Andrew Oberg: Blurred: Selves Made and Selves Making, Brill | Rodopi, 2020

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Andrew Oberg
Brill | Rodopi
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Annabel Herzog: Levinas’s Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality

Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality Book Cover Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality
Haney Foundation Series
Annabel Herzog
University of Pennsylvania Press
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Reviewed by: David Ventura (Royal Holloway, University of London)

In Levinas’s Politics, Annabel Herzog attempts to articulate whether there might be something like a positive and coherent political philosophy in Levinas’s thought. As Herzog is the first to admit, for many critics of Levinas this effort will seem doomed from the outset. For if it cannot be denied that Levinas’s works frequently mention politics and political reasoning, these considerations seem merely peripheral to what is generally considered Levinas’s ‘real’ philosophical interest, that is, the ethical (or moral) relation between the subject and the absolute alterity of the other person. What is more, Levinas regularly opposes this ethical relation to politics, seemingly emphasising only the essential violence and irrelevance of politics for morality. Indeed, one need only turn to the very first page of Totality and Infinity to find a clear expression of this sentiment: “The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means—politics—(….) is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naïveté” (Levinas, 1979: 21).

From this standpoint, it might indeed seem that Herzog will be hard pressed to find a positive and nuanced conception of politics in Levinas’s work. As Herzog opens her book by countering, however, even in those texts where Levinas speaks of an opposition between politics and morality, there is more than a simple relation of mutual exclusivity between the two domains. In Totality and Infinity, for instance, this involvement between politics and morality is conceptually signalled by the “entrance of the third party”, who is said by Levinas to introduce the considerations of politics into the ‘dual’ ethical relation between the subject and the other. Crucially, far from conceiving this third party as wholly external and somehow posterior to morality, Levinas explicitly holds that its presence is always already felt in the ethical relation with the other: “The third party looks at me in the eyes of the other” (Levinas, 1979: 213). That being the case, the relation between politics and morality is certainly much more complex than Levinas’s own assertions on the opposition between those two domains might at first lead us to believe—and indeed, than some of Levinas’s critics give him credit for.

The majority of Levinas’s Politics directs itself to this intricate relation that  is posited between the fields of politics and morality in Levinas’s thought. Now, Herzog is of course not the first scholar to recognise that Levinasian politics and morality are in a certain sense “inseparable and contained within one another” (Fagan, 2009: 7, cited in LP 2-3). Instead, the major contribution of Levinas’s Politics consists of its attempt to explore this inseparability “in light of a close reading of [Levinas’s] Talmudic readings—that is, Levinas’s ‘Jewish’ works” (3).[1] As Herzog notes, the traditional approach to Levinas’s philosophy has tended to consider these Talmudic commentaries as distinct and separable from the more central ‘philosophical-phenomenological’ works. Following Levinas’s own insistence on the distinction between the two bodies of work, traditional scholarship has also tended to regard these ‘religious’ or ‘confessional’ writings as being of merely illustrative interest for the philosophical substance of Levinas’s thought. By contrast, Levinas’s Politics studies Levinas primarily from the perspective of his Talmudic writings, and it turns to the phenomenological works only in order to “document [its] interpretations of the readings, thereby inverting the traditional approach to Levinas’s work” (6).

In her Introduction, Herzog begins to defend this decision by insisting that both of Levinas’s corpuses should be considered philosophical. The distinction between the two sets of texts is not therefore that is one ‘philosophical’ and the other merely ‘confessional’. Rather, according to Herzog, this distinction is best understood in terms of differences in approach. “The ethical philosophy published in the phenomenological books expresses an unconditional and immemorial call [to responsibility] that can be considered ‘prophetic’. One hears the call and accepts it as it is” (7). The Talmudic readings, by contrast, are said to confront this apodictic and unconditional call to ethical responsibility with concrete situations. “The readings ask the question: What does ethics mean in situations that involve more than the ego and the other?” (9). In other words, though both sets of texts are similarly concerned with philosophical questions of ethical responsibility towards otherness, they each respond to these questions from a differing perspective: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impracticable ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5).

Herzog’s wager is that this difference in approach makes the Talmudic readings a particularly fruitful place to unearth Levinas’s positive conception of politics. Indeed, because those readings focus specifically on the meaning of ethics in concrete situations, they “constitute a genre subject to different constraints and impositions compared with Levinas’s phenomenological style” (10). That is, the situational focus of the readings gives Levinas the scope to think politics otherwise than through some of the guiding presuppositions of his phenomenological works. Significantly, they allow Levinas to “moderate” (10)  what the phenomenological texts call the absolute precedence of ethics: the idea that ethics is first philosophy, or that the ethical relation constitutes the primary reference point for any philosophical investigation. And in moderating this presupposition, Herzog argues, the Talmudic readings not only “manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (5, emphasis added), but they also offer a radically different conception of Levinasian politics. In Herzog’s own words: “In the readings (…), Levinas tried to do two things that he could not do in the phenomenological works: first, prevent politics from bringing about the failure of ethics; and second, construct politics positively, and not as the interruption and collapse of ethics” (10).

The first chapter of Levinas’s Politics begins to advance this political portrayal of Levinas by further reflecting on what distinguishes his Talmudic from his phenomenological writings. According to Herzog, the unique character of the Talmudic readings can be approached from the perspective of Levinas’s famous distinction between the “saying” and the “said”—that is, in terms of the distinction between “the manifestation of presence through discourse” (the said), and “a form of language that does not reduce (…) otherness into sameness” (the saying) (20-21). Following Ricoeur’s reading of this distinction, which emphasises a complex mutual interplay between said and saying, Herzog’s argument is that the form of Levinas’s Talmudic writings “must be understood as part of a larger expression of the relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘said’, in which ‘saying’ and ‘said’ cannot exist without each other—indeed must confront each other” (28). For whilst, as Herzog demonstrates, Levinas certainly considers the Talmud to be the expression of an ethical saying that is irreducible to the said, his Talmudic commentaries—because they seek the unity of the many disparate texts that make up the Talmud—can be regarded as attempting to “integrate these ‘sayings’ into a thematised philosophical ‘said'” (26).

Though somewhat technical, this discussion on the form of the Talmudic readings allows Herzog to successfully articulate some of the guiding threads of her political reading of Levinas. In particular, Herzog uses this discussion to posit an essential inseparability between the domains of ethics and ontology in Levinas: “The inseparability of ‘saying’ and ‘said’ comes from the concreteness of life itself, in which ethics and ontology develop together” (28). Now, for Herzog, this inseparability is crucial from the point of view of Levinas’s politics not only because politics and ontology are regularly equated in his philosophy. More broadly, the interplay between saying and said that is formally expressed by Levinas’s Talmudic writings also tells us something about their positive political content. Specifically, it points to a substantive conception of Levinasian politics—“a livable politics” (15)—where political activity is that which simultaneously confronts and materialises the irreducible ‘saying’ of ethics.

Herzog further expounds this Levinasian conception of politics in Chapter 2. Here, Levinasian politics is introduced as an institutional enterprise that concerns itself with how responsibility and goods should be shared across humanity. On this reading, Levinas defines politics neither as a monopoly of power, nor as the guardianship of individuals’ natural rights. Rather more starkly, the Talmudic readings define politics “as concern and care for people’s hunger” (40). “To think of men’s hunger is the first function of politics” (Levinas, 1994: 18). This means that in distinction to ethics, politics also does not consist of the absolute obligation to give oneself wholly to the other. Politics is not exactly “the duty to give to the other even the bread out of one’s own mouth”, as Otherwise than Being defines ethics (Levinas, 1998a: 55). Indeed, as Herzog states, though the other’s hunger is in a certain sense the problem that unites both politics and ethics in Levinas, each of those domains develops a radically different solution to that problem. “Ethics is the name of the principle by which the other has priority over the ego. (….) That is, ethics calls for giving the other everything, now” (LP 41). Politics, on the other hand, concerns itself with calculating how some hunger can be institutionally appeased “through the practice of sharing and distributing responsibility and goods” (41).

As well as elucidating this conception of politics, Herzog’s second chapter also offers the intriguing claim that Levinasian politics is that which  in a certain sense realises ethics. Taking her cue from Levinas’s text on “Judaism and Revolution”, Herzog’s argument is that “ethics alone has no materiality. It becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). Now, insofar as it finds clear textual evidence in Levinas’s Talmudic readings, this argument is largely successful in dispelling the “common misconception” that Levinas is wholly ‘against’ politics (42). Importantly, in pursuing this argument, Herzog also innovatively identifies a conception of Levinasian justice that finds no clear expression in the phenomenological writings: merciful or non-indifferent justice. Under this conception, justice “is synonymous with neither ethics nor politics but consists in the relation between the two” (11). Put differently, justice is that differential which expresses the extent to which the infinite responsibility of ethics has become fulfilled, or materialised, through the institutional calculation and distribution of politics.

Chapter 3 deals with another unique contribution of Levinas’s Talmudic work, namely, its conception of the social. According to Herzog, in works like “Messianic Texts” and “Cities of Refuge”, Levinas thematises a distinctive social domain that can be called neither ethical nor political. This social domain, which Levinas equates with both contemporary urban life and Western liberal democracies, is one that is characterised by individualism, conflict, and a lack of concern for others. In Herzog’s words: “the social [is] a domain of indifferent care for the self, unaffected by ethical responsibility” (54). As such, the social clearly distinguishes itself from both ethics and the political: “[it] consists of neither infinite responsibility nor the implementation of those laws of justice that that would transform the ethical demand into viable practices” (46). Nevertheless, far from being simply irrelevant to Levinas’s overall conception of politics, for Herzog, this conception of the social in fact further highlights the positive role that Levinasian politics can play in realising ethics. Indeed, Herzog’s conclusion in this chapter is that if there is never any responsibility or concern for others in the social, then “politics—understood as institutions and leadership [of shared responsibility]—is the sole way to concretely implement the ethical principle (….) the sole way, for Levinas, to give some materiality to ethics” (53).

Having in the first three chapters presented a mostly positive vision of Levinasian politics, in Chapter 4 Herzog begins to focus on the necessary connection between this politics and the problem of violence. Herzog opens this chapter by noting that the critique of politics that famously appears in Totality and Infinity—where politics is defined as the violent art of war—is not entirely absent from Levinas’s Talmudic readings (55). In essays like “The State of Cesar and the State of David”, Levinas continues to attribute an essential violence to politics: “‘By serving the State one serves repression’ (….) by which Levinas means that all State servants, like police officers, use or condone violence or repression” (60). But unlike Levinas’s phenomenological writings, Herzog adds, the Talmudic readings do not entirely reject the value of politics and the state. Indeed, despite continuing to describe politics as violent, Levinas’s Talmudic writings also insist that political violence is necessary for the task of fighting evil (60). In this particular sense, and as Herzog persuasively demonstrates, Levinas not only judges politics to be violent, but he also “accepts that the aim of political violence, namely, the fight against evil, is important and legitimates its means” (66).

In Chapter 5, Herzog further develops this account of political violence by reflecting on what Levinas understands by evil. Drawing on the notion of merciful justice introduced in Chapter 2, Herzog’s central contention in this chapter is that “evil in the Talmudic readings is the impossibility of justice” (64). Put differently, evil is a kind of disjunction between politics and ethics: it is the antithesis of that productive relation where ethics is realised or materialised by politics. “Evil is the situation of an unattainable relationship between ethics and politics, a situation in which politics and ethics cannot coexist” (64). Now, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas considers the phenomenon of evil to be possible in three different contexts. First, evil can occur when an individual—or its political community—chooses to build a private domain (or home) that is detached from otherness and collective action. Evil “is the attempt to build a fortified self—be it an individual or national home—erected against the world” (71). Second, evil for Levinas is what happens when the state, instead of fighting injustice and oppression, becomes dominated by “ideology” and “idolatry”—that is, by two deceptive forms of language that disguise themselves as moral reason, but which are in fact mystifications intended to oppress and dominate (74). Third, “evil is linked to animality, namely to a certain understanding of being” (65). More accurately, evil is what happens when we choose to give our biological and psychological inclinations—our ontological or animal desires—a preponderance over political responsibility (77).

As well as bringing Levinas into a productive dialogue with a number of significant political thinkers (including Arendt, Weil and Nussbaum), Herzog’s account of evil also begins to illustrate one of the key claims of Levinas’s Politics, namely, the idea that the Talmudic readings moderate some of the positions of Levinas’s phenomenological writings. In short, Herzog’s contention is that because the Talmudic readings conceive evil as “the choice of an order of things” (79), they are also able to develop more nuanced accounts of phenomena like dwelling and ontology than the phenomenological writings. Thus, for instance, because in the Talmudic readings “evil is not anchored in biological or psychological inclinations but in choosing to give these dispositions precedence over responsibility, (….) the extreme claim of Levinas’s 1948 book Time and the Other, that ‘Being is evil’, is, in the readings, moderated into a more complex view: Being is evil, but only when it is not subordinated to ethics” (78-79).

This line of thinking is extended in Chapter 6, which focuses on Levinas’s conception of nature in the Talmudic readings. Herzog opens this chapter by stating that due to their largely anti-Spinozist slant, it is not always easy to find an appreciation of the ethical value of nature in Levinas’s phenomenological writings, where “transcendence, or God, is not nature, and is other than nature” (81). Contrastingly, the Talmudic readings do sometimes connect the uncanny infinity of transcendence to the natural world. Indeed, as Herzog reveals, despite maintaining a distinction between the human and the natural, Levinas’s Talmudic writings do intriguingly consider non-human animals, like dogs, to in certain cases “sense or express ‘transcendence'” (88). Furthermore, this expression of transcendence in nature is not limited to the case of humanity’s ‘best friend’. Indeed, in what is this chapter’s main contribution, Herzog also attempts to demonstrate that “Levinas uncovers the complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). Specifically, Herzog sees the Talmudic readings as providing a unique notion of “elevation”, within nature as a whole, which makes nature more than a simple perseverance in being or conatus (93). In other words, for Levinas, there is “an otherwise than nature in nature” (94). And for Herzog, this idea is politically charged because it shows that Levinas’s philosophy can open onto a sort of “prudent environmentalism” (94). That is, with Levinas, we can reassess our political relation with nature, and come to regard it as a domain that mixes both conative, an-ethical struggles and moments of genuine ethical rupture.

In Chapter 7, Herzog turns to what is potentially the thorniest aspect of Levinas’s Talmudic readings: their defence of Zionism and the modern State of Israel. Herzog is of course eminently aware that such defences have led many critics to classify Levinas’s philosophy as anti-Palestinian and even racist. And in this chapter, Herzog by no means denies that there are certain problems with Levinas’s reflections on Zionism. However, and in response to such critiques, Herzog holds “that Levinas’s take on Zionism is a specific instance of his broader conception of the relation between ethics and politics” (96). In other words, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas’s thought on Zionism receives its broad outlines from the more general political philosophy of the Talmudic readings—and not vice versa. Thus, Herzog’s first argument in this chapter is that Levinas defends the State of Israel because he sees it as the only way to politically ensure the survival of the Jewish people, and thus, as the only way to concretely implement or realise the “particular version of justice” that is expressed in the Torah (99). However, Herzog also tries to demonstrate that, in line with the notion that politics is necessarily violent, Levinas repeatedly criticises and holds the State of Israel to account for its violent tendencies. As she puts it: “despite the fact that the State of Israel serves an ethical purpose and is, indeed, necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, it nonetheless puts Jewish existence in physical and spiritual danger because it entails an embrace of ontology—idolatry of the land, rootedness, conquest, and destruction” (102). For Herzog, therefore, the ‘problem’ with Levinas’s thought on Zionism is not its silence or failure to denounce the violence and oppression of the modern State of Israel. Instead, “the main weakness of Levinas’s Zionism” is that it still lends itself too readily to the dialectical Hegelianism that Levinas elsewhere so strongly criticises (96).

The final chapter of Levinas’s Politics continues to clarify Levinas’s relation to Hegel, but this time from the perspective of the general issue of political messianism. Herzog’s effort in this chapter is two-fold: first, to clarify the relation between Levinasian eschatology and concrete political laws; and second, to elucidate the relation between messianism and history. In both cases, Herzog’s key argument is that Levinasian messianism, despite signifying an anarchic divine Law that is entirely irreducible to—and even ‘ends’ the temporality of—political laws and historical realities, nonetheless relies on those same entities to find its expression in the world. As Herzog, quoting Levinas, writes: “the ethical law needs the support of political laws: ‘The Messiah is king. The divine invests history and the State rather than doing away with them. The end of History retains a political form” (116). In upholding this idea, Herzog argues further, the Talmudic readings also significantly nuance the conception of history that emerges in Levinas’s phenomenological works. Indeed, where in the latter Levinas frequently opposes ethical eschatology to history (cf. Levinas, 1979: 21), in the Talmudic readings “there is no contradiction between recognising the importance of political history and holding to an ethical messianism, because political history is the instrument that allows redemption to enter the phenomenal world” (120). Thus, for Herzog, even in their most ‘utopian’ of dimensions, that is, even where they speak of a Law that is in a certain sense irreducible to political realities, Levinas’s Talmudic readings remain political through and through.

Overall, Levinas’s Politics is a hugely successful text. Pace Levinas’s critics, Herzog’s text develops a compelling portrayal of Levinas as a thinker who does not exclusively consider politics and the state as hindrances to ethics and justice. Indeed, although from a certain perspective the aims of Levinasian politics and morality are indeed opposed, from another angle, as Herzog convincingly shows, those two domains in fact support and mutually complement one another. In this respect, there is indeed a political philosophy to be found in Levinas’s work. Furthermore, Levinas’s Politics persuasively demonstrates that this political philosophy attains a certain coherence throughout Levinas’s Talmudic writings, consistently manifesting itself in discussions of topics as varied as evil, violence, nature, and messianicity. In treating these and a breadth of other subjects with admirable clarity and succinctness, Herzog also demonstrates a commanding grasp of what is undoubtedly an underappreciated part of Levinas’s corpus. Readers of Levinas that are unfamiliar with the ‘religious’ aspects of his work will undoubtedly find a wealth of valuable new material in Levinas’s Politics, and they will likewise benefit from Herzog’s concise but supremely informative explanations of Levinas’s unique approach to religious material.

For all its scholarly richness and breadth, there are nonetheless some notable absences in Levinas’s Politics. Crucially, the text makes no reference to Bergson, a philosopher who Levinas famously described as one of the most important for his thought (second only to Heidegger and Husserl), and whose metaphysical conception of time as duration is well known to have influenced Levinas throughout his career. Yet, it is not exactly this metaphysical Bergson that might have been of interest to Herzog’s project, but rather the Bergson of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. In that text, as Levinas himself explains in a 1988 interview, what Bergson had previously understood as the metaphysical intuition of duration becomes “interpreted as a relationship with the other and with God” (1998b: 244). Furthermore, in a move that bears a striking similarity with what Herzog calls one of the key ideas of Levinas’s political thinking, The Two Sources continually maintains that for this ethical relationship with the other and God to be upheld, it must find its “point of support” in, and even “pass through”, a set of concrete political organisations and instruments, which, in their isolation, can be seen as opposed to the aims of ethics (Bergson, 1977: 309-310). As Bergson writes, though politics has historically tended to promote violence and war, it is only “with the advent of [Western] political and social organisations which proved experimentally that the mass of people was not doomed [to hunger and poverty] (…) [that] the soul could open wide its gates to a universal love [of humanity or God]” (226-227).

Now, in fairness to Herzog, the avowed aims of Levinas’s Politics are interpretative more than they are historical (LP 9). In that respect, Herzog can be forgiven for not tracing every single one of Levinas’s influences in the political writings. That said, the conception of the interaction between ethics and politics that emerges in Bergson’s The Two Sources is clearly not without relevance to what Herzog considers to be one of the central theses of Levinas’s political thinking, namely, the idea that ethics “becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). At the very least, it seems that Levinas might have found inspiration for this political idea in Bergson. More strongly, we might say that just as the preface of Totality and Infinity famously considers Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption as being “too often present in [the] book to be cited” (Levinas, 1979: 28), so too, perhaps Bergson’s The Two Sources plays the same role for Levinas in the Talmudic readings—particularly if, as Herzog strongly argues, those readings establish a relation where morality, far from dispensing with politics, in fact depends upon it for its concretisation. In this context, a closer examination of Bergson’s influence on Levinas’s political thinking would not only have further enriched, but even seems to be demanded by, Herzog’s own chosen focus in Levinas’s Politics.

Another potential weakness of Levinas’s Politics concerns its treatment of Levinas’s phenomenological works. Unfortunately, and perhaps because Herzog is avowedly more interested in the “‘central unity'” of Levinas’s thinking (9), the text often speaks of works like Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being in a monolithic way, as if these were one and the same phenomenological text. For example, Herzog at times freely switches between the two texts as a way of explaining Levinas’s presumed ‘opposition’ to ontology (cf. 24). Now, it is true that in some respects, both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being oppose ontology—particularly if by ontology we mean thematisation and the politics of identification this involves. But it is equally the case that in other respects Totality and Infinity ascribes a much more positive role to ontology than Otherwise than Being. This is especially true of the sections in the last part of Totality and Infinity where Levinas speaks positively of fecundity as “an ontological category” (Levinas, 1979: 277). Far from being opposed, ontological fecundity is there thought as that which “establishes [the subject’s] relationship with the absolute future, or infinite time” (268).

Now, it is true that these kinds of exegetical considerations are not where Levinas’s Politics claims to make its contribution to the scholarship. But these considerations are nonetheless important to Levinas’s Politics, and that is because, as Herzog herself concedes (LP 5-6), the text continually refers to the phenomenological works as a way of elucidating the ‘unique’ and ‘interruptive’ character of Levinas’s political philosophy in the Talmudic readings. For example, in the chapter on “Evil as Injustice”, Herzog asserts that Levinas’s Talmudic writings insist on the importance of the home for the project of justice (68). In Levinas’s own words: “There is no salvation except in the reentry into oneself” (Levinas, 1996: 190). Crucially, Herzog adds further that these remarks on the need for a home moderate and “contradict Levinas’s general critique of interiority formulated at length in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being” (LP 68). To be sure, in the very next line, Herzog shows some awareness that this thesis is perhaps more strongly upheld in the later text. But still left out of this analysis is the recognition that Totality and Infinity by no means contradicts the general affirmation that “a home is necessary to see the other” (68). Indeed, if, as Herzog claims, this idea appears in the Talmudic readings, likewise, in Totality and Infinity, not only is it dwelling which “accomplishes” the separation between the I and the Other (Levinas, 1979: 151), but even more strongly, “the whole dimension of interiority—the articulations of separation—are necessary for the idea of Infinity, the relation with the Other” (148).

These similarities are relevant for Levinas’s Politics because in a certain sense they blunt one of Herzog’s central claims in the text, specifically, the notion that “the readings manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (LP 5). As we have already seen Herzog claim, this challenge boils down to a difference in approach between the two bodies of work: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impractical ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5). But if what grants the Talmudic readings a ‘political’ and ‘pragmatic’ character are ideas like the necessity of a home for justice, then surely, if the phenomenological works can be shown to offer similar affirmations, they cannot be easily be characterised as wholly ‘utopian’ and ‘impractical’.[2] Perhaps, there is also a latent ‘politics’ and a latent ‘pragmatism’ in the phenomenological works themselves, particularly in those places—like the affirmations on interiority and the home cited above—where they come closest to the Talmudic readings. What this also suggests is that on some levels, at least, there is a greater reconciliation between the Talmudic texts and the phenomenological writings than Herzog’s reading of the essential ‘challenge’ or ‘moderation’ of one by the other is capable of accommodating. And perhaps Levinas’s Politics might have achieved an even more nuanced and unified account of Levinas as a political thinker had it further excavated these latent possibilities for reconciliation between the two bodies of work.

All that said, these criticisms will perhaps be of interest only to the expert, and they nowise undermine the immense of value of Herzog’s more general contribution to the field. More than any other scholar to date, Herzog has succeeded in dispelling the false idea that Levinas’s thought has nothing to contribute to the field of political philosophy. Indeed, Herzog has not only clearly shown that Levinas’s Talmudic texts do present a coherent political philosophy, but even one that is potentially valuable in highlighting the many tensions and opportunities of contemporary, Western liberal democracies. For these reasons, but also for its clarity, depth, and scholarly richness, Levinas’s Politics deserves to find a wide and attentive readership among Levinas scholars and political philosophers alike.


Bergson, H. 1977. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Translated by Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Bereton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Levinas, E. 1979. Totality and Infinity: An Essay of Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. London: Martinus Nijhoff.

Levinas, E. 1994b. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Translated by Gary Mole. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Levinas, E. 1996. New Talmudic Readings. Translated by Richard Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. 1998a. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. 1998b. Entre Nous. Translated by Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ventura, D. 2020. “The Intensive Other: Deleuze and Levinas on the ethical status of the Other”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58:2, 327-350.

[1] Herzog clarifies that by “Talmudic readings” she means “the body of texts related to the Talmud and other Jewish sources, which look different from Levinas’s phenomenological work” (5-6).

[2] Though for reasons of space I have here referred only to Levinas’s thought on the home, there are other points where the phenomenological works bear more similarity to the Talmudic readings than Herzog perhaps acknowledges. To cite another example, in the chapter “On Nature”, Herzog argues that where the phenomenological writings refuse to characterise nature as ethical, the Talmudic readings posit a “complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). But once again, this argument ignores that Otherwise than Being, for instance, also posits a complex relation of co-contamination between the realms of ethics and nature, particularly in those passages on enjoyment where Levinas insists that the immediacy of the sensibility to the elements is also the immediacy or the proximity of the other (1998a: 74). For a more extended account of this relation, see my: Ventura, 2020: esp. 341-348.

Renaud Barbaras: L’appartenance. Vers une cosmologie phénoménologique

L’appartenance: Vers une cosmologie phénoménologique Book Cover L’appartenance: Vers une cosmologie phénoménologique
Bibliothèque Philosophique de Louvain
Renaud Barbaras
Paperback 28,00 €

Reviewed by: Luz Ascárate (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne)

« Dans l’éclatement de l’univers que nous éprouvons, prodige ! les morceaux qui s’abattent sont vivants » (René Char)

Renaud Barbaras intitule son dernier ouvrage L’appartenance. Vers une cosmologie phénoménologique. Le texte est constitué des leçons données en mars 2019 à l’UCLouvain et reprises dans son cours de Master II du premier semestre de l’année académique 2019-2020 à l’Université de Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. Ce texte est une introduction au nouveau projet – qui occupera Barbaras pour les deux prochaines années comme il l’a avoué dans son cours de Master II du premier semestre de l’année 2020-2021 – d’une cosmologie phénoménologique. À vrai dire, nous nous retrouvons au seuil d’une nouvelle période de la philosophie de Barbaras. Dans ce nouvel ouvrage, en posant, tout d’abord, et à nouveau en phénoménologie, la question du corps et de la chair, pour délimiter ensuite la notion d’appartenance, il propose une unité fondamentale entre la capacité phénoménalisante et l’appartenance au monde. La formule ontologique, inspirée de Merleau-Ponty, qui se propose comme soubassement d’une telle unité fondamentale et comme événement originaire de l’étant est celle de la « déflagration », à partir de laquelle l’auteur esquisse une réponse aux problèmes génératifs propres à une cosmologie phénoménologique. Plusieurs problèmes se posent à cet égard. L’appartenance est-elle la notion légitime pour comprendre la phénoménalisation ? Une réponse rapide et négative à cette question pourrait se défendre à partir des critiques husserliennes de l’existentialisme. Si nous essayons de donner une réponse positive à une telle question, une deuxième question se pose. En quoi une ontologie de la déflagration continuerait à être phénoménologique ? Si nous sommes toutefois convaincus que la cosmologie phénoménologique ne trahit pas les motifs fondamentaux du mouvement phénoménologique, une troisième question se fait jour. En quoi consisterait l’originalité de cet ouvrage par rapport aux autres développements d’ontologie phénoménologique ? Afin de donner des réponses à ces questions, nous formulerons les hypothèses suivantes. La notion de déflagration, comme formule de l’arché (principe et origine) ontologique de la phénoménalisation, renouvelle, tout en demeurant fidèle aux fondements du mouvement phénoménologique, d’une part, une branche spécifique de la tradition phénoménologique – la branche proprement française –, et d’autre part, la branche ontologique en tant que telle. Mais par rapport à l’originalité et à la spécificité de la cosmologie barbarasienne, nous soutenons qu’à la différence d’autres ontologies phénoménologiques, la cosmologie phénoménologique de Barbaras ne surgit pas de la critique de la subjectivité transcendantale husserlienne (Fink et Patočka), ne finit pas par un négativisme de l’être (Sartre, Jaspers, Jonas), pas plus qu’il ne se subsume dans une onto-théologie phénoménologique (Heidegger, Lévinas et Marion). La cosmologie phénoménologique de Barbaras défend à la fois l’appartenance du sujet au monde et le caractère phénoménalisant du sujet. Le pouvoir phénoménalisant de l’étant n’est ainsi ni négatif ni neutralisant, sinon profondément vivant. Cette cosmologie trouverait ainsi à s’exprimer poétiquement, comme il l’a lui-même affirmé lors de son cours de Master II en 2019-2020 à Paris I, dans les vers suivants de René Char : « [d]ans l’éclatement de l’univers que nous éprouvons, prodige ! les morceaux qui s’abattent sont vivants » (Char, 1969, p. 153).

 I. L’ontologie dont la phénoménologie a besoin

Tout se passe comme si la cosmologie phénoménologique de l’appartenance donnait réponse à la question ouverte par Ricœur sur le type d’ontologie conséquente avec la phénoménologie (1990, p. 345-410). Selon celui-ci, la question de l’ontologie n’a pas été résolue dans la phénoménologie, étant donné qu’une telle solution finirait par dissoudre la catégorie de l’altérité. En effet, la cosmologie phénoménologique de Renaud Barbaras est la toute dernière formulation d’une question ontologique générale dont la réponse a été donnée, comme Ricœur semblait l’attester (1990, p. 410), depuis le commencement même de la philosophie, avec Parménide. Partant, nous sommes d’accord avec le jugement d’Etienne Gilson lorsqu’il écrit :

Il est évident que, tout élément du réel généralement concevable étant un être, les propriétés essentielles de l’être doivent appartenir à tout ce qui est. Lorsque Parménide d’Elée fit cette découverte, il atteignit une position métaphysique pure, c’est-à-dire infranchissable à toute pensée qui s’engagerait dans la même voie, mais il s’obligeait du même coup à dire ce qu’il entendait par « être » (Gilson, 1948, p. 24).

Parménide s’engage, selon Gilson, dans une voie métaphysique qui l’oblige à définir les termes de son ontologie. Si Ricœur ne va pas plus loin dans la question de l’ontologie, c’est parce qu’en suivant Husserl dans la mise entre parenthèses de l’ontologie, sans vouloir la nier, il la déplace dans le point d’arrivée promis qui, comme idée en sens kantien, guide, en son absence et sans faire partie de, la description phénoménologique. Précisément, par rapport à la crainte de l’ontologie que certains phénoménologues ont héritée de Husserl, Gilson remarque le contraste entre « le soin minutieux ou même le génie » des phénoménologues et « l’insouciance avec laquelle ils déblaient sommairement en quelques pages des problèmes métaphysiques dont les conclusions, acceptées par eux à la légère, compromettent parfois ensuite l’exactitude de leurs analyses et en faussent toujours l’interprétation » (Gilson, 1948, p. 22). Nous croyons toutefois qu’avec de telles sentences, Gilson n’adresse pas une critique de fond à la phénoménologie. A contrario, il félicite la rigueur phénoménologie tout en faisant une critique constructive de la méthode. Davantage, il admet l’urgence d’une phénoménologie réformée en avouant que notre temps a besoin « d’une métaphysique de l’être conçue comme prolégomènes à toute phénoménologie » (Gilson, 1948, p. 21). La cosmologie phénoménologique de Barbaras, dont le livre que nous commentons ici n’est qu’une introduction à un nouveau projet, promet, à notre avis, de prendre au sérieux les problèmes métaphysiques en nous offrant, finalement, l’ontologie que la phénoménologie, selon Gilson, a besoin. Ces problèmes nous conduisent au paradoxe, non résolu auparavant dans la tradition phénoménologique, que constituent notre appartenance au monde et la capacité de phénoménalisation de ce monde même.

Mais cette ontologie n’est possible que parce que le versant ontologique du mouvement phénoménologique, en dépit de Husserl lui-même, a posé à nouveau la question de l’ontologie sans en tirer toutes les conséquences. Ce versant commence, à juste titre, avec Max Scheler. Pour lui, la phénoménologie se réalise dans une ontologie qui pose la valeur (Wert-sein) comme être originaire de l’existant (Scheler, 2004). L’existence n’est pas ici mise entre parenthèses comme chez Husserl. Dans tous les cas, pour les deux, il y a une différence entre une attitude mondaine et une attitude phénoménologique. La corrélation intentionnelle serait l’évidence qui apparaît, pour chacun, dans l’attitude phénoménologique. C’est ici la découverte de l’intentionnalité par Brentano (Brentano, 2008, p. 102) qui inaugure le chemin vers une ontologie phénoménologique dans laquelle l’être sera considéré à partir de l’existence intentionnelle que la Modernité avait perdue. Pour Barbaras, l’intentionnalité est « l’envers centripète du mouvement centrifuge de la déflagration, la manière dont se réalise et se manifeste l’appartenance dynamique à l’événement originaire » (p. 80). Il souscrit ainsi à la position phénoménologique fondamentale qui rapproche Scheler de Husserl. Cependant, Barbaras fonde l’intentionnalité au seuil de l’être lui-même. Il ne s’agit pas d’une structure de la conscience dans les termes de Brentano, mais d’une structure ontologique fondamentale entre l’être et l’étant qui n’exprime que l’appartenance de l’étant à l’être est le caractère essentiel, non restrictif, de l’être se déployant dans l’étant.

Nous sommes convaincue que la phénoménologie est capable de révéler cet aspect intentionnel et foncier de l’existence parce qu’elle est elle-même une question qui prend la forme d’une réponse à une question dérivée : la question sur le comment (quomodo). La phénoménologie décrit le comment de la chose et en décrivant elle demande le quoi, le quid, un quid qui ne se donne jamais dans l’exercice de la méthode phénoménologique. La question sur le quid ne peut être résolue que par une ontologie, l’ontologie que Husserl a mise entre parenthèses, et que Heidegger, Lévinas et Marion diffusent dans une onto-théologie sans rendre assez compte de la capacité phénoménalisante du sujet, parfois subsumée dans une éthique. Pour sa part, Scheler place l’ontologie comme vrai fondement de la philosophie en incluant la catégorie de « monde » dans la dernière période de sa pensée. La capacité phénoménalisante du sujet semblerait toutefois se diffuser dans l’ordre des affectivités. Un versant criticiste de la phénoménologie fait dériver la question ontologique (quid) de la critique opératoire de la description phénoménologie (quomodo) tout en récupérant la catégorie de « monde ». Ce sont Fink et Patočka qui, en parcourant une voie criticiste, réintroduisent la question cosmologique déjà posée par Scheler. En tout cas, c’est cette même ontologie phénoménologique visée par l’ontologie négativiste de l’existentialisme, que Ricœur situe comme finalité promise par la méthode sans jamais y arriver (la voie longue), et dont la route est inaugurée par Merleau-Ponty sans pour autant être accomplie. Barbaras appartient sans doute au même mouvement phénoménologique qui pose la question du quid dans le même site originaire que la question sur le comment (quomodo). Nous pouvons affirmer à juste titre qu’il appartient au mouvement phénoménologique tout court.

Il y a néanmoins deux manières d’appartenir à un mouvement philosophique, lesquelles sont, corrélativement, deux manières de rendre possible la continuité et postérité de ce mouvement. La première est de rester fidèle à l’idée authentique du fondateur du mouvement en le défendant contre ses critiques et ses interprétations abusives, en montrant que sa pensée est encore importante dans un contexte philosophique toujours nouveau. Il s’agit de l’option exégétique du mouvement phénoménologique, qui continue à chercher, dans l’œuvre non publiée du fondateur, des réponses aux problèmes contemporains. La deuxième consiste à renouveler les fins qui ont mobilisé un tel mouvement philosophique à partir de nouvelles questions et de nouvelles réponses. Il s’agit de l’option créatrice qui implique toujours la formation de nouvelles branches. Les deux manières sont, d’une certaine manière, impliquées dialectiquement dans la pensée de Barbaras. Il est évident que l’apport de Barbaras n’est pas exégétique, mais sa proposition renouvelle cette tradition tout en y étant fidèle. Nous pouvons lire sa trajectoire philosophique à partir du geste phénoménologique dans la mesure où, en prenant comme point de départ les présupposés théoriques précédents (dans ses premiers ouvrages, voir par exemple, Barbaras, 1991 et 2004) pour les neutraliser et rendre possible la vision du phénomène (dans les ouvrages précédant ce dernier, voir par exemple, 2011a et 2016a), il amène, dans la toute dernière période de sa philosophie (2019), l’ontologie phénoménologique à sa formulation la plus radicale, en en tirant toutes les conséquences.

II. Le versant français de l’ontologie phénoménologique

La pierre de touche de L’appartenance. Vers une cosmologie phénoménologique de Renaud Barbaras est indubitablement la notion de déflagration comme origine cosmologique de l’ontologie de l’appartenance. Il s’agit d’un concept qui permet de mettre l’accent sur le caractère vital, dynamique et spatial de cette ontologie. En ce sens, même si ce livre inaugure une nouvelle étape dans la philosophie de l’auteur, il est conséquent avec les découvertes de l’étape précédante de sa philosophie qui a été déployée depuis Dynamique de la manifestation  (2013) jusqu’à Métaphysique du sentiment (2016a) et Le Désir et le monde (2016b). Dans ces œuvres, nous trouvons un effort pour penser la radicalité de la corrélation d’une phénoménologie dépassée par une métaphysique. Dans L’appartenance. Vers une cosmologie phénoménologique, c’est surtout la perspective cosmologique qui sera traitée comme la plus fondamentale et la plus originaire. Cette perspective met la catégorie de l’espace comme étant plus fondamentale que la catégorie du temps, bien que cette perspective, comme l’a fait remarqué Aurélien Deudon (2018), ait déjà redémarré dans les ouvrages antérieurs de l’auteur : « force est de conclure que le temps est la forme même de l’apparaître secondaire, tout comme l’espace était la forme de l’apparaître primaire » (Barbaras, 2013, p. 327).

L’importance donnée à l’espace nous permet de penser dans les termes avec lesquels Guy-Félix Duportail caractérise la phénoménologie française, comme traversant un moment topologique (2010). De ce fait, Benjamin (2018, p. 115) nous a averti de l’être spirituel (ein geistiges Wesen) transmis par tout usager d’un langage constitué au sein d’une culture. Ainsi, sans vouloir risquer un historicisme, nous pouvons postuler que chaque phénoménologue français déploie des traits propres aux différentes couches de sens que nous comprenons par philosophie française, si nous rapportons la tradition phénoménologique française à l’histoire plus générale de la philosophie française. Selon Camille Riquier (2011), la philosophie française trouve son origine dans la figure de Descartes. Il ne se réfère pas à cette origine dans des termes causaux ou ontologiques, mais comme un simple fait :

[I]l n’y a pas de philosophe français qui ne se soit retourné vers Descartes à un certain moment de son parcours, souvent décisif, pour éprouver sa pensée au contact de la sienne, ou pour reprendre un fil qu’il avait laissé interrompu, s’y rattacher et le prolonger. Le caractère fondateur qui lui a été reconnu de droit au regard de toute la philosophie moderne a masqué l’importance toute spéciale que les penseurs français lui ont toujours accordée, de fait, dans leur propre édification intellectuelle. En France, Descartes est un référent plus encore qu’une référence, qui fournit moins les idées que la trame qui servira à les ordonner, – ce qui n’est pas le cas ailleurs (Riquier, 2011, p. 3).

Riquier identifie trois voies cartésiennes suivies par les philosophes français, dont la première, où l’on peut situer les phénomènologues français, est celle du cogito. Ceux-ci auraient pu exploiter ses ressourses aux marges de la phénoménologie transcendantale uniquement « à la faveur du cogito de Descartes qui était là pour eux, derrière, plus large que celui de Husserl » (Riquier, 2011, p. 23). Les œuvres de Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur et Barbaras ne seraient que le prolongement, selon Riquier, du sentiment de l’union de l’âme et du corps avec lequel le cogito cartésien déborde celui de Husserl en lui contestant sa prétention d’auto-fondation absolue (Riquier, 2011, p. 23). Force est de dire que la phénoménologie de Husserl n’a pas été reçue sans des conditions pré-compréhensives par la philosophie française. Cela peut expliquer que, comme l’affirme Bernard Stevens, la tradition de la phénoménologie française ait sauté de manière trop rapide aux réflexions de la Krisis, justement le livre plus « ontologique » de Husserl. À cela s’ajoute l’importance des réflexions sur la chair présentes dans Ideen II, livre qui a été aussi bien reçu par l’école française de phénoménologie, à la différence des Méditations cartésiennes, livre accusé souvent de solipsisme par la même école. De plus, Frédéric Worms remarque l’avènement du moment du vivant (Worms, 2009, p. 560) vers la fin du XXe siècle dans la phénoménologie française. Même si ce vivant apparaît sous la forme d’un bergsonisme minimal, dont le côté maximal est apparu au début du siècle.

Renaud Barbaras renouvelle ces préoccupations que nous pouvons qualifier de « proprement françaises » : le point de départ de sa cosmologie phénoménologique est la reconsidération radicale du corps, tout en échappant à une manière idéaliste de penser la chair comme conséquence d’une perspective ontologique fondée sur la conscience. Ce point de départ est inspiré de Merleau-Ponty même si son ontologie de la chair délivre les coordonnées du problème plutôt que la solution (p. 12), en risquant un dualisme sous-jacent à la distinction entre la chair mienne et la chair du monde. En allant plus loin que Merleau-Ponty, Barbaras essaie de résoudre le problème du dualisme que pose toute phénoménologie de la chair, et du solipsisme que pose toute phénoménologie. Comme Barbaras le montre, dans le premier chapitre du livre intitulé « De la chair à l’appartenance » (p. 1-26), la réflexion philosophique a manqué l’expérience foncière du corps au moment où elle l’a identifiée. Bien qu’un certain type d’ontologie ait déjà réfléchi sur la question du corps, celle-ci n’a pas été prise radicalement, car, au lieu d’être question, le corps est assumé comme une réponse (p. 13) au cœur d’une ontologie déjà donnée. Barbaras réalise ainsi une épochè des ontologies, qui ont caché le corps, sédimentées dans l’attitude naturelle. L’une de ces ontologies est l’ontologie de la mort sédimentée dans la science contemporaine pensant le corps du point de vue de l’inertie. Ce qui apparaît dans l’effectuation de cette épochè est une expérience fondamentale : l’appartenance. Pour Barbaras, penser le corps comme problème fondamental n’est rien d’autre que de mettre en avant la dimension d’appartenance. Afin de comprendre cette dimension de manière ontologique, l’auteur exerce deux remaniements ontologiques radicaux : a) la conscience n’appartient pas au monde ; elle est une modalité, parmi d’autres, de cette appartenance (p. 16); b) le fondement ontologique premier est l’espace et non le temps, comme une certaine perspective ontologique et phénoménologique l’a présupposé en prenant l’espace comme un dérivé du temps (p. 21). Ces deux remaniements ontologiques sont strictement liés car apparaître consiste à déployer l’espace. C’est pourquoi, seulement en prenant comme point de départ l’espace, nous pourrions saisir le sens phénoménologiquement radical de cette appartenance. Ainsi, Barbaras se place, à la fois, dans le moment topologique de la phénoménologie française, tout en utilisant les outils de la phénoménologie (l’époché et la description de l’expérience) débordés par l’expérience de l’appartenance. Mais est-ce que l’appartenance est comparable au sentiment de l’union âme-corps que Riquier présume déployé par les phénoménologues français dans le but d’aller plus loin que Husserl, tout en retournant à Descartes ? Nous croyons, tout au contraire, que la notion d’appartenance prouve l’originalité de Barbaras face à la tradition française de la phénoménologie, comme nous le verrons par la suite. Il nous convient ici de poser la question sur le quomodo de l’appartenance. Comment un étant appartient au monde ?

 III. L’éclatement du monde

À notre avis, dans la clarification des modalités de cette appartenance, nous pourrons comprendre les conséquences inédites de cette ontologie face aux ontologies antérieures et à la tradition française de la phénoménologie. Précisément, dans le deuxième chapitre du livre intitulé « Les trois sens de l’appartenance » (p. 27-56), Barbaras propose une typologie sémantique. Du point de vue de l’usage français du mot appartenance, trois sens d’appartenance apparaissent : être dans le monde ou le site (être situé, position inhérente à l’étant) ; être du monde ou le sol (être pris dans son épaisseur, là d’où l’étant se nourrit et d’où provient son étantité), être au monde ou le lieu (la phénoménalisation, l’occuper activement, s’investir, une forme de possession du monde). Pour Barbaras, il y a un rapport d’identité entre les trois sens d’appartenance : l’inscription onto-topologique de tel étant dans le monde a pour envers la phénoménalisation du monde dans cet étant. Ces trois sens de l’appartenance ne font donc qu’un seul. L’inscription ontologique d’un sujet situé topologiquement dans le monde est aussi le déploiement de la phénoménalisation. Pour une partie de la tradition philosophique transcendantale, la phénoménalisation du monde est fondée sur la distanciation du monde. Barbaras renverse ce préjugé : plus un étant appartient au monde, plus il le fait apparaître. Le degré zéro de cette appartenance sera représenté par la pierre. L’appartenance de la pierre déploie un lieu, mais à contre-courant des autres êtres vivants : en se concentrant. La vie de la pierre se manifeste alors tout d’abord comme temporalité. Sa spatialité apparaît de manière dérivée et comme défaut : « le défaut de déploiement spatial est l’envers de l’installation dans une durée longue » (p. 32). La plante est, contrairement à l’animal, spatialisation, mobilité pure : « elle est tout entière à l’extérieur d’elle-même » (p. 36). L’animal, au contraire, occupe l’espace sans sortir de lui-même. Or, l’homme est un homo viator (p. 33). Il apparaît au monde dans le sens de la mobilité et c’est le désir de l’homme la raison même de la mobilité. Le rapport entre conscience et sol se pose ici autrement que dans le cartésianisme, de telle manière que le problème même du solipsisme ne se pose pas. Mais tout en demeurant dans le sol français qui contient sa philosophie, Barbaras dépasse Descartes – avec qui, selon Riquier, les phénoménologues français dépassent Husserl – avec Bergson. Dans l’un des moments les plus poétiques du livre, l’auteur s’aligne avec Bergson pour distinguer entre un corps minime et un corps immense. D’un point de vue solipsiste, notre corps serait la place minime que nous occupons, qui renfermerait la conscience. Du point de vue de Bergson, selon Barbaras, si je suis là où la conscience peut s’appliquer, mon corps va jusqu’aux étoiles. Plus radicalement, en dépassant Husserl et Descartes, pour Barbaras, « ce mode de déploiement du lieu qu’est ici la conscience des étoiles repose sur l’appartenance ontologique du sujet aux étoiles, sur le corps immense, et vient réduire la tension entre le site, à quoi correspond le corps minime et le sol, qui n’est autre que le cosmos lui même » (p. 55). Autrement dit, les étoiles deviennent lieu parce qu’elles sont d’abord sol. La conscience appartient premièrement à un corps pour être elle-même conscience, et au monde, ou aux étoiles, advient le caractère essentiel de pouvoir être phénoménalisé pour un sujet qui y appartient. La question du quomodo va se métamorphoser ici dans les termes du quid à des niveaux différents. Comment tout en étant différent des étoiles pour les percevoir, nous les faisons paraître en ce que nous appartenons à une continuité avec elles dans le sol ? Quelle ontologie fondamentale serait-elle capable d’expliquer, en répondant au quid de l’être, l’unité et la différence au sein de cette nouvelle manière de penser l’appartenance ? En d’autres termes, la question est de donner réponse à l’origine ontologique (quid) de la phénoménalité. Dans les mots de Barbaras avec lesquels commence le troisième chapitre du livre intitulé « Vers une cosmologie : la déflagration » (p. 57-80), où il essaie de répondre à ces questions, « [i]l s’agit de comprendre pourquoi ce faire singulier [que le mouvement des vivants est un mouvement phénoménologique] dont nous parlons, dont l’autre nom est le désir, ne peut être qu’un faire paraître » (p. 57-58).

Plus exactement, la question est de savoir comment le sol qui se sépare de lui-même par le site donne lieu au surgissement du lieu. Mais le surgissement de la phénoménalisation ne doit pas être compris dans le sens d’une téléologie. Le paraître de l’être est totalement contingent sans pour autant laisser d’être le paraître de l’être. De la réponse à cette question dépend la réponse à une question qui en est dérivée : la question de l’unité de l’appartenance. Il faut pouvoir expliquer comment le sol, en se séparant dans le site, n’est autre que le sol lui-même. En prenant en compte que le sol contient tous les étants en tant qu’il les fait être, cette appartenance est ontologique : les étants ne sont pas seulement situés dans le monde, il constitue leur source, il nourrit l’être de l’étant qui y est inscrit. Il s’agit d’une ontogénèse dynamique surabondante. Cette surpuissance n’a d’autre positivité que dans ce qu’elle fait naître (p. 61) ; elle ne peut avoir rien d’étant pour être la source de tout étant. Le sol est donc accessible uniquement dans l’étant qu’il dépose, étant l’acte de déposer. Il est le jaillissement comme être et non un être qui jaillit. Barbaras admet qu’il ne s’agit pas de la puissance aristotélicienne « toujours référée à une substance et ordonnée au telos de l’acte », mais plutôt de la puissance plotinienne qui est Acte, débordement de l’Un qui donne ce qu’il ne possède pas (p. 61). Mais cette surpuissance ontogénétique ne doit pas diffuser le caractère spatial de l’appartenance : si l’être n’a pas d’autre sens que l’appartenance, produire n’est qu’installer dans l’extériorité. La puissance onto-génétique disperse, donne un site. Le site s’inscrit ainsi dans une surpuissance expansive. Le sol, étant la surpuissance expansive, produit le multiple dans son être jaillissement. Plus que monde, l’être est Nature au sens d’une physis originaire. En suivant Dufrenne (1981, p. 165), Barbaras remarque que la Nature indique, d’un côté, l’extériorité et l’antériorité du monde comme précédence ontologique, et, d’un autre côté, l’énergie de l’être comme puissance ou productivité. Cette formule exprime le monde de l’appartenance à la fois comme totalité antérieure extériorisante et comme surpuissance productrice. À ce titre, la phénoménologie qui prend ce monde-Nature comme objet ne peut se réaliser que comme cosmologie.

Arrivé à ce point, Barbaras est capable d’expliquer la mobilité de l’étant, une autre voie pour comprendre la nature du sol. La raison du mouvement est la distance du site au sol. Mais le site est contenu dans le sol : « sa distance au sol est distance au sein du sol » (p. 65). La mobilité de l’étant provient alors du sol. L’étant ne produit pas la mobilité, il s’y insère. Dès lors, le mouvement des étants témoigne de la nature de son sol. Le sol serait, selon Barbaras, la mobilité même (archi-mobilité, pur jaillisement). À dire vrai, c’est le sol qui, en tant que puissance ontogénétique, essaie de se rejoindre à partir de ce qu’il produit : de revenir à lui au travers des étants en lesquels il se sépare. En s’inspirant de Louis Lavelle (1937), Barbaras affirme que la participation ne fait pas de l’étant une partie du Tout. L’être n’est pas préalablement réalisé, mais l’étant participe à un acte qui est en train de s’accomplir grâce à une opération qui oblige l’étant à la fois d’assumer sa propre existence et l’existence du Tout. Autrement dit, la puissance ontogénétique à laquelle appartient l’étant n’existe pas en dehors de ses produits « et leur doit en ce sens son être » (p. 68). L’étant rejoint son sol par un mouvement désirant parce qu’il s’insère dans l’acte onto-originaire qui est en train de s’accomplir et qui lui donne l’énergie qui lui permet de déployer un lieu au sein du même sol qu’il essaie de rejoindre. Cela peut évoquer une affirmation d’un autre livre de Lavelle (1939) publié en aval de celui cité par Barbaras : « Elle [la vie] est toujours un retour à la source. Elle fait de moi un être perpétuellement naissant » (Lavelle, 1939, p. 92).

En voulant éclairer cette source qui est le sol, Barbaras pose à nouveau la question de Leibniz dans Les Principes de la Nature et de la Grâce : « pourquoi il y a plutôt quelque chose que rien » (Leibniz, 1996, p. 228), dans des termes cosmologiques : « comment y a-t-il quelque chose plutôt que rien ? » (p. 68). Cependant, il ne s’aligne ni sur Sartre ni sur Husserl, qui donnent, soit à l’existence, soit à la conscience, une irréalité ou négativité métaphysique, seule capable de dépasser le réel, de le penser ou de le constituer. Pour Barbaras, la négativité se pose uniquement en des termes ontiques. La source est une et indivisible : elle produit le multiple parce qu’elle ne l’est pas (négativité ontique). Mais elle n’est pas non plus un néant. Il n’y a pas création ex-nihilo. Il y aurait une forme de précession métaphysique : « rien de moins que la surabondance qui sous-tend tout étant pour autant qu’il vient à l’être » (p. 70). Sa négativité ontique consiste en son excès métaphysique. Il faut alors la comprendre comme l’événement en tant que mondification qui est l’advenir même d’une multiplicité d’étants (avènement). C’est pour cette raison que Barbaras choisit de caractériser cet archi-événément, sens d’être ultime du sol, comme déflagration. La déflagration est éternelle, car l’étant est immobile dans son archi-mobilité et stable dans son instabilité constitutive (p. 72). Barbaras avoue qu’il identifie ici, dans le concept de déflagration, l’archi-mouvement et l’archi-événement qu’il avait distingués dans son œuvre précédente (voir Barbaras, 2013). Ce qui nous permet d’affirmer que nous nous trouvons, en effet, au début d’une nouvelle période de la philosophie de l’auteur.

La déflagration peut aussi répondre aux problèmes touchant l’advenir du multiple. La déflagration est dispersion originaire qui renvoie à une pluralité de sites ou, autrement dit, à des étants individués et différents. Il y a autant de multiplicité numérique, spatiale, que de multiplicité qualitative : différence. Cette différence n’est autre que la gradation inhérente à la déflagration. Les étants s’éloignent différemment de leur source, « de telle sorte que la déflagration est naissance de différences dans la différence » (p. 75). En empruntant des expressions avec lesquelles Bergson explique l’évolution de la vie (1908, p. 108), Barbaras caractérise la déflagration comme l’éclatement qui est gerbe ontologique créant des directions divergentes, ce qui donne lieu à l’individuation de l’étant. C’est l’événement même de la contingence comme fait de la différence renvoyant à la contingence absolue de l’avènement de la déflagration comme absolu. Les éclats que sont les étants sont retenus dans leur propre avènement. Ils sont maintenus dans leur source, l’écho de l’archi-événement les transit éternellement sous la forme de la mobilité. Les différences entre les étants s’expriment donc en termes dynamiques, et la mobilité n’exprime que la proximité avec la surpuissance originaire. Effectivement, René Char n’a jamais si bien expliqué – rétrospectivement et de manière aussi fidèle – l’intuition philosophique rapprochant Barbaras et Bergson : « les morceaux qui s’abattent sont vivants » (Char, 1969, p. 154).

Plus précisément, dans le cas des vivants, leur mobilité exprime leur proximité ou leur degré d’insertion dans la déflagration. A contrario, l’immobilité de la pierre exprime un éloignement de l’éclatement originaire. Dans le cas de l’étant humain, connaître son sol exprime sa proximité à son sol. En termes simples, tout mouvement de l’étant est mouvement vers le sol, « quête ontologique » (p. 79). Barbaras se situe à l’opposé du transcendantal husserlien ou du distancement intellectuel cher à la phénoménologie : la pensée, la donation du sens, la réflexion, et pourquoi pas, la description phénoménologique, auraient pour source et condition de possibilité une profonde inscription dans le sol. Malheureusement, Barbaras n’explique pas ici les conséquences épistémologiques de cette cosmologie déflagrationniste pour une théorie de la connaissance renouvelée.

La déflagration barbarasienne est, partant, l’ontogenèse dynamique, la puissance ontogénétique, l’archi-événement capable de produire le multiple sans déchirer l’unité fondamentale des étants, l’archi-mouvement stabilisant. L’inspiration merleau-pontienne de l’idée de la déflagration est évidente : « Tel est à nos yeux le sens véritable de ces mots que Merleau-Ponty ajoute à propos de cette ‘explosion stabilisée’ qu’est ‘absolu du sensible’ : ‘i.e. comportant retour’ » (p. 79). La déflagration doit se comprendre alors dans les termes d’une explosion qui ne cesse jamais d’exploser. Les étants ne se séparent jamais de cette déflagration ; ils sont au seuil même de sa puissance et « reviennent sans cesse à elle, mettent à profit la puissance dont ils héritent pour rejoindre l’origine, recoudre la déchirure » (p. 79). En amont, dans L’Œil et l’esprit (1964), Merleau-Ponty a caractérisé la recherche de Cézanne de la profondeur dans les termes de la déflagration de l’être :

La profondeur ainsi comprise est plutôt l’expérience de la réversibilité des dimensions, d’une « localité » globale où tout est à la fois, dont hauteur, largeur et distance sont abstraites, d’une voluminosité qu’on exprime d’un mot en disant qu’une chose est là. Quand Cézanne cherche la profondeur, c’est cette déflagration de l’Être qu’il cherche, et elle est dans tous les modes de l’espace, dans la forme aussi bien. (…) Elle (la couleur) est « l’endroit où notre cerveau et l’univers se rejoignent », dit-il dans cet admirable langage d’artisan de l’Être que Klee aimait à citer (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 65-66).

Pour Barbaras, la profondeur sera la manière dont le sol se phénoménalise comme tel, l’envers phénoménal de la déflagration. Mais celle-ci ne s’abolit pas au profit de ce qu’elle dépose, elle explose en comportant retour. Ceci ne veut pas dire qu’il y aurait deux mouvements : la retombée de l’étant est remontée. Le mouvement centrifuge de la déflagration dans l’étant est aussi le mouvement centripète de l’étant vers la déflagration. C’est dans ces termes qu’il faut comprendre que le site appartient au sol comme le multiple à la déflagration, de manière que le site n’est pas le sol mais n’est pas autre chose que le sol. L’intentionnalité comme déploiement d’un lieu à partir d’un site ne serait que la manifestation phénoménologique de l’inscription et du retour de l’étant vers son origine explosive. L’intentionnalité est donc la manifestation centripète du mouvement centrifuge de la déflagration, la réalisation de l’appartenance dynamique à l’événement originaire (p. 80). Le lieu est, enfin, la trace phénoménologique de la continuité ontologique qui demeure dans la séparation. La question de la phénoménologie se pose ici. Nous retournons à la question sur le comment : l’origine des lieux. Quelle serait la phénoménologie de la cosmologie de la déflagration ? Dans le quatrième chapitre intitulé « La genèse des mondes » (p. 82-109), Barbaras fera le point sur la phénoménologie d’où il vient (Merleau-Ponty, Husserl et Patočka) pour poser les termes de la phénoménologie vers laquelle il se dirige et qui demeure ici en état de promesse.

 IV. La phénoménologie que la cosmologie mérite

Au début du quatrième chapitre, Barbaras rappelle sa critique de l’ontologie phénoménologique de la chair de Merleau-Ponty. Cette conception présuppose une limitation que la cosmologie phénoménologique essaie de dépasser : « contrairement à ce que Merleau-Ponty affirme, que cette chair soit mienne, c’est-à-dire sentante, ne signifie d’aucune manière qu’elle se distingue de la chair du monde : c’est au contraire en tant que chair du monde, en tant par conséquent qu’elle lui appartient radicalement, qu’elle est mienne » (p. 81). La condition de la phénoménalisation est l’inscription phénoménologique dans le monde. La question classique de l’union de l’âme et du corps, qu’on a qualifié au début de cet article de purement française, est ici dépassée. Si ma chair est la chair du monde, j’ai une conscience signifie la même chose que j’ai un corps et inversement (p. 81). La distinction entre conscience et corps est une abstraction. Cela lui permet de répondre aussi à Husserl. C’est la profondeur de l’inscription dans le monde qui mesure la puissancce phénoménalisante et non l’inverse. Le faire paraître le monde n’implique pas une situation d’exception, mais une appartenance radicale à lui. Barbaras renverse ainsi également la qualité d’être éjecté du monde du Da-sein heidéggerien ou de l’être pour soi sartrien : « c’est pace que ce que nous nommons conscience est du monde en un sens plus radical que d’autres étants, qu’elle est précisément conscience, à savoir aptitude à le faire paraître » (p. 81). L’extériorité est inscrite au sein de cette nouvelle interprétation de la phénoménalité. En effet, l’ampleur du lieu n’est que la profondeur de l’inscription dans le monde. Un nouvel a priori universel de la corrélation, valide pour tout étant, apparaît : « autant d’appartenance, autant de phénoménalité ; autant de continuité ontologique, autant d’ipséité » (p. 82). Mais la question est de savoir comment comprendre le statut et l’origine de la phénoménalité. Afin de répondre à cette question, Barbaras montrera que la phénoménalisation consiste dans l’unité propre à la manière dont les étants remontent vers leur source.

Le début de sa démonstration est inspiré de la phénoménologie a-subjective de Patočka. Ce phénoménologue, auquel il a consacré deux livres auparavant (2007, 2011b), dépasse de manière définitive la phénoménologie transcendantale de Husserl – que Barbaras caractérise comme « la version orthodoxe de la phénoménologie » (p. 83) – en déliant la phénoménalité de l’étant de la référence à un sujet constituant. Cela ne veut pas signifier la perte absolue du sujet. Le sujet sera dérivé d’une conception non subjectiviste de la phénoménalité. Selon la critique de Patočka (1995) à laquelle Barbaras souscrit, Husserl n’aurait pas su respecter l’autonomie du champ phénoménal dévoilé par l’épochè phénoménologique. Plus précisément, il finirait par trahir l’épochè. En effet, l’attitude naturelle peut être comprise par l’intention de rendre compte de l’apparaître du monde à partir des lois du monde ou, dans d’autres termes, de tenter de rendre compte de l’apparaître à partir d’un apparaissant. Mais Husserl, tout en voulant suspendre l’attitude naturelle, fait reposer pourtant l’apparaître sur des vécus (un apparaissant). Il faut donc faire avec la conscience ce que Husserl fait avec la thèse du monde, la neutraliser, afin de pouvoir accéder à l’apparaître comme a priori ultime. Cet a priori ne sera pas distinct de celui des apparaissants mondains : l’apparaître est un et relève d’une même légalité. Pour Patočka, c’est le monde qui constituera ainsi l’a priori ultime de l’apparaître, étant le vrai point d’arrivée de l’épochè. C’est l’appartenance au monde le sens d’être ultime de l’étant. Le monde est l’apparaissant ultime : « la condition du donné est un archi-donné » (p. 87). Autrement dit, le monde est l’a priori de l’expérience du monde : l’empirique, ou plutôt l’ontologique, et le transcendantal coïncident. Il semblerait que Patočka finisse par faire dériver l’apparaître de l’apparaissant, comme il le reproche à Husserl. Cependant, selon Barbaras, ce n’est pas le cas si on comprend bien le sens de cet apparaissant qui est le grand Tout, qui est le monde. Pour s’expliquer, il reprend et renverse la détermination husserlienne de la perception comme donation par esquisses. La perception se déploie sous la forme d’un cours d’esquisses parce que l’on dispose par avance de la garantie de pouvoir parcourir la chose. Il a fallu que la continuabilité de cette expérience me soit donnée d’emblée : une chose ne paraît qu’au sein de son horizon. L’horizon n’est plus, comme pour Husserl, potentialité de la conscience. La présence intuitive doit se comprendre comme la cristallisation d’un horizon préalable. L’horizon sera le nom de l’être donné à la continuabilité de l’expérience : l’Un englobant. Dire d’une chose qu’elle apparaît signifie qu’elle s’inscrit dans une unité ouverte de toutes les apparitions possibles. L’expérience est ainsi en continuité avec toutes les autres l’expériences. À dire vrai, elle ne peut être qu’une : l’unité de l’expérience est ce qui commande son être d’expérience. La conscience n’est donc pas la condition de l’apparaître, elle serait la conséquence de l’apparaître : c’est dans la mesure où une chose apparaît dans une totalité englobante que l’unité peut se donner à une conscience et non l’inverse. S’il ne s’agit pas alors d’une conscience, la question qui se pose est celle du mode d’être de ce sujet capable d’accueillir cette unité.

Barbaras le confesse : « [l]es mots ici nous manquent (p. 92). Sans le deviner peut-être, il s’aligne sur les moments de description de phénoménologues qui, en voulant être fidèles à la description des aspects les plus mystérieux de l’expérience, rendent explicite les limitations du langage. C’est peut-être en ceci que réside la différence entre la phénoménologie et l’herméneutique, ou encore entre la phénoménologie et le structuralisme. Nous en trouvons l’un des exemples dans les descriptions husserliennes de la constitution de la conscience absolue du temps. Et c’est justement l’excédance du moyen de description par les faits phénoménologiques de la description même qui en dit le plus long sur la pratique fidèle de la phénoménologie et de la profondeur de la vision du phénoménologue. Scheler remarque précisément que la phénoménologie montre avec la parole ce qui doit être expérimenté par l’interlocuteur du phénoménologue, une expérience qui dépasse les moyens de l’expression de l’évidence (Scheler, 1954, p. 391). Dans tous les cas, il est aussi étonnant que compréhensible que les mots manquent quand Barbaras essaie d’éclairer le sens de l’être de ce sujet phénoménalisant. Selon Barbaras, ce sujet ne peut pas être constituant, mais il est requis par l’apparition qui le précède comme principe d’unification. Le sujet participe, dans l’unification de l’unité unifiante, de l’apparaître des choses sans les constituer. La réponse de Barbaras, en accord avec la cosmologie de la déflagration, est que le sens d’être de ce sujet consiste en un mouvement, « précisément celui qui constitue cette unité des apparitions que nous avons, pour notre part, nommée lieu » (p. 93). L’horizon des apparitions existe comme son propre déploiement dynamique indifférent au partage de la transcendance et de l’immanence. En suivant Patočka, Barbaras remarque que la pénétration dans le monde est l’envers d’une orientation qui implique que le sujet soit situé au sein de la totalité : « l’approche est toujours un ‘déloignement’ (Entfernung) » (p. 94). Mais c’est parce que l’approche constitue notre rapport originaire au monde dans un tout anticipateur, que nous voyons les choses ; le distancement n’est pas la condition de possibilité du voir. La phénoménalité est renvoyée, par Barbaras, à la mobilité. L’unité est effectuée par un sujet qui, appartenant au monde, s’avance vers son sol au sein de lui en déployant des lieux. Patočka a déjà mis l’accent, selon Barbaras, sur le caractère spatialisant de la phénoménalisation. Toutefois, le pas franchi par rapport à Patočka consiste à fonder cette dynamique spatialisante sur une appartenance ontologique et non topologique, « sur un défaut d’être qui ne peut avoir pour envers qu’une aspiration » (p. 95). Barbaras remet la question de la phénoménalisation dans les termes du lieu au sein de sa cosmologie, afin de donner à l’espace son importance constitutive. Au fond, l’indivisibilité de l’origine perdure sous la forme de la puissance unifiante qui habite chaque étant : son activité phénoménalisante (p. 97). L’unité est la trace d’une telle puissance indivise. La surpuissance de la déflagration demeure sous la forme des mouvements qui s’attestent dans une dimension unificatrice. L’étant poursuit cette unité dans le multiple et tente de la réaliser. La sortie de l’origine comme dispersion a une relation d’identité avec le retour à l’origine comme rassemblement. L’origine de la phénoménalité, l’origine des mondes, est ce qui apparaît de l’origine au sein du multiple, « la manière dont l’indivision de la puissance explosive se réfléchit au sein du fini » (p. 98). La forme est ainsi archè.

Mais si le monde est corrélat d’une appartenance, il y a alors trois sens du monde : le monde comme source (déflagration) qui renvoie au sol, le monde comme multiplicité ontique provenant de cet archi-événement qui renvoie au site, le monde comme forme ou sédimentation de l’origine au sein du multiple qui renvoie au lieu. Ils correspondent respectivement à l’appartenance ontologique, à l’appartenance ontique et à l’appartenance phénoménologique. Si l’étant va de son site vers son sol du point de vue phénoménologique, il y a un mouvement plus originaire par lequel la source explosive cherche à se rassembler dans sa dispersion. Le sujet véritable est le cosmos lui-même et sa vérité est celle d’une surpuissance originaire qui fait des mondes pour se faire être comme pure origine. Le monde proprement dit est, pour la phénoménologie de cette cosmologie, la trace de la puissance de l’origine au sein du multiple, la totalité comme sédimentation, le troisième sens du monde. Autrement dit, bien qu’il y a un cœur archi-événementiel (déflagration) du monde qui constitue son contenu (l’ensemble des étants), en donnant lieu à son contenu contingente, « l’archi-événement est archi-contingence » (p. 101). Il s’agit d’un néoplatonisme inversé, car la réalité de l’Un qui donne ce qu’il ne possède pas est cosmologique au lieu de métaphysique, elle est une réalité indéterminée et indivisible. De plus, si la pensée consiste dans un mouvement de séparation et de remontée (hypostase vers l’Un) qui produit le multiple, dans la perspective de Barbaras, le multiple manifeste originairement une séparation de l’origine, face à laquelle la remontée vers l’origine a le sens d’une unification.

Les lieux marquent la proximité de l’origine dans la distance. Si aucun monde ne peut s’approprier l’origine, il y a toutes sortes de mondes possibles, autant de mondes que d’étants dont l’amplitude se mesure à la profondeur de l’inscription dans le sol qui n’est que la proximité de l’origine. L’ampleur de la synthèse sur laquelle un monde se repose ou la puissance signifiante sera d’autant plus forte que l’étant sera moins loin de son origine (p. 104). Avec cette affirmation, Barbaras se situe à l’opposé de la phénoménologie qui caractérise le sujet comme étant un hors-monde. Pour la cosmologie phénoménologique, autant d’appartenance, autant d’intentionnalité ; autant d’intentionnalité, autant de subjectivité ; autant de proximité avec la déflagration, autant de puissance ; autant de puissance, autant de monde ; autant de monde, autant de subjectivité. C’est parce que nous sommes d’abord des êtres cosmologiques que nous sommes conscients et connaissants. Les degrés de subjectivation renvoient aux degrés d’appartenance. Barbaras avoue que Merleau-Ponty s’est dirigé dans cette direction mais qu’il n’a pas pu fonder son intuition parce qu’il prenait comme point de départ la chair sensible. La chair comme sentir est différente de la chair du monde qui est sentie en ce sentir même (p. 106).  Merleau-Ponty n’a pas pu fonder l’univocité dont il a pourtant eu l’intuition. Pour Barbaras, c’est parce que nous appartenons au sol ontologique du monde que nous sommes capables de le phénoménaliser. La subjectivité ne se distingue pas de la puissance phénoménalisante. Il ne s’agit pas de nier la différence, mais de ressaisir la différence, « nier qu’elle repose sur la séparation d’une entité subjective et d’un monde » (p. 107). Mais si la phénoménalisation ou la subjectivité a pour condition l’appartenance, elle n’a pas l’appartenance pour contenu. Le lieu n’est pas le sol, mais la manière dont le sol se donne à celui qui en est séparé au sein du sol. Le monde est la manifestation de l’archi-événement à celui qui en est un éclat. Partant, « le destin de l’origine est sa propre occultation dans le phénomène » (p. 108). En d’autres termes, la phénoménalisation implique une occultation. Le sol n’apparaît jamais comme sol et c’est pour cela qu’on peut dire qu’on est séparés en son sein. La dimension d’occultation s’accuse tandis que la phénoménalisation se fait plus ample. Le lieu que nous déployons est plus loin du sol. La profondeur de notre appartenance déclenche une puissance de phénoménalisation qui nous permet de déployer un lieu en ouvrant le monde lui-même. Ce monde se donne comme « objectif », détaché de l’activité phénoménalisante, et comme délivrant un sens de l’être. La plus grande appartenance débouche donc sur la séparation, car la phénoménalisation finit par nommer l’essence de ce qui est : « la puissance de l’origine débouche sur sa propre occultation » (p. 108). Nous avons alors plus de chances d’accéder à l’appartenance si l’on aborde les modes d’exister ou mondes où le lieu ne recouvre pas encore le sol. Le problème de la réduction phénoménologique se pose ici. Il faut admettre qu’au sein de la relation objective du monde de la vie, et malgré elle, le sol affleure. Il faut admettre que nous sommes d’une certaine manière initiés à notre sol d’appartenance au sein d’une existence qui nous en éloigne, pour transcender ce monde objectif à partir duquel on ne peut pas « exhiber sa propre condition de possibilité » (p. 109). Barbaras finit son livre alors par l’indication d’une réalité à définir qui serait celle de la profondeur, étant le mode sous lequel l’appartenance se phénoménalise dans le lieu. Pour y accéder, il ne faut pas suivre la voie de la subjectivité objectivante, mais celle d’une contestation interne à celle-ci : la voie du suspens de la puissance phénoménalisante. L’interrogation de la profondeur ne pourra s’accomplir, confesse Barbaras, que dans une esthétique. Il semblerait que la phénoménologie que mérite la cosmologie de la déflagration n’ait pas encore été déployée, et qu’elle serait peut-être une phénoménologie de la profondeur au titre d’une esthétique. Nous comprenons cette idée de profondeur dans la lignée de l’affirmation de Borges : « la musique, les états de bonheur, la mythologie, les visages travaillés par le temps, certains crépuscules et certains lieux, veulent nous dire quelque chose, ou quelque chose qu’ils ont dit que nous n’aurions pas dû perdre, ou ils sont sur le point de dire quelque chose. Cette imminence d’une révélation, qui ne se produit jamais, est peut-être le fait esthétique » (Borges, 1952). Cette profondeur ne serait que le mode sous lequel nous éprouvons la trace de la déflagration tout en essayant de donner monde sans pour autant recouvrir le sol au point de le nier. Et c’est pourquoi il nous faudrait ajouter aux vers de René Char avec lesquels nous avons commencé – « dans l’éclatement de l’univers que nous éprouvons, prodige ! les morceaux qui s’abattent sont vivants » (René Char, 158) –, les mots de Paul Veyne : « [i]ls s’abattent sur le monde, ils y reviennent, et ne chutent pas dans le néant » (Veyne, 1995, p. 516).


Barbaras, Renaud. 1991. De l’être du phénomène : sur l’ontologie de Merleau-Ponty. Grenoble : Jérôme Millon.

—–. 2004. Introduction à la philosophie de Husserl. Paris : Éditions de la Transparence.

—–. 2007. Le mouvement de l’existence : études sur la phénoménologie de Jan Patočka. Paris :  Éditions de la Transparence.

—–. 2011a. La vie lacunaire. Paris, Vrin.

—–. 2011b. L’ouverture du monde : lecture de Jan Patočka. Paris : Éditions de la Transparence.

—–. 2013. Dynamique de la manifestation. Paris : Vrin.

—–. 2016a. Métaphysique du sentiment. Paris : Cerf.

—–. 2016b. Le Désir et le monde. Paris : Hermann.

Bergson, Henri. 1908. L’évolution créatrice. Paris : Félix Alcan.

Benjamin, Walter. 2018. « Über Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen », Ausgewählte Werke. Band III. Berlin : Suhrkamp Verlag, p. 114-131.

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1952. Otras inquisiciones. Buenos Aires : Sur.

Brentano, Franz. 2008. Psychologie du point de vue empirique, trad. de Gandillac, 2ème  édition revue par J. Fr. Courtine. Paris : Vrin.

Char, René. 1969. Les Matinaux suivi de La parole en archipiel. Paris : Gallimard.

Deudon, Aurélien. 2018. « Réflexions sur l’espace et le temps dans la phénoménologie de Renaud Barbaras », Alter, no. 26, p. 197-212.

Dufrenne, Mikel. 1981. L’inventaire des a priori. Paris : Christian Bourgois.

Duportail, Guy-Félix. 2010. « Le moment topologique de la phénoménologie française », Archives de philosophie, vol. 1, No. 73, p. 47-65.

Gilson, Etienne. 1948. L’être et l’essence. Paris : Vrin.

Lavelle, Louis. 1937. De l’acte. Paris : Aubier.

—–. 1939. L’erreur de Narcise. Paris : Bernard Grasset.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. 1996. Les Principes de la Nature et de la Grâce. Monadologie et autres textes (1703-1716-). Paris : Flammarion.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. L’oeil et l’esprit. Paris : Gallimard.

Patočka, Jan. 1995. Papiers phénoménologiques, trad. Erika Abrams. Grenoble : Jérôme Millon.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1990. Soi-même comme un autre. Paris : Seuil.

Riquier, Camille. 2011. « Descartes et les trois voies de la philosophie française », Philosophie, vol. 2, No. 109, p. 21-42.

Scheler, Max. 2000. « Phänomenologie und Erkenntnistheorie », Schriften aus dem Nachlass. Band I. Zur Ethik und Erkenntnistheorie, Gesammelte Werke. Band 10. Bonn : Bouvier Verlag, p. 379-430.

—–. 2004. Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik: Neuer Versuch der Grundlegung eines ethischen Personalismus. Halle : Niemeyer.

Veyne, Paul. 1995. René Char et ses poèmes. Paris : Gallimard.

Worms, Frédéric. 2009. La philosophie en France au XXe siècle. Paris : Gallimard.

Andrea Altobrando, Pierfrancesco Biasetti (Eds.): Natural Born Monads, De Gruyter, 2020

Natural Born Monads: On the Metaphysics of Organisms and Human Individuals Book Cover Natural Born Monads: On the Metaphysics of Organisms and Human Individuals
Andrea Altobrando, Pierfrancesco Biasetti (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback €109.95
VI, 337

Jocelyn Benoist: Toward a Contextual Realism, Harvard University Press, 2021

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Jocelyn Benoist
Harvard University Press
Hardback £31.95 • €36.00

Uriah Kriegel: Brentano’s Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value

Brentano's Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value Book Cover Brentano's Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value
Uriah Kriegel
Oxford University Press
Hardback £49.99

Reviewed by: Daniel Herbert (University of Sheffield)

Although his admiration for the British philosophical tradition is widely recognised, Brentano’s antipathy to classical German philosophy is no less well-known. That Brentano may be at all committed to the construction of a grand system in the tradition of Kant or Hegel seems to run contrary to the most basic wisdom regarding this pivotal figure in the history of the phenomenological movement, and several of his most well-regarded interpreters have explicitly rejected any suggestion that he might helpfully be understood as a systematic philosopher. This, however, is precisely the claim which Uriah Kriegel defends with such force and clarity in his impressive study, Brentano’s Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value. According to Kriegel, Brentano ranks amongst the greatest systematic philosophers of the Western tradition, offering a comprehensive account of the true, the good, and the beautiful, ultimately grounded in an understanding of the modes of consciousness which facilitate the mental representation of these ideals.

In spite of his systematic aspirations, however, Brentano’s philosophical style bears closer comparison to the analytic tradition than to the works of Kant and his idealist successors, according to Kriegel. Indeed, Brentano is, for Kriegel, a kind of analytic philosopher avant la lettre, whose concerns and priorities belong not to an outmoded nineteenth-century agenda, but to the domain of contemporary philosophy. There remains, however, a sense in which Brentano has less in common with analytic philosophy than with its nineteenth century predecessors, insofar as his focus is very firmly upon consciousness rather than language as the principal object of philosophical investigation. Brentano does not participate in the linguistic turn which is partly constitutive of the switch from idealist to analytic philosophy, and his focus on consciousness is an enormous part of his legacy to later phenomenologists (with the possible exception of Heidegger and his followers). This is, however, something of a pedantic objection, and Kriegel leaves little doubt that Brentano’s philosophical style is one which should make his work accessible to contemporary analytic philosophers. Across nine well-argued and engaging chapters, Kriegel elucidates Brentano’s compelling and highly original contributions to philosophy of mind, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields of current philosophical interest, repeatedly showing that Brentano merits a place in contemporary debates within each of these thriving areas. As such, Kriegel’s study should be of interest not only to scholars of Brentano and early phenomenology, but also to researchers in several areas of contemporary analytic philosophy.

Part One, ‘Mind’, opens with a chapter on ‘Consciousness’. For Kriegel, Brentano’s interest in consciousness is an interest in what today’s philosophers of mind call ‘phenomenal consciousness’ – its felt qualitative character. As such, many of Brentano’s remarks concerning consciousness rest ultimately upon appeals to phenomena with which it is assumed that all subjects are immediately acquainted insofar as they are conscious at all. According to what Kriegel calls Brentano’s ‘awareness principle’, one cannot be conscious without being conscious of being conscious. Such awareness of one’s own mental states is the source, Brentano maintains, of immediate and infallible self-knowledge resulting from what he famously labels as ‘inner perception’ and distinguishes from introspection or ‘inner observation’.

In an impressive display of scholarly engagement with the relevant primary and secondary literature, Kriegel advocates a novel and compelling interpretation of Brentano’s position, according to which the same mental state may be viewed either as the ‘consciousness of x’ or as the ‘consciousness of the consciousness of x’. As such, inner perception owes its unique epistemic merits to the identity between (i) a conscious state and (ii) the consciousness of that very state. Kriegel clearly distinguishes his interpretation from those offered by other Brentano scholars, such as Textor. Moreover, Kriegel credits Brentano with a position which he argues is more compelling than many modern theories of consciousness, such that Brentano’s approach is of more than merely historical interest.

Kriegel also notes however, the implausibility of Brentano’s commitment to the co-extensionality of mental states and conscious states. As he aims to show throughout the remaining chapters however, this is a position which may be excised from Brentano’s system with minimal repercussions. All the same, Kriegel maintains, it is important to note that Brentano’s philosophy of mind is, for this reason, more properly a philosophy of consciousness.

In Chapter Two, ‘Intentionality’, Kriegel advances an original interpretation of the concept with which Brentano’s name is most associated. Parting company with widely-held ‘immanentist’ interpretations, such as Crane’s, Kriegel denies that Brentano understands intentionality as a relation between a mental act and a subjective content internal to that act. Indeed, according to Kriegel’s ‘subjectist’ interpretation, intentionality is not, for Brentano, a relation at all, but a modification of the subject. Their misleading surface grammar notwithstanding, sentences appearing to commit one to the existence of a relation between a conscious state and an object thereof are more accurately understood as statements concerning a condition of the subject, according to Kriegel. As he interprets Brentano, non-veridical experiences have no intentional object at all, Kriegel maintains, rather than a merely private intentional object. To think of dragons, then, is not to be related to a fictitious object but to inhabit a state of a certain kind. By the same token, it is not constitutive of one’s thinking about the Eiffel Tower that it is indeed the intentional object of such a mental state. All that matters, in either case, according to Kriegel, is that the subject occupies such a state that, were certain conditions to be satisfied, that state would have an intentional object. Talk of ‘merely intentional objects’ is, as Kriegel understands Brentano, admissible only as a convenient fiction, as shorthand for the unsatisfied veridicality-conditions of some mental state.

While it is distinct from adverbialism, according to Kriegel, the position thus attributed to Brentano may, he acknowledges, appear vulnerable to an objection similar to that which Moran raises against the adverbialist. The last part of the chapter offers an answer to this revised criticism, showing again that Brentano’s views remain plausible. Kriegel proceeds with clarity and precision throughout in recognisably analytical fashion.

Chapter Three concludes Part One with a detailed account of Brentano’s taxonomy of the various kinds of conscious states. As Kriegel notes, Brentano’s interest in the systematic classification of mental states – and its centrality to his philosophical project – is characteristic of the taxonomically-fixated nineteenth century, but seems quite foreign to the priorities of contemporary philosophers of mind in the analytic tradition. Kriegel further remarks that Brentano is in disagreement with late twentieth and early twenty-first century orthodoxies in consequence of his anti-functionalist classification of mental states according to attitudinal properties rather than inferential role. Related to such anti-functionalism is Brentano’s notorious claim that disbelief-that-p is not equivalent to belief that not-p – a position starkly opposed to Frege’s.

All the same, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s philosophy of mind loses much of its unfamiliar appearance when the scope of its claims are limited to the domain of the conscious, whereupon they become compatible with a broader functionalist outlook. With slight qualifications, Brenatano’s foundational distinction between judgement and interest may be understood to correspond to a familiar distinction between mental states, on the one hand, with a mind-to-world direction of fit and those, on the other, with a world-to-mind direction of fit. Brentano treats the distinction between propositional and non-propositional content as of secondary importance, however, and Kriegel takes it that there is nothing in contemporary classifications of the mental corresponding to Brentano’s treatment of presentation as a category of phenomena no less fundamental than judgement or interest. Much of chapter three is devoted to a reconstruction and defence of Brentano’s commitment to such an account of presentation – a position which Kriegel regards as persuasive and correct, but detachable from the rest of the Brentantian system without need for significant revisions elsewhere. Judgement and interest, however, remain of crucial systematic importance, according to Kriegel.

The second part of Kriegel’s fascinating and well-argued study concerns Brentano’s metaphysics, opening with a chapter on ‘Judgement’. As Kriegel re-iterates, Brentano’s account of judgement differs radically from more familiar theories in several respects. Firstly, no judgement is ever merely predicative, according to Brentano, but every judgement either affirms or denies something’s existence. Secondly, affirmative and negative judgements differ not in content but in attitude, and are therefore able to share the same content. Thirdly, the content of any judgement is always some putative individual object, rather than a proposition or state of affairs. In spite of its remarkable heterodoxy, however, Kriegel judges that Brentano’s account is astonishingly compelling and can be defended against several possible objections while facilitating a nominalistic ontology which is likely to appeal to current trends of metaphysical opinion. Kriegel ably and methodically proceeds to assess the prospects for Brentanian paraphrases for various forms of judgement, aiming in each case to show whether that judgement is reducible to an affirmation or denial of some particular object’s existence. In most cases, Kriegel maintains, adequate paraphrases are indeed available, although he expresses some doubt that such paraphrases accurately match the phenomenology involved in judgements of that kind. According to Kriegel, the best available Brentanian paraphrase of the negative compound judgement “­­­~ (p & q)” would be something along the lines of “there does not exist any sum of a correct belief in p and a correct belief in q”. While respecting the strictures of Brentano’s theory of judgement, Kriegel maintains, such a conceptually elaborate paraphrase – which involves second-order beliefs – is questionable as a description of the conscious experience involved in the judgement, “~ (p & q)”: a potential shortcoming in a theory alleged to rest upon no other foundation than the accurate description of immediately accessible conscious states.

Brentano’s metaontology – his account of what one does when one commits to the existence of something – provides the focus for Chapter Five. After summarising what he takes to be the three most prominent approaches in contemporary metaontology – those which he attributes to Meinong, Frege, and Williamson – Kriegel proceeds to distinguish Brentano’s position from each of these. Unlike any of the more familiar positions, Brentanto’s holds that nothing is predicated of anything – whether a subject or a first-order property – when something is said to exist. Rather, to say that something exists is to say that it is a fitting object of a certain kind of mental attitude – that of belief-in, or affirmative judgement. To say that x is a fitting object of belief-in, moreover, is to say that were a subject capable of deciding the matter on the basis of self-evidence then the attitude they would take to x would be one of belief-in. In view of serious problems attending Brentano’s analysis of belief-fittingness in terms of hypothetical self-evidence, however, Kriegel offers the revisionary proposal that belief-fittingness be understood as no less primitive than self-evidence. Belief-fittingness would be unanalysable in that case, although particular instances of belief-fittingness would be distinguishable by comparison against contrasting cases.

It is, for Kriegel, a liability of Brentano’s position that, by interpreting existence-statements as disguised normative claims, it fails to accommodate the phenomenology of such judgements, which do not seem at all, to those who make them, like statements about the mental attitude appropriate to one or another intentional object. Nonetheless, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s position impressively circumvents a host of problems which have confronted the three most familiar metaontological approaches, and is entirely unburdened by any implicit commitment to objects which lack the property of existence without failing to qualify as beings of another exotic variety.

Brentano’s unorthodox theory of judgement and metaontology are largely motivated by a strong aversion to abstract entities, and it is to the nominalistic upshot of these Brentanian innovations that Kriegel turns his attention in chapter six. As Kriegel explains, however, Brentano’s ‘reism’ is quite unlike familiar ‘ostrich’ and ‘paraphrase’ forms of nominalism and is not vulnerable to the kinds of objection which have often been raised against such positions. As a form of ‘strict’ nominalism, it is not only abstracta which Brentano’s position rejects, but also universals, such that the Brentanian ontology condones no other entities than concrete particulars. The truth-maker for “Beyoncé is famous”, to take one of Kriegel’s own examples, is not a proposition or state of affairs, but the concrete particular “famous-Beyoncé”. “Famous-Beyoncé” is a curious entity, however, being co-located with a host of other complex concrete particulars, each of which makes true a certain statement about one and the same Beyoncé to which they are related as accidents of a substance.

Kriegel readily acknowledges, however, that a number of counter-intuitive commitments result from Brentano’s ‘coincidence model’. While recognising Beyoncé as a proper part of Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is unwilling to risk the admission of abstract entities into his ontology by permitting Famous-Beyoncé to consist of any other proper part than Beyoncé. Although he thereby avoids any commitment to an abstract ‘fame’ supplement, the addition of which to Beyoncé results in Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is also driven to the odd result that Beyoncé is a proper part without need of supplementation by any further part – a conclusion firmly at odds with the principles of classical mereology. In spite of its shortcomings, however, Brentano’s reism is, according to Kriegel, at least as plausible as any of the nominalist positions currently available, and provides a novel response to the truth-maker challenge.

With Part Three, ‘Value’, Kriegel turns his attention to Brentano’s much-overlooked account of the good. Chapter Seven offers an inventory of the main forms of interest – that basic genre of conscious states, all of the species of which present their objects as either good or bad in some way. Much as Brentano’s metaphysics rests upon his analysis of judgement, so does his theory of value bear a similar relation to his account of interest in its various forms – such as emotion, volition, and pleasure/displeasure. Because Brentano did not complete the projected Book V of his Psychology, in which he had intended to focus on interest in general, several of Kriegel’s proposals in this chapter are offered as ‘Brentanian in spirit’ and Kriegel is forthcoming in appealing to various scattered primary texts in supporting an interpretation of Brentano which he admits may seem anachronistic in its terminology and dialectical agenda.

All the same, Kriegel persuasively shows that Brentano’s works provide the resources for a distinction between will and emotion which respects their common evaluative-attitudinal status. Kriegel develops Brentano’s somewhat sketchy distinction between interests in compatible and incompatible goods by distinguishing between presenting-as-prima-facie-good and presenting-as-ultima-facie-good. Before deciding between incompatible alternatives, both might be emotionally presented as similarly good or bad, but one cannot rationally have incompatible alternatives as an object of volition. Volition differs from emotion, therefore, by presenting its object as ultima facie good, to the exclusion of objects with which it is incompatible. Although he does not suppose that Brentano would draw the distinction in such a fashion, Kriegel also maintains that pleasure and displeasure may be distinguished from emotions in a Brentanian spirit by treating algedonic states as presenting-as-immediately-present some good or ill, whereas emotions do not distinguish, in the presentation of an object, between present and absent goods.

Proceeding in chapter eight to an account of Brentano’s metaethics, Kriegel argues that Brentano may qualify as the original fitting attitude theorist. To call something ‘good’, according to Brentano, is to say that it is fitting to adopt a pro-attitude towards that thing. As such, the good is to interest, for Brentano, as the true is to judgement. The analogue for self-evidence, with respect to interest, is what Kriegel terms ‘self-imposition’ – a feature of those positive or negative value-assessments which irresistibly command our agreement, and which is directly available to inner perception. Those interests are fitting, Brentano maintains, which are either self-imposing or which would be given in inner perception to any subject with a self-imposing attitude towards the intentional object in question.

While highlighting the originality of Brentano’s metaethics – which he claims to anticipate Moore’s celebrated open question argument in certain important respects – Kriegel views self-imposition as a liability for Brentano, inasmuch as it is tasked with both normative and psychological-descriptive functions. For Kriegel, Brentano’s metaethics is an unstable combination of naturalist and non-naturalist features. Nonetheless, Kriegel shows Brentano to argue compellingly against a number of rival accounts and to circumvent certain difficulties which confront such competitors. What is more, Kriegel helpfully locates Brentano’s metaethics within a wider systematic context, returning throughout to parallels between his fitting attitude accounts of judgement and interest. Brentano’s aesthetics, or theory of beauty, is also seen to occupy a location within the same system and to involve a ‘fitting delight’ account, according to which that is beautiful the contemplation of which is itself the fitting object of a pro-attitude. The beautiful is therefore a species of the good, as Kriegel understands Brentano, and is distinct from moral value insofar as it involves the adoption of a pro-attitude towards the contemplation of a presentation.

With the ninth and final chapter, Kriegel turns his focus to Brentano’s normative ethics. Brentano is shown to advocate a pluralistic consequentialism which recognises four intrinsic goods: consciousness, pleasure, knowledge, and fitting attitudes. Whatever is instrumentally valuable in promoting the realisation of these intrinsic goods is therefore of derivative value, according to Brentano, and the right course of action to pursue in any given situation is that from which the greatest good shall result. Although he admits pleasure as an unconditional good – irrespective of its source – Brentano avoids certain counter-intuitive implications of cruder consequentialist positions by acknowledging fitting attitudes as further intrinsic goods. As such, Brentano can admit painful feelings of guilt at one’s own wrongdoing as being of intrinsic value. Whereas, however, Kantians can deny that there is any value in a pleasure derived from wrongdoing, this option is not open to Brentano, for whom the issue of weighing the various goods against one another therefore becomes especially pressing.

Kriegel takes Brentano to face a challenge here, however, and expresses concern that Brentano’s ethics may be unhelpful as a guide to moral action. Having highlighted, in the previous chapter, certain difficulties confronting the notion of self-imposition, Kriegel notes that it is to this same concept that Brentano appeals in attempting to distinguish between which of any two goods is preferable to the other. The fitting preference in any such case is that which the subject would take were their attitude self-imposing, but Kriegel argues that for most such comparisons this moral equivalent of self-evidence will presuppose a measure of knowledge unavailable to any recognisably human agent. As Kriegel observes, it is of little use to advise someone to act as they would were they endowed with perfect impartiality and all of the facts relevant to the case in question.

There is much to recommend Kriegel’s ambitious and scholarly text, which certainly achieves its stated task of demonstrating Brentano’s relevance for contemporary debates across several fields of analytic philosophy. Kriegel impressively avoids the dual perils which confront the historian of philosophy, by locating Brentano’s original contributions within their historical context without, however, denying their relevance to today’s debates. Kriegel perhaps sails uncomfortably close, for some tastes, to an anachronistic reading of Brentano’s arguments and commitments, by phrasing these in terms of a conceptual vocabulary which owes much to late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century analytic philosophy. Kriegel is forthcoming, however, in admitting his departures from the letter of the relevant Brentanian texts in order to facilitate comparisons between Brentano’s positions and those of more contemporary analytic philosophers. Kriegel also admits to contributing ‘Brentanian’ theses of his own where necessary, in order to fill certain gaps in Brentano’s system or to accommodate objections which Brentano did not anticipate. As such, Kriegel’s account is explicitly revisionary in certain places, such as his recommendations concerning the nature of ‘fittingness’ and his proposals concerning a Brentanian aesthetics. At no point, however, does Kriegel depart significantly from Brentano’s stated position without having already clearly motivated the appeal of a broadly Brentanian contribution to some on-going philosophical debate.

If Kriegel’s Brentano is too much the analytic philosopher for some historians of the phenomenological movement then no doubt he is too much of a system-builder for others. As Kriegel recognises, Brentano’s works are not typically regarded as contributions to a systematic philosophical enterprise, and much of Kriegel’s effort is devoted to correcting this oversight. Here too, Kriegel admits to making ‘Brentanian’ contributions of his own in order to clarify possible links between different parts of Brentano’s system and to provide possible details for areas which Brentano himself left only in outline sketches. That Brentano’s various contributions to ontology, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields merit interpretation as parts of an overarching system is left in no doubt, however, and this would be sufficient achievement for Kriegel’s impressive monograph, were it not also to highlight the originality and insight which Brentano brought to each of these fields. Most importantly, however, Kriegel admirably shows Brentano’s work to deserve the attention of researchers in several areas of philosophical research, and to reward careful study not only by historians of philosophy and scholars of phenomenology, but also contemporary analytic philosophers.

Dominik Finkelde, Paul M. Livingston (Eds.): Idealism, Relativism, and Realism: New Essays on Objectivity Beyond the Analytic-Continental Divide, De Gruyter, 2020

Idealism, Relativism, and Realism: New Essays on Objectivity Beyond the Analytic-Continental Divide, De Gruyter, 2020 Book Cover Idealism, Relativism, and Realism: New Essays on Objectivity Beyond the Analytic-Continental Divide, De Gruyter, 2020
Dominik Finkelde, Paul M. Livingston (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback €109.95

Alberto Romele: Digital Hermeneutics: Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies

Digital Hermeneutics: Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies Book Cover Digital Hermeneutics: Philosophical Investigations in New Media and Technologies
Alberto Romele

Reviewed by: Eddo Evink (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Groningen)


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.

Renewing Hermeneutics

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.

Judith Wambacq: Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty

Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty
Series in Continental Thought, № 51
Judith Wambacq
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Alex de Campos Moura (University of São Paulo)

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.

Bruno Langlet: Meinong et sa théorie des relations, Classiques Garnier, 2020

Meinong et sa théorie des relations: Éléments pour une généalogie de la théorie de l’objet Book Cover Meinong et sa théorie des relations: Éléments pour une généalogie de la théorie de l’objet
Philosophies contemporaines, n° 10
Bruno Langlet
Classiques Garnier