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

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Emmanuel Housset
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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).

Iulian Apostolescu (Ed.): The Subject(s) of Phenomenology: Rereading Husserl, Springer, 2020

The Subject(s) of Phenomenology: Rereading Husserl Couverture du livre The Subject(s) of Phenomenology: Rereading Husserl
Contributions to Phenomenology, Series Volume 108
Iulian Apostolescu
Hardback 103,99 €
XIV, 380

Avishag Zafrani, Yves-Charles Zarka (Eds.): La phénoménologie de la vie, Éditions du Cerf, 2019

La phénoménologie de la vie Couverture du livre La phénoménologie de la vie
Avishag Zafrani, Yves-Charles Zarka (Eds.)
Éditions du Cerf
Paperback 32,00 €

James Mensch: Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining

Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining Couverture du livre Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume: 17
James Mensch
Hardback €157.00
X, 342

Reviewed by: Jakub Kowalewski

The scope of James Mensch’s new book is truly impressive. On the one hand, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining does not shy away from the rather unfashionable task of proposing a systemic account of human existence. In a manner reminiscent of some of the most exciting works in the history of philosophy, Selfhood and Appearing intervenes in an array of philosophical, political, and religious debates, which, in turn, allow it to propose a unified model of human reality: from subjectivity, through science and politics, to the divine. On the other hand, Mensch’s engagement with wide-ranging and diverse sources relies on insights afforded by one tradition of philosophy in particular – phenomenology. It is on the basis of his close reading of various phenomenologists (perhaps most importantly, Patočka and Merleau-Ponty), that Mensch is able to develop an interpretative key capable of unlocking hidden possibilities of diverse theoretical debates. In other words, the ‘macroscopic’ account of human existence proposed in Selfhood and Appearing presupposes a ‘microscopic’ argument grounded in phenomenological literature.

One of the undeniable achievements of Mensch’s book, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates the continuous importance of phenomenology, not only for questions which remain unsolved (or, at least, remain solved insufficiently) in other traditions and disciplines, but also for a more consistent understanding of our multifaceted existence – on Mensch’s reading, phenomenology is a force to be reckoned with.

In consequence, Selfhood and Appearing can be read in three ways (simultaneously): as a comprehensive analysis of the various levels of human reality; as an interpretative intervention in contemporary phenomenological studies; and, finally, as a love letter to phenomenology.

Selfhood and Appearing is divided into four parts: Part One examines the role of intertwining in subjective experiences; Part Two deals with intertwining and intersubjectivity; Part Three continues the analysis of the previous sections by exploring intertwining in the context of political violence; and Part Four focuses on intertwining and religion.

Since it is the notion of intertwining which allows Mensch to successfully navigate through diverse theoretical landscapes, in this review I will focus primarily on the role intertwining plays in the main argument of the book. As I hope to show, although extracted from the works of other philosophers, intertwining is a specifically ‘Menschean’ notion, which in Selfhood and Appearing is endowed with a double function: firstly, intertwining characterises human experience as a whole, and as such, it is the unifying thread which weaves together the various levels of human reality, which from a traditional perspective are in opposition to one another. Secondly, intertwining enables Mensch to re-interpret and bring together otherwise dispersed philosophical arguments, debates, and traditions; the concept of intertwining is formed on the basis of a phenomenological analysis, and because of that it can be found (for the most part implicitly) in any philosophy attentive to this fundamental structure of human experience.

I will conclude this review by alluding to a tension between two effects of intertwining. Throughout Selfhood and Appearing, intertwining reveals human existence to be chiefly harmonious: the traditionally opposing terms—for instance, self and other, self and the world, the world and divinity—are shown to be intertwined and thus essentially compatible with one another. Likewise, the history of philosophy appears to be interwoven and unified due to a shared attentiveness to the concept of intertwining. In short, the main effect of intertwining is a reconciliatory vision of existence and philosophy, in which antagonisms between divergent elements are dissolved in a more fundamental interlacing. However, occasionally, Mensch allows us to glimpse a different effect of his concept: some phenomena and philosophies are excluded from the reconciliatory work of intertwining. In such cases, a phenomenon or a philosophy is so radically antagonistic that it becomes separated from the otherwise all-encompassing intertwining. As a result, Selfhood and Appearing—in addition to demonstrating the possibility of a harmonious existence and theory—invites us to think the irreducibility of antagonisms in both experience and philosophy, and with it, to conceptualise notions like separation and exclusion opposed to, yet effected by Mensch’s intertwining.

The definition of the concept of intertwining finds its first expression in the Introduction. In the section devoted to Merleau-Ponty, Mensch discusses our natural belief that my perception of external objects is an internal process which takes place “in me,” and that I also count myself as one of the external objects, out there in the world. Our natural belief, therefore, is that ‘I am in the world and the world is in me’ – the “natural” person:

‘lives in a paradox, undisturbed by it. He thinks both that he grasps external objects and their apprehension is within him. The basic tenet of such belief is that our relation to world is that of a double being-in. We are inside that which is in us.’[1]

The paradigmatic example of intertwining, therefore, is our double position as perceivers of objects and—by virtue of our embodiment—as objects to be perceived. These two perspectives, according to Mensch, reveal something ‘more than the fact that our embodiment places us in the world, which we internalize through perception. At issue here is the appearing of the world.’[2] In other words, the fact that my perception of objects is “in me,” while I am “out there” with the objects, is not an inconsequential paradox, which philosophers may try to resolve in their free time. On the contrary, the intertwining between the “inside” and the “outside” found in our embodied perception, is a condition of possibility for any manifestation: I reveal myself and the world which I inhabit thanks to the “double being-in” of the world in me and of me in the world as embodied. Intertwining, therefore, has a transcendental function of making possible the appearing of subjects and objects.

Mensch extends his definition of intertwining in the next section devoted to Patočka. Intertwining, and the manifestation it makes possible, should not be understood as an essentially subjectivity category; nor can it be reduced simply to an objective structure:

‘Appearing as such, however, can be derived neither from consciousness nor the realities that appear to it. Considered in itself, it is a “world-structure”… Prior to subjects and objects, it informs both.’[3]

Whereas Merleau-Ponty enables Mensch to posit intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance, Patočka helps Mensch to argue that intertwining cannot be categorised as simply subjective or objective. Since intertwining makes possible disclosure as such, it is the structure which underlies the manifestation of both subjectivity and objectivity.

Importantly, Patočka contributes a further insight: intertwining is not a static function of appearance. Rather, ‘appearing… is to be understood in terms of motion.’

‘As Patočka expresses this, “movement… first makes this or that being apparent, causes it to manifest itself in its own original manner.” The moving entity does this through affecting what surrounds it… Without this ability through motion to affect what surrounds it, an entity cannot distinguish itself from its environment. But without this, it has no presence either to inanimate or anime beings. In living sentient creatures, this manifests itself as experience. It forms the subjective component of appearing. The objective component is simply the physical presence that the entity has through its action. It is, for example, the depression on the pillow left by an object pressing on it.’[4]

The engagement with Merleau-Ponty and Patočka in the Introduction provides the basic definition of intertwining: it is a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. In the remainder of the book, Mensch demonstrates the way in which intertwining is effective in various aspects of our existence. It is precisely here that the concept becomes ‘Menschean’: intertwining enables Mensch to offer a coherent re-interpretation of the writings of figures in the history of philosophy; these re-interpretations, in turn, allow him to propose a unified account of human existence in its various guises.

In the first part of the book, in addition to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and other phenomenologists, Mensch engages at length with Aristotle, who helps him to conceptualise space and time in terms of intertwining. The discussion of Aristotle is exemplary since it illustrates well the trajectory of Mensch’s argument as a whole. Selfhood and Appearing takes up notions theorised by other thinkers and reframes them by demonstrating their reliance on intertwining. Aristotle offers resources which enable Mensch to identify the effects of intertwining on the appearance of subjects and objects in space and time.

According to Mensch, the notion of space described by Aristotle, is a space produced by the motion of entities. The particular movement of a subject, for instance, determines its “first unmoved boundary” and with it, the space it occupies and in which it moves. Furthermore, as Mensch points out, these Aristotelian conclusions can be applied beyond a simple physical presence – space can be constituted by a practical motion of a teacher who teaches, or a builder who builds. Importantly, on Mensch’s reading, space depends on embodied entities which produce it by their motion. [5] Furthermore, since motion is a structural feature of intertwining, it is, in fact, the latter which, indirectly, gives rise to space.

Likewise time can no longer be thought of as independent from the movements of embodied entities, and thus from intertwining. The constant presence of the body to itself (e.g. my continuous embodiment) constitutes the now: ‘This present “corresponds” to the body by virtue of being part of the body’s continuous self-manifestation.’ The flow of time, by contrast, ‘corresponds to the body’s movement insofar as it manifests the body’s shifting relation to its environment.’ [6] Time, therefore, depends on the permanent yet moving body, producing a temporality responsive to the entity’s motion: the flow of time is effected by the body’s movement, whereas the persistence of the present (the fact that I am always in the now) results from the uninterrupted presence of the body to itself.

Both space and time, therefore, are the effects of embodied entities and their motions; as such, space and time presuppose intertwining as the structure which makes possible the appearance of embodied entities in motion.

A similar argument can be found in Part Two of Selfhood and Appearing. In this section of the book, Mensch re-examines Hannah Arendt’s discussion of public space, which, he says, ‘should be understood in terms of our embodied motion in the world… To think public space in terms of this embodiment is to understand how the intertwining of self and world shapes the public space we share.’[7] Interestingly, in his engagement with Arendt, Mensch makes more explicit the distinction between intertwining as a fundamental structure of appearance, and intertwining as an interpretative key useful for the re-reading of other philosophers. When Mensch takes up Arendt’s categories of labour, work, and action, in order to demonstrate their intertwining, he uses the latter primarily as a concept enabling him to bring together the otherwise separate aspects of human activity theorised by Arendt. Here, intertwining designates a conceptual structure in which category A manifests within itself external categories B and C, while itself remaining one of the external categories. ‘To claim in this context that labor, work, and action are intertwined is to claim that they achieve their presence through embodying one another. Doing so, they serve as a place of disclosure for each other’.

Naturally, the demonstration of the intertwining of different aspects of human activity – that is to say, intertwining as a theoretical tool – presupposes the intertwining of embodied entities in motion (i.e., the intertwining as the transcendental structure of appearance). The intertwined manifestation of labour, work, and action, ‘occurs in conjunction with our disclosure of the world… The public space we share is, in fact, the result of both forms of disclosure.’[8]

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between intertwining as a conceptual tool and intertwining as the condition of experience – whereas the former is derived from the latter, the two notions are endowed with different functions. Intertwining as a transcendental structure allows for the manifestation of entities; intertwining as an interpretative key enables Mensch to re-read the writings of other philosophers.

This distinction between the two functions of intertwining was already operative in Mensch’s interpretation of Aristotle, however, it becomes more explicit when Mensch first presents Arendt’s categories as intertwined, and only then links them with intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance. Of course, Mensch could not re-interpret Arendt without identifying intertwining as a fundamental structure of experience; however, the fact that he is then able to free intertwining from its original context in order to apply it to the discussion of other philosophers, makes intertwining an effective (and genuinely interesting) theoretical notion.

The efficacy of the concept of intertwining is explored further in Part Four of the book. There, intertwining is used to examine questions related to religious life, and, specifically, to unravel a paradox which, according to Mensch, lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions:

‘Thus, on the one hand, we have the binding insistence on justice, on the punishment of the offender, on the payment of the transgressor’s debts to God and society. On the other hand, we have an equally insistent emphasis on the unbinding of mercy, on the forgiveness of all debts. How can these two perspectives be combined? How are we to grasp this binding that is also an unbinding?’[9]

The problem which motivates Part Four echoes the paradox of our natural belief in Part One (that the world is both “in us” and we are “out there in the world”) with which Mensch introduces intertwining as transcendental structure of appearance. However, the respective questions of Part One and Part Four remain distinct – what interests Mensch towards the end of this book is not, for the most part, the intertwining between embodied perceiver and the world; rather, his focus turns to a theoretical problem inherent in the biblical concept of religion, which can be solved by means of intertwining.

Importantly, intertwining as the solution to the paradox of religion is only analogous to the intertwining found at the bottom of appearance: ‘For Merleau-Ponty, the intertwining concerns our relation to the world… The religious analogue of this intertwining places God and the world inside each other.’[10] In other words, in part four intertwining becomes a device used to solve theoretical problems, with only an analogical relationship to the intertwining of experience of oneself in the world.

Of course, this is not say that the two notions of intertwining—as a theoretical tool and as a foundational experience—are separate. On the contrary, the latter continues to inform the former. However, the fact that, despite the change of conceptuality (from phenomenological terms to religious vocabulary), intertwining remains effective, attests to the theoretical efficacy of intertwining outside of a strictly phenomenological analysis of experience. This flexibility of the concept of intertwining enables Mensch to solve the “religious paradox” of part four in a manner reminiscent of the book’s previous arguments – that is to say, by arguing for the religious structure of intertwining: ‘…in the Mosaic tradition, religious selfhood is constituted through intertwining of binding and unbinding. This selfhood is such that the binding and unbinding provide for each other a place of disclosure.’[11]

I have attempted to decouple the two functions of intertwining (as a theoretical tool and as a fundamental structure of appearing) because it strikes me that they are able to generate distinct effects, which are in tension with one another.

This tension is most apparent in Part Three, where Mensch discusses the relationship between violence and politics. There, Mensch engages with the thoughts of Schmitt and Heidegger. Mensch does not attempt to hide his intentions – in contrast to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka, Aristotle, and even Arendt, all of whom contributed something positive to the argument of Selfhood and Appearing, the two Nazi-sympathisers are shown to be wrong, and only wrong (and rightly so, I should add).

From a perspective of the history of phenomenology, one of the ingenious aspects of Mensch’s reading of Heidegger is that he finds him “in” Schmitt. As a result he is able to disclose the Heideggerian basis of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, which invalidates Schmitt and Heidegger as appropriated by Schmitt. This way, Mensch is able to please both the anti-Heideggerian readers (who will be satisfied with the demonstration of the explicit relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt), and the pro-Heideggerian readers (who will point out that the relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt is possible on the basis of partial convergence of their respective thoughts). Take, for instance, these two passages, which follow one another in the text:

‘… we can say that Schmitt’s use of the “extreme situation” to define our collective identity is based on a specific notion of human existence, one that he shares with Heidegger… Given the essential lack of content of our existence, seriousness means taking responsibility or the decisions that shape it and, hence, affirming our identity through such responsibility. For Heidegger and Schmitt, what forces us to do this is the enemy that confronts us. For both, then seriousness involves a readiness for conflict, a need to seek out the enemy.’

‘Heidegger takes our confrontation with death as primarily individual. For Schmitt, by contrast, both death and the enemy that threatens it are thought in terms of the collective.[12]

Mensch then skillfully demonstrates how Schmitt’s understanding of the collective (that is to say, the point at which he differs from Heidegger) helps the jurist to elaborate his concept of sovereignty – thus creating a distance between Heideggerian ontology and Schmitt’s theory of the sovereign.

Almost immediately afterwards, Mensch returns to the similarities between Schmitt and Heidegger – the decision of Schmitt’s sovereign is ungrounded, and the ‘nothingness that is its source is, in fact, the political equivalent of the nothingness of death.’[13] Nevertheless, despite the equivalence of their concepts, the reader is reminded that is Schmitt who contributes the more explicitly problematic dimension to the discussion of decisionism.

The most interesting aspect of the discussion of Heidegger and Schmitt, in my opinion, is their uneasy position in relation to the concept of intertwining.

Schmitt’s (Heidegger-inspired) sovereign escapes the intertwining which constitutes legitimate politics, and in which the subject is free to act in the world while being limited by its norms and values. The sovereign does act in the world, however, he or she is not constrained by the world’s values.[14] The sovereign constitutes a “liminal” figure: ‘this liminality signifies that the sovereign has complete authority with regard to the legal system, being himself unconstrained by it.’[15]

Interestingly, the concept of liminality (embodied by the figure of the sovereign) is used by Mensch to identify phenomena which sit uncomfortably on the border of intertwining and its beyond. These phenomena are dangerous, because they act in the world from the position external to the world’s norms. This is why liminality should be eliminated by ‘the inclusion of the [liminal] agents into the world in which they act. It can only come through the reestablishment of the intertwining that joins the self and its Others in a world of shared senses.’[16]

Intertwining, therefore, functions as a way to reintegrate liminal figures – such as the sovereign – back into the shared world of values and norms, and thus to eliminate the threat of senseless violence which liminality makes possible.

However, despite the call for the inclusion of liminal figures, the works of Schmitt (and to a lesser extent, Heidegger) are excluded from Mensch’s theoretical enterprise. After finishing Part Three of Selfhood and Appearing, the reader has no doubt that there is no place for Schmitt (and Schmitt’s Heidegger) amongst the thinkers of intertwining. This is a result which speaks favourably about Mensch’s project as a whole – we can safely assume that Mensch does not want to have Nazi-sympathisers on his side. However, this exclusion of Schmitt seems to be at odds with the inclusive work of intertwining attested to by Mensch in his demand for the reintegration of liminal figures.

My hypothesis is that the tension between, on the one hand, the exclusion of Schmitt, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of liminal figures, can be explained by the distinction between the two types of intertwining identified above.

As a transcendental condition of manifestation, intertwining aims to reconcile oppositional terms (e.g. subjectivity and objectivity, or the world and divnity). As a theoretical tool, however, intertwining can be used to separate and exclude philosophies which are irreconcilable with the ultimately harmonising and inclusive project of Selfhood and Appearing.

This suggests, in turn, that at least on the theoretical level antagonism is irreducible: philosophy attentive to intertwining cannot be reconciled with philosophies which pay no attention to this fundamental structure.

It remains an open question, however, if a similar antagonism can be located on the level of experience: is there anything which intertwining as a transcendental condition of manifestation is incompatible with?

Mensch’s discussion of liminality hints on such a possibility. The liminal figure is both within the structure of intertwining, and external to it. Furthermore, as the possibility of sovereign violence demonstrates, this sphere external to intertwining is an effective and dangerous dimension, with real consequences for the intertwined existence. Thus, ultimately, we might find an irreducible antagonism also in experience – the external dimension attested to by liminal figures is fundamentally opposed to the harmonising structure of intertwining and the manifestation it produces.

If we were to continue our hypothetical musings, we can ask: how is this dangerous dimension external to intertwining constituted?

Perhaps it is produced by intertwining itself, which separates and excludes elements which cannot be integrated in its structure. Intertwining is defined as a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. Does this definition not imply the separation and exclusion of elements which are static, purely subjective or purely objective, and as such invisible from the perspective of intertwining? Would these non-integrated elements, in turn, constitute the hostile dimension external to intertwining, threatening the harmonising work of its “enemy”?

In addition to all its other achievements, the fact that Selfhood and Appearing invites us to pose such questions, and to consider the irreducible antagonism between intertwining and the dimension external to it, shows clearly that Mensch’s new book truly has an impressive scope.

[1] J. Mensch, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill 2018, p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 16

[3] Ibid., p.19

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[6] Ibid., p. 89

[7] Ibid., p. 168

[8] Ibid., p. 171

[9] Ibid., p, 283

[10] Ibid., p. 288

[11] Ibid., p. 288

[12] Ibid., p. 265

[13] Ibid., p. 268

[14] Ibid., p. 253

[15] Ibid., p. 250

[16] Ibid., p. 254

Graham James McAleer: Erich Przywara and Postmodern Natural Law: A History of the Metaphysics of Morals, Notre Dame Press, 2019

Erich Przywara and Postmodern Natural Law: A History of the Metaphysics of Morals Couverture du livre Erich Przywara and Postmodern Natural Law: A History of the Metaphysics of Morals
Graham James McAleer
Notre Dame Press
Paperback $35.00

The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, Volume 17, 2019

New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, Volume 17, 2019 Couverture du livre New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy, Volume 17, 2019
New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy
Timothy Burns, Thomas Szanto, Alessandro Salice, Maxime Doyon, Augustin Dumont (Eds.)
Hardback £115.00

Reviewed by: Bence Peter Marosan (Budapest Business School, Pázmány Péter Catholic University)

The 2019 issue of The New Yearbook of Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy has two main parts: the first one (consisting of eleven texts) is a Festschrift for the 65th birthday of Dermot Moran, the second one (with seven texts) contains updated version of the papers presented at a workshop held at the University of Montreal on the problem of imagination in Kant and in the phenomenological tradition, (The Imagination: Kantian and Phenomenological Models, 5-6 May, 2017). The volume ends with a “Varia” section,[1] with the study of Emiliano Trizio, (“Husserl’s Early Concept of Metaphysics As the Ultimate Science of Reality”).


Dermot Moran is a key figure of contemporary philosophy and phenomenology. He has an immense, extensive knowledge in the field of natural sciences (having originally studied applied mathematics, physics, and chemistry), the humanities, and particularly, philosophy. He defended his PhD Thesis in Medieval Philosophy at the University of Yale University in 1986; the title of his thesis was: Nature and Mind in the Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study in Medieval Idealism.

He counts as one of the leading researchers and experts in phenomenology, and especially in Husserl. He wrote several excellent books on Husserl and phenomenology (Introduction to Phenomenology, 2000; Edmund Husserl – Founder of Phenomenology, 2005; Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology – An Introduction, 2012), and has a long list of articles published in a number of highly rated philosophy journals. His publications have always generated intensive scientific discussions. He was the President of the Programme Committee for the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy which took place in Athens (August 4-10 in 2013), as well as the President of the 24th World Congress of Philosophy which took place in Beijing (August 13–20 in 2018). Professor Moran is the founding editor of the International Journal of Philosophical Studies and the co-editor of the books series Contribution to Phenomenology.

One of his main goals has been to mediate in the greatest schism of our present day’s philosophy: the Analytic-Continental Division. He is urging a more intensive dialogue between the two sides. As an original philosopher, his basic philosophical stance is adopting transcendentalism, the critique of naturalism, with an openness to natural scientific research (from the transcendental point of view), and with continuous integration of the newest results of positive sciences into the considerations of transcendental philosophy. In our present days, when analytic naturalistic philosophy has a huge predominance, I think, these above-mentioned motifs are especially important.

I find myself fortunate that I was his PhD-student in 2008, so I know his personal side as well. I can say that he does not only represent the highest scientific and academic standards, and he is not just an exceptional teacher, but he is also an astonishingly kind person, very open to everybody and extremely helpful to all. This present volume pays a tribute to his outstanding career by his friends and colleagues. [2].


  1. The Festschrift contains eleven texts, with the “Editors’ Introduction”. This part of the volume was edited and introduced by Timothy Burns, Thomas Szanto and Alessandro Salice. In their introduction, they give a detailed and also a very personal overview of Dermot Moran’s career; and they also briefly summarize the essays of the first part of the book. I think that every single essay of the Festschrift is an original contribution to it, with new insights concerning the topic they treat. The essays reflect issues or topics that were of concern to Dermot, such as: transcendentalism, embodiment, intersubjectivity.
  2. In his study “Husserl’s Account of Action: Naturalistic or Anti-Naturalistic? A Journey through the Studien zur Struktur des Bewusstseins”, Andrea Staiti touches upon two motifs which are central for Moran: his commitment to the transcendental and anti-naturalistic attitude and his openness to contemporary natural scientific research and analytic philosophy of mind. He refers to one of Moran’s more recent essays in this context: “Defending the Transcendental Attitude: Husserl’s Concept of the Person and the Challenges of Naturalism” (2014). In this essay, Staiti focuses on Husserl’s view of action, drawing on his – at the moment unpublished, but shortly forthcoming – research manuscript “Studien zur Struktur des Bewusstseins” (1900-1914[-1924]) (Ms. M III 3 I-III). He tries to show that Husserl’s account of action, his fundamentally anti-naturalistic stance, is compatible with contemporary naturalistic description of action (according to which the action is not the result of the will as a supernatural causal source).

He attempts to prove this thesis through a microanalysis of Husserl’s depiction of the structure of action, as it is elaborated in “Studien zur Struktur des Bewusstseins”. Husserl interprets the will as a peculiar sort of conscious acts, which stand under the law of motivation. In Husserl’s view, subjectivity is essentially embodied, bodily consciousness, which is part of nature, and this conscious body is the source of will (and voluntary decisions). According to Husserl, free will is just the free functioning of this lived, autonomous and conscious body. As Staiti emphasizes, Husserl creates an elegant balance between anti-naturalistic and naturalistic interpretations of the will, and this could be a fruitful approach within the contemporary debates concerning the relationship of will and action.

  1. Mette Lebech engages in reconstructive work in her paper „Essence, eidos, and dialogue in Stein’s ‘Husserl and Aquinas. A Comparison’”. She discusses the original version of Edith Stein’s Festschrift essay for Husserl’s 70th birthday essay entitled: “What Is Philosophy? A Conversation Between Edmund Husserl and Thomas Aquinas”, originally written, as the title suggests, as a dialogue. Heidegger, who edited the Festschrift, requested Edith Stein to rewrite her work in prosaic form – which she did. She gave the revised version the new title: “An Attempt to Contrast Husserl’s Phenomenology and the Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas”. The revised version was a comparison of the thinking of the authors, which changed the original content, in so far as the dialogue form itself contributed to the content.

In the original paper a dialogue is recorded between Husserl, as founder of phenomenology, and Aquinas, committed to an ethos of rational faith. The dialogue is possible because of the willingness of the two thinkers to enter into it, and together explore the differences between their respective positions. An important motif is the discussion of the nature of philosophy as well as the idea of essence: together the two thinkers try to attain rational insights concerning basic philosophical topics. The main point of the article is that it is the idea of intelligibility present in their respective understanding of essence that allows the two interlocutors to engage in a dialogue, and that the dialogue form brings this out. According to Stein (in Lebech’s interpretation) essence is a presupposition for the intersubjective, dialogic praxis of communities.

  1. Steven Crowell’s article, “Twenty-first-Century Phenomenology? Pursuing Philosophy With and After Husserl”, partly treats Moran’s narrative in his seminal work: “Introduction to Phenomenology” (2000). In this book, Moran portrays the history of phenomenology of the 20th century as a deviation from Husserl’s transcendental and idealistic formulation of phenomenology. Crowell, on the one hand, offers a critical overview of this interpretation of the phenomenological movement, and poses the question (based on the results of his essay) of what should phenomenology be in the 21st century?

According to Moran, the main authors of phenomenology – after Husserl – rejected both his transcendental attitude and his idealistic tendencies. The “inflection point” of phenomenology in this story was Heidegger’s philosophy of Being, and his vehement criticism of Husserl. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, some really naturalistic features were gained, and finally in Derrida, the phenomenological method “collapsed” into deconstruction.

But in Crowell’s opinion, we could interpret the history of phenomenology in another way: phenomenologies – after Husserl – could be interpreted as transformations of transcendentalism. One could clearly identify the transcendental motif in Heidegger’s account of being-there (Dasein, the subject), as well as in (e.g.) Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of chiasm and the phenomenology of nature.

Relying on this interpretation of phenomenological tradition, Crowell offers us a possible way of phenomenology for the 21st century, which keeps the transcendental attitude onwards in the future, but abandons classical metaphysical demands. It should be a phenomenology – as Husserl (and also Moran) claimed – of radical self-responsibility, a radical claim concerning evidence and ethical responsibility.

  1. In his essay entitled: “Merleau-Ponty and Developing and Coping Reflectively”, Timothy Mooney takes issue with Hubert Dreyfus’ interpretation of Merleau-Ponty on “skilled coping,” arguing that reflective work is to be found in many of our daily embodied experiences. He emphasises a self-differentiating and bodily field of experience from which the conscious and objectifying subject emerges and to which it makes its own contributions.

In the background of every movement, there is an anonymously functioning body, though the embodied agent is at once an encultured and thoughtful one. In this account, we do not find an indifferent animal body surmounted by human reason. Following on Joseph Berendzen’s work, Mooney stresses that Merleau-Ponty rejects a “layer-cake” model of human subjectivity (according to which there could be hermetically separated layers of body and mind). As Berendzen states: “There are certainly elements that we share with animals, […] but there is no shared layer” (76). Both body and bodily-founded consciousness are specifically human, and every so-called layer mutually determines and shapes the other.

Mooney illustrates the functioning of this embodied and culturally formed awareness in everyday life with a series of examples. The central concept in his essay is that of “little reflections”. These refer to the way in which we consciously adjust our bodily movements (and not just our speech) to changing events in the lived environment. We frequently make explicit corrections to our movements and in so doing contribute to replanning them. Without these little reflections, we would be literally unable to survive.

  1. Similarly to the previous study, Matthew Ratcliffe’s paper “Grief and Phantom Limbs: A Phenomenological Comparison”, first and foremost also relies on Merleau-Ponty. Ratcliffe emphasizes certain deep parallelism, and what is even more: identity between phantom limb experience and experience of losing a beloved person, that is to say: grief. Phantom limb experiences manifest for us the essentially embodied nature of consciousness, and that we are entangled with the world – in the same way that in the experience of grief, it became clear for us that we and the other person belong together in a much stronger than metaphoric way, in a nearly literal sense. The other (beloved) person is almost an extension of my body. The other person grants me access to the world in nearly the same way as my sensory organs and limbs do. In his essay, Ratcliffe focuses on our active, back-and-forth determinative relationship to the world, and on the manner in which our relations to other persons shape the access to our own body and to the world that surrounds us.
  2. In the center of Lilian Alweiss’s contribution (“Back to Space”) discusses the relation between place and space. It is generally agreed that Husserl’s phenomenology prioritises place over space. Lilian Alweiss questions this interpretation of Husserl by drawing on Edward Casey’s work. Casey claims for both early Kant and Husserl embodiment, the place we find ourselves in, is central to our understanding of space. Although Alweiss acknowledges that embodiment plays a central role in cognition and our relation to others, she believes that neither Kant nor Husserl ever argue that our understanding of space is a posteri or derived from our understanding of space. She thereby takes to task Casey’s anti-modern or romantic reading that tries to question our scientific conception of space.
  3. Anthony J. Steinbock’s article: „Hating as Contrary to Loving” is an essential and enlightening study concerning the phenomenology of emotions and feelings. The principal thesis of Steinbock’s essay is that hate and love are not parallel and coeval feelings, neither do they have a dialectical relationship. Love is more fundamental and original than hate, and the latter is founded on the former; so they have a foundational relation.

Steinbock makes a difference between feeling-states and feeling-acts. States are objective and static, and they could be conceived as objects. Acts are always dynamic, and could never be conceived as objects, in the way states could be. States are founded by acts. Hate is founded by love, both as act and state. It gains its entire reality and energy from love.

A key conception of Steinbock’s paper is at first a mysteriously sounding phrase: the hate hates the beloved (121). What does it mean? It means that hate is founded upon the positivity of love and beloved. It is a counter-movement, a negative striving against love and the beloved; it is a closing down with regard to the beloved (or a turning away from it), or even a destructive action against the beloved. But in its entire negativity, it is made comprehensible only through love, against which it is directed. It is the denial of the beloved.

  1. Thomas Nenon’s study “Do Arguments about Subjective Origins Diminish the Reality of the Real?” again joins a central topic of the whole volume and Moran’s basic philosophical attitude: the defence of transcendental stance. Nenon treats the criticism of two main authors of “speculative realism”, Tom Sparrow and Quentin Meillassoux against transcendental philosophy in general, and Husserl in particular. According to the criticism of speculative realists, transcendental philosophy and especially phenomenology fall prey to “correlationism”, which means “the irreducibility of subject and object, thinking and being” and „never considering either term apart from the other”. According to speculative realism, transcendentalism makes reality dependent on subjectivity. Nenon attempts to show that this criticism is false.

In Nenon’s interpretation, transcendental philosophy does not make reality dependent (objectivity) from consciousness, nor is it unable to consider and treat them apart. Transcendentalism is rather the first-person view treatment of experienced objectivity, and the ways in which objectivity appear in experience. It is Meillassoux’s realism which is somehow naïve and naturalistic, because it is simply oriented toward the worldview and achievement of modern natural sciences. Nenon says that Meillassoux’s concept of objectivity is too narrow – as opposed to phenomenology which has a much richer and sophisticated notion of objectivity, with many different regions, (the world of nature, the realm of culture, the sphere of ideal meanings etc.).

  1. Richard Kearney’s essay: “God Making: An Essay in Theopoetic Imagination” is a really beautiful writing about philosophy (phenomenology) of religion. It is a survey about the transformation of divine into human and human into divine, a mutual fusion of these two spheres of Being. A main topic of the paper is creation: how God makes the human being a partner, a playmate in the act, the process of creation; moreover: how humans become lovers of God in the act of creation. Creation is an erotic act; it is the fusion of creator and creature, divine and human, their mutual transition into each other. Creation is the manifestation of an erotic desire of God. Creation is moreover a poetic deed; the divine creation is “theopoiesis”.

An important point of Kearney’s paper is the motif of return, which he emphasizes with the Greek prefix “ana”. Kearney speaks about “anatheism” which is “returning to God after God: a critical hermeneutic retrieval of sacred things” (152). Anatheism is not just the Hegelian “Aufhebung” (uplifting); it is not simply a moving through the opposition of theism and atheism towards something higher. It is an ultimate re-opening to the radically new, it is the final union with the divine dimension.

In the final part of his study, Kearney applies and demonstrates his insights on the artwork of the contemporary artist, Sheila Gallagher.

  1. Nicolas de Warren, in his essay “Husserl’s Awakening to Speech: Phenomenology as ‘Minor Philosophy’”, highlights the peculiar philosophical importance of Husserl’s working method of thinking in writing, using his special stenography. His study is also a novel approach to Husserl’s relationship to language and his philosophy in general. Husserl’s way of meditating in writing shaped his thoughts, and his streams of thoughts also formed the way he wrote. Nicolas de Warren also wants to revise the still currently prevailing view concerning Husserl’s conception of language, according to which language was merely external to thought. De Warren tries to show that this is not the case. Language, not in a thematic way, but rather in a methodological manner, gained a central role in Husserl’s works. In Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts (in the process of writing them) phenomenology became really linguistic and phenomenological. In Husserl’s writings, phenomena really seeked expression, and all the concepts were in formation, everything was fluid and flexible. In de Warren’s interpretation: “Husserlian phenomenology is an unprecedented historical awakening of philosophy to its own speech” (164). De Warren characterizes it as a “Minor Philosophy”, as a radically new form of philosophising, which “struggles to create novel philosophical concepts within established – inherited and institutionalized – dominant languages of philosophy” (161).


  1. The second part of the volume (“The Imagination. Kant’s Phenomenological Legacy”) consists of six studies, plus the “Editors’ introduction” by Maxime Doyon and Augustin Dumont, which offers a brief survey of the philosophical importance of the imagination.
  2. Maxime Doyon’s study (entitled “Kant and Husserl on the (Alleged) Function of Imagination in Perception”) is a systematic comparison of Kant’s and Husserl’s conception of imagination and its purported role in experience and cognition. The text begins by arguing that there are at least three ways in which the imagination could be interpreted as playing an essential role in perception in Kant’s philosophy: firstly, it is said to be necessary to account for the amodal character of perception, (“amodal” in this context refers to the holistic feature of perception; that is to say: that we see objects as wholes, even if we see directly only a few details of them); secondly, the imagination would be essential to account for the constitution of the identity of object through time; and thirdly, the imagination would help us to classify objects, that is to say, to conceive them as particular examples of certain types or classes.

Doyon then tries to show that Husserl inherited this set of problems (amodal perception, constitution of perceptual identity through time and classificatory functioning of perception), without, however, subscribing to Kant’s explanation, which grants to the imagination a transcendental role. In Husserl, there is no place for the imagination in perception, except in two (relatively) rare situations: in image consciousness (when we perceive images [photos, paintings, sculptures, etc.]) and perceptive phantasies (experiencing of works of art; such as theatrical plays, operas, etc.). Otherwise, there is – pace Kant – just no place for the imagination at all in perception.

  1. Andreea Smaranda Aldea, in her long and thorough work entitled „Imagination and Its Critical Dimension: Lived Possibilities and An Other Kind of Otherwise” offers us a detailed and critical analysis of Husserl’s conception of imagination, highlighting its merits, but sketching a basically alternative model.

In Husserl, imagination and perception belong to essentially different sorts of acts. Imagination has a special – and very important! – epistemological role, but fundamentally it is the “inversed mirror” of perception. It is everything which perception is not, (with the exception that both are intuitive acts). Imagination is not-doxic, free, neutralized and quasi-positional act. According to Aldea this account, though at certain points grasps some fundamental features of imagination, at certain points it is rather insufficient, what is even more: misleading. In Aldea’s opinion, imagination cannot be interpreted in such a negative way as Husserl has.

Aldea, in an alternative model, which – notwithstanding – relies on Husserl, describes perception and imagination, which are radically different, but at certain essential points are nevertheless intertwined and in strong cooperation with each other. “Imagining possibilization” (a key conception in Aldea’s framework) has – as opposed to Husserl’s view on imagination –a motivated and teleological structure, and is embedded into the concrete medium of the life-world of the proper subject in question. “Imagining possibilization” plays a fundamental role in the constitution of meanings, and thus in cognition and experience in general. Aldea wishes to present such a model of imagination, which is bound by contingent cultural and historical conditions on the one hand, but – on the other hand – nevertheless has a fundamental transcendental necessity too.

  1. Samantha Matherne’s central thesis, in her essay, “The Hidden Art of Understanding: Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty’s Appropriation of Kant’s Theory of Imagination”, is that there is a fundamental continuity between Kant’s theory of imagination and Heidegger’s as well as Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy (despite the no less important differences). In her study, she attempts to demonstrate some essential elements of this continuity.

In the beginning of her writing, she emphasizes that there are four basic claims in Kant’s conception of imagination: firstly, the “perceptual presence”-claim (according to which imagination plays a constitutive role in the perception of a concrete material thing); secondly, the “transcendental”-claim (which says that imagination makes experience possible in a transcendental and apriori way); thirdly, the “pre-cognitive”-claim (which states that imagination operates prior to cognition, and founds the latter), and fourthly, the “know-how”-claim (in accordance with which imagination has a deeply practical function). Matherne tries to show that all these motifs could be found in Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s notion of imagination.

The Heidegger-part of this study is also a very creative analysis: the author (Matherne) does not investigate Heidegger’s Kant-book, which would be all too trivial in this context (though she – of course – mentions that work). She focuses on Heidegger’s Being and Time (of which she offers a closer reading) in order to show that the above-mentioned four elements could be found in Heidegger’s existential analysis of the Dasein (being-there). She completed the same work in analysing Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception; highlighting that Merleau-Ponty embeds the fore-mentioned Kantian claims into his conception of bodily existence. Imagination, in Merleau-Ponty, is fundamentally the functioning of the embodied subjectivity – but this treatment of imagination, according to Matherne, also has its roots in Kant.

  1. Michela Summa’s essay entitled: “Are Fictional Emotion Genuine and Rational? Phenomenological Reflections on a Controversial Question”, is a very sensitive and even touching investigation concerning the problem of fictional emotions. Though her study is not restricted to that, but the article mostly treats the phenomenon of fictional emotions in the aesthetical context. The question: do we experience real and rationally motivated emotions within aesthetical circumstances (e.g. seeing a theatrical play or reading a novel)? For example: Kendall Walton says: “no”, to this question. Michela Summa, on the contrary, answers this question with a definite and emphatic “yes.”

According to her, though the characters of fictional stories aren’t real, our emotions concerning them could be. Presence and real existence of things aren’t criteria for our emotions to be real; as Summa emphasizes, (real) emotions are often intertwined with the absence of its object (as in the case of e.g. grief). The sadness, she states, we are feeling for Anna Karenina, is both real and rationally motivated; (the situation, the experience is such that it is just rational to feel this way); the tears we shed for her fate are real, though she is not. Our entire personality could live in such fictional emotions – just as in the case of real emotions.

  1. Daniele de Santis – in his study entitled: “‘Das Wunder hier ist die Rationalität’: Remarks on Husserl on Kant’s Einbildungskraft and the Idea of Transcendental Philosophy (With a Note on Kurd Laßwitz)” – offers us an exhaustive study on Husserl’s reading of Kant, at the early stage of his elaboration of transcendental phenomenology, mostly between the years 1907-1909 (manuscripts mostly published in Hua 7).[3] De Santis focuses on details of Husserl’s harsh criticism of Kant during this period; and also on the implicit ways in which Kant nevertheless influenced Husserl’s own transcendental position. Husserl criticized Kant in those, above-mentioned manuscripts, for his alleged anthropologism. That means: in Husserl’s interpretation, Kant states that a world, which is supposed to be understood by human beings, is essentially a human world, which presupposes human consciousness. Husserl, on the contrary, operates with a much broader form of rationality. The world need not be a particularly human world, in order to be understood, the rationality need not be specifically human in order to understand the world. The human being is a particular, empirical entity – but Husserl is interested in necessary and apriori structures of consciousness (and rationality) and of the world. De Santis emphasizes that we could highlight two different and fundamental forms of rationality in Husserl: a transcendental one (apriori structures of constituting consciousness) and ontology (apriori structures of constituted object); which together make up a non-anthropologic, more complete form of rationality.

An interesting and creative moment of this essay is the analysis, devoted to Husserl’s contemporary, Kurd Laußwitz, a Neo-Kantian author, who spoke about different, non-human parallel worlds, and to whom Husserl also refers in the manuscripts of the treated period.

  1. Augustin Dumont’s article entitled: “Imagination and Indeterminacy: The Problematic Object in Kant and Husserl” is a thorough, insightful, comparative analysis of Kant’s and Husserl’s account of imagination, and its role of the epistemology of these two authors; with special regard to their understanding of the “problematic object”.

Kant’s and Husserl’s conception of imagination, despite all the common points, are essentially different. Imagination, for Kant, in a certain way, serves as a condition of possible experience; while for Husserl, it is a possible (particular) form of experience. But there is also an important connection between them: the question of the “problematic object”. For Kant, the problematic object was the “object in general”, before every determination. In Husserl, the “problematic object” was the object of imagination or fantasy which – at certain points – played nevertheless an important role in Husserl’s epistemology, (e.g. in his method of “eidetic variations”).


  1. The closing unit of this volume, Emiliano Trizio’s writing, entitled: “Husserl’s Early Concept of Metaphysics As the Ultimate Science of Reality”, is an enlightening, very profound, astonishingly in-depth survey of the formation of Husserl’s early notion of metaphysics. Trizio’s main aim in his essay is to dispel such misunderstanding, according to which Husserl’s phenomenologically was – at least – metaphysically neutral, or even anti-metaphysical. In contrast to this, Trizio attempts to show that Husserl’s chief philosophical efforts were deeply metaphysically motivated, and that his ultimate goal was to establish a phenomenologically grounded metaphysics. In this regard, what is of the utmost importance is Husserl’s considerations on the relationship between theory of knowledge and metaphysics.

Trizio follows Husserl’s intricate trains of thought concerning the relationship of these two disciplines – from 1896 (Lecture on Logic)[4] up to some of the earliest documents of his transcendental turn (Such as the Introduction to logic and the theory of knowledge. Lectures 1906/07).[5] The theory of knowledge, according to Husserl, was about the essence of justified knowledge, and the proper means to attain grounded knowledge. Metaphysics, on the other hand, was about being; in the end, for Husserl, it was the ultimate science of factual reality.

Husserl hesitated for a while on how to define the boundaries between theory of knowledge and metaphysics. His final stance on this question began to crystallize in his above-mentioned 1906/07 lectures; according to which they are distinct and separate fields. Theory of knowledge (as “first philosophy”) yields the ultimate foundation of every knowledge; metaphysics (as “second philosophy”) is the supreme form of the philosophical disclosure of reality.


In my opinion, the 2019 volume of The New Yearbook of Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy meets the highest standards. Both sections are excellent, with studies of very high standard, and the closing essay is also a very good one, treating a topic (Husserl’s early metaphysics), which deserves much more attention than it received until now. The first part is a compilation of studies of very high quality, in the honour of one of the most important contemporary philosophers; the second part is a collection of essays, which illuminate, in a very precise way, the peculiar philosophical importance of the phenomenon of imagination.

[1]  A section for papers, which do not fit into the thematic parts of the volume.

[2] This paper was supported by the János Bolyai Research Scholarship of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, (No. BO/00421/18/2). I would like to express my gratitude to everybody, who helped with her/his comments and corrections the completion of the final version of this article – first of all, to the authors of this volume. I am also very grateful to Zsuzsanna Keglevich, for proofreading the article.

[3] Husserliana 7. Erste Philosophie (1923/4). Erster Teil: Kritische Ideengeschichte (The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff 1956).

[4] Husserliana Materialien 1. Logik. Vorlesung 1896 (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001).

[5] Husserliana 24. Einleitung in die Logik und Erkenntnistheorie. Vorlesungen 1906/07 (The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff 1985).

Ranjan Ghosh (Ed.): Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives, Columbia University Press, 2019

Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives Couverture du livre Philosophy and Poetry: Continental Perspectives
Ranjan Ghosh (Ed.)
Columbia University Press
Hardback $75.00£58.00

Emmanuel Alloa, Frank Chouraqui, Rajiv Kaushik (Eds.): Merleau-Ponty and Contemporary Philosophy, SUNY Press, 2019

Merleau-Ponty and Contemporary Philosophy Couverture du livre Merleau-Ponty and Contemporary Philosophy
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Emmanuel Alloa, Frank Chouraqui, Rajiv Kaushik (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardcover $95.00

Simon Høffding: A Phenomenology of Musical Absorption

A Phenomenology of Musical Absorption Couverture du livre A Phenomenology of Musical Absorption
New Directions in Philosophy and Cognitive Science
Simon Høffding
Palgrave Macmillan
XXII, 282

Reviewed by: Camille Buttingsrud (The Danish National School of Performing Arts)


“Who is playing?” (2). This question, which opens Høffding’s book, is prompted by the late Danish bassoonist Peter Bastian’s story of how he experienced looking at his own fingers “sprinting up and down the fingerboard” of the instrument he was playing, in awe of the skill of his own fingers. Høffding wants to understand the nature of such an unusual experience of the self, undergone by musicians in “those Golden Moments when it suddenly takes off”, as Bastian puts it. The debate regarding how best to comprehend and describe such altered states of subjectivity – found in, for instance, artistic absorption – has occupied theorists of expertise, cognitive scientists, and phenomenologists for a number of years. Høffding’s general approach is to find continuities between the various positions in this debate. The theory of one of the main voices in the debate, Hubert Dreyfus’ theory of skilled coping, is strongly disputed in Høffding’s book (94), though. Skilled coping is the idea that in expertise decision-making and skill acquisition are based on bodily coping rather than representational knowledge. Høffding’s own account of expertise, specifically of musical absorption, is built up through the chapters, and fully unfolds towards the end of the book.

Høffding develops his phenomenology of musical absorption by means of empirical as well as theoretical research. On the empirical side, he bases his investigation on a series of qualitative research interviews with the Danish String Quartet; on the theoretical side, Høffding’s work is rooted in the philosophy of mind and classical and contemporary phenomenology. Furthermore, theories from aesthetics, psychology of music, sleep science, and psychiatry are used in the comparative chapters of the book.

Throughout the book, Høffding focuses on three overlapping themes: the absorbed minimal self, the absorbed reflective self, and the absorbed body (6). These aspects of subjectivity are all part of what Høffding eventually calls performative passivity, a notion inspired by Edmund Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis (Husserliana 11).

Høffding’s book is divided into three parts: “Meeting the Danish String Quartet”, “Comparative Perspectives”, and “Phenomenological Underpinnings of the Musically Extended Mind”.

Part One, which presents his empirical research, starts with an elaboration of the qualitative interview processes. We are guided through Høffding’s cooperation with four classical musicians (Asbjørn, Rune, Fredrik and Frederik Ø) and are presented with interesting quotes from Høffding’s interviews with them. Høffding gives a detailed description of his method of phenomenological interview, or PI. PI is methodologically inspired by the work of “Susanne Ravn and Dorothée Legrand in particular” (15), and is developed because “classical phenomenology, apart from phenomenological psychiatry, has not been engaged with interviews” (27). PI is also inspired by Dan Zahavi’s work and by Shaun Gallagher’s idea of phenomenological factual variations relying on empirical data. As a supplement to the established phenomenological practice of thought experiments through eidetic variation, the idea is that “real cases” might serve the same function, and “force us to refine, revise, or even abandon our habitual way of thinking” (See Zahavi 2005 on “real-life deviations”, in Høffding 27).

Høffding takes the musicians’ first-person perspectives seriously and tries to dispense with other theories, explanations, and beliefs about musical absorption, letting the descriptions speak for themselves. The musicians’ descriptions comprise what he calls “tier one” in PI. “Tier two” is the phenomenological analysis of the empirical material, where structures behind the experiences are disclosed (19). Høffding explains how the two tiers are linked and overlap; phenomenology frames the research but the empirical material also informs the phenomenological investigation. To ensure transparent access to his data and work methods, Høffding provides an extensive explanation of how to conduct a phenomenological interview (33), and of his specific work with the quartet.

The musicians are presented one by one. We get to know the violinist Frederik Ø as a complex musician, with an initial need for “a little control” (47) during the performance of concerts. However, after his father’s sudden death, he becomes “emotionally involved in a different fashion” (50) and experiences what we later learn is intense absorption. Rune is the other violinist in the quartet, he is also a folk musician (54). During performances he is “letting the body take over”, and occasionally he experiences extremely intense absorption (57). Asbjørn plays the viola in the quartet. He easily gets intensely absorbed and regularly finds himself in “the zone”, as he calls it, during their concerts. Fredrik is the cellist of the quartet. Like Rune, Fredrik has also experienced the kind of extremely intense absorption one could call an “artistic blackout” (66). Fredrik is intensely absorbed during most concerts.

After the musicians’ profiles, Høffding presents a chart to distinguish the different kinds of experiences Frederik Ø, Fredrik, Asbjørn and Rune have described. Høffding names the chart “a topography of musical absorption” (73) and defines its five main categories as standard absorption, mind wandering not-being-there, frustrated playing, absorbed not-being-there, and ex-static absorption (74).

Standard absorption is the default mode of performing, Høffding writes. The quartet is often in this state, and the state covers a wide range of experiences. Standard absorption includes feeling slightly bored, such as when playing a concert is “just another day at work”, and it also includes more concentrated absorbed playing. In general, the performance runs smoothly in this state – the musicians feel satisfied, are not intensely absorbed and not too challenged (76).

To be in mind wandering not-being-there is the experience of playing automatically while non-related thoughts and associations pop up in one’s mind simultaneously. The quartet calls it “going to Netto”, indicating the experience of leaving the performance mentally to think about what one might need to shop later (77). This is not a state the musicians find themselves in very often.

Likewise, they do not often experience the state of frustrated playing. This mode of performance is one of pure survival. During and after an obstacle, interruption, or other externally imposed experiences, the musicians are intensively focused on trying to get back to standard absorption (80).

Absorbed not-being-there is one of the two states of intense absorption. It is the rare experience of being “completely gone” or “lost in the music” during performance (81). Even if they subsequently cannot conceptually recall the experience, the musicians describe it as bodily pleasant, euphoric, and “of high emotional and existential value” (82). This experience has been described as “lack of awareness, blackout, trance, or even that it wasn’t the musician himself who played” (81).

The other, and more frequently experienced, state of intense absorption is called ex-static absorption. Høffding takes its name from the Greek and Latin description of “standing out from” (85), “not only in the sense that one perceives the world in a distanced, disinterested fashion, but also that this kind of “neutral registration” pertains to oneself”. Here, Høffding aims to capture the intensely absorbed experience a musician has “in the zone”, when his sense of self is altered by the absorption. There is “a heightened overall perception” (86) and the musician feels “invincible”, “powerful” and in “control” of the situation as a whole (84) in this state.

In the following critique, I shall return to the experiences and descriptions of some of these modes of absorption.

In Part Two, Høffding presents and discusses theories of interest for a comparative study of absorption. We are introduced to viewpoints in the expertise debate, material on artistic and aesthetic experience, theories of sleep and dreaming, and the theory of flow, in addition to the phenomenology of schizophrenia.

Besides debating Dreyfus, Høffding engages in the expertise debate through the works of John Sutton et al. and Barbara Montero (102). The former’s theory of Mesh shows how conceptual reflection and bodily coping overlap in skilful activity; while the latter’s argument against “the just-do-it” principle is that thinking does not interfere with acting and “should not be avoided by experts” (106). Høffding is open towards these philosophers’ ideas on how conceptual reflection occurs in musical absorption.

In the discussions on artistic and aesthetic experience, dance and art appreciation is taken into account, and Høffding makes use of theories by Dorotheé Legrand as well as Mikel Dufrenne to finetune his arguments.

In the chapter on dreaming and sleeping, Høffding looks at Evan Thompson’s work and compares lucid dreaming and dreamless sleep with the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption and absorbed not-being-there, respectively. In this part of the book, Høffding draws a line between standard playing, mind wandering and absorbed being there, and sees this as a development where “the intentional threads are slackening” (151) and the musician gradually detaches more and more from the situation and his self.

Through the study of theories on schizophrenia, Høffding finds traits of hyper-reflection (168) and self-intimation in the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption. Although, where schizophrenia is an ipseity-disturbance (171), Høffding sees a musician as having a robust sense of self (163).

In Part Three, Høffding discusses musical absorption in light of Husserl’s notion of passive and active synthesis and presents his own theory of performative passivity. Høffding defines it as the experience of “altered agency over the process of playing”, “of someone or something other than me causing the music to unfold” (188). The main assumption behind his theory of performative passivty is that musical action is not primarily generated by active egoic consciousness but by a passive enlarged sense of subjectivity (188). The enlarged subject can easily include levels of egoic consciousness, though; there are constant and fluid shifts between passivity and activity (188). In this way, he sees no dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection in absorption.

According to Høffding, a well-trained body schema is necessary to achieve intense absorption; only experts with thousands of hours of practice behind them can enter these states (215). The music itself and “letting loose of one’s emotions” can boost the opening of the passive dimension (215), and the unfolding of the music through one’s instrument and the bodily we-intentionality and interaction with other musicians are all intertwined with the passive, enlarged self (244).

Høffding closes with a chapter on how playing together feeds the musicians’ sense of passivity. We learn of musical we-ness, partly through Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeity; the shared and anonymous body (241).

According to Høffding’s findings, there is a path from ordinary absentmindedness and daydreaming, past the state of mind wandering whilst performing, to the most absorbed state of performative passivity (70). In passivity, Høffding claims, the musicians’ body schemata afford the musicians to perform automatically and enable them let go of attending to the technicalities of the performance (199). To Høffding, musical absorption “is a question of “happening” rather than “doing”” (252) and he ends the book by claiming: “Pleasure, beauty, meaning, and encounters with others, in addition to being something we create, is something to which we must be receptive” (255).



In his book, Høffding is open about not having had first-person experience of intense musical absorption (13). He also shares his inability to hear the difference between absorbed musicians’ performances and their performances under stress: “I find myself unable to detect whether a particular performance instantiates standard playing or playing under unusual stress” (100). He writes that intense absorption and its seemingly contradictory experiences of being “more conscious/present”, on one hand, and “less conscious/not present”, on the other (85), generates “a fundamental inability to understand and adequately express the nature of this experience” (85). At the same time, he rejects theories from peers with first-person experience of intense absorption (178). These facts are not necessarily problematic. But in light of them, it is difficult to see, prima facie, how Høffding is entitled to see his own work as “a paradigmatic case” – “the first of its kind” – and to claim that his conclusions will “serve as universal” within his field (30). In other words: he has never experienced x himself, he cannot perceptually detect x in others, he claims that x resists coherent description, he rejects the theories of those who have themselves experienced x – and, nevertheless, he declares his theory of x to be “paradigmatic” and “universal”. But let us not prejudge this. Let’s have a closer look at Høffding’s work and see whether it lives up to its own expectations.

Absorption as Phenomenon

The main goal of Høffding’s book is to investigate absorption. So, how does he understand the term absorption and the experiences behind it? Etymologically, the term absorption has developed from the Latin word absorbeo, which means “sucked or swallowed up”. The musicians’ experiences of being absorbed in terms of being “swallowed up”, are categorized by Høffding as absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. These two are collectively referred to as intense absorption throughout the book.

According to Høffding, musicians are absorbed during all the five states in his topography, including frustrated playing and mind wandering not-being-there (73). But are these two states genuine experiences of absorption?

In frustrated playing, mind wandering not-being-there, as well as in standard absorption, Høffding includes the merely habitual activity of doing what one has learned by heart as an example of musical absorption. What does this all-embracing attitude do to Høffding’s theory of absorption?

Everyone experiences habitual activities, so let’s have a look at a plain example from our everyday lives. Learning how to bike demands conceptual reflection. As soon as you’ve mastered the skill, though, the task is engrained and will be experienced pre-reflectively. You can chat with your friends or listen to music while biking without being disturbed in the performance of the task. The same goes for artists and the elaborate skills they master. There is a level of performance where one is merely doing what one has memorized, and where random reflections and perceptions easily come and go on top of the execution of the activity itself, which has become second nature.

The question is: does this level of habitual mastering of skills qualify as absorption? As a practitioner of performing art, my answer is no. And so, as a philosopher, I find the dilution of the term absorption rather confusing. It is not clear how, for example, standard absorption is distinctly different, consciousness-wise, from situations like my biking example. Musical absorption is initially presented as “a self-transforming experience” (5), and the opening questions of the book: “Who is playing?” and “What kind of self is present when the musician is intensely absorbed in his music”? (2), are supposedly asked in order to investigate these altered experiences of the self. But only two out of Høffding’s five states of absorption constitute actual self-transformation and appear distinctively different from everyday experiences of consciousness; namely, absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. That Høffding draws evidence from the musicians’ experiences of (what are quite plausibly) non-absorbed states in order to make his final points about what absorption as such amounts to, is a basic flaw in the argumentation that weakens the final theory.

That being said, seen as an overview and topography of musical performance, Høffding’s categorization chart nicely distinguishes different experiences musicians may have during practice, rehearsal and concert playing, and as such it is highly applicable.

Distance, Disinterest, and Detachment

In the construction of his arguments, Høffding appears to favour certain interpretations of the musicians’ statements, interpretations that emphasize occurrences of distance, disinterest, and detachment in absorption.

In one of his early interview sessions, Høffding categorized his transcriptions of the interviews in groups, one of them being “distance in absorption” (41). In his theoretical comparison chapters, he discusses how phenomenological psychopathology points to the existence of “unnatural” self-distance (8) in schizophrenia and finds parallels to this in the musicians’ experiences (162). He states that the musicians have “a superior bodily self-coinciding and self-reliance” (170), though, and sees the juxtaposing as a tool to understand how the “empirical foundation of ordinary consciousness (…) is prone to variation” (171). In a similar way, Høffding compares the musicians’ alleged experiences of self-distance in intense absorption to experiences of deep sleep (absorbed not-being-there) and lucid dreaming (ex-static absorption) (145).

Ex-static absorption “consists in a distance to oneself, one’s actions, and one’s body” (167), Høffding claims; whereas absorbed not-being-there is “entirely vacuous” (83), “followed by an almost total amnesia” (81). But how are the musicians phrasing these experiences?

Frederik Ø shares how he changes after his father’s sudden death and plays a concert where he lets go of his previous need to have “a little control” (47). During the concert it is “as if everything just disappears (…), I am not really there (…). Everything just is. So it is exactly both being present and not being present simultaneously” (50). He continues: “It is like… the feeling of looking over a large landscape (…), you cannot see the individual parts, you just know that all of it contributes to the being, and that you actually could affect the little things (…)” (51). Høffding sees Frederik Ø as being at a “distance from his own mental life” here (146).

Asbjørn tells us about the same experience of being “both less conscious and a lot more conscious (…)” (60). In his ideal absorption he is “this commander just moving the pieces and making the perfect phrase without trying, just because it is there and I can do anything I want” (62). In the same quote he talks about his ability to be aware of many musical elements at the same time, through his “hive mind” (62). We learn how he is “neutrally registering” the audience, not like a co-player but “looking at the set-up” and feeling like “a commander deploying the troops and control it (…)” (84). Høffding interprets Asbjørn’s experiences as “disinterested observation” (84).

Through his investigations of spatial experiences in schizophrenia, sleep, dream, and intense musical absorption, Høffding finds that they share traits of detachment (151), distance (85), and disinterest (192). Høffding takes these disconnections to the self and to the situation very literally. He compares the musicians’ experiences of being “a commander” and “flying over a landscape” with experiences of physical distance. In ex-static absorption one is thus too far away to have any agency, Høffding claims, “sitting in an airplane high up in the sky” perceiving from a great distance ”a very large landscape without parts” (147). When in absorbed not-being-there, the experience is of being too close to the music” to “perceive it well” (148). It’s like “looking at a large Monet from very close up” (147).

Høffding is referring to the altered perception of objects in the intensely absorbed states and offers us a discussion on the matter and a thorough explanation of his view. But is this the best way to interpret what the musicians experience?

Artists in general seem to claim that intense absorption is their ideal state of performing and the quartet is no exception. They stress how being intensely absorbed makes them “listen in a better way” (59), feel “powerful” (81), in “very deep control” (61), and feel “intense euphoric joy” (66). This sounds more like descriptions of total involvement – not like disinterest, distance or detachment. Is there an alternative to Høffding’s interpretation which captures the presence, engagement, and interest the musicians indicate they experience in intense absorption?

One way of describing it would be that in intense absorption the musician’s focus shifts from being on particular objects to embracing the situation as a whole. This does not indicate distance; on the contrary, it describes the integration with something larger than oneself that often happens in these states. As there is no experience of distance or disinterest in one’s bodily and affective self, but rather an increased focus through the body, intense absorption could be seen as a state characterized by bodily and affective agency. Høffding’s understanding, as well as the most common way of understanding agency, is based on the traditional dualistic and hierarchical idea that the self equals the mind, and that the bodily self is “automatic”, “pre-egoic”, and without the ability of agency – an understanding that often falls short in matters of art.

One could say that in intense absorption the mind is put on hold or is participating in a sparse manner; at that stage, judgments and objectifications are not needed to perform the activity. The bodily self has full power and control over the musical performance, works hard, and enjoys it.

Just like it is possible to be totally engaged in the analysis of a philosophical text, only to later to “wake up” and realize one is hungry or that one’s leg is “asleep”, one can shift focus from an everyday consciousness in performance to an utterly engaged bodily and affective focus.

Some of the above mentioned aspects seem close to what Høffding finds in his theory of performative passivity: the “blurring of the subject/object distinction” (215), “a powerful change in the deepest layers of subjectivity” (175), the opening to something larger than one’s self, for instance “musical interkinesthetic affectivity” (246), and the reliance upon the bodily (195). But Høffding favours the understanding of passivity and a receptive self in intense absorption and finds ways throughout the book to emphasise this.

In his theoretical investigations, Høffding occasionally uses quotes outside of their intended contexts. Referencing Evan Thompson, Høffding writes: “Lucid dreaming is essentially marked by a phenomenal distance to oneself (…)” (154). But on the page referred to in Thompson’s book “Waking, Dreaming, Being” (2015), there is no mention of distance in lucid dreaming. Thompson elaborates upon the I as dreamer and the I as dreamed in this manner: “These are not two entities or things; they’re two kinds of self-awareness, two modes of self-experience” (Thompson 2015, 140).

In another example, Høffding discusses the experience of objects in passive intentionality with Dan Zahavi. He mentions Zahavi’s “recent, comprehensive work on Husserl” (184), and glosses Zahavi as making a point about passivity (184). But the actual page concerns “the world annihilation” thought-experiment from Husserl’s “Ideen 1”, and says nothing about passivity.

Another example of biased use of theoretical evidence is Høffding’s references to the Kantian notion of aesthetic disinterest. He interprets this disinterest as “not soliciting engagement, but mere distanced observation” (124) and compares it with the quartet’s experiences of “observation as neutral” and not being “part of the set-up” (125). Though I’m far from being a Kant scholar, it is clear enough that Kant’s notion of aesthetic disinterest differs from our everyday understanding of the term disinterest. The Kantian term covers an interest in the aesthetic object as experienced in its own right – the immediate, direct perception of the aesthetic object. The lack of interest is a lack of interest in the object’s utility and determinate meaning. Høffding seems to understand and use aesthetic disinterest in a different manner – as an experience of observing from a distance without engagement.

Performative Passivity

Høffding interprets Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis as holding that passive and active are opposing ends of a smooth continuum. As such, Høffding repeatedly mentions that the theory “fits like hand in glove” (178) with the altered state of the self found in intense absorption; characterizing this type of absorption as that of extreme passivity and differing from other types of absorption mainly in degree. Taken together with his lack of patience for the expertise debate’s dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection (113), one gets the impression that passivity and activity in passive and active synthesis must be experiences of consciousness that are altogether different from reflection and pre-reflection – a Husserlian gem unknown to most of us, presented in this book as the resolution of dualistic thinking about artistically absorbed subjects. But a more thorough look at Husserl’s theory, in parallel with Høffding’s book, shows that even though the distinction between activity and passivity is not the distinction between reflection and pre-reflection, we are not faced with a distinctly alternative description of subjective experience. The theory of passive and active synthesis is Husserl’s further investigation into how the deepest pre-reflective layers of subjectivity influence and cooperate with the subject’s active and intentional acts, being it on a pre-reflective or a reflective level. Musicians are, doubtlessly, undergoing passive and active syntheses during their concerts. We all are, every day. There is nothing extraordinary in experiencing passive and active syntheses. Husserl’s theory is rather an extraordinarily profound description of our consciousness structures (as far as this author understands Husserliana 11).

I agree with Høffding, though, that describing intense absorption “as a certain relationship between reflective and pre-reflective awareness, or as a specially trained form of reflection or pre-reflection” (176) is insufficient. This terminology is based on an out-dated, dualistic hierarchy where mind reigns over a body, upon which it simultaneously depends. Yet, Høffding still seems to buy into this hierarchy by describing a bodily and affectively active subject as “passive” – just because the subject’s mind is passive. By calling one of the intense states absorbed not-being-there – when his qualitative material states that it is an experience of “really being there” (57) and of being “immensely present” (67) – Høffding seems to ignore the fact that there are parts of us that are indeed there in intense absorption, even when “the head is completely empty” (57). To be fair; Høffding does not entirely deny this in his conclusions. But his semantics, and what seems to be his overall view of what a subject is, contradicts his evidence.

So, how does Høffding see passivity as compatible with absorption? Does it make sense to say that musicians get increasingly immersed in their work by means of a path from absentmindedness to mind wandering, past daydreaming to intense absorption – all during habitual playing? (70) It sounds rather vacuous – and Høffding actually labels absorbed not-being-there as “vacuous” (83). What would be one’s drive and motive, as a musician, then? Høffding’s answer is that music as a structure affords cooperation and absorption (252) – one is simply drawn to it.

When asked how the “primitive phenomenality” of a passive self can produce “complex and beautiful music”, Høffding answers that the musical work performed through the body schema and the musicians’ “emotional engagement” is sufficient for that purpose (250).

Perhaps this process of random perception of impressions from one’s life-world, combined with “letting loose of one’s emotions” during the performance of one’s memorized work is enough for some performing artists. I am not able to tell. But when it comes to creators of art, this theory’s applicability seems even more limited. Improvising performers are creators, alongside painters, composers, choreographers, sculptors, poets and others. Creating and producing art from scratch cannot be explained as habitual activity and haphazard receptivity.

Many creators, like many performers, experience their artistic activities as a kind of “conversation” with the world and their fellow human beings – just like Fredrik does (64). There are things you want to express and share through your art. “In the same way that I do not think about the technicalities of talking, so do I not think about the technicalities of playing”, Fredrik says (64), and divulges that these processes are not necessarily conceptually reflective – neither are they passive and anonymous.

Trusting the body schema in order to “let go” and get absorbed, might prove to be problematic for creators and performers of improvised art. Høffding claims that “if those micro movements are not in perfect place, the necessary trust will not be relegated and the distanced or ex-static view of one’s own body will not be enabled” (171). In improvised dance, in much jazz music, and in the performance of classical Indian ragas, for example, there is no way of preparing “every micro movement” – these art forms are created and performed simultaneously.

It is, therefore, not clear to me how Høffding’s theory of performative passivity could serve as universal within the field of musical absorption. Besides, I am far from convinced that this theory accounts for the active body in sufficient detail. That being said, I find Høffding’s qualitative research and cooperation with the four musicians intriguing and inspiring.

What Høffding writes is of importance. We are not often made aware of our possibilities of mere receptivity, of “letting go” (of the mind’s activities), of “being open” and “one with the world” in the way radical passivity allows us. Høffding’s book reminds us of these possibilities. Undergoing these aspects in passive and active synthesis is necessary in order to become absorbed in artistic and aesthetic activity and experience. I don’t find the theory of performative passivity sufficient as an argument for what absorption amounts to, but I appreciate the book. It bears evidence of a hardworking, passionate, insistent, and thorough philosopher and researcher.


Husserl, Edmund. 1966. Analysen zur passiven Synthesis: Aus Vorlesungs- und Forschungsmanuskripten 1918-1926. Nijhoff: Den Haag.

Thompson, Evan. 2015. Waking, Dreaming, Being. Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Colombia University Press: New York.

Zahavi, Dan. 2017. Husserl’s Legacy. Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Emmanuel Housset: Le don des mains. Phénoménologie de l’incorporation, Lessius, 2019

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