It is a commonplace to say that digital media and communication technology have thoroughly transformed the world we live in. This is obvious to all of us. The impact of the digital revolution, however, is so immense that philosophy, in spite of a multitude of books and articles, has only started to get a grip on it, as far as that is possible at all. Although one might expect a large number of contributions of the hermeneutic tradition to the philosophical reflections on digital media, since these are mainly information and communication technologies, philosophical hermeneutics has remained relatively silent with regard to the new media.
Alberto Romele’s monograph Digital Hermeneutics is therefore a more than welcome intervention in the philosophical reflections on the new media. Romele has written a rich book that discusses many aspects of this complicated field of research. His book does not only develop a hermeneutic approach to digital media, it also shows the mutual influence of hermeneutic interpretation theory and the new media technology.
Romele’s approach is in line with the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Especially the notion of distanciation is used to highlight how new media are both object of research and actor in the networks in which they are embedded. But also Romele’s style is reminiscent of Ricoeur: he develops his ideas in discussion with many other theorists, showing ever new insights into the complicated relations between information and interpretation, internet and society, imagination and mediation, humans and technology. Also in line with Ricoeur’s style, the conclusions of the different parts of the book are more like new chapters than integrating summaries. This makes the book as a whole a dense and rich composition of many lines of thought, starting with an Overture, followed by two large parts, while ending with a grand Finale. The book has a large scope: after the introduction of its approach in the Overture, Part 1 offers an epistemological and methodological account of the digital, Part 2 is about an ontology of the digital, while the Finale discusses several ethical end political consequences.
Romele rightly argues that a hermeneutic approach of new media cannot be a matter of simply applying existing points of view of the hermeneutic tradition to the digital. The hermeneutic tradition itself needs to be taken up and renewed. In the Overture he starts with a ‘confession’ (2) that he began the project of this book with the intention to deconstruct the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur. In Gadamer’s philosophy Romele recognizes a focus on unity, with theological roots, that, notwithstanding all the emphasis on dialogue, is a monologue of “the sole truth of the Event.” (1) In Ricoeur’s work, Romele finds what he calls an “idealism of matter”, a tendency to focus exclusively on language as the main or even only mediator of meaning. The same concentration on unity and ontology can also be found in Heidegger’s philosophy of technology that takes all technological phenomena together from the single perspective of Gestell. Instead, a hermeneutic-phenomenological philosophy of technology should not only be fixated on a general ontology but embrace the ontic plurality of many technical devices, projects and phenomena. Romele therefore makes a plea for a “minor and pragmatic hermeneutics” (1) that highlights the multi-linear and multi-medial character of interpretation, including digital and non-linguistic interpretation; a hermeneutics that embraces ideas of post-phenomenology, empirical philosophy and actor-network-theory. Interpretation does not only take place in language, but also in other media, matter and machines. It is also a matter of images, websites, cell phones and algorithms.
Of course, this approach is not a break with the hermeneutic tradition, it is a renewal. Just as post-phenomenology takes up several aspects of Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit, Romele’s digital hermeneutics follows his ontological turn in hermeneutics that regards every relation between Dasein and world as an interpretation. Thus, instead of deconstructing hermeneutics, Romele picks up Ricoeur’s concept of distanciation (11) and uses it to reveal how, on the one hand, we are connected with the world through all kinds of digital and technical-material relations, while, on the other hand, the digital devices and networks can become object of scientific research and philosophical reflection as well. In this way Romele also transforms Ricoeur’s idea of distanciation, giving it a material deepening beyond the merely linguistic understanding by Ricoeur.
In this respect, he also uses a distinction made by Don Ihde (1998) between a ‘special’ and a ‘general’ hermeneutics. Special hermeneutics refers to the specific kind of technologies that offer a representation of the world, while general hermeneutics alludes to the fact that all technologies are hermeneutic in the sense that they selectively frame and mould the human-world relations in which they function. A philosophical hermeneutics of the digital needs to take into account the active interpretative performances of technical tools and procedures that are at work in all our engagements with it. Digital hermeneutics is a hermeneutics of the digital in both meanings of the subjective and objective genitive.
Epistemology of the Digital
Under the somewhat confusing heading “The Virtual Never Ended” Romele examines epistemological and methodological issues, disputing several lines of thought that tend to minimize the distance between the virtual and the real. In the first reflections on the internet and digital media, now a few decades ago, many theorists emphasized the difference between the virtual and the real. The virtual was a ‘second world’ in which we could easily experiment with what was not possible or harder to accomplish in the real world. Later, this perspective changed in its opposite: many researchers now maintain that no distinction can be made anymore between the virtual and the real. Romele uses the notion of distanciation to criticize both points of view. The virtual is like the glasses or contact lenses that we can see, but also through which we can see and that change the way we see, although they seem to be completely transparent.
In the first chapter Romele takes a position against those who believe that “the virtual invaded the real.” In particular, he discusses the “semantic theory of information”, formulated by Luciano Floridi. Floridi (2005) defines information as “data + meaning + truth” (27). This is a very objectivist view that includes meaning and truth as internal ingredients of information. Floridi even gives a Hegelian-style formula to express this belief: “what is real is informational, and what is informational is real.” (35) Based on this view, Floridi also develops the more practical view that in everyday life the real and the virtual are blurred, mixing ‘life’ and ‘online’ in an Onlife Manifesto (35). This leads to all kinds of problems and contradictions: thruth-values as supervening on semantic information; the difference between factual and instructional information, and more.
As an alternative, Romele sketches a hermeneutic approach of information, describing it as part of contextual communication. He draws on several other authors, as well as on etymological research that shows that the pre-modern meaning of information was ‘giving a (substantial) form to matter’ (24). For those who are well educated in hermeneutics, his criticism is not very surprising: information can only manifest its meaning in contexts, it is in need of interpretation, and therefore the meaning can never be entirely fixed. The conclusions of this chapter, however, show the importance of the material aspects in Romele’s approach:
“…the hermeneutics of information (and, more broadly, digital hermeneutics) is a material hermeneutics for three reasons: (1) because it starts from an analysis which is internal and not extrinsic to the object in question; (2) because it deals with the varieties of contexts of production and reception of meaning; (3) because it is interested in the matter (the techniques and technologies) through which digital traces are transformed into data, and data into information.” (38)
The introduction to the second chapter discusses several topics, among them the growing awareness that the real and the virtual are not two separated worlds, but are thoroughly intertwined. In terms of the title: the real invaded the virtual. This involves, besides many other issues, problems with privacy; but in this part of the book Romele directs our intention mainly to digital sociology, asking the epistemological question how society can be studied with digital methods. Several examples of data visualization, Big Data and computational sociology are discussed, while Romele underscores the view that digital methods do not give a transparent window on the world or on ourselves. There always remains “an inexhaustible gap between the self and its digital representations.” (50) So again, the virtual and the real do not coincide. In the second section Romele chooses an unexpected opponent: Bruno Latour.
One might expect, Romele rightly suggests, that Latour would show how digital representation and research methods do not simply represent the world as it is, how digital technology needs its own material structure of cables, electricity, hardware, etc., and how the internet can be seen as a dense network of actants. To the surprise of both author and readers, this is not what Latour writes about the digital. Romele shows how Latour usually combines an emphasis on matter and on networks, but with regard to the digital he seems to forget its material shapes and almost entirely focusses on how digital networks offer us a view on real networks:
“It is as if Latour’s attention to the matter of the spirit applies to everything except to digital technologies and methodologies because they allow social reality to be seen as Latour wants to see it. For him, the digital has a double function. From an ontological point of view, it is a model and a paradigm for seeing the society as an actor-network. From an epistemological perspective, it offers a new resource to study society ‘in action.’” (53)
Latour seems to try to erase the difference between map and territory: “…digital traceability has transformed reality in a global laboratory in which entities and events can be followed step by step.” (54) However, arguing that the real and the virtual never coincide, Romele reads Latour against Latour, showing how Latour’s interest in uncovering networks in the real world conceals the matter of the digital as a web of constructing actants. In other words, with regard to the digital Latour seems to behave like the ‘modern’ scientist that he elsewhere claims we have never been:
“In his We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Latour denoted with the word ‘modern’ two orders of practices: the ‘translation,’ consisting of creating hybrids, and the ‘puriﬁcation,’ which continuously hides these same hybridizations. Are we not facing such a process right here? Are we not, on the one hand, creating hybrid entities of (social) nature and (digital) culture (digital traces and the methods for their analysis as ‘presentiﬁcation’ of social reality) and, on the other hand, concealing the very process of creation of these entities?” (58)
After this criticism Romele mentions several ideas and methods that are better candidates to be incorporated in a methodology of digital hermeneutics. Big Data do not simply show massive facts, but, with a reference to Rob Kitchin (2014), could better be called “capta (from the Latin capere, ‘to take’), because they are extracted through observations, computations, experiments, and recordings that have nothing immediate in themselves.” (60)
How can we develop methods that make use of the giant new possibilities of massive digital information, while remaining aware of its perspective and constructive elements? Romele refers to the work of the digital sociologist Noortje Marres (2017), perhaps “the most Latourian in this ﬁeld, more Latourian than Latour himself,” (61) who indicates the impossibility to establish a clear boundary between digital methods and their objects. In her digital sociology she has decided to accept the fluidity of the distinction between methods and objects, and to investigate this unsolidified distinction. Marres’ sociology includes “the continuous effort to trace the boundaries between medium, methods, and social reality.” (62) Sociology therefore needs to combine digital and classical methods, while placing the constructive effects of digital settings in the centre of scientific analysis. Marres calls this “issue mapping.” (63)
This is where hermeneutics meets post-phenomenology. This last current of thought (Romele mainly refers to Don Ihde and Peter-Paul Verbeek) investigates how technologies are co-constitutive in the mediation between humans and the world. It offers another perspective on the same insights of actor-network-theory: “…while actor-network theory is attentive above all to the plurality of relations, postphenomenology, which usually considers only one relation at a time, addresses somewhat the different types of relations and the different types of actors involved in these relations.” (65) Digital hermeneutics thus includes the use of digital methods as well as reflections on these methods and the many ways they participate in shaping their objects. Further investigations in this field of research will probably lead to very complex analyses of many different sorts of multidimensional and flexible networks. Romele has developed a promising epistemological vantage point for this kind of research. I would have liked to read a bit more about advanced elaborations on it, but these lie beyond the scope of this book.
In this way Romele sketches not only a material and technological turn in hermeneutics, but also a hermeneutical turn in the philosophy of technology. Digital hermeneutics is an actualization of Ricoeur’s “long route” of hermeneutics, “making existence, preconceptions, and speciﬁc worldviews emerge from an internal analysis of the methods and the objects themselves.” (74) This approach includes negotiations about the methods and terminologies that the researcher has to link his own work to, in order to keep a dialogue going. On the one hand Romele seems to join theories of information, trying to give a hermeneutic twist to them. On the other hand he suggests another terminology, developing the notion of “digital trace” as a “hermeneutic alternative to the concept of semantic information” of Floridi and others (75). Although information and communication are still relevant features of the digital, Romele writes: “I believe that today recording, registration, and keeping track represent the most appropriate paradigm for understanding the digital and its consequences.” (72) Again, he follows Ricoeur in this respect, for whom the trace was “the matrix of a difficult but possible epistemology.” (77). Tracking or following traces is a general notion for a style of research in many different practices, like medicine, hunting and art history. “A hermeneutic of the trace would therefore be much wider (both in depth and width) than the classic hermeneutics of texts, documents, or monuments.” (78)
Ontology of the Digital
The second part of this book is dedicated to the ontology of the digital. Its aim is a new ontological turn in hermeneutics, now within the context of digital hermeneutics, by investigating to what extent digital machines are able to interpret. This is a farewell to the anthropocentrism that has accompanied modern hermeneutics for centuries. In the third chapter Romele goes step-by-step from Kantian imagination to Emagination – this term is also the title of part II.
The Kantian transcendental scheme or Einbildungskraft is the famous faculty of the first Critique that brings sense data and understanding together: the transcendental construction of objects in the mind. In the third Critique Kant adds a reflective imagination that is less dependent on the twelve categories of understanding. In the twentieth century this imagination as faculty of human consciousness was replaced by Simondon and Ricoeur in a, respectively, practical-technical and a semiotic-historical imagination. Romele refers several times to Simondon, but mainly elaborates on Ricoeur. In Ricoeur’s narrative theory productive imagination is externalized in language: “The synthesis between receptivity and spontaneity happens outside, in linguistic expressions such as symbols, signs, metaphors, and narrations.” (87) Imagination is not a creatio ex nihilo, but is a recombination of already existing elements, a process of distanciation and re-appropriation, which takes place in language. Ricoeur has articulated this process with the help of the Aristotelian notions mimesis and mythos. The re-arrangement of elements of a series of events in the structures of a story takes the place of the Kantian imagination that combines sense data and the categories of the understanding. This emplotment is performed in several levels of mimesis: prefiguration, configuration and refiguration.
In a move that is analogous to his argument in the first part, Romele now transposes productive imagination from language to machines. Digital imagination, or emagination, however, is more than an extension of human imagination from language to machines: the machines work by themselves. “Digital technologies, I would say, imitate with increasing ﬁdelity the way human productive imagination actually works.” (100) They are “imaginative machines” that work by mimesis and mythos.
With regard to mimesis, Romele refers to, among others, Don Ihde, who has distinguished several ways in which technology mediates between humans and the world. All these mediations are transparent, in the sense that, after a while, we hardly notice them anymore:
“(1) embodied relations, whose speciﬁcity lies in the high transparency of the technological artefact after a period of adaptation (for instance, glasses); (2) hermeneutic relations, which give a representation of the world that interprets the world, and that must in its turn be interpreted (for example, thermometers and maps); (3) alterity relations, in which the relation with the world is temporarily suspended, and the technology itself assumes the role of interlocutor/competitor (for instance, computer games); and (4) background relations, when a technology creates the conditions of our own relation with the world (for example, heating and lighting systems).” (100-101)
Digital technologies can perform all these mediations. In doing so, they interpret, represent and reproduce the world for us. But however transparent they may seem, we still need to be aware of the distanciation that is at work here: digital representations do not coincide with reality.
With regard to mythos, digital software is able to perform productive imagination. The emplotment is created by databases and algorithms, analogous to the Kantian sense data and categories – and perhaps also to series of events combined in narrative structures. This last comparison is suggested but not specified by Romele. A few pages further, this analogy is relativized, when he mentions differences between narrative imagination and Big Data analytics. The latter is abstracted from its context of production and, moreover: “…data mining and machine learning are based neither on narrative emplotment nor on the research of causes […], but on the correlation of heterogeneous data.” (108) Nevertheless, digital technologies work autonomously and can guide our perceptions and actions. They are “…not only interfaces to our imagination and the world but are one of the ways (probably the main one today) in which productive imagination externalizes and realizes itself in the world.” (103)
Moreover, digital machines are increasingly performing faster and on a larger scale than humans. Big Data and the newest algorithms work more and more autonomously, and with a productive imagination that surpasses human sensibility and understanding. According to Romele, at the end of the last century productive imagination could still be said to be “lower” than human imagination. In the social web of the last two decades there is rather a correspondence between the two. But today, now that databases have become data streams and because of the development of machine learning algorithms,
“the relation between human and digital imagination is going to be inversed, since the latter is overpassing the possibilities of the former. Or at least, even without wanting to confront them, it seems fair to say that digital imagination is taking an autonomous path which has concrete consequences on our decisions.” (91)
Given the fact that the analogy between narrative and digital imagination is, in my view at least, less convincing than other parts of the book, it makes sense to suggest that the latter is different from human imagination, but that it also, at least in several respects, outperforms human productive imagination.
This last observation, one of the most important ideas of this book, is not only fascinating, but also deeply worrying, as becomes clear in the example of algorithmic governmental profiling. The third chapter ends with the larger question how human freedom can be understood in this understanding of productive imagination and in relation to the digital. Romele pleas for a relatively modest view of our freedom: “Human beings are essentially hetero-determinate, and what we call ‘freedom’ is a long and difﬁcult detour through our technological, but also bodily, cultural, and social exteriorities.” (109) Nonetheless, the newest digital technologies may have enormous consequences on our subjective sense of freedom.
In chapter 4 Romele goes further in “frustrating” our human self-esteem. He states that human imagination is not as creative and ingenious as we often think. All innovation is a recombination and further developing of what already existed. Romele combines the Kantian distinction between determining imagination in the first Critique and free reflective imagination in the third Critique with Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between the engineer and the bricoleur. The engineer looks for the right materials and can develop a large number of tools and concepts, whereas the bricoleur only uses the material at hand. According to this distinction, the bricoleur is productive and the engineer is creative. Romele criticizes the idea that human imagination works like creative engineering, following Derrida’s deconstruction of the distinction: the engineer is a myth. Thus, we have never been engineers, as the title of this chapter says (124).
In addition, Romele stresses the increasing role of Artificial Intelligence in influencing our aesthetic judgments (machines recommending us what to watch and what to listen to), as well as aesthetic production in some areas. All this means “…that digital machines are also teaching us to be modest when it comes to us pretending to be engineers.” (132)
In the conclusion of this chapter, Romele compares several phases of the relation between hermeneutics and nature with phases of digital hermeneutics. These phases are a “level zero” (nature cannot be interpreted), “level one” (nature as object or our projections) and “level two” (nature has interpretative capacities). Comparably, for a long time hermeneutics made a strong distinction between humans and non-humans, which can be called “level zero”. At “level one” interpretation “…is a result of the articulation between human and non-human intentionalities.” (138) “Level two” still mainly has to come. The question here is whether we can “…attribute to digital technologies, or at least to an emerging part of them, an autonomous interpretational agency.” (139)
A part of the answer to this last question is given on the first page of the Finale. Among the many distinctions Romele has made in his book, is a list of different degrees and kinds of interpretation. Several levels of complexity can be distinguished. The more complex the level of interpretation is, the less it can be attributed to digital technologies. Classification in already established orders can be done more efficiently by machines, whereas digital technologies cannot (yet) beat human pattern-recognition abilities (143).
Ethics and Politics of the Digital
The plea for symmetry between humans and digital machines does not make Romele blind for the political consequences it may have. He argues for a critical posthumanism that needs to address differences between humans and machines, “… while remaining within the limits of a principle of symmetry.” (144) This critical posthumanism has to investigate “…the kind of interference between human and non-human (in this case, digital) claims for meaning when the object of interpretation and eventual understanding is human subjectivity.” (145) In recent years this interference has been growing because of the collection, analysis and trade of user and consumer data. Romele speaks of a “general ‘algorithmization’ and ‘Big Datafication’” that has created a superstructure with a central role in our digital economy, culture and society (148).
What worries Romele is the indifference he finds in many people, “the most important affection in the present digital age.” (145) He tries to understand this indifference with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. Habitus is a “supra- or infra-cultural entity that frames our intention without us even being conscious of such hetero-determination.” (149) It shapes our behaviour, postures, wishes, etc., and makes us part of a specific social and economic class. The digital, Romele writes, “must be considered as a sort of habitus generator.” (146, 151) At the end of his book he formulates the following important question:
“The question I want to ask at this point is how it is possible to make subjects able to deal with the digital habitus in order to carve out room for manoeuvring or allowing a margin of freedom before the power and the conﬁguring force exercised on them by and through the sociotechnical systems.” (153)
His answer makes use of three notions that are articulated by Michel Foucault. The first is the Panopticon: surveillance is an increasing problem of social media. The second notion is confession. Foucault states that Western self-understanding and expression have adopted a form of confession that gives rise to problematic power relations. The way to deal with these power relations may lie in a third notion: parrhesia, speaking freely, in a way that interrupts the usual codes. The problem is, however, that algorithmic digital technology seems to have anesthetized our free speech or to have made it irrelevant. What can speaking freely help us, if the algorithms of insurance companies or the police have already profiled us as suspicious? Romele suggests that only socio-economic and institutional initiatives can constitute contexts and situations that make parrhesia possible. The justice we would need to look for, he concludes,
“…would consist of creating sociotechnical conditions for an ethos of distanciation from one’s own digital habitus. In other words, it would mean to contribute to framing a sociodigital environment in which people can become sensitive to the insensibility and indifference of the digital.” (158)
Digital Hermeneutics is a rich and dense book that offers many views on the rapidly developing digital structures of our world. It discusses several important questions that philosophy needs to address today. At the same time it is a very good effort to re-invent hermeneutics in a contemporary setting, incorporating post-phenomenology and other philosophies of technology. In short, this is a must-read for everyone who is interested in hermeneutic philosophy and the digital.
Don Ihde. Don. 1998, Expanding Hermeneutics: Visualism in Science. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Floridi, Luciano. 2005. “Is Semantic Information Meaningful Data?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2): 351–370.
Kitchin, Rob. 2014. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. London: Sage.
Marres, Noortje. 2017. Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Sociological Research. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1991. From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
The Transcendental Project in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze
I. Introduction: The Question
Judith Wamback’s book, Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, proposes a highly original reading of two central authors from the 20th century, one that sheds new light on their most important insights.
According to the Wamback herself, she is reacting to a consensus that has been established about the relation between the two thinkers, a consensus that sees their respective works as being either alien or in opposition to each other. This reading of their relationship was championed not only by Foucault but also by Deleuze himself, in his few and mostly negative comments on Merleau-Ponty. As Wamback shows, Deleuze does not seem to recognize either in phenomenology in general or in Merleau-Ponty’s work in particular the main sources of his thought.
Against this interpretation, Wamback explicitly proposes to find a philosophical argument that legitimates bringing them into proximity. She is not, therefore, interested in reconstructing the common history of their reception or perhaps in uncovering a heretofore ignored biographical connection; on the contrary, what she seeks is to make explicit a conceptual connection between two thinkers that critics—including Deleuze himself—have become used to seeing as radically alien. This is the central motivation of this book, one that is also central in evaluating the relevance of its implications.
In order to bring this project to fruition, Wamback proposes a precise framework, which she herself describes as “metaphysically” bent, and which takes up a classical philosophical question, namely the question of the relation between being and thought. She investigates the way both thinkers understand this question, thus providing the ground for her attempted rapprochement.
Indeed, as the book progresses, this question becomes increasingly more precise, and the way Wamback frames and focuses her discussion, notable for its clarity, is one of the main strengths of the book. The debate about the status of thought is revealed as a discussion about the transcendental project behind each thinker’s work, highlighting the intrinsic relation between this project and what Wamback describes as a “philosophy of immanence.” This philosophy of immanence is, according to her, a central dimension of both philosophers’ thoughts, one that brings to the forefront the necessity of understanding the articulation between the transcendental and the immanence.
Wamback, therefore, centers her comparison on the idea that Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty both recognized an immanence between the condition and the conditioned, one that finds its privileged “place” in the notions of expression and simultaneity. This is the central thesis defended by this book, an original and unusual contribution when considered against the backdrop of most studies dedicated to this topic. Let us then examine the way Wamback organizes her book.
II. The Path
In order to accomplish her proposal, Wamback delineates five main steps, thus establishing a work method that is followed throughout the book and that structures the overall path of the investigation. First, a description of the highlighted concept as it is formulated by each of the authors. Second, a discussion about the relationship between the two topics or concepts. Third, a description of the way this articulation sheds light on each of them and, based on this, on the respective reflections in which they find themselves. Fourth, an attempt at finding an “equilibrium” or “balance” between the singularity of each work and its possible openness by way of this articulation. Fifth, the configuration of a new image of the history of philosophy to which these philosophies belong.
In fact, the fifth item is the broader horizon that frames Wamback’s discussion (5). She is not interested in creating a common narrative thread that would encompass both philosophers’ work—indeed, such a common thread may not even exist. Rather, by doing justice to the way each author relates to other thinkers, she intends to “anchor” the “resonances in their work to the history of philosophy”, thereby formulating an “alternative image of the philosophical alliances in French academia over the last two centuries” (5). Here the most ambitious facet of the project is revealed, namely to go beyond a book directed to a specialist audience by retracing kindred context or horizons, thus making explicit the way philosophy is built as a series of answers to the great questions posed by other philosophers (5). This implies the recognition of a historical dimension that is not exclusively factual—if it were possible to think of it in this way—, intrinsic to a specific philosophical debate, perhaps (in a first moment) even in a latent way, but which would even so still be affirmed in each of them. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in the fifties, this would be a kind of subterranean or indirect history, a history that is expressed in the facts without being reducible to them and without detaching itself from them.
In this sense, according to Wamback, the question about thought and being, which is as ancient as our most ancient sources on Western thought, is revealed as a privileged problematization axis, allowing her to trace out the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze pursue this classic problem in their respective philosophical reflections on the basis of their network of references and their theoretical frameworks. She is, therefore, able to uncover deeper and broader debates than those one would glean from a first reading, or even a reading that pays more attention to the schools and neglects the “secret” historicity that animates them. This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of Wamback’s work.
The book is organized around five main cores. I will first describe those cores in a general way, and then I will offer a more detailed analysis of each of them, following the way Wamback builds her argument.
The text is divided into seven chapters, each of which is further divided into topics. These chapters all follow a general methodology: first Wamback presents the position of one of the philosophers being analyzed, then the position of the other, and finally compares them. This methodological option greatly contributes to the clarity of the text and to the strength of her argumentation.
The first and the second chapters focus, according to Wamback herself, in a more direct discussion between the two authors. The idea is not to pit one against the other but to discuss the way each of them approaches similar questions in a kind of textual confrontation, one that is more intimately connected to the analysis of specific works and texts.
The first chapter is dedicated to the topic of thought, focusing on what Wamback describes as “original thought”, seeking to formulate what are, for each author, its nature and conditions. The main axis of the chapter is the argument that both authors think this notion as a way of distancing themselves from the representation model and its implications. This move demands an analysis of the objective and subjective dimensions that constitute this “original thought”, which leads us to the problem of the ontology therein implicit. This question is pursued in the second chapter, which seeks to understand in what sense the way both authors formulate the question about the status of thought—and its distance from the representation model—is grounded in an understanding of being. In particular, Wamback shows how this ontology recognizes being as unitary, even if it admits—indeed, demands—difference and indetermination.
The third chapter focuses on what Wamback considers a kind of epistemological or ontological “project” or even “decision” present in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze’s philosophies, discussing the extent to which their paths (delineated by the first two chapters) are connected to an understanding of the sense of philosophical work, especially in the framing of its own field of investigation—which is connected to what Wamback describes as the “empirical”. She will here follow the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze absorb the much-debated “transcendental empiricism”, tracing out their divergences from Husserl and Kant. This absorption is, to Wamback, one of the main points of proximity between the two, a point to which I will return below.
This investigation is carried a step further by its incursion into the relationship between the condition and the conditioned, an examination that will be carried out in the fourth chapter, with its reference to Bergson. As is well known, the relation between Deleuze and Bergson is much more explicit than the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bergson. However, more and more recent scholars have highlighted this last relation, and Wamback’s work is part of this recent trend in the scholarship, which presents a broad yet still unexplored horizon. In particular, Wamback’s reference to Bergson appears as a central element—both for Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze—in the understanding of the relation between the condition and the conditioned, especially in connection to the notion of “simultaneity”.
Chapters five and six focus then on this relation, particularly in its connection to the question of “expression”, a question central to both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze and which is organized precisely around the articulation between the “ground” and the grounded. To understand this question, the fifth chapter is dedicated to the description of its connection to literary experience—examining the reference to Proust, which is common to both and which is of undeniable relevance—, and the sixth chapter is dedicated to its connection to visual dimension—examining the also common and very important reference to Cézanne.
The seventh chapter also has recourse to a common denominator but now approaching the discussion from a different angle. According to Wamback, the previous chapters had as their goal to show, in different ways, the proximity between the two philosophers, by exploring how their common horizon is structured by the assertion of a unity between the condition and the conditioned, an inseparability of the ground and the grounded—a logic that is particularly notable in the notion of expression. The last chapter then attempts to shed new light on this logic, highlighting the way in which a differential dynamic operates inside this logic. The common denominator mentioned above is Saussure.
Wamback uses this reference to Saussure to explain how a “solid immanence requires a differential theory of how the condition generates the conditioned (which nevertheless determines it)” (7). She shows how this differential dynamic is to be found in both authors, especially in the way each of them appropriates Saussure’s thought, and how its constituting logic is marked by a tension between the condition and the conditioned.
Finally, the conclusion seeks to discuss the resonances and the divergences between the two philosophers, taking a stand on whether it is possible to establish a common horizon to them, or whether their distance from each other is so great that there would be no effective dialogue or convergence.
This finishes the general presentation of the book. Before continuing, it is still worth noting an important methodological option defended by Wamback, one responsible for the tight circumscription of her project. It is the option of not analyzing the relation between the two authors in terms of the notion of perception. According to her, the way each philosopher situates this notion is extremely different. In the case of Merleau-Ponty, the description of perception is carried out in an ontological or “epistemological” horizon, whereas Deleuze would think it as connected to an ethical discussion, conceived according to relations of force intensity. Such an observation is also helpful in understanding Wamback’s second methodological choice, which is connected to her first: the works on which she focuses. In Merleau-Ponty’s case, Wamback focuses primarily on The Visible and the Invisible, since—according to a widespread reading—his ontology would be the most developed at that point in his career. This would justify relegating The Phenomenology of Perception to the sidelines, since this work is considered by this line of interpretation to be “propaedeutic” to the ontology of his last work.
With this counterpoint as the horizon, it is possible to highlight the relevance and the originality of Wamback’s proposed framing, especially her option of discussing both authors from the point of view of their understanding of the status of thought. This point of view is the starting point of her proposed approximation and of her discussions, presenting an unusual take when considered against the backdrop of the most common studies about this relationship. Moreover, as I will discuss in the next section, this point of view culminates in a discussion about the sense that the “transcendental project” assumes in each philosopher. Wamback rests her argument especially in the recognition of “immanence” as an irresistible dimension, turning the articulation between the condition and the conditioned, between the ground and the grounded, into a central element in each author’s formulations. Let us, therefore, see in more detail how she builds her analysis.
III. The Book
Wamback bases her reading on the idea that there is, from the beginning, something in common to Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: not only the fact that both reflected on the topic of thought but also the fact that they distinguished two types of thought. On the one hand, a properly original thought, and, on the other hand, a thought without any originality or expressiveness. The second type of thought is merely an application of given concepts, whereas the first type—which is the type that really intrigues the two philosophers—is a kind of “creative” dynamic. Recalling the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty between “speaking speech” and “spoken speech”, as well as the distinction between “thought” and “knowledge” as described by Deleuze, Wamback proposes a peculiar framework, extremely revealing of her reading: the distinction between a “thinking thought” and an expressive thought. “Thinking thought” is the type of thought which is central to both authors and which is the starting point of Wamback’s investigation, demanding an understanding of the way each author conceives of it. The first piece of evidence highlighted by Wamback is the way this notion figures in both as a refusal of the modern conception of “representation”.
Starting with Merleau-Ponty’s reflection, Wamback appeals to some of the central notions of the Phenomenology of Perception to circumscribe his notion of thought. She then briefly examines the way Merleau-Ponty understands the sense of perception, with special emphasis on his criticism of the intellectualist and empiricist theories and on his notion of “field”, showing how the perceptual dynamic is grounded on the “original intertwinement of body and world” (18). From this point on, the question becomes whether his notion of thought is grounded in the same articulation, being always in relation to something. To pursue this question, Wamback examines the notions of the cogito—especially its negative dimension—, of geometrical thought, and of linguistic expression.
At this point in her analysis, Wamback introduces the notion of Fundierung, proposed in the Phenomenology of Perception as a “two-way relation”, an alternative to the classical understanding of the ground and the grounded as sundered elements, since they are now defined as relational dimensions in reciprocal determination. While this is a central notion in Merleau-Ponty’s work, Wamback uses it here only to think the relation between “thought” and “language”. She defends that, in spite of all its implications, there is still in this notion an asymmetry: the expressed still has “ontological priority” (35), preserving a difference between the terms. On her reading, this asymmetry would only be dissolved later, with Merleau-Ponty’s introduction of the notion of “institution”. Nevertheless, Wamback highlights that the Fundierung relation already contained a central idea, namely “excess” as an indication of the “immanence of the ground that transcends itself in the expression” (26). Her conclusion is that, for Merleau-Ponty, thought is not a “mediating activity”, but is, rather, “familiar with the world”, “it has direct contact” with it and is “in a certain sense shaped by it” (30).
Wamback shows that something similar takes place in Deleuze’s thought. From the beginning, Deleuze proposes to understand thought by confronting the sign, refusing the idea of a natural inclination to the truth, and recognizing it as always characterized by “the singularity of the meeting”, in which signs appear as “enigmas” (31). Here, more than with Merleau-Ponty, the spotlight falls on the differential character of sign and sense. Wamback shows how these notions are thought of in order to move away from the most characteristic presuppositions of representational thought: on the one hand, the idea of identity and unity, and, on the other hand, the notions of nature and of affinity with the truth. Deleuze recognizes, under the eight postulates of representational thought, a “confusion of empirical and transcendental features” (47) that obscures the proper sense of thought.
Wamback proposes that, in this perspective, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are extremely close, meeting in this movement that she describes as a “transcendental examination of thought”(49), a discussion about its conditions and about the human capacity to think. One consequence of this proximity is that both authors recognize that the object of thought is characterized by a “certain exteriority” (50). This means that both authors recognize—and hold it in high esteem—the “grounded” dimension of thought, focusing on the description of the relation between the ground and the grounded as intrinsic or immanent (51). It is precisely this intrinsic or immanent relation that guarantees its creative genesis: “In sum, for both authors, the creative nature of thought is due to the necessary role of thought in the grounding relation” (51).
After examining these conditions for the investigation of thought in each author—and the presence of a certain undeniable immanence—, Wamback focuses on describing their respective ontologies. As mentioned above, she holds that the way they understand thought, particularly their conception of thought as sustained by this intertwinement of immanence and transcendence, demands a description of the ontological ground therein implicit.
In Merleau-Ponty’s case, as described in the Introduction, Wamback focuses on the ontology of his last texts, notably The Visible and the Invisible. She emphasizes there the differential character that is central in his formulation, particularly through his notion of flesh—described by him in its originally dissonant and, simultaneously, unitary character (58), from which Wamback detaches the notion of “style” or “typicality” (59). She insists that it is not a matter of identity, but of a differential unity, which is connected to the notions of openness and constitution.
In Deleuze’s case, on the other hand, Wamback defends that the same dimensions present in Merleau-Ponty’s proposition can be found in the former’s ontology. The two authors supplant the distinction between the abstract and the concrete by reporting being to another level, which, in the case of Deleuze, is thought of as the virtual: like Merleau-Ponty’s flesh, the virtual is characterized by a nonidentical unity that cannot be divided into an inside and an outside; also like the flesh, the virtual is characterized by a fundamental openness, being also the condition of concrete things (65).
On the other hand, concerning the differences between them, Wamback holds that Deleuze devoted more time to the task of showing that unity and difference are not in opposition, that indetermination does not imply undifferentiation and that the constitutive nature of the virtual does not detach it from the things and concepts that are conditioned by it (65). In spite of this difference, she concludes that, for both, the object of thought—the flesh and the virtual—is not an identity: “The flesh and the virtual are disguised (VI, 150; DR, 133), displaced with respect to themselves” (79). The two notions combine unity and difference, acting as the condition of concepts and things, be they living or non-living (80). These dimensions are responsible for the individuation and crystallization processes, situated in the articulation between, on the one hand, the visible and the actual, and, on the other hand, the virtual and the invisible flesh, acting in the region between conservation and creation.
Supported by this discussion about the two philosophers’ ontologies—in their closeness and in their distance—, Wamback proceeds to study that which she describes as their “transcendental project”, seeking to situate their proposed investigation about the nature of thought in a broader framework:
“What is at stake, philosophically, when they refuse a representational account of thought, and prefer instead to situate the origin of thinking not in the thinking subject, but in the encounter with an exterior sign (Deleuze), or in the participation in a wild being (Merleau-Ponty)? Why do they both attack the representational account of thought?” (85).
She defends that they are brought close together by their affirmation of the non-exteriority between subject and object, between the one who thinks and what is thought—an affirmation that, according to her, is at the basis of what the two of them recognize as philosophically being “immanence” (85). Wamback defends that immanence is articulated with the idea of “difference”, even with all the distance that separates their respective ontologies.
Deleuze’s transcendental project is carefully presented by a confrontation with the Kantian project and by a discussion of a series of thinkers that heavily influenced him, especially Spinoza, Maimon, Leibniz, and Husserl. Merleau-Ponty’s project, in its turn, is presented through its confrontation with Husserl and, more generally speaking, with phenomenology, a relation characterized simultaneously by connection and distance. Wamback highlights that, beyond their idiosyncrasies, they have a common inspiration in their criticism of Husserl and his proposal of a return “to the things themselves”:
“A transcendental philosophy should look not for the conditions of possibility of experience but for its conditions of reality. For Merleau-Ponty as much as for Deleuze, this implies that the transcendental ground is to be situated in the empirical. The ground must be immanent to the grounded and thus possess a certain historicity that cannot be reconciled with the invariability of transcendent essences. Philosophy’s task, then, is defined as the explanation of how the empirical, the grounded, can be produced immanently. For both thinkers, philosophy is to be a philosophy of genesis.” (121)
There is also a resonance in what they reject from Husserl, especially his notion of a transcendental subject (122). According to Wamback, they both see in this notion an obstacle to a consistent transcendental project, since it prevents it from “becoming an immanent ontology” (123) and weakens its differential dimension.
After this more general perspective, it is now possible to return to what Wamback calls the dimension of “immanence”, present in the two authors’ respective transcendental project. To analyze this notion, it is worthwhile to focus especially on its differential dynamic—something that Wamback has worked on from the beginning by way of the relation between the ground and the grounded, the main axis that articulates her analyses.
Here one should mention a central element both for the two philosophers and for Wamback’s argument, namely the notion of expression, precisely as a way of understanding this articulation between the condition and the conditioned. The following chapters focus, each in their own way, on this notion, circumscribing it through diverse and correlate points of view: through its relation to the notion of simultaneity, through its connection to literary expression, and, finally, by discussing its visual dimension. In a word: by their relations to Bergson, Proust, and Cézanne.
The first step is their common reference to Bergson, which is circumscribed by Wamback through the notion of simultaneity. She seeks to understand how the appeal to Bergson helps Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze to build, each in their own way, a transcendental project that attempts to situate the transcendental in the empirical, the basis for what she considers the “philosophy of immanence” that is characteristic of both (125).
Wamback argues that Merleau-Ponty’s initial reading of Bergson, particularly in the Phenomenology of Perception, is “essentially unfair” (132), since he accuses Bergson of “not considering other kinds of spatiality in order to think time” (ibid). This diagnosis would be partially revised in The Visible and the Invisible, especially through the notion of “partial coincidence” and through his discussion of depth—both topics that are also to be found in Deleuze’s reading. Here the two meet each other again, since the two of them recognize depth not as a spatial but as a temporal dimension, connected to the idea of simultaneity—explicitly as a refusal of a notion of succession, recognizing the present as a “contraction of the past” (142). This formulation would lead them to similar consequences, especially the affirmation of an impossibility of directly accessing the past.
“These ressonances between Merleau-Ponty’s and Deleuze’s references to Bergson also reveals resonances at the most general level of their conception of the relation between the ground and the grounded. Both appeal to Bergson’s idea that the passing of time must be explained through the simultaneity of future, present, and past, because that offers a possible solution if your goal is to avoid referring, in the explanation, to an exterior or transcendent element. In other words, Bergson’s notion of simultaneity is a very good illustration of how one can keep the relation between the ground and the grounded immanent.” (143)
Wamback emphasizes the notion of simultaneity as a central element in their philosophies, a kind of “field” that articulates transcendence and immanence. The study about expression—about the way this relationship is realized and is inscribed in their respective transcendental projects—continues through an analysis of Proust and Cézanne.
The careful chapter devoted to Proust shows, on the one hand, that both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze find in the writer inspiration to understand an achronological, original time, composed of dimensions and not divided into successive moments, configured around a “centre of envelopment” (163). On the other hand, Wamback sustains that their respective readings diverge to the extent that, beyond this direct reference to time, Proust also contributed to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the body, something that did not occur with Deleuze.
The following chapter continues the discussion about the notion of expression, focusing now on its visual dimension and finding support in Cézanne’s presence, also common to the two philosophers. Wamback shows how both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze insist on the nonrepresentational character of art, which leads them both in the direction of a “nonimitative resemblance” (170). The guiding thread is the understanding—that brings them very close to each other—of the painting process and its nature (178).
Finally, the seventh chapter is devoted to a description of how Saussure figures in each author’s work. In the previous chapters, recall, Wamback strove to make explicit the way they tried to “ensure the immanence of their transcendental projects by characterizing the relationship between the ground and the grounded as one of simultaneity (chapter 4) and expression (chapters 5 and 6)” (189). Now, in the last chapter, she explores another central element of these transcendental projects, namely the idea of difference. Wamback argues that, in spite of some differences, both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are interested in the same ideas from Saussure, especially “his discovery of the genetic power of difference” (211).
After briefly retracing Wamback’s path, it is now possible to summarize, in a few lines, her main proposal. It seems to me that the central—and strongest—of her claims is her proposal of a convergence between the transcendental projects of Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, especially due to the intrinsic relation between such projects and the field of immanence. According to Wamback, this immanence is an original articulation between the condition and the conditioned, formulated by the two authors through the notions of simultaneity and expression. Such a “philosophy of immanence” is on the horizon thanks to which a new sense of the transcendental could appear, bring the philosophers close together.
Such a similarity, however, does not erase their differences. Indeed, it illuminates these differences from a new perspective. This is what allows Wamback to finally conclude, without losing sight of their respective singularities, that there is still a “unity” among them, as a new horizon that does not reject dissonance, putting it into a new context and proposing it a new meaning. As she had proposed in the beginning, one of the main goals of her project was to retrace philosophical relations, to rethink more subterranean contexts, to reconfigure lines of influence and of exchange in a more general sense.
It is, therefore, a highly original proposal, resulting in an uncommon work among the current scholarship, one that is pursued with admirable care, clarity, and cohesion.
The wealth of literature that has emerged (and continues to emerge) on Merleau-Ponty’s thought is striking considering that the span between the publication of the author’s first work, The Structure of Behavior (1942), and his last, posthumous work, The Visible and the Invisible (1965), was only a touch more than two decades of active, “serious” academic production. Reading through much of this commentary, one encounters a series of issues and motifs that seem to circulate through discussions of this philosophy: the living body, perceptual experience, motor intentionality, the flesh, the chiasm, reversibility, the place of painting and with respect to these, the author’s engagement and relationship with Husserl on matters autochthonous to phenomenology. This list, of course, goes on. As a reader of both Merleau-Ponty and literature on his thought, one wonders what, if anything, remains to be said.
Kaushik’s work, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, I think, clearly indicates that the answers to the above question—whether and what remains to be said—are yes, and much. It makes this indication, however, by rethinking what it means to read and write about the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by showing that there is a thought and philosophy here that goes well beyond the well-trodden signs that have typically framed approaches and discussions of this author and his work. Kaushik shows us quite eloquently that readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work need no longer rehearse a series of questions that have already been well-documented (perhaps over-documented) and that there remains much to be thought and discussed. Rather than discourse about the lived body, perceptual experience, the flesh, and so forth, we are introduced to another set of signs that frame and render Merleau-Ponty’s thought and which re-constitute its legibility: the symbolic matrix, the elemental, the oneiric, and most importantly, the event.
In addition to opening the field of Merleau-Ponty studies to a series of questions and motifs that have for the most part been unconsidered, Kaushik’s book accomplishes a second task. To the extent to which Between Philosophy and Symbolism provides another set of signs for entering the domain of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, this work also repositions this thought with respect to the history of 20th Century continental philosophy. In a manner that is the analogue to way in which a set of signs gets recycled within the literature on this thinker, Merleau-Ponty is almost invariably attached to the 20th Century’s “phenomenological curve,” the upslope being the work of Husserl and his immediate constellation, the peak probably being Heidegger, the beginning of the downward slope including its rise in France and the immediate post-war period, ending, of course, with the rise of “post-phenomenology” in the figures of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, who all in their own ways tried to ring its death knell. By recasting the signs by which we would enter Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Kaushik, I think, succeeds in dismantling this curve (which surely deserves no less and probably worse). Not only does Merleau-Ponty appear as belonging more to “post-phenomenology” than as a member of the movement but the very terms by which we would want to define “phenomenology” in contrast to “non-phenomenology” (including “post”-phenomenology) become (rightly) contested. By re-framing the approach to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Kaushik’s book re-frames the manner in which we can make sense of what means to belong (or not to belong) to the phenomenological movement and what “phenomenology” can signify in the first place. I want to take the opportunity to explore these transformations through a series of concepts that make up the infrastructure of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, the analysis of which will constitute this writing: the matrix, the symbolic, the element, and the event.
The subtitle of Kaushik’s book, The Matrixed Ontology, already indicates the central role that this concept will play in his reading. A matrix or “matrix event” is positioned against a theory of the transcendental field where the transcendental as such is identified with some form of ipseity: a self-identical, discrete consciousness that occupies the role of referent for the sense of a world it constitutes. Of course we find such a theory of the transcendental most clearly in Kant’s “I think that must accompany all my representations,” the transcendental unity of apperception; in Husserl through the various iterations of transcendental consciousness and egoicity; and of course in Sartre’s theory of consciousness as the active, centripetal constituting agency of the world’s meaning (“nothingness”). Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is distinguished from these theories at the point where the transcendental field is now reconceived—not as the privilege of a constituting self—but as the interstice, fissure, or, as it were, silent lacuna, the écart (divergence) of difference within beings that allows them their phenomenality. In other words, Merleau-Ponty, on Kaushik’s reading, gives a theory of the transcendental that not only allows for but requires internal differentiation. This is a crucial claim because, as Kaushik indicates, it is this revised theory of transcendentality that immunizes Merleau-Ponty’s thought against the critique that phenomenology necessarily eliminates difference, and in so doing, occludes the possibility of thinking the event as such.
Thinking through the configurations and operations of matrices, as well as their corresponding eventualities, occupies much of the individual analyses of the text. We nonetheless encounter some indications in the Introduction, to which I will briefly turn. Kaushik states:
Matrix events do not emphasize self-consciousness at the cost of difference. They are, in fact, called matrices because they constellate difference as difference…. A matrix event may be equated with differentiation in several ways: in addition to difference between human and animal, it can refer to the exterior and interior, public and personal, language and speech. A matrix event runs a circuit through these differences. But the loop of matrix events is never closed, and neither are the terms that they snap up into them. This is crucial, for unless Merleau-Ponty thinks that, through the event, differences are reduced to an identity, he is not guilty of the typical criticism that befalls phenomenology—that it transforms nonsense into sense and makes what is incoherent coherent.
The typical criticism would be that, in its attempt to trace the lines of force that produce and shore up the everyday appearance of the world and the sense it has for us, phenomenology will discover an absolute origin that constitutes this sense. Such an origin, as the origin of all difference, would not itself be subject to difference. It would be a purely centripetal, outwardly oriented movement that thinks but is not an object thought, sees but is not seen, speaks but which cannot be heard, constitutes a time to which it would not be subjected, and constitutes a space in which it would not be found. As Kaushik indicates, such an origin could, by definition, not abide any exteriority, could have no relation to anything that would not in principle be subjected to its sense-making movement, and in this way could not stand in relation to anything radically other to it. A matrix event, by contrast, produces sense but in such a manner that it nonetheless still includes and even welcomes what is beyond its sense. Whereas the traditional, phenomenological view of the transcendental ends with a closure into sense and the elimination of non-sense, a matrix event remains constitutively open to non-sense and what is outside, and in this way is “adventurous:” the matrix event is never complete but remains on its way, unterwegs, as Heidegger might say, but “on its way” only to difference. Kaushik notes in this regard:
An event is not singular but plural. Its plurality, furthermore, prevents the event from being teleological. That there is a temporal character to the matrix event means neither that it is an origin from which other times succeed nor that it is a destination into which all times lead. The event is neither an origin nor a destination.”
Matrix events are made legible over the course of the text through a second concept, the importance of which is already suggested by the title, symbolism. Kaushik, borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, will also speak of the “symbolic matrix,” and one also hears very clearly through the invocation of this concept the “symbolic form,” and both Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky are on the horizon here, filtered through Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Institution in Personal and Public History and his last publication, “Eye and Mind.” I want to consider symbolic form and symbolic matrix under the general rubric of symbolism, which I believe should be understood verbally.
In the Institution lectures, Merleau-Ponty says:
The parallel [of painting] with philosophies is acceptable only if philosophies themselves are taken not as statements of ideas, but as inventions of symbolic forms. Shortcoming of Cassirer’s philosophy consists in thinking that criticism is the endpoint, that philosophical sense has a directing value even though this sense itself is taken up into sedimentation. Consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not as a philosophy of symbolic forms.
The idea at play here, taken up again in the essay Eye and Mind, is that, as Merleau-Ponty famously says, “every theory of painting is a metaphysics.” That is to say, every theory painting—even one that attempts to ignore or deprecate it such as we find in Descartes or Kant—is a theory of expression, a theory about how the sense of what is comes into being, and every theory of expression is already metaphysics, since metaphysics has only ever been the attempt to think the becoming—the expression—of what is. The significant claim here is that we need to hear “metaphysics” not as the “statement of ideas”—metaphysics in a profound sense has nothing to do with the articulation of theses about being—but “as the invention of symbolic forms,” i.e., the invention of ways and means that allow for the expression of a certain point of view, a certain perspective, or way of seeing. Renaissance painting is of course just this: the presentation and making visible of a certain Weltanschauung, a certain frame—one might even say Ge-stell—for what it means to appear, what it means to be.
Kaushik makes the following commentary on the text from the Institution lectures:
His last sentence here, ‘consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not a philosophy of symbolic forms,’ is sweeping and radical in its proposal to alter both the method and aim of philosophy. If philosophy criticism is itself a symbolic form, this would mean that the ground for every truth claim in fact enfolds a symbolic component. The height of philosophical criticism would then, counterintuitively, eventuate in the symbolic. If so, philosophical criticism becomes absorbed by something very much counter to its usual goals, a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.
If metaphysics is the invention of symbolic forms, then the tasks for philosophy as well as its very nature are reconfigured and rethought. It means that the symbolic is no longer a regional matter for a specified branch of philosophical discourse but that the symbolic—symbolism in the verbal sense—is at the very center of philosophical discourse. This means, according to Kaushik, that philosophy cannot hope to arrive at a final diapason of self-consciousness or absolute knowledge but that it encounters at best “a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.” In being oriented by and in terms of symbolic forms, philosophical inquiry is constitutively defined by a certain delay, an internal slippage as its symbols defer their sense. As a result (or even as a function) of this slippage, phenomenological method (now oriented in terms of symbolic forms) can no longer be understood as the disclosure of an absolute origin, but as indicated earlier, must be thought in terms of an ineliminable difference. Kaushik summarizes this as follows:
The symbolic does not, however, mediate or bring beings together with being but opens up and is the very difference between them. It is in other words, on an adventure and is not a destination end or even a proper origin. It takes or is always on an excursion—between consciousness and unconsciousness, body and world, oneself and another, and the things of the world—while also being no place otherwise.
The adventure of sense, its radical openness, and the necessity of the event for phenomenological method are, in a way, thus premised on the symbolic. This adventurousness, however, requires another concept. If the symbolic introduces a function of slippage and differentiation within the articulation of sense, the principle of this slippage must still be clarified. Kaushik accomplishes this by invoking another term: the element, to which I will now briefly turn.
“Element,” of course, immediately recalls the oldest metaphysics of the Western tradition, the φυσιολόγοι, as Aristotle said, those who discoursed on φύσις or “nature.” We should be careful, however, not confuse the use of element at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism with a theory of nature, however, nor should we assume that by invoking this pre-Socratic notion that Kaushik wishes to recover or return to some absolute ὑποκείμενον beneath the phenomena that would explain or even express them. As the third term in the triad matrix-symbol-element, the elemental here designates both the plane of excess of sense and the unexpressed (and inexpressible) silence necessary and intrinsic to any event of phenomenality. In other words, the element is the invisible, the absent and by definition indeterminable interstices or lacunae within the world that allow for the visible, which would precisely be their inverse. Kaushik says:
The elements are, to my mind … by no means determinate, by no means exterior to the explicit phenomenon, and do not oppose it. They are rather within the phenomenon and even if they are not themselves phenomenal. They therefore do not introduce a new reality. The only reason they cannot be located is because they are always differentiated and have no specific locale.
The element is, as it were, the unidentifiable, non-localizable and yet silent interior of things that gives but is not given, that makes possible while itself not being a possible object of identification. As such, the element provides the needed principle of slippage since it appears only in its absence, appears only as missing, known only indirectly through indication and never encountered as such. The element in this sense is elicited through analyses of Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on light in connection with Heraclitus’s use of ἁπτόμενον, “kindling.” As Kaushik says a propos of illumination in Merleau-Ponty:
In the logic of light, it is important to Merleau-Ponty that what issues illumination is also within the illuminated. This means that, for him, illumination contains no original source or point of view that can itself be illuminated. It means, in other words, that illumination is in effect also dark—that it is in fact darkness that makes illumination possible. There can therefore be no general ontology of light that does not have to do with its regional context and its inability to be seen…. [Light] penetrates everywhere, explores the phenomenal plane, and yet can never be a single source from which we know about visible things…. Rather than a source, light is an endless refraction and flash-like. This refraction never shows. Its primary character is diversion. Yet both phenomenon as well as its disclosure are because of the very texture of this always diverted light.
Light or the “kindling” Heraclitus speaks of, the spark-like flash in which things appear, is elemental precisely at the point where light itself shows the phenomena but in its function as showing, itself withdraws and is not seen. I see the visible surface illuminated by the light but do not and cannot see the light itself. There is, as it were, then, a darkness, a shadow within all light that makes it possible as light, but in virtue of this darkness light itself remains elusive: vision only operates in virtue of our constitutive belatedness with respect to light—we see only after the fact, after the light itself has vanished, leaving behind only a trace in the form of the visible thing we see. Understood through light and lighting, the elemental is thus not identifiable with any kind of substrate, atom, matter, or even with a “basic ingredient.” The element, or elements, or elemental must be understood verbally: elementality is what happens, indeed, the event, when the things of the world flash up before us, where that flashing, that “deflagration” of the world’s sense comes to pass through an inverse event of recession, darkening, and shadow—a partial disintegration of the world’s sense around the edges, where sense emerges thanks to non-sense and without eliminating it. Elementality is the event of this lighting-darkening, a penumbric passage from one to the other in which the element as such is encountered only through its inverse, through what it allows and not, as it were, “in the flesh.”
The conceptual triad, matrix-symbol-element, as they function across the specific analyses of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, re-orient Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in such a way that we could no longer say with certainty that we are still in auspices of “phenomenology,” at least given the traditional sense of this as “transcendental science.” Indeed, through the mechanism of this conceptual triad, the very sense and meaning of “transcendental” becomes contested. Rather than a transcendental philosophy in the tradition of Kant and Husserl, through Kaushik’s reading, we must now situate Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on the side of thinkers such as Deleuze and Derrida—thinkers of difference, slippage, and the event. I want to close this consideration of Between Philosophy and Symbolism by turning to the event in more detail.
Since the publication of Badiou’s Being and Event (1988), it has become fashionable for “philosophies of the event,” including Badiou but also figures such as Meillassoux and so-called “speculative realism,” to pose what is supposed to be a fatal critique of phenomenology. The critique, as Kaushik nicely phrases it, operates like this:
The assumption is that phenomenology reorients incoherency to coherency, inconsistency to consistency, nonsense to sense, and therefore also closes itself to the truly abnormal aspect of events… a philosophy of the event does not exclude the transcendental per se…. Only when it is conceived in terms of an intention, whether subjective or bodily, does the transcendental exclude the event…. An event would break from all forms of intentionality so radically that it cannot be an origin, destination, or even a preexisting referent, and its eventfulness would instead be utterly spontaneous.
The conceptual triad matrix-symbol-element undoes intentionality—it makes sense of the birth of sense without reducing this genesis to an intentional form that would erase its excess, other, and outside. In other words, what the reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty’s thought at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism accomplishes is the articulation of a phenomenology that allows for incoherency, inconsistency and nonsense to dwell within the sense of the world and that the emergence of sense does not exclude these. Kaushik reiterates this in the conclusion of the text, where he says “The impossible is internal to all senses, configuring them from within. This matrix, between sense and the meaning that cannot possible make sense, implies that no sense ever exhausts its non-sense.” If the impossible is internal to all senses, if sense itself requires a non-sense internal to it, then it would seem that phenomenology—at least the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty—is already a philosophy of the event.
If Kaushik’s analyses are correct, and the close reading and analyses of the text indicate that they are, then the supposed fatal critique of phenomenology posed by philosophies of the event is not only not fatal, but premised on a misreading of phenomenology—or at least a misreading of the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, by making Merleau-Ponty’s thought legible in terms of and through the matrix-symbolic-element, the traditional series of concepts that typically make up the currency of Merleau-Ponty studies—body, perception, flesh, etc.—are recast such that their internal relationship as well as Merelau-Ponty’s original contributions to philosophy (his engagement with Husserl, his conceptualization of phenomenology and its method, etc.) now come to fore clearly in a way hitherto undocumented. That being said, I will only add that Between Philosophy and Symbolism indicates that the more traditional interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s thought (lived body, perception, flesh, etc.) are, in a sense, already in the past and that they most likely belong there, footnotes to a philosophy that itself continues to thrive and live. The readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work who are yet to come will leave these traditional readings there, in the past, and instead take Between Philosophy and Symbolism as their point of departure.
 Contrast Heidegger, who published Being and Time in 1927 and whose academic activity seems to have lasted at least until the late sixties, almost twice the output of Merleau-Ponty.
 Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2019), xii.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Institution and Passivity. Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 44; Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Galen Johnson. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132.
 Kaushik, Between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii-xix.
 Ibid., xix.
 Ibid., xx.
 Ibid., xxii.
 Ibid., 64-65.
 Ibid., xi-xii.
 Ibid., 128.
The problem of determining whether or not Husserl belongs to a broader “Platonic” tradition is destined to remain open. The philosophical importance of Thomas Arnold’s Phänomenologie als Platonismus. Zu den platonischen Wesensmomenten der Philosophie Edmund Husserls rests on the fact that this text places the issue on a solid theoretical basis. Arnold’s work, in fact, through its paratactic structure, helps us to avoid an historical reconstruction or a mere scholarly discussion of the problem, and advocates the idea that a Plato-Husserl confrontation has to be analyzed through “Wesens-Momenten,” through “essential moments.” In what sense does our approach to Platonism change, when seen through a Husserlian perspective? First of all, it is useful to read how the idea of “Platonism” should be understood:
“‘Platonismus'” wird im Folgenden nicht nur als Bezeichnung einer Familie von realistischen Positionen innerhalb des Universalienstreits oder spezieller der Ontologie der Mathematik verstanden, d. h. als Synonym einer schmal verstandenen ‘Ideenlehre’, sondern vielmehr als Name einer ganzen Philosophie” (6).
[“‘Platonism'” is here understood not only as a designation of a family of realistic positions within the problem of the universals, or more specifically, of the ontology of mathematics, i.e. as a synonym of a narrowly understood ‘theory of ideas’, but rather as the name of an entire philosophy”].
It is clear that the intention of the book is not to trace a conceptual filiation between Platonism and phenomenology, but rather to measure how philosophy quo talis, that is, in the spirit of Husserl, philosophy “als strenge Wissenschaft,” can be fully achieved by Plato or by Husserl. In a few words, the underlying idea is that, regardless of the diversity of conceptual vocabularies, the gnoseological requirements of the two authors coincide in many points. Arnold even goes so far as to hold that already in Plato there are the “regional ontologies” presented in Husserl’s Ideen, tracing a correspondent symmetry in Platonic dialogues:
“Regionale Ontologien finden sich etwa im Phaidon (Ontologie der psychê), in der Politeia (Ontologie der Kunst) oder im Timaios (Ontologie der Natur); neben pädagogischen und epistemologischen Querelen der Ethik stellt auch die Ontologie der Tugend ein Problem dar, bis sie im Gorgias und weiter in der Politeia als ‘Ordnung’ erkannt wird” (58).
[“Regional ontologies can be found in the Phaedo (ontology of psychê), in the Republic (ontology of art) or in the Timaeus (ontology of nature); in addition to the pedagogical and epistemological quarrels of ethics, the ontology of virtue also poses a problem until it is recognized as an ‘order’ [Ordnung] in the Gorgias and further in the Republic”].
But regardless of the possible conceptual symmetries between the texts of the two authors, the question always remains a theoretical one. The ambition of philosophy coincides with its claim to an absolute foundation, or to a conceptual foundation of the Absolute:
“Die sogenannten Wissenschaften sind bloße Techniken, insofern sie ihre Voraussetzungen nicht aufklären können. Wissenschaft muss absolut fundiert sein. Absolute Fundierung ist Fundierung im Absoluten. Nur Philosophie kann die Normen der absoluten Reflexion erfüllen. Sie ermöglicht damit Wissenschaft und ist selbst absolute Wissenschaft” (35).
[“The so-called sciences are mere techniques in that they cannot elucidate their pre-conditions. Science must be absolutely founded. Absolute foundation is foundation in the absolute. Only philosophy can fulfill the norms of absolute reflection. It enables science and is itself the absolute science”].
To do this, the text elaborates two strategies: firstly, underlining an analogical relationship between the Platonic and the Husserlian argumentative processes, it challenges the pre-eminence of the Cartesian approach, placing Husserl, through a Rückblick to Plato, already beyond modernity; secondly, in order to understand the Platonic analogies in Husserl, it assumes the existence of an already “phenomenological” Plato (30). In continuity with the Platonic and Husserlian arguments, Arnold claims the idea that philosophy does not exhaust itself in a mere gnoseological or epistemological approach, but it invests the very idea of “life.” According to this view, philosophy becomes the “absolute Rechtfertigung des Lebens” (Arnold: 129) [“the absolute justification of life”], overcoming the abstract antagonism of doxa and episteme:
“Die Radikalität der Phänomenologie selbst, kombiniert mit dem Selbstverständnis ihrer Stellung in der teleologischen Entwicklung des Menschen in Richtung Rationalität, erzwingt den Antagonismus zwischen Tradition (doxa) und Philosophie (episteme)” (129).
[“The radical nature of phenomenology itself, combined with the self-understanding of its position in the teleological evolution of man toward rationality, forces the antagonism between tradition (doxa) and philosophy (episteme)”].
Nevertheless, the most striking continuity between the Platonic and the Husserlian philosophical approach is the fact that “ideas” occupy the central theoretical position, i.e. the idea that the proper philosophical activity coincides with an act of Wesenschau. The “idea of idea” represents the conceptual strategy through which the essence of an “intentional psyché” is realized, contesting every naturalization of the mind, even in ancient times (Anaxagoras) and particularly in modern ones (Psychologism) (see, Arnold: 136). Ideas are the intelligible structures of things, “d. h. das, was ihre erkennbare, allgemeine Bestimmtheit ausmacht, ihr ‘Prinzip der Bestimmtheit’ oder das ‘Organisationsprinzip einer Gegenstandseinheit’, d.h. auch das ‘Kriterium’ (Uhlmann), dem gemäß ein Gegenstand ein solcher und nicht ein anderer Gegenstand ist” (Arnold: 207) [“i.e. what constitutes their recognizable, general determinateness, their ‘principle of determinateness’ or the ‘organizing principle of an object-unity’, i.e. also the “criterium” (Uhlmann), according to which an object is such and not another”]. The fundamental importance of ideas and essences, both in Plato and Husserl, suggests the fact that philosophy still aims to be, according to the Husserlian perspective, a “science of essences”:
“Wesen sind für Husserl die intelligiblen Bestimmtheitsstrukturen der Gegenstände und das, was ihnen ihre Möglichkeiten apriori vorgibt; ein Gegenstand, der ein Eidos instantiiert, hat in diesem Eidos seine Bestimmung” (214).
[“For Husserl, essences are the intelligible structures of the definiteness of objects, and what gives them their possibilities a priori; an object that instantiates an eidos has in this eidos its determination”].
The fundamental purpose inscribed in every platonic/realistic approach is to reflect on how and why our gnoseological capacities provide us with the ability to get in contact with ideas/essences, which, although transmaterial, possess the concreteness of a specific Gegenständigkeit. As Arnold points out, “die Ideen sind keine sichtbaren Dinge und keine Gedanken, aber sie sind nichtsdestotrotz in einem bestimmten Sinn eigenständige Gegenstände” (Arnold: 220) [“Ideas are not visible things and neither thoughts, but they are nonetheless – in a certain sense – independent objects”]. Tracing the idea of an essential analogy between Plato and Husserl, Arnold’s work provides a new conceptual legitimacy to the fundamental terms of our philosophical tradition. Through Plato and Husserl, a transhistorical conceptual vocabulary still conserves those certain powerful words, which are the very glory of philosophy: “idea,” “science,” “justification,” “essence,” “Absolute.”