Luca Vanzago’s The Voice of No One is a thought provoking study in a newer line of Merleau-Ponty studies that seeks to build connections between the phenomenological tradition and process philosophy. Although the connections have not gone completely unobserved (cf. Hamrick 1974, 1999, and 2004), the majority of commentaries on Merleau-Ponty’s thought have completely ignored the importance of Whitehead’s philosophy to it. This situation is unfortunate for any number of reasons, but perhaps mostly due to how such a lacuna forecloses more radical understandings of the phenomenological project in general. By attempting to reinterpret the major concepts of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in terms of the commitments of process metaphysics, Vanzago’s book moves in the direction of closing that gap and offering a different approach within the world of Merleau-Ponty scholarship that emphasizes the importance of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature.
With that said, Vanzago takes a traditional approach to what would be a rather dramatic re-thinking of Merleau-Ponty’s work. After a helpful introduction announcing the book’s main project of drawing the phenomenological and process views closer together by focusing upon the nature of relations, the book begins with several chapters discussing methodological questions regarding the phenomenological reduction (primarily in comparison to Husserl’s method), the nature and possibility of dialectic (with reference to Hegel and Lyotard), reconsidering how relations work (the first major appearance of Whitehead in the book), and how the problem of intersubjectivity plays out in a relational context. These chapters are undertaken utilizing the classic dialogical methodology of European philosophy, and Vanzago offers exemplary studies of the philosophers with whom he engages. In these chapters, he is laying the foundations for the conceptual reconsiderations he introduces in the next several chapters before concluding the book with what this reader took to be the text’s most important contributions, namely those to the ontology of nature. This organizational strategy makes sense, but I found myself wanting the narrative to progress more rapidly toward the book’s announced themes of nature and time, which appear most substantially toward the end of the manuscript. Although Vanzago provides helpful introductory sections to each chapter describing its goals, the aforementioned studies are constructed in a rather self-contained manner. At times, their hermetic quality made it challenging to keep track of how, say, the chapter on passivity (Chapter VI), which contains Vanzago’s close reading of Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Freud’s and Husserl’s views on the passivity of consciousness, contributes to a process view of nature in which consciousness emerges from a previous intersubjective unity.
For that is the main project of the book, arguing that understanding the practice of phenomenology in terms of process metaphysics transforms the problem of intersubjectivity. The persistent criticism of phenomenology, essentially since its inception, has been that even the insistence on the “consciousness is consciousness of …” structure of intentionality and the coexistence of noesis and noema within the intentional act is insufficient to have phenomenology escape one variety of subjectivism or another. For Vanzago, this situation is an opportunity to rethink the nature of phenomenology starting from its foundations, beginning not from the perspective of consciousness, but rather from the perspective of relations. Largely this shift entails an inversion of the usual problem: “when exceeding the limits of egology, phenomenology must become able to bring into its realm that which escapes it, what Merleau-Ponty calls, with an expression coming from Schelling, the ‘barbaric principle,’ the ‘shadow’ of philosophy. In other words, phenomenology must reinvent itself in order to overcome the traditional limits of rationality” (33). A break with the traditional limits of rationality is necessary because the phenomenological thinker must look to what conditions give rise to the possibility of consciousness—the pre-objective, pre-subjective condition out of which consciousness arises—rather than remain ensconced within how phenomena appear to a conscious perceiver. The phenomenologist achieves this break dialectically, proceeding through a number of negations immanent to relational, bodily being, spontaneously creating sedimented “institutions” through which the body habitually relates to the world (44). Chapter III: Chiasms, which offers an understanding of the chiasm through concepts found in Whitehead’s thought, was a true highlight of the book. Here, Vanzago imports a “coherent relationist approach” (48) in the service of making sense of Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to construct a metaphysics that does not rely upon the philosophical tradition’s usual substance-property ontology. Here is where the heart of the process ontology is developed, in the parallelism between Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of a “logos of the aesthetic world” in which bodily perceptual relations are primary (54) and Whitehead’s claim that every relation is an act of experience (62). Since phenomenology seeks to return to the things themselves through a return to experience, one can substitute the relational theory of experience for the more traditional phenomenological account based in the idea of intentional consciousness.
From there, Vanzago uses the idea of chiasmic relations to reinterpret Merleau-Ponty’s own ideas of bodily intentionality in two interesting and innovative ways. The first is to utilize the process view of time as a way of accounting for the emergence of particular objects from within undifferentiated Being or Nature, which seem to be roughly synonymous for Vanzago (e.g., 195). Being is understood as “the texture that is woven between in the concrete existence of men [sic] and beings” (107), the relational stuff, so to speak, out of which specific beings emerge in their particularity. These chapters, V-VIII, roughly argue that Being, when taken as a process, can account for all of the traditional features usually attributed to mind or spirit in a dualistic, substance-based metaphysics—time, “negativity,” intentionality—without resorting to the materialist “realism” that is still so philosophically popular in Anglo-American metaphysics and is currently experiencing a resurgence in so-called “new materialisms” and “object-oriented” ontologies. Doing so, however, calls for the second project: to utilize Merleau-Ponty’s key commitments to reconstruct a conception of nature that does not define humanity and nature in an oppositional or dualistic manner. Appealing to concepts such as flesh, expression, Whiteheadean events, and metaphor, Vanzago reconstructs a conception of nature that in many ways goes beyond the one Merleau-Ponty develops explicitly in his incomplete later works. Chapter IX: Processes and Events is a highlight in this regard and serves as a complement to the aforementioned Chiasms chapter for those interested in an in-depth analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s relationship to Whitehead.
This latter goal, of course, has been the goal of any number of environmental and philosophies in the critical tradition for decades, a fact Vanzago acknowledges (187). Unfortunately, there is no attempt to engage with those thinkers or traditions and a major shortcoming of Vanzago’s book is the nearly complete absence of consideration of either philosophers outside the canon of major 20th Century (male) European thinkers or the wide array of commentaries that already address these concerns. On the first point, particularly noteworthy is the omission of the work of Val Plumwood, whose Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) argued for a non-dualistic conception of nature in a way that accounts for both continuity between humanity and the rest of nature and the distinctiveness of the various forms of life and inanimate beings that comprise nature. Even within the canon of 20th century European thought, however, there are omissions. It is difficult to see how one could write a book on this specific subject without at least acknowledging Luce Irigaray’s (1993) criticism of Merleau-Ponty on precisely the point on which Vanzago focuses: the notion that Being is unitary and difference is something that needs to be accounted for rather than being a foundational element of being. Although getting bogged down in the literature can have a stultifying effect when one is attempting to articulate a new theoretical perspective, it is also true that entering into dialogue with those who are working with similar if not identical questions might help to refine one’s own work. English language scholars have been discussing these issues for some time, with commentaries such as Aarø (2010), Bannon (2011; 2014), Hamrick and Van Der Veken (2011), and Toadvine (2009)—just to name a selection from within the last decade—arguing for similar perspective to Vanzago’s. Rather than, in some cases, treading on familiar ground, I would have like Vanzago to further develop his innovative thesis further with reference to extant interpretations.
In some ways, this book is torn between two audiences. On the one hand there is the world of Merleau-Ponty scholarship where the organization and methodological choices make the most sense, but there is also very little in the way of engagement with other scholars in that field. On the other hand there is the broader world of philosophy, for whom there is much of interest in the book. Here, the ideas would be better presented by organizing around specific questions or problems rather than concepts. Doing so might appeal to the broader audiences alluded to in the book itself: ecological thinkers, philosophers of science and scholars within science studies interested in the ontology of scientific practice, phenomenologists who work on figures other than Merleau-Ponty, etc.
Despite these reservations, however, The Voice of No One is a substantial addition to the literature and deserves a reading from Merleau-Ponty scholars due to its careful analysis of the texts of both Merleau-Ponty and many of his major interlocutors. The text presents a well-argued case for its central thesis and presents strong evidence that the more established interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, particularly the later work, are in need of revision in order to accommodate Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with process thought in general and with Whitehead in specific.
Aarø, Ane Faugstad. 2010. “Merleau-Ponty’s Concept of Nature and the Ontology of Flesh.” Biosemiotics 3: 331-345.
Bannon, Bryan E. 2011. “Flesh and Nature: Understanding Merleau-Ponty’s Relational Ontology.” Research in Phenomenology 41: 327-357.
–. 2014. From Mastery to Mystery: A Phenomenological Foundation for Environmental Ethics. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Hamrick, William S. 1974. « Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Some Moral Implications. » Process Studies 4: 235-251.
–. 2004. “Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Healing the Bifurcation of Nature.” In Whitehead’s Philosophy: Points of Connection, edited by Janusz A. Polanowski and Donald W. Sherburne, 127-142. Albany: State University of New York Press.
–. 1999. “A Process View of the Flesh: Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty.” Process Studies 28: 117-129.
Hamrick, William S. and Jan Van Der Veken. 2012. Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Irigaray, Luce. “The Invisible of the Flesh: A Reading of Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ‘The Intertwining—The Chiasm.’” In An Ethics of Sexual Difference, 151–84. Translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Toadvine, Ted. 2009. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature. Evanston, Northwestern University Press.
Klaus Held, the ‘father of the Wuppertaler philosophy’, is without doubt one of the leading German phenomenologists of the present day. With his book Phänomenologie der natürlichen Lebenswelt, published in 2012, a collection of a number of separate lectures and articles (not all of them published previously), Held intends to tackle the urgent question of the ‘ecological crisis’. He does this by working his way back through some of those philosophical ideas that still influence today’s perception of nature. These are mainly from Kant and Aristotle, but he also goes back to the Pre-Socratics searching for answers that can help us reconsider our understanding of nature as life-world.
The book is divided into four major parts. The first two parts are dedicated to the concept of nature in Kant (first part) and Aristotle (second part), the third to addressing the question of elementary aspects in the life world, focusing on the Pre-Socratics Anaximander and Heraclitus. The final part presents an overview of particular aspects of reflections on the natural life-world such as the intercultural, the Japanese perspective as well as some final reflections on the topics of physis and birth.
The task of the book is, as Held states in the introduction, to investigate the ‘experience of the life-world as nature’ (p. 13). Held is very much aware of the fact that his choice of philosophers and the order in which the philosophers are discussed could be questioned or even be perceived as arbitrary. However, he presents a convincing argument for the composition of his book which proceeds in a hermeneutic and phenomenological manner, i.e. working through the dominating pre-judices (in a Gadamerian understanding). He makes it clear, that his book is not primarily looking at the history of philosophy but it is a phenomenological analysis of the life-world experience of nature (p. 13). And because the horizon of experience changes with the historical change of understanding of what nature means, any analysis only does justice to the object if it traces this hermeneutical change (p. 13). An investigation thus has to start from the modern objectivist understanding of nature of the natural sciences and therefore has to start with Kant who was the first thinker to establish this understanding with outstanding systematic clarity (pp. 13f.). Working historically ‘backwards’, Held aims at uncovering how we get through Kant as a bridge to a phenomenological analysis of Aristotle’s physis-thinking (showing also the impoverishment of the concept of nature in both thinkers) and from there to the Pre-Socratic understanding of nature and the elements. The latter is an important concept for Held, since unlike the modern idea of the elements, this Ancient idea still maintains a close connection between the elements and life (18ff). Held starts in his introduction with a brief history of the Western concept of nature. The wonder, thaumazein, which the Ancient philosophers felt, Held believes, is in danger of becoming lost in modern concepts. This feeling of awe and wonder when engaging with being is a topic Held will return repeatedly in his book as a linking concept.
The first part is dedicated to Kant’s understanding of nature. Held makes very clear that he does not intend to attempt a comprehensive analysis. Rather, his reflections on Kant aim at showing that even in the founding of the modern natural sciences a position can be found that leads back to early Greek thinking about the elements and nature (p. 26/27). The starting point for Kant arose out of the philosophical concerns of the past such as the established idea of interpreting theoretical knowledge in a technical manner or the question of certitude. Kant then, in the Critique of Pure Reason, according to Held, takes up Aristotle’s ‘defining of the definable’ in four ways: through defining the sensations, space and time, that which is given through the sensations through the spontaneity of thinking, and finally the differentiation of the formal and material concept of nature (p. 40). It becomes clear, according to Held, that the ‘possibility of the appearance and perception of nature as appearance has to be grounded in two fundamental principles: the a priori intuitions of space and time and the sensations’ (p. 58). This then leads to two fundamental principles which determine Kant’s concept of nature. Firstly, since appearances are characterized by extension in time and space they can be measured; an idea that still today is a central foundation of the natural sciences. The second principle is concerned with measuring the intensive quantity of that which is given in sensation. Two things are important here: First of all, it is a general human experience that sensations are always experienced with an intensity which varies, i.e. a more or less (p. 69; 75). In addition, while we cannot anticipate a priori which sensations will overcome us (Kant speaks of experiencing the real as resistance) we know that given sensations have a polar structure, i.e. the opposite is always present though in a hidden way – a point that will be taken up with the Pre-Socratics (p. 81).
The second part of the book is dedicated to Aristotle’s understanding of nature. Starting with the Aristotelian distinction between technē and physis, and basic ideas of Aristotle’s metaphysics such as the four causes, Held develops Aristotle’s views in relations to his predecessors. Held makes it clear that Aristotle’s distinction between technē and physis stems from a narrowing of the concept of nature that in itself does not pay attention to the two different horizons of being and need which led to the forgetting of the understanding of physis as beginning, as arché (p. 119). In addition, Held shows that by identifying physis with arché for Aristotle the beginning of being remains hidden in darkness. Held concludes the part on Aristotle by developing Aristotle’s concept of the four elemental qualities, the hot, the dry, the cold and the moist which through their combinations make up the qualities of the four elements of earth, fire, water and air (p. 164).
The third part of the book is dedicated to the elements in Ancient Greek thought with a focus on the Pre-Socratics, Anaximander and Heraclitus. In showing the insights as well as the limits of Aristotle’s metaphysics, Held gains an overview on the Pre-Socratics’ understanding of nature which is independent of Aristotle’s perspective and thus independent of the comparison between technē and physis (p. 186). The next chapter on Anaximander is unusual in so far as it is centred on a very careful analysis of the sources which Held quotes at length. That the arché is constantly present in physis means for Held that with Anaximander we can identify the following idea: because of the unbounded (ápeiron) character of physis, the beginning (arché) entails both light and darkness, and the appearance of light is at the same time the process of expanding limit as well as a retreat into the hiddenness (pp. 218f). The idea of physis entailing opposites is again picked up in the third chapter on Heraclitus. The presence of opposing elements such as both death and birth in life, illness in health etc., forms a non-apparent harmony in physis and thus an ontological dependence between the opposites. This is also an idea, according to, which is not possible in Plato’s thought and which influences so much of Western philosophy (pp. 239; 247). However, and Heraclitus makes this very clear, this insight into the functioning of the cosmos is not possible for the many. This is an important point for the phenomenological approach Held is using and we can see here, according to Held, how Heraclitus is in many ways the first to raise the question between philosophical thinking and natural attitude (p. 260).
The final part presents an overview on different aspects of the life-world and raises a number of questions. Held makes the point that all experiences are embedded in a horizon and that despite the goal of the natural sciences to achieve absolute objectivity, every situation in life is embedded in a universal context of references (p. 262). Especially within the context of globalization the question arises whether we will be able to develop one life-world for all humanity – one of the main questions a phenomenology of the life-world is concerned with (p. 266). One potential characteristic could be that developed by Husserl, the Umstandskausalität (p. 268). The relationship between nature (e.g. climate) and culture still needs to be further investigated phenomenologically (p. 278). As an example of a non-European perspective on nature and world, Held then develops some aspects of the Japanese outlook (pp. 279ff). Finally, Held rethinks the question of physis and birth as an example of our relationship to technology, a point to which we will return in our critical assessment below.
The book captivates the reader with its outstanding clarity, and this in two ways: Firstly, very complex philosophical considerations are developed in a clear and careful manner. Secondly, the structure: Held constantly presents the the reader with short and precise summaries at the beginning and the end of each chapter to show where he or she is, and shows how already developed positions lead on to the next part of the book, how answers are given to question posed earlier, and also what still needs to be developed. Held thus does not follow the postmodern trend of breaks in and throughout the history of philosophy, rather he shows how ideas are interconnected, influence each other and how seeing ideas through a particular lens sometimes obstructs a view of the actual concept.
Two critical points could be made. The first concerns referencing. Held works in the already familiar style of the phenomenologists which means references to sources used as well as other literature is scarce and one often wishes for further guidance as to where particular ideas can be found, especially when the reader might not be familiar with the texts. The second point is more ideological in nature and concerns Held’s conclusions in the final part. In using the example of birth, Held tries to show that through the taking over by téchne, and the loss of the ‘insurmountable subsequentness’ (unüberwindbare Nachträglichkeit) we are not only losing the experience of resistance which characterizes our experience of reality as such but also invoking the danger of excess (pp. 316ff). This stance evokes the distrust of the early phenomenologists (Scheler, Heidegger etc.) of technology and technological advancement. However, this stance is problematic for a number of reasons: from a metaphysical/anthropological point of view one could argue that the use of reason as exercised in the use of téchne belongs essentially to human nature and thus physis itself. Secondly, it ignores how the advances of technology and its application play a major role in reducing human suffering. Finally, one has to point out that any use of technology in the widest sense such as medicine, glasses, pacemakers, surgery but even clothes, computers, diving equipment etc., are an imposing of human téchne on the limitations of our (biological) nature. Thus to draw a line between one téchne and the other seems rather arbitrary.
Nonetheless, Held’s call for caution and the need for philosophical reflections regarding technology and nature is an important one. Again, the author’s considerations do not necessarily lead to his final personal conclusions. Thus, Held gives the reader the freedom to follow him or not. In addition, the reader benefits from Held’s expertise in phenomenology and Ancient Greek philosophy. Thus, one is left with an eloquently written, insightful and very balanced book which in a convincing way presents the thesis that the history of thought is all interconnected and that by seeing through our philosophical prejudices we uncover the insights of previous thinkers and make them relevant for today’s issues.