Daniele De Santis: Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations

Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations: Commentary, Interpretations, Discussions Book Cover Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations: Commentary, Interpretations, Discussions
Daniele De Santis (Ed.)
Karl Alber

Reviewed by:  Stefano Franchini (University of Pisa)

The importance of the volume Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Commentary, Interpretation, Discussions can be found in its aim: providing a study of the Cartesian Meditations (henceforth CM) in its entirety. Against the tendency to reduce the CM to some of its parts – mostly intersubjectivity or transcendental idealism –, this Commentary attempts to offer a unified view of the text. As the editor De Santis in the Introduction recognizes, CM are not only »Husserl’s second attempt at systematizing his philosophy after the so-called »turn« to a transcendental form of thought« (p. 9) but are also the key to understanding Husserl’s late phenomenology. The editor states that the motivation of this book can be found in the necessity to seriously deal with the text in which Husserl highlights the importance of the »concrete ego«, which provides also a teleological-practi­cal ontology. Regarding the goal of this book, it is important to notice that the three parts CommentaryInterpretation, and Discussion are bounded by each other’s, and it is possible to find some frameworks strictly related to the Commentary and also to the other sections. The development of the Commentary is completed and expanded in the following sections, Interpretation and Discussion, but these parts are not secondary to the others.

The volume is divided into three sections, as the title states. The first part, Commentary (§1-6) provides detailed analyses that stick to Husserl’s publication of the text. The latter two, Interpretation (§7-14) and Discussion (§15-20), intertwine both the commentary and the interpretation. The editor De Santis claims (p.16) that the first part can be regarded as a commentary only if we accept »commentary« in a broad sense. Starting from the CM, the authors develop reflections that go deeper than a simple reconstruction of Husserl’s passages. As is well known, one of the main problems of CM’s reception is the tendency to overlook most of the content of the text (p.12). While in Interpretation the authors emphasize how some philosophers have been dealing with CM, in Discussion the authors spotlight some core problems of Husserl’s CM and reflect on them with other frameworks of phenomenology. For this reason, Interpretation and Discussion both aim to compare CM with Husserl’s phenomenology and with Scholars’ reception of this text, as well as to investigate some of the themes of CM that are central to all Husserl’s phenomenology.

The goal of understanding CM as a whole can be found also in the internal links that can be found. Regarding this, it’s important to notice Daniele De Santis’ §4 on Fourth Meditation with Witold Płotka’s §8, Aurélien Djian’s commentary on Second Meditation with §9 written by Ignacio Quepons and §15 by Emanuela Carta and §5-6 on Fifth Meditation made by Sara Heinämaa (§5) and Alice Pugliese (§6) with Stefano Bancalari’s work on Levinas (§10) and Saulius Geniusas’ contribute on Paul Ricoeur. This allows both a mutual confrontation and a thematic deepening – although internal references are not always present in the text. But it is also possible to further interweave internal references and compare e.g. Landgrebe and Husserl on the account of the idea of Erste Philosophie – these topics are respectively discussed in §9 concerning Landgrebe’s remarks on CM and in §19 §20, specially here on Husserl’s »first« and » universal« and »second« and »last« philosophy. Thanks to the in-depth sections, it is therefore possible to compare the theoretical outcomes of the MC’s with Husserl’s latest phenomenology – e.g Andreea Smaranda Aldea in §17 claims that »Husserl’s emphatic call for a higher-order critique in the Cartesian Meditations as anticipating his Crisis call for radical self-reflection« (p. 453) and Alice Pugliese who compares the Fifth Meditation also with Husserl’s Grenzprobleme der Phänomenologie.

It is important to note that Interpretation and Discussion are not appendixes of the Commentary. Alongside a reading accompaniment, the authors shed light on issues that are often overlooked. For this reason, it seems to me that rather than exhausting the research, the importance of this volume is to be a forerunner for even more in-depth studies of MC. For example, Witold Płotka in §8 goes far beyond just a simple reconstruction of Roman Ingarden’s remarks on CM. Namely, even if these remarks »are an historical document of phenomenological movement« (p. 216), the author stresses the importance of Ingarden’s work also in respect to the Fourth Meditation and to some unjustified presuppositions. In this respect, also Danilo Manca researches in §7 the Hegelian motifs of MC which Fink highlights. Specifically, Manca focuses on the »transition from the natural to the transcendental attitude« (p.193), on the Gespaltung of the Ego after performing epochē and the thematization of unconscious dimension of constituting life which that phenomenological method makes possible. Based on Fink’s reflections and stressing Hegel’s use of »Aufheben« (p. 197), the author shows the continuity between the natural and transcendental attitude. Regarding MC, the author deals with Fink’s remarks on §32 – in which the ego in is understood as a »substrate of habitualities« and with the dialectic between the two I, the natural and the transcendental one. In a passage of Fourth Meditation, Husserl claims that his CM are for the »nascent philosopher the genuine introduction into a philosophy«[1]. The same thing does not completely fit with Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Commentary, Interpretation, Discussions. In some parts the content discussed by the authors presupposes a good knowledge of Husserl’s philosophy – not just of MC – and for a non-specialist reader it might be difficult. Especially §14 Meditations on Purity: Edmund Husserl and Hans Kelsen wrote by Federico Lijoi and §18 Lavigne’s Objection to Phenomenologica Idealism: Critical Remarks with the Help of the Cartesian Meditations by Agustín Serrano de Haro are only fully clear to readers that already are familiar with the phenomenological milieu and, in the second case, with Logic Investigation. For this reason, the »broad sense« of the Commentary includes discussions of problems that are not limited to the text commented on here and investigate some core problems of Husserl’s phenomenology. Nevertheless, these chapters are certainly an opportunity to explore these issues.

Certainly, the Commentary’s part offers a detailed discussion. Claudio Majolino in the first part of Commentary (§1) clarifies the meaning of »Cartesian« and »Meditations« and he researches for the Motive – both in its German meanings (p. 27) – why Husserl took Descartes as a reference. This part is longer than the other and it deals both with Husserl’ Introduction and Fist Meditation. Since the earliest reviews many criticisms emerged against Husserl’s approach towards the figure of Descartes (p. 14-6), investigating this point is a good key to start. Claudio Majolino works on Husserl’s so-called Cartesianism and understands it in terms of »repetition and variation« (.p 22). Using some insights from Hua VII / VIII and Husserliana Materialen IX Claudio Majolino stresses the threefold meaning of Descartes’ Meditation recognized by Husserl: the eternal meaning, the importance of CM for the present and finally the meaning of Descartes’ Meditations for the present. The author approaches this problem by pointing out the way Husserl had already discussed Descartes (Socrates and Plato) in his previous Lectures. Regarding this point Claudio Majolino claims that «[Descartes] embedded the skepsis within the innermost core of genuine and radical philosophy itself» (p. 35). If on the one hand, Descartes took some arguments from Skepticism, on the other, on several occasions he points out the differences between his doubt and skepticism[2]. The boundness between the grounded knowledge and responsibility, well discussed in §1, from another point of view, is also investigated by Leonard Ip (§20) using the distinction between »Second« and »Last« Philosophy in Husserl. The reference to Descartes allows Husserl to link knowledge to responsibility, but it also poses some problems: first and foremost, that of the route into phenomenology. In §16 Rosemary Jane Rizo and Patron de Lerner points that out and discusses Husserl’s Cartesian way to reduction. Starting from a discussion of Begründung and Fundierung (p. 405-10) two terms used by Husserl to describe the foundational problem, the A. than discusses the main theme regarding CM. It is important to notice that Rosemary Jane Rizo and Patron de Lerner highlight two antithetical demands in Husserl’s thoughts about science: the interest in a mathematical theoretical foundation and the interest in transcendental subjectivity, which is connected to the Lebenswelt and gives it a foundation. The focus on the Husserl-Descartes link finds another insight in §17. Here, Sergio Pérez-Gatica in his The Distinction between »First« and »Universal« Philosophy in Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations: On a Basic Precondition for the Trasformation of Philosophy into a Rigorous Science points out that while »philosophy« means »universal philosophy« – in terms of Platonic and Cartesian idea of universal science –, Husserl uses »first philosophy« in a technical way to stress the basic method for a rigorous philosophical knowledge. Considering the lack of rigor in philosophy at his time, Husserl uses the Cartesian path to draft the real goal for its phenomenology: providing a fundamental epistemology. (p. 483). In conclusion Sergio Pérez-Gatica highlights the connection between logical and ontological requirements in Husserl’s philosophy and the reflections contained in MC on the idea of rigorous grounding philosophy. Regarding Cartesian way, another insight comes from §9. Here Ignacio Quepons points out that Landgrebe stresses the same problem of the Cartesian way to reduction declared by Husserl itself in Crisis. It’s also important to observe that even if Husserl criticizes the Cartesian way, nevertheless, the other ways do not reject the first one, but complete it by revealing other possibilities (p. 239-40). Another attempt to focus also on Husserl’s so-called Cartesianism can be found in §13 Jan Patočka on Descartes and Husserl’s Cartesianism wrote by Hynek Janoušek and Wojciech Starzyński. The authors discuss Patočka on epochē and reduction from Husserl. While »Patočka accepts Husserl’s method of epochē as a major breakthrough in modern philosophy […], he rejects Husserl’s idea of reduction as leading to the unwarranted subjunctivization of the phenomenal field of appearances« (p. 344). This chapter seems to me to be successful because it relates Patočka with Descartes and Husserl.

Following the Commentary, in §2 Aurélien Djian points out how Husserl repeats and varies – using Caludio Majolino’s words – Descartes to introduce its own transcendental phenomenology. The author stresses specifically the horizon, synthesis, and intentionality notions. Aurélien Djian shows that transcendental subjectivity should not be conflated with the psychological ego because it only can be grasped through epochē (p. 68). The conclusion of §2 discusses a passage of MC §9 and it has a very specific purpose: showing the problems related to Husserl’s »ranking the horizon among the universal principles of phenomenology« (p. 88) and the need for apodicticity of the ego. In §3 Lilian Alweiss asks: how is it possible to do Ontology after Kant? To answer this question the author considers »two different ways of referring to non-being« picked up by phenomenological descriptions: one linked to »possibilities which have not yet been fulfilled, the other to possibilities which have been dashed« (p. 96). Then Lilian Alweiss traces a connection between Husserl and Kant regarding the answer to Hume’s circle. This passage is fundamental to understand why this chapter states that Husserl traces the limits of being from within, with the notion of evidence and through imagination. De Santis’ §4 investigates the role of transcendental idealism in MC, the only place where it has an »exoteric systematic presentation of this doctrine« (p. 115 mod). This comment connects the focus on Husserl’s idioms to the philosophical content in them. Namely, the author points out Husserl’s use of Unsinn, not just in MC but also in Ideas I, and compares it to the occurrences of Wiedersinn. The goal of this chapter is to show that each sense is grasped with respect to transcendental subjectivity, which must be regarded as a monad. De Santis claims also that the monad is »subjectivity constituted by the correlation between the surrounding world (or the world as it appears to me) and the »personal character« (p. 117). Since Husserl’s fifth meditation is longer than the others, the Commentary is divided into two sections: §5 written by Sara Heinämaa and §6 by Alice Pugliese. The first one deals with MC § §42-54, the second one with §55-64. Sara Heinämaa starts considering that »some forms of critique are thematic and reject Husserl’s descriptions of our experiences of other persons or other human beings, while other lines of critique are methodological and question the adequacy of the conceptual tools used in the analysis« (p.141). Then the author points out the role of these chapters within MC as a whole. As Sara Heinämaa states, »with the supposed failure of Fifth Meditation then, with the failure of its account of the constitution of the sense of another self, much, if not all, of Husserl’s phenomenological project would collapse« (p. 143). The main topic of this contribution is to explain the concepts of verification, analogical apperception, and empathy. This chapter faces the transfer of »sense problem« and stresses Husserl’s strategy already adopted in his previous texts. Namely, Husserl uses scientific and philosophic standard terms without their standard meaning – e.g Husserl’s »empathy« is different from Stein’s or Scheler’s use of the same word (p. 157). Alice Pugliese addresses the last part of MC »using one of the most consistent and ancient questions of metaphysics as a hermeneutical key: the dialectic of unity and multiplicity« (p. 171). More in detail, the author claims that the unity-multiplicity problem leads the empathy problem. This strategy completely fits MC, especially considering that »the monad is a unity that includes multiplicity« (p. 178). This reading is further confirmed if we consider »the core of the egological and monadic intuition« which stands for unity and the »the daily work of science and knowledge« as multiplicity (p. 186). The problems of Fifth CM discussed in the Commentary are taken again by Stefano Bancalari, who in §10 discuss The influence of the Cartesian Meditations on the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. If on the one hand, the 5th MC provided Levinas the intersubjective problem, central for his work, on the other, it determined the rupture with Husserl’s phenomenology (p. 260). Considering Levinas’ thought nearly in its entirety, Stefano Bancalari points out how Levinas used his »intersubjective reduction« to overcome the problems related to Husserl’s Cartesian way to reduction. Regarding the aim of this book this contribution is important because it thematizes Others’ constitution problem. Stefano Bancalari also shows why the lack of the Others’ gaze in the analogical apperception for Levinas is a problem (p. 271). Another perspective on the intersubjectivity problem comes from Jakub Čapek, who discusses Merleau-Ponty’s lecture of CM in §11. The author shows how from an initial critique to the ego Merleau-Ponty then  uses Husserl’s analysis, and in particular the idea of appresentation, »to face the objection that his theory makes individual perspectives vanish into a monism of a supra-individual corporeity« (283). As Jakub Čapek recognizes, Merleau-Ponty goes further and in the end of Phenomenology of perception claims the return to the ego – albeit transformed. The author states that for Merleau-Ponty the main problem of Husserl’s account of intersubjectivity is the transposition from the I to the Other because it is based on the immediate self-knowledge. On the contrary, for Merleau-Ponty our self-knowledge is »a practical task yet to be accomplished« (284). Although in §11there is no reference to Merleau-Ponty’s receipt of Ideas II, this contribution further enriches some of the problems seen in the previous chapters. In §12 Saulius Geniusas in his Paul Ricoeur’s Husserlian Heresies: The Case of the Cartesian Meditations points out that MC are the core not only of Ricœur’s reading of Husserl, but also for his philosophy itself. The author approaches the topic using three questions: how Cartesian are Husserl’s MC?  How descriptive is Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology? How egological is Husserl’s egology? Saulius Geniusas claims that »Husserl secularizes Descartes and interprets the Cartesian cogito as the transcendental subject, conceived of as the ultimate origin of all meaning« (p. 305). Additionally, if on the one hand, the author bounds both Descartes and Husserl on the problem, on the other he stresses that Husserl’s radicalization of Descartes does not address God. Regarding the second question, Saulius Geniusas stresses that »for Ricoeur, Husserl’s phenomenology is not sufficiently descriptive because it does not constrain its own descriptions from gliding into transcendental idealism» (315). It is important to notice that this chapter bounds itself both with Daniele De Santis’ §4 and Stefano Bancalari’s §10. Regarding the problem of evidence, Emanuela Carta in §15 reconstructs scholars’ discussion of Husserl’s evidence understood as Theory of justification (Standard View) and proposes a new interpretation of the theme where evidence justifies belief. Fallibilist Thesis claims »What is evidently given to one can be false« and it is related with The Corollary Thesis: »It is possible for one to have justification to believe a false proposition« (379). After criticizing the metaphysical realism of scholars, the author discusses Husserl’s notion of »idealism«. Here a footnote on De Santis’ work in this text could have been useful. Finally, Emanuela Carta provides an alternative to the Standard view, claiming the correlation between absolute truth- adequate evidence and relative truth-inadequate evidence (p 393). Thanks to that it is possible to reject both Fallibilist Thesis and The Corollary Thesis and to argue that evidence justifies belief because it shows what is true, even if in an open and perfectible way. A Discussion that shows the unity of the late Husserl’s thought is that of Andreea Smaranda Aldea, Self-Othering, Self-Transformation, and Theoretical Freedom: Self-Variation and Husserl’s Phenomenology as Radical Immanent Critique. Specifically on this topic the author links the self-critique of the self-variation with Crisis’ zig-zag method. Namely, self-variation clarifies both the goal of inquiries and itself. For this reason, if we consider the Besinnung as a Rückfrage, it is possible to regard self-variation »as methodological tool central to phenomenology as a whole« (p. 453). In his conclusion, following the sense of Besinnung, Andreea Smaranda Aldea claims that self-variation is not just a simple method related to self-constitution, but »a central method at the core of phenomenology itself functions as a necessary condition for the possibility of this radical self-critique« (455).

Before concluding this review, I would like to focus on another goal of the volume: if on the one hand the volume presents itself as a unique volume, on the other the richness of the contributions also allows a specific selection of some parts of it. This means that Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditation. Commentary, Interpretation, Discussions is not only aimed at specialists of Husserl, but also at all those who, across the board, have to deal with MC. In sum, this volume marks a notable achievement. The broad sense of the Commentary completely full fits the goal of the editor. Additionally, it should not be read merely as commentary. Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditation. Commentary, Interpretation, Discussions is a collection of contributions which gives a rich and broad view of the Cartesian Meditations as a whole. All the various parts move in different, often intertwined, directions and show the richness of Husserl’s work. The volume’s conspicuous number of pages proves how urgently an entire study dedicated to MCs was needed.

[1] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian meditations (translated by D. Cairns), p. 88.

[2] See René Descartes, Œuvres Complètes, vol. 12 (Vrin, 1996). Specially AT VI 29, AT X 512 and AT III 434.

Zachary Isrow: The Spectricity of Humanness, De Gruyter, 2022

The Spectricity of Humanness: Spectral Ontology and Being-in-the-World Book Cover The Spectricity of Humanness: Spectral Ontology and Being-in-the-World
Zachary Isrow
De Gruyter
Hardcover 99,95 €
Front matter: 17. Main content: 218

Algis Mickunas, Joseph Pilotta: A Critical Understanding of Artificial Intelligence: A Phenomenological Foundation, Bentham Books, 2023

A Critical Understanding of Artificial Intelligence: A Phenomenological Foundation Book Cover A Critical Understanding of Artificial Intelligence: A Phenomenological Foundation
Algis Mickunas, Joseph Pilotta
Bentham Books
Printed Copy: US $76.00

Gregory Desilet: The Enigma of Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida, Language and Life, McFarland, 2023

The Enigma of Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida, Language and Life Book Cover The Enigma of Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida, Language and Life
Gregory Desilet: The Enigma of Meaning: Wittgenstein and Derrida, Language and Life, McFarland, 2023
Paperback $65.00

Adriano Fabris (Ed.): Heidegger. Una guida, Carocci, 2023

Heidegger. Una guida Book Cover Heidegger. Una guida
Studi Superiori
Adriano Fabris (Ed.)
Paperback 27,55 €

Elena Partene: La norme et l’excédent: Étude sur les prémices du transcendantal kantien, Hermann, 2023

La norme et l'excédent: Étude sur les prémices du transcendantal kantien Book Cover La norme et l'excédent: Étude sur les prémices du transcendantal kantien
Le Bel Aujourd'hui
Elena Partene
Paperback 27,00 €

Antonio Calcagno, Ronny Miron (Eds.): Hedwig Conrad-Martius and Edith Stein: Philosophical Encounters and Divides, Springer, 2022

Hedwig Conrad-Martius and Edith Stein: Philosophical Encounters and Divides Book Cover Hedwig Conrad-Martius and Edith Stein: Philosophical Encounters and Divides
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences (WHPS, volume 16)
Antonio Calcagno, Ronny Miron (Eds.)
Hardback 128,39 €
XII, 157

Martin Heidegger: Metaphysics and Nihilism, Polity, 2022

Metaphysics and Nihilism: 1 - The Overcoming of Metaphysics 2 - The Essence of Nihilism Book Cover Metaphysics and Nihilism: 1 - The Overcoming of Metaphysics 2 - The Essence of Nihilism
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Arun Iyer
Hardback £25.00 €30.90

Emiliano Trizio: Philosophy’s Nature: Husserl’s Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics

Philosophy's Nature: Husserl's Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics Book Cover Philosophy's Nature: Husserl's Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Emiliano Trizio
Paperback £28.80

Reviewed by: Gregor Bös (King's College London)

1           Introduction

The Crisis might be Husserl’s most widely read work, and within the Crisis, §9 on Galileo’s invention of modern science has captivated generations of readers. It raises a host of questions:

What does it mean that mathematized science offers only a method, not the true being of nature? How can science both be founded and contained in the pre-scientific lifeworld? How does Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology offer an alternative to Galileo’s conception of nature?

This critique of Galilean science comes from a mathematician-turned-philosopher, who staunchly defended the possibility of objective knowledge in the Prolegomena and sought to turn philosophy into a rigorous science. Husserl’s last work is as puzzling as fascinating, and it is easy to see why it remains one of the most popular entry points into Husserlian phenomenology and interpreters keep coming back to it.

Emiliano Trizio’s new monograph Philosophy’s Nature is a case in point, culminating in an extensive commentary on §9, where different threads of the book find together. The discussion of Galileo is embedded in, as the book’s subtitle announces, Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, natural science, and metaphysics. Trizio establishes this context not only by drawing on Husserl’s earliest writings from 1890s, but also the 19th century ignorabimus debate about the limits of scientific knowledge. Husserl is cast as offering an alternative to Mach’s phenomenalism and Helmholtz’ critical realism, which is a refreshing alternative to framing Husserl’s account in terms of the later scientific realism debate. When addressing classical questions about the relationship of lifeworld and natural science, Trizio emphasizes the role of teleology, and offers a carefully argued extrapolation from the Crisis fragment.

After presenting the book, I raise some questions: about mathematization and the sensible plena, Trizio’s distinction between causal and categorial inference in science, implications for empirical psychology, the aprioristic account of phenomenology, and the metaphysical status of correlationism.

2          Summary

2.1         The 19th Century Background

The first chapter sketches a background debate. Rather than beginning from contemporary standard debates about scientific realism, Trizio reaches back to the 19th century, when debates about the limits of physical knowledge were already in full swing. The mechanistic world picture led to the well-known thought experiment of the Laplacian demon. The original question was whether astronomers’ successful predictions could be expanded to the entire world, given enough knowledge and intellectual resources. DuBois-Reymond turned this into an argument about the limits of scientific knowledge: If the intrinsic nature of physical objects, or the origin of conscious experience from physiology were forever hidden from the Laplacian demon, must also remain hidden from human scientists. Thus, there must be an ignorabimus, a domain that “we will never know”.

Mach argues that DuBois-Reymond relies on metaphysical assumptions of the mechanistic world picture. That picture came under more and more pressure from electromagnetism and thermodynamics (before quantum mechanics and relativity theory upended classical physics altogether). Mach’s phenomenalism is an anti-metaphysical programme that requires a reinterpretation of what physical theories are about–rejecting things beyond their presentations in experience.

The critical realists need no such “dissolution” of the object of physics into series of experiences. Trizio focuses on Helmholtz and Planck, who take the thing of perception to be a “sign” that is distinct from, but lawfully related to the real, physical thing. This view is realist about the existence of the external world and our possibility of knowing about it. But it is critical rather than naïve for separating the thing of perception from the thing of physics.

This is the background for discussing how Husserl relates the external world, the world of physics, and world of sensory perception. But we have already seen that an important difference in the critical realist and phenomenalist responses to the ignorabimus is their different tolerance for metaphysics. The next chapter therefore discusses the disputed relation between metaphysics and epistemology in Husserl’s work.

2.2             Epistemology and Metaphysics

The role of metaphysics in phenomenology has long been disputed. Especially Husserl’s late work seems to discuss overtly metaphysical questions, such as whether the world could exist without an actual consciousness. But especially in the Logical Investigations, Husserl declares the metaphysical neutrality of his considerations. The reduction is also described as a way to shed the metaphysical prejudice of the natural attitude.

An easy way out would be to say that Husserl’s commitments change, but Trizio resists the narrative of separate periods and “turns” (this alone is an impressive achievement). He begins with a text about the nature of space from the 1890s where Husserl distinguishes between the Theory of Knowledge—asking «how is knowledge of the objective world is possible?»—and metaphysics—asking what the actual world is ultimately like. Depending on how we understand the possibility of knowledge, we end up with a different metaphysical picture of the world, e.g. a phenomenalist, rather than a critical realist account.

Trizio presents Husserl’s later metaphysics as a consistent expansion from this idea. The metaphysical commitments are a consequence of the adopted theory of knowledge. He grants that there is a shift of emphasis from the question “how knowledge is possible” to the question of the “sense of being” which is clarified in transcendental phenomenology. But while seeking the “sense of being” sounds like a metaphysical task, it can also be understood as: “what must be the sense of being, for knowledge of it to be possible?”, so the primacy of epistemology can be maintained (cf. 59f.).

With this clarified relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, we can now reconsider natural science. The natural sciences operate with the well-known presupposition of the natural attitude. The metaphysical clarification from phenomenology addresses not immediately whether particular theoretical terms like “electron” refer to unobservable objects, but investigates the sense of “natural world” that the empirical sciences presuppose. Via the phenomenological clarification, the natural sciences become a metaphysics of nature. Transcendental phenomenology provides the “a priori framework underlying all possible factual realities” (86), which provides the “ontological closure of the sciences”. This closure amounts to the rejection of any ignorabimus, or hyperphysical reality, that would lie beyond these sciences. Slightly later, Trizio summarizes this metaphysical picture as “the world is a unit of sense constituted in transcendental intersubjectivity and nothing beyond that”. (107) Once the ontological closure of the empirical sciences has been achieved, the room for metaphysics is exhausted.

2.3             Transcendental Phenomenology

What separates the empirical sciences from ultimate metaphysics is “a clarification of the sense of their fundamental assumptions, […] most important among them, the positing of the world.” (99) Chapter three therefore turns to the phänomenologische Fundamentalbetrachtung (consideration fundamental to phenomenology, §§27-62) of the Ideas I. Husserl here argues that consciousness is an absolute region of being, independent of the posit of the world.

The book remains focused on the relation between perception and the thing of physics. According to the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, only the primary qualities carry over from perceptual appearance to the thing of physics, whereas secondary qualities originate in the subject. But Husserl distinguishes between the intuitive space of perception and the ideal space of geometry. A drawn triangle exists in an intuitive space, but it only serves as a sign for an ideal triangle in the space of geometry. What mathematized science discloses are such idealized properties; therefore, they are not a subset of the perceivable properties. Applied to the relation between perceptual and physical thing, this means that even the intuition of spatial properties does not remain without a contribution from the subject (103f.). Neither Husserl nor Trizio put it this bluntly, but it seems like all perceptual qualities turn out to be secondary.

Without overlap between the properties of physics and perception, one might expect a form of critical realism, where the perceptual object is only a sign for the physical thing. But one of the most poignant passages in the Ideas I reads: “The physical thing which [the scientist] observes, with which he experiments, which [he puts] in the melting furnace: that physical thing, and no other, becomes the subject of the predicates ascribed in physics.” (Husserl [1913] 1982, §52, 120) Trizio takes this identification of physical and perceptual seriously and argues that it shows a rejection of critical realism; the perceptual thing is rather a “sign for itself” (114). The key is Husserl’s notion of the “empty X as the bearer of all objective properties, whether they are disclosed in perception or in empirical science. The critical realist distinguishes an object X that bears the perceptual properties, and an object Y, which is determined by scientific theory. Husserl however argues that such a “hidden” cause leads to a regress. If we can know an object Y only inferentially, then a more competent observer could know Y on the basis of perception–but then for this observer, the appearances of Y would indicate an object Z, and so forth. (cf. 112)

This argument relies on the essential perceivability of all physical things which has led to an association between Husserl and anti-realist philosophers of science. A main feature of Trizio’s book is that it here steers a more realist line, according to which also scientific theories about unobservable entities can achieve a true, metaphysical insight into nature. The key is Trizio’s distinction between the causal inference that leads to the posit of observable things—say, a planet—and the inferences that lead to explanations in unobservable terms, like atoms (111). To treat the latter as causal inference to an unobservable world creates the “causal depth” of the critical realist picture, and the mentioned regress. The theoretical inferences of microphysics instead provide a categorial determination of the world of perception. The sense in which nature transcends our subjective experience has already been established at the level of perception, and scientific theories do not force us “to accept a different account of the ‘externality’ of the world” (115).

Once more emphasizing continuity through Husserl’s work, Trizio here relies on an account of categorial determination from the Sixh Logical Investigation. Pre-scientific judgements already contain meanings that do not allow for fulfilment in sensory intuition. “Just as the ‘and’, the ‘or’, and the ‘is’ cannot be painted, the physico-mathematical concepts cannot be ‘turned’ or ‘translated’ into sensuous determinations of whatever kind.” (122) Instead, the sense in which a microphysical theory is true has to be understood according to the truth of categorial determinations. These have nothing to do with our perceptual capacities and neither has the goal of scientific theory. “Accordingly, God’s physics would amount to the same true, complete mathematical physics that we human subjects strive to achieve, the one that describes matter as it is in itself, in its real, intrinsic nature, by means of categorial unities of thought”. This account of microphysical being is exegetically convincing, interesting, and sets Trizio’s account apart from other interpreters—I will comment on it below.

The rest of the chapter develops more critical responses to recent secondary literature, especially Harvey, Wiltsche and Hardy. Whereas the first two err on the side of instrumentalism, Hardy’s proposal aims to make transcendental idealism and metaphysical realism compatible, which for Trizio is a non-starter. The common error, so Trizio appears to say, is the imposition of “ready-made ‘philosophical problems’ as hermeneutical frameworks to interpret Husserl’s thought.” (138) Doing so “wreak[s] havoc on the internal articulation of a philosophy meant to generate its own task and method” (ibid.). The reader might want to consider for themselves: Can we approach Husserl with a philosophical topic or question, or must we let Husserl define the goal of philosophy? It is hard to see how an interpretation as comprehensive as Trizio’s could be achieved without granting Husserl to define the goals, and the complaint about ready-made philosophical problems is understandable. But one might equally worry that Trizio’s alternative stays confined by a philosophical edifice and its internal questions. Zahavi (2017, 184f.) for example appears less restrictive, and can point out interesting parallels, such as between Husserl’s correlationism and Putnam’s internal realism.

2.4             Ideas II

The fourth chapter focuses on the Ideas II, and the constitutional role of the lived body (Leib), intersubjectivity, and the relation between the natural, naturalistic, and personalistic attitude. Trizio here also refines the previous discussion of space, distinguishing between the subjective sensuous space, the objective perceptual space, and an idealized objective space. “The objective but not yet idealized space is the link between what is given to us in perception and the idealized language of physics” (161) Whereas the sensuous space is oriented around a perceiver’s body, the objective perceptual space has no such orientation. Intuition of objective perceptual space is only possible through founded acts: movements, rotations, and acts of empathy (ibid.). This is not an idealization, rather the objective perceptual space is constituted as “every-body’s space” (ibid.).

The chapter also discusses Rang and Ingarden, and thereby offers more detail about the interpretation of microphysics. While “it is true that concepts such as ‘atoms’ and ‘ions’ do not refer to ‘Dinglichkeiten an sich’, this is not because atoms and ions do not exist, but because they exist qua endpoints of the constitution of material nature in transcendental consciousness.” (170) Such endpoints are categorial determinations of the sensible world that also a divine physics would be compelled to. This is only one of several places where teleology features centrally.

Trizio now briefly returns to the challenge from DuBois-Reymond. That atoms cannot be the objects of experience does not mean that they comprise an ignorabimus: imperceivable atoms are still knowable as the ideal limit of categorially determining the perceivable world. The account of idealizations is what undermines DuBois-Reymond’s connection between the imperceivable and the unknowable (187f.).

Then, within five pages, Trizio discusses challenges from quantum mechanics and relativity theory. The discussion of quantum mechanics relies on a short appendix to the Crisis, one of very few places where Husserl ever talks about non-classical physics. Trizio argues that Husserl’s sees no conflict between quantum mechanics and the scientific goal of an objective description of nature. What quantum mechanics reveals is rather that some objects can only be studied as ensembles, not individually. This means that some idealizations stay tied to typical environments, and therefore particular scales. In turn, the relevant idealizations for our scientific descriptions can be scale-dependent (191f.), and there is no guarantee that we have a reductive basis for the idealizations of higher-level theories (such as physiology and biophysics). This is an interesting discussion, but stays at a very high level of generality.

The challenge from relativity theory is more obviously problematic. It undermines the idea that the “essence of space” could be studied a priori, independently of empirical theory. Trizio admits here that Husserl’s silence on the issue—despite the work of Weyl and Becker—is disappointing. In conclusion, Trizio thinks that relativity theory shows that intuitive and objective space are farther apart than we thought, but that this affects neither the rejection of critical realism nor the identity of perceptual and physical thing. I discuss below how relativity theory might require to rethink the relation between phenomenology and empirical science.

2.5             Life-World and Natural Science

The fifth chapter is by far the longest, running to almost a hundred pages. We now turn to the Crisis of European Sciences, and the discussion of Galileo in §9. Trizio further emphasizes the role of teleology, as in the account of categorial determination and in some earlier work (Trizio 2016). The crisis of the European sciences is explained as an “uncertainty and disorientation with respect to the essence inhabiting such a cultural formation [as empirical science] as its telos” (204) That the natural sciences have suffered a “loss of meaning” is a consequence of their separation from philosophy: as part of philosophy, empirical investigation had a context in which it was meaningful for life (206).

The chapter is comprehensive because part of its ambition is to discuss parts of the Crisis that remained a sketch: how spirit relates to nature, and the relationship between the objective spirit investigated in the human sciences, and the absolute spirit described in phenomenology (214f.) Trizio distinguishes three scientific endeavours: the natural sciences (naturalistic attitude), the positive sciences of objective spirit (personalistic attitude), and the phenomenological science of absolute spirit (transcendental attitude, 215). Natural and spiritual world have their own principles of unity, causal relations in the former, motivational relations in the latter case. (210)  Natural and spiritual world are different aspects of the lifeworld, but since the entire lifeworld has been replaced by mathematized nature, the world of spirit has been forgotten (247, 250). This misinterpretation is spelled out in the central §9, which is honoured with 36 pages of reconstruction and discussion. For anyone interested in Husserl’s account of Galileo, this commentary alone is a good reason to consult this book.

After recovering the world of spirit, Trizio finds a priority of human sciences over natural sciences: “the naturalistic attitude is subordinate to the personalistic attitude because it is the personal Ego that performs the operations necessary to render nature thematic as the sphere of mere natural objectivities” (258). This relation between these theoretical endeavours also leads to an ontological relation between their domains. “If nature is an abstract stratum of the life-world, it cannot be ontologically prior to it. It is an abstract layer of what for us has meaning in terms of our aims, among which its scientific explication also finds a place.” (260f.) It seems easy to vacillate here between nature as a “Zweckgebilde” of natural science, and nature as the domain of empty Xs that bear perceptual and scientific determinations: a domain that is factually indeterminate, but already determinable (this seems to require at least that the “Zweckgebilde” of natural science does not change with scientific theories or political environments).

Trizio then addresses the classic question how a scientifically true world could both be grounded on and encompassed by the lifeworld. The offered solution again relies on teleology: “the mode of being of scientific nature is that of an end of a specific human praxis” (270). The lifeworld itself however is independent of any specific aims (268); it is in this sense prior to any scientifically disclosed worlds, because the motivation to begin a scientific endeavour begins from the lifeworld. However, the lifeworld has no “outside”: whatever turns out to exist has to exist as part of the very same world that we were already determining by the means of perception.

Trizio here disagrees with interpreters who distinguish the transcendental reduction from a preliminary “reduction to the lifeworld” which brackets scientific theory and practice but leaves the natural attitude intact (e.g. Bitbol 2020). What makes the lifeworld pre-scientific in Trizio’s account is not the absence of scientific culture, but the lack of a telos. Whereas the objective determination of nature is the telos that for the scientific world, the lifeworld has no such practical goal. But even though this allows to distinguish different worlds, the world of science still is an objectivation of the lifeworld, not an independently constructed scientific image. When we are bracketing scientific culture, this focuses our attention on a pure layer of the lifeworld, rather than revealing the lifeworld in its entirety (269).

En passant, Trizio again discusses competing anti-realist interpretations, leading to a clearer picture of his own account. Antirealism here is glossed as the claim that science can only arrive at correct prediction of appearances, but not at knowledge about true nature as it is in itself. If Husserl were an antirealist about scientific knowledge, no account of nature would be compatible with transcendental phenomenology. a) Husserl cannot be claim that the objective world does not exist (only that it is not a mathematical manifold) b) nature cannot be in principle unknowable, because that is incompatible with the principle of correlation, c) natural science is also not to be replaced by a new science of nature, d) agnosticism is like skepticism a “deadly enem[y] of philosophy”. (256f.) Since Husserl is not a metaphysical realist, this rejection of anti-realism is not a commitment to scientific realism in the standard contemporary sense. The condensed discussion again reveals importance of the principle of correlation: unknowable aspects of nature are excluded from the start.

In the last paragraphs, entitled “Nature as the correlate of Absolute Spirit”, Trizio edges towards some further metaphysical conclusions. The premise is that nature can only be constituted as an abstract core of the life-world, which is personal in character. (275) Therefore, nature can only appear through intentional acts that are abstract components of the concrete unity of constituting life. It is not possible to think of a constitution of nature that was not embedded in a constituting life, and such constituting life must know a personal attitude. Unfortunately, Trizio does not make explicit whether this means that he concurs with Husserl’s proof of idealism: that a world which never develops constituting forms of life is metaphysically impossible. (Husserl 2003)

3          Commentary

It is clear that this is a work of serious scholarship. Trizio draws on an impressive range of sources, from before the Logical Investigations to the Crisis. Well known parts of Husserl’s work are central, such as the consideration fundamental to phenomenology, or §9 of the Crisis. But also the Ideas II and the less known 1917 treatise Phenomenology and Theory of Knowledge (Husserl et al. 1987, 125–205) are central points of reference. Framing Husserl in the ignorabimus debate is well done and sets up an interesting angle for the discussion.

The production quality of the digital edition is good. References and endnotes are listed per chapter, endnotes are conveniently two-way linked to the main text. There are a number of avoidable editorial oversights and Typos, especially in German quotations (e.g. 76, 258) and names (e.g. 122, 148), but the overall typesetting is pleasant. With these descriptive points out of the way, I can now turn to the content.

3.1              The Mathematization of Plena

One of Husserl’s main claims in §9 of the Crisis is that the “sensible plena” (sinnliche Füllen) cannot be directly mathematized, unlike the shapes of objects. Hence, Galileo has to make the hypothesis that all determinations of the plena will be implied by a completed account of the shapes—the plena will be indirectly mathematized. When Trizio reconstructs why the plena do not allow for mathematization, he connects this with the impossibility of finding a compositional basis to construct the plena. “There can be no analogue of the ruler in the case of a color, or of a warmth-property, no smaller standard that, via a certain method of composition, could “build” the original quality out of smaller parts, not even approximately, ‘with a rest’.” (232)

There is, however, no discussion of established practices for precise communication of colours. When colours are communicated as RGB or CMYK codes, they are specified exactly in terms of the combination of red, green and blue light (or the densities of standardized inks). Why does this not count as the construction of a colour-space from basic elements? It seems to me that the difference between shapes and plena is not so much in compositionality, but in the convergence to an ideal limit. Shapes can be put in line to approach a flat surface or a straight line or a sphere. This ideal reference point is never reached. A series of colour patches, however, does not approach an unintuitable “ideal red”: an orange patch can be more or less close to a red patch, but the limit remains intuitable. Colour similarity only compares to an intuitable limit that retains some indeterminacy. This is not the kind of convergence that we have in the case of geometry, where intuitive shapes can approach a precise, unintuitable ideal.

3.2             Causal inference and inference to categorial determinations

Trizio’s realism about scientific knowledge depends crucially on the distinction between two kinds of scientific inference. To reiterate, scientists sometimes make “causal” inferences, such as “there is a planet Neptune” which introduce new, in-principle observable entities. In the case of microphysics, however, their inference is a categorial determination of nature, and does not introduce new entities. I am not sure what the principled grounds are to declare scientific inferences to be one kind or another. It seems clear that we can sometimes infer that there are things we cannot perceive ourselves, for example after losing a sensory modality, or observing reactions of animals. Now, when we explain a disease through a virus, is this a causal inference, or a categorial determination? It is implausible that the limit of causal inference coincides with a contingent limit of human perception, and I would therefore expect that viruses would still be something where we can make causal inferences. But where does it stop? Trizio would presumably have to give an answer in terms of essential imperceivability—but it would be good to know what it is exactly.

3.3             Foundations of Psychology

It remains somewhat unclear whether Trizio advocates a revisionist programme for empirical sciences. He is explicit that he has no such intention for physics, but what about psychology? Is a main cost of forgetting the lifeworld a psychology that dehumanizes its subjects, because it starts from the naturalistic attitude? I take this to be Husserl’s ambition, but of course in view of the psychology of his time. If Trizio here departs from Husserl, this is not made explicit.

3.4             A priori knowledge of space and general relativity

Much of the book appears to work towards marrying two claims:

  1. Transcendental Phenomenology is the founding, universal science that is before all empirical science.
  2. Empirical sciences are capable of generating metaphysical knowledge.

What Trizio promises is nothing less than a First Philosophy that can do without instrumentalism about the empirical sciences. As Trizio admits, this comes to limits with the theory of relativity, where Husserl’s silence “is embarrassing” (193). Already in special relativity, temporal and spatial distances lose their independence. The death of two stars might appear simultaneous when observed from the earth, but their temporal order changes with the location of the observer. This is not just another fact that tells us more about which of the a priori possible worlds we inhabit, but it redefines the interaction between phenomenology and empirical theory. Throughout the book, Trizio gives phenomenology an authority over the commitments of empirical sciences: phenomenologists can point out when scientists “naïvely” rely on assumptions of the natural attitude. But in the case of relativity theory, physicists could retort that the phenomenologist is not so independent from theory after all. The assumption that space and time are independent might be one such assumption. It looks like a theory of physics can serve as a valid criticism of a distinction of transcendental phenomenology. But on what grounds could transcendental phenomenology then still be considered to be “before” empirical science?

Trizio points in a similar direction when he concedes that “the only way out is to use the theory of relativity as an indication that the phenomenological account of idealization must be revised” (193). But conceding such limits to first philosophy should also affect the relation to contemporary philosophy of science. Trizio is certainly right when he argues that Husserl’s account cannot simply be “placed” within an existing body of literature about scientific realism, because this debate takes the dominance of logical empiricism as its starting point.

Given Trizio’s emphasis on historical contextualization, one might have expected more optimism about this historical situation. The nascent logical empiricism and Husserlian phenomenology touched in the 1920s, when Carnap studied with Husserl, and Felix Kaufmann was part of both movements. By contrast, Husserl never actually writes about an ignorabimus. The historical arc to philosophy of science seems neither more ambitious nor less promising than the 19th century context which Trizio sets up. It would be too much to attempt both in the same book, and the 19th century context is a welcome addition, but why should an explication of Husserl’s account not be commensurable to debates in the philosophy of science?

One might of course worry that philosophers of science are too busy discussing the content of particular scientific theories, rather than less easily formalizable questions about the structure of thing-consciousness. But what is gained from playing out those philosophers who want to attend to the perceptual phenomena against those who emphasize scientific theory? Trizio’s take here is more negative than most recent literature in the general area (see especially Hardy 2013; Zahavi 2017; and essays in Wiltsche and Berghofer 2020) and from those who work closely with cognitive scientists. All these authors seem more open to two-way interaction between empirical theory and phenomenological clarification, or at least between phenomenology and philosophy of science.

3.5             Correlationism

A final point concerns the explication of metaphysical commitments. While the book contains much discussion of what metaphysics means for Husserl, and in what sense phenomenology is not deciding but undermining the metaphysical debates, it is not always clear what Trizio endorses. I already mentioned the question whether a world without a factually constituting consciousness is possible.

Husserl’s correlationism on the other hand is a commitment on which Trizio relies much more openly. The rejection of Husserl’s correlationism by speculative realists is now well known. (Meillassoux [2006] 2008) But also metaphysics in the tradition of analytic philosophy raises difficult questions. Husserl’s correlationism commits him to the knowability of all true propositions. But such a knowability is surprisingly difficult to spell out, as the debates around the Church-Fitch paradox and metaphysical anti-realism show. (Fitch 1963; Salerno 2009; Kinkaid 2020) Philosophy’s Nature focuses more on defending the account presented as the correct interpretation of Husserl than it does to raise and address general questions from semantics or metaphysics.

3.6             Conclusion

Trizio’s book is nothing short of impressive for the clarity and depth in which it discusses Husserl’s works from the 1890s to the 1936 Crisis and the 19th century context. The rejection of anti-realist readings of Husserl’s philosophy of science is forceful and a very welcome addition to the current debate.

Because of its dismissal of contemporary philosophy of science, however, it can occasionally seem like a book on Husserl for Husserlians. Given the complexity and range of literature discussed, this is not surprising, but there are places where a greater departure from internal questions would have been natural: most clearly, through a more extensive discussion of the lessons from relativistic physics, and by anticipating some questions about the distinction between causal and categorial inference. Husserl’s account is complex and disputed enough to warrant treatment through a book, and Trizio fills an important gap. Those who wish for a connection to contemporary philosophy of science, however, will see room for another.


Bitbol, Michel. 2020. ‘Is the Life-World Reduction Sufficient in Quantum Physics?’ Continental Philosophy Review, October. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-020-09515-8.

Fitch, Frederic B. 1963. ‘A Logical Analysis of Some Value Concepts’. The Journal of Symbolic Logic 28 (2): 135–42.

Hardy, Lee. 2013. Nature’s Suit: Husserl’s Phenomenological Philosophy of the Physical Sciences. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. (1913) 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book. General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Translated by Fred Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

———. 2003. Transzendentaler Idealismus: Texte Aus Dem Nachlass (1908-1921). Edited by R. D. Rollinger and Rochus Sowa. Husserliana 36. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Husserl, Edmund, Thomas Nenon, Hans Rainer Sepp, and Edmund Husserl. 1987. Aufsätze Und Vorträge: 1911-1921. Husserliana 25. Dordrecht ; Boston: M. Nijhoff.

Kinkaid, James. 2020. ‘Husserl, Ideal Verificationism, and the Knowability Paradox’. presented at the Boston Phenomenology Circle Workshop, Boston, MA, November 21.

Meillassoux, Quentin. (2006) 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Raymond Brassier. London: Continuum.

Salerno, Joe, ed. 2009. New Essays on the Knowability Paradox. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Trizio, Emiliano. 2016. ‘What Is the Crisis of Western Sciences?’ Husserl Studies 32 (3): 191–211. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10743-016-9194-8.

Wiltsche, Harald A, and Philipp Berghofer, eds. 2020. Phenomenological Approaches to Physics. Cham: Springer.

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

Constantin Noica: The Romanian Sentiment of Being

The Romanian Sentiment of Being Book Cover The Romanian Sentiment of Being
Constantin Noica. Translated by Octavian Gabor and Elena Gabor
punctum books
Paperback $23

Reviewed by: Elena Gabor (Associate Professor of Communication at Bradley University) and Octavian Gabor (Professor of Philosophy at Methodist College)

Being “întru” (within) a language: Bending time and space while translating The Romanian Sentiment of Being by Constantin Noica

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Z, perhaps one of the most difficult of his works, begins by his famous claim that being is said in many ways. Aristotle refers to the Categories, where he explains the various ways in which one thing is said to be. He writes about being in a language that, after all, is no longer spoken today. Nevertheless, his ideas influenced generations of philosophers who could not work in ontology without first referring to his work. The greatness of Aristotle as philosopher makes it so that when we speak of being we do it as if we were analyzing a universal idea. But is it possible that being itself always appears in a body, a language, and due to this, is always particular to a culture?

Noica’s The Romanian Sentiment of Being seems to make such a claim: being in a universal sense is only an abstraction. Being, though, is embodied, and thus it manifests particularly in a particular environment.

While this final claim may be appealing to many, a philosopher focused on metaphysical concepts would not readily agree. In 1978, existential philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-1995), friend of Constantin Noica (1909-1987), wrote him a short letter. The epistle ended with some words about Noica’s newly published volume, The Romanian Sentiment of Being: “Your last book is excellent; the only thing is that it could have been called just as well The Paraguayan Sentiment of Being. In your place, I would return to Logic: where, if not there, can one engage in delirium  better?”[1] Indeed, what would make the Romanian sentiment of being both unique and also interesting to other peoples?

We should not rush into believing that Noica claims that cultures have no way of communicating among themselves because of their unicity. Their particular way of being is, to use Noica’s word, întru, oriented within. However, the particularity in which they express being gives beauty to the diversity of the world. So, if we refer to one of the questions above, one reason for anyone to understand the particular way of being in Romanian culture is to further enjoy the beauty of this world. Furthermore, as Anna Marmodoro and Erasmus Mayr remind us, “metaphysical questions are not just questions about language […]. But nonetheless, natural language can be an important guide in many cases, since it usually encapsulates ways of thinking about the structure of reality which come naturally to us and which have proved useful and viable over the time the language evolved.”[2] Noica would add this: “But every language is, after all, the wisdom of the world in one of its versions. This wisdom of the world needs the particular wisdom of language in order to explore reality in all the ways and to transfer its knowledge into words.”[3]

Noica finds six ways of being in Romanian, all of them expressed grammatically in a doubling of the verb to be. These expressions are used quite often in typical interactions and feel natural to the native Romanian speaker. In English, the doubling of the verb to be poses challenges of meaning making, since English-speakers rarely employ such constructions that invite rather imprecise temporality. Here they are:

It was not to be (n-a fost să fie)

It was about to be (era să fie)

It may well be to be (va fi fiind)

It would be to be (ar fi să fie)

It is to be (este să fie)

It was to be (a fost sa fie)

The Romanian language, then, has a grammatical peculiarity in all of these cases: the doubling of the verb to be. For Noica, this is a very important philosophical aspect: all of these modulations of being are întru Being itself. Some of them, such as the first four, are moving toward Being, but they do not achieve it. The fifth one is on the border of being, while the last is accomplished being. This doubling of to be allows for both becoming and being in the same expression: the suggestion of becoming within (or întru) being. English, however, does not allow for this doubling in all of the previous expressions. We can, of course, rely on philosophical terminology and say that the six modulations of being from Romanian can be organized in the following categories: impossibility, possibility, contingency, necessity, and existence. Here, though, we lose the slight modulations taking place in Romanian, as for example the difference between va fi fiind (it may well be to be) and ar fi sa fie (it would be to be). None of these modulations expresses the fulfillment of being. The first one, though, is a region of being that is somehow exterior to it, as Noica says, while the second is a modulation that has almost all of the conditions to be, but it cannot fulfill its calling.

What is one to do in such a situation? The problem is as old as translation is. Eugenio Refini, for example, writes about Antonio Colombella, an Augustinian friar, who translated in the vernacular Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics sometime at the beginning of the 15th century. In his prologue, he writes about the difficulty of the translation, pointing to the distinction between what he calls words and sense. The translator must find himself in this dichotomy: to be faithful to the words of the author (in our case, to expressing modulations of being by doubling the verb to be) or to be faithful to the sense of the ideas. It is the enduring “debate over verbum de verbo and ad sensum translations.”[4]

The beauty of Noica’s volume is that mediation and translation already happened at various levels. His text is a philosophical endeavor that deals with literary works, bringing into dialogue different approaches to culture. Translation between the philosophical language of necessity, possibility, or contingency to the folk language of children stories or to the elevated literary language of a poem considered the chef-d’oeuvre of Romanian culture make out of his book a feast of words. Indeed, “Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning.”[5] In this volume, mediation is at work in the original language prior to even encountering its English version. The children’s story and Eminescu’s poem “The Evening Star,” both of them protagonists of Noica’s philosophical thought, are not included in the original volume. Known by every Romanian reader, they appear in Noica’s text in the beauty of his interpretation only. The English edition could not have rendered this mediation without bringing forward the texts themselves, and so readers will find original, new translations of both these jewels of Romanian thought.

It is here that we can rediscover the dialogical nature of translation, as some scholars call it: the translator must attempt to live in two cultures at the same time, and transfer one’s way of being from one culture to another. How can this be done, especially since this particular work raises deeper problems, because it is not directly about universal philosophical problems, which would offer a common philosophical language, but it is rather about knowing the Romanian soul itself, the Romanian expression of being in the world. Implicitly, the question becomes, how can one know the soul of a people?

Folktales are the source of inspiration for Noica. Even Eminescu’s poem, “The Evening Star,” has a folktale as its origin, Noica says. The story is about a young princess who falls in love with the Evening Star and calls upon him every night. He descends from heaven and invites her to take a place next to him:

Oh, come my one and only love,

Thy world behind leave, dear!

I am the evening star above,

Be thou my bride sincere.

She refuses, inviting him to give up his immortality instead. At the end, it is a story of unfulfillment of being. The maiden asks the Evening Star to offer her necessity: the individual nature asks from the general to receive a law. The way she asks for it and the way he can offer it do not match, so the story is a failed encounter between contingency and necessity.

What do thou care, oh, face of clay,

If it’s me or some other…

In narrow circle you relive,

Your luck is daily master,

But I, in my world, always live

Immortal and cold aster.

However, Noica says, the story shows that, at least, the two called each other. While the poem shows unfulfillment in this relationship, Noica believes fulfillment is shown in the second example, a centuries old folk story, Ageless Youth and Deathless Life, first documented and published by Petre Ispirescu in the 19th century and identified with the Romanian ethos ever since.

As Noica says, the story is quite straightforward and down to earth in the way it accounts for the essence of the activity of being.

I don’t know another work in prose of the Romanian genius that has so much substance, from the first to the last word, and such rigorous writing or saying. I wouldn’t dare to interpret any other Romanian work in prose, verse by verse, as I plan on doing, […]—the only one which does not have a positive ending, as it has been observed, and still the only one that expresses, not indirectly, as any other fairytale, but directly, the fulness, the measure, and the truth of that which can be called: being.[6]

Here is a quick summary of the story: a child of a royal couple cries from within his mother’s womb, not wanting to be born into this world of becoming. His father makes him many earthly promises, he offers him the entire world itself and the most beautiful wife he could have, but the baby is not convinced. The only promise that makes him be born is ageless youth and deathless life.

When he grows up, he searches for it himself, since the father reveals he cannot offer it after all. After many trials, he reaches the realm of ageless life and dwells there without time. One day, however, he is struck by memory and wants to go back. Regardless of the advice from the princesses of the realm, he goes back to his parents’ castle, finds that centuries have passed and everything is changed, and death, his own death, finally finds him and slaps him dead.

Reading it or trying to translate it, one can feel how verb-driven and action-oriented the narrative is. In two-three sentences the reader is already in Fat-Frumos’ next stage of life. The story is out of balance at times, with certain less important details being given more space than key magical events in the prince’s journey. You almost get a sense that the story was captured from a capricious storyteller, as if told while doing some other activity. The text is only four pages and a half long, single spaced, but it contains the whole life of a soul inside and outside time. An example of “outside time” is when the unborn soul of the prince refuses to be born and to begin his linear temporal lifepath before his father promises him eternity in the offering of ageless youth and deathless life. The story normalizes a relative view of time long before Albert Einstein wrote about the relativity of space/time. The few pages of this folk tale contain the entire life story of Fat Frumos with accelerations and decelerations, with ascensions and descensions both physical (in the magical flight of the horse) and emotional (sadness and happiness). Memory also transcends the physical body, since the nine-month-old fetus remembers what he was promised before becoming an egg in his mother’s womb. As part of the process of translation, the translator has to believe that the English reader will accept this Romanian story of being that bends time and space without much explanation.

And this is where knowledge comes in: reading the English translation of “Ageless Youth and Deathless Life” can stimulate our own reflecting on the detours we take in life, the importance of challenges and encounters that affect us for decades and even impact how we die. This centuries old fairytale has the potential to be not just an old Romanian folk story but a story of the human soul, with universal appeal and resonance.

Perhaps this volume reminds us that we don’t need to be universalists or relativists to be able to know and accept others. One doesn’t have to be Romanian to know a Romanian, just like one doesn’t need to be Russian to understand Dostoevsky. This doesn’t mean that our knowledge of Dostoevsky is the same with the knowledge a Russian or someone else may have of him. But this is perfectly fine. It is our or your personal knowledge of him—not in a relativist sense, but rather in a truly personal fashion. This means that one can know the Romanian “soul” by accepting who one is, a unique person that belongs to a unique people, American, Ukrainian, Indian, or Paraguayan. Once we know where we come from, once we know how we greet every morning of our lives, we can have a genuine relationship with anyone else.

[1] Emil Cioran. 1995. Scrisori către cei de acasă (Letters for Those Who Remained Home). Bucureşti: Humanitas, p. 310.

[2] Aristotle. 2019. Metaphysics: An Introduction to Contemporary Debates and Their History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 8.

[3] C. Noica, The Romanian Sentiment of Being. Punctum Books, 2022, p. 58. The one term/idea that has been at the core of our work proceeds from Noica’s philosophy. The Romanian notion of întru can be rendered in English by using both “within” and “toward.” “Întru” originates from the Latin prefix intro (to the inside, inward—as in, for example, the English word “introduction”: intro—inward + ducere—to lead). Alistair Ian Blyth has translated the title of Devenirea întru fiinţă as Becoming within Being (Marquette University Press, 2009). Noica’s “întru” captures the idea that becoming does not only take place within a nature of something, but also always toward a nature: it is perhaps the path a translation takes, a becoming into something that it already is, but not yet manifested prior to the completion of a project.

[4] Eugenio Refini. 2020. The Vernacular Aristotle, Cambridge University Press, p. 101.

[5] Anthony J. Liddicoat. 2016. Translation as intercultural mediation: Setting the scene, Perspectives, 24:3, 347-353, DOI: 10.1080/0907676X.2015.1125934

[6] C. Noica, op. cit., p. 122.