Karsten Harries: The Antinomy of Being

The Antinomy of Being Book Cover The Antinomy of Being
Karsten Harries. Preface by: Dermot Moran
De Gruyter
Front matter: 22. Main content: 246

Reviewed by: Richard Colledge (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University)

Karsten Harries’ The Antinomy of Being, which is based on his final Yale graduate seminar, is a deeply ambitious study that brings to the table vast scholarship across a range of philosophical, as well as literary, theological, early modern scientific, and art historical sources. Focusing especially on what he presents as a key problematic in the work of Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Harries demonstrates the way that this notion of the antinomy of Being is at the heart of the condition of possibility of truth, and thus for any response to the spectre of nihilism. When taken as a whole, his arguments make a compelling case not only for the centrality and irreducibility of this issue across a range of philosophical fields, but also for any rigorous meta-philosophical reflection. This welcome development in Harries’ work is a text that challenges contemporary thought across various fields.

The idea of the antinomy of Being is one that Harries has presented and discussed numerous times in his writings over the last decade and a half in particular, generally as part of a more finely focused argument that opens into this larger underlying set of concerns.[1] However, in this 2019 monograph, Harries provides a fully developed account of what he describes as “the unifying thread of [his] philosophical musings” from over half a century of teaching, even if the term itself appeared in his work only comparatively recently (AB, 1).

“Antinomy” is associated with paradox; aporia; the limits of language; cognitive dissonance; and possibly even the limits of logic. More specifically (especially in a Kantian context), it relates to the clash between two apparently contradictory beliefs, each of which is entirely justifiable. Two of the four famous antinomies in Kant’s first Kritik (relating to space and time, freedom, substance and ultimate necessity) are the subject of explicit attention in this book, as is the way that the same fundamental problematic can be seen as being deeply at play in the work of Martin Heidegger and various other post-Kantian thinkers. The ways that these more specific cases arise in Harries’ text will be surveyed below. However, it is important also to note that Harries’ concern is not to simply paint his topic as an issue in the thought of a particular group of philosophers. To the contrary, his larger and more basic project is to show that the antinomy of Being is an irreducible element in all thought, cutting across all disciplines and genres. Consequently, its denial amounts to the distortion of thought, while coming to terms with it is the only pathway to intellectual (perhaps also existential) authenticity. For ultimately, it is a question of how it is possible to respond to the ever-present threat of nihilism (the topic of his 1962 doctoral dissertation). As he puts it early in his Introduction:

[O]ur thinking inevitably leads us into some version of this antinomy whenever it attempts to comprehend reality in toto, without loss, and that a consequence of that attempt is a loss of reality. All such attempts will fall short of their goal. What science can know and what reality is, are in the end incommensurable. Such incommensurability however, is not something to be grudgingly accepted, but embraced as a necessary condition of living a meaningful life. That is why the Antinomy of Being matters and should concern us. (AB, 2)

What is the nub of Harries’ contention? In a sense, the book is something of a manifesto for hermeneutical realism, and in such a way that places equal weight on both hermeneutics and realism as complementary poles of the antinomy of Being as a whole. On one hand, there is an absolute insistence on the finitude of all understanding (“hermeneutics goes all the way down” as the old adage has it), while on the other hand there is an equally strong insistence on the real as that which is finitely understood. In this way, the twin disasters of nihilism – i.e., idealism (nothing can be known; or there is no real as such) and dogmatism (in its many guises, be it scientism, religious fundamentalism, etc) – are both variations on the theme of denial of the ineluctable antinomy of Being. Both idealism and realism contain kernels of truth, but in canonising one side of the antinomy and marginalising the other, both are ideologies that destroy the balance required to underpin the possibilities of knowing in any genuine sense. On one hand, idealism absolutizes the rift between mind and world so that it is portrayed as an unbridgeable chasm that makes knowledge of the real impossible. On the other hand, in its claim to have captured and represented the real, there is something absurd and self-undermining in rationalistic realism, and in presenting a shrunken parody of the real it too vacates the space for nihilistic conclusions.

In seeking to do justice to both sides of the antinomy, Harries is not afraid to defend what he sees as the key insight of the Kantian antinomies that he links respectively (if unfashionably) to the transcendental and the transcendent dimensions of the real:

[T]he being of things has to be understood in two senses: what we experience are first of all phenomena, appearances, and as such their being is essentially a being for the knowing subject. Science investigates these phenomena. But the things we experience are also things in themselves, and as such they possess a transcendent being that eludes our comprehension. The identification of phenomena, of what science can know, with reality is shown to mire us in contradiction. (AB, 1)

I suggest that Harries’ stance invites comparison with other contemporary forms of hermeneutical realism, such as that developed by Günter Figal.[2] Figal’s approach places the focus on the problem of objectivity: of the thing’s standing over against the subject as irretrievably other, even in its being understood and grasped. As Figal puts it, “[h]ermeneutical experience is the experience of the objective [das Gegenständliche]—of what is there in such a way that one may come into accord with it and that yet never fully comes out in any attempt to reach accord.”[3] Similarly, it is this simultaneous knowability and unknowability of things that Harries highlights in his observation of the antinomy that characterises all understanding of the objective, of that which shows itself – only ever finitely and incompletely – as the real.

In the first chapter of the book, Harries sets out his account predominantly with reference not to Kant, but to Heidegger. These pages provide a condensed summary of some of the major aspects of his previously published readings of Heidegger that gather around this theme. For Harries, the confrontation with the antinomy of Being is at the heart of a key tension in Being and Time, a tension that Heidegger repeatedly returns to for the rest of his life. Even if Heidegger never used the term, Harries asserts that it is directly evoked in his notion of “the ontological difference” (the difference between beings and their Being [Sein]), for to attempt to think this difference Heidegger, he claims, “had to confront the Antinomy of Being” (AB, 15). As Heidegger outlines in §§43-44 of Being and Time, but more directly in his summer 1927 lecture course, there is a formidable problem here. On one hand, without Being, there would be no beings, and so Being is transcendental. Further, there is Being only when truth (and thus Dasein) exists, for without Dasein, there would be no revelation of beings. But on the other hand (and here the antinomy becomes evident), it cannot be said that beings, or nature as such, only are when there is Dasein. Nature does not need to be revealed to Dasein (there need be no event of truth) in order to be what it already is. We do not create beings; they “are given to us,” and our “experience of the reality of the real is thus an experience of beings as transcending Being so understood” (AB, 15). Being “transcend[s] … the Dasein-dependent transcendental Being to which Being and Time sought to lead us” (AB, 14). The antinomy of Being thus arises in this distinction Heidegger implicitly notes “between two senses of Being: the first transcendental sense relative to Dasein and in this sense inescapably historical, the second transcendent sense, gesturing towards the ground or origin of Dasein’s historical being and thus also of Being understood transcendentally” (AB, 15-16).[4]

To be sure, with this Heidegger interpretation Harries intervenes in well-established debates within (especially American) Heidegger scholarship. However, unlike the way much of that debate circles around early Heideggerian thought (and sometimes only Division 1 of Being and Time), Harries is concerned with the way that this same issue continued to play out – albeit in different terms –  in Heidegger’s later works. For example, he makes the interesting (unfortunately undeveloped) suggestion that Heidegger sometimes looks to differentiate these two senses of Being via the introduction of the Hölderlin-inspired spelling “Seyn” or in placing “Sein” under erasure. “Sein and Seyn are the two sides of my antinomy,” he explains: “Being understood as the transcendent ground of experience (Seyn) transcends Being understood transcendentally (Sein)” (AB, 16). However, the attempt to comprehend … the presencing (das Wesen) of Seyn will inevitably “become entangled in some version of the Antinomy of Being. Thus:

Any attempt to conceptually lay hold of that originating ground threatens to transform it into a being, such as God or the thing in itself and must inevitably fail. Here our thinking bumps against the limits of language. Being refuses to be imprisoned in the house of language. And yet this elusive ground is somehow present to us, calls us, if in silence, opening a window to transcendence in our world. (AB, 16)

For Harries, the notion of the Kehre in Heideggerian thought – understood as Heidegger himself presents it, as “a more thoughtful attempt to attend to the matter to be thought” –  is a step made necessary by “the antinomial essence of Being, which denies the thinker a foundation.” Indeed, Harries goes still further in doubling back to Kant: the “Antinomy of Being shows us why we cannot dispense with something like the Kantian understanding of the thing in itself as the ground of phenomena, even as the thing in itself eludes our understanding” (AB, 16-17).

In Chapter 2 (“The Antinomy of Truth”), Harries continues his engagement with Heideggerian thought, specifically concerning the paradox of language. Accordingly, language is both the way that beings are revealed and thus (transcendentally) come to be for us, whilst also limiting us to a finite encounter with the real that in itself transcends the limits of linguistic and thus worldly presentation. In other words, as Heidegger emphasised time and again (though it is also an insight voiced throughout philosophical history, from Plato to Wittgenstein and beyond), language both reveals and conceals the real, both revealling and “necessarily cover[ing] up the unique particularity of things” (AB, 25). Harries illustrates this point by opening the chapter with citations from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s evocative 1902 “Letter of Lord Chandos,” before then showing how Hofmannsthal’s insights were already voiced by figures as diverse as Aquinas, Kant and Nietzsche. After focusing on “the truth of phenomena” through a Kantian lens (in the course of which he illuminatingly quotes Copernicus on his own distinction between appearance and actuality in planetary observation), Harries then provides an extended analysis and critique of Heidegger’s account of truth. In partially sympathising with Tugendhat’s critique of Heidegger’s early notion of truth as alētheia, Harries goes on to maintain that transcendental subjectivity only makes sense in the context of transcendental objectivity. The real is only ever encountered and uncovered perspectivally, but the (infinite) array of possible perspectives (via the contingencies of worlding) points to a transcendent whole that is nonetheless inaccessible in its completeness to the finite subject:

To understand the subject as a subject that transcends all particular points of view is to presuppose that consciousness is tied to perspectives but transcends these perspectives in the awareness that they are just perspectives. The transcendental subject has its foundation in the self-transcending subject. (AB, 45)

In Harries view, in its focus on the finitude of phenomenological access, Heidegger’s early position fails to do justice to this larger context: Heidegger’s fundamental ontology “suggest[s] that the perspectival is prior to the trans-perspectival without inquiring into the meaning of this priority.” Further, it must be recognized that “the perspectival and the transperspectival cannot be divorced,” for human self-transcendence “stands essentially in between the two” (AB, 45). Nonetheless, even given this critique, Harries continues to insist, with Heidegger, on the ineluctability of finitude:

[T]he transcendental philosopher remains tied to a given language and subject to the perspectives it imposes, even as he attempts to take a step beyond them. The absolute of which he dreams must elude him. The pursuit of objectivity cannot escape its ground in the concrete. (AB, 45)

Chapter 3 (“The Architecture of Reason”) is largely devoted to the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche on this question. Focusing especially on the latter’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense,” Harries is in agreement with Nietzsche in his staunch opposition to linguistic realism: words do not simply express the inner essence of the things they re-present. “What we can grant him is that the thing in itself remains quite incomprehensible,” and so “what we are dealing with are always only appearances.” However, Harries also wants to insist on the key distinction between the thing-in-itself and objective appearance as such. After all, if the phenomenon just is the self-giving of the thing as it is – albeit finitely and perspectivally – then this makes sense of the possibility of similar perceptions; and this in turn is what makes shared concept formation possible. Furthermore, he argues, it is only thus that Nietzsche is able to sustain his own “social contract theory of language” (AB, 55). But on the other hand, Nietzsche’s linguistic idealism produces a savage critique of scientific rationalism which, he suggests, fails to see that its concepts are really metaphors, the product of the imagination. Concepts are “the ashes of lived intuition”, and scientific rationalism is therefore nothing other than a chasing after shadows. In leaving behind lived experience, science leaves us with death: a “columbarium of concepts” (AB, 63).

This link between science and loss – of the dangers of intellectualism that imperils the natural human experience of the real – is accentuated in the following chapter (“The Devil as Philosopher”) that presents an intriguing diptych of Fichte and Chamisso. Harries’ engagement with the former – who is his major philosophical interlocutor in this chapter – surveys the train of thought that led Fichte to the nihilism of his absolute idealist conclusions. But he also addresses the sense in which Fichte’s path of thought equivocally led out the other side through his conception of “conscience” by which a disinterested intellectualism is replaced by a spirit of conviction. It is thus that Harries sees Fichtean thought as subject again to “the call of reality, which is submerged whenever the world is seen as the desiccated object of a detached, theoretical understanding” (AB, 77). The hinge of the aforementioned diptych is made possible by Fichte’s historical exile from Jena to Berlin, where he met and befriended the romantic poet Adelbert von Chamisso, author of the cautionary tale of Peter Schlemihl. In Harries’ interpretation, Schlemihl – a character who (Faust-like) bargains with a demonic (Mephistopheles-like) philosopher to trade his shadow for unending wealth – is emblemic of the dark side of Enlightenment reason that would have us lose our natural embodied selves, our cultural and social particularities, our “homeland,” in pursuit of the ashes and emptiness of objectivity, soulless freedom and universal reason. Only disembodied ghosts cast no shadows. As Nietzsche would later suggest, disembodied reason is a form of living death. The rationalistic road by which Fichte would propose the inescapable mirror of consciousness that posits the world through its own volition is yet another form of failing to think through both sides of the antinomy of Being.

This leads Harries the full circle back to Heidegger, in a chapter titled “The Shipwreck of Metaphysics”, but also to a very contemporary application of the Heideggerian problematic. He begins by recalling his diagnosis of the antinomy of Being that emerges from Heidegger’s early thought (two irreducibly opposed senses of Being), and he notes Heidegger’s own admission (in his 1946/47 “Letter on Humanism”) that “[t]he thinking that hazards a few steps in Being and Time has even today not advanced beyond that publication.” Harries has us dwell on this impass with Heidegger. Was the whole incomplete project of Being and Time was therefore a dead-end? For Heidegger, it was not simply a “blind alley” (Sackgasse), but something far more telling: a Holzweg. The path of his thought was a very particular kind of losing of one’s way that is typical of “a genuinely philosophical problem” as Wittgenstein would put it (AB, 86). The Holzweg of Heideggerian thought leads us directly into the to the aporia of Being as such.

Harries goes on in this chapter to provide a very contemporary and “concrete” illustration of how this plays out in our own time with regard to the contortions of scientific materialism. He might have chosen any number of interlocutors in this field, but instead (in another hint of Harries’ intellectual generosity) he selects an interlocutor close at hand: a philosophically-minded colleague from Yale’s computer science department, Drew McDermott. With a nod to the medieval doctrine of “double truth” (condemned at Paris in 1277), Harries notes the way that his colleague is completely committed to the basic proposition that the natural sciences hold the key to all that is, can be, and will be understood, even as he admits that science cannot explain key aspects of our first-person experience of the world, including values we hold to be true. In this, he was inspired by Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world (that undermined a materialist “present-at-hand” projection of the world) , even though his commitment to the scientific attitude puts him at loggerheads with Heidegger. Harries sees in McDermott’s apparent cognitive dissonance the very aporia with which Kant and Fichte wrestled, and to which Heidegger’s own work was also to point.

The following chapter (“Limits and Legitimacy of Science”) expands upon this problem of the incompatibility of science with meaning, seen through the lens of the nineteenth century German physicist Heinrich Hertz (in his search for simple comprehensive scientific principles to comprehend the world), the early Wittgenstein (who despite similar aspirations famously concluded that “the sense of the world must lie outside the world”), and Kant (who similarly wanted to entirely affirm the scientific attitude even as he affirmed the truth of dimensions that transcend, and are precluded by, the sciences: freedom, immortality, God).

What begins to emerge in Chapter 7 (“Learning from Laputa”) are twin themes that will come to dominate the later parts of the book: the notion of seeking to escape from the confines of earthly existence through rationality and scientific application, and the theme of being-at-home. Harries’ major inspiration here is Swift’s portrayal of the Laputians in Gulliver’s Travels, who in creating their flying island revel in their (albeit ambiguous) transcendence of standard physical constraints and social bonds. These men of Laputa literally “have their heads in the clouds,” as they exist detached from their earthy home. Indeed, Harries notes the allusions here to Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and he sees both productions as parodies of rationalistic hubris (AB, 119). Here we see the link made to Heidegger’s critique of technology, which not only involves the triumph of curiosity (seen also in the Laputians), but also the flight from grounded human dwelling. Like Peter Schlemihl, with technological enframing, we lose our shadows.

Harries’ upward orientation continues in Chapter 8 as he turns to the cosmological revolution of the sixteenth century. A key figure here is Giordano Bruno, whose execution is understood in the context of an absolute commitment to the sovereignty of rational freedom, and more specifically the implications of his championing of the idea of infinite time and space. In such a universe, conceptions of boundedness, constraint, society, embodiedness, home and homecoming – one might say facticity –  are lost. As Nietzsche pointed out, there is no longer any horizon, no up or down. But Harries similarly points to the earlier tradition of Germanic mysticism (from Walther von der Vogelweide, to Ruysbroeck, to Eckhart and Suso) that made similar gestures toward the power of self-transcendence and freedom of thought to leave the body behind and even challenge the boundary between the human and the Divine. Here the thinking of space through intellectual freedom leads to antinomy. On one hand, space must be limited, since otherwise location would be impossible; but on the other hand, space cannot be limited since there can be nothing outside of space.

On the basis of this extensive groundwork, in Chapters 9 and 10 Harries turns, respectively, to other Kantian antinomies: concerning freedom and time. With reference also to Fichte, he sets out the terms of Kant’s antinomy of freedom: that on one hand there are two kinds of causality in the world (via laws of nature, and via the law of freedom, since otherwise it would be impossible to account for spontaneous events that are not reducible to natural cause and effect), while on the other hand freedom is clearly precluded by the necessary laws of nature (since otherwise the flow of events would lose their regularity). He follows this line of thought into Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which freedom is defended “from a practical point of view” in terms of the experience of persons (AB, 159). But again, Harries is keen to show the perennial nature of this problem, returning to the Paris Condemnations to show that these same irresolvable issues are at play both in terms of the understanding of God’s freedom (Divine voluntarism vs rationalism) and human freedom (in the context of knowledge and sin).

The richly textured chapter on Kant’s antinomy of time (that draws in also Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle, Rilke and Heidegger), takes a series of perspectives on the theme. On one hand, time must be bounded (and the world must have a beginning), since otherwise there could be no foothold in time within which events could occur. But on the other hand, it makes no ordinary sense to conceive of an event outside of time, so time must be infinite. As Harries points out concerning the latter, Kant is thinking here of the idea of time as a complete and infinite whole, an incomprehensible “noumenal substrate.” Here the notion of the sublime in the third Kritik is helpful. Sublime nature, for example, cannot be phenomenonally comprehended as a whole, but it can be thought, and here reason comes to the fore even as imagination and understanding are outstripped. This power of reason to think the infinite, points to the human capacity to transcend its finitude in a certain sense at least that nonetheless conflicts with the ongoing finitude of understanding. The noumenal is thinkable, but not understandable.

It is perhaps something of a shortcoming of the book that Harries doesn’t do the detailed work of relating the structure of the Kantian antinomies in general to his proposal about the antinomy of Being as such. However, the main outlines can be inferred. The logic would seem to be that the “thesis” and “antithesis” sides of Kant’s antinomies speak to the two senses of Being that Harries delineates: the transcendental and the transcendent (or the phenomenological and the noumenal). If, for Kant, transcendental idealism was the means by which these two were held in tension, Harries would seem to be suggesting that we need a robust sense of the Holzwege that both joins and separates what Heidegger wrote of as Realität and des realen: worldly reality and the inaccessible real.[5]

The final chapters of the book (Chapter 11 on “The Rediscovery of the Earth”, and Chapter 12 on “Astronoetics”) focus on this notion of the tension between human finitude and our attractedness to the heavens, to the infinite. We live with a double truth here: we are at home in our local domestic communities even as we are aware that we dwell on a planet that is spinning through space at extraordinary speed. Some of us long to realise the ubiquitous human desire to transcend our earthly dwelling place (as seen in ancient theories and myths, from Thales, to Vitruvius, to Icarus, to Babel, to modern hot air balloons and space flight), and the recent innovation of literal astronautical transcendence of the earth’s atmosphere has given us a taste of what this might mean. In our own times, there is talk of humanity becoming a space-travelling, multi-planetary species. However, Harries insists that we remain mortals, and (for the foreseeable future) creatures of the earth. The brave new world of space flight remains parasitic on the rich and nurturing resources of our home planet. He goes on to reminds us of the long tradition of Christian suspicion of pagan hubris (Augustine vs Aristotle): yes, we are made in God’s image, but human curiosity is also at the root of the fall.

These many themes are continued into the chapter on Astronoetics. The key question here concerns the human relationship to our origin: our earthly home. Are there limits to human self-manipulation and our manipulation of the earth? In order to think through such questions, aeronautics needs to be complemented by what Hans Blumenberg termed astronoetics: the act of thinking or dreaming our way imaginatively through space while remaining “safely ensconced at home.” (AB, 189). This is eventually a matter of thinking deeply about what is at stake in human ambition. Harries presents Jean-François Lyotard and the artist Frank Stella as representatives of the alternative he terms “postmodern levity.” This approach is uninterested in what they characterise as the modern (philosophical and artistic) nostalgic longing for a “lost centre or plenitude,” instead freely revelling in immanence and innovation. If modern art, in its “unhappy consciousness” is “never quite at home in the world,” the post-modern is characterised by a resolute this-worldliness (AB, 204). If modernity looks to evoke that which is finally unpresentable, artists like Frank Stella strive to create works of art that simply satisfy, are fully present, and eschew any ambition to point beyond themselves to obscured dimensions of truth or reality. Needless to say, such an approach is the antithesis of Harries’ account of the incomprehensible presence of the real in things as ordinary and precious as the experience of other human beings and the beauty of nature (see AB, 209).

It cannot be said that Harries’ Conclusion (titled “The Snake’s Promise”) succeeds in pulling together the various threads of his rich and ambitious book. But then again, for a book that deals with the the irreducible antinomy of Being, this seems apt. There are no neat resolutions to be had here. Perhaps this is already intimated in the re-encapsulation of the meaning of the antinomy of Being with which the chapter begins: that “reality will finally elude the reach of our reason, that all attempts to comprehend it will inevitably replace reality with more or less inadequate human constructions.” (AB, 216) In musising further on Heidegger’s critique of technology, Harries shows himself to be largely on the same page as Heidegger, though he is slightly sceptical about a simplistic nostalgic call to return to a pre-industrial golden age. Science and technology have profoundly changed our context, and there is no lineal return.

However, what the final pages do provide is a concluding and scathing critique of the distortions and banishments of the real by science, by art, in education and in popular culture. Science “seeks to understand reality in order to master it” (AB, 233), but in this never-ending quest, it reduces the real through perspectivalism and objectification, alienating us from it. Second, “aestheticizing art” obscures the real insofar as in simply looking to entertain it asks nothing of us. In both cases, the real lies inaccessible and largely forgotten behind the image. In fact, neither the artist, nor the scientist, are second Gods (as per the snake’s promise in the garden), for the work of both is parasitic on the underlying reality that make them possible. Third, and worse still, is the aestheticization of thinking itself: “the transformation of humanistic scholarship into an often very ingenious intellectual game.” (AB, 233) Fourth, and worst of all, is the attempt to aestheticize reality, especially by technological means, for in this way, reality is counterfeited; the real becomes the surreal.

Where does Harries’ extraordinary book leave us? Perhaps most of all with a plea to respect the real, by making a space for its unexpected appearings, to await its uncontrolled showings, and to resist the temptation (driven by our own anxieties) to partialize or even falsify it. I can do no better than to end with Harries’ own appeal:

[E]very attempt to [manipulate reality] … makes us deaf to its claims, denies us access to its transcendence in which all meaning finally has its ground, a ground that by its very essence will not be mastered. To open windows to that reality we must find the strength to abandon the hope to take charge of reality, the hope to be in this sense like God. Only such strength will allow us to be genuinely open to the claims persons and things place on us, will let us understand that we do not belong to ourselves, that we cannot invent or imagine what will give our lives measure and direction, but have to receive and discover it. (AB, 233-34)

[1] See Karsten Harries, “The Antinomy of Being and the End of Philosophy,” in Division III of Heidegger’s Being and Time: The Unanswered Question of Being, ed. Lee Braver (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 133-47; Harries, “The Antinomy of Being: Heidegger’s Critique of Humanism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, ed. Steven Crowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 178-198; and Harries, Wahrheit: Die Architektur der Welt (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2012). For a thoughtful engagement with the last of these, see Steven Crowell, “Amphibian Dreams: Karsten Harries and the Phenomenology of ‘Human’ Reason,” in Husserl, Kant and Transcendental Phenomenology, ed. Iulian Apostolescu and Claudia Serban (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020), 479-504.

[2] For more on this, see my “Thomism and Contemporary Phenomenological Realism: Toward a Renewed Engagement,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 95, no. 3 (2021): 411–432 (esp. 417ff).

[3] Günter Figal. Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy. trans. Theodore George (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 2.

[4] For a not dissimilar reading of the dynamics at play in this area of early Heideggerian thought, and of how this plays out in his later thought, see my “The Incomprehensible ‘Unworlded World’: Nature and Abyss in Heideggerian Thought,” forthcoming in The Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology.

[5] See, e.g., Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 255 [SZ: 212]; Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 217 [GA20: 298].

Jeffrey A. Bernstein, Jade Larissa Schiff (Eds.): Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought

Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines Book Cover Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines
SUNY series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss
Jeffrey A. Bernstein, Jade Larissa Schiff (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Paperback $33.95

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (University of Nevada, Reno)

Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines edited by Jeffrey A. Bernstein and Jade Larissa Schiff is a timely volume that contains nuanced, scholarly, and illuminating reflections on Leo Strauss and various figures in the history of contemporary thought. In this review, my goal is to offer summaries of the fourteen essays. I hope that this will be a clear guide for the reader interested in a deeper study of the Schiff and Bernstein volume.

1. “Liberalism and the Question: Strauss and Derrida on Politics and Philosophy” by Jade Larissa Schiff

Schiff’s essay opens the first section entitled the “Arts of Reading and Seeing.” Schiff observes that Strauss and Derrida diverge not only in terms of their political affinities, but also as far as their “conceptual vocabularies” (12) are concerned. Schiff writes that their differences notwithstanding, “the lack of conversation [between the two] is surprising” (12) not only because “Derrida was clearly aware of Strauss” (12), but also because both were developing hermeneutic methodologies, which are respectively, deconstruction for Derrida, and esotericism for Strauss. The critical difference, which Schiff articulates between these two methods is that for Strauss, the thinker’s genuine thoughts are “concealed,” but nonetheless, they can be gleaned from the esoteric reading of the text. For Derrida, the deconstructive movement of the text makes even the thinker subject to an unwilful repression. Thus, for Derrida, the text only beckons with an illusion of holistic comprehensibility, but in fact, the truth remains an ever-receding horizon (14-15). On the basis of the differences in their philosophical methodology, Schiff establishes a more philosophically grounded understanding of Strauss’s and Derrida’s attitude toward political philosophy, which she summarizes at the outset of “Convergences: The Activity of Philosophy and the Trace of the Author” section (18-19). Schiff concludes with an invocation of Socratic self-knowledge, which she connects, on the one hand, to the Derridean insight that the world is also a text, and on the other, to Straussian view about the significance of the historical, cultural, and social context of the text. Thus, to read thoughtfully, means to seek out the knowledge not only of the author’s, but also of our own historical situatedness and “political commitments” (22). Thereby, we allow the text to call “into question what we think we know” (22).

2. “Purloined Letters—Lacan avec Strauss” by Matthew J. Sharpe.

Sharpe finds it perplexing that given both Lacan’s and Strauss’s interest in surreptitious writing, there are no sustained attempts to put these thinkers into a dialogue. Sharpe establishes an indirect affinity between Lacan’s psychoanalytic method and Strauss’s esotericism by drawing on Freud’s model of the unconscious. For Freud, the general work of the “unconscious consists of wishes and beliefs that have been repressed as by a political ‘censor,’ since they oppose the ego’s conscious self-image” (31). Likewise, for Strauss, “esoteric techniques” allow “great writers … to avoid [political] … censorship, and to indicate their true beliefs to careful readers able to read between the lines” (31). Thus, as in mental life we experience repression, so also the esoteric writer suppresses and hides the messages between the lines in order not to fall prey to political persecution. Another affinity that Sharpe finds between Freud, Lacan, and Strauss is their interest in espying causal and intentional order even in those things that appear to be governed by chance (32). Yet another point of confluence between Lacan and Strauss is their “concern for the law, and its relationship with human desire” (33). In terms of discontinuities, Strauss, as Sharpe sees it, prefers classical political thought and “contemplative or philosophical bios” (38) to the modern, post-Machiavellian politics and post-Nitzschean “metaphysical nihilism, ethical or political relativism, epistemological historicism, and proclamations of ‘the end of philosophy’” (38). On this presentation, human beings lack not only purpose but also autonomy, and the latter point is at least partially supported by Freudian insight into the commanding power of the unconscious. And yet, Sharpe’s final pronouncement on the differences between Lacan and Strauss ameliorates this claim. Quoting Lacan, Sharpe observes that the goal of psychoanalysis has to do with the “recreation of human meaning in an arid era of scientism” (43). This aim follows closely Strauss’s interest in a return to classical humanistic values.

3. “Seeing through Law: Phenomenological Thought in Soloveitchik and Strauss” by Jeffrey A. Bernstein

Bernstein is interested in seeing how both Soloveitchik, who “became one of the foremost philosopher-theologians of American Modern Orthodox Judaism” (52), and Leo Strauss rejuvenate the readers’ attitude to law. Soloveitchik was engaged with “‘halakhah’—the body of Jewish law as expressed in the Talmud” (53). Strauss’s “investigation, in Philosophy and Law, involves bracketing the prejudices of modern thought in order to recover a specifically premodern understanding of philosophy in its relation to religion and political life” (58-59). As Bernstein sees it, “both Soloveitchik and Strauss understand law as an optic through which certain fundamental phenomena come to light. In Soloveitchik’s case, these phenomena are the figures of homo religious and (eventually) Halakhic man; in Strauss’s case, these phenomena are religion and politics (as they come to constitute the theological political problem), and the relation between the philosopher and the city” (53). Halakhah, as the body of Jewish law, gives focus to Soloveitchik’s interest in finding an “objectifying structure for accessing subjective religious experience” (62). Strauss’s path indicates a possibility of an “actualized natural situation in which philosophers find themselves.” The latter is connected to religious concerns because it makes up the “perceptual horizon of revelation” (62). Soloveitchik’s and Strauss’s positions on the place and scope of religion constitute a difference between them. Whereas, for Soloveitchik the religious world encompasses the world of law; “for Strauss,” religion “would be (at best) a partial rendition of lived experience” (65). In other words, “[w]hereas Soloveitchik construes law ultimately as religious, Strauss articulates a conception in which the political and religious constitute the primal scene in which philosophy uneasily finds itself” (68). In the final analysis, Bernstein concludes that both Soloveitchik and Strauss see the power of law to structure and guide the lives of “nonphilosophers,” and to serve as a guide in the search for truth – for the understanding of “the world and their place in it” – for the philosophically-minded.

4. “Claude Lefort and Leo Strauss: On a Philosophical Discourse” by Isabel Rollandi

Rollandi constructs the conversation between Lefort and Strauss “around the figure and the work of Machiavelli” (75). Rollandi explains that Lefort thinks that for Strauss, “the proper perspective is achieved by the reader only when we discover the permanence of the problems confronted by human thought as well as Machiavelli’s concern for addressing them” (76). Rollandi shows that Lefort’s hermeneutic approach to Strauss applies to Strauss’s writings the kinds of tools that Strauss himself applies to Machiavelli (78). In a highly illuminating interpretive turn, Rollandi shows that for Lefort, Strauss discovers the fact that Machiavelli falls prey to the same denaturalizing influence of Chrisitan religion that he sought to subvert by his philosophizing (80). The reason why Strauss arrives at this view, according to Lefort, is because Strauss, who sees himself as a perspicacious philosophical reader to whom Machiavelli’s hidden teachings become revealed, erases the “the difference between reading and writing” (84). In other words, Rollandi continues, “Strauss conceives of the author as a sovereign ruler of his discourse. And in the same vein, he conceives of the interpreter as one who can master that discourse. By doing so, according to Lefort, Strauss cannot conceive of the reach of Machiavelli’s interrogation of the political.” (84) The reason why this is the case, as Rollandi shows, is because there is genuine novelty in Machiavelli’s political thought and in the political itself. The illusion of complete mastery on the part of the reader and the author prohibits Strauss from an encounter with the truly new.

5. “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism” by Jessica L. Radin

At the beginning of her essay entitled, “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism,” Radin focuses on Strauss’s and Taylor’s views of religion. Taylor, according to Radin, questions the possibility of the construction of the common moral core in the world where all belief in the transcendent is absent (112). Strauss sees in religious belief a salve from “social and communal homogeneity (descent into mass culture),” but Strauss is also apprehensive of the fact that religious communities “end up rendering all other groups outliers or outsiders” (112). Moreover, on Strauss’s view, there is an inherent tension between a political and a religious community. This view, as Radin presents it, leads Strauss to posit that “genuine political equality among religions might be impossible” (114). Taylor, on the other hand, is interested in “figuring out how actual political and social institutions can balance a commitment to freedom of religion with the need for adherents of all religions to interact nonviolently and on equal footing before the state” (114). Strauss and Taylor agree about the importance of cultivating virtue (118). However, for Strauss, it is highly questionable whether there is such a thing as a genuine education en masse. For Taylor one irreplaceable virtue is “tolerance … without which it is impossible to live peacefully in a pluralistic society” (124). Likewise, “Strauss is a defender of pluralism and of difference not only because of the positive effect such a culture has for both Jews and philosophers, but because he held that homogeneity and conformity lead to the creation of a ‘mass culture,’ which is then particularly vulnerable to the linked illnesses of mass culture, political indifference, and messianic expectations” (122). The danger of mass culture, as Radin explains, is not only in its susceptibility to gruesome political injustice and violence (122), but also in the vulnerability of a homogenized population to being swindled manipulated (122-23).

6. “Care of the Self and the Invention of Legitimate Government: Foucault and Strauss on Platonic Political Philosophy” by Miguel Vatter

The focal point of Vater’s examination is the “opposition between Platonic political philosophy and democratic political life” (135). As Vatter claims, the way in which both Strauss and Foucault understand the position of the philosopher in the polis is paradoxical; because for both the philosophical person is – at once – antipolitical, but also is engaged in politics by virtue of leading a philosophical life. For Vatter, “philosophical politics is “anti-political” in two senses: … for … the many who are subject to it, philosophical politics is experienced as “government” and not as a political life that engages the best part of their lives” (136). Furthermore, Vatter posits that “[f]or those … few … who subject others to their government, philosophical politics is ‘anti-political’ either because it gives rise to a doctrine of being that is no longer ‘relative’ to humanity (Strauss) or because it gives rise to a doctrine of self or psychology that is radically unencumbered by the social relation to others (Foucault)” (136). Both for Strauss and Foucault, there is a certain understanding of the self that allow a thoughtful individual to extricate herself from a thoroughgoing immersion in the communal life with the many. Vatter’s “general thesis is that both Strauss and Foucault see in Platonic political philosophy the birth of a governmental (as opposed to political) discourse” (136). “Governmentality,” Vatter goes on to explain, “refers to the “technology of self” that produces a certain ethos or self-conduct, such that this self is then enabled to conduct or govern others, in the sense of leading them. But whereas for Foucault the Platonic conception of governmentality is centered on ethical autonomy, for Strauss it is centered on ontology” (137). In conclusion, Vatter sees a slight, but important divergence between Strauss and Foucault on the meaning of philosophical anti-political politics. For Strauss, “philosophers could not desire to rule in first [sic.] person because their main activity was that of questioning, or illuminating the (unanswerable) basic problems” (149). However, for Foucault, the self-searches of the philosopher grant her a privileged position of becoming a leader of others by first being genuinely a seeker of self-knowledge (149). This moment of philosophical self-articulation is also something that Vatter identifies with self-rule, which he sees as a prerequisite for an informed and good rule of others (148).

7. “A Fruitful Disagreement: The Philosophical Encounter between George P. Grant and Leo Strauss” by Waller R. Newell

Newell largely uses Straussian influences on Grant to interpret Grant’s philosophical program. Newell opens his piece by indicating that Grant’s study of Strauss tempered his faith in historical progress and informed his return to the ancient roots of political thinking. However, whereas “Strauss always maintained a sharp divergence between classical philosophy and revelation, Grant was a Christian Platonist who believed the two were not irreconcilable” (161). Newell develops this difference by juxtaposing Kojève’s engagement with Hegel to Grant’s engagement with Strauss. Importantly, “Kojève interprets Hegel as an ‘atheistic’ thinker” (163) because the latter further develops the project of secularized social equality; the project that was spearheaded by Hobbes and Spinoza. Thus, Kojève is calling for a “Universal Homogeneous State [UHS]” (161). However, and “paradoxically,” as Newell points out, “the satisfaction we achieve at the end of history” in UHS “is tantamount to the withering away of our most admirable or at least our most distinctive human traits” (165). “For Strauss,” as Newell continues, “and Grant appears to agree with him [i.e., with Strauss]—according to the classics, universal happiness is not possible” (165). Newell underscores that “[i]n Grant’s view, however, any argument for the superiority of classical political philosophy must come to terms with the challenge of revelation, a deeper source of the claim that compassion is more important than thought’” (167). Although universal happiness may not be possible for all, the goal is to ameliorate suffering of the greatest number. However, according to Newell, Grant holds that the equalizing power of the Christian faith that was promulgated as “secular liberalism” (181) is a double-edged sword. This is so because “the will to autonomy breaks loose from [its] … old content [and] … wants to entirely remake nature and the world in pursuit of the abstract, empty, endless pursuit of freedom” (181). Thus, for Grant, unlike for Strauss, it is necessary, but insufficient to look back to ancient origins of justice and divinity, because the modern project along with its secularizing and technologizing influence has reshaped human nature (184). In order to capture the meaning of this reshaping, for Grant, we must carry out a deep reflection not only on modernity and the classical world, but also on the meaning of religion (185).

8. “Strauss and Blumenberg: On the Caves of the Moderns” by Danilo Manca

Manca weaves together Strauss’s and Blumenberg’s accounts of the image of the cave from Plato’s Republic. Manco admits that “there is no proof of a direct influence of Strauss on Blumenberg” (187). There is also an apparent divergence between Strauss and Blumenberg on the question of the cave image. As Manca writes, Strauss identifies the Cave with a certain state of nature (187). Unlike Strauss, Blumenberg does not think that we can discern an “original horizon out of which history would have dangerously brought mankind” (187). Strauss sees modernity as being a cave within a cave. Our perspective is displaced, and we first have to find a way out of this historically, politically, and socially constructed displacement. Strauss’s ultimate position, according to Manca, is that we must find the truth by ascending from the cave. However, this is not Blumenberg’s view. The latter “is more interested in exploring the way in which the caves contribute to the acquisition of knowledge. Alluding to the prehistoric cave paintings, Blumenberg states that it was by passing through the cave that the human being became a ‘dreaming animal’” (190). In this connection, Manca introduces Blumenberg’s work on metaphor and the power of myth, which already in Plato, was constitutive of philosophical thought (190). This power continues to inform our thinking and our lives with newfound and often re-figured meanings. In conclusion, Manca states that “Strauss’s main goal is the return to the investigation of the essence of things. Therefore, historiographical investigation can be taken to be only an auxiliary, albeit integral, part of philosophical inquiry. On the contrary, for Blumenberg, historiographical research embraces the entire field of philosophical investigation insofar as it is focused on the study of absolute metaphors” (198-99). For Strauss, historical situatedness of philosophical ideas is one of the tools of investigation into the truth of the matter; for Blumenberg it lays out the entirety of the field of truth.

9. “Writing the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes: Leo Strauss and Ferdinand Tönnies on Hobbes and the Sociology of Philosophy” by Peter Gostmann

Gostmann notes that Tönnies influenced Strauss’s development and that, specifically, Strauss sought support from Tönnies when trying to publish “his essay on Hobbes’s Criticism of religion.” Gostmann concludes that “[u]nlike Strauss, Tönnies is convinced that there has never been a quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. There was, much earlier, a conflict between Old Rome and the new peoples of Europe: established groups versus wanderers, not aristocrats versus plebeians. The measure of the best possible regime Tönnies is concerned with, that is, the aim of his sociology of philosophy, is therefore a ‘natural’ synthesis between institutions suitable for continuity and the mobile elements of society” (230). Whereas, Strauss seeks to recover the ancient mode of philosophizing, on Tönnies’s reading, Hobbes – the quintessential modern thinker (217) – seeks to depart from the “contemplative” model of philosophy (213). Reflecting on this departure, Gostmann writes, “Hobbes’ pioneering act is the translation of Galilean mathematico-mechanical philosophy into a ‘moral and political’ science, based on the theory of a ‘dynamic’ mechanism of optic perception” (213). In his reading of Hobbes, Strauss concludes that despite Hobbes’ ostensible atheism, it is impossible to have a serious grasp of Hobbes’ thinking, unless one espies a certain theological bent in Hobbes. Gostmann discusses a highly interesting set of conclusions that Strauss draws from his study of Hobbes in Natural Right and History (223). For Strauss, Hobbesian thought eventuates in several substitutions of classical for modern priorities. 1) The value and virtue of contemplative life is substituted with industrious life and the rewards it allegedly brings. 2) Based on the first substitution, the governmental authority has little interest in wisdom or contemplation, and instead seeks efficiency in government. This results in doctrinal and partisan politics. Strauss concludes that these changes in social and political values necessitate a particular class of individuals responsible for “shaping public opinion” (223). The latter process, for it to be effective, must find support in the government of state. Thus, the said opinion-shapers, in turn, must see to it that in their work they uphold the interests of their government (223). As Gostmann sees it, for Strauss, Hobbes “has no profound idea of political philosophy,” which is why Hobbes produces a “doctrine that does not defend the freedom of philosophizing, but enables either anti-liberal doctrinism or liberalism without liberality” (229).

10. “Leo Strauss and Jürgen Habermas: The Question for Reason in Twentieth-Century Lifeworlds,” by Rodrigo Chacón

Chacón observes that despite the various divergences in Strauss’s and Habermas’s work there is still one definitive point of contact, i.e., the thinkers’ focus on reason (230). As far as the critique of reason is concerned, “critical thought is meant to be anti-dogmatic, yet it seems to discredit, once and for all, the traditionally philosophic use of reason” (240). This is where Strauss’s interest in “[s]ubverting the law of critique” comes in (241). Chacón writes that “Strauss argues against the view that freedom of speech and thought presupposes the public use of reason” (241). In fact, public opinion is not freely shaped by the individuals who make up that public, but rather, by a few convincing individuals who offer several pre-formulated views on any given matter (242). Nevertheless, because Strauss does not tie the critique of modes of thought to modes of production or social relations, he does not think that there is a “need to revolutionize the way we interact in order to change the way we think” (244). The one, perhaps unresolvable, “problem Strauss discovered … is the ‘theological-political problem.’ … Strauss provides no final answer to the question of whether we can acquire knowledge of the good or must rely on divine revelation to guide our lives. The result is a kind of impasse, or a productive tension, where each side in the conflict between reason and revelation challenges its opponent to articulate its position with ever greater clarity” (246). However, for Strauss, the task of philosophy is, emphatically, the quest for liberation from “religious authority” (246). In comparison to Strauss, “Habermas’s late work critique becomes post-secular. It is now aware that modernity cannot, after all, generate normativity solely on its own” (247). Thus, Strauss’s and Habermas’s thinking finds affinity in articulating this tension between religious or revealed law and discoveries about values and norms that non-religious thought may yield.

11. “Heidegger’s Challenge to the Renaissance of Socratic Political Rationalism” by Alexander S. Duff

Duff examines Strauss’s thought as “[o]ne inviting approach to the difference between Heidegger

and the Socratism,” which Strauss carries out “by looking at the following question: How does human openness relate to the fact of the articulation of the world or the whole” (261)? The reason why it is fruitful to pursue the encounter between Socrates and Heidegger from this point of view is because “Heidegger rejects or, more properly speaking, attempts to overcome the Socratic way of being. In this sense, his thought—from its earliest mature expressions to its fullest adumbration—is counter-Socratic” (260). Not only does Heidegger, according to Duff’s reading of Strauss, misconstrues the meaning of Socratic questioning, but also Heidegger misses the comic dimension of Socratic thought; thus cauterizing access to holistic Socratic philosophizing. On Duff’s presentation, Heidegger offers the following objection: “[w]e cannot understand ourselves when we take our bearings from the what is it question because, while the beings about which we are asking come into existence and pass out of existence as we do, we are aware of and concerned with our own perishing from, as it were, a ‘first-person’ perspective” (262). The orientation that attempts to align the things out there with the individuality of the inquirer has to be refigured such that the horizon of beings in their Being becomes accessible to the questioner. In turn, this questioner is placed within or along the horizon of Being. The latter, i.e., the existential horizon, is atelic, but only emerges “from deeper currents of temporality and care” (268). Duff then engages with Heidegger’s interest in the withdrawal or concealment of Being and the fruitfulness of thinking about nihilism in the context of reckoning with this withdrawal. In the face of nihilism, Duff says that “Strauss praises comedy for its attention to and preservation of the surface, opinion and convention. … Comedy punctures convention by lampooning it, but also shows the need for its preservation. Comedy forswears tragic depths not out of ignorance, but for the sake of presenting a more complete picture of the whole. Comedy is thus superior to tragedy; it transcends and presupposes tragedy” (272-73). Thus, by omitting Socratic humor, ridicule, irony, and comedy – both in Socrates’ utterances and in his deeds – Heidegger misses a critically important dimension of Socratic questioning and philosophizing.

12. “The Wheel of History: Nihilism as Moral Protest and Deconstruction of the Present in Leo Strauss and Albert Camus” by Ingrid L. Anderson

Anderson writes that Strauss’s “1941 lecture on German nihilism” shows a set of concerns that are similar to Camus’s. Both appeared to be discontented with the spread of liberal democracy, and both called for a “rediscovery of and renewed adherence to some semblance of absolute universal values, that are not created by the forces of history but identified in history as enduring and therefore fundamental” (282). Whereas Camus was a staunch critic of communism (284), “Strauss’s work on German nihilism indicates that his greatest worry was the advent of National Socialism. But he also wanted to expose what he felt were the ‘shaky foundations’ of the goals of liberalism, including its steadfast belief in the inevitability of linear progress” (286). Strauss saw German nihilism as particularly “dangerous because it is unable to succinctly identify what it wants to build in place of the present world that it aims to destroy” (288). However, on the point of Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss agrees with Camus who does not take nihilism to be a sign of a will to nothingness, but rather a will to destroy the sham values of the day (289). Anderson concludes that “[b]oth Strauss and Camus reject teleological understandings of history that posit a final cause or destination for human societies” (291). This position, if it is not nihilistic, is at least atelic, and it supports a Nietzschean revaluation of values.

13. “Who’s Laughing? Leo Strauss on Comedy and Mockery” by Menachem Feuer

Feuer gives himself a task to re-examine the place of comedy in Strauss’s work, and its significance for Strauss’s philosophical ideas. To that end, Feuer identifies “three important moments in Strauss’s reflections on comedy and humor: (1) his discussion of Aristophanes and Socrates; (2) his investigation of Enlightenment mockery and the arguments of the ancients; (3) his analysis of Nietzsche’s notion of greatness (and its relationship to mockery) and the Jewish tradition of extreme humility (and its relationship to comedy)” (297). On Feuer’s assessment, Strauss’s view of comedy allows him to think about it as both that which constitutes a relational bonding within a community and that which allows to disrupt the social and cultural horizons (296). The novelty of the worldview that comedy reveals when contrasted with tragedy has to do with the position of the comedian toward the law (political, religious, etc.). More specifically, as Feuer claims, Strauss’s key insight into the power of comedic boasting and ridicule has to do with the fact that, whereas in tragedy a hubristic transgression is punished (thus preserving divine justice), in comedy hubristic boasting is subject to comedic ridicule and to audience’s laughter. More importantly, and “here is Strauss’s esoteric twist: The real ‘boaster par excellence’ … is the comic poet himself, who after all is responsible especially for those successful transgressions of sacred laws that he celebrates in his plays” (305). On the subject of Enlightenment philosophy and the Athens/Jerusalem question, Feuer concludes that, as far as Strauss is concerned, the spirit of self-mockery, self-undermining, and of life-affirming humility is waning, but must be restored to Jewish thought. Feuer concludes his analysis by stating that, for Strauss, the “key question for Athens and Jerusalem is that of the right way of life.” (318) The answer to the question: “What kind of life is [this]?” is “that comedy and philosophy go hand in hand and that humility can, in fact, pass over from the religious sphere into the philosophical sphere. Taking this to heart, one can read Socrates as a humble comic figure who—between Aristophanes and Plato—can figure the tension between the city (community)/ poet and the philosopher. This tension,” Feuer argues, “can also be generalized and applied to the Jewish community, but in terms of prophecy and comedy” (318).

14. “Leo Strauss and Walter Benjamin: Thinking ‘in a Moment of Danger’” by Philipp von Wussow

Wussow puts Strauss and Benjamin in conversation by examining their common interest in Carl Schmitt. Looking at the three authors together allows Wussow to clarify the way in which modern religion and culture relate to the “concept of the political” (324). Wussow delineates “a number of theoretical similarities and differences. We may distinguish a few common themes: (1) the stance toward tradition and modernity and the critique of history as progress; (2) the reading of Carl Schmitt; the relationship between aesthetics and politics, and the notion of the political; (3) the stance toward theological and political concepts; namely, the concepts of messianism and redemption (to which Strauss was, unlike virtually all other German-Jewish thinkers, wholly indifferent), law (which was important for both), and revelation (which is central for Strauss, while it gradually vanishes in Benjamin’s writings); (4) a rare methodological emphasis on reading, and a strong sense for esoteric meanings hidden beneath the surface of a text that was fueled by a deep suspicion of the grand schemes of “theory”; and (5) their relationships to the two major schools of German academic philosophy. Both had a complicated relationship to neo-Kantianism and phenomenology: whereas Benjamin’s thought is closer to neo-Kantianism, Strauss is closer to phenomenology” (327-28). In so far as the relationship between politics and aesthetics is concerned, for Benjamin, an unmistakable “anesthetization of politics under fascism” takes place, on the one hand; and on the other, under communism, art becomes politicized (329). However, both ideologies are “murderous and indefensible” in the final analysis (329). Strauss’s solution to this merging of art and politics is based on his reading of Schmitt, and it proposes a return to the pre-cultural domain of law. Furthermore, both Strauss and Benjamin see great value in engaging with classical thought for the sake of gaining a deeper understanding of our times. However, this study of the tradition itself had to be repositioned. On this point, Wussow writes that “[t]radition could no longer be understood in a traditional way; in this respect Strauss and Benjamin were in perfect agreement” (335). Wussow concludes his investigation by saying that “[t]he two figures of interwar German-Jewish thought represent two different ways of conceptualizing the dialectics of modernity and premodernity; two models of viewing society and culture from outside; and two different foundations for the understanding of the political in its relation to culture” (338).

Gregory S. Moss: Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics

Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity Book Cover Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics: The Logic of Singularity
Routledge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy
Gregory S. Moss
Hardback £120.00

Reviewed by: Alessandro De Cesaris (Università degli Studi di Torino)

In the contemporary philosophical landscape, Gregory S. Moss’s book stands out for many different reasons, and even though it should be considered a major contribution to the understanding of Hegel’s logic, its worth cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of Hegelian scholarship. In this review I would like to illustrate some of the merits of this book, and I will try to show why Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics can be read as an autonomous philosophical work, an exciting occasion to continue and renew the debate on some fundamental philosophical questions.

The Author’s first monograph on Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms addressed the question of the autonomy of language. While dealing with partially different issues – the nature of language and the philosophy of culture – this book already discusses some topics that are the main focus of Moss’s philosophical work, and shows methodological elements that remain unaltered in his second book. Aside from the general interest in the history of German thought, the book already deals with the problem of autonomy and of universality, discussing the relationship between language and logic and introducing the question about interculturality.

More importantly, in Ernst Cassirer and the Autonomy of Language Moss already showed his deeply theoretical approach to the analysis of the authors of the past. His reconstruction of Cassirer’s philosophy of language does not simply aim at offering an accurate sketch of the author’s thought, but rather it is an attempt to show how that theory can still find a place in the contemporary debate.

Following the same methodological inspiration, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics offers a monumental reconstruction of Hegel’s metaphysics, often underlining some aspects of his thought that have been lost in the most successful trends of the Hegelian research in the English-speaking world. However, it is also a striking attempt to show why Hegel’s metaphysics continues to be relevant. This may be the greatest achievement of Moss’s work: it does not just illustrate Hegel’s own position, but also and foremost shows what it means to have a Hegelian approach to philosophy today.

Despite its remarkable internal coherence, the impressive size of the book – around 500 pages – makes it almost impossible to provide a comprehensive summary of its content. Instead of doing so, I will start by introducing the main focus of the book – the relation between singularity and absoluteness. After that, I will discuss some pivotal elements of Moss’s interpretation of Hegel’s thought. Finally, I will try to point out some issues that remain open at the end of the analysis, in the attempt to show how this book can be understood as the starting point for a productive debate on Hegel, on the contemporary debate, and on the future of philosophy.

1. Philosophy’s Paradoxical Stance Toward Singularity

Since Plato, the relationship between philosophy and singularity has been complicated, even paradoxical. On the one hand, philosophy has been constantly presented as the kind of knowledge that addresses the universal rather than the singular. The tradition offers us a bunch of formulas in order to clarify this taxonomy: while philosophy is knowledge of the universal, art or history address what is singular. While thought only grasps the universal, only intuition has access to individual things.

On the other hand, however, philosophy has always been obsessed with singularity. The greater part of the philosophical effort since Plato and Aristotle is devoted precisely to understand how singular being (ta ekasta) are structured, how they are generated, how we think and say things about them, how they relate to each other. While the singular is banned from the domain of philosophy, nonetheless philosophy’s main task has always been the discovery and the elaboration of the structure of singularity in itself.

But what is singularity? Even this question, along with the distinction between singular and universal, is quite problematic. We are accustomed to identify singularity as the lower limit of thought, namely as what lies beyond any possible specific difference in the great taxonomy of genera and species. Yet, what is singular is also what lies beyond the upper limit of thought, namely what exceeds any possible genus: it is epekeina tes ousias, to use Plato’s formulation. In a sense, “singular” is the opposite of “universal”; in another sense, it is the opposite of “plural”. I know it is a schematic oversimplification, but this could account for the main difference between Aristotle and Plato: according to Plato, ideas are the true “singulars”: there is only one Beauty, it is one, eternal, and determinate, whereas sensible things are always plural, changing, indeterminate and temporal. In this context, what is most universal is at the same time utterly singular. On the contrary, Aristotle’s attempt to “save phenomena” – a formula used by Simplicius – is precisely the attempt to think sensible things as singular, determinate beings. Universals are plural, they are instantiated and thus have specific, but not numeric unity. Only individual things – both sensible and supra-sensible – are singular. For the sake of discussion, this oversimplification could be useful to identify this basic difference between a Platonic and an Aristotelian attitude towards singularity: on the one side, the singular is the absolute; on the other side, the singular is first and foremost finite, individual being.

2. Hegel’s Thought as a New Theory of Singularity

Now, how do we place Hegel’s philosophy in this frame? First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Hegel’s thought has traditionally been accused of having a complete lack of interest in singularity. Hegel is the “philosopher of universality” par excellence. Universality, necessity and subjectivity are the three key notions that structure most traditional interpretations of Hegel’s idealism, in which singularity, contingency and objectivity are therefore accounted for only as partial and lower steps of a more comprehensive dialectical process.

Already right after Hegel’s death, his first commentators criticized his disregard for singularity. According to Ludwig Feuerbach, the distinction between logical and sensible being is the inescapable mark of Hegel’s failure in thinking the individual: «Die Sprache gehört hier gar nicht zur Sache. Die Realität des sinnlichen einzelnen Seins ist uns eine mit unsern Blute besiegelte Wahrheit» (Sämtliche Werke, II, 212). This is Hegel’s major fault, not recognizing that „reality of singular sensible being” that we cannot help but feel as an immediate truth.

The strongest critic of Hegel’s philosophy of singularity, however, is Kierkegaard, who polemically used the term “Einzelheit” in his philosophy precisely to rescue the singular from Hegel’s monistic and universalistic account. Since idealism is “abstract thought”, Kierkegaard’s aim is to highlight the philosophical significance of existence, whereas what exists is precisely that singular being that abstract thought keeps overlooking.

This interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy has survived up to contemporary philosophy. In particular, French thought used the term “singularity” in order to develop an anti-Platonic and anti-Hegelian concept of individuality. Gilles Deleuze is the philosopher who expresses this critique in the most explicit way: «Hegel substitutes the abstract relation of the particular to the concept in general for the true relation of the singular and the universal in the Idea» (Difference and repetition, 10). Quite ironically, while Hegel is one of the first philosophers to use the word “singularity” as a technical term, clearly distinguishing between a commonsensical and a speculative use of the notion, the whole post-structuralist tradition uses the term “singular” as an anti-Hegelian device, tracing it back to Spinoza in contraposition with Hegelian dialectic.

A second element that is useful to point out, in order to understand the novelty of Gregory S. Moss’s approach, is that this criticism of Hegel’s notion of singularity goes along with a critique of Hegel’s systematic and anti-foundational idea of philosophy. Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, but also many other early commentators of Hegel’s system, such as Karl Werder, Kuno Fischer, Schelling, and Friedrich A. Trendelenburg, criticized Hegel’s disregard for the individual and at the same time stated the impossibility to obtain a complex categorical structure starting from the absolute simplicity of being. In other terms, the impossibility to get difference starting from identity.

Now, this close connection between systematic metaphysics and the problem of singularity is at the core of the theoretical analysis of Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics. The so-called Hegel-renaissance in the English-speaking world has already rediscovered the importance of Hegel’s account of individuality. Paul Redding highlighted in the clearest way how the Pittsburgh school – Robert Brandom in particular – has managed to read Hegel’s philosophy as a semantic theory of individuation. However, these interpretations have systematically underplayed the systematic aspect of Hegel’s thought, along with its strictly metaphysical character. Following the oversimplified frame that I’ve proposed before, Robert Brandom’s inferentialism is – in a way – an Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s theory of singularity, since it understands singular beings only as finite, individual objects.

In this context, Gregory Moss’s book offers a timely and original reading of Hegel’s logic, since it finally highlights some aspects of Hegel’s philosophy that have been structurally neglected by many commentators. Three aspects are particularly worth mentioning.

In the first place, the author clarifies that Hegel’s notion of singularity not only refers to individual, finite beings, but also – and foremost – to that peculiar singular being that is the Absolute. In a way, therefore, Hegel’s speculative use of the notion of singularity overcomes the difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian approach.

Secondly, Moss shows how it is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without taking into account the necessary relationship between these two dimensions. There is no account of the singularity of finite being without addressing the singularity of the Absolute, and any account of the Absolute that does not illustrate the metaphysical status of singular finite being is incomplete and partial.

Finally, the book puts a very strong accent on necessity to highlight the general aim of Hegel’s philosophical enterprise. It is impossible to understand Hegel’s use of the notion of “singularity” without considering the metaphysical character of his logic. Here it is important to grasp Hegel’s own understanding of what metaphysics is, rather than applying some contemporary use of the term to the Hegelian text, which forces Hegel into a theoretical frame that does not have much to do with his own methodology.

As I will point out later, these three elements also identify three problematic aspects of Moss’s theoretical and interpretative framework, or at least three questions that are still open after reading the book. However, before going deeper into the critical analysis, I will briefly illustrate the main structure of the book.

3. Thinking the Absolute

One of the most striking elements of Moss’s book is that it emphasizes the strict relationship between infinite and finite thought. While tradition generally accepted that we cannot think the Absolute in the same way we think finite being, one of the key contributions of Classic German Philosophy is the idea that if we fail to think the Absolute, even thinking finite being becomes impossible. If I’m not misunderstood, this is what is at stake in what Moss calls the “problem of nihilism”. I won’t go into it in detail, but a general consequence of this approach is precisely Moss’s attempt to show how Hegel’s philosophy is a unification of Plato’s and Aristotle’s approaches: if the Absolute is absolute, and therefore there is nothing outside of it, then it is impossible to differentiate between two faculties or two different methods, as if, for instance, understanding were to be identified with the faculty of finite being, and reason with the faculty of the Absolute. So, by developing a critical discussion of how the Absolute has been thought in the metaphysical tradition, we are at the same time questioning the way we think finite being. This traditional view is what the Author calls the “duality of principles”, the idea that knowledge – and reality – cannot be grounded on one principle, but rather require at least two: intuitions and concepts, matter and form and so on. Against this position, the Author defends a strongly monistic account of Hegel’s metaphysics, according to which the true Singular – the Absolute – self-differentiates in a way that can be compared to the Neoplatonic One.

The thesis of the duality of principles is grounded on another assumption, namely the impossibility of self-reference. If there is only one principle, then identity and difference must stem from the same source, and this source has no external matter on which to operate. According to Moss, the history of Western thought has mostly rejected this idea because of the undisputed adherence to the principle of non-contradiction. If identity generates difference, then the same thing is at once identical and different, namely contradictory.

These three metaphysical assumptions, the principle of non-contradiction, the rejection of self-reference, and the duality of principles, are presented by the Author as the fundamental argumentative structure that undermines at the basis the very possibility to think the Absolute, and that can be found in the history of Western metaphysics from Plato up to Kant.

For this reason, Moss’s analysis starts with a critical assessment of some basic problem of traditional metaphysics. While the author does not have philological or reconstructive interests, his confrontation with some authors of the past is extremely useful in order to grasp his fundamental orientation. For instance, while Plato, Aristotle and Kant are examples of the duality of principles approach, the brief but intense reconstruction of early German idealism aims at showing that Fichte’s and Schelling’s objective was precisely to overcome Kant’s dualism, and to re-introduce a self-referential first principle as the metaphysical and epistemological ground of a new philosophy. At the same time, this approach is strongly connected by Moss to Plotinus and Neoplatonic philosophy, with a long and dense excursus on ancient philosophy that reveals the Author’s tendency to offer a somewhat Neoplatonist interpretation of Hegel’s logic.

After having offered a critical reconstruction of these three metaphysical assumptions, Moss shows how they inevitably lead to five paradoxes that can be found throughout the history of philosophy.

The Problem of Instantiation: if particulars and universals are indebted to different (epistemological/ontological) principles, it’s impossible to clarify their relationship.

The Missing Difference: if conceptuality is not the source of its own differentiation, then the source of this differentiation is non-conceptual. «The essential difference that distinguishes one thing from another cannot be accounted for by appealing to what the thing is ‘in virtue of itself’» (165).

Absolute Empiricism: since the differentiated content of the conceptual dimension is not conceptual, the source of conceptuality is entirely empirical.

The Problem of Onto-Theology: the most universal notion is indicated as both universal and particular.

The Third Man: if the Concept is not self-differentiating, then every instance of the Concept, as a particular concept, cannot be the Universal Concept. Every attempt to find the universal concept leads to new particular concepts.

The largest part of the book’s first section is devoted to the historic and theoretical analysis of these paradoxes. The second section, instead, shows how – by positing the Concept as one self-referential and dialetheic principle – Hegel’s logic manages to overcome them.

Surprisingly, the book does not use the classic difference between understanding and reason as an instrument throughout this analysis. The question of the difference between understanding and reason is of course present, but it is not always clear whether these issues could be addressed as the result of an intellectualistic and non-speculative understanding of the domain of conceptuality. For instance, and here I’m forcing and radicalizing the issue in order to facilitate the discussion, the problem of the missing difference could be analysed as a specific formulation of a more general issue that concerned British and Italian idealism for a long time, namely the insufficient and contradictory nature of the forms of judgment. In fact, since every judgment, as Kant states, is in the form “The singular is universal”, and since the singular is not universal, an intellectualistic approach to the nature of conceptuality already finds itself entangled in a contradiction.

However, rather than appealing to this methodological instrument, the Author prefers addressing these problems systematically, retracing their origin in the three metaphysical assumptions listed above. This choice gives a very strong conceptual unity to the book, even though it could lead to some forced passages, in particular when it comes to analysing these issues through examples taken from the history of philosophy.

For instance, the first two paradoxes – the problem of instantiation and the missing difference –  are addressed by quoting many passages from Plato’s Parmenides and the Book B of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Now, while these passages are in fact very good examples of the problems the Author is discussing, both the Parmenides and Metaphysics Beta are, so to say, “partes destruentes”, critical preliminary moments of a new theory. In other words, it is possible to find already in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work – as Hegel himself recognizes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy – speculative solutions to the problems they raise in some of their texts.

The difference between intellectualistic and speculative thought seems to be a very good way to account for this internal evolution in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought.  For instance, Plato’s generative account of the koinonia ton genon in the Sophist does not look to be still subject to these paradoxes. In it, for instance, the self-referential character of ideas is no longer problematic, but at the same time it is not trivialized through the reference to empirical concepts as it happens in the Parmenides. Another example is Aristotle’s philosophy: following Ferrarin, Moss concedes that Aristotle’s metaphysics is speculative and belongs to the domain of the concept. But then, how can we integrate this idea with the paradoxes of Aristotle’s account of conceptuality? Isn’t this account, as it is presented in the book, utterly intellectual rather than speculative?

In other words, while the author manages to provide a strikingly coherent and dense systematic account of some fundamental metaphysical issues, a more extensive analysis of Plato’s and Aristotle’s own solutions to these problems, along with a comparison with Hegel’s own interpretation of their works, could give the chance to highlight how there is more than one way to think speculatively. The author does discuss Aristotle’s solutions to some of the problems he listed in Metaphysics Beta, but the historical reconstruction of Aristotle’s approach is not the main focus of Moss’s research, and it is only mentioned in order to highlight some aspect of Aristotle’s thought that the author recognizes in Hegel’s work.

However, given the book’s size, focusing on the systematic aspect of the issue has been a wise choice: this remark only aims at pointing out, once again, that this monumental book must not be interpreted as the end of a research, but rather as an exciting proposition for a new approach to the study of Hegel’s logic, of the history of philosophy and of metaphysics in general.

Four Open Problems

With this spirit in mind, I would like to point out some specific issues that I find of particular importance in Moss’s book. Of course, as already mentioned, this is a monumental piece of scholarship, and there are many topics worth discussing. There are many arguments and analyses that deserve a much deeper discussion than I can provide here. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid discussing specific matters or individual passages of the book, since I would like to keep the debate on a more general and fundamental level, and discuss some structural aspects of Moss’s proposal rather than specific topics. In particular, I will try to propose a brief critical assessment of four questions that remain open.

4a. What Kind of Metaphysics?

In the final part of his critical analysis, the Author thoroughly discusses different metaphysical and non-metaphysical accounts of Hegel’s logic. In particular, he also highlights Hegel’s intention to reform metaphysics beyond any dogmatic understanding of it. The interpretation of Hegel’s own understanding of metaphysics is deeply connected with the relationship between logic, nature and spirit. While Moss does not expressly analyse this aspect of Hegel’s system, the passage from logic to nature is a crucial point of his reading.

As we know, one of the main arguments of the book is that Hegel’s logic introduces a self-referential and self-differentiating account of the Concept. As Roberto Morani has shown in his monumental book on the evolution of Hegel’s dialectics, this aspect of Hegel’s philosophy is also the main focus of the auto-reformation of his own logic in the Second Edition of the Doctrine of being, when he stresses that objective logic already is subjective logic in disguise. This issue is closely related to the question of the “formal” character of logic. According to Hegel, logic is not formal because it has logical forms as its own content: logical forms are at the same time form and content of the logical process, that in this way is truly noesis noeseos:

But logical reason is itself the substantial or real factor which, within itself, holds together all the abstract determinations and constitutes their proper, absolutely concrete, unity. There is no need, therefore, to look far and wide for what is usually called a matter; it is not the fault of the subject matter of logic if the latter seems empty but only of the manner in which this subject matter is grasped. (SL, trans. Di Giovanni, 28)

Elena Ficara has stressed the importance of this passage, which shows Hegel’s opposition to any formalistic understanding of logic as a discipline. However, Moss radicalizes this aspect and points out how this unity of form and matter generates a self-determining progression. But what is the limit of this activity?

The logic is a self-generating process, through which the concept determines itself as concept: while we discover a great variety of conceptual determinations, these determinations never become empirical. In other terms, the logical development of the category of quality never generates the concept of “colour” or of “green”. In other words, what does never happen is what Fichte talks about in his lectures on the Tatsachen des Bewusstseins: if we radicalize this monistic self-generating activity, then everything must be deduced starting from the first principle, even this singular blade of grass. It is the same conception of systematic metaphysics that Wilhelm Traugott Krug presents as a critic to Idealism, and that Hegel ridicules. For instance, when Hegel talks of the ontological proof, the point is that the Concept has logical objectivity. Nevertheless, Moss is right to highlight how important it is to understand the Concept as a creative activity, and by doing so he defends a strong metaphysical interpretation of Hegel’s logic that many passages in Hegel’s work seem to confirm. While the author recognizes that the creative activity of the Concept does not entail the deterministic deduction of all empirical content, establishing the precise nature and the limits of this self-particularizing activity is one of the tasks that remain open after having read his analysis, and it is a crucial element to test the hermeneutical validity of his interpretation.

4b. What Kind of Singularity?

I would like to go back to the notion of singularity, which is the main focus of the book as a whole. In Moss’s book it is clearly stated that each category of the logic cannot be used exclusively to think the Absolute, since the Absolute is not separated from finite being. Therefore, singularity does describe both “limits” of thought—the Absolute and finite being. Nevertheless, Moss’s reconstruction strongly privileges the “Platonic” side of the analysis. In other words, the Author seems to be much more interested in showing how singularity expresses the logical structure of the Absolute, rather than explaining how the same notion can be used to describe the nature of finite being. For instance, Hegel writes that singularity is the principle of every “individuality and personality” (SL, 547). In order to complete the analysis of Hegel’s use of the notion of singularity, it would be very interesting to integrate Moss’s interpretation with a focus on this dimension.

This does not mean, of course, that Moss’s reading is a Platonic one. As I’ve already highlighted, if it is true that Platonism and Neo-Platonism play a pivotal role in the development of his reading of Hegel, Moss aims at showing both the Platonic and Aristotelian aspects of Hegelian dialectics, in particular by emphasising the importance of Aristotle’s notion of the «self-particularizing universal». This interpretation of Aristotle’s notion of Form is also quite interesting, and it would be worth discussing it in a further analysis of Hegel’s own historical sources.

4c. Syllogism

One of the most surprising aspects of Moss’s book is his analysis of syllogism. Usually judgment and syllogism are analysed as logical developments of the abstract concept, and Hegel also expressly indicates them as such in the Science of Logic. Nevertheless, the Author seems to understand judgment and syllogism as a logically impoverished form of the first section, identifying them with a «self-alienated» form of the Concept (374). While this strong accent on the Concept is quite original, it is very hard to explain Hegel’s own statement at the beginning of the section on the syllogism, where he writes that «the syllogism is the completely posited concept; it is, therefore, the rational» (SL, 588). More generally, Hegel repeatedly highlights the syllogistic character of his system: the end of the Encyclopaedia is maybe the strongest example.

This issue leads to another question on the relationship between syllogism and inference. Moss’s critique of Robert Brandom’s account of Hegel’s philosophy as a form of inferentialism is very convincing, and does show the partiality of neo-pragmatist, non-metaphysical readings of Hegel. Nevertheless, by criticizing Brandom, the Author seems to share with him one core assumption, namely that syllogism is inference, and that when Hegel speaks about syllogism, he’s always talking about a formal structure of reasoning. This identification could be the main reason for Moss’s scepticism against the importance of syllogism in Hegel’s thought. For instance, in the Science of Logic Hegel expressly writes that «All things are a syllogism, a universal united through particularity with singularity; surely not a whole made up of three propositions» (SL, 593). Of course, Hegel does heavily criticize the form of inference (even in his Lectures on history of philosophy), but this passage seems to show that we must distinguish the subjective form of inference from the logical, objective form of syllogistic unity. For this reason, while Moss’s interpretation of the relationship between the concept and syllogistic forms is quite original and in some cases very convincing, it does need further discussion.

4d. Contradiction

Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the question of contradiction. One of the structural aspects of the book is to show that, in order to think the Absolute, we must accept dialetheism, namely the position according to which some contradictions are true. In the case of Hegelian thought, this question is closely connected with the meaning of the term “speculative” as Hegel uses it throughout his work. While it is hardly debatable that only speculative thought is able to grasp the Absolute in its concrete and actual form, the question is whether such a way of thinking necessarily entails a violation of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its Aristotelian formulation.

A good start for illustrating the issue is a passage quoted by the Author while analysing the relationship between speculative thought and contradiction:

Speculative thought consists solely in holding on to the contradiction, and thus to itself. Unlike representational thought, it does not let itself be dominated by the contradiction, it does not allow the latter to dissolve its determinations into other ones or into nothing/ (SL, 383)

Right after this passage Hegel does give some examples, and his choice are determinations of relation – above/under, father/son – that can hardly be seen as violation of Aristotle’s PNC. The interpretation of this passage is very contentious and I won’t go into it. Instead, I would like to argue that there are two possible interpretations of the nature of speculative thought. According to the first, speculative thought is necessarily dialetheic, since it requires to accept that the same x is and is not P. Here it is important to clarify that “not being P” is not the same than “being non-P”.

According to the second interpretation, speculative thought generates a new understanding of the predicates and of their reciprocal relationship. In this case, x can be P and non-P, according to a meaning of non-P that does not entail not being P.

For instance: the proposition “the particular is universal” is contradictory only as long as we assume that “being universal” entails “not-being particular”. This implication is different from the simple fact that universal and particular are different concepts, namely that “universal” is not “particular”. I do believe that it is possible to make the case that, in his subjective Logic, Hegel shows how universality, particularity and singularity, as conceptual determinations, are not reciprocally exclusive.

Moss does provide an exhaustive analysis of many different interpretations of Hegel’s account of contradiction. Again, his criticism of Robert Brandom’s strong coherentist reading is very compelling. Nevertheless, while it is clear that, according to Hegel, speculative thought somehow “deals” with contradictions, this statement must be compatible with other two explicit Hegelian theses: that contradiction is a defining aspect of finite being and finite concepts, and that contradiction itself is used throughout the system as a criterion to identify the finite and false character of the categories.

This could mean, in a way, that the Absolute cannot be contradictory in the same way finite concepts and beings are. Moss’s analysis of the difference between explosive and non-explosive contradictions could be a way to express this fundamental difference. However, it seems clear that Hegel’s foundation free metaphysics is an exciting contribution to a debate that is still open and is impossible to close simply by choosing one option over the other, be it coherence or contradiction.

5. Conclusion

At the end of this brief critical assessment of some aspects of the book, there would be much more worth mentioning. Gregory S. Moss’s book offers a compelling reconstruction of Hegelian metaphysics as a form of strong monism and shows how it can be profitably used to discuss some contemporary philosophical positions. Moss is also the translator of the English edition of Markus Gabriel’s Why The World Does Not Exist, and Gabriel’s pluralistic metaphysics is one of the main critical references throughout the book. By using Hegel’s philosophy to debate with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Priest, Robert Brandom and others, Moss brilliantly shows how the study of Classic German Philosophy can still offer a valid contribution to the contemporary debate on metaphysics.

Another aspect that resonates throughout the book is Moss’s interest for intercultural philosophy, as well as for the mystic tradition. There is no doubt that this book is a vital and promising contribution to the contemporary debate on Hegelian philosophy. However, it is also much more than that, since it provides a very compelling theoretical framework for the discussion of many different questions in contemporary continental metaphysics. Finally, it also offers a profitable exchange between philosophy, theology, and the study of other cultures.

Despite its remarkable size, Hegel’s Foundation Free Metaphysics does offer an extremely coherent and well-argued account of some of the most important theoretical issues in the history of metaphysics. By doing so, it succeeds at showing the ground-breaking nature of Hegel’s approach to logic and provides a very original interpretation of the Doctrine of the Concept. It is an ambitious example of Hegelian scholarship, but it is also a very good example of a truly Hegelian approach to philosophy today.

Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.): The Challenge of God, Bloomsbury, 2021

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Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.)
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Agata Bielik-Robson, Daniel Whistler (Eds.): Interrogating Modernity: Debates with Hans Blumenberg

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XXV, 277

Reviewed by: Bruce J. Krajewski (University of Texas at Arlington)

In a recent review, Kate Hayles praises Catherine Malabou for admitting in Morphing Intelligence that she was “dead wrong” about some scholarly matter. While not begrudging Malabou her applause, most academics would have to admit the low cost of such an admission for a full professor invited to speak across the globe, and treated as a “celebrity,” as Malabou is. More praiseworthy is for younger academics, and those with unsubsidized careers in higher education’s hierarchy, to write that some prominent author is wrong. Those assertions can mean banishment from conferences, withdrawal of speaking invitations, and the like, since professional societies devoted (in the questionable sense) to major authors are understandably controlled almost always by an author’s fans, disciples, and sometimes family members. Speaking truth to yourself (a confession) and speaking truth to power is a distance similar to being winged in a Twitterstorm for your views and being “canceled.” None of this should be compared to the kind of courage, say, Alexey Navalny exhibits. That’s a different realm, but needs to be part of the context, lest academics damaged by schoolhouse politics slip into masochism.

The contributors to Interrogating Modernity demonstrate an inspiring irreverence and willingness to declare that the volume’s star, Hans Blumenberg, has gotten things wrong. That virtue makes for an admirable collection worthy of its subtitle. At this early stage—Blumenberg’s ashes were scattered only a quarter century ago—the scholarly work on Blumenberg has been uncritical, making Interrogating Modernity a refreshing novelty on the Blumenbergiana shelf.

Blumenberg’s followers have fashioned a mythic Blumenberg, portraying him as a mysterious intellectual Colossus, adopting Blumenberg’s own tendency later in his life toward self-aggrandizement. Thus, we have the film The Invisible Philosopher, for example. The followers’ strategy has upped the stakes for anyone who might question or criticize the great philosopher.

Willing to be heretical, the contributors to this volume refuse to be intimidated by The Wizard of Oz scenario fabricated by Blumenberg’s fans to promote knee-bending as opposed to scholarly spinefulness. The volume’s editors charged the authors with “putting [Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the book that arguably launched Blumenberg’s international reputation] into dialogue with later versions of modernity” (vii). The editors insisted on rethinking issues Blumenberg raises in Legitimacy, and the contributors frequently exceed expectations in responding to the call for rethinking.

The first essay out the gate encapsulates all that is good about this book. It’s not a head-on meeting with Blumenberg’s Legitimacy. It’s creative. It takes risks. It could have failed. Here’s a taste of Bielik-Robson’s experimentation: “Although it does not mention Job explicitly, Hans Blumenberg’s reading of Descartes suggests this affinity very strongly” (4). Bielik-Robson resurrects an old-fashioned scholarly recipe: rub any two things together and see what sparks fly.

Bielik-Robson recognizes Job as a figure of “self-assertion,” a topos in Blumenberg. Unable to tie Blumenberg directly to Job, Bielik-Robson uses a side door. Blumenberg’s research counterpart in the Hermeneutik und Poetik group, Hans Robert Jauss, views “Job as the first hero of self-assertion” in his essay “Job’s Questions and Their Distant Reply” (6). This clever move allows Bielik-Robson the opportunity to demonstrate an incompleteness in Blumenberg’s attention to Descartes. In Legitimacy, Blumenberg acknowledges the importance of Descartes: “Descartes appear[s] not so much as the founding figure of the epoch as rather the thinker who clarified the medieval concept of reality all the way to its absurd consequences and thus made it ripe for destruction.” Blumenberg wants to downplay “the founding figure,” the singular Descartes,” in order to promote “the thinker,” synonymous with anyone who employs the method Descartes used to bring about the old reality’s destruction.

The new reality Descartes advocates post-destruction appeals to Blumenberg, because it involves principles of construction to philosophize. That is, Descartes emphasizes the form and conditions of thinking rather than the contingent content. Like Descartes, Blumenberg wants “reoocupation” to function as a transcendental model untainted by historical events, a point fleshed out in the last chapter by Whistler. Historical changes are to be explained by Blumenberg’s ahistorical model.

Descartes studies his “own self” in a room of his own, where it occurs to him “that frequently there is less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by a single hand.” The primacy of the individual thinker is Job redux. Bielik-Robson describes Job’s situation in memorable prose. Job’s story becomes important when “the anthropological minimum [Job] asserted itself for the first time against … the theological maximum [God]” (15). In a schoolbook, this might be described as individuality versus omnipotence.

Job becomes a synonym for “enough is enough!” (16). For Bielik-Robson, Job’s story is the journey of a patient moving toward health. “According to [Jonathan] Lear, the patient reaches the point of relative health when she is able to exclaim: ‘Oh, this is crap!’—which very nicely corresponds with Blumenberg’s take on Descartes, who may be said to have reacted in a similar way, by simply deciding to cut himself off emotionally from the theological morass and call deus fallax a ‘metaphysical fable’—basically, a very crappy story” (16). Unfortunately, Blumenberg’s focus on the meta-analysis instead of the patient means the trauma of being fed up is not given its due as a revolutionary catalyst (18).

Elad Lapidot’s “Legitimacy of Nihilism” juxtaposes Hans Jonas and Blumenberg. Lapidot argues that Blumenberg rejects Jonas’s critique of modernity as “the return of Gnosticism” (45). For Blumenberg’s taste, that would leave modernity without as radical a break as he wants. Blumenberg needs a way past the logic that “legitimacy enters the world through negation, through illegitimacy” (48). Modernity establishes its own legitimacy apart from the previous historical epoch. According to Lapidot, the New itself “is a category of entitlement and legitimation.”

Opposing not only Jonas but also Martin Heidegger, Blumenberg seeks to jettison a notion of continuity attached to a substance. Lapidot writes, “This original constant substance is the basic assumption of all critiques against any historical age” (45). Blumenberg is uninterested in substantialism. He is after something more radical. “The new has no other foundation but itself, and so its specific form of legitimacy is self-legitimization” (47). This antifoundationalism is partly what attracted Richard Rorty to Blumenberg (Rorty was an early Anglophone reviewer of Blumenberg’s Legitimacy book).

Lapidot’s essay pairs well with Daniel Whistler’s “Modernizing Blumenberg.” Whistler begins boldly: “[Blumenberg] gets modernity wrong” (257). According to Whistler, Blumenberg supplements modernist figures’ arguments for modernity’s legitimation, fashioning a case that the modernist figures themselves did not make.

Like Lapidot, Whistler reports that the continuity between the middle ages and modernity Blumenberg emphasizes is functional, but not substantive. In a way, it’s the old form versus content argument. Rather than seeing the two as dependent on other, Blumenberg elevates form over content, since that’s the airplane ticket out of any historical ruptures at ground level. Forms fly above temporality’s constraints. From such a height, anyone might have anticipated Blumenberg to look down on things. Thus, Whistler writes, “[I]t is hard not to discern a slight tone of condescension in Blumenberg’s narrative of modernity” (259).

By siding with form and functionality, Blumenberg asserts that his account offers a novel stability. Whistler: “[W]henever the content of history changes, the forms stay the same. Forms may themselves be changing slowly, but their inertia is sufficient for them to remain a stable reference point by which to make sense of any novelty in history” (263). Blumenberg is not content with the messiness of mere history. “Like Kant, Blumenberg considers his transcendental apparatus to be immutable, to exist outside of the frame of historical change and epochal transformation” (264). Whistler concludes that this viewpoint makes Blumenberg a “right Aristotelian” (268). Given Blumenberg’s allegiances to far-right ideas linked to Latinate Catholicism, Whistler’s “right Aristotelian” designation rings true. Blumneberg is a “conservative” (267).

In the chapter contrasting Bruno Latour and Blumenberg, Willem Styfhals understands Blumenberg as an “apologist” (77) for the ecological mess we are in, and decides Latour offers better options for the predicted apocalypse. “The apocalypse is an unstable, unbearable position that might be conceptually appealing but not practically endurable. This is what Blumenberg made crystal clear in Lebenszeit und Weltzeit as well as in Legitimacy. The apocalypse is so attractive because it allows us to see the world in a radically different perspective, liberates us from the old world for a moment. But this moment does not give rise to a stable and durable position in the world” (77). Syfhals has missed Frederic Jameson’s insight, cited in Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, that calls for distinguishing among apocalypses: “[I]t is easier to imagine a total catastrophe which ends all life on earth than it is to imagine a real change to capitalist relations” (334).

Latour does not see capitalism as the problem; it’s religion: “If modernity were not so deeply religious, the call to adjust oneself to the Earth would be easily heard.” (71). Thus, Styfhals says, “[W]e should develop a political theology of the environmental apocalypse” (61).

While Blumenberg published at least one book specifically about technology, it’s difficult to categorize any other of his major writings as confronting environmental issues in the way Styfhals does with his focus on Latour and the Anthropocene. No one would think of Blumenberg as a stand-in for Rachel Carson.

The fourth chapter by Joseph Albernaz and Kirill Chepurin also addresses the theme of political theology. Styfhals’s use of apocalypse in the previous chapter has its place in the fourth chapter. For anyone acquainted with televangelism, the continual announcement of forthcoming apocalypses is a staple of populist Christianity. No matter that a specific date for the rapture is given and then passes. That failure is overlooked while a new date for the end is announced. The misreading of signs can be chalked up to human fallibility rather than an indication of a flaw in “God’s plan.” Albernaz and Chepurin recognize that what becomes important for Christianity is not that the world didn’t end as predicted, but that it continues: “But as Christianity found itself needing to explain the world’s continued existence, it was also establishing itself … as a [worldly] power. As a result, it needed to justify not the end of the world, but its prolongation” (86). The Christian Church sets itself up “as the institution of the not-yet that is the world – as the institution ‘stabilizing’ this not-yet” (86).

Within this context of an ever-delayed apocalypse, Christians fashioned a God with unlimited sovereignty and omnipotence. However, by the late medieval period God’s characteristics became incomprehensible, “alien to consciousness,” according to Albernaz and Chepurin (88). In response to this affront to consciousness, human beings develop their own rationality to give themselves security that is comprehensible (91-92).

The deleterious effects of Christianity’s global power as explored by Albernaz and Chepurin also concern Lissa McCullough. Her essay makes the case that if you thought Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt were harmful, then you need to take a second look at John Locke (124). “Locke founded a new religion focused around the sacrality of proprietas in The Second Treatise on Government, while retaining in The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) as much as was reasonably salvageable of the trappings of Christian faith to give the new religion a respectable pedigree, hitching it to . . . the authority of an apparent continuity with Jewish-Christian tradition (122). If you wonder why some people feel it legitimate to kill others for stealing, you can thank Locke for valorizing property over human lives. McCullough writes that Locke and his advocates managed to persuade numerous capitalists that the individual’s only incentive to consent to “join” society is to protect the property he has” (122).

McCullough sifts through Blumenberg to demonstrate Blumenberg’s allegiance to Locke’s valorization of property, despite Blumenberg’s efforts to make Locke seem insignificant to the massive scholarly buttresses Blumenberg uses to build his cases. Vital matters pivot on a reference to Locke in a footnote, for example. “[A]n extended footnote in Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960) … proves a vein of gold when mined for its immense implications. This footnote expands on the notion of truth as a product of labour. In it, Blumenberg remarks that this sort of produced [constructed?] truth is truth that is legitimately one’s own. The possession to be taken” (110). McCullough’s hermeneutical attention shows Blumenberg’s participation in Locke’s scheme. Blumenberg contributes to overturning the Horatian view that what is natural is not something one can own: “Nor he, nor I, nor any man, is made/by Nature private owner of the soil” (111).

In addition to articles that confront Blumenberg’s arguments and politics, the collection features authors who affirm Blumenberg’s positions. Zeynep Talay Turner’s “Political Legitimacy and Founding Myths” corroborates Blumenberg’s criticism of Hannah Arendt in Blumenberg’s “Moses the Egyptian,” written around 1978. Turner writes, “As Freud took Moses the man from his people [Blumenberg says Freud “damaged” his people’s “self-confidence”], so Hannah Arendt took Adolf Eichmann from the State of Israel.” Blumenberg does not hide his “indignation” towards this “stealing” (129).

Turner captures the salient features of “Moses the Egyptian” and presents an effective précis of Blumenberg’s use of the term “prefiguration.” Even though Turner seems ultimately to agree with Blumenberg about Eichmann in Jerusalem, Turner notes in his conclusion that Blumenberg may have been venturing outside his area of expertise in taking up the question of “what a Jewish state should do with someone who had sought to destroy the Jews” (146).

According to Turner and Blumenberg, Israel needed Eichmann to take on a mythic role at his trial in order to solidify Israeli nationhood. It’s not clear whether anyone ever laid that task at Arendt’s feet during the trial, since she was writing in the moment, as events unfolded. Unlike Blumenberg, Arendt did not have the luxury of hindsight, nor was she alive in 1978 to respond to such criticism. Furthermore, Turner and Blumenberg do not provide details of how Arendt’s book on Eichmann undermined Israel, then or since. Conceptual damage is of a different order from “stealing” a nation’s legitimacy.

In Chapter 7, Robert Buch concentrates on a “neglected” (153) part of Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the section about theoretical curiosity. Why has it been neglected? Buch: “The reasons for the relative neglect of the third part undoubtedly have to do with its length and more specifically its detail and apparent digressiveness, but above all its sheer material abundance.”

The editors sought to bring Blumenberg into conversation with other thinkers, and Buch chooses Husserl as Blumenberg’s conversation partner. Buch’s aim is “to juxtapose Blumenberg’s account of the genesis of early modern science with Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences” (153).

Perceptions of science’s legitimacy have relevance, Buch writes, given “the modern suspicion of science, aggravated dramatically in our times of climate crisis” (164). Husserl questioned the cause of a universal science, a science that adhered to rational structures and objectivity (166). Husserl reacted against the easy division between objectivity and subjectivity. Husserl posits that modern science fails to consider consciousness as a component of its investigations.

In Buch’s account, Blumenberg owes many debts to Husserl’s view of science and technology. The differences are fewer than the commonalities. One important difference appears in Blumenberg’s narrative about the electric doorbell in an essay Buch leans on heavily, “Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization,” now available in English in The Blumenberg Reader. Blumenberg says the electric doorbell, the workings of which are hidden in comparison to a mechanical doorbell, “is ‘packaged’ in a way that it conceals this history and deprives it from us in its abstract uniformity…. [I]t is legitimized by being … put into operation” (Blumenberg Reader, 386). The “artificial product,” the doorbell, is “shrouded” with “obviousness”; technization produces this unquestioned obviousness (Reader, 387), a point Blumenberg claims shows the limits of Husserl’s commentary on the connection between life-world and technization. Blumenberg aims to show that his account is “more complicated.” To appreciate Blumenberg’s point, think of the unknowability about the functioning of crosswalk buttons in urban centers, many of which remain deliberately unfixed. Even a non-working button gives the illusion of control.

Charles Turner’s chapter on “infinite progress” in science concludes with an exploration of time and the life of the politician (175). In the middle of the two topics is C. Turner’s choice for Blumenberg’s partner in dialogue, Max Weber. The question Weber poses that C. Turner investigates is: [W]hat are the chances that someone whose life is necessarily limited to one arena of activity can achieve something of lasting significance?” (181). Weber directs that question at scholars and politicians.

In making Weber’s question contemporary, C. Turner reminds readers about the fast pace of contemporary life coupled with an increase in life expectancy. In the infinity of time, how are finite individuals to gather meaning for their lives? For scholars, the fear is that one’s work becomes obsolete within the scholar’s lifetime. For the politician, long-lasting glory can come with great success, but few politicians are remembered beyond their lifetimes. As Weber puts it, the scholarly life is chained to progress (thus fear of obsolescence), while the political life is more like art in that multiple spectacular achievements by different artists are possible, though those achievements must be of a stature to escape temporal constraints (184).

Weber’s long view echoes Blumenberg’s considerations of Lebenszeit and Weltzeit, the tension between the individual’s tiny lifetime amidst the ocean of time that is world history. Blumenberg suggests we leave the tension in place, lest the world itself suffer as it did with Adolf Hitler. According to Blumenberg, Hitler’s sin was an effort at melding Lebenszeit and Weltzeit. The evidence lies in a quotation from Hitler: “I … stand under the command of fate to achieve everything within a short human life … That for which others have an eternity, I have merely a few meagre years” (191).

In Chapter 9, Oriane Petteni escorts her readers into the world of art history and optics. This gives Petteni reason to ponder Blumenberg’s preference not to be photographed (202), as if Blumenberg’s own study of optics caused his wish to avoid the medium. Petteni is well aware Blumenberg’s avoidance of selfies is something more than shyness. Petteni sees it as connected to much larger matters, like truth. The visible and the hidden link up with Western beliefs about truth. Petteni writes, “[I]n the modern age, truth no longer reveals itself; instead, it must be revealed by decisive action” (195). That is, we must work for our truth.

The comments on truth correspond to Blumenberg’s views about biology. Petteni sees that Blumenberg derives his anthropology from biology. Petteni turns to The Genesis of the Copenican World for evidence. “The Earth requires both exposure to the Sun for complex lifeforms to arise and protection from direct exposure to sun rays, which would otherwise threaten to consume every living thing. The exposure to light requires—for the Earth as well as for human beings—a kind of filter or screen” (203). Others back up Petteni’s sense that Blumenberg foregrounds the importance of indirection and camouflage, such as the recent biography by Uwe Wolff, who notes multiple times Blumenberg’s penchant for indirect communication.

Petteni finishes her reflections on Blumenberg via a journey through Franz Kafka’s Der Bau. The unfinished Kafka text parallels, for Petteni, Blumenberg’s open-endedness regarding the human impulse to fashion “endless significance” (211). The story about a burrow also fits in with a quotation Petteni cites by Heinz Wisman, “[Blumenberg’s] thought is strongly marked by the worry not to remain at the surface of things” (202).

Chapter 10 might serve readers best read in conjunction with the first and the last chapters where Descartes has a prominent role. One difference about Adi Efal-Lautenschläger’s chapter is the linkage between Descartes and Blumenberg’s book The Legibility of the World. Blumenberg himself points out the parallels between his theme in Legibility and Descartes’s Traité du monde et de la lumière. What does Blumenberg find in Descartes’ book? “The self is to be experienced according to the measure of the world, as compatible or not with its changing conditions” (Legibility, 92). This lesson runs counter to interpretations of Descartes that rely on the celebrated cogito ergo sum and tend to make Descartes a happy solipsist. The lesson also seems a challenge to Whistler’s essay in which Blumenberg leaves behind the messy world for timeless forms and models, though keep in mind that Whistler’s interpretation launches from a different Blumenberg work, Legitimacy rather than Legibility.

Efal-Lautenschläger contributes a useful dichotomy based on the arguments of Legibility: “Blumenberg chooses to put his concept of reality on the side of world-imaging, instead of world-modelling. [R]eality is understood as belonging to the arena of representations or of world-imaging. World imaging – and, with it, reality itself – has an interpretative orientation: the reality that results from the image of the world is designated as an act of reading” (224-25).

Credit the editors with choosing to follow Efal-Lautenschläger’s essay with one that expands Efal-Lautenschläger’s points. Returning to Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Sonja Feger dives into another pairing, “reoccupation” (Umbesetzung) and “reality-concepts” (Wirklichkeitsbegriffe). Feger tells readers that Blumenberg uses reoccupation “to explain how epochal change can be grasped. On the other hand, and in other texts, he provides a historical analysis of what he calls “reality-concepts.” “In this chapter, I attempt to bring these two concepts into line with each other” (237).

Reoccupation is up first. Feger: “It is important to note that “reoccupation”, that is, the English term Wallace uses to translate the German word Umbesetzung, does not allude to anything antagonistic; it is not about any kind of (intellectual) conquest or usurpation. Rather, the term brings into focus the process-character of epochal change” (244). Emphasizing the “process-character” of change points to Whistler again, because “reoccupation” is about a perennial question-and-answer model Blumenberg wants to say is at work. Not that a “firm canon” of “great questions” exists. Fegel warns readers not to become fixated on answers or questions in their concrete content. Relying on a quotation from Blumenberg’s essay on secularization, Fegel asks readers to remember that “the historical identity and methodical identifiability of supposedly secularized notions is an illusion created by the identity of the function that altogether heterogeneous contents can assume in certain positions within man’s system of understanding the world and himself” (245).

How do we find out about reality? In some places, like Blumenberg’s famous essay on the possibility of the novel, his response seems to be “sometimes we won’t.” Feger pinpoints his wording: “[I]t is quite natural that the most deeply hidden implication of an era – namely, its concept of reality – should become explicit only when the awareness of that reality has already been broken.” (246). It’s a version of not being able to see the forest for the trees. “The subject as historically situated can only account for earlier concepts of reality, not current ones” (246).

Exiting that reality dilemma depends on reality-concepts. “Making a reality-concept explicit draws on the distinction between an object (i.e. a certain behaviour towards reality) and reflection on that object” (247). While it looks as if Blumenberg’s position is that our reflecting on an object called reality is accurate only for earlier periods, Feger says our access to what’s real about the moment we are in depends on Husserlian transcendental phenomenology. “[T]ranscendental consciousness both carries out and simultaneously reflects upon the process of (reality-) constitution” (248). Problem solved (if Blumenberg is correct).


Bajohr, Hannes, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (Eds.). 2020. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2019. “Review of Morphing Intelligence.” Posted May 17, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/n._katherine_hayles_reviews_morphing_intelligence.

Prisco, Jacopo. 2020. “Illusion of Control: Why the World is Full of Buttons that Don’t Work.” CNN.com. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/placebo-buttons-design/index.html.

Wolff, Uwe. 2020. Der Schreibtisch des Philosophen: Erinnerungen an Hans Blumenberg. München: Claudius Verlag.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2011. Living in the End Times. London: Verso.

Édouard Jolly: Étranger au monde: Essai sur la première philosophie de Günther Anders, Classiques Garnier, 2019

Étranger au monde: Essai sur la première philosophie de Günther Anders Book Cover Étranger au monde: Essai sur la première philosophie de Günther Anders
Philosophies contemporaines, n° 7
Édouard Jolly
Classiques Garnier
Paperback 36,00 €

Karsten Harries: The Antinomy of Being, De Gruyter, 2019

The Antinomy of Being Book Cover The Antinomy of Being
Karsten Harries. Foreword by Dermot Moran
De Gruyter
Hardback 109,95 € / $126.99 / £100.00*
xxii, 246

Masakatsu Fujita (Ed.): The Philosophy of the Kyoto School

The Philosophy of the Kyoto School Book Cover The Philosophy of the Kyoto School
Masakatsu Fujita (Ed.). Translated by J.W.M. Krummel, R. Chapeskie
Hardback 114,39 €
XV, 273

Reviewed by: Philip Højme (Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Graduate School for Social Research)

The Philosophy of the Kyoto School (2018) is translated into English by Robert Chapeskie and revised by John W. M. Krummel. It introduces the reader to the works of (some of) the members of the Kyoto School. The general structure of the book means that each member is represented by a primary text, which is supplemented by an introductory essay. The general purpose of the latter is to outline the research, life and works of each scholar and to provide the background knowledge necessary to understand how each member relates to the conception of the Kyoto School. In the preface, Fujita Masakatsu, the editor of this book, suggests that readers “read the [introductory] essay first before turning to the original text it discusses” (The Philosophy of the Kyoto School, Ed. Fujita Masakatsu, 2018, vii). In addition to this suggestion, which I strongly recommend that any reader with no prior knowledge of the Kyoto School adhere to, I would recommend reading the two supplementary essays (The Kyoto School and the Issue of “Overcoming Modernity”, and The Identity of the Kyoto School: A Critical Analysis) before tackling any of the chapters, since they answer some of the questions readers with little previous knowledge of the Kyoto School might overlook while reading this book; these questions, nonetheless, do seem important to bear in mind while reading this book. They can be summarised as: Which thinkers do we include in the Kyoto School? and How do we define the Kyoto School?

The answer to the first question is far too complex for a thorough examination in this review, but the Kyoto School is generally considered to have been founded by Kitarō Nishida (1870-1945), a professor at Kyoto University, together with Hajime Tanabe (1885-1965). In relation to this, it seems relevant to answer questions regarding the nature of the Kyoto School. First, it is important to know that it was not a school in the sense of the Frankfurt School. Instead, and as an answer to the second question raised earlier, the Kyoto School is a loose term used to describe philosophers with a direct, or indirect, relationship to Nishida and Tanabe. In practice, this invariably also means to have a relationship with Kyoto University, its Faculty of Letters and/or the Chair of Philosophy at this faculty. The chair which Tanabe held after Nishida. Due to this strong connection with these two philosophers, a thorough outline of their philosophies and disputes seems to be in order, even if the book is structured so that each individual philosopher is given an equal amount of attention.

Nishida graduated from Tokyo Imperial University and later became first an assistant professor (in 1910) and shortly after a full professor (in 1913), both positions held at the Kyoto University Faculty of Letters, where Nishida held the Chair of Philosophy. While Nishida’s philosophical style is described as unsystematic by Masakatsu in the introductory essay, the concept of place is suggested as an important fixture in Nishidian Philosophy. The text included in this volume by Nishida is called Place. Place for Nishida is a concept which is developed in order to describe that which must “[envelope the] opposition between the ‘I’ and the ‘non-I’ and that establishes the so-called phenomena of consciousness” (Ibid. 3). This might be paraphrased as meaning that for Nishida place is a mediator of the I and the non-I, or put differently, of the subject and the object, as we know the discussion from the Western philosophical tradition (see i.e. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger). However, place is not platonic, a point which Nishida spells out, writing: “what I refer to as ‘place’ is not the same as what Plato refers to as ‘space’ or ‘receptacle’ [vώqa]” (Ibid. 3). Opposed to Plato’s understanding of space/receptacle, Nishida’s place is “that which permits the relationship between physical space and physical space cannot itself be physical space. What is required is a place wherein physical space is situated” (Ibid. 5, my italics). This means that for Nishida place comes to be the solution to the question of how to understand the relation between I and non-I, subject and object. Critiquing the Kantian notion of the transcendental subject, Nishida posits that consciousness includes meaning and that because of this “we can speak of consciousness as the self-determination of something universal” (Ibid. 6). This led Nishida to the realisation that this cannot be in the case of form and matter; instead, these – to establish knowledge – must be mediated by a different sort of place, concerning which Nishida writes:

“The place that establishes the opposition between form and matter must be different from the place that establishes the opposition between truth and falsity. At the place that establishes knowledge, not only must form and content be distinguishable, but their separation and combination must be free” (Ibid. 6).

This leads to the conclusion that there must be a “place of experience” (Ibid. 6-7). Thus, knowledge and experience are established in the same place, because both knowledge and experience are “phenomena of consciousness” (Ibid. 7). This outline of Western metaphysics, of the subject/object distinction, led Nishida to consider “the idea of self-awareness that reflects the self within itself” (Ibid. 8). Following this revelation, Nishida comes to posit knowing as an act which envelops the opposition between form and matter, or between subject and object. Answering the question of where a self-awareness, which reflects itself within itself, is situated (i.e. placed), Nishida posits the category of true nothing as this place. True nothing is a nothing which has transcended the opposition between being and nothing, between the I and non-I. It has transcended these in such a way that it envelops both – “To speak of subject-object unity, or the disappearance of subject and object, is simply to say that place becomes truly nothing” (Ibid. 9).

This is what Nishida calls the logic of nothing, a logic which takes on a new form in the work of Nishida’s successor, Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962). After graduating from the Faculty of Letters at Tokyo Imperial University, he eventually gained a position at Kyoto University in 1919, and later took over the Chair of Philosophy after Nishida’s retirement. The text included in this volume by Tanabe is called Clarifying the Meaning of the Logic of Species. Heavily inspired by historical materialism, Hajime “brought the practical dynamism he had learned from it to the logic of nothing” (Ibid. 43), founding the philosophical notion of the logic of species, a term which is as much a critique of the logic of nothing as it is a development of it. Regarding the internal critique between the members of the Kyoto School, Masakatsu writes:

“We may take this kind of relationship that permits mutual criticism, or of taking critique as a springboard or the criticism received as energy for developing one’s own thought, to be one characteristic feature of the Kyoto School” (Ibid. vii).

This can be assumed to be a direct reference to the fact that Nishida not only accepted Tanabe’s critique, but also used it to further develop the logic of nothing. Leaving this development aside, the following is an outline of Tanabe’s conception of the logic of species. Tanabe states that there are two reasons for writing this essay: “the practical and the logical” (ibid. 25). The practical reason for Tanabe seems to be a wish to understand the rise of ethno-homogenous state ideology in South-East Asia. Tanabe refutes the idea that states are made up of individuals who enter into a contract, as exemplified in the theories of Hobbes’ Leviathan, or Rousseau’s Social Contract. Opposed to such theories as describing at least the Japanese state, Tanabe instead argues that:

“society is not a relationship that simply proceeds from individuals … Rather, unless it possessed a substratum [基体] unbounded by the generational replacement of individuals and to this extent exist as something preceding them, it would be unable to coercively unify them. And since the social substratum is something species-tribal [種族的], wherein individuals are born and included, I thought it should be called a [species]” (ibid. 25)

Tanabe calls this kind of society “communal” (Ibid. 27), which stands in opposition to the “contractual society” (Ibid. 27). Following on from this, Tanabe devotes the remainder of the essay to explaining how an individual comes to accept state coercion, and it is here that the logic of nothing is redeveloped by Tanabe, who argues that: “The true individual becomes individual within the whole only through the mediation of the universal … the affirmation of the subject in absolute negation, is the mutual unification [相即] of the state and the individual as a subjective whole” (Ibid. 27-28). Hence, the mediation between individuality and state is, for Tanabe, that which brings about the true individual (in the same way as the mediation of universal and particular in Nishidian philosophy came to bring about true nothingness). Thus, Tanabe breaks with Nishida in claiming that state coercion is necessary to mediate and, in this way, achieve a subjective whole. With regard to this, in the introductory essay, Nakaoka writes that “To negate the self as an individual is to establish its communal character. Tanabe thus came to believe that ‘the true self is restored by losing itself’ ” (Ibid. 47). The true self for Tanabe is something which envelops both the individual and the species (the universal), but where Nishida claimed an absolutely nothing, Tanabe postulated a true self which needs to lose itself to be found. Thus, Tanabe’s conceptual development of the logic of nothing into the logic of species makes Tanabe’s contribution a much more social/material logic than Nishida’s. Nishida and Tanabe constitute two of the grounding pillars on which the Kyoto School stands, and in their works, we see concepts and topics which are to be taken up, expanded upon or criticised by their direct or indirect heirs.

Kiyoshi Miki (1897-1945) was a direct heir, who entered Kyoto University in 1917 and subsequently studied philosophy under both Nishida and Tanabe. In 1922, Miki went to Germany to attend lectures given by Rickert and Heidegger and in 1924 Miki moved to Paris, “where he spent one year devoting himself to reading [Pascal] while studying French” (Ibid. 66). Miki’s text included here is called The Logic of Imagination, and it represents Miki’s attempt to unify pathos and logos, which eventually led Miki to the logic of imagination conceived of as a “philosophy of action” (Ibid. 59). While paying tribute to Nishidian philosophy, Miki would state clearly that the logic of imagination was to be “considered separately” (Ibid. 59). Miki conceived of action different from the philosophical tradition which conceives it as having an origin in the will, meaning in subjectivism. Opposed to such an understanding, Miki posited that the term should be understood as

“the event of creating things … All acts in the broad sense … have the meaning of production … To act is to make new forms by working upon things and altering their forms (transforming them). Forms, as things that are made, are historical and change through history” (Ibid. 59).

Here one clearly sees the influence which historical materialism had on the philosophy of Miki, and this is a definite break with Nishidian philosophy. The acts of creation which Miki attributes to the logic of imagination links this philosophy closely with technology and the arts, both of which Miki conceives of as creative, in the sense that they both create something new. Another figure closely linked to Miki is Jun Tosaka (1900-1945). The connection with Miki is not only in the forming of what has been termed the left-wing of the Kyoto School, but also in the tragic fate they shared, both dying in prison (in Japan) in 1945. Tosaka, another graduate from Kyoto University, was concerned with the notion of the technological spirit, and the text included is What Is the Technological Spirit? Tosaka describes this as “the fundamental spirit of modern culture” (Ibid. 81). Tosaka then goes on to locate this spirit not only in the modern world but also traces it back to ancient philosophy, in effect tracing it back to Plato and Aristotle. Tosaka also postulates a scientific spirit, which is then examined in relation to the technological spirit, concluding that these spirits are like opposite sides of the same coin. The scientific spirit, Tosaka claims, has three characteristics. It is “firstly a positivist spirit … secondly … a rational spirit … [And] I also consider the scientific spirit to the historical spirit … The scientific spirit … must be a spirit of our everyday life and action” (Ibid. 85). Tosaka does not dwell on the question concerning whether the scientific spirit is the technological spirit or the other way around. Instead, the technological spirit is conceived as “another face of the scientific spirit” (Ibid.). This leads Tosaka to argue that even at the level of the laboratory (positivist science) there is a social aspect, thus it is not a “true [absolute] historical understanding” (Ibid. 86). This is a direct critique of Tanabe and the idea that the progress of science will be rolled out deterministically based on the logic of species. Opposed to such an understanding, Tosaka came to claim that even positive science is historically situated and not an absolute.

Differing from Miki and Tosaka’s materialistic concerns, Motomori Kimura’s (1895-1946) philosophy engages with the question of body and spirit and the essay included here is Body and Spirit [Mind]. Kimura graduated from Kyoto University in 1923 and returned in 1933 as an assistant professor. What is of interest regarding Kimura is that from 1939 onwards Kimura oversaw teaching, not in philosophy but in pedagogy and teaching methods. Thus, Ōnishi, in the introductory essay, examines Kimura as “as a scholar (philosopher) of education … Kimura philosophized from the principial depths of praxis = poiesis underlying both the undertaking of the practice called ‘education’ and the act of creating a work of art” (Ibid. 124). For Kimura the body is not the opposite of the spirit. Instead, the body is described as “a principle of expression [表現]. Expression, however, is the manifestation of the inside on the outside” (Ibid. 110). This means for Kimura that the inside is “at the same time outside and vice versa” (Ibid). In this sense, the body becomes a mediator which manifests the inside, or the spirit on the outside (what Kimura calls nature). Hence, in Kimura there is no dualism between body and spirit. Instead, there is a mediation between the spirit and nature through the body. The body comes to act as a point which allows mind and matter to interact with one another. Leaving this point aside, what is important for Kimura in this regard is the concept of expression. Expression, outlined succinctly, is the inside expressed on the outside, as an act of creation, situated on the outside. It is not conceived of as in opposition to the outside (nature) but, instead, as being situated outside of the inside. The conclusion of this line of thought is that:

“[The body]is the self-negation of spirit, and at the same time it is the self-negation of matter. Because the body is thus the self-identity of contradictories [矛盾の自己同] it possesses the capacity of formation, and expressive life is able to express itself in self-awareness through the mediation of the body” (Ibid. 120).

Another thinker who continues this line of examination into the spirit is Shinichi Hisamatsu (1889-1980), who became a professor at Kyoto University in 1946. The text included is called The Metaphysical Element of the East. In this text Hisamatsu elaborates pivotal concept in Hamamatsu’s philosophy of the Eastern nothing. Hamamatsu’s life and works are perhaps those which dwell mostly on the topic of religion, and Nishida once had to write a letter reprimanding Hisamatsu for “[trying] to drop out of university just before graduation in order to practice Zen” (Ibid. 150). Hence, the practice of Zen is an important factor in the development of Hisamatsu’s thoughts, a practice which can be said to have been inspired by a direct suggestion from Nishida, who was also a Zen practitioner. The Eastern nothing is an integral part of Hisamatsu’s religion of awakening. The latter is a metaphysical thought or system which Hisamatsu claims cannot be found in the West, while the former is described as a concept different to, but not in opposition to, Western thought. Hisamatsu stipulates that Western thought, since the Greeks, has revolved around the concept of Being, positing that in the East a different line of thought concerning this developed. Hisamatsu explains that:

“This ‘Eastern nothing’ is something that cannot be fit into the category of what exists in actuality. Without being something metaphysical from the standpoint of all beings or “being”, it is something metaphysical that negates and transcends being itself” (Ibid. 143).

This is thus a concept which draws heavily on the concept of absolute nothingness in Nishidian philosophy, and for this reason Hisamatsu’s philosophy falls within the frame of the Kyoto School, as it directly deals with one of the pivotal concepts of the Kyoto School.

Toratarō Shimomura (1902-1995) is described by Takeda in the introductory essay as the man who brought the Kyoto School to a close, and while the book does, in fact, contain an additional philosopher, this is not an overestimation on Takeda’s part, considering that Shimomura was the last of the philosophers included in this book to pass away. Shimomura’s work included in this volume is The Position of Mathematics in Intellectual History. In this text Shimomura tries to discern the difference between Eastern and Western culture, specifically regarding scientific/academic inquiry (science, for Shimomura, becomes academic inquiry as natural sciences stem from the mathematics of the ancient Greek philosophers). Shimomura asserts that academic inquiry is a Western term which originates from the West and points out that:

“ ‘academic inquiry’ [gakumon 学問] in our mother tongue, if we follow its classical usage, meant something close to that which takes ‘statecraft’ [治国平天下] or ‘moral conduct for living’ [修身処生]—ultimately things of a religious or political-moral, generally practical nature—or ‘practical inquiry’ [実学] as its subject matter” (Ibid. 164).

This means that the subject matter of these inquiries differs in one very important sense; namely, one is theoretical, and the other is practical. Following this insight, Shimomura argues that each culture, or what Shimomura and the Kyoto School call ethnic spirit, has its own kind of “Religion, academic inquiry, and art, too …[which] thereby form a system of culture, and, through the mediation of the ethnic spirit, express the world; the world thus realizes itself in them” (Ibid. 165). Therefore, it is through an inquiry into European academic inquiry (understood as a moment) that Shimomura comes to regard history, and academic inquiry itself, as being mediated through the spirit and experienced by that spirit in its historical moment.

Closing this volume, but not the Kyoto School, is Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990), whose included work is Nihility and Emptiness. This was the only work known to me prior to reading this book, though my knowledge is superficial. In this work by Nishitani, we again see the notions of nothingness (nihility) and emptiness coming into play as pivotal concepts for the Kyoto School. Keta, in the introductory essay on Nishitani, writes that Nishitani’s relationship to Zen is important if one is to understand the philosophy of Nishitani. Like Hisamatsu, Zen Buddhism became a practice for Nishitani which would resolve the crisis of not feeling that any of the philosophers studied up until that point (primarily Western philosophers, as this was Nishitani’s speciality) had been able to fill a growing internal void. Keta writes that: “at the age of thirty-three he began practicing Zen at the Meditation Hall of Shōkoku Temple in Kyoto. He would later state that through this practice he somehow managed to extricate himself from this crisis” (Ibid. 219-220). The basic premise of Nishitani’s philosophy is that science (the scientific method) overlooks both religious and philosophical questions, by mechanizing or rationalising humans, society and nature. This, Nishitani argues, leads to the fact that “contemporary nihilism arises … from an awakening to the meaninglessness at the root of this world and of human beings” (Ibid. 207). This meaninglessness, nihility, is for Nishitani overcome by the concept of Buddhist emptiness [空], which Nishitani equates with Eckhart’s notion of detachment: “What Eckhart called ‘detachment’ [離脱], … a transcendence that is a freeing not only from the self and the world but even from God …This point emerges with greater clarity in the standpoint of what is referred to in Buddhism as ‘emptiness’ [空]” (Ibid. 209). The concept of emptiness is described as “the completion of an orientation toward negation. As a standpoint that has negated nihility as the negation of being” (Ibid. 2014). Such a standpoint seems in alignment with the development of Nishidian philosophy as outlined in this book, and while Nishitani’s concept of emptiness differs from Nishida’s absolute nothingness, it still follows in a line of critiques, redevelopments and new articulations that seem to be the hallmark of the Kyoto School.

Succeeding in drawing a red line through the main topics, interests and fields which comprise the works of the members of the Kyoto School, this book is an important contribution to scholars in the West with an interest in the appropriation of Western metaphysics in the East (Japan/Zen Buddhism), to scholars of the Kyoto School in particular, or to those interested in the specific topics dealt with by individual members of the Kyoto School. The primary texts, with their introductory essays, elicit a development of the thought(s) of the Kyoto School which would be hard to elicit for an individual scholar with limited knowledge of Japanese philosophical tradition, Zen Buddhism, or the history of the Japan (ca. 1850-2000), and without access to the translated works. For such scholars, this book is of vital importance as an introduction to this school of philosophy, and the introductory texts and supplementary essays help the reader obtain an outline of each member’s philosophy, their project and the historically important events surrounding their lives, even if it is accomplished from a bird’s eye view. Therefore, I recommend readers with no knowledge of the history of either the Kyoto School or Japan to read the supplementary essays at the end of the book before engaging with the primary texts or their introductory essays. In particular, I found The Kyoto School and the Issue of “Overcoming Modernity” by Kunitsugu Kosaka to be an essay which is very informative for the novice scholar. In this essay Kosaka elaborates not only on the development of the general project of the Kyoto School as an attempt to overcome modernity, but also on the claim that some of the members of the Kyoto School “beginning with Nishida Kitarō, have been stamped with the label of having been collaborators in Japan’s activities during World War II” (Ibid. 233). This is not unlike similar claims levelled against the philosophy of Heidegger or even Nietzsche, both of whom are philosophers who can be said to have had an influence, directly or indirectly, on the members of the Kyoto School. While the book is an introduction to the Kyoto School, it does, however, assume knowledge of philosophical concepts, particularly of metaphysical and ontological concepts. This is not a criticism of the book but a note for any potential reader. Moreover, while it might seem daunting for some readers to immerse themselves in the depths of philosophical inquiry, the task of reading these texts is not insurmountable for anyone willing to spend some time brushing up on key concepts.

A key aspect, or method, of the Kyoto School seems to be that of mutual criticism, and while this does not make the general project of the Kyoto School compatible with the Frankfurt School (e.g. with Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of modernity/enlightenment), I would point out that this is an aspect where that these two schools converge. In addition to this, both schools also seem to have been engaged with the question of the relationship between Being and Nothing, subject and object, though they differ enormously in their conclusions. Leaving this point aside, as the book does not dwell too much on this question, it seems important to mention finally that while the book introduces the Kyoto School as endeavouring to present an Eastern philosophy which differs from Western philosophy, these two terms are ambiguous for several reasons. Firstly, because the Kyoto School is firmly anchored in Japanese Zen Buddhism or a critique of it, as opposed to an Eastern philosophy that spans other Buddhist ways of thinking, or even other countries. Secondly, because of their engagement with a certain kind of Western philosophy, mainly Heidegger and Nietzsche. In addition to these two points, some members also engage with historical materialism (i.e. Miki and Tosaka). All in all, this is a serious book worth attention from any scholar interested in metaphysical or ontological questions answered from a position different from the normative Western perspective. Though different from the western perspective, Nishida’s general claim is that Japanese culture is well-versed in both the Eastern and Western perspectives, and thus exceptionally suited to provide a bridge between them.

“The original characters of Eastern culture and Western culture are such that they ought to be mutually complementary, not such that one is superior to the other or one must be integrated into the other. What is important is instead to uncover the broader and deeper roots that run through both Eastern culture and Western culture, and from there to shine a new light on both cultures. Nishida argued that this is precisely the world-historical role Japan (being well versed in both cultures) bears today” (Ibid. 240).

In paraphrasing this rather lengthy quote, one might say that the goal of Nishidian philosophy was to bridge the gap between two cultures, or metaphysical systems and that the subsequent members of the Kyoto School should be thought of as engaging with this project either affirmatively, critically or descriptively. Thus, what makes up the Kyoto School, and what merits its name, is a sense of dealing with common themes centred around the idea of shining a light on these two cultures by uncovering their common roots.

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World

The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin Book Cover The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin
Jean-Luc Nancy, Pierre-Philippe Jandin, translated by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press
August 8, 2017

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College, University of Oxford)

A reader looking to make their first entry into Jean-Luc Nancy’s work is bound to feel intimidated by the extraordinarily vast and varied nature of this particular French philosopher’s oeuvre. As it spans over dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and engages with almost every major modern thinker, one would be forgiven for feeling somewhat at a loss in deciding where to start. This is why the set-up of the interviews collected in The Possibility of a World is full of promise: guided by Pierre-Philippe Jandin, who shows himself both knowledgeable of how Nancy thinks and skilful in driving the conversation to cover as much ground as possible, Nancy is made to reflect on the entirety of his career in fluent and conversational language: the interviews provide both an accessible articulation of all the major themes of Nancy’s thought, if sometimes only implicitly, for those who are new to it; as well as a valuable insight into how Nancy relates to his own thinking and writing, for those who are already familiar with it. The present translation of these conversations by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain generally captures Nancy’s playful use of the French language well, adding clarifying footnotes where necessary, and makes for a very fluent read in English that only falters occasionally when confronted with a particular French idiom or colloquialism.

Before delving into the conversations themselves, it is perhaps worth noting that, in my view, Nancy is a philosopher perfectly suited to be approached in this dialogical way: not just because it takes the sharp edges of his sometimes frustrating writing style; but also because the dialogical form – which, as Nancy notes, “has always been associated with philosophy” as the expression of “the free life of thinking” (Nancy 1982, 46-47) – embodies the very logic he wants to describe, namely the infinite circulation of meaning. Even when Nancy writes like any other philosopher would, he always does so under the guise of an engagement with someone else’s thinking: his own thinking exists in a dialogical interaction with that of others, to the point that it becomes hard to discern which ideas belong to which conversation partner, and that is exactly the point. Thus, in reading Nancy, we are always reminded of one fact: “without dialogue, no thinking, and no philosophy” (Nancy 1975, 330). In the case of the present text, we have the interesting opportunity to witness how, as prompted by Jandin, Nancy engages with himself, dialogues himself.

The first section of the book is dedicated to Nancy’s “formative years.” What the reader will not find here is a description of how Nancy sees the development of his own thinking throughout his life, for, as he admits elsewhere, he is “not somebody who is very self-aware, I don’t really have much of a conception of my own historical trajectory” (Nancy 2003, 45). What he does do in this section, however, is discuss the various “moments”, both anecdotal and more substantive, that would later prove important for his intellectual development. These anecdotes are really quite delightful. There is, for example, the very early memory of walking past a fence that “had these elaborate patterns.” Already betraying a theoretical orientation at that very young age, Nancy relates how he would “get lost in speculations about the necessity or non-necessity of all these adornments” (2). Then there is the story of his discovery of Heidegger: apparently the reason Nancy first engaged seriously with Heidegger was to play a trick on François Warin, by writing a text on Comte in a parody of Heidegger’s style that managed to convince Warin that it was actually penned by Heidegger himself (17-18).

One of the more informative moments he relates is his reading of the Bible together with the Young Christian Students when he was a teenager: for Nancy, this was “the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense (sens).” What he learned there was above all that “One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite” (7). This can still be seen in what we could call the hermeneutic logic that governs all of Nancy’s writing and sits alongside a critique of the specific hermeneutics formulated by Ricoeur and Gadamer. This interest in the texts of Christianity, however, soon became detached from a “properly religious relationship” (8). It is this religious orientation, together with a taste for social and political activism, which he sees as “the initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8). Nancy then goes on to discuss his initial discovery of Derrida, who he saw at the time as ushering in a profound intellectual upheaval (14, 22). Finally, it is worth mentioning how he looks back on his early work on Kant, undertaken when he was preparing to take the agrégation, for it sets the stage quite well for how he would later develop his own thinking: “What Kant taught us is that (…) pure reason is practical in itself.” Hence, he continues, “in our desire for the unconditioned, in our desire for sense, we’re practical, we act in the world, and so, a priori sensibility (…) is praxis. In every case, I am in action” (19). It is this notion of the sense of the world consisting in our action within it that sets Nancy up to articulate the idea that is at the core of, and indeed guides, his entire philosophy: “Images of the world must be substituted for a dwelling (habitation), a life of the world, in the world. (…) The world is a possibility of sense or meaning’s circulation and we have to make a world, to remake a world” (26).

This allows for a seamless transition to the second section of the book, which deals with Nancy’s understanding of world. Indeed, one of the strengths of these interviews is that they show very clearly how all of Nancy’s thinking hangs together quite closely. Regarding the world, he again takes up his starting point as it is formulated elsewhere (see Nancy 1997, 4): declaring that “There’s no longer a cosmos, there’s no longer a mundus” (38), by which he means that the world no longer appears to us as a coherent totality that is unified by some kind of inherent order. The world that we are to think “no longer has a sense, but it is sense” (Nancy 1997, 8), exists in a circulation of meaning. This leads him to formulate his relational ontology, where the meaning that is the world exists in what happens between entities, in how they relate to one another. It is this question of relation, central as it is to Nancy’s thinking, that he sees as never having received serious philosophical attention (48). Nevertheless, “What is the world,” he wonders, “if not precisely the possibility of the ‘between’?” (47). For, if meaning is not inherent to any single entity, it can only exist in how that entity relates to other entities. In that sense, it is the between, not the self-enclosed singularity of an entity, that comes first. It is only because of “the relation between the two, that is, the ‘between’ the two, which relates the one to the other and separates it from the other at the same time” (47), that something can be anything at all: thing A can only be thing A because it is separate from thing B, because it is-not thing B; because of a separation that constitutes thing A as thing A. It is only because of this between that there can be something, or rather, some things. Being, for Nancy, even when it is singular, is always plural. Indeed, it is only within plurality that there can be singularity. The world is then the totality of sense or meaning that is created by the constellation of different entities in their relation to one another (133). Nancy has coined the term transimmanence to describe the nature of the meaning constituted in this way: neither fully immanent, nor transcendent; but an immanence pointing outside of itself to the between that would be collapsed by full immanence (93).

Ultimately, this thinking of the between is a critique of self-sufficiency: the self does not constitute itself, but must go outside of itself in order to find itself. This opens up an entry into Nancy’s social and political thought, for this impossibility of self-sufficiency “is true for both the collective and the individual,” he notes, “the idea of ‘community’ quite clearly implies (through communitarianisms) the danger of shutting oneself off in self-sufficiency” (49). Indeed, the subsequent three sections deal mostly with Nancy’s handling of questions concerning community and politics. Political questions are essential for Nancy, as long as this is understood in a broad and nuanced way: for him, the French word politique means both “the organization of common existence (…), conjoining antagonistic interests,” as well as expressing “a sense or truth about this existence” (94), and as such has clear ontological significance. Most of the discussion revolves around Nancy’s (relatively) recent engagement with questions concerning identity in relation to the notion of the people, formulated polemically in reaction to the French government’s attempt to have a debate on national identity in 2009. Just like the world no longer has meaning, but is meaning; so too, the people no longer have an identity, but are an identity (Nancy 2015, 29-32). That is to say, their identity is not inherent but exists in their action within the world, their life of the world in the world: the people in themselves are not sufficient for the constitution of their own identity. Hence, speaking of the people always risks understanding this plurality inauthentically as absolute, coherent, self-sufficient singularity: “What allows one to make sense out of numerousness is the people,” Nancy says, “which gets expressed in forms that themselves are no longer numerousness, but suggest a ‘substantial’ unity (‘one’ people, ‘one’ nation)” (73-74).

The sixth section deals with Nancy’s understanding of religion, Christianity in particular. For Nancy, “in the depths of Christianity, there is something like the germ of the disappearance of the sacred” (99). What this means is that Christianity is the religion through which the West is able to leave the religious modality of thought behind. It is the religion that allows the West to emerge from its metaphysical closure, which Christianity is nevertheless at the same time also responsible for. Nancy traces this historical development in his two volumes on what he calls the deconstruction of Christianity (Nancy 2008; 2012). In doing so, he takes up various Christian concepts – God, creation, grace, etc. – and uses them to think atheologically: not necessarily against theology, but in any case against onto-theological metaphysics; in order to put on display how Christianity and the West are opening themselves up from their metaphysical closure. In doing so, these concepts come to describe the way in which we inhabit the world, our dwelling in the world: for example, “creation is the world existing,” Nancy says. “In another sense,” he continues, “one could say that within this lies an opportunity to recover the possibility of admiring, of adoring that the world exists, and the fact that I exist, that you exist” (102). That is to say, these concepts not only function within the (a)theological register, but also take on a much broader existential and ontological meaning.

In the same way, Nancy can be seen to charge the notion of art with ontological and existential significance in the seventh section of the book. There he explains how, given that we no longer live in a cosmos, a world that is unified in its display of a certain inherent order, art is in crisis: what is its role if it can no longer represent this order now that it has collapsed? Let me quote Nancy at length here: “It’s like another creation, a recreation of the world and when there isn’t actually a creator or organizer of the entire world anymore, then this gesture becomes detached for itself, but this gesture has always been the gesture of art, of opening the possibility of an ordering. And I think that one can say that the human being is the one who has to bring out a world, both as a form and as sense, or as language” (106-107). Here Nancy is first of all saying that when art is without ground it fulfils a truly ontological role: in the absence of an order or truth preordained by a creator, art is no longer in the business of merely representing this truth; rather, it performs the gesture of the opening of the possibility of an order, expresses the movement in which the possibility of a world exists, by exposing the void at its origin as “the complete absence of beauty, that is, what points out or indicates beauty” (105). Art exposes what Nancy calls the patency, the opening or the transimmanence of the world: that the world is possible even in the absence of a unifying cosmic order, for it is patently already there in our engagement with it. Art exposes that the world is possible, that the world straightforwardly or manifestly makes sense to us, without the need for a unifying and ordering cosmology or metaphysics. As such art is, as Nancy puts it, “the presentation of presentation” (Nancy 1996, 34), of the infinite circulation of sense that is the world. All we need to do is greet the world in its thereness. Art thus embodies the very gesture of the world as it is constantly coming to be in our engagement with it, in our dwelling within it. When Nancy then says that human beings bring out a world, he means that “the human being is both the expression of the world and the world’s expression,” that is to say that it “is the inhabitant of the world, but at the same time, it transforms the world deeply through its technē, its technology, what in Latin gets translated as ars, its art” (115).

The discussion on art, the presentation of presentation, makes for a smooth transition to the final two sections of the book, dealing with presence and joy. Nancy here reprises, albeit in a more metaphysical way, the analysis of presence that he already formulated in his essay on sleep (see Nancy 2009). According to him, there is never full presence, indeed absence is at the heart of presence: just like the self needs to go outside of it itself in order to find itself; so too he understands presence generally as the continual arrival, or birth, of non-being into being. Here Nancy makes this clear by talking about how when we fall asleep, we at the same time descend into nothingness as well as fall into ourselves and the world. “Every morning,” he says, “one comes back to the world after being truly absent during sleep, which is connected to this poor, physiological, biological truth: Without sleep, one can’t live for long” (121). Though this does not come through particularly clearly in these interviews, for Nancy joy (jouissance) is the moment or experience of being on the limit shared between those two opposites – being and non-being, inside and outside, presence and absence, etc. – through which meaning comes-to-be as the sense that is-about-to-be, to come, through one’s being-outside-of-oneself. “Joy, jouissance, to come,” Nancy says, “have the sense of birth: the sense of the inexhaustible imminence of sense” (Nancy 1993, 5). As such, joy is the experience of ek-sistence as it “strives toward (…) the world and Being-in-the-world, that is, toward the possibility of making sense” (133). Knowing that these interviews were conducted in 2013, Nancy’s thinking of joy here seems to anticipate the conversations with Adèle Van Reeth he would have on the subject not long after, conversations that were published in 2014 under the title La jouissance and translated into English in 2016 as Coming (Nancy & Van Reeth 2014; 2016). It is perhaps unfortunate that the translators do not make a note of this, as one of the strengths of this book is that otherwise, whenever a particular aspect of Nancy’s work is broached in the interview, it comes with a series of useful footnotes that direct the reader to the relevant texts by Nancy or indeed his interlocutors.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that some of the most interesting reflections Nancy articulates over the course of these interviews are often the result of him briefly going off on a tangent. For example, he perhaps shows himself the present-day Kierkegaard or Nietzsche – albeit with a decidedly less capricious personality – when he recounts how he envies the painter and the writer of literature and poetry, since their mode of expressing themselves might be more suited to what Nancy is trying to do. The relationship between philosophy and literature has been a central topic of Nancy’s thinking since the start of his career, and indeed continues to be to this day: “I have the feeling that my philosophical texts aren’t philosophical enough,” he says, “that they need to be more philosophical, but in order to be so, they need to no longer be philosophical, but something else” (23). Hence, Jandin describes Nancy’s writing strategy very accurately by saying that we “aren’t in the coincidentia oppositorum, nor are we in a dialectical logic; we are trying to go ‘between’” (124). The possibility of a world rests entirely on this notion of the between that is explored by Nancy’s writing. Therefore, Nancy’s writing itself must be understood as similarly structured as the world it is trying to shine a light on, to uncover, to stage; a world that is “centrifugal, erratic, open” (134).


Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘“Our World” an interview’, trans. by Emma Campbell in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 8:2 (August 2003), 43-54.

Jean-Luc Nancy, Le partage des voix (Paris: Galilée, 1982).

Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Le ventriloque (À mon père, X.)’ in Mimesis: Des articulations (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), 271-338.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. by Jeffrey S. Librett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Identity: Fragments, Frankness, trans. by François Raffoul (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, trans. by John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. by Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).

Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, La jouissance: Questions de caractère (Paris: Plon/France Culture, 2014).

Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, Coming, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. by Brian Holmes et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin, Fordham University Press, 2017

The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin Book Cover The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin
Jean-Luc Nancy, and Pierre-Philippe Jandin, Translated by Travis Holloway, and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00