. Moore’s is about Descartes and what he ought to have thought about modality. In particular, whereas 1991-Conant claims that Descartes’ official view was that necessary truths (amongst which are the laws of logic) are contingently necessary, Moore argues that statements to that effect to be found in Descartes are aberrations rather than expressions of the official view. Matthew Boyle’s chapter is about Kant’s and Frege’s conceptions of logic and of the formal. Arata Hamawaki’s paper is about a distinction between Cartesian and Kantian skepticism. I have to say that, while the former contributions are excellent reads, I found this one rather difficult to follow and, despite the theme, somewhat underwhelming. Barry Stroud’s paper is the skeptical contribution: historically, doubts are cast on 1991-Conant’s reading of Frege; theoretically, issue is taken with the notion that necessary truths are apt to being explained. Peter Sullivan objects to 1991-Conant’s view of Frege, and argues that the latter is more Kantian than is usually thought. The contribution also contains a very good summary of the dialectic of the 1991 article (in case you struggle to follow it). Along with Moore’s, perhaps the best of the (mainly) historical contributions (to my taste). Martin Gustafsson and Jocelyn Benoist concentrate on post-tractarian Wittgenstein: the former to examine the relations between language use and rule-following, the latter to show how Wittgenstein’s treatment of private languge is an exercise in elucidation. Finally, Charles Travis’ chapter, the longest, discusses Frege, Wittgenstein and the heart of the elucidative enterprise. Undoubtedly the most important of the critical essays. I agree with many points he makes, and I will be saying something similar in the remainder of this review – but from a very different perspective. The second part of The Logical Alien consists of present-day Conant discussing both his 1991 paper and the critics’ contributions. I see no point in saying anything here, except that he (and probably the editor, Sophia Miguens) did an excellent job of making the Conant’s own chapters a single narrative rather than a collection of discrete replies.
Now, upon my first reading of the 1991 paper, and on every subsequent reread, and indeed as I was ploughing through the book, I thought it a shame that there was (virtually) no reference to the phenomenological tradition at all. This is not to say that there should have been: as far as I can tell, phenomenology has never been among Conant’s interests, and that this should be reflected in a book about his work is, after all, only natural. On the other hand, at least some of the debates in The Logical Alien might have benefited from a phenomenological voice; and others are relevant to discussions within the phenomenological tradition. And since I am writing this review for a journal called Phenomenological Reviews, I will allow myself to expand on the above and bring phenomenology into the melee.
I have already said what the central view at stake in the book is: that the question as to whether there can be logically alien thought is a non-question, because its formulation involves something akin to a cognitive illusion. The further question, however, is: Why is grasping a thought about an impossibility itself impossible? Why, in other words, should we buy the claim that in philosophical fiction, as Conant says, we only seem to grasp a thought but we really do not? Why is the thought that there may be logically alien thought, despite appearances, no thought at all?
The reason lies in the following view, endorsed at lest to some extent by Frege, embraced by tractarian Wittgenstein and assumed in Conant and his critics’ discussions: To grasp a thought is to grasp what the world must be like for the thought to be true and what the world must be like for the thought to be false. A thought for which either of these things cannot be done is a thought for which, as Frege would put it, the question of truth does not genuinely arise. It is then not a thought but a mock-thought. This is the basis of Wittgenstein’s notion that tautologies and contradictions have no content: for we just cannot imagine what the world what have to be like for tautologies to be false or contradictions true. For all the depth and complexity of the debates which Conant’s 1991 paper has sparked, and which are well represented in The Logical Alien, if what we may call the Assumption falls it is hard to see how the rest might stand. For if grasping the content of a thought is decoupled from grasping its truth-(and-falsity-)conditions, or from even bringing truth into the picture, then even if philosophically-fictitious scenarios are impossible we can still grasp them – if only to deem them impossible. Thoughts about them are not mock-thoughts; or, if they are, they are so in a weaker sense than Conant seems to envisage – too weak for the work he wants mock-thoughts to do.
Conant is aware of this. In his reply to Stroud he highlights how the 1991 paper pinpoints a tension in Frege between 1) his elucidative treatment of the logical alien in the foreword to Grundgesetze, and 2) his commitment to the idea that tautologies and axioms are true. If the Insight and the Assumption are true, then 1) and 2) are (or very much seem to be) incompatible. Conant suggests that the ‘deeper wisdom’ to be found in Frege, which is also the strand of Frege’s thought which Wittgenstein develops, is 1). The claim that axioms and tautologies, despite having negations which are absurd, are true is treated by Conant as stemming from Frege’s conception of content (thought) as ‘explanatorily prior’ to judgement. So that it is only if we think that the content of a judgement pre-exists the judgement that we can take judgements about impossible scenarios to have a content. Otherwise we would have to say: there is no judgement to be made here, and therefore there is no content.
I will not go into the minutiae – or even the nitty-gritty – of Fregean scholarship. But surely the move only pushes the problem a step further. Grant that judgeable content should not be thought of as explanatorily prior (whatever that means exactly) to judgement, the question is: Why buy the claim that we cannot judge about impossibilia – not even to say that they are impossibilia? If we can, there is judgement; and therefore there is content. Are there views on the market which do not take judgeable content as explanatorily prior to judgement, and according to which we can and do judge about impossibilia?
Husserl held just such a view throughout his career. There are several ways to see this. Begin with the Investigations. There, meanings are ideal objects (universals) instantiated by the act-matter of classes of meaning-intentions. The latter are intentional acts through which a subject intends, or refers to, an object. Their matter is, with some oversimplification, their content. Notice that the content of a meaning-intention is not the meaning: without an act there is no content – though there is a (perhaps uninstantiated) meaning. So even in the early Husserl, despite his ostensible Platonism, it is not obvious that judgeable content is prior to, or even independent of, judgement. In the fourth Logical Investigation, a distinction is made between nonsensical (Unsinnig) and absurd (Widersinnig) meanings. A nonsensical meaning is a non-meaning: an illegal combination of simpler meanings (illegal, that is, with respect to a certain set of a priori laws). A syntactical analogue would be a non-well-formed string of symbols: ‘But or home’. So, when it comes to nonsensical meanings, there just is no content (no act-matter). An absurd meaning, by contrast, is a (formally or materially) contradictory one: ‘Round square’. In this case there are both a meaning and an act matter; it’s just that to intentional acts whose matter or content instantiates the absurd meaning there cannot correspond an intuition – intuition being the sort of experience which acquaint us with objects: perception, memory, imagination. So we cannot see or remember or imagine round squares, but we can think about them, wonder whether they exist, explain why they cannot exist, and so on. Moreover, the very impossibility of intuitively fulfilling an absurd meaning-intention is, in Husserl, itself intuitively constituted and attested: attempting to intuit the absurd meaning leads to what Husserl calls a synthesis of conflict.
Say, then, that whilst engaging in philosophical fiction we try to make sense of logically alien thought, and we fail. This failure consists, in Husserlian phenomenology, in the arising of a conflict in our intuition, as a consequence of which we deem the scenario impossible. In the Husserlian framework this failure does not entail that there was never any thinking taking place with the content ‘logically alien thought’: it was ‘merely signitive’ thinking – thinking to which, a priori, no intuition can correspond – but contentful thinking nonetheless. We cannot intuit the impossible, but we can think about it.
So in Husserl the impossibility – the philosophical-fictitiousness – of logically alien thought does not entail that, when we think of logically alien thought, we only seem to do so. When we think of logically alien thought, we actually do think about logically alien thought; and one of the things we reckon when we think about logically alien thought is that it is impossible. All of this, notice, without appealing to the explanatory priority of judgeable content over judgement – which is what Conant finds disagreeable in Frege. Husserl, then, seems to be in a position to agree with Conant that judgeable content doesn’t come before judgement, and yet disagree with Conant that there is any wisdom whatever in Frege’s elucidative treatment of the logical alien.
All this is reflected in Husserl’s view of logic. From the Investigations throughout his career, Husserl maintained that logic comes in layers. In the official systematisation (Formal and Transcendental Logic, §§ 12-20) these are: 1) the theory of the pure form of judgements; 2) the logic of non-contradiction; 3) truth-logic. The first of the three is what in the fourth Investigation was called ‘grammar of pure logic’, and its job is to sort the meaningless – combinations of meaning which do not yield a new meaning – from the meaningful. It is the job of the logic of non-contradiction to sort, within the realm of the meaningful, the absurd meanings from the non-absurd. It is debatable whether truth is operative in this second layer of logic; I understand Husserl as denying that it is. But in any case, truth is not operative in the first layer. When Conant and his critics discuss the laws of logic, they take them to be such that, first, they are constitutive of thought, and second, truth plays a crucial role in them; and they take thoughts which misbehave with respect to truth, such as tautologies and contradictions, not to be thoughts at all (giving rise to tension in Frege). From a Husserlian perspective, what makes a thought a thought is not the laws of truth, but the laws of the grammar of meanings. Truth has nothing to do with it – nor, as a consequence, with what it is to be a thought.
The second part of Conant’s reply to Stroud (roughly, from p. 819 onwards) connects the above to another phenomenologically relevant strand of The Logical Alien: Kant and the project of a transcendental philosophy. The starting point is the difference between Frege’s approach on the one hand, and Kant’s and Wittgenstein’s on the other. The issue is, again, the central one of the relations between thoughts and judgements. Conant’s aim is to show that Frege can conceive of thought as separate from judgement – of content as distinct from the recognition of the truth of content – only by committing himself to the following conjunctive account: whenever an agent S judges that p, a) S thinks that p, and b) S recognises that p is true. These are two distinct acts on the part of S. This is contrasted with Kant’s (and, later on, Wittgenstein’s) disjunctive approach: there is a fundamental case of judgement in which S simply judges that p; and there are derived cases, different in kind from the former, in which S entertains the thought that p without recognising its truth – for example, in what Kant calls problematic judgements (‘Possibly, p’). Conant does not seem to provide a reason why we should be disjunctivists rather than conjunctivists – other than the claim that conjunctivism is at odds with the wider Kantian transcendental project. The implication being that if one buys into the latter at all, then one ought to be a Kantian rather than a Fregean when it comes to the relations between content and judgement.
What is, for Conant, Kant’s transcendental project? This is spelled out in the excellent reply to Hamawaki and Stroud. To be a Kantian is first of all to put forward transcendental arguments. According to Conant, a transcendental argument is something close to an elucidative treatment of what he calls Kantian Skepticism: the worry, not that the external world may not be as experienced or not exist all, but that we may not be able to ‘make sense of the idea that our experience is so much as able to afford us with the sort of content that is able to present the world as seeming to be a certain way’ (762). Kant’s way to resolve the worry is to show that the scenario in which our experience is not able to present the world at all is philosophical fiction: if we probe the Kantian-skeptical worry enough, we find it unintelligible.
I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as endorsing elucidativism – that is, I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as making the final step: if the scenario in which experience does not present us with a world is unintelligible, then so is the scenario in which it does. But he does say that this ‘is arguably the closest Kant ever comes to an extended philosophical engagement with something approximating the question of the intelligibility of the idea of a form of cognition that is logically alien to ours’ (772). If one is a transcendentalist, in any case, one has to put forward transcendental arguments; and if Conant is right in his reading of what a (Kantian) transcendental argument is, then a transcendentalist needs to be in a position to reason from the unintelligibility of a scenario to the unintelligibility of the question as to whether the scenario is possible. But to do so – recall the (alleged) tension between Fregean conjunctivism and the Kantian project – a transcendentalist ought to avoid seriously distinguishing between content and judgement.
Another strand of Conant’s discussion of Kant, and at some level a consequence of the nature of transcendental arguments as described above, is the recognition that any account of our cognitive capacity must be given from within the exercise of our cognitive capacity – so that no account of the latter can be given in non-cognitive terms. Conant calls this ‘the truth in idealism’ (776). And this is what, for Conant, ultimately is to be a Kantian: to pursuse a philosophical project in the light of the truth in idealism. Needless to say, Wittgenstein counts as a Kantian par excellence; and so does the elucidativist half of Frege.
The phenomenologically alert reader will not have missed the fact that the truth in idealism is in fact a central tenet of Husserl’s post-Investigations philosophy. Suffice it to quote the title of Section 104 of Formal and Transcendental Logic: “Transcendental phenomenology as self-explication on the part of transcendental subjectivity”. I am less sure about Conant’s reading of transcendental arguments: granted that they do involve the recognition of the unintelligibility of skeptical scenarios, it is unclear why that should not simply be thought of as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, or perhaps of a quasi-aristotelian elenchos, rather than as something pointing to elucidation. Be that as it may, Husserl’s mature philosophy is a view in which the truth in idealism is preserved and in which, however, elucidativism is avoided – because even in the mature Husserl absurd thoughts are contentful.
Consider the relation between content and judgement. In the mature Husserl the interdependence of content and the mental is reasserted and strengthened with the notion of meaning as noema, introduced alongside the old Platonistic one in the 1908 Lectures on the Theory of Meaning, and center-stage in the first volume of Ideas in 1913. The main difference here is that the noema, one of whose component is intentional content, exists only insofar as the relevant mental act – in our case, the relevant thinking episode – does. As to the relations of noema and judgement, Husserl does think that it is possible to thematise a propositional content without judging that it is true. Yet this is claimed within a broader story – genetic phenomenology – of how more sophisticated intentional performances, together with their productions (including propositional contents), arise from more fundamental ones. The chief text here is Experience and Judgement. So Husserl could be said to hold something like what Conant calls the disjunctive account: the act of merely entertaining a thought is derivative of the act of straightforwardly judging. But this is not to say that one cannot merely entertain a thought! It simply means that we would not be able to mereley entertain thoughts if we were not able to straightforwardly judge. Indeed, for Husserl the existence of a noema such as, say, ‘ABCD is a round square’, while dependent on the relevant meaning-intention, is independent of the possibility of there being round squares at all. We can and do entertain the thought whether round squares exist, ask ourselves whether they do, and judge that they don’t. (The simplicity of the example might lead to error: it might appear as though, in this case, phenomenologically or introspectively, there were no distinction between entertaining and judging, for it is immediately clear that there are no round squares. All you have to do is try with more covert absurdities; to take a pertinent example, Frege’s very own Basic Law V.)
It really does seem to be a phenomenological fact that content and judgement are distinct. As the Husserlian case shows, one can maintain that that is so while still allowing the distinction to be derived rather than fundamental. Not only this: one can maintain the distinction, thereby blocking elucidativism, and still subscribe to the truth in idealism and be counted as a Kantian by Conant’s own standards. Or so, at any rate, it seems.
So being a Husserlian may be one way of being a Kantian without being an elucidativist. I hope it is and I hope there are others. Elucidativism usually divides people into three categories: those who buy it, those who don’t, and those who dismiss it as empty gobbledegook. I don’t dismiss it – but I don’t buy it either. For example, the argument for it discussed, and indeed put forward, by Conant seems to me to prove too much. This is a point Stroud makes in his contribution. In the reply, Conant is, I think, too concerned to show Stroud’s (alleged) misunderstandings to take his commonsense worries seriously. Regardless of that dialectic, consider any proof by contradiction in mathematics: we set up a proposition, we show that the proposition is inconsistent (either with itself or with other assumptions), we conclude that the negation of the proposition is true. If the elucidativist is right, the latter step is unwarranted: if a proposition turns out to be nonsense (which it does, being a proposition about an impossible scenario) then its denial is also nonsensical. So, if the view is correct, a large part of mathematics either is merely a cognitive illusion or, at best, is an exercise in elucidation. And yet the proposition, say, that there are infinitely many primes – whose negation is absurd in the same sense in which logically alien thought is – seems to be a perfectly legitimate proposition. So does the question whether there is a greatest prime, even though, it turns out, it makes no sense to suppose that there is. For some of us, intuitions in this respect are just too strong. In comparison, the elucidativist manoeuvre really seems sleight of hand of sorts.
Of course, even we must bow to argument. And in any case, since the stakes could not be higher, high-quality discussion is always welcome. The Logical Alien provides plenty – as I said, enough to go on for a long time. That is one reason to recommend the book – eve if, like me, you are not in the elucidativist camp. Another reason, relevant to the phenomenologically-minded reader, is that there seems to me to be a family resemblance, however faint, between elucidativism and certain strands of the phenomenological tradition broadly construed: Deleuze’s operation in Logic of Sense, Derrida with his différance, Sartre’s manoeuvres in Critique of Dialectical Reason. The Logical Alien might add something meaningful to those discussions, too.
 J. Conant. 1991. “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus” Philosophical Topics 20 (1): 115-180.
 Part II, Section X, “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution of the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782. Arabic numerals in parentheses in the main text refer to pages in The Logical Alien.
 I say ‘assumed’, but it is in fact at the heart of Travis’ piece. Sullivan discusses it, too.
 Part II, Section XI, “Reply to Stroud on Kant and Frege”: 783-829.
 For an excellent overview of Husserl’s philosphy of language and its development, see Simons 1995.
 Part II, Section X: “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution to the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782.
 Part I, “Logical Aliens and the ‘Ground’ of Logical Necessity”: 170-182.
The purpose of Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology is to study the way in which phenomenology addresses the multiple connections between normativity and meaning. The content of the book is based on a fundamental presupposition, namely, that the structure of meaning is normative. This thesis is grounded on the phenomenological studies started by Husserl and in this spirit the book explores from different points of view the structure of meaning and its conditions of possibility.
Since the authors of this book attribute this thesis directly to the views of Steven Crowell, all the articles present themselves as an explicit dialogue with Crowell’s work, to wit, Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths Toward Transcendental Phenomenology (2001), and Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (2013). The book includes then an afterword with Crowell’s with his comments and replies.
For this review, I focus on the direct objections to Crowell’s philosophical positions and his attempts at answering them. For doing so, I follow the order proposed by the editors of the book. The book is divided into five sections: (1) “Normativity, Meaning and the Limits of Phenomenology”, (2) “Sources of Normativity”, (3) “Normativity and Nature”, (4) “Attuned Agency”, and (5) “Epistemic Normativity”. At the beginning of each section in this review, I offer a brief summary of the main ideas in each section of the book and then a brief commentary on each single chapter.
I. Normativity, Meaning, and the Limits of Phenomenology
This section is focused on the link between the question of normativity and that of meaning as it is addressed in phenomenology. Thus, normativity of meaning appears to be one of the main questions of phenomenology. However, several questions remain open which the following articles try to solve. First of all, the concept of norm can be understood in different ways and opens thus the question to the possibility of different normative structures for different meaningful experiences. This question is raised by Sara Heinämaa in her article which opens this section. A second question is raised by Leslie MacAvoy regarding the legitimacy of considering the structure of meaning as fundamentally normative, arguing that this would go against Husserl’s virulent critique of psychologism. She thus distinguishes the validity of meaning from its eventual manifestation for us as an ought or as a claim. The third one is raised by Zahavi, Cerbone, and Kavka. They challenge the idea in itself that the normativity of meaning is one of the main concerns of phenomenology. Thus, some realms such as metaphysics (Zahavi), epistemology (Cerbone), or philosophy of religion (Kavka) seem to be out of reach for the phenomenological method understood as a “metaphysically-neutral reflective analysis of the normative space of meaning” (Burch, Marsh & McMullin, 2).
- Constitutive, Prescriptive, Technical, or Ideal? On the Ambiguity of the Term “Norm”, Sara Heinämaa
The starting point of this article is the claim that all intentionality, from a phenomenological point of view, has a normative structure, because all intentionality can be fulfilled or disappointed. Thus, every intentional object is a norm that can be fulfilled or disappointed. Heinämaa calls this type of norm a “standard”. However, following Husserl’s distinction between interested perception and thing-appearances, she shows that the intentional object as norm can have a second meaning, which is an unachievable goal and thus also an optimum. Indeed, thing-appearances can never be fully given to us in all their richness.
This polysemy of the notion of norm leads Heinämaa to analyze its different meanings by drawing on the work of the logician and philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright Norm and Action: A Logical Enquiry (1963). Wright himself takes over a distinction which he finds in the works of Max Scheler and Nicolai Hartmann, namely that between norm as actuality, which is at stake for what Husserl calls practical intentionality, and norm as ideality, which is essential for axiological intentionality. This distinction corresponds to Scheler’s distinctions between “Tunsollen” and “Seinsollen” and between “normative ought” (normatives Sollen) and “ideal ought” (ideales Sollen). The normativity of doing, which is a “normative ought”, is based on the concept of rule-following while the normativity of being, which is a “ideal ought” is based on the concept of seeking to achieve something. Both types of normativity should be kept strictly distinguished. Thus, although both types of normativity are goal-oriented, ideal norms “are not motivational causes for our actions but are conditions that define ways of being” (Heinämaa, 20).
Heinämaa applies this distinction to the question of the normativity of intentionality by arguing, against Crowell, that both Heidegger and Husserl, share the idea that norms of actions but also of thinking are founded in ideal norms. Thus, one of the roles of phenomenology is “to illuminate the fundamental role that ideal principles of being have in both epistemic and practical normativity” (Heinämaa, 23-24).
Steven Crowell insists, however, on the fact that the concept of ideales Sollen is not a proper “ought” but a “should” in order to preserve the clear distinction between normative and theoretical disciplines.
2. The Space of Meaning, Phenomenology, and the Normative Turn, Leslie MacAvoy
The leading question of this article concerns the proper object of phenomenology: is it meaning or normativity? First, Leslie MacAvoy shows how phenomenology, in its concern with meaning, takes over the neo-Kantian question of validity (Geltung). The neo-Kantians understand the validity of a logical law in terms of normativity, contrary to Husserl and Heidegger, and this explains the concern of this article.
Husserl argues in the Logical Investigations that logical laws are not normative because they are not prescriptive, and consequently that they are not practical rules but theoretical laws. Although these laws have normative power for our thought, normativity is not part of their content. In that way, what is opposed to the law of nature is not, contrary to what neo-Kantians thought, a normative law, but an ideal law. Therefore, contrary to Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology distinguishes validity from normativity. According to a phenomenological criticism, “the phenomenological critique of the neo-Kantian notion of validity as normativity transforms the space of validity into a space of meaning” (MacAvoy, 41). What is thus at stake are not the laws that “hold” but the intelligible structures of content. According to MacAvoy those structures are a priori and it is due to them that sense or meaning presents to us as valid. Here MacAvoy refers to Heidegger’s theory of the fore-structures of meaning as a model to understand this a priori, but she concludes, nevertheless, that phenomenology should investigate the sense of this a priori with more depth. All in all, while MacAvoy agrees with Crowell’s claim that phenomenology opens us the “space of meaning”, against Crowell’s Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, she disagrees with the idea that this space is normative.
3. Mind, Meaning, and Metaphysics, Another Look, Dan Zahavi
Zahavi’s concern in this article is the role of metaphysics in Husserl’s transcendental (and not early) phenomenology. Is his transcendental phenomenology metaphysically committed or does the epoché on the contrary entail metaphysical neutrality? By developing his argument, Zahavi critically assesses Crowell’s claim that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is metaphysically neutral. Crowell’s argument is that phenomenology is not interested into metaphysics but into “understanding the sense of reality and objectivity” (Zahavi, 50).
To this argument Zahavi presents two counterarguments. First of all, the fact that phenomenology is not primarily interested into metaphysics does not entail the fact that it does not have metaphysically implications. Secondly, Zahavi puts forward texts of Husserl where he explicitly claims the metaphysical commitment of phenomenology. In the Cartesian Meditations Husserl states that “phenomenology indeed excludes every naïve metaphysics that operates with absurd things in themselves, but does not exclude metaphysics as such” (Husserl 1950, 38-39). In order to understand the meaning of this metaphysical commitment of phenomenology, Zahavi distinguishes between three definitions of metaphysics: (1) “a theoretical investigation of the fundamental building blocks, of the basic “stuff” of reality” (Zahavi, 51); (2) “a philosophical engagement with question of facticity, birth, death, fate immortality, the existence of God, etc.” (Zahavi, 52); (3) “a fundamental reflection on and concern with the status and being of reality. Is reality mind-dependent or not, and if yes, in what manner?” (ibid). Zahavi further argues, that it is the second and most of all the third definition of metaphysics that is of interest for Husserl’s phenomenology.
Zahavi’s argument, drawing on an argument presented already by Fink in an article from 1939, “The Problem of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl”, is that transcendental phenomenology does not investigate the structures and meaning of a mental realm, but of the “real world” and of its modes of givenness (Zahavi, 59). Similarly, Fink insists on the distinction between the psychological noema and the transcendental noema, which is “being itself” (Fink 1981, 117). The distinction between noema and the object itself is not valid anymore within the transcendental attitude, but makes sense only within the psychological one.
To Crowell’s argument that Husserl is not dealing with being or reality itself but with its meaning for us, Zahavi answers that transcendental phenomenology entails a metaphysical claim about the existence of consciousness. However, the question remains open regarding the metaphysical commitment to the existence of a being which is independent from our consciousness, and this question is raised for example in Quentin Meillassoux’ book After Finitude, in which the author claims that phenomenology is unable to think being itself, independent from its correlation to consciousness. Of course, one could argue that Husserl dismisses this question, which he identifies as the Kantian question about things in themselves, as being absurd. However, perhaps we should investigate more why this question is considered being absurd by Husserl: is it not precisely because, according to him, it makes no sense to consider a being without presupposing a consciousness for whom this being has a meaning? There is, according to me, something very intriguing about this argument, in that it cannot be classified neither as metaphysical, since it does not claim that being is ontologically dependent on our consciousness, nor as semantically epistemic, since it does not claim that there is something as a neutral being which is then given to us through meaning. It would be interesting to, first, identify what type of argument Husserl actually uses here in order to deepen the question regarding the metaphysical commitment of phenomenology.
Opposing Zahavi’s argument, Crowell maintains his position concerning the metaphysical neutrality of phenomenology, which is guaranteed, following him, by the distinction between the existence of some entities, which is mind-independent, and the access to their reality, which is possible only for a conscience. Accordingly, however, this distinction still leaves the question unanswered concerning the metaphysical status of this reality to which we have access, since it still does not say how far this reality, as we have access to it, is mind-dependent.
4. Ground, Background, and Rough Ground, Dreyfus, Wittgenstein, and Phenomenology, David R. Cerbone
The aim of this article is to challenge Dreyfus’ interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of background as the understanding of being. According to Dreyfus, there is something as a background for our understanding which is there and that we can reach. Or, Cerbone argues for a deflationary sense of background which entails that there is no something as an ultimate background for our understanding, but always a changing and indeterminate background that we can never reach as such. Every time we try to explicate this background we always remain in his space. Thus, this background has an “illusory depth” (Cerbone, 76), since we can never get at its bottom.
In order to argue this, the author is drawing on Wittgenstein’s concept of explanation of the Philosophical Investigations. According to Wittgenstein, there is no absolute explanation of the background of the understanding, for example of the meaning of a word, but it is always relative to one specific situation and to the specific knowledge of our interlocutor. In that sense, explanations respond to a specific question or problem. They end when they fulfill that purpose.
This reassessing of the concept of background opens according to Cerbone the possibility to reassess the idea of phenomenology as infinite task. Indeed, the infinite task of phenomenology is not that of explicating the background of every understanding but that of addressing “the ongoing ethical challenge of making sense of and to one another” (ibid).
Steven Crowell objects however that Cerbone’s argument “seems to conflate the transcendental project of clarifying meaning with the mundane project of explaining some meaning by making the background explicit” (Crowell, 336). Crowell further argues that this argument makes it impossible to determine what is the world, since it is a category. Categories however are not explicated by ““digging deeper” into some specific horizon … but by phenomenological reflection on the eidetic structure of being-in-the-world” (Crowell, 337).
5. Inauthentic Theologizing and Phenomenological Method, Martin Kavka
This article examines the possibility of an authentic phenomenology of religion, which would be based on the authentic thinking of God. Martin Kavka understands here the concept of authentic thinking in the Husserlian sense in the way it is presented in the Logical Investigations, i.e. as the fulfillment of claims made in statements through the intuition of states of affairs.
Drawing on Heidegger’s analysis of Husserl’s concept of categorial intuition, from his 1963 essay “My Way to Phenomenology”, Kavka comes to the conclusion that an authentic phenomenology of the ‘inapparent’ must be possible, since categorial intuition is the intuition of an inapparent, i.e. a senseless, being. However, Kavka does not consider that God could be the object of such a phenomenology, as it is for instance in the case of Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, since religious figures such as Jesus are not fully dissimilar from the horizon of human expectations. The criterion of the phenomenon of revelation according to Marion lies precisely in its radical heterogeneity “to any conceptual scheme and horizon” (Kavka, 93); and since we could argue here that Jesus cannot precisely be simply identified to God, the question of Marion’s revelations is left open to possibility.
Following the question which Heidegger inquires in On Being and Time, Kavka asks himself what is the ground of meaning, and implicitly, if this ground can be considered as being God. He argues, following Hannah Arendt, that in any case God cannot be considered as commanding to our consciousness since this would “not lead Dasein back to itself and its own-most potentiality-for-Being” (Kavka, 90). Indeed Dasein cannot be ruled by any predetermined norm but can only respond to the call of normativity by responding for norms and making them its own.
Finally Kavka endorses Crowell’s horizontal analysis of discourse in order to explain the primacy of alterity in Levinas’ sense, suggesting perhaps that such an analysis could also be of use for an authentic phenomenology of God, but most of all, for a critical philosophy of religion.
Steven Crowell argues however that a theological phenomenology would not be a phenomenology anymore since it would go beyond the “askesis of transcendental phenomenology” (Crowell, 352) due to which phenomenological investigations cannot but remain the realm of the evidence. Ending on a Kantian note, Crowell writes: “We are finite creatures, and so meaning is finite. We can grasp the world as it is, though never as a whole; and if there is anything beyond that, it is a matter for faith, not philosophy” (ibid).
II. Sources of Normativity
This section explores the sources of normativity both from a phenomenological and from an analytical point of view. John Drummond argues, from a Husserlian perspective, that these sources lie in the teleological structure of intentionality, whereas Inga Römer highlights, from a Levinasian approach the role of the other. Finally, Irene McMullin is arguing for the plurality of these sources (first-, second-, and third-personal) highlighting an unexpected feature of normativity: gratitude.
- Intentionality and (Moral) Normativity, John Drummond
In this article John Drummond argues against Crowell’s Heideggerian approach of the sources of normativity as being pre-intentional, For John Drummond, the intentionality is a “’basic’ notion” (Drummond, 102) which can ground by itself normativity. First of all, against Crowell’s reading of Husserl according to which the pre-intentional flow of consciousness constitutes intentional acts, the author argues that this flow is also intentional but is structured by a type of intentionality which Husserl calls in On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time horizontal intentionality (Langsintentionalität), which has the specificity of not being oriented towards an object, contrary to the transverse intentionality (Querintentionalität). Thus, “intentionality … belongs primarily to mind ‘as a whole’” (Drummond, 105), whereby mind has first of all the meaning of a gerund: “mind is ‘minding’ things” (ibid).
Secondly, Drummond highlights the fact that mind pertains to a person, i.e. to a concrete social, historical, embodied subject, which is for him equivalent, just as for Crowell, to the transcendental ego. Thus normativity has to be understood as the telos of the intentional experiences of a personal subject, which is aiming to truthfulness. This truthfulness presupposes that the person is responsible for acting and leading his/her life in the light of this telos.
The author concludes that this telos governs our lives as individuals and communities. My question would be however: what allows the author to be so sure about the universality of this telos? Could we thus say that truthfulness is still the goal of a totalitarian society for instance?
Steven Crowell objects to Drummond’s argument that horizontal intentionality, although it belongs to the ground of reason, is not however “governed by a telos of reason” (Crowell, 338). He argues instead, along with Heidegger, that what clarifies intentionality is the categorial structure of “care”. Thus it is in this structure of care that normativity is ultimately grounded.
2. The Sources of Practical Normativity Reconsidered – With Kant and Levinas, Inga Römer
Just as Steven Crowell showed that there is a “line of continuity” (Römer, 120) between the phenomenology of Heidegger of Being and Time and the philosophy of Kant, Inga Römer argues in this article that there exists such a line of continuity between Levinas’ phenomenology and the thought of Kant.
First of all, she shows how Levinas’ reading of Kant evolves, from a very critical one (until the 1960s) to a positive one, especially regarding the second Critique, from the 1970s. Thus Levinas starts to consider Kantian philosophy of pure practical reason as a “philosophy of the sense beyond being, a sense that is essentially ethical” (Römer, 123). At the same time, Levinas transforms Kant’s idea of pure practical reason by anchoring pure practical reason in the desire for the infinite, by grounding the autonomy of the self in the ethically signifying call of the Other and finally by reinterpreting Kant’s idea of pure practical reason as an anarchic reason. This anarchic reason involves a tension between the claim of the Other and the claim of the third, and thus a “pure disturbance, confusion, restlessness, and refusal of synthesis.” (Römer, 125)
Secondly, Römer considers in details and criticizes Korsgaard’s and Crowell’s arguments for grounding ethics in a first-personal perspective, by arguing that Levinas’ perspective is more convincing because “it is impossible to generate ethical rationality within myself … without falling into a sort of ethical self-conceit” (Römer, 132) which would make us unable to feel obliged towards the Other. Perhaps it would have been interesting to develop this concept of “self-conceit” since it is essential for the author’s argument.
Thirdly, Römer shows how Levinas’ thought is closer to the argument of the second Critique than to that of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, because it is also based on the idea that ethical rationality, as a mere fact, institutes my autonomy. Levinas and the later Kant thus agree on one essential point: “it is impossible to generate ethical rationality by starting with my very own freedom and then extending it towards others” (Römer, 134). An important distinction remains however between these two thinkers, according to the author: contrary to Kant, ethical significance remains, following Levinas, threatened by nihilism, especially nowadays.
Steven Crowell answers to Römer’s critique by arguing that Levinas’s thought encounters the same problem as that of Heidegger, namely that the identity of the addresser of the call remains enigmatic and leads to metaphysics. On the contrary, the concept of categorial answerability for reasons, does not require metaphysics.
3. Resoluteness and Gratitude for the Good, Irene McMullin
In this article Irene McMullin’s aim is to understand deeper the original Heideggerian concept of resoluteness, which allows the agent to overcome Angst in order to act in a norm-responsive way. More precisely, she studies the affective dimension of resoluteness by studying what Heidegger calls “readiness for anxiety”. One of the main claims of this article is that this readiness is not a merely negative experience, because it implies also gratitude, which is “an essential affective component of resoluteness” (McMullin, 137).
First of all, McMullin nuances Heidegger’s idea according to which there are mainly two sources of normativity: the public conventions of the das Man and our private norms. She argues indeed that there is a third normativity source, which are second-person claims. She, then, insists on the importance of readiness for anxiety, which she interprets as a latent state of anxiety through which the Dasein takes into account the plural sources of normativity. This readiness is an affect and not a project, since the world matters to me through it. Finally the author insists on the dimension of joy which is essential for this readiness, since I experience gratitude when I consider the possibility of losing everything (for example a child), but which has not yet realized itself. We experience, thus, gratitude for the meaning of our life, because precisely we become conscious, through readiness for anxiety, of the contingency of this meaning. Thus, “gratitude is the orientation that responds to grace – meaning a manifestation of goodness over which we have no power, but to which we find ourselves gratefully indebted” (McMullin, 150). I remain however with one pending question: is it still possible to experience this gratitude when all meaning is lost, when we do not experience anymore the world as “overflowing with meanings that we do not create or control”? (ibid). Or is the absolute loss of meaning a necessary possibility following from the characterization of the meaning of our lives as being precisely contingent? Steven Crowell deduces from McMullin’s argument the interesting idea that “the phenomenological focus on meaning prior to reason does not lead to nihilism, then, but to fröhliche Wissenschaft” (Crowell, 342).
III. Normativity and Nature
This section investigates the relationship between phenomenology and naturalism, reinterpreted respectively as the relationship between the “space of meaning” and the “space of causes”, according to the expression used by Steven Crowell in his work Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths toward Transcendental Phenomenology. All authors of this section aim to bridge the gap between the natural and the normative realm whether by showing that there is no essential distinction between human and nonhuman animal “selves”, by arguing for a “relaxed naturalism” or by showing that human intentionality can be understood as a natural phenomenon.
- On Being a Human Self, Mark Okrent
Mark Okrent investigates in this article what constitutes the human self. He first examines the classical answers to this question, from Descartes to Kant, by showing finally that Kantian answer is problematic for two reasons: it is not able to explain why a human agent could have a specific reason to act; it has a restricted view on rationality, reducing it to its deductive aspect. Korsgaard’s concept of “practical identity” can offer a response to the second problem. One of the essential dimensions of this practical identity is the overcoming of a passive dimension that we share with other nonhuman agents, i.e. the goal of self-maintenance. Thus, being a human agent entails overcoming the passive dimension that we share with nonhuman agents in order to become normative agents. However, according to Okrent, Korsgaard is not able to explain for which reasons one should adopt a certain practical identity.
Secondly, Okrent examines Heidegger’s idea according to which one does not represent oneself a certain practical identity in order to act according to it, since it could offer an answer to the problem mentioned above. However, this idea is unable, according to Okrent, to make clear how a certain identity is one’s own achievement. Crowell’s answer to this objection is that no practical identity is merely given to us, even when we are not in the mood of anxiety, but that we have on the contrary to strive constantly to achieve this identity. Thus, if animals respond instinctively to their identity, human beings inhabit an indefinite identity to whose norms they try to respond. However, as Okrent mentions it, recent animal studies have shown, that animal identities are not merely instinctive, but can evolve in function of environmental conditions.
Okrent attributes however another possible meaning to the concept of trying to achieve an identity which Crowell uses: it does not mean to “alter” it “in the direction of greater success”, but also to “justify” it with reasons (Okrent, 173). However, this interpretation is confronted with the aporia of the Wittgensteinian regress, which thus puts into question Crowell’s argument for the radical difference between human and animal identity as agents.
Steven Crowell responds to Okrent’s argument by arguing that it involves a deep pragmatic “reconstruction” of Heidegger’s text and that it would be thus more “elegant” to leave aside pragmatism (Crowell 344).
2. Normativity with a Human Face: Placing Intentional Norms and Intentional Agents Back in Nature, Glenda Satne and Bernardo Ainbinder
The aim of this article is to prolong McDowell’s attempt to replace norms in nature in order to avoid Sellar’s and Davidson’s separation of the space of causes from that of reasons, to which belongs, according to Sellar, intentionality. Crowell considers however that McDowell lacks the necessary phenomenological account of perception, in order to show that perception belongs to the space of norms, without being conceptual, and thus in order to achieve empiricism.
In order to achieve this project, Satne and Ainbinder argue that it is essential to place intentional agents in nature, even if Crowell denies the possibility of an account of rationality in natural terms. According to the authors, Husserlian genetic phenomenology can provide us with a method in order to describe this, because it can show how our normative capacities emerge from more basic capacities that we share with children and animals, and thus with other nature beings. They posit thus themselves against Crowell’s view according to which there is a radical gap between human intentionality, which is the proper intentionality and animal intentionality, or against Davidson’s view according to which we lack the proper vocabulary in order to describe the mental states of other animals. This is what allows them to give an evolutionary account for human intentionality.
In order to achieve this project, Satne and Ainbinder criticize what they call the uniformity thesis according to which intentionality is “the exclusive province of semantic content” (Satne & Ainbinder, 188). This requires showing how a phenomenological understanding of “life” allows to pluralize the “forms of life” and thus to pluralize intentionality. For this aim, the authors broaden the concept of nature so that it can include consciousness and so also intentionality. However, one question remains open: how is it possible, according to the authors’ projects, to reunite intentionality with the realm of nature understood in its mere biological sense, and thus with the neurological part which could correspond to intentionality?
Steven Crowell presents an objection to the argument presented in this article by advancing that it presupposes the use of genetic phenomenology and thus “a construction that transcends the kind of Evidenz to which transcendental phenomenology is committed” (Crowell 346-347).
3. World-Articulating Animals, Joseph Rouse
The aim of this article is to reunite, against Crowell’s and Heidegger’s views, our biological animality with our intentionality and normative accountability. Both Crowell and Heidegger insist on the incommensurability between animal environment and the openness to the world of the Dasein which creates a radical difference between animals and human beings. That is why it is not possible according to Crowell to ground normativity nor intentionality on the basis of “organismic teleology” (Rouse, 206). What allows us to attribute intelligibility to other animal forms of life is precisely the “transcendentally constituted space of meaning and reasons” (ibid).
In order to reject this argument, Rouse is arguing for a non-dualistic conception of normativity and nature. He thus proposes an “ecological-developmental conception of biological normativity” (Rouse, 207). which accounts for the development of normativity through social practices inside of which human beings grow up and live. These practices presuppose the essential interdependence of human being’s actions that is based on a mutual accountability of human being’s performances. Their normativity reside in this accountability and not in specific norms which would govern these practices.
This normativity without norms of social practices constitutes the specificity of human normativity, because it is two-dimensional: “whereas other organisms develop and evolve in ways whose only measure is whether life and lineage continue, our discursively articulated practices and their encompassing way of life introduce tradeoffs between whether they continue and what they ‘are’” (Rouse, 210). A question remains however unanswered: on the basis of which arguments can we be so sure that our normativity presupposes a biological dimension which urges us to continue life and is thus two-dimensional? What allows us to argue that the evolutionary development of our normativity did not on the contrary suppress this dimension?
Crowell’s reply to Rouse’ criticism is that he does not take the dualism between nature and normativity in a metaphysical but only in a methodological sense, since phenomenology is metaphysically neutral. Further, Crowell’s argues that we are led to deduce from Rouse’ account the problematic idea that phenomenological categories are contingent.
IV. Attuned Agency
This section investigates the affective dimension of normativity. The first article challenges the view that we are not responsible for our moods, while the second one nuances from a phenomenological point of view the traditional description of akrasia and its relationship to conscience. Finally, the third article investigates how normativity is intricate in the experience of erotic love.
- Moods as active, Joseph K. Schear
The aim of this article is to challenge the idea that moods are a mere expression of our passivity, by arguing that they are on the contrary “an expression of agency for which we are answerable” (Schear, 217). Here, Schear criticizes the classical interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit (as that of Dreyfus or Mulhall for example) as manifesting the “passive” dimension of our being-in-the world.
The objective of Schear is radical, since he does not simply try to show that we can act on our moods, but that the fact in itself of being in a mood is already an expression of our agency, and thus of our responsibility. First of all, the author elucidates the concept of being active as “being responsive to reasons” (Schear, 222). The fact that we can ask someone why he is in a certain mood displays already a piece of evidence for the fact that moods are active. We are thus expecting answerability for our moods.
The author distinguishes this answerability from moral responsibility. Answerability means here rather the possible “demand for intelligibility” (Schear, 225). Finally, this demand for intelligibility is not a demand for rationality, since what is at stake, is not asking for a reason which justifies the mood, but for “an account that makes manifest, that expresses, the shape or tenor of one’s situation as it shows from one’s perspective” (Schear, 228).
The author seems however to presuppose that someone has enough self-knowledge in order to answer this demand for intelligibility. However, it can happen that someone does not know oneself why he/she feels in a special mood (this can be the case for example when someone suffers from depression or anxiety) or that he /she does not understand rightly what makes him /her feel in a special mood. I can thus think that I am anxious because of my work whereas what makes me actually anxious is a certain heavy perfume I wear. Consequently, this understanding would not be immediately obvious to me, but would require an exercise of critical self-reflection.
2. Against our Better Judgment, Matthew Burch
The scope of this article is to show that what is usually called akrasia, meaning the fact of acting against our own judgment, regroups actually two distinct phenomena that Burch describes from a phenomenological point of view. He thus defines the first phenomenon as “intention-shift: action taken freely and intentionally against my explicit plan (or future intention) and with a clear conscience” (Burch, 233) and the second phenomenon as akrasia in its proper sense, or more precisely: “action taken freely and intentionally against my explicit plan (or future intention) and accompanied by some self-critical emotion (e.g. guilt, shame, self-directed anger) or a mixture of such emotions” (ibid). The fundamental difference between these two phenomena lies in the negative, self-critical feeling that accompanies the second phenomena. Remarkably, both phenomena presuppose the free and intentional action, against the classical understanding of akrasia, which interprets it as a “conflict between rational judgment and irrational desire” (Burch 240). Burch shows on the contrary that what is at stake is a conflict between two interests, that he understands as being self-reflexive and normative. This conflict is understood by the author as a shift from a specific interest to another one, due to “affective and circumstantial changes” (Burch 242). According to the author, our interests are self-reflexive, because they concern ourselves. In the case of the intention-shift there is no betrayal of ourselves but only of our “prior plan” (Burch, 243) contrary to the akrasia in its proper sense. Thus, in this second case, shifting to another interest means also betraying another interest (e.g. being faithful to my partner), and thus betraying myself.
The author seems to presuppose that in the case of akrasia there is an asymmetry between two interests, which presupposes that satisfying one interest can lead to a feeling of self-betrayal (e.g. when I cheat on my partner), while this is not the case for the another interest (e.g. meeting other erotic partners than my wife/husband). Could we however think that this second type of interest can also lead to a feeling of self-betrayal when it is not satisfied?
3. Everyday Eros: Toward a Phenomenology of Erotic Inception, Jack Marsh
This article focuses on the phenomenological account of the earliest stage of erotic experience, that Marsh calls erotic inception. The author distinguishes several moments inside of erotic inception. The first moment is what he calls the standing-out-among, when the other catches suddenly our eye through a particular detail. The second moment is the stepping-out-from, when I step out toward this other who caught my eye. Through this second moment the other as potential erotic partner steps into my world. According to the author, this second moment is a modification of the Heideggerian concept of “world-entry” (Welteingang).
The author deepens then the understanding of this concept as applied to erotic inception, by deepening its Heideggerian description as upswing (Überschwingende). Marsh characterizes this upswing as an “ ‘oscillation’ between my possibilities and my facticity, my abilities and limits, my possible futures and actual past” (Marsh 260) and thus as an “excess of possibility” (ibid) or as “an expansive opening upon the world that is empowering and enriching” (Marsh, 261). This expansive opening upon the world leads finally to a world-modification that characterizes the unfolding couple. However, the excess of possibilities that characterize erotic inception contains also the possibility of its own demise, or as the author puts it, of the “We-death” (Marsh, 264).
One question remains however open for me: what place does the author attribute to normativity inside the erotic inception? Could we thus say that the experience of erotic inception is characterized by certain norms, like for example the norm of what it is to be an erotic partner, and that each of us can be called to transform these norms through one’s own experience?
V. Epistemic Normativity
This final section investigates the specific modality of normativity involved in our epistemic practices. The first article challenges the view itself that normativity is involved in knowledge acquisition, while the second article analyzes how norms are intricate in our perceptual experience. Finally, the last article investigates the link between the natural and the transcendental attitude from a phenomenological point of view.
- Normativity and Knowledge, Walter Hopp
In this article Walter Hopp deepens Crowell’s view according to which intentionality can be exercised only inside of a “context of practices” (Hopp, 271). Thus, “the world is not the intentional correlate of a transcendental ego, but the environment of the embodied and socialized human person” (ibid). Hopp argues that this idea could have two possible interpretations: either intentionality can be carried out only by persons who act conform to a context of practices and thus of norms, or intentionality is constitutively normative. Hopp is arguing for the first interpretation, by advancing that if intentionality were constitutively normative, then this would be the case for knowledge as well. He aims to show in this article that knowledge is not precisely constitutively normative, and so nor intentionality.
Hopp’s argument is based on Husserl’s theory of normative science from the Logical Investigations. A normative science according to Husserl is always based on one or several non-normative, theoretical sciences, like for instance medicine that is based on biology, chemistry, etc. Consequently, sciences that do no rest on other non-normative disciplines, like for example logic, cannot be normative. Non-normative scientific propositions can however endorse the role of norms, without being normative in their content. Hopp applies this argument to epistemology, by showing that its content does not indicate what we ought to believe but what can be hold as being true; or, truth can endorse the role of a norm but is not normative by its content. Here, Hopp specifies Crowell’s characterization of truth as a “normative notion” (Crowell 2013, 239) which is, according to him, ambiguous. The author is thus arguing clearly for a clear distinction between ethics and epistemology against Terence Cuneo for example.
Nevertheless, Husserl defines noetics as the “theory of norms of knowledge” (Husserl 2008, 132) whereas evidence as self-givenness is characterized by him as the “ultimate norm … that lends sense to knowledge” (Husserl 1999, 45). Here however Hopp uses Husserl’s own criterion of normative science by asking on which non-normative discipline Husserl’s most fundamental concepts of his epistemology, i.e. truth and evidence do rest, in order to show that these concepts do not have normative content. This allows Hopp to define epistemology as an ideal science in the Husserlian sense.
Steven Crowell agrees with Hopp’s argument, but he points to the fact Husserl’s analysis of truth cannot be reduced to the Logical Investigations, which are essential for Hopp’s argument. According to Crowell, there is however a sense of normativity in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology which “eludes Husserl’s distinction between normative and theoretical disciplines” (Crowell, 332) because transcendental phenomenology is not considered as an explanatory theory but as a method of clarification.
2. Appearance, Judgment, and Norms, Charles Siewert
The aim of this paper is to argue, by using the phenomenological approach, that our perceptual experiences are “subject to norms of its own” (Siewert 290). In order to show this, Siewert starts by analyzing the case of visual agnosia, by arguing that it does not involve a deficit of visual appearance but rather of capacity of recognition. Visual appearance is thus conceptually distinct from visual recognition, or recognitional appearance, which is on its turn distinct from judgment. Indeed, I can withhold judgment when I recognize two persons as looking the same, i.e. when I recognize that they look alike but in two different tokens. Visual recognitions “take thing as” (Siewert, 299) whereas judgments “represent things to be” (ibid). Contrary to Travis, Siewert does distinguish however altogether visual experience from accuracy, and thus does not attribute accuracy exclusively to judgment. Thus, I can accurately recognize a sign as an arrow, while it actually represents an alligator. In this case I made a “creative use of the appearance” (Siewert, 301). Siewert draws here a parallel with the Kantian scheme, since just as the scheme makes both theoretical judgment and aesthetic imagination possible, the recognitional appearance can support both a judgment and a creative use.
On the basis of this distinction between visual recognitional experience and judging experience, the author argues that these two types of experiences are governed by two different kinds of normativity. He agrees on this point with Susanna Siegel, but not on the specific form of normativity that characterizes visual recognition. Indeed, Siewert identifies visual recognition with a “looking-as-act” (Siewert, 303) which he understands as the active experience of looking, contrary to the “looking-as-appearance”, and which thus can be done well or badly, or which can be improved. Perceptual experiences can be thus subject to normative assessment because visual recognitions can be an activity.
3. Husserl’s and Heidegger’s Transcendental Projects, Dermot Moran
In this article Dermot Moran aims at understanding the meaning of phenomenology as transcendental philosophy. Inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Philosopher and His Shadow”, he investigates how the transcendental and the natural attitude are intertwined and how the idea of such an intertwining relates to Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenology.
Based on a very detailed studied of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s texts, Moran shows first how Husserl’s view on the natural and transcendental attitude evolves from the Ideas I until the Crisis, as well as how Heidegger criticizes the Husserlian concept of natural attitude, which according to him is a comportment (Verhalten) and not an attitude as such. At the same time, the author points to ambiguous points in Husserl’s thought, like the relationship between the natural attitude and naturalism, which leads to the reification of the world. Despite this ambiguity, Husserl is clear on the distinction between transcendental and natural attitude, which is relative to the first attitude as the only absolute attitude, because of its “self-awareness and self-grounding character” (Moran, 313). One can become aware of the natural attitude as such only through a “shift in the ego’s mode of inspectio sui” (Moran, 314) which is the transcendental reduction though which we can adopt the transcendental attitude. Thus one of the key roles of transcendental phenomenology is that of allowing us “to investigate attitudes” (ibid) such as the theoretical attitude which masks the original position of the transcendental subject.
Moran further reflects on the meaning of transcendental phenomenology with the aid of Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Husserl’s texts according to which the natural and the transcendental attitudes are deeply intertwined. This reading could explain why Husserl calls in the § 49 of the Ideas II the transcendental attitude as being natural.
Merleau-Ponty finds such an intertwining in Husserl’s idea of a passive pregiveness of the world which underlies all intentional acts and which is not the object of act intentionality but of what Husserl calls in Formal and Transcendental Logic fungierende Intentionalität and that Merleau-Ponty translates in the Phenomenology of Perception as operative intentionality (intentionnalité opérante), a concept which is equivalent according to Merleau-Ponty with the Heideggerian concept of transcendence.
Moran identifies this operative intentionality with what Husserl calls, also in § 94 of Formal and Transcendental Logic living intentionality. He further reflects on this concept of living intentionality, by arguing, based on a thorough study of Husserl’s texts, that the task of transcendental phenomenology is to aim towards a living not in the world but within the life of consciousness, which Moran interprets, following Husserl’s expression in Formal and Transcendental Logic as the realm of our internality (Innerlichkeit), a concept for which Moran discerns a Heideggerian resonance. Only transcendental reduction, and the transcendental attitude it leads to, can give us access to this internality, and not the natural reflection that is proper to the natural attitude. Thus, “the aim of transcendental phenomenology” is “to uncover this life of functioning consciousness underlying the natural attitude” (Crowell, 320).
In conclusion, this book allows us to have a renewed reading of one of the main problems of phenomenology, i.e. the problem of meaning. Particularly, the problem of meaning is treated in the light of the question of normativity. At the same time it links in multiple ways the phenomenological question of meaning with various contemporary compelling questions like that of naturalism. This makes this book particularly interesting. Yet, the question of meaning is unfortunately not always on the foreground, leaving sometimes the task of making the explicit link between the problem of meaning and the content of the articles to the reader. Perhaps however it is a mere consequence of the richness of its various perspectives on this topic.
Crowell, Steven. 2002. “Authentic Thinking and Phenomenological Method.” In: The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 2: 23-37
Crowell, Steven. 2013. Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Cuneo, Terence. 2007. The Normative Web. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fink, Eugen. 1981. “The Problem of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.” Translated by R.M. Harlan. In: Apriori and World: European Contributions to Husserlian Phenomenology, edited by W. McKenna, R.M. Harlan, and L.E. Winters, 21-55. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Husserl, Edmund. 1950. Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge. Edited by S. Strasser, Husserliana 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.
Husserl, Edmund. 1999. The Idea of Phenomenology. Translated by Lee Hardy. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
 Steven Crowell, 2002.
 See Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996 and also Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
 Cuneo 2007. Cuneo is arguing that just as there are no “moral facts”, there are no “epistemic facts” either. (113)
In Meaning and Intentionality: A Dialogical Approach, Mohammad Shafiei’s project is to develop a theory of meaning. The book is divided in four chapters preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. Already in the introduction, the author makes it clear that he will propose a theory of meaning methodologically grounded in the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. According to Shafiei, any theory of meaning should deal with the meaning of logical constants and thus one of the main objectives of this work is to use the transcendental method to explain the constitution of these logical ‘entities’ (180).
In the first chapter, “The Possibility of Inner Dialogue and its Primordiality,” Shafiei sets himself the task of arguing that an inner language is possible. By inner language “we mean a language which can be originated in solitude, i.e. by a person considered in isolation, thus this language is ‘inner’ because it is not originally created for external uses, namely uses in community” (9). Initially, this might appear surprising as to why the author would start exploring the possibility of inner dialogue. Yet, “if we can demonstrate that inner dialogue is primordial in a way that it can be accomplished without any prior dependence on outer dialogue it means that the outer, concrete language, i.e. the ordinary language, is not a necessary condition for the possessing concepts and performing intellectual activity” (8). And, to take it further, this would mean that we could investigate the a priori or eidetic structures through which a person, as transcendental intentionality, constitutes their meanings.
As one could expect from a point of view of the history of philosophy, the author starts with exploring Wittgenstein’s so-called private language argument. Shafiei provides a long analysis of the argument based on the mainstream reading of Wittgenstein according to which there can be no possibility of private language. Shafiei’s task is to prove otherwise. This task starts in the section entitled “Husserl’s Acceptance of Genuineness of Inner Dialogue” (27). Although “Husserl has not dealt with the subject of inner dialogue and its probable importance in full details,” Shafiei attempts to pull out textual evidence to justify that we can infer from Husserl’s writings that such inner language is possible – or that “the possibility of inner dialogue is taken for granted” by Husserl (28). This attempt starts by citing Derrida who “equates the possibility of phenomenological reduction with the possibility of interior monologue” (28) and then tries to show how Husserl’s concept of expression as acts which produce meaning relates to various uncommunicative acts which could reveal the possibility of inner dialogue. In this chapter, Shafiei provides an extensive analysis of different ways that ‘meaning’ has been (philosophically) approached. This analysis allows him to advance an interesting conceptual distinction between ‘indication,’ ‘sense,’ and ‘meaning.’ When it comes to ‘sense’ Shafiei proposes to use of the term for meaning “in the sense relating to real or possible phenomena” (40). ‘Sense’ is related to reference and indication which is different from expression as the primitive act of meaning. Moreover, “indication depends, at least on its origin, on communicative interactions” (53). Meaning thus becomes “the correspondent product of a primordial act of expression” (69) whose “archetype” (88) is the capacity of “inner dialogue” which is wordless (ibid.) and which makes the phenomenon of private language possible.
Chapter Two, “Meaning and the Unintuitive,” provides a discussion concerning expressions – in the phenomenological sense as meaning-making, intentional acts – and attempts to show which of these expressions are primordial and which are not.. In this chapter, Shafiei provides a thorough analysis of the differences between signitive intention, categorial, and aesthetic synthesis (128). Meaning can be constituted through signitive intentions (96) which are not directly related to immediate sensibility (aesthesis) or what in classical phenomenology is called givenness or intuition. Such “unintuitive thought” (162) allows Shafiei to extend Husserl’s thought and show how Husserl, while not having set for himself “the task of providing a phenomenologically acceptable logical system does not mean that we would accept the science of logic as it is given” (177). And this science of logic is to be linked with the primordiality of expression at the transcendental level.
Having explored how there can be a genuine private language of a transcendental constituting intentionality, and having shown how this intentionality has a dialogic structure, Shafiei moves on to introduce dialogical logic “in the line of the phenomenological method in order to reach a comprehensive framework for logic and to explain the meaning of logical entities as well” (180). This takes place in Chapter Three, entitled “Phenomenology and Dialogical Semantics.” The chapter begins with an attack on Stephen Strasser’s interpretation of Husserl in The Idea of Dialogal Phenomenology. Shafiei is not content with the revision of phenomenology proposed by Strasser as it is deemed to be based on “psychologism and naturalism” (191). Following this attack there is a short introduction on dialogical semantics and an analysis on the meaning of logical connectives (207). The remainder of the chapter constitutes an attack on Dummett’s intuitionism and the verification theory of truth. While the author agrees that intuitionist logic can take us closer to pure logic than classical logic does, he finds Dummett’s pragmatism wanting because for Dummett “it is not the speaker who makes a relation between a sign and a meaning” (230) – “for Husserl this is [sic] the speaker who makes such a relation – of course in an original manner” (ibid.).
Finally, in Chapter Four (“Dialogical Apophantics: Formal Analyses”), Shafiei engages in an extensive exploration of the meaning of logical operators and functions. The chapter features an interesting discussion on negation, which distinguishes between weak and strong negation and by exploring their relation with absurdity. Strong negation “occurs in a judgment asserting that p is objectively rejected” and the weak negation “occurs in a judgment asserting that there is no evidence for p” (261). Consistent with the overall proposed outlook of the book, Shafiei attempts to show which type of negation is primordial. By such an analysis, Shafiei provides the ground to move into a more technical analysis of “the phenomenological explanation of some logical connectives” (326). Such an explanation allows the tools of logic to be explained through the phenomenological account of intentionality and thus link them to the possibility of private language as the structures of a transcendental intersubjective expression.
Despite the author’s erudite knowledge of Husserlian texts, there are couple of issues with respect to the way he approaches them. The way that Shafiei grounds his theory of meaning on transcendental phenomenology makes it somewhat difficult to assess. One can accept Shafiei’s reading of the Husserlian texts and engage directly with the validity of his theory of meaning; or, one can engage with his hermeneutic approach and then draw implications to his derived theory. Essentially, one can assess whether his theory of meaning is indeed grounded in Husserlian phenomenology or whether the theory of meaning itself has merit despite its hermeneutic evaluation. For this review, I shall highlight a couple of hermeneutical points. Since Shafiei’s interpretation of Husserl’s phenomenology comes to be the ground of/for (t)his theory of meaning then such choice is warranted.
Shafiei reads Husserl as if he is a proponent of transcendental intentionality and subjectivity throughout his work. To what extent is this accurate, or better yet, to what extent does such a reading do justice to Husserl’s entire body of work? To use another phenomenological sense of ‘indication’ which Shafiei does not take into account, there is no indication or appreciation of the fact of the different ways that Husserl approached the issue of transcendental subjectivity. In the Logical Investigations Husserl makes it clear that the subject is constituted in reflection, while subjectivity is not something in particular but consciousness as (a) transcendental field. Consciousness, in these investigations, is an undifferentiated stream whereas the ‘ego’ or ‘I’ is constituted when an act-experience is put in relief – or to use Husserl’s term ‘naturalized’. The ego in the Logical Investigations is a transcendent (intended) object, not something transcendental. A similar approach is indicated in Experience and Judgment where identity does not exist in itself but progressively determined. Just like anything else, any kind of object or object substrate on which ‘logic’ is grounded is temporal.
Issues of temporality appear in Husserl as early as in the Logical Investigations (1900-1). However, in Shafiei’s reading of Husserl there is no discussion about temporality at all. Neither is there any discussion on protention and retention and how these could relate to ‘pure logic’ or the possibility of a private language. Now, this is of crucial importance especially because these structures are related with the issues of apprehension, constitution, institution and intuitive fulfillment. The issue of primal constituting in Husserl – i.e genesis – is of vital importance. Are there primordial ‘objects’ given or are they (always) constructed? Shafiei passes over in silence all the discussions of givenness, schematization, analogizing apprehension, motivation, repetition and signitive fulfillment on the grounds that “it is not the theme of Experience and Judgment” (138). Shafiei takes this work as bedrock for his project of a Husserlian inspired theory of meaning yet all these concepts are extensively investigated in this work and Shafiei negates them altogether.
Another worry is that this theory of meaning would require the a lot of charity to be stamped as authentically inspired by classical phenomenology. In Husserl’s terms such theory which takes logic primordial grounded in expression without any kind of bodily involvement in this expression would, in Husserl’s terms from Experience and Judgment be a manifestation of the “irreality of objectivities of understading.” If anything, Husserl reinstated, that is, brought back our attention to the philosophical importance of the body and its horizons. The body is utterly absent from Shafiei’s theory of meaning. Can a theory of meaning be phenomenological without the body? While it is interesting to see developments in logic inspired by Husserl, one should be careful about what kind of logos Husserl is talking about. Logos for Husserl is not only intended as logic in the modern sense. For instance, Shafiei claims that the meaning of numbers like “1 and 2 are able to be grasped by the intuition” (100) and that they have an immediate fulfillment. This cannot be an authentic Husserlian idea. In the Ideas Husserl wonders whether it would be possible that the world be given itself arithmetically if we had not learnt to count it, that is constitute it, in (particular) numbers. He also problematizes whether the principle of non-contradiction should be placed under the epoche. None of this is mentioned in Shafiei’s logical analyses. Certainly, ascribing a thought of immediate fulfillment of ‘logical’ constitutions to Husserl cannot not be controversial. To give only an example, the origin of negation in Experience and Judgment is traced by Husserl to the passivity of receiving sensuous content. The heterogeneity of the given marks the primitive limit, the genetic moment of negation and not a moment of expression.
Another worry derives from the perspective of the history of philosophy. Shafiei accepts the mainstream analytic reading of Wittgenstein’s private language argument, according to which Wittgenstein is trying to show us that a private language must be impossible. This is a transcendental reading – that private language must be impossible. But one could read these investigations differently. Later Wittgenstein does not make an argument but explores the extent to which a private language is possible. We can read his writing as an invitation to think how could such a private language be possible. In one way this is Shafiei’s own project minus the transcendental necessary universalization. Derrida’s analysis of Artaud’s theater of cruelty is exploring this possibility of private language. An authentic expression of a language-less transcendental subjectivity would not be some kind of reasoning or logic but pure emotional expressions, discharges of feeling as Nietzsche would have it. Similarly, for Lévinas, a self-contained hypostasis (self) which does not have an opening to an other hypostasis (other) does not give full support to his argument as Shafiei thinks (58). Lévinas talks about the ‘dialogue’ of oneself as another in terms of contentment, that is feeling, not in terms of expression.
Overall, Shafie’s attempt to provide a ‘theory’ of meaning grounded in the Husserlian phenomenology can provide a lot of insights to those who take phenomenology cognitively or logically in the modern sense of the term. There are several inspiring points of discussion in his technical rendering, or constitution in the phenomenological sense, of Husserlian ideas. However, the contribution of this attempt to more recent phenomenological discussions which appreciate the importance of the body in the constitution of meaning is minimal.
Caputo, John D. 1999. God, the Gift, and Postmodernism. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. Writing and Difference. London: Routledge, 1967.
Hanfling, Oswald. 2002. Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life. London: Routledge.
Husserl, Edmund. 1948. Experience and Judgment. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Lévinas, Emmanuel. 1987. Time and The Other [and additional essays]. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1993. Being and Nothingness. Reprint First Edition. Washington: Washington Square Press.
—. 1988. The Transcendence of the Ego: A Sketch for a Phenomenological Description. London: Routledge.
Steinbock, Anthony J. 1998. « Husserl’s static and genetic phenomenology: Translator’s Introduction to Two Essays. » Continental Philosophy Review, Volume 31, Issue 2, 127–134.
Welton, Donn. 1999. « Soft, Smooth, Hands: Husserl’s Phenomenology of the Lived-Body. » In Welton, Donn. The Body. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 38-56.
 Cf. Sartre’s analyses (1988); (1993) and Marion’s avowal in Caputo (1999).
 Cf. Derrida (1967) and Steinbock (1998).
 Cf. Husserl (1948 253-270).
 Cf. Leder (1990) and Welton (1999).
 Cf. Derrida (1967) and Hanfling (2002).
 Cf. Lévinas (1987).