‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair.’
—Drew Leder (226)
There is a new genre in philosophy, it is one that is ‘respiratory.’ So argue Lenart Škof and Petri Berndtson in the introduction to the edited volume Atmospheres of Breathing. Citing Luce Irigaray’s dismissal of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy as ‘one forgetting the breath,’ Škof and Berndtson go on to argue that since Plato, Western traditions of philosophy have indeed been ‘oblivious to breath’ (ix). This narrative forms the impetus for their project, one in which they aim to present ‘an archaeology of breath’ from ‘respiratory philosophers as spiritual archaeologists excavating [the breath’s] hidden ontological, epistemological, ethical, religious and political layers.’ (ix)
Škof and Berndtson ask what kind of philosophy such a respiratory, breathing or breath-full philosophy might be? (x) How would it think and understand relations between thinking and breathing, between philosophy and respiration? And what might the start of such a philosophy be? According to Škof and Berndtson, the message from the ‘great breathers’ is that ‘it is not enough to think – one must also breathe’ (x-xi). Škof and Berndtson ponder whether the relationship between thinking and breathing is a parallel one or whether it is rather ‘a chiasmic relation in which the thinker and the experience of breathing somehow constantly intertwine in an essential manner, perpetually inspiring each other?’(xi). Their question then becomes how do breathing and thinking influence each other as well as whether ‘every thought, even those we barely notice, is at some fundamental level already in a hidden and latent manner a respiratory thought – that is, a thought somehow inspired by the breath?’
Ruminating upon Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan’s assertion that the ‘the fundamental error of philosophy is its constant “forgetting of breathing” (x) Škof and Berndtson argue that in Western philosophy such forgetfulness has ‘made it possible for the dangerous idea of dualism to become a paradigm of modern philosophy.’ (xiii) Perhaps inevitably the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of René Descartes and the third of his Meditations on First Philosophy. As summarised by Škof and Berndtson, in the relevant section Descartes seeks to ‘address only himself by looking deeper and deeper into himself’ so that he might be more better known and familiar to himself (xii). Such self-knowledge can only be achieved via a withdrawal from the so-called deceptive world of the senses. Škof and Berndtson point out that even though Descartes describes his withdrawal, from the visual by closing his eyes, from the auditory by blocking his ears, it is impossible for him to block his nostrils and mouth, as these are required to breathe. Descartes’ description is therefore erroneous, ‘as he forgets breathing he is not at all truthful in what he writes.’ Had his pursuit of obtaining ‘pure and indubitable self-knowledge’ lead to him blocking his respiratory openings he would have experienced, according to Škof and Berndtson ‘a dreadful experience of anxiety… his sole thought would have been I am feeling terrible. How long can I hold my breath? I really need to breathe.’ Had the philosopher experienced this train of thought, argue the editors of Atmospheres of Breath, Cartesian philosophy would have been absolutely different as would Western philosophy. Tying into Kahn’s proposition, Škof and Berndtson surmise that had Descartes been more aware of own breathing he never would have arrived at his dualistic philosophy (xiii). If the starting principle of philosophy is the experience of breathing, which ‘perpetually intertwines the self, the body and the world,’ then dualism becomes untenable.
A focus upon the breath means that such a philosophical project is resolutely embodied. This ties into Irigaray’s assertion included on the first page of the introduction, that awareness of the breath is in fact ‘essential for an embodied ethics of difference in our globalized, ecological age’ (ix). Daoist philosopher Zhangzi, considered by Škof and Berndtson to be ‘the philosopher for breathing,’ focuses upon fundamental difference of breathing as a way of theorising difference between people (xiv). Whereas a ‘The True Man’ breaths deeply, with his heels, from head to toe with an ‘expanded, cultivated breath,’ those who breathe merely with their throats cannot ‘experience the vastness of breath in all of its spiritual and ontological possibilities and atmospheres.’ Harking back to Descartes, Škof and Berndtson caution ‘it is not enough to think, one also has to breathe. Dangerous are the thinkers who have not breathed enough’ (xiv).
Further reinforcement of the overall thrust of this edited volume is provided by Khan, according to whom the only true error or fundamental wrongdoing in human life ‘is to let one breath go without being conscious of it’ (xiv-xv). For Khan, to be ‘unaware of the phenomenon of breathing’ which is ‘this most important thing in life’ is also to be oblivious to its ‘manifold mysteries’ (xv). Breath is a ‘vast current which goes through everything,’ this atmosphere of breath surrounds, intermediates and flows through everything, it comes from our very consciousness and extends to external being and the physical world. Škof and Berndtson contrast this with an average person’s experience of breathing which is superficial, hence completely missing the profound dimensions of its atmospheres and possibilities. There is a respiratory difference, which is the ‘difference between breathing consciously and freely’ and not doing so and between ‘thinking breathfully and not thinking breathfully’ as well as ‘cultivating and not cultivating breathing’ (xvi). For Irigaray such a cultivation of breathing is linked to ‘the cultivation of ethics in ourselves and in our intersubjective relations’ (xvii). Such difference is in fact a fundamental principle of this respiratory philosophy. For Škof and Berndtson breathing is ‘openness, respiratory openness, a perpetual opening to the atmosphere of air’ (xvi). In such respiratory and aerial openness ‘all questions, problems, and subjects of philosophy appear as questions, problems and subjects of respiratory philosophy. Their appearance takes place within this respiratory openness as the atmosphere of breathing.’
Yet the question remains, what could this new philosophy as respiratory philosophy be? One aspect is a revisionist project proposed by Škof and Berndtson which involves a re-reading of ‘the great thinkers in a respiratory key to examine their relation to the phenomenon of breath’(xiii). This respiratory philosophy aims to see the world in a respiratory way and within the atmospheres of breathing so that one might ‘re-experience all the questions of philosophy as questions concerning the atmospheres of breathing’ (xvi and xv). Such a revision of the world means that everything ‘be re-thought, re-examined, and re-experienced within these atmospheres of breathing’ (xviii) Thus, any ‘questions of life,’ indeed ‘all questions of philosophy become respiratory questions of philosophy’ that is ‘they are seen perpetually from the perspective of breathing’ (xvii). Therefore each chapter in this edited volume investigates philosophical questions from the perspective of breathing and in doing so ‘are transformed into respiratory questions’ (xvii).
The editors have divided the book into five sections: philosophical atmospheres of breathing, philosophical traditions of breathing, voices and media of breathing, breathful and breathless worlds and a postface. However another way of regarding the volume is to see that some of the essays engage in more post-human understandings of breath, others are concerned with philosophies of breath that originate from ancient Hebrew, east Asian or indigenous traditions of thought. A selection take their insights from the discipline of medical science and the domain of poetry. Finally, several chapters engage with what is considered to be classic phenomenology.
The most invigorating chapters in this edited volume focus more on ‘atmospheres,’ on creating a genealogy of matter or media that is breathed. Four in particular go some way in arguing that ‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair’ (226) John Durham Peters, a media theorist based at Yale University sets out a ‘deep history of breathing’ (182) beginning with a natural history of oxygen. Though now oxygen is a widespread element, this was not always the case. During its first three billion years the earth was a giant oxygen vacuum, its natural sinks quickly sucking up any available freestanding oxygen. Anaerobic forms of life went on to produce an overabundance of oxygen that could no longer be absorbed by natural sinks. Durham Peters writes of the way in which the earth itself breathes or participates in an exchange of other elements; mountains, oceans and forests acted as planetary lungs, carrying out their exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (183). The Great Oxidation Event which occurred around 2.3 billion years ago, meant that oxygen as a catastrophic toxin caused the biggest extinction in earth’s history. Organisms which adapted to the new habitat used oxygen as the basis for respiration became the new dominant organisms on earth.
A similar project is undertaken by political theorist Marijn Nieuwenhuis who is based at the University of Warwick. Nieuwenhuis’s project is to unfold a ‘a story of breath as an inspiring medium’ (200) one that has affected ‘metaphysicians, alchemists, chemists, physicians, military commanders, and contemporary law enforcers.’ Nieuwenhuis politicises air, arguing that knowledge about it and its relationship to the body informs processes of governance. Thus Nieuwenhuis’ narrative describes how, in a western context breath is entangled with ‘questions of life, health, biopolitics, death, killing and thanatopolitics.’ Nieuwenhuis’ narrative spans from the ancient Greek concept of pneuma or air as something that separates life from non-life to the Cartesian de-spiritualization of pneuma (201), slowly moving towards a secularization and materialization of air. By the nineteenth century the regulation of air became one of the central priorities of new biopolitical regimes of power (203). Oxygen, as an immediate requirement for human life meant that the quality and availability of breathable air became a crucial biopolitical medium in and through which power could be expressed. Pneumatic research lead to knowledge about gaseous compounds, so that ‘the medium of air could sustain breathing bodies as well as poison them’ (204). Combining chemical expertise with the power of the state, gases such as chlorine and phosgene were the primary agents in twentieth-century gas warfare (205). The aim of gassing, explains Nieuwenhuis was not to ‘kill the enemy, but, as pulmonary agents are designed to do, to take away their breath’ Suffocation of the air was designed to terrorize the enemy physiologically and psychologically rather than to kill.
Nieuwenhuis argues that the idea of gassing being morally superior over other forms of state violence continues to this day in the domestic deployment of ‘non-lethal’ lachrymators of tear gas by contemporary law-enforcement officers (206). Nieuwenhuis borrows Sloterdijk’s term ‘atmosterrorism’ or terrorism of the very atmosphere, to describe the way in which gassing propels the body’s vital respiratory mechanism to turn against itself. As part of ‘modern atmospheric governance,’ air become a medium by which to discipline and punish, it is an extraordinary weapon used to govern populations. As described by Nieuwenhuis, over the course of a century, gassing has transformed from an illegal means to wage war into a legitimate governmental technology to suppress and disrupt the movement of protesting bodies. Nieuwenhuis’ history speaks of bodies and their relationships to air and the atmospheric environment, such relationships have a collective and explicitly political dimension when the very atmosphere is used against the body (208).
Nieuwenhuis’ chapter with its description of how knowledges of respiration have been appropriated to serve ‘biopolitical and thanatopolitical purposes’ ties into arguments made by Durham Peters about techniques and technologies that make up ‘media of breathing’ (179). According to Durham Peters techniques need not take any lasting material form, whereas technologies always require a physical tool or device. Breathing techniques have been developed for activities as diverse as ‘giving birth, singing, yoga’ swimming and deep-sea diving’ whereas modern breathing technologies modify hostile atmospheres or supplement a lacking body with apparatuses (180). Durham Peters creates a four part outline to categorise the media of breathing: there are techniques that affect the breather; techniques that affect the atmosphere; technologies that affect the breather and technologies that affect the atmosphere. Within this matrix Durham Peters places human and animal techniques for holding and modulating the breath, manipulations of the atmosphere, medical enhancements of breathing capacities as well as systematic and intentional alterations of atmospheres through technologies such as those described by Nieuwenhuis.
Just as Durham Peters and Nieuwenhuis create politicised, atmosphere-centric narratives, in her chapter Magdalena Górska, a feminist theorist from Utrecht University, argues for a re-thinking of politics in relation to bodily actions of breathing (247). In terms of the way in which parts of this edited volume attempt to de-anthropocentrize the breath, the highlight is Durham Peters’ description of cetacean and dolphin breathing, with their radically different ear-nose-and-throat complex in which phonating and eating are completely separate (183-184). Durham Peters’ account serves to challenge the blithe assumption that all animals necessarily breathe in the same way. Connected to this is Górska’s account of breathing as a process shared across human and nonhuman life forms. Dynamic breathing is, Górska explains, a matter for ‘human-embodied subjects’ as well as for ‘other animals, over- and underwater beings, plants, soil and elements’ (247). Inspired by feminist physicist and theorist Karen Barad, Górska’s chapter seeks to create a non-reductive understanding of breath. For Górska, breathing is transformed according to which breathing actors, such as oxygen, diaphragm or tree one follows. Far from homogenous, even human breathing is enacted differently in relation to lung specificities, some might be partially collapsed with cancer or coal dust sediment, there are different sizes and different respiratory capacities (248). There are also different rhythms and flows of breathing across different bodies that vary according to age, constitution and size and breath can also be aided by respiratory aids and technologies.
Górska emphasises the diversity of breath as a ‘flow of worldly circulation’ (250). Troubling body-boundaries, breath problematizes distinctions such as inside and outside and ‘complications notions of self, other and environment.’ Lungs that breathe polluted air activate matters of environmental politics, and Górska draws attention to the way in which there is diversity within the breathability of life and air quality, breathing is therefore a deeply political matter: ‘the ability to take a breath and to breathe fresh air is a matter of intersectional situatedness in and enactment of local and global power relations.’ This is summarised in Górska’s point that ‘It matters if and how one can breathe and if and how one’s life is breathable’ (252). Another important point made by Górska is that social power relations or manifestations of oppressive structures such as ‘racism, classism, colonialism, heteronormativity, gender normativity , sexism and ableism’ might create dynamics that affect breathing causing anxiety, panic attacks and changes in breathing. Of crucial importance to Górska is a ‘literal enactment of the struggle for a breathable life’ or ‘nonhegemonic breathable life and existence’ (255).
Integral to the de-anthropocentric thrust within this publication is the postface written by David Abram, an eco-philosopher based in the foothills of the Southern Rockies. Abram posits that climate change is a consequence of taking the air we breathe for granted and ‘failing to respect or notice the elemental medium we’re immersed within’ (263). Although the atmosphere is ‘ungraspable, unmappable and hopelessly unpredictable’ it is indelibly tied to breath and is in fact a ‘ubiquitous and meaning-filled plenum’ (264). Abram writes of how awareness involves a ‘felt experience of earth’s atmosphere’ it is something we are ‘corporeally situated within’ (265) something that is continuous with what twists the grasses and lofts the crows, whether it is imbibed through nostrils or the stomata in leaves. Abram gently reminds that consciousness is not unique to our species, it is in fact a ‘property of the breathing biosphere.’ Abram describes how Inuit and Yupik peoples speak of a breath-soul that dwells in each living being, providing life and awareness to humans, animals and plants and how a person’s breath-soul is her part of the wider mind of the wind (266). Such concepts of a holy wind are subscribed to by Dineh and Navajo as well as Hopi and Zuni. Abram turns to the Hebrew tradition of ruah as a divine wind and rushing spirit (269). Abram points out the primacy of breath in oral traditions, an identification of awareness with the unseen air, the sacredness accorded to the invisible medium in which we are bodily immersed (270). Hence words are ‘nothing other than shaped breath,’ air is intermediary in all communication and is the very medium of meaning. In his chapter Abram writes of the ‘need for air’ for ‘a bit of breathing space, for a chance to breathe, a way to remember what is primary,’ a catching of one’s breath (272). One way in which to do so is through story-telling as this helps to engage with each other face-to-face in corporeal exchange as well as ‘re-new our participation in the more-than human community, in the breathing commons’ (273). It is through listening and the telling of tales, argues Abram that we might bringing our spinning minds ‘back into alignment with the broad intelligence of the biosphere’ and ‘reclaim our membership in the commonwealth of breath’ (274-275).
As mentioned earlier, many of the chapters in this edited volume seek to either enrich phenomenology with insights gleaned from Eastern or indigenous knowledges as is the case with Abram. Petri Berndtson from the University of Jvaäkylä reflects on whether breathing or respiration might teach us an ontology or shed light upon an investigative philosophical project of re-defining being. (26). With the aid of concepts of inspiration, expiration, inhalation and exhalation taken from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Berndtson posits that we are in fact ‘respiration within being’ so that, in respiratory terms, being-in-the-world might be re-phrased as ‘breathing-in-the-world’ (28). Berndtson re-vivifies his project of articulating a new ontology or philosophy with the aid of Japanese Zen teachings that focus on breathing as well as seated mediation or zazen (29). It is from these traditions that Berndtson comes to ‘an inspiration and expiration of being’ or an experience of participating in universal breathing as almost a feeling of being breathed. This idea of a world of nothing but breathing or the way in which we are ‘always already respiration within being’ (37) is encapsulated in a quotation from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki:
What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. (30)
Together with a Japanese concept of kū, or the atmosphere of air as open and empty space’ (34) Berndtson summarises that a ‘new atmospheric, respiratory ontology’ requires a ‘constant deepening of our essential respiratory openness to the world of nothing but breathing’ (42). An ontological method of respiratory philosophy is therefore ‘breathing as a fundamental openness to air’ and ‘to silently hearken breathing as mindfully as possible’ (37-38.)
Rolf Elberfeld, a philosopher based at the University of Hildesheim in Germany also explores aspects of the aesthetics of breathing in Japan as well as China. Elberfeld explains that ki in Japanese is a word that means breath as well as ‘a dense entanglement of sensory levels, feelings, physical sensations and moods’ something that transcend distinctions between subject and object’ (73). Ki is also examined by philosopher Tadashi Ogawa in another chapter. Ogawa translates ki as ‘wind’ and discusses it in relation to historical Japanese practices of preventive medicine. Ogawa gives an account of ki as a ‘phenomenology of wind’ similar to the way in which in English one is ‘winded’ when one’s breath is forcefully taken away. Processes of inhaling and exhaling involve breath as ‘air-wind’ moving from the interior to the exterior of one’s body (143). Ogawa adds that ki is associated with the movement and flow of life, it is vitality or ‘the energy of life’ (144).
According to Elberfeld, qi is an old Chinese word for breathing, weather, atmosphere as well as subtle phenomena like movement, relationships references and a ‘fundamental movement in life’ (71). Also included within this publication is a chapter by Jana Rosker, a scholar based at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, which examines the importance of qi for Chinese philosophy. Rosker argues that qi is connected to air and breathing, it is often something physically present, yet invisible (127). Linked to breath, Rosker explains that the word qi is of fundamental and vital significance for any organic existence. As an organic state qi ‘is internalized in the human body, but simultaneously it connects all existing beings in the universe that are endowed with life’ (128). Nothing can live without qi, it is a vital force underlying all forms of life, it is a ‘principle of vital creativity’ and ‘the cause of any change and transformation.’ Rosker gives a genealogical account of the various ways in which qi has been misinterpreted over time, however she concludes by arguing that according to Chinese philosophy qi is a ‘limitless source of all creation,’ an ‘omnipresent cosmic creative flow’ that is evident in human breath (136). It is Elberfield’s hope that in conceiving of breathing as an ‘aesthetic category,’ approaches and descriptions from Ancient China or Japan might prove enlightening for contemporary aesthetic practice (75). Looking at examples from painting, theatre and dance Elberfield introduces some intriguing ideas for example: that actors and audience members form a dense field of unity in breathing (74) and that breathing could be placed at the centre of aesthetic description so that ‘an aesthetic of breathing could develop the attention to the breathing processes in aesthetic processes’ (78).
Tamara Ditrich from the University of Sydney, a scholar in Sanskrit and Pāli creates a methodical account of the significance of breath in ancient Indian religious and philosophical milieu in order to describe how these provide a context for early Buddhist teachings (99). Ditrich examines the role of ‘mindfulness of breathing’ as a key method of mediation in many Buddhist contemplative practices. Ditrich explains that mindfulness, a concept that is currently gaining a lot of attention is an ‘ethical praxis within Buddhist teachings’ that ‘reflects on the intrinsic interrelation between ethics and breath’ (99). Mindfulness is described as an ‘ethical watchfulness,’ a ‘contemplative awareness of mental and physical phenomena arising in the present moment’ (102). Where Ditrich gives an account of breathing taken from her studies in ancient Indian and Buddhist teachings, James Morley, a clinical psychologist and student of yoga based in New Jersey gives an interpretation of the yoga practice of prānāyāma or breath control that is influenced by the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (115). Morley is particularly interested in elucidating the actual experience of breath control through Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the ‘lived-body.’ It is from Merleau-Ponty that Morely takes the idea that flesh, with its primordial, elemental character is in fact the substance of the world, a crossing point between subject and object, body and world. This has special relevance to yoga in which control of the body is equated with the mastery of external nature (117-118). According to Morley breath control is in fact the ‘master metaphor’ for the goal of yoga which is to achieve a ‘homology’ between body and world.’ For Morley, breath control, integral to the practice of yoga is in fact a ‘concrete experience of the body as a relation between inside and outside. To breathe is to pull external air into ourselves and to rhythmically release outward something of ourselves.’ Morely argues that yogic prānāyāma, as exemplified in the writings of the scholar-practitioner T.K.V. Desikachar resonate with Merleau-Ponty’s explication of interiority, exteriority and his thesis of reversibility. For Morley such accounts of breath control bring Western thought ‘down to earth’ by focusing on the lived human body as philosophical and psychological ground.
Writing at the intersection of eastern traditions, medicine and phenomenology, Drew Leder from Loyola College in Maryland also addresses spiritual practices relating to the breath. For Leder breath is ‘a theatre for the play of health and illness’ (219). From a western biological and medical perspective, together with a phenomenological approach focusing on the lived body Leder argues for breath as a hinge, ‘between many embodied levels, organs, and functions, and between the body and its lifeworld… between trajectories of personal health, illness, and treatment.’ (220). Leder’s hinge recalls the swinging door of Zen, it is defined as a ‘joint or flexible surface that holds together two parts, allowing them to swing relative to one another. Such a ‘living hinge’ is an interface between ‘the conscious and unconscious body;’ the ‘voluntary and involuntary;’ ‘physical dualities,’ ‘the local and expansive act;’ ‘movement and stillness;’ the ‘flow of receiving and returning’ and ‘visible and invisible realms’ (222.)
Breath, according to Leder is a ‘powerful health restorative’ (223) he points out that ‘Slow, deep breathing is probably the single best anti-stress medicine we have [. . .] heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms.’
On a similar note, Havi Carel a philosopher from the University in Bristol who also teaches medical students creates ‘a philosophical framework for the understanding of the experience of breathlessness’ (233). A phenomenological approach is crucial here as such experiences are ‘total and overwhelming to the sufferer, but also largely invisible to the outsider.’ Harking back to Górska’s approach to specificities of breath and panic attacks, Carel points out that ‘Whilst the physiology of breathlessness is well understood, the subjective experiences of breathing and breathlessness are understudied and our vocabulary and concepts with which to understand them are limited’ (234). Carel creates a ‘phenomenology of breathlessness’ in order to explore the tensions between ‘medical and cultural or intuitive understandings of breathing and breathlessness’ (235). Carel turns to Merleau-Ponty for whom ‘embodiment determines possibilities and existence is ‘being able to be.’ Accordingly, in breathlessness, possibilities seem to be truncated, curtailed, or altogether closed off’ (237).
As part of his contribution, Kevin Hart from the University of Virginia turns to the poetry as ‘thoughts that breathe,’ specifically in the poems of Mark Strand (153). For Hart, breath is the very ‘condition of possibility for poetry.’ Binding together phenomenology and poetry, Hart seeks to probe ‘how poems think, how poems breathe’ and ‘how new breath must be found’ (155). Hart mines through themes of breath in Strand’s poems, seeking out whispers, blows and dying breath. Quoting Strand, Hart writes ‘breath is a mirror clouded by words… our words appear only in breath’ and ‘we see ourselves in that cloud’ (157-158). Where Hart turned to poetry, Jones Irwin, a philosopher based in Dublin City University looks at the writing of dramatist Antonin Artaud and his understanding of breath as articulated via Jacques Derrida. For Artaud ‘the question of breathing is of prime importance,’ (169) in his prophetic writings there is a particular focus on breath, bodies and expression, making up what Irwin calls a ‘radicalizing’ and ‘existential perspective’ (168). In combat with the mind-body dualism Artaud stresses the importance of flesh, ‘the rawness of reality’ and a ‘re-inspiration of breath’ (169). As part of his Theatre of Cruelty project, cruelty stands in for the metaphysicians’ theft of breath and life-force. Artaud sought to reinstantiate a ‘body without organs’ that is ‘an authentic self’ who breathes for herself and can ‘inspire cultural and social revolution.’ In 1965 Derrida aligned his project of deconstruction with Artaud’s reinvocation of breath in his essay La Parole Soufflée (the breathed or stolen speech). According to Derrida breath and writing are crucial, however such writing must be a ‘nonphonetic’ and ‘hieroglyphic’ ‘writing of the body.’ Indeed Artaud’s physical theatre was made up of a ‘physical language of ‘shouts, gestures, expressions’ seeking to listen more closely to life and ‘return to sonority, intonation’ and ‘intensity’ (170). Once identities are lost or spirited away by the alienation of everyday existence, bodies must then be ‘inspired’ or ‘spritualised’ in order to be cured (171). Of importance to Irwin, Derrida, Artaud is a transformation of the relationship between art and body (172). The ‘machinery of breath’ must be at work as part of the concept of a ‘subjectile,’ part subject, part projectile, one that engages in ‘new bodily writing, being starts with movement, force before form’ and emphasising radical expression. What is traced is a movement, a process, life-force, existence and fragile, embodied breathing’ as part of a ‘theatre of breath’ (175).
Within his chapter, US-based philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin, like Berndtson seeks to combine insights gleaned from Eastern thought, specifically from Tibetan Buddhism with what could be considered classic phenomenology. Perhaps part of the justification for such an assembling of ideas is that breathing practices from such cultures provides more concrete addition to phenomenological theory which has a tendency to be highly abstract. For his exploration of a ‘hermeneutics of breathing’ Kleinberg-Levin brings together concepts from Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger with those from Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung and Lacan together with those of Heraclitus. As part of this project Kleinberg-Levin argues that breathing as psyche and the self as Psyche are closely related and involved with logos as articulation of being, speech and individuation (5-6). There can be no logos or speech without breath and according to Kleinberg-Levin it is only with language that one becomes truly human (6). For Kleinberg-Levin, meditative work with breathing can be a ‘source of transformative energy for process of self-development, fulfillment, individuation’ (5).
Although Kleinberg-Levin’s account is very general there is some acknowledgement of variations in atmospheres, respiratory systems as well as the way in which breathing is always-already spatialised and affected by ‘cultural norms, social interactions, our moods, states of mind’ (11). Like Górska and Carel, Kleinberg-Levin’s story about breathing includes an account of the way in which anxiety can be suffocating, making breathing extremely difficult or laboured. As pointed out in this hermeneutics, an openness is required in which to breathe, the very word anxiety is derived from ‘narrowness,’ a pertinent quotation from Kierkegaard is included: ‘without possibility, a man cannot, as it were, draw breath’ (12). Kleinberg-Levin applies his hermeneutics of breath to a broader argument about how speech is a development of breathing, prayer is a fulfillment of speech and that breathing is ‘essentially a mode of prayer’ (14). Earlier on in the chapter Kleinberg-Levin hints at how breath and the space it occurs within are ‘co-constituting’ (11) and later on, reflects on writings from a Tibetan scholar and the way in which ‘the space outside the body and the space that the body occupies are not really separate (15), they constitute a natural, dynamic unity. Breathing practices produce an ‘ontological body of breath’ one whose breathing is open to the energy fields of the cosmos, it is through the mindfulness of mediation that one might breathe away the ego (16).
In his chapter, Slovenian-based researcher and co-editor of this volume Lenart Škof examines philosophies that are deeply relational in particular theories of Luce Irigaray that consider the significance of dyadic encounters, what Škof refers to as ‘an ethically radicalized mode of between-two, based on the ontology of self-affection, sexual difference, and our mutual mesocosmical breathing’ (53). Škof highlights ideas taken from Irigaray about the way in which those within a couple ‘breathe the same air, but we breathe it differently’ (54). He emphasises the concept of self-affection a something which must be cultivated, embodied as well as centred upon the breath. As part of an ontology of the breath Škof examines Irigaray’s developmental story about the significance of the breath, its necessity for autonomy (56) as well as the importance of creating a ‘reserve of disposable breath.’ Such a reserve of breath is required for ‘keeping and maintaining ourselves in our self-affection, and then for having its share for others in our compassion’ (57). Škof argues that such conceptions of the breath have deeply theological implications.
Throughout Atmospheres of Breathing many of its authors turn to concepts taken from pre-Socratic thinkers. In the chapter by US-based philosopher Silvia Benso, Anaximenes’ conceptions of air are discussed in relation the writings of Emmanuel Levinas for whom it is important to note, phenomenology was considered to be too solipsistic a project. Benso’s chapter seeks to create a Levinasian reading of specific ancient ideas, to find resonances between the two in terms of the way in which they conceptualise air, inspiration and alterity. The crucial passage from Anaximenes, via Aetius is as follows: ‘As our soul [psyche], he says, being air [aer] holds us together and controls us, so does wind [or breath; pneuma] and air [aer] enclose the whole world’ (87-88). According to Benso, for Anaximenes air is substantial, it is a basic form of substance, one that has both material and spiritual features, and the psyche is simultaneously air and breath, it is ‘assimilated to a natural, physical principle’ that is seen at work in the entire universe so that there is, Benso explains, an analogy or structural coincidence between microcosm and macrocosm (88). Here air and breath are synonymous, and breath is something enlivening, a life-force that is ‘forceful, vital, organic,’ there is no breath, except in breathing, a lung-based or ‘pulmonary activity’ of ‘taking in and letting out, of inspiration and expiration.’ Breathing individualises and enables subjectivity, producing physiological, psychological, physical and spiritual life. It is with assurance that Benso delves into the intricacies of Levinas’ thought and its relationship to such ideas. Breath as something both material and spiritual that Benso ruminates in relation to a selection of Levinas’ writings. According to Levinas “An openness of the self to the other… breathing is transcendence in the form of opening up’ and ‘psychism’ is a ‘deep inspiration… an inspiring, breathing the other in as well as a being inspired, animated by the other’ (93). Hence breathing, inspiration and language have animating and ontological force on an embodied level.
On the whole this edited volume goes some way in helping one to re-learn to see the world in a respiratory way, offering various approaches to a ‘world in which ‘everything breathes again’ (xviii). The publication is successful in its proposition of a respiratory philosophy, each chapter ensures that breath cannot be forgotten. In the words of Nobel literature prize winner Elias Canetti the project evokes ‘thoughts that make it easier to breathe rather than thoughts that bite’ (xviii). Škof and Berndtson’s project is indeed a worthy one, particularly when it stresses the importance of the atmosphere which is breathed in, an entity that is too often taken for granted and consumed via processes that are more often than not unconscious.
Thomas Fuchs is one of the leading scholars worldwide trying to merge psychopathology, phenomenology, and neurosciences. In the German-speaking part of the world his name is mostly connected to his book (published in 2007) Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan. Thanks to his latest publication, this reference book is now available in English with some updates and improvements. This edition is, in Fuchs own swords, “completely revised and extended” (v) and offers an overarching analysis of his approach.
For the purpose of this review, I will not go into details describing the differences between the two edition – this would be mostly interesting for the German speaking readership – and I will restrict myself to the philosophical content, setting aside analysis of and implications for psychotherapy, psychology, and neurosciences. Instead, I will focus on giving a broad introduction to the work, spelling out the reasons why I think that Fuchs’ approach has to be taken very seriously in a wide array of contemporary debates, and what I think could profit from further refinement.
In order to properly sketch out the novelty and conspicuousness of Fuchs’ analysis, it is necessary to pick out, from the international panorama, the antagonistic positions. Having Husserlian and Post-Husserlian phenomenology as carrying pillars of his approach, Fuchs builds up his theory against common assumptions put forward by, on the one hand, (I.) representationalism (as a leading theory in the phenomenology of mind) and, on the other hand, (II.) by the view of the brain as a computational machine or, more broadly, every version of neurobiological reductionism. Interestingly, Fuchs claims that both these views rest on the same unwarranted assumption: they both beg the question, since they want to explain the human subject and her experiences, but end up presupposing this very subject in order to make sense.
- As for representationalism, grasping something as a representation (a picture, a sign, a symbol…) of something else requires someone able to grasp this relationship. As in Charles Sanders Peirce’s triangular semiotic relationship, a sign can be a sign of something only for someone that interprets this relation as a semiotic relation. Representationalism conflates sign and interpreter and is therefore not viable for the construction of a full-fledged theory of subjectivity.
- Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the view according to which subjectivity and mind stand to the brain like software to hardware is right. The argument of Fuchs is metatheoretical: “How is the brain supposed to know itself? How should a physically describable and localized mechanism be in a position to bring forth the world of scientific experience in which it emerges at tthe same time?” (xvii) In standard approaches, the brain is the starting point (as that which produces the mind viz. consciousness) and the result (namely the theoretical product of a series of scientific and methodological steps that lead us to explaining its functioning) at the same time. The brain, even if understood as hardware, presupposes something capable to look and study it (its software): but the subject is nowhere to be found in the brain. Surely there would be no consciousness without the brain, but it is also true that “without consciousness there would be no human brain.” (228) Indeed, according to Fuchs “the mind is not in the brain, for it is the overarching manifestation, the gestalt, and the ordered patterns of all relations that we have to our environment as animate beings, and as humans to our fellow humans.” (207) The neuroscientist that forgets this and takes the brain as the sole origin of the mind “loses sights […] of his own subjectivity“ (43) and thereby of his own brain. Any discourse about the brain clearly presupposes what the brain is alleged to bring forth: namely, “conscious human persons who exist to communicate with each other.” (xvii) This critique can be widened in order to encompass not only theories about the brain, but even the scientific practice as such, and a longer quote explains this: “My thesis reads as follows: the problems of the relationship between brain and mind, as they present themselves today, emerge from a short circuit between the level of natural scientific, in this case, especially neurobiological constructs, and the level of intersubjective, life-world experience, from which the neurobiological special practice has developed and with which it remains always bound.” (62) In a Husserlian fashion, Fuchs claims therefore that “Neurobiology is primarily a highly specialized form of common practice arising from the life-world.” (63)
His own positive theory proposes, as stated by the title, a completely different view of the brain, the body, the subject, and the surrounding world. “We are not figments of our brains, but human persons in the flesh.” (291) The non-reductionistic approach Fuchs puts forward claims that the human person must be ecologically regarded as an organism in its totality, avoiding thinking that, as the adagio goes, we are our brains. The brain is not the production place of the mind, but an organ of relation with the body and with the environment. The brain is a mediating organ: “it can only be adequately understood as an organ of the living being in its environment.” (67) This central claim is quickly said, but not as quickly understood. What does it exactly mean?
First of all, Fuchs questions the centrality of the notion of the mind as something separated from the body and the Umwelt. Following mostly Merleau-Pontian phenomenology, but also the German tradition of philosophical anthropology (mostly Plessner), Fuchs stresses the unity of the living being, a unity encompassing life (as opposed to mind), body, and world, and grounded in intentionality (36 f.). Subjectivity is not restricted to the mind as a “property” of the brain, but is coexstensive to life of the organism and is therefore, in the concepts of today’s 4E cognition, extended: “The peripheral and autonomic nervous system, the senses, the skin, the muscles, the heart, the viscera – all these are carriers of subjectivity too.” (19)
Even if this may seem like a bold statement, its consequence is clear: what we are looking for is therefore not the origin of the mind in the brain, but the function of the brain (and of the central nervous system) in the global life of the human person as a living organism. The starting point, for Fuchs, is indeed the concepts of life and experience (leben and erleben, cf. 31). He argues, along with the phenomenological tradition, that the world experienced in perception is the world we live in and not a mere illusion to be corrected by science. This would amount to what he calls “the idealistic legacy.” (5) Instead, according to Fuchs’ phenomenological, embodied, and enactive paradigm, things are encountered as what they are, since “they are perceived as available for our interaction with them” (9) — they are at the disposal of our own body. This is an important point: the interrelatedness of brain, body, and world can only be stated if our perception of the world can be thought of as a genuine source of knowledge about the world itself and if, at the same time, our body is a part of it.
If the role of the brain is to connect and mediate, a crucial role in this process of mediation is played by the human body, which carries along a twofold structure: the body is both lived body (Leib) and living or objective body (Körper) (12-14). Following Thompson’s groundbreaking Mind in Life as well as Husserl’s Ideas II, the mind-body problem is rewritten as the “Leib—Körper problem.” Consciousness is not “born in the brain,” but is an “enactment of life” (45) involving the whole living organism. The conception of embodied subjectivity put forward by Fuchs is thus ecological (whence the title of the book) thanks to the claim that the brain must be studied in conjunction with the whole body and the whole life of the organism, together with its surrounding world. Against the standard view, Fuchs stresses that “none of these emerges as a construct in the brain.” (75)
This rejection of the classical views of the mind-body problem (or of subjectivity as such) in no way amounts to a rejection of natural sciences, their experiments, or their results. One could suppose this to be the necessary conclusion drawn by Fuchs’ account, since this aims to thematize interactions and, in his own words, “mediations” that would be difficult to measure quantitatively within current standard of, e.g., neurobiology, neuophysiology, or even empirical psychology. But this conclusion is actually unwarranted. Fuchs’ approach does not claim for the life of the organism to be the unique object of philosophical, conceptual or phenomenological, reflection; instead, he claims that natural sciences and human sciences (in particular, philosophy and phenomenology) are both needed to achieve a description of the living organism because the living organism itself is two-sided. As stressed before, the dualism of living body and lived body requires two different ways of thinking about life, as instantiated by natural and human sciences. This, in turn, does not produce any kind of new dualism, since these aspects “are objectively distinct characteristics of one and the same living being” (80) – like the two sides of a coin (cf. ibidem). Another quotation helps understanding the full potential of undermining classical dualisms in favor of an “aspect dualism”: “[t]he lived body and life itself therefore become the bridge between the ‘mental’ and the ‘physical.’” Even if this conception still implies duality, namely as the dual aspect which the living being shows, such a duality corresponds not to two essentially distinct domains of reality, but rather to “two opposing perspectives and attitudes, which we can adopt towards life, and which are not mutually transferable.” (213)
Fuchs himself gives some hints at how this separation of the fields of work could be achieved. On the one hand, he dedicates long analysis to the biology of the organism, claiming that under this point of view the organism is to be understood as an active self-organising and autopoietic system in the sense already sketched out by Varela and Marturana in a series of publications, among them the classical The Tree of Knowledge. Since self-organisation and autopoiesis are based on interaction with the environment, and since “directed behavior came before the brain,” (87) Fuchs is able to explain (at least in very general terms) the necessity and vantages of having a brain from an evolutionary perspective: “an organ of integration became necessary […]. The C[entral] N[ervous] S[ystem] mediates, selects, and facilitates organism-environment interactions.” (87) In order to explain the complex feedback structure that impinges on these interactions, Fuchs introduces the concept of “circular and integral causality,” (94) that describes the reciprocal relation between organism and environment.
On the other hand, he suggests new ways to discuss central problems in classical philosophy and phenomenology of mind. The concept of representation, as we have shown before, has been criticized by Fuchs, but he gives us also a positive proposal in order to substitute for it. Instead of talking about representation or information, he introduces the notion of “resonance”, for this concept is able to show, at the level of the lived body, the same feedback structure we found at the level of the living body. The relation between organism and environment has a two-way directedness that has to be accounted for, and this is something that both the concepts of representation and of information fail to achieve. Thus, “the purpose of the cognitive system is not to construct mental representations of external states, but to provide possibilities for embodied actions within the world,” (108) again in accordance with claims recently put forward by 4E cognition. The concept of “resonance” is particularly apt because it describes not only the relation between body and environment, but also between body and brain (cf. 119). Applied to sense perception, the concept of resonance can be further specified as “mediated immediacy” (a concept obviously mutuated from Hegel), insofar as perception always means a mediated “remembering present” or a “re-creation,” (153) which is, in turn, the only immediate access to reality we have – thereby stepping outside of every naive realism, favoring instead a “realism rooted in the life-world.” (171)
In order to describe the interconnectedness of the brain with the surrounding world, a chapter of the book is dedicated to the concept of the person in its intersubjective ramifications. The brain is a “social organ” (175) and research in social cognition needs, exactly in a similar way as the one discussed above, to free itself from representationalism and reductionisms of sort in order to locate intersubjectivity already at the level of intercorporeality. As an example, Fuchs criticizes the hype around mirror neurons since “it should first be remembered that neurons cannot mirror anything.” (187) This is surely true, but at this point Fuchs seems to be unfair to current debates on mirror neurons. The “mirroring” of neurons is just a metaphor (which can be dangerous if substantiated without warrant, for sure), for they fire under certain conditions which involve both the doing and the seeing of an action (for an balanced analysis of mirror neurons also in the context of phenomenology and philosophy of mind see Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, Mirrors in the Brain. How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience). But surely, Fuchs is right in pointing out that human sociality cannot be based alone on neural structure; for it to develop, “real intercorporeality and interaffectivity” (189) are required. Also in this case, Fuchs’ concept of resonance is introduced in order to replace representational concepts: mirror neurons do not “mirror” actions, but resonate socially. They do not represent something, but are rather “specific carriers of embodied social perception.” (191)
In order to sum up, we can say with Fuchs that consciousness “is nothing else but the human organism that one is” (218) and that therefore its origin is not the be found in the brain alone. Conscious experience is “an enactment of life” and “is the superordinate process, which shapes the participating structures at the microlevel, and is thereby incorporated in form of lasting dispositions.” (225)
To conclude, let me point to one way Fuchs’ positions could benefit from some refinement. As quoted above, the dual aspectivity of the lived and living body has the configuration of the two sides of coin – which is a usual metaphor and not at all problematic. But Fuchs further spins the metaphor, claiming that “no side of the coin impacts the other.” (233) Should this mean that the materiality of my objective body has no relation whatsoever to my experience? In this case, the claim would seem rather bold and rather implausible. But – clearly – this is not the claim: the claim is restricted to the absence of any direct, mechanistic psychophysical or psychosomatic causality. Three sets of problems arise here. Firstly, this claim is presented by Fuchs as the result of his analysis and is not defended in extenso. Secondly, I hold that the formulation “no side of the coin impacts the other” is too coarse and that a definition of “impacting” in this context would be required in order to falsify the first interpretation I gave of this claim. Thirdly, even if we restrict (in a charitable reading) the meaning of “impacting” to causal mechanisms, this seems hard to defend. Surely there is no 1:1 causality between the physical and the psychical, but when Fuchs states (as quoted above) that without brain there would be no consciousness (and also that without consciousness there would be no brain, for sure), then there seems to be some kind of direct causality in play. The brain is a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for consciousness, and it seems rather odd to claim that this relationship is in no way causal and in no way an impact. Even accepting his version of the emergence theory, claiming that material processes “facilitate or realize” functions of life, “initiate or trigger them as stimulus” and “disrupt and render them impossible” (248) seems different then claiming that there is no impact and no direct causality. Maybe I am missing something here, but since this certainly is a central piece of Fuchs’ account and indeed of any thematization of the relation between brain and consciousness, it would be nice to have more details as to how strong exactly Fuchs means his claim. I think my critique would hold even if, according to Fuchs, we would be willing to accept the idea of the brain as an “organ of freedom” (242) instead as an organ of determinism. If the brain somehow brings about freedom – by way of mediating, integrating, resonating – then we can claim that at least the possibility of freedom is causally created by the brain.
But this critique is only meant to show how far Fuchs’ approach can bring current discussions on these matters, more often than not swimming otherwise in really muddy waters. Understanding consciousnesses as embodied in an ecological way allows to avoid important impasses in current debates and opens new and astonishingly refreshing perspectives both for empirical and for philosophical research. Moreover, the book de facto bridges the long-standing and outdated divide between so-called analytic and so-called continental philosophy. By drawing from phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of mind, and neurophilosophy (just to mention philosophical disciplines without venturing in a list of natural sciences on which Fuchs draws), he shows performatively that there is only good and bad philosophy. And being a piece of good philosophy, Ecology of the brain is a recommended reading not only for everyone interested in psychology, neurosciences, psychopathology and so forth, but also for anyone interested in theoretical philosophy today.