Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press
Hardback $49.95

Reviewed by: Elad Lapidot (University of Bern)

Is Catholicism a Religion?

Over the last decades, scholars have increasingly called into question the universal validity of the category “religion” as referring to a supposed ahistorical constant domain of all human mind and civilization, the domain of faith. The claim has characteristically been that, even though nowadays we often speak and think of religion this way, both in everyday life and in scholarship, in fact our notion of religion is a historical construct. This conceptual construct, so the claim, is fashioned after a specific cultural tradition, the Christian West, which, as part of obtaining or preserving its global epistemic hegemony, has asserted its own culture – Christianity – as a universal and superior feature of human nature as such: religion. Consequently, all cultures would have their religions: the Jewish, the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, which could therefore be compared and evaluated in view of the underlying paradigm – and ultimate paragon – of religion, Christianity.

This sort of critique of religion is commonly deployed in postcolonial-like discourses, which confront the Christian West with its non-Christian others. Could the same critique apply within Christianity itself (West vs. East) or even within the Western? Wouldn’t the construct “religion” arise not only from a geo-political bias, i.e. the West, but also from a chrono-political bias, i.e. Modernity? And if so, wouldn’t it give effect and perpetuate a bias within the Christian West, namely in favor of modern Christianity, marked by Protestantism and Secularism, so as to undermine premodern, Catholic forms of Christian civilization? Is Catholicism a religion?

There is much in Baring’s intriguing new book to suggest that Catholicism is in fact not primarily a religion, but a philosophy, or even – philosophy. The main theme of the book is continental philosophy, whose center according to Baring is phenomenology. Its explicit concern is intellectual and institutional genealogy, “the Making of Continental Philosophy”, namely how a specific direction in 20th century philosophy, phenomenology, has been able to transform “from a provincial philosophy in southwest Germany into a movement that spanned Europe” (2), and so to become “continental”. Here and elsewhere in the book, Baring highlights the political significance of epistemic constellations, underlying the transnational, pan-European character of phenomenology as “continental” philosophy. His own historiography performatively turns away from national narratives (phenomenology in France, Husserl in Spain, Heidegger in Italy etc.) in search of a more transnational, universal ground. The movement that spread Husserl’s word among the nations (“the single most important explanation for the international success of phenomenology in the twentieth century”, 5), Baring suggests, is the one that goes under the name of the universal itself, the catholicos, Catholicism. Catholicism is the principal agent in this continental, transnational, catholic historiography of philosophy.

It is somewhat paradoxical that Baring’s professed transnational perspective nonetheless preliminary features phenomenology as belonging to “southwest Germany”, namely as originally particular, which accordingly begs the question of its continental success. According to this logic, this transnational success can only be accounted for by something beyond phenomenology itself, something more European, more universal, which would be Catholicism. However, in what sense would phenomenological philosophy itself not be sufficiently universal to account for its own universal spread? In what sense is Catholicism more obviously universal, and what explains its own international success, beyond the province of Rome?

Be that as it may, the notion of success, namely the ability of philosophy or thought, the ability of ideas, to obtain and expand their hold on the world, on reality, is central to Baring’s project. The primary transnational feature of Catholicism that the book foregrounds is its global institutional presence. Next to the transnational and universal, “catholic” historiographic perspective, Baring’s study accommodates Catholicism also in focusing on the worldly reality of the Church. The Catholicism that, as the book suggests, carried phenomenology across the continent is first and foremost a “network of philosophers and theologians that stretched across Europe” (7); “we can speak of ‘continental philosophy’ because phenomenology could tap into the networks of a Church that already operated on a continental scale” (11).

The story of “making” continental philosophy, as told in the book, is indeed concerned less with conceptual genealogy of ideas and more with how they spread. It’s a story of thought as an inter-personal, inter-institutional happening, where events of thinking take place between works, between thinkers. The great individual names of phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, the “phenomenological trinity” Baring calls them (6) – are there, but they function as basic coordinates for describing the real plot, which is scholarship. Primary and secondary literatures switch here places. The main protagonists of this book are neither the great names nor the great book, but their less known scholarly recipients, the clerics, who read, translate, introduce, interpret, discuss and institutionalize ideas, convene conferences and found archives, journals and schools. Most importantly, and this is one of the great achievements of this book, the history of thought is told through formative debates, such that polemics – and with it politics – is posited at the heart of epistemology, a real at the heart of the ideal. Could polemics too – next to transnationalism and institutionalism – count as Catholic heritage?

At any event, Baring tells continental philosophy’s church history, and according to him the early church of phenomenology was Catholic. To quote some impressive facts:

“self-professed Catholic philosophers produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II, making Catholic phenomenology by far the largest constituent part of the early European reception” (8-9);

“Within Europe, phenomenology has been most successful in Catholic countries, while tending to skip, at least at first, the Protestant strongholds of Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, it has flourished in Latin America and at Catholic universities in the United States, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. The geography of phenomenology is best described, not by the contours of mainland Europe, but by the reach of the ‘universal Church’.” (11).

What is certain, in Baring’s account Catholicism does not just function as a contingent carrier of phenomenological philosophy, a vessel which would remain external to the content that it spreads. The Church is not simply a vehicle for Husserl’s word. The network of catholic intellectuals and institutions does not feature in this book as a mere logistical structure, but as the institutional embodiment of its intellectual content, of thought. Is Catholicism a religion? In this book, the Catholic emerges primarily as a philosophy. Insofar as Catholicism accounts for making phenomenology the philosophy of the European continent, Baring argues, it is because “before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (19)

What is Catholic philosophy? This question is not really developed in the book, which has a very clear answer: medieval scholastic philosophy as it has been oriented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, namely Thomism. In the relevant period for the book, the first decades of the 20th century, Catholic philosophy consisted in the attempt to renew Thomism, namely in neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism, which according to Baring was in these decades “the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world” (8). Neo-Thomism was global philosophy, which makes one wonder about the reason it was only able to turn phenomenology “continental”, but no more than that. Neo-Thomism, as Baring portrays it, had set to itself a daring task. It translated medieval philosophy into modern terms not in order to modernize this philosophy, but, on the contrary, in order to effect “a philosophical conversion of modernity, a movement from modern to medieval metaphysics” (14). Neo-Thomism was the Catholic mission to the Moderns, aiming to reconvert modernity “back to Catholicism” (ibid.).

“Conversion” is a key word in Baring’s book. It is the basic description of the intellectual event that it portrays, and the plot is articulated by the personal conversions – official or not – of the protagonists. What was the nature of the conversion “back to Catholicism”, which neo-Thomists were trying to generate? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Baring’s historiographic thesis: it designates the ultimate purpose of Catholic, neo-Thomist philosophy, explains why phenomenology was deemed useful for Catholic intellectuals to pursue this purpose and so would account for why Catholicism helped phenomenology to its continental and international success.

Were neo-Thomists interested in converting modernity, modern thought and philosophy, from secularism or atheism back to religion? Obviously, as already indicated, neo-scholasticism was not looking to promote “religion” in its modern, paradigmatically Protestant or secular sense. But furthermore, Baring most often does not describe Catholic thought in terms of religion or what is commonly – in modern discourse – associated with religion as a special domain, of faith, transcendent God, holiness, spirituality etc., in short, as a different domain than secular, atheological or even atheistic philosophy.

On the contrary: neo-Thomism was looking to renew Thomism, for which, as described by Baring, theology implied worldly thought. Catholic thinkers “were convinced that the world incarnated a divine order, and that the institution of the Catholic Church was the worldly locus of redemption” (14); God is present in “His effects in the world” (30), such that faith is deemed “the perfection of natural knowledge” (29). The goal of Neo-Thomists was accordingly, among others, to connect Catholicism to science, natural science: by going back to Aquinas they were trying to reconnect with Aristotle. In other words, whether or not Catholicism was interested, in the first decades of the 20th century, in renewing something like religion, in Baring’s book Catholic philosophy emerges as a powerful agent for the renewal of Aristotelian philosophy, which historically speaking is perhaps nothing but Western philosophy, or philosophy tout court. Just as philosophy’s first and ultimate concern is with Being, Baring’s Catholicism is concerned with “the Real”.

“The Real” is the central concept of Baring’s narrative, which thus connects the contemporary discourse on philosophy and religion with the contemporary philosophical conversation on realism. Explicating this connection may have been a useful way for Baring to provide a more precise explanation of what he understands by “the Real”. Considering the pivotal centrality of this concept for the book’s argument, it remains rather vague and sometimes ambivalent. In fact, its basic significance in this book seems to be above all polemic, in that it designates what neo-scholasticism, seeking to renew medieval, premodern philosophy, was asserting against modern thought. Indeed, throughout the book, Catholic positions are characterized in various ways as opposing the negation of realism by modern philosophy, namely as opposition to the idealism, relativism and subjectivism that would characterize modern thought.

That non-realism (a negation of or distance from the Real) is constitutive to modern philosophy, is a decisive presupposition of Baring’s project. The exact significance of this presupposed non-realism or idealism remains as much an open question as the exact meaning of “the Real”. If the supposed non-realism of modern philosophy means detachment from the worldly and natural order, in favor of some dimension of transcendence, of some supernatural or transcendental subjectivity, will or spirit, this would mean that modern thought, far from being secular and “worldly”, has rather become closer to religion, as a relation to the unworldly. This kind of analysis no doubt sits well with accounts of modernity, such as Hans Jonas’, as arising from man’s liberation from and subsequent domination of nature (NB: not against but precisely through modern, technological science), which would resemble or even be the avatar of ancient Gnosticism, religion of the Alien God. Neo-Thomism, working to effect on modernity a – as the title of Baring’s book reads – “Conversion to the Real”, which is actually a re-conversion, a movement back to the world, would accordingly be the modern permutation of the same anti-heresiological movement that for someone like Hans Blumenberg, for instance, accounted for the emergence of Christian doctrine. This movement may be described less as a conversion from philosophy to religion than as a conversion from religion back to philosophy, from faith back to reason.

Converting modern philosophy to the Real was in any case, so Baring, the missionary goal of neo-scholasticism in the first decades of the 20th century. It is for this mission that Catholic networks identified phenomenology as suitable and for this purpose they “made” it continental. The reason that phenomenology was found by neo-Thomist to be such a suitable discourse for deploying the conversion of non-realist modern philosophy to realism, Baring argues, is that phenomenological thought, to begin with Husserl’s notion of intentionality (consciousness is always of an object), was identified as an anti-idealist movement back to the Real within modern philosophy itself, so to speak a spontaneous movement of self-conversion: “phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” (14) How exactly neo-scholastic thinkers and institutions tried to achieve this goal, their more or less successful negotiations – and debates – among themselves, with phenomenology, as well as vis-à-vis other Catholic, Protestant and non-religious intellectual currents, and how all this contributed to the making of continental philosophy – this is the story told by Baring’s rich book.

One basic and far-reaching insight of Baring concerns the ambivalent nature of conversion: the shift from one conception to another at the same time connects both conceptions and thus opens the way to a counter-conversion, from the second conception to the first. Conversions work “in both directions” (16). This insight may be deemed as a structural principle that regulates – and complicates – basic dynamics in the history of thought, something like the Third Law of Intellectual Motion. It seems to be particularly significant in conversions that are not just spontaneous, but induced, namely in conversion projects, in missionary movements.With respect to the neo-Thomist mission to convert modern philosophy “back to Catholicism”, in order to do so it established “the Real” as a connection between modern phenomenology and medieval scholasticism, which would serve as a passage from the former to the latter. As Baring shows, however, this passage also facilitated the inverse movement, to the effect that the bridge built between Thomism and phenomenology also served Catholic thinkers to cross to the other side and to “break with Roman Catholicism” (15). The paradigmatic example discussed by Baring is Heidegger.

What is however the meaning of this counter-conversion, away from Catholicism, which according to Baring has become so prevalent in post-WWII phenomenology so as to completely obliterate its early Catholic years? Would it be that phenomenology, and continental philosophy, was moving away from religion, towards secular and atheistic thought? Is Catholicism religion? The question of religion, as already noted, interestingly does not explicitly frame the narrative of the book, which foregrounds instead the debate of realism vs. idealism. Catholicism is realism, but is it therefore more or less a religion?

It is only in the Epilog that Baring directly addresses the question of religion. “Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion” (343): the famous return to religion, a contemporary conversion – or perhaps even a contemporary mission? By whom – to whom? Is Baring’s book a part of this project, namely facilitating the passage from contemporary continental philosophy to religion by recalling how it was Catholicism that originally “made” phenomenology into continental philosophy? The “religious specters” that “haunt” continental philosophy today, Baring argues, indeed arise from its “family history”, namely phenomenology’s transmission to the world as it was “passed down through Catholic scholars” (344), so to speak phenomenology’s Catholic womb. The current return to religion in continental philosophy is connected to its Catholic heritage.

However, according to Baring’s further insight into the Third Law of Intellectual Movement, just as conversion is not only unidirectional, inheritance too is not simply linear. He points out that intellectual inheritance may pass on not just positive, affirmative doctrines, but also negative positions, what he terms “negative inheritance” (347). According to Baring’s analysis, it is by way of “negative inheritance” that phenomenology’s Catholic past, namely neo-Thomism, continues to operate within continental philosophy’s return to religion. In other words, Catholicism, as portrayed in Baring’s book, is present in this contemporary return to religion not as the positive agent, not as the agent of religion, but on the contrary in the negative, anti-religious positions – more specifically in their realism.

He brings the example of Quentin Meillassoux, who “presents himself as a rationalist ally to the natural sciences, seeking to reinvigorate realism after a period of idealist hegemony. Meillassoux is aware of his proximity to Thomism, which he defines as ‘the progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’”. (348) Baring’s conclusion: “The atheist scourge of much contemporary continental philosophy appears as the inverted image of those Catholic thinkers who helped make philosophy continental in the first place.” (ibid.)  It is not in the return to religion but rather in the resistance to this return that current continental philosophy would be inspired by Catholicism, which consequently operates, at least in this context, not as a religion, but as anti-religion.


Synopsis of the Book:

Baring’s story is told in three chronological parts, which concern three different periods in the early history of phenomenology in its reception by Catholic scholars: 1900-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1950. The narrative is organized by another triad, three main figures of early German phenomenology, the “phenomenological trinity”: Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, and the debates around them.

Part I, “Neo-Scholastic Conversion. 1900-1930” deals with the immediate Catholic reception of German phenomenology. Baring traces back the initial reception to a specific current within neo-Thomism, “progressive Thomism”, promoted by the Louvain School of Léon Noël, head of the Institut supérieur de Philosophie. Progressive Thomism was oriented by the work of Cardinal Désiré Mercier (Critériologie), who translated Thomist realism into the discourse of epistemology. This anti-Kantian epistemology was the site of early Catholic reception of Husserl, as told in Chapters 1 and 2. The first reception referred to The Logical Investigations of 1900-1901 and was enthusiastic, as Husserl’s anti-psychological notions, such as intentionality (which goes back through Brentano to scholasticism) and categorical intuition, appeared to secure epistemic access to “the objective order of the world” (40). “For Catholics around Europe, reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations was a revelation”, Baring writes (48). Modern philosophy’s “conversion to the Real” was celebrated by scholars such as Jospeh Geyser, Erich Przywara and the Milan School’s Agostino Gemelli, and even existentially performed through a personal conversion, such as by Edith Stein, to whom phenomenology has showen “the way into ‘the majestic temple of scholastic thought’” (75). All the more disappointing was Husserl’s return to the transcendental consciousness in his Ideen of 1913. The second reception identified in Husserl a second, reversed conversion, from realism back to idealism, which “was experienced by neo-scholastics as a betrayal— both of Husserl’s earlier work and, by implication, of their own project” (61).

Chapter 3 follows the intellectual development of early Heidegger, a phenomenological convert away from Catholicism. Influenced by Joseph Geyser, young Heidegger, “a progressive scholastic” (88), in his 1913 dissertation embraced Husserl’s anti-Psychologism, and in his 1916 Habilitaiton on Dun Scotus, the “pinnacle of Heidegger’s neo-scholastic period” (97), formulated a meaning-based realism. The disengagement is signaled in 1917, as Heidegger stated that Catholicism “forgot religion for theology and dogma” and looked for religious experience in Christian mysticism, Augustine and Protestants from Luther, Otto, Overbeck, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Schleiermacher. Being and Time of 1927, so Baring’s perceptive analysis, features a curious atheism based on “two confessional strands” (113): Catholic ontology, but no longer perennis, and Protestant Dasein-analysis, but indifferent to faith.

Chapter 4 traces a similar dynamic with respect to Max Scheler, extending the plot from theory to ethics and politics. Scheler’s 1913 Formalism in Ethics provided a phenomenological access (Wert-nehmen, axiological intuition) to an “objective order of value” (140) and his personalism, the notion of Gesamtperson, gave this ethics a socio-political embodiment. Both combined offered practical philosophy to Catholic social revival and anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist corporatism. Carl Muth’s influential Catholic magazine Hochland celebrated Scheler as “Black Nietzsche” (124) and intellectuals followed him in his early WWI patriotism, growing distance from nationalism and anti-republicanism in Weimar, such as Paul-Ludwig Landsberg’s “conservative revolution” (137). Disenchantment manifested itself, on the Catholic side, in doubts raised by neo-scholastics, such as Przywara, as to Scheler’s too heavy reliance on human intuition and emotional intentionality, and on Scheler’s side, in the pantheistic turn of his late work (1928, The Human Place in the Cosmos).

Part II, “Existential Journeys 1930-1940”, describes how, beyond its initial reception by neo-scholasticism, phenomenology “became a privileged battlefield in intra-Christian debates” (152). The central intra-Christian tension in Baring’s narrative is between neo-scholastics and existentialists. Chapter 5 tells about the rise of “Christian Existentialism across Europe” by portraying the tension between two converts to Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Marcel (Metaphysical Journal, 1927; Being and Having, 1935), influence and mentor to existentialists such as Nicolai Berdyaev, René Le Senne, Jean Wahl as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, criticized neo-Thomist intellectualism as “hubris”, and insisted on the “unintelligibility of existence”, its embodiment and “mystery”. Maritain claimed “existential philosophy” describes rather Thomism itself, which deals with esse and acknowledges its mystery, deems it nevertheless “open to intellectual understanding” (163).

Chapter 6 goes back to the Catholic reception of Husserl and how during the 1930s it was shaped by a division within neo-scholasticism, between progressive and strict Thomists. Baring portrays this division through the “Critical Realism Debate”, concerning the attempt of the Louvain School’s progressives, such as Léon Noël and René Kremer, to base realism on epistemology, namely on critique of subjective knowledge (leading to post-WII “transcendental Thomism”). “Strict” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain rejected the notion of “critical” – Cartesian or Kantian – realism as self-contradictory, insisting on the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology. Baring shows how this debate pressed progressive intellectuals, such as Kremer, Kurt Reinhart and Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who initially embraced Husserl’s phenomenology, to reject and rectify his perceived idealistic tendencies, especially as manifested in the Cartesian Meditations of 1931.

Chapter 7 presents the 1930s’ reception of Heidegger as the battleground for the inter-confessional debate between neo-Scholastics (such as Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar) and Protestants, in particular Karl Barth’s Kierkegaard-inspired Dialectical Theology. Baring describes this debate as arising from “two diametrically opposed, if symmetrical, accounts of Heidegger’s atheism: Thomists explained it by the restrictions placed upon Heidegger’s ontology by his (Protestant) prioritization of human subjectivity; Protestant theologians understood it through his attempt to ground the analysis of human finitude in an ontology, which arose from an excessive and Catholic faith in our rational capacities.” (213) In other words, both (dialectical theology’s) emphasis on the unintelligible and (neo-Thomist) emphasis on intelligibility could be construed, from the opposite  perspective, as subjectivist and so proto-atheistic. This leads Baring to the brilliant observation whereby “religious notes” of atheistic conceptions (he speaks of existentialism) may arise not from “uncomplicated inheritance of a believing antecedent, but rather as the reflection of a more distant voice, directed toward and bouncing of a common religious foe” (240), i.e. “negative inheritance”.

Chapter 8 returns to the reception of Scheler, “The Black Nietzsche”, in Catholic political thought. Baring shows how the Schelerian notion of social corpora as embodying spiritual order of values could support to conflicting conceptions of Catholic anti-liberal politics. Luigi Stefanini drew on Scheler to affirm a “hierarchical order of values” enacted by an authoritarian and totalitarian state, which led him to collaborate with the Fascist regime and even acknowledge “racial defense” as “an act of the sovereignty and transcendence of the spirit” (259). In contrast, for Paul-Louis Landsberg, as Paul Ludwig Landsberg was known in his French exile and anti-Fascist resistance, “the divine order is always to come and can never be fully worked out. For that reason, authoritarianism runs the risk of shutting down the process by which the true order is revealed” (263), which led him to reject Nazism and Communism. Baring exemplifies the same ambivalence in Scheler in the development of Emmanuel Mounier’s Catholic-Nietzschean magazine Esprit, from support of Vichy to Resistance and post-WII negotiations of Thomism and Marxism.

Part III, “Catholic Legacies 1940-1950”, discusses how after “the Catholics who had helped promote phenomenological ideas around Europe withdrew from the stage”, “[t[he script that they had written […] persisted, to be picked up and adapted by new actors.” (276) Chapter 9 is dedicated to the story of the Husserl Archives, famously smuggled from Germany to Belgium by the young Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda, to be institutionalized within Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie. According to Baring, after WWII Van Breda, who was looking for means to secure the archives’ further existence (which he obtained at last from UNESCO), realized that “the archives would flourish only if they became independent of the Church” (297). Catholicism, which made phenomenology continental, was now required, in order to prefect its own making, to retreat. Like the truth of Heidegger’s Beyng, the appearance of neo-Thomism in phenomenology was completed by the concealment of neo-Thomism in phenomenology’s Veröffentlichung. It is thus that the first volume of the Husserliana was dedicated to the Cartesian Meditations, “the text where Husserl distinguished his work most clearly from scholasticism” (300).

Chapter 10, the last one, indicates traces of neo-scholasticism in “Postwar Phenomenology”, once again through an intellectual tension, this time between the secular Merleau-Ponty and the Protestant Paul Ricoeur. Both of “Marcelian bent”, affirming embodiment and existence versus idealism, their diverging interpretations of Marcel reproduced the debate between Thomism and Existentialism, inasmuch as Merleau-Ponty emphasized the intentional order of perception and Ricoeur the mystery and the “fault”. The disagreement on Marcel was intertwined with a disagreement on Husserl, which reproduced the debate between progressive and strict Thomism: whereas Merleau-Ponty, like the Louvain School, strove to protect Husserl’s realism from his transcendentalism, Ricoeur, like Maritain, read Husserl as an idealist. Commenting on the Protestant philosopher’s surprising affinity to strict Thomism, Baring provides a precious polemic triangulation, which is perhaps the real glory of scholastic sophistication: “Against the Thomists, Ricoeur denied that Christians could use philosophy to defend religious dogmas. Against the Barthians, Ricoeur did think philosophy retained an important role. It could challenge the pretension of science to have provided ‘a final solution.’ Christian philosophy would thus be a ‘science of limits, an essentially Socratic, ironic position [. . .] forbidding all thought to be totalitarian’.” (327)


Three Concluding Reflections:

  1. The key concept of the book’s argument is “the Real”. Catholicism promoted phenomenology for the sake of converting modern philosophy to the Real. As noted above, however, realism signifies in this book primarily polemically, in contrast to the alleged idealism of modern thought. However, as Baring insightfully shows with respect to “atheism”, polemic meanings are unstable and easily turned around. Just like criticism of “atheism” can be found in any religious position against any other religious position, isn’t criticism of “idealism” as detached from the real, i.e. as false, inherent to the disagreement of any philosophical position against all the others? Wasn’t metaphysical dogmatism for Kant too disconnected from reality, as the Ptolemaic system for Copernicus? For Hegel, an arche-idealist, the real was the reasonable. Baring shows how neo-Thomism too deemed the real intelligible, whereas existentialism and dialectical theology experienced reality in unintelligibility.
  2. It seems that ultimately “the Real” for Baring signifies the limit of human autonomy and power, where reason means intelligibility of – and subjection to – the given, eternal, cosmic order (Thomism), in contrast to modern “self-affirmation of reason” (Blumenberg). Conversion to the Real means something like undoing modern hubris, disempowering the human. Baring portrays at least two divergent ways of doing so in Catholic thought, rationalism and existentialism, both inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. One may wonder, however, whether both modes of “the Real” are equally defining for continental philosophy. The very term “continental” philosophy, determines reason by existence, i.e. actual geography, politics, history, which arguably condition more continental than analytic thought. It is rather Anglo-American philosophy that may be said to represent anti-idealist, positive rationalism, where reason is limited qua “analytic”. Wouldn’t this modern philosophy – which is closer to natural sciences, and arises from phenomenology only within its alliance with logical positivism against psychologism – be a more suitable ally for neo-scholasticism?
  3. There seems to be a third way of limiting or determining reason, which is very present in Baring’s study, albeit unthematized as such. Next to rationalism (reason determined by given logical order) and existentialism (reason determined by given non-logical being), his narrative centrally features also the determination of reason through the inter-personal plurality of thought: thought as a school, the institution that gave scholasticism its name. As such, scholasticism determines reason neither by the given intelligible, nor by the unintelligible, but by the overintelligible, namely by the open excess of thought as polemics. By choosing the debate as a primary figure of thought, Baring’s book manifests perhaps scholarship itself, next to analytic and continental philosophies, as a third post-modern manifestation of scholastic realism, and perhaps of philosophy überhaupt.

Rozemund Uljée: Thinking Difference with Heidegger and Levinas, SUNY Press, 2020

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Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.): Philosophers and Their Poets, SUNY Press, 2019

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Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press

Reviewed by: Francesco Valerio Tommasi (Sapienza, Università di Roma)

Lo scopo di questo volume è di mostrare il ruolo nascosto giocato dal cattolicesimo nel successo e nella diffusione della fenomenologia. Le connessioni e i rapporti tra la corrente di pensiero inaugurata da Edmund Husserl e i pensatori e le istituzioni cattoliche del Novecento, infatti, sono molteplici e di diversi livelli. Si pensi a Martin Heidegger e ai suoi studi di filosofia medievale e di teologia, o a Edith Stein, protagonista di un percorso per certi aspetti speculare: il primo procede infatti dal cattolicesimo ad una fenomenologia metodologicamente atea – per cui l’espressione “filosofia cristiana” è notoriamente un “ferro ligneo”; la seconda muove invece dalla fenomenologia – orgogliosamente atea – al cattolicesimo. Ma si pensi anche, ovviamente, a Max Scheler, che contemporaneamente alle riflessioni sulla fenomenologia sviluppa le sue prospettive religiose, gravitanti attorno alla chiesa cattolica, di cui si fa promotore e da cui poi si allontana. Oppure, per risalire sino alle origini e alla preistoria della fenomenologia, si pensi a Franz Brentano, sacerdote e studioso di Tommaso d’Aquino, oltre che ispiratore e maestro di Edmund Husserl. Ma si pensi anche a Karol Wojtyła, formatosi allo studio di Max Scheler e su cui giocò un’influenza rilevante anche il pensiero di Roman Ingarden.

Il rapporto prevalente che la fenomenologia instaurò fu quello con la cosiddetta Neoscolastica, ossia con la corrente filosofica e teologica volta al recupero e alla riattualizzazione del pensiero medievale ed in particolare del tomismo, sostenuta con energia dalla chiesa cattolica nel corso del ventesimo secolo e rilanciata in particolare dall’enciclica Aeterni Patris di Leone XIII (1879). La vicinanza tra le due correnti può apparire a prima vista sorprendente: la fenomenologia infatti si presenta come un pensiero privo di riferimenti storici, rifiuta qualsiasi tipo di presupposto extra-razionale ed è costitutivamente contraria alla metafisica, tanto che “metafisico” e “fenomenologico” vengono talora ad essere aggettivi usati in modo antitetico; la Neoscolastica, all’opposto, trova appunto nel pensiero medievale un riferimento privilegiato, è orientata al dialogo con la teologia e con la fede rivelata, e sostiene una ripresa della metafisica.

A ben vedere, però, un orientamento marcatamente teoretico caratterizza anche la Neoscolastica, che si rivolge al passato medievale come ad una presunta “età dell’oro”, la cui validità teorica andrebbe riproposta con energia contro le derive e la crisi della modernità. Su questo piano dunque – ossia sul piano di un interesse speculativo scevro da pregiudizi – va compresa la possibilità di un primo, generico, punto di incontro. Un secondo, già più specifico, punto di contatto va rinvenuto nell’istanza fondativa con cui entrambe le correnti impostano il loro procedere, così che la fenomenologia, per quanto anti-metafisica, si presenta come una “scienza rigorosa” e come una “filosofia prima”. Ma il terzo e più preciso punto di incontro che ha condotto alla possibilità di dialogo tra queste due correnti va sicuramente individuato nell’approccio inaugurato da Husserl con le Logische Untersuchungen (1900-01): in quest’opera, infatti, si difende un‘impostazione che può essere compresa – ed è stato compresa effettivamente dai primi discepoli di Husserl – come realista. Husserl infatti propone una forte critica allo psicologismo, e molti allievi considereranno una svolta indebita da parte di Husserl l’impostazione idealista delle successive Ideen I (1913). Per la Neoscolastica era proprio lo psicologismo – e più in generale il soggettivismo – uno dei maggiori errori del pensiero moderno in generale, a partire da Cartesio e da Kant. La Neoscolastica proponeva quindi un ritorno al realismo metafisico che aveva caratterizzato l’epoca medievale. Così, il ritorno “alle cose stesse” propugnato da Husserl poteva certamente attrarre l’attenzione dei pensatori neoscolastici. La stessa fenomenologia, non a caso, venne accusata di essere una forma di “nuova Scolastica”. Proprio al realismo e alla necessità di “convertirsi” ad esso fa dunque riferimento il titolo del volume di Baring, che finalmente mette a tema questa importante relazione intellettuale tra due movimenti di pensiero protagonisti del secolo scorso.

Oltre alle figure più prominenti già menzionate in apertura, molti altri nomi sono emblematici del rapporto tra fenomenologia e cattolicesimo: Dietrich von Hildebrand, per esempio, altro giovane fenomenologo che conobbe la conversione al cattolicesimo in età adulta. Oppure Erich Przywara, che con curiosità di avvicinò allo studio del pensiero husserliano a partire da posizioni neoscolastiche. E poi, nelle generazioni successive di pensatori, si pensi all’importanza, per la diffusione della fenomenologia, di figure come Alphonse de Waelhens (Belgio), Sofia Vanni Rovighi (Italia), Joaquìn Xirau (Mesicco) o Herman Boelaars (Olanda). Fu un sacerdote cattolico, inoltre, Hermann Leo Van Breda, a porre in salvo i manoscritti husserliani e a fondare l’Archivio dedicato al padre della fenomenologia. E la diffusione attuale della fenomenologia in Francia – forse l’ultimo avamposto della corrente husserliana – è dovuta in buona misura a pensatori dichiaratamente ed esplicitamente cattolici, come Michel Henry o Jean-Luc Marion, ma anche Jean Greisch, Philippe Capelle-Dumont ed Emmanuel Falque: tanto che si è parlato, famigeratamente, di un “tournant théologique” della fenomenologia francese.

Mettere in luce questi rapporti rappresenta la mera esposizione di un fatto storico incontrovertibile. Tuttavia, a partire da ciò, prudentemente l’Autore non intende sostenere la tesi di un carattere cripticamente cattolico della fenomenologia – in quello che rappresenterebbe una sorta di ribaltamento della tesi di Janicaud sul “tournant théologique”. Infatti, egli scrive:

“By claiming that Catholics played an outsized role in the reception of phenomenology […], even in its atheistic versions, I don’t mean to argue that phenomenology is essentially Christian, and that the secular thinkers who have developed its claims in important and interesting ways were crypto-Catholics, blind to the true nature of their thought. First, the Catholic readings of phenomenology were in many ways expropriations. Husserl gave little encouragement to those who hoped to bend his philosophy to fit a Catholic agenda. Second, as we shall see, phenomenology’s compatibility with Catholicism was by no means assured, and it was the difficulty of aligning it with neo- scholasticism that made phenomenology attractive to other religious thinkers and, later, atheists. Finally, and most fundamentally, it is not clear on what basis one could declare phenomenology Christian or Catholic, because the concept of a ‘Christian philosophy’ is notoriously difficult to define. At almost precisely the moment when Catholics were shuttling phenomenological ideas around the continent, many of the same thinkers were also engaged in a Europe-wide debate about whether ‘Christian philosophy’ had any meaning at all” (11-12).

Il volume quindi procede prevalentemente su un terreno più solido e sicuro, che è il terreno storico. Tuttavia, con un’osservazione che può essere definita di “ispirazione” fenomenologica si deve rilevare come, evidentemente, non esistano “fatti” storici da poter cogliere in modo positivisticamente ingenuo e scevri da ogni carattere interpretativo. La buona “intenzionalità” dell’Autore, quindi, si perde almeno in parte nel corso del volume. Valutiamo come.

Nella prima parte vengono analizzati i rapporti di Husserl, Heidegger e Scheler con il cattolicesimo e la Neoscolastica, in quattro capitoli dedicati rispettivamente al rapporto, in senso generico, tra le due correnti di pensiero, e poi a ciascuna delle tre figure. La seconda parte si dedica a descrivere alcune influenze rilevanti che queste figure cardine giocarono sui rapporti con il cattolicesimo di alcuni pensatori al di fuori della Germania: nello specifico si analizzano sia figure quali Nicolai Berdyaev, Gabriel Marcel e Augusto Guzzo (definiti “esistenzialisti cristiani”); sia la corrente del tomismo qui denominato “cartesiano” – e definibile in senso più lato “trascendentale” – ossia Joseph Maréchal, Karl Rahner, ma anche Giuseppe Zamboni (nel meritorio ed informato ricordo di un dibattito molto interessante all’Università Cattolica di Milano); sia la ricezione teologica di Kierkegaard (soprattutto nella teologia dialettica); sia quella di Nietzsche nei fascismi, ed il loro controverso rapporto con il cattolicesimo impegnato socialmente e politicamente. La terza parte, infine, si dedica alla storia dell’Archivio Husserl e poi – ampliando la prospettiva al di là dei confini del cattolicesimo – prende in esame le vicende di Paul Ricoeur e di Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Proprio questo allargamento finale di prospettiva – così come, più in generale, la vastità di questioni, correnti ed autori presi in considerazione – mostra forse quella che è una prima difficoltà del volume, ossia la tesi per cui il ruolo del cattolicesimo, nella vicenda fenomenologica, viene forse in alcuni tratti sovrainterpretato. Rispetto a Ricoeur o a Merleau-Ponty, infatti, non sembra che il rapporto con l’ambito di pensiero Neoscolastico o con la storia del cattolicesimo abbia avuto un’influenza così decisiva. Ma, a ben vedere, ciò non vale solo per questo capitolo. La tesi dell’Autore pare, a giudizio di chi scrive, dover essere ridimensionata in senso complessivo.

In ciascun passaggio, forse, Baring dona troppa enfasi al ruolo del cattolicesimo, come si può evincere in questo passaggio in cui egli riassume la sua prospettiva generale e che il lettore potrà valutare analiticamente:

“I argue that the neo-scholastic reading provided the impetus and stakes for the realism/ idealism debate that engulfed Husserl’s students in the 1910s and 1920s (Chapter 2); I suggest that Catholic debates lend context to the development of an existential version of phenomenology, both in Heidegger’s work (Chapter 3) and elsewhere in Europe in the 1930s (Chapters 5, 6, and 7); I show how the conflicts between religious thinkers furnished the means for non-Catholics to craft atheistic versions of phenomenology and existentialism (Chapters 7, 8, and 10); and I explain how Catholic readings helped imprint phenomenology with political meaning both in Germany in the 1920s (Chapter 4) and outside of Germany in the 1930s (Chapter 8), in a way that foreshadowed and shaped the emergence of existential Marxism in the 1940s (Chapter 10). The Catholic reception of phenomenology was a subterranean but massive structure, linking many of the most important developments in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. It could play this role because, before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (20).

Su ciascun aspetto, si potrebbero mettere in luce anche dibattiti e contributi non solo di provenienza cattolica: il dibattito tra idealismo e realismo coinvolge tutti gli allievi gottinghesi di Husserl e il rapporto con i monachesi, ben al di là dei confini confessionali; l’esistenzialismo – categoria peraltro difficilmente applicabile al pensiero di Martin Heidegger – conosce uno sviluppo non solo marcato da influenze cattoliche, così come un esistenzialismo marxista ha una traiettoria anche completamente indipendente da matrici confessionali etc…

Le ultime righe del brano appena citato, poi, chiamano in causa una seconda difficoltà che ci sembra mostrare il volume di Baring, ossia una certa tendenza a sovrapporre troppo velocemente categorie ed etichette storiografiche: cattolicesimo e Neoscolastica, ad esempio, non sono sinonimi, così come evidentemente non coincidono nemmeno con l’idea della “filosofia cristiana”. L’Autore ne è consapevole, come abbiamo visto e sottolineato anche con una citazione esplicita, in precedenza; ma allora il rapporto della fenomenologia con il cattolicesimo in senso generale appare chiamare in causa figure e contesti anche molto (troppo?) diversi tra loro. Sull’altro versante, poi, l’equiparazione della fenomenologia con la “filosofia continentale” appare ancora più forzata. Se è vero che l’ermeneutica o l’esistenzialismo derivano o non possono prescindere dalla fenomenologia, il marxismo, il neokantismo, il neoidealismo, lo spiritualismo e il personalismo sono tutte correnti “continentali” che – sia pur entrate in qualche rapporto con la fenomenologia – hanno avuto origini e sviluppi da essa indipendenti e autonomi. Se negli ultimi decenni quindi la filosofia continentale è stata in larga misura almeno di ispirazione fenomenologica, evidentemente non sempre è stato così nel corso del Novecento e le due categorie non sono sovrapponibili.

Ciò che sta a cuore all’Autore, d’altronde, emerge nell’Epilogo, in cui egli afferma – forse con eccesso di enfasi:

“Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion. Whether they consider religion as something that needs to be exorcised, conjured up, or—and this is where my sympathies lie—mined as an intellectual resource, philosophers across Europe have returned insistently to religious themes and questions” (343).

Anche in questo caso, si sostiene un giudizio dalla portata molto vasta – e per farlo ci si deve riferire al pensiero “religioso” in senso generale; per poi concludere invece rivolgendosi nello specifico al Tomismo e affermando:

“Thomism is not the power house it once was. Still taught in Catholic universities and seminaries around the world, it rarely enjoys philosophical attention outside the Church. Yet when assessing its influence, we should not restrict our attention to those few who continue to bear its name. Whether passed on as a positive inheritance, or persisting as a negative imprint on other forms of philosophy, neo-scholasticism’s greatest legacy is the international debate between non- Catholic philosophers over phenomenology. And though this would be cold comfort to a Mercier, a Gemelli, a Przywara, or a Maritain, Thomism continues to deserve the title philosophia perennis, thanks to its contradictory afterlives in secular thought.” (349).

Queste osservazioni critiche, comunque, nulla tolgono al valore di un volume che molto meritoriamente evidenzia finalmente in modo diffuso e analitico, e con una erudizione sorprendente, un rapporto macroscopico e sinora sorprendentemente sottaciuto. Così come nulla tolgono alla precisione del testo alcuni piccoli errori o refusi (chi scrive questa recensione, ad esempio, viene talora confuso con Roberto Tommasi). Impostare il rapporto in modo più stringente sul rapporto tra Neoscolastica e fenomenologia – piuttosto che tra cattolicesimo e pensiero continentale – avrebbe forse potuto essere una scelta più efficace, ma il lavoro di Baring resta in ogni caso decisivo per comprendere una vicenda rilevantissima della storia della filosofia del Novecento e dunque anche – “Herkunft bleibt stets Zukunft – i suoi sviluppi futuri.

Emilio Carlo Corriero: The Absolute and the Event: Schelling after Heidegger, Bloomsbury, 2020

The Absolute and the Event: Schelling after Heidegger Book Cover The Absolute and the Event: Schelling after Heidegger
Emilio Carlo Corriero
Hardback £76.50

Dawne McCance: The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort

The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort Book Cover The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort
Dawne McCance
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Dong Yang (The University of Georgia)

“This book is not a translation of La vie la mort,” McCance states in the introduction of The Reproduction of Life Death—a study of Jacques Derrida’s series of lectures conducted at the ENS from 1975 to 1976– “Nor is the book an exegesis of the seminar” (McCance, The Reproduction of Life Death, 5). Without offering further clarification, the author seems to have posed a curious riddle for the reader: after all, this work appears to be a translation of sorts, given the multiple inserted and interlaced quotations from various seminal works of Derrida; and it appears to be an exegesis of Derrida’s consistently deconstructive effort within and beyond the seminar to problematize the oppositional logic that renders the form of reproduction as a repetition of the identical and that lends theoretical and scientific force to the eugenic movements, exemplified chiefly in the thoughts of Aristotle, Hegel and François Jacob, by tracing the lines of thought of Nietzsche and Freud that consider the relational difference between life and death as interdependent and mutually inclusive. Already there is a curious aporia between the author’s aim and the organization of the text, a struggle that perhaps reflects McCance’s careful effort to keep her study of La vie la mort from becoming an ironic proof of what Derrida attempts to refute in the seminar: a programmed form of inheritance that strictly follows a predetermined nonliving model and consequently subjects difference to identity. Hers is a dynamic double gesture of both reworking the Derridian positions on biology and pedagogy and breaking the spell of “technoscientific and philosophical ‘modernity,’” a time of experimental science in which “invention has become less a ‘discovery’ than a ‘production’” (9). Following the author’s winding attempt to decode a work of Derrida’s that defies simplistic explication, therefore, surpasses the intellectual pleasure of the source text, especially when Derrida’s principle task—to critique the mode of biological or educational reproduction as repetition of an identical model–seems to echo what Gilles Deleuze formulated in Difference and Repetition years before Derrida’s seminar. In that work, Deleuze strives to overturn the ruling primacy of identity in the history of philosophy and thereby restore the significant function of difference in weaving together an image of thought prior to any static formation of concepts and repetitions. In such a spirit Deleuze writes, for instance, “When we define repetition as difference without concept, we are drawn to conclude that only extrinsic difference is involved in repetition; we consider, therefore, that any internal ‘novelty’ is sufficient to remove us from repetition proper and can be reconciled only with an approximative repetition, so called by analogy” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 27). The invisible Deleuzian presence in La vie la mort thus weakens the joy of deconstruction one usually feels when reading a Derridian text, but at the same time, it separates McCance’s study from its source text and continues the inquiry into its nature and grounding, as the publication of this neither-translation-nor-exegesis precedes the real English translation of the seminar. McCance’s overall methodology of approaching Derrida’s seminar in a thematic rather than a linear way implies a relational inquiry, that is, instead of treating La vie la mort as a stand-alone text, McCance examines how Derrida’s central thesis fits into his oeuvre, and it is the rhizomic effort to trace the course of the envelopment of an idea that constitutes the primary significance of the book.

Before delving fully into the seminar, McCance begins the first chapter with a detour of Derrida’s suspicious attitude towards the telos of modern experimental science by revisiting his account of the change of meaning in the notion of invention in Psyche: Inventions of the Other. No longer is invention related to unearthing something new, rather, it has become a mode of production that follows a programmed and oppositional logic (9-10). McCance then helpfully underscores the key line of thought in Derridian philosophy, the concept of heritance, and then links it to a provocative work of biological science—La logique du vivant— by Nobel Laureate biologist François Jacob, provocative because of its declaration of “biology’s release from metaphysics and its coming of age as a science” (11). With McCance’s careful reminder of the unsatisfactory English title of the book, The Logic of Life, which obscures the departure of the study of life from its metaphysical tradition, we come to understand the inherent opposition in modern biology that aims to demystify living life via nonliving entities (that is, DNA), an effort that consequently establishes juxtapositions between life/living and death/nonliving. She captures what is at stake in Derrida’s account: the relation between life and death, be it connective or predicative. As already suggested in the title of the seminar La vie la mort, inserting an undecidable difference or “trait blanc” is thus necessary—Derrida speculates in the spirit of Freud and Nietzsche—for launching a qualitative transformation of the dynamism between life and death from oppositional or dialectical to supplementary. McCance writes “Derrida chooses the titles La vie la mort, he says, not in order to suggest either that life and death are not two, or that one is the other, but rather that the difference at stake between the two is not of a positional (dialectical or nondialectical) order” (11-12). Situating the book back in the mid-70s context where poststructuralist momentum was thriving in France, such an attempt to break with binary oppositions would not seem revolutionary or overly creative; rather, it reads more like an affirmation of philosophical trends of the era. But McCance extends our interest by drawing on the power of such oppositional logic in the process of auto-reproduction by associating La vie la mort with Derrida’s critique of the Hegelian family in Glas, where Hegel claims the privilege of the father-son lineage while crossing out the role of the female. It is precisely this coded mechanism in familial reproduction that finds its echo in the writing of François Jacob and Georges Canguilhem, where the meaning of heritage becomes understood as mere transmission of hierarchical information (26-27), with the result that eugenic measures would proceed to eliminate unwanted differences. The grounding of such a critique comes from Derrida’s explication of an analogy Jacob makes between DNA and text, a view that helps him initiate the accusation of phonologocentrism in Jacob, and McCance concurs: “Indeed, to refer to DNA as a ‘text’ is to borrow a metaphor, in Jacob’s case, an all but outdated metaphor of text drawn from structuralist semiotics, a metaphor through which he reduces ‘text’ to a phonologocentric communicative entity” (30). Hence Derrida’s understanding of DNA’s function: it is the difference along with sameness that get processed and extended through sexual reproduction (31).

Derrida’s critical objective in the seminar not only aims at cultivating an awareness of the problem of inheritance in biological science, but also—and perhaps more interestingly and convincingly—at highlighting the application of such an oppositional logic in biology in modern philosophical institutions, in particular the ENS, where Derrida—teaching then as an agrégé-répétituer–likens the way the philosophy program operates at the institution to the concept of genetic program Jacob proposes, a logos-like message that instructs and repeats generation after generation. Drawing on this theoretical resemblance, in the second chapter McCance then walks us through Derrida’s theory of pedagogy and reemphasizes the unavoidable power inherent in the process of teaching where structural signs are passed along. One problematic function of teaching, especially teaching philosophy, as Derrida diagnoses in his essay “What Is a Teaching Body,” is exactly the auto-productive program that transcribes the coded and repetitive information via the teaching body of the agrégé-répétituer. The act of teaching, therefore, must base its effectiveness on a kind of machinic institutional power “presented as a defense against mutant or contraband influences that threaten the death of the biological or institutional body” (47). By highlighting the mutually supportive roles of the two Derridian texts, McCance, instead of overly emphasizing the rather trite thesis of La vie la mort regarding the oppositional logic of the repetition of the same, directs our attention to the analogy that reveals the pervasiveness of such a biological model on which Jacob relies in educational institutions; we learn from her concluding statement that:

In his reading of Jacob’s program as an apt description of the aggregation program, Derrida demonstrates that both the biological and pedagogical institutions, attempting to ward off difference, constitute reproduction as repetition of the same, although as he remarks every reproduction involves selection and thus the failure of philosophical-biological-pedagogical metalanguage. (50).

Given Derrida’s predicament regarding the presence of ideological power in both academic and scientific institutions, McCance unpacks further the working mechanism of such effort to automate and rigidify the process of teaching and biological reproduction in the following chapter, by invoking Derrida’s curious rendering of Nietzsche’s name and philosophical legacy in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. This reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo functions as an apology for Nietzsche’s posthumous negative influence by arguing that the dissemination of the autobiography depends not on the author’s own signature but the ear of the other who cosigns with differences in hearing or translating the original text. The riddle with which Derrida begins his text—the death of Nietzsche’s father and the life of his mother at the moment he is born—helps foster the sense of self in Nietzsche’s course of life, which, in turn, leads to Derrida’s association of Nietzsche’s description of his life with the process by which one obtains an identity and becomes oneself. Such a process is represented through the development of the name:

“There, this is who I am, a certain masculine and a certain feminine. Ich bin der und der, a phrase which means all these things. You will not be able to hear and understand my name unless you hear it with an ear attuned to the name of the dead man and the living feminine—the double and divided name of the father who is dead and the mother who is living on” (Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, 16).

But the continuation of the name after death—the living, namely—depends not on the bearer of the name but on the persons who listen to the name and revive it in the process of infinite eternal return; hence, according to Derrida, one cannot ascribe to Nietzsche the atrocities that the Nazi perpetrated: “One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness” (30). To emphasize the fluidity of life death that refuses any form of consolidation of Nietzsche’s thought under the unity of his proper name, as Heidegger reads and interprets Nietzsche through the “Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition” (The Reproduction of Life Death, 57), McCance aptly connects the three seminal concepts Derrida exploits to contest the institutional or scientific subjectivity grounded by oppositional and hierarchical logic: autobiography, the ear, academic freedom (53), of which the ear is given special emphasis in the rest of the book. After a brief characterization of the Hegelian-Heideggerian line of thought that shares a synthetic tendency to fold and classify an identity within an unchanging personal proper name, McCance explains the Derridian alternative that sees heritance as a process, with the remark that

“The temporal deference upsets the linear notion of time, making the writing of autobiography an ongoing life death affair, an alliance between the living and the dead, a case of death in life […]” (61).

An intriguing idea that appears near the end of the third chapter and runs throughout the rest of the book—perhaps the most memorable elements of the text—is the (re)formulation of Derrida’s view that the study of the relation between life and death demands an interdisciplinary effort. Modern biologists’ efforts to decode the living by treating it as text, Derrida argues, by no means simply the methodology; quite the contrary. The texualization of life inserts a third term—the text—between life and death, and thus, “the referential subject/object paradigm no longer suffices, a changed situation for all disciplines—or at least, a change that would be required for revitalization of the academic institution” (69). An interdisciplinary transition of the academic institution–in the spirit of Nietzsche–is necessary for the future collaborative study of life, a key point McCance proposes here: “The radical ‘interdisciplinarity’ that, for want of a better term, I read La vie la mort to recommend is as much needed today as it was in the 1970s and as it was in the German university of Nietzsche’s day” (69). In such a spirit, Chapter 4 traces the transdisciplinary effort of an oppositional logic that may be found in Marxist political economy, the Jacobian biological theory of life, Alexander Graham Bell’s speech reproduction theory, and the eugenics movements in American history. Centering on the notion of production that entails man’s distinct cerebral ability to control products and eliminate the redundant and undesirable, Derrida surmises that interchanging usages of production and reproduction in Jacob’s work indicates his belief that “man distinguishes himself from animals by assuming control over the products of evolution” (77). In a similar fashion, McCance adds, phonetic speech is reproduced via Bell’s invention of the phonautograph, a speech producing apparatus preceding the appearance of the telephone that makes visible the phonetic signs by a “mechanical theory of hearing” (87). Bell’s essentialist momentum of reproducing the same speech by reducing its abnormal patterns finds its echo in the American eugenics movement, where inheritance is controlled in accordance with a mechanical model that helps produce offspring of desired types.

Chapter 5 develops in detail an essential line of thought Derrida addresses in La vie la mort, the dangerous power of scientific knowledge that is in part unavoidable. McCance finds inspiration in Derrida’s final seminar, “The Beast & the Sovereign,” where a consciousness of knowledge-as-sovereign is always present alongside the process of scientific inquiries, a demonstration of man’s hierarchical and theological power over the beast that lends force to a Catholic ethics, one that “reproduces a double body, an imperishable life worth more than natural or animal life, even as, paradoxically, the church reduces ethics to the automaticity, to the technics or technical reason, from which, at least since Vatican I (1869-1870), it has sought self-protection” (116). However, for Derrida, such a religious goal of self-protection or immunization—standing in line with the oppositional logic criticized in La vie la mort—causes an internal conflict: “religion’s efforts at immunization end up attacking, as an external contaminant, what is already internal to its own body, and indeed necessary for its survival” (116). This self-destructive tendency within religious bodies (similar to the concept of “the politics of politics” that Geoffrey Bennington has recently proposed) finds its secular recurrences in the contemporary “non-speciesism” ethical theories developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, two modes of thought that primarily concern the rights of the animal. Conjoining other works of Derrida, such as The Animal Therefore I Am, The Beast & the Sovereign, McCance returns to the principal theme in La vie la mort and contends that Derrida’s formulations provide “a critical resource for developing non-sovereign, non-prescriptive, non-oppositional and non-anthropocentric approaches to ethics in the age of the Anthropocene” (122).

By way of Freud’s implicit counter to the Hegelian and Jacobian oppositional logic of the living in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, McCance offers a holistic account of an earlier theme that the study of life requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is beyond the capacity of science or philosophy. Derrida was intrigued by the Freudian methodology of speculation, a view that tends to explicate the meaning of pleasure in terms of the variation of quantitative energy, an economic theory that concentrates on the relation between two quantities with unknown essences (130). Grounded by such a model, Derrida moves on to note that the Freudian theory of life death—or Eros Thanatos—defies the Hegelian-Jacobian program that reproduces only the same. On the contrary, Freud writes with a sense of confusion that also surprisingly breaks with the logocentric convention of the production of sameness: “[…] Derrida reads Freud’s account of reproduction in Beyond as offering an alternative ‘logic’ to Jacob’s, an alterity on the side of life and living on” (146). Life, therefore, is not opposed to death in the form of an either/or, but supplements and becomes interdependent with it, with a nexus of difference that always moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and binary judgements.

The Reproduction of Life Death is a strange book, precisely because McCance writes it in deconstruction but at the same time out of Derrida. We read an anxious awareness of the not-so-spectacular source text with a rather trite thesis along with a rhizomic effort of McCance’s to move beyond the scope of La vie la mort—just as Derrida tries to move beyond the limitations of the life/death opposition in the process of the continuation of heritance—to make the seminar itself an intertextual nexus in relation to Derrida’s oeuvre. McCance rigorously highlights the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of life and the living—a central theme of La vie la mort and, perhaps most importantly, reveals Derrida’s courage in the text to confront the dogmatism and sacredness of modern science, a spirit of the spur that is increasingly difficult to find in the weakening voice of the humanities.


McCance, Dawne. The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Jacques Derrida: La vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)

La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976) Book Cover La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)
Bibliothèque Derrida
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf
Paperback 24.00 €

Reviewed by: Mauro Senatore (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Santiago de Chile)

“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.

By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.

§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.

From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).

Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).

In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.

In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.

§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).

§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.

In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.

In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.

The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.

Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.


Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.


Paul Downes: Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur, Routledge, 2019

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Paul Downes
Hardback £115.00

Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.): Hans Blumenberg: Die nackte Wahrheit, Suhrkamp, 2019

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Rüdiger Zill (Hrsg.)
Suhrkamp Verlag
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