A curious intellectual phenomenon occurred in Germany after 1850. Suddenly, the mood was doom and gloom with no obvious or single explanation. The global market was booming. Germany was a capitalist power rivaling England. French imperialists were defeated. But German intellectuals were stuck in a funk.
The word is Weltschmerz – ‘world pain’. Instead of Hegel’s more optimistic Weltlauf – ‘the march of the world’ towards freedom – Weltschmerz implies “weariness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering” (1). German pessimism involved “a rediscovery [and reformulation] of the [ancient] problem of evil” (5). In short, German intellectuals secularized the concept of evil and attempted to comprehend the meaningfulness of life in the face of the radical ontological evil envisioned by Kant.
For Beiser, the origins of Weltschmerz are a mystery. The great capitalist depression from 1870 to 1900 that came after only helps to explain the spread of Weltschmerz, not its cause. If pessimism were all the rage among the genteel, one would expect them to be cynics to the suffering of others. Yet Weltschmerzers and their challengers had differing positions, not only on metaphysics, but over the “social question” of capitalist modernization and the exploitation of the worker. Many optimists, convinced that social progress (when left alone) is certain and sufficient, opposed welfare reforms. Pessimists wanted state intervention and technical progress to alleviate suffering even if, as a matter of principle, they believed ours was a world racing to the bottom. If pessimism did not have an identifiable social cause, Beiser locates the sullen Zeitgeist in the history of ideas and, specifically, in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer came from a wealthy family. He is famous in the annals of philosophy for coming up with the most offensive philosopher-on-philosopher insults. For years, Schopenhauer languished in obscurity, berating the German professoriat that was represented by Hegel and taking breaks to look for his soon-to-be disciple, Julius Fraunstaedt, his brightest follower and most fervent critic. Living off his father’s rents in Frankfurt, Schopenhauer spent his days musing on nothingness and absurdity in the comfort of his “Grand Hotel Abyss”. When the dust settled and the “dragon seed of Hegelianism” was finally eradicated by the good Christian king (with no small help from Schelling), Schopenhauer had his chance.
At that time, there were two branches of German philosophy. On the one hand, Neo-Kantians offered “transcendental grounds” for science, thereby attempting to justify philosophy in the face of great scientific advances. These were not the advances of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, but the electromagnetism of Michael Faraday, Leon Foucault and the rotation of Earth and, of course, the equations of James Maxwell. On the other hand, positivists saw their craft as a sui generis science of facts. The problem was that both schools forgot the world of emotions, the problem of freedom and the the sense of evil. That is, the very bread and butter of the philosophia perennis. Furthermore, philosophers lacked an audience. Nobody was buying.
With the publication of Parerga and Parapolimena, a collection of witty essays about existence and the meaning of life, in 1851, Schopenhauer became the celebrity philosopher of the second half of the long nineteenth century. As Beiser tells us, his “influence lies more on his age than on individual thinkers.” Schopenhauer successfully set Germany’s philosophical agenda for the rest of the century. What was that agenda?
Schopenhauer devised an anti-theodicy, according to which non-existence is better than existence because existence implies that, even in the very best of lives, a minimum of suffering that is absent in not existing. The position is both perfectionist and realist. First, Schopenhauer argued like an upturned Leibniz: the worst of all worlds has a maximum of evil compatible with existence because if we add one gram more of that poison, the world ceases to be. Second, Schopenhauer endorsed Epicurus and some of the ancient utilitarians. Pain always outweighs pleasure and, if we were rational, we would choose nothingness over being. Yet we exist, so what to do in such a pickle?
Schopenhauer returned to the questions of classical philosophy: life, pain, death and meaning. According to Schopenhauer, evil and suffering belong to the very make-up of our world. However, it is not Kant’s concept of evil, which is a matter of just intelligence, of freely and rationally choosing the opposite of the Categorical Imperative. Radical evil for Kant allows us to disrespect other people’s dignity, violate their autonomy and walk all over their humanity in a purely disinterested and universal way. For Schopenhauer, however, evil is not only a “noumenal” idea that guides our actions. Evil is noumenal in a more radical way; it is part of the very nature of existence. The will only cares about itself. As Beiser puts it, “life is suffering because it is the product of an insatiable and incessant cosmic will” (37).
Schopenhauer’s assertions on cosmic wills were, in a sense, more radical than those of Kant. The latter told the world that it is impossible to know things as they really are. He critiqued a type of reason that thinks it speaks for things in themselves, or worse, for non-things like God and the soul. Kant built a wall between representation and whatever was behind or beyond it. He argued, instead, that we can only know our own mental representation of things. But Kant was not an atheist. He reserved the capacity to think beyond appearances for morality. Only as a commandment of the will can the idea of God or the soul be of any use. Such entities cannot be proven by science but ethical beings need them to make free-will feasible. Freedom is not proven but demanded. As Fichte claimed, freedom is “posited” by an infinite will.
Schopenhauer, however, was a Kantian. He was aware of the faux pas against established orthodoxy and he “solved” the ontological question by inlaying a new dimension to the already radical duality between things-in-themselves and representations. Schopenhauer agreed, following orthodoxy, that the faculty of understanding produces representations. But he reserved the will for the noumenal realm – the old country of metaphysics. Beneath all representations of things, there is this inexhaustible, irrepressible and unending will of which everyone is only a fleeting quote.
Yet, for Schopenhauer, a return to metaphysics had only practical significance. It is not Scholasticism 2.0. Schopenhauer addressed “the puzzle of existence” in practical terms. This simple and apparently antiquated, yet profound, change in tactics made him different and popular among readers of the time. So, what were the ethical implications of his new metaphysics?
Beiser thinks that Schopenhauer produced a sort of Protestant atheism, or “Protestantism without theism”. It is not enough that we suffer. We deserve to suffer. In their obstinate attachment and reiteration of original sins as excuses for our suffering, Schopenhauer joined other great modern reactionaries like Joseph DeMaistre and Juan Donoso Cortés. Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s negative anthropology was useful in drawing the necessary weapons against starry-eyed Enlightenments. Because man is evil, a strong hand is needed. Because man is evil, only grace can save us. However, due to the impenetrability of God’s designs, such voluntarism is usually resolved in a monastery and in the blind acceptance of rules. But Schopenhauer was not a man of mystery. His catholic rationalism and cosmological voluntarism is a fascinating mix. Schopenhauer did believe that natural law can be known. The problem is that his notion of natural law is not the happy and elated one of Aquinas. The selfish will is the only natural necessity. Yet, unlike Spinoza, Schopenhauer thought that we can separate ourselves from an absolute will (“lift the veil of Maya”) by using our understanding and denying the will. It is the aesthetic quietism well known to Schopenhauer readers. Yet, how does one reconcile Schopenhauer’s determinism of the will with intellectual autonomy? Beiser offers an explanation of this contradiction. However, his is not a decent solution. Ultimately, it is a problem that manifests when philosophy starts with absolute definitions and proceeds through dichotomies until the end. Antinomies always remain antinomies because of a static universe despite Schopenhauer’s hyperactive will.
Historians have long ignored the tradition Schopenhauer started. However, Beiser shows that, from 1860 to 1900, Schopenhauer towered above all others in Germany. Schopenhauer’s followers like Eduard von Hartmann or critics like Karl Eugen Duhring (sadly remembered today for being the punching bag of Engels and for his late anti-Semitism) were stars in the intellectual sky of the Second Reich. Hartmann’s “flat, dry, and boring” Philosophy of the Unconscious went through eight editions. Duhring’s Natural Dialectic went through no less than ten revisions and an equal number of editions. Beiser reminds us of the contemporary importance of these neglected thinkers and, moreover, places Nietzsche within his proper context. Many of Nietzsche’s ideas were borrowed from the “pessimist controversy” that defined German thinking, that is, between Schopenhauerian curmudgeons and the positivist and neo-Kantian Panglossians.
There were many voices involved in the Weltschmerz controversy: Agnes Taubert, Olga Plümacher. Büchner, Duboc, Windelband, Paulsen, Meyer, Vaihinger, Fischer, Rickert, Cohen, Riehl. Beiser, however, explores the philosophies of five of Schopenhauer’s disciples and critics, who responded by recalibrating or re-mixing in different ratios the pessimist and optimist elements in a sort of moral chemistry.
First, there is Julius Frauenstaedt, Schopenhauer’s first apostle and critic. Frauenstaedt was the only Schopenhauerian who came from the fading Hegelian tradition. All others were neo-Kantians or positivists. Frauenstaedt abandoned Hegelianism because the monism of Hegel’s dialectics was not enough to account for the identity of faith and reason. Where does human freedom stand if in the last instance reason is both divine and human? This “divine reason” or “speculative Good Friday” of Hegel cannot be resolved in theism or pantheism because both are “illegitimate metaphysics”. Frauenstaedt finds in Schopenhauer a more feasible solution to this problem. There is, in Schopenhauer’s body of work, both a system of transcendental idealism, according to which the thing-in-itself is separate from appearances and a system of transcendental realism whereby appearances are objectifications of this transcendent will. Thus, it is the will that unites reason and faith. However, Frauenstaedt finds a new dualism in Schopenhauer – the separation of will and understanding. The will needs to represent the object of its striving; it needs to have an idea of what it wants. On the other hand, why does the cosmic will that is all-powerful and self-sufficient divide itself into two – itself and non-will? Other dualist problems in Schopenhauer concern the distinction between philosophy and natural science and the Schopenhauerian contempt for history in favor of metaphysics. All these problems that originate from Schopenhauer’s radical dualism were signs for Frauenstaedt that Schopenhauer remained trapped in “the cage of idealism.” In the end, Beiser thinks Frauenstaedt could not abandon the basic Hegelian conviction that things always work out for the better even if they do so through the worst.
Karl Eugen Duhring was Schopenhauer’s fiercest detractor. He opposed Schopenhauer with an optimism based on natural science and socialism. Duhring’s positivism precluded any metaphysics of cosmic wills and known unknowns. Immanence is absolute. We determine the value of life, our own small measure of peace. However, according to Beiser, Duhring contradicts himself. We can grasp nature and reality through intellect and correctly conclude that there is no world beyond. Yet, for Duhring, the intellect cannot make a final determination on the worth of existence. That determination is ineffable. On the topic of death, Duhring joined the gang of pessimists repeating Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius; we shall not fear death since we cannot experience it.
Duhring was one of only a couple of Weltschmerzers that harbored leftist sympathies in the “pessimist controversy.” Most were well into the political right. However, unlike Mainlander, Duhring thought that we can make life happier for the greatest number through science and redistribution. For Mainlander, even socialism does not solve suffering.
The most influential theorist of pessimism was Eduard von Hartmann. Philosophy of the Unconscious was the “eye of the storm” in the 1870 pessimist controversy. Hartmann tried to reconcile Schopenhauer’s pessimistic voluntarism and Hegel’s optimistic rationalism in a systematic way through a) pantheistic monism, b) transcendental realism, c)an eudemonic pessimism and d) evolutionary optimism. Hartmann saw that spiritual monism solves the problems of theism and materialism altogether. It avoids the traps of theism in that ethics is autonomous in a pantheist system because moral law comes from the dictates of a cosmic self, while theistic ethics is heteronomous; one should obey an alien God. Spiritual monism also avoids the traps of materialism. This cosmic self has a purposeful nature in the sense that it is not a machine without track. Secondly, against Kant, Hartmann followed Schopenhauer in taking a transcendental-realist position; appearances can give us some information on the things-in-themselves. Consequently, Hartmann thought that the best position is the ancient ideal of eudaimonia because it has an idea of how the universe really works. The world is pain and suffering but life is worth living if one follows the ancient utilitarian principle of avoiding both. However, Hartmann shared with the positivists and Hegelians a belief in progress and claimed that, culturally or as species, mankind heads for the better. This evolutionary optimism allowed Hartmann some measure of social Darwinism in that pain, suffering, war and colonialism are tools for progress unbeknownst to us in another iteration of the Hegelian List der Vernunft.
Beiser devotes a later chapter on Hartmann in relation to the pessimist controversy between 1870 and 1900. It describes the main points of the polemic between Hartmann and his two “female allies”, Olga Plumacher and Agnes Taubert, against Lutheran priests and neo-Kantians (a more intellectual kind of Lutheran) on whether life is worth living on the basis of love, pain, and pleasure. It is worth mentioning that one of the debates is about the question on whether the hedonic calculus should be considered quantitatively or qualitatively. By that time, economic thought was undergoing a profound change on this question. Marginalism – to which this problem was central – caused a major revolution that transformed economics into the science that it is today.
Phillip Mainlaender (née Phillip Batz) was the most utopian politically and the most coherent. He followed his master’s proclivities for dark and gore with even more gusto. He signed off his only book and immediately hung himself. Mainlander’s philosophy is a gospel of suicide. The only way out of suffering is death. His view of life is not that of Stoic tranquility but of the Christian mystic. Life is suffering and death redeems us all. Yet, Mainlaender was a materialist and did not believe that there is life after death, not even the promise to enjoin the one true cosmic will of Schopenhauer. For him, such ideas are abstractions. Mainlander was a nominalist. For him, there is only the individual will. He was also profoundly democratic and nationalist. For all his ethical pessimism, what matters in social life is sympathy and pity for the suffering of others, not the misanthropy and scorn proper to reactionaries like Schopenhauer.
Finally, there was Julius Bahnsen. His philosophy further problematized Schopenhauer’s metaphysics along familiar scholastic lines of whether the will is universal (Schopenhauer), multiple (Bahnsen) or individual (Mainlander). Bahnsen’s ideas were powerful and original, yet those traits came from a profoundly mentally ill man. His marriage was a disaster. His career as a professor failed. Some of his anxieties betrayed his petty-bourgeois conditions. Much of Bahnsen’s views were rooted in that social resentment that comes, like Schopenhauer, from not being of the establishment. For Bahnsen, pessimism sprang from failed dreams, not from the primacy of suffering in life. If suffering were the criterion, “even animals would be pessimists”.
In the face of dissatisfaction, Bahnsen revised some key aspects of his master’s doctrine. Firstly, there is individual responsibility in life’s actions and projects. Accordingly, the cosmic will is useless. Will is just a property or potential but the actual outcome is the sole province of each. Secondly, since responsibility presupposes autonomy (Kant), then the will must be redefined as plural and individual – a monadology so to speak of individual substances in the noumenal realm. Thirdly, even with disinterested activities such as aesthetics, there is also will – a “higher interest” of “self-promotion, self-affirmation, and self-satisfaction” (again, Bahnsen’s job anxieties come to the fore.) That the will is resilient in all fields of activity questions the stark division between will and representation. On the one hand, to experience art without interest or intellectual curiosity is boring “even if it were forms of Plato”. On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s notion of aesthetic detachment is refuted by the real fact that “we are touched and moved by aesthetic objects.”
Beiser’s book is delightful, clear and thorough. It is written in the best style of historians of philosophy. My only issue as a reader who prefers social histories of thought is that his approach is too internalist and textualist. For Beiser, “there seems to be no straightforward social or historical case for [German Weltschmerz]” because the period studied seems like “a happy age” for Germany. However, I take issue with this hypothesis and subsequent dismissal of social explanations. Furthermore, I think Beiser mirrors sociological reductionism in reverse. For mechanical theories of material-cum-intellectual conditions, then, if social conditions are happy, intellectual traditions have an optimistic outlook. Indeed, if conditions are dire, then pessimism is the intellectual order of the day. Beiser’s argument is similar: since social conditions were good in Germany, then the only reason for intellectual pessimism is the ideas of an individual (Schopenhauer) who caused the entire ruckus. However, to accept this theory would reduce German pessimism to a dull workout of the disgruntled class of intellectuals. In my opinion, things are always socially conditioned despite the apparent contradiction, or precisely because of real contradictions, between thought and (social) being. It is more interesting to speculate on why capitalist expansion produces periodically the kind of languor we see today and of which German Weltschmerz were the outcome and not the cause. I recall Walter Benjamin’s studies on Baudelaire. Why is it that Baudelaire produced dark and gloomy poetry in Paris, “the capital of the 19th century”? Why did Baudelaire use another genre of allegories to express a problematic that was not visible in economic indicators? Though speculative, Benjamin offers a more satisfying social theory to Weltschmerz. It is precisely in times of commodity abundance and high consumer satisfaction offered by a buoyant capitalism that the meaninglessness of material life expresses itself as boredom and hopelessness. Even Benjamin’s explanation would make sense along Schopenhauer’s lines: since desire is endless and instant satisfaction guarantees boredom, why do we need more?
Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. Responses to Anti-Semitism is a collection of essays in which an impressive gathering of scholars interprets Heidegger’s statements in the now notorious Black Notebooks. The book contains the conference proceedings of a symposium at Emory University. The essays vary in length and most of them respond to Peter Trawny’s interpretation of Heidegger’s antisemitism in his Freedom to Fail. Heidegger’s Anarchy and Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy.
There is little doubt that the Notebooks show Heidegger at his worst. Most of the commentaries agree on the rather poor intellectual quality of the notebooks, packed with repetitive arguments and personal lamentations as they are. In this volume, complaints are made against the “philosophical kitsch” (40), against the “sour mood” (76) of the “man with a worldview” (92) and so on. What matters most, however, are those “unfortunately unforgettable” (134) passages in which Heidegger inserts Judaism into the grand scheme of the ‘history of being’. The ‘Responses to Anti-Semitism’ in this book vary from pointing to the extreme stereotyping with which Heidegger proceeds to trying to understand Heidegger’s argumentation and detecting their value, if any. Several of the contributors, Sander Gilman and Robert Bernasconi especially, emphasize that Heidegger was part of the long-standing tradition of antisemitism in European culture—and students of philosophy, today, should not forget that in Heidegger’s time, in Germany, it was harder not to be a Nazi than to actually be one as the majority of Germans followed Hitler and his regime.
As for antisemitism in German philosophy, one can find in the volume rather embarrassing statements of Kant, Hegel and Fichte. Philosophers, though, are seldom saints. In this regard, it is good to recall that Derrida has famously pointed to similar occurrences of denigrating Eurocentrism not only in Fichte’s work but also in Husserl’s: responding to Heidegger’s antisemitism, we will have to ponder what exactly the difference is between Husserl’s exclusion of “Eskimos, Indians, travelling zoos or gypsies” from ‘spiritual Europe’ and Heidegger’s awkward remarks about “semitic nomads” in the seminar Nature, History, State or the exclusion of the “Negros” from time and history proper in Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language speaks.[i]
I will not do Heidegger the honor of repeating the passages of these Notebooks in full. Peter Gordon argues that “much of the antisemitic material found in the Schwarze Hefte”, are not “terribly surprising, since [they] largely confir[m], though [they] gave a certain added philosophical depth to, the evidence that was already available in disparate sources” (136). This philosophical depth, in a way, is what Peter Trawny calls ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’. Heidegger’s error, however, is not the insertion of a petite philosophical concept in the grander system of his history of being. Rather, it is that much of the language the Schwarze Hefte uses to describes Judaism can lend itself to the must vulgar of racisms. The Jews are said to be without world, without time, without history—everything, in short, that would make for a ‘proper’ human being. Judaism has contributed, Heidegger says, and perhaps even caused the ‘forgetting of being’ because they supposedly do nothing else than calculate and swindle. And so on. It is good to be clear, too, about how shocking Heidegger’s ontic comportment towards his fellow Jews was. These facts are known: his rectorship, addressing his audience under the aegis of the swastika, his involvement in the Gleichschaltung or nazification of Freiburg University… All these things should never stop shocking us, readers of Heidegger.
Prior to the Schwarze Hefte, it was all too common to separate the man from the thinker and his philosophy: the man Heidegger certainly has its flaws, it was said, but his philosophy by no means had a predilection toward Nazism. The reasoning was anything but flawless and the Schwarze Hefte make clear just how well Heidegger’s views of ‘world Jewry’ fit into his narrative of the history of being. Such a ‘being-historical anti-Semitism’ means that Judaism actively has contributed to the ‘forgetting of being’: its scheming supposedly makes for the fact that all we do now is reckon with beings; its conspiracy such that it is Jews only who benefit from this ‘destruction’ of the earth, the Verwüstung der Erde of which the later Heidegger speaks. Just as Christian antisemitism will blame the Jews for their Gottesverlassenheit, so Heidegger use the Jews as a scapegoat for our Seinsverlassenheit. This antisemitism would have offended almost no one in the 1920s and 1930s. What is noteworthy in Heidegger’s history of being, is that no one, apart from the Greeks and of course the Germans, could any longer ‘hear’ the ‘voice of being’ and that the Jews were forever excluded from this possibility to hear the signals, the Winke, ‘beyng’ was supposedly sending. The antisemitism lies in the fact that the ‘ontological make-up’ of the Jews is such that they are unable to come up with an ontology. For Heidegger, this was the worst indictment possible. It would mean that Jews were condemned to inauthenticity and that no voice of conscience would extricate them, even if only instantaneously, from the field of the ‘anyone’. Just as they would remain deaf to being, the ‘being-historical’ antisemitism denotes that being will remain forever deaf to them.
Trawny’s essay speaks in this regard of an “apocalyptic reduction” (5).[ii] This ‘apocalyptic reduction’ is a sort of superstructure to the ontic and ontological realm of which Being and Time spoke, although both realms are now assigned certain histories: certain ontic ‘people’ are attuned to ontology and to being more specifically. On the one hand, there’s the great Greeks who had an experience of being, phusis, that soon came to be forgotten and now, urgently, lest the earth be destructed, needs to be ‘repeated’. This repetition falls to the Germans: only the Germans can lead the other people into the sending and the spreading of being. Apart from these two people, no one and no other culture has anything proper to contribute to the question of being: not the Romans who degraded the experience of the Greeks, not the Christians who imitated and so weakened the experience of ‘Rome’, not the ontotheologically sedated Christians of the Middle Ages, not the narcissistic consciousness of the moderns, and certainly not the Americans, the English or the Russian who only contribute to the spreading (Austrag) of a very limited experience of being, namely the experience of Machenschaft and Gestell, one that can only reckon with beings and knows no longer of being.
Heidegger did sense that something was ending. Several papers in this volume seem to agree that this narrative, the narrative of a first beginning in Greece and a second, other beginning in Germany, now has to be abandoned. This, however, need not mean that Heidegger overstated the ‘end’ of metaphysics. What is needed, Peter Gordon argues, is a “critical appropriation” (149) of Heidegger’s insights concerning the “dismantling” of metaphysics (147) and the concomitant effort of “working out the ‘unthought’ in the thought of the canonical texts” (150). Bernasconi, likewise, states that the forms of oppression that slipped into the canon of philosophy should be addressed and that the impetus for this comes from Heidegger (184). Heidegger’s thought perhaps comes with its own “unthought”, or, as Michael Marder signals, with “the thoughtless […] in the midst of rigorous thought” (101).
We should be aware, as Peter Gordon argues, that “Heidegger himself chose to yoke together his complaints about the metaphysical tradition with crude and counterfactual generalizations about the Jews” (147). Just as we cannot separate the man from the thinker, so too Heidegger has ‘yoked together’ the ontic and the ontological. It is this that we must ponder (and I think this is one of the lessons of the Notebooks). We must be careful about this mix between the ontic and the ontological, for it easily leads to errors. Even if one wants to distance oneself from Heidegger or leave, like Levinas, the ‘climate of this philosophy’, this needs some “intellectual effort”.[iii] For instance, Eduardo Mendieta reads Heidegger’s antisemitic remarks about the supposed ‘worldlessness’ of the Jews into the ‘worldlessness’ of which Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik speaks (51). Yet what Heidegger denies to Judaism is not the same as what he denies to animals, for it would not be possible to attribute calculation and number to animals. There is no easy, immediate link between the antisemitic outbursts of the Notebooks and the other works. Bettina Bergo similarly seems to imply, in her suggestive but somewhat obscure essay, that Heidegger’s difference between ontological ‘dying’ and ontic ‘perishing’ might also be valid for those that came to ‘perish’ in the camps (73).
Yet we should not minimize Heidegger’s ontic failures. One must philosophize with care here, though, for the following line needs quite some elaboration: “To overcome this anti-Semitism, then, will require to overcome metaphysics” (xxv). The sentence rings well in a conference brochure, but, in print, needs some extra argument. One of the things to keep in mind, as the introduction also states, when it comes to Heidegger’s antisemitism is that we should not minimize these antisemitic passages as if these were mere ‘ontic’ slips. Even though there is but ten sentences or so amidst 1800 pages of Notebooks that are clearly antisemitic, one must state just as well that one cannot be a Nazi just a little bit. Others have argued that, even though the man Heidegger clearly had his flaws, his thinking in no way whatsoever has anything to do with Nazism (xx-xxi)—these responses maximize Heidegger’s ‘ontology’ as it were, which supposedly is devoid of anything ontic. I think the Notebooks clearly contradict the latter claim and agree with the claim that Heidegger went astray somewhere at the end of Being and Time when he started to speak of the ‘destiny’ of a people. There is in effect a bit of an army in Being and Time; Levinas was not wrong when he sensed that community in Heidegger isn’t more than marching together.[iv] If one should not exclusively focus on these ontic missteps nor, for that matter, on the ontological being-historical antisemitism, where to go then?
Trawny’s earlier book helps here: “what happens to philosophy when we attempt to exclude it in advance from the danger of anti-Semitism? […] Overcoming anti-Semitism can only succeed by drawing near to it […] The opinion that it is always others who are anti-Semites is a cop-out. It is ‘I’ who am the anti-Semite”.[v] What both of the above strategies share is in effect a sort of immunization: the ‘ontic’ approach states that these passages are so minimal that one can still read Heidegger as if nothing has happened; the other ‘ontological’ approach will state that this antisemitism was there from the start and is, in effect, everywhere, so that one does not have to read Heidegger (pretty much what they had ‘in advance’ decided). The first response to antisemitism, or to racism more generally, would therefore be not to exclude ourselves from these traditions and, second, to acknowledge that the lowest of vulgarities can mix with the highest of philosophy. This first point is present in some contributions in this volume. Bernasconi’s essay is clear that Heidegger’s “accusers feed their sense of self-righteousness” (169). There is a real (and thoroughly unphilosophical) danger of selective indignation here: why are we appalled by Heidegger’s endeavors, but not so much by Husserl’s? Why can we still read Kant even when his anti-Judaism is as offending as Heidegger’s?
Bernasconi admonishes that the ‘intellectual effort’ needed to understand Heidegger’s failings now includes “racism, sexism, and Islamophobia” so that “scrutinizing Heidegger is […] the start of a larger inquiry or whether it is being conducted merely to make us feel morally superior” (185). Richard Polt warns that the Notebooks should make us think about “Heidegger’s limitations and our own” (97). Instead of rejecting Heidegger, instead of an unjustified reverence for the grand thinker of being, I think the more sober response would be to state that no one is immune for the projection of prejudices of all kinds into one’s thinking.
The supposed history of being might have led Heidegger to tell a totalitarian tale himself. The ‘apocalyptic reduction’ was such that he felt surrounded by beings and abandoned by beyng. Polt elucidates the steps of this reduction: first, there is the description of the “catastrophe” happening to culture through forgetting being and the rule of beings, then the stress on the rescue through those few who are capable of addressing the voice of being, and finally the complete disillusionment when this narrative doesn’t sit well with what was really happening. Though the first stage might be harmless (although one must be wary of ‘apocalyptical tones’), it is in the second stage of this reduction that Heidegger went astray, even ontically: for a while there he must have believed in Hitlerism and the ‘inner truth’ of this movement to lead European culture back onto the right track (whatever that might be). Jaspers once wrote that Heidegger wanted to ‘educate’ the Führer and there is in effect a long section in Nature, History, State on who would be capable to attend to the Führer intellectually.[vi] Martin Gessmann’s essay points out that Heidegger wanted to execute the politics of Being and Time and lead an entire people, as it were, into authenticity (123). It seems the case that Heidegger himself quickly became disillusioned with National Socialism and by 1935-36 the critique of the movement grows. As Polt writes: “Heidegger loses […] faith that the […] inception can be provoked by a nationalist revolution; it becomes [an] elusive possibility to be explored by poets and thinkers” (80).
Not everyone is authentic, and certainly not the ‘anyone’ (das Man) of which Being and Time speaks: it takes a certain resoluteness and courage to take up this authenticity—even though, this ‘authentic stance’ is never permanent and, most often, bound to fail.[vii] It becomes more problematic when authenticity is reserved for this people rather than the other and certain ethnos is excluded from finding ‘its’ destiny and Heidegger forgets his admonishments in Being and Time with regard to such authenticity: ‘Germany’ now can take up, without failing, and without limit (at least thousand years!) its destiny.
Politics did make its way into his writings during his—brief but real—Nazi period. In his commentary on Nature, History, State, Bernasconi shows that “the project [known as] ‘the overcoming of metaphysics’ was initially developed in [the] context of a questioning of the Volk” because, soon after Being and Time’s Destruktion of the metaphysical tradition, this thematic will be replaced by an Überwindung of metaphysics.[viii] Heidegger entertained briefly the very ontic belief that national socialism would liberate us once and for all from metaphysics and its forgetting of being. The essence of this movement is to attune us once again to being. Whereas the Destruktion of 1927 means that one needs to work through and with the tradition in order to move forward and press into the future, the Überwindung of 1933 means that the time is ripe to overturn this tradition, to violently struggle against it, and leave it behind entirely—like many other Nazis, Heidegger became increasingly hostile to Christianity. The theme of ‘overcoming metaphysics’ stuck with Heidegger precisely because of this ontic belief in its overcoming, and the ontic role Hitler’s Nazism and Heidegger himself could play in its overturning. This has the consequence that, soon after his disillusionment with National Socialism, the movement in a sense is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of metaphysics at the same time: during his Nazi period, Heidegger believed that the ‘moment’ had come to liberate ourselves (or Germany at least) from metaphysics and that Nazism would do just this. Only a few months later, Heidegger noticed that National Socialism had, frankly, no interest in the philosophical ‘upliftment’ of humanity whatsoever, and could not but conclude that the movement itself was part and parcel of the metaphysical tradition the thinker then sought to ‘overcome’. After the ontic belief in the supposed ‘saving power’ of Nazism, Heidegger believed that metaphysics persisted.
It is, however, still Heidegger who is deciding who is in and who is out. In Of Spirit, Derrida mentions the presence of two “vibrations at the same time”[ix] in Heidegger, namely one that believed that this movement could embody the ‘spirit’ needed to tune in to being and another, more vague and more truthful use of spirit, stating that the ‘spirit’ of being remains ungraspable and absent. But this is not yet what is going on in Heidegger’s thinking here. Heidegger, when criticizing the movement, did perhaps no longer believe that this totalitarian rule awoke us to being, but he was very clear in naming instances that certainly could not incarnate the ‘spirit’ of being. This act of ‘naming’ who is in and who is out, itself, might be the mistake that led Heidegger to the gravest of opinions ontically: it is in any case ‘the cop-out’ that Trawny mentions.
Such ontic belief that philosophy could act upon the events of world history should concern us. Many of the contributors here agree that this mix between ontic beliefs and ontological viewpoints led Heidegger into error. We should ponder how such a link is to be conceived. Even in 1927 Heidegger acknowledged the ‘ontic ideal’ underlying his ontology, even when insisting on separating ontology from all things ontic. One might conceive a phenomenology that disturbs Heidegger’s neat distinction between ‘ontic’ fear and ontological anxiety for death, by thinking of ontic figures that incarnate this anxiety concretely: a terminal sickness has both ontic and ontological aspects—my death can announce itself quite concretely by this or that cancer, this or that hospital room, etc.
Yet when Heidegger links his ontology to ontic politics something goes wrong and Heidegger himself forgets that he is not immune to the things that he was warning against, namely metaphysics and instrumental rationality. Just as the ontic figures of National Socialism crept into Heidegger’s story of new beginnings, just so these figures had to take the blame for the absence of the need for another beginning. Marder argues that here “‘world Jewry’ is metaphysically deployed and loaded with the dirty work of world destruction” (99) and an utter absence of questioning becomes clear. Gessmann gestures similarly: it simply “gets scary once […] the history of Being is transformed into a ‘world-event [Weltereignis]’” (122). Yet when nothing happens, Gessmann argues, Heidegger turns to Nietzsche: a militaristic metaphysics of the will sets in around 1932. This disillusion is what we need to understand, for this history of being is such that, in becoming totalitarian, it becomes utterly detached from the actual events around Heidegger. Jean-Luc Nancy senses this when saying that all this talk about the ‘Es gibt’ of being ends up by caring very little about what is actually being given and happening.[x] Nothing that is happening will ever be able to falsify Heidegger’s history of being: it becomes totalitarian in the very precise sense that everything will fit into its grander narrative—if anything happens, say the heeding of the call of being in Germany, it will find its place in this history; likewise, if the feeling even the affliction of the Seinsverlassenheit is absent, it will similarly fit into the grander narrative of being. Heidegger always wins, but at the expense of an indifference and alienation that still needs to be understood.
For such an apocalyptic reduction puts the philosopher in the position of overseeing the world and its state of the affairs and he or she becomes the cosmotheoros. The problem with such an overseeing of world is not the least that the philosopher thinks himself able to pinpoint solution to the world’s problems. Bernasconi notes this tendency toward total understanding: “[distinctive is] the totalizing way in which his thought comes to operate. For Heidegger, almost everything belonging to Western metaphysics amounts to the same” (181). Heidegger obviously is not the first philosopher who claimed to comprehend ‘being and beings in their entirety’: it is this claim that he first condemned as ontotheology and to which he too succumbs in the 1930s. To explain this, one might consult the awkward passage (GA 94: 523)—mentioned here by Hans Gumbrecht—where Heidegger enlists the decisive moments in the “abyssal” history of Germany starting from ‘1806’ when Hölderlin went mad […] right up to “(9/26/1889)”—Heidegger’s birthday no less.
Here we once again have the (ontotheological) phantasm that one being (from within) would be able to grasp the entirety of beings (from without). We agree with Jeff Malpas’ recent reading of the Notebooks, when writing that, when disillusioned with politics, “Heidegger turns […] to the absolute primacy of the philosophical, withdrawing into a form of philosophical […] isolation […] even of philosophical alienation (a standing apart from the superficial and the mundane), in which the concern with being is given priority over everything else, including the political”.[xi]
This totalitarian way of thinking also shows itself in what Žižek calls “the obscenely pseudo-Hegelian way” (189) of Heidegger’s thought and which Polt elucidates as Heidegger’s “trope of finding sameness in oppositions” (86). The ‘intellectual effort’ required from us will be to discern when such ‘sameness’ actually was found and when it was not. This means that we need to take our distances from Heidegger’s dialectic and admit, for instance, that his wordplay is not always and everywhere convincing and that the attempt to write a ‘grand narrative’ of being perhaps is not the best his philosophy has to offer.
Several contributors point to such obscenities in the Notebooks. Žižek (on page 189) mentions Heidegger’s awkward thoughts on the “self-annihilation” (GA 97: 19) of the Jews, which in the history of being supposedly function as “a principle of destruction” (GA 97: 20). Heidegger seems to be dead serious in his victim blaming: the ones who have destroyed being will be destroyed themselves. Such ontic metaphors incite Krell to speak of an “unforgiving” tragic collapse and a “failure of thinking” in Heidegger, who often repeated that if being had abandoned us, this oblivion lay on the side of being and all beings would equally share in this abandonment.[xii] In a way, this act of name-dropping thus collapses the ontological difference between being and beings. Whether it concerns naming the ones able to attune us to being or naming those that are to blame for its forgetting, the mode of procedure remains identical. For Žižek, the ontological difference is understood as a “materialis[m] without regressing to an ontic view”, a difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ beings (200). It is to acknowledge that “reality is partial, incomplete […] and the Supreme being is the illusion imagined in order to fill in (obfuscate) this lack” (194). It is to forget that there is no final overlap between the signifier and the signified. Yet this lack is obfuscated when one turns to the divine as the ultimate signifier as well as when stating that certain people embody the call of being uniquely. The difference, one might say, is then inhabited (by a certain name) but no longer ausgehalten (in the nothing as Heidegger would say).
This ‘naming’ shows itself precisely when Heidegger ‘finds sameness in oppositions’. Marder speaks of a “complexio oppositorum” (110) that refuses to do its dialectical work. Then “international Jewry” in Heidegger becomes a ‘name’, a rigid designator that contains what cannot be contained: Judaism is worldless nomadism and yet they are cosmopolites, both pacifists that won’t fight for their country yet use a “imperialistic-warlike way of thinking” (GA 96:133) conquering the world—not unlike contemporary racism where certain people are depicted simultaneously as ‘poor’ and as ‘stealing our jobs’.
Polt mentions another example of Heidegger’s dialectic, for in these years Heidegger sees no difference between Nazi eugenics and Jewish attention to who counts as part of the chosen people. Both “reflect a calculative management of genetic resources” (86). Still later, Heidegger infamously sees no difference between gas chambers and industrial production.
I have no quibble admitting that these thoughts can be totalitarian. This does not mean, however, that this thinking cannot make us think and does in effect sometimes find sameness in opposition where one would not expect this. I similarly have no need of separating the man from the thinker and agree with Tom Rockmore’s statement that one needs to “surpass” (158) this distinction, for this philosophy is as affected by totalitarian antisemitism as the man himself was. Yet Rockmore’s argument is hardly convincing: it is not because the man and the thinker are related that this man cannot have thought great thoughts (even though, admittedly, not all these thoughts were great). Rockmore’s examples (which surfaced already in this review) to prove that Heidegger’s “being-historical anti-Semitism belongs less to the narrative about the history of being than to what one can call familiar German philosophical anti-Semitism” (163) prove exactly that—but also just that: that Heidegger was a child of his time, that he entertained a philosophical nationalism and that he too was prejudiced (as much as the next guy, I’d add). It seems Rockmore himself operates in quite the totalitarian manner: “once one admits that [anti-Semitism] is present anywhere in Heidegger’s theories, it almost immediately becomes visible […] everywhere or almost everywhere” (154). Here too some differences, between philosophy and opinion for instance, eclipse.
Heidegger’s thoughts on the enemy, which fascinates Trawny (12-13), are not particularly striking: I know of no nationalism that does not need one or the other enemy: the craving for identity of one people is always at the expense of the identity of the other. What needs to be thought is that Heidegger’s identity-politics from the mid-thirties onward also turns against National Socialism and why this critique remains unconvincing. Certainly, from the beginning of Heidegger’s relations to Nazism, people were, as Bernasconi notes, attacking him for “not being sufficiently Nazi” (177). Polt makes a strong case for Heidegger’s critique of Nazism (also in these Notebooks): Heidegger never entertains either their sheer biological racism or endorse their anti-intellectualism, their hostility to their enemies and their violent brutality (88).
Even then, Heidegger’s one and only question remains who is in and who is out when it comes to the ‘being-historical’ event of the end of metaphysics. National Socialism is now ranked alongside Christian scholasticism, Americanism and so on: stages on the way to the West’s end. Žižek states: “Heidegger’s critique of Nazism is […] a critique of the actually existing Nazism on behalf of its […] metaphysical ‘inner greatness’” (188). The mode of procedure has not changed: whereas first Nazism was deemed worthy of entertaining the question of being, now they are relegated to the many ‘still thinking metaphysically’ and cause the forgetting of being to spread. Nothing has changed: there is but one more instance that is named as part of metaphysics. For the possibility to think non-metaphysically only one being remains…
It didn’t occur to Heidegger, at this stage, that the other of metaphysics is not a property of this or that being, nor of a Volk. To turn to Derrida: if it was certain being was accessed only through language, then in the 1930s it was never questioned that this access had to happen through the German language. It is this ‘non-questioning’ that upsets Derrida, for it reveals something of an “unthought” in Heidegger: the priority of the question was never questioned itself and so misses that ‘there is language’ before one is able to question (being) at all, that language in this sense is a given. Language thus encloses being. This makes it rather uncertain why only German would pose this question. Marder relates this openness to language, this receiving of its gift, to a Levinasian form of hospitality (99). However, in Totality and Infinity this Other that we cannot ask any questions is called a Master—one is returned quicker to some kind of anti-democratic hierarchy than one expects.
What Derrida (and Heidegger, when he’s at his best) imagines is a granting and an allowance that comes with being, and which comes to us, beings, through language: “the question itself answers […] to this pledge”[xiii] and so responds to this granting. For Derrida, this concerns a “responsibility” that “is not chosen”[xiv] nor can it be answered by one people rather than another. For Derrida, it is spectral, spiritual and has a certain je ne sais quoi about it. Heidegger’s mistake was to think to be able to name this ‘I know not what’ and name it once and for all.
Such philosophical naming led to the gravest of things ontically, for Heidegger knew all too well that no one was really granted to lift the veil of this riddle of being, just as no one definitively awakens from his slumber through (ontological) anxiety and we all equally share in a certain ‘benumbedness’ by our world. In the Notebooks, he sometimes reached this conclusion: would it in effect not be the philosopher’s responsibility to “chase man through the otherness and strangeness of the essence of being” (GA 94:43)? It is too much to say that Heidegger wants us all to become ‘strangers on the earth’ but it is possible that the goal of this chase was not to rid us of all strangeness and otherness.
Only clumsy readers of Heidegger would heap together these forms of worldlessness: the worldlessness of technology is not the worldlessness of a stone. Technology is a rationality that conquers the world, but is still for Heidegger poor in world. Animals have an ‘Umwelt’ and are open to world, but are not world-forming as humans are. Benevolent readers of Heidegger will note that in Sein und Zeit (GA 2: 344), Heidegger speaks of a Benommenheit that is proper to Dasein—‘most often’ we are ‘absorbed’ by the world (first benumbedness) only to be stupefied and benumbed just as well by experiencing anxiety—whereas this Benommenheit is used only to speak of the animals’ world poverty in Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik. Can we conclude from this that Dasein is, a bit like an animal, ‘benumbed’ as well? No, perhaps. Can we conclude that these lines that Heidegger drew between the ontic and the ontological are not always as rigid as Heidegger himself wanted? Can we conclude that us mortals, in a sense, ‘have’ and ‘do not have’ world and that we are all rather bad at world-forming? I think so.
Krell explores what this ‘benumbedness’ exactly is and how it operates: it is an openness to world but not a total one. Heidegger describes it once as “essentially exposed to Other” which “introduces an essential shattering into the essence of the animal” (GA 29/30: 396). In order to survive, the animal depends on otherness, it can be by no means self-sustaining. If it ever would be able to have something like a ‘self’, it would be able do so only by virtue of such otherness. Heidegger says too little of this shattering in being, of such being exposed to otherness.[xv]
An ontic observation might add a little: at one point Gumbrecht wonders from whence the “conspicuous difference in quality between the […] Notebooks and other texts […] by Heidegger around 1930” (135), noting that the lectures were always nicely prepared and focused. Remark that Heidegger has written only one book, his other tomes are mostly seminars, speeches and notes taken for lectures. One can infer from this that the journal-like style of the Notebooks was not Heidegger’s preferred style and that for Heidegger to be at his best he needed an audience and thus others and otherness.
All this might be farfetched, but we need to admit that a thinking also exceeds the thinker and that he or she has no ownership, in a way, over the consequences of a thought. In his Freedom to Fail, Trawny claims that Heidegger speaks of a place of “originary errancy”[xvi], a non-moral space from which the thinker speaks freely of the freedom of being. This site of freedom is an-archic, as the event of being itself: it surges forward and arises out of nothing and for nothing, without a particular ‘whence or whither’. Though this is true of certain of Heidegger’s writings (e.g. Was heiβt Denken?) it is not without problems. Gregory Fried, for example, asks some poignant questions about Trawny’s approach: though it is the case that if we no longer question, we submit to authority and so end thinking. And though it is the case that we are today asking questions that were not allowed to be posed say fifty years ago—Fried mentions transgenders—and though this questioning itself seems to have “some sense of justice as their polestar”, these questions seem to presuppose some limits themselves (it is, for instance, not self-evident that someone would defend an authoritarian worldview on the basis of this free thinking). This is, for Fried, what Trawny overlooks when stating that posing limits on thinking would therefore only “play into a normative morality”. Fried argues that Trawny gives too much credit to ‘anarchic freedom’, leaving little space to criticize Heidegger’s antisemitism. Fried has an intriguing proposal:
“If thinking is errant, why can it not be a road trip that goes out [and] returns home […] to replenish what Trawny [calls] ‘the [t]enacious fabric of the everyday’? [We] must have a faith that in confronting the norms by which we have lived hitherto, we will do those norms […] justice by thoughtfully reconstructing and transforming them in the face of our lived situation […] and by leaving ourselves ever open to the question of when those norms need to be refurbished, or even discarded”.[xvii]
To conjoin free thinking and morality, we need what Being and Time calls a ‘destruction’ of tradition and not its overturning: one would be free to pose questions, question certain practices against the background of the prevailing norms and not, like in an overturning, reject them entirely. There would be some reverence for the tradition as well as the acknowledgement that the truth of these traditions might lie outside of these traditions. Not an ‘errant thinking’ that boldly goes where no one has gone before, but a thinking that seeks what is possible from within the coordinates of the tradition in which the ‘event of being’ transpires. Heidegger’s dismantling of metaphysics is less a “repeating of the past” as Rockmore argues (166)— in his thinking Heidegger was no mere conservative—but rather a “reappropriation” of this tradition that does not imply an “unblinking acceptance”, as Gordon rightly states. Needed for this is obviously a familiarity with the metaphysical tradition, lest philosophy dissolves in opinion.
Having come to this book as one who knows little of these Notebooks, but having read a fair amount of Heidegger, I’d conclude that by no means these Notebooks justify rejecting Heidegger’s philosophy entirely nor are they the first thing one should read of him—as the publishing craze around these Notebooks today seems to imply. It would be bad philosophy not to read Heidegger: this would forget the sheer force of this thinking and the way, too, it can enforce itself on its readers. It is the latter especially that one needs to think through if one wants to understand why a good philosopher can be a good Nazi.
These Notebooks could be read, not as a confession—Heidegger was not one to confess—but as a concession. One must ponder, as Žižek says, their “frank openness” (187). They are a concession, first, in the sense that he ‘lost it for a while’ in the thirties and succumbed to an ontic and ontotheological belief that, through him, the history of being became transparent. They are a concession, too, in that there was no immediate link between philosophy and politics and that any attempt to intervene in politics as for philosophy’s sake is destined to fail. They concede, not in the least, the fact that he too had submitted to this reprehensible regime’s stereotyping of racial issues and antidemocratic standards. And if it is true, as Trawny argues, that it is we who are the antisemites then the thoughts we need to take home from these concessions, knowing fully well that it was not all that easy to resist this regime and that back then it was easier to be a Nazi than not to be one, might be: would we have resisted the regime or submitted to its principle? After all: can one be a Nazi a little bit?
[i] For Derrida, see On Spirit. Heidegger and the Question (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989), p. 120n.1. For Heidegger, respectively Nature, History, State 1933-1934 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) and Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009), p. 71ff. Reference to the book under review are in the text between parentheses, to Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe in the texts as well as GA.
[ii] Trawny’s essay echoes his Heidegger and the Myth of a Jewish World Conspiracy (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2016), p. 71. Trawny’s book is criticized quite heavily by Taylor Carman: “Trawny […]avoids direct assertion […] by falling back on locutions that merely suggest, hint, indicate a particular passage ‘does not preclude’ this (33), ‘we cannot rule out’ that (34), and so on”, see http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/heidegger-and-the-myth-of-a-jewish-world-conspiracy.
[iii] Reference is, first, to his Existence and Existents (Duquesne: Duquesne UP, 1978) p. 4 and then to “As if Consenting to Horror”, Critical Inquiry 15 (1989) 485-488, as mentioned by Bernasconi on 168 of the book under review.
[iv] Levinas, Time and the Other (Duquesne: Duquesne University Press, 2006), pp. 99-100.
[v] Trawny, Freedom to Fail (Cambridge: Polity, 2015), p. 16.
[vi] Heidegger, Nature, History, State, p. 45.
[vii] See my Between Faith and Belief. Toward A Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), p. 25ff.
[viii] See his “Who belongs? Heidegger’s Philosophy of the Volk,” in Nature, History, State, pp. 109-125, p. 118-119.
[ix] Derrida, Of Spirit, p. 68.
[x] Jean-Luc Nancy, Banalité de Heidegger (Paris: Galilée, 2015), p. 51.
[xi] Jeff Malpas, “Assessing the Significance of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks,” to appear in Geographica Helvetica (2018), forthcoming.
[xii] David F. Krell, Ecstasy, Catastrophe. Heidegger from Being and Time to the Black Notebooks (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015), p. 170.
[xiii] Derrida, Of Spirit, p. 130n.5.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 130n.5.
[xv] For this, see David F. Krell, Derrida and Our Animal Others (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013), pp. 114-116.
[xvi] Trawny, Freedom to Fail, p. 41.
[xvii] See for this Gregory Fried at http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/freedom-to-fail-heideggers-anarchy/.
Existential Ontology of Roman Ingarden
When Roman Ingarden began his work on Controversy over the existence of the world, his magnum opus, everything was different from the time the process was finally over. The book, which he initially started writing for his great master Edmund Husserl[i], in the end turned out to be written for himself alone[ii]. From 1935 when his work had started until 1947 when two volumes of the book were published, the language of the book changed, the country in which it was written transformed, the master died, and the whole of Europe and the world underwent horrible turmoil from the Second World War. The intellectually inviting ambiance of Göttingen, Freiburg, and Kraków in which he – together with other phenomenologists from Husserl’s circle, could passionately investigate the most theoretically appealing issues of the day – was substituted for an atmosphere of fear and struggle for existential survival in which many of Ingarden’s colleagues perished. When in 1941, after two years of war (Poland was occupied and divided between the forces of Nazism and Bolshevism in 1939) he eventually continued his work on Controversy it was more than the philosophical passion that somehow prevailed over grim reality. It was, rather, Ingarden’s struggle for his own spiritual sustainment (23). Since 1947, the book has lived up to several Polish (1947/8, 1960/61, 1987) and one German edition (1964/65), but it waited only until 2013 for the first volume[iii] to be published in English as an unabridged edition[iv].
These initial existential remarks, both about the author and his work, are of significance here, because they reflect a “detached” character of the philosophical work in relation to time, as the work’s ill-fated destiny is not to be recognized by the time of its own, of being stripped out from its time from the philosophical audience and the state of debate of the pre-war philosophical scene. However, if one is to speak about the philosophical influences that it has achieved, then it has been thoroughly out of sight, both from phenomenological reception and from the strands of philosophy that deal with ontology in a rather different fashion. Although Controversy is Ingarden’s most ambitious and most far-reaching ontological work and despite the fact that his research in aesthetics is by his own admittance only to be incorporated under more fundamental ontological investigations that he developed in Controversy and elsewhere[v], he is still overwhelmingly perceived as the philosopher of art, and his contribution to ontology and metaphysics is not sufficiently recognized. But, the time factor cannot, however, diminish the inner qualities of Controversy that surpass any “here” and “now”. For it is, without any doubt, the philosophical masterpiece of its time, and its author is a metaphysician par excellence.
The process of reading Controversy will reveal to the reader one of the reasons – besides the ones already mentioned – why the book, in spite of all of its qualities, was lacking an influence. It represents not just a systematic critique of Husserl’s commitment to the idealist standpoint but also opposition to several highly influential philosophical schools and strands of thought of the XX century. This amounts foremost to the “neo-positivist” school which altogether rejects metaphysics as “senseless” and also to the group of authors and standpoints that sprang out from the phenomenological way of philosophizing, such as French existentialists and the philosophy of “fundamental ontology” of Martin Heidegger. It is evident that in Controversy Ingarden renounces not just antimetaphysical reductionism of positivism as a “crude, tacit metaphysics” (77, futn.152), but also existentialists metaphysics and its pathos for the human being’s “fate in the world” (87, f.192.). It seems as though he thinks that the latter somehow neglect the primary task of metaphysics, as it is conceived from the time of Aristotle and to which Ingarden is deeply committed.
Written in the isolation from philosophical community and stripped out from intellectual resources[vi] Controversy evolved during the wartimes as the most profound examination of the possible solutions to the mystery of the existence of the world, and equally important, as the most honestly approached and conscientiously rendered philosophical self-dialogue on the issue that haunted the author since his early philosophical career. Let us recall that in 1918 Ingarden wrote now famous “Idealism letter” to Husserl in which he openly questioned the merits of the master’s philosophical allegiances. At that time Ingarden noticed that Husserl was steadily renouncing the last vestiges of realist components in the process of development of his radically new method of phenomenological reduction[vii].
The famous Husserl’s thought (often expressed before students) that “If we cancel consciousness, then we cancel the world” (184) effectively comprises this philosophical position toward the existence of real-world which creates the starting point for Ingarden’s attack of transcendental idealism. If, after the reduction is completed there remains nothing of the “transcendence” of the object that cannot be derived from pure consciousness alone, and if itself of the thing-in-itself is espoused as nothing other than pure qualities of constitutive activity of transcendental I, and as a negation of some unknowable mystic element of the world – the world of itself – than the traditional dualism between object and subject is abolished, and the only ontologically existent entity – regarding the phenomenologizing subject can represent nothing more than this activity of constitution and the subject of constitution.
Ingarden could not accept the metaphysical consequences of transcendental idealism, nor the consequences of other historically similar (idealistic) answers to the ontological puzzle of the existence of the world. But in order to give the full philosophical meaning of his realist intuitions, he had to change the whole perspective from which the dichotomy of idealism and realism was to be approached and the ontological status of the world determined. The manner in which he sets out to accomplish this task did not mean abandoning the general phenomenological way of analysis, nor even some components of his master’s approach – he had never renounced phenomenological reduction as such – but the shift from the epistemological dimension of analysis to the ontological, and consequently metaphysical one. The daring change of perspectives enabled Ingarden to present the essence of the core problem to the more fundamental, divergent and uncertain terrain than the one that could be obtained from the sole epistemological perspective. Here lies also Ingarden’s greatest contribution to the understanding of the reality of the real world that surpasses the borders of one specific school of thought. But this change of perspective would not be sufficient to make the difference – if it was not to repeat the traditional sins of metaphysics – were it not accompanied by additional elements that surpass limitations of every dogmatic vision of knowledge – distinctive qualities of methodological openness and theoretical breadth with which the author approaches the central problem of the book.
Volume I of Controversy comes with the translator’s note, preface, an addendum to the German edition, six chapters and an appendix of nine alphabetically arranged parts. This volume also incorporates parts of text from previous editions that Ingarden changed and revised for this final version. The most devoted reader can also find comments and explanations by translator Arthur Szylewicz rather useful and appropriate. But all these markings integrated within the body of the text that serve to incorporate older editions of Controversy are, in some measure, making the book harder to read and less fluent, which for the impatient reader can be an obstacle. But even more, one can ask, whether the first unabridged English edition should have come without these additions in order to be presented to the philosophical public in its best guise and most approachable manner.
In the short preface, the author tells us the history of his own work on the idealism/realism problematic that precedes Controversy and which had contributed to its structure and form. As we have seen, external circumstances have tremendously shaped the pace in which the whole process of writing evolved. In the conclusion of the preface, Ingarden expresses what he thought should be the final reach of Controversy. Since one of his tasks is to demonstrate the complexity of the central problem and the vast number of possible solutions to it, the “narrowing” of “the scope of possible solutions” (24) should be seen as its final reach. In this regard, both the first and the second volume of the book should have been seen as “prolegomena” (24) to some further investigation of the controversy of the existence of the world.
The first chapter with the title “Preliminary reflections” aims to articulate the main question of the book particularly with the connection to Husserl’s idealism. In that regard, Ingarden sketches the history of the concepts of “idealism” in ancient philosophy, particularly in Plato, and contrasts it with the modern understanding of the term “idea” and “idealism” (28). In the former sense idealism refers either to the domain of things that exist (e.g. ideas exist alongside physical objects) or with the mode of beings of objects that exist (e.g. ideas are more real than physical objects), while in the latter the term “idea” has to be associated with consciousness’ experiences of the subject. More importantly, these experiences are bestowed with special ontological status, and, even more, they are not just accepted alongside the real world, but the real world is intrinsically – as a “being” of lesser perfection – somehow derived from them. In that regard, what is certain and indubitable for modern philosophers from Descartes onwards is the existence of “pure consciousness” while the existence of the “real” world is to be questioned. These terminological clarifications are helping Ingarden to precisely formulate the main question of the book: “…what is at issue in the controversy between idealism and realism is the existence of the real world – and a specific mode of this existence at that – as well as the existential relations between the world and consciousness…” (28) And also: “…I concern myself strictly with the question pertaining to the existence of the real world, and indeed, in the final reckoning, with precisely that world which is given to us in direct experience in the form of countless things, processes and events, and which contains both purely material entities and psycho-physical individuals…” (31).
In that endeavor, Ingarden aims to attack the “the deepest and the most serious attempt to settle the idealism/realism dispute…” (32) which for him is the transcendental idealism of his master. The main task here is, firstly, to reexamine the “the total context of the starting point” (44) of the dispute by questioning whether the sole partition relies on the presumption – which in the end is a metaphysical one – that by itself needs to be investigated. Namely, that of our picture of the real world acquired through “experience and its structure” (43). Ingarden’s point is that we can never be sure that every moment of the transcendence of the object can be completely seized by what is called pure immanence, or the activity of the transcendental I. The elusive ontological “residue” that is left outside the scope of phenomenological reduction, opens the door for the ontological dimension of investigations. In that way, traditional transcendental/epistemological treatment of the dispute has been abandoned.
Secondly, the standard resolution of the dispute presupposes just two possibilities: either world exists and is separate from the mind – and we know this fact on the basis of experience, or it does not exist and is derived from the pure consciousness. But this dichotomy is tremendously reductionist since it neglects the possibilities of the various kinds of modes of being of the real world in case it is acknowledged that it exists (44). And here the “ontological turn” is more than needed insofar as the epistemological perspective offers just two or possibly three solutions heavily dependent on certain (hidden) metaphysical standpoints in the case when many ontological solutions are in the vicinity. For the transcendence of an object is, prima facie, an ontological issue (45). Unlike the standard approach which starts and ends with the epistemological investigation, with only having some indirect ontological consequence, the new investigative path proposed in Controversy starts from ontology then continues with metaphysics and, in the final stage, ends with an epistemological verification of the results obtained in the due process.
In order to justify this new order of philosophical priorities, Ingarden, in the second chapter of the book, addresses two different and yet closely interconnected issues. He emphasizes the difference in nature of the philosophical and the investigations of so-called special sciences, and, secondly, he offers a very precise distinction between ontology and metaphysics that can justify his critique of the “epistemological orientation” of transcendental idealism. Concerning the former, all special sciences (he distinguishes “sciences of facts” and “apriory sciences” among them) share same basic characteristics. Namely, their solutions to theoretical problems are epistemically grounded, their functioning is not determined by the questioning of the core presuppositions that lie in their foundations, they are “special” because they always refer only to one domain of being, and the differences between essential and inessential properties of investigated entities is frequently overlooked (54). All this treatment has to show how distinctive the philosophical “style of analysis” is, and how it differs from that of special sciences (49).
By its spirit and its content, these analyses resemble usual phenomenological explanations of the matter. But in what follows Ingarden introduces a very original, significant, and it has to be said, plausible understanding of the nature of ontology that enables him to explain its priority over metaphysics and epistemology respectively.
He says: “The most general concept of ontology follows from its defining characteristic as a purely apriory analysis of the contents of ideas”(74). Conceived as such, ontology deals with “pure possibilities” and ”necessary interrelationships among ideal qualities, or among the elements of the ideas’ content” (62). These pure possibilities are to be distinguished from empirical possibilities which are related to an object existing in time and space. In that respect, Ingarden gives his own, and from a traditional Platonist point of view, sharply different account of the nature of the concept of the idea[viii]. These pure possibilities are not “determined by any matter-of-fact within real world” (66), they are time-independent, and they are not to be spoken of in terms of degree or measure. We can see, thus, how Ingarden presupposes a special sphere of objects and their interconnections that are the sole subject-matter of the ontological investigation. This sphere is predefined in such a manner that the investigator is bound up to the structure and content that already “exists” in it. But, one would perform a serious misapprehension if one would think that this implies some commitments to the matter of the fact of the real world[ix]. For the latter would be only the task of metaphysics, and ontology, as pure apriory analysis of possibilities can never ascertain the factual dimension of the matter. Ontology can only say what are the possibilities at our disposal for the contemplation on the subject matter. This is the core reason why ontology represents “foundational research” (74), and the first and necessary step in every path to metaphysics. This is also the reason why any epistemologically driven research into the controversy is always partial and biased – for it, by default, closes the door for the whole myriad of solutions that should be taken into account.
On the other hand, the task of metaphysics is to determine the factual conditions in the sphere of the existent. It has to specify what really exists, in what manner, and, above all, what is the true nature of existence. In contrast to ontology, metaphysics has to “clarify essentially necessary facts or factual interconnections among essences” (78), it does not deal with possibilities – although it presupposes them – it determines the real fact-of-the-matter of the world. Furthermore, and this is crucial for the metaphysical undertakings as such, it does not ask only for the existence of this or that entity of the world. It, of course, does that to, but it primarily asks for the existence of anything at all, of the “totality of and all existents whatsoever”[x]. And, after that, it asks what are the grounds, or ground, of that actually existing world – of that anything at all that exists (78). Ingarden, however, does not presuppose that the admittance of the importance of these vital tasks that metaphysics has to accomplish, signifies the possibility of their resolution, nor that human capabilities are sufficient for such an endeavor at all. Here, the mere fact of the importance transcends the possibility of success or failure. For Ingarden rightly clarifies that being impossible in some respect does not mean being senseless as such – the distinction that even today escapes the minds of many lovers of “desert landscapes”.
All of this leads Ingarden to the following conclusion: “It is clear that core of the entire Controversy is a particular metaphysical problem which, however, can neither be properly formulated nor successfully attacked without appropriate ontological preparation” (86)
And the role of epistemology, or theory of knowledge as Ingarden calls it, is reduced to the specific analysis which is partially ontological and partially metaphysical (83). In any regard, it comes after ontological and metaphysical investigations.
The entirety of investigation undertaken in chapter II enables Ingarden to distinguish three fundamental questions: ontological, metaphysical and epistemological; and three sub-questions within an ontological one: existential-ontological, formal-ontological and material-ontological (87). Ingarden remarks that all-encompassing research of an entity “must be conducted in all three of these directions, both metaphysically and ontologically” (89). The volume I of Controversy treats only existential-ontological dimensions of the dispute. It does not deal with whether something exists, or whether it exists in the appropriate form; it has only to tease out which mode of being or existence is proper to something and its essence (88). The second volume deals with formal-ontological issues, and the third one, which was never completed as an integral part of Controversy[xi], was supposed to treat material-ontological issues of the dispute.
Volume I of Controversy begins, in fact, with the third chapter in which Ingarden exposes what he calls “basic existential concepts” and previous chapters are preliminaries to the type of ontological analysis presented in the first volume. Since, as we have seen, the basic question of the relationship between mind and the real world is formulated in rather a specific context and philosophical orientation, Ingarden now wants to see how we can approach the question of their nature and mutual relationship with a “clean” philosophical start. In order to do that, he has to explain in an ontological manner the notion of “being real” and only after that he can step into the analysis of the relationship of dependence or independence that exists or does not exist between these two poles.
In that respect Ingarden emphasizes that although the notion of being-real is a simple one, it does not mean it is absolutely unanalyzable too (96), for a simple entity as the “color orange” is not composed of some further elements, but is in fact unique, thus it is still possible to distinguish some moments in it, the moments through which it is similar to red and yellow (96). Likewise, in our everyday experiences we always encounter an object in the totality of its being, and Ingarden vigorously tries to show how we cannot “attach” the notion of existence to the being as something separate from the sum total of properties that it inherits, nor as some such property (here, Ingarden’s pays due credit to Kant), and he gives an example of the existing and perishing lamp that should evoke the whole mystery of non-existence in a typical phenomenological manner (101-102).
But usually, we are not familiar with just one mode of being, namely being-real. There are also other modes of being, such as being-possible, being-ideal and even some other possible modes (99). It is crucial here to acknowledge that we always encounter something (some entity, process, idea…) through a specific mode of being, but these modes of being are totalities of existential moments that Ingarden wants to have ontologically distinguished. An entity is not composed of those moments, for the nature of every mode is something simple, but only with the help of a philosophical abstraction we can discern some moments in them, like in the example with orange color (108). In that regard, these moments are (philosophically) older than the specific mode of being that we always meet in our direct and naïve encounters. And furthermore, every entity is bound up with a specific mode of being, it cannot undergo a change in the mode of being. That is to say, the same object cannot be ideal and then real since it would not be the same object anymore. The existing lamp that undergoes complete annihilation so that we can only have an idea of it as it was when it existed, is not the same lamp since it now “exists” in a different mode of being, namely that of an idea.
So, we can see how Ingarden introduces – apart from his own understanding of metaphysics and ontology presented in the second chapter – new contents for the old terms such as “existence”, “mode of being”, “idea”. We can see that the notion of “existence” is the most abstract and general idea (108), then follows the less abstract, but still not sufficiently concretized, concept of “the mode of being” that is present both in the naïve attitude and epistemological perspective of empiricist philosophy and transcendental idealism, and, in the end, the primitive and essential components of existential-ontology – existential moments – that are the subjects of existential-ontological investigations.
Ingarden distinguishes a group of four pairs of existential moments:
- autonomy – heteronomy
- originality – derivativeness
- self-sufficiency – non-self-sufficiency
- independence – dependence (109)
Something is autonomous if it “has its existential foundation within itself” and, “it has it within itself if it is something that is immanently determined within itself” (109) as the “redness” of a red color (whether as a pure ideal quality or the material property of some object) is something that is immanently determined within the essence of a red color. But the existence of something is not dependent on being autonomous since purely intentional entities of works of art exist too, but as heteronomous objects whose essence is being supported by an intentional act or “creative act of consciousness” (116).
Something is original if it is produced by itself, and the opposite derivative – if it has been produced by something other (118). Ingarden emphasizes that it is evident that originality goes necessarily along with autonomy, but that opposite does not necessarily hold. Something can be autonomous but derivative, as, for example, an ideal quality of redness that exists autonomously but is not produced by itself. And heteronomy as such excludes originality, since if something possesses no existential foundation within itself, it cannot, eo ipso, produce itself.
And here Ingarden undertakes the long and difficult task of explaining the notion of existential originality through the analysis of historical understandings of “being-per-se”, or the Absolute Being, and its relation to the notion of causation. The aim is to show how traditional (predominantly scholastic, and on it based modern, especially Spinoza’s concept of “causa sui”) understanding of the cause and effect is irreconcilable with the notion of original being. The main misconception lies in the assumption that cause and effect are some kind of entities or even separated “things” that exist in a different time, while original being is, per definitionem, timeless, and from that stems from the “absurdity” of comprehending an absolute being in relation to causality. Thus, a cause and an effect are not “things” nor do they persist in time separately from each other. But just because of that they are not one individual entity either. Rather, these notions are to be understood as concepts of the system equilibrium on one side, and the “perturbation” of the system on the other that can be properly called “cause” (136). And what is usually in the philosophical tradition understood as “cause” is just in fact “indirect” cause (129), while the cause properly determined is “direct” one (causa efficiens), as something that happens simultaneously with the effect, but is still not the same as effect alone. Thus, the difference between originality and derivation is purely existentially-ontological and as a such, it has nothing to do with the causation as a peculiar intraworldly relation (141). Moreover, originality is primarily an existential moment and is not directly related to the concept of a deity. Here, Ingarden is only interested in existential moments as such and their mutual relationships.
The notion of “existential self-sufficiency” means that something, in order to exist, does not require something else to be present alongside it in one whole. “Thus, for example, the element of “redness” is contained in a non-self-sufficient manner in the whole “red color,” since it must co-exist with the moment “coloration” that occurs in the same whole.” (147). But on the other hand, some red color that exists in an individual concrete object is also self-sufficient, since “it is at least likely that we cannot speak of an amalgamation between the “red color” and a red thing that is as intimate as the one that obtains between redness and coloration in the red color” (148). There are various kinds of self-sufficiency and non-self-sufficiency in regard to different parameters[xii], and also one “absolute” notion of self-sufficiently which is opposed to all of these (152). And all of them have to be taken into consideration in order to escape the “crude errors” since “a particular entity can fail to be non-self-sufficient in one sense, and yet be so in some other sense” (152).
On the other hand, something depends on something else if it needs something else to support its “subsistence” (153), although, at the same time, it can be self-sufficient. For example, a “son” ceases to be the son of a father who has just died. However, he is still someone, and in that respect a self-sufficient entity, but he is not “a son” anymore.
Those, “provisional”, so far only “smelted”, existential moments (157), whose number would significantly increase if the “existence of entities in time” (157) would be taken into account, can help to create pure ontological concepts of Absolute and Relative being and their variants. Thus, the lists in the sum of eight concepts of being (156-7) are proposed by Ingarden, while the concept of absolute being simultaneously incorporates all four “right-side” moments of existence: autonomy, originality, self-sufficiency, and independence. The omittance of one of these moments automatically reduces an absolute to a “relative” concept of being. Besides this, Ingarden lists also, eight pairs of mutually exclusive moments (155) that should automatically reduce the number of possible combinations of modes of being.
Ingarden closes the third chapter with an “outlook” of the relevant questions for the dispute. Here, he once again emphasizes that the solutions of the controversy are not to be searched in the mode of, what can be called, an encountered being of the real world. For the usual epistemological perspective presupposes that “we already know in what mode the world encountered by us exists. Yet on the contrary – this is precisely the first chief question in the metaphysical reflection on the world” (163). The pure existential moments should help us to evade such a path to the solution. Rather, the solutions would have to be searched for in the modes of moments of existence, since we do not know whether, in fact, the real world exists, and even more, in what mode of being it exists. What we only know so far is that we, or our phenomenologizing I, exist, but here too the nature of this “being” is only to be approached through the analysis of the various possible combinations of existential moments.
Finally, in the fourth chapter, Ingarden undertakes an exhaustive analysis of possible solutions to the controversy. The analysis starts from the six assumptions where the indubitability of the existence of consciousness is taken for granted as well as the regular and unproblematic flow of pure experiences of phenomenologizing I presupposed. The sixth premise is a modular one, with the consequence that every following variant has been composed of different existential moments associated with the nature of consciousness. In that way, an investigation of eight groups of problem solutions is being enabled, with the consequence of taking into account an enormous number of possible solutions (at least 64). Basically, Ingarden analyses eight hypothetical philosophical positions[xiii] in relation to this group of eight different assumptions. He compares whether or not such positions are compatible with the set assumptions. The aim is to narrow the “ontological choice” as much as possible in order to prepare the terrain for other types of investigations in Volume II.
The positions that are being elaborated are absolute realism, absolute creationism, dualist unity realism, dependence realism, realist unity creationism, idealist dependence creationism, and their group variations respectively. In the walk of the analysis, many positions are being rejected due to the mutually exclusive existential moments. For example, some positions claim that the real world is original but this is in conflict with the set premise that it is derived from consciousness or not-self-sufficient and dependent (on it). It is worth mentioning that Ingarden’s treatment of the position labeled “idealist dependence creationism”, which is in fact, Husserl’s position, reveals two general accusations sent to the master’s address. Namely, Ingarden accuses Husserl of “metaphysical commitments” (186) where we had to be dealing with only – in Ingarden’s terms – ontological ones. Also, he accuses the master of employing not sufficiently clarified concept of a mode of being of the real world (188). Ingarden also analyses the negative solutions (the real world does not exist at all) as well as “doubled solutions” of Kant and Bergson (219-223). These double solutions are consisting of a specific pair of above-listed positions that can cohabitate side by side without interconnections – as is the case of Kant’s world of things-in-themselves (which mirrors the position of absolute idealism), and the phenomenal world (that represents idealist dependence creationism) (220-1).
The final results of the analysis are summarized in two groups of admissible solutions. Groupe of variants of realism (real world not being derived from consciousness), and a group of variants of creationism (real world being derived from consciousness). The second group is divided further into the group of realist creationism (real world derived but autonomous) and the group of idealist solutions (real world derived and heteronomous).
Ingarden summarizes the results in this way:
“It turns out that there are incomparably more variants of “Realism” than of Creationisms belonging to the realist subclass, and only two solutions are “idealist” (225).
This means that the existential-ontological analysis – and that means investigation of logical relationships between pure existential moments – admits vast majority of realist solutions (for example, absolute realism is admissible in all 8 group of solutions) and even in the group of creationism where the real world has been in fact derived from consciousness, there are several solutions in which the real world exists autonomously. Husserlian idealist dependence creationism is one of those admissible idealist solutions.
However, Ingarden is aware that this kind of analysis is to be taken only provisionally, since many factors are not being taken into account. If at the end, only one solution is proven to be ontologically valid, it would also need to be metaphysically verified. Furthermore, if there would be more than one final ontological solution, than, as Ingarden says: “the world’s existence or non-existence would not be ontologically transparent” (226). Both scenarios are uncertain and it is not ruled out that none of the solutions will be admitted in the end because it might be revealed that all of them are “contradictory” (226).
Up to this treatment, Ingarden has only analyzed existential moments and their logical relations without any introduction of the dimension of time. As we have seen this has brought to the fore eight different concepts of being. The introduction of time in the investigations of the sixth part of Controversy opens the space for an exposure of other existential moments which makes the whole existential analysis more complex and even daunting. For as the path of the phenomenological treatment of time that here Ingarden undertakes seems from the outset more delicate and slippery than pure logical treatment of the relationships between some predefined logical elements. This is all the more so because the time of Ingarden’s concern is not a common time of everyday life, nor the “subjective” and formal time of a Kantian hue (228); the time he analyses is a concrete and absolute time (281) that is inseparable from objects, and only this analysis can “capture the full modes of being” (281) required for the potential solution of the controversy. The strategy is that, if the idea of the existence of the real world is to be generally allowed – and we have seen why existential-ontological analysis must allow it – then the analysis of the mode(s) of being of real world cannot be carried out without the analysis of time, since one of the ideas of real-world presupposes temporality of the world. And secondly, if this temporality is to be analyzed it cannot be accomplished without taking into an account the beings that we encounter as temporal, the beings that are time-determined, for as only with and through them we can in the first place approach the phenomenon of time. In that way, Ingarden attempts to find the ontological essence of the being-real as such – which amounts also to the reality of consciousness – and we will see that this ingredient is intrinsically related to time.
The temporal world, Ingarden claims, comes equipped with three temporally determined sorts of individual entities – events, processes and persisting objects (229) and analysis should detect the key existential moments of the mode of being of these entities. If the phenomenological analysis of concrete time would reveal some existential characteristics within them that bespeak of their selfsufficiency and even autonomy than it will be possible to further narrow the possible solutions of the controversy by rejecting the philosophical positions that are inconsistent with such a conceived nature of temporal objects.
Although all these entities are constitutive for the phenomenon of time itself – because time cannot exist without objects being-in-time or being temporal objects – there is, in a way, the gradation of their “reputation” in relation to the question of existential-ontological supervenience. In order to explain this, Ingarden has to show how temporal objects are distinguishable from each other essentially (that is, by its form), that none of them can be reduced to the other. For example, it is customary to understand events as just “shorter processes”, but this is thoroughly misleading since events in the “pregnant sense” (251) of the word are instantaneous and processes – from the smallest one to the largest – are lasting through time. The mode of being of events “consists precisely in that ’coming-into-being’ and ‘passing away’ – and indeed both in the same instant” which means that “the event does not exceed the bounds spanning a single concrete Now” (231). On the other hand, processes are more complex entities consisting of the shifts of phases that can be distinguished only in abstraction, and that constitutes a “phase-whole” mode of their being, and on the other side, “process-objects”, or “the mode of being of the temporal object constituted in the passage and growth of that phase-whole” (250). Objects persisting in time are also “outlasting” individual moments, or instants such are events. But in comparison to processes, they do that in a completely different manner. They are remaining “identically the same” during the certain period of time in which these events occur (252). In fact, and this is crucial, objects persisting in time are bearers of the processes, they are supervening over processes. “Without persistent objects, there would be, in accordance with their essence, no processes whatsoever, whereas the processes, when they transpire at all, modify the persistent object only in their qualitative endowment” (253). That means that, by their form, persisting objects are incapable of change, since “enduring in time and surviving the lapse of time is not yet in itself any change” (255). They only change due to their “material endowment” (255). In that regard, in comparison to persistent objects, processes are existentially dependent and even non-selfsufficient (254).
This analysis of temporal objects reveals an additional, and for the grasping of the essence of being-real of temporal entities crucial existential, moment. That is the moment of activeness as efficaciousness, as a way in which “what is real fulfills its existence by shaping and filling out some present – but in doing so also immediately forfeits that existence” (241) And here, too, we have a sort of gradation in terms of existential potency (280) of temporal entities. Every process is exerting some activity by fulfilling certain moments in time with the concrete content that marks this activity efficaciousness. In other words, every process makes a difference, an ontological (and metaphysical) difference in the body of time. But only persisting objects, and especially living beings, can intensify the activity in order to stay the same within the contexts of changing processes and states, by actively resisting the passing of time, and by building an active and self-reflective (in the case of consciousness beings) stance toward time dynamics. This enables a living being to possess “partial persistence independence” (272) with regard to time. The persisting moment of living being consists in its “survival mode” as a direct consequence of its activeness, that is, its capability to remain the same over time. This is especially noticeable against the background of what Ingarden calls the “fissure-like” existence of beings, inanimate and living ones, respectively. A living being is active toward its fissure-like existence whereas an inanimate world is just passively associated with the lapse of time and its permanent fissures, it does not live out its fissures actively, it does not “catch the time” of its own being. A living being is actively resisting the passing of every single “now”, it actively connects past and future with the present in order to sustain itself, that is, its essence as an enduring object.
And furthermore, it is just the fragility of living beings, the possibility of their partial or complete annihilation by external forces and factors, that makes them selfsufficient and autonomous entities. For as only something that is selfsufficient can, in fact, be annihilated in the real sense of the word. Some rock is not selfsufficient in this respect since it does not actively contribute to its own subsistence. The rock cannot be “fragile” although it can certainly be smashed since it is not in its nature, in the first place, to be autonomous. On the other hand, both the fragile and fissure like properties of temporal beings, as the marks of their imperfections, indicates that they could be only subsumed to the category of derivative, and not original entities (288).
These considerations of the relation of being-real and time through the analysis of temporal objects enable Ingarden, in the sixth and concluding chapter of the book, to further narrow the choice of possible solutions to the controversy. At the same time, this shows to be an opportunity to question and in fact rebut his master’s position as untenable for mere existential-ontological reasons. Only now, Ingarden can conclude, that if time has essential characteristics of the being-real then the existential mode of temporal beings, and especially their autonomy to the time, exclude both the Husserlian position (of idealist dependence creationism) and other similar solutions that presuppose existential heteronomy of the real world: “If, however, time were to belong to the essence of being-real, then the number of these solutions would have to diminish. For the being-in-time of an existent force to pass through the activeness-sphere an existent’s activeness presupposes its autonomy. Hence, if the real world, or what exists in it, were really determined by time, then it would have to exist autonomously” (281) Ingarden concludes that in the end, 11 solutions are admissible, and from them only variants of realism and realist creationism – idealism is ruled out grosso modo. However, this does not mean that the world cannot be created or in some other aspects related to consciousness. It only means that it is ruled out that for its sustainment it need be dependent on an external factor such as consciousness because the real world is, by the realist creationism presupposition, autonomous to pure consciousness.
The introduction of time in the existential-ontological analysis reveals another possible set of existential moments (activity, fissuration, fragility…) that can help create new concepts of beings that are “richer” in content (290). Ingarden thus distinguishes absolute supratemporal being (insystematic two variants), supratemporal-ideal-being, temporally-determined (real) being, and purely intentional being (being possible). The concept of temporally determined being has been conceived in three different dimensions, related to the nature of time (present, past, and future). But these are only preliminary steps in further, formal-ontological, material-ontological and consequently metaphysical investigations of the nature of the real world, and its relationship (if there are any) to the consciousness. Ingarden, thus, cautiously remarks that “at the moment we know nothing positive of either the form or the material essence of the real world that would be significant for its mode of being” (297). Unless we succeed in “grasping the temporality of an existent, and of the world in particular, in an indubitable manner” (300) the final resolution of the controversy cannot be resolved.
[i] “I had in fact just begun to write the new book for him, this being the reason for writing it in German” (22, f.11).
[ii] “I wrote only for myself…” (23).
[iii] The volume II was published in 2016, by the same publisher and editor.
[iv] An abridged edition was published in 1964 under title Time and Modes of Being (translated by H. R. Michejda), Springield Ill: Charels Thomas.
[v] In the preface to Controvesy Ingarden documents the rich history of his work in ontology.
[vi] He was unable to use his library at that time (23).
[vii] This was, for Ingarden, first noticeable in “unstable” guise (p. 33 f. 35) of Ideas I (1913) and then fully acknowledged in the matured form of Formal and Transcendental Logic (1929) and Cartesian Meditations (1929).
[viii] Due to the space limitation we can here just note that the structure of idea is explained by its “bilateral” nature of “stock of qualities” and content, and within the content, there are also differences between “variables” and “constants” (68-73).
[ix] This “reduction” seem to be prevailing characteristics of contemporary Neo-Aristotelianism.
[x] The famous “first question of metaphysics” that a thinker such as Heidegger escape to give an answer to, and Robert Nozick boldly answered in rather unorthodox and appealing manner in his Philosophical Explanations.
[xi] And was published as separate book Über die kausale Struktur der realen Welt, Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1974.
[xii] Ingarden lists five groups of variants (148-152).
[xiii] That only in some aspects resemble historically developed philosophical positions.
In recent years there has been a palpable growth of interest in Italian thought. Perhaps, one could claim that the popularity of thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Gianni Vattimo, and (more recently) Adriana Cavarero, has invited the Anglophone gaze towards the Italian intellectual panorama. The scholarship’s focus has been twofold: on the conceptual roots of the Italian philosophical tradition, as well as its contemporary trends. As far as the first segment is concerned, a number of works are worth mentioning: Giorgio Pinton’s translation of Eugenio Garin’s History of Italian Philosophy (2008) – a monumental guide which in two volumes covers Italian thinkers from Boethius to Emanuele Severino; Zakiya Hanafi’s translation of Roberto Esposito’s ‘The Return of Italian Philosophy’ (2009), a short piece that aims at tracing parallels between contemporary debates in continental philosophy – biopolitics among those – and the Italian philosophical tradition; Rocco Rubini’s The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger (2012), a lucid and erudite exploration of the reaction of Italian intellectuals to the Renaissance, analysing how and why Italian thinkers have historically experienced a sense of ‘Renaissance shame’; Brian and Rebecca Copenhaver’s From Kant to Croce: Modern Philosophy in Italy 1800-1950 (2012), in which the authors offer several translations of some thinkers who were previously unknown and unaccessible to Anglophone readers. The range covered by the book quite impressive, extending from severely understudied figures such as Pasquale Galluppi and Bertrando Spaventa, but also covering Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci.
The other front on which the scholarship is growing steadily was inaugurated by Giovanna Borradori, with Recoding Metaphysics: The New Italian Philosophy (1988), a collection of essays by high profile Italian thinkers, such as Umberto Eco, Gianni Vattimo, and Emanuele Severino. Today, the translation of Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (2012), as well as the forthcoming Journal of Italian Philosophy, make access to the Italian intellectual front easier than ever before. That said, the medium through which Anglophone readers can gain familiarity with contemporary Italian thought, is SUNY’s excellent book series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy (2007 – ) edited by Silvia Benso and Brian Schroeder, of which Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers is a part of. The series features several translations from the Italian. Among them, Luigi Payerson’s Truth and Interpretation (2013), Carlo Sini’s Ethics of Writing (2009), and Gianni Vattimo’s Weak Thought (2012), just to name a few. The first book in the series, Contemporary Italian Philosophy (2007) is a collection of essays written by leading Italian philosophers, which in Benso’s words “added some new Italian voices to the continental philosophical tradition as known in the English-speaking countries, that is, a tradition deeply focused on French and German contributions” (Benso: 2017:1).
The aim of Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers is in close conversation with, if not a continuation of, the project begun by Benso and Schroeder in 2007 with Contemporary Italian Philosophy. Similarly, Viva Voce presents readers a snapshot over the work of twenty-three contemporary Italian thinkers working within different fields of philosophy, both in the continental and the analytic tradition. Thus, Viva Voce furthers the scope of perspectives it wishes to introduce to the Anglophone world in bringing Italian analytic voices to the fore – an element that was absent in Contemporary Italian Philosophy, which was dealing with the continental tradition specifically. Benso writes:
“Despite the recent increase in attention and recognition paid to contemporary Italian philosophy, a volume that provides a contextualisation – that is, a tracing of the general interconnections, threads, and fabrics that nourish the emergence of contemporary Italian thinkers in their magnificent individualities and enable them to be the thresholds … is still missing from the Anglo-American philosophical landscape. Albeit in a minimalist format, the goal of the present volume is precisely to work toward filling of minimising such a lack” (Benso: 2016:9).
Viva Voce pledges no thematic allegiance. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the thinkers interviewed have different philosophical orientations, and work within different areas of the philosophical landscape. For navigation purposes, Benso has grouped thinkers along six thematic lines: (1) Ethics, Passions, Practices: Remo Bodei, Eugenio Lecaldano, Salvatore Natoli, Carlo Sini, Carmelo Vigna; (2) History, Justice, Communities: Adriana Cavarero, Giacomo Marramao, Fulvio Tessitore, Gianni Vattimo, Salvatore Vacca; (3) Imagination, Art, Technology: Mario Costa, Sergio Givone, Mario Perniola; (4) Rationality, Sciences, Experience: Evandro Agazzi, Giulio Giorello, Paolo Parrini; (5) Being, Nothing, Temporality, Place: Enrico Berti, Virgilio Melchiorre, Ugo Perone, Emanuele Severino, Vincenzo Vitiello; (6) Human Beings, Evil and Transcendence: Giovanni Ferretti, Giuseppe Riconda. Having excluded the thematic selection, the criteria informing the array of thinkers is marked by two principal factors: the “theoretical vigour that thinkers have displayed in terms of making meaningful and lasting contributions to the Italian philosophical landscape” (Benso: 2016:9), and that all were born before 1948. As the title suggests, the book format is highly innovative. Thinkers recount themselves in their own terms by answering a set of questions Benso posed over email. The motivation behind such stylistic choice is explained by Benso in the following way:
“the practices of historicism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction have taught us how all historical accounts bespeak the perspective of the narrator. In light of such considerations, it has been the more modest choice of this editor to let the story be told not by a grand narrative but by those who, through their scholarly writings as well as their academic lectures, public conferences, and performances of various kinds, have contributed to delineate such a history. Thus, the format of the interview as been chosen as the most appropriate mode of narration for the volume.” (Benso: 2016:7)
The questions are formulated adopting a “zoom-in/zoom-out technique” (Benso: 2016:8). The result is an interesting temporal movement: the first set of question asks the author about their intellectual past, in terms of their provenance, as well as the external influences and traditions they subscribed to; the second set is geared towards the present of the thinker as they envisage it, here they are asked to outline the basic tenets of their philosophical positions, the originality of their contributions, and the timelessness thereof; finally, thinkers are asked to voice their opinion about the future of philosophy given the current world, as well as offering some conclusive thoughts for philosophers and non-philosophers alike. As Benso puts it:
“The interviews follow a three-step cadence. First, they star with more general questions that address issues of provenance, external (domestic and foreign) influences, and lineages. Next, they move to a self-description offered by each interviewed philosopher and aimed at highlighting the main tenets, theoretical originality, and timeliness of each individual position. Finally, the interviews dare to glance toward the future by asking for possible ways, suggestions, and advice through which philosophy can contribute to the delineation of such a future” (Benso: 2016:8).
In the Introduction: ‘Italian Philosophy – Threshold between Cultures’, Benso raises the issue of consonance between nationality and philosophy as a potential problematic, she notes: “One question that lurks behind the denomination ‘Italian thinkers’ is, understandably, the appropriateness or even desirability of framing philosophy within national borders and identities” (Benso: 2016:2). Benso escapes the impasse by referring to the notion of geographical specificity which entails a particular “socio-politcal-economic-historic-cultural landscape” and in virtue of these factors, “Italian philosophy retains its own specificity and individuality – its own uniqueness and difference” (Benso: 2016:3). Although Benso raises a valid point by appealing to the notion of specificity, it is this reviewer’s belief that the Introduction would have acquired a greater depth had the author addressed the contested nature of Italian philosophy, from Italian philosopher’s own perspectives. The history of Italian philosophy is constellated by thinkers reflecting on the link between philosophy and national borders in two interconnected ways: the very validity of ascribing a national qualifier to philosophy, and the nature of Italian philosophy as such. Perhaps the most explicit debate in this direction was Luigi Palmieri and Bertrando Spaventa’s post-Risorgimento tête-à-tête, where the former insisted on the national character of philosophy, and the latter on its universal nature, which by definition excludes the question of nationality. Thus, integrating the question of national philosophy with the testament from Italy’s own past of contestation, would have given Anglophone readers an even deeper grasp of the Italian difference, and exorcised Benso’s veiled, but nonetheless present, fear of ‘nationalism’:
“There is an Italian language and thus an Italian literature, philosophy, and culture based on such a language much earlier than Italy becomes a sovereign state in the modern sense. In this sense, Italian philosophy as a cultural event based on language precedes the formation of all possibilities of an Italian nationalism based on geographical borders. Being Italian is a cultural event ahead of all belonging to a territory, a soil, a nation (or even a blood lineage).” (Benso: 2016:5-6).
On a related note, Benso underlines another significant aspect of Italian thought connected with its interaction with the ‘foreign’ philosophical world, namely, that of porosity. Ascribing to Dante the merit highlighting this characteristic of Italian philosophy, Benso notes: “a fundamental aspect of Italian philosophy has nevertheless to do with a peculiar penetrability, permeability, and fluidity with respect to the possibility of infiltration by foreign elements – in the specific, the influence of non-Italian philosophies and thinkers on the Italian philosophical landscape” (Benso: 2016:4). Further on Benso elaborates the notion of porosity, and describes the Italian philosophical model as “osmotic”, in the sense that it resembles:
“An alchemist’s or magician’s laboratory where experiments of fusions, amalgams, and transformations happen and new configurations are creates as a result. To be an Italian philosopher might precisely mean to be such an alchemic, magic, perhaps kaleidoscopic threshold – an opening and a door onto the outside through which inside and outside enter in contact, communicate, and open up to new visions rather than a gate that ultimately defensively closes on itself in a nationalistic move” (Benso: 2016:6-7).
Through the interviews, readers learn about the turbulent philosophical climate of post-war Italy. The demise of Fascism brought Idealism along with it, and most thinkers interviewed reflect on the opening frontiers of the philosophical horizon after decades of idealist ‘hegemony’. This is nicely put by Vattimo, as he reflects on his university experience begun in 1941: “those were the years just after the post-World War II reconstruction. They were also the years after Fascism. A common idea was the need to get out of the cultural isolation Fascism created. That meant no more focusing on Croce and Gentile, no more idealism […]” (Benso: 2016:108). The voluntary act of forgetting Idealism lead to an exponential interest in ‘imported ideas’, in engagement with outlooks that had been developed and circulated abroad while Italy was preoccupied with its own philosophy. From existentialism to analytic philosophy, new currents of thought started occupying the minds of young Italian intellectuals. An emblematic testimony of the scarce appeal of Idealism on the new generation of Italian intellectuals is that of the interviewed. Among them, only Enrico Berti (Benso: 2016:203) and Emanuele Severino (Benso: 2016:234) list Gentile among their influences. The case of the Italian post-War philosophical climate was that of a nascent pluriverse, a fertile soil where imported ideas mixed and grew following unpredictable way, much like what Benso describes as the ‘osmotic’ model of Italian thought. Of course Viva Voce cannot by definition be an all-encompassing collection, but it serves as a good indicator of the heterogeneity of philosophical orientations Italy opened up to, the variety of fields those interviewed are active in is remarkable: from feminism (Adriana Cavarero), to the aesthetics of communication and the technological sublime (Mario Costa), to Historismus (Fulvio Tessitore), the philosophy of logic, mathematics, and empirical sciences (Evandro Agazzi), just to name a few. The very diversity of schools of thought and areas of enquiry, makes it almost daunting to find a fil rouge binding the thinkers, which leads to a further difficulty: what constitutes the Italian difference? It is this reviewer’s modest opinion, that its essence is not so much rooted in content, but in methodology. What thinkers share is the approach to the discipline: the degree of philological attention and detail, which instead of suffocating their philosophical voice, makes it all the more alluring.
Overall, Benso’s Viva Voce makes an elegant contribution to the growing field of Italian thought in a number of ways. Firstly, it widens the horizon of the discipline by presenting new voices and perspectives previously unknown to the Anglophone world. Secondly, in doing so and by adopting the format it does, readers get a vivid picture of post-war philosophical climate in Italy, characterised by its reaction to Idealism as well as the profound cleavage between secular and Catholic thinkers. Thirdly, that Benso does not comment the interviews either at the beginning or at the end of the work, which amplifies the feeling of ‘encounter’ the reader experiences with the interviewed. That also leaves it at the discretion of the reader to form an opinion of the contested Italian difference, as well as identifying possible synergies between those interviewed and thinkers of the reader’s own tradition. Aside from contributing to the spread of Italian thought, Benso’s work also opens a wide array of possibilities for scholarship more generally. That those interviewed are relatively unknown in the Anglophone world, coupled with the dialogical structure of Benso’s book allows a self-presentation on the thinkers’s past that is a sort of mis a nu, quite befitting considering that the audience is not acquainted with them. This presentation style might be an interesting format for future works with a similar aim.
Benso, Silvia. Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers. New York: State University of New York Press. 2017. Print.
Benso, Silvia, and Schroeder, Brian. Contemporary Italian Philosophy: Crossing the Borders of Ethics, Politics, and Religion. New York: State University of New York Press. 2007. Print.
Borradori, Giovanna. “Recoding Metaphysics.” Recoding Metaphysics: The New Italian Philosophy. Ed. Borradori, Giovanna. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988. 1 – 26. Print.
Copenhaver, Brian., and Rebecca. Copenhaver. From Kant to Croce: Modern Philosophy in Italy 1800-1950. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.
Esposito, Roberto. Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy. Pensiero vivente: Origine e attualità della filosofia italiana. Trans. Hanafi, Zakiya. Cultural Memory in the Present. Ed. Vries, Mieke Bal and Hent de. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012. Print.
—. “The Return of Italian Philosophy (translated by Zakiya Hanafi).” Diacritics 39.3 (2009): 55 – 61. Print.
Garin, Eugenio. History of Italian Philosophy. Trans. Pinton, Giorgio. Vol. II: From Enlightenment to Risorgimento. II vols. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. Print.
—. History of Italian Philosophy. Trans. Pinton, Giorgio. Vol. I. II vols. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. Print.
Rubini, Rocco. The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.
Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.
Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.
By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).
Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.
Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.
However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.
An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.
Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.
A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.
The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.
The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.
It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]
Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.
One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.
In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]
While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.
One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.
The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.
Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).
Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.
Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.
[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).
[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.
[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.
[iv] Ibid., 53.
[v] Ibid., 51.
[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.
[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.
[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.
What appears at the frontier of Geoffrey Bennington’s works is an apparent insight and clarity of expression that is able to manifest itself despite the complexities in which its ideas and conceptions are embedded. And Bennington’s newest book Kant on the Frontier, Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth is no exemption to this rule, as a scholar who continues to prove vital in the fallout of Derrida and the debris of pessimism that follows his work. Any given reader of Bennington would perhaps encounter his work at a differing frontier, the present frontier in which I encountered his work was his biography/autobiography of Derrida, in which alike to the photo of himself and Derrida, seems that Bennington himself albeit pushing the frontier onwards from Derrida’ demarcation, alike to Hegel’s Owl of Minerva cannot outstep the shadow of his friend, companion and predecessor. That is not to say that, his ability to uncover the marginal, the foreclosed, and the frontier in this latest publication is not by any margin less than a feat of remarkable scholarship on Kant and the shameable hidden aspects of his thought at the frontier so to speak of given Kant readership. For that in itself is a formidable task judged by its own merit.
The central argument of the text concerns the ‘slogan’ “the end is the end”,[i] in which Bennington will examine various parts of Kant’s corpus in order to demonstrate a thinking-through of Derrida’s statement of la différance infinie est finie or the infinite difference is finite. The primary focus will be the teleological schema that haunts Kant’s corpus and examine the ways in which supposedly infinite differences or metaphysical distinctions between history and politics primarily, are indeed finite in the analogies Kant draws between the two frontiers of thought in his philosophy. The second consequence of Bennington’s formidable reading of Kant’s teleology is that the book does not present an “Idea in the Kantian sense”,[ii] such that the epigram of the end is the end cannot promise ideas but only diremption, in that can provide a new way of understanding of how we read philosophical works, but does not present new ideas for new philosophical works. Bennington’s text concerns itself with the form of reading of these works, not necessarily with the content. Another remarkable ability of Bennington is to seamlessly weave in thinkers and ideas into apparent disruptive readings, so he proposes a reading of Frege as an interstice to elaborate that “the concept of ‘concept is teleological”[iii].
The second core argument of Bennington’s text is that philosophy itself represses readings such it wants to only deal with the supposed ‘ideas’ of philosophy which are somehow divorced by the act of reading and even by the question of reading itself. Perhaps in one way or another this is the mode by which philosophy can operate only with the ideas of philosophy itself, ideas are only produced through a repression of reading, and a theory of reading cannot reproduce ideas. Additionally Bennington claims that philosophy’s best theory of reading is hermeneutics and fulfilled in deconstruction, however this claim being anything less than contentious will be the mark in which we will judge his deconstruction of Kant in, through and beyond the concept of the frontier. The final point in the preface before we enter into the body of the text, Bennington sets up an apparent disruptive analogy between the political implications of an interrupted teleology and the implications of reading philosophical works, and Kant’s ‘point of heterogeniety’ is what justifies a deconstructive reading of a Kantian critique in order to do away with the historicist reading of moral and political issues which Bennington sees as predominant in humanities discipline. Bennington then addresses the neglected nature of Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgement, insomuch as Bennington claims that “Darwinism provided an answer to the at least apparent natural purposiveness that Kant is trying to understand”.[iv] Bennington’s main claim in investigating this aspect of Kant is to emphasize that teleological thought is not as easily abandoned in regards to nature and mechanism as once imagined. Bennington argues that even extreme forms of Neo-Darwinism with severe forms of evolutionism are bound up with teleologism. and through their own internal logic defeat themselves. One example Bennington describes is how Kant’s prescription of a natural law that gives birth to the human animal which then in turn is able to escape the natural ends of the former law. Bennington surmises this contradictory nature of teleological schema succinctly.
Either way we are faced with a structure of end- setting that interrupts the process leading up to it and demands analysis of its internal interruptions and impossibilities, the more radically so now that it seems likely to many that that end- setting interruptive of natural processes (a currently fashionable name for which is the Anthropocene) really might be tending toward the End.[v]
The next section after the Preface moves from an apparently modest, marginal investigation of Kant’s teleology to a bigger more daring exposition by Bennington in the succeeding part of the book which is entitled ‘Preliminary.’ Bennington proclaims that: “If the point here were to do metaphysics (again), my claim, which would then be extraordinarily immodest, would be that “frontier” is nothing less than the primary philosophical concept and the origin of all others”.[vi] Somewhat repudiating Derrida’s project and simultaneously pushing on his deconstructive method, this third aspect of Bennington’s argument will be the ultimate in determining whether he succeeds in fails in convincing his readers of the primacy of the concept of the frontier both within philosophy and its theories of readings of philosophical works. The key distinction Bennington wishes to construct is that whilst an understanding of the concept of the concept is an impossibility without the concept of the frontier, each concept insomuch as it is a concept requires a frontier in order to delimit itself from others. However, he furthermore suggests that the concept of the frontier by this very definition cannot be defined itself. Now, whether as Bennington claims that “all philosophical concepts rest on a nonconceptual (nonphilosophical) ground that philosophy is incapable of thinking”,[vii] and secondly that if there are no philosophical concepts apropos, then we would need a concept of the frontier to delineate which concepts we were analysing, but as put to us prior to this claim, the concept of the frontier does not exist. In conclusion, the concept of the frontier is thus, a kind of interrupted teleological, a concept of concepts which itself cannot be identified but is teleological in its nature to describe concepts. Now, it remains to be seen whether this apparent parry and dance of conceptual meandering is a truly reasonable, philosophical or conceptual discovery and Bennington’s promised investigation of Kant will prove or disprove this. The concept of the frontier Bennington will use to evaluate whether philosophy itself from the outside from an origin or point of conceptualization is a possibility, and secondly whether philosophy itself is purely just history of philosophy rather than philosophy autonomously. Perhaps given these series of contentious claims that Bennington has set himself up for a fall in reducing philosophy and history to a singular concept which is primarily not at the heart of Derrida nor his kin, deconstruction. Furthermore, any reduction to a singular concept to answer all multiplicities is a beckoning problem to any philosopher. The frontier, which Bennington then posits as almost synonymous with Being[viii] is perhaps also allergic to Adorno’s critique of Heidegger’s reduction of the history of metaphysics as the history of being as self-defeating, insomuch as utilizing the concept of the frontier to reduce philosophy to the concept of the frontier is merely a sort of intellectual posturing, or in Hegel’s terms, a bad infinity. In one sense, the demarcation of Being could be said to be a type of frontier, in so much as you in a strictly phenomenological sense, with the name of Being and its metaphysical and conceptual baggage begin to build walls, delimitations, boundaries and frontiers. However, we should permit Bennington at least the courtesy of hearing his voice speak till its last breath in order to begin investigating the extent to which his sudden discovery of a new concept at the heart of all things perhaps should be listened to after all. Additionally to these high orders Bennington has placed on himself within the concept of the frontier, he claims that it “is literally everywhere”,[ix] he notes the concepts of différend and différance as an evident allusion to his predecessors Lyotard and Derrida however distinguishing his own coinage. Bennington even goes further to argue that the word itself as well as the concept of the frontier is simultaneously both its reference and referent at the same time. He elaborates in a more general sense that metaphysics itself is no longer possible in the traditional sense, such that any practice of metaphysics so called only refers to the objects and things themselves, but that teleological practice is no longer possible because of its disruptive nature. In a sudden turn of tradition and ideas, Bennington then moves to a ‘polemical’ reading of Gottlob Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik in order to begin demonstrating the profundity of his concept of the frontier. He quotes Frege in that “[t]he concept must have a sharp boundary [der Begriff muss Scharf begrenzt sein]”,[x] which is interesting linguistically primarily because of the usage of grenzen or boundaries, frontiers, borders which Frege uses in which Bennington is evidently, immediately interested in for his own conceptual production. The use of Frege only crosses a few pages bolstering its polemical nature, however Bennington reverts back to his spectre of Derrida revealing more clarity on the nature of the frontier.
As Jacques Derrida has taught us, the foundation of an institution, its very institution, the institution of the institution, including the institution of a science, and even of a science of logic, cannot be understood by that institution, can only be violent with respect to that institution. What I am trying to show here is that the frontier is the enduring (uncrossable) trace of that violent institution of the institution in general, and that this violence marks all concepts with the trace of a constitutive nonconceptuality.[xi]
Bennington goes on to claim that Frege by committing to the distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung lends itself to a failure of his own frontier of the concept of concepts. If as Derrida suggests, the relation between the poetical and the philosophical is what forces to philosophy to think,[xii] similar to the conclusion of Heidegger insomuch as new poetry is needed to reinvigorate thinking once more, perhaps Bennington’s fascination with the frontier is aligned to this goal also. Transitioning to the sphere of political philosophy, Bennington openly admits that the frontier does not amount to much,[xiii] however he claims that such concepts as the State are defined, delimited and demarcated by a frontier which the singular object is posited and then analysed as a fact of the world. This last part of an auxilliary argument in the Prolegomena section of the text is one in which Bennington claims that the frontier is in fact a ‘primary problem of political philosophy’ and that it “cannot be resolved dialectically”,[xiv] because of its ‘absolute exteriority’ but perhaps we shall see that it is in fact Bennington’s concept of the frontier that will never be crossed. Now, we shall return to the main bodies of the text itself after the long and precise previous sections named Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena in turn. The central focus from Aristotle to Kant will be the concept of the state of nature, and what each philosopher in turns coins as a natural community which then gives rise to a community seemingly outside and beyond that natural law basis. However, Bennington puts forth that natural frontiers would only be shores, rivers, mountains,[xv] and then the frontier of the State would rise later on the basis of these previous forms of frontiers, but the play Bennington is enforcing is thus to question these apparent frontiers in Aristotle and Kant. The linkage between the demarcation of the frontier and violence is furthermore explored in conjunction with the concept of the polis, speech, zoon politikon and the state of nature in Aristotle and Kant.[xvi] However, the key point for Bennington is that violence is first needed for the separation of the natural law from the State, or from the natural community to the polis, and then within this context of violence[xvii] the drawing of a frontier is a further representative act of violence, and contracts further violence in the form of jealousy, mockery, revenge, threat, warfare.[xviii]
For the problem that is tormenting these texts of Aristotle as much as those of Kant depends on the very structure (or the nature) of the frontier itself: If we cross the frontier between nature and right by nature, by necessity and natural force, we remain short of the frontier, on the side of nature, while claiming to cross it. If, however, we cross the frontier out of duty, we do not really cross it, because we were already on the other side, in right, just when we were supposed not to be there yet. The frontier between nature and right, then, does not really exist, even if there is this frontier. The nonlinear dynamics of these relations between nature and its others—physis and nomos, necessity and obligation, violence and peace, the always- already but yet never accomplished crossing of the frontier that separates these opposing terms—is precisely what we are here calling “nature,” some paradoxical consequences of which we are just beginning to see.[xix]
In this lengthy quote, it is clear what Bennington is advocating, attempting to highlight the apparent tensions and contradictions between the natural and beyond in Aristotle and Kant. However, to what extent does this supposed contradiction actually mean in regards to how Aristotle conceived of the difference between the natural community and the polis? And the same to what extent did Kant really think and construct a difference between a state of nature and state of law? Bennington explains that politics will continue eternally attempting to solve the problems of sovereignty, legislation, the forms of government, suffrage, and private property.[xx] In the case of Ancient Greece, the singular Greek polis once established out of the relations of husband to wife, master to slave and individual to city polis, will soon come to realize that their ‘circle’ is surrounded by other circles, and so the frontiers are forever expanded outwards from nature to law, to nature again, and further onwards to law. By setting up the tensions in Aristotle leading to Kant, Bennington wishes to set up the paradoxes of the “cosmopolitan situation of perpetual peace”,[xxi] which the circles of the polis which Aristotle describes build into Kant’s internationalist state of many nation-states interacting in a wider circle altogether. However Bennington wishes to highlight how the perpetual peace in Kant is none other than death, such that the only real solution to peace between international states is only when all of “Kant’s frontiers and distinctions are threatened in the very tracing of their line, and that the definition of critique itself will not survive unscathed”.[xxii] Bennington by deconstructing Kant’s theory of perpetual peace he then moves onto the much favoured other element of Kant which is known and marked out in philosophy, Kant’s critical moment or his mode of critique. Bennington lays more suspicion on Kant in his theory of critique in that alike to the temporal, teleological interruptive nature of perpetual peace, Kant’s critique suffers from the same temporal lapse. Bennington elucidates that:
in Kant the critical moment to the doctrinal moment (and indeed everyone does prefer that) but that, as the doctrinal moment only ever arrives as the death of the critical moment, it never truly arrives, which would leave us forever in the good critical tension? But then we would no longer really understand what critique means, as the concept of critique in Kant draws its content from its teleological determination with regard to doctrine. No critique without doctrine. Without doctrine, no critical step.[xxiii]
As outlined in his Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena the interruptive nature of teleology itself even enters into Bennington’s text in the form of a section called Interlude: The Guiding Thread (on Philosophical Reading) in which he will interject the basis of his own reading just performed in the previous section. He again refers to his polemic to philosophy in that it represses theories of reading primarily because of its primary mode of understanding its ideas of reading through hermeneutics, and that philosophy prefers to merely discuss ideas of thought rather than the philosophical readings. The problem of how to read philosophy, a philosopher, a philosophical text, a philosophical proposition, a philosophical concept is problematized by Bennington.[xxiv]
Interestingly enough, Bennington refers to Pascal and his “reader who goes too fast or too slowly, often in an uncomprehending disarray that does not stop me reading, but which puts me undeniably ill at ease”,[xxv] and coincidently one wonders whether Bennington’s text on the frontier is not reading in this way, but written in this very manner. He is therefore right in his offering of Hegel that the form of the text constructs the principle, thread and backbone of the ideas supposedly embedded within and outside the text in order to define its frontier to borrow Bennington’s concept, one believes that Derrida called it a parergon. Bennington continues, “Which is why, reading Hegel, one becomes a Hegelian (the text here is in principle already the institution of its own reading, already its own quasi- tautological saturating interpretation)”.[xxvi] Then one wonders, what is the institution of Bennington’s reading? The usage of prefaces, interludes and interjections demonstrate the frontier itself at work, in that when one reads a philosophical text one hopes to begin at the beginning perhaps at the first critique of Kant, then moves onto later texts in the next chapters divided by frontiers of titles, sections, paragraphs, sentences, words, gaps in between the words one reads here, then back out into the ideas of critique, perpetual peace, Kant and into philosophy itself. Perhaps as Bennington himself suggests that one cannot do without the history of philosophy nor read the new,[xxvii] then his reading of Aristotle and Kant are both a classical reading and a new reading seemingly melded together in an undeniably fascinating combination proving the plasticity of philosophical reading whether it focuses on the ideas and represses theories of reading, or bases itself on a theory of reading and neglects the ideas, but one wonders whether both possibilities, or potentialities are in fact possible or an actuality? Bennington concludes on Kant by outlining that the frontier “can be said to be nature, violence, warfare, radical evil, contingency, but also providence, critique, or peace”.[xxviii] However, it is the same here as well as Adorno’s critique of Husserl in his book Metacritique in that phenomenology promises to be dealing with the essence of things by pervading all forms of metaphysical constraints and systems. However, just as Adorno thought that by using the term Being as the sole reduction of Western philosophy did not in fact lead to an overturning of Western metaphysics but a facile self-evidency, that in fact by designating the word Being as a concept in fact, leads to its own meaninglessness and loss of any conceptuality. Additionally, what in fact are Bennington’s contents of his own frontier? Again, as his Preface demonstrated perhaps he can evade such a question in that the frontier itself is not a concept or an idea by itself, but one wonders what is bracketed out of Bennington’s text. The part of the argument in his investigation of Kant is attempting to frame the question of politics in Kant,Bennington’s point can be summarized in that Kant never directly or explicitly addresses the question of politics, it is located in the interstices of the frontier between the “Architectonic of the first Critique, nor in the preface to the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, nor in the introduction to the third Critique”.[xxix] Bennington puts this point in a form of dialogue, in that politics in Kant’s complete series of his system, never addresses the question of politics and yet his system concerns politics.
So to the question “Where is politics?” we reply (because Kant does not reply): On the frontier, or, rather, in the frontier, in the transitional spaces, between the great divisions of the system. As politics in Kant’s descriptions depends on a remainder of violent nature inscribed along frontiers, a remainder that cosmopolitanism does not absorb, politics will be inscribed […].[xxx]
However, Bennington does in fact identify where the frontier of Kant actually resides. He locates it in the Kantian mode of judgement, in which Kant is able to unite several disparate spheres, modes and spaces of thought within his grand architectonic system. It would seem then, that whilst Bennington at the beginning of his book and his analysis of Kant, the frontier did not seem apparent but more or less structured Kant’s reasoning in his system. Now it is revealed that Kant’s frontier is in fact, the faculty of judgement which can unite his thought.
We still do not know what a frontier is, or even what its nature is, except to be of nature. And we could even say that just that is the frontier: not knowing. We trace frontiers in order to know, but we will know nothing of the frontier itself. Kant is less interested in knowledge per se, pace the neo- Kantians, than in its frontier, where knowledge fails. If there were in Kant a faculty of the frontier, it would clearly be the faculty of judgment. The success of the operation might be disputed, but the aim of the third Critique seems clear enough: that of throwing a bridge over the abyss that has opened between the world of experience and the world of freedom, between speculative and practical reason. The abyss is, it would seem, again what we are here calling the frontier, in a peculiarly exacerbated or exasperated form. But judgment would be the faculty allowing it to be crossed, or at least allowing the two sides to be joined. Judgment would then be reason itself being rational, the pure faculty of relations that are both singular and analogous.[xxxi]
After concluding on the frontier of Kant as the faculty of judgement, Bennington deliberately jumps to Hegel’s critique of Kant into trying to “sublate contingency into necessity, without simply erasing the place of the contingency thus sublated”.[xxxii] Bennington’s sudden interruptive teleological of Hegel into his commentary on Kant is again representative of his concept of the frontier, demonstrating another frontier of Kant, be it in this case, a version of Kant as a part of Hegel’s critique of Kant himself. Bennington seems to make Hegel’s frontier the sublation of Kant’s frontier which may prove hugely problematic. Hegel’s supposed sublation is problematized by Bennington in that the end will never come, in terms of history or art such that the end is already implicit in the beginning.[xxxiii] Bennington summarizes the study of Kant in terms of two doctrines, firstly the doctrine of critique in which critique is lost in its employment, such that in its immanence it loses its immanent ability in a loss of temporality.
But what our halt around Kant will have taught us is that there are only halts and in them a certain spirit of critique that begins to be lost as soon as it becomes critique (i.e., once it is carried out in anticipation of a doctrine to come). This critical position of critique, this crisis of critique, obliges it to have quite different relations to the tradition than those entertained by Kant himself. So we have not tried to read Kant in a Kantian way (as will have been noticed), while nonetheless claiming to read Kant. Reading him, we clearly take a step outside what philosophers call “philosophy,” because philosophy in that sense is the refusal, in principle, of reading.[xxxiv]
Bennington concludes in his Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction that we must read philosophical works in a literary way to push the frontiers of our understandings and the frontiers of that thinker’s thought.[xxxv] As mentioned prior to in earlier sections, Bennington uses Derrida’s polemic of literature that it forces philosophy to think, and that the boundaries between philosophy and literature are in fact literary frontiers, such that they are mediated by philosophies of reading, not just the ideas and systems of thought of philosophy. In conclusion, one gets the formidable impression from Bennington’s latest text on the frontier, that it serves as a frontier itself as opposed to a content-filled space in between project, and that as one reads this text one should expect the next texts to come as further boundaries to Bennington’s post-deconstructive, Derridean work.
Does this mean that “analogy” is the proper name of what we are trying to articulate here? Certainly not, because there can be no propriety of analogy. The ana-logos always remains to one side of the logos, bordering or lining it without letting itself be comprehended by it, or letting itself be comprehended solely as its Grenze, which immediately relaunches the whole machinery. Reason, exposed by Kant according to a certain ana-logics of logic, speaks itself and loses itself not in the empty space beyond the frontier but at the frontier itself as pure analogy. But one senses that analogy can never be pure, as it is purely a placing in relation. Like the frontier as such, analogy as such is nothing, and so there is analogy only in a dispersion of uncontrollable, in(de)terminable singularities, always in the now of the event of the frontier. Analogy is only ever analogical, relaunches itself indefinitely as the unlimited limit of thought or as the pure relation of thought and language. The frontier, as Aristotle knew, is infinite, interminable, a term without term. Kant never finishes tracing it, putting a term to it, limiting himself to bounds, bound to limits. This is his cross, his passion, that gives rise to a reading that I cannot say is either literary or philosophical, that really starts I know not where, and finds its end I know not how.[xxxvi]
[i] Bennington Geoffrey, Preface to the English Edition in Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics and the Ends of the Earth, Fordham University Press, (New York, 2017), p. ix.
[iv] Ibid., p. x.
[vi] Ibid., Preliminary p. xiii.
[viii] Ibid., p. xiv.
[ix] Ibid., p. xv.
[x] Ibid., Prolegomena p. xix.
[xi] Ibid., p. xxv.
[xii] Ibid., p. xxvi.
[xiii] Ibid., p. xxviii.
[xv] Ibid., The End of Nature, p. 2.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 3.
[xix] Ibid., p. 27..
[xx] Ibid., The Return of Nature p. 28
[xxi] Ibid., p. 62.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 84.
[xxiv] Ibid., Interlude: The Guiding Thread (On Philosophical Reading) p. 85.
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 92
[xxvii] Ibid., p. 99.
[xxviii] Ibid., p. 107.
[xxix] Ibid., 4. Radical Nature, p. 109.
[xxxi] Ibid., 5. The Abyss of Judgement, p. 144.
[xxxii] Ibid., Finis p. 199.
[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 203.
[xxxv] Ibid., Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction (Grenze and Schranke), p. 205.
[xxxvi] Ibid., p. 223.