This remarkable book deals with the border between philosophy and theology and asks a question that Stephen Mulhall (2001) also poses at the end of his book Inheritance and Originality and leaves unanswered, namely, “[C]an philosophy acknowledge religion and still have faith in itself?” Falque argues very much in the affirmative and a repeated slogan of the text is “the more we theologize, the better we philosophise”, that is, philosophy finds its rightful place when it engages with theology and then returns to its own land of ‘the human per se’. In this book Falque is dealing mainly with the theological ‘turn’ in French phenomenology and what we are to make of it, but it will be of interest in this review to see if his arguments hold for the wider terrain of philosophy.
He starts out reviewing hermeneutics and its relation to phenomenology and examines how Ricoeur and Levinas both allow their confessional faith to help determine their hermeneutic approach; Protestant faith’s reliance on scripture alone for Ricoeur and Judaism’s trace of God in the letter of scripture for Levinas. In contrast to these approaches Falque puts forward his own Catholic hermeneutic of the body and the voice, which highlights that in the liturgy the Word of God nourishes the faithful both in the aspect of Scripture and in the Eucharist. This leads to the idea that phenomenology should engage with lived experience and the Catholic hermeneutic that he has expounded allows us to do this by making us aware of the body that speaks (the original form of the text) and should allow us to appropriate the text or be appropriated by the text in a bodily way that he calls ‘intercorporeality’. He then moves on to an analysis of what faith is and states that there is a common human faith in the reality of the world that he calls ‘philosophical faith’ that we attempt to suspend in Descartes method of doubt or in the phenomenological reduction and argues that confessional faith must be a transformation of this faith rather than a further step on from this faith. This is based on the theological foundation that God became man to transform humanity not to supercede it. Confessional faith is a transformation of the natural trust in the world all humanity shares. This leads on to the idea that philosophers who have taken the decision to believe need to produce not so much a philosophy of religion but rather a philosophy of religious experience as he claims Kierkegaard, Edith Stein and Simone Weil all worked on. This involves elucidating the reasons from within the faith that led to their decision ‘while not renouncing philosophy, conceive its activity quite otherwise’ (Falque 2016: 104). Falque then carries out such a philosophical investigation by looking at the choice of believing and concludes that it involves community, that I believe through a ‘we’. The next part looks at the relation between Theology and Philosophy and the final section is called ‘finally theology’ and reiterates Aquinas’ phrase that ‘philosophy is the servant of theology’. At this point I will quote Falque to make his position clear:
Finitude, or the human per se…are indeed starting points for philosophy and under the jurisdiction of the philosopher. But only as this finitude is then rejoined and transformed in the recited and assumed act of the Resurrection, is it made known that we were actually within the realm of true humanity and thus of philosophy-not of divinity concealed under the cover of humanity –that is, theology…This position can be summarized as the principle of ‘the philosopher before all else’ which should be adopted today not against theology but, on the contrary, for it, in order to dwell otherwise and situated within it. (Falque 2016: 148-149)
In what follows I shall look at Falque’s contestation that philosophy can be transformed by a confessional faith and still remain philosophy.
‘First live then philosophize’
The first point we shall look at is how a confessional faith can impact on the work of a philosopher. Mulhall (1994) in Faith and Reason gives a Wittgensteinian take on the limits of philosophy’s foraging into the territory of theology and I shall quote it at length in order to contrast it with Falque’s position:
Is there really room here for an exercise of reason that is not an employment of it on one side or another of the existential choice with which Christianity faces us?
Only if the following distinction can be made and observed: the distinction between a description and a defence of (or an attack upon) a form of life. For what can then follow is a distribution of duties, a division of intellectual labour. On this understanding, philosophy can spell out the features of the forms of life that face one another across the divide between religious and other modes of existence, and bring us to see how each will inevitably appear to the other…But it neither can, nor should, attempt to engage in those arguments with, let alone to make that choice for, its readers. The latter is always an error; the former is the business of edification, engagement, substantive discussion. It is, of course, neither an intellectually nor an ethically illegitimate enterprise – it is a perfectly valid use to which reason might be put, and forms a central part of any individual’s life; but it is not a philosophical use of reason, and it should form no part of a philosopher’s life qua philosopher. A philosopher should never forget that she is a human being, but not everything that a human being may do should be done in philosophy’s name. As Climacus might say, philosophy is not an edifying business. (Mulhall 1994: 76-77)
What seems to be missing here, and what Falque is very much aware of is that philosophy is never done in a vacuum. To take a hermeneutic approach for a moment, there is always, as Heidegger (1962) states, a fore-concept before the analysis begins and this is then where the enquiry starts from. If this is the case then the most intellectually honest way of proceeding is to make this fore-conception transparent. And so if you are philosophizing from the standpoint of someone with a confessional faith it is best if this faith is given an airing at the start to make the reader aware of the type of human life you envision and are trying to elucidate. Falque makes this point by looking at the Protestant hermeneutics of Ricoeur and the Judaic hermeneutics of Levinas before positing his own Catholic hermeneutic and what this allows us to see is how a confessional faith can help to make salient certain aspects of the philosophical enterprise that may be obscured from a primarily secular starting point. The life a person leads undoubtedly permeates their philosophy and although philosophy should be solely based on reason, the experiential ‘content’ given through a lived faith and the motivation, in terms of the mission of the philosopher will transform the subject matter and methodologies employed. This does not mean the resulting philosophy will necessarily be edificatory, but rather certain evidence, premises, topics and intuitions will have salience above others in the work of a philosopher with a confessional faith and this will not invalidate the philosophy by itself, but a self-aware philosopher would do well to make transparent how her faith informs her practice.
‘The more we theologize, the better we philosophise’
To make clear how a faith can inform a philosophical practice I would like to set out one particular practice in philosophy that is evident in philosophers such as Cavell, Mulhall, Wittgenstein and arguably Falque and argue that it is a legitimate philosophical practice. This practice might be called ‘transfiguring the ordinary’ and I will present a version of it developed elsewhere (Earnshaw 2011). A quote from Simone Weil sums up a way of understanding the interconnection of philosophy, ethics and aesthetics focused on the everyday:
The beautiful: that which we do not want to change. The good: not to want to change it, in fact (non-intervention). The true: not to want to change it in one’s mind (by means of illusion). The good — not to want to change what? My place, my importance in the world, limited by my body and by the existence of other souls, my equals (Weil 2004: 38).
The experience of beauty is of something that strikes us in such a way that we do not want to change it; the apprehension of it as beautiful just is seeing the object of our attention as perfect just as it is. Such an experience is articulated in McCarthy’s book The Road:
He remembered waking once on such a night to the clatter of crabs in the pan where he’d left steakbones from the night before. Faint coals of the driftwood fire pulsing in the onshore wind. Lying under such a myriad of stars. The seas black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different (McCarthy 2007: 234).
Here the character describes an experience through which he is willing to affirm the whole world as it is. In such experiences we are able to ‘see’ the world as ‘good’, as God is said to have done in Genesis. These experiences allow us to affirm that there is a value to life and living, and, indeed, we are able to affirm the value of our own existence because it is only due to the fact that we exist that this consummation experience (of perceiving the goodness of the world) is possible.
So what is it about ourselves that leads us to want to escape the real and live in fantasy? One line of thought (developed by Cavell in The Claim of Reason (1979)) is that we become entangled in philosophical problems (in the widest sense) because of the tendency for humans to want to overcome what they see as the limitations of finitude. This is one way of understanding what Weil is responding to in the quote above when she talks about the true as not wanting to change the world by means of illusion. The work of philosophy can then be understood as getting the person to see that the facts about our lives that can seem like obstacles or limitations should instead be perceived as limits to our lives. Their overcoming does not make any sense as they are the conditions for the possibility of the intelligibility of the world and other people. Scepticism can be seen as a desire to know the world in a more secure way than through our human faculties, as if there were a means of arriving at a more direct access to the world than through our everyday procedures for finding things out and to other people than through the means provided by language. Ordinary language philosophy tackles scepticism by reminding us of ‘what we say when’ in order to bring the conditions for knowledge of the world and others to the fore. However, this can seem like a very deflationary account of what is possible for philosophy. Wittgenstein sums this feeling up when he says:
Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble) (Wittgenstein 1963: §118).
If ‘the destruction of anything interesting’ is all this methodology of philosophy can achieve, why should it claim any of our attention? Wittgenstein’s answer is that ‘the aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity’ (Wittgenstein 1963: §129). The disappointment we feel at the humble task of philosophy is a hankering after the facility and seeming profundity found in fantasy. In order for us to see ‘the aspect of things most important for us’ it is necessary to find ways of exalting in the ordinary and recovering the hidden beauty therein.
One way of tackling this problem of familiarity can be found in art, but also in religion. In Catholicism, the sacraments involve taking some everyday activity and relating it to the divine. For instance, in the sacrament of Communion the value of sharing a meal is celebrated with all the related values of family and friendship. In Confession the process of repairing a relationship is connected with our relation to the divine. In all religions the life of the community is understood as bound up with the eternal. In this way everyday practices are transfigured and thereby their value as part of a life is re-presented (reflected back to the community) in a new light and reaffirmed. This reaffirming of the everyday is found in Wittgenstein’s philosophy where we are invited to pay careful attention to our life with words and how this is inextricably bound up with our form of life (thereby taking our anxieties about language and showing how they express anxieties about our lives). Wittgenstein’s writings focus our attention on the conditions of the human relationship to the world and others, and help us to recognise that the wish for depth in our understanding of things is inherently empty. Such a recognition is one way in which we can overcome artificial craving to go beyond the everyday. The words of this philosopher allow the familiar to become strange and enticing and thereby reignite our interest in the ordinary. Through the ordering of his words the ordinary is transfigured and our poor substitute fantasies can be left behind for a time.
The idea that ‘transfiguring the ordinary’ is a respectable aim of philosophy is given backing in the writings of Victor Shklovsky who takes the methodology of art as involving what he calls an ‘enstrangement’ of objects and forms of life. I will quote at length from Shklovsky’s book and then comment briefly afterwards:
If we examine the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously – automatically. If someone were to compare the sensation of holding a pen in his hand or speaking a foreign tongue for the first time with the sensation of performing this same operation for the ten thousandth time, then he would no doubt agree with us. It is this process of automatization that explains the laws of our prose speech with its fragmentary phrases and half-articulated words…If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.
And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious. (Shklovsky 1991: 5-6).
It is by creating a space in our workaday activity (by making the task ‘harder’ than it might normally be) that can release us from ‘enslavement’ to habitual practices. This disruption enables us to carry out projects in ways that interweave spontaneity into the rhythm of the task we are engaged in. This practice in philosophy of trying to ‘transfigure the ordinary’ for the reader can be seen as a practice adopted from a perspective of a confessional faith without overstepping the boundaries of the ‘human per se’. I believe this is what Falque is aiming towards and if it seems an important practice is worth defending.
Conclusion: ‘I am first of all a philosopher and want to remain one’
Mixing theology and philosophy can be seen as a path inherent with dangers that may mean that others convict you of not doing philosophy at all. Crossing the Rubicon is an important book in that Falque attempts to cross the stream between these two disciplines to eventually return and know philosophy better. It would seem his crossing is successful and that he does remain a philosopher in the end and I have tried to outline the practice within philosophy that he follows that has confessional roots but conforms to the boundaries of philosophy. The book is a testament to being honest about your motivations and trying to find a way to carry on in a discipline bound by the ‘human per se’ while being inspired by the divine and highlights an overwhelming need in philosophy for the recognition and the acknowledgement of the personal as an necessary partner of the rational.
Cavell, S. 1979. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Earnshaw, O. 2011. Recovering the Voice of Insanity: A Phenomenology of Delusions. (Doctoral dissertation). Available at: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3225/
Falque, E. 2016. Crossing the Rubicon: The Borderlands of Philosophy and Theology. trans. R. Shank. New York: Fordham University Press.
Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.
McCarthy, C. 2007. The Road. London: Pan Mcmillan Ltd.
Mulhall, S. 1994. Faith and Reason. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.
Mulhall, S. 2001. Inheritance and Originality: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard. Oxford: OUP.
Shklovsky, V. 1991. Theory of Prose. trans. B. Sher. London: Dalkey Archive Press.
Weil, S. 2004. The Notebooks of Simone Weil. trans. A. Wills. London: Routledge.
Wittgenstein, L. 1963. Philosophical Investigations. trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
As the Conclusion to Experiencing Phenomenology suggests, this book encourages us to dwell in Phenomenology in order to judge its claims adequately and in doing so provides a much-needed bridge from contemporary philosophy to the world of Phenomenology. It starts out by providing a basic orientation to the problems of Phenomenology along with a brief history of the subject, but then dives straight into dealing with specific issues starting with an account of intentionality, objects, properties, events, possibilities, before then addressing the meaty subjects of self, embodiement, Others and emotions. Smith provides a good introductory overview of the main authors of the phenomenological tradition namely Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Stein and relates the theories from these authors to contemporary debates in a range of philosophical disciplines. In this review I will focus upon 4 lacunas in the text and explore whether they can justifiably be left out. In examining gaps in the text I do not wish to say that the text does not function extraordinarily well as an introductory text, but rather to analyse the authors attempt to relate Phenomenology to contemporary concerns and investigate whether such a ‘fusion of horizons’ (Gadamer: 2004) would require a more involved and careful handling of such a project than there is room for in an introductory text.
Competing Visions of Phenomenology
My first qualm about the text is the way a range of authors are presented in conjunction with each other in attempts to solve particular philosophical problems. The first problem Smith addresses is the phenomenological method itself and in doing this he pits Husserl ‘science of experience’ against Heidegger’s attempt to work out the ‘question of the meaning of Being’. The main problem here is that for a beginner this leaves out the central motivations for each thinker’s position. It would be uncontroversial to say that Heidegger and Husserl are up to very different things in their texts, and the same could be said for Sartre and Merleau-Ponty later on in the book. To present them as attempting to address certain specific problems in different ways would seem to stretch to the point of distortion their very particular approaches to the subject. The problems faced by each of the authors covered are bound up with their method, which is itself a question for them that they deal with as part of the outworking of their position. A concern with method is an aspect that is salient in much of ‘continental’ philosophy. Smith writes in the Preface, “[o]ne last thing: you won’t find the terms ‘analytic’ or ‘continental’ in the pages that follow. Good riddance” (Smith 2016: XV). Now the motivation for this statement is presumably that we have come to a point in the Anglophone philosophy where such terms are outdated and unnecessary. Smith maybe has other reasons for wishing to banish these terms from his book that he doesn’t mention, but a clarification of this statement would be good. However, it would seem that these terms can still usefully be applied if it is possible that there are different traditions behind the work done in mainly French and German Phenomenology and contemporary anglophone Philosophy of Mind or Metaphysics. And maybe the divide needs a more careful handling rather than just to ignore it. I will look at these questions in section 3. Suffice it to say that an introductory text might need to give a map of how Phenomenology is significantly different from other fields of the subject that is philosophy and at least nod towards the division that there has been in the past between at least two ways of doing that subject.
To return to the central point, with Husserl’s phrase “back to the things themselves!” we encounter a subject that wants to found a new beginning for itself as Descartes did and is very aware of its relation to the history of philosophy. Arguably this tradition of philosophy is much more dependent on personalities shaping the discipline and the student must be made aware of this. Wanting to find what is common to all Phenomenology is understandably an important concern for an introduction to the subject, but to really dwell in the subject any text on Phenomenology needs to question its own methods in relation to the history of the subject. Questions such as “Is what I am doing here authentic?” arise in relation to any engagement with the work of Heidegger or Sartre. “Can my work in this field be seen as scientific?” is a question that comes out of looking at Phenomenology with Husserl and maybe this is the method that Smith finds works best for what he has in mind and there is evidence that he sees the subject as a collaborative enterprise, where solutions to problems are worked out through argumentation, from the conclusions that he gives to each chapter. And this indeed is an appropriate methodology for an introductory guide. However the fact that the question of method for the text is never itself given an airing means that students are left with a rather disjointed exposition of fragments of the authors’ works and some of the most exciting parts of Phenomenology are left untouched. The most glaring omission to my mind is the absence of Sartre in the chapter on Other Minds, instead including Stein on empathy. This felt very unsatisfactory considering the original phenomenological analysis of shame Sartre gives as the basis for our knowledge of Other Minds and the vignettes he uses to illustrate this. Now this could be because Stein is more incisive here (and also this choice can be seen to grow out of the preceding chapter on embodiement) but it might be instead that Smith chose this author as being more in line with ‘analytic’ concerns and so a phenomenological treasure is passed over.
The Importance of Psychopathology in the Phenomenological Tradition
It would seem very unfair to point out particular subjects that an author omitted in an introductory work where tough choices will have had to be made about what to include considering the accessible size of the volume. However, for reasons I will elaborate, psychopathology is central to an understanding of the subject of Phenomenology and at least deserves a mention on the basis of its contribution to methodology. Phenomenology aims at an accurate description of the structure of experience and in order to do this it needs examples. Smith goes back again and again to his contemplation of his place of work to illustrate phenomenological points. This could reasonably be thought of as normal experience. The critical thing about psychopathology (particularly of cases of delusions, hallucinations and unusual bodily and self experiences) is that it enables us to look at abnormal experience and see what the structure of experience must be in terms of extremes. It provides real cases for giving conclusions about the imaginative thought experiments found in the method of Husserl’s eidetic reduction. Jaspers (1997) is the main exemplar of the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology and his General Psychopathology from 1923 is still in circulation among psychiatrists to this day. Although Smith occasionally peppers some of his arguments with psychiatric cases, Jaspers is mentioned only once in passing and not in relation to psychopathology. There is a grand tradition of phenomenological psychopathology including the Zollikon Seminars by Heidegger (2001) and it is currently in ascendency among philosophically inclined mental health professionals and some mention of it would have helped show a wider view of the subject and its potential practical ramifications. The need to reflect on out of the everyday experiences should be highlighted to the student new to the subject in giving them tools to be able to dwell in the subject. The scope of the book is ample and many of the chapters would have been helped by examples from psychopathology including the ones on embodiement, self-awareness and Other minds. Hopefully if the book runs to further editions this may be remedied.
Mind the Gap: Acknowledging Differences in the Analytic and Continental Traditions
An exemplar of someone who draws on both the analytic and continental is Stanley Cavell (1979) for example in The Claim of Reason, but unlike Smith he acknowledges the split of mind between the two traditions and integrates the two styles of philosophizing into his own original voice. I would argue that trying to overcome the divide between the two traditions necessitates at least acknowledging that there is a divide that needs to be overcome rather than refusing to talk about it. This is especially important in an introductory text as students may not be aware of the history of the different practices in Anglophone and Continental institutions. How the divide came to be is not something I will go into here, but that there is a difference seems undeniable. The ability to relate the philosophers from the different traditions takes careful handling as the student introduced to a particular philosopher may read up on a reference and be left in perplexity as to how the writing of someone in the continental tradition relates to what they have done before in philosophy. Heidegger’s neologisms can be a large stumbling block to someone trying to read the primary text for the first time and may put the student off a seminal work in philosophy unless given guidance on what to expect. The frequent references to Derrida by Smith would lead the uninitiated to think that reading his texts is a straight forward matter as there is no acknowledgement that they can be quite difficult to enter into without some background contextualization. Although his exposition of various concepts in the work of the authors he focuses on are very clear, this aspect of Phenomenology needs addressing by Smith. Again to convict him of missing out something when the scope of the work seems constrained by the fact it is introductory would seem unfair. However, as Husserl and Heidegger are such important figures to understanding works by Derrida, Levinas and Ricoeur it would have made sense to outline their place in what has been known as the ‘Continental’ tradition as a guide for future reading and also to point out that a straightforward transposition to the concerns of contemporary anglophone philosophy can require a translation of concepts. To be fair to Smith he does a good job of combining the two perspectives but this is because he focuses on matters that are the concern of the two traditions such as intentionality rather than issues mainly from the continental tradition such as authenticity, or the Nothing that might well be of interest to more inquisitive students.
Is Phenomenology a Scientific Enterprise?
The question of method permeates Smith’s book in the way he presents the subject matter. He seems to come down on the side of Husserl that Phenomenology is a science of experiences and its methods are comparing phenomenological descriptions in a collaborative deductive exercise that will eventually lead to the truth of the structure of experience. In contrast to this he gives an airing to Heidegger’s ‘Hermeneutic Phenomenology’ but does not follow through on an analysis of this method of Phenomenology, one that requires a greater role for culture in elucidating the structures of experience. Heidegger’s method is a more historically and literary based questioning of experience. Although it includes the critique of others in advancing the subject, the validity of its claims are based on the authenticity of the self-questioning involved. To put it another way, Husserl’s method relies on the paradigm of a scientific inquiry whereas Heidegger’s method points to the paradigm of a religious confession where the truth of the matter is based on the honesty and self-examination of the questioner. Heidegger’s method has been hugely influential in the continental tradition so this method should not be dismissed out of hand. Modern anglophone philosophy would seem to side on the whole with Husserl’s tendencies, but it should be noted that Wittgenstein’s (1963) Philosophical Investigations, an important work for inheritors of the analytic tradition, starts by quoting Augustine’s Confessions suggesting that Wittgenstein was not wholly adverse to Heidegger’s conception of method in philosophy. So to raise the question in earnest, which method would seem to have the most going for it? As this question goes beyond the scope of a book review, I will only make a few brief points that suggest that the question of method might be something Smith may need to go into in more detail in future editions. Phenomenology is based on articulating experience and so honesty with ones self about the character of experience would seem to be of upmost importance. This would involve trying to find the truth for yourself at a distance from the opinions inherited from others and your upbringing and this itself is perhaps the kernel of truth in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. This is not to say that others should be ignored but rather that the role of the other is to help you to better scrutinize yourself, what Heidegger terms ‘being-ahead’ of the another person and trying to help someone attain transparency to themselves. The other person’s role is to articulate the internal voice of conscience. This suggests that virtue is indeed required to perform the aims of Phenomenology adequately and further hints that one should rely upon one’s own self-examination rather than looking for the results to be given through a collaborative, objective, science-like enterprise. Smith presents the results of the conclusions of his chapters in the style of the latter; hopefully I have raised sufficient doubt about the necessity of that method to make plausible the idea that an introductory text in Phenomenology, to be fair to the subject matter, requires more reflection on the method of its composition.
Experiencing Phenomenology is a bold attempt to provide access for beginners to the wealth of a tradition that holds out the hope of charting human subjectivity. In his book Smith accomplishes his aim with a deft handling. The critique of the text provided here is merely to point out some of the structural problems that could be addressed to further his aims in future editions. In ignoring the analytic-continental divide Smith seems to be writing from the perspective that questions of method and presentation have already been decided in favour of the paradigm of science and the doubts I have raised here should help the reader to keep this as an open question. Aside from this I would thoroughly recommend the text to undergraduate students and scholars keen to look at Phenomenology in dialogue with the analytic tradition while noting that there are important issues that explicitly need addressing in order to avoid confusion.
Cavell, S. 1979. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gadamer, H. G. 2004. Truth and Method 2nd Revised Edition. trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. London: Continuum.
Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.
Heidegger, M. 2001. Zollikon Seminars: Protocols-Conversations-Letters. trans. M. Franz and R. Askay. ed. M. Boss. Illinois: Northwestern University Press .
Jaspers, K. 1997. General Psychopathology. Volume 1. trans. J. Hoenig and M. Hamilton. London: The John Hopkins University Press.
Smith, J. 2016. Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction. Oxford: Routledge.
Wittgenstein, L. 1963. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
 I shall refer to ‘Phenomenology’ with a capital, for the reason that, as I argue in the text, I do not believe it is possible to separate the subject from an understanding of its tradition.
Mauro Carbone’s The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty Between Painting and Cinema, a translation by Marta Nijhuis of the French original that debuted in 2011, is a short book that, despite its brevity, has quite a lot to say. Instead of deliberately working towards a grand, singular thesis with his chapters (although the final chapter is rather conclusive and synthetic), Carbone assembles six essays that all look in different, sophisticated ways at how Merleau-Ponty’s late work can further our understanding of art, music, time, and ontology.
Carbone does not only situate Merleau-Ponty’s later phenomenology vis-a-vis thoughtful reflections on cinema and painting, but he also establishes thoughtful connections, as well as creative and sometimes playful tensions, with the work of myriad other writers, from Freud to Jean-Luc Nancy. This smart book is nothing short of a philosophical tour de force that nicely sweeps through numerous dimensions of Carbone’s work over the course of the past decade and a half.
As is the case with some other recent Merleau-Ponty scholarship, here the central focus is on the late-period turn to the ontology of the “flesh,” an area that Carbone has been exploring since at least the early 2000s. He notes in his introduction that “flesh” is sometimes used interchangeably in Merleau-Ponty’s writing with the term “visibility” (1) and he argues that too often this point is “forgotten.” It shouldn’t be, though, because for Carbone thinking of the flesh in terms of visibility can sort out the way phenomenology can grasp at Being.
He points out that one of the most noteworthy features of Merleau-Ponty’s texts during this period is a turn to a different manner of ontological thinking, which isn’t exactly a novel or controversial claim, but what Carbone does with the “visible” is intriguing. He indicates that the “visible” is “only sketched” in Merleau-Ponty’s writing but evinces what he calls “the reciprocal precession of the vision and the invisible.” (5) He refers to the mutually constitutive relation between seeing, vision, and capability-of-being-seen, or the visible. To put it simply, the visible is “folded” into the viewer, while at the same time the viewer can’t view anything at all without that which is visible—and so the viewer is herself folded into the visual phenomenon. (57) „Visibility“ is what we call the product of this mutual folding. Carbone characterizes this situation as paradoxical, and he illuminates the scrambling and disruptive effect of the “presence of images” that betrays how inadequate our normal philosophical categories are. Thus what Merleau-Ponty does with visibility is not so different from what he does in earlier texts with the opposition between subject and object (Phenomenology of Perception). We’ve seen similar claims in Nietzsche (“Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense”) and and even Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception) but what’s new here is a sophisticated phenomenological framework that Merleau-Ponty brings to the table, elaborated upon by Carbone, although comparing these various sources might prove to be useful.
The essays that make up the chapters basically work off of this observation about the disruptive power of beholding an image, and they apply it to different areas of aesthetics. I’d have to say that the fourth chapter, centered on cinema and temporality, is the most provocative and interesting and it is here that Carbone does some of his best work. It is also here with the focus on the rhythmic nature of the cinematic frame that you can already see Carbone working toward a leap that he will make near the end of the book. Carbone echoes Jean-Pierre Charcosset and argues that on Merleau-Ponty’s terms, the film cannot be what it is not without the image as such, but rather, not without the rhythmic arrangement of its set of images.
Ultimately in the sixth and final chapter Carbone ends up at a form of visibility which doesn’t seem so visible at all, and yet after thoughtful consideration with Carbone seems like the example of visibility par excellence: audition, or listening. One would not say that in the case of music there is not an image, so this move is quite natural despite how surprising it might be to jump from one faculty of sense to another. In a way part of the point here, I think, is to minimize the distinction between these faculties. In this final chapter Carbone also makes some interesting remarks concerning the relation between philosophy and non-philosophy, a topic of great interest, of course, to Merleau-Ponty.
As fecund as it is short, the book does ask for a bit of work from its readers, and it will probably be a more straightforward experience for engaged readers who have been following Carbone for a while. That said, because of the fact that some of the repackaged and revised material will be very familiar to Carbone’s readers, the book might be the most rewarding and enlightening for those who are taking their first look at his Merleau-Ponty scholarship. These readers should work slowly through the book, even if it might be tempting to do otherwise with such a short text.