Judith Wambacq: Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty

Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty
Series in Continental Thought, № 51
Judith Wambacq
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
2018
Hardback $95.00
296

Reviewed by: Alex de Campos Moura (University of São Paulo)

The Transcendental Project in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze

I. Introduction: The Question

Judith Wamback’s book, Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, proposes a highly original reading of two central authors from the 20th century, one that sheds new light on their most important insights.

According to the Wamback herself, she is reacting to a consensus that has been established about the relation between the two thinkers, a consensus that sees their respective works as being either alien or in opposition to each other. This reading of their relationship was championed not only by Foucault but also by Deleuze himself, in his few and mostly negative comments on Merleau-Ponty. As Wamback shows, Deleuze does not seem to recognize either in phenomenology in general or in Merleau-Ponty’s work in particular the main sources of his thought.

Against this interpretation, Wamback explicitly proposes to find a philosophical argument that legitimates bringing them into proximity. She is not, therefore, interested in reconstructing the common history of their reception or perhaps in uncovering a heretofore ignored biographical connection; on the contrary, what she seeks is to make explicit a conceptual connection between two thinkers that critics—including Deleuze himself—have become used to seeing as radically alien. This is the central motivation of this book, one that is also central in evaluating the relevance of its implications.

In order to bring this project to fruition, Wamback proposes a precise framework, which she herself describes as “metaphysically” bent, and which takes up a classical philosophical question, namely the question of the relation between being and thought. She investigates the way both thinkers understand this question, thus providing the ground for her attempted rapprochement.

Indeed, as the book progresses, this question becomes increasingly more precise, and the way Wamback frames and focuses her discussion, notable for its clarity, is one of the main strengths of the book. The debate about the status of thought is revealed as a discussion about the transcendental project behind each thinker’s work, highlighting the intrinsic relation between this project and what Wamback describes as a “philosophy of immanence.” This philosophy of immanence is, according to her, a central dimension of both philosophers’ thoughts, one that brings to the forefront the necessity of understanding the articulation between the transcendental and the immanence.

Wamback, therefore, centers her comparison on the idea that Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty both recognized an immanence between the condition and the conditioned, one that finds its privileged “place” in the notions of expression and simultaneity. This is the central thesis defended by this book, an original and unusual contribution when considered against the backdrop of most studies dedicated to this topic. Let us then examine the way Wamback organizes her book.

II. The Path

In order to accomplish her proposal, Wamback delineates five main steps, thus establishing a work method that is followed throughout the book and that structures the overall path of the investigation. First, a description of the highlighted concept as it is formulated by each of the authors. Second, a discussion about the relationship between the two topics or concepts. Third, a description of the way this articulation sheds light on each of them and, based on this, on the respective reflections in which they find themselves. Fourth, an attempt at finding an “equilibrium” or “balance” between the singularity of each work and its possible openness by way of this articulation. Fifth, the configuration of a new image of the history of philosophy to which these philosophies belong.

In fact, the fifth item is the broader horizon that frames Wamback’s discussion (5). She is not interested in creating a common narrative thread that would encompass both philosophers’ work—indeed, such a common thread may not even exist. Rather, by doing justice to the way each author relates to other thinkers, she intends to “anchor” the “resonances in their work to the history of philosophy”, thereby formulating an “alternative image of the philosophical alliances in French academia over the last two centuries” (5). Here the most ambitious facet of the project is revealed, namely to go beyond a book directed to a specialist audience by retracing kindred context or horizons, thus making explicit the way philosophy is built as a series of answers to the great questions posed by other philosophers (5). This implies the recognition of a historical dimension that is not exclusively factual—if it were possible to think of it in this way—, intrinsic to a specific philosophical debate, perhaps (in a first moment) even in a latent way, but which would even so still be affirmed in each of them. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in the fifties, this would be a kind of subterranean or indirect history, a history that is expressed in the facts without being reducible to them and without detaching itself from them.

In this sense, according to Wamback, the question about thought and being, which is as ancient as our most ancient sources on Western thought, is revealed as a privileged problematization axis, allowing her to trace out the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze pursue this classic problem in their respective philosophical reflections on the basis of their network of references and their theoretical frameworks. She is, therefore, able to uncover deeper and broader debates than those one would glean from a first reading, or even a reading that pays more attention to the schools and neglects the “secret” historicity that animates them. This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of Wamback’s work.

The book is organized around five main cores. I will first describe those cores in a general way, and then I will offer a more detailed analysis of each of them, following the way Wamback builds her argument.

The text is divided into seven chapters, each of which is further divided into topics. These chapters all follow a general methodology: first Wamback presents the position of one of the philosophers being analyzed, then the position of the other, and finally compares them. This methodological option greatly contributes to the clarity of the text and to the strength of her argumentation.

The first and the second chapters focus, according to Wamback herself, in a more direct discussion between the two authors. The idea is not to pit one against the other but to discuss the way each of them approaches similar questions in a kind of textual confrontation, one that is more intimately connected to the analysis of specific works and texts.

The first chapter is dedicated to the topic of thought, focusing on what Wamback describes as “original thought”, seeking to formulate what are, for each author, its nature and conditions. The main axis of the chapter is the argument that both authors think this notion as a way of distancing themselves from the representation model and its implications. This move demands an analysis of the objective and subjective dimensions that constitute this “original thought”, which leads us to the problem of the ontology therein implicit. This question is pursued in the second chapter, which seeks to understand in what sense the way both authors formulate the question about the status of thought—and its distance from the representation model—is grounded in an understanding of being. In particular, Wamback shows how this ontology recognizes being as unitary, even if it admits—indeed, demands—difference and indetermination.

The third chapter focuses on what Wamback considers a kind of epistemological or ontological “project” or even “decision” present in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze’s philosophies, discussing the extent to which their paths (delineated by the first two chapters) are connected to an understanding of the sense of philosophical work, especially in the framing of its own field of investigation—which is connected to what Wamback describes as the “empirical”. She will here follow the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze absorb the much-debated “transcendental empiricism”, tracing out their divergences from Husserl and Kant. This absorption is, to Wamback, one of the main points of proximity between the two, a point to which I will return below.

This investigation is carried a step further by its incursion into the relationship between the condition and the conditioned, an examination that will be carried out in the fourth chapter, with its reference to Bergson. As is well known, the relation between Deleuze and Bergson is much more explicit than the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bergson. However, more and more recent scholars have highlighted this last relation, and Wamback’s work is part of this recent trend in the scholarship, which presents a broad yet still unexplored horizon. In particular, Wamback’s reference to Bergson appears as a central element—both for Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze—in the understanding of the relation between the condition and the conditioned, especially in connection to the notion of “simultaneity”.

Chapters five and six focus then on this relation, particularly in its connection to the question of “expression”, a question central to both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze and which is organized precisely around the articulation between the “ground” and the grounded. To understand this question, the fifth chapter is dedicated to the description of its connection to literary experience—examining the reference to Proust, which is common to both and which is of undeniable relevance—, and the sixth chapter is dedicated to its connection to visual dimension—examining the also common and very important reference to Cézanne.

The seventh chapter also has recourse to a common denominator but now approaching the discussion from a different angle. According to Wamback, the previous chapters had as their goal to show, in different ways, the proximity between the two philosophers, by exploring how their common horizon is structured by the assertion of a unity between the condition and the conditioned, an inseparability of the ground and the grounded—a logic that is particularly notable in the notion of expression. The last chapter then attempts to shed new light on this logic, highlighting the way in which a differential dynamic operates inside this logic. The common denominator mentioned above is Saussure.

Wamback uses this reference to Saussure to explain how a “solid immanence requires a differential theory of how the condition generates the conditioned (which nevertheless determines it)” (7). She shows how this differential dynamic is to be found in both authors, especially in the way each of them appropriates Saussure’s thought, and how its constituting logic is marked by a tension between the condition and the conditioned.

Finally, the conclusion seeks to discuss the resonances and the divergences between the two philosophers, taking a stand on whether it is possible to establish a common horizon to them, or whether their distance from each other is so great that there would be no effective dialogue or convergence.

This finishes the general presentation of the book. Before continuing, it is still worth noting an important methodological option defended by Wamback, one responsible for the tight circumscription of her project. It is the option of not analyzing the relation between the two authors in terms of the notion of perception. According to her, the way each philosopher situates this notion is extremely different. In the case of Merleau-Ponty, the description of perception is carried out in an ontological or “epistemological” horizon, whereas Deleuze would think it as connected to an ethical discussion, conceived according to relations of force intensity. Such an observation is also helpful in understanding Wamback’s second methodological choice, which is connected to her first: the works on which she focuses. In Merleau-Ponty’s case, Wamback focuses primarily on The Visible and the Invisible, since—according to a widespread reading—his ontology would be the most developed at that point in his career. This would justify relegating The Phenomenology of Perception to the sidelines, since this work is considered by this line of interpretation to be “propaedeutic” to the ontology of his last work.

With this counterpoint as the horizon, it is possible to highlight the relevance and the originality of Wamback’s proposed framing, especially her option of discussing both authors from the point of view of their understanding of the status of thought. This point of view is the starting point of her proposed approximation and of her discussions, presenting an unusual take when considered against the backdrop of the most common studies about this relationship. Moreover, as I will discuss in the next section, this point of view culminates in a discussion about the sense that the “transcendental project” assumes in each philosopher. Wamback rests her argument especially in the recognition of “immanence” as an irresistible dimension, turning the articulation between the condition and the conditioned, between the ground and the grounded, into a central element in each author’s formulations. Let us, therefore, see in more detail how she builds her analysis.

III. The Book

Wamback bases her reading on the idea that there is, from the beginning, something in common to Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: not only the fact that both reflected on the topic of thought but also the fact that they distinguished two types of thought. On the one hand, a properly original thought, and, on the other hand, a thought without any originality or expressiveness. The second type of thought is merely an application of given concepts, whereas the first type—which is the type that really intrigues the two philosophers—is a kind of “creative” dynamic. Recalling the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty between “speaking speech” and “spoken speech”, as well as the distinction between “thought” and “knowledge” as described by Deleuze, Wamback proposes a peculiar framework, extremely revealing of her reading: the distinction between a “thinking thought” and an expressive thought. “Thinking thought” is the type of thought which is central to both authors and which is the starting point of Wamback’s investigation, demanding an understanding of the way each author conceives of it. The first piece of evidence highlighted by Wamback is the way this notion figures in both as a refusal of the modern conception of “representation”.

Starting with Merleau-Ponty’s reflection, Wamback appeals to some of the central notions of the Phenomenology of Perception to circumscribe his notion of thought. She then briefly examines the way Merleau-Ponty understands the sense of perception, with special emphasis on his criticism of the intellectualist and empiricist theories and on his notion of “field”, showing how the perceptual dynamic is grounded on the “original intertwinement of body and world” (18). From this point on, the question becomes whether his notion of thought is grounded in the same articulation, being always in relation to something. To pursue this question, Wamback examines the notions of the cogito—especially its negative dimension—, of geometrical thought, and of linguistic expression.

At this point in her analysis, Wamback introduces the notion of Fundierung, proposed in the Phenomenology of Perception as a “two-way relation”, an alternative to the classical understanding of the ground and the grounded as sundered elements, since they are now defined as relational dimensions in reciprocal determination. While this is a central notion in Merleau-Ponty’s work, Wamback uses it here only to think the relation between “thought” and “language”. She defends that, in spite of all its implications, there is still in this notion an asymmetry: the expressed still has “ontological priority” (35), preserving a difference between the terms. On her reading, this asymmetry would only be dissolved later, with Merleau-Ponty’s introduction of the notion of “institution”. Nevertheless, Wamback highlights that the Fundierung relation already contained a central idea, namely “excess” as an indication of the “immanence of the ground that transcends itself in the expression” (26). Her conclusion is that, for Merleau-Ponty, thought is not a “mediating activity”, but is, rather, “familiar with the world”, “it has direct contact” with it and is “in a certain sense shaped by it” (30).

Wamback shows that something similar takes place in Deleuze’s thought. From the beginning, Deleuze proposes to understand thought by confronting the sign, refusing the idea of a natural inclination to the truth, and recognizing it as always characterized by “the singularity of the meeting”, in which signs appear as “enigmas” (31). Here, more than with Merleau-Ponty, the spotlight falls on the differential character of sign and sense. Wamback shows how these notions are thought of in order to move away from the most characteristic presuppositions of representational thought: on the one hand, the idea of identity and unity, and, on the other hand, the notions of nature and of affinity with the truth. Deleuze recognizes, under the eight postulates of representational thought, a “confusion of empirical and transcendental features” (47) that obscures the proper sense of thought.

Wamback proposes that, in this perspective, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are extremely close, meeting in this movement that she describes as a “transcendental examination of thought”(49), a discussion about its conditions and about the human capacity to think. One consequence of this proximity is that both authors recognize that the object of thought is characterized by a “certain exteriority” (50). This means that both authors recognize—and hold it in high esteem—the “grounded” dimension of thought, focusing on the description of the relation between the ground and the grounded as intrinsic or immanent (51). It is precisely this intrinsic or immanent relation that guarantees its creative genesis: “In sum, for both authors, the creative nature of thought is due to the necessary role of thought in the grounding relation”  (51).

After examining these conditions for the investigation of thought in each author—and the presence of a certain undeniable immanence—, Wamback focuses on describing their respective ontologies. As mentioned above, she holds that the way they understand thought, particularly their conception of thought as sustained by this intertwinement of immanence and transcendence, demands a description of the ontological ground therein implicit.

In Merleau-Ponty’s case, as described in the Introduction, Wamback focuses on the ontology of his last texts, notably The Visible and the Invisible. She emphasizes there the differential character that is central in his formulation, particularly through his notion of flesh—described by him in its originally dissonant and, simultaneously, unitary character (58), from which Wamback detaches the notion of “style” or “typicality” (59). She insists that it is not a matter of identity, but of a differential unity, which is connected to the notions of openness and constitution.

In Deleuze’s case, on the other hand, Wamback defends that the same dimensions present in Merleau-Ponty’s proposition can be found in the former’s ontology. The two authors supplant the distinction between the abstract and the concrete by reporting being to another level, which, in the case of Deleuze, is thought of as the virtual: like Merleau-Ponty’s flesh, the virtual is characterized by a nonidentical unity that cannot be divided into an inside and an outside; also like the flesh, the virtual is characterized by a fundamental openness, being also the condition of concrete things (65).

On the other hand, concerning the differences between them, Wamback holds that Deleuze devoted more time to the task of showing that unity and difference are not in opposition, that indetermination does not imply undifferentiation and that the constitutive nature of the virtual does not detach it from the things and concepts that are conditioned by it (65). In spite of this difference, she concludes that, for both, the object of thought—the flesh and the virtual—is not an identity: “The flesh and the virtual are disguised (VI, 150; DR, 133), displaced with respect to themselves” (79). The two notions combine unity and difference, acting as the condition of concepts and things, be they living or non-living (80). These dimensions are responsible for the individuation and crystallization processes, situated in the articulation between, on the one hand, the visible and the actual, and, on the other hand, the virtual and the invisible flesh, acting in the region between conservation and creation.

Supported by this discussion about the two philosophers’ ontologies—in their closeness and in their distance—, Wamback proceeds to study that which she describes as their “transcendental project”, seeking to situate their proposed investigation about the nature of thought in a broader framework:

“What is at stake, philosophically, when they refuse a representational account of thought, and prefer instead to situate the origin of thinking not in the thinking subject, but in the encounter with an exterior sign (Deleuze), or in the participation in a wild being (Merleau-Ponty)? Why do they both attack the representational account of thought?” (85).

She defends that they are brought close together by their affirmation of the non-exteriority between subject and object, between the one who thinks and what is thought—an affirmation that, according to her, is at the basis of what the two of them recognize as philosophically being “immanence” (85). Wamback defends that immanence is articulated with the idea of “difference”, even with all the distance that separates their respective ontologies.

Deleuze’s transcendental project is carefully presented by a confrontation with the Kantian project and by a discussion of a series of thinkers that heavily influenced him, especially Spinoza, Maimon, Leibniz, and Husserl. Merleau-Ponty’s project, in its turn, is presented through its confrontation with Husserl and, more generally speaking, with phenomenology, a relation characterized simultaneously by connection and distance. Wamback highlights that, beyond their idiosyncrasies, they have a common inspiration in their criticism of Husserl and his proposal of a return “to the things themselves”:

“A transcendental philosophy should look not for the conditions of possibility of experience but for its conditions of reality. For Merleau-Ponty as much as for Deleuze, this implies that the transcendental ground is to be situated in the empirical. The ground must be immanent to the grounded and thus possess a certain historicity that cannot be reconciled with the invariability of transcendent essences. Philosophy’s task, then, is defined as the explanation of how the empirical, the grounded, can be produced immanently. For both thinkers, philosophy is to be a philosophy of genesis.” (121)

There is also a resonance in what they reject from Husserl, especially his notion of a transcendental subject (122). According to Wamback, they both see in this notion an obstacle to a consistent transcendental project, since it prevents it from “becoming an immanent ontology” (123) and weakens its differential dimension.

After this more general perspective, it is now possible to return to what Wamback calls the dimension of “immanence”, present in the two authors’ respective transcendental project. To analyze this notion, it is worthwhile to focus especially on its differential dynamic—something that Wamback has worked on from the beginning by way of the relation between the ground and the grounded, the main axis that articulates her analyses.

Here one should mention a central element both for the two philosophers and for Wamback’s argument, namely the notion of expression, precisely as a way of understanding this articulation between the condition and the conditioned. The following chapters focus, each in their own way, on this notion, circumscribing it through diverse and correlate points of view: through its relation to the notion of simultaneity, through its connection to literary expression, and, finally, by discussing its visual dimension. In a word: by their relations to Bergson, Proust, and Cézanne.

The first step is their common reference to Bergson, which is circumscribed by Wamback through the notion of simultaneity. She seeks to understand how the appeal to Bergson helps Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze to build, each in their own way, a transcendental project that attempts to situate the transcendental in the empirical, the basis for what she considers the “philosophy of immanence” that is characteristic of both (125).

Wamback argues that Merleau-Ponty’s initial reading of Bergson, particularly in the Phenomenology of Perception, is “essentially unfair” (132), since he accuses Bergson of “not considering other kinds of spatiality in order to think time” (ibid). This diagnosis would be partially revised in The Visible and the Invisible, especially through the notion of “partial coincidence” and through his discussion of depth—both topics that are also to be found in Deleuze’s reading. Here the two meet each other again, since the two of them recognize depth not as a spatial but as a temporal dimension, connected to the idea of simultaneity—explicitly as a refusal of a notion of succession, recognizing the present as a “contraction of the past” (142). This formulation would lead them to similar consequences, especially the affirmation of an impossibility of directly accessing the past.

“These ressonances between Merleau-Ponty’s and Deleuze’s references to Bergson also reveals resonances at the most general level of their conception of the relation between the ground and the grounded. Both appeal to Bergson’s idea that the passing of time must be explained through the simultaneity of future, present, and past, because that offers a possible solution if your goal is to avoid referring, in the explanation, to an exterior or transcendent element. In other words, Bergson’s notion of simultaneity is a very good illustration of how one can keep the relation between the ground and the grounded immanent.” (143)

Wamback emphasizes the notion of simultaneity as a central element in their philosophies, a kind of “field” that articulates transcendence and immanence. The study about expression—about the way this relationship is realized and is inscribed in their respective transcendental projects—continues through an analysis of Proust and Cézanne.

The careful chapter devoted to Proust shows, on the one hand, that both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze find in the writer inspiration to understand an achronological, original time, composed of dimensions and not divided into successive moments, configured around a “centre of envelopment” (163). On the other hand, Wamback sustains that their respective readings diverge to the extent that, beyond this direct reference to time, Proust also contributed to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the body, something that did not occur with Deleuze.

The following chapter continues the discussion about the notion of expression, focusing now on its visual dimension and finding support in Cézanne’s presence, also common to the two philosophers. Wamback shows how both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze insist on the nonrepresentational character of art, which leads them both in the direction of a “nonimitative resemblance” (170). The guiding thread is the understanding—that brings them very close to each other—of the painting process and its nature (178).

Finally, the seventh chapter is devoted to a description of how Saussure figures in each author’s work. In the previous chapters, recall, Wamback strove to make explicit the way they tried to “ensure the immanence of their transcendental projects by characterizing the relationship between the ground and the grounded as one of simultaneity (chapter 4) and expression (chapters 5 and 6)” (189). Now, in the last chapter, she explores another central element of these transcendental projects, namely the idea of difference. Wamback argues that, in spite of some differences, both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are interested in the same ideas from Saussure, especially “his discovery of the genetic power of difference” (211).

After briefly retracing Wamback’s path, it is now possible to summarize, in a few lines, her main proposal. It seems to me that the central—and strongest—of her claims is her proposal of a convergence between the transcendental projects of Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, especially due to the intrinsic relation between such projects and the field of immanence. According to Wamback, this immanence is an original articulation between the condition and the conditioned, formulated by the two authors through the notions of simultaneity and expression. Such a “philosophy of immanence” is on the horizon thanks to which a new sense of the transcendental could appear, bring the philosophers close together.

Such a similarity, however, does not erase their differences. Indeed, it illuminates these differences from a new perspective. This is what allows Wamback to finally conclude, without losing sight of their respective singularities, that there is still a “unity” among them, as a new horizon that does not reject dissonance, putting it into a new context and proposing it a new meaning. As she had proposed in the beginning, one of the main goals of her project was to retrace philosophical relations, to rethink more subterranean contexts, to reconfigure lines of influence and of exchange in a more general sense.

It is, therefore, a highly original proposal, resulting in an uncommon work among the current scholarship, one that is pursued with admirable care, clarity, and cohesion.

Éric Trémault: Structure et sensation, Vrin, 2020

Structure et sensation: Une critique de la psychologie de la forme Book Cover Structure et sensation: Une critique de la psychologie de la forme
Matière étrangère
Éric Trémault
Vrin
2020
Paperback
196

Luís Aguiar de Sousa, Ana Falcato (Eds.): Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity and Values

Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity and Values Book Cover Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity and Values
Luís Aguiar de Sousa, Ana Falcato (Eds.)
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
2019
Hardback £64.99
330

Reviewed by: Dag August Schmedling Dramer (University of Oslo)

In the opening lines of the excellently compiled essay collection by Luís Aguiar de Sousa and Ana Falcato titled Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity and the Values (originally published August 2019), it becomes clear that the innovative aspect of this work is not the tried and true cognitive discussion of the role the complex phenomenon of intersubjectivity plays in our lives, although most of section I is dedicated to this “classical” discussion. It is rather the volume’s focus on the axiological parts of our existence that is of particular interest. In this review, I will present a short summary of the articles and essays presented in the volume, as well as offer commentary and critique of their central themes. I have selected only a few due to length constraints. I also present some further discussions in order to contextualize for the wider debates in phenomenology.

We can begin with the introduction, for there it is stated that the approach the collection intends to take, is axiological. According to the editors, it is the case that “what makes this volume special and distinct from other collective works on the phenomenology of intersubjectivity is its insistence on the axiological—that is, the ethical and existential—dimension of phenomenology’s account of intersubjectivity.” (2) However, further explication or discussion dedicated to accounting for what exactly the field of “axiology” denotes is not pursued.

“Within continental philosophy, phenomenology is more widely understood and engaged with than axiology. As such, it would have been prudent to dedicate more time to accounting for what exactly axiology is. Especially since “there has been a renewed interest in phenomenology in recent Anglo-American philosophy” (1).

This seems to imply the equal familiarity between the two on behalf of the readers though; phenomenology on the one hand, and axiology on the other, where it can be claimed that between the two, phenomenology is arguably the more known. This is not necessarily the case, however. That said, it is indeed true, as the editors also claim, that the essays in the collection quickly move from the more classical debates about how to account for the presence of the other, (the realm that is often most interested in the cognition-focused Anglo-American philosophy) and into the realm of ethics and even theology. This fact, is most welcome. This is especially the case given the explicitness with which this fact is confirmed. It is the case, for instance, that the ethical dimension of the phenomenological quest of investigating our social natures as intersubjectively constituted creatures, often looms in the background of the contemporary phenomenological writing, and this is the case for almost all the writing on intersubjectivity both classic and more recent. Yet surprisingly, this very fact does not seem to be explicitly focused on, as the ethical dimension of the phenomenological project, often approached at the end of a given text, trails off or is relegated to “another occasion”. This is where “values” comes in, and as such, this collection can be seen as a form of bridge between the two now less estranged banks of intersubjectivity and the values, crossing the river of phenomenology that gives rise to both.

The book is divided into three parts, each with their own focus. The essays in part I. are dedicated to “The Cognitive and Epistemological Dimension of the Problem of the Other” consisting of 5 essays. Although thorough, this section is perhaps the least original, as it is dedicated to the classical discussion from within the writings of some major phenomenologists, such as Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Yet, the interesting thing is how the essays in the section, despite what can be claimed is the generally unoriginal approach of their points of departure—exegesis of the classical texts (which Zahavi, in several places, claims is the tendentious trap of much contemporary phenomenology)—all have original streaks in several of their main points. For instance, the text by Jorge Goncalves on Intersubjectivity in Psychiatry brings phenomenology to bear on some background assumptions in psychiatry concerning the status of the self. He shows how longstanding debates in phenomenology can greatly help the psychiatrist get a grip on his or her patient, and the latter’s fundamental needs. He concludes that although some of the prevailing theories in psychology concerning our access to the other’s mind, namely Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory, can provide relevant and helpful explanations for psychiatry, the fundamental problem remains the same: how to truly open oneself up to the other person, when the other person resides on the outside of “normality”. The conclusion is that phenomenology, with its traditional methodological operation manifested in the attempt to “suspend judgment and perceive things themselves as they are” (109) may prove to be more successful in this perennial and forever pertinent endeavor. Goncalves fails however, to note that a recent formulation of this “phenomenological approach” is termed “interaction theory” by Gallagher, as the latter opposes them explicitly to Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory as on equal footing.

A more classical exegetical discussion is found in another paper, the paper presented as chapter 1 by Paul F. Zipfel which is a thoroughgoing and careful analysis of Husserl’s notion of inaccessibility.

From the get-go, it becomes clear that, although well written, the essay is best read by someone already initiated into the core ideas of Husserl’s phenomenology. Introductory remarks are not made, and we jump right into the middle of the action, which is subtended by the paradoxical question of how the other appears to the subject, because of, not in spite of, his or her inaccessibility. The main thesis defended by Zipfel is that inaccessibility is a “function of the originality of the conscious act” and as such, is quite a fundamental part of our encounters with the other. A preparatory section is dedicated to the important, if somewhat exasperated discussion of direct versus indirect experience, before Zipfel moves into “the originality of experience” as he accounts for how that which is most original in the other subject’s experience, is not directly given to the experiencer of the other, but rather in the form of a “consciousness of a consciousness that is not my own.” This is quite subtle, and Zipfel presents some good examples in order to clarify this complex point. He draws on several contemporary commentators, as well as meticulous readings of Husserl’s own reflections as recounted on Cartesian Meditations and Husserliana in order to develop his discussion. The main conclusion in the essay is that the other is accessible exactly in his/her inaccessibility. The other person’s mind is in many ways directly perceived, but not fully or completely. There is always some mystery that eludes us, always something left to explore, yet this is what opens the door to ethics, and what we might call “the mystery of the other.”

The perhaps most original essay in part 1 is chapter 4, by Roberta Guccinelli, in which she discusses the notion of “the ecological self”. Interesting though it is, the author can be said to perhaps assume too much, as she jumps straight into it with the question of whether an “ecological self really exists” which is presumptuous due to its assumption that the reader has dedicated some time pondering this question, and it also perhaps assumes an already parallel standpoint taken on the very notion of the self, on the readers’ part. That said, Guccinelli’s approach to Scheler, attempting to use his phenomenology to (re)construct a self that is not just intersubjectively constituted, but ecologically constituted (what we might call “eco-subjective”) is most welcome. Although there has been literature that have drawn the background conceptual links between phenomenology and ecology out into the explicitly ethical open (like David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous), Guccinelli’s focus on the Self, along with Guccinelli’s usage of Scheler’s phenomenology in that regard, is highly interesting and original.

I stand by the contemporary Husserl scholar Dan Zahavi’s general comment mentioned in the bracket above, that there is a widespread tendency among current phenomenologists to dabble in egregious over-exegesis of the original source material. This is done with the best educational intentions, but it often only serves, ironically, to render it tiresome to the pragmatically oriented reader, who in many cases simply wants to see its immediate relevance to the discipline (nursing-studies, psychiatry, biology etc.) i.e. their own field. I have to present a lengthy quote which can help to moderate this view a little, which with its helpful and thorough discussion of the difference between (and similarities of) Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’s views on intersubjectivity, makes us see how the underlying and “classical” discussion is as alive and relevant as ever. Here are the concluding sentences from the final part of chapter 3, by one of the editors, de Sousa himself, as he compares Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.

Merleau-Ponty’s view has the great merit of making a very strong connection between subjectivity and intersubjectivity—of showing, in other words, that it is only possible for us to form the idea of other subjects because our self is radically different from the Cartesian self, and vice versa. As a result, Merleau-Ponty manages to turn Husserl’s account of intersubjectivity on its head, undermining the foundations of Husserlian phenomenology (even if this remains polemical from a Husserlian point of view). (79)

Now, it might be argued that there is an overabundance in the literature when it comes to the exegetical accounts of what the phenomenological forefathers actually meant to say, and that there should be a stricter separation between “scholarly work” and “contemporary application” in the literature than what is currently fashionable, but that belies the way phenomenology is actually working. The early founding phenomenologists themselves, as de Sousa more than hints at above, argued intensely amongst themselves, and any usage of phenomenology today will have to take a stand on the premises in the debate in order to present their positive views on the applicability of the discipline to other fields. Especially when phenomenology meets contemporary empirical research. And these roots go way back to Husserl’s concern with The Crises of the European Sciences. More immediately engaged was Merleau-Ponty for instance, who was very much up to date with the empirical sciences of his day. Indeed, he was informed by the empirical sciences to such a degree that the neurological and psychological case studies buttressed central aspects of his phenomenology. Those studies are indispensable to his magnum opus, Phenomenology of Perception, and the approach developed therein. When the psychologist J.J. Gibson read Merleau-Ponty, he was directly inspired by the philosopher’s concept of motor-intentionality to develop his interactionist view of perception as directly action-guiding in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

Today, links are drawn between Heidegger’s Being and Time and recent developments in the cognitive sciences. These links were first drawn by Hubert Dreyfus in his (in)famous reading of Heidegger’s existential analytic and phenomenology and used as a direct attack on the program of early research into artificial intelligence in the early 70s. From the get-go, the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (as well as Gabriel Marcel, as we see below) were greatly influencing literature and literary criticism in a sensitive and highly creative time in French writing. This could not have been done without the direct and indirect influence of Husserl, and his early investigations (that Raymond Aron, Sartre and de Beauvoir were exposed to and inspired by) of intentionality. In other words, exegetical or not, phenomenological and existentialist ideas have always, in one way or another, been in mutual engagement with the broader cultural streams, and in turn been affected and changed by them. As such, it can be claimed that “the problem of exegesis” is not a problem at all, but part and parcel of what good phenomenology is all about. So much for part I. of the collection.

In part II. “The Ethical and Existential Approach to the Problem of the Other” the essays become more general, as the consequences of the phenomenological analyses discussed are pursued with a more general look at their ethical and theological import. Part II consists, then, of five essays, ranging from Scheler’s phenomenology of otherness, through discussions on Being-With and Being-Alone in the young Heidegger, Sartre and intersubjectivity, Gabriel Marcel’s thesis of availability on the importance of solicitude for our understanding of fundamental philosophical enquiry.

The perhaps most interesting and informative essay in part II is written by Elodie Malbois, and sets out to account for Gabriel Marcel’s oft neglected contribution to the phenomenological literature. Malbois’ twenty-six page essay can in many ways be described as an homage to Marcel’s thinking, as well as an analysis of his central focus on the notion of “Availability”, which he considered as not just an essential part of how we relate to others, but as an indispensable mode of authentically connecting with them. It actually turns out that for Marcel, intersubjectivity as a phenomenon can only strictly speaking be said to occur when you are available to the other person. Physical proximity, embodied encounters and basic perceptual openness to other people are perhaps necessary preconditions, yet they are hardly sufficient for genuine familiarity with the otherness of the other. The otherness of the other can only appear in the intersubjective mode once the fundamental phenomenon of availability is in play; indeed, intersubjectivity proper for Marcel is not fully understood without reference to availability. But in what, then, does availability consist?

As most phenomena that are closest to us, it is hard to describe. A central role is ascribed to attention; for the available person is according to Marcel hetero-centered, that is, focused on the other. A problem that can arise even within this positive account of the necessity of attention for understanding the phenomenon in question, is that one often runs the risk of simply paying attention to oneself through the other. Malbois uses a Marcelian example of a young man who goes to a party and finding himself quite unable to feel that the others are looking at him, judging him with their gazes. Now, the point here is that while the other man is indeed directed at the other minds, and take their otherness in many ways, seriously, this is not to get to know them better, but rather, involves a return to the self, as he only cares about their minds insofar as they care about him. He is encombré soi, “cluttered up in himself” (187). So being truly available is not just about having your mind directed at another’s mind, and the other person’s object of attention (for that object might just be you) but actively engaging in the other person’s perspective, the other person’s position. This is where Marcel, according to Malbois, allows himself concepts such as agape to slip in, while, according to the latter, arguing further about the necessity of using them (ibid.) But the important roots with Christian theology and mysticism are evident, as being concerned with the otherness of the other for his/her own sake finds its parallel in the language of the believer. Love and charity are central concepts, and they of course imply this fundamental mode of (basic) self-sacrifice through a forgetting of the self for the sake of the other. This is where the original analysis of intersubjectivity turns axiological. Other aspects endemic to classical existential and phenomenological problematics come up, such as authenticity, which for Marcel is tied to availability, a concept that itself turns increasingly complex as Malbois exposition strides forth. Malbois is throughout careful in her discussion, as she never presumes the question of exactly how best to define “availability” to be a settled one. The essay is a well written and critical homage in its entirety, and ends on the thoroughly axiological account of availability as a reciprocal act happening between minds.

The other essays in part II. share the trend of arriving at what we might call “the deeper level” of intersubjective analysis, as the thorough analysis of the phenomenon is pulled in the direction of viewing it as constitutive of our very being-in-the-world, and the fundamental and indispensable parts of this structure. Such as Scheler’s notion of love (chapter 6), which turns theological, or Heidegger’s differentiation between Being-With and Being-Alone (chapter 7) and Sartre’s ambivalent account of intersubjectivity, the chapter (chapter 8) in which André Barata brings in the outspoken atheist Sartre’s more theological reflections on Nothingness, God and, (the classical) question of what love is.

Then, finally, there is part III in which we move into the more esoteric parts of the phenomenological problematics concerning intersubjectivity. Chapter 11 is dedicated to a discussion on the development and connection between Merleau-Ponty’s thinking and Foucault’s by Gianfranco Ferraro, and in it he draws the lines towards what he dubs “a contemporary ontology of immanence” (241). The essay is a difficult read, not just due to the inherently difficult source material discussed, but also due to the lines drawn. Although the original quest set out on from part 1 of the essay, namely that of accounting for the “possible influences and relations between the two authors” and their varied import for the new ontology of the subject emerging after World War 2, I fear that too much is already at stake from the get-go, and that Ferraro fails to bring everything together in a fruitful way. There simply seems to be too many thinkers involved, as Levinas, Heidegger and then Deleuze are brought to bear on the debate. One not well versed in the continental development over the last 100-50 years will have a great difficulty following the many stranded argumentations. That said, for the initiated, the lines drawn are interesting (though at times confused) and merit further investigation.

A refreshing essay is presented by Grace Whistler, constituting chapter 13 in which she discusses the interesting links between form and content in Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. She argues that Camus indeed intended to communicate his very philosophy in the simple style of L’Etranger, which best comes out in the French wordings, which she does her best to convey in an English manner. The essay is nothing short of an analysis of what Whistler takes to be the essential relation between literary style and the content of the philosophy in question. She claims that Camus can be said to attempt a direct showing (show don’t tell) of Merseault’s world through his prose, allowing us to experience it directly as intersubjective. The essay is well written and highly original.

Chapter 14 with its essay entitled “The Poetry and the Pity” is easiest the odd one out in the collection. This is something the editors themselves note in the introduction It is a poetic post-ludium depicting the echoes of the voices crying out from our not-so-distant past; the voices of pain from World War 1. The essay highlights in an effective yet indirect way the running theme throughout the collection; namely the ethical consequences of phenomenology. It is poetically fitting that an essay that does not explicitly engage with phenomenology and intersubjectivity, all the same points us towards the redeeming powers of narrative, which we, now more than ever, are in dire need of.

Rajiv Kaushik: Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology

Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology Book Cover Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Rajiv Kaushik
SUNY Press
2019
Paperback $25.95
202

Reviewed by: Keith Whitmoyer (Pace University)

The wealth of literature that has emerged (and continues to emerge) on Merleau-Ponty’s thought is striking considering that the span between the publication of the author’s first work, The Structure of Behavior (1942), and his last, posthumous work, The Visible and the Invisible (1965), was only a touch more than two decades of active, “serious” academic production.[1] Reading through much of this commentary, one encounters a series of issues and motifs that seem to circulate through discussions of this philosophy: the living body, perceptual experience, motor intentionality, the flesh, the chiasm, reversibility, the place of painting and with respect to these, the author’s engagement and relationship with Husserl on matters autochthonous to phenomenology. This list, of course, goes on. As a reader of both Merleau-Ponty and literature on his thought, one wonders what, if anything, remains to be said.

Kaushik’s work, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, I think, clearly indicates that the answers to the above question—whether and what remains to be said—are yes, and much. It makes this indication, however, by rethinking what it means to read and write about the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by showing that there is a thought and philosophy here that goes well beyond the well-trodden signs that have typically framed approaches and discussions of this author and his work. Kaushik shows us quite eloquently that readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work need no longer rehearse a series of questions that have already been well-documented (perhaps over-documented) and that there remains much to be thought and discussed. Rather than discourse about the lived body, perceptual experience, the flesh, and so forth, we are introduced to another set of signs that frame and render Merleau-Ponty’s thought and which re-constitute its legibility: the symbolic matrix, the elemental, the oneiric, and most importantly, the event.

In addition to opening the field of Merleau-Ponty studies to a series of questions and motifs that have for the most part been unconsidered, Kaushik’s book accomplishes a second task. To the extent to which Between Philosophy and Symbolism provides another set of signs for entering the domain of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, this work also repositions this thought with respect to the history of 20th Century continental philosophy. In a manner that is the analogue to way in which a set of signs gets recycled within the literature on this thinker, Merleau-Ponty is almost invariably attached to the 20th Century’s “phenomenological curve,” the upslope being the work of Husserl and his immediate constellation, the peak probably being Heidegger, the beginning of the downward slope including its rise in France and the immediate post-war period, ending, of course, with the rise of “post-phenomenology” in the figures of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, who all in their own ways tried to ring its death knell. By recasting the signs by which we would enter Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Kaushik, I think, succeeds in dismantling this curve (which surely deserves no less and probably worse). Not only does Merleau-Ponty appear as belonging more to “post-phenomenology” than as a member of the movement but the very terms by which we would want to define “phenomenology” in contrast to “non-phenomenology” (including “post”-phenomenology) become (rightly) contested. By re-framing the approach to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Kaushik’s book re-frames the manner in which we can make sense of what means to belong (or not to belong) to the phenomenological movement and what “phenomenology” can signify in the first place. I want to take the opportunity to explore these transformations through a series of concepts that make up the infrastructure of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, the analysis of which will constitute this writing: the matrix, the symbolic, the element, and the event.

The subtitle of Kaushik’s book, The Matrixed Ontology, already indicates the central role that this concept will play in his reading. A matrix or “matrix event” is positioned against a theory of the transcendental field where the transcendental as such is identified with some form of ipseity: a self-identical, discrete consciousness that occupies the role of referent for the sense of a world it constitutes. Of course we find such a theory of the transcendental most clearly in Kant’s “I think that must accompany all my representations,” the transcendental unity of apperception; in Husserl through the various iterations of transcendental consciousness and egoicity; and of course in Sartre’s theory of consciousness as the active, centripetal constituting agency of the world’s meaning (“nothingness”). Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is distinguished from these theories at the point where the transcendental field is now reconceived—not as the privilege of a constituting self—but as the interstice, fissure, or, as it were, silent lacuna, the écart (divergence) of difference within beings that allows them their phenomenality. In other words, Merleau-Ponty, on Kaushik’s reading, gives a theory of the transcendental that not only allows for but requires internal differentiation. This is a crucial claim because, as Kaushik indicates, it is this revised theory of transcendentality that immunizes Merleau-Ponty’s thought against the critique that phenomenology necessarily eliminates difference, and in so doing, occludes the possibility of thinking the event as such.

Thinking through the configurations and operations of matrices, as well as their corresponding eventualities, occupies much of the individual analyses of the text. We nonetheless encounter some indications in the Introduction, to which I will briefly turn. Kaushik states:

Matrix events do not emphasize self-consciousness at the cost of difference. They are, in fact, called matrices because they constellate difference as difference…. A matrix event may be equated with differentiation in several ways: in addition to difference between human and animal, it can refer to the exterior and interior, public and personal, language and speech. A matrix event runs a circuit through these differences. But the loop of matrix events is never closed, and neither are the terms that they snap up into them. This is crucial, for unless Merleau-Ponty thinks that, through the event, differences are reduced to an identity, he is not guilty of the typical criticism that befalls phenomenology—that it transforms nonsense into sense and makes what is incoherent coherent.[2]

The typical criticism would be that, in its attempt to trace the lines of force that produce and shore up the everyday appearance of the world and the sense it has for us, phenomenology will discover an absolute origin that constitutes this sense. Such an origin, as the origin of all difference, would not itself be subject to difference. It would be a purely centripetal, outwardly oriented movement that thinks but is not an object thought, sees but is not seen, speaks but which cannot be heard, constitutes a time to which it would not be subjected, and constitutes a space in which it would not be found. As Kaushik indicates, such an origin could, by definition, not abide any exteriority, could have no relation to anything that would not in principle be subjected to its sense-making movement, and in this way could not stand in relation to anything radically other to it. A matrix event, by contrast, produces sense but in such a manner that it nonetheless still includes and even welcomes what is beyond its sense. Whereas the traditional, phenomenological view of the transcendental ends with a closure into sense and the elimination of non-sense, a matrix event remains constitutively open to non-sense and what is outside, and in this way is “adventurous:” the matrix event is never complete but remains on its way, unterwegs, as Heidegger might say, but “on its way” only to difference. Kaushik notes in this regard:

An event is not singular but plural. Its plurality, furthermore, prevents the event from being teleological. That there is a temporal character to the matrix event means neither that it is an origin from which other times succeed nor that it is a destination into which all times lead. The event is neither an origin nor a destination.”[3]

Matrix events are made legible over the course of the text through a second concept, the importance of which is already suggested by the title, symbolism. Kaushik, borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, will also speak of the “symbolic matrix,” and one also hears very clearly through the invocation of this concept the “symbolic form,” and both Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky are on the horizon here, filtered through Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Institution in Personal and Public History and his last publication, “Eye and Mind.” I want to consider symbolic form and symbolic matrix under the general rubric of symbolism, which I believe should be understood verbally.

In the Institution lectures, Merleau-Ponty says:

The parallel [of painting] with philosophies is acceptable only if philosophies themselves are taken not as statements of ideas, but as inventions of symbolic forms. Shortcoming of Cassirer’s philosophy consists in thinking that criticism is the endpoint, that philosophical sense has a directing value even though this sense itself is taken up into sedimentation. Consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not as a philosophy of symbolic forms.[4]

The idea at play here, taken up again in the essay Eye and Mind, is that, as Merleau-Ponty famously says, “every theory of painting is a metaphysics.”[5] That is to say, every theory painting—even one that attempts to ignore or deprecate it such as we find in Descartes or Kant—is a theory of expression, a theory about how the sense of what is comes into being, and every theory of expression is already metaphysics, since metaphysics has only ever been the attempt to think the becoming—the expression—of what is. The significant claim here is that we need to hear “metaphysics” not as the “statement of ideas”—metaphysics in a profound sense has nothing to do with the articulation of theses about being—but “as the invention of symbolic forms,” i.e., the invention of ways and means that allow for the expression of a certain point of view, a certain perspective, or way of seeing. Renaissance painting is of course just this: the presentation and making visible of a certain Weltanschauung, a certain frame—one might even say Ge-stell—for what it means to appear, what it means to be.

Kaushik makes the following commentary on the text from the Institution lectures:

His last sentence here, ‘consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not a philosophy of symbolic forms,’ is sweeping and radical in its proposal to alter both the method and aim of philosophy. If philosophy criticism is itself a symbolic form, this would mean that the ground for every truth claim in fact enfolds a symbolic component. The height of philosophical criticism would then, counterintuitively, eventuate in the symbolic. If so, philosophical criticism becomes absorbed by something very much counter to its usual goals, a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.[6]

If metaphysics is the invention of symbolic forms, then the tasks for philosophy as well as its very nature are reconfigured and rethought. It means that the symbolic is no longer a regional matter for a specified branch of philosophical discourse but that the symbolic—symbolism in the verbal sense—is at the very center of philosophical discourse. This means, according to Kaushik, that philosophy cannot hope to arrive at a final diapason of self-consciousness or absolute knowledge but that it encounters at best “a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.”[7] In being oriented by and in terms of symbolic forms, philosophical inquiry is constitutively defined by a certain delay, an internal slippage as its symbols defer their sense. As a result (or even as a function) of this slippage, phenomenological method (now oriented in terms of symbolic forms) can no longer be understood as the disclosure of an absolute origin, but as indicated earlier, must be thought in terms of an ineliminable difference. Kaushik summarizes this as follows:

The symbolic does not, however, mediate or bring beings together with being but opens up and is the very difference between them. It is in other words, on an adventure and is not a destination end or even a proper origin. It takes or is always on an excursion—between consciousness and unconsciousness, body and world, oneself and another, and the things of the world—while also being no place otherwise.[8]

The adventure of sense, its radical openness, and the necessity of the event for phenomenological method are, in a way, thus premised on the symbolic. This adventurousness, however, requires another concept. If the symbolic introduces a function of slippage and differentiation within the articulation of sense, the principle of this slippage must still be clarified. Kaushik accomplishes this by invoking another term: the element, to which I will now briefly turn.

“Element,” of course, immediately recalls the oldest metaphysics of the Western tradition, the φυσιολόγοι, as Aristotle said, those who discoursed on φύσις or “nature.” We should be careful, however, not confuse the use of element at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism with a theory of nature, however, nor should we assume that by invoking this pre-Socratic notion that Kaushik wishes to recover or return to some absolute ὑποκείμενον beneath the phenomena that would explain or even express them. As the third term in the triad matrix-symbol-element, the elemental here designates both the plane of excess of sense and the unexpressed (and inexpressible) silence necessary and intrinsic to any event of phenomenality. In other words, the element is the invisible, the absent and by definition indeterminable interstices or lacunae within the world that allow for the visible, which would precisely be their inverse. Kaushik says:

The elements are, to my mind … by no means determinate, by no means exterior to the explicit phenomenon, and do not oppose it. They are rather within the phenomenon and even if they are not themselves phenomenal. They therefore do not introduce a new reality. The only reason they cannot be located is because they are always differentiated and have no specific locale.[9]

The element is, as it were, the unidentifiable, non-localizable and yet silent interior of things that gives but is not given, that makes possible while itself not being a possible object of identification. As such, the element provides the needed principle of slippage since it appears only in its absence, appears only as missing, known only indirectly through indication and never encountered as such. The element in this sense is elicited through analyses of Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on light in connection with Heraclitus’s use of ἁπτόμενον, “kindling.” As Kaushik says a propos of illumination in Merleau-Ponty:

In the logic of light, it is important to Merleau-Ponty that what issues illumination is also within the illuminated. This means that, for him, illumination contains no original source or point of view that can itself be illuminated. It means, in other words, that illumination is in effect also dark—that it is in fact darkness that makes illumination possible. There can therefore be no general ontology of light that does not have to do with its regional context and its inability to be seen…. [Light] penetrates everywhere, explores the phenomenal plane, and yet can never be a single source from which we know about visible things…. Rather than a source, light is an endless refraction and flash-like. This refraction never shows. Its primary character is diversion. Yet both phenomenon as well as its disclosure are because of the very texture of this always diverted light.[10]

Light or the “kindling” Heraclitus speaks of, the spark-like flash in which things appear, is elemental precisely at the point where light itself shows the phenomena but in its function as showing, itself withdraws and is not seen. I see the visible surface illuminated by the light but do not and cannot see the light itself. There is, as it were, then, a darkness, a shadow within all light that makes it possible as light, but in virtue of this darkness light itself remains elusive: vision only operates in virtue of our constitutive belatedness with respect to light—we see only after the fact, after the light itself has vanished, leaving behind only a trace in the form of the visible thing we see. Understood through light and lighting, the elemental is thus not identifiable with any kind of substrate, atom, matter, or even with a “basic ingredient.” The element, or elements, or elemental must be understood verbally: elementality is what happens, indeed, the event, when the things of the world flash up before us, where that flashing, that “deflagration” of the world’s sense comes to pass through an inverse event of recession, darkening, and shadow—a partial disintegration of the world’s sense around the edges, where sense emerges thanks to non-sense and without eliminating it. Elementality is the event of this lighting-darkening, a penumbric passage from one to the other in which the element as such is encountered only through its inverse, through what it allows and not, as it were, “in the flesh.”

The conceptual triad, matrix-symbol-element, as they function across the specific analyses of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, re-orient Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in such a way that we could no longer say with certainty that we are still in auspices of “phenomenology,” at least given the traditional sense of this as “transcendental science.” Indeed, through the mechanism of this conceptual triad, the very sense and meaning of “transcendental” becomes contested. Rather than a transcendental philosophy in the tradition of Kant and Husserl, through Kaushik’s reading, we must now situate Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on the side of thinkers such as Deleuze and Derrida—thinkers of difference, slippage, and the event. I want to close this consideration of Between Philosophy and Symbolism by turning to the event in more detail.

Since the publication of Badiou’s Being and Event (1988), it has become fashionable for “philosophies of the event,” including Badiou but also figures such as Meillassoux and so-called “speculative realism,” to pose what is supposed to be a fatal critique of phenomenology. The critique, as Kaushik nicely phrases it, operates like this:

The assumption is that phenomenology reorients incoherency to coherency, inconsistency to consistency, nonsense to sense, and therefore also closes itself to the truly abnormal aspect of events… a philosophy of the event does not exclude the transcendental per se…. Only when it is conceived in terms of an intention, whether subjective or bodily, does the transcendental exclude the event…. An event would break from all forms of intentionality so radically that it cannot be an origin, destination, or even a preexisting referent, and its eventfulness would instead be utterly spontaneous.[11]

The conceptual triad matrix-symbol-element undoes intentionality—it makes sense of the birth of sense without reducing this genesis to an intentional form that would erase its excess, other, and outside. In other words, what the reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty’s thought at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism accomplishes is the articulation of a phenomenology that allows for incoherency, inconsistency and nonsense to dwell within the sense of the world and that the emergence of sense does not exclude these. Kaushik reiterates this in the conclusion of the text, where he says “The impossible is internal to all senses, configuring them from within. This matrix, between sense and the meaning that cannot possible make sense, implies that no sense ever exhausts its non-sense.”[12] If the impossible is internal to all senses, if sense itself requires a non-sense internal to it, then it would seem that phenomenology—at least the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty—is already a philosophy of the event.

If Kaushik’s analyses are correct, and the close reading and analyses of the text indicate that they are, then the supposed fatal critique of phenomenology posed by philosophies of the event is not only not fatal, but premised on a misreading of phenomenology—or at least a misreading of the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, by making Merleau-Ponty’s thought legible in terms of and through the matrix-symbolic-element, the traditional series of concepts that typically make up the currency of Merleau-Ponty studies—body, perception, flesh, etc.—are recast such that their internal relationship as well as Merelau-Ponty’s original contributions to philosophy (his engagement with Husserl, his conceptualization of phenomenology and its method, etc.) now come to fore clearly in a way hitherto undocumented. That being said, I will only add that Between Philosophy and Symbolism indicates that the more traditional interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s thought (lived body, perception, flesh, etc.) are, in a sense, already in the past and that they most likely belong there, footnotes to a philosophy that itself continues to thrive and live. The readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work who are yet to come will leave these traditional readings there, in the past, and instead take Between Philosophy and Symbolism as their point of departure.


[1] Contrast Heidegger, who published Being and Time in 1927 and whose academic activity seems to have lasted at least until the late sixties, almost twice the output of Merleau-Ponty.

[2] Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2019), xii.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Institution and Passivity. Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 44; Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Galen Johnson. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132.

[6] Kaushik, Between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii-xix.

[7] Ibid., xix.

[8] Ibid., xx.

[9] Ibid., xxii.

[10] Ibid., 64-65.

[11] Ibid., xi-xii.

[12] Ibid., 128.

Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.): Phenomenological Approaches to Physics, Springer, 2020

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics Book Cover Phenomenological Approaches to Physics
Synthese Library, Volume 429
Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 103,99 €

Susan Bredlau: The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons

The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons Book Cover The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons
Susan Bredlau
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $80.00
138

Reviewed by: Fiona Utley (University of New England, Australia)

In The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons, Susan Bredlau argues that, beginning in infant-caregiver relations, others are integral to the form of our experience of them, and claims that this gives rise to interpersonal trust as “the condition of healthy perceptual development” (3). The major contribution of her study, Bredlau claims, is the phenomenological analysis, or “the concrete working out” of how, beginning in infancy, our experiences of other people are formative of our existence as subjects and of our experience of dwelling in the world. While this might seem to be a well-discussed point central to phenomenology, Bredlau takes this discussion further. She develops a comparison between the formative experiences of early childhood subject development, where we emerge from what might be considered a complete and unchosen vulnerability to the existence of others, into a world that “demands our adherence to what has already been established” (89), and the voluntary high stakes vulnerability of our subjecthood in adult sexual relationships.

Overall, Bredlau’s book is a philosophically rich text. A range of philosophers, for example, Heidegger, Hegel, Beauvoir, and Gallagher, and child development researchers, including among others, psychologist Daniel Stern, are key to the discussion of human behaviour. Primarily, however, Bredlau brings together the thinking of three philosophers—Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Russon—relating these thinkers to each other and to what is a central trajectory of thought in phenomenology, and in so doing, continuing the discussion in thoughtful and insightful ways.

The text is essentially divided into two sections of two chapters each: the first two chapters are structured to cover each of the three philosophers in turn, in this way highlighting both their debt to and differentiation from the work of their predecessors, and establishing the phenomenological perspectives that will be applied in the second half of the book. Central to these discussions is Husserl’s focus on experiences of ‘pairing’, that is, “an experience of actually perceiving—rather than imagining or remembering—another human body.” (31) Here, “[t]he experience of perceiving—in contrast to the experience of imagining or remembering—is inseparable from the body’s position” (31) and as Husserl argues, “The other body there enters into a pairing association with my body here and, being given perceptually, becomes the core of an appresentation.” (Husserl, cited in Bredlau, 31) The final two chapters cover two key aspects of experience whereby our ‘pairing’ with others shapes this experience of the specific other as in some way essential to us. Bredlau argues that it is this pairing that founds our intersubjective relationships throughout life and goes on to claim that, therefore, “trust is the essential medium of our erotic relationships, relationships that in principle carry an equivalent sort of ethical weight to that of caregiver relationships [in childhood]” (4). That is, trust is at the core of her claims regarding the “ethical questions that pervade the intimate bonds we form, whether we form these bonds in affirmation or in denial of the freedom and responsibility that is constitutive of intersubjective relationships” (96).

Bredlau handles the phenomenology of our perception of others particularly well, identifying and concretely mapping out how what is happening in perception goes well beyond perception and encompasses the development of our personality and character, our sense of having a world, and what Merleau-Ponty refers to as ‘the body schema’ through which we experience self and others. This insight will be familiar to readers of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Russon, and it is to Bredlau’s credit that she builds so respectfully on these works. One of the great merits of The Other in Perception is its sensitive exegesis of the nuances of each philosopher’s thought and the insights into what amounts to a significant philosophical conversation that is being had over time. In the opening chapters which might be seen as preliminary to the presentation of Bredlau’s own arguments, we find that phenomenological concepts are presented carefully and methodically, with the implications of such thinking made clear. The development of the ontological implications, and how the different philosophers have taken them up, is carefully traced and the commonalities that then appear among them add weight to Bredlau’s overall intentions. On the concept of infant “pairing”, for instance, Bredlau clearly presents both Husserl’s original insights and use of this concept, but also the differences between Husserl’s understandings and Merleau-Ponty’s later thinking about the child’s relations with others. There is a culmination in Bredlau’s presentation of Russon on pairing and how “the significant people with whom we are involved in our lives function more as aspects of the form of our perception than as its contents or objects” (39). Russon’s notion of polytemporality, a concept that references musical experience to draw out how “the many non-thematic dimensions of experience that must be operative if we are to perceive the present sound—the note—as music… provide[s] a basic logic for understanding the larger structure of the world that contextualises our everyday experiences” (17), also serves to demonstrate the affective structures and sense of temporal layering that are produced by such pairing, and how these reflect the situated historical context of all perceptual experience. Importantly, Bredlau then goes on to establish how this developmental capacity can be opened up to renewal through our intimacy with others.

Overall, this is a book that argues for the value of phenomenology. At the outset, Husserl’s radical idea is established: that we must put aside our thoughts about whether things we perceive “correspond” to the things themselves, and start by describing the things we perceive; it is through the process of phenomenological description that we can come to recognise that we perceive real things rather than mental representations. Bredlau takes this up from the outset, carefully explaining that when Husserl describes a physical object as transcendent to consciousness, “he is not claiming that the things we are conscious of as physical objects first exist independently of our consciousness of them, as we presume in [what he calls] the ‘natural attitude’; he is describing the way in which these things exist within our experience.” (9).

Also central is Husserl’s description of pairing as a “second kind” of relation other than object experience: that is, “we “live through”, or “perceive with” another human body and find ourselves in a world as perceived by the other rather than simply by us” (33). Our experience of others is of beings who are themselves conscious of the natural and cultural world as perceiving subjects (not as thinking subjects). We are aware of them as “making specific perceptual sense of their specific physical situation” (29). As such, and central to Bredlau’s argument, there is the understanding that subjectivity is embodied, with our behaviour the activity of a perceiving body.

Thus, such pairings, which are “formative of our self-identity in a way that shapes the very form of our perception,” are the founding, formative context of our perceptual life. Bredlau closely examines pairing at the level of “intrinsic embeddedness of others in our very bodily comportment” (45), evident in infant-caregiver relationality, utilising Merleau-Ponty’s work in “The Child’s Relation to Others”. Here Merleau-Ponty argues that the infant does not “reason by analogy” using reflection on comparisons between her own visible behaviour and that of others. Rather, the infant has not seen her own expressions as she intends to bite the care-giver’s finger and thus what might initially be theorised as reflective behaviour, needs to be understood as “the baby’s direct perception of [her care-giver’s] behaviour as perceptive, as intending a meaningful world” (47). This is, Bredlau stresses, “behavior that is as much expressive of an orientation as it is responsive to a setting” (47). This point is crucial to the parallels Bredlau later draws between infant behaviour and adult intimacy. Also important, Bredlau stresses, is that this is a situation of “play”; the world is there for the infant, “appresented” through the care-giver’s body as a meaningful world; the baby is not strictly speaking imitating, but is, rather, participating in the caregiver’s specific way of perceiving the world, and the baby’s perception is “inherently collaborative” (49).

What is vitally important here, therefore, is, Bredlau’s conclusion: “How, then, the particular caregiver with which a particular infant is paired perceives the world will be of lasting significance for an infant’s perception of the world” (62). Via discussions of how the intentional shifting of the caregiver’s affective tempo, or pace, can influence the infant’s affect or arousal, we see the ethical dimensions of Bredlau’s work coming into sharp focus. It is through the body that the infant experiences how their caregiver sees them and how they belong in the immediate world of the caregiver, and what this world is like. Such understandings become incorporated into our experiential structures through our body schema.

In her second study of a phenomenological understanding of pairing, Bredlau claims that it is reasonable to understand adult intimate relations as another instance of great interpersonal vulnerability, and being thus, “like childhood intimacy, sexual intimacy is ultimately a matter of trust” (87). Here she draws significantly on Russon’s work to demonstrate how, while “what is at stake in sexual experience is mutual attraction and the mutual realization of our autonomy, the vulnerability entailed by sexual experience often leads us to deny these stakes.” In this way, Russon’s work is central to Bredlau’s concrete working out of the ways in which “our sexual practices can embody such denials and thus amount to betrayals of trust—of the intersubjective bonds that are constitutive of our experience” (87).

These betrayals, and it is important that we keep in mind that these are ultimately betrayals of trust, can take two forms: the first being in the form of theft—“claiming what is ours to be solely mine” or; secondly, these can be of a form that “pretends that a bond does not require judgement and appropriation, that it is not ambiguous and shared but is an obvious and settled piece of reality” (87). The first form takes us to thinking about the power plays operating and often indeed seen to be norms of sexual behaviour—where each person is imposing their sexual behaviour on the other while at the same time this other is imposing their sexual behaviour on them, the result being that one of either is controlling the relationship dynamic (theft) or pretending not to be implicated in it (88).

The second form is that whereby we treat sexual relations as “situations governed by pre-existing standards and thus…Both our bodies and other bodies may retreat into explicit codes of sexual conduct or implicit sexual norms and act as if these codes or norms—rather than the unique desire of uniquely embodied subjects—determine how sexual experience should unfold” (88-89). Drawing on Russon, Bredlau argues that “if we take our culture’s definition of a fulfilling relationship as definitive for our sexual relations, we actually deny the reality of our sexual relations” (89). I think that it is important here to point out how Bredlau’s preliminary discussion of male and female sexuality, drawing on Beauvoir, comes back into play and we see the significance of how these two forms of betrayal often overlap and thus compound the betrayal of trust; many of our cultural norms around sexuality point towards women being submissive to the normative ideal of the powerful male.

I think it is important to precisely examine the connection that is being made between adult relations and infant relations and how this might be contextualised within the broader philosophical discussions of trust. For Bredlau, both forms of relations involve experiences of vulnerability and intimacy, with much at stake, both physically and existentially. The crux of the connection is that, similarly to infant relations, where questions “that our bodies can never answer for themselves and must, instead, turn to other bodies to answer” (87), sexual situations are situations of great vulnerability, and thus, “like childhood intimacy, sexual intimacy is ultimately a matter of trust” (my italics, 87).

This claim asks us to undertand all that Bredlau has presented about infant perception and the formation of meaning as subjectivity and subjectivity of our world, as ultimately a matter of trust. Given this claim, we might now expect some significant discussion connecting perceptual experience to trusting experience. Yet, in the whole text, there is only one section that is specifically directed towards the question of trust; Chapter 3, “The Institution of Interpersonal Life”, titled Pairing and Trust. This might be anticipated to be not only a culmination of thought as it pertains to Bredlau’s central argument regarding trust, but also a bringing together of this phenomenological work with some of the broader philosophical discussion of trust. Yet, this is not the case, and nor does Bredlau return, in any substantial discussion, to matters of trust directly. While Bredlau is clear that her discussion of forms of betrayal are about betrayals of trust, this needs, I believe, the modes of trusting be made visible, if we are to see how trusting is iressolvably intertwined with our experience of subjectivity “precisely as embodied”, and this is to be considered a substantial contribution to philosophical thinking about trust. My point is that Bredlau does not present trust to us through a conceptual lens. That said, she is contributing phenomenological work important if thinking about trust is to deepen; she is contributing phenomenologically rich descriptions of lived experiences that are themselves trusting or concerning our trusting, and that we recognise them as such. We generally know what trusting is without the exact contours of the philosophical concept being explained to us.

In order to highlight the significance of Bredlau’s phenomenological insights and identify how these contribute to a broader discussion of trust, I think that it is important to go beyond Bredlau’s text and bring some of the broader philosophical work on trust into the discussion. For example, discussions of trust often refer to the way that trust seems to be everywhere, is amorphous and difficult to define. Bredlau’s work, identifying the ways that the contextual intimacy of perceptual experience that is foundational to world and self development is essentially about trust, can give us insights into how it is that trust might appear to be everywhere. Perhaps more specifically significant is to bring Bredlau’s work into the context of Annette’s Baier’s reflections on how we might understand infant trust. Baier, who has written at length and insightfully about trusting, refers to the experience of ‘innate’ trust. Innate trust is unreflective and unwilled and can readily be seen in the situation of infants who will generally respond to parents without apparent concern for assessing threats to their vulnerability (Moral Prejudices, 107). She goes on to argue that, for trust to be trust proper, the situated context of this innate trust, as it occurs in our adult experience, must also come into my awareness as a situation of risk that requires evaluation and commitment by me, while the trust that seemingly got going without me, is maintained. Baier does not explain the innate capacity of the infant but, importantly, she does describe its fundamental forms and makes some significant caveats, including, in particular, that infants

… cannot trust at will any more than experienced adults can … One constraint on an account of trust which postulates infant trust as its essential seed is that it not make essential to trusting the use of concepts and abilities which a child cannot be reasonably believed to possess. (Baier, Moral Prejudices, 110)

It is this very point that directs analysis of infant innate trust to the various stages of infant development, pointing to, for example, the development of basic social emotions in early childhood.[1] What Baier calls innate trust is also, in philosophical investigation, called “basic” trust, suggesting that it might be, perhaps, more in tune with instinct. Indeed, Baier is drawing the same sort of line in the sand; while identifying the importance of trust, she indicates there is something called trust proper, that is, the trust that is warranted in its relationship to the trustworthiness of others. Innate or basic trust has thus tended to be considered as not of consideration as concerns trust and moral development, separated because we do not choose it, while it merely exposes us to the underdetermined trustworthiness of others. These are serious and significant moral issues, and any connection between infant trust and adult reflective trust must come to grips with these questions.

If we now return to Bredlau, we see that what has been achieved is a concrete presentation of how it is the experience of perception in infanthood that is the experiential medium instituting meaning of self, world and others. Bredlau argues that in adult experiences of sexual intimacy we are opened to the possibility of a fundamental recognition and thus re-emergence of subjectivity. She claims that it is these experiences of perception that are essential to trusting. I agree most ardently with Bredlau on this point and see that it is exactly the sort of work that Baier’s caveats require. This is not bringing adult forms of knowing and judging into infant experiences of trusting in order to explain how infant experience is one of trust. Bredlau’s work re-centres the focus of examination in order to show how adult experiences of trusting are grounded in on-going perceptual experience that begins in infancy. However, on my reading of her text, while her claims around trust provide a most interesting perspective on the work being undertaken, it is a perspective that, in the end, might be easy to overlook. There remains much important work to do, bringing the insights that Bredlau has made look easy to the broader philosophical discussion of trust. We can all be grateful for Bredlau’s contributions to this discussion, and how this future work might itself be just that little bit easier because of her contributions.

In closing, I would like to draw attention to one final point, one that assumes we take Bredlau’s claims about the significance of trusting as given. While Bredlau speaks here to sexual intimacy as offering a prime example of high stakes vulnerability, and this as having ground in the development of the existential intimacy of the infant and her meaningful world, there are, of course, other experiences that demonstrate the profound significance of understanding “subjectivity precisely as embodied” (85). The forms of perception that Bredlau presents are ways of bodily “thinking” and “judging” that necessarily involve others and our capacity to trust them, the circumstances we find ourselves in, and our own capacity to respond, and these are developed experientially over time. A difficulty that emerges in most discussions of trust is the way that there is, at some level, a trusting that is assumed. This is an issue that needs close attention as we take up Bredlau’s claims about infant perceptual experience being essential to trust.

The world is largely presented here as a place to be trusted, and, in this, situations are trustworthy, or not; the caregiver’s capacity to trust and be trusted belongs to this world that is directly experienced by the infant. Our developing sense of the world as trustworthy is informed therefore via the caregiver’s capacity to trust, which is itself shaped by intersubjective experiences beginning at this foundational level. The significance of this was not lost on Susan Brison, for example, who, after being raped, experienced post-traumatic flashbacks and panic attacks about a world that had become untrustworthy—a profound example of what is discussed by Bredlau as a form of betrayal of the intersubjective bonds that are constitutive of our experience. Brison, on becoming pregnant some years later, becomes acutely aware of the need to bring her child into a world that will be perceived as trustworthy and not wanting her one experience to create a whole world for her child. Through Brison’s experience we catch a glimpse of how the infant-caregiver relation is one of mutual intimacy and vulnerability, with the collaboration mutually transformative. Brison says:

While I used to have to will myself out of bed each day, I now wake gladly to feed my son whose birth, four years after the assault, gives me reason not to have died. He is the embodiment of my life’s new narrative and I am more autonomous by virtue of being so intermingled with him. Having him has also enabled me to rebuild my trust in the world around us. He is so trusting that, before he learned to walk, he would stand with outstretched arms, wobbling, until he fell, stiff-limbed, forwards, backwards, certain the universe would catch him. So far, it has, and when I tell myself it always will, the part of me that he’s become believes it. (Brison, 66)

This work by Brison serves to emphasise the potential of Bredlau’s work. The body, and our perceptual relations with others, offer the opportunity for authentic experience that has the capacity to continue the processes of intimate pairing. These processes, that shape the infant’s lived sense of “I can”, also continues the adult’s world building, and this is both beyond and incorporated into the life of the infant. These insights mean that we can begin to think about how the opportunities that are our body as our opening onto a world of meaning, are numerous, and in many instances, ordinary, all instituting trust as a “pattern in the weave of life”, with this patterning “under the aspect of meaningfulness and purpose” (Lagerspetz and Hertzberg, 36).

References: 

Susan Bredlau. 2018. The Other in Perception: A Phenomenological Account of our Experience of Other Persons. State University of New York Press.

Susan Brison. 2002. Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Annette Baier. 1994. Moral Prejudices. USA: Harvard University Press.

Olli Lagerspetz and Lars Hertzberg. 2013. “Trust in Wittgenstein.” In Trust: Analytic and Applied Perspectives, edited by Pekka Makela and Cynthia Townley, 31-51. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

Phillipe Rochat. 2010. “Trust in Early Development.” In Trust, Sociality, Selfhood, edited by Arne Grøn, Claudia Welz, 31-44. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.


[1] See for example, Phillipe Rochat, who, as developmental psychologist, argues that trust, as a concept, is used to refer across a variety of experiences covering “basic social emotions and affectivity to cognition, morality, the laws, politics, economics, and religion” (Rochat 2010, 31) and identifies that the common ground to the various experiences to which the concept is referred is the sense of “holding expectations about people and things” (33); from our earliest existence, we are inclined towards creating “stability and unity over constant changes, to construct some mental anchorage for harnessing the constant flux of perceptual experience” (33).

Dimitris Apostolopoulos: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Language, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Language Book Cover Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Language
Dimitris Apostolopoulos
Rowman & Littlefield
2019
Hardback £80.00
326

Mauro Carbone: Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution

Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution Book Cover Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Mauro Carbone. Translated from French by Marta Nijhuis
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $80.00
166

Reviewed by: Keith Whitmoyer (Pace University)

Carbone’s most recent work, now available in English, marks a critical moment in the author’s philosophical development: the passage from an original reader and interpreter of Proust and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to a completely original contribution to the history of philosophy. In a way, this contribution has been in development at least since Carbone’s The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy, but clearly, in this recent work, it reaches a new level of clarity that now operates beyond the auspices of interpretation. I would like to take the opportunity to clarify what Carbone brings to the history of philosophy. What he has found in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and Proust, which now, in Philosophy-Screens is thought beyond them, is the reversal of Platonism. In this respect, we can place Carbone’s work in this history of what Merleau-Ponty calls the history of a-philosophy, a history that includes Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche and more recently the work of Deleuze.[1] What is the sense of Platonism here and how could such an ambitious claim be justified?

At the center of this question, which is also the center of the text, is the screen. It was already Plato who, in his famous Cave Allegory, first thought the screen, and if the history of philosophy is a history of footnotes to Plato, as Whitehead said, then philosophy has always been a rumination on the screen. The screen, on one hand, is what Lyotard has called the “specular wall in general,”[2] a surface that has the dual role of being a window (revealing) and at the same time a curtain (concealing), which in this dual role becomes inscribed and invested with a historical and dynamic form of signification: the skin, the canvas, the cinema, the TV, the electronic device, the wall of the cave, the list goes on. It is through Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams that Carbone traces Lyotard’s specular wall to the origins of philosophy in Plato. The film documents the Chauvet Cave in France, home to the best-preserved cave paintings known to exist, dating back at least 32,000 years, making it 14,000 years older than the famed caves of Lascaux. These paintings, Carbone notes, “celebrate the enigma of images themselves, as well as the enigma of the surface that is invested with such a celebration and therefore delimited from the surrounding space.”[3] The Chauvet cave is an instance of what Carbone calls the “arche-screen,” “understood as a transhistorical whole gathering the fundamental conditions of possibility of ‘showing’ (monstration) and concealing images on whatever surface. In our culture such a whole has been opened and experienced through the human body itself.”[4] I will return to the significance of the human body mentioned here. For now, I want to mention that the Chauvet cave, as a “variation” of the arche-screen, serves as a vehicle for the legibility of the cave in Plato’s allegory.

The cave of the allegory, as Carbone shows, is a space organized around its functions of revealing and concealing, that is, a space constituted precisely in terms of an arche-screen. On one hand, there is the more obvious screen, the καταντικρύ, the cave wall standing in opposition to the sources of light where the shadows dance and play. This surface is ostensibly one of revealing, since it is a necessary condition for the appearance of the images (shadows). Its disclosive function, however, is inextricably bound up with another screen, the τειχίον, the “low wall” that functions to conceal the mysterious figures who constitute the spectacle as they carry the σκευαστῶν, “artificial things,” along the enclosed path. This second screen, Carbone notes, “performs the double function of concealing by offering a protection and of selecting things to be shown—which are both, actually, characteristic of the arche-screen.”[5] The two screens operative here are, in a sense, so inextricably related to one another that it would be useless to attempt to separate or compare them, and it seems that only together is the arche-screen’s instance of the cave constituted: the concealing movement of the low wall, which selects the artifacts by occluding the puppeteers, is a moment of the disclosive, opposite wall on which the shadows are cast.

There is a second arche-screen’s instance present here, however, in which the concealing-revealing movement of the shadow play is embedded. We recall that, for Plato, while the shadow play is initially disclosive—a world is indeed made present to the prisoners—this disclosive function is simultaneously one of concealing since what are disclosed are precisely shadows—shadows that both indicate and at the same time occlude the σκευαστῶν. This is the first arche-screen described above. These “artificial things,” in their turn, however, have the same dual movement: they show themselves to the prisoner who has turned away from the shadows toward the fire but precisely here they too both indicate and conceal the things themselves that wait on the outside. This is another, second arche-screen. The prisoner eventually is dragged up a rough and steep path into the light of day where she beholds the “things themselves.” These things, now beheld in a shadowless light, are supposed to signify the είδη, the “ideas” of what is. It would seem that here we encounter a surface that reveals only and conceals nothing, and this is, therefore, not an arche-screen in the sense described but the foundational condition of possibility for the others, the ἀρχή, the origin of all other screens and arche-screens. I want to pause briefly here and note that it seems to be this moment of the allegory that becomes foundational for Western metaphysics since Plato—that philosophy henceforth will understand itself as the pursuit of this origin, seeking out that absolute surface on which it can inscribe itself but which will at the same time conceal nothing, leaving no trace of latency or depth.

But Plato seems to be very careful here, and upon further reflection it may not be obvious that we arrive in such a space on the journey out of the cave. I think that this pause is critical for understanding the significance of the arche-screen, the philosophy-screen, and Philosophy-Screens. Is the outside that Plato imagines truly a space without depth? Is it correct to say that in that space there is disclosure only and that any movement of concealment is absent? The presence of the είδη, their very legibility, is premised on their coming to light, and therefore their visibility is made possible only through an accompanying concealment: the visibility of things always rests on the invisibility of light. The prisoner encounters things illuminated by the light of the sun but precisely then the light itself remains invisible. It seems, then, that even here we encounter an arche-screen, a twofold movement of revealing and concealing, an event of what Heidegger called Unverborgenheit, “unconcealment,” which he always preferred to refer to the Greek word ἀλήθεια, “truth.” I believe that it the question of truth that stands at the center of Philosophy-Screens and that Carbone’s work should be understood as an elaboration and continuation of—rather than a commentary—on a work by Merleau-Ponty at one point titled “The Origin of Truth.”[6]

What re-reading the cave allegory through the arche-screen teaches us is that, contrary to the historical reading of Plato that understands truth in some super-sensible beyond, that which always is and never otherwise, call it Being or ideality, is in every case implicated by and in its sensible reverse. Each event of unconcealment is coupled with concealment, every surface is both a screen and curtain, revealing and concealing: the tattooed or scarred skin both outwardly manifests its meaning and yet simultaneously conceals certain depths; the printed page both outwardly manifests its intended signification and yet always conceals an un-thought element; the speech of the other signifies her wishes and yet, as Proust understood, always conceals a person that we cannot know and who cannot know herself. It is also here that we encounter what I have described as Carbone’s reversal of Platonism: in the figure of a re-thinking of the relationship between sense and idea and the manner in which these two operate as the two poles of the arche-screen. This figure is articulated by Carbone, via Merleau-Ponty and Proust, under the rubric of the “sensible idea.” In Philosophy-Screens, he describes these as

ideas [that] are inseparable from their sensible presentation (that is, from their visual, linguistic, or musical images for instance, but even that they are instituted by these very images as their own depth. … an order of ideas that—just like aesthetic ideas for Kant—cannot be reduced to concepts, ideas that the intelligence, as such cannot grasp, because—as Merleau-Ponty emphasizes—they ‘are without intelligible sun. … the essences of certain experiences, which only similar experiences can, sometimes, fully manifest, but cannot be defined by any concept.’[7]

Such remarks are prefigured in Carbone’s 2004 book, The Thinking of Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy:

Proust describes ‘ideas’ which do not preexist independently of their sensible presentation. Rather, they are inseparable from and simultaneous with their sensible presentation, since only the sensible presentation provides us with the ‘initiation’ to them: ideas which, ‘there, behind the sounds or between them, behind the lights or between them, recognizable through their always special, always unique manner of entrenching themselves behind them’ (VI 198/151).[8]

The sensible idea, for Carbone, is perhaps illustrated most clearly in Proust’s descriptions of love, especially the “little phrase” that captures so essentially—and yet so indescribably—the pathos of Swann’s relationship with Odette and later the love between the narrator and the elusive Albertine. Carbone notes in The Thinking of the Sensible:

Merleau-Ponty explains that Marcel Proust characterizes melody as a ‘Platonic idea that we cannot see separately’ since ‘it is impossible to distinguish the means and the end, the essence and the existence in it’ (N 228/174). He alludes to the fact that, for the main character of those pages of the Remembrance, a peculiar idea of love is incarnated in the sound of a melody—the melody of the petite phrase of Vinteul’s sonata—to such an extent that the idea of love becomes inseparable from Vinteul’s listening.[9]

It may be worth attending to some perhaps length passages from the Recherche in order to express more fully the sense of the sensible idea. These are from the scene in The Fugitive where, after Albertine’s death, the narrator gradually begins to forget and understand that he no longer loves her. The passing of this love is linked to the petite phrase, the lifespan of which has passed through the loves of Swann and Odette and through the loves of the narrator and Albertine. The phrase is both its sensible, carnal expression in the music and at the same time the very sense and meaning of a love that has now passed; that is, its essence inextricably bound to its existence:

In the Bois, I hummed a few phrases of Vinteul’s sonata. The thought that Albertine had so often played it to me no longer saddened me unduly, for almost all my memories of her had entered into that secondary chemical state in which they no longer cause an anxious oppression of the heart, but rather a certain sweetness. From time to time, in the passages which she used to play most often, when she was in the habit of making some observation which at the time I thought charming, of suggesting some reminiscence, I said to myself : ‘Poor child,’ but not sadly, merely investing the musical phrase with an additional value, as it were a historical, a curiosity value…. When the little phrase, before disappearing altogether, dissolved into its various elements in which it floated still for a moment in scattered fragments, it was not for me, as it had been for Swann, a messenger from a vanishing Albertine. It was not altogether the same association of ideas that the little phrase had aroused in me as in Swann. I had been struck most of all be the elaboration, the trial runs, the repetitions, the gradual evolution of a phrase which developed through the course of the sonata as that love had developed through the course of my life. And now, aware that, day by day, one element after another of my love was vanishing, the jealous side of it, then some other, drifting gradually back in a vague remembrance to the first tentative beginnings, it was my love that, in the scattered notes of the little phrase, I seemed to see disintegrating before my eyes.[10]

Plato seems to have been troubled by the Heraclitean idea of change—that all things come to pass in a state of flux, the “ever-living fire, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures.”[11] Beyond the deflagration of the sensible, Plato sought to ascend to a presence outside of time and its vicissitudes: the εἶδος. The sensible idea, precisely because it is not outside of time, emerges only insofar as it is lived, only insofar as it is experienced. Love is no doubt an ideality “expressed” by the petite phrase. But love, precisely in its ideality, is never a “love as such” extricated from those who do and have loved. Insofar as the petite phrase expresses this ideality, it expressed precisely the love of Swann toward Odette, the love of the narrator for Albertine, with all of the shades and textures of sense entailed by that love that was lived. In this way, as Proust indicates in the passaged cited, love, even its ideality, is subject to generation and decay—it lives and dies, and it was this vitality of idealities that Plato could not conceive in his desire to escape from time. It is this vitality, however, that is restored to the ideal in the sensible idea, and this is the more precise sense in which Carbone’s work, including Philosophy-Screens, seeks to reverse Platonism. Because the ideal is lived—because it is nothing other than the sedimentation and concretion of sensible experience, the manifest, τὀ αληθής, is in every case the inverse, the fold of the concealed,   ἡ λήθη, what has passed into oblivion.

I would now like to turn to the figure that articulates this reversal, the screen. The screen in this context should not be construed simply a technology or an apparatus, nor should this be understood as a perhaps useless preoccupation with our historical and cultural phragmaphilia. The screen, rather, is the site of so many reversals, crossings, and intersections, a refractory point, one might even say an aleatory one. In this respect, the human body too is a screen, which can “produce images by being interposed between a luminous source and a wall … or by being decorated with inscriptions, drawings, colors, or tattoos.”[12] The screen, then, is in a sense nothing new and has been with us as long as we have been with ourselves, that is to say, as long as there have been surfaces that conceal and reveal (the skin, the curtain, the written page, etc.). What is new—what Carbone gives us in Philosophy-Screens—is a re-configuration of this surface that opens up paths of thinking and philosophical expression heretofore un-thought: not just a screen but a philosophy-screen, philosophizing in accordance with the screen, to allow the screen itself to be the vehicle of thinking and philosophical expression, indeed, what Carbone quite perspicaciously calls, following Deleuze, “philosophy-cinema.”[13]

Philosophy-cinema should not be conceived as making films about philosophy—this is not a question of documentary or filming philosophers speaking, lecturing, etc., nor should it be considered biography or even in terms of the more recent perpetuation of philosophy pod-casts. It is rather a new way of thinking about what it means to think and what it means to express thought. Platonism (and this history of Platonism) has given us the βίβλος, the Book: a monumental artifact in which the absolute truths of Being are inscribed, outside of time and beyond the vicissitudes of history and life. As Husserl and Derrida have shown, the history of the Book is simply a moment in the history of writing, the constitution of idealities through repeated acts of articulation and reactivation.[14] To philosophize cinematically, to bring forth philosophy-cinema, is to think in a manner that no longer takes the form of writing and no longer presupposes or requires monumentality—it is profoundly non-graphic, that is to say, no longer rests on the necessity of γρᾰ́φω, the cutting or chiseling into stone at the beginnings of writing and from which all subsequent writing is derived. To philosophize cinematically is to allow for, even to welcome, the passage of thought in time, its coming into being but also what Nancy has described as its partance, its flight and departure.[15] It is this temporal element that writing, in its function of constituting the ideal as such, attempts to erase—where the inscription into stone is the attempt to erase time—and it is this temporal element that cinema allows us to think again. Philosophy-cinema, then, is not the attempt to escape—to escape time, escape the cave—through the constitution of a monument that mirrors the a-temporality of “truth” but is rather the effort to allow for escape: the flight of thought into its self-concealment and oblivion, the passage of life and experience that cinema has always attempted (and perhaps always failed) to make visible.

This sentiment is expressed both at the beginning and at the end of Philosophy-Screens: the effort to think again and in a manner that allows for the temporal partance of thinking, its objects, as well as its modes of expression. Deleuze is referenced a second time in Part I of the book, “What Is a Philosophy-Cinema?,” in a quote from Difference and Repetition:

The time is coming when it will hardly be possible to write a book of philosophy as it has been done for so long: ‘Ah! The old style…’ The search for a new means of philosophical expression was begun by Nietzsche and must be pursued today in relation to the renewal of certain other arts, such as the theatre or the cinema.[16]

Carbone adds:

In short, Deleuze found that the novelty of the cinema implied a renewal of the philosophical questions concerning to only our relationship to ourselves, to the others, to the things, and to the world, but also—and inevitably—concerning philosophy itself: that is, concerning its expressive style and, hence, the very style of its own thinking. Indeed, the question of the ‘philosophy-cinema’ does not belong to a single thinker. Rather, it involves a whole epoch, as the Preface to Difference and Repetition suggested. In this sense, it is a question regarding thinking itself.[17]

The renewal of philosophy, of its expressive style as well as the style of its own thinking are indicated by the refractory and reflective surface of the screen. The screen is perhaps not always even a surface but rather a point at which lines, trajectories, and forces curve, displace, and integrate but only as the inverse of a disintegrative movement. The screen, then, is precisely the point of alteration in the sense that there is no longer a “one” but only the repetition of others, of differences. As Carbone says,

Such logic [of screens] inevitably ends up exceeding and hence contesting that of concepts, to which it had been claimed to be reducible, in spite of all. However, in the gaps between the fingers of our hand, squeezing in the gesture of seizing—the gesture on which the modern action of conceptualizing was shaped—we increasingly feel that sense is slipping away. Without falling into a rhetoric of the ineffable, the philosophy to be made is called upon to account for this.[18]

The screen, in a complex of senses, makes philosophy-cinema possible; it allows for a modality of thinking freed from the βίβλος and its monumentality. Insofar as it inserts itself back into the flow and lapse of time, philosophy-cinema no longer conceptualizes itself in terms of the Begriff, that which is to be grasped and taken hold of, but allows for—perhaps even welcomes—the slippage of sense as it passes through our grasp. Must we then be content with some alternative between philosophy in its traditional self-assessment on one hand—Book, concept, grasp—and some form of irrationalism or untenable skepticism? No, because the alternative between these is a false one. We need not choose between the traditional instantiations of philosophy and nihilism, for there are modes of thinking and expressivities that are neither; these are the uncharted territories for thinking that have perhaps only been indicated. Philosophy-Screens: From Cinema to the Digital Revolution takes us down such a path and opens the way for a philosophy that will perhaps be the new standard for thinkers yet to come.


[1] See Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Notes de Cours 1958-1959 et 1960-1961 (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 278; and Carbone, Mauro, The Thinking of the Sensible: Merleau-Ponty’s A-Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2004), xiii.

[2] Carbone, 46.

[3] Ibid., 65, italics Carbone.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Ibid., 67.

[6] Published posthumously and under a later title as The Visible and the Invisible.

[7] Ibid., 34; 37; 69.

[8] Carbone, 2004, 40-41.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. V, “The Fugitive,” 755-56.

[11] Heraclitus, Fragment B30.

[12] Carbone, Philosophy-Screens, 66.

[13] Ibid., 3; the reference is to Italian translation of The Logic of Sense, translated into English by Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, ed. David Lapoujade, “Note to the Italian Edition of The Logic of Sense,” in Two Regimes of Madness (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), 66.

[14] Probably the most important text in this regard is Derrida’s commentary on Husserl’s text, “The Origin of Geometry.” See Derrida, Jacques, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavy, Jr. (Licoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

[15] See Nancy, Jean-Luc, Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body, trans. Sarah Clift (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 28.

[16] Carbone, 3; Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, XXI.

[17] Carbone, 3.

[18] Carbone, 109.

Anya Daly, Fred Cummins, James Jardine, Dermot Moran (Eds.): Perception and the Inhuman Gaze, Routledge, 2020

Perception and the Inhuman Gaze Book Cover Perception and the Inhuman Gaze
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Anya Daly, Fred Cummins, James Jardine, Dermot Moran (Eds.)
Routledge
2020
Hardback £120.00
328

Emmanuel Housset: Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation

Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation Book Cover Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation
Donner raison
Emmanuel Housset
Lessius
2019
Paperback 25,00 €
288

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Christ Church, Oxford)

Among the many poignant lines one encounters in Emmanuel Housset’s Le don des mains: Phénoménologie de l’incorporation, perhaps none gives more to think than does a passage in chapter two’s “Travailler et Œuvrer,” which, exhibiting this stunning work’s deeply spiritual undercurrent permeating every page, reminds us of the sacred responsibility our having received the gift of hands in turn entrusts us: “[L]a première préocuppation de la main humaine doit être la justice, et c’est elle qui fait de l’homme un collaborateur de Dieu. L’homme cultive le monde et Dieu cultive l’homme” (67). If, as Housset says elsewhere in the text, “le monde n’a pas d’autres mains que les notres” (153), this is because of our manual vocation to shelter and steward what encounters us as God intends. For as he states further on in one of the work’s middle chapters “Parler et Écouter,” “Le Créateur n’a donc pas donné des mains à l’homme pour remplir une simple function naturelle, mais afin d’assurer une tache spirituelle, qui est de répondre du monde comme totalité” (141). Thus, Housset will say of our hands what Jean-Louis Chrétien in The Ark of Speech has said of our voice. Making the parallel claim that human hands (no less than the human voice) are co-participants with God in creation, or better, laborers alongside God in the current task of restoring it from the Fall, Housset says that with them we can work to accomplish the establishment of the kingdom of God. Throughout its meditations on the hand’s innumerable dimensions, Housset’s work hence puts to us the same question gently but incessantly, one no human life ever succeeds avoiding from asking itself forever: Have you been working what is good, or not?

The hand speaks, says Merleau-Ponty. The hand listens, says Chrétien. So, too, it thinks, says Heidegger. These themes are for phenomenology far from novel, but Housset gives them new life, showing why they have justifiably commanded the philosophical attention they have for so long. As he notes at his study’s outset, and as he will underscore time and again in the chapters that follow, if the hand speaks and listens, its is a transcendence through which man encounters the world and its things, as well as others too. It is, to invoke the term he uses at least once, the “hinge” (charnière) between the world and ourselves. Neither a thing, an instrument, a mere organ, nor even the organ of organs par excellence, the hand is rather the power by which we touch and our touched, that with which we give and receive, build and make, release and grip, grope and explore. As Housset says, “La main n’est pas une simple partie du corps de l’homme et, à elle seule, elle peut manifester toute l’existence de l’homme dans son caractère charnel et temporel” (7). The hand both opens and discovers the world. And not only does it open the world through a transcendence that takes us beyond ourselves whereby we meet things and others, the hand possesses a past and so a future also, a time accordingly making the present one whose presence to the world is ours indelibly. As Housset with Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger never ceases to emphasize, the manual nature of existence means each of us expresses our individual unsubstitutableness through it, a distinctive style evident in the attunement toward being that very style exhibits, one incorporated in every gesture of the general posture by which we inhahbit the world and thereby decide to meet it. As Housset says of the hand,

“Elle n’est donc pas un outil d’outil, car elle ne se rencontre pas dans le monde, elle n’apparait pas dans le monde comme un organe dont je pourrais me servir. Son mode de donnée est tout autre: elle est ce qui ouvre au monde, le lieu d’une rencontre avec les choses” (159).

What, then, shall we say of this capacity of the hand to meet the world?

Placing the human hand within a frame of reference related to the question concerning the nature of man as a whole, Housset accordingly thinks starting from a number of themes explored by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Henri Maldiney, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion. In so doing, however, Housset does not consign himself to exegesis. There is very little textual interpretation simply for interpretation’s sake in this work. His attention, rather, turns to what is visible in the world, not what remains just ink on a page. Enacting one of the work’s central theses (namely, that all writing and every writer have their styles), he transforms familiar philosophical material creatively, revealing subtleties we had not yet noticed, deepening insights we thought we already understood, and surprising us by bringing to words what we believed must remain unsaid, things we ourselves had felt before but struggled to express. In encountering what Housset shows, we find often that he gives clear voice to what we felt had persisently been eluding ours. And when these delightful moments of clarity dawn courtesy of his words, what a relief it is!

It is not by chance the work achieves everything it does that we are about to recount. The insights making it such a joy to read are won meticulously, with precision and remarkable attentiveness and foresight. Its unusual thoughtfulness is evident immediately from the start, in how for instance Housset self-consciously conceives of the treatise to begin with. In the introduction, he notes an astonishing fact. What, he asks, explains why there is no true philosophical treatise on the hand alone? As he says, “si la main est vraiment la synecdoque de l’homme, comment se fait-il qu’il n’existe pas un véritable traité des mains comme s’en étonne Valéry?” (7). There are many works that have touched on the hand, to be sure. Yet no comprehensive work on the hand as such exists. One might speculate such a treatise has not been undertaken due to a difficulty Housset himself had addressed a few pages previously in the work’s preface. Any study aiming to embark on an analysis of the hand in its totality, he observes there, must first ask itself whether such a treatise is even possible. The issue concerns a matter of access to the phenomenon, and hence a matter of method. How is one to approach the hand’s essence systematically and in a way that remains properly philosophical without reducing to an anthropological, biological, or cultural perspective? The task, then, is posing the question of the human hand without collapsing that question completely into one asking what man is. While the two questions do overlap, as Housset himself acknowledges, there still is something of a distinction between them worth preserving however intertwined they are. Housset explains,

“Néanmoins, dans mon projet d’ensemble d’une éluciation du caracère manuel de l’existence, je me suis heurté à deux difficultés: d’abord celle de l’immensité du champ à étudier et la nécessité de le circonscrire pour ne pas perdre. Le danger était que la question “Qu’est-ce que la main?” soit simplement reconduite à la question “Qu’est-ce que l’homme?” et que dans une étude indéfinie des representations de la main et de ses usages, ni l’essence de la main, ni l’essence de l’homme ne soient étudiées” (5).

In addition to this danger of obscuring the essence of both the hand and man himself by posing the question of the former in a way that eliminates it, by reducing it entirely to a question of the latter, Housset notes a further danger that must be avoided. One could make the mistake of dissolving the question of the hand’s distinctive sense into the more general question of what man is, yet one might also take too piecemeal of an approach to the hand itself. The danger here, in short, is taking an approach that gets bogged down in what amounts to an “analyse régionale” of the hand, one calling for the specialism of the art historian, anthropologist, or theologian. Were this to happen, the hand’s essence is lost amid the various analyses sketched of its figures from their correspondingly various theoretical perspectives. What Housset seeks, instead, is a truly philosophical account of the hand. And yet, this analysis also comes fraught with its own hazards. After all, even if one were able to approach the question of the hand from a strictly philosophical perspective, there is then the danger of traditional philosophical assumptions and prejudices about the nature of man (and hence the hand) intruding. Rather than revealing the phenomenon as it is, might not the philosophical tradition’s treatment of the hand obscure or even distort it? To uncover the essence of the human hand, thus, it will be necessary, Housset suggests, to question (and often abandon) the dominant philosophical horizons through which the question of our existence has been posed. And as for the hand itself, it will be necessary to find a logos that thinks it otherwise than how philosophy sometimes has. For Housset, this means first of all overcoming aspects of philosophy’s Greek and German anthropological inheritance:

“La deuxième difficulté était proprement philosophique: pour ne pas simplement raconteur des histories de mains, pour ne pas s’en tenir à des considérations anthropologiques, aussi importantes soient-elles, et pour parvenir à developer une ontologie de la main ou pour defender l’idée que la verité de la main est au-delà de l’ontologie, il me fallait une véritable these sur le devenir corps du corps, sur l’incorporation, et cela supposait de pouvoir montrer que l’identité de la main, comme identité d’exode, puisque la dignité des mains, leur glorie, est de s’oublier dans l’action, ne pouvait pas relever de la comprehension parméndienne de l’être. Ce travail a donc pris son temps afin de deployer une conception de l’incorporation qui ne soit ni grecque, ni nietzschéene, ni husserlienne, et qui défende l’idée qu’il faut manier pour voir, pour parler et pour répondre.” (5-6).

The aim, then, is to take an approach that liberates the phenomenon from whatever traditional philosophical assumptions are occluding it, while doing so in a way that gets to the heart of the hand as the regional analyses of other theoretical disciplines do not. In a word, Housset proposes a phenomenological treatise of the hand.

“En consequence, une parole philosophique sur la main ne peut être qu’une description phénoménologie de la main à partir de son mode de donnée propre; la main se donne à la conscience, après reduction, comme un ensemble d’actes: manipuler, apprehender, travailler, œuvrer, toucher, se toucher, parler, tâtonner, caresser, tendre, écrire, donner” (8).

As the first chapter “Prendre et Manipuler” makes clear, the resulting analyses exemplify that approach, for they are neither haphazard nor disjointed. There is a logic governing the hand’s acts to which Housset attends, a logic his exposition renders explicit by tracing the eidetic laws interconnecting the acts in question. In turning to the basic acts of taking and manipulating, for instance, Housset is doing so while simultaneously formulating a background question that he works out as the chapters progress. By first examining the acts of taking and manipulating, Housset invites us to wonder whether the paradigm of power they presuppose is truly the best way to understand the hand’s essence. Is this the deepest dimension of the hand? As Housset writes, “Tel est le cœur de la question: la main vraiment main est-elle celle qui prend, qui decide, qui impose, ou bien est-elle celle qui est toujours un dialogue, qui si comprend toujours comme une réponse dans la poignée de main comme dans le soin?” (10). In the same spirit of Heidegger’s own criticisms of representational thinking, here Housset thematizes the hand as something whose way-of-being undercuts the modern cult of power, control, and independence, the technological conception of man as the measure of things, as the one who gives to himself his own destiny by mastering what encounters him through his own desire and strength alone. As Housset says,

“Une telle question ne va pas de soi aujourd’hui et demande à être construite, dans la mesure où l’homme moderne, issue des Lumières, se prend pour la mesure de toute chose et, dans son reve d’un pouvoir fondé sur le savoir, il se définit d’abord par le projet de se prendre en main, d’être son propre projet et d’être ainsi le créateur de lui-même” (Ibid.).

Very early on, as we see, Housset is already carefully crafting the foundation for the work’s later critical reflections on the modern technological era’s mishandling of our humanity. For as he notes, any faithful description of the hand’s openness to the world entails a recognition of the limits to the hand’s powers, and so in turn our finitude. This recognition is one that we today, with the Enlightenment philosophical tradition epitomizing it, dislike to admit: “Cela dit, cette reconnaissance de l’essentielle finitude de l’action humaine est peut-être ce qu’il a aujourd’hui de plus difficile, car elle suppose un renversement complet de la représentation de son être” (11). Even when the hand is considered in light of its capacity to grasp or manipulate things, it must not be forgotten that this capacity presupposes a more originary receptivity to what already first encounters and solicits it. Whereas we tend to conceive of ourselves as subjects able to take and do, Housset’s opening chapter initiates a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the modern myth of the will to power. A self-understanding that sees itself as an autarkic being capable of creating itself by imposing its virility on its surroundings, as he says, overlooks the hand’s true fragility. In a comment reminiscent of Michel Henry’s observation regarding life’s inability to be the origin of its own powers, so Housset emphasizes how nobody has given his hands to himself. Furthermore, nor is anyone immune from the constant threat that its powers will suddenly abandon us: “Ainsi, la main n’est pas un bien don’t l’homme disposerait toujours déjà, mais une possibilité qu’il n’a qu’à la developer sans cesse, dans la conscience de pouvoir la perdre à tout moment, volontairement ou involontairement” (12). According to Housset, this fragility means the manual nature of existence is normative.[1] One can succeed or fail at having hands! As he says, “nous devons apprendre à avoir des mains, comme nous devons apprendre à marcher et à penser, dans la conscience de leur fragilité” (12). By this Housset does not mean that everyone is (or is not) an amputee, is (or is not) a paralytic. Rather, insofar as the modern notion of self-sufficient and invulnerable man is a myth, Housset means to accentuate how in turn it falls to each of us to recognize and embrace that weakness. The point is we may do so to better or worse degrees:

“En effet, encore une fois, il est difficile et necessaire de déconstruire l’idéal modern de la main conquérante, invulnerable, qui sait trancher dans le vif, en montrant quelle image de l’homme est à l’origine d’un tel ideal, et cela de facon à pouvoir retrouver une certaine humilité des mains” (13).

This deconstruction of Camus’s Sisyphean rebel who persists in trying to forge meaning on his strength alone serves to underscore Housset’s original phenomenological purpose. The hand, we see indeed, is neither simply a thing, an instrument, or an organ, but a way of standing open to the world. Highlighting the sense in which the hand is something more, Housset alludes to the notion of style, a theme from Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s own philosophies to which he will often himself recur in the pages that follow:

“La main n’est donc pas une chose ni une partie du corps, mais elle un movement, un verbe, une puissance de manifestation du sujet agissant, et en cela elle est pleinement esprit et pleinment corps, sans qu’il soit possible de dissocier en elle ces deux dimensions de l’existence” (13).

Here already, if only obliquely, Housset has introduced into the account of the hand’s power to take and manipulate the more primary notion of style, a phenomenological notion denoting a fundamental dimension of human existence he in turn will explore at length in later chapters.

The hand, which thinks, and which is not simply the expression of a mind but rather the expression of the whole of one’s existence as man, cannot thus be reduced to a marginal or regional analysis. If we cannot think without hands, and if thinking itself distinguishes us from the animals, reflection on the human hand leads to a consideration of the ancient conception of the difference between man and the animals. Whereas man dwells and builds amid a world, animals simply live in an environment. The hand explains this difference, for in our case the hand possesses a power of touch whose sensitivity far surpasses what is known to the animals. Following Aristotle, Housset notes that of the five senses, touch is the most basic, for as the power of refinement and taste, it most marks the humanity of man:

“Ainsi, comme l’explique Jean-Louis Chrétien dans L’appel et la réponse, le toucher n’est pas d’abord pour Aristote l’un des cinq sens, mais ce qui fait que l’homme n’est pas un simple spectateur et qu’il est par le toucher engage dans le monde, cet enagement étant à la fois ce qui l’expose et ce qui lui permet d’agir dans le monde” (82).

Yet if Housset agrees with the classical distinction between man and animal, he is not completely satisfied with the common picture of it. At this point in the text, his many mentions of working and building will have brought to the reader’s mind Hannah Arendt’s famous analyses of these acts. And in chapter two, “Travailler et Œuvrer,” Housset indeed takes up Arendt directly. Man acts with his hands. He works with them. Such work takes many forms: work of the farmer, the surgeon, the writer, the carpenter, the painter, or the postman. What are we to make of this work? Were one to follow Arendt’s line of reasoning in The Human Condition, accepting its firm distinction between the private and the public, the oikos and the polis, and hence a corresponding further distinction between labor (travailler) and work (œuvrer), one will be inclined to conclude with her that, in our modern society, work as the ancients produced it no longer is. As Arendt and Heidegger (or Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman) have noted, today most of what we fabricate is not a work in the classical sense, but an object, a product made only with an eye to consumption.[2] But if it is correct that the ancient work of art is irreducible to a product, must it be said with Arendt that only artists remain true handworkers? Housset is unconvinced, for he doubts it is so easy to distinguish the labor of the body and the work of the hands absolutely. Here he aims to subvert the Greek logos in the name of a view that instead sees value in all work, at least in principle. He says,

“La main chrétienne se distingue donc de la main grecque par cette idée que le travail n’est pas une simple nécessité, mais participe à l’accomplissement de l’homme et que le corps participe au salut dans l’union de l’homme à la terre” (58).

Overturning the modern myth of man as the measure, it is also necessary to jettison the idea according to which there is a clear dividing line between a domain of manual labor somehow less noble than work. In the name of a more thoroughgoing humility, it must be recognized such a distinction does not hold, for everything (evil excepted) done with the human hand has its dignity. Having encountered this stretch of text, one inevitably will have called to mind the biblical story of toil’s origin. A page over, Housset fulfills the reader’s expectation, mentioning the Genesis account explicitly:

“[S]elon Genèse I, 28 ‘Emplissez la terre et soumettez-la,’ le don des mains n’est plus le don par la nature de l’organe de tous les organs, mais un don de Dieu pour achever la Création […] le travail n’est ni une simple soumission à la nécessité, à laquelle il faudrait idéalement échapper pour être libre, ni ce qui simplement sauverait de l’oisiveté et de tous les vices quis sont liés” (59).

Work (and labor) takes on a spiritual dimension, says Housset, for in putting them to use, our hands become “armes de vertu, de justice et de beauté” (Ibid.). Against the Greek view, it is not that man attends to life’s necessities in the home only then to act freely in public. To the contrary, paradoxically, he is always already free in virtue of his placing himself in submission to God. Neither the servant of the world nor a human master (or today a corporate employer), he is the servant of God. It is this reversal of perspective on work that gives a new understanding to labor, and hence a greater exigency to even our most quotidian or unrefined of deeds. From the eternal perspective humbled in the sight of God, the smallest deeds are a work too.

In the opening segment of chapter three, “Toucher et Se Toucher,” Housset observes how the question of taking and work show that the hand opens us beyond ourselves while always returning to itself: “la main est à la fois ce movement de s’avancer vers le monde et de la ramener à soi” (79). Equally reflexive and transitive, the hand’s movement entails we recognize that touch is self-implicating and self-transcending. Housset’s rigorous account of the way the hands touch and are touched (and even touch themselves) is of such complexity that doing its nuance justice exceeds the scope of what is here possible. Better anyway for oneself to look and see what Housset does to rework a longstanding phenomenological problem that commanded the attention of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Maybe the greatest importance of Housset’s analysis of touch lies further on, when, in chapter four’s “Parler et Écouter” attention turns directly to a number of themes that occupy the book’s remaining pages: time, history, speech, listening, writing, and others. For if, as we read, “la main est en elle-même un movement de transcendence vers les autres et vers les choses” (158), far from being only what puts us in touch with things, the hand “elle est également ce qui lie l’homme aux autres hommes” (119). And an encounter with others is crucially different than one with mere things. It is because we are linked to others, for instance, that we have a personal history. For our encounters with others leave their mark: “Ma main en tant qu’elle est la mienne porte mon histoire, mais également ma manière d’être, le style de ma relation au monde” (124). And if the hand links us to others, giving us a history, this is so because the hand, which is itself entwined with the word, allows us to both speak and listen. Hence, in order to understand the hand’s history, its relation to others, and so with an eye to the later question of style, “pour la comprendre plus largement comme une capacité de parole et d’écoute” (124). Now as Housset notes, for someone as Husserl, one’s personal history is a matter of a temporal synthesis, one whose passivity sediments past perceptions and experiences into memories and thus a stable identity that in turn can serve as the basis for further free deliberative action and thought: “Sans reprendre ici les analyses de Husserl sur la synthèse passive, il est possible de s’appuyer sur elles pour élucider l’historicité de la main: elle a ses perceptions sédimentées, ses souvenirs, les actes qu’elle a poses” (125). Passive synthesis, as Husserl would call it, explains habit’s formation. Without it, the hand would not remember or know as it does. The Husserlian analysis is sufficient so far as it goes. It accounts for a crucial dimension of human embodiment successfully. According to Housset, however, it does not go far enough, for its description of manual habit as owing to temporal synthesis remains beholden to the idea that the hand is an expression of the mind, and hence still just an organ. But more importantly, Husserl’s account of the hand’s history overlooks a paradox Housset stresses must be addressed. It is one Housset describes as a circle: “Tel est le cercle: le monde ne peut apparaitre qu’à un sujet qui s’éprouve dans l’unité de son historicité, néanmoins le sujet ne peut se saisir dans son historicité qu’en agissant dans le monde” (128). Here again, for Housset the point is to see in this circle a radical fragility of the human hand and mode of being, one the myth of modern man discussed earlier neglects to acknowledge:

“Au-delà de toute téléogie organique ou rèflexive, l’expérience ne reconduit-elle pas à une absolue contingence du don des mains, à savoir qu’elles ne peuvent pas se réduire à une capacité innée du corps et de l’esprit, mais sont plutôt une capacité recue d’ailleurs?” (133).

The hand forges its identity by welcoming what lies outside itself and beyond its control. In this sense, it comes to be what it is, not through an auto-constitution, but through a movement of transcendence into the world where, meeting what it does, it answers to what has addressed it. The hand’s mode of presence to the world, thus, is not one of virility and initiative, but dialogue, as it always is in conversation with what it hears. As Housset says, “Elle devient radicalement autre, elle trouve son identité dans son envoi dans le monde, une identité qui est donc toujours fragile, sans point fixe et stable, car elle se construit à partir de l’appel des choses” (139).

If the preceding chapter four explores the eidetic link between hand and word, that bond inevitably leads to a consideration of writing, “dans la mesure où l’écriture engage toute la capactité du corps à render visible le monde” (153). Housset opens chapter five “Écriture et Style” by observing with Husserl (and Derrida too who comes up now and again) that “le champ d’écricture est un champ transcendental sans sujet actuel” (154). Writing assures the objectivity of ideality, by in effect establishing a repository of sense where such sense is available, waiting to be activated by anyone who comes across it. And yet, as Housset notes, there is an empirical fragility at work even here in the constitution of this transcendental language. Books, after all, can be lost, censored, buried, or burned. Housset will here criticize Husserl for failing to emphasize the sense in which even the incorporation of an ideal geometric language’s sense in writing is still for all that a work of the hand, or better, a work of the whole body. The blindness, says Housset, is due to Husserl’s decision to characterize the hands themselves in terms of the subject’s auto-constitution. Husserl, he will say, has introduced a kind of universalized architectonic where there is not one. The cost of this intellectualism, he continues, is evident in Husserl’s struggle in the Crisis to account for today’s epistemic, moral, and spiritual waywardness. Husserl fails to come to terms with radical evil. And if Merleau-Ponty himself never addresses the moral dimension of the hand squarely, neither says Housset does Husserl, who, despite his elaborate analyses of embodiment in texts as Ideas II, still maintains an ocular stance toward things. As Housset comments,

“Autrement dit, en dépit de toutes ses analyses sur le corps, Husserl en reste à une philosophie de la vision dans laquelle la seule réponse au mal est l’exigence d’une vision plus rigoreuse de l’universel. Il est possible de voir là un manque de prise en considération de la radicalité du mal, mal qui est plus qu’une erreur, un oubli ou une fatigue, et qui peut se comprendre comme une volonté délibérée de mainmise et de destruction, voire comme une jouissance de la negation” (157).

In the wake of this discussion of modernity’s inability to explain radical (but banal) evil, it is here that Housset takes up Heidegger’s later work on thought and speech explicitly. If, as Housset with Heidegger says, “Toute pensée est une œuvre des mains,” this is because the hand, which is more than an instrument to manipulate things, is “qui est une écoute du logos” (159). In an accompanying footnote to this stretch of text, Housset quotes with approval Heidegger, who himself in the passage in question emphasizes the essential connection between man and the hand: “Ce n’est pas l’homme qui ‘a’ des mains, mais la main qui porter l’essence de l’homme, car la parole comme domaine d’essence de la main est le fondement de l’essence de l’homme” (162). Now as Housset observes, if thought is a work, a work of the hands even, this is because of writing: “ce travail de la pensée, qui est un travail des mains, suppose l’écriture” (163). Housset’s early disagreement with Arendt should not be misunderstood. Here, it is clear how one should not take Housset’s criticism of Arendt’s position to mean he believes that there is nothing deeply disturbing about our modern condition. Far from it! Housset addresses this lingering potential misunderstanding when, emphasizing the interlacement between hand and word, he goes on to explain how modern technology attenuates that connection, thereby dehumanizing man. According to Housset, technology treats the hand as an organ. And what is the danger of doing so? If the Heideggerian formula according to which the hand thinks in fact is true, so too writing takes place with and through the hand itself. Housset’s concern, then, is that modern technology which veils our relation to being, leads us to forget writing is an act of the hand. And so, as he says, we consequently lose touch with our humanity: “Une main qui n’est qu’un organe pour taper sur un clavier, ou encore pour ‘textoter’, etc., réduit nécessairement le mot en moyen de communication et le perd comme espace de pensée” (167). Housset is mounting a criticism of the technological era’s thoughtlessness in terms of its corresponding mishandling of the human hand. In a world of touch screen devices, there is less space for the work of the hand, and so too there is an absence of thought. The hand, whose true integrity consists in its capacity to hear and respond to the word, instead is deformed into a machine tool that manipulates.[3] Hence, thought recedes and language wanes.

“Sans entrer dans toutes les analyses du Gestell, il s’agit de montrer que l’essence de la technique modern correspond à une degradation de la main en simple organe qui s’adapte à l’évolution de la technologie, mais qui n’a plus sa place dans le travail de la pensée; elle ne fait plus apparaitre, elle communique” (165).

Alluding to a thesis that will be familiar to readers of Jean-Luc Marion’s account of love in Prolegomena to Charity and The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset for his part claims it is love that puts the hand to work in a way worthy of what calls it. Only then are the world and its things no longer reduced to unfeeling and thoughtless manipulation. To anticipate another gesture Housset will explore two chapters on, here it is a matter of the caress. One must have a loving touch: “Le main manie vraiment quand elle se laisse prendre et organizer par l’armour, donc dans le paradoxe d’une dépossession et d’une possession” (167). Love’s delicate touch, as Housset stresses, makes possible a writing that overcomes the banal communication of technological chatter, by instead showing what has not been seen or else reminding us of what we have forgotten. It turns us from a virtual world, redirecting our attention back to the visible world. Writing, then, when it accedes to its task of giving voice to the things which have spoken to it, lets things speak rather than cancelling out what they say: “écrire, ce n’est pas imposer sa mesure à la chose, mais c’est laisser la chose être sa propre mesure, c’est en user dans un respect, qui est une reconnaissance de sa parole” (169). Concurring with what Jean-Yves Lacoste has said in Thèses sur le vrai of Angelus Silesius’ rose or Gerald Manley Hopkins’ sky, Housset’s analysis reminds us the written word is able to show what we had not seen. True speech shows.

Following on this description of writing as a work of the hand, Housset turns next to the notion of style. For here, to begin with, the term is not to be taken in its “usage en rhétorique or en historie” but rather “comme une structure de l’existence.”[4] Style, in the existential sense, is a matter of one’s distinctive being-in-the-world: “La question du don des mains va ainsi conduire à decrier le style comme une manière d’être au-devant de soi en agissant dans le monde” (171). Contrary to a line of argument that would dismiss the notion of style as unfit for philosophical analysis because of its ambiguity, Housset argues that the notion’s polysemy is precisely what makes it so fecund. Taken in a first sense, style is a linguistic feature. As Housset says, in that regard every writing bears a unique signature. Style in this way concerns the fluctuation around a norm—what Housset terms a “catégorial-objecif” notion concerning the work’s general form of expression and the singularity of the author. But Housset notes style, taken as a general structure of the intentional mode of being-in-the-world, does not alone suffice to explain how writing is an act of the hand. Further at stake, in short, is one’s personal history, but not, as we had seen with Husserl in the context of passive synthesis, a history constituted by oneself. Instead of an auto-constituiton of a self in its own history, Housset has in view an irruptive history, one that shattering the enclosure of the self exposes whoever it calls to a future which would otherwise have remained closed. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, Housset sometimes will use the term “verticalité” to denote this rupture. Now, if here existential style concerns a personal rhythm, it is an attunement no longer reducible to a subjective perspective of what is otherwise objective (as if style were a mere lens or gloss), but rather a mediopassive mode of encounter. This style is a “tonalité fondamentale,” a manner of adjusting oneself to the manifestation of being. With this other history freed, man stands open to a destiny calling him. Adjusting himself to the truth of being, the work of his hands accordingly becomes neither an act of prideful strength nor a pure act of freedom, but a free response to a call. As for writing, it becomes the hand’s vocation, our answer to what has first addressed us.

If in his reflection on style Housset mentions Husserl and Heidegger first and primarily, in turn he invokes Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty, Housset notes, not only observed acutely that style is an expression of our relationship to the world, but also that there is a connection between style and the hand. As readers of the Phenomenology of Perception know, for Merleau-Ponty a gesture’s meaning does not consist in some intention residing in the mind initially, for its sense is to be found nowhere else but in the gesture itself. The hand (or the entire body) speaks, which is why even the sleeping body, assuming the pose it does, is never entirely mute. It is this excess of sense underlaying the propositional domain of discourse that Merleau-Ponty claims the writer and painter express. According to Merleau-Ponty, the world itself has a style. Summarizing the upshot, Housset concludes,

“On comprend bien alors que le style n’est plus ici un écart par rapport à une norme ou un mode singulier de constitution, mais est cette charnière entre ma chair et la chair du monde qui m’envoie dans le monde; il est cette cohesion sans concept, antérieure à toute synthèse d’indentification et sans laquelle cette synthèse demeurerait une intellectualistation de la sensibilité” (185).

Housset’s study of the hand has to this point shown why the hand cannot be understood as a tool or an organ, a lesson chapter six’s “Tâtonner et Caresser” magnifies. Returning to the work’s earlier chapter on touch, here the issue is that of the caress. In keeping with the work’s central thesis that our existence takes form only in response to what encounters it, so here Housset will insist that this is so with the caress: “l’étude de la caresse va venir confirmer que la main est une capacité reçue de l’autre corps” (191). For as he continues a few lines down, if the hand in the caress “touche l’intouchable” (192) this is so because the hand is constantly groping for what always retreats in the face of the hand’s advance. Following Jean-Luc Marion’s paradoxical statement in The Erotic Phenomenon, Housset notes accordingly how the caress touches nothing: “la caresse il ne s’agit plus vraiment d’un contact, ou même du toucher, et on peut risquer le paradoxe selon lequel la main qui caresse ne touche pas une autre chair, puisque cette chair se dissipe quand on s’en approche” (201). As Housset goes on to say, it is this hand’s act of groping for what it cannot find that “donne à toutes les autres leur signification véritable” (Ibid.). In language deliberately reminiscent of Levinas and Ricœur, Housset attempts to pass from ontology to ethics, claiming that this constant retreat of what encounters the hand is nowhere felt more profoundly than in the encounter with the human other, who, no matter how close we get, still recedes as one approaches. As he explains,

“plus on approche l’autre la caresse, plus le mystère de son existence corporelle se dévoile. L’autre homme n’est pas une énigme qui se dissiperait peu à peu un fonction des syntheses d’identification successives, mais il se rencontre comme un mystère qui ne cesse de se refuser” (193).

In characterizing the reciprocity between call and response structuring the fundamental tenor of human existence, Housset shows how this conversation between things and ourselves is manual, ever unfurling through the hand that gropes for something to hold onto.

For this reason, Housset declares it is Levinas who above all has come the closest of the phenomenologists to revealing the hand’s truth. Unlike Husserl for whom the hand remains the power of perception and freedom, Merleau-Ponty for whom the hand is what gives things to be seen in the world, or Sartre for whom the hand participates in the drama of desire, Levinas sees how the hand’s fundamental dimension consists in “dolence, capacité à souffrir, à éprouver la douleur, mais également affliction par rapport à cette douleur” (211). Here Housset quotes with approval Levinas’s assessment of the hand in Totality and Infinity: “La main est par essence tâtonnement et emprise” (216). The hand trembles in its ache for contact. And so, the other is there, always appearing within the horizon of indeterminateness forever soliciting the hand that seeks to traverse its mystery.

Taking up the manual acts it has, Housset’s work as a whole, we have seen, undertakes a reversal of the modern myth of self-sufficient man, a deconstruction culminating in the work’s final chapter “Recevoir et Donner.” We grope for stability and assurance. And when we receive that assurance, it is always given to us, which is to say, it arrives as a gift we must receive. Now, the subject of the gift is not new to phenomenology. At least in the phenomenological context, indeed, the term has almost become synonymous with the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Housset’s own dissertation director. It is only proper, then, that a study of the human hand as this one should end as it does, with a meditation on receiving and giving and thus the gift, the very phenomenon to which the study owes its title. At the beginning of the last chapter, Housset will speak of “la main nue,” a hand having nothing but its own possibility of becoming what it will through responding to what it encounters. This is not the hand of a superhero, says Housset, but a fragile, humble, and weak hand dispossessed of everything. These are the hands of someone who has accepted the realization he has never given himself his own beginning. In this resulting humility of the hands abandoned to their own weakness, this powerlessness, says Housset, “ouvre sur une autre forme de puissance, qui est la puissance même de l’amour” (235). Love allows one to give without concern for a return. And just the same, love is also what strengthens us to receive, since, in impatience or pride where love is absent, too often we consequently refuse to receive what is offered us—there is nothing more pride despises than to be helped! This ingratitude, which here takes the figure of the modern subject who thinks he is in charge of himself, encloses itself within itself, refusing stubbornly to receive assistance from anything beyond itself or what its fellow man can provide. Such a figure, hence, refuses the greatest gift our hands may receive. For these closed hands refuse to receive grace. This, then, Housset will suggest so boldly, is the final position of the human hand that, succumbing to the cul-de-sac of defiance, knows no power but its own. This is the hand that does not take hold of God’s hand. Cut off from “l’amour de Dieu,” it is one that finds no destiny to which it is able confidently to consecrate its works. For, everything it does is destined only to fade.

Here, concluding our review with the gift and work in mind, what are we thus to say of Housset’s own work as a whole? Shall it endure? Bemoaning the embarrassing state of the philosophial literature of the time, Hannah Arendt in correspondence with Karl Jaspers said, “The academic journals are full of nonsense that not even the author believes but that is necessary for his career. None of these journals pays a red cent; very few of them are read.” Housset’s book is not nonsense; neither can the author’s sincerity, which can be felt on every page, be doubted; and his writing makes plain it was born of aspirations rising high above the petty ones known to those who write for an academic career. With a work as this, thus, it is entirely fitting to conclude with a note of prognostication. What future awaits this work? To be sure, Housset largely remains a name unknown to Anglophone readers. In the face of that unfortunate obscurity, an author could be forgiven the temptation to doubt the use of writing, especially when the truly philosophical works that result are bound to be less understood and appreciated now by reading audiences than in Arendt’s day. One imagines hearing Housset in Caen groaning: “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc 2:11). Is, however, this sigh of futility warranted here? Perhaps not! In an age when a work as this one receives far less attention than it deserves, that very neglect just serves to underscore its importance, for the relative obscurity in which it is received belies its fidelity to the philosophical spirit. Work of good that it is, Le don des mains will stand the test of time, and it will be read long after so much else written today is not. May there be readers who enjoy it now!


[1] Analytic philosophy currently is undergoing an “normative turn,” particularly in ethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of action. Meanwhile, in the phenomenological milieu, Steven Galt Crowell, my dissertation supervisor of record, has more than anyone explored the normative dimension of human existence, first, in Husserl, Heidegger and the Space of Meaning: Paths towards a Transcendental Phenomenology (Northwestern: 2001) and, again more recently, in Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (Cambridge: 2013).

[2] Hubert Dreyfus’s overview of technology in Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (MIT: 1991) still provides an excellent statement of this concern that today everything increasingly is being reduced to the measure of flexibility and efficiency.

[3] Crucially, it should be noted that for an ideological program as transhumanism to succeed, it is as necessary for humans to become like machines as for the machines themselves to become humanlike. The melding of man and machine depends essentially on the dehumanization of the former.

[4] There are many fascinating overlaps between what Housset will say here of style and what Claude Romano, taking up the history of authenticity, says of Cicero, Castiglione, Montaigne, Rousseau, and others in Être soi-même: Une autre histoire de la philosophie (Gallimard: 2019).