A dubious undertaking would be to propose a biography of an author who attends to the demand that a text might bear witness to itself and of its own accord. This is the legacy of Maurice Blanchot, whose testimony is that of the vanishing author—a text addressed to other texts and not, perhaps, an author to their audience. This is so much so that between what is called literature and the problematic of its very possibility, a dialogue appears only by the instrument of death, under condition of its undoing. We might, then, express concern over such an undertaking were it not for Christophe Bident’s tireless sensitivity in Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, translated by John McKeane from the original Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire Invisible. Reading Bident, one is almost confronted by such lucidity and knowledge—almost insofar as confrontation gives way to the uncanny feeling of mentorship. Bident’s text balances the demands of biography, which draws on official accounts and established readings. Yet, one who wishes to gain a furtive glance into the other life of Maurice Blanchot will be satisfied by how record-keeping is balanced by careful exegesis of his works.
On the other hand, those chapters that begin and end with the biographical, or the historical, seem also to give way to the implosion of what they recount—from Blanchot’s controversial engagement with right-wing journals in the 1930’s and 40’s, to his later political refusals (the «Manifesto of the 121» and his speeches of May ‘68)—often ending (albeit in a very different way) as they began: the termination of Blanchot’s political projects. This is no critique of Bident’s writing; he deals with these instances, too, with patient sensitivity. There is much to be learned, though, regarding the ever-present possibility of failure in confronting the ‘risk of public life’ Blanchot espouses.
Some housekeeping: when it appears as the title of the twenty-second chapter, and on the one-hundred-forty-fifth page, Blanchot’s emerging style of literary criticism in the name of the other—as Bident terms—may create confusion, if one has forgotten the French subtitle’s reference to an invisible partner. In fact, in this chapter, it will not yet be fully disclosed what these mysterious terms indicate—and certainly purposefully given that Blanchot would only be on the cusp of a literary project that would give flesh to them. The first glimpse of this thematic is to be found in that section which captures such a critical (re)turn in Blanchot’s work: the events at his family home in Quain in June 1944 where Blanchot is confronted with imminent execution. This reinvigorates his lasting concern with death, which will spill into his work on writing, friendship, literature, the impossible, always, as Bident argues, such that it “provides a model for inner experience, an experience lived, but lived by the invisible partner within us” (197).
Bident also weaves into the text the return of a peculiar piece of Blanchot’s writing on the primal scene: a child confronting the nothingness of being, the il y a (there is). This takes place when a child stares from the window out into the garden of their home, filling the space with impressions of play and the familiar, until the sky above opens onto absolute emptiness, and they begin to cry. This coincides with a feeling of «ravaging joy» which their parents confuse for sorrow (7). This scene runs continuously through Bident’s work. He mentions that Blanchot is not often accessible to, nor concerned for ‘childhood.’ However, between these two extended thematics—the invisible partner and the primal scene—Bident has framed much of his critical engagement with Blanchot’s most pressing concerns.
Part I (1907-1923) introduces Blanchot’s life in a way consistent with biographical stricture, from a short genealogy of his family’s lineage, to an introduction of the ‘Chateau’ in Quain referenced in The Instant of my Death. Relations are outlined and grand, controversial events are prefigured. It is in the interstices of the exigencies of biography, however, that Bident’s text almost immediately distinguishes itself. Bident’s deep involvement with Blanchot’s thought—and the singular demand not to rely on the logic of biography as a genre—appears as an appendage to each chapter in which we are greeted by an aesthetic of storytelling, and direct engagement with pertinent writings of Blanchot’s. So we find in the opening chapter also certain phenomenal passages on his birth—2:00 a.m, September 22, 1907—in a time of exilic and (busy) night, the “other night” of writing (12), which will be the condition for much of his works to extend beyond the self of day; when Kafka pens, at the same time, five years and one day later, the entirety of The Judgment (8-9).
This is the beginning of a kind of mythology surrounding Blanchot’s search for solitude: from his home in Quain to his residence in Èze. Bident supplies a composite of motifs that will guide the work from biography into the realm of the literary in this section, in which one can imagine—veritably to fantasize—their own sleeplessness, troubled by the demand of writing; solitude, childhood, night, writing, insomnia. The theme and the mofit, in Blanchot, might be inseparable; between meaning and matter only the regulatory power of the term, ‘fiction,’ can sustain such a barrier. If one were faithful to Blanchot, the boundary would be lost; Bident, then, is faithful to Blanchot. We are not in the realm of literary ornament, but an image sharing in an equally justifiable claim to truth, and one that is shared amongst us.
The third chapter of this section provides a panoptic of Blanchot from the perspectives opened in later sections of the book: his peers in right-wing circles in the 1930s describe him as deathly; his friends admire his kindness, his soft-spokenness, and his grace; many are concerned by how ill his countenance seems and yet how he endures; Bataille pays the homage only a great friend and thinker can (16-18).
For even those somewhat familiar with Blanchot, it will be clear that the horizon of Part II (1920s-1940) suggests a gathering storm. In the first three chapters, we are introduced to Emmanuel Levinas, and the philosophical partnership shared between the two, until Levinas quickly dissolves from view. from chapters seven to fifteen, Bident presents Blanchot’s movements in right-wing circles, and among the children of Charles Maurras, including Thierry Maulnier, Paul Lévy, Jean-Pierre Maxence, Maurice Bardèche, Robert Brasillach, Jean de Fabrègues, Daniel Halévy, Georges Bernanos, Henri Massis, and Paul Bourget. Blanchot contributes, in the 1930s and early 40s, to Action Française, Combat, L’Insurgé, La Revue Française, Réaction, La Revue du Siècle, Ordre Nouveau, Le Journal des Débats, Le Rempart, Aux Écoutes, and La Revue du Vingtième Siècle. He was clearly Germanophobic, and anti-Bolshevist, anti-democrat, a French nationalist, and willing to espouse a view of violent rebellion under the shadow of emergent monolithic powers, particularly the materialist-capitalist degradation of spirit. The circles he frequents cleave undeniably closely to the language of anti-Semitism, as does he in certain writings: the international and internationalist conspiracy, the spectre of capitalism, the foreigner and Other, behind which is the hated image of the Jew (75). Bident notes that anti-Semitism is one element within a logic of purification first articulated in Blanchot’s piece Mahatma Gandhi, but perhaps also goes too far to exculpate his subject, in saying that such anti-Semitism is a tool used for «eloquent oratory and insidious punches» (loc. cit.). None of this should obscure the public and consistent statements condemning Hitler’s anti-Semitism, which Blanchot declares to be the sour testimony of a pan-German barbarity reliant on a demagogue and the need to persecute (55-56). However, it cannot also merely be forgotten.
As such, Bident is fair to uphold the ‘role’ of the biographer, or as he says, to «follow the movements of conviction» of the Blanchot of the time (40, italics in original). This must include displacements and transformations, as well as the «real substance of intellectual experience» (loc. cit.). However, we should be critical of the subtle establishment of a boundary between the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real substance’ if one’s expectation is that we may dismiss Blanchot’s own framing of an anxious energy around anti-Semitic invectives. Frankly, he does not attempt to speak a truth separated from positioning within an increasingly extremophilic political web, and an epoch hurtling toward madness. At the moment that Bident proclaims his ‘sound judgment’ for rejecting all policies of disarmament—for on 14 October, 1933, Germany leaves the League of Nations negotiations on the matter (53)—we are likely to share in a certain discomfort. Was Blanchot exercising sound judgment? Was he exercising judgment at all? Certainly, Blanchot identifies the gathering of arms, and forging of Germany’s ‘warrior spirit,’ around an origin and destiny (56). And yet it would still seem both a betrayal of friendship with Blanchot, and a clear misstep, to proclaim his suspicions ‘confirmed’ if only in the hindsight of history. The point is not that Bident is wrong. It is rather that the matter should not be submitted to such judgments at all, giving the impression that all positions taken up by Blanchot must be found consistent and free of disdain, or that they can be disproven—both as fact and personal conviction—as the “failings of thought” of a young political pundit (90).
In parallel, Bident marks the near-unbelievable plurivocality of Blanchot at this time; between his work as a political commentator whose call for action are escalating toward ‘terrorism’ in favour of public safety, separated from to his literary criticism, while his personal experiences remain on the fringes of these overwhelming spheres, still contained within that ‘other night’ of solitary writing. There is a way that this part of Bident’s text is, like Blanchot’s life, veritably disrupted. Rather than offering a final sentence of his own on Blanchot’s controversial involvement with the French right-wing preceding the war, Bident finds another sentence already proclaimed in his récit of 1937. Between chapter 14 and the end of the section, Bident will give full focus to Blanchot’s public criticism (where notably he discussed even-handedly authors both censured and acclaimed by the French right-wing), and to his early récits: Death Sentence, and Thomas the Obscure as well as smaller pieces The Last Words, The Idyll. Bident’s exposition of Thomas the Obscure in particular reads like a lucid subject watching, horrified, the comforting borders of their life dissolve into the convulsive death-throes of body and soul.
Part III (1940-1949) opens on the cusp of Germany’s occupation of France and the establishment of the Vichy Government under Marshall Philippe Pétain, and thus the horizon of a great change in Blanchot. Bident notes that his slow political withdrawal in the late 1930’s, and increasing interest in literary rather than polemical endeavours, are exacerbated by his silence during the occupation within which another ‘death’ overcomes him; fragmenting into the need to rearrange his professional dealings, his declared convictions and his writing (124). At this time, Blanchot’s ties to the French resistance are stressed, as well as his assistance of Jewish friends—he and his sister save Paul Lévy’s life when they warn him of arrest, and he aids Emmanuel Levinas’ wife, Raissa, and their daughter in hiding (125).
Around the same time Blanchot attempts to «use Vichy against Vichy» through its funding of Jeune France—an association for the arts formally impolitical, and under such a guise, working relatively autonomously. Blanchot’s plan is unsuccessful, ultimately leading to the dissolution of Jeune France at the moment collaboration becomes overt. His disillusionment is so engrossing that Jean Paulhan’s similar strategic attempt to have Blanchot sit on the steering committee of the Nouvelle Revue Française is rejected (174). Contemporaneously, Blanchot meets Georges Bataille, with whom a personal and intimate friendship would persist, opening Blanchot to what Bident terms ‘atheological mysticism,’ to the shock of eroticism, and the philosophico-political engagement of the absence of self and book, absence of authority, and writing on friendship.
Blanchot’s shift is, from our vantage point, coming into view. Bident notes that his ‘Chronicles of Intellectual Life’ at the Journal des Débats demonstrates not yet so much a movement from left to right-wing politics (which he does mention in terms of a growing discontent with nationalism and reappraisal of communism), but a receptiveness to a wide body of literature—praise of Freud, French Surrealism, Breton, Gide comes on the heels of scorn for Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and Georges Bernanos, while still under the purview of Vichy (147). The collaborationist government positions Blanchot to be their new scribe—in Jeune France and at the Journal des Débats—and his response is to uphold, contest, and evade these responsibilities all at once (149). This response, Bident argues, is in the name of the other. It is a matter first of all of self-evacuation, and then of critique (often, following Jean Paulhan and Stéphane Mallarmé, of the edifice of literary criticism), play, chance, resistance at the level of language itself (151-57). It is also here where the invisible partner appears; as the text’s other, sometimes the ‘character,’ who carries the speech of the author only capable of speaking through them, at other times the hidden interlocutor (Levinas, Bataille, Paulhan) who may receive a deceptively beautiful dedication, or perhaps simply a ‘wink’ within the text (156; see also 171). Bident is exciting to read for his recognition that Blanchot’s (auto)biographical demands are high, but certainly not impossible; a self-reflexive problematization of the role of biography plays out in the name of the other, amongst the récits, such that it is always «disseminated, displaced, altered» (158).
There are moments here too, however, where sensitivity is overtaken by an apprentice’s defense of their mentor. Opening the chapter on Blanchot’s “Chronicles of Intellectual Life” in the Journal des Débats, he notes: “Blanchot’s elegant, arrogantly indifferent articles were printed alongside intolerable propaganda, whether in the form of articles or advertisements,” (145) which we are wont to expect from his writings in 1941-44. Bident in the same passage performs inscrutability: “This was a strange object, a conciliatory invective, which seemed to lack any feeling for history: how was this column possible?… Did he badly need to money, as he would later say to Roger Laporte? That is not entirely true: he was receiving a salary from Jeune France” (145). These questions are crucial, and their pointed honesty are compelling; they are exactly those that would be necessary for holding to account a subject embroiled in this controversy, and to exceed the bashful apologetics of an admirer. It is because of these questions that it is also unsatisfying to see Bident turn away from the possibility they open. Blanchot, throughout the text, seems to be conveniently at a distance to those repugnant organizations that cause such controversy around his legacy even today, whilst playing an equally muted, but somehow more expansive role in reputable projects (in this case, Jeune France). We should not clamour for a sacrifice, and Bident is right to direct us to a number of contestations and evasions that constitute Blanchot’s refusal wholeheartedly of Pétain and Hitler. This does not bring Blanchot out of the constellation of right-wing thought for his time, in which he will continue to pit French nationalism against German, and in such ways that—having rejected ‘blood and soil’—will continue to speak of an essentialist mythology: a France of “order and style” (121).
These concerns are a stark contrast to the récits. From Thomas the Obscure, to Aminadab, and after the war The Most High, The Madness of the Day, Death Sentence and a second edition of Thomas, the chapters dealing respectively with Blanchot’s récits provide some of the most intriguing reading. Bident is careful with his exigesis; under the heading of a critical biography, it would not be fair to expect that an author’s texts have been read, and he offers summaries of what loose plot-points a récit may offer. These are weaved deftly amongst considerations of Blanchot’s changing personal life and political convictions. Do the récits mark out singularly such shifting ground? Bident notes that «perhaps his political past was becoming something akin to a dream» (168). In any case, they do entangle with those philosophical, literary and personal concerns that will culminate in Blanchot’s near-execution around the close of the war. Famously, The Instant of my Death (published in 1994) tells of a semi-autobiographical situation in which a narrator and their family is confronted in front of their ‘Chateau’ by imminent death at the hands of a German firing squad (later revealed to be part of the Russian Vlasov Division fighting for the Nazis). He is released instead, and takes refuge in the nearby forest where he watches as his village is burned down, his own home to be saved by a peculiar sentiment of the invaders toward its «noble appearance» (183-84). This episode had a strong impact on Blanchot—as such an experience might—reinforcing his explorations of writing, literature, and death, and granting him a sort of ‘lightness.’ Blanchot becomes “a nomad moving from demourrance to demourrance” (dwelling to dwelling), following this experience (184).
The period of writing in the immediate post-war era is concomitant with Blanchot’s increasing melancholy, however, and withdrawal from French literary circles that seem keen on the ‘purification’ of their ranks (188). He writes for, and edits Bataille’s journal Actualité, as well as publishing more frequently in Maulnier’s Cahier’s de la Table Ronde, founded for those rejected by the leftist Comité National des Ecrivains. This was followed by further writing for L’Arche, Les Temps Modernes, and Critique.
Part IV (1949-1959) opens in a way characteristic of Blanchot, who initiated many rescissions in the summer of 1944, escaping to Quain around the end of the war, and to Èze starting in 1946. From 1949-57 he remains in Èze, where literature will overtake him. In this same way, Bident allows for a reversal of the structure of his biography consistent with Blanchot’s movement: his récits and critical essays, their contexts, will be placed at the forefront and all other material will be displaced. Blanchot himself is slowly fading in order to open the space of literature, where Bident’s refrain of a literature in the name of the other takes place under the condition of an ‘essential solitude.’ During this time, Blanchot publishes the récits When the Time Comes, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, and The Last Man, as well as, through his contributions in particular to Jean Paulhan’s resuscitated Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue Française, what would become the core of The Space of Literature and The Book to Come (as well as Friendship and The Infinite Conversation) (271-72).
Again Bident demonstrates such electrifying acuity in his discussion of Blanchot’s texts. When the Time Comes tracks Blanchot’s ‘nocturnal capacity’ to attend to even his fictional interlocutors, opening the rupturous space of a resistant partner—a character who cannot, by the ‘authority’ of the author, be ordered to relinquish their secrets (257-59). This will be expanded in The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me, where the neuter begins to take shape in a crepuscular adventure, a conversation with an unnamable interlocutor, and within a space that is both sheltered from the world and where a world of shelter can arise (263-64). The question as to how writing is possible appears alongside such a solitary wandering, to which Blanchot’s essay collections respond—which is to say, they continue to reopen these questions in multifarious ways. Selections in The Space of Literature and The Book to Come are marked out for their contributions to the neuter: as reserve and prophecy in what escapes and threatens, but also opens the space for, the work; as autobiography and the abandonment of autobiography in the authority of the author; as an interruption of thought, a cruel act of refusal of certainty (276-78, 280-82).
Alongside his literary production, this section marks three large shifts in Blanchot’s life that will prefigure his future endeavours and return to political publication. First, his mother passes away in 1957 prompting a return to Paris and proximity to emerging political events—especially the imminent presidency of Charles De Gaulle. Second, Blanchot encounters for the first time in 1958, Robert Antelme, whose work he read and appreciated, and whose friendship, Bident notes, «was already certain» (297). Third, and completing this section, Blanchot, alongside Dionys Mascolo and Antelme, initiate the 14 Juillet project. The journal, intended to respond to De Gaulle and the French post-war political landscape, was founded on a manifesto of faith to revolution, return to resistance and refusal of providential power, as well as the fear of fascism and opposition to a politic of salvation in a leader (304). Although it would publish few issues, the journal seemed to be a culmination of the change that had taken place in the last decade: Blanchot returns to the ‘risk of public life,’ forges critical bonds with Mascolo and Antelme as well as René Char, and concentrates his political project, as Bident notes, around action «in the name of the anonymous» (308). 14 Juillet would pre-figure a project of opposition to a sedimenting civic-society in favour of the self-effacement explored in the récits, and a staple of Blanchot’s literary theoretical approach.
It would be inaccurate to say that certain aspects of Blanchot’s strategy of writing is completely unrecognizeable upon his return to public life. He demonstrates a distinctive concern for the importance of writing as the act of political involvement par excellence. Part V (1960-1968) opens with an extended chapter on the «Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War,» penned primarily by Mascolo, Jean Schuster, and himself, under the backdrop of an ambiguous socio-political situation in which political indifference allows for the unabated use of torture, and the entwining of the political with the military (315-16). The «Manifesto of the 121,» referencing the signatories approached during the summer of 1960, was circulated on September 1, to immediate controversy. It was denounced by right-wing publications (including Thierry Maulnier in Le Figaro), submitted as evidence in the trial of Francis Jeanson for high treason (who had organized a network of militants in support of the FLN), and initiated a wave of arrests of prominent intellectuals which gave rise to protests and international outcry in defense of the signatories (321-22).
Bident mentions some of the most crucial features of the document in terms both of its relation to Blanchot’s intellectual attitude, and as a politico-historical event. Of the latter, it marked (perhaps for the first time) the right—beyond duty—not to oppress. This involves an expansion of responsibility rather than its contraction consistent with the affirmation of a freedom to act inhering in the concept of ‘right,’ where previous texts concluded on the right not to suffer oppression (318). Further, it was an important instance of such a document calling for illegal action in support of deserters and insubordination. Of the former, it seems that much of the grounding of these positions flowed from ‘essential solitude,’ not merely as refusal or reclusion from the world, but the abyss from which no author may singularly emerge, no singular signature can mark ownership—from the neuter, from the there is itself (loc. cit.). The success of the «Manifesto» would lead to an attempt to extend the project of an anonymous and plurivocal space responding to the most urgent issues of the time. Named the International Review, the subsequent journal would bring together a multiplicity of voices in the shared truth of being a writer, and welcoming the speech of the Other (320). In light of the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Algerian Independence in 1962, and Georges Bataille’s death, the journal would not see a first issue, and the project was abandoned by 1963 (328-32).
This precipitates in Blanchot another change, and a consistent disillusionment with the possibility of politics that upheld even in his revived action during the May ’68 protests. In the meantime, he would devote himself to friendships, and to writing Awaiting Oblivion, as well as the pieces comprising the Entretien. The neuter emerges in many places in Bident’s text in multiple forms, but always with uncanny familiarity, in these chapters. Variously, Bident mentions that the neuter may be conceived as wandering into estrangement, the extremity of thought, self-extrication from the ‘completion of metaphysics’ as an anti-Heideggerian position, the unfinished response to the impossible, an anonymous biography of a faceless someone, the stirring of indifference, and the overtaking of ‘the book to come’ with ‘the absent book’ (351-59). The Entretien persists as one of the best exemplifications of fragmentary writing, the interruptive conversation, which, like Awaiting Oblivion, imbues speech with vitality without allowing it to manifest; a conversation that demands community.
May ’68 is preceded by the ‘Beaufret Affair.’ François Fédier, compiling a volume in honour of Beaufret entitled L’endurance de la pensée, enjoins a number of writers, including Blanchot, Char, and Derrida, to contribute. After allegations of Beaufret’s anti-Semitism emerge (likely from Roger Laporte), a number of private meetings are held in Derrida’s office at the École Normale Supérieure (371-72). Blanchot is notified of the allegations, and begins meeting with Derrida to deliberate on their course of action—which incidentally opens a dialogue that will continue after the affair—and Blanchot resolves to publish «The Fragment Word» on two conditions: that it be accompanied by a dedication to Emmanuel Levinas (who may have personally been affected by Beaufret), and that all authors are informed of what has transpired (372). He then meets, alongside Derrida, with Levinas who had not been informed, but who invites subtlety on the matter (374).
The conditions preceding, and initially surrounding May ’68, then, are piqued by Blanchot’s disillusionment and melancholy, which seems somewhat to give way to a renewed vigor; he is a consistent speaker at protests and meetings, and establishes—with Mascolo—a writer’s union intent on relinquishing authorial authority, support of the protests, and recognition of the anonymous textual production of the period not captured by ‘the book’: from banners, to graffiti, chanting, and pamphlets (379-79). The writer’s union gives rise to a bulletin, named simply Committee, which quickly succumbs—similarly to the International Review—to internal divisions stemming from international events, this time the invasion of Prague by the USSR (384-85). Blanchot leaves in agitation, and due to problems with his health.
Part VI (1969-1997) documents the latter years of Blanchot’s career—not until his death in 2003, as Bident published the original French text of the critical biography in 1998. This will include the publication of his final works, The Step Not Beyond, The Writing of the Disaster, The Unavowable Community, as well as works discussed briefly: Vicious Circles, A Voice From Elsewhere, and The Instant of my Death. In this lengthy stretch, Blanchot’s commitment to explorations of Judaism and Hasidic mysticism, his vigilance against anti-Semitism, his perseverance in friendship, and his experimentation with margins, boundaries, and the outside of thinking converge with Bident’s account of various responses to his work. Blanchot once again rescinds, this time into the suburbs of Paris with his brother René, in increasing secrecy that will give rise to one of the most dubious and enduring features of his legacy; of the responses to Blanchot, one seems to be a popular fixation on the image of the person, and violation of his solitude. This is such that a living myth emerges, and is propelled by a photo taken of him for the magazine Lire in 1985. The photo will be republished variously and frequently (423). It is also around this time that right-wing articles Blanchot wrote preceding and during the Second World War re-emerge, of which he takes full responsibility so many years later, referring to them as «detestable and inexcusable» (455).
Some truly fantastic commentary on Blanchot’s works are published by Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Sarah Kofman, Edmond Jabès, and others, as well. It is at times a shock, and at others a relief, to note both the rarity of commentary on his works—which today has amassed to a sizeable amount nonetheless—alongside what Maurice Nadeau underscores as the challenge of commenting on his works (417). Bident seems—and John McKeane echoes this sentiment in his afterword on Blanchot’s legacy and the evolution of studies of his works—that scholarship on Blanchot is fraught with missteps, and false confrontations.
McKeane’s translation of Bident’s critical biography is undoubtedly an important contribution to scholarship on Maurice Blanchot, provides a new opening particularly for English-speaking readers into his decidedly complex texts and their contexts. With this in mind, Blanchot’s legacy will remain an open-ended question. Bident provides particularly magnificent commentaries on Blanchot’s texts, and is deeply sensitive to his life—if admittedly one may take issue with his having done so too handily. It is in light of the more vociferous contemporary scholarship on Blanchot that the claim that one is misguided in mounting such an attack rings with a certain genuineness impossible to deny, and might be taken insofar as the re-emergence of a politic of writing seems to obscure engagement with his works. In any case, It will be a stimulating sight as Blanchot studies progress to open a space to contend with some of the most compelling and difficult concerns posed to us by existence and nothingness, the book to come and the book of absences, and the work or worklessness of community.
 Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography, trans. John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).
Kenosis and Transcendence
Below and Beyond the Appearing of God
Oliver O’Donovan deserves great credit for undertaking the painstaking work of translating Jean-Yves Lacoste’s La phénoménalité de Dieu: not only has relatively little of Lacoste’s work been translated into English compared to that of the other contemporary French authors working within the field of phenomenology of religion (e.g. Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, even Jean-Louis Chrétien); it also appears that the French edition is currently out of print, making this translation the only way most of us can access Lacoste’s nine essays on the way in which God can be brought within the scope of phenomenology. The project Lacoste sets out in these pages can perhaps most easily be understood as an attempt at correlating (paradoxically) God’s divinity with his phenomenality, or indeed his mode of being with his mode of appearing, and is in turn executed by correlating four pairs of related notions: (1) philosophy and theology; (2) transcendence and reduction; (3) experience and eschatology; and, finally, (4) love and knowledge.
Starting with the issue of philosophy and theology. Much ink has been spilled over whether the developments within French phenomenology at the end of the last century constitute an unwarranted theologisation of phenomenology, or rather its careful execution; indeed, the polemic is well-known and still ongoing. In this regard, however, it is worth noting that we are dealing here with a somewhat sui generis figure: at the time of his initial diagnosis of French phenomenology as having taken a ‘theological turn’, Dominique Janicaud explicitly excluded Lacoste from the group of authors who allowed phenomenology to swerve off the road of philosophy until it ended up in the ditch of theology. Nevertheless, Lacoste is not coy about the fact that his reflections do at least attempt “to surmount the division between philosophy and theology” (xi), or “to remove the boundary that has classically divided faith and reason, since its existence was always highly arbitrary” (82). Indeed, upon closer examination—one that is carried out in a sustained dialogue with Kierkegaard throughout the book—, that frontier appears to be missing altogether. As a result, Lacoste seeks to expose “the fluid character of philosophical work” (16), which it has in virtue of the fact that it can ask questions about anything, including divine realities. The point here is not, as Janicaud might put it, that philosophy is colonised or superseded by theology, for Lacoste too is weary of the ditch we risk ending up in if we leave behind philosophy altogether: “Disciplined conceptualization or description from which the philosophical element was eliminated would be bound to run aground” (16), he warns us. However, when a philosophical text, such as Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, deals with divine realities, such as salvation and sin, “we are not,” or no longer at least, “dealing with a philosophy that is merely philosophy, but with a philosophy pushed to the limit of its range, making sense of an eclectic mix of descriptions, hypotheses, and games that make it impossible to say precisely what is going on” (17), whether it is philosophy or indeed theology. It is often in extreme situations, where we are pushed to our limits, that we gain an awareness of what exactly the limits are, and thus only as such do we fully come into our own. Such is equally the case for philosophy and theology, Lacoste suggests: “In the Fragments we find ourselves on the frontiers of philosophy, not only of theology. Precise labelling is simply not allowed at this point, and we had better make up our minds that it doesn’t matter very much. The fluidity of philosophy can be a theoretical advantage as well as a drawback. It is on the frontiers of philosophy, perhaps, that we can learn what is finally at issue in philosophy, and may we not say the same for the frontiers of theology, too?” (18).
Despite Lacoste’s great emphasis on the question of the frontier demarcating philosophy from theology, he also declares that it ultimately does not matter. This is not as unintuitive as it may at first appear: precisely because the frontier is missing, the question of demarcation does not matter. We are simply free to proceed with thinking in all its fluidity, unencumbered by this methodological pseudo-question:
Here and there at the same time, or perhaps still here or already there, we can never be precise about our location. Dare we say that that is not a bad thing? (…) The present enquiries, pursued in ignorance of whether they are philosophical or theological, do not define themselves apart from the two methodological requirements of letting-appear and making-appear. (…) Whether philosophy or theology or both, our enquiry would not deserve the name of enquiry at all, if it did not make up its mind to ignore the frontiers and elicit appearances without prescribing them. To make frontiers is to break things up, and we do better not knowing where we are (x-xi).
This honesty is refreshing and certainly more dignified than, for example, Marion’s frantic but inevitably unsuccessful attempts at securing the exclusively philosophical status of his phenomenology. Essentially, the question of whether he is doing philosophy or theology is uninteresting to Lacoste; the point, rather, is that he is doing phenomenology: “From a phenomenological point of view there is no way of telling,” on what side of the frontier between philosophy and theology these studies fall, precisely because that frontier appears to be missing; yet, there is “probably no need to tell,” for, as phenomenologists, “all we want is a concept fit for the appearance” (ix). Whatever appears deserves to be described as such, without this being framed beforehand according to a frontier that itself does not. Hence, Lacoste concludes: “Phenomenology is frontier-free—it is one of its advantages” (xi).
So, the question for Lacoste then concerns the phenomenality of God, that is to say, the mode of his appearance. This brings us to our second pair of concepts in need of correlation: transcendence and reduction. Whenever one asks how God may be made the theme of phenomenology, someone is bound to pipe up and answer that he simply cannot be, precisely because the divine, as transcendent reality, falls under the reduction, and must thus be excluded from the phenomenologist’s field of view. The phenomenologist would be out of bounds, would have veered off the road and ended up in some kind of ditch, if he were to depend on anything that is not contained within the immanence of consciousness as delivered by phenomenological reduction. Lacoste tackles this challenge by starting from the observation that “a comprehensive experience of an object is possible only if an infinite experience is possible” (21), which of course means that a comprehensive experience is impossible since experience is precisely a function of finitude. It is the adumbrational character of sensory perception that Lacoste uses to argue that there is always already transcendence at the heart of every experience, namely the transcendence of what is not experienced in experience precisely in virtue of its character as experience: “Every perceptual experience,” he says, “invites us to recognize that it is fragmentary, and that what is presented here and now is transcended” (25). Indeed, this is not only true in exceptional cases, but forms a general “law of the logic of experience. Stated briefly, perceptual experience has to do with phenomena and non-phenomena at the same time. More economically still, perception has to do with the unperceived” (22-23). So, God’s transcendence need not, at least not a priori, exclude his phenomenality; for transcendence appears to be a characteristic of all appearing, which always transcends itself as appearance insofar as it appears. As such, “the appearing of God,” especially, “can only be understood in the light of his transcendence of appearing” (38). His mode of appearing involves a movement beyond appearing as such. As a result, Lacoste puts forward the concept of the irreducible, of which phenomenology “can offer no correct description (…) without recognizing its radical externality” (58), without knowing “that it cannot exclude the transcendent reality of what it describes” (60). In short, it forms “an experience that could not be described without acknowledging the irreducibility of everything to do with it: that is the sort of experience which the advent of God to consciousness would need to be” (63). God is such an experience, for he cannot be experienced without this experience being co-extensive with a belief in his existence, he cannot appear without this appearing being co-extensive with a love of God. As such, Lacoste tries to correlate divinity with phenomenality, God’s mode of being with his mode of appearing, and precisely this is a phenomenological question (indeed, strictly so). Hence, he concludes that “phenomenology cannot be faithful to its project without recognizing the irreducible” (58).
Precisely because a comprehensive experience is not possible in virtue of the fact that transcendence characterises all experience, because God transcends his appearing precisely insofar as he comes to appearance, because “experience is tied to inexperience” at all times (118); “we should be satisfied with a radically non-eschatological presence,” or, put differently, “presence is not parousia” (36). This, Lacoste suggests, means we need to correlate experience to eschatology: for it implies, first of all, that the eschaton is not a question of experience, since experience cannot be completely realised by definition (“no experience is comprehensive, no presence can be taken for a parousia, enjoyment must not suppose itself in total possession” (131)); and, secondly, that phenomenology cannot be limited to the present now, for we do have meaningful experiences even if they are only partial (“experience may be wholly truthful without being whole and entire” (150)). The first is a crucial insight, according to Lacoste, for it leads us to “a conclusion of the greatest importance, implying an equally important imperative,” namely, that “God is never ‘given’” (150). It is hard not to read this as a profound critique of Marion’s “realized eschatology” (37) of intuitive givenness and it is worth quoting him at length on this: “But can the infinite be given? The suggestion seems preposterous,” for “‘seeing’ the infinite can only refer to vision of an inchoate character. No act of intuition could focus on infinity entire. Whatever we see, we know that our sight is at the same time and inescapably non-sight. Whatever is given us, we perceive only partially. But the interplay between sight and non-sight implies the promise of one day seeing differently and better. Perception may become richer, nearer to completion, but on no terms can a ‘vision’ of the infinite be thought of as actually complete. (…) Whatever the sense in which we ‘see’ the divine essence, it remains infinitely beyond sight” (148-149). Moreover, Lacoste continues, this thus means the following:
God cannot be given this side of death. If we are minded to stay with the language of vision, we can say that God ‘appears’ in the world without our intuition. There is nothing to be ‘seen.’ Giving makes its gift to faith, and faith cannot have the status of conclusive experience. Within the range of intuition visible things such as Christ’s historical body and his Eucharistic body are known as God’s self-giving only as we distinguish sensory intuition from the acquired intuition of faith. Sensory intuition on its own is misleading. Even when we have trained it to the evidences proper to objects of faith (which are not evidences of a theophany) the gift we perceive has the form of a promise, not to be taken as a last word. The appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples is a gift to sight, but not put at their disposal; it keeps its distance in conjunction with the promise of a definitive return. In the Eucharist Christ is seen through the medium of bread and wine, a medium that leaves us inevitably dissatisfied, desiring eschatological satisfaction which has no place in the world. (…) The infinite can be seen only in finite guise. But finite intuition of the infinite is no mere disappointment, and if we hold our experience of the gracious gift together with our experience of promise, we shall see why (149-150).
This is not a disappointment for there is always the promise of fulfilment, and with promise comes anticipation. Moving on to the second point to be made in relation to eschatology and experience, Lacoste explains that anticipation does not give the eschaton, nor does it bring it to experience; rather, it “merely announces or adumbrates it, giving us no more than a predonation or pre-experience of it” (128). For, even though “experience of the end is ruled out,” since such an experience transcends itself; it is nevertheless as that transcending that “pre-experiences of the end are not. Everyone will agree that God cannot be known in history as he will be known finally, since the eschaton suspends the logic of sacramental presence. But eschatological desire and expectation may take on ‘pre-eschatological’ forms within the limits of the world, which is simply to say that they point us beyond the limits of being-in-the-world while making no pretence to be more than pre-eschatological. The sacrament does not bring the eschaton about; it does serve as a predonation of it” (132). In this context, “anticipation appears without the pretence of a fulfilment, and puts no end within our grasp. Yet it appears as anticipation, as experience uncompleted and promise that draws us on to further experience. So all talk of anticipation must have in view the horizon of an end. The end may be given, the event take place as we anticipated, or it may not; the eschaton is distant” (133). Since “we cannot attribute an eschatological character to any of our present experiences” (168), Lacoste uses his notion of anticipation to develop a reworked phenomenology of time-consciousness. This framework he subsequently applies, in an impressive dialogue with analytic philosophy, to the problem of personal identity, correctly removing it from the metaphysical questioning of substance and placing it firmly within the context of a phenomenological enquiry concerning time.
How must we then deal with this “eschatological reserve” (150), inhibiting us from having an actual and clear experience of God, leaving us with the pre-experience delivered by anticipation? Here, Lacoste suggests, faith comes in; or, for it is coextensive with it, this is where love plays its role. This brings us to our final pair of concepts in need of correlation: knowledge and love, which in this case refers to the knowledge and love of God. In particular, Lacoste wants to expose what he calls “the logic of love,” or its “paradoxical priority over knowledge” (37), when it comes to divine realities. Phenomenology, Lacoste suggests, has traditionally had a bias in favour for what we might call ‘objects of knowledge’, which he describes as “compelling phenomena” (78). These are phenomena that give themselves, and thus impose themselves intuitively: “the object of sight, the intelligible proposition, the reality that cannot be ignored.” However, God is not given, he does not appear as such, and therefore also does not impose himself. Thus, Lacoste suggests, “if there is one thing the object of belief and the object of love have in common, it is the power to go unnoticed” (78). When it comes to divine realities, which are “intelligible only as open to love,” their “appearance takes the form of solicitation or invitation, not coercion. (…) Love would contradict its essence or intention if it used constraint in making its appearance” (75). The phenomenality of love makes an appeal to our freedom: it does not dictate its meaning through the violent imposition of intuition, but instead demands to be loved, inviting us to take a position for or against. What is at stake is “a reality that offers itself without imposing itself, an experience formed in the element of non-self-evidence,” precisely because it requires “a decision to see it” in order to be perceived at all (79). Lacoste illustrates this elegantly as follows: “Nothing is more common than perceiving or understanding without making up our mind. I perceive the ashtray on my desk without making up my mind, I see the conclusion of a logical argument without making up my mind, except that the logic is valid. But when the absolute intervenes, we have to make up our minds,” precisely because its intervention is not of the order of an ordinary appearance, which it always transcends in intervening. Indeed, Lacoste continues, “God does not appear like the Alps, huge and undeniable. He does not appear as the conclusion of an argument we are compelled to admit (…). God appears in such a way that we can make up our mind about him, for or against” (87).
God, that is to say his divinity, does not appear except in love and indeed as love: “He does not appear to be described, since there is nothing to describe, only a man like other men. He does not appear to be thought about, since the aim of his appearance is simply and solely to win man’s love. To make an appearance in order to win love, and for no other reason, the god must be present kenotically. He wills to be loved, not to dazzle. There is appearance, for there is presence, but this is not presence for thought, or even belief” (72). The phenomenality of God is a kenotic phenomenality, one that empties itself out of appearing as appearing. God’s phenomenality is not a question of appearing, but of the decision that sits below (kenosis) and thus its movement beyond (transcendence) appearing. Precisely in this way does Lacoste correlate God’s mode of being (transcendence) with his mode of appearing (inexperience): “God appears in presenting himself to be loved; God appears among the phenomena not subject to Husserl’s ‘eidetic reduction’” (ix).
Before ending this review, a word needs to be said about O’Donovan’s English language rendering of Lacoste’s book, for some of the choices he has made in translating it seem at least worth questioning. I wonder, in particular, whether the phenomenological force of Lacoste’s argument is not somewhat blunted by this translation. To be fair to him, O’Donovan admits at the outset that “every translation must have its priorities, and I had better admit that tenderness towards the conventions of the phenomenological school has not been high among mine” (vii). As a result, he does not, for example, reprise the distinct adjectives which English translators of Heidegger have rendered as existential and existentiell, the French equivalents of which Lacoste uses, for he considers it “an inaudible distinction I take to be no more than a mark on paper, not language” (vii). As inelegant as these renderings may be, these concepts nevertheless circulate and are in use as such (as Jean-Luc Nancy might say, they make sense). O’Donovan’s refusal to stick to this convention for the sake of not letting phenomenological terminology get into the way of argumentative clarity then seems to fall over itself at times, for example in the following passage: “Since theology is an ontic science, the relation of man to God will be ontic/idiomorphic (existentiel), not ontological/existential” (98). Does the clarity of Lacoste’s summary of Heidegger’s position benefit from the choice for idiomorphic rather than the more commonplace existentiell? I highly doubt it. It could, perhaps, only do so to a reader who is entirely unfamiliar with Heidegger and thus with this conceptual (not merely semantic) distinction. However, that this book would have many such readers seems unlikely. Especially in this case, where the passage at issue comes from an essay on Heidegger, the Heideggerian terminology is not incidental to the argument, and thus abstracting from that terminology does not serve that argument. The same goes for the general phenomenological terminology found throughout the book: as I explained, Lacoste himself suggests that he is not concerned with classifying these essays as either philosophy or theology; the point, for him, is that they are works of phenomenology. As such, neither is the phenomenological vocabulary incidental to argument, for the argument is a distinctly and explicitly phenomenological one. O’Donovan’s choice not to prioritise this vocabulary in his translation therefore seems odd, not to say entirely unjustified. Perhaps the most significant example of what is lost when we pay insufficient attention to phenomenological terminology is the title: the phrase the appearing of God is by no means the most obvious translation of la phénoménalité de Dieu. The English language has a word for phénoménalité, it is phenomenality. This is, indeed, a piece of phenomenological jargon, but like all subject-specific terminology, it carries a very precise meaning: in this case, phenomenality denotes not so much appearing, but rather the mode of appearing; not the fact or the content, but the how of appearing. Or, as Lacoste puts it himself in the preliminary to the nine essays: “Our problem is simply to describe and distinguish their different ways of appearing” (ix, original emphasis). As such, the choice to present this book as a work on the appearing of God out of a noble desire to avoid overly technical language, does not allow the argument to shine with its true brilliance; rather, it obscures it. In any case, this book is not so much about the appearing of God, for God cannot be said to appear but in a highly qualified sense; rather, it is about the way or the mode of his appearing, namely, kenotically, in and as love.
 Dominique Janicaud, ‘The Theological Turn in French Phenomenology’, trans. by B.G. Prusak in Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 1-103.
 The influence of Lacoste’s emphasis on the fluidity of thought when it comes to the missing frontier between philosophy and theology on Emmanuel Falque’s dictum that ‘the more we theologise, the better we philosophise’ seems unmistakable here. On this, see Falque’s Passer le Rubicon—Philosophie et théologie: Essai sur les frontiers (Bruxelles: Lessius, 2013); as well as his ‘Phénoménologie et théologie: Nouvelles frontières’ in Études, 404.2 (2006), 201-210.
 See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Présence et parousie (Paris: Ad Solem, 2006).
 It is worth noting here that a similar critique of Marion is articulated by Falque and John Caputo. On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘Phénoménologie de l’extraordinaire (J.-L. Marion)’ in Le Combat amoureux (Paris: Hermann, 2014), 137-193; John D. Caputo, ‘The Hyperbolization of Phenomenology: Two Possibilities for Religion in Recent Continental Philosophy’ in Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 67-93. For a commentary on these critiques, see my ‘Givenness and Existence: On the Possibility of a Phenomenological Philosophy of Religion’ in Palgrave Communications 4, Article number 127 (2018), 1-13.
 It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the choice for appearing rather than phenomenality was motivated by concerns of the publisher, rather than the translator. One can indeed imagine that this version would sell better and be of interest to a wider audience (particularly in Britain, where phenomenology, insofar as it is practiced here at all today, bears little resemblance to contemporary styles, interests and debates in France). However, if this is indeed the case, one would expect the translator to make the reader aware of the crucial importance of this distinction in his foreword. However, O’Donovan does not do this and indeed seems to simply wash his hands of the entire issue by declaring phenomenological precision not to be a priority in this case.
In their introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics, editors Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal immediately make clear that the volume differs in approach from other, similar guides to hermeneutics. Whereas there are a number of volumes available that offer histories of hermeneutics or treatments of individual hermeneutical theorists, this book focuses on the question of how hermeneutical issues relate to different fields of study, such as theology, literature, history and psychoanalysis. In this way, the authors aim to demonstrate how hermeneutical thinking thrives and develops through concrete interdisciplinary reflection.
The book opens with an article on “Hermeneutics and Theology,” written by Christoph Bultman. In this essay, Bultman offers a historical overview of different approaches to the interpretation of religious texts and focuses in particular on the various approaches that were developed and debated during the German Enlightenment. Although Bultman offers a clear overview of different approaches within biblical hermeneutics, to a certain extent his precise aim and argument remain unclear, with the central questions behind his overview not made explicit.
In an interesting contribution in the second chapter, Dalia Nassar focuses on the way in which the study of nature in the eighteenth century involved hermeneutical methods and insights that transformed the way in which we approach and represent the natural world. In her essay, “Hermeneutics and Nature,” Nassar directs attention to the ideas of Buffon, Diderot and, especially, Herder. Nassar starts her investigation by highlighting the fact that the emergence of a hermeneutics of nature that can be found in their works must be understood in light of the liberalization of science in the mid-eighteenth century. This liberalization meant that science was no longer understood as founded on mathematics, which led to the introduction of new modes of knowledge in scientific research. According to Nassar, one of the important ideas within the development of a hermeneutics of nature in the eighteenth century was Herder’s concept of a “circle” or a “world.” If we want to understand the structure of a bird or a bee, we should focus on their relationship to the environment or world. Instead of being devoted to classifying animals or other forms of life into different categories, Herder thus directs his attention to grasping the particular “world” a certain creature inhabits and to the way this world is reflected in the structure of its inhabitants. Interpreting nature thus implies seeing the parts in their relation to the whole and, in turn, seeing how the whole is manifest in the parts.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Romanticism,” Fred Rush focuses on the form that hermeneutics took in German Romanticism, and in particular in the works of Schlegel, Schleiermacher and Humboldt. It is in their works that hermeneutics becomes concerned explicitly with methodological questions. Rush sketches the historical and philosophical circumstances in which this turn comes about.
In his chapter on “Hermeneutics and German Idealism,” Paul Redding also focuses on the emergence of a philosophical hermeneutics in the wake of an era of post-Kantian philosophy. In particular, he explores the different stances taken by hermeneutical philosophers such as Hamann and Herder, and idealist philosophers such as Fichte and Hegel, towards the relation between thought and language. Particularly interesting is his reading of the later Hegel, in which he emphasizes that Hegel can be read not as the abstract metaphysician he is often seen to be but as a philosopher engaged with hermeneutical issues.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and History,” John H. Zammito explores the disciplinary self-constitution of history and the role of hermeneutics in that disciplinary constitution. Through this exploration, Zammito aims to show a way out of contemporary debates on the scientific status of disciplinary history. By investigating the views of Herder, Schleiermacher, Boeckh, Humboldt, Droysen and Dilthey, Zammito argues that the hermeneutical historicist’s attempt to give an account of the past is a cognitive undertaking and not a mystical one. The historian thus does not aim to relivethe past but to understand it. As Zammito’s exploration makes clear, such a view acknowledges the importance of the imagination in this practice, but at the same time ensures that this imagination is harnessed to interpretation, not unleashed fantasy.
Frederick C. Beiser also connects a contemporary debate to the period in which disciplinary history emerged. He starts his chapter on “Hermeneutics and Positivism” with the statement that the distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy has a harmful effect on many areas of philosophy and that one of worst affected areas is the philosophy of history. Beiser notes that, starting in the 1950s, there was a sharp rise in interest in the philosophy of history among analytic philosophers in the Anglophone world, but that these analytic discourses almost completely ignored the German historicist and hermeneutical tradition. The main cost of this, Beiser argues, has been the sterility and futility of much recent philosophical debate, and in particular the long dispute about historical explanation. The dispute has been between positivists, who defend the thesis that covering laws are the sole form of explanation, and their idealist opponents, who hold that there is another form of explanation in history. One of the reasons this debate has now ended in a stand-off can be found in the neglect of alternative perspectives, and in particular that of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition. Beiser argues that if these perspectives had been taken into account by analytic philosophers, they would have recognized that there are goals and methods of enquiry other than determining the covering laws. Had they done so, their focus of attention may have shifted in the more fruitful direction of investigating the methods of criticism and interpretation that are actually used by historians. Beiser therefore concludes that the philosophy of history in the Anglophone world would be greatly stimulated and enriched if it took into account these issues and the legacy of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition.
In the subsequent chapter, “Hermeneutics: Nietzschean Approaches,” Paul Katsafanas explores several key points of contact between Nietzsche and the hermeneutical tradition. As Katsafanas notes, Nietzsche is deeply concerned with the way in which human beings interpret phenomena, but also draws attention to the ways in which seemingly given experiences have already been interpreted. By highlighting these two aspects, Katsafanas argues that it is not wrong to characterize Nietzsche as offering a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur suggested, but that this statement can easily be misinterpreted. As Katsafanas notes, the hermeneutics of suspicion is often understood as a stance which discounts the agent’s conscious understanding of a phenomenon and instead uncovers the real and conflicting cause of that phenomenon. Nietzsche is clearly doing more than this. According to Nietzsche, the fact that a conscious interpretation is distorting, superficial or falsifying does not mean that it can be ignored. On the contrary, these interpretations are of immense importance, because they often influence the nature of the interpreted object.
The following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis,” also deals with one of the thinkers who Paul Ricoeur identified as developing a hermeneutics of suspicion, namely Sigmund Freud. In this chapter, Sebastian Gardner argues that there is an uneasy relationship between hermeneutics and Freud’s own form of interpretation. As Gardner shows, Freud may be regarded as returning to an early point in the history of hermeneutics, in which the unity of the hermeneutical project with the philosophy of nature was asserted. In line with this thought, which was abandoned by later hermeneutical thinkers, Freud can be seen as defending the idea that in order to make sense of human beings we must offer an interpretation of nature as a whole.
In “Hermeneutics and Phenomenology,” Benjamin Crowe explicates some of the fundamental insights and arguments behind the phenomenological hermeneutics developed by Heidegger and brought to maturity by Gadamer. Crowe shows how Heidegger opened up a radically new dimension of hermeneutical inquiry, because his conception of hermeneutics as a phenomenological enterprise intended to be a primordial science of human experience in its totality, and in this way took hermeneutics far beyond its traditional purview. By building on Heidegger’s approach, Gadamer developed this thought further, thinking through the distinctive role and value of humanistic inquiry in an age that prized exactitude and results above all else.
In “Hermeneutics and Critical Theory,” Georgia Warnke focuses on the critique of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics by Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, two thinkers from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Warnke starts her investigation by returning to Horkheimer’s description of critical theory and shows how these ideas form the basis of Habermas and Honneth’s philosophical framework. Taking Horkheimer’s framework as his starting point, Habermas seems to see many virtues in Gadamer’s philosophical ideas. Gadamer’s theory, for instance, begins with the social and historical situation, and in this way provides an alternative to the self-understanding of those forms of social science that assume they can extract themselves from the context. Habermas and Honneth nevertheless see Gadamer’s attitude to reflection as a problem, because his emphasis on the prejudiced character of understanding seems to give precedence to the authority of tradition and immediate experience instead of emphasizing the importance of reason and reflection. As Warnke shows, Gadamer’s response to this critique consists of showing that the dichotomies between reason and authority and between reflection and experience are not as stark as Habermas and Honneth suppose. We can, for instance, only question the authority of aspects of our tradition on the basis of other aspects, such as inherited ideals and principles that we do not question, just as we can only reflect on our experiences if we do not begin by distancing ourselves from them. Full transparency is therefore not possible.
In “Hermeneutics: Francophone Approaches,” Michael N. Forster focuses on the French contributions to hermeneutics during the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first part of the chapter, Foster argues that the roots of German hermeneutics were largely French. German hermeneutics, for example, arose partly as a response to certain assumptions of the Enlightenment, one of which was the Enlightenment’s universalism concerning beliefs, concepts, values and sensations, etc. According to Forster, this anti-universalism of German hermeneutics was largely a French achievement and was exported from France to Germany. In particular, Montaigne and the early Montesquieu and Voltaire had developed an anti-universalist position, which emphasized, for example, profound differences in mindset between different cultures and periods.
In the second part of the chapter, Forster focuses on some key figures within twentieth-century French philosophy who contributed to the development of hermeneutics, despite not describing themselves as hermeneutical thinkers. One of them is Jean-Paul Sartre, who gave a central role to interpretation in his early existentialism developed in Being and Nothingness, where he included what Forster calls a hermeneutical theory of radical freedom: although we do not create the world itself, we do create the meanings or interpretations through which we become acquainted with it.
Paul Ricoeur is the only French thinker Forster discusses who not only contributed to hermeneutics but also regarded himself as a hermeneutical thinker. Forster, however, does not seem to regard Ricoeur’s philosophy as very attractive. According to Forster, Ricoeur’s most important contribution to hermeneutics lies in his development of the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in this way drawing attention to the fact that three major philosophical developments in the nineteenth century, namely Marx’s theory of ideology, Nietzsche’s method of genealogy and Freud’s theory of the unconscious, can be classified as forms of hermeneutics. It is, however, somewhat strange that Forster does not give much attention to the way in which Paul Ricoeur, as the only philosopher he discusses who also regarded himself as working in the hermeneutical tradition, described his own philosophical project as a hermeneutical one. In particular, Ricoeur’s idea that understanding and explanationshould not be regarded as opposites but rather as being dialectically connected, perhaps deserved more attention.
In “Hermeneutics: Non-Western Approaches,” the topic of which is rich and broad enough to be the subject of a companion of its own, Kai Marchal explores the question of whether modern hermeneutics is necessarily a Western phenomenon. As Marchal points out, philosophers in Western academia only rarely examine reflections on interpretation from non-Western traditions. Marchal therefore offers a very short overview of some of the most important scholars and texts on interpretation from non-Western cultures, while at the same time pointing toward the problem that arises from the use of the word “non-Western,” insofar it refers to a multitude of cultures and worldviews which do not have much in common. Instead of presenting an overview of the different hermeneutical theories and practices around the globe, Marchal therefore focuses on one particular example: the history of Confucian interpretive traditions in China.
After this first part, Marchal changes the scope of his investigation and focuses on the possibility of a dialogue between Western and non-Western hermeneutics. As Marchal shows, Western hermeneutical thinkers from the eighteenth century, such as Herder and von Humboldt, engaged with non-Western thought and languages, while most representatives of twentieth-century hermeneutics highlighted the Greek roots of European culture and emphasized the idea that we are tied to this heritage. Many non-Western philosophers, however, have engaged with ideas that were formulated by Heidegger and Gadamer. Nevertheless, such non-Western philosophers often unfold their understanding of European philosophical problems in their own terms. Furthermore, they are encouraged to do so by Gadamer’s claim that understanding is necessarily determined by the past. Marchal concludes his short introduction to non-Western approaches to hermeneutics by emphasizing the value of engaging with hermeneutical thinkers from other traditions. This engagement may result in an awareness of the Other’s understanding of ourselves against the backdrop of their traditions, and even in becoming open to the possibility of a radically different outlook on things.
In a chapter on “Hermeneutics and Literature,” Jonathan Culler aims to answer the question of why the tradition of modern hermeneutics has not figured significantly in the study of literature. Culler starts his investigation by noting that in literary studies there is a distinction between hermeneutics and poetics: while hermeneutics asks what a given text means, poetics asks about the rules and conventions that enable the text to have the meanings and effects it does for readers. Poetics and hermeneutics therefore work in different directions: hermeneutics moves from the text toward a meaning, while poetics moves from effects or meanings to the conditions of possibility of such meanings. In his historical overview of literary criticism, Culler highlights two important evolutions that enable us to explain the absence of modern hermeneutics within contemporary literary studies. The first is the revolution in the concept of literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this period, the concept of literature as mimesis shifted to a concept of literature as the expression of an author. Although this means literary criticism no longer assesses works in terms of the norms of genres, of verisimilitude and appropriate expression, most discussion of literature nevertheless remains evaluative rather than interpretive. The change in the conception of literature, however, also inspired German thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher to propose a general hermeneutics, as opposed to the special hermeneutics that had focused on biblical or Classical texts. Once the mimetic model of literature is displaced by an expressive model, Culler writes, the question of what a work expresses also arises.
The arguments about what kind of meaning a work might be taken to embody or express seldom draws on this hermeneutical tradition. One of the reasons for this is the second evolution that Cullers highlights, which occurred in the twentieth century when hermeneutics itself changed. Modern hermeneutical thinkers such as Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer shifted their focus to the understanding of understanding. In this way, their hermeneutical theories offer little guidance on interpretation or in distinguishing valid interpretations from invalid ones.
In “Hermeneutics and Law” Ralf Poscher starts from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s claim that hermeneutics in general could learn from legal hermeneutics. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer about what exactly can be learned. As Poscher summarizes, Gadamer thought that what could be learned from the law is that an element of application must be integrated into the concept of interpretation. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer’s idea that hermeneutics is a monistic practice consisting of interpretation, and he argues that what can be learned from law is that hermeneutics is a set of distinct practices that are of variable relevance to different hermeneutical situations. Poscher develops this thought by exploring the different hermeneutical activities in which a lawyer must engage when applying the law to a given case, such as legal interpretation, rule-following, legal construction and the exercise of discretion, and he highlights the important distinctions between these different means for the application of the law to a specific case. To prove the point that hermeneutics is not a monistic practice but rather a complex whole of different practices applicable to hermeneutics in general, Poscher draws some minor parallels between the different hermeneutics applied in law and in art. These parallels are often very clear, although the fact that they are often reduced to brief remarks means that Poscher does not really engage with debates on the interpretation of art. Nevertheless, these remarks do indicate that such a profound comparison between legal hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of art could be an interesting subject for further investigation.
In the final chapter, “Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,” Kristin Gjesdal explores the question of how best to conceive of the relationship between philosophy and other sciences through the lens of hermeneutical theory and practice. Gjesdal reveals that different responses can be given to the question of what hermeneutics is, and she explores the various answers. First, she outlines the Heideggerian-Gadamerian conception of hermeneutics, in which philosophy is identified with hermeneutics and hermeneutics is identified with ontology. According to Gjesdal, this tendency is concerning because it takes no interest in the different challenges emerging from within the different areas of the human sciences, nor does it acknowledge different subfields of philosophy or textual interpretation. When looking for an answer to the question of how the relationship between hermeneutics and the human sciences might be understood, an investigation of hermeneutics in its early, Enlightenment form, seems to be more fruitful, Gjesdal argues. Through such an investigation, Gjesdal shows that hermeneutical thinkers such as Herder, Schleiermacher and Dilthey combined an interest in hermeneutical theory with hermeneutical practice and in this way can be seen as an inspiration to explore our understanding of the relationship between philosophy and the other sciences. Philosophy would then no longer be seen as the king among the sciences, and our thinking about the relationship between philosophy and the human sciences would start with a more modest attitude and a willingness not simply to teach but also to learn from neighboring disciplines.
It is clear that for a large share of the contributions to this companion, the history of hermeneutics itself and the way in which this history has been constructed by later hermeneutical thinkers is under investigation, leading to new insights into contemporary debates. In this way, this companion as a whole can be seen as engaging with the question of what hermeneutics is, with the various approaches leading to the formulation of different answers to this question. Furthermore, the different readings of the history of hermeneutics also means that a number of contributions go beyond the traditional understanding of hermeneutics, drawing attention to thinkers who are not commonly associated with the field. In this way, the approach to hermeneutics does not remain limited to an investigation of the works and ideas of those thinkers who are generally understood as belonging to the hermeneutical tradition, which also makes the relevance of hermeneutical thinking to diverse contemporary disciplines and debates more apparent. Although the diverse contributions to this companion engage with the fundamental question of what hermeneutics is in different ways, this book as a whole will probably not serve as a good introduction for someone who is not already familiar with philosophical hermeneutics and its history to some extent. Some of the contributions are successful in offering the reader a clear introduction to the subject and discipline they discuss, but this is not always the case, with some authors presupposing a lot of prior knowledge on the subject. Nevertheless, for those already familiar with the subjects discussed, several contributions to this companion will offer the reader fruitful insights and perhaps provoke thought that invites further research.