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
2019
Hardcover $95.00
256

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
2018
Paperback
XXII, 282

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

Summary

“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).

Critique

Introduction

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.

References:

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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Emmanuel Housset
Lessius
2019
Paperback 25,00 €
288

Bernhard Waldenfels: Erfahrung, die zur Sprache drängt – Studien zur Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie aus phänomenologischer Sicht, Suhrkamp, 2019

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suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft
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Suhrkamp Verlag
2019
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333

Mirt Komel (Ed.): The Language of Touch: Philosophical Examinations in Linguistics and Haptic Studies, Bloomsbury, 2019

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Bloomsbury Academic
2019
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Jorella Andrews: The Question of Painting: Rethinking Thought with Merleau-Ponty, Bloomsbury, 2018

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Stefan Kristensen: La Machine sensible

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Tuchè
Stefan Kristensen
Hermann
2017
Paperback 28,00 €
318

Reviewed by: Louis Schreel (Ghent University, Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences)

  1. Introduction

In his new book, La Machine sensible, Stefan Kristensen conceives the human mind as a sensible machine: a machine that seeks to stabilize incoming fluxes of sensory stimulation, before being rationally reflected. This opens up a thought-provoking discussion with contemporary phenomenological conceptions of the minimal self, which reappears as a technical invention, an artifact produced by the sensible machinery that works beyond our conscious grasp and reflective understanding. Like the technical object, the minimal self is for Kristensen an artifact produced to stabilize the relation between man and his environment. But in La Machine sensible technical invention does not amount to the application of a given system of knowledge. Machinic invention has its roots in the irrational and becomes rational ordering only after having fulfilled its primordial function: the organization of matter by life.

For the sake of brevity, this review will focus strictly on the theoretical issues that animate La Machine sensible. The true strength and originality of Kristensen’s book lies in combining a rich conceptual framework with detailed commentaries of empirical work both in psychopathology and in twentieth century art. Of the three parts that make up the book, I will discuss only the first (“The Self and the Machine”) and the third (“The Essence of the Machine”), the second (“The Machine and the Figuration of the Self”) being entirely devoted to the motive of the machine and the figuration of the self in art brut, James Tilly Matthews, Fernand Deligny, Victor Tausk, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Epstein and Jean-Luc Godard. Kristensen has a deep background both in the phenomenological and psychoanalytical traditions and his astute appreciation of their respective virtues does not make him any less perceptive of their respective weaknesses. Honest about its goals and the unresolved puzzles pertaining to its rather brief examination of phenomena of biological organization, the book is most sharp in its ability to set up a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Szondi, Maldiney and Deleuze & Guattari. With that in mind, La Machine sensible is highly recommendable for anyone interested in the crossovers between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, and the way these can open up an original reflection on contemporary visual art.

  1. Aisthesis Disturbed: Machinic Delusions

The first part of Kristensen’s book begins by turning to the literature on schizophrenia, in which the motif of an ‘influencing machine’ (une machine à influencer) represents a particular kind of delusion that is important for a good understanding of schizophrenia. The delusion of an influencing machine stands for an experience in which the patient is convinced to be manipulated through a machine, which itself remains beyond his or her grasp. Examining the subjective dimension of schizophrenia, Kristensen approaches this delusional experience as a particular kind of feeling. This avoids categorizing schizophrenia as a disturbance of either the psyche or the soma, since feeling usually involves both. Kristensen argues that whatever the person’s predominant schizophrenic symptoms, these can be regarded as instances, appearances, expressions of the same disturbance, the same fundamental kind of psychotic feeling of an influencing machine.

To situate the disturbance at the level of feeling is not to deny, however, the neurobiological basis of schizophrenia. Discussing the early clinical work of Viktor Tausk and Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault in the light of recent work of Alfred Kraus, Thomas Fuchs, Louis A. Sass and Josef Parnas’ phenomenological Examination of Anomalous Self-Experience (EASE), Kristensen acknowledges that neurally based cognitive dysfunctions often play an important role, and indeed that they may often play the causal role in terms of kicking off symptoms. This does not mean, however, that subjective experiential phenomena, together with subjective responses to these phenomena, may not also play a key role. Rather than proposing an either/or dichotomy between neurological explanation and phenomenological description, our author follows Parnas in the viewpoint that phenomenology may just as well offer an explanatory contribution for the understanding of psychotic delusions. Accordingly, ‘the investigation concerns here the sense of this experience of alterity, from the point of view of the subject undergoing it’ (29).

In the most general terms, it is for Kristensen a person’s most immediate and fundamental, affective relationship to self and to world, which is disturbed in schizophrenic psychosis. This disturbance is a feeling of losing contact and connectedness with the world, of withdrawing into a world of one’s own, and of sensing the world as a hostile otherness. In schizophrenia, patients lose their sense of ownership; they seem to have no sense of property, not of a world but also not of themselves, even to the point of owning their bodies. It is this alienating feeling, which the patient’s language is unable to articulate and make sense of, and which may lead to a breakdown of personality, a cleavage of several personalities, and to several kinds of corporeal symptoms.

The sense of losing possession or control, at once over the world and over oneself, implies that possession, power or control lie elsewhere. The delusion of the influencing machine involves ‘the experience of domination, of a relation of asymmetrical force, which the machine is a particularly emblematic image of’ (36). One may certainly have the feeling of great energy and feel compelled to use it, but one seems to have no power to control it. It is as though something else is exercising this control and the patient does not know what this other is: he or she feels it as a foreign power that is mechanically triggered by an external causality.

Whatever form these experiences take, their presence is for the subject always an ordeal that gives rise to different strategies to confront these impulsions, whose essential trait is that the subject cannot escape them. It is due to this experience of passivity and powerlessness on the noetic level that one can speak of a machinic phenomenon on the noematic level (taking up a Husserlian vocabulary here) (30).

In an important concluding passage of the first chapter, Kristensen argues that one shouldn’t understand the schizophrenic delusion only negatively, as the delusional construction of a threat. Following Kraus, Fuchs and the psychoanalyst Ludivine Beillard-Robbert, he argues the schizophrenic delusion is ‘a fundamentally ambiguous phenomenon’ (13, 23) that can be considered at once as a symptom of disturbance and as an act of resistance, offering a certain stabilization. Indeed, ‘the simple fact that a hallucination is produced, that an image be drawn, that a text be written, either in front of the psychiatrist or in the most intimate reclusion, means that the delusional subject is in a process of resistance in the experience that he goes through’ (36). Kristensen emphasizes this point to debut the idea that the delusion would be itself a phenomenon empty of meaning. One must distinguish the patient’s primordial experiences, which appear to him or her as meaningless, and the delusion, which is produced as an attempt to make sense of them. Without this distinction, one cannot account for the fact that the schizophrenic is still a self and that he or she maintains a perspective onto the world. Like the drowning man who cannot swim, the patient continues to struggle[1]:

The creation of an influencing machine in the psychic realm of the schizophrenic subject corresponds to a situation of complete powerlessness within which, nonetheless, the possibility of emancipation is given, although it is remote and inaccessible. This is exactly the paradoxical meaning of the delusion: to express the need of liberation by giving form to the confinement (38).

  1. The Bodily Self and the Sensible Machine

Kristensen’s understanding of the delusion of the influencing machine as at once a passive confrontation to something unknown and an active response to it, is central not only to his analysis of schizophrenia, but also to his philosophical understanding of selfhood (ipseity) in general. Against a conception of the self as characterized by full-fledged autonomy and self-reflective transparency, Kristensen argues the self is ‘structurally constituted by the internal tension between necessity and liberty’ (37). More precisely, Kristensen proposes a two-level model of the self, whereby the higher-level properties (the intentional, cognitive structure which has a degree of autonomy from the world) emerge from lower-level, sub-personal and non-conscious dynamical processes that act deterministically. The reflective, cognitive structure of the self, which is the mark of subjective autonomy, is for our author constituted by three fundamental, pre-reflective dimensions of experience: temporality, embodiment and self-differentiation inherent to pre-reflective experience. For Kristensen, these pre-reflective dimensions manifest dimensions of internal or intra-subjective alterity, which are never fully dominated and controlled by the subject. In Dan Zahavi’s terms, which Kristensen cites approvingly:

Subjectivity seems to be constituted in a way that allows it to relate to itself in an othering way. This self-alteration is something inherent in reflection. It is not something that reflection can ever overcome (Zahavi 2004: 150).

Although the pre-reflective, embodied level of the self is perpetually self-differing within the ‘diachronical’, egoless flow of time-consciousness, Kristensen agrees with Zahavi that one can speak already at this rudimentary level of a ‘minimal self’ (122).[2] However, he disagrees with Zahavi’s view that minimal self does not depend upon social interaction for its development and/or its sustenance. Following Matthew Ratcliffe, Kristensen argues the constitution of minimal self should be re-conceptualized in interpersonal terms: ‘the primitive level of self-experience is always already of an intersubjective nature’ (126).

Our author develops this reconceptualization around two ideas. The first is that minimal self and alterity construct each other reciprocally through a pre-reflective libidinal and social dimension of ‘body schema’ (47, 54, 64). Drawing on the late work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder (whose influence on Merleau-Ponty he reconstructs in detail), Kristensen conceives bodily ‘sensing itself’ (le sentir lui-même (49)) as a perceptual process that happens independently from conscious intentionality and reflection, and is interdependent on action. According to this account, sensing is a skillful bodily activity in which perception and action are constitutively interdependent, unlike at the personal level, where the action a perception leads to may depend on the agent’s intentions (105, 271). In Schilder’s sense, the body schema designates an integrated set of dynamic sensorimotor processes that organize perception and action in a sub-personal and non-conscious manner. As such, the body schema must be distinguished from what is sometimes called the ‘body-image’, which is the body as an intentional object of consciousness, i.e. the body as experienced as owned by the experiencing subject. For example, the body schema appropriates certain habitual postures and movements automatically. The body schema also incorporates certain significant parts of its environment into its own schema: the painter’s brush becomes an operative extension of her hand; the blind person’s cane becomes a sensing extension of the hand.

At this primordial level, a minimal self emerges from a libidinal, bodily relation to alterity. That is to say, the sensorimotor contribution of the body schema is actually constitutive of selfhood, rather than being merely causally implicated in experiences. But this dimension of embodiment is not of the order of personal ownership: the libidinal production of the bodily self through body schema precedes the constitution of an ego that distinguishes itself from its libidinal investments, and the primordial relation between self and alterity is characterized by a ‘fundamental polymorphism’ (52). This means that the libidinal body forms with the environment a system of reciprocal implication, stimulation and expression, a pre-personal, essentially ‘anonymous and general existence’ in which there is ‘confusion of an individual body schema with that of the other’ (53). Being essentially anonymous, non-personal and non-conscious, the body schema forms a ‘sensible machine’ that is not phenomenologically available to the reflective subject: it is neither the perception or imagination, nor the cognitive understanding, nor the emotional apprehension of ‘my’ body, but rather the libidinal drives that organize the body as it spontaneously interacts with its environment.

From this perspective, the unconscious is this libidinal dimension of my being in the world; if it remains inaccessible to consciousness and to explicit intersubjective sharing, this is not due to its radically intimate [psychic] character, but rather to its pre-reflective, corporeal generality (56).

As Henri Maldiney writes, paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, the bodily sensing itself forms the ‘untouchable’ side of the self, ‘that of the self which I will never touch [cela de moi que je ne toucherai jamais]’ (Maldiney 2007: 138).

The second idea is that human subjectivity, that is to say, full-fledged selfhood with a degree of ‘ontological depth’ (123), emerges from a cultural-reflective dimension of interpersonal relations and symbolical-cognitive structures, such as language. Our author is fully aware that this second idea, as well as the identification of the libidinal basis of embodiment with the impersonal, non-subjective order of the unconscious, brings him particularly close to the position of Lacan. In fact, one of the strengths of the second chapter of La Machine sensible lies in showing how – despite the different conceptions of the unconscious in the early Merleau-Ponty and Lacan– the late Merleau-Ponty’s identification of the unconscious with the anonymous ‘flesh’ (chair) of the world is compatible with Lacan’s views on the discontinuous, problematic relation between consciousness and the unconscious. Despite valuing this proximity, however, Kristensen is also critical of Lacan. In conceiving the developmental emancipation to the symbolical dimension of subjectivity, Lacan neglected the importance of the productive role of the libidinal body and of affectivity in the constitution of the self. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, Lacan’s conception of the symbolic led him into an ‘idealist deviation’ (58, 63), conceiving the emergence of subjectivity strictly in terms of the symbolic and conscious mediation of instinctually driven life. For the generative constitution of the self, a model which does not do right to its bodily, affective, emotional and temporal constitution remains incomplete indeed.

By contrast, the psychoanalytically inspired work of the phenomenologist Henri Maldiney and the schizo-analytical work of Félix Guattari (both with and without Gilles Deleuze), demonstrate for Kristensen the possibility of a constructive conversation between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, which is in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty’s late project of an ontology of the generativity of the flesh. Reading Guattari, Maldiney, Deleuze and Leopold Szondi in this light (whose influence on Deleuze & Guattari he also reconstructs in detail); our author’s goal is as follows:

… to construct a position from which to sketch a critique of the dominant reception of Merleau-Ponty in the domain of the theory of the self – a reception that draws mostly on the Phenomenology of Perception and leaves aside the objections and new perspectives in his seminars at the Collège de France and in the corpus of The Visible and the Invisible (47).

  1. The Minimal Life of the Self: Three Challenges

There are three general theoretical points that are key to Kristensen’s two-level model of the self that are helpful to see where his challenges lie. These points concern the emergence of self, the relational role of the environment, and the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

i). Emergence: In thinking about the productive character of the self-organizing dynamics of sensorimotor processes, Kristensen seeks to conceive of a sub-personal level at which the biological and the mental are fundamentally indistinct (108). Against Szondi, who still remained caught in a dualism between blind sub-personal biological processes and the autonomous, mental realm of the self (‘le moi pontifex’ (106)), Kristensen aims to show how minimal self emerges in development from repetitive cycles of sub-personal, ‘infra-subjective’ sensorimotor processes of perception and action (235). In a touching passage on the work of the Feldenkrais therapist and choreographer Mara Vinadia (178-181), Kristensen notes how higher level cognitive processes and symbolical, linguistic forms of communication can be entrapped by sensorimotor disorders; as in the case of an autistic girl of three years and nine months old who expressed herself only by crying and shouting, who didn’t allow any eye contact and who didn’t let anyone get closer to her than three meters.

Faced with any kind of frustration or transgression of these limits, she would respond with immediate violence, bending her body like an arc and hitting her head against the ground. The therapist approaches this situation as follows: keeping her distance from the patient, her face and body averted, she takes on a series of immobile bodily postures, holding each figure for a fixed time interval, followed by a few steps in the room. When Vinadia arrives at her sixth posture, she notices the child has risen and begins to imitate her accurately, step by step. Yet, the patient doesn’t imitate her last posture: rather, she begins with the first, forcing Vinadia to start over from zero, and maintaining a lag of six between her and Vinadia’s postures. Astonishingly, after a number of weeks of repetitive sequences the child allows for more and more proximity, imitating Vinadia’s with lags of 5, 4, 3… up to the point of allowing the therapist to face her, and moving in perfect unison with her, such that it becomes impossible to designate who is initiating and imitating. Eventually, the child allows for more people, even strangers, to approach and address her.

Kristensen emphasizes that the initial refusal to enter into relation is not a sign of indifference but of a hyper-sensibility to the presence of others – an interpretation confirmed by neuro-scientific approaches of autism. The therapist’s work has consisted in establishing a reciprocal relation between the child and herself, a corporeal relation of sensing reciprocity that restored the sensorimotor dynamics constitutive of minimal self. This does not mean, of course, that a sequence of physical gestures alone could implement a cognitive state or a sense of possessing a self. The main takeaway is rather, that aside from higher-level neural processes, sub-personal sensorimotor processes of perception and action make a special, constitutive contribution to the machinery of selfhood.

ii). Environment: The second issue is about the relational role of the biological and social/collective environment and concerns the idea that minimal self is not only intimately embodied, but also intimately embedded in its environment. How does attention to this environmental embedding contribute something important to an understanding of the emergence of minimal self? In this regard, Kristensen distinguishes the kinds of account that typically stress features of organic integration, unitary functioning and sense-making across different levels of bodily embeddedness, from the more radical dynamic viewpoint he finds in Guattari and Deleuze, which stresses features of instability, chaos and heterogeneity characteristic of the energetic dynamics constitutive of minimal self (244-255).

For Kristensen, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of our perceptible integrations with the world in Phenomenology of Perception is exemplary of the first kind of account, as he conceives these integrations as the emergence of one unified ‘flesh’ by means of a reversible ‘chiasmic’ relation between body and environment. This approach emphasizes there is a minimal ‘nucleus’ of stability that constrains and directs the ongoing dynamics, a self-organizing nucleus that enables meaningful interactions to take place between the system and its environment (254, 294). Kristensen refers in this regard to Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, which defines living ‘autopoietic machines’ by the self-referential organization of the causal interactions taking place in material systems, i.e. the self-referential, recursive organization of the causal loops that determine the particular dynamics within or between systems (254, 260). As the name suggests, autopoietic machines are essentially self-producing: the system produces ‘itself’ through the reciprocal causation between the components of the system and relations between them. One might say that from this viewpoint, one focuses on the product (minimal self) that emerges from dynamic processes: a composed, structured, organizationally closed system of self-production that to a certain extent determines the range and meaningfulness of its material interactions.

On the other hand, Guattari and Deleuze’s approach, which Kristensen is more sympathetic to, places emphasis on a system’s material, intensive dynamics, which are essentially driven by perturbations, ruptures in direction, breakdowns and failures, and which have no meaningfulness at all (they can acquire meaningfulness only for an eventual emergent system capable of controlling these dynamics). For Kristensen, the first, phenomenological point of view, tends to remain too one-sidedly focused upon the result: connections of meaning, autonomy and structure (254).The schizo-analytical viewpoint, however, stresses the primacy of dynamic material processes, and as such it emphasizes the heterogeneity underlying all constructed unity, the initial ‘chaosmos’ from which all order and stability emerge:

The point of view of the schizophrenic reveals the fact that the machinic assemblages [agencements machiniques] do not self-organize according to a meaningful order [selon un ordre sensé], but consist in the coexistence of heterogeneous elements whose mutual presence creates movements, displacements, production of novelty (245).

Within the phenomenological viewpoint, it is difficult to include the dimension of force or intensity. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible is a philosophy of the birth of meaning [la naissance du sens] and as such it tends to suspend or neglect the dimension of force. (…) The main merit of the notion of the machine within the perspective of a theory of subjectivity is that it allows for the articulation of these two dimensions and to make them appear as reciprocal conditions: the force of the machine is the condition of manifestation of meaningful forms, and the meaningful forms are conditions of apparition of the movements of the machine, which are heterogeneous to the register of meaning and which appear precisely as perturbations of meaningful structures (269).

iii). The relation between the personal and sub-personal: We have seen that instead of assuming minimal self as a kind of a priori form that is necessary for any kind of sensorimotor processing or cognition to take place, Kristensen argues that a better viewpoint on minimal self should help to understand how it might itself emerge from dynamic sensorimotor systems and the role of environmental embeddedness in such systems. These two points about emergence and the role of the environment naturally have consequences on how to view the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

One way of considering the relation between the sub-personal and the personal is to conceive sub-personal sensorimotor processes as a kind of primordial, mute intentionality of the animal body with regard to the world – a Merleau-Pontian ‘I can’. Again, this insistence on the necessity of a primordial kind of subjective structure that is formally present in organic processes of self-regulation and self-production points to a tension with Kristensen’s point of view. Drawing on the work of Guattari and Deleuze, he stresses that the regulatory structures constitutive of the organism are not only constraining, but are themselves also constrained by material processes of individuation. These are morphodynamic, structure-making processes which grow out of intrinsic physical (thermodynamic, chemical) properties of their material elements. Preceding the passage to functional life, which they organize, these structure-making processes form a kind of static life that is intermediary between inorganic reality and functional life properly speaking. This intermediary order between matter and life fully organized is not a property of a self-referential, organic machine (a homeostatic, autopoietic, or organizational whole), but rather of an inorganic machine (an ontogenetic system of individuation).

Kristensen points out that for Guattari and Deleuze as well the organizational closure of psychic systems manifests itself as the emergence of a minimal self, i.e. an ‘I sense’ (129-130). But this minimal self is always secondary with regard to material processes of individuation, which it emerges from. Unlike Varela, Guattari and Deleuze do not consider the organism’s unity to be derived from a particular type of minimal selfhood or internal unity that is essentially intrinsic to it, over and against the mere aggregates encountered in physical nature. What distinguishes them from the Varelian view of the organism as subjectivity is that they posit rather something like an inorganic machine, which ‘processualizes’ subjectivity. It is not minimal self which is the ground of the process of individuation, but rather it is individuation which grounds minimal self.

La Machine sensible makes a convincing case that in postulating the essence of minimal self is an irreducible first-personness, an intentionality or organizational closure, phenomenological viewpoints risk neglecting the material conditions within which minimal self is produced and meaningful interactions between the self and its environment take place. This is probably due to the fact that these approaches seek to refute reductionist approaches to consciousness, which would reduce the latter to its material basis. Although Kristensen shares this non-reductionist Husserlian spirit, he argues the opposite gesture is no less unfortunate as it risks disregarding the matter and keeping the organizational structure, emptied of all “ontic depth” (121). For Kristensen, psychic phenomena such as minimal self must also be conceived of in materialist terms, which means one must understand sub-personal, generative processes also in terms of specific, concrete mechanisms that are applicable to material elements. The challenge here is to define the continuity between the material, the living and the psychic, whilst acknowledging that material elements are ‘a-signifying’, i.e. heterogeneous to the semiotic domain in which the living and psychic create meaning (65-6, 74). This final challenge, then, is what allows Kristensen to inscribe Guattari’s ‘machinic phenomenology’ (80) into the phenomenological program as formulated by the late Merleau-Ponty:

The ultimate task of phenomenology as philosophy of consciousness is to understand its relationship to non-phenomenology. What resists phenomenology within us – natural being, the ‘barbarous’ source Schelling spoke of – cannot remain outside phenomenology and should have its place within it. The philosopher has his shadow, which is not simply the factual absence of future light (Merleau-Ponty 1960: 176).

References

Maldiney, Henri. 2007. Penser l’homme et la folie. Grenoble: Éditions Jérôme Millon.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1960. Signes. Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard.

Stein, Waltraut J. 1970. ‘De-Animation: The Sense of Becoming Psychotic’, p. 87 in: Straus, Erwin W., and Griffith, Richard M. (eds.). 1970. Aisthesis and Aesthetics. The Fourth Lexington Conference on Pure and Applied Phenomenology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Zahavi, Dan. 2004. ‘Alterity in Self’, p. 150 in: Gallagher, S., Watson, S. , Brun, Ph. and Romanski, Ph. (eds.). 2004. Ipseity and Alterity. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Rouen: Presses Universitaires de Rouen.


[1] This metaphor of drowning appears in an article by the phenomenologist Waltraut Stein. She writes: ‘Like the drowning man, the schizophrenic continues to struggle with surprising energy. He tries to “learn to swim” to come to terms with his psychosis in some way. Perhaps if he can go along with it for a time it will cease to disturb him so and he can find a way to overcome it, he thinks. But eventually he finds that it is too late and that there is no going along with it. Whatever he does, this power is always against him. Usually he finds that his efforts even increase his sense of being dispossessed’. (Stein, 1970: 99)

[2] In Zahavi’s characterization, the ‘minimal self’ designates the most fundamental sense of subjective ‘mineness’ or ‘first-personal givenness’ that accompanies all of our experiences and functions as a condition for the spatiotemporal structuring of experience. Cf., Dan Zahavi, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy and Shame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Jean-Sébastien Hardy: La chose et le geste: Phénoménologie du mouvement chez Husserl, Puf, 2018

La chose et le geste: Phénoménologie du mouvement chez Husserl Couverture du livre La chose et le geste: Phénoménologie du mouvement chez Husserl
Epimethée
Jean-Sébastien Hardy
Presses Universitaires de France
2018
Paperback 32,00 €
344

Saulius Geniusas (Ed.): Stretching the Limits of Productive Imagination: Studies in Kantianism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

Stretching the Limits of Productive Imagination: Studies in Kantianism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics Couverture du livre Stretching the Limits of Productive Imagination: Studies in Kantianism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Social Imaginaries
Saulius Geniusas (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
2018
Paperback £24.95
272

Reviewed by: Roger W. H. Savage (University of California)

In his introduction to this timely volume, Saulius Geniusas underscores the diverse ways in which the essays collected in this book address the concept of the productive imagination. By asking what this concept entails, Geniusas outlines the reach of the contributors’ various investigations into the history of this concept, the role of productive imagination in social and political life, and the various forms that it takes. Geniusas astutely points out that the meaning and significance of the productive imagination cannot be confined to the philosophical framework or frameworks in which it was conceived. Moreover, as Geniusas and several contributors points out, the power that Kant identified with the art of intuiting a unity of manifold sensible impressions was for Kant secreted away in the soul. As the faculty of synthesis, the workings of the productive imagination prove to be elusive, as the essays in this volume attest. While Kant was not the first philosopher to employ the concept of productive imagination (Geniusas explains that Wolff and Baumgarten had taken up this concept in their work), the central philosophical importance he accorded it vests the concept of the productive imagination with its transcendental significance. In his introduction, Geniusas accordingly provides an instructive summary of Kant’s conceptualization of the productive imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason and in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

Kant’s treatment of the productive imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment is the staging ground for post-Kantian engagements. Geniusas remarks that the transcendental function Kant identifies with imagination in the first Critique leads him to draw a distinction between the productive imagination as an empirical faculty and the imagination as the a priori condition for producing schemata of sensible concepts. Geniusas’s review of the role of the schema provides the reader with an introduction to Kant’s philosophical enterprise. According to Geniusas, Kant “identifies productive imagination as the power than enables consciousness to subsume intuition under the concept the understanding” (ix) by engendering schemata of substance or of a cause, for example. From this standpoint, experience is possible due to this act of subsumption. Hence, one could “qualify productive imagination as the power that shapes the field of phenomenality” (ix).

Conversely, the account Kant provides in the third Critique places the accent on the productive imagination’s creative function. Whereas in the first Critique the power of imagination is operative in subsuming an intuitive manifold under the categorical structure of a universal, in the third Critique the direction of subsumption is reversed. Hence, in aesthetic judgment the power of imagination is operative in the way that the individual case summons its rule.[1] Conceptualizing the “experience of beauty as a feeling of pleasure that arises due to imagination’s capacity to display the harmonious interplay between reason and sensibility” (ix), as Kant does on Geniusas’ account, underscores the difference between determinative and reflective judgment. Geniusas here identifies the productive imagination’s conceptualization with its medial function within the framework of Kant’s philosophy. Furthermore, this medial function is at once both reconciliatory and procreative. By generating the schemata that provide images for concepts as in the first Critique, or by creating symbols that harmonize sensible appearances and the understanding as in the third Critique, the productive imagination “reconciles the antagonisms between different faculties by rendering the intuitive manifold fit for experience” (ix). Geniusas can therefore say that for Kant, the productive imagination acquires its transcendental significance by reason of the fact that this faculty of synthesis is the condition for the possibility of all phenomenal experience.

The several difficulties and drawbacks of Kant’s conception of the productive imagination that Geniusas subsequently identifies sets the tone for several of the chapters in this book. First, the concept of productive imagination as Kant employs it “appears [to be] too thin” (x) to accommodate post-Kantian philosophies in which the productive imagination figures. Second, one could object that Kant’s use of the term “productive imagination” in his various writings, including the first and third Critiques, differs in significant ways. Third, most post-Kantian thinkeoers, Geniusas emphasizes, do not subscribe to the ostensible dualisms of sensibility and understanding, phenomena and noumena, nature and freedom, and theoretical and practical reason that pervade Kant’s philosophical system. Post-Kantian philosophies, Geniusas therefore stresses, seek to capitalize on the productive imagination’s constitutive function while purifying it of its reconciliatory one. As such, the volume’s success in engaging with the Kantian concept of productive imagination while attending to this concept’s history in relation to the different philosophical frameworks in which it figures rests in part on the ways in which the contributing authors situate their analyses in relation to the broader themes set out in the editor’s introduction.

Günter Zöller’s study of the transcendental function of the productive imagination in Kant’s philosophy highlights the parallel treatment of reason and the understanding with regard to the imagination’s schematizing power. Charged with bridging the gap between sensibility and the understanding, the faculty of imagination assumes this transcendental function in order to account for the production of images that constitute cognitive counterparts to the sensible manifold of a priori pure intuitions. Zöller explains that as the source of these images, transcendental schemata provide the generative rules for placing particular intuitive manifolds under the appropriate concepts. As such, these transcendental schemata evince the extraordinary power of the productive imagination. The imagination’s medial role vis-à-vis sensibility and reason is no less extraordinary. Zöller subsequently emphasizes that Kant introduces the term “symbol” in order to differentiate between “a schema, as constitutively correlated with a category of the understanding, and its counterpart, essentially linked to an idea of reason” (13). Zöller concludes by remarking on the analogical significance of the natural order for the moral order in Kant’s practical philosophy. On Zöller’s account, a twin symbolism either “informed by the mechanism constitute of modern natures sciences … [or] shaped by the organicism of [the then] contemporary emerging biology” (16) thus give rise to different conceptions of political life in which normative distinctions between rival forms of governance take hold.

By emphasizing the formative-generative role of the imagination as Wilhelm Dilthey conceives it, Eric S. Nelson situates Dilthey’s revision of Kant’s critical paradigm in the broader context of Dilthey’s “postmetaphysical reconstruction” (26) of it. For Nelson, “Dilthey’s reliance on and elucidation of dynamic structural wholes of relations that constitute a nexus (Zusammenhang) is both a transformation of and an alternative to classical transcendental philosophy and philosophical idealism that relies on constitution through the subject” (26). Reconceived as historically emergent, structurally integral wholes, transcendental conditions that for Kant were given a priori are eschewed in favor of the primacy of experience conditioned by the relational nexuses of these dynamically emergent wholes. Since it “operates within an intersubjective nexus rather than produce it from out of itself” (28), the imagination is productive in that it generates images, types, and forms of experience that can be re-created in the process of understanding. Nelson here cites Dilthey: “all understanding involves a re-creation in my psyche …. [that is to be located] in an imaginative process (cited 32-33). According to Nelson, for Dilthey the imagination’s formative-generative role plays a seminal part in enacting a historically situated reason and in orienting the feeling of life rooted in specific socio-historical conditions and contexts. While Dilthey rejected aestheticism, poetry and art for him are nevertheless “closest to and most expressive of the self-presentation of life in its texture, fulness, and complexity” (38). Aesthetics consequently provides an exemplary model with regard to the human sciences’ “systematic study of historical expressions of life” (Dilthey, cited 39).

Claudio Majolino’s examination of the phenomenological turn reprises significant moments of the history of the concept of the productive imagination. Starting with Christian Wolf’s definitions of the facultas imaginandi and the facultas fingendi, Majolino follows the course of different philosophical accounts of the imagination’s productive character. Unlike Wolff’s definition, which stresses the imagination’s power to feign objects that in the case of phantasms have never been seen, Kant on Majolino’s account replaces the “idea of ‘producing perceptions of sensible absent things’ … with that of ‘intuiting even without the presence of the object’” (50). Kant’s insistence on the productive imagination’s a priori synthetic power consequently opens the door to a Heideggerian strand of phenomenology. According to Majolino, the productive imagination manifests its solidarity with the main issue of ontology as the source of the upwelling of truth. The stress Paul Ricoeur places on metaphor’s redescription of the real in light of a heuristic fiction and on fiction’s power to project a world that is unique to the work accentuates the productive imagination’s ontological significance and force in this regard. Ricoeur accordingly illustrates the “first ‘hermeneutical’ way in which PI [productive imagination] turns into a full-fledged phenomenological concept” (61). For Majolino, Husserl’s account of Kant’s concept of productive imagination opens a second way to phenomenology, which following this other path describes the eidetic features of a form of phantasy consciousness that in the case of poetic fictions are free of cognitive constraints. Majolino consequently asks whether the “eidetic possibility of the end of the world” (73), which he credits to the originality of free fantasies that in Husserl’s view mobilize emotions, offers a more fecund alternative to the course inaugurated by Heidegger.

Like Majolino, Quingjie James Wang credits Heidegger with singling out the productive imagination’s original ontological significance. According to Wang, Heidegger identifies two competing theses within Kant’s system: the “duality thesis,” for which the senses and the understanding are the two sources of cognition, and the “triad thesis,” for which an intuitive manifold, this manifold’s synthesis, and this synthesis’s unity are the conditions of possibility of all experience. For this latter thesis, the transcendental schema, which for Kant is the “medium of al synthetic judgments” (Kant, cited 83), constitutes the third term. On Wang’s account, Heidegger endorses the triad thesis by interpreting Kant’s concept of the transcendental power of imitation in terms of a “transcendental schematism, that is, as schematization of pure concepts within a transcendental horizon of temporality” (87). This transcendental schematism precedes, phenomenologically speaking, psychologists’ and anthropologists’ conception of the imagination’s power. Wang remarks that for Heidegger, the transcendental power of imagination is the existential and ontological root from which existence, life, as well as the phenomena amenable to phenomenological inquiry proceed. Wang accordingly concludes by stressing that for Heidegger, the “originality of the pure synthesis, i.e., its letting-spring-forth” (Heidegger, cited 88) reveals itself as the root of the imagination’s transcendental power.

Saulius Geniusas’s engagement with Miki Kiyoshi’s philosophy brings a transcultural dimension to this volume. Miki’s philosophy, Geniusas stresses, is one of productive imagination. Moreover, “[b]y kōsōryoku, Miki understands a power more original than reason, which is constitutive of the sociocultural world” (92). On this view, the productive imagination shapes our world-understanding through generating collective representations, symbols, and forms. Miki’s phenomenology, Geniusas accordingly explains, is Hegelian and Husserlian. Furthermore, for Miki, “imagination can only be understood within the standpoint of action” (94). Hence, only from this standpoint can one thematize the productive imagination’s transformative power. Contra Ricoeur, whose goal, Geniusas maintains, is to develop a typology of forms of the productive imagination, Miki aims to “ground productive imagination in the basic experience from which productive imagination as such arises” (96). According to Miki, the logic of action, which is equivalent to the logic of imagination, is rooted in group psychology. Geniusas remarks that Miki’s insistence that the logic of imagination differs from the logic of the intellect is difficult to understand. Accordingly, Geniusas’s account of the way that collective representations, symbols, and forms both shape our understandings and experiences and refashion the given order of existence ties the logic of productive imagination to the real’s formation, reformation, and transformation. For Geniusas, a “philosophy that grants primacy to imagination over reason and sensibility provides a viable alternative to rationalism and empiricism and a much more compelling account of the Japanese … 1940s than any rationalist or empiricist position could ever generate” (104-105). For such a philosophy, the notion that imagination plays a seminal role in the constitution of historical, socio-cultural worlds would seem to open the door to a further consideration of the nexus of reason and imagination vis-à-vis the initiatives historical actors take in response to the exigencies and demands of the situations in which they find themselves.

In order to attend to everyday experiences, Kathleen Lennon adopts the idea that imagination is operative in images that give shape and form to the world. By rejecting the concept derived from Hume that images are faint copies of sensory perceptions, she espouses a broader conception that she initially relates to Kant. Similar to several other authors in this volume, she remarks how Kant credits the synthesis of a manifold apprehended in a single intuition to the productive imagination. As such, she identifies the work of the productive imagination with the activity of schematizing this synthetic operation. Lennon stresses the relation between schema and image by citing Kant: “imagination has to bring the manifold of intuition in the form of an image” (115). From this standpoint, the activity of “seeing as,” which she points out has been emphasized by several writers including P. F. Strawson and Ludwig Wittgenstein, draws its force from the way that the image schematizes the unity drawn from a manifold of sensations. At the same time, for her, the “picture of a noumenal subject confronting a noumenal world” (118) in Kant’s second Critique haunts his account of the imagination. Unlike Kant, who Lennon maintains tied both reproductive and productive imagination to perception, Jean-Paul Sartre bifurcates perception and imagination. According to Lennon, on this account the act of imagining for Sartre evinces the ground of our freedom through negating the real. In contrast, Maurice Merleau-Ponty “introduces the terms visible and invisible” (120) in place of the distinctions drawn by Sartre between presence and absence, being and nothingness, and the imaginary and the real. Rather than impose a conceptual form on intuited matter, Lennon says that for Merleau-Ponty the synthesizing activity of the imagination is the “taking up or grasping of shape in the world we encounter” (123) as it emerges in relation to our bodies. Lennon rightly maintains that feelings are felt on things as they manifest themselves to us.[2] For her, that both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty view the “imaginary as providing us with the affective depth of the experienced world” (125) is therefore constitutive of the ways that we respond to it.

The subversive power that Annabelle Dufourcq attributes to the field of the imaginary for her calls into question the pattern of the world based on a synthetic activity “concealed in the depth of the human soul” (Kant, cited 129). In her view, both Gaston Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty recognize the imaginary’s capacity both to distort the real and to render it in striking ways. Dufourcq accordingly searches out the ontological roots of the productive imagination in order to understand how, in contrast to the “arbitrary activity of a subjective faculty called my imagination” (130), the being of things makes images and fantasies possible. Following Husserl, who she maintains “rejects the idea that imagination is first and foremost a human faculty” (131), she adopts the notion that fantasies provide a more accurate model for thinking about images than do pictures. Unlike perceptions, in the case of fantasy, an imaginary world competes with the real in a way that it might even be said to supplant it. Hence for Dufourcq, reality itself become problematic in light of fantasy’s power to unseat the set of significations adumbrated within a limited perceptual field. Her assertation that “Cezanne’s paintings are integral part of the reality of the Mount Santie-Victorie [as] Merleau-Ponty claims in Eye and Mind” (136) resonates with Ricoeur’s claim that works iconically augment the real.[3] Unlike Ricoeur, for whom the real’s mimetic refiguration of the real brings about an increase in being, Dufourcq maintains that Being lies “in the echo of itself. …. [as] the shimmering that … gives birth to beings” (138). How, she therefore asks, can an ontology of the imaginary escape the nihilism born from the belief that there is no reality beyond the imagery of its representation. In response to the question: “[H]ow can one know what the right action is?” (140), the ethics she espouses assigns a profound meaning to any “symbolic” action the value of which ostensibly will be recognized later by those who follow after.

Kwok-ying Lau’s defense of Sartre ostensibly offers a response to Ricoeur’s critique of the representative illusion and by extension of Ricoeur’s theory of mimesis. For Lau, as a writer of fiction, Sartre could hardly have been ignorant of the imagination’s productive power. Hence according to Lau, for Sartre the creative imagination’s essential condition consists in its capacity to produce the irreality of an image posited as the “nonexistence of an object” (152) presentified by it. Conceived as “nothingness,” the irreality of the imagined object is for Sartre an ontological category won through the imagination’s nihilating act. By insisting that fiction for Ricoeur is ontic, Lau overlooks Ricoeur’s insight into how a work’s mimetic refiguration of the real brings about an increase in being. Following Sartre, Lau instead insists that the production of image-fictions takes place in “a void, a nowhere” (153) outside or beyond the real without the need to refer to any existent things. The act of “irrealizing” the real is undoubtedly attributable to the productive imagination’s subversive force. Yet, one could ask whether by giving a “phenomenological and ontological explication of the absolute status of consciousness, whose freedom allows it to express and operate as … the constitutive origin of the world of reality” (153), Sartre in Lau’s reading of him supplants the model of the image-picture and the attendant metaphysics of presence with an aestheticizing idealization of the “[m]imesis of the imaginary” (159) that preserves intact the Platonic theory of imitation while seemingly reversing its direction.

The relation between reason and imagination figures prominently in Suzi Adams’s reflections on Cornelius Castoriadas’s theory of the radical imaginary. Adams stresses that for Castoriadas, the “radical imaginary is a dimension of society” (163). Like Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadas regards phenomenology as a means of interrogating the interplay between history, social formations, and creative impulse that, as the “‘other’ of reason in modernity” (167), unsettles philosophy. At the same time, unlike Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadas embraces the radicality of the social imaginary as instituting the particular set of significations that constitute the real. Adams emphasizes that for Castoriadas, the real is irreducible to functionalist determinations, since any functionalist approach to society “already presupposes the activity of the imaginary element” (171). Accordingly, Castoriadas sets out a tripartite structure in which functional, symbolic, and imaginary aspects of social institutions operate together. Overturning the long-received distinction between the imaginary and the real in this way brings to the fore the radical imaginary’s significance vis-à-vis the networks of symbolic significations that constitute reality for a particular society. For Castoriadas, “the imaginary institution of the real” (176) thus takes shape as a “new form created by the socio-historical out of nothing” (177)—that is, as a creatio ex nihilo that is irreducible to any prior antecedents. Adams remarks the Castoriadas’s turn to ontology and his “radicalization of creation to ex nihilo meant that he could no longer account for the world relation of ‘the meaning of meaning’” (161). From this standpoint, Castoriadas’s contribution to our understanding of the social imaginary opens an avenue for exploring the relation between the productive imagination, the rational, and the real.

Richard Kearney’s attention to the difference between phenomenological accounts that regard imagination as a special mode of vision and Paul Ricoeur’s turn to language underscores the ineluctable role of imagination in the production of meaning. Most philosophies of imagination, Kearney remarks, have failed to develop a hermeneutical account of the creation of meaning in language. Ricoeur’s tensive theory of metaphor redresses this failure by highlighting how a new meaning is drawn from the literal ruins of an initial semantic impertinence. The semantic innovation that in the case of metaphor leads to seeing a peace process as on the ropes, for example, owes its power to disclose aspects of reality that were previously hidden to the power of imagination. Kearney accordingly stresses that imagination is operative in the “act of responding to a demand for new meaning” (190) through suspending ordinary references in order to reveal new ways of inhering in the world. Kearney subsequently sets out Ricoeur’s treatments of the symbolic, oneiric, poetic, and utopian modalities of the imagination. The power of the imagination to open the “theater of one’s liberty, as a horizon of hope” (189) bears out the specifically human capacity to surpass the real from within. Kearney points out that “without the backward look a culture is deprived of its memory, without the forward look it is deprived of its dreams” (202). The dialectical rapprochement between imagination and reason made possible by a critical hermeneutics is thus a further staging ground for a philosophical reflection on the imagination’s operative role in the response to the demand for meaning, reason, and truth.

The two chapters that conclude this volume explore how the concept of productive imagination might apply to nonlinguistic thought and imaginary kinesthetic experiences. By claiming that scenic phantasma (which he equates with “social imaginary”) play out fantasies concerning complex social problems, Dieter Lohmar ostensibly extends the role played by the imagination to regions in which the symbolism at work subtends or supersedes language-based thinking. On Lohamr’s view, scenic phantasma draw their force from nonlinguistic systems of symbolic representations that he maintains are operative in human experience. At the same time, the narrative elements that he insists inhere in scenic phantasma vest the “series of scenic images” (207) that he likens to short and condensed video clips with an evaluative texture. According to Lohmar, “it is nearly impossible to represent the high complexity of social situations by means of language alone” (208). For him, the recourse to scenic phantasma offers a nonlinguistic alternative for representing these complex situations in an intuitive way. Weaving series of scenic representations together into a “kind of ‘story’” (209) redresses the apparently insurmountable problem of conceptualizing adequately real-life situations and calculating accurately the probabilities of possible outcomes. Scenic presentations of one’s attitudes and behavior in response to a personal or social problem or crisis thus supposedly provides a more reliable basis for judging the situation and making a decision as to how to act than linguistically mediated accounts of events. Lohmar insists that “[o]nly in the currency of feeling are we able to ‘calculate’” (212) possible outcomes through appraising competing factors in order to arrive at a decision. For him, this “‘calculation’ in the emotional dimension” (210) thus provides a greater surety with regard to one’s motives and convictions than propositional abstractions.

The theory of kinesthetic imagination that Gediminas Karoblis advances extends the concept of productive imagination to the corporeal reality of bodily movement. According to Karoblis, Ricoeur voids the corporeal moment of kinesthetic movement by ridding the imagination of the spell of the body in order to account for the productive imagination’s transformative power.[4] In Karoblis’s view, Ricoeur insistence on fiction’s capacity to place the real in suspense accords with the idea that the “kinesthetic sphere in principle pulls us back to reality” (232). Similar to Lohmar, Karoblis sets kinesthetic phantasy against the linguistic domain. For him, contemporary virtual and augmented realities are as much phantasy worlds as are the worlds projected by narrative fictions. Kinesthetic phantasy, he therefore maintains, involves a phantasy body that is “positively imagined as free” (234) as, for example, in the case of flying. According to Lohmar, positing bodily movement as quasi-movement, as though the act of flying was physically enacted, fulfills the “necessary requirement of the irreality and the freedom applicable to any imagination’ (233). We might wonder whether a future in which kinesthetic experiences manipulated by designers of fully immersive computer games will be one that supplants fiction’s mimetic refiguration of the practical field of our everyday experiences. Conversely, the kinesthetic imagination’s role in figuring nonnarrative dance, for example, evinces its productive force through revealing the grace and power of bodies in motion.

The essays in this volume thus not only explore the enigmas and challenges posed by Kant’s conceptualization of the productive imagination, but they also broaden the scope of inquiries into the imagination’s operative role in various dimensions of our experiences. The sundry directions taken by post-Kantian critiques and appropriations of the concept of productive imagination is a testament both to this concept’s fecundity and to its continuing currency in contemporary philosophical thought. Furthermore, the degree to which the authors in this volume draw upon, and in some ways are inspired by, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Castoriadas, and Ricoeur bear out the extent to which the work of these authors adds to, and augments, the history of this concept. We should therefore also recognize how, in these essays, philosophical imagination is at work. For, every question, difficulty, or challenge calling for an innovative response sets the imagination to work. Genius, Kant maintains, “is the talent … that gives the rule to art.”[5] Correlatively, he insists that the products of genius must be exemplary. Phronesis, which according to Aristotle is a virtue that cannot be taught, has a corollary analogue in the power by reason of which of social and historical agents intervene in the course of the world’s affairs. The essays collected in this volume are indicative of the productive imagination’s ineluctable significance. As such, this volume broadens the scope of philosophical deliberations on the often highly-contested terrain of a concept the operative value of which is seemingly beyond dispute.


[1] See Paul Ricoeur, The Just, trans. David Pellauer (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000). Ricoeur explains that by allowing for a “split within the idea of subsumption” (95), Kant reverses the direction of a determinative judgment, which consists in placing the particular case under a universal. Consequently, in aesthetic judgment, the individual case expresses the rule by exemplifying it.

[2] See Paul Ricoeur, Fallible Man, trans. Charles A. Kelbley (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986). Ricoeur emphasizes that is definitely intentional, in that a feeling is always a feeling of “something.” At the same time, feeling’s strange intentionality inheres in the way that the one hand, feeling “designates qualities felt on things, on persons, on the world, and on the other hand [it] manifests and reveals the way in which the self is inwardly affected” (84).

[3] Paul Ricoeur, A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, ed. Mario J. Valdés (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 130-133; Paul Ricoeur, François Azouvi, and Marc de Launay, Critique and Conviction: Conversations with François Azouvi and Marc de Launay, trans. Kathleen Blamey (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 179.

[4] Cf. Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, trans. Erazim V. Kohák (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966).

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1987), 174.

Dorothée Legrand, Dylan Trigg (Eds.): Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis

Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis Couverture du livre Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis
Contributions To Phenomenology, Volume 88
Dorothée Legrand, Dylan Trigg (Eds.)
Springer
2017
Hardback 106,99 €
XVII, 281

Reviewed by:  Philip Hoejme (University of Amsterdam)

The 88th volume in the series Contributions to Phenomenology – Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis deals with the unconscious as a phenomenological concept. The volume, edited by Dorothée Legrand and Dylan Trigg, contributes to the discussion of how different interpretations within phenomenology deal with unconsciousness. The focus is on the manifestation of an unconscious within the phenomenological tradition, both explicit and implicit. This way of working with a psychoanalytic concept within phenomenology is described by the editors in the introduction as, “all authors let themselves be informed by psychoanalysis and are oriented by phenomenology.” (ix). The first chapter examines this from within the phenomenological framework developed by Husserl, while the second chapter does the same with phenomenology as developed by Merleau-Ponty. After these two chapters, the following chapters describe and examine the limits of phenomenology, together with what might lie beyond these limits. In the third chapter, questions concerning the status of the unconscious within the limits of phenomenology are dealt with; the fourth chapter starts to move beyond these limits. This chapter deals with topics such as anxiety, affect figurability, and non-linguistic modes of thinking. The fifth and last chapter briefly looks at what is beyond phenomenology, examining the notion of surprise as an unconscious phenomenological marker and the unconscious in both psychoanalysis and surrealism, relieving psychoanalysis of its insistence on interpretation.

In the first part, Within the Husserlian Framework, Dermot Moran and Alexander Schnell examine the unconscious within Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl is considered as dealing with an unconscious in the sense that, for him, “patterns of intentional behaviour that have ‘sunk down’, through habituation, so as to be unnoticed or ‘unremarked’ (unbewusst),” (15) evidently closely resemble Freud’s own description of the unconscious.

“Bernheim had given the injunction that five minutes after his [the patient] awakening in the ward he was to open an umbrella, and he had carried out this order on awakening [from hypnosis], but could give no motive for his so doing. We have exactly such facts in mind when we speak of the existence of unconscious psychological processes.” (Freud, 2012[1916-1917]: 234-235)

In addition to this, Moran writes that “Both [Freud and Husserl] have a conception of human life as the harmonization or balancing of conflicting forces”, (12) suggesting that there is an unconscious to be found, opposed to consciousness. For Husserl, as for Freud, unnoticed behaviours constitute how humans “saturate situations with meaning including imagined intonations and implications.” (22). This point is close to the psychoanalytical claim that we tend to instil meanings and desires on situations or people unconsciously. In these situations, psychoanalysis would, through analysis, come to make these unconscious processes part of our conscious experience. This means that psychoanalysis would often confront us with desires, wishes or fears we did not know we had, or that run counter to what we perceive. Schnell, in his text, takes the perspective that “if consciousness is defined by intentionality, the unconscious can only refer, in phenomenology, to a non-intentional dimension of consciousness.” (27). Thus, he links the conflicting forces to a difference between intention and non-intention.

Such an understanding seems to be in line with Moran’s notion that the similarity between Husserl’s and Freud’s views is their claim that life is filled with unconscious meaning. Schnell generalizes three kinds of phenomenological unconscious, based on the works of Husserl, Levinas and Richir. The first is an unconscious he describes as being constituted when moving beyond the “immanent sphere” (45). He calls this generative unconsciousness, signifying an unconscious that has “a surplus of meaning both beyond and below phenomenology’s descriptive framework” (25). The second kind of unconsciousness is hypostatic unconsciousness, which, according to Schnell, relates to genetic unconsciousness much as Freud’s death drive relates to the life drive. This is a relationship between a drive to be a self and a drive to be with the Other (viz. to be social). Freud, prior to postulating the death drive, had written only of the libidinal drive, but in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the death drive was added. The death and life drives relate to each other as creation and destruction, and in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud again develops the death drive to explain the aggressiveness (the death drive) of some civilizations. The third kind of unconscious phenomenology is the reflective unconscious, reflecting not only on itself but also on the two other types of the unconscious. Hence, this third kind of unconscious brings with it a totality of all these variations of the unconscious.

The second part, From the Specific Perspective of Merleau-Ponty, elaborates on the unconscious in relation to the writings of this French philosopher. Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, in his essay, argues that the unconscious, as proposed by the late Merleau-Ponty, is not constituted by repressed representations. Instead, the unconscious is understood by Merleau-Ponty as cited by de Saint Aubert (50): “the fundamental structure of the psychological apparatus … [and as our] … primordial relationship to the world.” In this understanding of the unconsciousness, Merleau-Ponty posits the idea of “the body as mediator of being” (as cited by de Saint Aubert [52]). Such an understanding breaks with the classical Freudian notion of the unconscious. For Freud, the unconscious was composed of repressed representations, forbidden desires, and unfulfilled wishes. By breaking with this understanding, Merleau-Ponty reveals an interpretation of the unconscious that equates it to a bodily aspect of lived life. This is taken up by Timothy Mooney, who expands on the assertion that habits are modes of the unconscious, as already posited by Moran and Schnell in their essays on Husserlian phenomenology. In his essay, Mooney uses Merleau-Ponty’s examination of phantom limbs, where “a patient keeps trying to walk with his use-phantom leg and is not discouraged by repeated failure.” (63) This is an example of how bodily habits, in Merleau-Ponty, become unconscious. Hence, an amputee can attempt to move an amputated arm repeatedly because such an action has become habitual, even if the arm is no longer there.

By examining the way in which one’s past experiences shape bodily habits, and how these habits come to influence one’s future, Mooney argues that the unconscious nature of habitual bodily functions constitutes an unconsciousness that, at the very least, shares some similarities with unconsciousness in psychoanalysis. These are bodily (unconscious) habits: a “common embodiment” (xi) shared by all, meaning that we all have unconscious bodily habits. As examples of these, the fact that I am hardly aware of breathing, or that most of us use hand gestures when speaking, seem to be instances of such habits. However, this is a radically different notion of the unconscious from the one proposed by Freud, who claimed that the unconscious is created by a repressive culture that ties us together. Lastly, James Phillips examines the notion of a nonverbal unconsciousness in Merleau-Ponty. This understanding of the unconscious interprets it as being the nonverbal part of ordinary thoughts. Such an understanding of the unconscious is, however, a development of the Freudian concept of unconsciousness, which is more of a repression of desires and wishes.

The third part, At the Limit of Phenomenology, examines whether it is possible to talk of a phenomenological unconscious. Questions pertaining to this inquiry are dealt with over four essays. In the first essay, one of the editors of this volume, Legrand, examines both how the unconscious in psychoanalysis and phenomenology deal with revealing the/an unknown as a way to examine how the unconscious in psychoanalysis breaks the defined limits of phenomenology. Legrand, in her essay, clearly expands upon what was already stipulated by Schnell, for whom the unconscious in phenomenology constitutes those instances where habits have become second nature, i.e. unconscious. In Danish, there is an idiom: jeg gjorde det på rygraden (trans. I did it on my spine, viz. without a second thought.) This is an example of how we accept that some things come to us from an unconscious place, e.g. that we often do things without being aware of many of the underlying processes. However, Legrand argues that there are problems with relating phenomenology and psychoanalysis to each other. This problem becomes clearer in the essay by François Raffoul, who continues Legrand’s line of thought by examining Heidegger’s ‘Phenomenology of the inapparent’ and Levinas’ claim that ‘the face of the Other’, understood as a secret, an unknown, posits an ethical dimension that creates a limit for phenomenological inquiry.

In this essay, the limits of phenomenology are tested by Levinas’ claim that ethics is first philosophy. In Levinas, the face of the Other is an unknown: it cannot be reduced to an object by the conscious perceiver. This is the limit of phenomenology mentioned by Legard. By claiming that the Other is unknown, Levinas’ phenomenology brings up an ethical aspect in its phenomenological investigation; an ethical aspect that also constitutes an unconsciousness. In his introduction, Raffoul writes that “What the term ‘unconscious’ designates, perhaps improperly, is such an alterity escaping presentation, an alterity that frustrates any effort of presentation by a phenomenological disclosure.” (114) This alterity is what Levinas posits in the face of the Other, which comes to frustrate any further phenomenological disclosure because it is an inapparent, or unknown. Thus, if it is impossible to get rid of the unconsciousness in phenomenology, Joseph Cohen’s essay expands on this by seeking to answer the question of whether there could be an unconsciousness that will not let itself become conscious. Or, as Cohen poetically frames this question, is there a night which is not followed by a day? Husserl, Cohen posits, did not see this being a possibility, as for Husserl there “always lies the possibility of conversion … of transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar, the improper into the proper, the ‘un-world’ into the world.” (135) However, as Cohen explains, there is an unconscious in Husserl that precedes any self-consciousness: an unconsciousness of the night. Husserl claims that this awakes in the morning as a consciousness, but in Cohen, this conversion of the unconscious to consciousness does not happen.

Following Cohen down into the night, Drew M. Dalton, in line with de Saint Aubert, insists upon the unconscious nature of bodily experience. Thus, he comes to regard the body (the dead body, a corpse) as an entity that can be recognized by consciousness, without being a consciousness. A corpse, in this view, is “an inhuman asubjective unconsciousness,” (xiii) and the dead body comes to confront a subject with an ethical dilemma, namely its own vulnerability. This ethical dimension is similar to how the face of the Other, in Levinas, brings ethics into the phenomenological endeavour. Hence, the corpse comes to constitute an unconscious unknown to us, but which nonetheless fills us with dread: an experience of our own mortality. Following Freud’s claim that the corpse is the uncanny par excellence, Dalton, in concord with both Freud and Lacan, concludes that the face of the Other, and the corpse, constitute a traumatic presentation, captivating us, perhaps, much as a deer is captivated by a light rushing towards it.

The fourth partr, With Phenomenology and Beyond, begins with the second editor’s essay. Here, Trigg elaborates on the experience of not fully being ‘me’. By examining states of consciousness where this very fact, of being conscious, is ambiguous, Trigg examines unconscious bodily states. As an example of such an experience, Trigg offers up hypnagogia: a state wherein the subject might experience lucid dreams or sleep paralysis. In such a state, Trigg argues, one is simultaneously both conscious and unconscious. Trigg describes this in the following way: “the hypnagogic state is a liminal state, it occurs in-between dreaming and waking, such that there is an overlap between the two spheres.” (164). Consequently, hypnagogia is a bodily unconscious experience, similar to that already discussed by Cohen and Dalton. There seems to be a clear resemblance between a dead body (Dalton) and the body of someone experiencing sleep paralysis, since neither body, to any perceiver, constitutes a conscious subject. On this topic, Freud wrote that “The state of sleep is able to re-establish the likeness of mental life as it was before the recognition of reality.” (Freud, 1911: 219) Hence, in Freud’s own writings, we are also able to find a description of sleep that relates it to the realm of the unconscious, or the unreal. This interpretation is echoed by V. Hamilton, who, in her book Narcissus and Oedipus writes that “For Freud, the sleeplike state of withdrawal involved ‘a deliberate rejection of reality’” (Hamilton, 1982: 30). It is not only during sleep, or in hypnagogia, but also in actual sleep and in sleeplike states of (mental) withdrawal, that we reject reality in favour of something else. In all of these instances, Trigg argues, we encounter a phenomenon that might constitute an unconscious state of being within (and beyond) phenomenological inquiries. That this point is also found in Freud’s writings suggests that this unconscious, which Heidegger claimed could not be dispelled from phenomenology, is to be found in psychoanalysis. It should be added, however, that the unconscious for Freud is a mental process, and not, as it is here, an unconscious state or phenomenon.

Whereas the unconscious for Freud is created by culturally repressed drives, Thamy Ayouch posits an unconscious that is not created by the cultural repression of natural drives. Instead, Ayouch suggests an unconscious which is an instituted affectivity: “This notion bridges the gap between past and present, the self and the Other, activity and passivity, but also nature and culture.” (199). By reformulating the unconscious in this way, Ayouch deals with non-binary gender configurations far more convincingly than Freud, who thought that homosexuality and heterosexuality develop based on a child’s successful resolving of the Oedipal complex. An unconscious not understood as in a binary relationship with consciousness greatly differs from Freud’s perspective. This critique of Freud has also been put forward by others: an example of such can be found in works by Judith Butler (see, for example, Subjects of Desire, 1988, or Gender Trouble, 1999.) Ayouch writes that the concept of institutional affectivity, as taken from Merleau-Ponty, leads to the conclusion that “sleep would be only a content of the transcendental subject, the Unconscious only a refusal to be conscious, and memory only a consciousness of the past.” (200). This line of argument (refusing to be conscious) is taken up by Dieter Lohmar, who sets out to examine non-linguistic modes of thinking using the phenomenology of Husserl. One such mode of thinking is called scenic phantasma, or daydreams (211). These are modes of thinking that Lohmar describes as allowing a subject to play out different life scenarios. Thus, in such instances, “we are playing out possible solutions to a problem, mentally testing our options, their usefulness for a solution and their respective consequences.” (211) Daydreams are unconscious acts, and Freud saw these as an escape from reality. But for Lohmar they are also private, and therefore not located within the consciousness of anyone other than the person experiencing the daydream. Another kind of unconscious day-to-day experience is examined by Line Ryberg Ingerslev. In her essay, Ingerslev examines how many habits have become unconscious processes in our day-to-day lives (see: Moran, Schnell, and Mooney.) Habits, in this sense, are understood by Ingerslev as unconscious processes that prevent us gaining self-familiarity. Hence, habits allow us to ‘automate’ functions that relieve us of familiarity with ourselves, freeing up our mind for other tasks. Ingerslev argues that our lack of unified control over many aspects of our bodily life, constitutes breaks with a unified conscious experience of life. This, Ingerslev claims, is the effect of an unconscious phenomenon at work. As an example of this, one might think of riding a bike, or similar actions. During such feats of motor control, the subject is hardly aware of the minor adjustments being made unconsciously to maintain balance. We might also add that if one attempts to be conscious of this activity, it probably becomes even harder to cycle. This is not unlike the earlier claim by Mooney. Ingerslev concludes by positing that one does not consciously act, but instead responds to actions already instigated unconsciously by habits.

The fifth and last part, Beyond Phenomenology, concludes this volume by examining those experiences located beyond phenomenological inquiries. Both of the texts examine the notion of surprise, either as a biological response to outside stimuli, a response which can be measured, or as a way to create art within the surrealist art movement. Natalie Depraz argues that surprise constitutes a disturbance of one’s conscious life, which is both objective and measurable. As an example of this, she states that the pounding of the heart due to a shock might be a way to measure the unconscious, since this is an unconscious reaction to outside stimuli. This she relates to Freud’s notion of ‘slips of the tongue,’ a concept developed by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901[1904]). In this idea, the unconscious thought comes to reveal itself to the subject by (unconsciously) forcing its way into verbal language. A racing heart, according to Depraz, opens up the possibility of examining the unconscious as the cause of a bodily reaction. The beating of the heart is like a slip of the tongue in Freud’s example. Both are posited as measurable evidence of an unconscious, in the sense that the reaction is instigated unconsciously. But there are also differences between the two examples: the beating of the heart is an objectively measurable fact, whereas a slip of the tongue could (possibly) be a wilful act.

Another kind of unconscious is scrutinised by Alphonso Lingis, who examines artistic creation within the surrealist movement as a form off unconsciousness. Lingis begins by questioning the role of the unconscious in orthodox psychoanalysis, asking how the unconscious could function if freed from psychoanalysis’ insistence on using interpretations to root out the cause of the unconscious. Such an examination leads to an exposé of the surrealist movement, whose adherents, inspired by the theories of Freud, used the technique of automatic writing (among other techniques) to stimulate their production of art. Lingis writes that the technique of automatic writing is similar to Freud’s technique of free association, a technique grounded in the inquiries made by Freud and Bernheim in the early days of psychoanalysis. Freud and André Breton (a key figure from the surrealist movement Lingis focuses on) differ considerably regarding the importance of the latent content in dreams. While Freud was interested in this content, Breton was, on the other hand, “interested in the manifest images for their irrational and marvellous, poetic character.” (264) By focusing on the manifest content, Breton moved the focus from interpretation to experience, thus breaking with the orthodox psychoanalytic focus on the latent dream content and the primacy put on interpretation.

In conclusion, this volume succeeds in its aim of describing and examining the psychoanalytic unconscious from within, at the limits of, and beyond phenomenology. The authors and editors have written a contribution to the field of phenomenology that clearly examines what a phenomenological unconscious is, how one can think of an unconscious as a concept within phenomenological discourse, and how the notion of the unconscious can push beyond the limits of phenomenology. In particular, I would highlight the fourth chapter, as it deals with phenomena that are also central to psychoanalysis and the works of Freud. By connecting seminal works within phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Lavinas, and Merleau-Ponty) with different psychoanalytic works (particularly the works of Freud and Lacan) this volume brings these two disciplines into a fruitful relationship with each other. I do, however, wish to point out that the theoretical breadth of the psychoanalytic notion of an unconscious is dealt with in a limited fashion, but this is in line with the overall goal of this volume. Specifically, I would have liked to see more discussion of the differences between Freud’s and Jung’s conceptions of the unconscious. It would also have been interesting to incorporate an examination of the disagreement between Freud and Ferenczi: a difference of opinion relating to the technique of free association, or some discussion of the Rorschach test as a way of measuring unconscious processes. Notwithstanding these minor flaws, this volume is of interest to anyone concerned with either phenomenology or psychoanalysis (both clinical and theoretical), as it bridges the two disciplines over an impressive span of topics, without becoming trivial. The themes tackled might cover a broad spectrum, but what they all have in common is a questioning and engaging examination of how an unconscious might be found within, at the limits of, or beyond phenomenology. In addition, the volume is written in clear and accessible language, making it a useful starting point for anyone who might be interested in a phenomenological examination of the unconscious.

Bibliography:

Freud, S. (2012). Eighteenth Lecture: Traumatic Fixation – the Unconscious. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1916-1917), 231-242. Wordsworth Editions Limited.

Freud, S. (1911). Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII, Case History of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works (1911-1913), 213-226. Hogarth Press.

Hamilton, V. (1982). Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. Routledge & Kegan Paul.