Frank Schalow: Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction: Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence

Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction: Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence Book Cover Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction: Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence
Contributions To Phenomenology, 93
Frank Schalow
Hardcover 96,29 €
XIV, 191

Reviewed by: Dr. Peter Antich (Department of Philosophy, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, United States of America)

Frank Schalow’s new book, Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction, offers an important contribution to the philosophical study of addiction. While, as Schalow notes at the start of his work, the topic of addiction has spawned many studies from a variety of fields in the past years, relatively few of these have examined addiction using the methods of philosophy, and specifically, of phenomenology. Schalow argues that this leaves an important gap in our approaches to addiction, given that studies that consider addiction in purely physiological terms overlook the meaningful dimension of the addict’s experience, specifically, they fail to consider the life world of the addict. It is this lack that Schalow’s new book intends to redress.

Schalow uses phenomenological methods and concepts, primarily drawn from Heidegger’s Being and Time and later work on technology, to illuminate the phenomenon of addiction, often with considerable success. As the subtitle, “Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence,” suggests, Schalow is primarily interested in understanding addiction with respect to the body, the technological context of addiction, and the existential dimension of addiction. While anyone seeking a detailed account of the role of the body in addiction might be left wanting more from Schalow’s book, they will nevertheless find probing analyses of the role that technology and transcendence can play in understanding addiction. With respect to the former, Schalow argues that the prevalence of addiction in the present era ought to be considered a referendum on the role of technology in our culture. With respect to the latter, Schalow argues that the phenomenological concepts of transcendence and authenticity can provide a key to addiction treatment.

Schalow’s first five chapters offer a phenomenological diagnosis of addiction, while the final three begin to develop phenomenological principles of addiction treatment. The first chapter argues for the importance of a philosophical, as opposed to neurological or psychological, approach to addiction. Schalow does this, in part, through the contention that addiction ought to be understood as a cultural-historical phenomenon – a “historical and cultural transformation of our ‘way to be'” (4) – which therefore cannot adequately be understood merely in terms of the physiology of the body, but only in terms of the meaningful features of the addict’s life-world. Schalow makes clear from the first that he intends to broaden our concept of addiction and to stand the common sense appraisal of the place of addiction in our society on its head, via his claim that addiction ought to be understood as a way of being that is in a certain sense the norm for our society (9).

Chapter 2 begins work on the phenomenological study of addiction, showing how many of Heidegger’s key concepts from Being and Time provide the existential preconditions of addiction. Schalow’s central argument here is that the possibility of addiction is rooted in structures of Dasein common to addicts and non-addicts alike, namely everydayness and being-with-others. Specifically, Schalow proposes to understand addiction as “a permutation of inauthenticity or unownedness” (29). Similarly, addiction can be seen as rooted in being-with-others: dissimulating one’s self-responsibility in terms of conformity with the they-self, as described by Heidegger, creates an environment in which addiction can flourish. Further, Schalow shows how phenomenological analyses of spatiality, in terms of de-severance, and temporality, in terms of making-present, can illuminate the situation of the addict. Chapter 3 continues this work, specifically with regard to the “hook” of addiction. Schalow argues that the hook ought to be understood in terms of the concept of a “fetish,” insofar as one becomes “hooked” on a substance or process when it acquires a disproportionate significance in one’s life, when an object or process operates as a locus of attraction beyond its immediate meaning, e.g., as a means of escape or inducing satisfaction. For such mediate significances, fetishes rely on our capacity for fantasy, or imagination. In a commodity fetish, for example, a commercial object becomes invested with the meaning of a marker of economic status. This is only possible insofar as the imagination opens up a space of possible meanings for an object over and beyond its immediate significance. However, when the fetish supplants the fantasy, according to Schalow, the fetish closes off other possible meanings and becomes addictive. Insofar as the addict, in being fixated on this object, is taken in by it, rather than projecting a meaning for it, addiction is in Heidegger’s terms a form of “fallenness,” i.e., of being lived by the world rather than choosing oneself (62). Chapter 4 completes the existential analysis of addiction, focusing on self-understanding and being-with-others. Here, Schalow argues that addiction corresponds to a form of self-evasion familiar in terms of “denial.” At the same time, addiction often corresponds to inauthentic modes of relation to others, e.g., in terms of leaping-in familiar as a kind of “co-dependency.”

In chapter 5, Schalow turns to the technological dimension of his project. As I indicated above, his claim is that addiction can be considered as a referendum on technology (91), or in other words, the ubiquity of addiction in our society can only be understood in terms of its technological backdrop. Schalow makes this point by connecting technology and addiction in a number of ways. First, new technologies often facilitate certain kinds of addiction that pre-exist those technologies, as, e.g., the internet facilitates a gambling addiction. Second, new technologies give rise to unique forms of addiction, e.g., addictions to social media or video games (89-90). But, thirdly, Schalow is engaged in a larger claim, namely the Heideggerian claim that technology essentially amounts to an “enframing” of the world, characteristic of our culture, i.e., in which everything (including humanity) becomes standing reserve. This “enframing,” in turn, is bound up with addiction in a number of ways. First, it fosters a culture of excess and immediate gratification which promote addiction. Second, this technological culture infuses the life-world of the addict with boredom and stress, and thereby motivates release via addictive substances or processes (section 5.2). Finally, there seems to be a deeper sense in which technology mirrors addiction: just as in addiction one seeks control over one’s life and moods through the use of a substance or process, but thereby in fact gives control of one’s life over to the substance or process, similarly technology offers the promise of control, the “enframing” of resources, only at the price of losing control of human life to this enframing (110). It is, I think, especially in this sense that Schalow understands his central claim that addiction should take on the broad sense of a “historical and cultural transformation of our way-to-be” (4).

In the final chapters of his work, Schalow turns to an existential analysis of methods of treatment. Since Schalow considers the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program to be the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111), Chapter 6 investigates the historical backdrop for the development of this program, explaining connections between AA founder Bill Wilson and the important figures and movements of his time, including Carl Jung, Rudolf Bultmann, and the Oxford movement. In chapters 7 & 8, Schalow argues that existing approaches to treatment are overly dependent on a mind-body dualism – i.e., they focus on either spiritual practices (e.g., AA or talk therapy) or purely physiological treatments – and so leave an important gap in treatment that would be targeted at the addict’s life-situation. Further, the hermeneutic-phenomenological method, insofar as it has long subverted the dualism of mind and body, can prove an important corrective here, by suggesting contours of treatment that would fill this gap. While these contours are multifaceted – e.g., involving the addict adopting new life-contexts (147) – Schalow focuses on transcendence, or responsibility, claiming that addiction cannot be treated without some “resoluteness” (in Heidegger’s sense) on the part of the addict. According to Schalow, “resoluteness” is the appropriate category by which to understand the addict’s choice of recovery, because the decision to quit a habit is not merely a choice, but really a choosing to choose. One does not overcome addiction through a single choice, but rather through choosing, day by day, sobriety, in a manner that is thus the opposite of the culture of immediate gratification fostered by technology. Addiction can only be treated with a commitment, on the part of the addict, and thus insofar as the addict takes responsibility for her or himself.

These analyses accomplish a number of important tasks. Schalow’s greatest accomplishment is to translate Heidegger’s phenomenological concepts into the context of addiction, and show that these concepts can be productively employed in this context. Second, Schalow draws together and develops Heidegger’s scattered thoughts about addiction into a sustained account, offering a cohesive existential analysis of the phenomenon. Third, Schalow makes a number of interesting claims about the cultural backdrop for the prevalence of addiction in today’s society, in particular, raising important questions about the role technology may be playing in this phenomenon. Fourth, in his final chapters, Schalow suggests the principles of an existential approach to recovery, an approach which may indeed offer some novel principles for treatment. Fifth, Schalow makes and supports the provocative claim that addiction is in some sense the norm for our society, and cannot be considered merely pathological. Finally, especially in Chapter 6, Schalow draws connections between a number of figures important in the early 20th century and demonstrates their relevance to the formation of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program.

Along with these significant accomplishments, there are some problems with Schalow’s account. In the following, I’ll outline four kinds of concerns about Schalow’s book: those dealing with his interpretation of Heidegger, with the connection he draws between technology and addiction, with his reliance on the AA program, and with his principles of treatment.

First, there are some issues with Schalow’s interpretation of Heidegger, three of which are especially significant. First, Schalow uses Heidegger’s analysis of technology to shed light on the role technology might play in the present addiction crisis. But it seems to me that Schalow often blurs the distinction, important to Heidegger, between technology and the essence of technology (e.g., Heidegger’s claim that “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological” [311]). But Schalow seems to move readily between the claim that specific technologies facilitate addiction and the claim that enframing, or the essence of technology, permeates the present addiction crisis, leaving it unclear to what extent his argument is Heideggerian. Second, and relatedly, it seems to me that Schalow risks misunderstanding the “danger” posed by the essence of technology according to Heidegger. Heidegger writes that “Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. … The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing is the danger” (333). The danger is not that of “the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” but that enframing blocks a more primordial engagement with Being. But Schalow is at the very least ambiguous in his understanding of the danger when he writes that “Heidegger argued that technology wields a double-edged sword, namely, that the greater opportunities afforded to human beings, including leisure-time, simultaneously brings its specific drawbacks and even risks. In his words, for every mode of ‘unconcealing’ what is, i.e., the opportunities created by new innovations, there are also equally ominous modes of ‘concealing,’ i.e., unanticipated and destructive consequences” (96). Third, if Schalow is right to think that addiction is a symptom of the essence of technology, then it is unclear that an individual’s resoluteness could free her or him of addiction. Heidegger writes that “Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it” (339). Schalow presupposes that terms like “resoluteness” (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s early work in Being and Time) can offer a resolution to a problem posed at least in part by technology (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s later work), a presupposition which is at least contentious. And if no human activity or achievement can directly counter the danger, then it is unclear to me how efficacious reflection on the kinship of the endangered and the saving power would be for the addict.

Second, the connection between technology and addiction could be better established. For example, at times Schalow claims that certain technologies or technological processes are addictive. But it would be helpful to cite some empirical research in this regard, especially given that the medical community has not yet concluded that there are such addictions (though some research does support this conclusion, e.g., Leeman and Potenza [2013]). Here too it would be helpful if Schalow were clearer about the kind of connection he envisages between technology and addiction, whether in terms of technologies influencing addiction or technological thinking being in some sense essentially addictive.

Third, Schalow focuses much of his thinking about treatment around the AA twelve-step program, but does little to argue for the validity of this program. Instead, Schalow seems to assume that the AA program offers a valid point of departure for analysis, justifying it by appealing to it as the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111) or as the first addiction treatment program (ix). But the efficacy of the twelve-step program is controversial (see, e.g., Dodes [2014] or Humphreys et. al. [2014]). Granted, Schalow sets out to offer a philosophical and existential approach, rather than an empirical or medical approach, but a phenomenological approach must exercise care in its choice of a point of departure for analysis. Some other finer points raise similar concerns, e.g., Schalow’s referral to “neurasthenia” (161), a condition no longer recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In general, Schalow’s analysis would have benefitted from greater fluency with psychological and medical results.

Fourth, I have some concerns about Schalow’s principles for treatment. Foremost of these is that it is hard to see how Schalow’s prescription of “resoluteness” wouldn’t entail a return to the moralistic myth that the addict is merely lazy. Schalow recognizes this possibility, and certainly aims to avert it, for example, writing that he defines “responsibility” in a Heideggerrian manner (in terms of “answerability”) rather than in the traditional sense of a volitional act or exercise of the will (151). Nevertheless, the ensuing discussion of responsibility (especially Schalow’s use of Kant) makes it hard to see how he is not resorting to a more traditional sense of responsibility. Schalow is very likely correct that resoluteness is a necessary condition for recovery, but it is unclear how far it is supposed to get the addict. Further, if Schalow’s aim is to bridge the gap between treatments aimed at the mind and treatments aimed at the body (considered in biological terms), then “resoluteness” or “choosing to choose” might not be the best resource: a phenomenological analysis of human existence aimed at a level beneath deliberate choice might provide more novel approaches to treatment. Indeed, some of Schalow’s most interesting insights about treatment are found in discussions not directly oriented toward resoluteness, e.g., in his suggestion that for the addict to reorient her priorities she must begin to “inhabit a new space” of relations with others (146).

Schalow’s Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction succeeds in developing a phenomenological framework for thinking about addiction, and raises interesting questions about the role of technology and transcendence in addiction. Anyone led by Schalow’s subtitle to look in this book for a close treatment of the role of embodiment in addiction might be left wanting more, for Schalow treats this theme more sparingly than the others. One wonders if Husserl or Merleau-Ponty might have proven better resources in this regard for Schalow than Heidegger, and indeed, some of the most acute passages related to embodiment come from Schalow’s brief discussion of habituality and Merleau-Ponty (40-1). Nevertheless, Schalow succeeds in this work in knitting together a host of phenomenological themes around the topic of addiction, and perhaps it would be unfair to ask him to incorporate yet another with equal care. Its successes make this book a considerable step in the phenomenological and existential analysis of addiction, and no doubt it will prove an important study for anyone interested in this topic.


Dodes, Lance and Zachary Dodes. 2014. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. 307-352. New York: HarperCollins.

Humphreys, Keith, Janet C. Blodgett, and Todd H. Wagner. 2014. “Estimating the Efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous without Self-Selection Bias: An Instrumental Variables Re-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 38 (11): 2688-2694.

Leeman, RF and MN Potenza. 2013. “A Targeted Review of the Neurobiology and Genetics of Behavioral Addictions: An Emerging Area of Research.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 58 (5): 260-73.

Antoine Grandjean (Ed.): Kant et les Empirismes

Kant et les Empirismes Book Cover Kant et les Empirismes
Rencontres, n° 270
Antoine Grandjean (Ed.)
Classiques Garnier
Paperback €34.00

Reviewed by: Michele Cardani (University of Barcelona)

Immanuel Kant affirmed in the first Critique that “if the size of a book is measured not by the number of pages but by the time needed to understand it, then it can be said of many a book that it would be much shorter if it were not so short” (KrV A xix). For the pleasure of the reader (and with Kant’s blessing), even though Kant et les Empirismes is not an imposing volume, the time needed to go through its interesting analysis and to approach all arguments proves that Kant’s maxim does not apply here.

Even if we might all have in mind that Kant’s dogmatic slumber was interrupted by the remembrance of David Hume (Prol, Ak iv, 260), i.e., even if we might all recognize the important relationship between empiricism and transcendental philosophy at least for its genesis, an accurate survey such as that lead by Antoine Grandjean deserves dedication, to better get acquainted with Kant’s thought. It goes without saying that the keystone of the book is the final s in Empirismes: not only because “the pre-Critique Kant knew an empiricist phase, in such a way that the years 1755–1766 constitute the ‘quasi-Humean’ phase of Kant’s thought” (11) (so that we can speak of a Kantian empiricism), but also because there exist diverse forms of empiricism which Kant converses with. Certainly, some of these forms might have influenced the German philosopher more than others, as is the case of Hume and John Locke; however, the volume has the merit to present and discuss the doctrines of less-commonly debated authors, thus providing a clear idea of how an intense interlocutor the multifaceted empiricist tradition was for Kant—or vice versa (see, for example, the essays by Matthieu Haumesser, 57–73, by François Calori, 75–96, and by Raphaël Ehrsam, 173–193).

The volume is organized in three sections, providing a detailed account of this plural dialogue: “Concepts, Problems, Traditions”, “The Transcendental and the Empiric”, and “The Empiric of the Transcendental”.

The first two assess the most relevant theoretical issues linked to Kant’s thought and its relationship with empiricisms. They deal with the very legacy of transcendental philosophy in regard to empirical reality (“there is no doubt whatever that all our cognition begins with experience” (KrV, B 1), with its relationship to freedom and both the feeling of pleasure and displeasure (after all, as rational beings, our will is “pathologically affected” (KpV, A 36)), along with its bond with scientific epistemology and science in general (Kant’s method is “imitated from the method of those who study nature” (KrV, B xviii)).

The reader will immediately note that what emerges here is an extraordinary complex picture that cannot be attributed to Kant only—even if his philosophy is notoriously not so easy to interpret. Rather, and this is a very valuable achievement of the volume, it is a consequence of the great depth of all the essays, which present and discuss the main concepts of Kant’s system from different perspectives. Particular attention is paid to the first Critique, but there are indeed many other cross references to other works of the Kantian corpus. The different points of view where Kant and the empiricisms are looked from are not only the expression of each author’s personal reading of the problems at stake, but it must also be said that there exist as many different Kants as there are forms of empiricism he was called to answer to.

This is also the very reason why there are so many ways to receive and to understand Kant’s overcoming of empiricism. This question is dealt with by the essays included in the third section, which are dedicated to Georg W.F. Hegel’s, Jakob F. Fries, and Edmund Husserl’s readings of transcendental philosophy.

Olivier Tinland shows, for example, that Hegel carries out a “radicalization of critical philosophy unveiling the deficiencies of the Kantian critical reflection and notably attenuating the effects of contrast made by Kant in order to distance himself from dogmatic metaphysics and empiricism” (166): after all, according to Hegel, “critical philosophy has in common with Empiricism that it accepts experience as the only basis for our cognitions” (Enz, W8, 121).

Claudia Serban invites us to reflect on the ambiguous position attributed by Husserl to Kant, who would stand between René Descartes and Hume. Even if “Husserl’s phenomenology claims for itself the name of transcendental idealism, it clearly places itself in Kant’s wake” (195), his material ontology (the eigentliche Ontologie) opens a completely different philosophical space. The modest “analytic of the pure understanding” (KrV, B 303) would not resist a thorough analysis due to Kant’s misunderstanding of the radicality of English empiricism and his commitment to rationalism.

The essay authored by Ehrsam has many merits, but probably the most remarkable is to bring back the attention to Fries. Fries’ insistent demand to justify transcendental principles based on empirical psychology not only offers the possibility to think more deeply about the presuppositions and the legitimacy of Kant’s system, but also allows to question the intimate essence of other forms of idealism and of Kantianism. Transcendental philosophy, in fact, “did not satisfy itself announcing the caducity of the pretensions of classical empiricism […]; it paved the way for possible future empirical investigations, whose task, from now on, would be to explain genetically the possession of concepts and knowledge a priori” (192–193).

Considering the evolution of the debate around Kantianism in the 19th and 20th centuries, of which Fries surely was one of the protagonists (remember, for example, the quarrels with Hegel and Johann F. Herbart), Ehrsam’s essay, with the support of the chapters included in the first two sections, indeed inspires new readings of Kant and of history of philosophy. The emergence of neo-Kantianism and new empiricisms (think, for example, about the different positions inside the sole Wiener Kreis), is a clear sign that the problems discussed in this volume are not limited to Kant’s direct sphere of influence, and that they still deserve our interest. It is true: even if it is correct to talk about empirismes, some of the patterns are repeated, and can probably be summed-up with the idea that “consistent empiricism is immanentism” (24). This, however, should not be an excuse to simplify the problems at stake. Rather, this recurrence should be considered a further confirmation of the importance of works that shed light on the controversial relationship between Kant (and neo-Kantianism) and empiricisms (and neo-empiricisms). In this sense, it would be a great addition to philosophical corpus that Kant et les Empirismes would be soon translated into English—and into many more languages—for it really proves to be a valuable volume to understand Kant’s philosophy as well as its past, present, and future interlocutors.

Further readings:

Cardani, Michele, and Marco Tamborini. 2017. Data-Phenomena: Quid Juris?. Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 70: 527–549.

Cassirer, Ersnt. 1927. Erkenntnistheorie nebst den Grenzfragen der Logik und Denkspsychologie. Jahrbücher der Philosophie 3: 31–92.

Cassirer, Ernst. 2000. Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff. Untersuchungen über die Grundfragen der Erkenntniskritik. In Gesammelte Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, Hrsg. von B. Recki, 26 Bände, Meiner, Hamburg, 1998-2009, Band 6, Text und Anm. Bearbeitet von R. Schmücker.

Massimi, Michela. 2011. From data to Phenomena: a Kantian Stance. Synthese 182: 101–116.

Jason J. Howard: Conscience in Moral Life

Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society Book Cover Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society
Jason J. Howard
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95

Reviewed by: Paniel Reyes Cárdenas (UPAEP, Puebla, Mexico / The University of Sheffield)

In this text Jason J. Howard presents a reflective piece of reasoning that enables one to grasp the origins of the contemporary idea of conscience along with its uses and abuses. If we were to trace Howard’s work it seems as though the present book is a natural consequence of the different paths of his philosophical inquiry. Indeed, previous works such as: Adventures in Reasoning: Communal Inquiry Through Fantasy Role-Play (2015); “Kant and Moral Imputation: Conscience and the Riddle of the Given” (2004); and in particular “Political Identity and the Dynamics of Accountability in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (2006) seem to converge for the nuanced view presented in this book. He proposes a renewed way of approaching conscience through phenomenological study and brings to a reasoned reflection all that constitutes an element of morality for an individual and a community: practical reason, the formation of moral character and, most importantly, the interplay of our moral emotions. One of the most important claims Howard makes is that as a result of over-estimation, conscience has become an inflated concept which makes it difficult for one to refer to it in order to gain a clear understanding of how to solve moral conflicts. However, this is not a plea to get rid of the concept, but to articulate it with our moral emotions in a conscious synthesis, as we will see below.

How did we arrive at such criticised concept of conscience? Howard explores the history of moral philosophy chasing the origins of the concept. Howard presents the development of the modern usage of ‘conscience’ from two important sources; a medieval concept of conscience as sinderesis and what he names the faculty view of conscience. On the one hand Howard presents the history of philosophy, and shows that the ancient conception of conscience and the medieval (sinderesis) are not the origin of the modern concept. The concept of sinderesis is accompanied of the concept of conscientia “Synderesis becomes largely interpreted as innate moral knowledge that cannot be effaced, while conscientia is the belief or application of our innate moral knowledge, of which we can be mistaken.” (20) On the other hand, Howard explains that from the perspective of modernity it has become clear that an obscurely ontological notion of conscience has started to play a large role in the discussion; a kind of independent moral voice that was not required to explain motives or reasons, and that this became what he calls “the faculty view of conscience” (see 21-22). Authors like Butler, Newman and even Kant favored this movement, placing particular emphasis in the (perhaps protestant-originated) conviction that the voice of conscience is not subject to questioning. Howard shows how philosophers such as Hegel (1976, 397-406) and Ricoeur (1992, 236) acknowledge a problem with the false consciousness that can be hidden through a solipsistic view of conscience; a view that presents conscience as a sort of independent and inscrutable source of moral decision that isolates itself and the acting individuals from rational scrutiny and accountability. Howard’s argumentation aims to show that the “faculty view of conscience” presents conscience as an alien a priori moral agent within us, a claim near to impossible to justify, whereas he shows that the views of Hegel, Ricoeur and his own make conscience emerge from a reasoned interplay of core moral emotions.

According to Howard, the faculty view of conscience is used as an umbrella term which constitutes a constellation of assumptions and presumptions and the core of his critique concerns questioning what this view amounts to. Indeed, the faculty view “commits one to assuming that conscience is an independent component of human nature” (32), and the independence of conscience is thus explained or justified in the light of its infallibility and innateness. The faculty view, in Howard’s opinion, adopts a sense of infallibility and innateness that are empirically and conceptually empty and indefensible. Howard seems to interpret this aspect of the faculty view as a metaphysically thick concept, one that begs far too many concessions as even if the infallibility and innateness can appear plausible they are not and any effort to save the phenomenon of conscience must do so without relying on this conception. Howard states that there is a definite need “… for an alternate conception of conscience other than the faculty view if we want to retain a notion of conscience that is explanatorily relevant” (32). Howard´s proposal emerges from the assumption that morality is best understood in terms of social interaction. According to him, the problem with the faculty view is that it does not allow for a fully-fledged conscious response to the legitimate needs, concerns and expectations of not only others, but even of the individual agents themselves.

Alongside his own criticisms, Howard introduces some historical challenges aimed at the faculty view. As we see in Charles Taylor’s description of a secular age (2007, 17-21) while Freud attacked the instinctual renunciation present in the faculty view; Nietzsche fought the radical moral conformism that could conceal; and Heidegger the conformism that prevents people from taking account of the meaning of their own being (33).

Chapter Four furthers the critique addressed to the faculty view, nonetheless, does not mean that there is no need of a view of conscience at all, and in Chapter Four Howard introduces his actual proposal to rescue the relationship between conscience and our core moral convictions. The structure of this chapter includes an analysis of the three emotions he believes to be at the core interplay that should ground conscience: shame, guilt and pride. In order to do it, Howard analyses the role that conscience should play in relation to the “internalization and evaluation of certain core norms and values” (87). He elaborates by showing the phenomenological interplay of the structuring of our characters, values, convictions with a special emphasis in the phenomenology of three prominent moral emotions; pride, guilt and shame. Howard aims to specify the way in which the case for a “good conscience” needs to articulate itself with practical reasons, character and moral emotions. Pride plays a role in structuring our moral convictions, but it also bears the risk of isolating us and rendering us insensitive to the needs of others. Shame reminds us of the public character of our actions and makes us aware of it at all times, and guilt, rightly managed, helps us monitoring how we behave in the past in order to picture our future actions. In Howard’s opinion, conscience can be recovered as a horizon of fulfillment between the prideful self-absorption and a thoroughgoing commitment and sensitivity to other’s needs. In order to facilitate this we need to integrate moral emotions with a sense of moral accountability. This is the way in which the faculty view can give way to a more reasoned view of conscience, one that does not isolate us from a reflective character in our moral commitments, whichever these are.

In Chapter Five Howard also traces the consequences of the substantive view of conscience in the legal system of the United States; his aim is to show that the way in which this discussion unfolds reveals a problem with the faculty view of conscience that brings jurisprudence to a halt. Indeed, it seems that the legal system in the U.S. has proved vulnerable to cases in which conscience is used to avoid giving reasons. Howard stresses that the mentioned cases are usually impending problems that involve rights to uphold and obligations to fulfil that an agent could cunningly avoid. Howard carefully traces different cases related to objections of conscience given to stop individuals from having to comply with military service or issues of healthcare. An outstanding case is the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of California People vs. Stewart of 1857 (130): this case is a representative fact where the faculty view of conscience helps somebody to avoid legal obligation by claiming a view of conscience as an inaccessible “black box”. The way conscience was described in this particular way was a conscience that “acknowledges no superior, bows to no authority, yields to no demonstration… is governed by no law” (130). Howard aims to be very impartial in presenting these cases: he doesn’t want to argue for or against a particularly contentious moral problem such as the objections of conscience in cases of the provision of services in healthcare, which of course makes us consider the case of abortion or other issues. Howard wants us to recover the space for serious discussion rather than appealing to a mysterious agency of an inaccessible conscience. According to Howard, those who object to an appeal to conscience often exploit and/or profit from the obscurity inherent in our understanding of the term. In Howard’s opinion (154) the term conscience understood from the faculty view point of view is intractable to sustain a “right of conscience”.

We must agree with Howard that the notion of conscience used in the U.S. legal system is obscure to say the least, but it does not necessarily follow that the concept of conscience cannot be grounded. Howard advocates for the preservation of the aspects of conscience that represents our deepest moral convictions, but he is critical of its use as a “get out of jail free card” i.e. of conscience as something which could halter discussions which seek to solve problems in relation to obtaining justice. One of Howard’s greatest achievements in the book is that, though he criticizes the history, uses and abuses of the faculty view of conscience, he rescues a true place for conscience as that which can be shaped by reasoned evaluation of our moral beliefs and emotions. He emphasizes in Shame, Guilt and Pride, and the reader might profit of a beginning of a phenomenological study of each of these.

In addition, Howard helps us to reflect how moral formation has to take place at an early stage when our convictions form and get strengthened by a responsible engagement in public and social life. He states how important it is e.g. to convey to children the value of grasping and understanding other people’s emotions in order for them to form their own moral character. Philosophical reflections on our ethos as individuals within a society help us to form a true consciousness (as Hegel explains in the Phenomenology of the Spirit). Our moral emotions need to be made conscious so that we can tell whether they are a true ethical response to our way of being in the world as flourishing human beings. Howard reminds us of Dewey’s (1992, 575-98) efforts to understand that our responses to ethical issues have a dynamic character, framing these evolving aspect of morality as early as childhood. Hence, we must adapt by the use of our reason and dialogue, as well as utilizing a democratic spirit, to ongoing and future situations. Howard draws attention to the formation of conscience which is key in relation to Peirce’s metaphor of knowledge (1868, 140-57); not a chain that is as strong as the weakest link but a cable formed by different fibers and strands that become strengthened by their mutual configuration. His intention is to illustrate that moral character and a positive view of conscience require integration with the complexity of our moral life.

One could argue that Howard goes too far with his repeated suggestions that all the convictions that contribute to the formation of conscience must be equally traceable by a phenomenological as well as rational scrutiny. To be clear, this would require every individual who feels damaged in his convictions to be philosophically trained to offer a reconstruction of these convictions, and the appeal to conscience would suggest something very serious that touches the core of these beliefs, even if the individual is not in any condition to offer reasons for his own moral behavior. Requesting such articulation from an individual is tantamount to asking for everybody to become philosophically trained to examine all aspects of their psyche which could contribute to the formation of a moral character. However, as Howard points out, many of the elements of the formation of our moral character are complex relations between values and emotions that are not apparent despite harsh philosophical scrutiny.

Of course, this does not mean that we must endorse the faculty view of conscience, but we should bear in mind that, whatever we happen to feel as a dictate of our own conscience reports a sensitive aspect of our moral character, even when we are not in a position to p.make this explicit. Therefore, we should not overlook such issues as they raise questions in relation to something that, rather than being a hidden inaccessible ‘will within our will’, it is itself a moral emotion which ought not to be downplayed. Suppose, for example, that an individual is in a very upsetting order of things and that she has little or no reflexive access to her own moral convictions (moral intuitions that group together in what we call “conscience” seem to be informative of our overall ethical flourishment) should we ignore these helpful feelings, intuitions and blurry convictions because they are not expressible in terms of a reasonable debate? Perhaps Howard’s work can assist us with a future study of the importance of moral intuitions that can be integrated with the traditional concept of conscience; this would significantly widen the scope of his own original approach. Howard’s book will be of great use for any scholar that wishes to understand how to establish some clarity on the conscientious objections, though seems still just the beginning of such intellectual inquiry, as the book falls short in fully reconstructing the new approach to conscience that Howard promised.


Dewey, John. (1992). “The Construction of the Good” from On Certainty. In The Philosophy of John Dewey, 575-98. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1976). Phenomenology of the Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howard, Jason J. (2007). “Political Identity and the Dynamics of Accountability in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Proceedings of the Hegel Society of America 18:233-252.

Howard, Jason J. (2009). “The Historicity of Ethical Categories.” Proceedings of the Hegel Society of America 19: 155-176.

Peirce, Charles S. (1868). “Some consequences of four incapacities”. Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2: 140-57.

Ricoeur, Paul (1992). Oneself as another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Charles (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge MA: Belknap University Press.

Virginie Palette: Le donné en question dans la phénoménologie et le néokantisme: des critiques du positivisme au débat avec Kant, Springer, 2018

Le donné en question dans la phénoménologie et le néokantisme: des critiques du positivisme au débat avec Kant Book Cover Le donné en question dans la phénoménologie et le néokantisme: des critiques du positivisme au débat avec Kant
Phaenomenologica, Volume 224
Virginie Palette
Hardcover 96,29 €
XII, 141

Toon Horsten: De pater en de filosoof. De redding van het Husserl-archief, Uitgeverij Vrijdag, 2018

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Toon Horsten
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Paperback € 22,50

Hans-Georg Gadamer: Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Works of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I

Hermeneutics between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I Book Cover Hermeneutics between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I
The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer
Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer
Hardcover $207.00

Reviewed by: Christopher Noble (Villanova University)

Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Volume 1, edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer, collects eighteen essays by Gadamer on the topic of the philosophy of history. Of these sixteen essays, two have previously appeared in English (“Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person,” Gadamer 2000; “Hermeneutics on the Trail,” Gadamer 2007). This volume on the philosophy of history is the first of a projected three of Gadamer’s selected works, and will be followed by volumes on ethics and aesthetics. By providing these materials in English translation, the editors aim to contribute to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophy and its evolution, as well as provide new context through which to understand his views:

“When it comes to a major philosopher like Gadamer a strong case can be made that scholars need to have all available essays in order to assess the different components of the philosopher’s theses, to measure the evolution of his thought through time, and to grasp all the intricacies of his views in the different contexts of their application. This is the aim of this edition.” (viii)

Note that this project is not meant to collect Gadamer’s most significant works on the philosophy of history. Rather, it supplements what is currently available in other locations in English. It also excludes short speeches and book reviews, as well as essays the editors deem not to add anything of philosophical significance to what is already available. This project is commendable, and although Gadamer develops many of the themes of this volume in books and essays already available in English, it constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and more broadly, the overall nature, context, and development of German philosophy in the twentieth-century. This volume should therefore be of interest to readers of Gadamer, continental philosophy more generally, and indeed anyone concerned with the relation between philosophy and its history.

Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, which involves a vision of human life as continuously interpreting the world, attempts to show that thought and language bear an essential relation to the past. For Gadamer, what we are able to think and the questions that we are able to ask in the present emerge on the basis of historical tradition. Famously, in his magnum opus Truth and Method [Wahrheit und Methode], first published in 1960, Gadamer sought to rehabilitate the notion of “prejudice” [Vorurteil] that he thought had been unfairly maligned as a result of the Enlightenment rejection of external authority (Gadamer 2004, 268-83). Although Gadamer does not think that we should uncritically accept the judgments and ideas that have been handed down to us by tradition, he maintains that the judgments that we find pre-given as part of our cultural heritage and experience provide the positive basis for our intellectual horizons in the present. On this view, philosophy unfolds as a dialogue with the past, where we both uncover and interpret what is implicit in how we already think about the world, and in which we take up and renew what still speaks to us from across temporal distance.

From the standpoint of the historiography of philosophy, Gadamer’s position thus carves a path between approaches to philosophical history that see themselves as working to understand the past on its own terms without reference to present day philosophical concerns, and those approaches that mine the history of philosophy for arguments and solutions that can provide insight into contemporary problems without taking into account the historical genesis of these philosophical problems themselves. From a Gadamerian perspective, both of these types of approach sever the living connection between the philosophical past and the present at the heart of any genuine philosophical project. For Gadamer, the history of philosophy should not only be the province of self-described historians of philosophy; rather, every working philosopher is responding to philosophical tradition, whether they realize it or not.

The essays collected in this volume span the years of 1964-94, the period after the 1960 publication of Truth and Method, and thus represent a period in he was recognized as a major philosophical voice both in Germany and internationally. Many of the essays develop and explicate themes from Truth and Method, as well as provide Gadamer space to reflect upon his own philosophical development. Most prominently in this latter regard, ample space is given to the respective roles of Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger (Gadamer’s teacher in the 1920s, and whose reputation Gadamer helped restore in the post-World War II period) in the development of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. Whereas Dilthey’s historicism, philosophy of life, and hermeneutics played a major role in shaping the “hermeneutical situation” of Gadamer’s youth, Heidegger’s influence lent shape to Gadamer’s views of language, scientific objectivity and the role that the history of philosophy plays in determining our philosophical horizons.

The editors divide the volume into four parts. Part one includes six essays covering the general topic of history, and develop Gadamer’s distinctive notion of human life as “historically affected.” Part two features three essays on Dilthey’s historicist philosophy of life, and how Gadamer viewed it as an impetus for his own philosophical hermeneutics. The third part collects five essays on the works of European philosophers and intellectuals including Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida. The material on Bourdieu, Habermas, and Derrida is particularly illuminating as it presents Gadamer’s responses to contemporaries, each of whom, in their own way, represent direct challenges to Gadamer’s phenomenological, linguistic, and hermeneutical positions. Part Four includes four essays on Heidegger from the mid-1980s, consisting of reminiscences of Gadamer’s experiences as a student of Heidegger, Gadamer’s interpretation of Heidegger’s so-called Kehre as a “return” [“Ruck-kehre”], and his account of Heidegger’s interpretations of ancient Greek philosophy. In light of the recent revival of controversy over Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism, spurred by the publication of the Black Notebooks (Heidegger 2014/2016), it may be of note that these essays give little insight into Gadamer’s knowledge of, or perspective on, Heidegger’s political engagements (Gadamer himself worked to maintain distance and intellectual independence from the National Socialist regime. See Grondin 2003, 150-230). Perhaps an editors’ note with clarification, or that points the reader to independent discussion of these issues would have been of use.

In addition to translating Gadamer’s essays, the editors contribute a preface and introduction, as well as notes and glossaries of German, Latin, and Greek expressions used by Gadamer. The preface introduces the contents of the volume and characterizes Gadamer’s philosophical and rhetorical style. The introduction provides a general introduction to Gadamer’s philosophical project, focusing on the role of history within it. In addition to treating Gadamerian themes including interpretation, dialogue, the speaking voice, and philosophical praxis, the introduction examines Gadamer’s philosophical influences and interlocutors such as Plato, Aristotle, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida. This reader found especially helpful the editors’ account of how Gadamer’s philosophy of history relates to his philosophy of language.

In approaching this volume, I have adopted the perspective of a historian of philosophy concerned with the methodological question of how to understand the relation between the philosophical past and present. For this reason, as well as in the interest of space, the review will focus more on Gadamer’s philosophy of history, and less on the details of Gadamer’s interpretations of other philosophers that are found in this volume. This philosophy of history is directly developed in the first part of the volume. These essays include reflections on themes including historical causality, the relation between historicity and truth, the relation between human history and the natural history of the universe, what it would mean to try to separate oneself from all history, the meaning of the terms “old” and “new”, and death. Together, they provide an overarching account of Gadamer’s understanding of human life as embedded within history.

In the first essay, “Is there a Causality in History?” (1964), Gadamer argues that history is a network of events that determines our lives and that can never be reduced to a “causal analysis.” Neither naturalistic explanation in the form of efficient causality, nor a Kantian analysis of historical causality as the realm of human freedom, can capture the way that history determines human life and possibilities:

“Investigating the deeper reasons for the historical course of things is absolutely not an attempt at a ‘causal’ explanation, which would only ask for the causa efficiens. When we discern historical connections, we have not discovered a web of causal factors – of nature and freedom – whose threads we isolate only to be able to get our hands on them for the future – history never repeats itself. It is precisely in this that the reality of history consists: to be and to determine us, without ever being able to be mastered through a causal analysis.” (12)

We are embedded within history, and can never extricate ourselves from it such that we can provide an exhaustive causal account of the past and future. For Gadamer, the hermeneutic task becomes understanding that the past constrains our possibilities for action while remaining open to the contingencies of the future.

The second essay, “Historicity and Truth”, from 1991, concerns itself with the question of historical relativism. Against the view that the truth-claims found in history are relative to their times and places, Gadamer argues that this belief assumes a notion of objective knowledge as that which aims to control and master. Under this regime, we would reduce truth-claims to their specific position within history, thereby eliminating their capacity to attain a form of truth that transcends mere circumstance. If we resist this assumption, not only can we treat past philosophers as potential interlocutors, but we can understand how their ideas are capable of attaining universal application with respect to the understanding of human life and its possibilities:

“Objectivity means objectification. It signifies a constricting prejudice everywhere in that realm where breaking resistance and achieving control are not actually paramount, but rather being together and participating in the hermeneutic universe in which we live with one another. In this regard, I could show how Platonism, in addition to Aristotelianism, makes itself repeatedly relevant for the exegesis of Christian mystery and, altogether, how in the time of the enlightenment the pronouncements of art reach deep into the life of individuals and peoples, beyond all historical distances and differences as well as beyond practical and political decisions.” (23)

For Gadamer, the relevance of history and historical knowledge lies in the way that ideas may continue to speak to us across time. In taking up old ideas, we may of course translate them in applying them to our own contexts. However, this mode of application is not a distortion of the original idea; rather, it reveals what was true and therefore universal within it.

In the third essay, “The History of the Universe and the History of Things,” written in 1998, Gadamer argues that human history represents a sphere distinct from the progression of natural events or facts. Gadamer distinguishes between what he calls the “history of the universe” and “the history of the world”:

“Obviously, there also belongs to the history of the universe the question as to when humanity first appeared on this planet, which we call the Earth, and how the human species evolved – and perhaps also whether and when to expect the extinction of this species. Human beings would then be recorded like key fossils in a chapter of the history of the universe. Yet, this historical past, which we awaken through what monuments and tradition give us as hints, means something else. ‘World history’ is not a phase in the history of the universe, but is a whole in its own right. It is not primarily through the so-called ‘facts’, which can be established in objective research with the methods of the natural sciences, that we have a knowledge of this history that we call world history.” (30)

Although the history of the human world unfolds within the temporal arc of natural history of the universe, and its components can be analyzed as facts from the perspective of universal history, qua features of the history of the human world, they are not reducible to natural facts. Unlike the fossilized remains of natural history, that which belongs to the history of the human world is, for Gadamer, what is retained in living memory in the form of monuments and traditions. This history is that which provides significance for our lives, as well as what gives us an inkling of our specifically human possibilities in the future.

Whereas the “history of the universe” is the object of the natural sciences [Naturwissenschaften], the “history of the world” is the domain of the human sciences. Gadamer argues that we do not know the truths pertaining to the human sciences with certitude or in an objective manner. Rather, the human sciences such as philosophy, anthropology, or art history, participate in the very cultural practices that they study, helping to open up new human possibilities through their modes of reflection:

“Human sciences rather belong to orders that constantly configure and reconfigure themselves through our own concrete participation in them and thereby contribute to our knowledge about the human possibilities and normative commonalities that affect us […] There are no certainties here like the guarantees of the theoretical and ‘scientific’ kind and here we always need to consider the other side – not only what we have in mind, but also what others think.” (41)

One upshot of all of this, for Gadamer, is that the human sciences have an important role to play in moving our multicultural, global world into the future. Not only do the human sciences have the potential to create dialogue between disparate groups around the world, but Gadamer maintains that they have a further potential to help resist the global domination of technology insofar as they eschew objectifying forms of knowledge:

“In our pluralistic world, the other also includes foreign cultures and distant inhabitants of this earth. We will have to learn all this more and more in the future. Our human goal cannot be to use a technological civilization in order to stifle everything that has been handed out to us or to others and has shaped us all in the forms our life has taken. Only when we put the capacities of understanding and mutual acceptance to use in the new tasks that bring and hold the world in equilibrium, will we be able to create new forms of organization. Of all the sciences, it is especially the so-called human sciences that contribute the most to the nurturing of these capacities. They force us to confront constantly in all its richness the entire scale of what is human and all too human.” (41)

The fourth essay, a lecture given in 1969 entitled “A World without History?”, defends the importance of the art of reading and specifically historical knowledge against what Gadamer characterizes as “the omnipresence of a constant flood of information” (48) in the modern world. Together with the view that all knowledge should be modeled on the knowledge proper to the natural sciences, Gadamer suggests that this flow of information from the media threatens to produce thoughtless conformity and manufactured opinion. Within this situation, Gadamer advocates for a recognition of the importance of playful reading and historical knowledge. Here, Gadamer is less concerned with history in the sense of the objective facts of what took place at what time, and more with what is handed down in the living memory of the past:

“Without knowledge and without reflecting on our own proper possibilities, there is for us no future. However, this means, not without history. History does not mean an evasion into the past, but is a memoria vitae, a memory of life, as Cicero calls historiography. History, the world of history, is not a second world of the past alongside the natural world that surrounds us. History is a completely inexhaustible system of all the worlds that are out there, which are closer to us than the nearby satellite orbiting our earth. For, history is the world of human beings. To study history is to keep open the entire range of what it means to be human. Thanks to history we are not confined to what we know or think by ourselves. History describes all our possibilities. As for what kind of future we will have, it will depend on how broadly we preserve and increase the heritage of the historical tradition from which we all originate and which unifies us all more and more.” (49)

Within the context of the social criticism of this essay, we recognize the larger significance, for Gadamer, of history for human life. Beings historically affected means that there is no gap between the historical world of the past and our world in the present. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of information threatens to cut us off from this living history, trapping us in the present and constraining our ability to genuinely think. Thus, Gadamer fears that a “world without history” is a world in which human beings are servile and manipulable.

The fifth essay, “The Old and the New” (1981), presents a phenomenological analysis of the categories of the “old” and the “new.” Here Gadamer argues that, in a strict sense, the “old” is that which appears as so familiar as to be irrelevant. We may indeed become interested in things that are “old” in the sense of being from the past, but insofar as we do, we have discovered new possibilities for their application, thereby making them “new” again.

“‘Always after the new.’ The expression betrays us: it is not the old and the new that are up for choice, but this or that, what promises something and because it promises something. It can also be something old. It is in fact never the choice between the old and the new. The old is never up for choice as something old. To the extent that it is old, it has reached the obviousness of what is familiar. Only in light of new possibilities can it be put up for choice at all as a counterpossibility and elicit our attention.” (54)

Gadamer then takes occasion to reflect upon our phenomenological experience of time, which is split between the dimensions of the past, present, and future. What is truly past or old, is what is no longer possible. The future, by contrast, Gadamer conceives of as that which stands before us, and in this sense may include “past” possibilities that have been made new:

“This is precisely the experience that time is for us: its two dimensions, future and past, are never the present. However, this means that they do not stand in front of us like two equal possibilities. One is the possible, the past is well and truly gone. Even a god cannot make unhappen what has happened. What stands before us [was vor uns steht] is what may await us [was uns bevorstehen mag]. Even when it is something well-known that awaits us, it is no longer what is usual and known, but appears in a new light.” (54)

For Gadamer, the category of the “new” — as that which awaits for us in the future — will always include elements of the [temporal] past for which we have found new applications and possibilities.

The final essay of the first part, a philosophical reflection upon death from 1975 entitled “Death as a Question”, presents a formulation of the philosophical activity that connects it to tradition. For Gadamer, the universality of hermeneutics means that we are always interpreting ourselves and our world. In this sense, philosophy becomes a knowledge of the already known, which Gadamer associates with the Platonic theory of recollection or anamnēsis:

“These are questions to which philosophy must devote itself in its own way because the task of philosophy is to want to know what we know without knowing that we know it. This is a precise definition of what philosophy is and an [164] apt description of what Plato first recognized: the knowledge with which we are dealing here, anamnēsis, is a bringing out of the interior and a raising to consciousness. Let us, thus, ask what one knows without knowing it when one knows about death. What does the philosophical tradition we inhabit have to say about it? Should we also ask about these attempts at thinking whether they are attempts to know or whether they are yet again ways of not wanting to know what we know?” (62)

Insofar as human life and philosophizing is embedded within history, Gadamer argues that philosophical reflection is one of recollection. Specifically, we are attempting to make present to ourselves that which, by virtue of the traditions in which we stand, we have always already known.

From a review of the philosophy of history sketched in Part 1, we learn that, for Gadamer, human life is embedded within history, which provides the horizon of our future possibilities. Not only is our human history distinct from the natural history of the universe, but we cannot avoid the way that it determines and constrains what is possible for us. The hermeneutical task becomes one of surveying the past, [re]-discovering that which continues to speak to us across time, and making it new again in applying it to the present.

If this is Gadamer’s general view of the place and role of history in human life, in the remainder of this review, I wish to apply this philosophy of history to the particular view of the history of philosophy that Gadamer presents in this volume. In so doing, I aim to test the limits of Gadamer’s account in order to pose the question of whether or not present-day readers should take up Gadamer’s hermeneutics as part of the “philosophical new,” or if they ought to, rather, consign it to a place in the history of philosophy with the “philosophical old.”

As is clear in this volume, and especially in the essays on Heidegger in part four, Gadamer himself understood his own philosophy as part of a larger Western/European tradition stretching back to Greek antiquity. For Gadamer, this Greek beginning of philosophy, and its subsequent effects, enable us to form a principled distinction between philosophy as it has been practiced in Europe and the Western world more broadly, and what we might think of, for instance, under the rubric of “Eastern philosophy.” As Gadamer describes the Heideggerian theme of the “end of philosophy” in the lecture “On the Beginning of Thought” in 1986:

“When Heidegger speaks of the end of philosophy, we immediately understand that we can only talk like this from the Western perspective. Elsewhere, there was no philosophy that set itself apart so much from poetry or religion or science, neither in East Asia nor in India nor in the unknown parts of the earth. ‘Philosophy’ is an expression of the trajectory of Western destiny. To speak with Heidegger: it is a destiny of being that has in fact become our destiny. The civilization of today, as it appears, finds its fulfilment in this destiny.” (229-30)

Following the “history of being” traced by Heidegger, the Greek beginning of philosophy is decisive insofar as its echoes shape the subsequent development of Western thinking. In Gadamer’s view, philosophical thinking as it descends from Greece self-consciously differentiates itself from religion. Further, philosophy aims for theoretical knowledge of nature, and as becomes evident in the Modern period and its separation of philosophy from the natural sciences, it attempts to produce methodological justification for the epistemic activity carried out in the natural sciences. These features of Greek-inspired Western philosophy may be found in such historical instances as the codification of Greek metaphysics in the Latin tradition, the emergence of Cartesian subjectivity and method in the seventeenth-century, the Kantian critique of metaphysics, the great philosophical systems of German idealism, and the ongoing technological domination of the natural world. Thus, Gadamer does seem to affirm a distinction between philosophy as a specifically “Western” intellectual tradition and forms of intellectual activity carried out in other coordinates in the human world:

“When we hear about the end of philosophy, we understand it from such a situation. We realize that the separation between religion, art, and philosophy, and perhaps even the separation between science and philosophy, are not originally common to all cultures, but precisely shaped the particular history of the Western world. One can ask oneself what kind of destiny this is. Where does it come from? How is it that technology could develop into such an autonomous force of necessity that it has become the hallmark of human culture nowadays? When we question in this manner, Heidegger’s surprising and apparently paradoxical thesis suddenly appears to be disturbingly plausible: it is Greek science and metaphysics, whose effects in today’s global civilization dominate our present.” (230)

On the basis of this account of the history of philosophy, it becomes natural to identify the philosophical task as one of interpreting and making explicit one’s own philosophical heritage. Indeed, we have seen that this task corresponds to Gadamer’s own philosophy of history as outlined in Part 1 of this volume: only by these means can one understand the linguistic and conceptual influences that shape one’s philosophical horizons, and indeed thereby have any hope of breaking free or of thinking something genuinely new.

However, what if one does not identify with this particular tradition of philosophy? Or, for that matter, what if one rejects the particular Gadamerian narrative of the history of philosophy? On this score, readers may be skeptical, for instance, of the distinction that Gadamer, following Heidegger, draws between “philosophy” [i.e. “Western philosophy”] and the rich traditions of metaphysical, ethical, and social-political thinking found in other parts of the human world. Though this distinction is drawn on the basis of a substantive claim regarding the existence of a distinct tradition of philosophical thinking originating in Classical Greek antiquity, one may contest the historical, linguistic, or theoretical continuity and integrity of such a tradition as set apart from the rest of global intellectual history. Further, if we assume its existence, we may worry that reserving the name “philosophy” for it alone might permit philosophers to disregard the contributions of thinkers from other parts of the world, insofar as those not in dialogue with the Western tradition were, by definition, not engaging in “philosophy.”

For readers skeptical on these grounds, the measure of Gadamer’s continuing philosophical relevance or “newness” may well be the degree to which one is willing to separate Gadamer’s broader philosophy of history from the history of philosophy as he himself conceived of it. Indeed, in Gadamer’s defense, one could imagine him replying that all genuine human questioning unfolds upon the backdrop of some tradition, and that it would therefore be a mistake to reject this insight and its consequences as a result of a disagreement over the facts of philosophical history. In any case, he would very likely agree that the task of delineating the true scope, meaning, nature of philosophy is one that must be continuously renewed, not least in the course of interacting with those from outside of the particular traditions one may call home.

As this volume of essays on Gadamer’s philosophy of history makes clear, the significance of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for us today is dependent upon our willingness and ability to apply it within our own philosophical situation and questions. In this regard, I could not escape the impression that the editors could have done more to provide guidance regarding how Gadamer’s hermeneutics could productively contribute to ongoing philosophical projects. Though they indicate, for instance, Gadamer’s critical relationship with Derridean deconstruction (xviii-xix), or that the philosopher John McDowell has acknowledged a Gadamerian inspiration present in his 1994 book Mind and World (xiii), are there more recent, active philosophical projects that are being carried out in what we might think of as a Gadamerian spirit? Does Gadamer’s critique of the objectivizing methodology of the natural sciences hit its mark, or may he find sympathetic ears in contemporary post-positivist practitioners of the philosophy of science? In this reviewer’s view, areas in which Gadamer’s philosophy of history may prove relevant and fruitful include methodological discussions in philosophical historiography (e.g. Catana 2008, 299-304), and comparative philosophy aiming for cross-cultural dialogue (Berger et al. 2017). In light of Gadamer’s insistence that philosophical truth emerges in the application of ideas from the history of philosophy to the present, the editors may have missed an opportunity to test Gadamer’s applicability today and lend further support to the continuing relevance of his philosophical hermeneutics.


Berger, Douglas L., Hans-Georg Moeller, A. Raghuramaraju, and Paul A. Roth. 2017. “Symposium: Does Cross-Cultural Philosophy Stand in Need of a Hermeneutic Expansion?” Journal of World Philosophies 2: 121–43.
Catana, Leo. 2008. The Historiographical Concept “System of Philosophy”: Its Origin, Nature, Influence and Legitimacy. Leiden: Brill.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2000. “Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person.” Translated by Peter Adamson and David Vessey. Continental Philosophy Review 33: 275–87.
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Brian W. Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, David M. Goodman (Eds.): Unconscious Incarnations, Routledge, 2018

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