Moritz von Kalckreuth: Philosophie der Personalität

Philosophie der Personalität. Syntheseversuche zwischen Aktvollzug, Leiblichkeit und objektivem Geist Book Cover Philosophie der Personalität. Syntheseversuche zwischen Aktvollzug, Leiblichkeit und objektivem Geist
Moritz von Kalckreuth
Felix Meiner Verlag
`2021
Paperback 49,00 €
328

Reviewed by: Carlo Brentari (University of Trento, Italy)

This valuable essay by Moritz von Kalckreuth develops in the theoretical space left free by the gradual disappearance of any metaphysical notion of personhood and personal identity from modern and contemporary thought. The critique moved by the English empiricists to the alleged substantial solidity of personal identity—made definitive by the transcendental dialectic of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—reveals the need to think of the person, no longer as a soul (or some other thing-like entity) but in new, more dynamic ways: as a function or a relation, as a process based on emergent properties, as a particular way of the human self-experience, or by adopting still other approaches. Von Kalckreuth’s text is not directly concerned with the historical reconstruction of the long-term process of overcoming metaphysics; rather, it explores the possibilities it allows in the context of twentieth-century German philosophy. In other terms, the dissolution of the Boethian concept of the person as substantia rationalis individua stands as a common, and sometimes unspoken, negative reference for subsequent, contemporary divergent lines of reflection on what it means to be a person.

Without pretending to exhaust the richness of the volume, I would like to focus on what is perhaps the main fracture line among the post-substantialist notions of the person it examines. It is the opposition between three German approaches on the one side (the phenomenological axiology of Max Scheler, the philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner, and the Neue Ontologie developed by Nicolai Hartmann), and, on the other, some analytical theories of personhood (Peter Strawson, John Searle, Harry Frankfurt, David Olson, John McDowell). The time span of this opposition is the twentieth century, but behind the theses of the considered authors it is possible to guess debates of a much longer period. For example, how does one not perceive, behind Hartmann’s idea of the person as form of the objective spirit, a solid link with classical German philosophy? The choice criterion adopted by the author for the continental conceptions he focuses on is also significant. They are all, in different ways, Syntheseversuche; that is to say, attempts to develop a synthetic theory of personality. Scheler, Hartmann, and Plessner sketch the contours of personhood by inserting it in the context of human life and action (the organic, bodily, emotional, and super-individual dimensions). On the opposite pole, analytical philosophy proceeds by discussing single distinctive traits of personhood; typically, analytical philosophers aim at evaluating the significance of the personal traits through mental experiments (i.e., through fabricated situations specifically devised to isolate them under controlled conditions).

In von Kalckreuth’s book, the confrontation between synthetic and analytic approaches to personhood focuses on two key points. The first is the determination of what a person is, from an ontological point of view and with reference to other spheres of the anthropological reality (body, mind, emotional life, etc.). The second is the intersubjective, pragmatic phenomenon of the recognition of an individual as a person inside a given sociocultural context. In our discussion of Philosophie der Personalität, we will proceed by addressing the two key points separately, but without neglecting, when necessary, the links that keep them together as parts of a unitary enquiry.

The core of von Kalckreuth’s book is the critical exposition of three ways of ontological determination of personhood: the theories of Scheler, Hartmann, and Plessner, which are discussed—with extensive textual and critical references—in the central chapters. However, the author does not limit himself to a mere introduction; the very choice to position a reasoned and synthetic study on analytic philosophy before these central chapters provides the reader with a valuable access key to the three Syntheseversuche. If (with rare exceptions) the ontological theories of the person proposed by analytical philosophy remains within the framework of a fundamental individualism, the three continental approaches are, instead, clustered together by the idea that personhood is a diffuse form of life, a collective dimension. In different ways, Plessner, Scheler, and Hartmann keep the approach of the German classical philosophy alive, according to which, for a given entity, the relations with other entities are constitutive and, so to speak, push their effectiveness right into the inner sphere of the entity, co-determining its essence. This approach contrasts sharply with the idea (that prevails, instead, in analytical approaches) that entities have a separate subsistence and relate with each other only in a second phase; in the ways made possible by their different properties.

When applied to the case of personhood, the difference between the two ontological approaches emerges with particular clarity. The analytical authors on which von Kalckreuth dwells move from the common-sense idea that a person is primarily an individual organism, and then ask themselves what requirements this individual entity must fulfil to be considered a person. Following the line pioneered by Peter Strawson and Daniel Dennett, most of analytic philosophy includes, among these requirements, “the presence of mental states […] that are structured in a logical-conceptual way and based on representations” (31). Such mental properties embrace language and communication skills, cognitive self-awareness and ‘I’ centeredness (Lynne Baker), presence of a sense of responsibility and the ability to commit to a coherent line of action, presence of a ‘theory of mind’, or the ability to place oneself from the point of view of other rational subjects, anticipating their reactions and moral judgments. More recent authors, such as Harry Frankfurt, translate this approach in a theory of volition, adding to the distinctive properties of the person the presence of second-level volitions. A personal entity not only wants to be a good friend, but also wants to maintain this volition into the future. A lesser number of authors include, among the conditions of possibility of personhood, non-rational and unintentional forms of relationship with the world, such as the embedding in an umwelt and the presence of pre-rational ‘body pictures’ and ‘body schemas’ (as in the embodiment theory by Shaun Gallaghers). Here von Kalckreuth is very attentive to some recent developments in the analytic philosophy of the person attesting, among other things, that continental phenomenology is, indeed, exerting a valuable influence onto the analytic field.

Despite their variety, the analytical approaches remain unified by the common approach we have highlighted above: personhood is investigated as a property (sometimes, as an emergent property) of an individual entity whose subsistence and duration are ensured in other ways—as a single organism, or a human being. To this common approach, von Kalckreuth contrasts the ‘synthetic’ theories by Plessner, Hartmann, and Scheler, which (in different ways) explore the possibility that the person is, indeed, an entity endowed with ontological autonomy, but that the root of his[1] autonomy is to be sought in its belonging to a collective dimension. The three authors develop this intuition in different ways, depending on their overall philosophies. In Plessner’s philosophical anthropology, personhood appears as a peculiar trait of a particular form of life, the ‘ex-centric positionality’ of the human being; that is, the double nature of human experience, both centred in the body and capable of assuming an external point of view ‘on the body’. The ex-centric position opens to the human being the possibility of seeing himself from the outside. The distance from the present self (with the related phenomena of memory and anticipation) becomes a basis component of the world experience. With reference to a theory of the person, the most relevant element of this form of life is that it allows—and, at the same time, requires—the “access to oneself from the perspective of the other” (93). Plessner calls this condition Mitweltlichkeit, the constitutive belonging of the person to the ‘common world’ of the mutual references to others.

Coming to Nicolai Hartmann’s stratified ontology, the collective sphere of which the person is part, and which substantiates his very existence, is that of the objective spirit. With this concept—clearly Hegelian in its origin, even if integrated in a non-idealistic ontology—Hartmann means the tangible cultural context in which human individuals lead their lives: natural language, traditions, institutions, the corpus of religious beliefs, and other forms of worldview. “For Hartmann, persons are spiritual individuals—that is, individuals who do not exist in isolation each for themselves but are connected to each other. It is the objective spirit that allows this connection, through the common belonging of the persons to it” (132; translation mine). In Hartmann’s ontology, however, the phenomenon whereby the entity-person draws its ontological specificity from the belonging to a super-individual sphere—while remaining rooted in individual organisms—receives a more precise determination. It is, in fact, described as a form of Überbauung, or ‘super-construction’. Überbauung is a relationship between entities belonging to different ontological layers, in which the higher-level entity ‘rests’ on the lower level one without necessarily re-proposing its characteristics, and thus enjoying a real ontological freedom. The person is, for Hartmann, an actual entity, which, although depending on the lower layers (inorganic matter, the body as an organism, and the individual psychic sphere) for its factual existence, enjoys, however, a wide operational freedom. This freedom makes possible the full variety of symbolic and cultural forms that can be found on Earth—real points of concretion and re-elaboration of the personal life in a given historical place and moment. At the same time, inasmuch as he thinks of the person’s freedom as a freedom ‘in situation’, Hartmann’s conception of the person also takes into account the limits placed on the individual action, the resistance opposed to change by languages, institutions, systems of values, and the other subdomains of the objective spirit.

In von Kalckreuth’s text, Plessner’s Mitwelt and Hartmann’s objective spirit are the first two forms of ‘collective’ ontological determination to be discussed. The largest space, a hundred pages altogether, is, however, dedicated to the Syntheseversuch proposed by Scheler. The main reason for this preponderance is explained by von Kalckreuth himself. If, in the works of Plessner and Hartmann, the explicit presence of the term ‘person’ is marginal, and the theses on personhood seem often interchangeable with those on the human being in general (an observation that is especially true for Plessner), Scheler proposes, instead, an articulated theory of the person. This theory varies in the course of his philosophical production, but some key features remain unchanged: the critique of rationalism (which, for Scheler, is an integral part of the rejection of Kant’s formalism), the decided anti-substantialism in relation to personal identity, and, finally, the original definition of the person as a concrete unity of individual acts. The reconstruction offered by Philosophie der Personalität highlights Scheler’s ability to investigate the person’s emotional and relational aspects with an approach that, while remaining phenomenological, knows how to grasp the deep interdependence between the different processes of the inner life. In Scheler’s view, the person is understood as the nucleus (Kern) of all possible emotional acts (of love, hate, attraction…) and decision-making processes of an individual human being. As reported by von Kalckreuth, the person is, for the inner and relational life of the single individual, what the “crystal formula” is for the concrete crystal. The metaphor, which stems from Scheler himself, comes from the natural world. Its applicability to the personal structure, however, is made possible by the fact that, in Scheler’s vitalistic world view, nature is permeated with spirit, so that the hidden teleology that guides the crystal formation can serve as an explanatory figure for the unfolding of the personal core in the individual concrete acts.

It is clear, and von Kalckreuth explains it well, that Scheler’s conception risks introducing a dangerous dualism into the theory of the person. On the one hand, there is the profound unity of the acts, that is the personal centre or nucleus; on the other, there is what Scheler calls the human person (die menschliche Person), the individual human being in his bodily singularity and in his capacity for agency. Incidentally said, neither of the two levels implies the existence of substantial entities—an assumption that would cause Scheler to fall into another, this one insoluble, form of dualism: person and concrete individual as two substances? The person as a substance and the concrete individual as an accident? Scheler tries to maintain his theory of the personal life within the limits of phenomenological evidence, but as far as the ‘core’ level is concerned, his phenomenological approach is constantly exposed to the risk of resorting to a kind of metaphysical intuition, to acts of ‘feeling’ more than of ‘seeing’.

As in the theories proposed by Plessner and Hartmann, also in Scheler’s thinking, the ontological discussion of the person is not limited to the investigation of an isolated individual entity but includes the recognition of the constitutive relationality of the person. This relationality takes the form of the belonging of the person to the “umfassende Persongemeinschaft [comprehensive personal community]”, or “Gesamtperson [general person]”. Gesamtpersonen are, for Scheler, national, cultural, or religious collective bodies supported by internal principles of solidarity and the adherence to a common axiological order (the modern phenomenon of mass society, therefore, hinders the formation of Gesamtpersonen). The admission of this kind of higher-level general persons is very problematic from the ontological point of view. Scheler, in fact, does not limit himself to affirming the personal character of the entities that make up the Gesamtperson, but seems to attribute personality and (to some extent) even responsibility and self-awareness directly to the collective body.

In von Kalckreuth’s discussion of the theories of the person by Plessner, Hartmann, and Scheler, the thought styles of the three thinkers emerge, so to speak, in filigree. Scheler appears as a passionate investigator of the person’s deep emotional life, but also as constantly exposed to the danger of falling into an elusive and hardly verifiable metaphysics of the profound; therefore, the solidity of his views is ultimately entrusted to the positive resonance effects aroused in the reader. Plessner and Hartmann, on the other hand, are representative of a non-reductionist naturalism, open to the possibility that the existence of personal beings does not break nature’s unity in any way. Personhood is, instead, an enrichment, respectively, of the organic life or the ontological reality. Hartmann’s approach, in particular, is an unceasing prompt to categorial precision and the sobriety of the enquiry—especially when it comes to sketching the different levels of reality co-existing around and inside the person.

Our presentation of Philosophie der Personalität has followed, so far, a possible hermeneutic line of the text: the search for the most convincing points of the continental theories of the person proposed by Scheler, Plessner, and Hartmann, in comparison with the analytic philosophies of the person. As mentioned above, this comparison pivots mainly on two key points: the ontological determination of the person (which we have just finished discussing) on the one side, and, on the other, the discussion of the intersubjective process of the recognition of an individual as person—with the strictly related issue of what happens when someone claims to be a person or vindicates for others the same status. It is this second point that we now need to address.

Most analytic approaches start from the assumption that the ontological determination of the person takes place on the individual level, while intersubjective processes intervene only at the later stage of the recognition or vindication of personhood seen as a social and juridical status. The continental theories of the person discussed in Philosophie der Personalität avoid this risk in a twofold way. First, as we have seen, they link the very ontological determination of the person to his belonging to a supra-individual sphere. Second, and more important with reference to our new issue, von Kalckreuth rejects the idea that the intersubjective recognition of an individual as a person could be a sort of screening (Überprufung) of his ontological requirements of personality—as if, at each new encounter, we would screen the rationality, linguistic ability, self-awareness, moral values, and sense of responsibility of entities prima facie indeterminate. Von Kalckreuth underlines how, on the contrary, the recognition of a person consists in the immediate grasping of a phenomenological primary meaning, and of a meaning that, among other things, arises as a condensation or reverberation on the individual entity of a widespread personal context (the Mitweltlichkeit in Plessner, the objective spirit in Hartmann, the Gesamtperson in Scheler).

Von Kalckreuth does not dwell on this possibility, but it is clear that his criticism to the thesis of personal recognition as Überprufung can be addressed not only to the analytic ontologies of the person (which, as we have seen, focus on the individual possession of language, reason, and self-awareness), but also to those continental ‘personalist’ ontologies that (still) base on hypothetical personal Gestalt or essences—uncertain heirs of the substantial soul of the metaphysical tradition. In this kind of personalism, too, the attribution of the status of person goes through a kind of screening phase, the assessment of the presence of the personal essence. Other than the analytical positions, the Überprüfung tends, here, to ascertain the presence of traits that are ‘essential’ for all human beings (but maintains a rigid exclusion stance towards non-human animals). Leaving aside its possible usage towards continental essentialist theories, however, von Kalckreuth’s criticism (supported by the authors he analyses) is very clear: when we are faced with a potential person, we do not evaluate requirements. There is no Überprüfung of originally impersonal entities. As human beings, we lead our life in a phenomenological space that is, so to speak, already predisposed to the emergence of something ‘personal’. This emergence process is spontaneous, unplanned, and takes place in every society. At the same time, this phenomenal space is open to historical variables; ‘filled’ with different historical values and contents. Among the latter, the author notes, there is also the possibility of the socio-political deprivation of the status of person for certain categories, which is, however, nothing but an ex post annihilation of a primary meaning.

The view on personal recognition by the author of Philosophie der Personalität differs not only from the analytic, individualistic theories of the person, but also from those which, in chapter 3 of the first part of the book, are grouped as «postmodern critical theories». In these theories, personhood would be the mere outcome of performative linguistic acts (such as the claim of oneself as a person), and thus, an only “apparently ontological category” (75; here, von Kalckreuth refers to Judith Butler’s thesis). In other terms, according to the postmodern critical theories, the attribution of personhood would neither hide, nor rely on, any ontological, natural, or anthropological trait of the concerned entity, and the attribution of the status of person would depend exclusively on intersubjective recognition. The third position von Kalckreuth outlines, starting from his authors of reference (Scheler, Plessner, and Hartmann), is that the vindication of the status of person is completely independent by the recognition of individual requirements of any kind, but at the same time, does not rely only on pragmatic and performative acts (in this case, any subjectivity would be a person who, having the capacity to claim itself as such, actually does so). In the collective, ‘widespread’ ontological dimensions theorized by Plessner, Scheler and Hartmann, the processes of claiming and recognizing the individual as person does not happen in vacuo. Performative acts are, obviously, always possible, but their very sense and their outcome depend on the relational space from which they come and into which they fall, and from the resistance they meet in already consolidated institutions, values, and cultural dynamics. That’s why any new claim for personal dignity is effective only if it finds a way to adhere to the pre-existing obstacles, albeit to break them down.

From the phenomenological perspective adopted by Philosophie der Personalität, not every entity gives itself as personal. If, however, it is given in this way in the intersubjective sphere, then many discussions on its ‘ontological eligibility’ for the status of person turn out to be sterile. Consequently, the bioethical question of the status of foetuses, very young children, individuals in a vegetative state or affected by severe cognitive disabilities is also set differently—and differently not only with respect to the analytic theories of the person, but also (again) to the essentialist personalism of many continental bioethics (especially in the Italian context). In fact, it is not a question of verifying the absence or presence of individual personhood requirements, but of starting from the phenomenologically immediate understanding of the belonging of the individuals to a collective sphere of ‘widespread personhood’. In the authors discussed by von Kalckreuth, the Mitweltlichkeit, the objective spirit, and the Persongemeinschaft are primary backgrounds of meaning; quasi transcendental schemes for the phenomenal constitution of the person. What must be questioned is not the reality of these schemes, but their relevance for the case-by-case understanding of which line of conduct is most oriented to justice. Incidentally said, approaches of this kind are difficult to apply to non-human animals, which are, from the phenomenological point of view, an extremely variable set of entities. They convey at times a strong impression of alienity, coldness, and ‘impersonality’ (this is especially true for animals who are phylogenetically very distant from humans, such as reptiles and insects), and at other times a decided closeness to personal modalities of interaction (just think of the high level of individual differentiation of the interactions inside a group of primates, in front of which the researcher spontaneously resorts to expressions such as the ‘personal’ preference or aversion of one member to another).

Adopting the well-known definition of Norberto Bobbio, the person is the “individual raised to value”.[2] If this is true, it is also true that this statement can be understood in two radically different ways, depending on how the elevation to value is understood. Is this process, which takes place through the vindication of oneself as a person and the recognition by others, due to the fact that the individual already has in himself, ontologically, a higher component or ‘essence’? or, on the contrary, is it possible precisely because it does not own anything similar, because it is axiologically neutral and, therefore, offers itself to historical and social processes of valorisation? Here the three authors examined by von Kalckreuth diverge. Plessner’s anthropology and, above all, Hartmann’s ontology lead in the second direction (the individual as a natural being is axiologically neutral, which is a prerequisite for the assumption of personal value). As for Scheler, instead, we can speak of a further enhancement of an original axiological datum. By exposing their different positions and establishing a fruitful comparison with analytical philosophy and postmodern political thought, von Kalckreuth’s text helps the reader to orient himself in the debate on personhood and the theoretical relationship between individual and person—both central questions of contemporary moral philosophy.


[1] As possessive adjective and pronoun for ‘the person’ or ‘the human being’ we chose respectively ‘his’ and ‘him’, to avoid the connotation of neutrality and impersonality of ‘its’, or ‘it’. A greater accuracy would be obtained through ‘his / her’ and ‘him / her’, but this choice would make the reading harder. In our intention, however, the female form is always included.

[2] Norberto Bobbio. 1944. La filosofia del decadentismo. Torino: Chiantore, p. 119

Peter Antich: Motivation and the Primacy of Perception

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Knowledge Book Cover Motivation and the Primacy of Perception: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Knowledge
Series in Continental Thought, № 54
Peter Antich
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
2021
Hardback $95.00
264

Reviewed by: Jim Gabaret (Paris 1 University)

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception, the edition of Peter Antich’s doctoral thesis, is a study of the notion of ‘motivation’, which has been the focus of extensive investigation in recent years. The term refers to an affective and perceptive awareness of possibilities towards which the agent feels drawn[1]. The notion is part of an already well-established phenomenological tradition but it could still prove useful for epistemologists as it suggests a “Merleau-Pontian epistemological program” (p. 6). Merleau-Ponty’s notion of motivation has already been described as a compelling alternative to the empiricist and rationalist assumptions that underpin modern epistemology[2]. The question of how knowledge can be grounded in experience without reverting to a naive empiricism is a fundamental challenge to contemporary philosophy of cognition. By placing the French phenomenologist in dialogue with major contemporary figures of the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of mind, Antich’s clear and scholarly book identifies some of the most important issues in the transition from perception to judgments, even if it does not resolve them all.

But how exactly can phenomenology help epistemology? First, this book aims to understand knowledge as an intentional state, a type of experience distinct from wishes, imaginations and perceptions, with the tools of phenomenology. But it also allows us to overcome epistemological issues once the phenomenologically inadequate terms in which they were expressed have been replaced. We must indeed understand how, without simply causing knowledge, our embodied experiences can motivate and ground beliefs about the world. In a very merleau-pontian fashion, Antich highlights in turn the difficulties of empiricists and rationalists, causal and intellectualist explanations of perception and knowledge, or conceptualist and non-conceptualist programs, as well as disjunctivism and conjunctivism, in order to propose a middle way, beyond the false difficulties created by these dualistic alternatives.

However, by creating a specific zone between a causally explicable physical world and a reason-justified knowledge, are we not blurring the differences between experience and knowledge, or between the most immediate perceptive norms and the norms of judgments, which are more prone to interpretation or verification? The notion of motivation, a process where we would spontaneously and bodily grasp meanings pertaining to our worldly situation, prompting us to believe or act in a certain way, could wrongly incite us to naturalize a meaning that is in fact always intentionally produced. Antich’s challenge is to solve an age-old problematic dualism about experience and knowledge, by bridging the “space of causes” and the “space of reasons” – and, what is more, to do so without falling into an obscure monism.

Critical overview: the main theses

  1. Causes, reasons and motivation:

The first thesis of the book (chapter 1) is that the traditional epistemological dichotomy – found for instance in Sellars or McDowell – between reasons and causes (or justifying and explaining) is false. If we ask why something happens, we can answer with an objective cause, a conscious reason or a motive that has triggered it. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty says motivation is not only what grounds our will in action but is also a perceptual and an epistemic ground. Perception motivates our beliefs: it does not justify them (there is sometimes a gap between our motivated beliefs about the external world and reality) but it does not simply explain them either. But does such a spontaneous normative relation between the perceptive world on the one hand, and us, our body or our knowledge on the other hand, actually exist? Is it absolutely irreducible to justifications by reasons, or to explanations by causes?

According to Antich’s distinction, causal relationships hold between objects and events and affect everyone the same way, while a motive has an effect on us because of its meaning which appears as the actual cause of our action or thought but is relative. Causes explain why something is the case, reasons explain what should be the case, as far as our knowledge is concerned; motivation also explains what should be the case, but as far as our beliefs are concerned, in front of a perceptual scene. Therefore, it accepts several beliefs (but in finite number and in accordance with certain norms). The norms of perception that motivate our beliefs are for instance equilibrium and determinacy (when a hesitation occurs, it is meant to be solved and doubt to disappear), veridicality, or a « good grasp » of the object perceived. Indeed, contrary to imaginings, perceptions are experienced as non-optional. In front of two conflicting motives, one is right and has to be followed and the other denied. Motives are not norms in themselves, says Antich, but the aspect of what I perceive with perceptual ends in mind. Nevertheless, since motivational processes are not conscious choices, they are intrinsically characterized by normativity.

Antich also distinguishes between motivation and reason. A reason is explicit and revisable while a motive is spontaneous, implicit and cannot be changed. For instance, the Müller-Lyer illusion cannot be affected by reason. Antich then gives much more “intellectual” examples, which are prone to changing interpretations where we might revise our motivation just like with reasons, but he maintains a difference by putting emphasis on the explicitness of reasons. I know the right way to strike the ball on the tennis court without reasoning, because the trajectory of the ball is a motive for my body to position itself in a certain way. If I had to reason, I could not have the same spontaneity.

There are intuitive relations between perceptions: for instance, the notes of a melody bear an intrinsic relation to each other that gives them their meaning, and the retention-protention structure which unifies them is constitutive of perception. Likewise, the gestalt principles of grouping are perceived relations supposedly “out there” in the perceptive field: the groups of dots we see when looking at dots separated by regular spaces are not our creation, but the grouping arises spontaneously, through our perceptive contact with the world. The grounding relations are similar: some are active and intellectual (explanation or justification) but others are spontaneous and bodily relations (motivation). Motivation has the specificity of being a reciprocal relation: a “proactive” influence of a motivating factor and a « retroactive » influence of the motivated on the motivating. Similarly to a melody where the last note influences the meaning of the previous ones, my motivated beliefs or actions can shed a new light on what motivated me: if the death of my friend is the motive of my journey of grief, my decision to go on the journey might, in a logical sense, “confirm this sense as valid”.

  1. The primacy of perception and its relation to grounding.

Antich’s second thesis (chapter 2) is that all our knowledge is based on perception and that perception is, as Merleau-Ponty says, a “nascent logos” with a “silent thesis” which explains the birth of knowledge.

Of course, knowledge cannot be reduced to perception. Knowledge is about states of affairs, it is propositional, thetic, explicit, it depends on symbolization and takes place at the level of verification, in the logical space of reasons, while perception is an experience of meaningful things, one devoid of judgment and verification. Knowledge seeks a greater degree of certainty than that found in perception, and it has a universality through truth that the particular and perspectival perception can never reach.

But despite the differences, every item of knowledge includes in its ground at least some component, not of reason, but of motivation, which is itself an effect of perception. Although they can endure beyond the perception upon which they are founded, knowledge, meanings and intellectual evidence depend on perceptual evidence.

This is the “primacy of perception” explained by Merleau-Ponty: the perceived world is the presupposed foundation of all rationality, value and existence (see The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays). This notion is to be distinguished from empiricism insofar as science and reflection are not mere transformed sensations. In spite of the founding character of perception, the founded knowledge is not merely derived from this perception; for only through what is founded does that which founds become explicit (p. 51): “it is only through the founded that the founding appears” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 414). This double relation (bottom-up and top-down) between the perceived object – which is a fragment of meaning that calls for determination by attention and knowledge – and the thetic understanding that fixes the perceived object and finally makes it exist, imply that the perceived object is the motif, rather than the rational warrant or the natural cause, of the “knowing event” (p. 54). Motivation is thus an epistemic mode of grounding in which perceptions can be that which spontaneously grounds items of knowledge without deliberation. It gives weight to some beliefs and not others, sometimes against my judgment (optical illusions), but does not give actual reasons.

  1. Particular experience, evidence and universal knowledge.

In chapter 3, Antich focuses on particular judgments about the perceptual world: “How can nonpropositional perceptions justify propositional judgments?” (p. 70). Antich abandons the alternative between causality and reason in order to overcome the debate between Davidson’s coherentism and McDowell’s “minimal empiricism” or foundationalism. According to Davidson, our beliefs are only justified by other beliefs: natural events do not belong to the space of reasons, and perception cannot be a justification but causes our belief. But he does not explain the normative fact that there are right and wrong descriptions of the perceptual scene and the phenomenological fact that perception is neither a mere sensation nor an explicit perceptual belief disconnected from its sensory content.

Rejecting the “Myth of the Given”, McDowell, on the other hand, argues that perception does not directly cause our beliefs but that the nonpropositional content of perception noninferentially justifies it through active and reflexive dispositions. But he does not take into consideration the spontaneous aspect that characterizes such perceptions as optical illusions, which are obviously not liable to revision by active thinking. Ordinarily, we do not actively think about the relation between perception and perceptual judgments, nor are we free to revise or alter this relation under the recommendation of active thinking, says Antich.

When we are faced with new experiences, many perceptions are even indefinite and ambiguous; this proves that judgment is not intrinsic to perception – on the contrary, the former determines and enriches the perception. But the perception still grounds the judgment, which without it would be empty and merely verbal. The concept of motivation helps to understand the intimate bond between knowledge and perception in terms of fulfillment. We can freely form an a priori judgment about a state of affairs but it is empty until it achieves evidence, in Husserl’s terms, that is to say until it is intuitively fulfilled by a perception which makes it evident and thus motivated.

One might ask whether this is not simply putting a name to a difficulty rather than explaining it. But the wager of phenomenology is that a good description already contains the beginning of an explanation. In his article “Merleau-Ponty’s Theory of Preconceptual Generalities and Concept Formation” (2018), Antich more precisely explains the formation of concepts as a bridge from perception to knowledge. Against theories of concept formation using abstraction, he very convincingly defends a merleau-pontian account of the birth of concepts from “preconceptual generalities” which organize experience at the most basic level. In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty indeed exhorts us to “replace the notions of concept, idea, mind, representation, with the notions of dimensions, articulation, level, hinge, pivots, configuration”; but he does so in order to preserve perception from conceptual analysis, and not because concepts should be evacuated. To understand how we are able to identify, categorize and then exert our conceptual capacities towards experience, it is useful to understand the conceptual availability of intuition. But since Merleau-Ponty does not generally think of perception as having conceptual content, in his new work on motivation, Antich wishes to stay neutral with regards to the role of concepts in perception, even though an elucidation of this question might have shed a new light on these debates.

  1. Experience, abstraction and a priori knowledge: overcoming the rationalism-empiricism divide

Chapter 4 focuses on universal judgments beyond perceptual experiences. It advocates to follow Merleau-Ponty’s path to overcome the alternative between rationalism and empiricism. According to the empiricist, for knowledge to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, or between truth and mere logical consistency, it must be grounded in experience. Merleau-Ponty assumes that even abstract scientific concepts like “time” have meaning for us only due to our perceptual experience of time. But the universality of knowledge transcends any singular experience, replies the rationalist. Contrary to the empiricist claim, such concepts as high numbers or time, universals and terms as diverse as “quark,” “chiliagon,” and “modus ponens” and at least some intellectual content (like a priori knowledge) are not reducible to experiential content and evidence, and might even be innate.

Rationalists still have a hard time explaining how such concepts can be self-evident then, as Merleau-Ponty noticed: intellectual evidence (just like perceptual evidence) actually relies on a foreground/background structure, such that any proposition can appear evident only in virtue of a background set of beliefs not simultaneously raised to explicit awareness. That is why every judgment can be doubted and is open to correction. There is a historical situatedness of all evidence (at least in their apprehension). Of course, some propositions known analytically seem presuppositionless since they are apodictically known only because their negation is inconceivable, but they can be labeled as “consequent” rather than “true” if they are not fulfilled in reality. We have to admit that a judgment always relies on other presuppositions. Particular experience grounds a priori knowledge by motivation.

Some moderate rationalists like Laurence Bonjour (In Defense of Pure Reason) argue that any argument, even the ones of the empiricists, depends on some a priori justification, for instance accepting the conclusion of an inference. If the rules for justified inference from experience were derived from experience, they might not themselves be justified, and no knowledge would be. Nevertheless, it can be motivated, says Antich: motivation is not a mere contingent occasioning ground for knowledge, but a funding ground. It creates a transcendent and necessary knowledge which originates in perception but is not reducible to it. Perception, being contingent, cannot justify the necessity of our knowledge, but it can motivate knowledge containing necessary truths. It can ground many of our ideas which are neither caused by our senses nor produced by our imagination, like personal identity, substance or causality, doubted by Hume but which are not mere fictions. The same goes for quantities: first, young children can perceptually distinguish magnitudes, but they have to learn a count list made of numbers, then learn to map their representations with this list in order to acquire the concept of natural numbers, and to finally acquire the concept of succession and the mastering of very large numbers, according to Susan Carey.

  1. Perceptual faith against skepticism

Primacy of perception anchors knowledge in ordinary beliefs. But Antich recognizes that this motivation process cannot provide a justified true-belief account of knowledge. “A belief counts as knowledge, just in case it is a normatively motivated true judgment”, without the need of an explicit justification (p. 60). Chapter 5 focuses on this perceptual faith, the fact that I trust my perception to be of the world, and not a mere appearance. It is not an active position-taking expressed as a judgment about existence, but an experience of inhabiting the world with our body prior to all verification, which cannot justify but grounds our knowledge about the world.

But here the skeptic’s objections arise. Perception sometimes fails to distinguish itself from illusion. Our belief in the perceptual world, because it is not justified, may then be understood as a psychological natural fact about us, caused in us, but lacking normative import. Knowledge could then be entirely inexistant. Rationalists like Descartes or Kant tried to answer skepticism by use of a nonperceptual faculty: reason. But we may not need this recourse to reason if we consider that the skeptic’s desire for justification is simply excessive and should be ignored. Our perceptual faith is a spontaneous and involuntary feature of our perception: it is not an ordinary belief susceptible to error.

Sometimes, hallucinations can of course trick us, but patients can ordinarily distinguish them from perceptions, because differences in the horizonal content are available. One might argue that one can actually find an epistemological disjunctivism in Merleau-Ponty, but this is not Antich’s point: the disjunctivist’s claim that perceptions are intrinsically different from illusions does nothing to dispel the skeptical threat that I may not be able to distinguish them. Such a certainty is simply not needed. In a first-person epistemic perspective, we don’t need a reason to justify our belief that we perceive and are not victims of a hallucination: we simply perceive it. Illusion cannot disqualify perception either in our epistemology because it essentially depends on ordinary genuine perception (the possibility of a false experience presupposes the possibility of a true one).

Again, we may have simply named on a problem that still remains unsolved, and perceptual faith has not been justified but only described. But Antich defends that such a description is neither a psychology of knowledge merely explaining the formation of our beliefs, since the normativity of motivation make them acceptable, nor an actual justification, since trying to justify perceptual faith would reproduce the mistake made by reflective philosophies which look for excessive warranties and reasons to every belief. Asking for more, like the skeptics, would equate to “requir[ing] of the innocent the proof of his non-culpability”, as Merleau-Ponty says: the task of philosophy, rather than justifying or describing the perceptual faith, is to return to it.

  1. Merleau-Ponty versus Kant: grounding transcendental knowledge in experience

Chapter 6 deals with consequences of the abovementioned thesis on the opposition between Kant’s and Merleau-Ponty’s attempts to overcome the rationalism-empiricism debate. Kantian experience is an empirical cognition: a conscious presentation referring to an object which has unity through concepts, that is to say, a judgment. It needs to follow certain rules in order to be necessary, justified then objective. In saying so, Kant may describe conditions for experience in the sense of justified empirical judgment, but not in the sense of perception. For Merleau-Ponty, perception is not a judgment – it is the pre-predicative givenness of the thing – and does not need to be justified, but only motivated. Kant emphasizes the need of an intellectual synthesis like causality in order to experience objective time order, while Merleau-Ponty argued for a passive temporal synthesis which does not need the principle of sufficient reason, since temporal processes are given as wholes and not as distinct moments to be ordered. Perception is not governed by categories, and yet it is objective, since its objectivity derives from motivation, “perception’s spontaneous sensitivity to norms” (p. 164). Moreover, transcendental justification is ultimately motivated in the course of experience, which challenges the a priori status of the categories and the synthetic principles.

Chapter 7 addresses the question of metaphysical knowledge (cognition through mere concepts) which seems to be allowed (contrary to Kant’s thesis) by Merleau-Ponty’s concept of motivation: does Merleau-Ponty release metaphysics from Kant’s bounds? Antich answers this question by focusing on Kant’s Third Paralogism, namely, the identity of the self. Kant considers that intuition only gives us objects, so empirical apperception can give me successive determinations of my mind like a stream of presentations, but it is not a perception of myself as a subject. But Antich shows that the fact that I perceive things and make normed judgment about self-identity is a tacit cohesion of experience (a “tacit cogito”) and a direct self-perception rather than an a priori judgment. According to Merleau-Ponty, the self is made of a stream of continuous experiences that are always internally related and are the background against which each particular experience acquires its meaning: this field implicitly unifies my existence. Contrary to Kant’s view of the self, which fails to account for how transcendental and empirical apperception can “merge” and intend the same determinative (active) but also determined (passive) subject, Merleau-Ponty’s tacit cogito allows us to consider the pre-reflective self as both passively synthesizing the flow of consciousness and as synthesized within the flow of consciousness. The return to motivation, then, does not exactly open the door to metaphysics but does “put transcendental and empirical apperception into dialectic (i.e., it shows both types of apperception to be insufficient in themselves and to be parts of a larger whole)” (p. 193). Perceptions are therefore moments of a common structure, something which is neither a fixed foundation nor a contingent multiplicity, but rather what Merleau-Ponty calls transcendence. It does not mean that we have to embrace groundlessness and skepticism, but that we have to accept that within the contingent, the quest of necessity is permanent and that not ultimate justification, but motivation and negotiated ambiguity, constitute our path towards to an always progressing knowledge.

Issues

Debates inside phenomenology

Antich acknowledges in the notes that his decision to give a unified view of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception is open to discussion (see Renaud Barbaras, The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology). It might have been interesting to further discuss this point.

Moreover, Merleau-Ponty is the main inspiration for this study, but Peter Antich also borrows from the phenomenological tradition, as his very rich and stimulating notes underline. Despite his criticism of Husserl’s intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty in fact takes up the notion of motivation from him[3] and from Edith Stein[4]. The idea also appears in Anscombe (Intention, 1957), but also in Anthony Kenny (Action, Emotion and Will, 1963), who sees it as a pattern of behavior that invites people to see my action in a certain light, or in Paul Ricoeur (Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, 1950), who sometimes speaks of a motive as an antecedent of action and sometimes as a general trait of action (a personal, social or human tendency). It would have been fruitful to study even more closely the links of dependence but also the profound differences that may separate these philosophers[5], in order to grasp the specificity of the Merleau-Pontian concept of motivation.

The notion of motivation finally comes up in Merleau-Ponty’s discussion with Sartre[6], when dealing with the question of freedom in situation. The fact of having ‘motives’ implies that freedom is never indeterminate or absolute, but according to Sartre, it is always the free subject who gives a situation or a motive its meaning and its motivating power. Yet Peter Antich does not really put this contextual use of the notion of motivation into perspective: he chooses instead to understand the notion at a level that is often more fundamental and less free than action, that of perception, and it leads him to mix, in his demonstrations, examples of very spontaneous and unthinking perceptual acts, and actions (such as undertaking a journey) where reflection on motives, their interpretation and the self-narrative that one makes in an often intellectual way carry much weight, while using the same notion of ‘meaning’ in both cases, and claiming that this meaning always comes spontaneously in context.

Debates about perceptual and veridical normativity

Antich tries to create space between a physicalist reductionism and a theory of knowledge merely internal to the space of reason and disconnected from our experience. He therefore encompasses various phenomena, towards physical or gestalt effects susceptible of a purely physical explanation, but also mental representations and judgments whose origin in experience he tries to understand. But there is much debate about the relevance of avoiding at all costs a reductionist approach of gestalt effects which would describe them as a purely physical process. One phenomenon gives rise to another, not through objective causation, but through “the sense it offers”, says Merleau-Ponty (PhP, 51). But is it not possible to explain illusions or gestalt effects in terms of spatial and temporal contiguity or of an impact of light, textures, and distances on our perceptual system? On the other hand, cognitive « motives » such as reinterpretation of an ambiguous perception, or groundings for our action (for instance a travel we begin because our friend just died) could be given a comprehensive justification in terms of reasons. If there is a retroaction which transforms the whole, it seems to be purely internal to my decision process and my approach of the event: it does not define the intrinsic meaning of my friend’s death, which can be interpreted in many other ways by his other friends or his family, and it does not affect the existence of the event itself. According to Merleau-Ponty, the reinterpretation of the motive in light of the motivatum makes us forget the actual event. But this amounts to admitting that it is our intentionality that has changed, our beliefs or our memories, but not reality itself.

Of course, this continuity seems to be helpful to understand how our knowledge could be grounded in experience: if we consider that gestalt effects are already normative and have meanings, though they are not conscious and voluntary, it could explain how our judgments are also normed in ways we do not control in order to follow the truth. But are these norms exactly the same?

Any activity can be good or bad, depending on whether it fulfills its conscious purpose or not. We can thus say that perceptive activity contains norms of satisfaction: in certain situations, I see badly, because of the distance, an obstacle, or shortcomings in my body, and if I want to perceive, I have to move backwards or forwards, remove the obstacle, or put on glasses. We know this without thinking about it because we are already “experts” in perception (see H. Dreyfus et C. Taylor, Retrieving Realism, 2015). This habit of perception invites us to make anticipations and to see the world continuously, without contradiction between the data of the different sensitive organs or between different moments of experience. In the sense that it has standards of success or failure, perception is normative, which has already been commented on a lot. But are these not descriptive rather than normative features? And if this normativity is the same for perception as for any action that our body considers pragmatically successful or unsuccessful, can it have an epistemic force to guarantee true knowledge? If “seeing well” consists in succeeding in satisfying a practical need to operate within the perceptual scene, can we ever draw from perception a normativity that would concern “true seeing”?

Antich himself is careful to distinguish norms about true judgments (reasons) and perceptive norms which motivate beliefs, when he tries to avoid a reductionist approach which would consider motives as implicit reasons. But then, he faces two difficulties: are motives indeed different from reasons? And if they are, how is their normativity related to the one in the space of reasons, and how can we bridge the gap between motivation in experience and reasons justifying knowledge? It may seem easier, to answer the second issue, to say that there is a continuum between explicit and implicit reasons, as is suggested by Merleau-Ponty himself: sometimes, “motivation” seems to mean the incorporated rules we possess as reason to act or believe in a certain way even if we are not aware of reasoning anymore. It would help in avoiding to disconnect reasons from experience and invent a purely idealistic realm, because reasons are rarely as pure and different from perceptual motives as one might think.

But in section 9 of the first chapter, Antich argues against the idea of implicit reasons by saying that some motives are so amorphous that they can never be made explicit and function as reasons. But this argument seems to reduce the field of « motivation » to indeterminate phenomena, which are quite rare and are not the kind of examples that the author considers in the rest of the book. Of course, it would not be useful to do away with the distinction between perception and reasoning, or between unexplicit belief and clear knowledge. But seeing the kinship between these two categories may allow us to conceive of them as two types of intentional aiming without assuming that motivation is based on a meaning inscribed in reality itself rather than on our intentionality. This would help to understand how a perception can change, as one “changes her mind”, and how it can have in common with knowledge a certain dimension of commitment vis-à-vis the real to be identified or characterized. Interestingly, Antich admits that the meanings produced by motivation are not the motivating meanings, that for instance a light on the wall can draw my attention but is not a compelling force, and that « the light does not drag me along behind it, but awakens within me an intention ». There seems to be room for the intentionality of the subject here. But following Merleau-Ponty’s path between objectivity and subjectivity and refusing the divide, Antich claims that the contributions of both perceiver and perceived are inseparable from the normativity of perceptual motivation: “the idea is (…) not that the subject is solely responsible for the epistemic normativity of perception. Rather, the subject is responsive to the normative significance of perception.” (ch. 2 note 25). Antich later specifies that the subjective role of the perceiver is merely to desire to or be oriented toward seeing the world “as it is”, implying that most of the motivation comes from the side of the world.

The naturalization of meaning

The benefits of Merleau-Ponty’s analysis relies greatly on the essential « fact about perception » which is described in Phenomenology of perception: the idea of a “spontaneous sense”. At the level of the body, at the level of individual history and at the level of society, there are spontaneous valuations “in us”: the perceptual scenes appear to us to be great or small, easy or difficult to reach, and desirable or not, depending on our physiological constitution, our experiences, the lifestyle of our society, and the methods of solving problems that seem ordinary and habitual. This can give the impression that situations are “calling” us in one way or another.

But as Jakub Capek explains, “there are only norms for a being capable of assuming them, carrying them, and, in certain cases, turning away from them”[7]. It is essential to realize that it is always our human commitments that give one meaning or another to an event that motivates us to act or think: Merleau-Ponty himself admits that a form of freedom within these spontaneous valuations and these motives – and motivated by them – is always possible; but to conceive of this, one must not naturalize the meaning of a motive and the value of things in the things themselves. Otherwise, we could no longer go back and change their meaning.

If motivation is conceived as a part of an “operative intentionality” which does not oppose but deepens Husserl’s conception of intentionality, it has to be described as a way of aiming at things and giving them meaning (even if it is outside of the egoistic consciousness, involuntarily and in a pre-predicative and bodily functioning) rather than a passive reception of natural meanings already out there in the world (the “world” itself being the way we make sense of reality). But Merleau-Ponty often implies that the world itself comes to us as already bearing a sense. Indeed, perception does not give us a set of mutually indifferent atomic sensations but an arrangement of figures on a background, which cannot exist (or at least mean something) without another, and which make us do things according to the meaning they have for us.

The few examples given by Merleau-Ponty to prove the existence of such natural senses are ambiguous. If we unconsciously register the reflection of the light in the human eye even though painters forgot it for centuries, it does indeed mean that we can register information without focusing our conscious attention on it, but not that it is in itself a natural information of “livelihood” which cannot be explained. And if we first see a tree on the beach and subsequently reinterpret it as a shipwreck, or if the distance between two objects appears to change when I discover other objects interposed between them, without any conscious decision, does this really mean that we perceive meanings without an intentional movement? Does it not actually prove that, precisely because it can change, meaning is not a given but a construct (even if bodily, necessarily, naturally and unconsciously built)? Quoting Stein, Antich admits that a single state of affairs can always be interpreted in a variety of manners, but he says that “it defines a range of possibilities” (p. 36), as if these interpretations were contained in reality as possible meanings.

The difficulty may lie in the fact that Merleau-Ponty and Antich mix examples related to interpretative meaning with gestalt effects. But these existing gestalt effects are not meanings: they are physical relations between objects. This naturalization of meaning could be a major theoretical difficulty. Many of our perceptions seem to vary depending on the context and meaning has thus often been taken to be “intentional”, to pertain to the ways in which we aim at things rather than to the things themselves. Antich says his analysis keeps the grounding relations “internal to the sphere of meaning” without taking a stance on its ontological location: “Some form of mentalism (the view that what justifies a belief is a mental state) is probably most congenial to my view—though even this would raise thorny questions about Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of meanings” (p. 60), he recognizes. But this point is important, and Antich often seems to implicitly give an external reality to these meanings in order to distinguish them from our intentional conscious judgments. In chapter 2 note 33, he says that “motivation is a responsiveness to normative forces exerted by the phenomena themselves.”

Why is it important to distinguish motivation from causes and reasons and to give it natural meaning? First, Antich’s aim may be to ground truth in something real; lacking this foundation, Merleau-Ponty’s account seems to relativize knowledge which proceeds from mere motives rather than from rational explicit justifications. But as in many other cases, it might also have to do with morality. Antich’s example page 61 illustrating “dispositions” which guide us from experience to belief and knowledge is particularly striking: “For example, if I have a disposition to act generously, this just means that under ordinary circumstances, I will act out of a responsiveness to the relevant normative forces of a situation (e.g., the wants or requirements of those around me). » It inclines toward an innate spontaneous moral sense. The project is commendable but can also lead to biases, especially since morality is susceptible to change, and it would perhaps be preferable to note that it depends on an intentional commitment which is continually relaunched.

At the end, we can say that Antich’s clear, precise and stimulating book offers many glimpses of Merleau-Ponty’s contributions to contemporary epistemology. It highlights the places where the philosophical investigation must be carried on today, toward the understanding of the links between reality, action, perception, meaning, intentionality and knowledge. The localization of problems and their correct description being one of the major tasks of phenomenology, one can only appreciate the way in which Antich deploys his own phenomenology in order to highlight its advantages in contemporary debates, and the manner in which he opens a path to many lines of work in the future.


[1] Dreyfus, H. L., “The Return of the Myth of the Mental”, Inquiry, 50(4), 2007; Kelly, S. D., “Merleau-Ponty on the Body”, Ratio (new series), 15, 2002; O’Conaill, D., “On Being Motivated”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 12 (4), 2013.

[2] Wrathall, M., “Motives, Reasons, and Causes”, In T. Carman (Ed.), Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[3] Walsh, P. J., “Husserl’s Concept of Motivation: the logical investigations and beyond”, History of Philosophy & Logical Analysis 16 (1), 2013.

[4] Bello, A. A., Causality and Motivation in Edith Stein, in Poli, R., Causality and Motivation, Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag, 2013.

[5] Carman, T., “The Body in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.” Philosophical Topics 27, 2, 1999.

[6] Gordon, R., “Let’s Get Rid of Motivation: Sartre’s Wisdom.” Sartre Studies International 12, 1, 2006.

[7] Čapek, J., « Motivation et normativité : Réflexions sur le concept de liberté à partir de Merleau-Ponty », Bulletin d’Analyse Phénoménologique [online], V. 16, 2 (2020).

Wouter Kusters: A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking

A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking Book Cover A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking
Wouter Kusters. Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
The MIT Press
2020
Hardback $39.95
768

Reviewed by: Thomas Froy

Wouter Kusters’ ‘Philosophy of Madness’ is difficult to classify. This is probably the point. This enormous work – the full text reaches 738 pages – draws from sources diverse as Plotinus, Sartre, Eastern mysticism, personal testimonies, free associative prose and more; some canonical, some obscure, some empirical, some fictional. It’s difficult, too, among this mass of material, to discern the author’s intentions. Kusters states his explicit intentions quite often, but these statements often contradict each other, remain unfulfilled and unexplained. Gradually, what becomes clear, however – and this is perhaps the overarching theme of the book – is that Kusters’ doesn’t want to be classified.

Insofar as the author and his work reject classification, this book positions itself in a certain post-Foucauldian, anti-psychiatric tradition, which includes figures such as R.D Laing and Thoms Szaz. Psychiatry, writes Kusters, is largely “unable or unwilling to understand madness … [psychiatrists] hold it in contempt or even fear it while at the same time boasting about their “expertise” because they are thought to be able to explain or effectively subdue it” (Kusters 2020: 64). The inability or unwillingness to understand madness which Kusters identifies in psychiatrists and the psychiatric tradition as a whole is thus counterposed to the author’s own comprehensive and emancipatory ambitions: at one point, Kusters writes that the book aims to “alleviate psychosis and emancipate the psychotic person from medical classifications” (Ibid., xv). This work thus shares with many others in the anti-psychiatric genre an allegiance to what might be considered the more Romantic aspects of Foucault’s early work on madness: philosophy and madness are uniquely positioned to emancipate each other from their institutional imprisonments.

Kusters subject, then, is madness, and his aim is emancipation. ‘Madness’ is a rough translation of the Dutch ‘waanzin’; Kusters’ previous works include (as yet untranslated) Pure waanzin (2013) which recounts his personal experiences of psychosis, episodes to which he returns frequently, both as source for philosophical reflection and direct citation (Kusters is no stranger to self-citation, including sizeable passages from previous work, semi-fictional prose and passages which appear to be expressions of his own paranoid fears). Philosophy, for Kusters, is uniquely positioned to gain insights into the experience of madness, and madness into philosophy. The book can thus be understood as a dialogue between madness and reason, in which both slowly unwind and unhinge the other. The process of unwinding and unhinging will gradually lead each toward emancipation from their origins toward freedom.

The opposition between madness and reason – as well as his emancipatory aspirations – does not, however, lead Kusters to a confrontation with the concerns raised, about Foucault’s work, by Jacques Derrida. ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’ (Derrida: 1978), an essay originally delivered as a lecture, warns that any author, including Foucault, who aspires to emancipation from their chains risks reinterning the mad in the institution of philosophy. Already 60 years ago, then, the difficulties associated with semi-Romantic aspirations toward emancipation from the institution of psychiatry have been available to the reader, and presumably to Kusters himself. The consequence of Derrida’s confrontation with Foucault, consequently, are that if Kusters sets his sights on liberation from the prison of psychiatry – with its associated “medical jargon … supposedly objective labels and descriptions, and behind risk management, fear, and attitudes” (xvi) – he will have to be cautious not to reproduce that other trick of reconfinement. Emancipation demands, on the one hand, a rigorous distinction between, on the one hand, the domain from which the emancipated will escape (psychiatry) and on the other hand, the domain into which the mad will arrive. If no rigorous distinction is established, it may remain unclear whether liberation has occurred, and where the liberated find themselves as a result. Consequently, the risk is that madness may be liberated from psychiatry, but reinterned with philosophy.

Indeed, Kusters constructs a yawning chasm between the domains of madness and philosophy. “Madness is kept out of bounds as a nadir of meaninglessness, a breeding ground for unreal apparitions, chimeras, and sham” (2). However, this chasm does not present any obstacles to repeated definitions, in highly philosophical terms, of the essence of madness. On the contrary, despite Kusters’ repeated and clearly stated opposition to psychiatric definitions of madness, he displays no aversion to a philosophical classification of madness: psychosis is defined as “the desire for “the desire for infinity and absolute freedom” (xvii); madness is the experience of “trying to resolve the most fundamental questions of existence but in an uncontrolled, wildly associative way. You want to know what it’s all about, what good and evil are, what is at the very heart of existence: you want to know the meaning of life and the cosmos” (xxiii), and so on.

Not only does this appear to be in contradiction with the author’s stated opposition to classificatory jargon, but also with his declaration that he does not intend to contribute to classifications of madness (4). Since Kusters does not engage – at least, not explicitly – with the concerns Derrida raises about emancipatory critiques of institutions, it’s difficult to know where Kusters stands. It appears that he takes no issue with liberating madness from psychiatric definitions by means of firmly subjecting madness to philosophical definitions. As such, it remains, from start to finish, difficult – mystifying, perhaps maddeningly so – to divine precisely what Kusters’ aim – in terms of method or subject matter – might be.

This mad road is trod by a series of associations or identifications between philosophical notions and Kusters ideas about madness. For the most part, these associations are drawn from canonical works of Western philosophy – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre – and form the comparative structure of the book. Oppositions and comparisons are drawn from a huge number of texts in order to define, describe, and refine Kusters idea of the relation between madness and philosophy. The discourse is highly conceptual, dealing primarily with time and space. Aristotelian time, for example, is considered exemplary of the ‘normal’ attitude and can be juxtaposed with “mad crystal time”: normal time is chronological, while mad time might be circular, or perhaps everything happens at once (89-105). Although he states, early on, that madness and philosophy have appeared as each other’s enemies (p2), this does not mean that they cannot speak to each other, and inform our understanding of both; Aristotle may represent a spokesperson of normal experience at one point, and then an exemplar of insanity at another. As the book progresses, Kusters writes, oppositions will collapse and contradictions will multiply meaning that the reader will be “seduced seduced into identifying even more with the madman and letting himself be transported down a ‘stream’ of madness” (18).

In Part One, Kusters’ comparisons are most commonly within in the phenomenological tradition. Chapters One and Two give describe normal and mad experiences of perception, with citations drawn primarily from Edmund Husserl’s The Phenomenology of Internal-Time Consciousness. Beginning with what Kusters takes to be a Husserlian phenomenological description of experience, the normal perception of time can be characterized as Aristotelian – continuous – while the mad experience of time is circular (45-52). Chapters Three and Four subsequently develop phenomenologies of space and time, citing Husserl, Paul Ricoeur’s notion of ‘static time’ (94-6), as well as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of schizophrenia (98). Rather than subject each citation to analysis, Kusters’ approach is closer to compilation: long passages are introduced with a brief remark indicating that the text is ‘another example of’ of Kusters’ theory of madness, and rarely followed with any interpretation. Husserl, Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty are not subjected to interpretation or criticism, but rather contribute insights to the growing understanding of madness. Given this lack critical engagement, it’s difficult to discern Kusters’ own understanding of these texts. The specific texts are not selected for any stated reason, other than the evocation of a certain phenomenological experience: Kusters frequently introduces texts by describing them as “examples” of the conceptual terms or neologisms which characterize madness.

Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological work is given slightly less attention, and this represents something of a missed opportunity. Insofar as the assumption that phenomenological analysis of a subject’s experience can give us insight into their world is one of the key – if unstated – presuppositions of Kusters’ interest in phenomenology, the lack of engagement with Heidegger’s thinking is a shortcoming. Contemporary thinkers, such as Havi Carel, draw extensively from Heidegger’s rethinking of the spatio-temporal essence of being in order to give a clear picture of the situation and experience of an ill person (Carel 2016). Kusters’ constructions of a series of oppositions and comparisons between normal and abnormal experiences precisely mirrors the work done by post-Heideggerian phenomenologists, especially those working on the experience of mental and physical illnesses.

Part II – Chapters Five to Eight – shifts away from, without leaving, the explicitly phenomenological discourse toward Kusters’ interest in mysticism. Mystical experiences, he argues, are highly comparable with experiences of insanity, insofar as both provide an escape from the normal experience of the world. To some extent, Part II is continuous with Part I: those abnormal perceptions evoked by phenomenology are described more richly in Kusters’ selections from the mystical tradition; the experience of time, for example, may not only become non-continuous but also more intense. Kusters names four processes – ‘Detachment’, ‘Demagination’, ‘Dethinking’, ‘Delanguization’ – in which mysticism can lead the reader further along the path of madness. Here, Kusters draws most consistently from Plotinus: various long passages are drawn from his corpus and cited as instances of each process. Again, Kusters leaves Plotinus’ words largely unexamined, preferring to compile texts rather than subject them to analysis.

In Part III, Kusters describes a series of delusions: ‘The Uni-Delusion’, ‘The Esse-Delusion’, ‘The Ω-Delusion’ and ‘The Ø-Delusion’. Like the mystic processes, the removal of delusions will open the door and lead the reader down the path of madness. The ‘opening door’ motif, an explicit reference to Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelia, chimes with the earlier engagement with phenomenology: the experience of madness expands and reformulates our understanding in the world by breaking through the normal limits and parameters of thought. In this part of the book, the content shifts from canonical philosophy toward logical paradoxes, reflections on LSD, and extracts from fictional works. Kusters describes his process as being increasingly illogical, both in terms of content and form; the gradual destructuration and unravelling should mirror the experience of going mad.

Part IV extends Part III’s interest in paradoxes, aiming to cement Kusters’ idea that the process of philosophizing – be it about space and time, or the prisoner’s dilemma, or nothing at all – may lead the philosopher into madness. In this regard, Part IV is continuous with the previous parts of the book, insofar as the style is consistently compilatory. A number of the same ideas reappear in each part – madness, perception, space, time – but Kusters does not construct a theory of any of these; he merely cites, compares and collects interesting insights into various aspects of what he considers to be madness. On the one hand, this is clearly deliberate and fulfils his refusal to produce a systematic classification of psychosis; on the other hand, compilatory theory does not clearly present the author’s own position. The enormous range of sources are merely included within the ever expanding portrait of madness: the pieces collect without anything resembling structural relation or connection. The consequence of this is that the reader rarely gets Kusters’ own perspective: canonical texts – Plato, Descartes, Sartre, Husserl – are cited at length and pass without comment. Many readers will already be familiar with this works, and less familiar with Kusters’ own thinking: ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ is generous in material, less so when it comes to the author’s actual perspective, ideas, or interpretations of these widely-read traditional texts.

With this in mind, Part IV represents a substantial step within the work’s development: as noted above, Kusters remains highly elusive – perhaps difficult – in submitting to a simple characterization of his intentions. In addition, although the Chapters interweave and interconnect in both style and content, Kusters rarely gives any sense that his theory is building toward any conclusion or system. Chapter 14’s reading of Charles Taylor’s work – specifically the opposition between the bordered and the porous self – substantially revises this non-systematic approach. The compilatory method remains – Taylor’s thinking is merely another example – but Taylor’s thinking on reenchantment radically reorients the purpose of the book. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ clearly signals its disinterest in contributing to a classificatory theory of madness, and Chapter 14 is consistent with this insofar as, at this late stage, it suddenly becomes clear that Kusters is writing a book about enchantment.

The portrait of madness Kusters presents is so unsystematic and incoherent – I believe, deliberately so – it’s difficult to think that his intention is to present anything like a new understanding of madness. Instead, ‘madness’ – and all the processes and experiences which come along with it – is a placename for reenchantment. Kusters collects and compares a huge range of oppositions between normal and abnormal experiences: madness represents an opportunity to be led out of our compartmentalized, limited, singular selves into a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Becoming mad opens the self to a massively enriched and enhanced relationship with worldly phenomena, as well as new possibilities for different and rewarding interactions with everything around about.

Kusters introduces Taylor’s porous self – open and in dialogue with the world outside – as a comparative example with madness, and in this regard, makes explicit the analogy between going mad and reenchantment. However, Kusters does not suggest that this is the comparison which should frame the work. Like Taylor, Kusters sees the contemporary world as a difficult and unwelcoming world, unwilling to accept the insights (even the existence) of the mad enchanters.  Yet the advantages of living as a Taylorian porous self are numerous and many are shared with the madman: the world becomes infused with numerous and diverse meanings (531); greater intimacy with one’s feelings (534-5); greater receptivity (547), and so on.

Despite the apparent proximity of identity between the mad and the enchanted, Kusters does not dwell on this, nor does he explicitly outline what I understand to be the essential affinity described between the processes of madness and of reenchantment. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ frequently returns to its disinterest in classification, systematicity and structure; it is possible, however, that this lack of focus may prevent the reader from recognizing some of the greater themes and purposes of the book. I suggest, in light of this, that interpreting Kusters’ thinking on madness as a longer meditation on the possibilities of what might be ‘mad enchantment’ may grant some thematic coherence to the work without sacrificing the stated desire for chaos, contradiction and confusion.

‘A Philosophy of Madness’ presents the reader with some difficulties. Although Kusters’ work is at home in the anti-psychiatric tradition – and Kusters asserts his devotion to the anti-psychiatric field vocally and repeatedly – this opposition is never substantiated. Kusters does not engage, at any length, with psychiatric literature or the history of psychiatry; he writes that his previous work – the as yet untranslated ‘Pure Madness’ – produced a comparison between his own experience of psychosis and the psychiatric reports written on him. There is no confrontation with the medical tradition, with medical professionals, the history of medicine and its relation with psychiatry, or with psychiatric institutions. Such a confrontation would give greater clarity to Kusters’ understanding of psychiatry, what it is, what its aims are, its limitations, and so on; the reader might also get a clearer picture of Kusters’ consideration of the possibilities and dangers associated with liberating the mad from the domain of psychiatry in order to reintern them within philosophy. Perhaps the matter – namely, of psychiatry as an institution, historical phenomenon, contemporary political entity and all those who work within it – is considered settled. Perhaps the translation of ‘Pure Madness’ will grant the English reader greater access to Kusters’ engagement with psychiatry, but until then, the detail is lacking.

In addition, Kusters does not make any engagement with the contemporary young but fast growing field of critical disability studies. Like the anti-psychiatry movement, scholars and thinkers in this field owe a substantial debt to Foucault’s work on institutions as well as a deep suspicion of those who want the ‘cure’ the sick and mad; furthermore, analyses of chronic pain , psychopathy, long-term illnesses and so on share a great many of the concerns and ideas raised in Kusters thinking; finally, many scholars – like Kusters – turn to the phenomenological tradition in order to understand the spatio-temporal qualities of being disabled. Kusters decision not to find points of dialogue with this field represents a missed opportunity.

Finally, Kusters’ decisions with regard to the structure are problematic. The overview presented above is accurate with regard to the theoretical content of the book; however, through a series of ‘Overtures’, ‘Intermezzos’ and interstitial passages apparently reflecting Kusters’ own mental state. The Overture and Intermezzos largely function as introductory and concluding remarks, describing the plan for the work and the relation between different sections. Kusters prose is highly expressive, ironic and rhetorical; for different readers, this may be amusing, witty, or a little bit irritating. But it is the interstitial passages, found especially in the early parts of the book, which are difficult to read. It appears that they function as literal representations of the paranoid fears of a person experiencing psychopathy.

Besides questions of structure, the Intermezzos also contribute an extremely strange first personal account, in which the writer – perhaps Kusters himself, perhaps not – describes, in direct prose, his everyday life in Amsterdam, meeting up with friends, driving around, spending time alone. The writing is frenzied, sometimes fearful, sometimes ecstatic, often difficult to understand or make sense of. It’s difficult to say what the fragments are – Kusters doesn’t introduce or reflect upon them. Most significant, and troubling, however, is that they are occasionally shockingly racist. While reflecting on languages, the author muses “Yiddish is a kind of basic Esperanto, just like Jews are the people without a country and without an identity” (119). This thought isn’t introduced – there’s no context – nor interpreted or analysed – there’s no explanation. It’s not clear what its purpose, meaning or significance is. Why are the Jews a people without a country? What does it mean to be a people? What is it to have a country? Does lacking a country mean lacking an identity? No context, no analysis. A few lines later, writing from the perspective of ‘the Jews’, Kusters writes “We watch over the system behind the system. We’re the backup, the fourth empire” (Ibid.,). Again, no context or explanation; merely, the introduction of classical anti-Semitism as a passing phrase.

A few pages on, Kusters writes “The ones who always do it right are the Holocaust deniers. And they’re still at it. As soon as you start tampering with Auschwitz, they throw you in the madhouse. But that’s where the Enlightened Ones live, those who haven’t been able to keep their big mouths shut. Of course there was no Holocaust!”. Kusters doesn’t direct these racist remarks toward any other ethnic minorities, nor does he return to them at any other point. Does Kusters mean to be ironic, or funny? Should these remarks frame Kusters’ opposition to institutions, or even the book a as a whole? Should they be ignored? It’s not at all clear what purpose these passages serve, if any.

Kusters’ compilatory method is perhaps the defining feature of ‘A Philosophy of Madness’. It’s possible – perhaps preferable – to understand the decision not to subject any of the his interlocutors to sustained or detailed analysis as being consistent with his stated opposition to systematicity and classification. Perhaps this is the right decision: for readers less familiar with the canonical works of European philosophy, this book functions as a useful introduction to texts from Plato, Descartes, Husserl, Sartre and more. Kusters sets his course firmly in the direction of madness, and this colossal book – just short of 800 pages, in all – is by no means a strict, disciplined work of theory. Instead, it’s pure, philosophical chaos.

The reader should not approach ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ with the expectation of finding a contribution to our understanding of what it feels like to experience psychosis, or periods of mental ill health; nor, a close reading or interpretation of a number of texts from the phenomenological tradition, mysticism or the fictional and real writings of ‘the mad’. Instead, Kusters’ presents the reader with a mass of text which, without ever coming together in any moment, points the reader toward possibilities: possibilities for reflection and reconsideration on one’s place in the world. Madness might be ecstatic, joyous, terrifying, upsetting and scary; it might be a normal way to live in a strange world. It might also be an opportunity to approach one’s life and the people in it with a new sense of enchantment. An off-kilter perspective, to be sure, but one filled with madness and magic.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. University of Chicago Press.

Kusters, Wouter. 2020. A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking. MIT Press.

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