Christophe Perrin: Solus ipse. Phénoménologie de la solitude, Hermann, 2022

Solus ipse. Phénoménologie de la solitude Book Cover Solus ipse. Phénoménologie de la solitude
De visu
Christophe Perrin
Paperback 32,00 €

David B. Yaden and Andrew Newberg: The Varieties of Spiritual Experience, Oxford University Press, 2022

The Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and Perspectives Book Cover The Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and Perspectives
David B. Yaden and Andrew Newberg
Oxford University Press
Hardback £22.99

Adam J. Graves: The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur

The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricoeur Book Cover The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricoeur
Studies in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur
Adam J. Graves
Lexington Books
Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Of truth, it was Schopenhauer who said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Thirty years after the publication of Dominique Janicaud’s “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology,” arguing that the work of Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, and Paul Ricœur was a collective betrayal of classical phenomenology, are we nearing truth’s inevitable third stage? The appearance of Adam J. Graves’s The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur indicates such is the case.1 For, although some dismiss the theological turn, continuing to pass over it in silence, as if it were unworthy of their attention or response, there is no longer any pretending that a theological turn in phenomenology has not occurred. Far from it constituting a deviation from phenomenology’s true method, attention to the phenomenon of revelation has always been foundational to phenomenological philosophy’s stand against the prevailing naturalistic, empiricist, and scientistic understanding of the modern, disenchanted, technological world. The task, then, is not one of determining whether revelation is a viability for phenomenology, but of assessing its contribution to phenomenology’s promise as an ongoing movement. In response to this task, Graves has given us a work tracing the trajectory of the phenomenon of revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur. “Phenomenology’s turn toward the theological,” as Graves says at one point, “did not begin in the nineteen eighties. It was already well underway by the time Heidegger delivered his lecture on ‘Phenomenology and Theology’ in 1928” (23). Not only then does he illustrate why it is justified today to speak openly of a theological turn in phenomenology, or even of a return. This result would be useful enough! More still, Graves offers us a groundbreaking account of revelation itself contributing to the very theological (re)turn it so admirably examines.

To see why Graves views the turn this way, a mindfulness of the philosophical history shaping phenomenology’s concern with the phenomenon of revelation is necessary. “No single theological concept poses a greater challenge to philosophy than that of revelation,” he observes at the beginning of the introduction (xxi). For just as “revelation implies a claim to disclose truth” thereby “allegedly confronting philosophy on its own turf” (xxi), so then it might be viewed as “an affront to reason, an anathema to philosophy” (xxi). One indeed might simply conclude that revelation and reason are opposed to one another, the two “destined from birth to face off as mortal enemies, caught in an endless, take-no-prisoners battle wherein each seeks to reduce the other to itself, to monopolize truth by capturing and colonizing the other’s terrain” (xxi). Such a characterization, however, overexaggerates the antagonism between them, Graves says. As he points out, philosophy has a history of “negotiating a lasting peace” with revelation, even if such a “precarious ceasefire” has separated reason and revelation into two autonomous zones (xxi). This effort to separate revelation and reason is evident at least as early as in Aquinas, who demarcates “rational truths” (the domain of theologia philosophiae) from the so-called “revealed truths” that are inaccessible to the natural light of reason (the domain of theologia sacrae doctinae) (xxii). A “philosophical theory of two truths” (xxii), Aquinas believed, would allow for philosophical reason and theological revelation to complement one another. However, by the end of the modern period, the arrangement had come to undermine revelation’s own understanding of itself as the dispenser of absolute truth. Modern philosophical reason, imbued with the right to question everything, including the authority of tradition, church, and the Bible, considered revelation an “historical relic.” Consequently, the truths of revelation were subordinated to the eternal truths of reason (xxii). Further complicating matters was the fact that this very distinction between the eternal truths of reason and the historical truths of revelation was unstable, itself becoming a matter of contention. The Enlightenment’s conception of reason’s authority and sovereignty proved not to be above criticism. As Graves remarks, “The kind of autonomy and transparency which philosophy had claimed for itself, could only be defined and maintained when juxtaposed against the backdrop of its proper epistemic ‘other,’ as though the eternal truths of reason could only ever shine against the supposedly opaque and impenetrable surface of revelation and its contingent truths” (xxv). The Enlightenment conception of rational truth defining itself in opposition to revelation “could not do away with its other without doing away with itself” (xxv). This story of modern reason’s evolution, and its relation to revelation, is a fascinating issue in its own right.2 Lest, however, it be concluded that it is only a piece of intellectual history, Graves illustrates how modern philosophy’s question of the extent to which the content of revelation might be reducible to reason is at issue again today in the theological turn of phenomenology. “One of the philosophical frontlines in this centuries-old battle between reason and revelation,” as he says, “is located within the field of phenomenology” (xxv). With this historical backdrop in view, a key claim of Graves’s concerning the relation between reason and revelation here emerges: Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur in their own ways “undermine the enlightenment’s claim that reason is autonomous and wholly transparent” (xxvi). If Enlightenment efforts of self-grounding reason fail, one might conclude philosophy ends in skepticism or nihilism.2 Or, one might instead attempt to rehabilitate philosophy by resuscitating revelation. As Graves will show, this is what Marion, Heidegger, and Ricœur each aims to do, by refiguring revelation phenomenologically. Just as the concept of reason underwent a transformation in the hands of modern philosophy, so now the concept of revelation has in phenomenology.

In what does this transformation of revelation consist? To begin with, it is a broadening of the concept. Revelation no longer is confined to propositional truths only, as was the case for the Scholastics. In the Middle Ages, as Graves himself explains, “the content of the so-called revealed was comprised of a set of the propositional statements, i.e., doctrines that could not be obtained through human reason, but depended upon God’s active revelation” (12). When, however, revelation became “more closely associated with a particular quality of experience, or a particular kind of phenomenon, rather than a mere collection of dogmatic propositions, the stage was set for its philosophical reevaluation” (xxvi). Part of that legacy is alive today in phenomenology, for which revelation is a matter of experiential truth, of what is encountered. But revelation is not simply said to be a particular mode or content of experience. It is the essence of experience. Quoting Marion, Graves notes, “‘Revelation, by virtue of the givenness that it alone performs perfectly, would accomplish the essence of phenomenality’” (5). Not only, then, does phenomenology seek to undermine and escape the constraints once imposed by modern philosophical reason. Moreover, its interest in revelation “stems from its own root concerns and core problems” (5). As the “other” of Enlightenment reason,3 revelation would lie at the heart of phenomenology’s philosophical project to uncover and describe that which appears, and how it appears. So understood, revelation would designate the form of phenomenality as such:

[Phenomenology’s concern with revelation is] not adopting a theological question that would be foreign or even peripheral to its core concerns. On the contrary, it is actually tackling a question about phenomenology itself, about its ability to live up to its own promise of enabling phenomena to appear as they give themselves out to be, as they are given beyond the limits of enlightenment reason—and that means independently of scientific or naturalistic presuppositions, the narrow constraints of the principle of sufficient reason, and the conditions of possibility imposed upon them by the modern subject (5).

None of this should be considered particularly controversial yet. The phenomenological formulation of revelation as a problem, one will note, involves doing philosophy in light of Husserl’s epoché, insofar as it entails “the fulfillment of Husserl’s original aim, namely, a pure description of the full range of phenomena” (xxvii). Husserl’s “principle of principles” frees the phenomena, notes Graves, such that “everything that appears to consciousness—including religious phenomena—could, at least in principle, become a legitimate object of phenomenological description and thus philosophical investigation” (3). Revelation, then, would appear to be fair game.

However, things are not quite so straightforward, owing to a tension within Husserl himself that the rest of phenomenology inherits. Does not Husserl call for a suspension of theological presuppositions? The same Husserlian method that might be claimed to allow God to appear could also be said to foreclose the appearing of God. “One might wonder,” as Graves observes, how Husserl’s epoché and reductions “could possibly serve as the best method for developing a philosophical account of revelation” (xxvii). Others for this reason have viewed with suspicion the attempt to formulate revelation as a phenomenological problem, calling into question its methodological moves and underlying motives (xxvii). One here again calls to mind Janicaud’s original contention, according to which the theological turn had abandoned an “interrogation of the visible in favor of a blind and imprudent affirmation of radical transcendence” (xxviii). As Graves himself notes, “One may ask whether the turn’s new and peculiar reinterpretation of key phenomenological principles—such as horizon, reduction, intentionality, world, etc.—signals the culmination of the phenomenological enterprise or whether it signals a departure from and deterioration of phenomenology as such” (xxix). “What cannot be disputed,” he says, “is the significance of this ‘turn’ as a purely historical event” (xxix). It here becomes apparent why Graves has elected to open his study of revelation by placing things in historical context. He says,

If some have claimed phenomenology has remained the most powerful and enduring force on the Parisian philosophical scene since its initial reception in the middle of the last century, then the phenomenological appropriation of the category of revelation may be said to represent—for better or worse—the single most significant even in recent French philosophy. How did this event come to pass? What concrete challenge has it raised, and what paths have phenomenologists taken in order to meet those challenges? How has this event altered the phenomenological enterprise itself—its methods, its objectives, and its own self-understanding? How has it altered or informed our understanding of the nature of revelation, or perhaps even of the nature of philosophical reason? (xxx).

Sensitive to the fact that many might find this claim of French phenomenological philosophy’s importance hyperbolic, Graves points out that the problem of revelation, and the corresponding question concerning the methodological relation between phenomenology and theology, is not an issue parochial to French phenomenology. For one thing, theology and the religious life were fundamental concerns of Heidegger’s during the lead-up to Being and Time. Heidegger’s thought (particularly his departing 1928 Marburg lecture), Graves will claim, “is the single most important source for understanding the nature and diversity of the most recent interest in the phenomenology of revelation among French philosophers” (3). How did the Parisian concern with revelation originate in Marburg and Freiburg? As Graves recounts,

On February 14, 1928, Heidegger stood before his colleagues at the University of Marburg to deliver what would be his final lecture before returning—triumphantly, as it were—to Freiburg, where he was to take over as the successor to his former mentor, Edmund Husserl. The topic Heidegger chose for his parting address was “Phenomenology and Theology” (1).

The lecture’s significance can only be understood when appreciated in terms of its place within the overall philosophical project Heidegger was engaged in at the time. In courses on the religious life from earlier that decade, Heidegger had claimed “primal Christian experience becomes concealed through Greek conceptuality,” a thesis prefiguring his “later description of the history of the forgetfulness of Being—the all-important Seinsvergessenheit” (2). For Heidegger, overcoming the history of philosophy’s forgetfulness of being would require a deconstruction of Christianity’s own self-understanding. Here, Graves notes that Heidegger’s approach to revelation highlights two contrasting attitudes toward the role of language in revelation that will structure phenomenology’s subsequent handling of the problem: “the ‘radical’ and the ‘hermeneutical’ attitudes” (6). The radical attitude, he says, “begins to take shape in the works of early Heidegger, whose Destruktion of the metaphysical tradition involved a return to ‘the beginning, the primal, the originary,’ and thus moves in the direction of what might be called the pre-linguistic” (6). As Graves continues, “this partly explains why Heidegger’s destructive (destruktiv) project was leveled against ordinary language—everyday chatter or idle talk (Gerede)—as much as it was against the distinctively philosophical language of modernity” (7). That is to say, Heidegger’s quest for the meaning of being necessitates a return to a primordial experience which “precedes (or cuts beneath)” certain forms of linguistic articulation and sedimentation (7). Now, contrast this radical attitude with the other, the hermeneutic attitude.

Whereas radical phenomenology seeks to overcome metaphysics by sidestepping language in its ceaseless quest for the primordial givenness, hermeneutical phenomenology challenges enlightenment paradigms through language itself, or by insisting upon a richer conception of linguisticality and the inexorable connection between language and being (9).

Thus emerges a further key claim of Graves’s study. Strictly speaking, he will claim, there is “no such thing as the phenomenology of revelation” (9). Rather, we must address “two essentially dichotomous phenomenological views of revelation as they emerge in the works of Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur” (10). Another central claim of Graves’s work follows. For as he clarifies, the purpose of the study “is not merely to present an account of these opposed approaches from the disinterested standpoint of a spectator or intellectual historian” (10). His aim, rather, is to show that the radical approach (typified by both Heidegger and Marion) divests revelation of its meaning and content, leaving a merely formal concept of revelation—“a revelation without Revelation,” unless it is supplemented with a hermeneutic approach (10). What does Graves mean—what is the problem? Typically, the worry concerning phenomenology turning to the problem of revelation is that it by doing so comprises its philosophical rigor and neutrality—this is the so-called “contamination” problem, as Graves terms it. Phenomenology importing theological content can be a problem, Graves is happy to admit. But he has a different concern in view, what he terms the problem of “counter-contamination.” Fearful of illicitly importing theological content into one’s phenomenological method, one formalizes the phenomenon of revelation to the point whereby it is attenuated completely, bereft of any meaningful content. When this happens, says Graves, an analysis of revelation finds itself having “lost sight” of “the material content of revelation itself” (15), such that whatever remains is “characterized by formalism itself, by a certain lack of determinate content” (15). This process of “attenuation-formalization” (16) leads phenomenological analysis astray in the case of revelation. As Graves asks, how will it be possible for phenomenology to account for the structure of revelation without having to draw from the well of theological discourse? (16). Is not phenomenology “inevitably dependent upon its engagement with religions language?” (16). It may be that phenomenological accounts of revelation are inescapably “contaminated” by a certain theological orientation or bias (16). But this, argues Graves, is in a way inevitable—for the idea of a philosophy somehow starting without presuppositions is a fantasy. In a qualified sense, then, such presuppositions can be a good thing. After all, were phenomenology unable to draw upon theological content when addressing the phenomenon of revelation, what would be left for the phenomenologist to investigate?4 As Graves says,

What would the phenomenological meaning of revelation mean in the absence of any reference to concrete religious experience? Would it represent an empty figure, a mere shadow? Or, would it mark the ultimate essence of revelation as such, beyond any of its particular historical, linguistic, or textual instantiations? (16).

The polar threats of “contamination” and “de-contamination” are related to the twofold sense of revelation itself. On the one hand, revelation can designate “the means or the process by which God is revealed to human beings” (13). On the other hand, it can denote “the nature of the content that is revealed” (13). According to Graves, the problems of ontic contamination and counter-contamination are both apparent in Heidegger’s 1928 lecture. This is largely explainable due to Heidegger’s commitment to what he at the time took to be the scientificity of philosophy. Philosophy and theology, Heidegger claims, are “two sciences rather than two competing worldviews” (25). There are two general types of science—ontic science and ontological science, a distinction grafted onto the ontological difference, the difference between beings (entities) and being (the being of entities). Science for Heidegger, taken in its most general sense, is defined by “‘the founding disclosure, for the sake of disclosure, of a self-contained region of beings, or of Being as such’” (27). The division between ontic and ontological sciences accordingly “derives from these two radically different manners of disclosure—ontic sciences are founded upon a disclosure of a being or a region of beings, whereas ontology involves the disclosure of Being as such” (27). Said another way, ontic sciences never engage the question of being as such. What they do instead, says Heidegger, is conceptualize, objectify, or thematize a set of beings that have already been disclosed in a prescientific manner (28). As Graves explains, “ontic-positive sciences are thereby engaged in second-order operations—experiments, data collection, etc.—that are propped up upon and sustained by the ‘rough’ and ‘naïve’ interpretations of their respective fields—interpretations which they inadvertently inherit from ordinary, pre-scientific experience without ever radically calling them into question” (28). Philosophy is not an ontic science. It is an ontological science—philosophy asks the question of the meaning of being as such. Phenomenology is thus the Urwissenschaft—as fundamental ontology, it is a questioning and clarifying of the meaning of being (29).

How does this concern the problem of revelation? As Graves observes, Heidegger’s distinction between ontical sciences and the ontological science corresponds to a distinction between revelation (Offenbarung) and revealability (Offenbarkeit) (23). Revealability is a formalization of revelation, one that Graves argues threatens to distort the concrete character of revelation itself (24). According to him, Heidegger attempts to illegitimately superimpose the formal character of revealability back upon revelation itself, so that the latter is purged of any ontic content that might threaten to contaminate the ontological character of the analytic of Dasein that is built upon it (24-25). But has not Heidegger thereby hollowed out revelation itself? Graves thinks Heidegger has. Heidegger, he says, “simply folds the ‘purity’ or ‘formality’ constitutive of revealability over into the ontic-positive domain of revelation” (50), such that revelation gets recast as a “pure, formal structure,” while revealability becomes “the structure of a structure” (50). Consequently, Heidegger’s formalization of revelation renders it “merely an empty shell, a mere abstraction” (50-51) That is to say, Heidegger commits the phenomenological sin of counter-contamination: “revealability (Offenbarkeit) intrudes upon and violates revelation (Offenbarung)” (50-51).

Why does Heidegger do this? Graves attributes Heidegger’s error to what Jacques Derrida calls the “logic of presupposition” (30). Heidegger’s prioritization of fundamental ontology over ontic inquiry claims to “reveal deeper structures of experience, which are more primordial than the modes of experience unearthed by ontic-positive analysis” (32). These primordial structures purportedly lie beneath the domains of language, culture, and religion in general (33). According to Graves, however, Heidegger’s ambition of uncovering fundamental or “originary” structures ultimately renders the resulting phenomenon of revelation devoid of any determinate content.

Even if one were to dispute Graves’s claim that revelation in Heidegger is attenuated and formalized to the point of no longer being anything but the structure of a structure, there is another problem which Graves mentions as well. The ontological science—the science of being—like any inquiry is said by Heidegger to be oriented toward particular entities. But if all inquiry implies that ontology’s quest for being must itself begin with some entity, then phenomenology would no longer appear to be a non-oriented, ontological science. Heidegger’s famous solution, as Graves notes, is to emphasize that phenomenology’s difference from the positive ontic sciences is that the kind of being through which a genuine science of being passes is a being with an understanding of being. As Graves says, “On account of the peculiar character of Dasein, Heidegger suggests, his analysis can be delimited and directed toward a particular being (namely, Dasein) without fear of losing sight of the ontological question (namely, of the meaning of Being as such)” (38). The existential analytic, thus, aims to function as a preliminary point of departure for fundamental ontology.

What, though, of the analytic of Dasein’s relationship to theology? Many of the key features of Heidegger’s existential analytic in Being and Time—historicity, facticity, care, fundamental temporality, anxiety—were prefigured by his early lecture courses on religion (45). Thus, there is the potential problem of theological contamination. In an attempt to avoid it, Heidegger will claim that phenomenology resembles theology only because the object of theology (faith, revelation, Christlichkeit) conceals within itself a kind of abstract, formal character which falls to phenomenology to uncover. Heidegger contends that Christlichkeit is derivative—it is founded upon a deeper, more primordial pre-Christian structure (65). Finitude, sin, anxiety, conscience—such phenomena are to be purified of their traditional theological garb, revealing their true ontological significance. The concept of sin, for example, can only be explained in terms of a more fundamental ontological concept of guilt (66). As Graves notes, “none of the determinate content of the way of being of faith remains—it has already been removed as part of the excavation process that served to expose its more radical foundations in the ontology of Dasein” (66). Although Heidegger’s development of his philosophy of being was inextricably tied to his theological interests (41), including Luther’s theology of the cross and Pauline eschatology, the analytic of Dasein “has already been subject to a counter-contamination” (62).

Having examined the problems of contamination and counter-contamination, the logic of presupposition, and the distinction between ontic sciences and ontological science, Graves poses a question meant to highlight a tension in Heidegger’s attempt to purge revelation of any traditional theological content in the name of uncovering “originary” or fundamental ontological structures:

Is Heidegger’s interpretation of primal Christianity (Urchristentum) meant merely to serve as one concrete, historical example that helps illuminate the fundamental existential structures—that is, as one example among other possible examples? If so, he would have to explain why Christian experience appears to supply the example par excellence for his fundamental existentials (an explanation which he never provides). Or, on the contrary, does the primal Christian experience constitute a privileged event (a particular “revelation,” as it were), one that would prove indispensable for Heidegger’s later fundamental ontology—that is, an event in the absence of which the fundamental structures of Being and Time could not have been thought? (45).

Despite the internal vacillation apparent in Heidegger’s text, the ultimate goal of an existential analytic of religious life is to render explicit the general structure of revealability. The traditional theological content serves as mere “formal indications (formale Anzeige)” (42)—signposts on the way to uncovering “the unique temporal modality implicit within the primal Christian eschatological experience” (43). By insisting on the priority of revealability over and above revelation (48), Heidegger tries to “secure a method capable of grasping this experience” (42). To do so, it is necessary to chart a middle course, neither committing an “ontic contamination” of the ontological nor a premature formalization of the ontical. The problem of contamination threatens the philosophical status of phenomenology, the problem of counter-contamination the phenomenology of revelation qua revelation (55). Eager to preempt any accusation that his ontology is contaminated by Christian revelation, Heidegger tries to avoid the first problem by preserving the autonomy and priority of fundamental ontology. He attempts to do this, by hollowing out Christian eschatological experience to such an extent that theology begins to resemble phenomenology and the positum of theology begins to resemble factical life experience itself (55-56). The formalization of the ontical content of revelation enables Heidegger to maintain the priority of phenomenological ontology (the science of being) over theological science (the science of revelation) (56). Consequently, as Graves summarizes,

Heidegger’s obsession with ontological concerns and his constant quest for increasingly radical foundations or conditions of possibility eventually led him to view faith, Christlichkeit, and revelation (Offenbarung) as merely derivative phenomena. But this conclusion came only after a long period of philosophical labor in which the religious concepts underwent (or were subjected to) a series of progressive formalizations and radicalazations, which effectively purged them of their determinate contents (67).

Although Graves does not say it here explicitly, one clearly is meant to conclude that the desirability of what Heidegger’s process of formalization leaves us is dubious.

Does Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology of revelation qua revelation fare better? This is the question of Graves’s next chapter. Having first examined Heidegger, here he turns to Husserl. Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, particularly the formulation of the saturated phenomenon, relies on a reworking of the phenomenological reduction in both Husserl and Heidegger. For Heidegger, phenomenology as fundamental ontology is an attempt to deconstruct the history of philosophy, by properly thematizing the question of the meaning of being. It is thus a critique of metaphysics, as metaphysics (on Heidegger’s understanding of the term) fails to understand the being of Dasein and formulate the question of the meaning of being in general. For Marion also, phenomenology is a critique of metaphysics, but here it will be necessary to move beyond even Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and formulation of the ontological difference. In reformulating the phenomenological critique of metaphysics, Marion will argue it is imperative to surpass Husserl and Heidegger, by exploiting a breakthrough in Husserl’s phenomenology that Husserl himself never properly developed. Marion’s goal is to free givenness from all prior constraints. As Marion says, “‘In a metaphysical system, the possibility of appearing never belongs to what appears, nor phenomenality to the phenomenon” (80). As Graves himself explains, “Marion marks a crucial development in Husserl’s thought—namely the widening of the notion of intuition” (81) While Husserlian phenomenology marks an important break with the metaphysical tradition in this respect, Marion claims that the standard interpretation of Husserl misses what is most essential, by focusing solely on Husserl’s extension of intuition (82). Marion has in view two competing ways of interpreting Husserl’s broadening of the concept of intuition, the Derridian and the Heideggerian. On the Heideggerian interpretation, Husserl’s elevation of intuition marks a promising break with metaphysics and supplies a new ground for the question of being (Heidegger is fond of Husserl’s sixth logical investigation on categorial intuition). On the Derridian interpretation, this promotion of intuition marks the fatal step which leads Husserl back into a metaphysics of presence. Marion’s potential innovation, as Graves explains, is to suggest that these two competing perspectives on Husserl can be reconciled within a single interpretation, which would be informed and supported by both (83). “On Marion’s reading,” says Graves, “Husserl felt a need to broaden the field of signification beyond the already extended field of intuition” (83). Husserl’s desire to extend signification beyond intuition, Marion claims, is driven by a vague (and ultimately suppressed) recognition of a givenness which precedes both intuition and signification. Hence, Marion sees the true breakthrough of Husserl’s Logical Investigations not as the broadening of the field of intuition or signification, but as the implicit uncovering of the “unconditional primacy” of givenness itself (84). As Graves summarizes,

If Marion regards Husserl’s breakthrough as the discovery of the unconditional primacy of givenness, he nevertheless admits that this discovery was only partial—the instant givenness is unearthed by Husserl, it is immediately covered over by a classical (i.e., “metaphysical”) theory of intuition (84).

By reducing all givenness to what can be given “objectively,” or according to the horizon of the object (86), Husserl fails to thematize givenness radically. It is here that Marion’s own reduction—the “third” reduction, the reduction to givenness—is deployed. This reformulation of the reduction situates Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon. Here again, the introduction of the saturated phenomenon is understood by Marion as a break from metaphysics. “Marion’s quasi-teleological interpretive framework,” says Graves, “according to which the development of phenomenology consists of a series of radicalizations culminating in his theory of givenness, seems to hinge upon Husserl’s original break with metaphysics” (79). Not only is it a matter of freeing the phenomenon from Husserlian objectivity. More fundamentally, it is a question of breaking free from Kant’s account of the conditions of possibility for the experience of objects. “The Kantian conditions of possible experience,” as Graves notes, “are not given by phenomena themselves but are rather imposed upon phenomena by the subjective faculties of sensibility and understanding” (79-80). In addition to Kant and Husserl, Marion’s reduction in part break with Heidegger too. Although Heidegger had himself radicalized Husserl’s approach with an existential reduction to being as such (88), he remains beholden to the ontological difference. “The saturated phenomenon,” observes Graves, “is characterized by an excess of intuition […] It cannot be controlled or neutralized by a conscious subject, and it cannot be reduced to or proceeded by any horizon—not even by the horizon of Being (Heidegger), let alone that of objectivity (Husserl)” (108). This is not to say, however, that there are not important overlaps between Heidegger and Marion. Like Heidegger before him, Marion also appears interested in retrieving “originary” and fundamental structures of experience. As Graves says, “Marion’s central idea of the saturated phenomena is based on a recognition that the given often outstrips the conceptual and linguistic categories used to understand or interpret it” (7). Like Heidegger, Marion’s phenomenology of revelation is a radical one.

And like Heidegger also, Marion takes great pains to insist that his phenomenological method is rigorous, strictly philosophical, and not contaminated by theology. In order to distinguish the phenomenology of givenness from theology, Marion employs “a distinction between revelation as possibility, and Revelation as actuality” (79).

According to Marion, [phenomenology] is properly concerned only with possibilities, not actualities. With respect to the phenomenon of revelation, the sole task of the phenomenologist would be to account for the mere possibility of such an experience, without having to presuppose or posit its actuality (108).

Yet Marion’s radical phenomenology, which seeks philosophical purity and rigor, “ultimately [leads] him to recapitulate the Heideggerian strategy,” namely “the protective strategy” of counter-contamination (78-79). Marion’s phenomenological figure of revelation (as possibility) “winds up imposing its own indeterminate status upon Revelation itself” (79). “Revelation,” as Graves says, “is described as a purely formal givenness” (79). In Reduction and Givenness, for example, Marion maintains that the “pure form of the call” is anonymous, “one that defies all names” (7). Such a call is said to be given “before any act of determination or nomination, before any Name can be ‘imposed upon it’” (79). Hence, the call of revelation remains indeterminate. As Graves notes, Marion’s radical attitude entails that revelation be defined in terms of a conceptual indeterminateness and resistance to linguistic determination, predication, or nomination (7). Understandably, part of Marion’s motivation for insisting upon a distinction between revelation as possibility and Revelation as actual is to forestall theological contamination, and the accusation that he is guilty of crypto-theology. But part of it is also an attempt to avoid conceptual idolatry, to avoid a philosophical discourse that would idolatrize God. This is something Marion addressed in God without Being, and Graves offers a fantastic account of that work’s account of the idol and the icon. Of relevance here is the fact that Marion’s phenomenology of givenness is said to overcome metaphysics (and nihilism’s so-called “death of God”), by liberating God from an idolatrous discourse. For Marion, as Graves says,

The problem of God for modernity has less to do with God’s negation, with atheism, than with the reemergence of idolatry at the level of the concept—we are, above all, prevented from respecting God not because God is rejected but because the conceptual idol blinds us to God (138).

The type of idolatry Marion is interested in resisting, hence, is conceptual. According to Marion, every conceptual discourse on God “involves a certain degree of idolatry” (95). How, we might ask, could one formulate a non-idolatrous conceptual discourse on God? (95). As Graves explains, here Marion finds it necessary to go further than Heidegger. In Heidegger, metaphysical thinking’s conceptual idolatry of God is named onto-theology. In onto-theology, God is given the definition of causa sui. Heidegger admonishes onto-theology for its forgetfulness of being and the ontological difference (96). Recalling Graves’s earlier discussion of Heidegger’s 1928 lecture is important here. Graves had shown that in an attempt to preserve the methodological rigor of phenomenology as fundamental ontology, Heidegger fell prey to the problem of “counter-contamination.” Here, Graves notes that Marion, who agrees with Heidegger that onto-theology leads to conceptual idolatry, claims Heidegger ignores a further form of idolatry. As Graves explains,

God’s revelation is contained or conditioned by “the dimension of Being,” by “revealability,” by the existential structures of Dasein. God may be above and beyond all matters of Being and ontology, but if God is to be revealed to Dasein, this revelation (Offenbarung) must conform to the ontological conditions of experience, that is, to revealability (Offenbarkeit) (99).

Consigning God to the ontological difference, and thereby confining revelation to the horizon of being, Marion believes that the Heideggerian divorce between being and God comes at too high a price. As a result of it, any talk of God as such is excluded from philosophical discourse (100). As Graves says, for Heidegger, “since the ontological difference is determinative of philosophical discourse, this implies that we must forever keep silent before God” (101). Or again, “By casting God as such outside ontological discourse, Heidegger essentially abandons theo-logical discourse (discourse about God as such) to the dogs, so to speak” (101). In Marion’s estimation, this silence of Heidegger’s on God avoids the onto-theological concept of “God” as causa sui or supreme being. Such silence, as Graves himself notes, embodies a certain reverence toward God. But the second silence, the silence insisting that nothing at all further can be said of God, “bars reverential silence from becoming the object of thought” (101).

In turn, Graves goes on to show how Marion attempts to open a discourse on God precisely where Heidegger had not. For although the ontological difference marks the borderline beyond which a non-idolatrous thought of God might finally become articulable (103), Heidegger himself does not attempt to think it. Instead, he remains completely silent. Marion suggests that, to think God reverentially, an escape from ontological difference is necessary (103). A phenomenological critique of metaphysics “must remain essentially indifferent to the ontological difference itself” (104), if God is to be discussed non-idolatrously, rather than simply passed over in total silence. To begin sketching how this might be possible, Marion highlights three biblical texts (Romans 4:17 is the text upon which Graves focuses) that he argues enable phenomenology to formulate an anterior instance to the ontological difference (104). In the passage in question from Romans, God is referred to as the one “who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as the beings” (104), indicating God is prior to the ontological difference between being and entities. As Marion puts it, “‘The gift delivers Being/being’” (105). The problem, however, is that this dimension of givenness (or revelation) prior to the ontological difference is an attenuated, formalized structure. Consequently, Graves sees Marion’s attempt to move beyond Heidegger’s ontological difference as something ultimately still beholden to it, insofar as Marion falls prey to the same problem of counter-contamination:

Our thesis regarding Marion remains structurally analogous to the one we advanced in the preceding chapter: Like Heidegger, Marion’s effort to overcome charges of theological contamination leads him to adopt a strategy whereby revelation is divested of its material content. The process of “hollowing out” revelation leads to a merely formal conception of revelation—one that is essentially devoid of any reference to the historical, linguistic, and textual richness of revelation in its religious or theological acceptations. Rather than describing this procedure in terms of a divestment or “hollowing out,” Marion portrays it in terms of a purification of revelation—that is, in terms of a reduction to the “pure” call or the call as such (i.e., revelation) (107).

To be sure, Marion’s claim that “revelation (as gift) proceeds, founds, delivers, brings into play both beings and being itself” (105) invites the objection that this apparent recourse to revealed theology violates the neutrality of phenomenological method. However, Graves is interested in a different objection that others have not made. As he notes, what Marion terms the gift (or the call) is “materially indeterminate” (198). The indeterminateness arises, says Graves, due to the phenomenological method Marion develops in the course of sketching the saturated phenomenon. “Marion insists it is possible,” says Graves, “to provide a strictly phenomenological articulation of it, under the rubric of the saturated phenomenon par excellence—revelation” (108). But this phenomenon—the call, the gift, or revelation, must remain essentially indeterminate and anonymous, claims Marion. This means that those who allege Marion’s phenomenology is crypto-theology have missed the crucial point. This common criticism, which accuses Marion of identifying God as the caller, is in fact prohibited by Marion’s own philosophical analysis in works such as Reduction and Givenness. As Graves reminds us, the call in Marion “is ‘pure’ insofar as the caller remains undetermined; but this lack of determination is a highly ambiguous one” (116). The real objection against Marion, then, says Graves, is not that Marion defines the call theologically (for Marion does not), but that he renders it indeterminate. But if Marion’s account of revelation renders Revelation itself indeterminate, then as with Heidegger, we have another instance of counter-contamination.

It is unsurprising that counter-contamination should occur here, since it is generally committed in the course of defending oneself against the charge of theological contamination or of holding theological biases (115). Heidegger had done so in the 1920s when developing his existential analytic, and here Marion has as well. As Graves summarizes, “While Marion had previously characterized the task of phenomenology as offering a mere description of revelation as possibility, toward the end of Being Given it begins to sound as if Revelation (as event) is only ever given in actuality to the phenomenologist, to the one who rigorously avoids naming it, the one who is willing to live with the indecision of the gift” (117). Part of the indeterminacy Graves highlights is traceable to Marion’s radical approach to language. Marion clears the path for a pure form of a call which remains “entirely anonymous and indeterminate, since the call reaches the subject before the subject can wield any concept, horizon, or names that might serve to delimit the call, or give it a particular determination” (114). The fundamental problem facing Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, thus, is not the potential intrusion of theological presuppositions or contents, but rather a philosophical bias, which in the name of maintaining rigor and neutrality, distorts the actual givenness of Revelation. As Graves says, what results is an “attenuated conception of Revelation” (115). In an effort to defend the methodological rigor of his analysis, Marion misconstrues the religious phenomenon itself (115). Such is Graves’s claim.

It is worth revisiting Marion’s distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual). For Marion, Revelation is thought in terms of its form rather than its content—as Graves says, it is “construed formally precisely because it refuses any determinant content” (118). But the status of this indeterminateness is ambiguous. Revelation might be said to be so, because it remains at the level of a sheer possibility, a formal possibility (122). In this respect, it is indeterminate insofar as the phenomenologist makes no decision about whether the phenomenon has actually taken place. Marion defends the philosophical legitimacy of his analysis of revelation on the grounds that it holds such determination, designation, or denomination in suspense (122). The philosophical rigor of the analysis is said to be safeguarded by bracketing the question about the actuality of revelation (122). However, Graves notes a further potential kind of indeterminacy. In addition to the formal (or methodological) indeterminacy just noted is another type, “material” indeterminacy:

Marion’s work suggests another kind of indeterminacy, one that belongs to the content or material of the phenomenon itself. Here, the actual content remains indeterminate precisely because this content exceeds or overwhelms all signification and concepts—in short, all efforts to comprehend it, to say it, or to give it a linguistic articulation. We might call this material-indeterminacy since it refers to that which is materially (i.e., actually) given, but given in a way that eludes our (linguistic) understanding of it. That which is given remains indeterminate not because it is non-actual or not-yet-give—as in the case of the formal-indeterminacy—but because this actuality frustrates and exceeds every attempt to pin it down, to make determinations, and to describe its contents. Whereas formal-indeterminacy clearly pertains to revelation (as possibility), material-indeterminacy belongs to Revelation (as actually given)—and thus, it would make no sense to speak of the formal-indeterminacy of Revelation or the material-indeterminacy of revelation (123).

When Marion speaks of a pure givenness or a pure call, which type of indeterminacy does he mean—formal or material? To determine or name the call would involve a theological interpretation which would violate Marion’s own phenomenological description. Under pressure to justify his phenomenological approach on strictly philosophical grounds, Marion has subjected the phenomenon of Revelation to a process of counter-contamination in his work (125). The resulting material indeterminacy of Revelation is related to Marion’s related handling of language and hermeneutics, Graves claims. For has not Marion in effect extricated Revelation from its proper textual-linguistic milieu? (125). In Graves’s estimation, the saturated phenomenon renders any hermeneutic interpretation of it an afterthought, as an activity that works upon an already given phenomenon (126). This is because Marion operates on the assumption that the success of his phenomenology of givenness depends upon a radical suspension of the subject’s capacity to constitute, conceptualize, or name the given (127). In the name of liberating the phenomenon from metaphysics (and hence the conditions of possibility of the transcendental subject), Revelation is left lacking any determinate material content. For although it is true that Marion will insist the saturated phenomenon necessitates an “endless hermeneutic” on the part of the recipient, this is ultimately because no set of finite concepts will ever prove sufficient or adequate to it. In the last analysis, Graves concludes that Marion’s phenomenology of revelation fails to describe Revelation. The decision to formulate the merely formal possibility of revelation, without presupposing an actual event of determinate Revelation, entails that the actual event of Revelation itself is left indeterminate (143). On the one hand, Marion seems to want to insist that linguistic determinations always originate on the side of the finite subject (in his or her effort to interpret the indeterminate given).  On the other hand, he wants to say that the finite subject is constituted by (or receives itself from) the given itself.  In Graves’s view, this presents a problem concerning how to account for determinacy in the first place.

At last, we come to Ricœur, whose approach to revelation is the one Graves most prefers. For it is Ricœur who is said to provide a way forward, by having taken a path that the radical approaches of both Heidegger and Marion did not. It all has to do with language. Contrary to the radical attitude toward linguistic mediation which maintains that any given phenomenon will require interpretation (and hence an imposition on what is fundamentally in itself indeterminate), Ricœur’s hermeneutic approach stresses that all phenomena are always already interpreted. Language is no longer regarded as an inert medium which simply mediates what has already been given by superimposing its determinateness upon it, but rather as a genuine source of revelation in its own right (133). Rather than language obstructing or occluding revelation, revelation takes place in language. For, according to Graves, it is Ricœur who rightly acknowledges that the given is always already linguistically determined (not pure).

This promise of language to resolve the problems of formalization/attenuation, ontic contamination, and counter-contamination besetting the radical approach has gone unnoticed, says Graves, because until recently, Ricœur’s work had been largely overlooked within the secondary literature on the theological turn. For whereas Marion under the threat of ontic contamination—like Heidegger before him—wound up advancing a purely formal figure of Revelation, one that is said to precede any possible description, designation, or act of naming, and one that is therefore anterior to linguistic expression and textual mediation (146), Ricœur instead treats language as the originary site of revelation. For him, revelation involves a transformation of the self during the course of reading or interpreting concrete texts—specifically texts that are deemed sacred (147). To the extent there is an indeterminacy at work in revelation, it has less to do with a prior, pre-linguistic givenness than with an over-determinacy rooted in the domain of language itself (147). The saturation does not reside in an “originary” domain beyond the ken of language and the concept, but in the superabundance of meaning within the text itself.

Ricœur’s discussion of the relationship between phenomenology and hermeneutics does not begin with Heidegger, nor even with Husserl, but rather with a consideration of the epistemological problems that plagued nineteenth-century hermeneutic theory and, specifically, those relation to issues within the Geisteswissenschaft (150). Dilthey, for instance, believed that the primary challenge was to show hermeneutics possessed a methodology that could compete with the natural sciences—a methodology “which could be held together on the basis of a coherent theory of understanding” (150). This required that the diverse procedures of classical hermeneutics such as classical philology and biblical exegesis be subordinated to a more general, unified theory of historical knowledge (150). Ricœur contends that Dilthey’s attempt to describe this process left his hermeneutic theory “forever oscillating between a desire for a general theory of historical knowledge, on the one hand, and a Lebensphilosophie rooted in a regional psychological paradigm, on the other” (151-52). Ricœur notes that if hermeneutics should not be understood in terms of the search for the psychological intentions of the author concealed behind the text, and if it not to be reduced to interpretation designed to the dismantling of the text’s structures, then what remains to be interpreted? (155-56). As Graves says, Ricœur’s answer is the “world of the text”—no textual discourse is so fictional that it does not connect up with reality (157). The world of the text is irreducible to the mental life of its author or to the immanent structure of the work itself (156). The text, hence, opens the pathway to revelation. After all, if revelation is an encounter with the divine which somehow “transcends, shatters, or pierces through the humdrum of everyday reality,” then the text is the most appropriate site for such an encounter (158). For Marion, language and concepts are viewed as a kind of filament imposed upon the given. But for Ricœur, the given is always already linguistic in character (179). The latter’s notion of revelation as the revelation of the world of the text consequently weaves together a hermeneutic theory of textual mediation and a phenomenological theory of being-in-the-world. This avoids the problem of counter-contamination. But in doing so, there is another potential problem.

In characterizing the world of the text as he does, has not Ricœur destroyed any basis for distinguishing sacred texts from secular texts? If every literary or poetic text possesses the power to carry one beyond the everyday world of manipulable objects, what is unique about the Bible? (159). The standard answer is to appeal to inspiration. In the case of a revealed text, there is said to be a double authorship, insofar as God is behind the voice of its human author. However, because Ricœur strongly rejects this conception of revelation as inspiration (166), the problem of distinguishing a sacred from secular text remains. While Ricœur’s hermeneutic theory of revelation represents a gain, insofar as it avoids the pitfalls of psychologism or subjectivism, how is one to know it is God speaking in the text? (170) Here, the temptation would be to appeal to some originary or fundamental phenomenon said to lie behind or beyond the text, yet Ricœur has expressly ruled out that option.

This all comes to a head in Ricœur’s own example of the phenomenon of conscience. As Graves explains, Ricœur’s “long route” differs from Heidegger. Whereas Heidegger’s ontological project entailed a logic of presupposition in which phenomenology would be autonomous from the positive sciences, Ricœur insists on maintaining a creative tension between ontology and the so-called ontico-positive sciences (177). In principle, this would seem to allow Ricœur to avail himself of theology in ways that Heidegger cannot. This would be important, because no matter how long the route one takes, any phenomenological account must eventually face the question of how it is to name the phenomenon that has encountered it. In the case of conscience, Ricœur notes the peculiar modality of otherness belonging to it: its “voice” seems to be coming from another. This is the phenomenon’s enigma: its call issues both from within me and beyond and above me (182). Contrary, however, to what one might expect, here Ricœur, like Heidegger, claims what or who exactly the other is cannot be determined (182), and thus he bars any straightforward identification between God and the call of conscience even at the level of a theology (183). For even Ricœur, the problem of revelation (at least insofar as it concerns the phenomenon of conscience) ends in indeterminacy. As Graves notes, however, setting the particularity of conscience aside, the hermeneutic approach to revelation generally maintains the possibility that the call is already named, that revelation is already determined by the historical, cultural, and textual conditions through which one encounters it.

This has been a very long review. However, in digging into the details to the extent I have, I have still only scratched the surface of what Graves’s book contains. Let me conclude with some final comments regarding the questions that remain to be answered in light of the new ground broken by Graves in his excellent study. As someone sympathetic to radical phenomenology myself, I can say that Graves has developed a number of very important, and compelling, challenges to Heidegger and Marion. In response, I wonder whether turning to Michel Henry might go some way to addressing those problems. This is certainly an odd suggestion, I recognize, as one might think that whatever problems beset Marion’s radical phenomenology are likely to even more so plague Henry’s own. This is because Henry is far more dismissive than Marion of the need of hermeneutical interpretation and textual mediation for revelation. For Henry, there is no call or response structure said to be at work—the revelation of Christ is immediate, ineffable, and unavoidable within the interiority of life. In Marion’s case, Graves correctly emphasizes that the distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual) leads to the problems of counter-contamination and material indeterminacy. Graves attributes both of these to Marion’s conception of the relation between language and revelation, a view which implies that language does little more than impose meaning on a phenomenon which forever defies any such imposition. In short, the claim is that Marion’s attempt to accommodate the need for hermeneutic interpretation of the saturated phenomenon ultimately fails, because the given itself is always inherently indeterminate, and indeterminate because it is thought to be non-linguistic. In his most recent work, however, Marion has arguably taken a different approach. In D’Ailleurs, la révélation, he assigns a central role to the parable—according to Marion, the revelation that takes place through the words of Christ in the form of parables is a distinctly linguistic phenomenon. The parabolic discourses first disclose a mystery, which is in turn resolved by those who have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see.” It would be interesting to hear from Graves about the extent to which, if at all, he thinks Marion’s analysis of the parable (and in turn the Trinity) addresses the previous problem of Revelation’s material indeterminacy.5 For with the parable, initially Revelation proves mysterious, yet ultimately determinate—Christ reveals himself to be the Son of God.

Of course, Marion’s employment of the parables will elicit the familiar objection that he is guilty after all of doing theology rather than phenomenology, but this is fine, if one thinks, as Graves does, that the ideal of philosophical rigor guiding such an objection, one that had previously led Marion to insist upon the distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual), is not worth preserving. The question Marion asks in light of the mystery put forth by the parable is a good one: why do some of those who encounter these words of Christ recognize him to be the Son of God, while others do not? Notice that the problem of revelation here is not only linguistic—the problem is not whether one knows (or how one knows that one knows) that the Bible is indeed the word of God. The problem, therefore, is not limited simply to those who encounter the parables in the context of what Ricœur says is considered to be a sacred text by believers. For the problem was already salient for those said to have been directly contemporaneous to Christ. While the problem of revelation is perhaps further complicated by textual mediation, this later complication is only derivative of the more primary problem, one which confronted those who encountered Christ face to face just as much as it does anyone today. If Graves opens his study by recounting the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critiques of revelation, here it is fitting to mention two figures who sought to defend it: Hamann and Kierkegaard. For Hamann and Kierkegaard, when read in the spirit of Christ, Scripture will address one as the word of God, and the inspired status of its meaning, which is otherwise veiled, becomes accessible. If one fails to do so, no revelation takes place. How, then, does one know it is God speaking in and through the text? Ultimately, it is not possible to demonstrate this to others, nor to deduce it by discursive reason, historical evidence, or any other such public criterion. This is because, even in the case of a revelation that would appear to be mediated linguistically, it is the Word who speaks. This was Henry’s point, and I think it is an unavoidable one, no matter how long a hermeneutic route Ricœur or others first travel in order to finally work up to it. Although it causes philosophical offense, radical phenomenology, I think, is right to insist that revelation always requires a salto mortale.6   

1 One should also mention the recent publication of another text in this same vein, Joseph Rivera’s Phenomenology and the Horizon of Experience: Spiritual Themes in Henry, Marion, and Lacoste (London: Routledge, 2022).

2 Such was the conclusion F. H. Jacobi drew amid the pantheism controversy. It was he who introduced the term “nihilism” into the philosophical lexicon.

3 To speak of a single Enlightenment, as if it were one unified intellectual and geographical movement, would be an oversimplification. There were French, German, Scottish, and English Enlightenments. And although today we tend to treat Enlightenment and deliberate secularization as synonymous, in the case of the seventeenth-century English Enlightenment, at least, disputes regarding the relationship between reason and faith originated within a religious milieu seeking to clarify the so-called “rule of faith”: whether it was the church, Scripture, or inspiration possessing the last word on what constituted religious truth. There was hope reason might adjudicate the issue. That the elevation of reason for this specific purpose would precipitate the broader atheistic and secularist developments it later did was something the Great Tewmen or Cambridge Platonists did not foresee or intend. See Frederick C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

4 For an excellent examination of the way in which Heidegger attempts to formulate a phenomenological method successfully navigating the danger of theological “contamination,” see Ryan Coyne’s Heidegger’s Confessions: The Remains of Saint Augustine in Being and Time and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Tarek R. Dika has argued that this attempt of Heidegger’s ultimately fails; the theological content of the existential analytic’s fundamental categories is ineliminable, Dika argues. See “Finitude, Phenomenology, and Theology in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit.” Harvard Theological Review 110 (4) 2017: 476–494.

5 Although some of the material in question was already available in other sources, such as his 2014 “Givenness and Revelation” Gifford Lectures, D’Ailleurs, la révélation itself only appeared in print after Graves had completed his own study. For a discussion of the way in which the parable is said to accomplish Revelation, see Marion, D’Ailleurs, la révélation (Paris: Grasset, 2020), 336-51. An English translation of D’Ailleurs is currently in preparation by Stephanie Rumpza and Stephen E. Lewis.

6 I would like to thank Adam Graves for extending me the invitation to write this review.

Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, Rodrigo Martini (Eds.): Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism Book Cover Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism
Aaron Jaffe (Anthology Editor), Michael F. Miller (Anthology Editor), Rodrigo Martini (Anthology Editor)
Bloomsbury Academic
ebook $93.60 Hardback $117.00

Reviewed by: Sarvesh Wahie (University of Jena)

Vilém Flusser’s Consciousness in ‘Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism’

Considering the scarceness of Vilém Flusser’s citability, Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism is a much-needed current toward reiterating a Flusserian significance in the contemporary philosophical discourses. The reasons for such a scarcity may vary from diversification of philosophical themes to canonical sympathies in specific disciplines, but all variation ultimately condenses down to a simple thesis of Flusser’s own writing elegance. The epilogue to the Volume rightfully calls this elegance “thinking in freestyle.”[i] One may therefore question: How to approach a freestyle thought along disciplined axes? Spontaneously, two possibilities come to mind: Either reading Flusser’s oeuvre ‘for itself’ or interpreting Flusser ‘through’ other thinkers. The editors or the book, Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, seem to subscribe to a rather agnostic approach where a majority of contributions engage handpicked themes from Flusser’s writings. This neither-nor approach diversifies itself into three meta-sections: ‘Processing Flusser’, ‘Flusser’s Expanded’ Modernism, and ‘Flusser’s Toolkit’. This grounds the overarching thesis of the volume: the collection is understood as a regulating principle between straining Flusser’s speculations on the one end and emanating a specific Modernism on the other end[ii]. With an assortment of short, long, provocative, and specialized essays, each of these sections are oriented toward opening up dialogical spaces between the ever-concretizing disposition of Flusser as a media-theorist and the fresh amplitude of him as a prolific Modernist. Going by this editorial introduction to the book, such an agnostic approach seems to be well suited for Flusser’s own writing style because the departing atmosphere for Flusser is neither philosophy, anthropology, physics and biology nor language, media, information, digitalism, existentialism and translation. Quite the reverse, the atmosphere of departure for Flusser has been text, where philosophy, anthropology, physics, biology, language, media, information, digitalism, existentialism, and translation appear as themes. Therefore, the 2021 published essay-collection on Vilém Flusser in the series Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism is undoubtedly a textual atmosphere of conversation between philosophical and Modernist currents colored in Flusserian inks.

The goal of this essay-collection is not a Flusser hagiography or an introduction of kinds. Thus, as mentioned by the editors, one of the striking features of the volume is to treat Flusser as an event, as opposed to a biographical subject[iii]. This stance immediately sets Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism apart from other books on Flusser such as Rainer Guldin & Gustav Bernanado’s Vilém Flusser, Ein Leben in der Bodenlosigkeit (2017),  Oliver Bidlo’s  Vilém Flusser: Einführung (2008), and Nils Röller & Silvia Wagnermaier’s Absolute Vilém Flusser (2003). Such a contrast translates into a reading of Flusser as an occurrence in the prevalent academic discourses. Specifically, these discourses are situated in the scene of German Media-theory, where Flusser arrived with his philosophy of communication (Kommunikologie) and gained a reputation of a prophetic media-theorist. This situatedness of event Flusser in German media theory is the departing atmosphere for the essay-collection. However, Modernism is also explored along with this situation. This is apparent in the structure of the book in the first two sections. Section one processes Flusser in the German media theoretical situatedness and section two introduces an expanded Flusserian view of Modernism. To put it simply, the essay-collection is an account of German media-theoretical handling of event Flusser as received by researchers in the Anglophone world. Therefore, it can be said, that this essay-collection is meant for a reader that desires to be informed about Flusser research on a transnational paradigm. Conversely, the volume also demands the reader to self-study and be familiar with Flusser’s writings because the essays in the collection rarely clarify Flusserian concepts as they work on a discursive plane with them. This verdict does not hold true for the third section of the book entitled ‘Flusser’s Toolkit’ though. This section is dedicated to explicating Flusserian concepts relevant for this book. Thus, on the structural scheme of things, Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism suggests also an opening to a reader not familiar with Flusser’s writings.

The section, Processing Flusser, opens with an import of Flusserian question ‘Does writing have a future?’ into the present day scenario of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The essay ‘Does AI have a future?’ seeks to locate the prominence of AI in Flusser’s writings and with it to analyze the futures invoked in asking this question. The essay posits Flusser’s prophetic writing tone as a function of the implicit temporality of apparatus like linear writing, images, and programs. Thus, from a vantage point of such temporalities the essay argues, one is able to make a prognosis about a future. In the case of this essay, the future is invoked by dealing with the question, whether AI enhances or destroys a historical future. This historical future is by extension Post-history. As propounded by Flusser, with the advent of programming and computers, history calls for a reconsideration of its values: it can no longer be thought of as unidirectional movement of a subject. On the contrary, multidirectional and multidimensional models must be thought in movement. Certainly, an AI, an automation, can do this job of making multi-directional movement faster than humans would do. But, it is not only linear history at stake, AI can be employed in various walks of life, like garden mowing, making business deals, running economy, and even writing poems. Humans can concentrate on something else then – pain and suffering. Thus, the human paradigm features as uncritically alienated in this essay. However, the confident tone that Flusser always broadcasts in his writings appears at the end of the essay as well. A creative dialogical consciousness is suggested as a feature of post-historical apparatus and therefore it promises a potentiality that can be realized in either direction of total control or total freedom. The ideas played out in this essay also function as debate-openers for the entire first section. The later contributors of the essay-collection touch upon these ideas in myriad capacities.

Take, for instance, the second and third essays. If a creative dialogical consciousness correlates to post-historical apparatuses, then it makes sense to question the design and shape of such apparatuses. This question is discussed with Flusser’s philosophy of design in the second essay of the collection, titled ‘Design/Shape’. Design for Flusser is both, process and projection into the future. The essay is in line with the Flusserian argument, but also introduces a thought that Flusser’s Design philosophy is ultimately a philosophy of language. Of course, language is not design, but is Flusser’s ‘model of all models’ that he uses to design his philosophy. Thus, by virtue of a methodological identicalness language becomes a tool for designing the future. As depicted by the essay this identification results not only in designing objects of use and programs after Auschwitz, but also in projecting a new humanness. With this understanding, the essay touches upon a Modernist point-of-view, by locating Flusser’s Design philosophy in the trajectory of an unfinished modernization from Martin Heidegger through Sigfried Giedion and toward Bruno Latour. However, in the limited scope of the essay, this trajectory is not discussed in detail. Nevertheless, the Flusserian idea of designing objects becomes known: A designed object is an object of use (Gebrauchsgegenstand) as opposed to being an object (Gegenstand) that resists communication. Immediately, one can think of guns as objects of ‘use’. The question of an intentional communication remains unanswered in the thesis portrayed in the essay. This thesis moreover stays as simple as it is. Toward the end of the essay, the very attitudes that design objects of use, except featuring a choice of value creation, remain uncommented on a theoretical plane. The third essay picks up this node of designing communication by engaging in dialogues on the plane of video images. The essay mentions Flusser’s famous video collaboration with the artist Fred Forest in 1972-74, in which Flusser appears in the video, philosophizing and attempting dialogues. This essay is a treat for anyone who desires to get informed about various collaborations that Flusser was a part of with other artists, such as from the Fluxus movement. Flusser shared sympathies for creating a participatory art experience, which would also translate to a creative dialogical consciousness. Thus, “dialogical video” as a term came out of Forest’s collaboration with Flusser. This is opposed to Film because a dialogical video involves a telepresence as evinced by Zoom-Meetings or Skype today. Other than exhibiting the term dialogical video, which in fact was coined by Forest, the essay provides a detailed view of Flusser’s engagement with artists, but shies away from describing a sound theoretical intervention.

In a similar vein, the fourth essay of the collection depicts Flusser’s involvement with the intellectuals in Europe. Specifically, the Ars Electronica Symposium of 1988 in Linz, Austria where media theorists such as Heinz von Foerster, Jean Baudrillard, Freidrich Kittler, Peter Weibel, and Hannes Böhringer each presented their theories. This was an important symposium as far as chalking out contrasts between the perspectives of these theorists is concerned and the essay takes up this job willingly. Staying true to the ethos of the volume, the essay portrays Flusser as an event where perspectives of other theorists intersect. The point of intersection is cybernetics: Flusser perhaps the strongest proponent, Baudrillard the detractor, and others drenched in the cybernetic discourse as shown by the essay. Thus, the essay argues Flusser’s influence in shaping the media theory as one knows it today. It is important to note that this essay also brushes on the questions raised by the first essay of the volume: namely, the creative dialogical consciousness and the post historical apparatus. The essay briefly puts forward the Flusserian concept of gestures as a capacity of impressing information onto objects. This feature brings together, if one wants, the philosophy of design. Since, designing is an activity of processing and projecting, it can be argued that designing memories (also Flusser’s topic at the symposium. In German: Gedächtnisse) at the subatomic level, for instance in computer chips, is an ontology of impressing information onto objects. With this, an undercurrent of modernity comes to the forefront. For Flusser this changes thinking subjects acting on objects by virtue of work to thinking of Projects projecting models/shapes/designs onto objects in order to transform them into objects of use. This is the post historical apparatus, memories to use Flusser’s term, which is programmed by multidirectional designs. To design dialogically or creatively is then to program imaginatively enough to bring about a cybernetics of conversation. For this reason, a programmer for Flusser is no less than an artist, or trickster in his words. In a theoretical discourse of the dialectic between the program and the functionary, Flusser’s theory establishes a sharp contrast because it seeks to theorize the very act of creating a program. However, it is important to note that the act of creating a program cannot be thought of in terms of individual or global for Flusser, because by virtue of its ontological credence designing objects of use is an intersubjective atmosphere. The next essay entitled ‘Flusser in the light of radiation’ explicates this atmosphere with the metaphor of radiation, but still works in the individual and global realms. Not only can programers create computers for communicating between humans and machines, but they can also create self-destructive nuclear weapons. Once again, this essay strikes back with the ethics of programing against the backdrop of Flusser’s essay-series called “Curie’s Children” written for the Artforum magazine from 1986. Apart from interpreting these writings as an apocalyptic warning, the essay introduces Flusserian concept of ‘backlash’ from an unpublished essay that bears the same name. Designing objects of use or tools according to Flusser has the capacity to strike back or backlash at the programer. For instance, the invention of a lever backlashed at the arm to make it function like a lever. Surely, the thesis is contestable, but as a fair warning to a programmer/human, it definitely makes its case. What kind of a human does the post historical radiation enlighten?

‘On being human in the universe of technical images’ is the next essay in the collection that takes up this question and inserts ‘game and play’ as prospective answers.  If one thinks of ‘play’ in general, then Freidrich Schiller promptly comes to mind. ‘Game’ thought in linguistic terms summons Ludwig Wittgenstein. The essay considers both of these traditions, but also briefly discusses Flusser’s other influences in Brazil that affected his thought toward writing Ins Universum der technichen Bilder (1985). The essay argues that in his writings Flusser uses ‘game’ as a noun – to look at an object from non-participatory distance – and he uses ‘play’ as a verb – to emphasize a first-person or an involved perspective. The differentiation between game and play, the essay also suggests, is possible in the English language, which perhaps made Flusser use the capacity to chart out a conceptual difference in a short piece called ‘Games’. In ‘Games’ Flusser seeks to define human existence as Homo ludens, which the essay expertly points out is a Flusserian acknowledgement of Johan Huizinga’s conceptualization. For Flusser, the essay shows, Homo ludens is not only involved in playing, but also the very capacity of play is able to differentiate between the player and the game. This is the link to Schiller, where this differentiation results in an aesthetic experience of humanness. The essay further states that experiencing aesthetics of humanness speaks to Flusser because it is rooted in the phenomenological description from the perspective of the player (first-person perspective). The essay is aware of the boldness of this statement and readily mentions that Schiller wrote in a time where a Husserlian Phenomenology was still a century away. Nevertheless, the essay brings to forefront that in order to understand the experience of playing, Phenomenology is categorically crucial to Flusserian thought. Talking about game, the essay describes Flusser’s piece ‘Games’ in detail and firmly concedes that for Flusser there is no outside of a game, but there are open and closed games. Language, for instance, is an open game because it has no fixed ending and it continues to gain and lose components in its movement of play. Chess, on the other hand, is an example of a closed game, because its scope of elements are fixed and it has a definite end.  A game then, like most Flusserian concepts, relate to a communicative structure of discourses and dialogues among others like philosophy, anthropology, and translation. Thus, a player is always already rooted in myriad games, playing with and against the program of the game. In further sections of the essay, this ontology of play explores possibilities in designing, projecting, and creating alternative worlds digitally, thereby reinstating the atmosphere of post-history where all objects have disappeared “into whirling particles”[iv] and left the human subject isolated. The future then opens to humans as projects, designing alternative worlds in the universe of technical images.

At this point into the reading of the book, one may surely question the coherency of Flusser’s references and influences. Seasoned readers of Flusserian thought already know Flusser’s reluctance on citing or quoting his sources. One may also see that Flusser writes from his own experience or from a first person perspective. This, of course, is not always true. But, on several occasions, Flusser clearly remarks that subjects and objects are extrapolations or abstractions elevated from a field of concrete relations. Does this make a case for Flusser’s phenomenological praxis? “Flusser’s Philosophical Backgrounds,” the next essay in the collection, surely makes a ground for Flusser’s phenomenological orientation. The essay concretely not only mentions Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as phenomenologists to Flusser’s inspirations, but also contested phenomenologists such as Martin Buber and José Ortega y Gasset. Other than these thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Franz Kafka make for pivotal changes in Flusserian thought as shown by the essay.

Considering the background of the radical contention between media-theory and phenomenology in the German academia[v], reading Flusser as a phenomenologist is a venture doomed to isolation. On the one hand, media theorists have welcomed Flusser prophetically as the deciding element in shaping the future of media theory in general – the Ars Electronica Symposium is a good example in this regard. On the other hand, Flusser has been dubbed as a phenomenographist by key phenomenologists[vi] in Germany. For the context, Phenomenology literally orients itself to the ‘logic of the phenomenon in question and Phenomenography is a mere ‘description’ of any phenomenon. The eighth essay in the collection, ‘Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology’, however responds to this debate and agrees on reading Flusser both as a genuine phenomenologist and as a phenomenographer, but rejects reading Flusser as a media-theorist as half-truth. The essay splits Flusser’s oeuvre into phenomenographic writings such as Gestures and Things and Non-Things and phenomenological writings such as Kommunikologie (communicology). The reasons for this split, as argued by the essay, is Flusser’s inability to break the dialectics of thesis and anti-thesis in order to reach at a universal synthesis. A universal synthesis is claimed by the essay to be prevalent in Flusser’s philosophy of communication. Despite engaging with Flusserian brand of Phenomenology at an intricate level, the essay does not comment of the debate between media theory and phenomenology, where the point of contention is essentially regarding the quality of experience – mediated experience (reading books, watching television, scrolling social media etc.) as opposed to immediate experience (writing books, painting images, programming computers etc.). Flusser, surely talks about both of these experiences. An open question that arises then: What is a phenomenology of mediation?

Ironically enough, playing on post-historical consciousness where it focuses on other things such as pain and suffering, the next essay in the collection invokes Georg W.F. Hegel’s dialectics of an unhappy consciousness into ‘Processing Flusser’. The essay however argues that Flusser posits the figure of a Migrant against the Hegelian unhappy consciousness to overcome the dialectics of losing/finding oneself and finding/losing the world. A migrant, in analysis of the essay, projects herself into the uncertain future openly. The logic of this act is then not to find oneself or the world, but to find home. The essays further quotes Flusser in commenting on Hegel, where he suggests that without a home a self would be unconscious and therefore home (also dwelling in Flusser) is primary to self-consciousness and world-consciousness. Surely, this can be interpreted as being-in-the-world, but the essay does not go along this Heideggerian terrain. Instead, the essay explores Flusserian irony as a gesture of freedom. Irony for Flusser is sort of rising-above contingence and moving away from irony is engaging contingence in order to change it. Both these acts, engagement and disengagement, result in freedom for Flusser. Teleological, if one so desires, irony is itself ironical. The essay further sees potential in this kind of irony as a mode of criticism in a post-historical scenario, because Flusserian irony suggests a free being-in-the-world, which is always already capacitated to critique various determinisms or searches for freedom. A similar point is made again by the next essay entitled ‘Vampyroteuthis infernalis as Media Theory’. For the context, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, originally written in German and published in 1987, is undoubtedly Flusser’s weirdest book. It seeks to describe humanness in mode of a fable by means of an inversion from the perspective of a deep-sea organism called The Vampire Squid from Hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis). The essay comments on media theories by stating that they must confront their “inner Hegel”[vii] This inner Hegel is another name for determinisms and searches of freedoms. In the scope of the essay, determinisms such as Darwinism are discussed. The Vampire Squid (Vampy) then becomes a metaphor for a new kind or Flusserian media theory where the human project is posited as free and is required to design inter-subjective communicative apparatus. Thus, Flusser’s goal, as interpreted by the essay, is to review mediated immediacy of technology through the fable of Vampy. This translates into reviewing projects like designing a residue-free communication, total coordination in dialogue, and unison in conversations. It is precisely these kind of projects that the essay identifies not only as vampyroteuthic, but also as third kind of super-organisms like de-individualized anthills or swarm of bees. The danger posed then is clear: The movement of technology toward becoming immediate or residue-free. To the essay, this danger is of media-literate super-fascist regimes and in doing so, the essay has transformed the inner Hegel into a super-Hegel. The last essay of the section also echoes this danger with its references to the Covid-19 outbreak in the contemporary world. As such, the questions concerning freedom remain unresolved.

In a nutshell, the first section ‘Processing Flusser’ is more of an unpacking of event Flusser than a processing. Since a plethora of themes is exploded under the common denominator of post-history, a concrete processed Flusser still manages to escape a formal vantage point. Perhaps, providing such a vantage point was not the intention of the section in the first place. Perhaps, all the essays in the section feature as a multidirectional standpoint. Nevertheless, it remains unpacking of event Flusser because at least three mutually exclusive currents can be summarized from the section: media theory, phenomenology, and critical media theory. Media theory and phenomenology already show indifference on the quality of experience and a critical media theory does not speak of phenomenology at all. Hence, these three currents lie unpacked on the table for the reader to decide herself on weaving a process out of them.

On such considerations, a reader not familiar with Flusser’s Philosophy is definitely out of the scope of the volume. The section ‘Flusser’s expanded Modernism’ makes this issue even more complicated. As a Flusserian reader, one is compelled to go back to Flusserian writings in order to make sense of the essays in this section. For instance, both the essays ‘“Naked little spasms of the self ” In search of an authentic gesture in posthistorical times’ and ‘The ‘Pataphysical Span: Alfred Jarry and Vilém Flusser’, work with the Flusserian concept of Gestures and even employ similar quotes from Flusser’s writings to comment on Modernity but miss out on a phenomenological relevance of the theme. Phenomenology as a term is mentioned in various contexts in these two essays, but a theoretical working out of the concept Gesture in attunement with phenomenology is not to be read. Hence, a reader wonders what statements like “a phenomenology of phenomenology”[viii] and “historical stages of phenomenological consciousness”[ix] actually seek to deliver. Partly this confusion is a result of using the English translation of Gestures as the reference text for these essays. In the English version, Gestures (2014) the opening text of the book, where Flusser’s seeks to contrast attunement with gestures in order to define them, ‘attunement’ has been replaced by ‘affect’[x]. In the German version Gesten, Versuch einer Phänomenologie (1991) attunement is called ‚Gestimmtheit‘(a mood, in which a person/thing positions themselves – attunement). The Spanish translation, Los Gestos (1994) uses ‘acordamiento[xi] (accord/agreement). Flusser’s own English variant was ‘sentimentality’[xii]. The translator of the English version mentions Flusser’s variant and also acknowledges that ‘attunement’ has already appeared as a word in translation for German philosophy in English to emphasize the idea of intentionality (directedness of consciousness) in Husserlian Phenomenology. Yet, ‘affect’ is preferred over ‘attunement’, so that it opens the scope of Flusser’s theory across various disciplines and with that, the word is supposed to retain the quality of uniting the internal and external worlds. Of course, the German writing can also not be considered as the so-called original text because Flusser himself wrote the text in French and during the first publication of the book in 1991, it was translated into German with the title ‘Geste und Gestimmtheit. Einübung in die Phänomenologie der Gesten’. Keeping this in mind, it cannot be argued if ‘affect’ as translation of ‘Gestimmtheit’ is correct or not. But, what can be argued is how much the translation affects the relevance of Phenomenology in Flusser’s theory of gestures. In the mentioned essay Flusser argues, Gestures are bodily movements that express an intention[xiii] and goes on to revise the definition by introducing a symbolic communication[xiv] to gestures. Now, if gestures are to express an intention, it is necessary that the mode of expression be attuned to the symbolic intention a gesture communicates. A simple gesture of an eye contact made by a person wearing spectacles can bring out the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘attunement’. If my spectacles merely affect my intention to make an eye contact, it would mean that my glasses affect my eyes in a way that helps me make an eye contact. As such, the affect my glasses have on my eyes link the inner intention of looking the other person into the eyes and the outer objectivity of an eye contact. Phenomenologically, if ‘affect’ is understood as ‘affection’ (Affektion) it would make a direct reference to Husserlian Phenomenology and Gestures would be understood as intentional acts. However, my spectacles do not merely affect my eyes; the affect is encoded in a specific intentionality that lets me see the world according to the strength of my eyes in the first place. This means that my glasses feature the same nature of intentionality that I would be directed toward without glasses (that is if my eyes were not weak) – making an eye contact.  Hence, an attunement, so that my glasses work in accordance with the strength of my eyes, is primary to express an intention in my gesture of an eye contact. If the glasses are not attuned, I must forget about an eye contact because the world would appear in a haze of colors[xv].  Both the mentioned essays in the collection Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism do not engage with this difference of translations and hence spin-off at the tangent of interpreting Flusser’s theory of gestures in the light speculative journalism and negentropic movement in post-history. As such, these essays call for a closer reviewing of Flusser’s concept of Gesture.

On the contrary, the collection also features essays that comment on a phenomenological relevance of Flusser’s philosophy. Take, for instance, the essays titled ‘An Intersubjective Style’, ‘Flusser’s New Weird’, and ‘A Philosophy of Refraction’. Each of these essays not only grounds phenomenology in Flusser’s writings, but also comments on how Modernism can be understood through Flusser’s spectacles. “Flusser understood intersubjectivity to be both the substrate and goal of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology”[xvi], immediately clarifies that Flusser sees the ground of concrete relations as being intersubjective and thereby critiques the technological tendency of media becoming objective. Such a reference speaks volume for the debate if Flusser at all can be considered as phenomenologist. The most controversial work from Flusser, Vampyroteuthis infernalis that has unbearable fixation for the entire volume is also contested to be phenomenological in nature. “The important thing for Flusser is that the cephalopod’s message is intentional: it is preceded by an experience; the creature’s attitude, reaction, or concept of that experience; the desire to transmit that information; and finally the information’s encoding and transmission via chromatophoric inscription on the skin.”[xvii] Of course, from a phenomenological view, it can be argued, if at all ‘other’s’ experience as one’s own can be spoken of when the other is not located in an immediate proximity. Vampy dwells the oceanic depths where an immediate experience for a human phenomenologist is impossible. Nevertheless, the following quotation makes this argument debatable. “Heidegger not only provides some of the conceptual raw material for Flusser’s fable, as it rests heavily on the notion of Dasein, but Flusser also takes up ideas from Heidegger’s metaphysics that address the question of whether or not we, as humans, can transpose our being onto the place of another.”[xviii] On such grounds, cutting into Flusser’s work with phenomenology, may not necessarily prove Flusser to be a “phenomenologist”[xix] but Flusser’s writings can definitely provide a discourse for Phenomenology to consider media technologies in the Lifeworld. Among others, these mentioned essays speak of Husserl, Heidegger, Gasset, and Buber – a valid contribution of the book to the contemporary academic discourse that perhaps results in understanding Flusser’s Modernism.

However, the essay ‘On Synthesis and Synthetic Reality’ argues that the entirety of Flusser’s work cannot simply be called Modernist or Post-Modernist because similar to the contradictions and similarities between the two positions Flusser’s writings feature a self-contradictory style of thinking. This self-contradictory nature has been described by illustrating the concepts of Synthesis and Synthetic reality – both that run through the length of Flusser’s work. Synthesis, close to etymological sense for Flusser, is way of bringing differences and contradictions between various philosophical positions into a kind of amalgamation – a Modernist penchant for unity. Synthetic Reality, according to the essay, first appeared to describe the notion of technical images – a post-Modernist confession toward the artificiality of reality. Both synthesis and synthetic reality imply a mutual-inclusion of Sinngebung[xx] (sense giving) by virtue of Flusserian concept of projecting models onto the world. Thus, the essay argues, Flusser shares a similarity with Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy because both positions describe all reality as virtual. This sets Flusser immediately apart from Jean Baudrillard, for whom reality is hidden by simulation. This notion is again clarified in ‘Surface and Simulation Vilém Flusser and Jean Baudrillard’ in the toolkit section, where Flusser is posited as a phenomenologist as opposed to Baudrillard’s disposition as a post-structuralist. This piece also features Flusser’s direct remark on Baudrillard from an unpublished interview where Flusser holds the concept of simulation for a nonsensical proposition because of the lack of availability of an ontological tool to differentiate simulation from non-simulation. Despite this remark, Flusser agrees on a differentiation between concentricity and abstractness[xxi]. Thus, one may think of concentricity as a Modernist affinity toward unification and abstractness as a post-Modernist assertion of artificiality. Yes, Flusserian thought feature both of these positions, which by extension also bring out the difference between phenomenological concrete relations and media theoretical abstractness.

Conclusively, it can be said that section two and three of Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism make for a more engaged reading of the research on Flusser’s work. Section two, ‘Flusser’s Expanded Modernism’, also illustrates Flusser’s works in literary heritage of Modernism relating it to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne. This has not been discussed in the scope of this review, but as such, they surely open new paradigms of Flusser-research in literary studies. In line with this assertion, the epilogue, ‘Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century’ illustrates five non-disciplinary aspects into uncovering Flusser’s Modernism. The fall of classical Modernism and humanism (Eurocentric) after the Auschwitz, result in ‘No Fatherland’, ‘No Mother Tongue’, ‘Dialogical existence’, ‘Thinking in Freestyle’, and ‘Philosophy in Motion’[xxii]. Taken together with Phenomenology, Media-theory, and Literary studies all these aspects may be seen as the departing atmosphere of an expanded Modernism that the book desires to communicate. Over-simply put, after the fall of classical Modernism, Flusser’s consciousness synthesizes a project of humanity in a Post/Modern synthetic reality.

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism is definitely a keystone for a scholar who desires to deepen the arc of disciplined and non-disciplined research. Nevertheless, this deepening requires reviewing and self-study of the positions engaged in this book because ultimately the collection is not open to a reader not familiar with Flusserian consciousness.

[i] Siegfried Zielinski. 2021. “Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century”, translation Daniel Raschke. In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 323, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[ii] ———. 2021. “Introduction” In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 9, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[iii] Ibid., 7.

[iv] Nancy Roth. 2021. “Games and Play On Being Human in the Universe of Technical Images”, Ibid,. 64.

[v] Friedrich A. Kittler. “Phänomenologie versus Medienwissenschaft”, Accessed May 20, 2022.

[vi] Andreas Max Ströhl. 2021.” Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology”, In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 79, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[vii] Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. 2021. “Vampyroteuthis Infernalis as Media Theory”, Ibid,. 98.

[viii] Judith Roof. 2021. “The ‘Pataphysical Span Alfred Jarry and Vilém Flusser”, Ibid,.148.

[ix] Ibid,. 146.

[x] Nancy Roth. 2014. “Gestures and Affect the Practice of Phenomenology of Gestures”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 1- 9, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xi] Claudio Gancho. 1994. “Gesto y acordiamento Ejercitación en la fenomenología de los gestos”, In: Vilém Flusser. 1994. “Los Gestos: fenomenología y comunicación”, translated by Claudio Gancho, 7-18, Spain: Herder.

[xii] Nancy Roth. 2014. “Translator’s Notes”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 178, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xiii] Vilém Flusser. 1994. “Geste und Gestimmtheit Einübung in die Phänomenologie der Gesten”, In: Flusser. 1994. “Gesten Versuch einer Phänomenologie”, 7, Germany: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

[xiv] Ibid,. 11.

[xv] See: Die Frage lautet nicht, ob das Darstellen einer Stimmung lügnerisch ist, und noch weniger, ob eine dargestellte Stimmung wahrheitsfähig ist, sondern ob sie den Betrachter berührt.” Ibid,. 14.

See also: “The question is not whether the representation of a state of mind is false, still less whether a represented state of mind has the capacity to be true. Rather, it concerns whether the observer is touched.” In: Nancy Roth. 2014. “Gestures and Affect the Practice of Phenomenology of Gestures”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 6, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xvi] Frances McDonald. 2021. “An Intersubjective Style”, In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 123, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[xvii] Keith Leslie Johnson. 2021. “Flusser’s New Weird”, Ibid,. 154.

[xviii] David Bering-Porter. 2021. “A Philosophy of Refraction Vilém Flusser’s Speculative Biology and the Study of Paramedia”, Ibid,. 166.

[xix] See: “Without hesitation, Edith Flusser replied that Vilem had always considered himself a phenomenologist more than anything else.” Andreas Max Ströhl. 2021. “Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology”, Ibid,. 77.

[xx] Rainer Guldin. 2021. “On Synthesis and Synthetic Reality Post/Modernism in Flusser’s Thinking”, Ibid,. 199.

[xxi] Thomas Tooley. 2021. “Surface and Simulation Vilém Flusser and Jean Baudrillard”, Ibid,. 300.

[xxii] Siegfried Zielinski. 2021. “Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century”, translation Daniel Raschke. Ibid. 314 – 328.

Gioia Laura Iannilli: L’estetico e il quotidiano

L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza Book Cover L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza
Esperienze dell’estetico
Gioia Laura Iannilli
Paperback 22,80 €

Reviewed by: Asia Brunetti (University of Bologna)

Questa è la storia di un tentativo di emancipazione: quello del concetto dell’”estetico”, o meglio, della cosiddetta dimensione estetica. Si tratta di un concetto che per lungo tempo ha rischiato di fossilizzarsi irrimediabilmente sullo scoglio della propria dimensione istituzionale e istituzionalizzata, e al quale oggi, invece, è finalmente concesso prendere aria. La concezione tradizionale dell’estetico, infatti, che lo voleva come membro dell’equazione quasi monolitica “estetico = artistico” – la quale ha segnato la storia dell’estetica filosofica per diversi secoli -, è stata fatta scendere finalmente dal piedistallo che l’aveva ospitata fin quasi alla metà del XX secolo. Oggi, fortunatamente, possiamo revocare in dubbio questa idea (pur ancora fortemente consolidata nell’opinione pubblica, oltre che in quella di alcuni esperti in materia); ci è concesso di guardare al di là dei rigidi bordi del concetto dell’estetico, di avvicinarci sempre di più a questi confini – un tempo concepiti come rigidi e netti – per scoprire, man mano che ci avviciniamo, che sono in realtà ampiamente sfumati e tutt’altro che ben definiti.

È bene ricordare inoltre come questa stessa sorte toccata all’estetico sia efficacemente rimbalzata anche sul secondo termine della nostra monumentale equazione: l’artistico. Anche il concetto di arte nell’ultimo secolo ha subito un affascinante ridimensionamento, volgendo la propria natura ad una nuova capacità inclusiva e di “apertura”, talmente evidente da garantire un’accoglienza entro il novero degli oggetti d’arte persino a quei prodotti di consumo costruiti in serie come risultato di un’opera di progettazione, ossia gli oggetti di design. Sarà allora possibile, in maniera quasi paradossale, elaborare persino un’estetica del design; oppure, rendendo all’estetico ciò che da sempre gli appartiene  ma che ha portato a lungo con sé solo nel nome come radice etimologica, – ossia il suo riferimento alla sensibilità, all’esperienza sensibile – pensare ad un’estetica che non comprenda più al suo interno solo il campo semantico dell’artistico, ma, letteralmente qualsiasi cosa, fino a ciò che più si discosta dalla straordinarietà delle opere artistiche, persino le cose ordinarie, quotidiane, la nostra everydayness.

Proprio di questi temi tratta ampiamente l’opera di Gioia Laura Iannilli, L’estetico e il quotidiano, che fa di “Design, Everyday Aesthetics ed Esperienza” i tre cardini o pilastri sui quali installare la riflessione, come recita appunto il sottotitolo del testo. Sono proprio queste tre grandi tematiche, appunto, a scandire il flusso delle considerazioni dell’autrice, nonché a dividere il testo in altrettante sezioni volte al loro approfondimento. Ciò che si vuole sostenere con fermezza è la preziosità che contraddistingue elementi di per sé difficilmente accostabili all’ambito dell’estetico – poiché esso è stato a lungo marcato dal profondo pregiudizio arte o natura-centrico – come l’ambito quotidiano, le pratiche ordinarie e la progettazione di oggetti quotidiani (il design), per una riflessione sull’esperienza estetica che voglia aspirare ad una certa completezza.

Per quanto riguarda il primo elemento di questa triade, il design, esso viene messo in rilievo nel testo per la sua potenzialità nel far emergere la dimensione pratica dell’estetico, una sfaccettatura di quest’ultimo raramente presa in considerazione negli studi dell’estetica filosofica. L’autrice, nel delineare le categorie concettuali – principalmente coppie di concetti, dicotomie – e tutto l’apparato interpretativo attraverso il quale è stato studiato il design a livello istituzionale (utile/bello; funzione/forma; consumo/immagine), rivendica una modalità nuova di avere a che fare con questo tema: «È necessaria un’analisi estetologica sul design che si concentri sulla categoria dell’esperienzialità (o della relazionalità) che trova riscontro nelle pratiche quotidiane». Il migliore amico del design, d’altra parte, è proprio il quotidiano, la dimensione della “everydayness”, dalla quale esso appunto risulta estremamente inscindibile. In secondo luogo l’autrice rivolge la trattazione verso l’analisi della genesi e degli sviluppi di un ambito di studi relativamente recente, sorto in seno all’indagine estetica; una linea di ricerca che si potrebbe quasi definire “oscura”, incerta, sulla quale l’autrice, perciò, vuole tentare di gettare un po’ di luce e di chiarezza: si tratta della cosiddetta “Everyday Aesthetics”, sub-disciplina dell’estetica sviluppatasi pressappoco negli ultimi tre decenni.

La valutazione dell’autrice in merito a questo nuovo ambito di studio risulta chiaro fin dalle prime pagine del testo: si tratta di un vero e proprio congedo. Infatti, pur mettendo in campo elementi essenziali nel gioco della riflessione estetica – in primo luogo proprio i fenomeni quotidiani – tuttavia essa tende a ricadere troppo spesso nella trappola dei pregiudizi e delle impostazioni tradizionali degli studi estetici; una grande “pecca” dell’Everyday Aesthetics sarebbe ad esempio, quella di conferire troppa poca importanza all’ambito del design. Tuttavia, l’analisi dell’Everyday Aesthetics compiuta dall’autrice in questa sede risulta molto accurata e particolareggiata; il suo intento principale è quello di sistematizzare quelli che sono i più importanti contributi sorti in grembo alla disciplina, scandendoli in base al criterio della loro vicinanza e adesione oppure rifiuto e lontananza rispetto alla tradizione estetica consolidata. Vengono a delinearsi in tal modo da un lato degli approcci “deboli, continuisti o straordinaristi”, cioè fedeli alla tradizione, e dall’altro degli approcci “forti, discontinuisti o familiaristi”, che appunto se ne distanziano in maniera evidente. Tra i grandi autori dei quali l’autrice esamina i contributi, cioè i maggiori esponenti dell’Everyday Aesthetics, si può rintracciare nel primo gruppo Thomas Leddy con la sua Aesthetics of Aura Experience e Ossi Naukkarinen con la sua Aesthetics of Everydayness, nel secondo Yuriko Saito, fautrice di una Aesthetics of Care, Arto Haapala, di una Aesthetics of Lacking e Kevin Melchionne, propugnatore di una Aesthetics of Well-Being.

Dopo aver trattato approfonditamente le posizioni di questi teorici, da considerarsi i veri e propri “pilastri” dell’Everyday Aesthetics, l’autrice passa in rassegna quelli che denomina i suoi “meta-teorici”. Questi ultimi, i quali si sarebbero spesi in una revisione critica degli approcci teorici dell’Everyday Aesthetics, sarebbero a suo avviso i responsabili della svolta normativa della disciplina in una direzione intersoggettivo-continuista. Tutto ciò vuol significare il rientro in campo con piena dignità di una colonna portante del discorso estetico tradizionale, specialmente di matrice kantiana: la dimensione della condivisione dei giudizi di gusto, dell’intersoggettività, appunto. Ma ciò non significa affatto che i “meta-teorici” dell’Everyday Aesthetics convergano tutti verso una medesima prospettiva: tutt’altro; anche per quanto riguarda i più recenti approcci “critici” ciò che emerge è un’aria di disaccordo ed un certo attrito. L’autrice prende in considerazione in particolare i contributi di Cristopher Dowling, Dan Eugen Ratiu, Jane Forsey e la prospettiva dell’Egalitarian Aesthetics avanzata nel 2016 da Giovanni Matteucci, i quali concordano appunto nel riconoscere la necessità di rintracciare un aspetto normativo entro la cornice della nuova sub-disciplina dell’estetica; inoltre essi tendono a condividere, non a caso, una linea di pensiero di carattere continuista.

Il binomio intersoggettività-continuità, che dunque qualifica in maniera determinante la linea teorica dei cosiddetti approcci “meta-teorici”, è evidentemente sotteso ad una fondamentale dimensione dell’estetico, ossia al suo carattere di relazionalità. Scrive infatti l’autrice: «La relazionalità […] è indubbiamente cifra specifica dell’estetico in quanto è proprio in un contesto fondamentalmente intersoggettivo, ossia espressivo (sia esplicito sia implicito, sia proposizionale sia gestuale), che l’esperienza estetica ha luogo». Ma, come ribadisce l’autrice in un altro punto, questa relazione che connota l’estetico in quanto tale in ogni suo dispiegarsi, è sempre “da qualche parte”, cioè è sempre situata, e quindi «specificata e vincolata topograficamente». Quest’ultimo aspetto ci spinge ad aprire un ulteriore contesto di riflessione: quello che riguarda gli “spazi estetici”, e in particolare gli spazi estetici quotidiani. Essi vengono ripartiti dall’autrice nelle seguenti categorie: gli spazi estetici privati, pubblici, istituzionalizzati, virtuali-globali e commerciali. Si vuol far emergere in tal modo una caratteristica di fondo dello spazio estetico quotidiano, ovvero la dimensione di benessere che esso tende a produrre: «Gli spazi estetici quotidiani sono spazi in cui “si sta bene”», che garantiscono una qualche gratificazione, e far risaltare inoltre l’intreccio che attraverso questi spazi viene a configurarsi tra l’estetico e l’economico.

L’autrice sofferma infine la propria attenzione su una configurazione del design di origine molto recente: il cosiddetto Experience Design – risultato del recentissimo processo (cominciato all’incirca negli anni ’80 ma sempre più diffuso) di «smaterializzazione, diffusione e integrazione del design nelle pratiche quotidiane» -, facendone un caso esemplare per dispiegare ulteriori concetti sottesi alle dinamiche estetiche quotidiane. Esso consiste generalmente nella produzione di esperienze nelle quali la componente materiale decresce progressivamente d’importanza a favore di una dimensione interattiva sempre più rilevante. Tale ambito viene introdotto dall’autrice soprattutto al fine di rimarcare e giustificare la caduta e risoluzione delle dicotomie e delle storiche antinomie tra “soggetto” e “oggetto” e tra “natura” e “tecnica” o “artificio”. I due settori ai quali l’autrice fa riferimento nell’esame di questo recente sviluppo del design sono quelli della moda e dell’interazione con le interfacce.

L’Experience Design viene analizzato alla luce di una contrapposizione di fondo tra due concetti: quello di Lebenswelt e quello di Everydayness, proprio per sottolineare l’impatto che esso produce su tali dimensioni. L’intento dell’autrice è mostrare l’inadeguatezza ai nostri scopi di questi termini e proporre dunque una sostituzione di questi ultimi con le nozioni di “habitus” da un lato e di “campo” dall’altro, dove la prima dev’essere intesa sulla scorta di Bourdieu come «strutture strutturate predisposte a funzionare come strutture strutturanti, cioè in quanto principi generatori e organizzatori» e la seconda come «contesto dinamico in cui interagiscono energie significative», o meglio, bisognerebbe parlare di: «Mondo della vita, dinamicizzato in habitus, e quotidianità restituita alla sua funzione di campo di gioco». L’autrice ritrae tale nuovo settore come una vera e propria radicalizzazione odierna del design, la quale porta con sé l’«intreccio tra esteticità e quotidianità in una prospettiva centrata sulla intersoggettività e sulla continuità tra i vari livelli dell’estetico». Scrive inoltre che: «L’Experience Design […] plasma in modo sempre più significativo la nostra realtà proponendo un tipo di esperienzialità basata sulla “immediatezza”, sulla “superficialità”, sulla disponibilità, e sul piacere che deriva proprio dalla facilità con cui è possibile realizzare le esperienze che esso progetta, propone o innesta nella vita quotidiana».

Alla luce di quanto emerso è facile notare come il problema fondamentale per noi sia quello di cercare una risposta ad un tale interrogativo: se, dato che la progettazione (il design) sembra orientare sempre di più e in modo maggiormente pervasivo le nostre esperienze estetiche, tale circostanza conduca ad una alienazione oppure consenta, al contrario, dei margini di spontaneità e libertà. L’estetico può essere inteso come un mezzo di emancipazione dell’individuo contemporaneo oppure no? Per usare le parole dell’autrice: «Non potrebbe forse l’estetico rivelarsi un fattore di disincantamento dalla metafisica dualistica, piuttosto che propriamente di alienazione, e dunque essere un mezzo di emancipazione per l’individuo contemporaneo?».

Oggi le dinamiche esperienziali quotidiane sono modellate con un’incidenza sempre maggiore dal design, dalla progettazione, spesso attaccato come se fosse causa dell’estinzione della spontaneità. È innegabile quanto l’esperienza sia «oggi sempre più evidentemente in oscillazione tra spontaneità e natura progettata»; ma questa dinamica, risultata dallo sviluppo sempre più incredibilmente rapido e inarrestabile delle pratiche umane, ed in questo caso specialmente delle arti, ci accompagna davvero necessariamente di fronte ad un baratro oltre il quale non c’è più umanità (intesa qui come spontaneità naturale dell’uomo)? Per quanto possa sembrare difficile rispondere a questi interrogativi, ciò che è evidente – e questa è l’opinione portante del testo – è il bisogno di elaborare ai nostri fini «un’estetica generale che si occupi anche di quotidianità avendone acquisito i motivi al proprio interno senza farli diventare caratteri essenziali, ma relazionalmente e dinamicamente strutturali dell’estetico»; infatti «è proprio su queste basi, ovvero su basi relazionali, o intersoggettivo-continuiste, che andrebbe elaborata una teoria generale dell’estetica (del quotidiano), di fatto non ancora disponibile». Solo in tali condizioni, infatti, potremmo essere in grado di riflettere ampiamente ed apertamente sulle recenti acquisizioni dell’ambito estetico e sulle sue nuove promesse, liberati finalmente dal giogo del pensiero più tradizionalista e diretti verso un nuovo mondo, il mondo ordinario, quello che da sempre tutti abbiamo ed abbiamo avuto sotto gli occhi, ancora tutto da scoprire.

Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith: Correspondence: 1919–1973

Correspondence: 1919–1973 Book Cover Correspondence: 1919–1973
New Heidegger Research
Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith. Translated by J. Goesser Assaiante, S. Montgomery Ewegen
Rowman & Littlefield
Hardback $125.00 • £96.00

Reviewed by: Taylor J. Green (Carleton University)

A fifty-four-year correspondence between teacher and student is what Correspondence: 1919-1973: Martin Heidegger and Karl Löwith brings to English readers. Part of a larger series of The Collected Letters of Martin Heidegger, Correspondence 1919-1973 is a compiled set of one hundred and twenty-four letters, postcards, and telegrams, seventy-six from Martin Heidegger and forty-eight by Karl Löwith, published with helpful annotations, supplementary material, and biographical information. The relationship of Heidegger and Löwith is, certainly, marked by Heidegger’s actions in 1933, but also by an enduring and distinguished bond between two philosophical giants of the twentieth century. The final two letters in 1973 of these compiled correspondences are not sent to Karl Löwith but to his wife after his passing. Heidegger, outliving his former student by three years to the exact day, remarks to Frau Löwith, “may the mercifulness of your husband’s death diminish the pain of his departure, and with time transform it into thoughtful remembrance…The circle of those awakened for thinking during the 1920s grows ever smaller. Soon, at the very most, they will only live on in the memory of a few individuals” (156).

The warmth, trust, erudition, and philosophical conversion that Heidegger and Löwith share in these correspondence exposes a past philosophical era of the previous century, one of which thinking was the central tenet. Translators Assaiante and Ewegen capture the keen philosophical wit of a young Karl Löwith navigating early adulthood through philosophical discourse with one of the greatest German philosophers. In the translation, they also capture the essence of Heidegger’s mentorship and strict academically centric mind. As the translators state upfront, references to lost letters not compiled in this edition “are not in the possession of the estate” (ix). Any shortcomings in compilation does not mean, however, that these letters, as they stand, are nothing short of enlightening for scholars to gain insight into two excellent minds of our contemporary age. The explanatory annotations, the careful translation, unabridged correspondence, and the thoughtful editor’s forward and afterward provides a book easily recommendable to those interested in either or both philosophical minds, in their own written words, as they matured through the early twentieth century.

The language of the letters is “causal and friendly” and lacks the “specialized language” of Heidegger’s lecture courses. Yet there are times when Heidegger prioritizes supervising and guiding the young Löwith by engaging in dense philosophical discourse. Löwith more than obliges and, eventually, extends Heidegger’s existential thinking to-be-with-others in his 1928 habilitation. Captured correctly in the translation is Heidegger’s radicality, his growing disregard for Husserl, his dissonance with the arid bureaucratic structure of the university, and his prescient formulation of the arguments of Being and Time (1927). The translators, attempting the difficult task of uncovering Heidegger’s own self-references, convey the meaning of Eigendestruction in English as destructuring, self-destructuring, or destructing one’s own. This concept is important as Heidegger refers to the term often in the years leading up to the publication of his first major work.

In the “Editor’s Afterward”, it is stated that the letters represent four distinct periods in the relationship between Heidegger and Löwith (288). Classifying the letters in this way is helpful: (1) 1919-1925, Löwith is a student of Heidegger’s until the time he leaves for Italy. This period by far contains the most letters between them. (2) 1925-1929, Heidegger has become a proper professor, as Löwith prepares for his habilitation (successfully habilitated in 1928). (3) In the 1930s, notably, Heidegger becomes rector of University of Freiburg. On page 165, the translators provide an “Excerpt from Karl Löwith’s Italian Diary (1934-1936)”, detailing the last encounter Löwith had with his mentor prior to the war, where Heidegger does not take off the party insignia on his lapel, translated unabridged and with a different tone from what is printed in Richard Wolin’s The Heidegger Controversy. The last phase (4) is a “reconciliation” between Heidegger and Löwith. The impact of Heidegger embracing the rectorship of Freiburg in 1933 does not heal for Löwith, as evidence in Löwith’s documentation of their last encounter and in the salient lack of correspondence. This period contains the least exchanges. One is a birthday wish to Heidegger for his sixtieth birthday in 1949. Another is Heidegger consoling Löwith on his deathbed. Heidegger attaches a poem, or rather, “a series of Thoughts”, entitled Pathways, that reads “Pathways, footsteps loosening up, echoing a humble fate. And once again the distress of dusk, hesitant, in the waiting light” (156).

I review and reconstruct much of the conflating narratives and major themes throughout the work. I analyze the letters in each phase in the chronological structure the editors have provided. In this way, we gain the most detailed insight into the correspondence, as each period builds on the previous. A distinct relation between the two thinkers further defines each period of exchange. Thematically, we read the correspondence initially as two intellectuals yearning for philosophical discourse and influencing each other in the early days of the 1920s. This relationship is strengthened through the habilitation period but is abolished and forever ruptured by 1933. As Heidegger’s later work, post-denazification trials, became as important as his early work, essays such as “The Question Concerning Technology” and “A Letter on Humanism” for example, Löwith would take up the theme of Heidegger’s political decision deriving from his philosophy in such works as “The Political Implications of Heidegger’s Existentialism” and “Heidegger: Thinker in a Destitute Time”. Although the centrepiece of this volume is the teacher-student relationship, 1933 perhaps persistently looms as a shadow cast over the dialogue, as we read into the historicity of the exchange knowledge of the present.

Period 1: 1919-1925

From 1919-1922, Löwith studies with Heidegger and Husserl in Freiburg. Although Löwith received his Ph.D. in 1923 under Moritz Geiger, already in 1920, Löwith is writing to Heidegger that “I am not merely being polite when I admit to you quite readily that it is solely your lectures that I miss” (13). Löwith, in 1922, writes to Heidegger that “Geiger is familiar with every last bit of hastily published modern shit, but with nothing decent. He is interested in my dissertation. A few days ago, I gave him a fully corrected and typed copy. He is somewhat amazed by the fact that one can learn quite a bit more in Freiburg than here” (53). The four letters we have from 1919 suggest that Heidegger has an intellectual interest in the gifted student but, initially, maintains formal relations. In early 1920, Heidegger shows gratitude to Löwith for “that excellent presentation of yours, in which I detected actual intellectual spirit without adherence to a specific scholarly dogmatism (which is the death of all philosophy)” (4). From 1920 onwards, the letters grow long with philosophical discourse, criticisms of academia, criticisms of Husserl, academic gossip, and book suggestions. Heidegger often uses Löwith as a springboard for lecture course topics to pursue. According to a 1920 letter, Heidegger asserts, “I have nixed the entire summer lecture course and am now reworking it anew…Perhaps I will dare to try this experiment in the coming semesters after all. Even we in philosophy are so weighed down by tradition, so unhistorical {unhistorisch}, that we no longer know ourselves. I have again thought about the Hegel seminar, and must say that there is no way he [Jonas Cohn] could have chosen a more inappropriate text than the Encyclopedia of Logic; it is evidence of the absolute innocuousness of everything when compared to Hegel, and also of the sort of dallying with philosophy that is so often practiced here” (5).

During this period Heidegger is a Privatdozent, a lecturer, and not the “secret king of thought” he would become after 1927’s publication of Being and Time. From 1919-1923, Heidegger is an assistant to Edmund Husserl at the University of Freiburg. In the letters of 1920, Heidegger often advises his student on many matters of the state of philosophy in Weimar Germany, and what Löwith can do to combat this pervasive philosophical shallowness. In Document 7, Heidegger elucidates to the young Löwith that “Spenglerizing seems to be subsiding, and it is now finally time for one to engage these ideas philosophically…You are still in those pleasant years during which one has time to read; only rarely do I have occasion to do so, and when I do read, it is always ‘with a particular purpose’…for we do not practice philosophy in order to stockpile bits of knowledge and propositions, but rather to shape life” (6). We also find quips in Documents 9 and 10 where Heidegger warns “against making relativism into a standpoint”; or muses “to become a Hegelian is only half as bad as becoming a Kierkegaardian”; or advises that “chattering on about the religious based on what one has read in an encyclopedia”; or imparts that “one should not desire to create proselytizers” (7-10). Around this time of exchange, the letters become intellectually dense and engaging. Heidegger writes to Husserl about taking on Löwith as a student, where Husserl is in “heartfelt agreement” (9). Heidegger, however, hesitates soon after by saying he is overworked and that he “is too poor at the moment to buy books” (9) and that “I myself am not even seen as a ‘philosopher’ anymore, for I am in fact only still a theologian” (12).

Löwith responds a month later in a moving letter demonstrating the student’s intellectual gifts. “For as much as I agree with you,” Löwith suggests, “about the separation of philosophy and scholarship, the problem nevertheless remains unsolved, given that today one cannot allow oneself to posit philosophical claims in the manner of Schelling or even Hegel” (14). He further claims that Max Weber comes close to “lifting such a heavy burden” for philosophy as at one time Hegel did (15). But after some skepticism, matched, in the previous letter, by Heidegger’s doubts on German philosophy, Löwith affirms, “given such doubts and such hesitancies regarding scholarly activity, it is difficult to justify making philosophy into a career” (15). To comment on Heidegger’s growing disinterest but incredible academic powers, Löwith ends the letter by requesting of Heidegger if he can speak truthfully. In describing his soon-to-be mentor, Löwith boldly expounds that he understands Heidegger on a spiritual level: “One senses a certain unease and humane insecurity within you, whose consequence is a slightly overcomposed acerbity and mistrust, and one seeks in you that indefinable inner freedom and ability to be in control of oneself. I am sure you yourself are suffering the most from this, and I would never mention it if I myself were not able to empathize all too well” (15).

Due to such statements and lengthy philosophical discourse, throughout the 1920s, Heidegger’s trusts his pupil immensely. Heidegger, for example, says to Löwith that the new volume of Kant Studien is worthless in its entirety (16). Löwith frequently criticizes Husserl attempting, I believe, to impress Heidegger, and Löwith appears to approach philosophy more in line with Heidegger than any other major German philosopher. In a 1923 letter, Heidegger asserts, “never in his life, not even for a second, was Husserl a philosopher. He is becoming increasingly ridiculous” (63). One can only imagine the substantial content of their in-person philosophical diatribes, as many of the letters confirm dates to meet in various German cities, while roaming the state for invited talks and conferences. Heidegger, on occasion, invites Löwith to his hut in the Black Forest. In Supplement 5, the editors include Karl Löwith’s written entry at the Heidegger family hut in Todtnauberg (1924). Although on that day, “philosophy of language came to expression in such a way that philosophy was not discussed” (169). “And now you have a letter full of gossip,” Heidegger writes in 1922, “but this is the only way that one can write about one’s situation; to speak of other matters in between would be a shame, it’s better to do that in person” (57). During these exchanges, Heidegger must have shown his increasing irritation with Plato philosophically and Husserl personally, although still dedicating Being and Time to the latter. Löwith convinces Heidegger that he is able to “strip off all of that rationalistic Platonism” (17). Later on, Löwith cites an encounter where during his second semester he voiced to Heidegger that he had a “vehement resistance to [Husserl’s] philosophical cast of mind. Today it is absolutely clear to me that Husserl, on the deepest level, is not a great philosopher, and that it is a massive delusion to put him on the same pedestal as Kant; his whole disposition is infinitely far removed from reality—it is without life and is doctrinally logical” (21).

Aside from a shared criticism of Husserl, which persists through the decade, Heidegger’s predisposition towards a pedagogy guided by philosophy shines forth from the text. Whatever can be said about Heidegger, these letters expose Heidegger’s devotion to teaching philosophy. In Document 25, there are ambivalent statements for Löwith to unpack, such as Heidegger’s ideal of “one’s mastery of things [which] arises out of the clearest and most stringent expertise—but in the philosophy itself, one should not notice this. These days, it is particularly difficult to advance toward a vibrant and enlivened philosophizing and to accomplish what it demands. And that is why you must not work at half strength, but must rather fuse reflection into, and with, philosophizing. Philosophy is not fun—one can be destroyed by it; and he who does not risk this will never come to it” (20). Although Heidegger desires an ambitious philosophical career, he does not wish to “make the world better—even less so university philosophers; everyone should say what they want to say, and then apply themselves accordingly” (20). Moreover, in a particularly chasten letter addressed to him, Löwith, on his teacher’s request, must take philosophy more seriously. Almost challenging Löwith forward into the path of higher learning, Heidegger evaluates, “you must become more disciplined in your work—not in regard to quantity, but in regard to quality. The meaning and sense of philosophizing is itself historical {historisch}, and what matters is to find one’s own—and to leave aside all the yardsticks of earlier philosophers…One should not unduly hasten the formation of one’s thoughts” (20).

The translators have correctly captured Heidegger’s incisive play on the word existence by leaving the term existentiell untranslated. Heidegger changes the word for existence in his later works to distinguish from conventional notions of the term. Engaging with Löwith on interpretations of his work, Heidegger seeks to charm the young scholar into following “the existentell interpretation of facticity” (37). We find the use of the term Dasein (again, correctly untranslated) as early as 1921, in perhaps a set of letters that provides the deepest philosophical dialectic between the interlocutors. In Document 25, Heidegger denies a definition of philosophy proposed by Löwith in a previous letter by stating philosophy is pointless in isolation. Philosophy only matters as belonging to existentell facticity. By claiming he does not follow Kierkegaard, Heidegger notes that tailoring one’s philosophical work to suit the “cultural tasks” of the “common man” is absurd (37). Instead, university philosophers must be tied essentially to factical-existentell life; however, Heidegger is “not hereby asserting that philosophy only exists within the university, but rather that philosophizing, precisely because of its foundational purpose at the university (understood in an existentiell way), therein has the facticity of its own enactment, and with that, its own limits and restrictions” (37). Löwith’s rebuke of this claim concerning inherent limitations in facticity would become the foundation of his thought for the rest of his philosophical career.

These early letters are filled with advice for Löwith to become a scholar in his own right. Admitting that he does not wish his time as a student upon anyone, Heidegger acknowledges he is today a great thinker because of his resolve as a student (39). What Löwith shows in Document 24, his most extensive and erudite letter, is extraordinary. He receives the lessons of his mentor’s pedagogy, proving so by claiming that one cannot “exist in the proper sense within just any and all sorts of scholarly philosophical questioning…One can only exist in a true and complete way when asking questions about existence, and existence does not coincide with scholarly fanaticism” (32). The self-discovery process through philosophical rigor is the quality, it appears, Heidegger holds in the highest regard, not only for himself, but also for his most promising pupil. From these letters preceding Being and Time, we can conclude that Heidegger’s early pedagogy is one of existentiell authenticity for himself and his student.

Period 2: 1925-1929

Löwith stays in Italy in 1924-1925. In summer 1923, Heidegger informs Löwith that he has “obtained an appointment in Marburg with the rights and status of an Ordinarius Professor beginning on October 1st” (73). In the following letter, Document 74, Löwith’s warm adoration of the good news presupposes that he and Heidegger, by this point, are close friends and philosophical confidants. As early as 1922, a year before the Beer Hall Putsch, Löwith writes to Heidegger, “frighteningly, hidebound nationalism and anti-Semitism (fueled by Bavarian beer) are spreading. Campaign posters are being hung in the lecture halls…They demand, for example, that the university should only be allowed to have 1 percent Jewish professors, because this correlates to the percentage of the population at large” (57). Löwith’s letters, from 1923 forward, reflect an anxiety about a career in philosophy, an existential concern voiced in previous letters. This time, however, the reason of concern is material subsistence. Löwith writes, “the little bit of money that [I] earn here doesn’t go very far given this ever-rising inflation. There won’t be many other opportunities for money in a small city like Marburg…Please excuse these tiresome financial matters, but unfortunately, nothing is possible without them” (75). Weimar inflation, Heidegger’s new position, lack of employment opportunity, anxiety about material goods, and growing anti-Semitism in Germany are the reasons we gain by reading the correspondence for why Löwith accepts a job to work at a bookstore in Rome (87).

Indeed, despite his student residing in Italy, Heidegger accepts Löwith to habilitate under him. In Document 56, Heidegger lays out his demands, should Löwith have plans to habilitate, “then the only thing that matters is to submit a solid work; apart from that do not let the intention become explicit in any way. On this occasion, I must tell you once again that the prospects of a position as a professor in the next decades are poorer than ever, owing to the fact that chairs in philosophy will most likely be reduced…The career track is a matter of luck. If you put effort into it, you will have my help. However, beyond that, I don’t want the aggravation of having to lead you by the hand” (85).

Despite his location, Löwith wishes for the prospect of habilitation. Habilitating only depends on “(1) if I produce a work that meets your expectations and that leads you to advocate for me, and (2) on the faculty…If you share my view, I would be very happy if you could send me this in your reply…” (86). “Naturally,” Löwith continues, “I am not in good spirits right now, but I am also not without hope…for I believe myself not to be in error when I take the two weeks…to be a sign that nothing was in vain, that I have not been given a burden too heavy to shoulder, and that my philosophical—scholarly abilities have continued to grow silently along with me, despite, and because of everything” (87). Heidegger confers his student to keep his head high as things are not so bad (126), despite Löwith’s sick father and the turmoil surrounding lack of career prospects. Heidegger responds, “I come from a very poor family—all that my parents scrimped and saved, without ever understanding what I was studying or what I planned to do—all of that was still so meager that I had to endure my time as a student with far greater privation than is the case today among ‘poor’ students. And it worked out because I never gave up…You will not starve to death, but life is not pleasant; not even when one is an Ordinarius Professor” (89). In a 1928 letter, Heidegger writes that every semester he started with nothing in his pockets. He had to go into debt and go hungry; he implores Löwith to persist through the adversity (126).

After his time in Italy, Löwith interprets Heidegger’s Being and Time for his habilitation thesis. In 1927, Löwith asks Heidegger to think back to his time under Husserl in Freiburg to “recognize the thankfulness within my unevenly matched assault” (111). Löwith is now thirty years old, and ready to defend his habilitation. In his own work, he has tried to present what he understands to be a problem of Heidegger’s thought (111). Whereas Heidegger’s Being and Time is about the authenticity of the ontological against the ontic of the das Mann or the they, the inauthentic crowd, Löwith’s central focus of his thesis is that Dasein is a being-with-others [Miteinanderseins] that “lies on the same plane of conflict as one’s authentic existence, and through ‘nature’ (sensibility) it does not become unproblematic but rather concretely and specifically problematic” (117).

Heidegger accepts Löwith’s habilitation thesis. Document 77 is a technical response from Heidegger to many of Löwith’s charges that Dasein must be-with-others. Defending his own work against Löwith’s interpretation, Heidegger is unwavering in his conviction that ontology is only founded ontically, and that he is the first person to have fully articulated this claim (121). The interlocutors write back and forth for the rest of 1927 and part of 1928 about the faculty process of passing Löwith.

In Supplement 2, the editors have printed in full “Martin Heidegger’s Assessment of Karl Löwith’s Habilitation Thesis (1928).” The thesis is entitled Der Individuum in der Rolle des Mitmenchen. The assessment outlines a shared world from being-with-others, another concept that has remained untranslated in English, Miteinanderseins, where subjects create relations of “personae” playing roles for others in a shared world (162). Out of this shared world, individuals determine their existential subjectivity by the world of things belonging before that of people (162). The adoption of a shared world is limited by the individual, as each shares a responsibility to individuality as such so that others maintain this existential process. In his assessment, Heidegger calls this the “I-You” relationship (162). Heidegger admits in prior letters that psychoanalysis and anthropology are irrelevant to crucial issues and not of much interest to him. But in the evaluation of the thesis, Heidegger praises the work as it shows “a scholarly independence that exceeds what is typical of habilitation theses in philosophy” (163).

Period 3: 1930s

In a letter dated April 29, 1928, Heidegger writes to Löwith that the committee “stands in agreement; thus your work can be disseminated to the faculty as quickly as possible” (127). After the habilitation period, Löwith searches for academic positions. Löwith becomes a Privatedozent in Marburg—from 1928 until Hitler’s ascension in 1933—where Heidegger advises him to “hold at least a three-hour a week lecture concerning the history of modern philosophy since Descartes. You have to immerse yourself and take from it what you can get…In the future, do not be too surprised if you come to experience more, and more powerfully, the demoralization of the university” (130-131).

In 1929, Löwith marries Elisabeth Ada Kremmer. Heidegger sends his best. Then, the relationship of the decade-long pen mates turns tense. Document 96 displays Heidegger’s disregard for superficiality, especially among the university elites, as he is thankful to Fate that he is “truly made of stuff that cannot be harmed by all this whispering and whining. Despite the inner necessity of the creative process, I would rather choose to remain in utter silence than have my work be dependent on this profession” (136). He criticizes the fact that Löwith cannot get away “from Dilthey, Nietzsche, and psychoanalysis”, which was proven “during your first semester when you did not follow my advice to study a wide range of historical lectures, which would have forced you into other matters. But how could I blame you for such things! Then, I could have quite easily and effortlessly prevented your habilitation” (136). As a lecturing academic, and no longer a student, Löwith defends the claims of his habilitation thesis against the charges. According to Löwith, “for then it would indeed be tautological to say that the human only ‘is’ the human on the basis of the Dasein within him…in reality it is neither tautological nor self-evident; and a justification for why this is so was lacking from Being and Time, a jettisoning of the ‘neutrality’ of essential ontological claims, and I see the first signs of such an attempt on pages 17 and 18 of your lecture [What is Metaphysics], where this purity of Dasein is proven on the basis of the one…who experiences anxiety, and where you say that anxiety ‘transforms’ the human into pure Dasein” (138). Nevertheless, Löwith confesses to Heidegger that “an astonishing number of students have learned an unconditional respect for philosophy through you, and you have probably experienced more joy with some of them than you did with me” (141).

1931 and 1932 hold many of the same previous themes of going over lecture topics and explication of philosophical concepts, besides the fact that now Löwith is asking for Heidegger’s advice on lecture topics. Just before the new year in 1932, Heidegger sends his sincere condolences for the loss of Löwith’s father. In the tumultuous year for the relationship when Heidegger embraces the Nazi party, we have three letters and one telegram from 1933, all from Heidegger. We are missing at least two because Heidegger thanks Löwith for letters mid-1933, which is after the April date of Heidegger’s rectorship of Freiburg University. Also, Heidegger congratulates Löwith on a stipend in July. One of the omissions is Löwith asking if he could dedicate his book to Heidegger (the editors suggest the book in question is Löwith’s Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, or the Philosophical and Theological Overcoming of Nihilism). Heidegger responds, “in reality I know well how you feel about me, even when your work goes in other directions. Also, with an eye toward possible situations in which I might be asked to render a judgement about you, I suggest that you omit the dedication” (149). Two letters appear from Heidegger in 1936-1937. Löwith emigrates to Japan in 1936, as living in Europe grows calamitous.

Period 4: Reconciliation

Löwith would ride out the war in America, teaching at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut (1941-1949) and at the New School for Social Research (1949-1952). In 1952, he moves back to Germany to become an Ordinarius Professor at Heidelberg. From New York, Löwith sends a telegram in 1949 giving Heidegger best wishes on his sixtieth birthday. In Document 113 Löwith writes Heidegger from his new position at Heidelberg. After almost two decades of silence, interrupted only by the birthday telegram, Löwith discusses academic conferences and interpretations of Nietzsche. While 1966 is the year Heidegger claims that “only a god can save us now” in the famous Der Spiegel interview, a year later Heidegger and Löwith reconnect when Löwith is in Freiburg for a two-day colloquium on “Modern Atheism and Morality” (277). The return letter from Heidegger indicates that they did plan to visit each other. Unclear is how close the relationship is immediately afterwards. In the 1970s, nothing of substance is exchanged in letters. Heidegger writes Löwith in 1973 when he learns from Gadamer about his illness. During time of sickness, Heidegger writes, “the world contracts and withdraws into the simple. In our old age, we think of the end—but also of the beginning—of our paths” (155). This remark undoubtedly draws attention to the good moments they had discussing philosophy and gossiping about Husserl in the early 1920s. After Löwith’s death, we draw the correspondence to a close when Heidegger receives a photo of the departed from Frau Löwith to which Heidegger says shows him “in a state of calm and collected contemplation” (156).

What Correspondence 1919-1973 brings to English readers is indispensable. It uncovers a foregone age of thinking between two monumental figures. The major linchpin thematically is the year Heidegger becomes a figurehead for National Socialism. Before then, in the correspondence, Löwith is an astute student, and after, the relationship fragments. While Löwith would finally embrace a professional career in philosophy, after all his written anxiety about the pursuit, his insight into 1933 becomes a topic of an autobiography originally published as an essay for a competition at Harvard in 1939 “My Life in Germany Before and After 1933”. Indeed, many of Löwith’s later writings find Heidegger’s existentell analytic a reason for his political involvement with National Socialism. Undoubtedly due to Heidegger’s unique philosophical pedagogy in early 1920s, Löwith would make a laudable philosophical career searching for limits in a time when society removes traditional constraints. What these exchange of letters makes known with clarity is that Löwith, while habilitating under Heidegger, already finds the concepts of authenticity and facticity problematic for their lack of ground for being-with-others. The translators of this volume capture all the necessary components to make sense of Heidegger’s early thinking, while the editors carefully provide more than enough supplementary material to contextualize and situate the often-perplexing references. By providing English readers with Heidegger and Löwith’s erudite relationship, in their own written words, Correspondence 1919-1973 is essential reading for anyone interested in twentieth-century continental thought.

Wolfgang Gleixner: endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie, Karl Alber, 2022

endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie Book Cover endlich/philosophieren: Die anthropologisch-existentielle Wende der Phänomenologie
Wolfgang Gleixner
Karl Alber

Steven DeLay: In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith

In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith Book Cover In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith
Steven DeLay
Christian Alternative Books: John Hunt Publishing

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College and University of London)

In the Spirit is a short text comprised of nine chapters and a conclusion. Each chapter has a loose thematic centre, which it explores associatively. The author draws out different existential threads in conversation with the Christian scriptures and a range of different works of art. There is a particular journey that the book hopes to take its reader on, although I didn’t fully appreciate this until I got to the end. Starting in darkness, with the soul asleep, journeying through resistance to conversion to a life renewed, the book ends with a vision of perfection and the pattern of a divinely ordered life.

The opening chapter – ‘A Drunkard’s Sleep’ – takes drunkenness as its phenomenological and theological meditation. In this chapter DeLay draws substantially on Adriaen van Ostade’s Drunkards in a Tavern to illuminate his various conceptual forays on this theme. He goes in a number of different directions exploring the image and experience of drunkenness. Intoxication by alcohol is associated variously with sleep, dreaming, lying, illusion, blindness, restlessness, simmering rage, hardness of heart and a failure to be satiated. These different qualities of the drunk and the addict find obvious correlates in the existential and spiritual realm. For DeLay, that which the drunk’s restless thirst longs for is ultimately the living water which Christ offers the Samaritan woman in John 4; the water that is himself. Yet the drunk ‘dulls his sensibility’ (12) to this living water, which is why there is a wakefulness, a ‘sober-mindedness’ (16) needed before it is even possible to drink from that which will satisfy. There is a particularly interesting reflection in the midst of this meandering exploration, on two types of blindness. DeLay takes us to Christ’s diagnosis in Matthew 11:18-19 of those that reject both he and John the Baptist, but for different reasons. John is rejected for his sobriety while Jesus is rejected for his so-called gluttony. As DeLay puts it: ‘Doubt, then, comes in two forms of blindness: with John, an unduly suspicious seeing that does not see what meets the eye, simply because it does not want to see it; with Christ, a self-servingly shallow seeing that sees only enough to be able to remain blind to whatever more it does not want to see.’ (18) DeLay puts the question to us – where else do these two types of blindness show up (or fail to show up) in the reader’s life and experience – the not seeing what is there and the only seeing what is there?

The second chapter – ‘The Strong Wind and a Still Small Voice’ – majors on the theme of dependence. It focuses on the Biblical story in 1 Kings 19 where the prophet Elijah is fed by an angel after waking alone and exhausted in the wilderness. DeLay considers the weakness, fragility of Elijah in his moment, which leads him to a broader reflection on the vulnerability and dependency woven through the human condition, requiring a posture of something like Løgstrup’s ‘basic trust’. He notes the ways we can resist this part of ourselves and try to maintain an illusion of independence. DeLay considers different artist’s impressions of this moment in Elijah’s story (Escalante, Bol, Maggiotto and Moretto.) These different ways of depicting the moment give us, as the reader, a way into imagining different possible postures – both of resistance and of receptivity – in Elijah in this moment, and in ourselves.

The third chapter – ‘On the Broad Way’ – circles around the theme of desire. It considers both desires locked into their own sense of themselves, as well as the possibility of a desire that leads to divine transcendence. DeLay tells us, starkly, that ‘Desire’s transfiguration, from inattentive or feverish, on the one hand, to attentive and judicious, on the other, is an upheaval of everything, that great moment of lucidity marking the fear of God.’ (35) This chapter circles back to themes from the previous two, picking up the narcotising theme from the first chapter. He again uses different pieces of visual art (Rodin and Munch) to invite us to consider different ways of seeing-as-artist, and so different ways of desiring. With echoes of Levinas he identifies the desire which hoovers the world into one’s own totalising artistic project, and an alternative which is receptive to the interruption of God.

Chapter Four is called ‘The Golden Calf.’ As its title suggests, this portion of text riffs on the theme of idolatry. Here DeLay engages with the contemporary prevalence of social media, thinking phenomenologically about the pressure it exerts to keep us preoccupied with images of ourselves. He diagnoses a new very and yet very old phenomenon, traced back to the myth of Narcissus. In an enjoyable pun, he diagnoses: ‘Narcissus, in fact, is the ancient predecessor of what for us has become rampant, a transcendental egoism consisting in the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency from God, a shallow pride leading to the pursuit of self-adoration, thereby culminating in an existence whereby one becomes one’s own idol, one’s own golden calf.’ (54) Taking this pronouncement further, he claims that this narcissism becomes ‘demonic’, because ‘divorced from the goal of becoming wise, the task of being oneself meets with failure. For underestimating evil, it fails to take adequate refuge from it.’ (65)

Chapter Five – ‘Through the Veil of the Word made Flesh’ – is something of a hinge chapter. Here DeLay tells us retrospectively what he has been seeking to do so far, and why: ‘If, then, the preceding chapters have aimed to establish one thing, it is to disclose the stupor in which we grope when we are estranged from God, whatever the particular reason is. Having fought for however long it may be to live apart from God, how will coming to know him be achievable after persisting alone? What form can a reconciliation between God and us take?’ (66) This chapter tries to illuminate the moment of conversion, where the inverted, self-satisfied ego is taken out of itself and transformed. This, then, is the frame with which to read this chapter, and the whole of the second half of the book. The exploration of a phenomenology of the closed-off life becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of conversion becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of the spiritually open and given-over life. DeLay’s orthodox answer to the question of what form divine-human reconciliation might take, is that ‘the incarnation changes everything.’ (66) It is the incarnation of God that ruptures our experience (of drunkenness, independence, feverish desire and idolatry) and addresses us. The recurring image – once again explored through the eyes of various artists, but particularly in this case, Caravaggio – is of St Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. It is Paul’s confrontation with the incarnate and reconciling person of Christ that knocks him (and us) off our horse. DeLay describes it thus: ‘The haze lifts. The riddle dissolves. Life ceases to be a Promethean project of forging an identity by way of the purposes we choose to determine for ourselves. Now, it instead takes on the pure form of a divinely appointed vocation, a task God gives us…Henceforth, the incarnation points the way for us, because Christ, while in earth, dwelling among us, leaves the pattern of life by which reaching eternal life is possible.’ (68) In the second half of this chapter he starts the constructive work of articulating what a phenomenology of this life so patterned involves. He offers a rich description of the ‘spiritual senses’ – what-it-is-like to have spiritual sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands of the heart, as it puts it) awake and attuned.

The sixth chapter – ‘The Purple Robe’– takes evil as its theme, particularly evil’s resistance to the conversion held up in the previous chapter. Different manifestations of the resistance to conversion are explored, but DeLay’s focus is evil’s pattern of denial of the truth followed by violent attack on the truth. The counter-pattern of the converted life works against this grain of denial-and-attack: ‘Displaying the futility of evil’s will to destroy the truth, Christ’s personal victory over death takes on universal significance. Having passed through suffering unto death, and back to life, his resurrection guarantees the good’s ultimate triumph over evil. Even when evil seemingly has overpowered the truth to the point of putting it to death, it fails, for the truth only rises again. This is the eternal power of the good originating beyond the world, a good having issued its first word with creation, and its last word with the resurrection.’ (102)

Work and rest are the central theme of the seventh chapter, titled ‘Apparitions of the Kingdom’. By implicit contrast to the locked-in desire and restlessness explored in earlier chapters, this is an examination of a work redeemed and a true rest that springs from outside of the self. As we find in all these chapters, DeLay offers a taxonomy of experiences. Of particular interest here is his distinction between different types of restoring rest – rest found through connection with the whole, and rest found in meditation on the dignity of the details, which he demonstrates in his discussions of Turner and Monet respectively. Again, what is offered is a phenomenology of the life spiritual – after the pattern of Christ. Rather than embroiling himself in classic philosophical debates about work and rest (usually cashed out as activity and passivity, or freedom and determinism) he rather points us to the fact that ‘metaphysical questions regarding God’s relation to creation and the relation between divine and human action are resolved simply by imitating Christ.’ (109)

‘Paul and the Philosophers’, DeLay’s eight chapter, takes wisdom as its theme. Paul’s famous sermon to the Greeks at Mars Hill is explored through various painterly depictions (Raphael, Ricco, Fortuny, Pannini and Rothermel.) The wisdom that is the pattern of Christ DeLay describes as ‘a third way’ (120) between the wisdom of the Greek philosophers (both Stoic and Epicurean) and the Jewish wisdom tradition from which Paul himself comes. Most pertinently for the philosophers reading this text, DeLay puts forward the suggestion that intellectualism’s sceptical posture can be destructive not only as a form of idolatry, but also as a form of superstition. For ‘when the truth has been revealed, and one persists in ignorance, what previously had been an admirable attitude of epistemic modesty itself becomes superstition, for it clings to an ignorance that has ceased to be warranted.’ (125) By contrast, Paul preaches obedience to the truth revealed, the person of Christ himself.

Chapter Nine, ‘The World’, considers the theme of overcoming. The Biblical stories paired and explored through artworks here are that of St John’s Revelation on the island of Patmos, and Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The connection hangs on Patmos as a site of temptation similar to that of Christ’s wilderness. Drawing on both stories, DeLay gives an account the work and experience of overcoming – overcoming the world, overcoming temptation and (rightly) overcoming oneself. Christ is again the pattern book for this existential task. In refusing Satan’s attempts to get him to use his power in the wilderness he shows us, for example, that real power does not always need to show itself, and this is the kind of overcoming that our more spiritually alive selves are called to.

We come to the Conclusion, which is titled ‘Perfection’. The telos of the journey is held before us to continually elevate us, to remind us of the nobility that is possible and to-be-pursued. ‘Existence assumes the form of faith, for it becomes a stretching forth, a perpetual exodus always in patience seeking after the heavenly city, rather than turning back to idle aimlessly where it had begun.’ (150) And yet lest we forget, we are reminded – ‘nobody begins elsewhere than with mercy.’ (151)

My experience of reading this book was that each chapter was something like a homily – less primarily a piece of conceptual analysis (although this is wound through DeLay’s prose) and more of a moral, spiritual and existential exhortation. Or perhaps the foreground use of artworks makes this book feel like visiting a gallery with someone, attending with them, jointly attending and seeing what they see. I could imagine a sermon or lecture companion series to this text. Knowing now the homiletic quality of the text, I might have chosen to read it differently. I suspect that the best way to approach this book is not to read it too quickly, but to treat each chapter as a meditation, pausing between each. There are strands of connection between the chapters, but similarly, one could easily read each chapter as standalone. As so much of the book involves discussion of unseen works of art, reading in a space where one has access to a high resolution screen to search for the images will probably serve this more tuned-in and contemplative reading. (Learn from this reader’s mistake – don’t read on the London Underground with no Wi-Fi to search for images). In an ideal world this book would have included all the images it refers to, but there are a huge number of artworks engaged, which would no doubt have been a huge cost and headache to compile.

Although I want to say that this is a homiletic piece of work, it is also certainly reads as a primary piece of phenomenology in the tradition of Christian existentialism. DeLay’s energy is not directed towards any secondary analysis of any other thinkers – the text is focused on making its own declarations, analyses and exhortations. The prose has a meandering and associative quality, with themes built on implicitly, and in a non-linear way. The form of the book seems to want to evoke some of the texture of our experiential and existential existence. It has no introduction, no framing, no signposting, no overview. We are dropped straight into the meditation on drunkenness and sleep with the question: ‘Am I in darkness?’ Initially I found this jarring and disorientating, but, in settling in to DeLay’s prose, I take it that this abruptness is intentional, evoking our thrownness and the disoriented sense of waking from sleep, not knowing quite where we are or what it is to find ourselves awake (or are we?)

As a work of phenomenology, the extent to which the reader will find it valuable will be the extent to which the rich phenomenological descriptions that DeLay paints resonate with the lived experience of the reader, or not. For this reader, there were many points at which the text spoke to my lived experience – see above, on blindness and intellectualism particularly. On this point I would be fascinated to speak to others who have also read the text. This text is accessible to the engaged and interested reader of any stripe – no previous expertise in philosophy is needed, although my suspicion is that the book may split a room. This is a book that I wish I had been able to read with others, to find out what did and didn’t resonate with them, what they saw, felt or noticed in reading this book that I didn’t, what rubbed them the wrong way. I am particularly curious as to how the book’s assertions might land with those who do not share the theological commitments that are made foreground. For this reader, immersed in and committed to the Christian faith, the theological assumptions are a familiar landscape in which I live, move and have my being. But how might the non-believer respond to the assertion that ‘the incarnation changes everything?’ This of course raises something of the meta-question of the nature, significance and legitimacy of the theological turn in phenomenology, although I think DeLay is rightly unapologetic in assuming that this kind of theological phenomenology is legitimate. I am interested less here in the meta-philosophical question and more in the interpersonal and experiential one: what-is-it-like for an atheist to read this book? There are many kinds of atheist, of course, so there will not be one answer to this question. My sense is that there are flavours and textures of human experience which DeLay puts words to, in conversation with art and scripture, which make this work the kind of site where theists and atheists can dialogue…but I seek the atheist’s opinion here.

In a similar vein, I am also curious as to how the tone and feel of the book is received by a non-Christian audience. The sermonising quality of DeLay’s writing has a certain severity or heaviness to it. This is a descriptive rather than critical point – again, the quality of a primary existential text (as we find in the likes of Kierkegaard, Levinas and friends) definitionally has a confronting tone. I would love to know for whom else this is a holy confrontation, and whether there are those for whom it leaves cold as moralising. One person’s aphorism is another’s cliché. Maybe all existential writing runs this risk, and there is a boldness to DeLay’s unironic frontal delivery which, in a philosophical landscape typically concerned with caveats and an obsession with narrowing the scope of a set of claims, is refreshing. As I say – I am curious to know where this text leads others.

Simone Aurora: Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale, Orhtotes, 2022

Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale Book Cover Il campo della coscienza. Aron Gurwitsch e la fenomenologia trascendentale
Simone Aurora