In his provocative text, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, Jacques Derrida exposes what he takes to be an aporia in the concept of the gift. Firstly, he notes that exchange is indispensable to our prephilosophical concept of the gift. The concept of the gift entails that ‘“some ‘one’” (A) intends-to-give B to C, some “one” intends to give or gives “something” to “someone other”’ (Derrida 1992, 11). Secondly, however, he suggests that a defining feature constitutive of our concept of the gift is that it be aneconomic, i.e., that it breaks with the economic cycle of exchange: A gift is given freely or gratuitously, without calculation or considerations of reciprocity; ‘for there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift or debt’ (Ibid., 11). For Derrida, these two features of our prephilosophical concept of the gift stand in tension: Insofar as a gift is exchanged – that is, intended and received as such in an instance of gift-giving – it becomes entangled within an economy of exchange which annuls the gratuitousness of the gift. As Derrida has it, this is because the recipient of a gift always gives back – even if only with symbolic gestures, such as thanks. Similarly, the gift-giver is apt to ‘pay himself with a symbolic recognition, to praise himself, to approve of himself, to gratify himself, to congratulate himself, to give back to himself symbolically the value of what he thinks he has given or what he is preparing to give’ (Ibid., 13). So, on Derrida’s estimation you can have either the gratuitiousness of the gift, without the exchange, or the exchange without the gratuitousness of the gift, but not both, where this makes the ‘pure’ gift – that is, an instance of the gift that properly fulfils its concept – aporetic or impossible.
This putative aporia has animated much debate in the so-called ‘theological turn’ in French phenomenology, notably in the work of Jean-Luc Marion, but also in the work of Anglo-American commentators such as John Caputo, John Milbank and others. As Steinbock notes, Jean-Luc Marion, who has spent much of his career developing a phenomenological reduction to givenness, undertakes to overcome Derrida’s aporia by ‘leav[ing] the “natural attitude” (Derrida) and mov[ing] to a phenomenological perspective (Marion). Accordingly, bracketing the empirical transcendencies (or reality or being) of the givee, the giver, and the gift,’ where ‘in principle, [these] analyses should entail the phenomenological reduction of transcendence to my lived experience of the givee, the giver, and the gift to show the gift without reciprocity and exchange’ (Steinbock 2018, 109).
Evidently, in their discussions neither Derrida nor Marion are primarily concerned with the concrete practice of gift-giving: for Marion, the theme of the gift encompasses fundamental features of Christian faith, such as revelation. And, more generally, as Steinbock puts it, philosophically, Derrida’s and Marion’s work encompasses a ‘broad swath of the phenomenological tradition, which [Derrida, Marion and others] presuppose, and the pervasive concept of givenness,’ adding that ‘in particular, they retrieve Heidegger’s thoughts on the “Event,” the “It gives” or Ereignis, and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction to “givenness”’ (Ibid., x).
In It’s Not About the Gift, Steinbock canvasses the claim that these ‘discussions of the gift are really not about the gift, or should not be mistaken to be about the gift,’ arguing that ‘the gift is not the point because the gift only becomes the gift in the context of interpersonal loving’ (Ibid.). Prima facie, Steinbock’s intervention here promises to be refreshing and illuminating – not least because, arguably, the French debate surrounding the gift often runs together themes from theology, anthropology and phenomenology that are not obviously connected, so that it becomes difficult to parse what is actually at issue. Steinbock’s strategy in the book is to critically appraise some of the key arguments by major thinkers associated with the debate surrounding the gift, before providing what he considers to be the enabling condition for gift-giving – namely, interpersonal love – where this putatively overcomes Derrida’s aporia by reframing the concept of the gift, while also avoiding the difficulties Steinbock sees in the philosophies of Marion and others.
Steinbock begins in the first chapter in a resolutely phenomenological register by attempting to clarify the ‘belief-structure’ of surprise, where Steinbock appears to take surprise to be a central feature of gift-exchange that is often simply assumed and has, thus, not been subject to any kind of rigorous phenomenological analysis. Although Steinbock does not make the connection explicit, considering the belief-structure of surprise makes sense in relation to Derrida’s aporia: For Derrida, the pure gift ‘must interrupt all economy, all exchange. To be a gift, it must escape all motivation and all intention, all anticipation, all “present” and all fulfilment; to be “gift” in its pure essential sense as gift, it must be able to arise unprovoked, unbidden, unannounced, unreceived, unattended’ (Ibid.,105). Viewed in this way, the element of surprise may become all important, since, as Steinbock suggests, ‘it is commonly held that surprise is simply a rupture of what is expected’ (Ibid., 2).
In the first part of the chapter, Steinbock compares surprise with other related phenomena such as wonder, shock and startle, arguing that what distinguishes surprise is that it involves ‘an overall reconstitution or reconfiguration of sense where the event in question is concerned’ (Steinbock 5). More specifically, Steinbock characterises this reconstitution of sense in terms of coming to believe in and accept that which was previously unbelievable in an experience of being caught off guard. While shock and being startled both involve the experience of being caught off guard, neither of them, in Steinbock’s view, involve the kind of acceptance he wants to associate with surprise. A second feature Steinbock appeals to in distinguishing surprise is that it re-focuses attention on the reconstituted or reconfigured reality: surprise ‘throws me back on the experience…I can examine it further, I can become curious’ (Ibid., 11). Finally, Steinbock categorises surprise as an emotion, arguing that ‘It is an emotion in part because of the creative way in which we receive the situation in feeling through which we are moved’ (Ibid., 14).
In the second part of the chapter, Steinbock goes on to consider surprise in relation to what he calls ‘diremptive experience,’ namely, ‘an experience in which I am given to myself as in tension with a basic sense of myself as before another or others’ (Ibid., 16). That is to say, a diremptive experience is one that calls into question my sense of self. And, linking surprise understood as a kind of diremptive experience back to the notion of the gift, Steinbock suggests that surprise, by calling my sense of self into question, reveals to me that I am ‘not self-grounding’ (Ibid., 18), where this diremptive experience gives rise to a sense of humility and openness proper to the receiving of gifts.
There is much that is thought-provoking in this chapter – perhaps too much: While Steinbock makes some persuasive and insightful claims concerning the belief-structure of surprise and its relevance to our understanding of the gift, other claims made in the chapter would have benefitted from further discussion. In particular, the transition from the discussion of the belief-structure of surprise to considerations concerning diremptive experiences and humility seemed awfully quick: Steinbock switches the focus of the discussion from the belief-structure of surprise to the calling into question of the self in a way that is somewhat disorientating.
In the second chapter, Steinbock changes pace, moving from phenomenological investigations into the structure of the gift to considerations of the work of thinkers in the phenomenological tradition who have taken up the issue of the gift. Specifically, in this chapter, Steinbock deals with Heidegger. In the context of phenomenological debates concerning the gift, Steinbock’s consideration of Heidegger should come as no surprise: After all, the later Heidegger’s considerations of the es gibt (it gives) in works such as On Time and Being (1969) provide important context for understanding Derrida’s and Marion’s later discussions. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is Steinbock’s starting point in the chapter: Rather than focusing initially on texts such as On Time and Being, he begins with a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of ‘machination,’ including Heidegger’s anti-semitic claim that machination is an archetypally Jewish attribute. Here, Steinbock enters the fray of ongoing debates surrounding Heidegger’s links to Nazism, debates that have been renewed in light of the recent publication of Heidegger’s incriminating Black Notebooks. On this issue, Steinbock provides what seems to me to be a rather hedged justification for continuing to take Heidegger seriously, suggesting only that ‘we can…maintain that it is not only too easy, but both ingenuous and misleading for us to point the finger at Heidegger while supposing that we are somehow absolved from or not complicit in the general problem of evil’ (Ibid., 28). I would suggest that this attitude would fail to appease many critics!
Turning to the substantive content of the chapter, Steinbock highlights a fundamental problem that animated much of Heidegger’s later work. Namely, that today the world is technologically ‘enframed:’
Machination was expressed in the war as technological prowess, power and the will to calculate; it had further implications for reducing the earth to a resource under quantitative measure, bringing all beings under our dominion as controllable and at our disposition, as well as reducing human beings to the status of beings deprived of decisive resoluteness. (Ibid., 31)
In a word, Heidegger thought that advanced technological society was in many important respects greatly impoverished. But rather that claiming that this impoverishment arose principally as a result of socio-economic factors, Heidegger frames it in terms of a metaphysical problem; a problem to do with our understanding of Being. And his task, then, is to provide a way for us to overcome our problematic understanding of Being and to forge a new beginning.
It is in this context, Steinbock continues, that Heidegger’s concern with the gift comes to the fore. In Steinbock’s summary,
Heidegger notes that from the very beginning of Western thinking, Being and Time are thought, but not the “Es gibt” that gives the gifts of Being and Time. How is it that we have missed the Es gibt? It is because, according to Heidegger, the Es gibt, the It gives, withdraws in favour of the gifts that It gives. This retreat opens the space for the gifts to be thought misleadingly and exclusively as Being with regard to beings, conceptualizing Being as the ground of beings, as Time with regard to the present. (Ibid., 34-5)
That is to say, for Heidegger, what is central for his project of ‘overcoming the metaphysics of presence’ is a thinking that thinks the It gives that in the first instance grants being (and time) while withdrawing from it.
After reprising Heidegger’s philosophical position in this regard, Steinbock then makes some critical observations. In particular, Steinbock wants to challenge Heidegger’s claim that the It gives withdraws as it grants being by instead claiming that ‘giving accompanies its givenness in and as gifts’ (Ibid., 40). While I have to admit that Steinbock’s critical observations here are rather difficult to follow (admittedly, perhaps owing in the most part to the difficulty of parsing Heidegger’s later writing), his conclusion is clear enough:
What is called for when confronting the stranglehold of calculating managerial technologies or machination is not a novel paganism of thinking, but a rehabilitation, a reclamation of the emotional sphere of human persons, and in particular, the interpersonal emotions, which give us novel ways of freedom, critique, normativity, and specifically, a deeper sense of person. (Ibid., 46-7)
In essence, then, Steinbock appears to appreciate Heidegger’s worries concerning ‘machination’ and technological enframing, albeit in a qualified way. But instead of turning to a kind of pious thinking that attempts to think the It gives, Steinbock proposes that we focus on the kind of affective interpersonal relations – such as loving – that ‘machination’ tends to occlude.
In Chapter 3, Steinbock then turns to a figure who, amongst the figures considered in the book, is perhaps the least well known in Anglo-American philosophy: The Christian phenomenologist Michel Henry. This move, in a certain way, might seem to make sense: The previous chapter motivated a reframing of the gift from Heideggerian paganism to thinking of the gift within the context of love, where refocusing on Christian themes such as agape, as considered in Henry’s work I am the Truth, seems to be a logical step. Yet, for the bulk of this chapter Steinbock focuses on the issue of forgetfulness and the task of overcoming forgetfulness as it arises in Henry’s sprawling doctoral dissertation, The Essence of Manifestation, only touching on I am the Truth in the concluding part of the chapter.
Praise must be given to Steinbock here for rendering intelligible the formidably abstract and difficult work of Henry. Indeed, one of the best features of this chapter consists in its provision of a clarifying precis of some of the central themes of Henry’s work. This is not the place to attempt to reprise Henry’s philosophy or even Steinbock’s precis: It suffices to say that the central dynamic underlying Steinbock’s discussion of Henry begins with the claim that ‘As transcendence…I am simply given to myself, [I] receive the gift of myself to myself as a projection beyond myself’ (Ibid., 56). But, Steinbock continues, for the most part, through various mechanisms of forgetfulness, this structure of self-givenness is covered over and occluded.
In order to combat and overcome this forgetfulness, Henry promotes a form of ‘doing’ which Steinbock describes as ‘the work of mercy…as forgetfulness of the ego and bearing absolute Life as its presupposition; in doing, it is no longer me who acts, but God, or the Archi-Son of God, who acts in me’ (Ibid., 70). In a way, then, despite the phenomenological sophistication of Henry’s position, he in fact advocates a fairly well trodden path in Christian thinking; one which emphasizes a move from self-centredness and egoism, forgetful of one’s createdness, to an openness and humility in which the self relates to itself as the created being that, for Henry, it is. And Steinbock’s overall assessment of Henry’s work seems to be one that broadly appreciates the basic Christian dynamic motivating his phenomenological enterprise, while being critical of some of the details of Henry’s phenomenological procedure, concluding that Henry doesn’t really move us much beyond the Heideggerian conception of the It Gives.
In Chapter 4, Steinbock turns to the work of Jean-Luc Marion. As I mentioned above, Marion is perhaps the foremost phenomenologist working on issues surrounding the gift, and he has written many works that take the concept of the gift as a central theme. Steinbock’s way in to Marion’s work is through a critical appraisal of Marion’s conception of the poor phenomenon. The poor phenomenon comes in different valences – such as the common phenomenon; the humble phenomenon and the denigrated phenomenon – and, paradigmatically, it stands in contrast to the saturated phenomenon, namely, a phenomenon ‘marked by an excess of intuition (i.e., givenness) over the subjective intention of meaning-giving’ (Steinbock 86): The saturated phenomenon is associated with ‘revelation,’ whereas the poor phenomenon is delimited by representational intentionality. The question Steinbock poses in relation to Marion’s taxonomy of phenomena is whether the difference between the saturated phenomenon and the poor phenomenon is one of kind or one of degree: Can some poor phenomena open up a kind of ‘vertical’ experience that is typically associated with the revelatory character of saturated phenomena, or is such ‘verticality’ the preserve of saturated phenomena alone? Steinbock argues that for Marion the latter is the case, whereas Steinbock himself wants to propose the former.
In this connection, Steinbock recounts the following parable from St. Teresa: ‘When some of her novices were getting disturbed at being drawn away from contemplative prayer to undertake putative menial, mundane tasks, St. Teresa offers the following instruction: “Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly”’ (Ibid., 94). Steinbock avers that ‘“pots and pans” are not simply what Marion calls saturated phenomena. Nor are they “poor” or “common” phenomena…[t]he pots and pans give themselves in “the epiphany of the everyday”…’ (Ibid., 94). In other words, in contrast to Marion’s conception of poor phenomena as phenomena whose givenness is mundane and restricted (at least in comparison with saturated phenomena), Steinbock proposes that some seemingly poor phenomena can in fact have a ‘vertical’ or revelatory dimension – equal to that of the saturated phenomena – when taken in the spirit of poverty, as is exemplified in St. Teresa’s parable. Thus, as Steinbock concludes, ‘if we are to speak of poverty at all, then it should be in the way the mystics use the term, namely, the poverty of spirit as an opening to the opening, or more personally, the vertical delimitation accomplished through loving’ (Ibid., 101).
Here, again, Steinbock’s critical appraisal aims in a direction that takes ‘loving’ to be central to the meaning of the gift rather than something about the character of the gift itself, where in this case he has in mind a kind of mystical poverty of spirit that can relate to seemingly mundane phenomena in such a way that reveals their character as gifts. Steinbock’s reversal of the meaning of the poor phenomena in this chapter is enlightening, and surely goes some way to motivating his ultimate claim in the book; namely, that the gift takes on its gift-character not thanks to any qualities inherent in the gift itself, but thanks to the context of loving in which the gift emerges.
Steinbock begins the final chapter by returning to Derrida, reprising Derrida’s deconstruction of the gift that I highlighted at the beginning of the review, while also considering Marion’s response to Derrida. Interestingly, in this discussion Steinbock notes that Marion in fact comes close to his own thesis concerning the relation between the gift and love, when, in God without Being, Marion places ‘emphasis on loving as agape or divine giving – which gives (itself) – in which God does not fall within the realm of Being, but comes to us in and as “gift”’ (Ibid., 108). However, Steinbock nonetheless marks a distinction between Marion’s approach to the gift and love and his own by insisting that, in contrast to Marion’s resolutely theological account, Steinbock’s conception of gift-giving has ‘an interpersonal significance from the very start’ (Ibid., 112). What seems to be at stake for Steinbock here is the relative concreteness of his account of gift-giving – as emerging in contexts of interpersonal relations – in relation to the admittedly rather abstract configurations provided by Heidegger, Henry and Marion.
In making his case, Steinbock turns to the work of Maimonides. In particular, Steinbock draws on Maimonides’s ‘unique laws of tzedakah (charity, gift-giving, but also “righteousness” and “justice”)’ (Ibid., 112). In addition to its focus on concrete interpersonal relations, what attracts Steinbock to Maimonides’s tzedakah is the fact that it admits of degrees of gift-giving, where this kind of subtlety is apparently absent from the work of the figures he has been considering up to now: For Derrida and others, focus has been on the pure gift, which places rather high success conditions on the appearance of the gift. Steinbock, by contrast, drawing on the work of Maimonides, suggests that the gift can appear across different contexts, some of which are less than ideal and yield something ‘less’ than a ‘pure’ gift, but which is nonetheless a gift.
Steinbock’s Maimonides-inspired taxonomy of gifts is as follows:
(1) those that conform to the economy of the gift, (2) those that are expressive of the bracketing of the gift, and (3) a style of gift-giving that goes beyond each of the former and is expressive of the dynamic of loving, issuing from what we could call the interpersonal nexus of beloveds. (Ibid., 114)
Importantly, for Steinbock, these ‘styles’ of gift-giving are united by their common ‘interpersonal connection’ which aims at the ‘liberation’ of the other – the givee – from ‘material and/or spiritual restrictions’ (Ibid.). More specifically, Steinbock canvasses Maimonides’s conception of the greatest kind of giving – the giving that issues from the ‘interpersonal nexus of beloveds’ – as a possible alternative to conceptions of the gift considered so far. On Steinbock’s Maimonides-inspired conception, the gift emerges within the context of a ‘partnership with others, supporting them by endowing them with a gift or loan or finding employment for this person to strengthen him until he needs no longer to be dependent upon others’ (Ibid., 122). What is essential to this conception of the gift is not its conceptual ‘purity’ – it is not focused on the gift itself – but rather the ‘interpersonal relation that is oriented towards the liberation of other persons’ (Ibid., 123).
In the book’s conclusion, Steinbock summarizes how he sees his reconfiguration of the gift as responding to Derrida’s aporia: for Steinbock, worries concerning narcissistic reappropriations of the gift are overcome as soon as one reconfigures the gift as something that emerges within the context of interpersonal loving. Love, for Steinbock, precludes narcissistic reappropriation and initiates a kind of interpersonal relation – a relation with ‘verticality,’ as Steinbock puts it – in which it is in no way aporetic to think of gift-giving, in the best sense of the term. In addition, by associating the love-relation with ‘verticality,’ Steinbock also canvasses his conception of gift-giving as a way of responding to the technologically enframed machination highlighted by Heidegger: It is through interpersonal loving, and, thus, gift-giving in the best sense of the world, that machination can be overcome.
Whilst there is something deeply attractive about Steinbock’s position on these issues, I have some critical comments. The first concerns whether his reconfiguration of the gift in terms of interpersonal loving does in fact overcome Derrida’s aporia. It seems to me that whether one takes Steinbock’s intervention to be successful in this regard depends on how pervasive one takes our narcissism to be. John Caputo has observed that, for Derrida
…there are many narcissisms, various degrees of narcissism, the best of which are hospitable and welcome the other. There is always a movement of narcissism in any gift and, indeed, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed.” Even love, the affirmation of the other, would be impossible without the trace of narcissism. When I love the good of the other, this is the good I love. In the most hospitable, open-ended narcissism, the good I seek for myself is the good of the other. (Caputo 1997, 172)
It, thus, seems that from a Derridean perspective, Steinbock’s reconfiguration of the gift would not overcome the aporia of the gift, but merely reconstitute it at a different level: Steinbock, insofar as he takes Derrida’s aporia seriously, appears to maintain that it can be overcome by turning to the love-relation as an enabling condition of the gift. But Derrideans would likely object to this move by claiming that narcissism affects the love-relation too: Indeed, Derrideans would likely home in on Steinbock’s use of Maimonides’s tzedakah in support of their view: While, admittedly, Steinbock’s reading of Maimonides should be taken in the spirit of interpretive reconstruction, it nonetheless remains the case that the taxonomy of gift-giving provided in the tzedakah is decidedly economic. Even the ‘greatest kind of giving’ is spoken about in terms of business and loans, and seems quite alien to the kind of gratuitousness Derrida associates with the concept of the gift. Arguably, then, Steinbock’s reconfiguration of the gift might look – to Derrideans – to simply gloss over the problem of the gift’s gratuity, rather than overcome it.
Of course, Steinbock might respond to this, arguing that the whole animus behind the book consists in an attempt to reject the framing of debates concerning the gift provided by Derrida and others. Yet, on this point, I wonder whether Steinbock’s project is somewhat derailed by the attention he gives to the details of the debate spawned by Derrida concerning the gift throughout the book: As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there is something frustrating in the way that Derrida, Marion and others take up the issue of the gift, where, in their discussions, they often elide many different issues from the domains of theology, anthropology and phenomenology. I had hoped on the basis of its title that Steinbock’s work was finally going to call time on the tendentious aspects of this debate and clear the air a little. But in fact he seemed to sometimes get sucked in and bogged down by issues raised by Heidegger, Derrida and others that do not obviously have any bearing on his thesis, where I feel this diluted the polemical impact of the book as a whole.
Nonetheless, in It’s Not About the Gift, Steinbock achieves two things well: The first is that he provides an illuminating critical appraisal of the debate concerning the gift as it has emerged in the phenomenological tradition. Secondly, he provides an interesting and compelling alternative to the conception of the presented in that tradition, while drawing on resources from phenomenology. I take it that this intervention constitutes one part of a broader project that Steinbock is undertaking, and should be read alongside his works Moral Emotions, Phenomenology and Mysticism as well as his forthcoming work. And, despite the fact that the book under review leaves some issues unresolved, it seems to me that Steinbock’s overall project is going in an interesting and illuminating direction.
Caputo, J. 1997. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Derrida, J. 1992. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. P. Kamuf. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Steinbock, A.J. 2018. It’s Not About the Gift: From Givenness to Loving. London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
This book succeeds as a phenomenological project guided securely by Heideggerian principles, in its philosophical assessment of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), which conspire literally, in the making of mothers. Belu draws almost exclusively and analogously upon Heidegger’s concepts outlayed in The Question Concerning Technology (most overarchingly: the principle of Gestell [Enframing]) to fashion a critique of ARTs protocols and practices, which, since their initial inception/acceptance in the last quarter of the 20th century, have achieved globalized integration into the process of bringing a new human into the world. Although in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the premier ART, was successfully employed to fertilize a human egg in 1944; not until 1977 was an in-corpus pregnancy achieved; it’s outcome was unsuccessful. A year later in 1978, the famous ‘test-tube’ baby Louise Joy Brown was conceived via IVF technologies and successfully birthed. Today, some forty years hence, several variations of ARTs are in common use not only by heterosexual couples experiencing negative fertility, but by same-sex couples, single-mothers or fathers seeking to start a family or add an additional family member, and others who claim a banner along the now-evolved gender identity spectrum. Belu relates how the original IVF procedure has morphed into ever-more sophisticated technologies and methods designed to assist in the coming to fruition of a live birth, such as cytoplasmic transfer, the use of donor eggs and/or gestational surrogates. She also makes clear how the latter two protocols function as particularly egregious political economies which implicate younger and older women alike in a market project of conception: younger women sell their viable eggs, and surrogates of proven child-bearing capacity ‘sell’ the services of their wombs, to those [often older] women or couples who desire a child but who are either infertile, cannot physically carry to term or who simply cannot, or do not, wish to participate in the pregnancy process. The ARTs industry has succeeded in “medical fragmentation” of a women’s reproductive system into components–eggs, womb, tubes, ovaries and cycles–which are ‘optimized’ via drugs and various surgical procedures and kept primed in the manner of Heidegger’s standing reserve for use in achieving the desired goal of conception of an embryo. The reproductive parts no longer need be attached to or within the singular corpus of an intact female body, in fact, more often they are not. Such mechanistic fracturing destroys women’s bodies as wholistic “autonomous agents” according to Belu (5, 23), and has ushered in what she terms the ‘Motherless Age’.
The ‘Motherless’ Age
Belu’s use of the term motherless seems at first blush metaphysical meaninglessness[i]–an ontological dystopia or ontically obtuse ‘teaser’.[ii] Mothers are in fact in existence in our epoch–we do not lack mothers, per se, yet the traditional mother-child biological dyad relationship, which begins at conception and ends with the death of either the mother or child (some would argue against that as well), has experienced a post-modern existential crisis (if late in the game), brought on by the extended, if not ubiquitous, use of ARTs on a worldwide scale.[iii] Belu’s position sets forth (and ostensibly argues against) the phenomenological logic of ARTs which has encouraged ‘the splitting of the atom’ in relation to the term mother, historically defined as a secure subject with distinct boundaries and a single physical corporeal existence. Motherhood is now conceptually plural across an array of subjectivities that all qualify to be defined by, or at least attached to, the term. It is now possible for a baby born via gestational surrogacy to potentially have four different mothers if cytoplasmic transfer is employed: two genetic mothers (one who has lent her eggs and the other who lends her cytoplasm) (Belu, 59, fn 80), the gestational mother who bears and births the fetus, and the ‘social’ mother who rears the child (Belu, 45). In market terms, the first two mothers are the sellers, the third the worker or laborer, and the fourth and final (who is responsible for the child’s care) is the buyer, or consumer. Conversely, IVF also allows the production of offspring with no living genetic mothers at all–as viable eggs are collected from the ovarian tissue of aborted fetuses, and coaxed into near maturity via hormone stimulants. Thus a child can now be borne from a ‘mother’ who was never an actual fully grown person, much less an adult (Belu, 70). It is the offspring i.e. the child, in this process, who must ultimately face the “motherless” aspects of his/her birth. As the situation presents itself, it may even be more appropriate to use the term motherfull; the latter suffix however, conveying a generally positive connotation of maternal agency which Belu clearly argues that ARTs subvert (Belu, 79, 105).
Belu establishes ontological erasure of the ‘mother’ in the original etymological sense, at virtually every turn, particularly in Chapter 4 wherein she engages and privileges Heidegger’s concept of enframing over Aristotle’s causal concepts of physis and techné, in the argument over whether IVF processes ‘assist’, or ‘replace’, natural conception. Belu does not so much detail the legal ramifications of determining “the spark of life” (Belu, 61)[iv], but urges phenomenological clarity and currency as it might reroute a prevailing cultural attitude of “complacency” toward human artificial reproduction. We shrug off the extent of IVF’s practical ramifications for humanity, because we persist in (along Aristotelian lines), and even dote on, the misunderstanding of the role of technological prowess as a handmaid to, and not creator of, human life. This is of course, the “forgetting of the clearing” (Lichtungvergessenheit) which Heidegger says chiefly enables the chokehold of Enframing. As we do not do what Heidegger urges: “experience its unthought essence first of all”, or else we broach it superficially, we cannot see “the extent that the essence of enframing does not appear as the danger, and the essence of the danger does not appear as Beyng [sic]”; which “accounts for our misunderstanding” [of] above all technology” (Belu, 12-13, 21, fn. 26).
Citing the wry ‘twist’ of analogizing Aristotle’s male-active/female-passive principle of nature to IVF procedures within our causa efficiens-hegemonic techno-modernity (Belu, 68), Belu seriously implicates the medical establishment in the authority of its arché position, which allows it to usurp the agency of a natural mother in order to supervise the engineering of life. Ultimately, in the motherless world, the mother-effect, a term first coined by Kelly Oliver,[v] obliterates both the participation of the ‘real’ mother and ‘mother nature’, such representatives of our lingering cultural dedication to biological ownership. Moreover, these absences are “covered over” in the persistent need to preserve normativity: the arché role of the fertility doctor and the techné role of the IVF procedure are minimized as the birthed child is attributed to nature’s grace, or termed something like a miracle “Child of God”. Belu states:
IVF participants (the women, doctors, and media) can be seen to reproduce the mother-effect, caught up in a play of affirming the significance of technology for conception and gestation, yet undermining this significance in the final product, calling it (mother) nature (Belu, 71).
A Feminist Phenomenology of ARTs
In her zeal to establish a feminist phenomenology for ARTS, Belu details various reproductive enframing processes, where human life is engineered from start to finish (challenged forth). It is still startling to read, in 2017, how, after a woman’s body is shot through with hormones [via extremely painful injections] to spur superovulation (wherein her ovaries will produce up to 10 eggs or more at once) that “the eggs are then sucked out of the woman’s ovaries” and
fertilization is engineered in the Petrie dish. These procedures reveal the woman’s reproductive body as passive, fungible material, a biological system that is broken up into its component parts of uterus, tubes, eggs, endometrium and hormone cycles that are worked upon by the technités (Belu, 66).
Belu notes as well the striking ambivalence toward women, such as surrogates and/or egg/cytoplasm donors, who have offered up their body and/or its reproductive components to the commercial market toward the end goal of a live birth.[vi] Often, a woman’s psyche is outrightly neglected as it undergoes this process. The woman is treated as a “purely functional” resource (Belu, 32). Feenberg terms this autonomization, “the interruption of the reflexivity of technical action, its impact on the user, so that the subject can affect the object of technical production seemingly without being affected in return.” (Belu, 32). Heidegger’s concept of fungibility rears its significance in an extremely ugly duality in this situation: the laboring subject is also the object of technical imposition, yet any mental or physical distress she may encounter in her dual role is downplayed or remains unaddressed by the life-engineers (Belu, 32).
Belu is also keen to cite the lack of medical follow-up studies over the years on certain groups of women who have participated in any part of the IVF process (Belu, 58, fn 66). She particularly notes the plights of young women egg donors (27) which have not been studied in depth. Moreover, there is a lack of research on the children who have been borne from these procedures, in terms of issues surrounding their mental and physical health (58, fn 66).
Ultimately, Belu sufficiently establishes patriarchal bias of IVF procedures, particularly when healthy women undergo IVF in the service of men whose sperm are unhealthy or otherwise deficient (Belu, 35), or when cross-fertilization (the use of sperm from many different men in a ‘lottery’ setup in order to determine which will fertilize a woman’s egg) is employed (Belu, 34). However, she misses an opportunity to make certain inroads as to how ARTs may functionally chip away at patriarchy; she instead places their use and control firmly in the hands of patriarchy as powerful instrumentum.
Belu’s introductory chapter states her intent to devise a feminist phenomenology of ARTs and summarizes content of succeeding chapters. Chapters 2-6 each open with a brief abstract which functions as a sort of a mini-“Heidegger 101” for the uninitiated. Belu weaves each chapter’s argument in strong relation to stated Heideggerian terms or tenets, which she evidences have proven themselves as prescient ontological reasoning vis-a-vis ARTs proliferation. The book’s through-line leads from Belu’s attempt to solidify a binarist interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of Enframing as partial or total–which reinterpretation holds serious implications for female agents as they experience reproductive enframing via the IVF process; to an engagement of Heideggerian thought with Aristotelian concepts of physis and technê in determining the authority of IVF procedures to ignite “the spark of life” (Belu, 61); continuing through technophilic and technophobic representations of modern-age childbirth; and culminating in Belu’s ‘solution’ (to what she perceives are complications and difficulties caused by technical childbirth) via poiésis. Belu’s compelling argument and concluding proposal in themselves embody Heidegger’s concept of safeguarding,[vii] the idea that Being (life) is granted as a gift, which we must foster and husband via Heidegger’s suggestions of meditation, waiting, and careful use of artisanal methods, rather than mindless challenging forth via quantization, endless ordering and stockpiling. ARTs processes, Belu is saying, are often hell-bent on a singular result (conception of Life) while heedlessly disregarding of the suffering of those (mothers) who are used or even abused, to obtain such result.
Belu’s Heideggerian Debt
Acknowledging Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology as a key resource,[viii] Belu is quick to note that Heidegger “writes virtually nothing about reproductive technology” although from his chronological position in history he does foresee processes of “artificial breeding of human material” (witness his 1954 essay Overcoming Metaphysics). Whether Heidegger’s comment of foresight launched this book (given current ART practices), Belu does not make clear, but the extended analogy of enframing to reproductive enframing holds sway. Throughout, Belu engages phenomenologically with select other philosophers, both of antiquity (Aristotle, and to a lesser extent, Plato) and modernity (Arendt, Feenburg, Oliver, Marcuse, Ruddick, others).
Couching “Motherless Age” as a Useful/Critical Resource
Heidegger, Reproductive Technology and the Motherless Age is first and foremost a phenomenological critique of social (medical) practices which have in the 21st-century become institutionalized. That is to say, ARTS are now viewed as mainstream medical procedures marketed to women of all strata as viable options for live birth, rather than “luxury” alternatives to natural sex in the service of conceiving a live human. It is still the case however, that women who enjoy economic freedom and possess excellent health insurance to pay for the still-astronomical cost of these procedures, are most often slated to benefit from the ARTS industry.[ix]
As such, this book will most likely not find a table or shelf position in the reading rooms or professional libraries of ARTS medical professionals. Such industry professionals are essentially selling a service [technological assistance] to produce a product [a live birth], in Belu’s overwhelming view. Yet some women (including the range of ARTS participant mothers) do not have a problem with this type of economic exchange, and in fact happily undergo these procedures in committed fashion, hoping for a successful outcome. A major drawback of this book is that Belu virtually ignores the scores of women and men whose lives changed toward the better via the use of ARTS technologies by granting them children–however and by whomever these children were conceived, gestated and borne. Belu sets up an overarching negative polemic of Technology (ARTS Doctor) vs. Subject (Patient) at the beginning of her argument; such polemic holds sway until the end of the book. Additionally, Belu concerns herself neither with individual case studies reflecting either positive or negative outcomes, nor with applications of ARTS to male-gendered subjects. Finally, Belu’s text is also woefully deplete of statistical input; while it does remain primarily a work of critical theory, a chart or two inserted to support her claims–particularly those regarding ARTS damages to the psyches and physical bodies of women–would not hurt. (In her defense, Belu does state that the industry itself has largely failed to undertake either national or international studies that would statistically emphasize the negative aspects of ARTS (Belu 58, fn 66)). Ultimately, Belu’s phenomenological argument holds many truths, which are corroborated by a number of current texts on this issue which are more sociological and/or statistical in nature, in particular: Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, also published in 2017.
Conclusion: Interdisciplinary Dialogue/Action is Needed
In conclusion, this text reflects the state of dialogue, conversation and problem-solving among the disciplines in place to move civil society forward: that is to say, these types of interdisciplinary activities are still in their infancy. Inter- and trans-disciplinary dialogue between and among medical ARTS professionals, academic philosophers, sociologists and social workers, ethics consultants and economists to improve the conditions and levity for all those across the board who seek to conceive/bear a child could only work for the good of these persons, and ultimately, for the human race. Unwittingly, Belu’s critical stance points the way forward toward such a dialogue even as her text concludes in what technophiliacs might consider highly Ludditian fashion: with an accent on waterbirth as an alternative to technologically-ruled live births. (A water birth assumes there is something to be born, whether technology has assisted in conception/gestation or not).
As we move into an ever-increasing technologically-mediated age for nearly every human activity or thought, a return to Heidegger’s prescient phenomenological warning to humanity is seemingly warranted. This, Belu accomplishes, with deft reverence to Heideggerian principles.
Dr. Belu ethically provides a short epilogue to her main text, explaining her position on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (as revealing of his anti-Semitism.) Belu points out, but does not de-crypt, Heidegger’s “equivocation” (Belu, 122) regarding the ontic or ontological origins of machination. Confirming Heidegger’s conflation of machination and “World Jewry” (via causality) as “racist and condemnable” (Belu 122), Belu nevertheless finds that Heidegger’s expression/espousement of a political stance that is overwhelmingly viewed as reprehensible does not specifically deconstruct the actual application of the phenomenological principle of enframing to a study of ARTS as implicated in women’s reproductive processes (Italics mine).
[i] See Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaphysics/. Section 5. “Is Metaphysics Possible?”
[ii] Belu explains her quasi-titular use of the term motherless thusly: “I do mean…that in the age of reproductive enframing the figure of the mother is being replaced by various technologies and maternal figures who perform maternal work. In this new context, almost anyone can be seen to be a mother–so that no one is the mother” , 51.
[iii] Linda G. Kahn and Wendy Chavkin, “Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Biological Bottom Line” in Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), Kindle version,39. The authors note the sociobiological implications of the proliferation of ARTs use from 1978-2012, during which period “five million babies had been born worldwide using IVF”. See also Belu, 25.
[iv] Belu offers an explorative footnote in this regard. See fn 14, 75.
[v] Kelly Oliver, Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013). Oliver defines mother-effect as “the result of the absence of a real mother who is therefore mythologized and romanticized as the origin and plentitude of Nature, but whose disappearance is a prerequisite for the myth itself”, 57.
[vi] The one exception to this ambivalent treatment of the female ‘resource’ is the surrogacy market in India, whose surrogacy clinics take great pains to ensure that their ‘worker’ mothers (gestational surrogates for wealthy individuals and couples) are “as comfortable as possible, healthy, well feed, well rested, entertained, and well paid” See Belu, 50; Bailey, 19.
[vii] See Martin Heidegger, Building, Dwelling, Thinking p. 352 in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) (http://designtheory.fiu.edu/readings/heidegger_bdt.pdf) and Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 3.4, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/.
[viii] Belu also references, to a lesser extent, material from Heidegger’s earlier essays The Danger, The Turning and Building, Dwelling, Thinking, (as well as Being and Time) the first two of which he drew upon significantly in writing The Question Concerning Technology.
[ix] Reassessing Motherhood notes the lack of agency for women situated in disadvantaged economic strata in terms of their ability to choose ARTS procedures for their own wombs, rather than lending their own wombs to those women who can easily afford to “purchase” their services. A double standard based on economic capability is firmly in place in which poor women are implicated as “tools” for economically secure women. This produces a “double whammy” for women from underdeveloped countries, who find themselves in the position of “seller”, although this phenomenon is not necessarily a Western/underdeveloped nation problem. See pp. 185, 224 and 295..
In his Vienna Lecture of 1935, Edmund Husserl argues that the emergence of philosophy from the surrounding world of the Greeks marks the primal phenomenon of Spiritual Europe, which puts in place the ideal of science as the infinite task of reason. Modern science’s objectification and mathematization of the world at once satisfies this teleological demand of reason and endangers it. For the replacement of the rational, thinking subject with a naturalistic psychology threatens to make senseless the teleology of Europe. Europe’s historic project thus falls into a weariness of spirit, in which faith in reason is lost, and European humanity is brought to a crisis in which irrationalism seems to be the final step of its rational development.
Phenomenology, which begins with Brentano’s discovery of an actual method for grasping the activity of consciousness in constituting the meaning of its objects, plays a fundamental role in the resolution of this paradox. Purified and systematized in Husserl’s own transcendental phenomenology, this method suspends all commitment to objective-naturalistic explanation, and thus offers itself as an absolutely self-sufficient science of spiritual intentionalities. The resultant reorientation of science, in which the role of the constituting intellect can be radically clarified, allows the rationality of the task of knowledge to be regained. Though European rationalism has nearly burnt itself out, constitutive phenomenology offers a new spiritualization of reason, in which Europe’s mission for humanity may rise up like a phoenix from the ashes.[i]
For Husserl, the European identity of phenomenology was not to be understood in terms of geographical or ethnic boundaries but rather in spiritual terms, as the infinite demand of reason. Nevertheless, it is only because of the antecedent constitution of a European spiritual sphere that the peculiar methods and aims of phenomenology have a meaning and motivation. Though phenomenological investigation can be undertaken by non-Europeans, as phenomenologists, these investigators become “Europeanized” in taking up the European spiritual project. The possibility of phenomenological investigation is therefore bound up, at least for Husserl, with the spiritual crisis and progress of Europe. But is phenomenology essentially European, so that descriptive science has meaning only within a living tradition of rational inquiry? In that case, the universalizing tendency of the European scientific interest would rightfully be considered as the endogenous force driving phenomenological investigation. Or, alternatively, is phenomenology only accidentally European, so that reflective analysis as a method of philosophizing was merely codified in the German university but is in principle amenable to non-European interests? If that were so, the particular content of a phenomenological analysis might be given exogenously by a surrounding world that is not essentially European. The historical examination of the phenomenological movement in North America has the potential to clarify how these two seemingly heterogenous pictures of phenomenology – one of the expansion of a European cultural sphere to new lands and persons, the other of the absorption of way of seeing that is enjoyed by diverse subjects who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise – can be reconciled.
Lester Embree and Michael D. Barber’s new volume, The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973 makes the plausible point that development of North American phenomenology depended on the New School for Social Research as a site of transference between two distinct surrounding worlds, the pre-war European university and the post-war American mass culture. The introduction, one of Embree’s final works before his death last year, presents a periodization of American phenomenology in which the New School mediates between the world of the German university and the post-Husserlian global phenomenological movement (2-11). According to Embree, the first stage of American phenomenology, beginning before the outbreak of World War I, and ending with Husserl’s death in 1938, was characterized by a few individual students of philosophy – notably the Harvard students Marvin Farber and Dorion Cairns – introducing Husserl’s “new” (post-1900) thought to the United States. The second, New School stage, marked the creation of a philosophy department in which phenomenology was both a topic of research, especially in the work of the “New School Three” – Alfred Schutz, Aron Gurwitsch, and Cairns – and a central pedagogical concern, educating a generation of American phenomenologists, who are represented in this volume. The later stages, in which American phenomenology turned toward existentialism, then to embodiment, and was ultimately absorbed into so-called “Continental” philosophy are, by Embree’s lights, a bastardization of the constitutive phenomenology that began with Husserl. Whereas constitutive phenomenology was concerned largely with Wissenschaftslehre, the theory of the natural and cultural sciences, these later stages are presented as falling away from the Golden Age tradition, increasingly focusing on merely “anthropological” concerns (5). The absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy, the introduction suggests, threatens to replace the original conception of phenomenology as a project of grounding universal and rational knowledge with personalistic questions about finitude and embodiment. Interestingly, Embree claims that it was he who coined the term “Continental philosophy” in 1978, a designation about which he later became “at least ambivalent.” According to Embree, “Continental philosophy” is like NATO, a mere political alliance of conflicted parties, who are united only in their shared opposition to analytical philosophy (11). In any case, if his periodization is correct, the stage considered in this book marks an important moment of unity in American phenomenology, between the individualistic pursuits of Husserl’s first American students, and the diversity of the post-constitutive phenomenological movement.
The remainder of the introduction provides an admirable discussion of the centrality of the New School in introducing phenomenological approaches not only in philosophy but also in the social sciences, a role that has been unwittingly downplayed in previous histories (18-32). If Embree is right, it seems that the book proposes to investigate an important site of transference between European constitutive phenomenology and post-war American intellectual culture. One hopes, then, for an intensive historical study of American phenomenology that would render valuable insight into phenomenology’s “dual citizenship,” on the one hand as a European descriptive science, and on the other hand as a global philosophical movement. However, in my view, the book does not offer such insight, since it fails to present a philosophically unified picture of phenomenology as it was practiced during the Golden Age, and of the American phenomenological movement that stemmed from that allegedly fertile soil. This failure is due to the fact that both the interests and methods of phenomenological investigations presented in the book are largely unrelated to one another. As a result, the book reads more like a compilation of phenomenologists and their projects than as a unified treatment of the period in question.
The book is split into two sections, the first on the teachers of phenomenology at the New School during the Golden Age, the second on students who graduated from the program under their tutelage. Both sections follow roughly the same format, consisting of a memoir concerning the individual’s time at the New School (or, if the person was deceased at the time of writing, a short biographical section) and a study by that individual.
The first part, on teachers, focuses on six figures – Schutz, Cairns, Marx, Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm. Michael Barber’s description of Schutz at the New School is mainly an epitome of certain sections of his biography of Schutz. Though it contains a number of interesting anecdotes about the period – such as Schutz’s quip that he deserved a sabbatical “every sixtieth year” and Leo Strauss’s dismissal of Schutz as a “philosophically sophisticated sociologist,” it tells little about how the peculiar environment of the New School affected Schutz’s already-formed intellectual outlook. This is followed by a masterful essay in which Barber addresses the question of how a phenomenologically informed theory of social science, which stresses the constitution in consciousness of the objects of inquiry, can allow for unintended consequences of actions, such as are required in “invisible hand” explanations in economics. Drawing on Schutz’s work on Goethe, Barber argues convincingly that the Schutzian should regard the spontaneous orders cited in such explanations as not being “brutely there” in the world of economic action but rather as “correlates of the conscious activity of the economist” (50). Far from insisting that unintended consequences not consciously grasped by the individual actors who cause them are covertly in the minds of those actors, Schutz can attribute the spontaneous orders cited in social scientific explanations to the conscious activity of the theorist. The essay by Schutz that follows, a critique of positivism in the social sciences, relates to Barber’s essay insofar as it postulates that the objects of social science – which presumably include those spontaneous orders of concern to Barber – are “constructs of the second degree,” that is, outcomes of the selective activity of the theorist who observes agents acting in their shared social world (65-66).
Embree’s summary of Cairns’ involvement with phenomenology contains some interesting excerpts from unpublished works, especially concerning the latter’s studies in Freiburg in the 1920s. In one anecdote, attending professor Husserl’s office hours, the enthusiastic young American defends the thesis that, strictly speaking, only “perspective appearances” can be seen. Gazing at a box of matches he is holding and turning it in his hand for some time, the professor finally and rather loudly responds, “Ich sehe den Streichholzschachtel.” In four words, Husserl demolishes the theory of sense-data so popular at the time, while Cairns is “startled into recognition of the obvious” (82). However, the following essay, composed in the late 1930s or early 1940s, in which Carins critiques Nazism as a form of “epidemic” irrationalism (97-98), seems unrelated. As interesting as his analysis may be, especially in light of Husserl’s own critique of European irrationalism discussed at the outset of this review, this essay seems to have no bearing at all on phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School over a decade later. Though we have been told that New School phenomenology is to be understood as a continuation of the Husserlian theory of science, that concern seems to be absent from this essay.
The chapter on Werner Marx is arguably even less helpful for understanding the New School stage of phenomenology. Despite Thomas Nenon’s able summary of Marx’s career, the essay included, which intends to reinvigorate Hegel’s notion of the “necessity of philosophy” for the realization of a pluralistic society, seems to have little to do with phenomenology. True – it ends with opposed characterizations of traditional, Aristotelian ontology as fundamentally theological and thus as leading to a teleological conception of philosophy, and the phenomenological conception of Lebenswelt (120-122). But Marx’s reflections are not themselves phenomenological in any recognizable sense. Moreover, the date of the essay is never given, and one wonders what bearing, if any, his views might have had on the development of American phenomenology.
The chapters on Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm are also unmotivated, given the stated purpose of the volume. Zaner’s discussion of Gurwsitch at the New School is, I suppose, interesting enough. But it does not even mention of his adoption of William James – after Gurwitsch’s emigration to the United States – as a seminal, proto-phenomenological figure. This is a shame, because Gurwitsch’s essay on the object of thought is arguably even more influenced by James than by Husserl or Gestalt psychology (see e.g.134-138). Again, though there is much to be said about Gurwitsch’s Jamesian understanding of the object of thought, the entire topic is out of place here: the essay was composed in 1946, long before his tenure at the New School, and has already been reprinted in a widely available edition of Gurwitsch’s essays.[ii] The sections on Mohanty and Seebohm also have little to do with the period in question. Mohanty (150) reports, in his somewhat telegraphic memoir, that he arrived at the New School not long before Gurwitsch’s death in 1973, and no essay by Mohanty is included in the volume. Seebohm taught at the New School from 1980 to 1982 and his essay, on the human sciences, was apparently composed in 2004. Though Seebohm was by all accounts a kind colleague and considerate teacher, he was absent during the Golden Age. One wonders whether he should have been included in the volume at all.
Though it is possible that such anachronistic inclusions might still contribute to our understanding of what made the New School stage of American phenomenology distinctive, one finds nothing in the book itself to justify such a view. The fact that the figures included attended conferences, offered courses, and gave talks on a variety of issues and figures, does not by itself offer any insight into American phenomenology, except by suggesting that the movement (if there was one) was thoroughly integrated into the routines of American academic life. Judging by these diverse contributions, it seems that the teachers at the New School were unified neither in their method nor in their doctrine but were simply rather successful merchants in the post-war American marketplace of ideas.
The second part concerns the students during the Golden Age and has roughly the same format, though I will focus primarily on the essays. The chapter on Maurice Natanson is quite short, consisting of a description of the mentor-student relationship between Schutz and Natanson, and a summary of Natanson’s existential phenomenological work on literature, both by Barber. This misses the opportunity to include unpublished work by Natanson or some of the Schutz-Natanson correspondence, which is cited here but never discussed in detail.
The chapter on Thomas Luckmann is more substantial, including both a memoir and a 1972 essay, the main claim of which is that language could never be exhaustively explained by empirical science, since the presuppositions of the empirical sciences present philosophical problems that must be resolved within language (201). What follows is a somewhat technical but certainly rewarding account of the polythetic constitution of the experience of a speaking other in the face-to-face situation (208). Here, Luckmann’s view seems to be that in linguistic communication, I directly experience an individual “like me,” due to an automatic polythetic constitution of his experience in my own stream of consciousness. In the face-to-face situation, my own stream of consciousness and his stream of consciousness are therefore experienced as “synchronized” durations, though his experience might become thematic for me, when he uses a certain form of expression that keys into a relevance structure that is part of my stock of knowledge at hand.
The chapter on Helmut Wagner consists of two short and encomiastic (we hear, for example, of Wagner’s “selfless desire to bring phenomenology to sociology,” 218) pieces by George Psathas, which nevertheless present Wagner’s fundamental contribution as “synthesizing” the work of Schutz (225). In the course of this treatment, we are told that Wagner left an unfinished philosophical anthropology of the life world (226). An excerpt from this work would have undoubtedly added value to the volume, by showing how Wagner came to understand a fundamental phenomenological idea late in his life. Instead, the reader is offered nothing by Wagner himself.
Fred Kersten’s essay, the longest in the collection, is an extended meditation on the connection between imagination and fiction. Beginning with the work of David Hume and Sir William Hamilton, the essay distinguishes depictive, feigning, and presentative functions of the imagination (232-240). A phenomenological clarification of these aspects of imagining allows one to understand the double sense of imagination as an intentionality that makes present non-presentive objects and as a feigning intentionality (243-244). The essay then turns to a discussion of the epistemology of fiction, focusing on Natanson’s concept of the “disjunctive convergence” of the worlds of imagination and reality. In the activity of reading a novel, for example, one can attend to the feigned world of the fiction only by suspending the real world, in which one nevertheless continues to read. The disjunction between the world of fiction and that of reality thus depends on a convergence between them, which itself is an achievement of feigning consciousness of the reader (256-257). The upshot of this line of thought is the claim that the world disclosed in a work of fiction is autonomous but feigned, such that I can take responsibility for it, but never enter into it, as I do the actual world of everyday life (263).
Richard M. Zaner’s essay focuses on the connection between cognition and embodiment in two cases of “locked-in syndrome,” in which a patient’s mind is left intact while his body is almost completely paralyzed. In the first case, after suffering a massive stroke, M. Bauby is able to perceive normally but unable to control any part of his bodily “husk,” except for his left eyelid (282-283). Zaner focuses on Bauby’s increasing dissociation from the world and resultant sense of grief. This at once shows the close connection between Bauby’s sense of personal identity as being dependent on his embodiment, but also problematizes the connection between mind and body, since his sense of loss is due to his awareness of the increasing separation of his “living” mind from his “dead” body. In the fictional second case, after being bombed in the trenches of World War I, a soldier called Joe is rendered blind, deaf, and dumb, but nevertheless retains the ability to feel touch and to move his head. Long unable to express that he is conscious, Joe’s rhythmic head-tapping is finally recognized as Morse code by a nurse, who responds by tracing letters on his chest that spell out “Merry Christmas” (283-285). Zaner’s concern in this case is to describe the act by which Joe finds himself recognized as a subject. The discussion here turns to Schutz’s contention that the experience of social reality is founded on a second-personal attitude, in which I posit another subject “like me” (290). Though Zaner’s argument is somewhat obscured by a block quote of uncertain origin, in which Max Scheler’s work is compared to that of Schutz (290-291), its central claim is that Schutz’s conception of the second-personal attitude was not wrong but one-sided. Though Schutz was correct in saying that I understand myself as a self by orienting myself to the other, he ignored how the other becomes attuned to me as another self (296). Thus, Joe’s self-recognition is constituted in part by the nurse’s recognition that within his husk of a body, there is a conscious subject, capable of thinking and communication. The upshot is that the theory of intersubjectivity must accommodate not just Schutz’s point that one is oriented in the social world by one’s recognition of other subjects, but also the more radical view that this orientation depends on one’s willingness and ability to be treated as other, the special target of second-personal attitudes.
The following section by Embree continues his criticism in the introduction of American phenomenology’s turn toward scholarship. For Embree, the elevation of scholarship at the expense of investigation, which he calls the “philologization” of phenomenology, is the most important and most deleterious effect of the recent absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy (12). According to this view, the “Continentalization” of phenomenology runs directly counter to the original intentions, not only of Husserl but also of the New School phenomenologists, who extended the research program of constitutive phenomenology to domains never imagined by Husserl, not through scholarship on texts but by what Gurwitsch called “advancing the problems.” Embree continues this critique of the present focus on scholarship in his memoir, claiming that primary research in phenomenology consists of investigation, that is, in the reflective analysis of a certain domain, with scholarship only serving the secondary purpose of clarifying concepts used in such investigations (306-307). Accordingly, Embree’s essay provides a reflective analysis of valuation, focusing especially on the distinction between the noesis of valuing and the noema of the thing-as-valued. Though this descriptive account is undoubtedly of some interest, the finest feature of this chapter is how it exhibits the work of reflective analysis to the reader. Embree’s introductory methodological comments (312-315) are delivered in plain language, such that they could be read by someone with minimal prior exposure to phenomenological texts. Likewise, the analysis itself offers a compelling way into the question of how valuing intentionality is related to willing, believing, and experiencing. This section is perhaps best understood as an invitation to the reader to engage such in reflective analysis, and thus to practice phenomenology itself.
Jorge García-Gómez’s chapter, on Julián Marías’s interpretation of José Ortega y Gasset’s notion of belief, focuses on an interesting distinction between a “true” or genuine belief, and a belief that is true (326-333). The distinction is worth making because, it seems, the possibility of beliefs being true depends in part on the possibility that human beings can authentically undertake responsibilities for our beliefs about the world. This section would have benefitted from the addition of introductory paragraphs connecting it to broader philosophical concerns of commitment and epistemic normativity. However, it appears to be an excerpt from a longer work, in which its role is surely more perspicuous.
Giuseppina C. Moneta’s “notes on the origin of the historical in the phenomenology of perception” is a kind of reflective analysis of historical perception. Following Piranesi, who would “let the ruins speak” to him, this essay takes the ruins of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Villa Adriana, located at the outskirts of Rome, as its theme (340). According to the view developed by Moneta in the course of this investigation, historical “seeing” is constituted by a complex interplay of the complementary but not fully integrated appearing and non-appearing aspects of a built environment (343). Though her analysis is suggestive, it would have been strengthened by more description, both of the architectural site itself and of the constitution of that site as meaningful, instead of relying as it does on quotes from the great men of phenomenology, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.
Osborne Wiggins’s essay argues that Natanson is to be understood as a philosopher of freedom, for whom existential experience marks a break from the typified, social world (364). This essay is very convincing and clarifies at least one respect in which constitutive and existential phenomenology are complementary rather than dissonant. However, it would have fit much better into the section on Natanson, in which his existential turn is one of the central issues.
William McKenna’s final chapter argues that the adoption of a concept of relative truth would help experts in conflict resolution bring opposed parties to “agree to disagree” (378). McKenna’s essay is thus mostly concerned to spell out a concept of “lifeworld truth” that avoids the consequence of “subjective idealism” but allows for multiple, correct interpretations of a single reality, through a reactivation of Husserl’s concept of evidence (381-382). According to McKenna, the same statement (such as “these mountains are holy”) may be true for one cultural group while being neither true nor false for another group, since the qualities necessary for reaching such a judgment are simply not available in the latter’s lifeworld (384). This is an interesting proposal but is a peculiar interpretation of Husserl’s notion of evidence. Surely Husserl’s conception of evidence was intended to clarify the foundation of the sciences, rather than to relativize the concept of truth. Though it is plausible that it could be put to other uses, it seems that this would require further argument than is given here.
The book ends there, without a conclusion, leaving at least this reader confused. What is this volume is meant to do? Is it primarily an historical work about phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School for Social Research from 1954 to 1973? If so, it fails to shed light on what phenomenological investigation looked like during that period: hardly any of the essays are from the era in question, and most of them are not reflective analyses. Is it a collection of thematic essays illustrating a particular style of phenomenology? In that case, how are the essays connected with one another? The broad collection of topics – economics, value, architecture, and truth, inter alia – ensures that whatever else may be at stake, no single theme ties them together. Or is the book an encomium, publicly honoring a generation of American phenomenologists? In that case, we should expect essays on a wide variety of topics, written as continuations of the work of Golden Age phenomenologists. Yet even here, the book provides few uniting features either methodologically or in terms of the figures cited. Though it focuses almost exclusively on Western European writers, the figures mentioned are so diverse in attitude and interest, it is hard to detect any unifying purpose in their work. What has Hume to do with Piranesi, or Hegel with Ortega y Gasset? The absence of any suggestion of an answer within the book leads one to the conclusion that, although nearly all the essays are of interest individually, some offering masterful treatments of difficult topics, there is apparently no inner logic to the book itself.
The promise of the book, to elucidate a Golden Age in American phenomenology, is a noble one. In failing to deliver on it, the book both misses the opportunity to shed light on an allegedly important moment in the history of phenomenology and shirks the task of clarifying the relation between the descriptive attitude of phenomenological analysis, the authority of phenomenology as a science, and its status as the product of a European spiritual sphere. Consequently, the reader is not put in a place to reconcile the two competing images, one of the world phenomenological movement as the expansion of European culture beyond its continental limits, the other of the absorption of a way of seeing by diverse practitioners who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise. Is it possible that the various anecdotes about and citations of the teachers at the New School do not cover over some more basic problem with the book’s conceptualization of American phenomenology? The nostalgia of the volume makes one wonder whether the Golden Age itself, rather than being a real movement or distinctive era in phenomenology, is nothing more than the myth of a more innocent and progressive post-war America. Perhaps what the New School phenomenologists offered as gold and diamonds, turned out to be no more than copper and glass.
[i] Carr, D. [Ed.] 1970. Edmund Husserl: The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 276, 298-299.
[ii] Gurwitsch, A. 1966. Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.