As James G. Hart notes in the opening chapter of his Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology, the German phenomenologist and Naturphilosophin Hedwig Conrad-Martius is a marginally known figure. Prior to the last half decade, what limited consideration she received in the English-speaking world is primarily in the context of her relationship with Edith Stein, particularly in the role that she played in Stein’s conversion to Catholicism in the early 1920s. There are several plausible reasons for Conrad-Martius’ obscurity: the absence of translations of her work; the political and bureaucratic challenges and sometimes outright opposition she encountered as one of the first women to enroll in and complete studies at a German university; the personal and professional hardships—including the death of numerous colleagues and a publication ban due to Jewish ancestry—that resulted from the socio-political upheavals of the early 20th century; the ascendency and predominance of the hermeneutical-existential mode of phenomenology to the exclusion of phenomenological realism movement of which she was a leading figure. Whatever the reasons for her obscurity, the quality of her work is certainly not one of them, even a passing familiarity with which would confirm.
I am the sort of reader of Hart’s monograph on Conrad-Martius that qualifies as having passing familiarity with her work. I know enough about her lifelong project, the Realontologie, or the investigation into the essence and metaphysical foundations of reality, to want to know more. But resources for knowing more are limited. A cursory search of the Kösel-Verlag archives, the publisher now owned by Penguin Random House that originally printed Conrad-Martius’ work, yields no results. To the best of my knowledge, her work is no longer in print and only available only second-hand via private handlers. There are no translations. As far as secondary material, at the time of its publication in 2020, Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought available in English. According to Hart, the only other monograph, which is in German, is Alexandra Pfeiffer’s Hedwig Conrad-Martius: Eine phänomenologische Sicht auf Natur und Welt. A monograph on Conrad-Martius, then, is a welcome contribution. A monograph on Conrad-Martius by James Hart is even more so. Hart’s work is consistently of the highest level, combining an immense scholarly and philosophical comprehensiveness with clarity and a sharp eye for the germane in the matter-at-hand. His two-volume work Who One Is (Springer 2009) is an absolute gem, a must-read for anyone interested in any number of themes even remotely related to transcendental and existential phenomenology. Needless to say, I anticipated Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology with excitement, and it mostly met those expectations.
The book itself is composed of eight chapters and an appendix. The appendix is a selection translated by the book’s editor Rodney K.B. Parker of HCM’s unfinished and eventually abandoned manuscript Metaphysik des Irdischen (or Metaphysics of the Earthly). Hart tells us that she originally intended the work to be a “unifying opus magnum” (4), but that it remained incomplete due to extenuating health and financial circumstances. Parker implies that disagreements with the publisher were also a contributing factor. As for the body of the book, chapter one is a general introduction to Conrad-Martius’ life and thought, presenting relevant biographical material and acquainting us with her project and its primary influences; the final chapter is a conclusion. Chapters two through five contain the bulk of the exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought and are the most challenging of the book. Chapters six and seven are Hart’s own creative appropriation of one of the basic theses of Conrad-Martius’ work, namely that theological-cosmological categories have an ontological-metaphysical referent, which he applies to the theme of heaven. In what follows, I’ll summarize (by no means exhaustively) Hart’s presentation of Conrad-Martius’ thought and conclude with a few reflections on the work and on its contemporary relevance.
Conrad-Martius as Naturphilosophin
All of the subsequent analysis depends on Hart’s exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought. HCM is a philosopher of nature in the ancient sense. Her notion of nature as “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” (80) reflects a more typically Aristotelean designation: nature as “that which by virtue of itself…and out of itself (the founding hyle) brings forth itself (its eidos and morphé)” (80). She employs familiar philosophical notions such as substance, potency, and entelechy, and makes use of well-known medieval distinctions like that between essence and existence. HCM asks typically natural-philosophical questions: what is time; what is space; what is mass? What are the constitutive features of matter or of light? How do we conceive of the phenomenon of organic life on both a macro and micro scale? Her work demonstrates deep familiarity with the natural sciences of her day and with the revolutionary 20th century developments in, e.g. physics. There are, however, at least two features of her general approach that make it unique: 1) her commitment to eidetic-phenomenological analysis; 2) her fundamentally Christian cosmological outlook.
1) In chapter two, Hart details Conrad-Martius’ involvement in the early phenomenological movement and its effect on her methodological and philosophical commitments. HCM was a member of the Munich and Göttingen circles of phenomenology. Members of these circles had in common an admiration for Husserl’s rejection in the Logical Investigations of philosophical psychologism and the overcoming of epistemological standstills and reductivism of all kinds that it represented. Freed from these concerns, they were able to take up Husserl’s exhortation to return to die Sachen selbst and embody his vision of a community of interdependently working researchers conducting investigations into the essential features of the various regional ontologies. For Conrad-Martius, a philosophy of the region of nature meant, as stated above, investigating nature in an effort to discover its essential sources and structures.
Aiding this task was the method of the eidetic-reduction in which the existence of an actual object (but not the world as such) is bracketed so as to investigate the object via ideation, a process of imaginatively altering an object to bring its essential structures into relief (cf. section 2.2.). For Conrad-Martius, this involved a second aspect, namely a horizon analysis in which the limiting presuppositions and prejudices that predetermine what counts as legitimate are brought to light. In relation to the natural sciences, the general interpretive framework tends to be one of quantification and mathematization.
As an aside on method, the early phenomenologists were as a rule not concerned with epistemological questions. They unanimously lamented Husserl’s “transcendental turn” and his forays into the subjective sources of meaning as a regression into the bogs of critical philosophy. One of the merits of Hart’s presentation of HCM’s method is his pointing out the challenges that the products of Husserl’s genetic investigations, particularly the role of temporality and history in the constitution of meaning, present for her conception of essences and the kosmos noétos. For more on this, see sections 2.4-2.6.
Phenomenology’s insistence on attending to the thing in the fullness of its appearance produced, according to Hart (10), the fundamental convictions in Conrad-Martius that the way in which nature appears is reflective of what it is. There can be no irreconcilable conflict between what appears and the way it appears. This means, “on the one hand, that there was no abyss between nature as it appears and the positions of the physical sciences, and, on the other hand, that appearing is, as such, not a veil of some unknown ‘in itself’” (53). Given, for instance, the developments in quantum physics that contest the more intuitive conceptions of matter found in classical, Newtonian physics, this is quite the radical thesis. But the thesis also represents a break from the temptation of dividing nature’s appearing into primary qualities, or the real features of the physical, and secondary qualities, or sensible, merely mental features, as a consequence of which the secondary qualities are dismissed as irrelevant and the primary are conceived of inertly and mathematically. Against this quantification of nature, Conrad-Martius insisted on a qualitative analysis in which all modes of appearing are appearances of something. Conrad-Martius’ nature is a cosmology, an ordered whole of interwoven regions and parts that Hart compares to a tapestry or symphony (157).
2) If the predominant horizon of the natural sciences is quantification and mathematization, HCM’s is Christian. One of the dominant trends in the theology of her day was demythologization in which “the content of the ontological referent [of cosmological notions] is fully replaced by an existential and symbolic interpretation” (205). In contrast to this tendency, Conrad-Martius sought to “remythologize” the cosmos, i.e. to affirm a cosmological meaning and referent for Christian cosmological notions, for example, heaven as a region of world space (see 7.3). Hart quickly adds two qualifications: a) that this doesn’t mean that we should altogether reject the fruits, much less the impulses and motivations, of existential and hermeneutical theology; b) that this in no way implied for Conrad-Martius a fundamentalism that eschews the evidence of, e.g. paleontology, and seeks to return to the pre-Copernican picture of a storied-universe of heaven physically above. As I mention above, chapters six and seven contain Hart’s attempt to appropriate this move with regard to heaven. While the content of these chapters is undeniably interesting, it seems to me disproportionately focused on existential and hermeneutical meanings of the religious cosmological categories. This is an issue only insofar as the Hart’s main objective is to show that Christian cosmological notions can be interpreted cosmologically.
In accordance with these two unique features of Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ approach, Hart seems to discern two promises: 1) a qualitative philosophy of nature that is the product of essence-investigations and integrates the developments of the natural sciences into an overarching cosmological unity which leads to 2) the possibility of giving Christian cosmological notions an ontological-cosmological foundation rooted in a serious philosophy of nature.
The Realontologie at a Glance
A. Substantiality and Time: If chapter two delineates Conrad-Martius’ method, chapters three through five deal with her thought as such. Chapter three begins with an analysis of the various kinds of being that culminates in the decisive distinction between ideal and real being. This distinction is the point of departure for the Realontologie, or ontology of the real, and for the philosophy of nature insofar as nature is, as we saw, “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis.” The section in which the distinction is introduced (3.2) is a bit convoluted. I get the impression that Hart has here the unenviable task of mapping out the critical theme that is at once the juncture of several intersecting trains of thought and the point of departure for the whole show. Probably for this reason, the terms of explanation seem to shift just as you begin to get your teeth into them. It can feel a bit like biting air. At any rate, the gist of the distinction is clear enough. Whereas “the ‘being’ of ideal objects is exhausted totally in their ‘being something’ or being such” (66)—in more traditional metaphysical parlance, in their essence—real being exists. Inherent in the meaning of real being is not just the essential moment (what something is) but also the existential moment (that something is) without which a real being would not be real. By existence, HCM seems to mean the brute thereness, the in-the-flesh character of facticity. This leads her to the notion of substantiality, which for her refers to being that is self-grounding. A being exists, is “really there” because it stands in itself. Substantial being, for Conrad-Martius, is real being.
To be self-grounded is sometimes characterized as standing-in-itself, and other times as stand-under-itself: “Substance as such stands under its own being; it is the self-grounding of itself which is the standing under (sub-stans). It stands under (grounds) itself…Substance is a being’s standing in its own existential potency to its own being” (79). Although it seems like an unintentional equivocation or an exploitation of the etymology of substance, it is actually a purposive and important equivocation. It takes some rearranging to figure out why. As far as I can tell, “itselfness” is for Conrad-Martius both a technical term and an operative concept, the meaning of which changes depending on context. Hart confirms the latter (cf. 78) and implies the former. I note that one of the difficulties with the use of “itselfness” as a technical term, beyond its being an operative concept, is the possibility of its conflation with the reflexive pronoun “itself.” This is probably less of an issue in the original German.
One of the meanings of “itselfness” in the case of real being is “the potency to exist, to be or not to be.” What makes a being “stand-in-itself” is its having “itselfness” (technical sense) within itself (this second use of “itself” has a slightly different meaning), i.e. it has within itself the potency to be or not to be. But “itselfness,” insofar as it means the potency to exist, grounds or is the source of the actually existing being. The formulations standing-it-itself and standing-under-itself foreground different aspects of substantiality. The second is crucial. Insofar as the potency to be “stands under” an entity, the theme of potentiality as the real, but not actual source of actual being is emphasized. It is that from which real, actual being comes to be. Moreover, it implies that the actually finished being, insofar as it is potential, precedes itself. Potential being is not finished being; it is pre-finished being. This leads to the central question for Conrad-Martius of the “place” of these potencies themselves. If the cosmos is an ordered whole with various kinds of regions, we here have an indication of what one of the regions would be. In short, in the analysis of real being, we are led to substantiality. The essence-analysis of substantiality leads us to the notion of pre-actual potential sources that generate and sustain actual being. Investigating these sources is the project of the Realontologie. As Hart puts it, “for the full constitution of real substances, the form-giving active (entelechial) and passive, purely potential powers must be studied” (47)—I’ll say more about the “form-giving active powers” in the next subsection.
For Conrad-Martius, that an entity is grounded in its possibility to be does not mean that it has absolute power over its potential to be. Such a capacity belongs only to absolute being. Insofar as potential being is a form of non-being, she can say that to be real is to be suspended over an abyss of nothingness that requires an ontological motion of “incessant flight from nothingness” (70). Its existence is something which is incessantly “slipping away” (78) and simultaneously won anew. This is an important observation because, for Conrad-Martius, this motion inherent in the mode of existence of real being is that which constitutes time. Time is not some pre-existing container into which being steps. Time follows on existence and not the other way around. As Hart puts it, “time is a mode of the existence of something” (137). Again, “time is a dimension corresponding to the being or existence of something” (150). In contrast to this real-motion of time is what she refers to as the transcendental imaginative time—think Husserl’s time-consciousness in which the present is held onto in retention and on the basis of this holding arises protention, an expectation of what is to come. In this context, it makes sense to speak of past and future and of a motion between the two through the present. For HCM, this flowing time along with the categories of past and future are not real, but only features of transcendental imaginative time. The real motion of time is not one from the past into the future or vice versa. Just as a being is incessantly losing and winning its existence, the real motion of time is a discontinuous “relentless coming forth of the world into being as it is a constant vanishing from actuality” (76). An analogy with number is helpful:
The number, e.g., 5, means more than that it stands in line at the fifth place after preceding rows of unities. The eidos of the number lies in its being a complex unity which contains the total series of numbers leading up to its place of order. Only secondarily does it indicate its place of order in the series of numbers. The number is the expression of a quantitative monad-like ‘sum value.’ One value cancels out the preceding by including it and going beyond it [Aufhebung]. Conrad-Martius’ point here is that the nows are analogous to numbers. And as numbers are monadic sum-values, so are the moments of actuality monadic being-values. And as with each individual number the preceding (and coming) numbers are conceptually and terminologically negated, because this number presents a sum-value which is valid only for it, so with each definite moment of actuality [Aktualitätsjetzt] are all other moments ontologically negated. (77)
Theologically, that real being is situated on the “knife-edge of nothingness” (190) is indicative of nature’s being non-integral, i.e., being fallen. If incessantly negated time follows on the mode of real existence, HCM speculates on what a different mode of “eternal” or “blessed” existence might mean for time (see section 5.1 and 5.3). As for the question of the source of this motion, Hart returns to it in chapter five.
B. Matter (hyle) and Space: I noted above that “itselfness” seems to be an operative concept. Beyond referring to the potency to exist that underlies real being, it also seems to refer to the potency for an entity to be what it is, to be its essence, which it also stands in. The “‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” by which Conrad-Martius delimits the region of nature would then signify that substantial being both stands in its possibility to exist and has its potency within itself to be what it is. This sheds light on obscure locutions like nature’s definition as “that which is by reason of its own power to be—to be itself. That is, to be what it is in its own essence” (80), which Hart follows up by quoting HCM as saying “existential substantiality is essential substantiality” (again, the major difficulty with these locutions seems to be that the terms shift, e.g. if we say that something constitutes itself out of itself, we could mean several different things (out of its hyle, out of its potency to be, etc.), and all of them might highlight different aspects of constitution. This is probably a difficulty inherent in ontology).
This consideration prepares us for Hart’s remark that there are two different modes of standing-in-itself that are constitutive of the cosmos, the hyletic and the pneumatic. As constitutive of actual, finished entities, Hart cautions us against thinking of these modes themselves as actual, finished entities. Again, the notion of regions is not far. Conrad-Martius refers to the region of these potentialities that are the source of actual entities as the trans-physical potential realm (see section 3.5). In some sense, the distinction between the hyletic and the pneumatic seems to cut along the lines of living and non-living, although pneumatic in the strict sense refers to “the eidos of I-ness” (section 3.7)). Two qualifications are necessary: 1) we are talking about the sources of living and non-living beings, and so not of a living or non-living being. The basis for, e.g. the essence-analysis of matter is not empirical matter (e.g. the chemical elements). 2) It would be wrong to think of matter along the lines of dead, brute stuff. As Hart insists, finished material being like all nature is self-generative. The difference between living and non-living is more that essences of living beings are uniquely delivered over to them to become (88). The analysis of organic nature occupies much of the beginning of chapter four, which unfortunately I can’t consider further here. That discussion treats HCM’s position in debates within biology between wholism and preformism, her understanding of evolution and genetics, and the important concept of entelechy and related notions of causality, power, and energy. If interested, see sections 4.1-4.4.
Whereas not all finished entities share in pneumatic substance, all of nature participates in hyletic being (83). According to Conrad-Martius, there are two paradoxical but intertwined moments of material being. One is an ecstatic self-othering such that nothing remains behind; the other is an absolute sinking inwards. The first is a potency that “inexhaustibly releasing or scattering, the other is inexhaustibly sinking or centering” (102). The two are intimately bound together in a reciprocal relationship such that Hart can dub hyle a “selfless being-burdened-with-itself.” The primary reason for highlighting this distinction here is the important role that it plays in the context of several other discussions. It is crucial for her interpretation of quantum physics and the notion of aether (section 4.5), is generative of her conception of space, and representative of the various metaphysical regions of the cosmos. The treatment of space begins with a modified version of the Kantian antinomies. For her, the problem of infinite space—that I can neither conceive of space as ending nor of it as endless—is a product of the transcendental given-along-with of the milieu in perception. But it does indicate a paradox in the act of making space, namely that of how the untraversable because immeasurable, what HCM calls the apeiron, becomes traversable and measurable, or turns into metric space. I think what she is getting at is the problem of how, without a pre-existing definite dimension, a being comes to have definite dimensions. The solution is similar to the one we saw in the case of time. Just as time follows upon the mode of existence of a being, space follows upon the kind of being that something is (e.g. 182). More specifically, “space is the dimension created by hyletic being in its substantial self-transcendence” (84). Hart points out that the German verb räumen, the nominative of which [Raum] is German word for “space,” can mean to clear out or to make room, which is the fundamental meaning of space as the dimension that follows outwardly upon the ecstatic self-othering and inwardly on the sinking inwards of hyletic substance (85). For more, see section 3.8.
C. The Fundamental Structures: The Aeonic World-Periphery and World-Center. I have outlined HCM’s position that time follows on the mode of existence of a thing and space on the kind of being something is. I have pointed to the notion of “itselfness” as the potential for a being to be (existence) and to be what it is (essence), and have indicated that in each case, the question of sources, structures, and regions is not far. All of these topics together led to what is maybe the central topic of HCM’s philosophy of nature, namely the pre-finished sources, both actual and potential, that are responsible for nature’s coming to be and the regions that they inhabit. In chapter four (4.4), Hart treats the notions of causality and the relationship between actuality and potentiality. Central to the notion of causality is that the cause must be proportionate and appropriate to its effect. Otherwise, the effect can never come about. One of the ways in which a cause is proportionate to its effect is that in order to be capable of setting the power into motion, it must itself be in motion. This rehashes the ancient doctrine of actuality and potentiality. The question then arises: whence these trans-physical, trans-empirical pre-finished actualities that set the corresponding potentialities into motion such that we have, e.g., the motion of time, the paradoxical duality of matter, the generation of particular entities? Whence the potencies themselves? As Hart puts it, “a question that is at the heart of the cosmology and ontology of Conrad-Martius: What is the ontological place or point from out of which substantial being or the whole of nature unfolds itself into the essential forms of the cosmos? This is not meant to be a genetic question within or previous to finished nature. It is a question about essential structures” (80).
There is no way to do this question justice here. It’ll have to suffice to indicate in broad strokes the architecture of these regions. It’s worth saying again that the notion of “region” is metaphorical. The structures of finished nature are not themselves finished nature, and so are not 3D. Generally, all motions require an actualizing feature and a hyletic ground on, in, and through which to act. The motion of nature’s self-genesis with all of the other motions that this implies is no difference. For this, HCM conceives of two foundational regions (which correspond to matter’s ecstatic and instatic moments) of the world-center and the world-periphery. The world-periphery is the place of the essence-entelechies that actualize the world, as well as the ever actual source of the real motion of time (there is an interesting parallel here to Aristotle’s prime mover). The world-center, on the other hand, is the hyletic dimension on which the actualizing powers act. With the notions of regions, we come back to the theological promise I pointed to in the previous section, namely, that of finding ontological referents for Christian cosmological notions. Related to these regions are, for example, referents for the notion of the New Heaven and New Earth. This is a crude sketch of the cornerstone of HCM’s thinking, but it’ll have to do here. See chapter five for more.
The remarks of the last section are by no means exhaustive, but give an overview of the major themes of Conrad-Martius’ thought as Hart presents it, which the interested reader should be able to use for orientation in the book. While I get the impression that Hart faithfully portrays Conrad-Martius’ thought, and while I don’t envy the task of summarizing the life’s work of a metaphysician, there are a few facets of the book that are underwhelming. As I indicated at points in the previous section, Hart’s exposition can be hard to follow. In a certain way, this is unavoidable. Part of the difficulty lies in becoming acquainted with HCM as a thinker, any evaluation of whom demands a thorough familiarity with the natural sciences. It’s also necessary to get used to her idiosyncratic terminology. In another way, however, there are sections in which terms are confusing, formulations are exchanged without explanation, and the explanandum sometimes seems to drop out of sight. It is not always clear when Hart is paraphrasing or providing commentary, so it can be difficult to parse out exactly what his contribution is verses what a given thinker is arguing (though I stress that materials are always adequately cited). I suspect that this is the culprit behind errors such as the one in the first full paragraph on pg. 11 in which the example changes halfway through from “cabinet” to “table.” On that note, there are numerous and frequent typographical errors that, because of their frequency, can be distracting. For stretches of the book, errors in punctuation occur on nearly every page and sometimes multiple times per page. One of the most frequent errors, substituting the word “or” when the context calls for “of,” occurs four times in the concluding five sentences of the book. Hart tells us in his preface that the book is the belatedly published version of his 1972 doctoral thesis and that, for practical reasons, he couldn’t update it. Many of these errors I think, are reflective of that.
At any rate, I am grateful to have the dissertation in published form. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that HCM is a marginally known figure, and that at the time of its publication it was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought in English. If the last few years are any indication, the situation is changing. Since the publication of Hart’s book, the Springer Series Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, of which Hart’s work is the fifth volume, has published another book-length collection of essays by Ronny Miron on Conrad-Martius’ thought. The Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists at the Universität Paderborn whose director, Ruth Hagengruber is an editor for the Springer Series, is conducting a project called “Women in Early Phenomenology,” one of the goals of which is to foreground and make available Conrad-Martius’ oeuvre. There is also, of course, anecdotal evidence—a panel dedicated to her thought at a prominent conference, a reading group dedicated to her work, etc.—of an increasing interest.
Can her work gain broad traction? Hedwig Conrad-Martius is as unconventional a thinker as she is comprehensive and profound. As far as I know, she is the only western philosopher of the 20th century (besides maybe Whitehead) to attempt in conversation with the natural sciences a comprehensive philosophy of nature in terms of its essential structures. We may have to go back as far as St. Thomas to find someone else who attempts it from an explicitly Christian perspective. The climate in academia may not be amenable such a project. In an era of specialization, of general (warranted or not) suspicion of eidetic claims, following a century of the devaluation of philosophy in scientific practice, with all of the old doubts concerning the possibility of a Christian philosophy, this explicitly theological, comprehensive philosopher of the essence of nature might seem like an odd one out. In some ways, that is precisely what makes her extremely refreshing. And beyond the vicissitudes of the Zeitgeist, there are the perennial questions of the whence and whither of our coming to be, questions that Conrad-Martius is asking. I, for one, am eager to see her answers heeded.
 Ronny Miron: Hedwig Conrad-Martius: The Phenomenological Gateway to Reality (Springer 2021).
In the contemporary philosophical landscape, Gregory S. Moss’s book stands out for many different reasons, and even though it should be considered a major contribution to the understanding of Hegel’s logic, its worth cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of Hegelian scholarship. In this review I would like to illustrate some of the merits of this book, and I will try to show why Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics can be read as an autonomous philosophical work, an exciting occasion to continue and renew the debate on some fundamental philosophical questions.
The Author’s first monograph on Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms addressed the question of the autonomy of language. While dealing with partially different issues – the nature of language and the philosophy of culture – this book already discusses some topics that are the main focus of Moss’s philosophical work, and shows methodological elements that remain unaltered in his second book. Aside from the general interest in the history of German thought, the book already deals with the problem of autonomy and of universality, discussing the relationship between language and logic and introducing the question about interculturality.
More importantly, in Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language Moss already showed his deeply theoretical approach to the analysis of the authors of the past. His reconstruction of Cassirer’s philosophy of language does not simply aim at offering an accurate sketch of the author’s thought, but rather it is an attempt to show how that theory can still find a place in the contemporary debate.
Following the same methodological inspiration, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics offers a monumental reconstruction of Hegel’s metaphysics, often underlining some aspects of his thought that have been lost in the most successful trends of the Hegelian research in the English-speaking world. However, it is also a striking attempt to show why Hegel’s metaphysics continues to be relevant. This may be the greatest achievement of Moss’s work: it does not just illustrate Hegel’s own position, but also and foremost shows what it means to have a Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
Despite its remarkable internal coherence, the impressive size of the book – around 500 pages – makes it almost impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of its content. Instead of doing so, I will start by introducing the main focus of the book – the relation between singularity and absoluteness. After that, I will discuss some pivotal elements of Moss’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought. Finally, I will try to point out some issues that remain open at the end of the analysis, in the attempt to show how this book can be understood as the starting point for a productive debate on Hegel, on the contemporary debate, and on the future of philosophy.
1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity
Since Plato, the relationship between philosophy and singularity has been complicated, even paradoxical. On the one hand, philosophy has been constantly presented as the kind of knowledge that addresses the universal rather than the singular. The tradition offers us a bunch of formulas in order to clarify this taxonomy: while philosophy is knowledge of the universal, art or history address what is singular. While thought only grasps the universal, only intuition has access to individual things.
On the other hand, however, philosophy has always been obsessed with singularity. The greater part of the philosophical effort since Plato and Aristotle is devoted precisely to understand how singular being (ta ekasta) are structured, how they are generated, how we think and say things about them, how they relate to each other. While the singular is banned from the domain of philosophy, nonetheless philosophy’s main task has always been the discovery and the elaboration of the structure of singularity in itself.
But what is singularity? Even this question, along with the distinction between singular and universal, is quite problematic. We are accustomed to identify singularity as the lower limit of thought, namely as what lies beyond any possible specific difference in the great taxonomy of genera and species. Yet, what is singular is also what lies beyond the upper limit of thought, namely what exceeds any possible genus: it is epekeina tes ousias, to use Plato’s formulation. In a sense, “singular” is the opposite of “universal”; in another sense, it is the opposite of “plural”. I know it is a schematic oversimplification, but this could account for the main difference between Aristotle and Plato: according to Plato, ideas are the true “singulars”: there is only one Beauty, it is one, eternal, and determinate, whereas sensible things are always plural, changing, indeterminate and temporal. In this context, what is most universal is at the same time utterly singular. On the contrary, Aristotle’s attempt to “save phenomena” – a formula used by Simplicius – is precisely the attempt to think sensible things as singular, determinate beings. Universals are plural, they are instantiated and thus have specific, but not numeric unity. Only individual things – both sensible and supra-sensible – are singular. For the sake of discussion, this oversimplification could be useful to identify this basic difference between a Platonic and an Aristotelian attitude towards singularity: on the one side, the singular is the absolute; on the other side, the singular is first and foremost finite, individual being.
2. Hegel’s Thought as a New Theory of Singularity
Now, how do we place Hegel’s philosophy in this frame? First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Hegel’s thought has traditionally been accused of having a complete lack of interest in singularity. Hegel is the “philosopher of universality” par excellence. Universality, necessity and subjectivity are the three key notions that structure most traditional interpretations of Hegel’s idealism, in which singularity, contingency and objectivity are therefore accounted for only as partial and lower steps of a more comprehensive dialectical process.
Already right after Hegel’s death, his first commentators criticized his disregard for singularity. According to Ludwig Feuerbach, the distinction between logical and sensible being is the inescapable mark of Hegel’s failure in thinking the individual: «Die Sprache gehört hier gar nicht zur Sache. Die Realität des sinnlichen einzelnen Seins ist uns eine mit unsern Blute besiegelte Wahrheit» (Sämtliche Werke, II, 212). This is Hegel’s major fault, not recognizing that „reality of singular sensible being” that we cannot help but feel as an immediate truth.
The strongest critic of Hegel’s philosophy of singularity, however, is Kierkegaard, who polemically used the term “Einzelheit” in his philosophy precisely to rescue the singular from Hegel’s monistic and universalistic account. Since idealism is “abstract thought”, Kierkegaard’s aim is to highlight the philosophical significance of existence, whereas what exists is precisely that singular being that abstract thought keeps overlooking.
This interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy has survived up to contemporary philosophy. In particular, French thought used the term “singularity” in order to develop an anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian concept of individuality. Gilles Deleuze is the philosopher who expresses this critique in the most explicit way: «Hegel substitutes the abstract relation of the particular to the concept in general for the true relation of the singular and the universal in the Idea» (Difference and repetition, 10). Quite ironically, while Hegel is one of the first philosophers to use the word “singularity” as a technical term, clearly distinguishing between a commonsensical and a speculative use of the notion, the whole post-structuralist tradition uses the term “singular” as an anti-Hegelian device, tracing it back to Spinoza in contraposition with Hegelian dialectic.
A second element that is useful to point out, in order to understand the novelty of Gregory S. Moss’s approach, is that this criticism of Hegel’s notion of singularity goes along with a critique of Hegel’s systematic and anti-foundational idea of philosophy. Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, but also many other early commentators of Hegel’s system, such as Karl Werder, Kuno Fischer, Schelling, and Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, criticized Hegel’s disregard for the individual and at the same time stated the impossibility to obtain a complex categorical structure starting from the absolute simplicity of being. In other terms, the impossibility to get difference starting from identity.
Now, this close connection between systematic metaphysics and the problem of singularity is at the core of the theoretical analysis of Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics. The so-called Hegel-renaissance in the English-speaking world has already rediscovered the importance of Hegel’s account of individuality. Paul Redding highlighted in the clearest way how the Pittsburgh school – Robert Brandom in particular – has managed to read Hegel’s philosophy as a semantic theory of individuation. However, these interpretations have systematically underplayed the systematic aspect of Hegel’s thought, along with its strictly metaphysical character. Following the oversimplified frame that I’ve proposed before, Robert Brandom’s inferentialism is – in a way – an Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s theory of singularity, since it understands singular beings only as finite, individual objects.
In this context, Gregory Moss’s book offers a timely and original reading of Hegel’s logic, since it finally highlights some aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that have been structurally neglected by many commentators. Three aspects are particularly worth mentioning.
In the first place, the author clarifies that Hegel’s notion of singularity not only refers to individual, finite beings, but also – and foremost – to that peculiar singular being that is the Absolute. In a way, therefore, Hegel’s speculative use of the notion of singularity overcomes the difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian approach.
Secondly, Moss shows how it is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without taking into account the necessary relationship between these two dimensions. There is no account of the singularity of finite being without addressing the singularity of the Absolute, and any account of the Absolute that does not illustrate the metaphysical status of singular finite being is incomplete and partial.
Finally, the book puts a very strong accent on necessity to highlight the general aim of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise. It is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without considering the metaphysical character of his logic. Here it is important to grasp Hegel’s own understanding of what metaphysics is, rather than applying some contemporary use of the term to the Hegelian text, which forces Hegel into a theoretical frame that does not have much to do with his own methodology.
As I will point out later, these three elements also identify three problematic aspects of Moss’s theoretical and interpretative framework, or at least three questions that are still open after reading the book. However, before going deeper into the critical analysis, I will briefly illustrate the main structure of the book.
3. Thinking the Absolute
One of the most striking elements of Moss’s book is that it emphasizes the strict relationship between infinite and finite thought. While tradition generally accepted that we cannot think the Absolute in the same way we think finite being, one of the key contributions of Classic German Philosophy is the idea that if we fail to think the Absolute, even thinking finite being becomes impossible. If I’m not misunderstood, this is what is at stake in what Moss calls the “problem of nihilism”. I won’t go into it in detail, but a general consequence of this approach is precisely Moss’s attempt to show how Hegel’s philosophy is a unification of Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches: if the Absolute is absolute, and therefore there is nothing outside of it, then it is impossible to differentiate between two faculties or two different methods, as if, for instance, understanding were to be identified with the faculty of finite being, and reason with the faculty of the Absolute. So, by developing a critical discussion of how the Absolute has been thought in the metaphysical tradition, we are at the same time questioning the way we think finite being. This traditional view is what the Author calls the “duality of principles”, the idea that knowledge – and reality – cannot be grounded on one principle, but rather require at least two: intuitions and concepts, matter and form and so on. Against this position, the Author defends a strongly monistic account of Hegel’s metaphysics, according to which the true Singular – the Absolute – self-differentiates in a way that can be compared to the Neoplatonic One.
The thesis of the duality of principles is grounded on another assumption, namely the impossibility of self-reference. If there is only one principle, then identity and difference must stem from the same source, and this source has no external matter on which to operate. According to Moss, the history of Western thought has mostly rejected this idea because of the undisputed adherence to the principle of non-contradiction. If identity generates difference, then the same thing is at once identical and different, namely contradictory.
These three metaphysical assumptions, the principle of non-contradiction, the rejection of self-reference, and the duality of principles, are presented by the Author as the fundamental argumentative structure that undermines at the basis the very possibility to think the Absolute, and that can be found in the history of Western metaphysics from Plato up to Kant.
For this reason, Moss’s analysis starts with a critical assessment of some basic problem of traditional metaphysics. While the author does not have philological or reconstructive interests, his confrontation with some authors of the past is extremely useful in order to grasp his fundamental orientation. For instance, while Plato, Aristotle and Kant are examples of the duality of principles approach, the brief but intense reconstruction of early German idealism aims at showing that Fichte’s and Schelling’s objective was precisely to overcome Kant’s dualism, and to re-introduce a self-referential first principle as the metaphysical and epistemological ground of a new philosophy. At the same time, this approach is strongly connected by Moss to Plotinus and Neoplatonic philosophy, with a long and dense excursus on ancient philosophy that reveals the Author’s tendency to offer a somewhat Neoplatonist interpretation of Hegel’s logic.
After having offered a critical reconstruction of these three metaphysical assumptions, Moss shows how they inevitably lead to five paradoxes that can be found throughout the history of philosophy.
The Problem of Instantiation: if particulars and universals are indebted to different (epistemological/ontological) principles, it’s impossible to clarify their relationship.
The Missing Difference: if conceptuality is not the source of its own differentiation, then the source of this differentiation is non-conceptual. «The essential difference that distinguishes one thing from another cannot be accounted for by appealing to what the thing is ‘in virtue of itself’» (165).
Absolute Empiricism: since the differentiated content of the conceptual dimension is not conceptual, the source of conceptuality is entirely empirical.
The Problem of Onto-Theology: the most universal notion is indicated as both universal and particular.
The Third Man: if the Concept is not self-differentiating, then every instance of the Concept, as a particular concept, cannot be the Universal Concept. Every attempt to find the universal concept leads to new particular concepts.
The largest part of the book’s first section is devoted to the historic and theoretical analysis of these paradoxes. The second section, instead, shows how – by positing the Concept as one self-referential and dialetheic principle – Hegel’s logic manages to overcome them.
Surprisingly, the book does not use the classic difference between understanding and reason as an instrument throughout this analysis. The question of the difference between understanding and reason is of course present, but it is not always clear whether these issues could be addressed as the result of an intellectualistic and non-speculative understanding of the domain of conceptuality. For instance, and here I’m forcing and radicalizing the issue in order to facilitate the discussion, the problem of the missing difference could be analysed as a specific formulation of a more general issue that concerned British and Italian idealism for a long time, namely the insufficient and contradictory nature of the forms of judgment. In fact, since every judgment, as Kant states, is in the form “The singular is universal”, and since the singular is not universal, an intellectualistic approach to the nature of conceptuality already finds itself entangled in a contradiction.
However, rather than appealing to this methodological instrument, the Author prefers addressing these problems systematically, retracing their origin in the three metaphysical assumptions listed above. This choice gives a very strong conceptual unity to the book, even though it could lead to some forced passages, in particular when it comes to analysing these issues through examples taken from the history of philosophy.
For instance, the first two paradoxes – the problem of instantiation and the missing difference – are addressed by quoting many passages from Plato’s Parmenides and the Book B of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Now, while these passages are in fact very good examples of the problems the Author is discussing, both the Parmenides and Metaphysics Beta are, so to say, “partes destruentes”, critical preliminary moments of a new theory. In other words, it is possible to find already in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work – as Hegel himself recognizes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy – speculative solutions to the problems they raise in some of their texts.
The difference between intellectualistic and speculative thought seems to be a very good way to account for this internal evolution in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought. For instance, Plato’s generative account of the koinonia ton genon in the Sophist does not look to be still subject to these paradoxes. In it, for instance, the self-referential character of ideas is no longer problematic, but at the same time it is not trivialized through the reference to empirical concepts as it happens in the Parmenides. Another example is Aristotle’s philosophy: following Ferrarin, Moss concedes that Aristotle’s metaphysics is speculative and belongs to the domain of the concept. But then, how can we integrate this idea with the paradoxes of Aristotle’s account of conceptuality? Isn’t this account, as it is presented in the book, utterly intellectual rather than speculative?
In other words, while the author manages to provide a strikingly coherent and dense systematic account of some fundamental metaphysical issues, a more extensive analysis of Plato’s and Aristotle’s own solutions to these problems, along with a comparison with Hegel’s own interpretation of their works, could give the chance to highlight how there is more than one way to think speculatively. The author does discuss Aristotle’s solutions to some of the problems he listed in Metaphysics Beta, but the historical reconstruction of Aristotle’s approach is not the main focus of Moss’s research, and it is only mentioned in order to highlight some aspect of Aristotle’s thought that the author recognizes in Hegel’s work.
However, given the book’s size, focusing on the systematic aspect of the issue has been a wise choice: this remark only aims at pointing out, once again, that this monumental book must not be interpreted as the end of a research, but rather as an exciting proposition for a new approach to the study of Hegel’s logic, of the history of philosophy and of metaphysics in general.
Four Open Problems
With this spirit in mind, I would like to point out some specific issues that I find of particular importance in Moss’s book. Of course, as already mentioned, this is a monumental piece of scholarship, and there are many topics worth discussing. There are many arguments and analyses that deserve a much deeper discussion than I can provide here. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid discussing specific matters or individual passages of the book, since I would like to keep the debate on a more general and fundamental level, and discuss some structural aspects of Moss’s proposal rather than specific topics. In particular, I will try to propose a brief critical assessment of four questions that remain open.
4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?
In the final part of his critical analysis, the Author thoroughly discusses different metaphysical and non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s logic. In particular, he also highlights Hegel’s intention to reform metaphysics beyond any dogmatic understanding of it. The interpretation of Hegel’s own understanding of metaphysics is deeply connected with the relationship between logic, nature and spirit. While Moss does not expressly analyse this aspect of Hegel’s system, the passage from logic to nature is a crucial point of his reading.
As we know, one of the main arguments of the book is that Hegel’s logic introduces a self-referential and self-differentiating account of the Concept. As Roberto Morani has shown in his monumental book on the evolution of Hegel’s dialectics, this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy is also the main focus of the auto-reformation of his own logic in the Second Edition of the Doctrine of being, when he stresses that objective logic already is subjective logic in disguise. This issue is closely related to the question of the “formal” character of logic. According to Hegel, logic is not formal because it has logical forms as its own content: logical forms are at the same time form and content of the logical process, that in this way is truly noesis noeseos:
But logical reason is itself the substantial or real factor which, within itself, holds together all the abstract determinations and constitutes their proper, absolutely concrete, unity. There is no need, therefore, to look far and wide for what is usually called a matter; it is not the fault of the subject matter of logic if the latter seems empty but only of the manner in which this subject matter is grasped. (SL, trans. Di Giovanni, 28)
Elena Ficara has stressed the importance of this passage, which shows Hegel’s opposition to any formalistic understanding of logic as a discipline. However, Moss radicalizes this aspect and points out how this unity of form and matter generates a self-determining progression. But what is the limit of this activity?
The logic is a self-generating process, through which the concept determines itself as concept: while we discover a great variety of conceptual determinations, these determinations never become empirical. In other terms, the logical development of the category of quality never generates the concept of “colour” or of “green”. In other words, what does never happen is what Fichte talks about in his lectures on the Tatsachen des Bewusstseins: if we radicalize this monistic self-generating activity, then everything must be deduced starting from the first principle, even this singular blade of grass. It is the same conception of systematic metaphysics that Wilhelm Traugott Krug presents as a critic to Idealism, and that Hegel ridicules. For instance, when Hegel talks of the ontological proof, the point is that the Concept has logical objectivity. Nevertheless, Moss is right to highlight how important it is to understand the Concept as a creative activity, and by doing so he defends a strong metaphysical interpretation of Hegel’s logic that many passages in Hegel’s work seem to confirm. While the author recognizes that the creative activity of the Concept does not entail the deterministic deduction of all empirical content, establishing the precise nature and the limits of this self-particularizing activity is one of the tasks that remain open after having read his analysis, and it is a crucial element to test the hermeneutical validity of his interpretation.
4b. What Kind of Singularity?
I would like to go back to the notion of singularity, which is the main focus of the book as a whole. In Moss’s book it is clearly stated that each category of the logic cannot be used exclusively to think the Absolute, since the Absolute is not separated from finite being. Therefore, singularity does describe both “limits” of thought—the Absolute and finite being. Nevertheless, Moss’s reconstruction strongly privileges the “Platonic” side of the analysis. In other words, the Author seems to be much more interested in showing how singularity expresses the logical structure of the Absolute, rather than explaining how the same notion can be used to describe the nature of finite being. For instance, Hegel writes that singularity is the principle of every “individuality and personality” (SL, 547). In order to complete the analysis of Hegel’s use of the notion of singularity, it would be very interesting to integrate Moss’s interpretation with a focus on this dimension.
This does not mean, of course, that Moss’s reading is a Platonic one. As I’ve already highlighted, if it is true that Platonism and Neo-Platonism play a pivotal role in the development of his reading of Hegel, Moss aims at showing both the Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of Hegelian dialectics, in particular by emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s notion of the «self-particularizing universal». This interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of Form is also quite interesting, and it would be worth discussing it in a further analysis of Hegel’s own historical sources.
One of the most surprising aspects of Moss’s book is his analysis of syllogism. Usually judgment and syllogism are analysed as logical developments of the abstract concept, and Hegel also expressly indicates them as such in the Science of Logic. Nevertheless, the Author seems to understand judgment and syllogism as a logically impoverished form of the first section, identifying them with a «self-alienated» form of the Concept (374). While this strong accent on the Concept is quite original, it is very hard to explain Hegel’s own statement at the beginning of the section on the syllogism, where he writes that «the syllogism is the completely posited concept; it is, therefore, the rational» (SL, 588). More generally, Hegel repeatedly highlights the syllogistic character of his system: the end of the Encyclopaedia is maybe the strongest example.
This issue leads to another question on the relationship between syllogism and inference. Moss’s critique of Robert Brandom’s account of Hegel’s philosophy as a form of inferentialism is very convincing, and does show the partiality of neo-pragmatist, non-metaphysical readings of Hegel. Nevertheless, by criticizing Brandom, the Author seems to share with him one core assumption, namely that syllogism is inference, and that when Hegel speaks about syllogism, he’s always talking about a formal structure of reasoning. This identification could be the main reason for Moss’s scepticism against the importance of syllogism in Hegel’s thought. For instance, in the Science of Logic Hegel expressly writes that «All things are a syllogism, a universal united through particularity with singularity; surely not a whole made up of three propositions» (SL, 593). Of course, Hegel does heavily criticize the form of inference (even in his Lectures on history of philosophy), but this passage seems to show that we must distinguish the subjective form of inference from the logical, objective form of syllogistic unity. For this reason, while Moss’s interpretation of the relationship between the concept and syllogistic forms is quite original and in some cases very convincing, it does need further discussion.
Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the question of contradiction. One of the structural aspects of the book is to show that, in order to think the Absolute, we must accept dialetheism, namely the position according to which some contradictions are true. In the case of Hegelian thought, this question is closely connected with the meaning of the term “speculative” as Hegel uses it throughout his work. While it is hardly debatable that only speculative thought is able to grasp the Absolute in its concrete and actual form, the question is whether such a way of thinking necessarily entails a violation of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its Aristotelian formulation.
A good start for illustrating the issue is a passage quoted by the Author while analysing the relationship between speculative thought and contradiction:
Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing/ (SL, 383)
Right after this passage Hegel does give some examples, and his choice are determinations of relation – above/under, father/son – that can hardly be seen as violation of Aristotle’s PNC. The interpretation of this passage is very contentious and I won’t go into it. Instead, I would like to argue that there are two possible interpretations of the nature of speculative thought. According to the first, speculative thought is necessarily dialetheic, since it requires to accept that the same x is and is not P. Here it is important to clarify that “not being P” is not the same than “being non-P”.
According to the second interpretation, speculative thought generates a new understanding of the predicates and of their reciprocal relationship. In this case, x can be P and non-P, according to a meaning of non-P that does not entail not being P.
For instance: the proposition “the particular is universal” is contradictory only as long as we assume that “being universal” entails “not-being particular”. This implication is different from the simple fact that universal and particular are different concepts, namely that “universal” is not “particular”. I do believe that it is possible to make the case that, in his subjective Logic, Hegel shows how universality, particularity and singularity, as conceptual determinations, are not reciprocally exclusive.
Moss does provide an exhaustive analysis of many different interpretations of Hegel’s account of contradiction. Again, his criticism of Robert Brandom’s strong coherentist reading is very compelling. Nevertheless, while it is clear that, according to Hegel, speculative thought somehow “deals” with contradictions, this statement must be compatible with other two explicit Hegelian theses: that contradiction is a defining aspect of finite being and finite concepts, and that contradiction itself is used throughout the system as a criterion to identify the finite and false character of the categories.
This could mean, in a way, that the Absolute cannot be contradictory in the same way finite concepts and beings are. Moss’s analysis of the difference between explosive and non-explosive contradictions could be a way to express this fundamental difference. However, it seems clear that Hegel’s foundation free metaphysics is an exciting contribution to a debate that is still open and is impossible to close simply by choosing one option over the other, be it coherence or contradiction.
At the end of this brief critical assessment of some aspects of the book, there would be much more worth mentioning. Gregory S. Moss’s book offers a compelling reconstruction of Hegelian metaphysics as a form of strong monism and shows how it can be profitably used to discuss some contemporary philosophical positions. Moss is also the translator of the English edition of Markus Gabriel’s Why The World Does Not Exist, and Gabriel’s pluralistic metaphysics is one of the main critical references throughout the book. By using Hegel’s philosophy to debate with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Priest, Robert Brandom and others, Moss brilliantly shows how the study of Classic German Philosophy can still offer a valid contribution to the contemporary debate on metaphysics.
Another aspect that resonates throughout the book is Moss’s interest for intercultural philosophy, as well as for the mystic tradition. There is no doubt that this book is a vital and promising contribution to the contemporary debate on Hegelian philosophy. However, it is also much more than that, since it provides a very compelling theoretical framework for the discussion of many different questions in contemporary continental metaphysics. Finally, it also offers a profitable exchange between philosophy, theology, and the study of other cultures.
Despite its remarkable size, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics does offer an extremely coherent and well-argued account of some of the most important theoretical issues in the history of metaphysics. By doing so, it succeeds at showing the ground-breaking nature of Hegel’s approach to logic and provides a very original interpretation of the Doctrine of the Concept. It is an ambitious example of Hegelian scholarship, but it is also a very good example of a truly Hegelian approach to philosophy today.
There is no doubt that hermeneutics today does not have the role of cultural koinè it enjoyed at the end of the last century. On the contrary, hermeneutical thought appears underestimated and misunderstood as fundamentally anti-modern. The rediscovery of the real essence of hermeneutics and the appreciation of its contemporary relevance requires that we critique several of its post-modern interpretations. This volume goes precisely in this direction. It is the product of a conference held on the 27th and 28th of September at the University of Montréal, where some of the most relevant scholars of hermeneutics aimed to rethink the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics, traditionally considered antithetical.
Jean Grondin, the editor of the volume, immediately underlines that this signals a specific stance against those post-modern philosophers (Vattimo, Rorty, Ferraris), who have tried to read hermeneutics as “anti-metaphysical” or “post-metaphysical”, unbinding it from every “perennial structure” and underlining the heterogeneity of reality and languages with no possibility of a superior unity. These interpretations also differ, I can add, from Di Cesare’s conception of hermeneutics as “a-metaphysical” (Di Cesare 2013). The aim of this volume is to delineate a new way of connecting these two disciplines – a path already traced by Grondin’s fundamental works (Grondin 2004, 2013, 2019) – with the presupposition that metaphysics is only possible as hermeneutics just as hermeneutics is only possible as metaphysics.
As Jean Greisch notes in his contribution, this might appear as a “backward-looking operation” (18). Indeed, hermeneutics is based on the assumption of radical finitude and the centrality of history, which seems opposed to the metaphysical inclination to determine universal and perennial structures. However, the two most important heirs of Heidegger’s philosophy, i.e., Gadamer and Ricoeur, distanced themselves both from Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics and from post-metaphysical readings. Against the Nietzsche-Heidegger duo that criticizes metaphysics and claims its overcoming, the authors of this volume follow distinct paths that go in the same general direction: they try to show the intimate connection between hermeneutics and metaphysics. The relevance of this volume rests in this attempt to highlight some possibilities for the renewal of hermeneutics. At the same time, the contributors to this volume try to reassess the very concept of metaphysics, freeing it from exceedingly rigid interpretations and trying to harmonize metaphysics with contemporary needs.
The task of this volume is in this respect very ambitious and tackles two complex and variegated concepts, hermeneutics and metaphysics, both from historical and theoretical points of view. The risks of generalization or naiveté, sometimes incurred in the single contributions, is on the whole avoided. The different papers promote stimulating proposals that invite further development. In particular, the focus of the volume and its relevance consists in the fundamental aim just mentioned; namely, rethinking hermeneutics against its underestimation, an underestimation that derives from the association of hermeneutical thought with so called “weak thought” or with “new realism”. This accords with a recent recovery given to hermeneutics, in particular in the USA (George-Heyden, 2021), a path that could hopefully be developed in order to underline and exploit the import of hermeneutics with regard to contemporary questions. Paradoxically, its contemporaneity can be underlined only by reconnecting it with metaphysics: this is the fundamental challenge of this volume.
The contributions can be divided into three main parts: in the first, the authors (Greisch, Rodrìguez) try to rethink hermeneutics, while in the second, complementarily, the essays aim to renew metaphysics (Perrin, Beuchot). In the last part, the contributions focus on the main “hermeneutical thinkers” in order to see how they realize (Boutet, Jaran, Canullo) or trace (Vallée) a renewing of the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics.
Rethinking Hermeneutics: Transcendence and Ontology
There are different ways to tackle the complex question of the relation between hermeneutics and metaphysics. Jean Greisch chooses a theoretical approach that moves from the conceptual analysis of the notions of “hermeneutics”, “metaphysics” and “transcendence”. He follows a thread that unites Dilthey, Rosenzweig and Heidegger, showing that they do not simply oppose metaphysics; rather, they stress the “meta” function of thought, which is a crucial element of metaphysics as such. Both Dilthey (in Introduction to the Human Sciences) and Rosenzweig (in The Star of Redemption) underline the need for a new understanding of metaphysics. The latter, moreover, talks not merely of philosophical anthropology, cosmology and theology, but rather of “meta-physics”, “meta-ethics” and “meta-logic”. Analogously, Heidegger talks of a “metaphysics of Dasein” that has its prerogative in the “transcendence of Dasein”, as it emerges in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics and in the 1928-30 lessons in Freiburg and Marburg (Introduction to Philosophy, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, and The Basic Problem of Phenomenology). The author stresses that for Heidegger (as for Dilthey) Dasein is intrinsically “transcendent”. As the fundamental quote of Heidegger emblematically explains, Dasein, as a monad, has no door and no windows because it does not need them. This is not because Dasein does not need to “go beyond”, but because it is “already beyond”. Indeed, Heidegger focuses on the concept of the “hermeneutic of transcendence” in relation to the concepts of “freedom”, “essence of ground”, and “essence of truth”. Greisch affirms that all of us “engage” an explicit metaphysical questioning, because we all are fundamentally the play of “originary transcendence” (23).
Greisch follows this path, aiming to underline the need to keep transcendence as an intrinsic characteristic of Dasein: this necessarily requires the elaboration of a “metaphysics of Dasein”. Moving from the strict connection between metaphysics and Dasein, reconnecting to a terminology used by Ricoeur (in Réflexion faite), he focuses on the double structure that characterizes metaphysics: expansion [enlargement] (with Aristotle’s refutation of Parmenides that shows the unification of the attributes in ousia) and hierarchisation [hiérarchisation] (with Plato’s discourse on the five categories of same, other, being, rest and movement). In this same direction, the author refers to Stanislas Breton, who, in Reflexion sur la function méta, analyses three aspects of the “meta” function, and which become four in Greisch’s own account (metaphor, metamorphosis, metastasis, metabolism). These issues of the function “meta” are connected by the author with those of transcendence. Transcendence relates to “trans-ascendance”, an idealization without elevation, and to “trans-descendance”, as incarnation. The author explains this structure by drawing a diagram that shows how the vertical axis (consisting of trans-ascendance and trans-descendance), intersects with the horizontal axis, encompassing the directions of “trans-possibility” (understood as the extension of Dasein into the future, with reference to Heidegger’s “project”) and “trans-passibility” (understood as excess and not as mere constriction, like Heidegger’s “thrownness”).
Ramon Rodrìguez’s contribution focuses on another fundamental pair of concepts, often considered opposites: historicity (the leading concept of the nineteenth century, indicating what is essentially becoming and situated in a specific context) and ontology (the emblem of perennial structures). The author analyses Gadamer’s conception, which has often been misinterpreted as “historicist”, with the intent to underline that, on the contrary, Gadamerian thought must be considered opposed to historicism [Historismus]. He thus reads Gadamer as capable of thinking a new way forward not only for hermeneutics, but also for metaphysics, by conceiving the concept of history in connection with truth.
At first glance, Gadamerian hermeneutics might appear clearly distinct from metaphysics, as several post-metaphysical thinkers claim. First of all, hermeneutics focuses on the concept of the “radical finitude” of the human being: only on that basis can every relation between Dasein and the world be understood. In this respect, we are in front of a thought that rejects every globalizing or exhaustive concept of existence. Secondly, hermeneutics opposes presence, which is characteristic of the structure of essence and being in metaphysics, with “the happening of the event [Geschehen]”. Hermeneutics in fact aims to think the constant motility and openness of understanding [Verstehen]. Despite this fundamental claim, Rodrìguez determinately claims that it is possible to talk of a “hermeneutical philosophia prima” (42).
The author aims to stress the relevance of Gadamer’s conception of history for a correct understanding of his conception of language. Analyzing the second part of Gadamer’s Truth and Method, he shows Gadamer’s intent to criticize historicism as the tendency, I claim, to historicize everything except the very subject who understands the historicized content. In opposition to this idea, Gadamer points to the relevance of tradition (as Überlieferung, and not as monolithic tradition, as the author correctly stresses). History is a specific spatial-temporal context where Dasein is situated and where comprehension begins. It is remarkable that here the author underlines Hegel’s influence over Gadamer’s philosophy. However, this fundamental reference is not fully developed. It might be relevant to analyze how Gadamer develops the insights of Hegel’s philosophy in contraposition to historicism, pointing to the fundamental issue of the connection between history and truth without returning to the concept of “absolute spirit”. This emerges not only in Truth and Method but also in a previous essay titled The Problem of Historical Consciousness. It is also notable for the relation with metaphysics that Gadamer often defines himself as a defender of the “bad infinite”.
Rodrìguez wants to show that only by focusing on this issue it is possible to correctly understand the famous and controversial Gadamerian saying “being that can be understood is language” (Gadamer, 1960). This sentence must be conceived neither as a classical metaphysical formulation, namely that language is the supreme being – in this respect I claim that it is important to stress that Gadamer himself returned to these questions, rethinking the role of language in relation to its limits (as the essay on The Limits of the Language testifies) – nor as a post-metaphysical complete absence of truth in the multiplicity of languages that lack any unity. The author claims that we need to understand language as the fundamental medium of our historical being (45). Passing from Geschichtlichkeit to Sprachlichkeit means that the famous concept of the “fusion of horizons” (between the interpreter and the text, between different cultures) is only possible in the communal horizon of language. When it comes to this fundamental claim, I think it is crucial to stress that speaking of language as a medium does not mean it is an instrument [Mittel], but rather is a center [Mitte] where the human being is inevitably situated, as Gadamer affirms with reference to Hegel.
At the end of his contribution the author aims to restate his claim: it is possible to conceive of a “philosophia prima” in Gadamer, but this does not imply the recovery of the idea of a final foundation of philosophy. The connection between being and history constitutes a path of Dasein open to experience and connected with its transcendence (as Heidegger understands it). It is my belief that this could be explained as the infinite possibility of the finite. In this direction, Rodrìguez stresses that there is no reference to an “onto-theological” conception, with a hierarchical classification of being. As the concept of the “classical” implied by Gadamer testifies, his conception of history does not entail an atemporal vision, but rather the way in which the past is able to talk to the present: “This atemporality is rather a way of historical being” (51).
Rethinking Metaphysics: Physis and Analogy
The next two contributions in the volume follow a complementary path, renovating the concept of metaphysics in order to show its compatibility with contemporary hermeneutics. Christophe Perrin’s paper inspects the conflictual relation between physics and metaphysics, aiming to underline the impossibility of doing away with metaphysics. In light of this, not even hermeneutics can surpass metaphysics: what must be done is to establish a ground for a “metaphysical hermeneutics”. The author moves from the famous assertion ascribed to Newton to “guard oneself against metaphysics”. This represented a fundamental warning to the positivists and, in general, for those thinkers who tried to overcome metaphysics. The author tries to show that the assertion does not mean a mere critique of metaphysics, but rather a “sage memento” (62), by appealing to the classical argument that criticizing metaphysics necessarily implies doing metaphysics. In this respect, the two disciplines – i.e., physics and metaphysics – appear strongly connected, despite having been considered separate since the modern age, with the former being focused on corporeal entities and the latter on the higher causes that account for the very possibility of those entities (God, the cosmos, the soul). The author follows this path by analyzing the conception expressed by Newton, showing that the exhortation to “guard oneself against metaphysics” does not refer to something external one must drive away, but rather to an intrinsic tendency that is always present in the physicist himself, a “metaphysical drive” that may lead physics to lose its purpose and dissolve in the “curiosity” mentioned by Aristotle. In this respect, the physicist must follow the advice presented in Voltaire’s Candide: cultivate your garden. In sum, Perrin aims to show the hermeneutical circularity that inhabits metaphysics: “In order to understand metaphysics we must think, but in order to think we must understand metaphysics” (68). The somewhat rhetorical conclusion of the author is that the perpetual stimulus to think metaphysically helps us understand that not even hermeneutics can escape the metaphysical temptation.
Mauricio Beuchot also engages with the concept of metaphysics in order to propose its reformulation. He focuses on ontology in particular, claiming, contra Vattimo, that hermeneutics without ontology would be “acephalous”. The author underlines that both Gadamer and Ricoeur – the two fundamental hermeneutical thinkers of the contemporary world – developed a kind of ontology (an ontology of art in Gadamer, an ontology of the self in Ricoeur). For the author it is possible to rethink metaphysics only by elaborating a concept able to face the objection raised by Nietzsche and Heidegger. In this direction, the author develops the concept of “analogical ontology” proposed by Paul Gilbert. He focuses on the role of analogy, moving from Aristotle’s intuition that “being can be said in many ways”. Analogy – as developed by Pseudo-Dionigi in the three phases of negation, affirmation, and excess – aims to affirm that God’s being neither coincides with that of other entities nor wholly transcends it; rather, it is analogically related to it, encompassing both similarity and differentiation. An analogical ontology makes use of the concept of symbol as what mediates between the universal and the particular. In light of this, the human being is a symbol of God in a way that is neither univocal (as in classical metaphysics) nor equivocal (as in post-modern thought). These categories are of course too schematic, but they are directed at exposing the author’s proposal: “The human is the metaphor of being in a metonymical way, as a part that is sign of the whole” (77). The focus is an ontology of man that follows Heidegger’s conception expressed in his fundamental Ontology: Hermeneutics of facticity. The author wants to present an intermediate way. The last part of the essay appears to be less cogent, for the author tries to show the need for this concept of metaphysics by considering the metaphysical tendency as a sort of “pharmakon” for the modern melancholia that would be aggravated by post-metaphysical thinking. The aim of analogical ontology should thus be ethical and political. It should be a concept able to take into account the motility of the modern philosopher and to answer Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s critiques: an ontology that is both universal and concrete, based on the historical situation of man.
Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricouer: “Hermeneutical Metaphysics?”
Rudolf Boutet’s contribution aims to stress the connection between metaphysics and hermeneutics moving from the tendency, common to Gadamer and Ricouer, to hearken back to the metaphysical tradition. This approach, the author stresses, is not merely a kind of “history of philosophy”, but rather a “creative interpretation of metaphysics”. This is particularly evident in Ricouer’s The rule of metaphor where he recovers the Aristotelian conception of being with the aim of giving a metaphysical basis to the internal dynamism of being concealed by the historical assimilation of being to substance. He addresses the Aristotelian doctrine of being conceived of as a “poetic of being”: being reveals the metaphor as an actualization of being (Ricouer, 1975). Analogously, Gadamer concludes Truth and method by making referencing to the Platonic-Plotinian conception of beauty as the emblem of the manifestation of truth. Boutet claims that this is not just a historical reference but rather a movement that keeps together philosophy and history. He specifically analyses Ricouer’s conception of time developed in Time and narrative. Ricouer deals with the aporia of time, that is, time is at the same time both plural and unique. The author correctly affirms that this analysis is the basis for Ricouer’s conception of history and its criticism of both utopianism (that paralyses action) and the mere restatement of past structures. This approach to tradition is what the author defines as a “creative interpretation” of metaphysics that does not come down to a merely subjective decision. It is rather “an interpretation that, in order to be adequate to the object, decides to produce a sense” (91). The fundamental claim is to rethink the creation of sense through a symbolic interpretation connected to both the metaphorical and conceptual levels. Just like Beuchot proposes an intermediate way via analogy, Boutet claims a mediation between the metaphysical issue and the multiplicity of reality.
François Jaran’s paper contributes to the general aim of the volume by focusing on how hermeneutics is able to tackle fundamental metaphysical questions such as the existence of the external world. In particular he wants to show that Heidegger inherits the “resolution” of this problem from Dilthey, despite his critique of Dilthey’s philosophy. The author contends that the intent animating Dilthey’s thought is to “explain life with itself”. This informs his critique of metaphysics and in particular its separation between man and world, such as theory and praxis, as it appears in the Introduction to the Human Sciences. Even though Dilthey strongly criticizes metaphysics (Dilthey, 1924), the author affirms that it is possible to talk of a “Diltheyan ontology” (101). According to the author, the concept of Erlebnis (crucial for Dilthey) should constitute the analogy of being. In fact, for Dilthey, the problem of the justification of the external world does not exist, because man is naturally situated in this world, as it emerges from his lived experience. From here, the author comes to affirm that, for Dilthey, Erlebnis is substance and the external world its accidents. This entails that the external world is given immediately to human beings. In strong connection with this, Dilthey refers to the concept of Innewerden (to become aware) that perfectly fits the relation between man and reality. In this direction Jaran claims: “Erlebnis is a primitive datum, whose seizing gives access to the more fundamental reality” (104). The author also claims that the concept of Innenwende is at the center of Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s conception, as a sort of key word of hermeneutics – I would rather claim that this cannot be the case for Heidegger nor for Gadamer, even though they inherit Dilthey’s conception of the relation between human and world. Indeed, they distance themselves from a philosophy of mere interiority based on Erlebnis, opposing to it, as is well known, the concept of Erfahrung.
Dilthey’s claim is undoubtedly a rehabilitation of a kind of experience where there is no distinction between the perceiver and the perceived; as such, he is critical of the traditional metaphysical conceptions that separate man and world. So the author aims to stress the “metaphysical aspect” present in Dilthey’s philosophy: “It is a philosophy that criticized the so-called ‘metaphysical speculation’, but it is however itself a metaphysical speculation” (106). Using this interpretative key, Jaran stresses that this is the main thread that leads to Heidegger, in particular referencing paragraph 43 of Being and Time, defined by Jaran as one of the “most metaphysical” paragraphs of Heidegger’s book. Heidegger in fact, following Dilthey, affirms that there is no separation between man and the world, because Dasein is co-originary with the world: it is not possible to think the world and Dasein separately; in fact Dasein gibt es (is given) together with the world. Thus, the author wants to stress that both Dilthey and Heidegger provide a solution to a crucial metaphysical problem. One last remark: following this parallelism, it would seem that Heidegger’s Dasein has the same role as Dilthey’s Erlebnis, being (in the author’s view) the substance whose accidents make up the world. I think this could be problematic and could make us lose sight of the claim of Heidegger’s philosophy (the role of Dasein as a peculiar being and not at all as being), thereby implying an existentialist reading of Dasein.
Marc-Antoine Vallée’s intent is to investigate whether hermeneutics has the “sufficient resources” to elaborate a metaphysics, conceived in the widest possible sense as “a reflection on beings and on its principles” (114). The author has a prudent (and sharable) vision, claiming that in the main contemporary hermeneutical thinkers, namely Gadamer and Ricouer, there is only the basis for a further development of “metaphysical hermeneutics”. The author rightly wants to oppose Caputo’s criticism of Gadamer’s hermeneutics (Caputo, 1987) as still connected with metaphysics, proposing a “radical hermeneutics” that intertwines with deconstruction and refuses every metaphysical problem. On the contrary Vallée claims that we must recover the relation of Gadamer and Ricouer to the main metaphysical questions. He investigates two central metaphysical topics in Truth and method, namely, the role of language and the connection of beauty with truth. I think, however, that it could be useful to remind ourselves that, as far as the question of art is concerned, Gadamer has notably rethought the Platonic-Plotinian conception of art in a more “anthropological” direction, as we see in the fundamental essay The Relevance of the Beautiful. Vallée also focuses on Gadamer essay Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Metaphysics, in which the author affirms that “phenomenology, hermeneutics and metaphysics are not different philosophical points of view, but rather the same expression of the philosophical act itself” (116). Analogously, the author indicates three possible metaphysical directions in Ricouer: the metaphysics of symbol (in Existence and Hermeneutics), the metaphysics of text (The Rule of Metaphor), and the metaphysics of the self (Oneself as Another).
The author’s main claim is that these philosophers are not metaphysical in a traditional sense (as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel), but rather, following Grondin (2003), it is possible to talk of a “silent metaphysical dimension”. For Vallée, Gadamer and Ricoeur exhibit a sort of reticence to explicitly think metaphysically; moreover, there are some bases that prevent a complete development of a metaphysical conception. In fact, hermeneutics inherits the main claim of Heidegger’s thought as the openness of thinking and a refusal of every fundamental. From this point of view, going beyond the conceptions of Gadamer and Ricouer, hermeneutics could deal with a concept of “metaphysical rationality”. In his last remark, the author wants to recover the thought of Augustine, considered as a metaphysical thinker who set the stage for a “metaphysics of existence”. The message that emerges, I claim, is that, to promote hermeneutics nowadays, we need to recover a metaphysical conception, as proposed by Augustine.
The last article moves from Gadamer’s proposal in the above mentioned essay Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Metaphysics, in which he claims that the question of metaphysics is “still open” in the contemporary age. Carla Canullo aims to show the intrinsic connection of metaphysics and hermeneutics by taking into account their etymologies. The two disciplines emerge in Greek philosophy: specifically, while metaphysics arises in Aristotelian thought in the aim of showing that being can be said in different ways, hermeneutics is conceived by Plato in his Ion, affirming that the poet’s interpretation is able to grasp the essence of reality. However, in modern metaphysics (since the Scholastics) being is thought in terms of a “fixed conception”, while hermeneutics is a discipline that allows for the openness of thought. In opposition to this conception, the author claims that since its birth, metaphysics represents a “second navigation” that moves from the investigations of natural beings to their essence. Since that time, metaphysics is always renovating itself. This can be confirmed by the term “meta” (already at the center of Greisch’s contribution) which, among different significances, means “between two”, i.e., the crack which metaphysics has always left open. Following the author’s argumentation, this implies that metaphysics is not a fixed discipline, but is rather in a constant, dynamic movement from and to physis – the movement expressed by the “meta” of metaphysics. On the other hand, hermeneutics, following the Greek “legein”, is connected with “collection”, keeping together. So, as metaphysics passes through physics, hermeneutics presupposes the need of “something” that must be collected: “Hermeneutics collects what the ‘meta’ prefix divides” (131). This recollection, however, does not imply the elimination of difference. The author affirms that metaphysics and hermeneutics mirror each other in a continuous work of renewal. This movement, which happens continuously, constitutes the emblem of the relation between the two, and can never arrive to an end.
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