Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy is a collection of thirteen essays. At first glance, the title of this book may strike us as somewhat surprising. One may be forgiven for thinking that phenomenology cannot be paralleled with ancient Greek philosophy in a meaningful manner. But, after reading the studies, the reader will undoubtedly come to the conviction that these two types of philosophy have something to do with each other after all. Some phenomenologists tend to view ancient Greek philosophy as if it were the beginning of Western thought, a philosophy that can be seen as a kind of starting point that defines every new thought. According to them, exploring the thoughts of Greek philosophers—or rather just approaching them—can help us understand what the meaning of philosophy is. But it can also help us gain a better understanding of how modern philosophical systems operate — for example, what the ancient foundations of political philosophy, social philosophy, philosophy of science, or even metaphysical research are and how the former impact the latter. On the other hand, many phenomenologists merely undertook to make the ancient Greek texts understandable to the laity, so they try to give a clear description of them. Each of the phenomenological research methods mentioned above appears in the book.
It may seem quite disproportionate that the first five chapters of the book are more about Husserl and Heidegger, specifically an overview of interpretations of ancient philosophers given by these two philosophers. Other chapters contain the approaches of lesser-known or more modern philosophers — the overarching aim of the editors seems to have been to provide an overview of the phenomenological approaches of antiquity. It is important to have insight into this subject, and so far we have not read many books that have dealt with how phenomenology in general could relate to Greek philosophy.
Husserl’s main questions—namely, how to understand the connection between our experience and the world itself, and how to treat science and naturalism—have also raised new questions for later phenomenologists. At the same time, these thinkers were also greatly influenced by Heidegger, especially the way he approached ancient Greek philosophy. Therefore, the work of Arendt, Gadamer, Derrida or other modern philosophers cannot really be interpreted without Heidegger and Husserl.
The first chapter deals with Husserl’s relationship to the Stoics. Within this, Husserl’s interpretation of the term „lecton” is explored by the authors who later turn to Heidegger’s interpretation. In addition to Heidegger’s relationship with Aristotle and Presocratics, they are also talking about the German philosopher’s relationship with the Nazi regime, as this seems inevitable in the present case.
Husserl argued that although the foundations of Western philosophy come from the views of the Greeks, modern philosophers often do not represent the original Greek views, but these ideas are reshaped, rethought or embedded in social philosophy, ethics or other subject areas of philosophy. According to the authors of this book, Husserl believes that Greek philosophy – of course only in its original form – could help diagnose the so-called diseases of contemporary philosophy (3): it is true that it speaks of diseases that often seem to stem from the problems articulated by Greek philosophers themselves. Husserl has a different attitude towards the Greeks than Heidegger — he is generally considered as an ahistorical thinker, but of course this is only partly true. For some reason, however, his opinion of the Greeks have not proven to be nearly as influential as Heidegger’s interpretations. Nevertheless, the editors of the book thought it worthwhile to review Husserl’s ancient philosophical reflections, so we also make a few comments about these ideas based on the book’s introductory explanations.
According to Husserl, not only Plato and Socrates are pioneers of Western philosophy, but Descartes can also be considered a forerunner of modern philosophical methods. So there are actually three pioneers in philosophy and science. Husserl thinks that Descartes can be considered the second forerunner because his response to skepticism is so relevant that it cannot be ignored (6). According to Husserl, despite Plato’s rigor, he failed to overcome skepticism. But Descartes had the same goal as Plato: to deny radical skepticism. According to Husserl, however, Descartes differed from his predecessors in that he tried to explore subjectivity in a scientific way.
Embarking on this path, Descartes wanted to develop an apodictic theory that could not be overturned by any skepticism — thus reaching an ego that, in spite of all other doubts, could not doubt itself. In doing so, he proved an unwitting pioneer of phenomenology, in that he initiates a transcendental turn in philosophy. This is why the authors may think that it is essential to talk about Descartes in a volume that explores the relationship between phenomenology and the Greeks (8). We could also say that Descartes reinterpreted the Greeks and that is why Husserl thinks that modern philosophy begins with the former. According to Descartes, the soul is the first axiom to be considered certain, and from which our knowledge of the world can be derived. However, Husserl thinks Descartes did not take into account the fact that subjectivity also limits the notion of truth.
The authors of the book hold that Husserl—just like Heidegger—deserved more chapters in the volume because, in addition to Heidegger, he was the one who saw this kind of fundamental crisis and this kind of motif in modern philosophy — in his last, unfinished work: Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie (1936).
Heidegger, in his early twenties, devoted much work to the study of both Descartes and Aristotle. Together with Husserl, they had a tremendous influence on philosophers such as Arendt, Strauss, Klein, Fink, and Marcuse, to name but a few. The authors mentioned above are also included in the book, but the main focus is nonetheless on Husserl and Heidegger, so we also place more emphasis on the presentation of these two philosophers. It is also true that Heidegger himself based his late philosophy (reflections on the history of existence) on these initial researches.
In the following, I would also like to provide a closer look at each chapter. In the first five chapters we read about Husserl and Heidegger, specifically how they approach and deal with Greek traditions.
In the first chapter, we may read Claudio Majolino’s analysis of Husserl (Back to the Meanings Themselves: Husserl, Phenomenology, and the Stoic Doctrine of the Lekton), in which he raises questions as to why Husserl, unlike other phenomenologists, praises the Stoics for their insight. Majolino also attempts to find an answer to the question how Sartre and Deleuze might have thought that Husserl’s interpretation of „noēma” could be paralleled with the „lecton” (meaning of a proposition) of the Stoics. According to the author, none of Husserl’s writings explicitly mentions that the two concepts can be set in parallel. It is simply believed that Husserl combines the two concepts because of structural similarities. Sartre, according to Majolino, draws quite provocative conclusions: the former claims that in his statement about „noēma”, Husserl betrayed his most basic phenomenological claim or discovery: the intentionality of consciousness. This is how Sartre’s judgment sounds:
Husserl defines consciousness precisely as transcendence. This is his essential discovery. But from the moment he makes the noēma unreal, and the noesis correlation correlate of the noēsis, he is totally unfaithful to his principle. (Sartre 1943, 61).
The author then decides to analyze in detail Sartre’s and Deleuze’s thoughts on the concept of lecton. He then notes the distinction between them: Deleuze does not interpret it as a strange physical or spiritual entity like Sartre (33). Majolino performs a fairly precise analysis. We can then learn that although Deleuze refers to some passages from Husserl’s text, it is interesting that in these Husserl himself does not mention the lecton anywhere the noēma appears. So Majolino does not draw a parallel between the two either.
Sartre and Deleuze sought to reconcile Stoic philosophy with phenomenology—especially Husserl’s phenomenology. In retrospect, this seems like a rather difficult undertaking, and the complexity of this task is presented to us by Majolino in convincing detail. He shows that Sartre neglected the propositional nature of „lekta” and confused „noēma” with „ennoēma” (36)—while Deleuze confused the two interpretations of the senses, using them once in a semantic sense and another in a transcendental sense. One of the main questions of the author is then, why does Husserl mention the term lecton so many times and why does he hold the stoic concept to be of such significance? In this study, we see an analysis that is often neglected by philosophers when researching the connections between phenomenology and ancient philosophy. In addition, Majolino helps clarify some unclear concepts about Husserl’s philosophy. The author discusses in detail what the actual significance of the lecton is for Husserl, and also what kind of correlation can be observed between the lecton, the Husserlian conception and formal ontology. After these analyzes, he also discusses how we can derive phenomenology from the Stoics.
The second chapter is composed of Thomas Schwarz Wentzer’s study of Aristotle’s anthropological-political interpretations (Speaking Being: Heidegger’s Aristotle and the Problem of Anthropology). The main purpose of this study is to answer certain philosophical-anthropological questions. In this chapter, the author discusses the question of why Heidegger was so committed to Aristotle and how Greek philosophy in general oriented Heidegger’s way of thinking. This chapter is about how, according to the author, Heidegger related to his predecessor, who takes the same hermeneutical approach to the human question as he does — in particular in De Anima, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Rhetoric, and the Politics. According to Max Scheler, man is characterized by indeterminacy. However, Heidegger finds his way with the help of Aristotle to build his phenomenological anthropology.
In the third chapter, Pål Rykkja Gilbert talks about Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle, specifically those dedicated to the latter’s ethics (Virtue and Authenticity: Heidegger’s Interpretation of Aristotle’s Ethical Concepts). It is well known that Heidegger devoted much time to understanding Aristotle in his first works. It is generally accepted that phronesis is one of the most important concepts in Being and Time. In this chapter, the author first examines some of Heidegger’s passages, those that relate primarily to Aristotle’s ethics, especially the concepts of „phronesis” and „prohairesis”. The author firstly tries to lay out the background of how Heidegger approaches these works and concepts of Aristotle. Secondly, he attempts to compare Heidegger’s interpretation with other, more conventional Aristotelian analyses. Thirdly, he also strives to answer the question of whether Heidegger “ontologizes” Aristotle’s ethical project. To this he replies that it is incorrect to say that the Aristotelian concepts were transformed into Heidegger’s „Ontological” concepts. The author approaches the problem mainly on the basis of parts of the Nicomachean Etics and De Anima, displaying excellent knowledge of these Aristotelian works. Gilbert identifies one thing as the main concept of Aristotle: the concept of prohairesis. According to him, an understanding of prohairesis is an essential part of understanding the Aristotelian phronesis and, in general, what he claimed about virtues.
We can read Charlotta Weigelt’s study of Heidegger’s thoughts relating to the Platonic concept of truth in the fourth chapter (An “Obscure” Phenomenology? Heidegger, Plato, and the Philosopher’s Struggle for the Truth of Appearance). The author bases her analysis on the 1930s lecture text: On the Essence of Truth: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and “Theaetetus” from 1931/2 (GA 34). According to Weigelt, Heidegger completely rethought the cave analogy and at the same time had a great influence on transcendental phenomenological research. Weigelt, following Heidegger, analyzes the cave analogy in four parts (139). According to the author, Heidegger treats the concepts of truth and appearance here as phenomenological concepts. It would also be important to discuss these issues because, in general, Heidegger’s reading of Plato is divisive among historians of philosophy. The author argues that Heidegger saw Plato (as most philosophers) through the lens of Aristotle and that is why he does not pay much attention to Plato’s dramatic contexts and Socrates, but merely analyzes Platonic works literally. But of course sometimes we have to ignore these while reading Heidegger, because in the meantime he says important things about the Platonic concept of ideas. The author bases her findings mainly on Metaphysics, Physics and The Sophist.
In the fifth chapter, Hans Rubin explains Heidegger’s notion of „moira” among others (A Strange Fate: Heidegger and the Greek Inheritance). The author conducts his analysis based on what was said during the Parmenides courses. He admits that this series of lectures adds a much to Heidegger’s notions of „destiny”, „fate”, and „the destinal”, and he thinks it can answer us a lot about why Heidegger drew so much from Greek philosophy (163). These two concepts, namely „fate” and „destiny”, are strongly interlinked, according to the author, to Heidegger’s political philosophy, and more specifically to his nationalist sympathies. But how can all this be connected with the thinking of Parmenides? In the fifth chapter, we get interesting answers to this question and, among other things, how the concepts of „fate” and „destiny” („moira” and „meiromai”) can be related to our modern globalized world today. The author conducts a very thorough examination, uses certain parts of Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s notion of moira, and is very critical of Heidegger’s late works.
We again read a study related to Plato in the sixth chapter (Dialectic as a Way of Life: Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Interpretation of Plato). In this section, Morten S. Thaning conducts research on Gadamer’s analysis of Plato. He wants to find out how Gadamer approached the Platonic dialectic. According to Thaning, Gadamer’s aim in analyzing Plato’s dialectics is, on the one hand, to shed light on significant elements of Aristotle’s critique of Plato. On the other hand, the author not only researches Gadamer in this respect, but also asks on what Heidegger might have based the idea that Plato was a forerunner of the Western metaphysical tradition. It also turns out that Gadamer was passionate about the Platonic method, and that he thought Plato should be interpreted as a practice of philosophy in the Socratic sense (182). In addition, the chapter also discusses how Gadamer’s theory of dialectics can be described. Moreover, we can see an interesting subchapter in which the author seeks to figure out how Socrates’s self-confessed ignorance (Nichtwissen) reshapes the Platonic concept of knowledge and the relationship between dialectics and knowledge (179). But the main question is what is the essence of philosophy in the Socratic sense and how is the dialectic of Socrates is related to the hermeneutical experience in the Gadamerian sense? According to the author, Gadamer has an excellent grasp of the language of Plato’s dialogues, and for this reason he thinks we should examine the concept of Platonic knowledge together with the dialectical language itself and understand one through the other.
An interpretation of Plato follows in the seventh chapter (Counting (on) Being: On Jacob Klein’s Return to Platonic Dialectic). In this section, the author, Kristian Larsen delves again into the topic of dialectics. He tries to summarize and rather rethink Jakob Klein’s interpretation, which deals with Platonic dialectics as a method. According to Jens, modernity, as a kind of second Platonic cave, alienates us from ourselves and the world (203). Larsen finds a good basis for this idea in Jakob Klein’s thoughts on the distinction between ancient and modern science and philosophy. The main purpose of this study is to show and thoroughly delineate these differences. In addition to this, he also discusses in this study how Klein’s distinctions (ancient and modern science) resemble or differ from the views held by Heidegger and Leo Strauss. Comparing these three thinkers, the author concludes that Klein is essentially in agreement with Heidegger and Husserl, for all three hold, because of the anxiety and alienation in modernity, that it is the duty of Western philosophy to return to the Greeks. A significant part of the terms used by the Greeks have been radically reinterpreted (and misunderstood) in the modern age. The author links his research to this position. He argues that Klein and Strauss have many points in common about the relationship between modernity and Greek philosophy and also shows these common points in his study. We have to think here about modern (especially late-modern) philosophy. The practical usefulness of the study may also be to try to answer questions such as: how can we deal with our prejudices against capitalist societies and transform our overarching sense of alienation from modern society?
In the eighth chapter, Husserl’s analysis takes center stage once more (Phenomenology and Ancient Greek Philosophy: Methodological Protocols and One Specimen of Interpretation). Burt Hopkins analyzes Husserl’s concept of intentionality through the research of Jakob Klein. Hopkins examines Klein’s analyzes in which he discusses the differences between the Greek ontology and the Cartesian sciences. The author pays special attention to Greek works in this study, but primarily analyzes one of Klein’s 1936 studies entitled “Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra” (Klein 1934, 18−105). In addition to examining Klein’s interpretations (including the study of the concept of „arithmos”), the author also provides an in-depth analysis of Husserl’s concept of intentionality. In addition, we can see a detailed textual analysis of that section of Plato’s The Sophist, aporia of „Being” („einai”), and parts of Theaetetus, and, as a matter of fact, he also looks critically at the studies published on these works. Hopkins’s study primarily requires a detailed examination of the concepts of „Whole” („holon”), „All”(„pan”), and „All of something” („panta”).
In the ninth chapter, we can read Jussi Backman’s study of Hannah Arendt (The (Meta)politics of Thinking: On Arendt and the Greeks). The philosopher examines Arendt in terms of how she approached ancient Greek philosophy. According to Arendt, the roots of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes go back to ancient Greek philosophical theories, so perhaps we can get obtain a solution to these social problems through the Greeks as well. Arendt’s attitude towards the Greeks can be seen primarily through one of her main works, The Human Condition (1958). In this text, she writes, among others, that Plato’s political philosophy has been transformed. Arendt was discovered in Plato’s mind the phenomena that make philosophy „disgusting” and thus left a mark on the whole tradition of politics. That was „the political turn” according to her, the philosopher returned to the cave and brought rules alien to the laws of human cohabitation for the inhabitants of the cave. It seems that nowadays we interpret the thoughts of the founder of Western philosophy as if it were some kind of tool that would enable us to achieve a higher goal. The author also mentions Arendt’s Life of the Mind (1977−8), in which the philosopher explains how harmless Greek terms (such as the term “fear”) were born thousands of years later than other terms such as “judgment.” The author believes that Arendt explored very precisely the connection between the “thinking” and the “action” of the study of antiquities. He also draws attention to the gap between the two (Arendt uses the terms „vita contemplativa” for the former and „vita activa” for the latter.) The author considers Arendt’s work to be hermeneutics on the one hand (265), because he thinks she tries to interpret our contemporary modes of thinking. On the other hand, it is also very phenomenological, in the sense that it seeks to trace the Greek tradition back to the initial (Greek) experiences from which they emerged.
Vigdis Songe-Møller presents Eugen Fink’s study of Heraclitus and Heidegger in the tenth chapter (Heraclitus’ Cosmology: Eugen Fink’s Interpretation in Dialogue with Martin Heidegger). The chapter revolves around a question that intrigued both Heidegger and Fink: what is the relation between „hen”, „One”, and „ta panta”, „All things”, in Heraclitus’ thinking? According to Fink, this question and the relationship between the two can be explored by examining the cosmology of Heraclitus. The author notes the great similarity between the cosmology of Fink and the Greek philosopher, and explores this similarity in her study, mainly in confrontation with Husserl and Heidegger. Of course, Fink essentially follows Heidegger in his approach to the Greeks and uses his tools in many ways, but he shows uniqueness in his analysis of Heraclitus. The main difference is that „Fink is able to confirm an interpretation of the relation between hen and panta that Heidegger from the very beginning had been critical of.” (300) In order to show the differences, the author presents Fink’s cosmological ideas in detail.
In the subsequent study, Filip Karfik analyzes Jan Patočka’s interpretation of Plato on the soul (Jan Patočka on Plato’s Conception of the Soul as Self-Motion). Patočka argues that the idea of being as „self-moving” can help to understand the whole Platonic philosophy, of which the soul is central. Karfik discovers an interesting paradox by Patočka in his research on the philosophy of the soul. Patočka, according to Karfik, summarizes the whole spirit of Platonic philosophy and provides us with convincing arguments. The author also investigates the phenomenological background of Patočka’s own philosophy and he also attempts to uncover the question of what self-movement has to do with self-determination, based on a reading of Patočka philosophy.
The last two chapters show us how the Presocratic philosophers and Plato influenced the philosophies of Lévinas and Derrida. In the twelfth chapter (Elemental Embodiment: From the Presocratics to Levinas via Plato), the relationship between Plato and Lévinas is examined from a phenomenological perspective by the authors, Tanja Staehler and Alexander Kozin. They investigating this topic because they suggest that the value of Plato’s contribution can best be best uncovered by applying a phenomenological perspective. In general, the authors tend to discuss the differences between Plato and Lévinas, such as how their views on “love” differ. This was investigated by Sarah Allen whose research is thoroughly analyzed by the authors of the study. But the differences were also examined, for example, by Wendy Hamblet, who saw the difference between the two in his conception of the concept of truth. In the present case, however, Staehler and Kozin prefer to emphasize commonalities by focusing on the complex phenomena under discussion. The study is based on an analysis of two key concepts: “eros” and “zōion“.
And last but not least, in the thirteenth study, Derrida’s complex reading of Plato’s Phaedrus is analyzed in detail by Arnaud Macé (Outside the Walls with Phaedrus: Derrida and the Art of Reading Plato). Derrida considers one of his most important own thoughts to be, following Plato’s lead, the view that philosophy cannot be practiced through writing alone (348). According to Macé, Derrida engages in a special reading of Plato, which is called “harmonic,” a term often used by the phenomenologically-influenced postmodern philosopher. According to Macé, the Platonic dialogues are far different from other philosophical writings because of their hidden structural elements, and Derrida collects these elements precisely. Derrida sees the connection between these elements in the term „pharmakon”, a concept with a rich polysemy — „Remedy”, „Poison”, „Drug”, to name a few of its principal meanings. By reading Derrida, we can learn about the non-philosophical elements of Plato that he places in a philosophical context for his own deconstructivist reasons.
In this book we read about the confrontation of many notable authors with Greeks. In addition, it should be mentioned that these authors all seem to have singled out terms from an ancient Greek philosopher that can, arguably, describe the entire oeuvre of a given philosopher. Such was the case with Husserl and Heidegger, among others, who are absolute pioneers in the subject, which is why they were understandably given a bigger role in this book. It is interesting to mention that, although Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology is fundamentally different from Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, we can still discover some similarities between them. One such similarity can be seen, for example, between Husserl’s reflection on traditions and the crisis of European philosophy of science and Heidegger’s notion of „nihilism” and „oblivion”. At the same time, it seems that Heidegger’s interest in antiquity and Husserl’s philosophy also had a great influence on Arendt, Gadamer, Derrida, Lévinas, Fink, and so on. None of the latter can be interpreted effectively without the philosophy of the former two. Every study composing this book is situated in the context of modern problems, which can go a long way toward clarifying our current situation, deepening our understanding of the contemporary problems we face.
Klein, J. 1934. Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra. Berlin: Verlagsbuchhandlung Julius Springer.
Sartre, J.−P. 1943. Being and Nothingness. An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
I am not aware of any recent collection of pieces by Husserl scholars that includes so many of the most important names in the field. Hanne Jacobs has demonstrated an astonishing prowess at organizing not only the material within the text but also in choosing and arranging contributors for this compilation. The book has, in its substance, aspirations to be the definitive introduction to Husserl—and by implication to phenomenological philosophy—in the English language. As philosophers and good critical readers, we must assess these aspirations in light of the works we already have while attempting to bring Husserl to a wider readership within and outside of the academy.
Perhaps it’s appropriate to examine for a moment the question why one makes such a fuss over Husserl in the first place. There has been a line of discussion in phenomenology, and several “post”-phenomenological disciplines, that makes of Husserl a sort of spastic Cartesian, chastised by Frege for psychologism, flailing ineffectually between an outdated dualism, an outdated essentialism, and a metaphysics he dare not name. This sort of dismissal can be found among so-called analytic as well as continental philosophers, although the level and volubility of the attack tends to differ between the schools. Strong phenomenologists have published doubts of central Husserlian notions, including essence and the epoche. Others have attempted to refine or expand Husserl’s work into new domains of human experience. Still others have attempted to use parts of the phenomenological method to deepen work in adjacent disciplines, most notably the social sciences, psychology, and cognitive science. But the question of Husserl’s value remains, nonetheless. We can ask ourselves, as Adorno’s imagined interlocutor says of Hegel, “Why should I be interested in this?” Are there not many other philosophers, many other more contemporary dealers in concepts whose work will bring me closer to the intellectual promised land? The question is related intimately with the question why one does philosophy to begin with. The money’s no good and hardly anyone reads it. If J.K. Rowling or Stephen King wrote a text on transcendental epistemology, would anyone care to read it? Philosophers, as a group, have given weak answers to the question of the utility of philosophy. Socrates, in line 38a of Plato’s apology, famously says the unexamined life is not worth living. Wittgenstein seems to have thought sometimes that philosophy isn’t good for much at all. Philosophers like Schopenhauer see in philosophy the path to a kind of resignation to the dreariness of life. The existentialists give us angst and its attendant pleasures. And what of Husserl? How would he answer this question? And might we, if we tease out a possible answer for him, not see something penetrating about what it is that Husserl has to offer us today?
One of the problems with trying to catch hold of Husserl’s motivations for doing his philosophy—and by extension what he thought philosophy could do—is that Husserl wrote so much that had implications for so many disciplines. One need only glance at the list of works in Husserliana to get a sense of the dizzying and perhaps dismaying depth of Husserl’s Nachlass. What this means in practice is that one must always interpret Husserl with a certain air of humility. It is always possible that a new page, maniacally scribbled over in his modified shorthand, will be discovered, and one’s prize interpretation will be sent to pot. This difficulty has been noted before, and it haunts all scholars who choose to tangle with prolific thinkers. There is always the threat of another level or dimension in the work which one has not quite reached, an aspect of the work which, having remained obscure to you for years, comes into focus just in time to obliterate the paper you’re currently writing. If our Husserl presents himself as such a bottomless pit of philosophical insight, perhaps the power of philosophy was for him also bottomless. In which case, the answer to the question, what for Husserl, can philosophy do? would be exceedingly simple: everything.
Now, invocations of “everything” are not so common in good philosophy without adequate justification, and we certainly have not yet provided it. Further, if we take a step back and examine our aims in this little review, we will find a much more satisfying route toward the answer that we seek. It is not an undifferentiated omnipotence that Husserl saw in philosophy. What is more differentiated than the work of Edmund Husserl? Rather it is a multifarious form of experiential description, questioning, analysis and elaboration—according to a sharply defined method—that he sees in philosophy. The value of the activity and method we’ll say ever-so-few words about at the end of this text.
In the meantime, it would be nice to get straight about what it is philosophy can do by Husserl’s lights. It so happens the book currently being reviewed is beautifully structured to do just that. Jacobs’ collection is divided into seven parts: (1) Major works, (2) Phenomenological method, (3) Phenomenology of consciousness, (4) Epistemology, (5) Ethics and social and political philosophy, (6) Philosophy of science, (7) Metaphysics. A naive interpretation of the structure of the book would be that Husserl’s thought fits comprehensively within these categories. To the extent that it does, we can say the book captures the Husserlian mind, thereby living up to its title. Where such a set of categories misses Husserl, where he slips away, may mark territory where this collection refuses to follow him.
The book appropriately opens with an overview of Husserl’s major texts. Pierre-Jean Renaudie writes on the Logical Investigations, Nicolas de Warren on Ideas I, Sara Heinämaa on the Cartesian Meditations, Mirja Hartimo on Formal and Transcendental Logic, and Dermot Moran on The Crisis. We can see the logic in this selection of texts. We begin with Husserl’s first mature philosophical book and end with his last one. We have the lynchpin of the transcendental turn in Ideas I. Sara Heinämaa writes persuasively on Husserl’s egology in the Cartesian Meditations, as well as helping us to contextualize the extent to which Husserl can be called a Cartesian. Heinämaa writes, “Husserl presents Descartes’ doubt as a great methodological innovation which provided the possibility of reforming all philosophy. However, he immediately points out Descartes made a series of fundamental mistakes that blocked the entry to the transcendental field that radicalized doubt laid open” (p. 41). Heinämaa shows that Husserl is a Cartesian in a rather qualified sense, in the sense of having received a limited inspiration in the theme of Cartesian skepticism. The themes in Descartes that are most commonly attacked, most notably a rather untenable mind-body dualism, are not at all operant features of Husserl’s mature philosophy. Nicolas de Warren, in his contribution, tells us something illuminating of Husserl’s approach to doing philosophy. The title of his piece, “If I am to call myself a philosopher,” refers to a line from a 1906 writing in which Husserl, characteristically, sets himself a task in order to gain philosophy as such. While de Warren’s contribution is eminently useful as an elucidation of difficult phenomenological concepts like noesis and noema, the natural and naturalistic attitudes, and many others, perhaps the greatest insight it provides is given in this short quotation. Still in 1906, Husserl was writing things like “If I am to be…” He had not, on some level, settled into an image of himself. Or perhaps better, he was still challenging himself to develop in order to match the philosophical aspirations he held so dear.
When setting out a philosopher as prolific as Husserl’s “major works,” there will necessarily be some difficult omissions. Here, one might like to see a chapter on either the Analysis Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis or Experience and Judgment. In that way, with one or both represented, the importance of the theme of genesis, the technique of genetic phenomenology all told, would receive a fuller exposition. No text as comprehensive as this one can possibly avoid the genetic theme altogether, but it would be helpful to see one of the major genetic texts included with the ”major works.”
The second part of this book is, to my mind, the most important for young philosophers. The method of phenomenology must always be front and center because phenomenology is something philosophers do; it is not a list of conclusions other philosophers have already reached. Those who focus on and reiterate the method as Husserl’s major discovery enact a tradition of phenomenology that allows it to be a living, dynamic branch of philosophical practice as opposed to a stodgy cul-de-sac of philosophical history. In this collection, we have Dominique Pradelle discussing transcendental idealism, Andrea Staiti on the transcendental and the eidetic in Ideas I, Rochus Sowa on eidetic description, Jacob Rump on reduction and reflection, Jagna Brudzińska on the genetic turn, and Steven Crowell on Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. Pradelle’s text is absolutely essential for unlocking the association between Kant and Husserl, and the ways in which Husserl suffers under the Kantian influence. An under-appreciation of the nuances in both thinkers might tempt us to characterize the phenomenological reduction as merely a restatement of Kant’s Copernican revolution. Such a reading would see the Kantian transcendental and the Husserlian transcendental as one and the same; their differences, as philosophers, would be relegated to style and method. Pradelle writes that for Husserl, “Kant discovers the region of pure consciousness or subjectivity, which is not intra-worldly but supra-worldly, which is not objective but constitutes all objectivity, and which is not inserted in the spatio-temporality or causality of the world but is fundamentally different from any worldly entity” (77). But for Husserl, as a central feature of his philosophy, the Kantian thing in itself is inimical to consciousness, a strange exteriority to conscious life that can’t, in the end, have anything whatsoever to do with a philosophy grounded in the transcendental as a method as well as a theme.
Rochus Sowa and Andrea Staiti together help us to clarify the eidetic method as we see it in Husserl. Sowa takes us from Husserl’s insistence that descriptions are facts, due to the factual nature of experience, to an analysis of Husserl’s descriptive eidetic laws which Husserl needs to motivate a view of phenomenology as general enough to undergird other forms of human enquiry. Key to this generality of application is the distinction between empirical concepts and pure descriptive concepts, the latter of which apply to possible or ”thinkable” objects and states of affairs irrespective of their empirical instantiation. Sowa also helps us to see that in eidetic work, the examples brought before the mind, whether objects in the world as experienced or possibilities in phantasy, are not the theme of the analysis; the examples are there to help guide us to an essential relation or an eidetic law. It is against such precise considerations that we can read Andrea Staiti’s contribution on the relation between eidetics and the transcendental. Staiti points to a tendency in the literature to treat the suspension of the being of the world as an instant path to essential description, as if all one had to do was dunk one’s head in the transcendental waters to see the colorful essential fish. This idea is sharply incongruous with Husserl’s work ethic, with his almost superhuman drive to add, distinguish, complexify. At the same time, those who acknowledge the need for eidetic work can draw too sharp a distinction between the transcendental and the eidetic, the implication being that we can pick one or the other to motivate our phenomenology. Staiti concludes that the eidetic and transcendental are “inextricably linked’ (96). Although this may sound obvious, it has implications. Perhaps most importantly, it places rigorous limitations on the degree to which phenomenologists are doing phenomenology when they engage in interdisciplinary work. On Staiti’s view, phenomenologists may have much to say about case-specific, empirically oriented studies in the human sciences but their properly phenomenological contributions will be bound by the transcendental and characterized by the eidetic.
Jagna Brudzinska gives us a penetrating overview of Husserl’s turn to a genetic phenomenology, a development in his thinking that is increasingly seen as crucial for understanding his later works. Brudzinska points out that even today many phenomenologists view the eidetic method as purely static. If phenomenology is meant to be anything like a theory of subjectivity, however, a static methodology is bound to be inadequate. The experience of the subject is dynamic, flowing, changing in our awareness of time’s passage. Brudzinska gives us a quick historical overview, making the claim that the importance of the genetic theme was there for Husserl as far back as the Logical Investigations. From there, Brudzinska develops the expansion of the field of inquiry that the genetic method achieves. She says, “In this context, it becomes possible to take into account not only present and immediately intuitive experiences. In addition to consciousness of the past we also gain the possibility to consider alien and future consciousnesses.” (132). Phenomenology needs this breadth of enquiry if it is to become the philosophy of subjectivity, for experiencing subjects are constituted and constituting in time.
Steven Crowell’s contribution is in many ways a commentary on the other pieces in the methodology section. His aim is to further clarify Husserl’s phenomenology by examining his notion of the transcendental and distinguishing it from Kant’s.
Phenomenology of Consciousness
Although the papers on method are some of the most important in this collection for young philosophers, part three, on consciousness, will no doubt be of interest to many seasoned Husserl researchers. Christopher Erhard introduces us to Husserlian intentionality by exploring three questions, why intentionality matters philosophically, what intentionality is, and finally what the lasting impact of intentionality is. He develops, through a reading motivated by a tight logical style, a view of Husserl’s idealism that shows its fundamental differences from both Kant and Berkeley. Maxime Doyan works through the normative turn in intentionality, citing a normative theme in Husserl’s studies of intentionality that is seldom observed. Doyan identifies the most important norms for this discussion as identity and recognition, identifying them with noema and noesis respectively. This allows a discussion of illusion and hallucination to unfold alongside a Husserlian rejection of the conjunctivist/disjunctivist distinction. Doyan here sides with Zahavi and Staiti, claiming that from the Husserlian view the question whether perceptions, illusions and hallucinations are the same kind of experience hardly makes sense at all.
Lanei Rodemeyer’s work on inner time consciousness is required reading for anyone attempting to understand Husserl and his place in the literature today. In her contribution here, she provides an overview of Husserl’s phenomenology of internal time consciousness, displaying as ever her unique pedagogical powers. She reiterates Husserl’s claim that the phenomenology of time is the most difficult of philosophical topics. Indeed, getting the phenomenology of time in a digestible package is difficult for various reasons. Husserl changed his mind concerning the structure of inner time consciousness in at least one major way and his ideas on time are scattered throughout his works. Rodemeyer treats us to a general introduction to the problem in Husserl, discusses the place of content in inner time consciousness and describes levels of constitution in Husserl. There are few practitioners in contemporary phenomenology as helpful in introducing the reader to Husserl’s work on temporalization.
Chad Kidd, in his contribution, seeks to rescue the theme of judgment from philosophical obscurity. His approach outlines Husserl’s theory of judgment while avoiding a reiteration of the commonplace debates concerning psychologism. Roberto Walton provides us with an excellently researched elaboration of Husserl’s work on language as a ground of the common world. Among the piece’s many useful contents, it stresses the distinction between Wittgenstein’s insistence on language as a “proto-phenomenon” and Husserl’s understanding of prelinguistic modes of consciousness that “condition the general structure of predicative statements” (255). Walton’s work sets the stage beautifully for Phillip Walshes’s text on other minds. Walsh is keenly aware that one of the most common charges against phenomenology is that of solipsism, or even more—Cartesian methodological solipsism. Walsh notes that the problem of intersubjectivity, of the constitution of the other in consciousness, is a fundamental phenomenological problem to which Husserl returned again and again. Zahavi’s chapter on three types of ego is the last in the section on consciousness. Because of Zahavi’s extraordinary precision as a scholar and reader of Husserl, his papers on changes to phenomenology, false starts and complete reversals, are incredibly valuable. Here, he unveils the steps Husserl took from an almost absolute disinterest in the ego concept to placing it so prominently in later works like the Cartesian Meditations. The chapter has extraordinary pedagogical value, not least because Zahavi synthesizes Husserl’s complex egology into the three phases given in the title while at the same time going painstakingly over the important details in the body of the text.
Clinton Tolley’s is the first paper on epistemology in Husserl. Here, he helps us understand Husserl’s project as a clarifying of cognition. This task is placed in a Kantian shadow that Husserl labored in throughout his career. Many of his pages were filled with responses to neo-Kantians like Natorp, Cohen, and Rickert. The chapter helps bring into focus the extent to which Kant’s preoccupation with (human) reason is taken up by Husserl. Walter Hopp begins his work with a nod to the challenge posed by the philosophical zombie. He develops an argument whereby we come to see the notion of unconscious intentionality as absurd on its face. Philipp Berghofer’s seeks to establish the sources of knowledge available in phenomenological work. He provides a typology of knowlege that includes types of object, experience, givenness and evidence. Using these categories, we can better understand the range of knowledges available to philosophical discussion. In John Drummond’s contribution, Husserl’s concept of objectivity is explored. Here, we begin by rejecting any reliance on either subjectivism or objectivism. If these categories, as naive theoretical types, are cast aside, the question of what it is to be an object for consciousness remains. Drummond motivates his discussion with what he calls putative and intersubjective objectivity. Hanne Jacobs, the editor of the volume, makes her contribution by discussing Husserl on epistemic agency. Jacobs uses a reading of Husserl to challenge deflationary accounts of epistemic agency, accounts that would minimize the role of our active participation in the formation of beliefs. Husserl’s emphasis on the centrality of attention in our holding of any proposition to be true as epistemic agents. Jacobs takes the reading of Husserl to the realm of personal responsibility, arguing that, for Husserl, one can be responsible not only for positively held beliefs but also for what one does not believe, doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know.
Ethics, Social, and Political Philosophy
The fifth division of the book collects chapters on ethics, social and political philosophy. One might fault this section for being a kind of grab bag of “social” topics, but in reading the chapters here, one sees how they are inter-related as levels of exploration of the intersubjective theme in Husserl’s phenomenology. Inga Romer imagines Husserl’s history of ethics as a battlefield, pitting reason and feeling against one another. Romer’s text is a deep resource for understanding the works in philosophical history that informed Husserl’s development as an ethical thinker. The chapter also lays bare a tension in Husserl’s sometimes stated aims with respect to formal and material axiology and praxis as a science of ethics and the view of ethics toward which his late phenomenology pulled him. Mariano Crespo situates Husserl’s ethics among his contemporaries, including Lipps, Pfänder and Geiger. In the discussion, Crespo uncovers insights related to live issues in phenomenology, including especially the need for a phenomenology of the will. Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl writes about evaluative experience in prose whose grace is a relief after many turgid lines. Rinofner-Kreidl reminds us that Husserl does not hold that evaluative experiences infringe upon our rationality. The axiology Husserl develops is nonetheless complex, involving top-down formal axiology and formal praxis with bottom-up descriptions of associated experiences. We are even given an analysis of Husserl’s Kaizo articles and a discussion of the complex late ethics, culminating in a teleological view that grants us a universalism, as it were, from within. Sophie Loidolt writes on the fragility of the personal project. Loidolt moves from Husserl’s claim in Ideas II that motivation is the “basic law that governs the life of the person” (393) to a discussion of various topics guiding the debate on personhood and practical agency in Husserlian phenomenology. We end up with the claim that the person for Husserl is not defined as an achieved unity; the person is rather a fragile potential unity, ever missing its ultimate aim. Indeed, Loidolt ends with the rumination that it may only be through the support of others that our fragile projects of personhood can be maintained. Sean Petranovich takes us through Husserl’s work on social groups, exploring Husserl’s mereological work to draw attention to Husserl’s relevance to contemporary discussions regarding mereology and the social. The final chapter in this section of the book is by Esteban Marín-Ávila, discussing Husserl’s conception of philosophy as a rigorous science and its influence on his axiology and ethics. Marín-Ávila tackles the problem of Eurocentrism in Husserl with candor, refusing to dismiss it as an idle charge yet at the same time insisting that a Husserlian ethics, as elaborated in works like the Crisis, have much to say to non-European peoples. Husserl’s unfortunate writings on the impossibility of European peoples “Indianizing” themselves are referenced here, as well as his apparent belief that the achievements of Europe were such as to motivate a kind of rationally motivated mimicry in all other peoples of the world. Marín-Ávila ends with an affirmation of transcendental phenomenology that sees it as an already critical discipline capable of leading us toward a philosophy that matters.
Philosophy of Science
The sixth division of the text takes up Husserl’s work on the philosophy of science. We begin the division with Marco Cavallaro’s text which attempts to outline Husserl’s theory of science and posits a distinction between pure and transcendental phenomenology. Cavallaro sees ”pure” phenomenology as related to the project of a theory of science and transcendental phenomenology as related to ultimate epistemic foundations. Cavallaro is quick to point out this distinction is not made explicitly by Husserl. Jeff Yoshimi is the first in this collection to focus on the deepening field of phenomenological psychology. In this chapter we encounter Husserl’s main contemporary psychological influences (Wundt, Stumpf, Brentano, Dilthey). Yoshimi wants to link phenomenological psychology with transcendental phenomenology, phenomenological with empirical psychology and finally phenomenological psychology with philosophy of mind. One might misconstrue this as an effort to naturalize phenomenology, but it seems Yosimi is after a much more Husserlian move—establishing a transcendental dimension in the philosophies of mind and cognitive science. David Carr’s contribution looks to history as a science and its relation to phenomenology. This piece has pedagogical value as a general introduction to philosophy of history as well as an example of good Husserl scholarship. Carr helps us to see history as a study of the natural attitude in temporal development. Carr’s important Husserlian claim is that in the Crisis phenomenology takes on a decidedly historical character, for it is here that Husserl makes of philosophy as such a human endeavor with a history. The proper description for the historical a priori is something, Carr reminds us, Husserl struggled with until the very end. We are once again in full view of Husserl as a philosopher forever unsatisfied and unwilling to yield to his own limitations. The final contribution on the philosophy of science is Harald Wiltsche’s text on physics. Wiltsche quickly contextualizes the early twentieth century as a time of great upheaval in the sciences, noting above all others the arrival of relativity theory and quantum theory as fundamental disruptions to the way we view the world. He associates these shifts with changes in dominant philosophical discourses. Wiltsche shows that while Husserl himself may have demonstrated limited interest in the cutting edge physics of his day, in the person of a one-time student, Hermann Weyl, Husserlian ideas found their way into the scientific mainstream. Wiltsche also, rightly, points out that the discursive divide between analytic and continental philosophy is still far too robust today, despite our best efforts to pretend its dissolution a thing already achieved.
The final division of the text is devoted to metaphysics. We may find the inclusion of these chapters strange because, as Daniele De Santis points out, Husserl’s relationship to metaphysical philosophy is all-too-often taken for granted. If for no other reasons (and of course there are other reasons) the chapter is useful in that it contributes to the literature refuting the charge that Husserl is a naive metaphysician of presence. De Santis is a systematic thinker whose penetrating Husserl scholarship attempts to make the development of the metaphysical in Husserl something clear and useful for scholars. Claudio Majolino takes on the Herculean task of mapping Husserl’s ontology. The difficulty, as Majolino points out, is that Husserl is so vast and many of his works have ontological elements and implications. Majolino’s work here—using Burnyeat and Aristotle to seek out contours of Husserl’s ontology—is too original for a few lines in a review such as this. The chapter is worth serious study. Timo Miettinen’s contribution begins with a general introduction to the theme of teleology, moving quickly to a detailed exposition of the place of teleology in Husserl’s phenomenology. Miettinen notes the importance of genetic method in exploring the development of experiential structures demonstrating immanent teleological character. This means that early static analyses of teleology were not sufficient given the temporal requirements of goal-directed experience. Miettinen also, here, deepens our understanding of Husserl’s alleged Eurocentrism, responding to an accusation by Derrida that, Miettinen shows, relies on a crucial misreading. One unresolved question in the chapter is whether and how all of Husserl’s teleological descriptions can be subsumed under transcendental phenomenology. The final chapter of the final section of the book is Emiliano Trizio’s paper on teleology and theology. Trizio, more than any other scholar in this compilation, is concerned with Husserl’s investigations of the nature of God and what they can do to deepen our phenomenological understanding. For Trizio, God is a necessary theme of phenomenology. Trizio shows how theology fits within Husserl’s overall phenomenology. And, finally, Trizio develops a non-objectivist reading of Husserl’s most theological passages.
Having commented on these contributions, we are left dizzied by the depth and variety of Husserlian concern. Beginning this review, we confronted two basic questions. The first, Why Husserl?, asks us to assess Husserl as a thinker today. The second, What for Husserl can philosophy do?, is a refinement and extension of the first. What perhaps a collection like The Husserlian Mind gives us is the scope to determine, for ourselves, the answers to these questions. At the very least, we have within these pages the first lengths of many different paths one might take through the mind of Edmund Husserl and accordingly through philosophy as such. In so doing, we can discover for ourselves the value of great minds and the philosophies they make.
Adorno, Theodor W. 1993. Hegel: Three Studies. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. MIT Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis: Lectures on Transcendental Logic. Translated by Anthony J. Steinbock. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
———. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.
———. 1973. Experience and Judgment. Translated by James Spencer Churchill and Karl Ameriks. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.
 Adorno (1993: 109).
In Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss, Beth Cykowski provides a novel discussion of Heidegger’s views on animality. In his 1929–30 lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (hereafter FCM), Heidegger presents three controversial theses: the stone is worldless, the animal is world-poor, and the human is world-forming. In her charitable interpretation of Heidegger, Cykowski pays special attention to the second thesis, according to which the animal is limited in its capacity to access the world. In so doing, she tries to defend Heidegger against what she calls the hierarchizing charge, which is advanced by several philosophers who have criticized Heidegger for attempting to secure human uniqueness by reinstating traditional hierarchies concerning the order of nature. One virtue of Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context and thereby tries to lay bare Heidegger’s broader philosophical agenda. Despite its several merits, however, the book is at best a partial success (i) because Cykowski’s attempt to dissociate Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis is not sufficiently backed up by textual evidence and (ii) because the book fails to clarify the traditional conception of the order of nature against the background of which Heidegger’s views on animality need to be understood and evaluated.
At the beginning of her monograph, Cykowski summarizes the different ways in which FCM has been interpreted and criticized by subsequent philosophers. She notes that some scholars have maintained that Heidegger’s reflections on animality are incompatible with the findings of evolutionary biology, others that despite his protestations to the contrary Heidegger ends up “succumbing to the traditional hierarchy of the scala naturae” (23; all references are to Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss unless otherwise indicated). Cykowski explains moreover that insofar as this latter charge is concerned, some commentators like David Krell have argued FCM to be an aberration in the (otherwise unproblematic) Gesamtausgabe (18), whereas for others like Derrida the evaluative prejudices contained in the lecture course are consistent with Heidegger’s reflections on animality over the course of his career (19). Cykowski points out that yet another charge levelled at Heidegger concerns his tendency in these lectures to treat all animals under one heading; she paraphrases the interpretation endorsed by Alasdair MacIntyre, according to whom Heidegger presents “a grossly oversimplified depiction of animal life” (24), disregarding “the many and complex differences between species” (35), which in turn amounts to overlooking the ways in which different species of animals can be said to have different kinds of world-relation.
One virtue of the opening chapter is that it familiarizes the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality. There is hardly any serious engagement with the argumentation of Heidegger’s critics, however, in the absence of which their conclusions seem too uncharitable to Heidegger. Moreover, the introduction as well as the first chapter of the book would have been the perfect place for Cykowski, who frequently refers to the “traditional hierarchies” concerning the order of nature, to offer a discussion of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, yet the author remains silent on these questions throughout her study.
In Chapter 2, which arguably contains the strongest sections of the book, Cykowski provides a discussion of Heidegger’s analysis of the concept of metaphysics. In one of his papers Walter Brogan has criticized those commentators who would consider “Aristotle as the metaphysician par excellence and…those who would understand Heidegger’s own work as an overcoming of the oblivion of being that begins with Aristotle’s distortion of Greek thinking” (Brogan 1984, 250). Cykowski’s Heidegger adopts neither an anti-metaphysical nor an anti-Aristotelian perspective. “Ancient philosophy thus meets its ‘acme’ with Aristotle,” Cykowski writes, rephrasing Heidegger, but “it has since been in a state of decline” (55), in the sense that the insights gained from metaphysics have long been obscured and trivialized (43), in which case, she argues, it is no wonder that the 1929–30 lecture course contains an attempt to uncover the profundity of the original conception of Aristotelian metaphysics.
In this part of her work, Cykowski stresses two important points about metaphysics. First, she correctly describes the Heideggerian view according to which the question of what metaphysics is sits within the question of what the human being is (45). Second, she spends a great deal of time discussing Heidegger’s remark that the human speaks about nature from within nature. As she puts it:
The human embodies a peculiar ambivalence to the extent that it is both part of physis and capable of ‘speaking out’ about physis in the logos.…Its own form of life is such that it ‘exists among’ natural beings, and it is also the being that, via its participation in the logos, is the medium through which physis is given expression. (47–48)
More or less the same idea can be found in a later passage, where Cykowski writes that “as a result of its endowment of logos, the human ‘speaks out’ about the totality of beings while belonging to this very totality” (97). In these and similar passages, Cykowski provides an interesting analysis of the strange predicament that the human being finds itself in, yet when she contrasts this “Greek” conception of the human’s position in nature to the life/spirit divide that allegedly characterize the contemporary epoch, which exemplify “the more superficial conceptions of the human” (54), it is not immediately clear how the two conceptions are supposed to be alternatives of each other, unless we are forced to make the further assumption that life and spirit—unlike physis and logos—are two alien realms that can never share anything in common. However, we are not forced to make this further assumption (nor is it clear that Heidegger makes it); it would be highly implausible to ascribe to all philosophers after antiquity a position according to which life and spirit are irreconcilably distinct concepts.
The next chapter picks up from the previous one, and Cykowski once again begins by rephrasing Heidegger’s remarks concerning the nature of metaphysics. This sets the stage for Cykowski to discuss Heidegger’s interpretation of the Kulturphilosophie of his time and, more specifically, of the views held by thinkers whom Heidegger considers to be the four spokespeople of the then contemporary epoch: Oswald Spengler, Ludwig Klages, Max Scheler, and Leopold Ziegler. In the lecture course, Heidegger briefly summarizes their “worldviews” so as to show that they all turn on the relation between the fundamental concepts of life and spirit. Cykowski correctly points out that “this foray into Kulturphilosophie is included because the four thinkers represent the received view concerning key characteristics of contemporary thinking, and not because they are philosophically enlightening on their own” (65) but adds in the same breath that “this examination is critical for piecing together the overarching metaphysical context of FCM” (65), which gives the impression that Heidegger’s treatment of the Kulturphilosophie of his time can serve as a model that encapsulates the essential orientation of FCM as a whole—that, in other words, the entire lecture course can be seen as an extended attempt to lay bare the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science.
In Chapter 4, Cykowski examines Heidegger’s discussion of the three forms of boredom. Lest it remains unclear how this excursus, how this journey through boredom pertains to the general progression of the lecture course, Heidegger maintains that profound boredom, which is one of the three forms of boredom discussed in FCM, is the fundamental attunement, the basic mood of the contemporary epoch. In Heidegger’s view, it is precisely this boredom, this indifference to beings as a whole that compels us to pursue the kind of insipid cultural diagnoses provided by Spengler and others. According to Cykowski, Heidegger’s message here is that for a philosophical restoration we must first begin to understand the fundamental attunement of our contemporary context of philosophizing. In her view, this understanding is meant to be part of Heidegger’s “philosophical restoration project, part of his attempt to bring about a philosophical confrontation with ourselves, a genuine ‘living philosophising’” (74).
The next chapter is the longest of the book, which should not come as a surprise given that Cykowski here tackles Heidegger’s reflections on the essence of animality. Cykowski understands the structure of the Heideggerian text to be one that proceeds from a discussion of the insipid worldviews held by Spengler, Klages, Scheler, and Ziegler to a discussion of the fundamental attunement of the contemporary epoch (profound boredom), which then would help explain their insufficient understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and spirit as well as the relation between them. Cykowski points out that “Heidegger’s critique of Kulturphilosophie…was an examination of the ‘outer expression’ of the contemporary situation…[and] is then replaced by an exposition of the internal character of the fundamental attunement that determines it” (96). If this is right, however, one may also expect what follows in the lecture course to be an attempt by Heidegger to steer us in the right direction this time and engage in a genuine living philosophizing—and what raises such expectations all the more is that Heidegger’s unmistakable praise of Uexküll, the famous biologist whom Heidegger next focuses on, starkly contrasts with his strong dismissal of the philosophers of culture—but this is not Cykowski’s interpretation. While she does not turn a blind eye to the passages where Heidegger speaks well of Uexküll, she maintains nevertheless that Uexküll, while in some respects wiser than his contemporaries, is nevertheless unaware of the metaphysical prejudices of his biology, in which case the principal objective of Heidegger’s discussion of Uexküll is to uncover the hidden assumptions behind contemporary science. As Cykowski puts it, “Having looked at the ‘worldview’ side of this dichotomy in his analysis of Kulturphilosophie in Part One, Heidegger now wishes to explore aspects of the ‘science’ side in Part Two” (99). In a later passage she adds even more clearly that “Heidegger is treating Uexküll in the same manner as he treats the four philosophers of culture he discusses in Part One” (121).
It is important to come to grips with what Cykowski believes to be the internal progression of Heidegger’s lecture course because the main message of Chapter 5 can only be understood from within this wider context. Simply put, for many of the key passages of FCM, which happen to be the very passages for which Heidegger has been criticized in the literature, Cykowski will claim that these do not reflect Heidegger’s own position, that in these passages Heidegger is in fact only describing the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary science. “If we pick up The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (FCM) and turn straight to Heidegger’s analysis of biology,” she writes, Heidegger will seem “uncharacteristically…to frame his discussion within a hierarchical understanding of life…[and to endorse] an evaluative ontology of life” (99). What she means to say here is that it would be wrong to ascribe to Heidegger this evaluative hierarchy; it would be more correct to understand Heidegger as trying to bring out into the open the metaphysical prejudices upheld by the scientists of his time.
In a nutshell, the main motivation behind Cykowski’s argumentation is to foist what she understands to be the difficulties associated with the thesis concerning the word-poverty of the animal to contemporary biology. Cykowski asserts in no uncertain terms that the thesis at issue here “is not Heidegger’s own distinct formulation” (123) but rather an attempt by Heidegger to lay bare the metaphysical presuppositions of biologists like Uexküll. Her view is that in such passages Heidegger is not clarifying his own position but rather rephrasing others, but arguably she makes this point without sufficiently showing the relative merits of this alternative reading, which dissociates Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis. While Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does contain many refences to FCM, there are hardly any references in this section of the book to back up Cykowski’s specific interpretation, in the absence of which she seems to rely too much on Heidegger’s treatment of Kulturphilosophie, which she believes serves as a model for the entire lecture course.
In FCM, Heidegger talks about the possibility of establishing a “communal cooperation” (Heidegger 1995, 190) and a “mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191) between science and philosophy. He writes, for example, that we can “discover a proper stance with respect to the connection between living philosophy and living science only if we can sow among us the seeds of an appropriate mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191). It is therefore natural to assume, especially considering Heidegger’s praise of Uexküll, that in the former’s discussion of the latter an attempt is being made to sow the seeds of a collaboration between science and philosophy, but according to Cykowski, Uexküll is not the profound biologist whose works can be utilized to render possible this communal cooperation and mutual understanding between science and philosophy. Rather, Uexküll is at best a successful biologist who “unwittingly renders explicit some of the defining themes of the contemporary zeitgeist” (120). If this is right, Uexküll must be credited not with important insights that enable a collaboration between science and philosophy but with an “incidental articulation of this zeitgeist” (120). In other words, Uexküll unwittingly and incidentally happens to be “one of the clearest articulators of the implicit metaphysical commitments of contemporary biology” (127).
Cykowski wants to stress time and again that the thesis that the animal is world-poor is not Heidegger’s own thesis, that it does not reflect Heidegger’s own position on the issue. As she puts it, “Heidegger’s thesis that the animal is ‘poor in world’ is an attempt to express, as specifically and baldly as possible, precisely what is metaphysically implicit in this Uexküllian account” (115). In a later passage she adds: “Heidegger bases his claim that the animal is ‘poor in world’ on what he considers to be metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s depiction of the organism as confined to a surrounding environment” (122). In a word, this controversial thesis must be ascribed not to Heidegger but to Uexküll. More precisely, the thesis in question explicates what is metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s biology. Hence, if there is something wrong with the thesis, we cannot blame Heidegger because, in Cykowski’s view, Heidegger was not speaking in his own voice.
In Chapter 6, Cykowski focuses on the spirit side of the life/spirit divide. This section of her study also features what appears to be Cykowski’s sole criticism of the 1929–30 lecture course, which she calls “Heidegger’s problematic neglect of anthropology in FCM” (141). She complains that whereas Heidegger “dedicates four chapters to life and biology, he is finished with anthropology after one or two sentences” (138). More precisely, Heidegger’s mistake is to turn a blind eye to “the connection between contemporary anthropological and ancient philosophical thought” (151). Cykowski argues that Heidegger’s quick dismissal of the philosophical-anthropological tradition is unwarranted because a closer analysis of the works of Scheler et al. could have paved the way toward a fruitful dialogue between philosophical anthropology and Heidegger’s own attempts to retrieve the insights gained in antiquity but has long since been trivialized. As she puts it,
had Heidegger looked with a more charitable, thorough, and imaginative eye at Scheler and the philosophical-anthropological tradition, he would have found that it is not only mindful and critical of the metaphysical prejudices that have been inherited throughout history, but that it reads, at certain points, like a direct rearticulation of the Greek conception of the human as a being that “speaks out” about physis from within physis, which he takes to be so illuminating. (151)
Let us keep in mind that, according to Cykowski, Heidegger “does not see any profound affiliation between biology and his own philosophical project” (150). It would have been natural, in fact, for the Heidegger that Cykowski has in mind to dedicate more pages to a discussion of Scheler than a discussion of Uexküll—the latter of whom only “unwittingly” and “incidentally” explicates the metaphysical prejudices of his time—so it is not difficult to understand Cykowski’s objection. It may be argued, however, that there is a simple reason for why Heidegger spends much more time on biology than on anthropology. Namely, the reason could be that the concept of world-poverty is, indeed, a Heideggerian concept and that, in his discussion of Uexküll, Heidegger is actually trying to sow the seeds for a “communal cooperation” and a “mutual understanding” between science and philosophy. After all, Heidegger states in no uncertain terms that Uexküll’s investigations have not been sufficiently appreciated for their true worth, that they “have not yet acquired the fundamental significance they could have if a more radical interpretation of the organism were developed on their basis” (Heidegger 1995, 263). In the same vein, Heidegger adds a few lines later that “the engagement with concrete investigations like this is one of the most fruitful things that philosophy can learn from contemporary biology” (Heidegger 1995, 263). Arguably, these insights to be gained from biology exemplify the communal cooperation between philosophy and science, in which case they cannot be confined to expressions of the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary thought.
In the final chapter of her book, Cykowski once again contrasts the original Greek conception of speaking about nature from within nature to what she calls “the delusions of modern metaphysics” (166), which is marked by “the derived, simplistic life-spirit categories” (162) as well as a “false dichotomy” (165) between these two concepts. This echoes her earlier discussion of “the divisions and categorisations that comprise the history of metaphysics” (151), which in turn is associated throughout her study with “the tradition.” What Cykowski has in mind with the tradition seems to be an undefined and ambiguous range of post-Greek thinkers, so it only seems natural to raise the following questions: Does this post-Greek tradition include Aristotle’s medieval commentators whom the Cartesians were reacting against? Does it include Hegel, whose philosophy of mind appropriates the Aristotelian model? Does it include Husserl and the entire phenomenological tradition? Cykowski does not provide an answer but suggests instead that somewhere along the way (and apparently without any exceptions) the profound philosophy of the Greeks has become trivialized. Cykowski’s unstated assumption is that—at least insofar as the human-animal relation is concerned—all the Greek philosophers had more or less the same view, but this is highly misleading. Nor is there a convergence between the views held by all philosophers after antiquity. At the risk of oversimplification, I should say that in discussions of life, soul, mind, and the like there are, in the main, two traditions: the Aristotelian tradition and the Cartesian tradition. Cykowski does not try to disentangle the one from the other, but the lack of such an attempt obscures her interpretation of Heidegger.
What further complicates things, however, is that Cykowski understands the tradition to be the source of hierarchies, and one would assume that in saying this she has in mind post-Greek philosophy in general, especially because she also writes that “the originary Greek conception…does not flatly, unambiguously promote the ontological superiority of the human” (168). But this is confusing, to say the least, for there is an even more unambiguous hierarchy—that is, an unmistakable ordering of the grades of soul—in Aristotelian philosophy. If so, however, how would a return to Aristotle help with the abolishment of hierarchies? The question is not addressed because, unfortunately, no sections of her monograph are devoted to the Greek conception of the soul, which is regrettable both because it would have helped clarify the background context in the light of which Heidegger’s discussion of animality can be better understood and because in a number of his lectures the early Heidegger himself devotes many passages to the analysis of the psyche.
To provide some of the missing context, Aristotle’s conception of the soul is one that incorporates a multi-layered structure. As Charles Kahn puts it,
Aristotle is not a dualist but a quaternist: he takes for granted four fundamental categories, not two. The conceptual scheme for Aristotle’s philosophy of mind is best represented by a pyramid with four distinct levels. The lowest level is that of body…[while] the three upper levels are marked off by different forms of psyche or soul: nutritive, sensory, and rational. (Kahn 2004, 194)
To state these levels more precisely, corporeality (i.e., the merely material/inorganic level of nature) contains in itself a suitability for life to emerge, life provides the foundations for the emergence of sentience/perception, and sentient life serves as the enabling condition for thinking to arise. In the words of Frederick Weiss, “Each grade of life has for its condition the grade below it, and in turn is a further development of that grade” (Weiss 1969, 14). In Hegel’s philosophy, Weiss adds, this would mean that “each grade of soul is aufgehoben in the grade above it” (Weiss 1969, 15). What is important to realize here is that the Aristotelian understanding of the actualization of that which exists potentially is such that the aforementioned levels are not “opposed” to one another in any straightforward way; what is at issue here, rather, is an appropriation (i.e., “further development”) of a suitable structure. Similarly, the sublation (Aufhebung) that Hegel speaks of can be understood in this context as an emergence of a grade of life from a lower stage (or “moment”) wherein the latter is preserved in the former.
This way of thinking is strictly antithetical to the Cartesian conception of the two substances (res extensa and res cogitans), which are two alien entities that somehow confront each other and that otherwise share nothing in common with one another. On this model, entities no longer fall under four categories (bodies, living things, animals, humans) but under two: extended substances (bodies, living things, animals) and thinking substances (humans). Hence, the Cartesian tradition perfectly exemplifies what some believe to be an unwarranted conception of “human uniqueness” that Cykowski often talks about, so she is quite correct, after all, in maintaining that a return to the Aristotelian model would provide a remedy in this context, but not by way of shattering hierarchies or abolishing essences, as her study sometimes seems to suggest.
There is an important extent to which Heidegger believes much of modern philosophy to be on the wrong track, and there is some extent to which the early Heidegger believes Aristotle and the phenomenological tradition to provide a remedy (on the condition, of course, that they are correctly interpreted). In my view, this is the background against which we must try to make sense of Heidegger’s attempts to uncover the hidden metaphysical assumptions lying behind much of contemporary philosophy and science. The biggest drawback of Cykowski’s work is the absence of an attempt to articulate this historical background, which she sidesteps to jump directly to a defense of Heidegger who she claims to have been unjustly subjected to a hierarchizing charge by several commentators. However, a sufficient evaluation of this charge would itself demand a more thorough discussion of the question of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, but the demand is not met in the confines of her study.
In the last few pages of her book, Cykowski calls Heidegger “an authority on the concealed danger of metaphysical prejudices” (180) and notes that one of the primary objectives of the lecture course is “to get us to appraise metaphysical principles that are buried in the recesses of contemporary thinking” (188). She concludes that FCM “aims, not at the institution of hierarchical principles, but at the indication of ones to which we are already held fast” (188). In her view, while it is true that Heidegger ascribes to human beings the unique capacity to speak out about physis from within physis, this does not entail that Heidegger is attempting to pursue “the idea of human uniqueness and superiority simply for its own sake” (171). According to Cykowski, FCM still presents us with “a hierarchical picture of things, but it is not one that simplistically celebrates human existence” (186). If we pay attention to the broader context of FCM, she argues, we will come to realize that the contrary is true, that “Heidegger is describing human Dasein as a being that must learn to cope with the fact that its life is not an animal life” (172). If so, the hierarchizing charge levelled at Heidegger is mistaken; it misses the nuances of Heidegger’s reflections on animality.
Despite the complexity of FCM, Cykowski’s discussion of the 1929–30 lectures features a clear prose that remains consistent throughout the work. In general, Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does a good job familiarizing the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality and the ways in which he has been criticized by subsequent philosophers. One of the most important virtues of Cykowski’s monograph is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context. Unfortunately, however, Cykowski does not provide us with sufficient textual evidence to support her specific interpretation of this context, in the absence of which she seems to have overstated the extent to which the entire lecture course can be seen as an attempt to uncover the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, Cykowski’s construal of the history of philosophy in terms of the difference between Greek and post-Greek thinkers is somewhat too simplistic; her study would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the history of philosophy, which arguably comprises several different traditions concerning the conceptualization of the order of nature and our place in it.
Brogan, W. A. 1984. “Heidegger’s Interpretation of Aristotle: The Finitude of Being.” Research in Phenomenology 14: 249–58.
Heidegger, M. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by W. McNeill and N. Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Kahn, C. H. 2004. “Aristotle versus Descartes on the Concept of the Mental.” In Metaphysics, Soul, and Ethics in Ancient Thought: Themes from the Work of Richard Sorabji. Edited by R. Salles. New York: Oxford University Press.
Weiss, F. G. 1969. Hegel’s Critique of Aristotle’s Philosophy of Mind. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.
As James G. Hart notes in the opening chapter of his Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology, the German phenomenologist and Naturphilosophin Hedwig Conrad-Martius is a marginally known figure. Prior to the last half decade, what limited consideration she received in the English-speaking world is primarily in the context of her relationship with Edith Stein, particularly in the role that she played in Stein’s conversion to Catholicism in the early 1920s. There are several plausible reasons for Conrad-Martius’ obscurity: the absence of translations of her work; the political and bureaucratic challenges and sometimes outright opposition she encountered as one of the first women to enroll in and complete studies at a German university; the personal and professional hardships—including the death of numerous colleagues and a publication ban due to Jewish ancestry—that resulted from the socio-political upheavals of the early 20th century; the ascendency and predominance of the hermeneutical-existential mode of phenomenology to the exclusion of phenomenological realism movement of which she was a leading figure. Whatever the reasons for her obscurity, the quality of her work is certainly not one of them, even a passing familiarity with which would confirm.
I am the sort of reader of Hart’s monograph on Conrad-Martius that qualifies as having passing familiarity with her work. I know enough about her lifelong project, the Realontologie, or the investigation into the essence and metaphysical foundations of reality, to want to know more. But resources for knowing more are limited. A cursory search of the Kösel-Verlag archives, the publisher now owned by Penguin Random House that originally printed Conrad-Martius’ work, yields no results. To the best of my knowledge, her work is no longer in print and only available only second-hand via private handlers. There are no translations. As far as secondary material, at the time of its publication in 2020, Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought available in English. According to Hart, the only other monograph, which is in German, is Alexandra Pfeiffer’s Hedwig Conrad-Martius: Eine phänomenologische Sicht auf Natur und Welt. A monograph on Conrad-Martius, then, is a welcome contribution. A monograph on Conrad-Martius by James Hart is even more so. Hart’s work is consistently of the highest level, combining an immense scholarly and philosophical comprehensiveness with clarity and a sharp eye for the germane in the matter-at-hand. His two-volume work Who One Is (Springer 2009) is an absolute gem, a must-read for anyone interested in any number of themes even remotely related to transcendental and existential phenomenology. Needless to say, I anticipated Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology with excitement, and it mostly met those expectations.
The book itself is composed of eight chapters and an appendix. The appendix is a selection translated by the book’s editor Rodney K.B. Parker of HCM’s unfinished and eventually abandoned manuscript Metaphysik des Irdischen (or Metaphysics of the Earthly). Hart tells us that she originally intended the work to be a “unifying opus magnum” (4), but that it remained incomplete due to extenuating health and financial circumstances. Parker implies that disagreements with the publisher were also a contributing factor. As for the body of the book, chapter one is a general introduction to Conrad-Martius’ life and thought, presenting relevant biographical material and acquainting us with her project and its primary influences; the final chapter is a conclusion. Chapters two through five contain the bulk of the exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought and are the most challenging of the book. Chapters six and seven are Hart’s own creative appropriation of one of the basic theses of Conrad-Martius’ work, namely that theological-cosmological categories have an ontological-metaphysical referent, which he applies to the theme of heaven. In what follows, I’ll summarize (by no means exhaustively) Hart’s presentation of Conrad-Martius’ thought and conclude with a few reflections on the work and on its contemporary relevance.
Conrad-Martius as Naturphilosophin
All of the subsequent analysis depends on Hart’s exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought. HCM is a philosopher of nature in the ancient sense. Her notion of nature as “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” (80) reflects a more typically Aristotelean designation: nature as “that which by virtue of itself…and out of itself (the founding hyle) brings forth itself (its eidos and morphé)” (80). She employs familiar philosophical notions such as substance, potency, and entelechy, and makes use of well-known medieval distinctions like that between essence and existence. HCM asks typically natural-philosophical questions: what is time; what is space; what is mass? What are the constitutive features of matter or of light? How do we conceive of the phenomenon of organic life on both a macro and micro scale? Her work demonstrates deep familiarity with the natural sciences of her day and with the revolutionary 20th century developments in, e.g. physics. There are, however, at least two features of her general approach that make it unique: 1) her commitment to eidetic-phenomenological analysis; 2) her fundamentally Christian cosmological outlook.
1) In chapter two, Hart details Conrad-Martius’ involvement in the early phenomenological movement and its effect on her methodological and philosophical commitments. HCM was a member of the Munich and Göttingen circles of phenomenology. Members of these circles had in common an admiration for Husserl’s rejection in the Logical Investigations of philosophical psychologism and the overcoming of epistemological standstills and reductivism of all kinds that it represented. Freed from these concerns, they were able to take up Husserl’s exhortation to return to die Sachen selbst and embody his vision of a community of interdependently working researchers conducting investigations into the essential features of the various regional ontologies. For Conrad-Martius, a philosophy of the region of nature meant, as stated above, investigating nature in an effort to discover its essential sources and structures.
Aiding this task was the method of the eidetic-reduction in which the existence of an actual object (but not the world as such) is bracketed so as to investigate the object via ideation, a process of imaginatively altering an object to bring its essential structures into relief (cf. section 2.2.). For Conrad-Martius, this involved a second aspect, namely a horizon analysis in which the limiting presuppositions and prejudices that predetermine what counts as legitimate are brought to light. In relation to the natural sciences, the general interpretive framework tends to be one of quantification and mathematization.
As an aside on method, the early phenomenologists were as a rule not concerned with epistemological questions. They unanimously lamented Husserl’s “transcendental turn” and his forays into the subjective sources of meaning as a regression into the bogs of critical philosophy. One of the merits of Hart’s presentation of HCM’s method is his pointing out the challenges that the products of Husserl’s genetic investigations, particularly the role of temporality and history in the constitution of meaning, present for her conception of essences and the kosmos noétos. For more on this, see sections 2.4-2.6.
Phenomenology’s insistence on attending to the thing in the fullness of its appearance produced, according to Hart (10), the fundamental convictions in Conrad-Martius that the way in which nature appears is reflective of what it is. There can be no irreconcilable conflict between what appears and the way it appears. This means, “on the one hand, that there was no abyss between nature as it appears and the positions of the physical sciences, and, on the other hand, that appearing is, as such, not a veil of some unknown ‘in itself’” (53). Given, for instance, the developments in quantum physics that contest the more intuitive conceptions of matter found in classical, Newtonian physics, this is quite the radical thesis. But the thesis also represents a break from the temptation of dividing nature’s appearing into primary qualities, or the real features of the physical, and secondary qualities, or sensible, merely mental features, as a consequence of which the secondary qualities are dismissed as irrelevant and the primary are conceived of inertly and mathematically. Against this quantification of nature, Conrad-Martius insisted on a qualitative analysis in which all modes of appearing are appearances of something. Conrad-Martius’ nature is a cosmology, an ordered whole of interwoven regions and parts that Hart compares to a tapestry or symphony (157).
2) If the predominant horizon of the natural sciences is quantification and mathematization, HCM’s is Christian. One of the dominant trends in the theology of her day was demythologization in which “the content of the ontological referent [of cosmological notions] is fully replaced by an existential and symbolic interpretation” (205). In contrast to this tendency, Conrad-Martius sought to “remythologize” the cosmos, i.e. to affirm a cosmological meaning and referent for Christian cosmological notions, for example, heaven as a region of world space (see 7.3). Hart quickly adds two qualifications: a) that this doesn’t mean that we should altogether reject the fruits, much less the impulses and motivations, of existential and hermeneutical theology; b) that this in no way implied for Conrad-Martius a fundamentalism that eschews the evidence of, e.g. paleontology, and seeks to return to the pre-Copernican picture of a storied-universe of heaven physically above. As I mention above, chapters six and seven contain Hart’s attempt to appropriate this move with regard to heaven. While the content of these chapters is undeniably interesting, it seems to me disproportionately focused on existential and hermeneutical meanings of the religious cosmological categories. This is an issue only insofar as the Hart’s main objective is to show that Christian cosmological notions can be interpreted cosmologically.
In accordance with these two unique features of Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ approach, Hart seems to discern two promises: 1) a qualitative philosophy of nature that is the product of essence-investigations and integrates the developments of the natural sciences into an overarching cosmological unity which leads to 2) the possibility of giving Christian cosmological notions an ontological-cosmological foundation rooted in a serious philosophy of nature.
The Realontologie at a Glance
A. Substantiality and Time: If chapter two delineates Conrad-Martius’ method, chapters three through five deal with her thought as such. Chapter three begins with an analysis of the various kinds of being that culminates in the decisive distinction between ideal and real being. This distinction is the point of departure for the Realontologie, or ontology of the real, and for the philosophy of nature insofar as nature is, as we saw, “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis.” The section in which the distinction is introduced (3.2) is a bit convoluted. I get the impression that Hart has here the unenviable task of mapping out the critical theme that is at once the juncture of several intersecting trains of thought and the point of departure for the whole show. Probably for this reason, the terms of explanation seem to shift just as you begin to get your teeth into them. It can feel a bit like biting air. At any rate, the gist of the distinction is clear enough. Whereas “the ‘being’ of ideal objects is exhausted totally in their ‘being something’ or being such” (66)—in more traditional metaphysical parlance, in their essence—real being exists. Inherent in the meaning of real being is not just the essential moment (what something is) but also the existential moment (that something is) without which a real being would not be real. By existence, HCM seems to mean the brute thereness, the in-the-flesh character of facticity. This leads her to the notion of substantiality, which for her refers to being that is self-grounding. A being exists, is “really there” because it stands in itself. Substantial being, for Conrad-Martius, is real being.
To be self-grounded is sometimes characterized as standing-in-itself, and other times as stand-under-itself: “Substance as such stands under its own being; it is the self-grounding of itself which is the standing under (sub-stans). It stands under (grounds) itself…Substance is a being’s standing in its own existential potency to its own being” (79). Although it seems like an unintentional equivocation or an exploitation of the etymology of substance, it is actually a purposive and important equivocation. It takes some rearranging to figure out why. As far as I can tell, “itselfness” is for Conrad-Martius both a technical term and an operative concept, the meaning of which changes depending on context. Hart confirms the latter (cf. 78) and implies the former. I note that one of the difficulties with the use of “itselfness” as a technical term, beyond its being an operative concept, is the possibility of its conflation with the reflexive pronoun “itself.” This is probably less of an issue in the original German.
One of the meanings of “itselfness” in the case of real being is “the potency to exist, to be or not to be.” What makes a being “stand-in-itself” is its having “itselfness” (technical sense) within itself (this second use of “itself” has a slightly different meaning), i.e. it has within itself the potency to be or not to be. But “itselfness,” insofar as it means the potency to exist, grounds or is the source of the actually existing being. The formulations standing-it-itself and standing-under-itself foreground different aspects of substantiality. The second is crucial. Insofar as the potency to be “stands under” an entity, the theme of potentiality as the real, but not actual source of actual being is emphasized. It is that from which real, actual being comes to be. Moreover, it implies that the actually finished being, insofar as it is potential, precedes itself. Potential being is not finished being; it is pre-finished being. This leads to the central question for Conrad-Martius of the “place” of these potencies themselves. If the cosmos is an ordered whole with various kinds of regions, we here have an indication of what one of the regions would be. In short, in the analysis of real being, we are led to substantiality. The essence-analysis of substantiality leads us to the notion of pre-actual potential sources that generate and sustain actual being. Investigating these sources is the project of the Realontologie. As Hart puts it, “for the full constitution of real substances, the form-giving active (entelechial) and passive, purely potential powers must be studied” (47)—I’ll say more about the “form-giving active powers” in the next subsection.
For Conrad-Martius, that an entity is grounded in its possibility to be does not mean that it has absolute power over its potential to be. Such a capacity belongs only to absolute being. Insofar as potential being is a form of non-being, she can say that to be real is to be suspended over an abyss of nothingness that requires an ontological motion of “incessant flight from nothingness” (70). Its existence is something which is incessantly “slipping away” (78) and simultaneously won anew. This is an important observation because, for Conrad-Martius, this motion inherent in the mode of existence of real being is that which constitutes time. Time is not some pre-existing container into which being steps. Time follows on existence and not the other way around. As Hart puts it, “time is a mode of the existence of something” (137). Again, “time is a dimension corresponding to the being or existence of something” (150). In contrast to this real-motion of time is what she refers to as the transcendental imaginative time—think Husserl’s time-consciousness in which the present is held onto in retention and on the basis of this holding arises protention, an expectation of what is to come. In this context, it makes sense to speak of past and future and of a motion between the two through the present. For HCM, this flowing time along with the categories of past and future are not real, but only features of transcendental imaginative time. The real motion of time is not one from the past into the future or vice versa. Just as a being is incessantly losing and winning its existence, the real motion of time is a discontinuous “relentless coming forth of the world into being as it is a constant vanishing from actuality” (76). An analogy with number is helpful:
The number, e.g., 5, means more than that it stands in line at the fifth place after preceding rows of unities. The eidos of the number lies in its being a complex unity which contains the total series of numbers leading up to its place of order. Only secondarily does it indicate its place of order in the series of numbers. The number is the expression of a quantitative monad-like ‘sum value.’ One value cancels out the preceding by including it and going beyond it [Aufhebung]. Conrad-Martius’ point here is that the nows are analogous to numbers. And as numbers are monadic sum-values, so are the moments of actuality monadic being-values. And as with each individual number the preceding (and coming) numbers are conceptually and terminologically negated, because this number presents a sum-value which is valid only for it, so with each definite moment of actuality [Aktualitätsjetzt] are all other moments ontologically negated. (77)
Theologically, that real being is situated on the “knife-edge of nothingness” (190) is indicative of nature’s being non-integral, i.e., being fallen. If incessantly negated time follows on the mode of real existence, HCM speculates on what a different mode of “eternal” or “blessed” existence might mean for time (see section 5.1 and 5.3). As for the question of the source of this motion, Hart returns to it in chapter five.
B. Matter (hyle) and Space: I noted above that “itselfness” seems to be an operative concept. Beyond referring to the potency to exist that underlies real being, it also seems to refer to the potency for an entity to be what it is, to be its essence, which it also stands in. The “‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” by which Conrad-Martius delimits the region of nature would then signify that substantial being both stands in its possibility to exist and has its potency within itself to be what it is. This sheds light on obscure locutions like nature’s definition as “that which is by reason of its own power to be—to be itself. That is, to be what it is in its own essence” (80), which Hart follows up by quoting HCM as saying “existential substantiality is essential substantiality” (again, the major difficulty with these locutions seems to be that the terms shift, e.g. if we say that something constitutes itself out of itself, we could mean several different things (out of its hyle, out of its potency to be, etc.), and all of them might highlight different aspects of constitution. This is probably a difficulty inherent in ontology).
This consideration prepares us for Hart’s remark that there are two different modes of standing-in-itself that are constitutive of the cosmos, the hyletic and the pneumatic. As constitutive of actual, finished entities, Hart cautions us against thinking of these modes themselves as actual, finished entities. Again, the notion of regions is not far. Conrad-Martius refers to the region of these potentialities that are the source of actual entities as the trans-physical potential realm (see section 3.5). In some sense, the distinction between the hyletic and the pneumatic seems to cut along the lines of living and non-living, although pneumatic in the strict sense refers to “the eidos of I-ness” (section 3.7)). Two qualifications are necessary: 1) we are talking about the sources of living and non-living beings, and so not of a living or non-living being. The basis for, e.g. the essence-analysis of matter is not empirical matter (e.g. the chemical elements). 2) It would be wrong to think of matter along the lines of dead, brute stuff. As Hart insists, finished material being like all nature is self-generative. The difference between living and non-living is more that essences of living beings are uniquely delivered over to them to become (88). The analysis of organic nature occupies much of the beginning of chapter four, which unfortunately I can’t consider further here. That discussion treats HCM’s position in debates within biology between wholism and preformism, her understanding of evolution and genetics, and the important concept of entelechy and related notions of causality, power, and energy. If interested, see sections 4.1-4.4.
Whereas not all finished entities share in pneumatic substance, all of nature participates in hyletic being (83). According to Conrad-Martius, there are two paradoxical but intertwined moments of material being. One is an ecstatic self-othering such that nothing remains behind; the other is an absolute sinking inwards. The first is a potency that “inexhaustibly releasing or scattering, the other is inexhaustibly sinking or centering” (102). The two are intimately bound together in a reciprocal relationship such that Hart can dub hyle a “selfless being-burdened-with-itself.” The primary reason for highlighting this distinction here is the important role that it plays in the context of several other discussions. It is crucial for her interpretation of quantum physics and the notion of aether (section 4.5), is generative of her conception of space, and representative of the various metaphysical regions of the cosmos. The treatment of space begins with a modified version of the Kantian antinomies. For her, the problem of infinite space—that I can neither conceive of space as ending nor of it as endless—is a product of the transcendental given-along-with of the milieu in perception. But it does indicate a paradox in the act of making space, namely that of how the untraversable because immeasurable, what HCM calls the apeiron, becomes traversable and measurable, or turns into metric space. I think what she is getting at is the problem of how, without a pre-existing definite dimension, a being comes to have definite dimensions. The solution is similar to the one we saw in the case of time. Just as time follows upon the mode of existence of a being, space follows upon the kind of being that something is (e.g. 182). More specifically, “space is the dimension created by hyletic being in its substantial self-transcendence” (84). Hart points out that the German verb räumen, the nominative of which [Raum] is German word for “space,” can mean to clear out or to make room, which is the fundamental meaning of space as the dimension that follows outwardly upon the ecstatic self-othering and inwardly on the sinking inwards of hyletic substance (85). For more, see section 3.8.
C. The Fundamental Structures: The Aeonic World-Periphery and World-Center. I have outlined HCM’s position that time follows on the mode of existence of a thing and space on the kind of being something is. I have pointed to the notion of “itselfness” as the potential for a being to be (existence) and to be what it is (essence), and have indicated that in each case, the question of sources, structures, and regions is not far. All of these topics together led to what is maybe the central topic of HCM’s philosophy of nature, namely the pre-finished sources, both actual and potential, that are responsible for nature’s coming to be and the regions that they inhabit. In chapter four (4.4), Hart treats the notions of causality and the relationship between actuality and potentiality. Central to the notion of causality is that the cause must be proportionate and appropriate to its effect. Otherwise, the effect can never come about. One of the ways in which a cause is proportionate to its effect is that in order to be capable of setting the power into motion, it must itself be in motion. This rehashes the ancient doctrine of actuality and potentiality. The question then arises: whence these trans-physical, trans-empirical pre-finished actualities that set the corresponding potentialities into motion such that we have, e.g., the motion of time, the paradoxical duality of matter, the generation of particular entities? Whence the potencies themselves? As Hart puts it, “a question that is at the heart of the cosmology and ontology of Conrad-Martius: What is the ontological place or point from out of which substantial being or the whole of nature unfolds itself into the essential forms of the cosmos? This is not meant to be a genetic question within or previous to finished nature. It is a question about essential structures” (80).
There is no way to do this question justice here. It’ll have to suffice to indicate in broad strokes the architecture of these regions. It’s worth saying again that the notion of “region” is metaphorical. The structures of finished nature are not themselves finished nature, and so are not 3D. Generally, all motions require an actualizing feature and a hyletic ground on, in, and through which to act. The motion of nature’s self-genesis with all of the other motions that this implies is no difference. For this, HCM conceives of two foundational regions (which correspond to matter’s ecstatic and instatic moments) of the world-center and the world-periphery. The world-periphery is the place of the essence-entelechies that actualize the world, as well as the ever actual source of the real motion of time (there is an interesting parallel here to Aristotle’s prime mover). The world-center, on the other hand, is the hyletic dimension on which the actualizing powers act. With the notions of regions, we come back to the theological promise I pointed to in the previous section, namely, that of finding ontological referents for Christian cosmological notions. Related to these regions are, for example, referents for the notion of the New Heaven and New Earth. This is a crude sketch of the cornerstone of HCM’s thinking, but it’ll have to do here. See chapter five for more.
The remarks of the last section are by no means exhaustive, but give an overview of the major themes of Conrad-Martius’ thought as Hart presents it, which the interested reader should be able to use for orientation in the book. While I get the impression that Hart faithfully portrays Conrad-Martius’ thought, and while I don’t envy the task of summarizing the life’s work of a metaphysician, there are a few facets of the book that are underwhelming. As I indicated at points in the previous section, Hart’s exposition can be hard to follow. In a certain way, this is unavoidable. Part of the difficulty lies in becoming acquainted with HCM as a thinker, any evaluation of whom demands a thorough familiarity with the natural sciences. It’s also necessary to get used to her idiosyncratic terminology. In another way, however, there are sections in which terms are confusing, formulations are exchanged without explanation, and the explanandum sometimes seems to drop out of sight. It is not always clear when Hart is paraphrasing or providing commentary, so it can be difficult to parse out exactly what his contribution is verses what a given thinker is arguing (though I stress that materials are always adequately cited). I suspect that this is the culprit behind errors such as the one in the first full paragraph on pg. 11 in which the example changes halfway through from “cabinet” to “table.” On that note, there are numerous and frequent typographical errors that, because of their frequency, can be distracting. For stretches of the book, errors in punctuation occur on nearly every page and sometimes multiple times per page. One of the most frequent errors, substituting the word “or” when the context calls for “of,” occurs four times in the concluding five sentences of the book. Hart tells us in his preface that the book is the belatedly published version of his 1972 doctoral thesis and that, for practical reasons, he couldn’t update it. Many of these errors I think, are reflective of that.
At any rate, I am grateful to have the dissertation in published form. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that HCM is a marginally known figure, and that at the time of its publication it was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought in English. If the last few years are any indication, the situation is changing. Since the publication of Hart’s book, the Springer Series Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, of which Hart’s work is the fifth volume, has published another book-length collection of essays by Ronny Miron on Conrad-Martius’ thought. The Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists at the Universität Paderborn whose director, Ruth Hagengruber is an editor for the Springer Series, is conducting a project called “Women in Early Phenomenology,” one of the goals of which is to foreground and make available Conrad-Martius’ oeuvre. There is also, of course, anecdotal evidence—a panel dedicated to her thought at a prominent conference, a reading group dedicated to her work, etc.—of an increasing interest.
Can her work gain broad traction? Hedwig Conrad-Martius is as unconventional a thinker as she is comprehensive and profound. As far as I know, she is the only western philosopher of the 20th century (besides maybe Whitehead) to attempt in conversation with the natural sciences a comprehensive philosophy of nature in terms of its essential structures. We may have to go back as far as St. Thomas to find someone else who attempts it from an explicitly Christian perspective. The climate in academia may not be amenable such a project. In an era of specialization, of general (warranted or not) suspicion of eidetic claims, following a century of the devaluation of philosophy in scientific practice, with all of the old doubts concerning the possibility of a Christian philosophy, this explicitly theological, comprehensive philosopher of the essence of nature might seem like an odd one out. In some ways, that is precisely what makes her extremely refreshing. And beyond the vicissitudes of the Zeitgeist, there are the perennial questions of the whence and whither of our coming to be, questions that Conrad-Martius is asking. I, for one, am eager to see her answers heeded.
 Ronny Miron: Hedwig Conrad-Martius: The Phenomenological Gateway to Reality (Springer 2021).
In the contemporary philosophical landscape, Gregory S. Moss’s book stands out for many different reasons, and even though it should be considered a major contribution to the understanding of Hegel’s logic, its worth cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of Hegelian scholarship. In this review I would like to illustrate some of the merits of this book, and I will try to show why Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics can be read as an autonomous philosophical work, an exciting occasion to continue and renew the debate on some fundamental philosophical questions.
The Author’s first monograph on Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms addressed the question of the autonomy of language. While dealing with partially different issues – the nature of language and the philosophy of culture – this book already discusses some topics that are the main focus of Moss’s philosophical work, and shows methodological elements that remain unaltered in his second book. Aside from the general interest in the history of German thought, the book already deals with the problem of autonomy and of universality, discussing the relationship between language and logic and introducing the question about interculturality.
More importantly, in Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language Moss already showed his deeply theoretical approach to the analysis of the authors of the past. His reconstruction of Cassirer’s philosophy of language does not simply aim at offering an accurate sketch of the author’s thought, but rather it is an attempt to show how that theory can still find a place in the contemporary debate.
Following the same methodological inspiration, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics offers a monumental reconstruction of Hegel’s metaphysics, often underlining some aspects of his thought that have been lost in the most successful trends of the Hegelian research in the English-speaking world. However, it is also a striking attempt to show why Hegel’s metaphysics continues to be relevant. This may be the greatest achievement of Moss’s work: it does not just illustrate Hegel’s own position, but also and foremost shows what it means to have a Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Despite its remarkable internal coherence, the impressive size of the book – around 500 pages – makes it almost impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of its content. Instead of doing so, I will start by introducing the main focus of the book – the relation between singularity and absoluteness. After that, I will discuss some pivotal elements of Moss’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought. Finally, I will try to point out some issues that remain open at the end of the analysis, in the attempt to show how this book can be understood as the starting point for a productive debate on Hegel, on the contemporary debate, and on the future of philosophy.
1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity
Since Plato, the relationship between philosophy and singularity has been complicated, even paradoxical. On the one hand, philosophy has been constantly presented as the kind of knowledge that addresses the universal rather than the singular. The tradition offers us a bunch of formulas in order to clarify this taxonomy: while philosophy is knowledge of the universal, art or history address what is singular. While thought only grasps the universal, only intuition has access to individual things.
On the other hand, however, philosophy has always been obsessed with singularity. The greater part of the philosophical effort since Plato and Aristotle is devoted precisely to understand how singular being (ta ekasta) are structured, how they are generated, how we think and say things about them, how they relate to each other. While the singular is banned from the domain of philosophy, nonetheless philosophy’s main task has always been the discovery and the elaboration of the structure of singularity in itself.
But what is singularity? Even this question, along with the distinction between singular and universal, is quite problematic. We are accustomed to identify singularity as the lower limit of thought, namely as what lies beyond any possible specific difference in the great taxonomy of genera and species. Yet, what is singular is also what lies beyond the upper limit of thought, namely what exceeds any possible genus: it is epekeina tes ousias, to use Plato’s formulation. In a sense, “singular” is the opposite of “universal”; in another sense, it is the opposite of “plural”. I know it is a schematic oversimplification, but this could account for the main difference between Aristotle and Plato: according to Plato, ideas are the true “singulars”: there is only one Beauty, it is one, eternal, and determinate, whereas sensible things are always plural, changing, indeterminate and temporal. In this context, what is most universal is at the same time utterly singular. On the contrary, Aristotle’s attempt to “save phenomena” – a formula used by Simplicius – is precisely the attempt to think sensible things as singular, determinate beings. Universals are plural, they are instantiated and thus have specific, but not numeric unity. Only individual things – both sensible and supra-sensible – are singular. For the sake of discussion, this oversimplification could be useful to identify this basic difference between a Platonic and an Aristotelian attitude towards singularity: on the one side, the singular is the absolute; on the other side, the singular is first and foremost finite, individual being.
2. Hegel’s Thought as a New Theory of Singularity
Now, how do we place Hegel’s philosophy in this frame? First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Hegel’s thought has traditionally been accused of having a complete lack of interest in singularity. Hegel is the “philosopher of universality” par excellence. Universality, necessity and subjectivity are the three key notions that structure most traditional interpretations of Hegel’s idealism, in which singularity, contingency and objectivity are therefore accounted for only as partial and lower steps of a more comprehensive dialectical process.
Already right after Hegel’s death, his first commentators criticized his disregard for singularity. According to Ludwig Feuerbach, the distinction between logical and sensible being is the inescapable mark of Hegel’s failure in thinking the individual: «Die Sprache gehört hier gar nicht zur Sache. Die Realität des sinnlichen einzelnen Seins ist uns eine mit unsern Blute besiegelte Wahrheit» (Sämtliche Werke, II, 212). This is Hegel’s major fault, not recognizing that „reality of singular sensible being” that we cannot help but feel as an immediate truth.
The strongest critic of Hegel’s philosophy of singularity, however, is Kierkegaard, who polemically used the term “Einzelheit” in his philosophy precisely to rescue the singular from Hegel’s monistic and universalistic account. Since idealism is “abstract thought”, Kierkegaard’s aim is to highlight the philosophical significance of existence, whereas what exists is precisely that singular being that abstract thought keeps overlooking.
This interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy has survived up to contemporary philosophy. In particular, French thought used the term “singularity” in order to develop an anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian concept of individuality. Gilles Deleuze is the philosopher who expresses this critique in the most explicit way: «Hegel substitutes the abstract relation of the particular to the concept in general for the true relation of the singular and the universal in the Idea» (Difference and repetition, 10). Quite ironically, while Hegel is one of the first philosophers to use the word “singularity” as a technical term, clearly distinguishing between a commonsensical and a speculative use of the notion, the whole post-structuralist tradition uses the term “singular” as an anti-Hegelian device, tracing it back to Spinoza in contraposition with Hegelian dialectic.
A second element that is useful to point out, in order to understand the novelty of Gregory S. Moss’s approach, is that this criticism of Hegel’s notion of singularity goes along with a critique of Hegel’s systematic and anti-foundational idea of philosophy. Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, but also many other early commentators of Hegel’s system, such as Karl Werder, Kuno Fischer, Schelling, and Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, criticized Hegel’s disregard for the individual and at the same time stated the impossibility to obtain a complex categorical structure starting from the absolute simplicity of being. In other terms, the impossibility to get difference starting from identity.
Now, this close connection between systematic metaphysics and the problem of singularity is at the core of the theoretical analysis of Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics. The so-called Hegel-renaissance in the English-speaking world has already rediscovered the importance of Hegel’s account of individuality. Paul Redding highlighted in the clearest way how the Pittsburgh school – Robert Brandom in particular – has managed to read Hegel’s philosophy as a semantic theory of individuation. However, these interpretations have systematically underplayed the systematic aspect of Hegel’s thought, along with its strictly metaphysical character. Following the oversimplified frame that I’ve proposed before, Robert Brandom’s inferentialism is – in a way – an Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s theory of singularity, since it understands singular beings only as finite, individual objects.
In this context, Gregory Moss’s book offers a timely and original reading of Hegel’s logic, since it finally highlights some aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that have been structurally neglected by many commentators. Three aspects are particularly worth mentioning.
In the first place, the author clarifies that Hegel’s notion of singularity not only refers to individual, finite beings, but also – and foremost – to that peculiar singular being that is the Absolute. In a way, therefore, Hegel’s speculative use of the notion of singularity overcomes the difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian approach.
Secondly, Moss shows how it is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without taking into account the necessary relationship between these two dimensions. There is no account of the singularity of finite being without addressing the singularity of the Absolute, and any account of the Absolute that does not illustrate the metaphysical status of singular finite being is incomplete and partial.
Finally, the book puts a very strong accent on necessity to highlight the general aim of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise. It is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without considering the metaphysical character of his logic. Here it is important to grasp Hegel’s own understanding of what metaphysics is, rather than applying some contemporary use of the term to the Hegelian text, which forces Hegel into a theoretical frame that does not have much to do with his own methodology.
As I will point out later, these three elements also identify three problematic aspects of Moss’s theoretical and interpretative framework, or at least three questions that are still open after reading the book. However, before going deeper into the critical analysis, I will briefly illustrate the main structure of the book.
3. Thinking the Absolute
One of the most striking elements of Moss’s book is that it emphasizes the strict relationship between infinite and finite thought. While tradition generally accepted that we cannot think the Absolute in the same way we think finite being, one of the key contributions of Classic German Philosophy is the idea that if we fail to think the Absolute, even thinking finite being becomes impossible. If I’m not misunderstood, this is what is at stake in what Moss calls the “problem of nihilism”. I won’t go into it in detail, but a general consequence of this approach is precisely Moss’s attempt to show how Hegel’s philosophy is a unification of Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches: if the Absolute is absolute, and therefore there is nothing outside of it, then it is impossible to differentiate between two faculties or two different methods, as if, for instance, understanding were to be identified with the faculty of finite being, and reason with the faculty of the Absolute. So, by developing a critical discussion of how the Absolute has been thought in the metaphysical tradition, we are at the same time questioning the way we think finite being. This traditional view is what the Author calls the “duality of principles”, the idea that knowledge – and reality – cannot be grounded on one principle, but rather require at least two: intuitions and concepts, matter and form and so on. Against this position, the Author defends a strongly monistic account of Hegel’s metaphysics, according to which the true Singular – the Absolute – self-differentiates in a way that can be compared to the Neoplatonic One.
The thesis of the duality of principles is grounded on another assumption, namely the impossibility of self-reference. If there is only one principle, then identity and difference must stem from the same source, and this source has no external matter on which to operate. According to Moss, the history of Western thought has mostly rejected this idea because of the undisputed adherence to the principle of non-contradiction. If identity generates difference, then the same thing is at once identical and different, namely contradictory.
These three metaphysical assumptions, the principle of non-contradiction, the rejection of self-reference, and the duality of principles, are presented by the Author as the fundamental argumentative structure that undermines at the basis the very possibility to think the Absolute, and that can be found in the history of Western metaphysics from Plato up to Kant.
For this reason, Moss’s analysis starts with a critical assessment of some basic problem of traditional metaphysics. While the author does not have philological or reconstructive interests, his confrontation with some authors of the past is extremely useful in order to grasp his fundamental orientation. For instance, while Plato, Aristotle and Kant are examples of the duality of principles approach, the brief but intense reconstruction of early German idealism aims at showing that Fichte’s and Schelling’s objective was precisely to overcome Kant’s dualism, and to re-introduce a self-referential first principle as the metaphysical and epistemological ground of a new philosophy. At the same time, this approach is strongly connected by Moss to Plotinus and Neoplatonic philosophy, with a long and dense excursus on ancient philosophy that reveals the Author’s tendency to offer a somewhat Neoplatonist interpretation of Hegel’s logic.
After having offered a critical reconstruction of these three metaphysical assumptions, Moss shows how they inevitably lead to five paradoxes that can be found throughout the history of philosophy.
The Problem of Instantiation: if particulars and universals are indebted to different (epistemological/ontological) principles, it’s impossible to clarify their relationship.
The Missing Difference: if conceptuality is not the source of its own differentiation, then the source of this differentiation is non-conceptual. «The essential difference that distinguishes one thing from another cannot be accounted for by appealing to what the thing is ‘in virtue of itself’» (165).
Absolute Empiricism: since the differentiated content of the conceptual dimension is not conceptual, the source of conceptuality is entirely empirical.
The Problem of Onto-Theology: the most universal notion is indicated as both universal and particular.
The Third Man: if the Concept is not self-differentiating, then every instance of the Concept, as a particular concept, cannot be the Universal Concept. Every attempt to find the universal concept leads to new particular concepts.
The largest part of the book’s first section is devoted to the historic and theoretical analysis of these paradoxes. The second section, instead, shows how – by positing the Concept as one self-referential and dialetheic principle – Hegel’s logic manages to overcome them.
Surprisingly, the book does not use the classic difference between understanding and reason as an instrument throughout this analysis. The question of the difference between understanding and reason is of course present, but it is not always clear whether these issues could be addressed as the result of an intellectualistic and non-speculative understanding of the domain of conceptuality. For instance, and here I’m forcing and radicalizing the issue in order to facilitate the discussion, the problem of the missing difference could be analysed as a specific formulation of a more general issue that concerned British and Italian idealism for a long time, namely the insufficient and contradictory nature of the forms of judgment. In fact, since every judgment, as Kant states, is in the form “The singular is universal”, and since the singular is not universal, an intellectualistic approach to the nature of conceptuality already finds itself entangled in a contradiction.
However, rather than appealing to this methodological instrument, the Author prefers addressing these problems systematically, retracing their origin in the three metaphysical assumptions listed above. This choice gives a very strong conceptual unity to the book, even though it could lead to some forced passages, in particular when it comes to analysing these issues through examples taken from the history of philosophy.
For instance, the first two paradoxes – the problem of instantiation and the missing difference – are addressed by quoting many passages from Plato’s Parmenides and the Book B of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Now, while these passages are in fact very good examples of the problems the Author is discussing, both the Parmenides and Metaphysics Beta are, so to say, “partes destruentes”, critical preliminary moments of a new theory. In other words, it is possible to find already in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work – as Hegel himself recognizes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy – speculative solutions to the problems they raise in some of their texts.
The difference between intellectualistic and speculative thought seems to be a very good way to account for this internal evolution in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought. For instance, Plato’s generative account of the koinonia ton genon in the Sophist does not look to be still subject to these paradoxes. In it, for instance, the self-referential character of ideas is no longer problematic, but at the same time it is not trivialized through the reference to empirical concepts as it happens in the Parmenides. Another example is Aristotle’s philosophy: following Ferrarin, Moss concedes that Aristotle’s metaphysics is speculative and belongs to the domain of the concept. But then, how can we integrate this idea with the paradoxes of Aristotle’s account of conceptuality? Isn’t this account, as it is presented in the book, utterly intellectual rather than speculative?
In other words, while the author manages to provide a strikingly coherent and dense systematic account of some fundamental metaphysical issues, a more extensive analysis of Plato’s and Aristotle’s own solutions to these problems, along with a comparison with Hegel’s own interpretation of their works, could give the chance to highlight how there is more than one way to think speculatively. The author does discuss Aristotle’s solutions to some of the problems he listed in Metaphysics Beta, but the historical reconstruction of Aristotle’s approach is not the main focus of Moss’s research, and it is only mentioned in order to highlight some aspect of Aristotle’s thought that the author recognizes in Hegel’s work.
However, given the book’s size, focusing on the systematic aspect of the issue has been a wise choice: this remark only aims at pointing out, once again, that this monumental book must not be interpreted as the end of a research, but rather as an exciting proposition for a new approach to the study of Hegel’s logic, of the history of philosophy and of metaphysics in general.
Four Open Problems
With this spirit in mind, I would like to point out some specific issues that I find of particular importance in Moss’s book. Of course, as already mentioned, this is a monumental piece of scholarship, and there are many topics worth discussing. There are many arguments and analyses that deserve a much deeper discussion than I can provide here. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid discussing specific matters or individual passages of the book, since I would like to keep the debate on a more general and fundamental level, and discuss some structural aspects of Moss’s proposal rather than specific topics. In particular, I will try to propose a brief critical assessment of four questions that remain open.
4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?
In the final part of his critical analysis, the Author thoroughly discusses different metaphysical and non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s logic. In particular, he also highlights Hegel’s intention to reform metaphysics beyond any dogmatic understanding of it. The interpretation of Hegel’s own understanding of metaphysics is deeply connected with the relationship between logic, nature and spirit. While Moss does not expressly analyse this aspect of Hegel’s system, the passage from logic to nature is a crucial point of his reading.
As we know, one of the main arguments of the book is that Hegel’s logic introduces a self-referential and self-differentiating account of the Concept. As Roberto Morani has shown in his monumental book on the evolution of Hegel’s dialectics, this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy is also the main focus of the auto-reformation of his own logic in the Second Edition of the Doctrine of being, when he stresses that objective logic already is subjective logic in disguise. This issue is closely related to the question of the “formal” character of logic. According to Hegel, logic is not formal because it has logical forms as its own content: logical forms are at the same time form and content of the logical process, that in this way is truly noesis noeseos:
But logical reason is itself the substantial or real factor which, within itself, holds together all the abstract determinations and constitutes their proper, absolutely concrete, unity. There is no need, therefore, to look far and wide for what is usually called a matter; it is not the fault of the subject matter of logic if the latter seems empty but only of the manner in which this subject matter is grasped. (SL, trans. Di Giovanni, 28)
Elena Ficara has stressed the importance of this passage, which shows Hegel’s opposition to any formalistic understanding of logic as a discipline. However, Moss radicalizes this aspect and points out how this unity of form and matter generates a self-determining progression. But what is the limit of this activity?
The logic is a self-generating process, through which the concept determines itself as concept: while we discover a great variety of conceptual determinations, these determinations never become empirical. In other terms, the logical development of the category of quality never generates the concept of “colour” or of “green”. In other words, what does never happen is what Fichte talks about in his lectures on the Tatsachen des Bewusstseins: if we radicalize this monistic self-generating activity, then everything must be deduced starting from the first principle, even this singular blade of grass. It is the same conception of systematic metaphysics that Wilhelm Traugott Krug presents as a critic to Idealism, and that Hegel ridicules. For instance, when Hegel talks of the ontological proof, the point is that the Concept has logical objectivity. Nevertheless, Moss is right to highlight how important it is to understand the Concept as a creative activity, and by doing so he defends a strong metaphysical interpretation of Hegel’s logic that many passages in Hegel’s work seem to confirm. While the author recognizes that the creative activity of the Concept does not entail the deterministic deduction of all empirical content, establishing the precise nature and the limits of this self-particularizing activity is one of the tasks that remain open after having read his analysis, and it is a crucial element to test the hermeneutical validity of his interpretation.
4b. What Kind of Singularity?
I would like to go back to the notion of singularity, which is the main focus of the book as a whole. In Moss’s book it is clearly stated that each category of the logic cannot be used exclusively to think the Absolute, since the Absolute is not separated from finite being. Therefore, singularity does describe both “limits” of thought—the Absolute and finite being. Nevertheless, Moss’s reconstruction strongly privileges the “Platonic” side of the analysis. In other words, the Author seems to be much more interested in showing how singularity expresses the logical structure of the Absolute, rather than explaining how the same notion can be used to describe the nature of finite being. For instance, Hegel writes that singularity is the principle of every “individuality and personality” (SL, 547). In order to complete the analysis of Hegel’s use of the notion of singularity, it would be very interesting to integrate Moss’s interpretation with a focus on this dimension.
This does not mean, of course, that Moss’s reading is a Platonic one. As I’ve already highlighted, if it is true that Platonism and Neo-Platonism play a pivotal role in the development of his reading of Hegel, Moss aims at showing both the Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of Hegelian dialectics, in particular by emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s notion of the «self-particularizing universal». This interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of Form is also quite interesting, and it would be worth discussing it in a further analysis of Hegel’s own historical sources.
One of the most surprising aspects of Moss’s book is his analysis of syllogism. Usually judgment and syllogism are analysed as logical developments of the abstract concept, and Hegel also expressly indicates them as such in the Science of Logic. Nevertheless, the Author seems to understand judgment and syllogism as a logically impoverished form of the first section, identifying them with a «self-alienated» form of the Concept (374). While this strong accent on the Concept is quite original, it is very hard to explain Hegel’s own statement at the beginning of the section on the syllogism, where he writes that «the syllogism is the completely posited concept; it is, therefore, the rational» (SL, 588). More generally, Hegel repeatedly highlights the syllogistic character of his system: the end of the Encyclopaedia is maybe the strongest example.
This issue leads to another question on the relationship between syllogism and inference. Moss’s critique of Robert Brandom’s account of Hegel’s philosophy as a form of inferentialism is very convincing, and does show the partiality of neo-pragmatist, non-metaphysical readings of Hegel. Nevertheless, by criticizing Brandom, the Author seems to share with him one core assumption, namely that syllogism is inference, and that when Hegel speaks about syllogism, he’s always talking about a formal structure of reasoning. This identification could be the main reason for Moss’s scepticism against the importance of syllogism in Hegel’s thought. For instance, in the Science of Logic Hegel expressly writes that «All things are a syllogism, a universal united through particularity with singularity; surely not a whole made up of three propositions» (SL, 593). Of course, Hegel does heavily criticize the form of inference (even in his Lectures on history of philosophy), but this passage seems to show that we must distinguish the subjective form of inference from the logical, objective form of syllogistic unity. For this reason, while Moss’s interpretation of the relationship between the concept and syllogistic forms is quite original and in some cases very convincing, it does need further discussion.
Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the question of contradiction. One of the structural aspects of the book is to show that, in order to think the Absolute, we must accept dialetheism, namely the position according to which some contradictions are true. In the case of Hegelian thought, this question is closely connected with the meaning of the term “speculative” as Hegel uses it throughout his work. While it is hardly debatable that only speculative thought is able to grasp the Absolute in its concrete and actual form, the question is whether such a way of thinking necessarily entails a violation of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its Aristotelian formulation.
A good start for illustrating the issue is a passage quoted by the Author while analysing the relationship between speculative thought and contradiction:
Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing/ (SL, 383)
Right after this passage Hegel does give some examples, and his choice are determinations of relation – above/under, father/son – that can hardly be seen as violation of Aristotle’s PNC. The interpretation of this passage is very contentious and I won’t go into it. Instead, I would like to argue that there are two possible interpretations of the nature of speculative thought. According to the first, speculative thought is necessarily dialetheic, since it requires to accept that the same x is and is not P. Here it is important to clarify that “not being P” is not the same than “being non-P”.
According to the second interpretation, speculative thought generates a new understanding of the predicates and of their reciprocal relationship. In this case, x can be P and non-P, according to a meaning of non-P that does not entail not being P.
For instance: the proposition “the particular is universal” is contradictory only as long as we assume that “being universal” entails “not-being particular”. This implication is different from the simple fact that universal and particular are different concepts, namely that “universal” is not “particular”. I do believe that it is possible to make the case that, in his subjective Logic, Hegel shows how universality, particularity and singularity, as conceptual determinations, are not reciprocally exclusive.
Moss does provide an exhaustive analysis of many different interpretations of Hegel’s account of contradiction. Again, his criticism of Robert Brandom’s strong coherentist reading is very compelling. Nevertheless, while it is clear that, according to Hegel, speculative thought somehow “deals” with contradictions, this statement must be compatible with other two explicit Hegelian theses: that contradiction is a defining aspect of finite being and finite concepts, and that contradiction itself is used throughout the system as a criterion to identify the finite and false character of the categories.
This could mean, in a way, that the Absolute cannot be contradictory in the same way finite concepts and beings are. Moss’s analysis of the difference between explosive and non-explosive contradictions could be a way to express this fundamental difference. However, it seems clear that Hegel’s foundation free metaphysics is an exciting contribution to a debate that is still open and is impossible to close simply by choosing one option over the other, be it coherence or contradiction.
At the end of this brief critical assessment of some aspects of the book, there would be much more worth mentioning. Gregory S. Moss’s book offers a compelling reconstruction of Hegelian metaphysics as a form of strong monism and shows how it can be profitably used to discuss some contemporary philosophical positions. Moss is also the translator of the English edition of Markus Gabriel’s Why The World Does Not Exist, and Gabriel’s pluralistic metaphysics is one of the main critical references throughout the book. By using Hegel’s philosophy to debate with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Priest, Robert Brandom and others, Moss brilliantly shows how the study of Classic German Philosophy can still offer a valid contribution to the contemporary debate on metaphysics.
Another aspect that resonates throughout the book is Moss’s interest for intercultural philosophy, as well as for the mystic tradition. There is no doubt that this book is a vital and promising contribution to the contemporary debate on Hegelian philosophy. However, it is also much more than that, since it provides a very compelling theoretical framework for the discussion of many different questions in contemporary continental metaphysics. Finally, it also offers a profitable exchange between philosophy, theology, and the study of other cultures.
Despite its remarkable size, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics does offer an extremely coherent and well-argued account of some of the most important theoretical issues in the history of metaphysics. By doing so, it succeeds at showing the ground-breaking nature of Hegel’s approach to logic and provides a very original interpretation of the Doctrine of the Concept. It is an ambitious example of Hegelian scholarship, but it is also a very good example of a truly Hegelian approach to philosophy today.