Mahon O’Brien: Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy

Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy Book Cover Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy
Mahon O'Brien
Rowman & Littlefield International
2020
Paperback $19.99
140

Reviewed by: Christos Hadjioannou (University of Cyprus)

Introductions are historical pieces of work conditioned by the tendencies and urgencies of the moment, and that means they need to be rewritten again and again. Still, one might be excused for thinking that the world doesn’t need another introduction to Heidegger. After reading O’Brien’s excellent book, though, one will be convinced otherwise. Accessible and intellectually honest, this critical introduction to Heidegger’s life and works is a timely contribution to the field, which I recommend highly to beginners as well as specialists.

Today, undergraduates and other first-time readers of Heidegger do not come to his works empty-handed. We can assume that most of them have been exposed to “the Heidegger controversy.” Preserving Heidegger’s legacy requires addressing that controversy. O’Brien is therefore wise not to bypass it, but instead tell the story of Heidegger’s thought partly against that political backdrop. Nor does the book pretend to offer a guide to Heideggerian philosophical concepts from a “neutral standpoint.” It is a polemical introduction, taking a stand on the political issues as well as important interpretive questions that haunt Heidegger scholarship.

In his preface, O’Brien clarifies what he takes to be uncontroversial about Heidegger’s works, and what remains contentious to this day. Instead of painting a sacrosanct picture, he thematizes the controversies and presents a nuanced picture—one that cancels out neither the controversies and weaknesses in Heidegger’s thought, nor the immense value of Heidegger’s philosophical insights.

O’Brien identifies two extreme positions in Heidegger interpretation and rejects the squabble between them as a false dilemma. One position holds that Heidegger is “the greatest scourge to have afflicted academic philosophy,” while to the other, he is “the most important philosopher to have emerged from the Western tradition since Hegel” (ix). O’Brien offers an interpretation that accepts a version of both positions. He argues that while it is undeniable that Heidegger’s association with National Socialism was neither brief not incidental to his thought, and that his commitment to it was based on some of the core elements of his magnum opus, Being and Time (BT), this does not justify “the extirpation of Heidegger’s thought from the canon” (ibid.). Heidegger’s impact remains profound, and striking him from the canon obliterates his intellectual achievements and makes it impossible to explain the origin of subsequent thinkers, who were influenced by him. But O’Brien also warns against the extreme devotion displayed by some commentators, who are “guilty of all kinds of intellectual acrobatics and apologetics in an attempt to rehabilitate Heidegger’s image” (xi). He vows to avoid such misplaced loyalty, which risks alienating prospective readers of Heidegger “who will eventually learn for themselves that Heidegger was a Nazi and a selfish, arrogant egomaniac to boot” (ibid.).

In Chapter One, entitled “Ways Not Works,” O’Brien addresses Heidegger’s methodology and influences, and takes a clear stand on the Kehre debate, which concerns the relationship between the early and later works. Although this issue is decisive in determining what narrative is offered not only regarding the late works but most crucially regarding BT, it is often set aside in introductory texts. O’Brien warns against the two extremes that see either radically disjointed efforts over the course of his oeuvre or an overt systematicity. Instead, he supports the so-called “continuity thesis,” which finds unity across the Heidegger corpus. Thus he sees Heidegger’s work as “a continuous, evolving, if not entirely seamless, enterprise” (xi). Invoking Heidegger’s maxim “ways not works”, O’Brien presents his oeuvre as a series of attempts at thematizing the question of the meaning of being (2-3), which question he addressed most rigorously in BT. This approach helps us appreciate the reasons why Heidegger moved beyond that central work without ever actually rejecting it. O’Brien’s narrative thus rejects a distinction between “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II,” and counters the assumption that the later works are incompatible with the earlier (5).

O’Brien also does a fine job in this chapter of acknowledging the most important influences on Heidegger’s work without giving a reductive account that denies his philosophical originality. As he argues, Heidegger’s work cannot be categorized under any of the movements that influenced him. Nonetheless, O’Brien identifies Husserl’s phenomenology as having exerted the most influence on his early thought.

Chapter 2, “Early Life,” covers the most significant biographical information with bearing on Heidegger’s philosophical ideas (and is actually not confined only to his early years), including his attempts at a political philosophy. What is crucial to take away from this chapter is the connection between Heidegger’s philosophical confrontation with modernism and his sense of belonging to his native region and its heritage. O’Brien argues that Heidegger himself made it “very clear that the biographical details of his own life […] were crucial to an understanding of the manner in which his thinking developed” (8). Accordingly, he relates the basic facts about Heidegger’s upbringing and family: his father’s vocational connection to the Catholic Church, and his many ties to the countryside and peasant communities, including his mother’s farming background. Thus he contextualizes Heidegger’s distrust of city life and cosmopolitanism (9), which he associated with inauthenticity.

O’Brien draws attention to the interpretive difficulty that hampers any serious attempt to distinguish between those of Heidegger’s philosophical discoveries that resulted from honest thinking, and ideas he espoused disingenuously, ad hoc, in order to justify his private proclivities. It is challenging to identify and appreciate some of Heidegger’s important philosophical ideas on their own merit when he himself attaches them to ridiculous personal views. As a result, some interpreters end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater (12), allowing these associations to discredit profound insights.

In the chapter, O’Brien does not shy away from commenting on Heidegger’s bad personality traits, such as his feigned humility, his extraordinary arrogance and pretentiousness, his serious messiah complex, as well as his philandering (12). The chapter closes with references to his wife Elfride’s antisemitism and nationalism, and shows that also Heidegger himself was fiercely nationalistic (14).

Chapter 3, “Rumours of the Hidden King,” tracks Heidegger’s intellectual development from the early Freiburg period, when he served as Husserl’s teaching assistant, to his years lecturing at Marburg, in the early 1920s. Once he took up employment at Marburg, Heidegger begun formulating his own ideas and themes, moving away from neo-Kantianism and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, and recognizing “the importance of time as history for the philosophical project he wished to inaugurate” (21).

One topic stands out in this chapter: Heidegger’s break from Husserlian phenomenology. Here the book’s characterizations of Heidegger’s person are again harsh: O’Brien claims that while Heidegger was indeed at one point deeply inspired by Husserl, nevertheless he “carefully choreographed” the impression that Husserl was his mentor, dedicating BT to him as part of a “calculated piece of manipulation designed to win the favour of one of the most important and influential philosophical voices in Germany at the time” (19).

Chapter 4, “The Hidden King Returns to Freiburg,” is the longest and most important chapter of the book. Here, O’Brien discusses BT and tries to properly contextualize its main arguments in relation to the entire corpus. Discussing the structure of BT, O’Brien analyzes its incompleteness in terms of both philosophical motivations and purely professional-strategic ones. He finds a deep consistency between the projected (missing) second part of BT with the work of his later period. Proponents of the discontinuity thesis, he argues, misinterpret the idea of a “turn” (Kehre), supposing that the new approach and language characteristic of Heidegger’s later texts represent a “reversal,” a “turning away from” and thus a repudiation of BT. But on the contrary, O’Brien points out, the later works constantly invoke BT in order to explain key developments. Heidegger himself recommended that the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics (IM), be read “as a companion piece to Being and Time” (30). While the later works are not reducible to the earlier, still “Heidegger never fully relinquishes some of the key ideas that he was developing in Being and Time” (28).

Having made his case for continuity, O’Brien is free to turn to important texts that postdate BT in order to clarify some of the latter’s central arguments. Interpreting BT as a book that tries to address the ontologically suppressed interplay of presence and absence, O’Brien refers to the 1949 introduction to “What Is Metaphysics?” (WM) (1929) in order to clarify the purpose that animates BT, which is none other than “to prepare an overcoming of metaphysics” (33). According to Heidegger, the meaning of being as traditionally understood in philosophy privileges presence, something which O’Brien says “distorts the nature of reality for us and indeed our own self-understanding” (30). Part of what Heidegger tries to do is challenge the prejudice that the word “being” and its cognates mean that something exists or is present (ibid.). In fact, when we say that things “are,” “it is not clear that that means that they exist as fully present or actualised before us” (32).

In WM, Heidegger would blame this “metaphysics of presence” for misrepresenting the way we actually experience the world (33). WM’s discussion of nothingness targets the principle of non-contradiction, O’Brien says—a principle “routinely invoked to dismiss all talk of the nothing as simply wrong-headed, illogical, unscientific, in short, as contradictory” (34). The tradition has decided in advance that being reduces to presence and that it itself is not nothing. According to O’Brien, this treatment of nothingness is anticipated early on in BT, specifically in the account of moods as the site which throws open the interplay of presence and absence (34). “Heidegger returns to and defends this idea in 1929, in 1935 and again in his 1940’s introduction and postscript to the 1929 lecture [WM]” (ibid.). Heidegger, O’Brien writes, is trying to show that “traditional approaches miss out on all of the possibilities inherent in what we ‘mean’ when we say that a [an entity] is here, or there, or is something or other” (39). Being means possibility—a multiplicity of possibilities—and although beings stand in Being, they never overcome the possibility of not-Being, something that the philosophical tradition has missed by conceiving being in terms of continuous presence. As O’Brien explains, “[w]hat is suppressed is the role that absence or nothingness plays in our experience and how most of our experience involves a constant interplay of presence and absence” (40).

O’Brien concedes that the existential analytic of Dasein does tend toward anthropocentrism or an excessive prioritization of human subjectivity, but he draws attention to the methodological reasons that led Heidegger to begin with Dasein. Heidegger was convinced that “a new brand of phenomenology, unencumbered with the transcendental baggage of the later Husserl, was the appropriate method, while recognizing that time (or temporality) should be central to any attempt to begin to investigate the meaning of being” (42). Rather than “beginning with some abstract theory or idea, Heidegger insisted that we should begin with ordinary, everyday existence, before any abstractions” (ibid.).

In the same chapter, O’Brien also critically responds to realist readings of Heidegger’s late work, which—as he convincingly argues—rely on a misreading of BT. Without attributing to Heidegger the view that Dasein actively creates meaning, O’Brien disagrees that the meaning of being subsists in the absence of Dasein. He clarifies that Heidegger does not deny that entities exist “out there,” only that their meaning (i.e. the phenomenological “world”) exists independently of Dasein. Here the analysis would benefit from a reference to Taylor Carman’s work, whose use of the term “ontic realism” could help O’Brien consolidate his position further.[1]

In the rest of the chapter, O’Brien offers an eloquent explication of the basic structures of Dasein as presented in BT, without ever becoming tiresome or overly technical. Thus he explains how “understanding” works in terms of projects and possibilities, how “affectivity” (Befindlichkeit) works in terms of moods in which we already find ourselves, and how “falling” works in terms of understanding being as presence.

As regards the focus on death in BT, O’Brien argues that Heidegger is not interested in the actual event of death per se, but rather in the fact that our manner of understanding everything in the world around us is conditioned by our own finitude (47). Heidegger wants to move from the metaphysics of presence to an ontology which reckons with the role that absence or nothingness plays in the meaning of a thing’s being (48).

Chapter 5 is entitled “The 1930s – Politics, Art and Poetry.” The chapter begins with Heidegger’s so-called “linguistic turn,” in which the poetic use of language in particular emerged as a key concern. While some commentators see Heidegger’s focus on language, and particularly his preoccupation with Hölderlin’s poetry during the 1930s and 40s, as a shift away from the project of BT, O’Brien argues that if we remain faithful to the fact that BT is about the meaning of Being, then there’s no surprise in the linguistic turn. In my opinion, O’Brien’s thesis here would benefit from a reference to Heidegger’s early notion of “formal indication,” which is also a precursor to poetic language.

Next O’Brien turns to Heidegger’s linguistic chauvinism, which he argues contributed to shaping his political views. Heidegger believed that German and Ancient Greek were philosophically superior languages that could grasp the world in the origin of its being, and that other languages, such as French and English, were philosophically destitute (57). O’Brien brings up the worrisome recurrence of Heidegger’s prejudice about a supposed inner affinity between Germany and Ancient Greece. He also discusses Heidegger’s intense criticism of “everything in the Western tradition that has led to modernity and eventually the age of technology” (60). It is in this context, argues O’Brien, that Judaism is thrown “into the melting pot along with everything else that he sees as a consequence of the history of the metaphysics of presence, a metaphysics which he believes the German people alone can overcome” (ibid.).

One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when O’Brien questions whether Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity is really as unique as we have been taught to think. Thus he calls for an excavation and identification of the sinister and at times disappointingly derivative motivations behind ideas that many have taken to be unique features of Heidegger’s critique (60-61). Some aspects of Heidegger’s critique of modernity, O’Brien says, are but “a variant on what were ultimately a series of stock antisemitic prejudices that proliferated in Germany from the late 1700s onwards” (59). In some of the most nationalistic and antisemitic remarks to be found in the 1933-1934 seminar Nature, History, State, Heidegger argues that for Slavic people, German space would be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to Germans, and that to “Semitic nomads” it would “perhaps never be revealed at all” (62). O’Brien argues that these attempts to relate philosophical views to a renewal of German spiritual and cultural life under National Socialism can be registered under a certain tradition to which also Fichte belonged (ibid.). Yet Heidegger’s conviction that this “revolution” must be based on key elements of his own philosophical vision, i.e. the attempt to overcome the metaphysics of presence and the inauguration of a new beginning which was specifically tied to the destiny of the German people, makes him stand out in this tradition. Heidegger was “as naïve as he was megalomaniacal” (63), O’Brien says, while reminding us not to dismiss the philosophy just because of the political ends the philosopher thought it could serve.

The final part of the chapter turns to the topic of art and follows Heidegger’s engagement with Hölderlin’s poetry in his 1934 lectures, as well as his 1935-1936 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” According to O’Brien, Heidegger was keen to distance his discussion of the origin of art from any conventional aesthetics, and previous analyses of this work have overlooked how Heidegger situates his treatment of art within his larger political vision. Invoking the unique destiny of the German people, Heidegger identifies Hölderlin as the poet the Germans must heed in order to foster an authentic happening, a new political and cultural beginning (65).

In chapter 6, “The Nazi Rector,” O’Brien addresses the apogee of the “Heidegger controversy”: his involvement with Nazi politics and his rectorship at the University of Freiburg. His appointment as rector came as a complete surprise to his students, the Jewish ones included, because as far as they were concerned, “there had been nothing in his demeanor or attitude to that point to suggest that he might be sympathetic to Nazism” (71). On the other hand, argues O’Brien, it’s unlikely that Heidegger happened upon his political allegiances overnight in 1933 (71). He draws attention to the fact that Heidegger reportedly read and was impressed by Mein Kampf, and that he held  antisemitic and reactionary views from early on (ibid.). Thus on O’Brien’s view, the Black Notebooks only confirm previously available evidence that Heidegger was an antisemite who thought he could articulate antisemitic views from within his own philosophical framework.

The whole controversy, argues O’Brien, “should have and could have been dealt with comprehensively and exhaustively a long time ago” (74). He identifies two key factors that contributed to the unnecessary protraction of the whole issue: firstly, the drip-feeding of problematic texts, which created the impression that further revelations, which might complicate the picture, were continuously underway; secondly, the fact that the most critical voices were philosophically weak or obviously biased, resulting in a superficiality that “managed to conceal the deep underlying philosophical questions which must be put to Heidegger’s thought” (ibid.). The chapter offers a critical review of the most influential books on Heidegger’s Nazism, analyzing their scope and breadth and ideological bents, and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Here, O’Brien shows his prowess, and demonstrates an excellent grasp of the topic.

As regards the political philosophy, O’Brien argues that Heidegger was not a bloodthirsty biological racist, but an archconservative and traditionalist “prone to some rather bizarre provincialist notions which he sought to justify philosophically” (74). Heidegger unsuccessfully tried to marry his own provincialism with a philosophical antimodernism and ethnic chauvinism, thinking this political philosophy was the way to resist the growing dominion of technology (74-75). O’Brien’s verdict is that Heidegger failed to articulate a coherent political philosophy, “owing in part to the fact that his philosophy doesn’t really admit to being employed in the manner in which he wants to use it” (75). O’Brien also finds that Heidegger’s flawed character must have played a role in his stint with National Socialism (76).

Chapter 7, “Return from Syracuse,” covers the period following his banishment from teaching after the denazification proceedings, especially his philosophical output of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It discusses Heidegger’s musings on language, poetry and technology, specifically his analysis of technology, of releasement (Gelassenheit) and the notion of “appropriation/enownment” (Ereignis) (79). While in chapter 5, O’Brien argued that some aspects of Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity might not be as original as initially thought, here he argues against a reductionist misapprehension that his work on technology is simply a symptom of his antimodernism (80). Instead, he says, Heidegger’s essay on technology stands today as the single most important philosophical work on some of the issues concerning the philosophical age we live in (81).

Turning to the Bremen lectures, O’Brien offers a nuanced analysis of the infamous “Agriculture Remark.” The point of the remark, he argues, is not to liken the Holocaust with the harvesting of grain, as some commentators have suggested, nor is Heidegger arguing that agricultural methods are morally equivalent to genocide. What interests him is the role that the essence of technology (Enframing) has figured into everything that has taken place in the twentieth century, including genocide, war and agriculture (82).

Next O’Brien discusses “The Question Concerning Technology”—a good text for a first-time reader of Heidegger to begin with, he says, because in this essay Heidegger touches upon most of his fundamental concepts and views, such as “equipmentality,” “publicness”, das Man, etc. (83). Here, O’Brien’s continuity thesis is on full display, as he argues that Heidegger’s worries about technology are already hinted at in BT: “it is clear that Heidegger’s thinking about technology was there in embryonic form in Being and Time” (85).

O’Brien interprets Heidegger’s critique of (the essence of) technology as a critique of eliminativism, i.e. a critique of positivist approaches that posit that classes of entities which do not fall within the horizon of their investigation do not exist (89). The problem of Enframing is its eliminative character, namely that it is a mode of revealing that governs the way beings come to presence. Other forms of revealing, like poetry, are necessary in order to “allow people to see things coming to presence in ways other than what is rather aggressively demanded by Enframing” (93). O’Brien then discusses “releasement” (Gelassenheit) as the appropriate comportment of human beings that will enable such a non-eliminative, pluralist disclosure of beings, and closes the chapter by contextualizing Enframing in the history of Being (94). Acquainted as I am with O’Brien’s earlier books,[2] I think he could have spent a few more paragraphs elaborating in greater detail how Gelassenheit relates to Entschlossenheit and the project of dismantling of the ontology of presence.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Heidegger ‘Abroad’.” This is a rather short chapter that breaks up into three sections. The first covers Heidegger’s remarkable success on the French intellectual scene, especially among the existentialists, and gives some historical context to that success. The second concerns Heidegger’s relation to Eastern thought and covers his interactions with a number of Eastern intellectuals, briefly also referring to the body of secondary literature devoted to the intersection between Heidegger’s philosophy and Eastern traditions. The third section covers the impact his thought has had in the United States.

Chapter 9, “The Final Years,” is only three pages long, and provides biographical details of the peaceful and happy years at the end of Heidegger’s life. It notes that he faced his own death with a certain “grace and serenity” (109), and that in the end he arranged a Christian burial for himself after all.

In the tenth and final chapter, “Heidegger’s Legacy,” O’Brien sums up his verdict as regards the “Heidegger controversy.” The recent publication of the Black Notebooks refuelled the controversy, O’Brien says, because it discredited Heidegger’s own “official story” about his association with National Socialism. Heidegger was a committed Nazi and an antisemite who “tried zealously to use some of his core elements of his thought to articulate a philosophy of National Socialism, for a period of time at least” (111). However, Heidegger’s own “political vision was ultimately at quite a remove from historical National Socialism, and he clearly became more and more disillusioned with the regime from the mid-1930s onwards” (ibid.). O’Brien reiterates his own position against other interpretations, insisting that despite claims made even by Heidegger himself, he did try to offer a political philosophy, and deep inside believed “he could be the spiritual and philosophical Führer of an awakening in Germany that would change the course of history in Europe and the Western world in general” (112).

In addition to the political controversy, Heidegger’s legacy is entangled in another controversy, argues O’Brien, namely the divide between analytic and continental philosophy. In analytic circles, “Heidegger is often portrayed as the arch-villain for having led philosophy astray through his promotion of ambiguity, imprecision, a lack of rigour and the proliferation of jargon, mysticism and bad poetry masquerading as philosophical profundity” (114). O’Brien defends Heidegger’s writing style, arguing that the subject itself demanded such a style, but lambasts those “disciples” who try to imitate Heidegger’s style simply because they themselves are unable to write more clearly.

O’Brien ends the book by reflecting on the future of Heidegger studies, saying that it is difficult to foretell what course it will take. He believes that the Heidegger controversy “is only truly beginning, as scholars face squarely the question of how to read the texts of a thinker whose work, while not reducible to National Socialism, was nevertheless twisted and manipulated in various ways owing to his own belief that a happy union could be forged between his own thought and the new awakening in Germany which he initially saw as an underlying possibility of National Socialism” (115).

References

Carman, Taylor. 2003. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2011. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2015. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2020. Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy. London and New   York: Rowman & Littlefield.


[1] See Carman, Taylor. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[2] See O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum, 2011; O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Bernard E. Harcourt: Critique and Praxis, Columbia University Press, 2020

Critique and Praxis Book Cover Critique and Praxis
Bernard E. Harcourt
Columbia University Press
2020
Hardback $40.00 £34.00
696

Aspen Brinton: The Confronting Totalitarian Minds: Jan Patocka on Politics and Dissidence, Karolinum Press, 2020

The Confronting Totalitarian Minds: Jan Patocka on Politics and Dissidence Book Cover The Confronting Totalitarian Minds: Jan Patocka on Politics and Dissidence
Aspen Brinton
Karolinum Press, Charles University
2020
Paperback $20.00
430

Michel Foucault: Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972

Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972 Book Cover Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972
Michel Foucault, Lectures at the Collège de France
Michel Foucault. Translated by Burchell, G.
Palgrave Macmillan
2019
Hardback 40,65 €
XXIX, 322

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Penal Theories and Institutions contains the lectures delivered by Foucault in his second-year tenure at the College de France (1971-2). It is also the last volume of this series, concluding a publication cycle of close to twenty years. The publication of Foucault’s lectures started mid-way with the 1976 course and then proceeded sideways, preventing us from grasping the development of his thought during the last fifteen years of his life.

Foucault did not prepare his lectures for publication, and their initial publication in 1997 was initially considered a transgression to Foucault’s last wishes for his posthumous writings not to be published. However, the proliferation of unauthorized versions of the lectures, based on transcriptions from audio recordings of unequal quality, decided the family and friends to allow their publication.  After the first tentative publications, a sophisticated protocol developed. First, the editors give priority to the transcription of Foucault’s oral teaching. Any additions, such as materials from the preparatory notes, and bibliographical references, are dealt with as footnotes.  The editor’s additions and amplifications are recorded in the endnotes. Foucault’s summary published yearly in the Yearbook of the College is then printed.  A general introductory essay, with the title “situation du cours” follows, which provides contextual information for Foucault’s lectures.  Finally, a detailed index of names mentioned and of concepts. While this is the general model for each one of the publications of the lectures, there are some variations.

In the case of Theories and Penal Institutions (thereafter: TPI), there are no extant recordings. Therefore, the editors had to use Foucault’s preparatory notes. This volume also makes more use of additional materials from Foucault’s unpublished papers than previous volumes.  In addition to the ‘Course Context’ essay, this one includes two interpretative essays, one by É. Balibar and the other by Claude-Olivier Doron that provides context for the lectures. Doron was also responsible for the endnotes, which provide useful bibliographical information and also excerpts from the preparatory materials.

François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana refer in their introduction to the problems faced in the preparation of this volume. First, the lack of recordings required them to work directly with Foucault occasionally cryptic and tentative notes, which sometimes leave us wondering about Foucault’s intentions. To clarify those, the editors decided to bring as footnotes text that Foucault crossed out in his preparatory notes. An additional difficulty signaled by the editors is specific for the translated text, insofar as Foucault refers to old and today little-known French institutions and practices.

The English version includes an introduction by Arnold I. Davidson, a distinguished scholar of Foucault’s work.  He enjoins us to ‘read everything,’ i.e., to forget the hierarchy between a binding statement by Foucault, and the more tentative reflections contained in his sprawling archives. Ultimately, what Davidson is evoking is the tension between a scholastic effort to reconstruct Foucault’s corpus and a more creative appropriation of his insights. The latter is, according to Davidson, closer to Foucault’s thought, which Davidson labels as ‘atopos,’ unclassifiable according to the academic standards (xxvii).

The course itself consists of thirteen lectures, which we can divide into three groups. Lectures one through seven, deal with the emergence in the 17th century of the absolutist State with its specialized institutions. Lectures eight to twelve deal with Germanic law, which preceded the absolutist one, and finally, in lecture thirteen, Foucault addresses the question of the ‘knowledge effects’ of the newly instituted penal practice that emerges from the feudal order.  This last lecture connects with the subject-matter of the previous year, and more in general, with Foucault’s long-standing interest in the emergence of the human sciences.

Lecture One starts establishing the subject matter of the course and its methodology. The subject is to study the peculiar forms of repression of a popular riot that took place at the beginnings of the 17th century and is known as the revolt of the Nu-pieds (barefoot). By placing repression in the center of his analysis, Foucault expects to be able to overcome the dilemma between an approach based on the study of penal theories versus an approach based on the study of penal legislation or institutions. It is as a system of repression that penal theories and institutions emerge (2). Foucault speaks of a continuum of ‘refusal of the law,’ whereas it is difficult to identify the purely criminal from the political.  To some extent, we can say that Foucault’s purpose is to study the separation between criminal and political, to show that is characteristic of modern penal systems and that it is a relatively new development.

A central stage in Foucault’s account are the events of the repression of the Nu-pieds revolt (1639) by Chancellor Séguier.  Foucault analyzes, in great detail, what he characterizes as a ‘penitential ceremony,’ a ‘theatrical representation of power,’ a ‘manifestation of power in his repressive pomp’ (5).

According to Foucault, the Nu-pieds revolt was different from previous revolts in the Middle Ages. Not only peasants participated in the uprising, but also workers and journeymen in the towns, and a certain number of nobles and bourgeois (9).  Even the local Parliament (at that time a judicial and not a legislative body) adopted an ambiguous middle ground between the rebels and the tax authorities that they targeted.  In the endnotes to this first lecture, the reader can find detailed information on Foucault’s sources and on the chronology of the events to which Foucault refers (11-13).

The second lecture introduces the notion of ‘armed justice’ and asks how to write a history of this new form of repressive apparatus.  Foucault also emphasizes the revolutionary nature of the revolt, which not only protests against the tax authorities but introduces a new legality and a new authority, though one that refers to their authority as derived from the King. The rebellion and the bourgeois and nobles’ lack of enthusiasm to suppress it provokes the military response from the Monarch and leads to the formation of a new royal justice, which eventually will be adopted by the bourgeoisie. Justice will become State-controlled, juridical, and exercised by a specific state organ: the police (23).  This justice appears as an order which stands as a neutral arbiter between the social classes (24), while in reality, it is a representative of the capitalistic order.

In lecture three, Foucault further develops the notion of ‘armed justice.’  ‘Armed justice’ is a transitional stage, which will evolve into a specialized armed repressive apparatus, different from the army, but like the army, State-controlled (37).  What retains Foucault’s attention is not so much the fact that the army was used to suppress the revolt, but the unusual interplay between the army and Chancellor Séguier, who represented the State. Once the army defeated the Nu-pieds in the city of Caen and the countryside, it took time before taking Rouen, which was not the scene of grave disturbances.  Then, it took time for Séguier to enter the town, and he did so in a very protocolar way. In a lecture that Foucault delivered a short time after the course and is reproduced in this volume (‘Ceremony, Theater, and Politics in the Seventeenth Century’, pp. 235-239) he explores these ambiguities in search for clues for the process of emergence of a distinct state repressive apparatus. In this context, Foucault characterizes his approach as ‘dynastic’ (this is the first time that the term shows), a notion that is loosely equivalent to ‘genealogy’ (cf. 52-3, note 16).

Lecture Four explores in detail the theatrical nature of the repressive tactics employed by Séguier. He first attacks the Nu-pieds. They are not acknowledged as a foreign power, and therefore the rules of war do not apply to them. But they are not recognized as having a place in the civil order, and therefore they are not entitled to due process (58). Foucault sees a continuity between these repressive measures and the 1639 and 1670 ordinances which dealt with unemployed, beggars, and vagabonds.

Nevertheless, the repression does not end with the Nu-pieds. It is also exercised against those who attempted to place themselves between the King and the insurgents. Séguier rejects the ‘theory of the three checks’ (religion, justice, and the privileges granted for different social groups), which sets limits to the King’s power. According to Foucault, Séguier’s proclamation: ‘The innocent have nothing to fear; only those who have failed will feel the effects of the King’s just anger and indignation’ (62), is an explicit rejection of the ‘three checks’ theory.  Séguier is declaring that the King is not subject to the laws of his kingdom because the law is identical to his will (62). What we see here, claims Foucault, is an ambivalent outcome, a redistribution of repressive instruments and powers, but one that ultimately benefits the privileged classes.

The fifth lecture goes in some additional detail into the events in Rouen, which signal for Foucault the apparition of a purely repressive aspect of the Sate. However, the State lacks, at least initially, specialized institutions, and depends on feudal ones for carrying out these new tasks.

Lecture six deals with the stabilization of the situation.  This is achieved using three strategies: 1) differential sanctions to break up the previous alliance of social groups; 2) financial incentives for the privileged classes in return for the maintenance of order; 3) Mainly because the previous strategy was not very successful, the establishment of a third instance of the State, neither purely military nor juridical: the Intendants of justice, police, and finance (94).  The Intendants were supposed to guard against sedition, but also to arbitrate the conflicts between rent and tax. Another characteristic of the new repressive apparatus is the removal of the dangerous population.  The institution of a mechanism for the segregation of a stratum of delinquency out of the mass of the plebeian population connects the changes in the nature of the State with the development of the capitalist form of production. Foucault does not explain the emergence of capitalism as a change in the system of production. He characterizes the relationship between State and emerging capitalism as ‘linkage’ (105), ‘favorable’ (105), ‘oriented and functionally linked’ to Capitalism.  In a more rounded statement, he summarizes this relationship: ‘We should say that capitalism cannot subsist without an apparatus of repression whose main function is anti-seditious. This apparatus produces a certain penalty–delinquency coding. What has to be studied now is the installation of this new repressive system – the way in which it finally prevailed as the political system of capitalist production developed and was completed; – through what episodes it was finally institutionalized in the nineteenth century in the forms of the courts, the police, prisons, and the penal code’ (106). Foucault bases his analysis, to some extent, on the work of the Russian historian Boris Porshnev, whose work was challenged by some French scholars about that time. An essay by Claude O. Doron, included in this volume, recreates the positions of the parties, the issues at stake, and how Foucault relates to each one of them.

Lecture number eight changes focus from the 17th century to the 12th century to study the slow constitution of a separate judicial system from its predecessor feudal Germanic penal law.  Foucault observes that there was a long line of attempts to establish a centralized justice system, but until the 18th century, they failed. Whenever those institutions were stripped of political and administrative functions, retaining judicial functions only, they were eventually assimilated by the feudal institutions.  It is in order to ‘get the measure of the transformation carried out’ (114) that Foucault takes a step back in history, and points to German criminal law. This move marks an inflection in Foucault’s text. In the earlier lectures, he seems to look for a constitutive break taking place in the 17th century. Now he is inviting us to consider a much longer evolution, a slow separation from Germanic custom, and the constitution over centuries of a State differentiated from Civil Society. This approach is not only more comprehensive but also grounds Foucault’s underlying conception that the justice apparatus is a realm expropriated from civil society and sedimented into a separate body of functionaries.

Foucault begins his account remarking that whereas private and public law was Romanized fairly early, criminal law was Romanized late and only superficially. In the Germanic custom, the juridical act, the process in the broader sense, is ‘the regulated development of a dispute’ (115). The juridical order is a struggle. It was only later that the ‘acts and operations of justice’ are confiscated by a judicial instance. Justice is originally an interpersonal relationship. Importantly for Foucault, truth—the truth of the facts at the basis of the conflict between the parties—does not play an important role or is instead a mark of the outcome of the struggle. The penal system that developed in the Middle Ages acted at the level of the levy of goods (fines, confiscations, fees). The judicial is subordinated to the fiscal, But, elements from the old Germanic system remain in the Middle Ages legal apparatus.  In particular, Foucault mentions the need for an accuser, which is one of the parties in the conflict. The form of a dispute between two individuals remains central to the judicial process. The public power may intervene through the aggravation of the penalty, taking sides in the dispute, but the basic structure remains intact. Foucault’s main interest seems to be the transition between this old Germanic custom and the emergence of a recognizable concept of justice. This transition operates through the absorption of justice into the judicial, a power that can initiate action and present it as a public action.  How was the transformation possible, asks Foucault?  Certainly not because of the rise of a juridical conception of the State, or of a religious notion of wrongdoing.  Instead, Foucault explores an economic interpretation of the origins of justice. This interpretation is not Marxist, even though Foucault utilizes a Marxist sounding terminology.

First and foremost, Foucault rejects the interpretation of the law as ideology or superstructure. He speaks of relations of appropriation and relations of force, in a way that echoes the Marxist’s ‘relation of production.’ However, Foucault does not refer to production but to circulation: ‘the distribution of justice forms part of the circulation of goods’ (133).  Justice controls the circulation of goods at the level of civil law (contract, marriage, inheritance, and taxation), and of the penal law, by imposing fines and confiscating property. Foucault’s characterization is suggestive of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s description of society as a network of circulation and exchanges (cf. 147, note 44).

At the time, Foucault was active in a movement advocating for penal and carceral reform. The 1968 student and youth revolt generated a climate of criticism of the justice system. This climate was strengthened by the government’s prosecutions of activists of the extra-parliamentary left, and by those groups that made claims to a different justice. As we learn in note 12 (142 f), Foucault opposed on theoretical and political grounds the demands of the militants, who reclaimed for themselves the status of political prisoners. Foucault claims that all criminal offenses are political ones, and no distinction should be revendicated. Foucault also rejected in his interventions in this period, the notion of ‘popular courts;’ (espoused by the militants of GP ultra-leftist group and supported by Sartre).

In the first part of the 10th lecture, Foucault returns to the relationship between penal practice and transfer of wealth, goods, and property. Justice imposes penalties, establishes a system of compensations, and extorts wealth through the system of costs of justice. At a time of monetary scarcity, the flow of wealth passed through the judicial dispute. Judicial disputes and marriage are the main mechanisms of wealth circulation. Foucault differentiates two forms. One in which there is an interplay between civil and criminal justice. The second one is closer to violent appropriation, as in the case of the eviction of Jews and Lombards at the end of 13th century, and the anti-heretical crusades in the Provence. The rest of the lectures maps the transformation of the medieval system into a system of royal justice, armed with an institutionalized judicial State apparatus.

Lectures ten through twelve delve with different aspects of the thesis that a judicial system was crucial for the development of the Absolutist State and later on, of the capitalistic State.  It acquires this role initially as a response to the lack of monetary wealth and the weakness of markets. These judicial and penal systems are not yet a State apparatus, but they exercise some functions of a State apparatus.  Eventually, this proto-judicial will become specialized in different separate functions: judicial, police, and penitentiary.  Foucault comments on the functional role of the centralized army. Justice as state apparatus developed in the shadow of the army. He speaks of an army of mercenaries and a justice of functionaries (160).

In lecture eleven, Foucault reflects on the relationship between law and the economy.  It may be true that ‘juridical forms’ express ‘economic relations.’ There is another level, though, at which the juridical is neither expression nor reproduction of economic relations.  As a power relation, the judicial apparatus operates within economic relations and thereby modifies them. Foucault uses terms such as ‘transcribes,’ ‘investment,’ ‘presence,’ to describe the relationships between judicial and economics.  The following text shows the kind of interplay between economic and judicial system that Foucault is striving to describe: ‘If we stick to the example of feudalism, we can see how, through the judicial apparatus (but we could also take the military or religious apparatus), from the surplus-product which permits feudal rent, a surplus- power, an extra power is extracted

– on the basis of which certainly this rent itself is demanded,

– but on the basis of which the forms and relations of production are displaced.’ (172)

In a crossed-out note, Foucault adds: ‘the power relations are not superimposed on economic relations… relations of power are as deep as the relations of production. The former is not deduced from the latter. They accompany and relay each other’.  Notes 9 and 10 (178-179) refer to the context, in particular concerning Althusser’s work. Doron summarizes  ‘Foucault’s objective, which we find in subsequent courses, notably The Punitive Society, is to stress rather the constituting role of power relations at the very heart of relations of production: the former acting as veritable conditions of the formation and transformation of modes of production, be this in the constitution of man as “labor-power” or the process of accumulation and circulation of wealth’ (179 and 97, note 11).

Lecture twelve adds some more concrete historical context to the discussion. It was the economic crises of the 13th and 14th centuries that lead to the centralization of royal power and the setting of royal justice. This led to a doubling of the judicial system and the separation of the penal and civil law.  To some extent, Foucault seems to be transposing to the 13th and 14th centuries what earlier in the lectures he described as results of the suppression of the countryside revolts of the 17th century.  By emphasizing this proto-State developing from within feudalism, Foucault is perhaps putting distance between the development of the centralized national state and the emergence of capitalism.

In the thirteenth lecture, Foucault reexamines his previous analysis in terms of the question of power/knowledge. What is the knowledge effect of penal justice in the Middle Ages? And what is the power/knowledge effect in the proto-state and latter absolutist State? By ‘knowledge effects’ Foucault is not referring to the ideological dimensions of the justice system, but to the mode of knowledge that develops within it and that constitutes its modus operandi. This question is connected both to the 1970-1971 course and to the lectures that Foucault will deliver in Brazil in 1973, published under the title Truth and Juridical Forms.

Foucault defines ‘knowledge effects’ as ‘the carving-out, distribution, and organization of what is given to be known in penal practice’ (198).  Knowledge effects comprise the position and function of the subjects authorized to know (judges, their attendants), the forms of knowledge they use and create in their function, the kind of information, revelation or manifestation that is at stake at this level.

Foucault proceeds to review first the knowledge effects of the Germanic juridical system. According to Foucault, the old system was not intended to elicit a truth. The system was based on the notion of ‘test’ (épreuve) to which the parties could either succeed or fail. The outcome of the test is the outcome of the trial.  If the test indicates a truth, it is only in a secondary or derivative way. The test is not a sign of truth, but a mark.

With the establishment of a system in which the King’s procurator is the main actor, the older system of the test is no longer possible. What then makes it possible for the procurator to pass sentence? Foucault answers that it is the inquiry (inquiry-truth; Enquête vérité), which is the repurpose of a pre-existing administrative tool for the function of Justice.

Foucault describes the form of knowledge of this early judicial system that emerges from the replacement of the Germanic-feudal one as one of ‘extraction of truth.’ The procurator can request from the notables what is the common knowledge or notoriety. He has the right to elicit knowledge from those who know. The truth established in this form is a sort of substitute for the capture in the act (flagrance).  Truth introduces into the field of the penal law acts that are not injuries committed against specific individuals, but disorders. They may not have a specific victim but are perceived as disrupting the public order.

Foucault has not much to say about the inquiry, which was initially an administrative technique in use in the Church and the Carolingian kingdom.  After a brief review, Foucault concludes with two fundamental aspects that the inquiry introduces in the judicial system are: 1) The establishment of the truth through the interrogation of witnesses, those who have seen the deed; 2) The written procedure.  The last note of the lecture simply concludes that witnessing the truth and its faithful written recording replaces the event-test (203).

Following the lecture, the editors published several pages that seem to continue and to amplify the previous discussion. Foucault proposes a history of questioning as a form of exercise of power.  He suggests that questioning plays a role in the constitution of the subject. The inquiry may have been more critical for the emergence of the subject even than theology, says Foucault, echoing a widespread belief that there is a strong connection between subjectivity and Christianity (206).

Confession is transitional between test and inquiry. Foucault refers here to the judicial aspects of confession, leaving aside the religious ones, that he will explore in detail elsewhere.  According to Foucault, confession is depicted as a test of wills between accused and judge. This struggle is the background for the re-appearance of torture in the criminal procedure. Torture should be understood as an ordeal or test of truth (207). This form of knowledge/power gives origin to an arithmetic of proof, based on the nature of the crime, that binds the judge’s decisions. This system of legal proof persists until the end of the 18th century.

Foucault claims that with the first steps of the takeover of justice by the State, the inquiry shapes the practice of the penal procedure. Foucault mentions other uses of the inquiry, in civil law, in legislation, in social struggles (bourgeoisie versus feudalism), in the administrative process of centralization, and in the new forms of inquiry that the Church exercises over the population (inquisition).

Like measure (which was the object of Foucault’s previous year’s course), the inquiry is a form of power/knowledge, which means that power is established through the exercise and acquisition of this knowledge (209).  Foucault sees the inquiry, together with taxes and the army, as a central tool in the process of state centralization. Furthermore, conversely, ‘the inquiry, which puts questions, extracts knowledge, centralizes it, turns it into a decision, is an exercise of power’ (209).  Foucault speaks of the inquiry as a ‘levy of knowledge,’ similar to the appropriation of resources through taxation.  He adds that  ‘the knowledge power needs, the knowledge it calls for and to which it gives rise, is knowledge taken, channeled, accumulated, and converted into decision; the governor being the one who calls for this knowledge, goes through it, and judges accordingly what decision has to be taken (211).’ Further, Foucault suggests a typology of types of extraction of ‘surplus-knowledge’ (211). These pages, albeit fragmentary, contain many valuable insights on Foucault’s transition between his earlier archaeology to a genealogy of knowledge.

Finally, Foucault adds a remark that points out to other schemas of power-knowledge, in particular, ‘examination,’ which is the one constitutive of the normative human sciences (125). Foucault will devote the final lecture of his next year course to this subject (The Punitive Society, New York, 2015, pp. 225-241)

The “Course Summary” was written shortly after completing the teaching season and published in the College yearbook. Foucault presents his lectures as being an introduction to the study of 19th century French penal and social control institutions. They are part of the broader project of studying the formation of certain types of knowledge (savoir) based on the juridical-political matrices, which gave them birth and sustain them.  Foucault’s working hypothesis is that power does not act only by facilitating or obstructing the production of knowledge. Power and knowledge do not stand in a relation of interest versus ideology. More generally, Foucault argues that knowledge and society do not stand on opposite sides but are unified in the form of ‘power-knowledge.’  Accordingly, explains Foucault, the lectures are divided into two parts. The first part studies the inquiry and its development during the Middle Ages. The other part of the lectures was devoted to the study of new forms of social control in 17th century France. A few concluding lines of the summary refer to the seminar in which Foucault and associates prepared for publication the story and memories of the infamous Pierre Rivière.

In the summary, Foucault inverts the order and the importance of the themes discussed. He also disregards his earlier attempt to study the ceremonial aspects of the reinstatement of the monarchical power carried out by Séguier.

Under the title ‘Ceremony, Theater and Politics in the Seventeenth Century,’ the editors bring a summary, made by an auditor, of a lecture given by Foucault at the University of Minnesota in April 1972. This conference describes in a more streamlined form Foucault’s description in lectures 4 through 6 of the elaborated ritualized strategy followed by Chancellor Séguier in his repression of the Nu-pieds rebels. Foucault’s interest in the symbolic and ceremonial exercise of power does not appear elsewhere, the account of Damian’s execution in Discipline and Punish being an exception.

‘The “Course Context’ is a thirty-seven-page extensive interpretative essay, written by François Ewald (Foucault’s former assistant at the Collège de France) and Bernard E. Harcourt (Columbia Law School professor and the editor of several of Foucault’s unpublished works).

The essay first describes the manuscript and additional materials from which the editors collated and transcribed the lectures.  Section II refers to the general societal context in the aftermath of the May 68 events, the subsequent repression of the political movements that originated in the students and young workers revolt, and its impact on Foucault’s development. This section is of paramount importance for those less familiar with the contemporary history of French society. Section III evaluates the place of this course in Foucault’s work. Ewald and Harcourt refer to Foucault’s evolving position about Althusser and Marxism in general.  They speak of a ‘counter-Marxism’ which is not an ‘anti-Marxism’ (255).  They find a difference of objectives between Foucault and Marx, differencs of method, differences of objects, a different way of referring to class struggle, and a divergence on the subject of ideology.  The authors also stress Foucault’s elaboration of an original analysis of law. In TPI, Foucault revolutions our way of viewing law, proposing a political theory of law instead of a juridical theory of power. In that respect, Ewald and Harcourt suggests that Foucault’s embryonic proposal can be compared to other schools, such as the French Marxist critique of law school, or the American Legal Realism school.

Étienne Balibar contributed to his volume a letter in which he reflects on Foucault’s text. Balibar was younger than Foucault, more politically engaged, closer to Althusser. He has the advantage of having witnessed the evolution of the after 1968 struggles, the downfall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the transformation of China into a capitalistic-bureaucratic society. Therefore, his insights on the background for Foucault’s analysis are an important complement to the ‘Course Context’ essay.

Finally, Claude-Olivier Doron contributes an essay dealing with Foucault’s position about the discussion between the Russian historian Boris Porshnev and the French historian Roland Mousnier and his students.  Doron reconstructs and interprets the background for Foucault’s discussion of the Nu-pieds revolt. Those readers interested in this angle of Foucault’s analysis could also profit from Stuart Elden’s commentaries (Foucault: The Birth of Power, 2017, Chapter 2). Doron limits its piece to ‘some elements concerning the debate.’  He emphasizes the need to connect the debate between the historians with the discussion within the Marxist field, notably between Nicos Poulantzas (close to Althusser) and Ralph Miliband, debate that was also referenced by Balibar in his contribution (297 n. 1).  Doron concludes that Foucault did not endorse any of the opposed parties. Foucault’s approach centered on the novel way in which the revolt was suppressed.  He sought a connection between how the revolt was suppressed and the emergence of a state not yet been endowed with specific repressive organs.

The completion of this publication project is not the end of Foucault’s story.  A new and ambitious project sets up to bring to print the ‘cours et travaux de Michel Foucault avant le Collège de France.’ Of these, a volume was already published that contains two lectures on sexuality that Foucault taught in 1964 and 1969.  Additional volumes on Nietzsche, on Biswanger, on Foucault’s tenure in Tunis and others are in the program.

Also, a group of researches grouped in L’École normale supérieure de Lyon is digitizing and organizing Foucault reading notes.  Out of 25 boxes, three are already available online (open access), and the others will be available in the future. These publication concerns only Foucault reading notes, not his manuscripts or other documents. What is already available can be accessed in http://eman-archives.org/Foucault-fiches/arbre-collections. Box 001 which contains some of the notes taken by Foucault for the preparation of TPI is among the one already accessible.

 

 

Annabel Herzog: Levinas’s Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020

Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality Book Cover Levinas's Politics: Justice, Mercy, Universality
Annabel Herzog
University of Pennsylvania Press
2020
Cloth $55.00
208

Rebecca Dew: Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020

Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies Book Cover Hannah Arendt: Between Ideologies
International Political Theory
Rebecca Dew
Palgrave Macmillan
2020
Hardback 77,99 €
X, 258

Thomas Rohkrämer: Martin Heidegger: Eine politische Biographie, Ferdinand Schöningh, 2020

Martin Heidegger: Eine politische Biographie Book Cover Martin Heidegger: Eine politische Biographie
Thomas Rohkrämer
Ferdinand Schöningh
2020
Paperback
VIII + 297

Christos Hadjioannou (Ed.): Heidegger on Affect

Heidegger on Affect Book Cover Heidegger on Affect
Philosophers in Depth
Christos Hadjioannou (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2019
Hardback 106,99 €
XXXIII, 294

Reviewed by:  Tijmen Lansdaal (Mary Immaculate College)

In this day and age the majority of Heidegger’s works have been published. As a result, there is plenty of opportunity for philosophical exegesis: his works evidence various phases of philosophical styles and interests, a diversity of recurring topics undergoing changes in their analyses over time, and a hard-to-oversee body of creative vocabulary. It might be considered striking that one of Heidegger’s most consistent concerns throughout his catalogue was how various affective phenomena influence the practice of philosophy. Although a reasonable number of papers and book chapters have been written on the topic (with a strong preference to the topic as it appears in Being and Time)[1], there has been, like Christos Hadjioannou says, ‘no single collection of essays exclusively dedicated to this theme’. For that reason, Hadjioannou dedicates this volume, Heidegger on Affect, to in-depth analysis of Heidegger’s many attempts at making ‘mood [Stimmung]’ and ‘disposition [Befindlichkeit]’ philosophically relevant, and conversely, at finding resources for understanding within the history of philosophy. With the objective of offering a comprehensive and relevant survey of Heidegger’s work on such matters, Hadjioannou has compiled essays by a variety of prominent contemporary Heidegger-scholars.

Overall the result is an unbiased, critical, and stimulating review of the resources Heidegger provides for thinking through affects. Thankfully, the chapters do not conform to a stereotype of Heideggerian scholarship: they do not present Heidegger’s considerations as an unfairly neglected and immeasurably valuable wellspring for endlessly fruitful contemplation. Instead, they take the more modest route of raising questions that are both inspired by and evaluative of said considerations. In this regard, Daniel O. Dahlstrom’s essay is exemplary of the collection’s often critical approach. His essay describes an issue with Heidegger’s writings that is indicative of what one may expect from this showcase of studies on affect: Heidegger’s considerations ultimately seem relatively limited. Aside from his surprising but altogether somewhat casual interest in the topic of love, as evidenced by atypical sources highlighted in a rich and enjoyable chapter from Tatjana Noemi Tömmel, Heidegger seems to have only a myopic interest in a small number of fairly dour moods, like angst and boredom. When Heidegger has the opportunity to talk about other kinds of affects, he mostly seems to divest for unclear reasons. It might disqualify Heidegger as a champion of phenomenological analysis of affects, and Dahlstrom is entirely right to challenge him (and his readers) on this point.

On the other hand, this lack of breadth does have a clear cause. Heidegger prefers analysing some moods over others, because he believes they are the ‘fundamental moods [Grundstimmunge]’. These in particular are intended to play an eminent role in his philosophy. Hadjioannou’s own chapter convincingly shows that the analysis of angst allows Heidegger to disavow Husserlian mentalism while retaining an epistemic norm for his own version of phenomenology. Hadjioannou argues that angst on Heidegger’s account is the quasi-evidentialist insight into ‘Being-in-the-world’ that serves as a methodological counterpoint to Husserl’s ‘original intuition’. In that way, angst is focal to Heidegger’s conception of phenomenology, and gets the elaborate treatment it deserves. In this way, the few moods that Heidegger does believe are deserving of his attention do compel him to write the kind of rich, unique, and interesting descriptions that serve as the inspiration for this collection of essays. A recurring theme in these descriptions, a theme subjected to much scrutiny in this volume, is the allegedly inherent opacity of moods and dispositions. From Heidegger’s perspective, enigmatic moods like angst and ‘profound boredom’ deserve the principal part in virtue of how telling they are with regard to this supposedly essential feature. Depending on how sympathetic a reader is towards this particular interest in moods, Heidegger’s limited focus will appear more or less justified.

Some of the essays in this collection are, unfortunately, suffering from minor issues that are a detriment to the presentation of their core content. Although most of the essays successfully mine ideas from the source material that would be interesting for a broader audience, not all of them put enough effort in to make the ideas accessible, or ensure clarity over how they relate to existing philosophical ideas. It results in interpretative work being done in a vacuum. Essays by Mahon O’Brien, Thomas Sheehan, Niall Keane, and François Raffoul all could have benefited from engaging with more critical literature on Heidegger and this topic. O’Brien sees his essay as part of an endeavour to criticize certain ‘readings of Heidegger in the literature’ (1-2), but a reference to only one author is made: Richard Capobianco. Capobianco also happens to be the sole Heidegger scholar Sheehan engages with, offering largely the same critique of Capobianco as he has offered in previous writings. In both essays, the reference to Capobianco is perfunctory, because Capobianco’s views either are not elaborated, or it is not explained how those views are relevant to specifically the matters discussed in these essays. In his essay, Keane wants to provide a helpful hermeneutic framework for Heidegger’s often complicated writings: his approach reads Heidegger as turning his readers’ attention to possibilities ‘blocked’ by the metaphysical tradition of philosophy. The framework is taken from Heidegger’s analysis of Aristotle’s work on rhetoric. After an interesting and elegant reconstruction of Heidegger’s appreciation of the intersubjective, affective basis of rhetoric in that account, Keane is incidentally in a great place to address a volume on the topic of Heidegger’s thoughts on rhetoric, but he references it without discussion of the claims made by the authors in it, which leads him (among other things) to ignore the sensitive, political overtones of Heidegger’s discussion[2]. Daniela Vallega-Neu’s contribution evinces a different issue. For the most part, the volume avoids Heideggerian jargon, but her essay is an unfortunate exception to this. Her essay is complicated by unnecessarily difficult sentences, abstruse claims, and unexplained jargon. She makes a commendable case against Heidegger’s prioritizing of fundamental moods over regular moods, and for appreciation of the body’s role in the latter, arguing that a person has no control over the ways in which moods become revelatory for us, and is not to a greater or lesser degree ‘erring’ by getting ‘caught up’ by the body. However, in the process, she surprisingly ends up acknowledging Heidegger’s ‘great concentric power’ and calling on extra argumentative support from the authority of independent meditation (223).

Other essays are excellent. Katherine Withy’s essay offers a nuanced and thorough exploration of Heidegger’s notion of ‘disposition’, here translated in a more active voice as ‘finding’, in the sense of ‘how one finds oneself’. Particularly helpful is the clear distinction of ‘finding’ from ‘mood’. Heidegger makes one passing remark on the matter in Sein und Zeit, stating that disposition is the ontological dimension of what ontically is familiar to anyone as moods[3]. With Withy’s commentary in mind one can conclude that Heidegger most certainly does not mean to use the two notions interchangeably (in contrast to Vallega-Neu: 207), and that his analyses of moods must be read from the perspective of his interest in finding. On Withy’s account, finding involves taking a practical identity to be vocational; it is the necessity of hearkening to one project rather than another, i.e. to be called to self-disclose in one particular way (155-157). Noticing a tension with the ecological psychology literature of James J. Gibson, she argues that affordances (the possibilities offered up by entities) become solicitings (possibilities that call for engagement) through finding, which is to say: through coordination with the projects that resonate with the person (165-166). Withy here finds the conceptual resources to argue against two authors: Matthew Ratcliffe and Lauren Freeman. Both are well-known for their work on Heideggerian interpretations of emotions and affects, and the latter is featured with an essay unrelated to this discussion, i.e. a comprehensive study contrasting various conceptions of boredom, written in collaboration with Andreas Elpidorou. These two authors have argued on the one hand that Heidegger seems unaware of distinctive features that would make certain moods into emotions and not moods, and on the other hand that Heidegger unfairly neglects the role of the body in affective phenomena. She replies to the first contention by noting the lack of relevance of any distinction between mood and emotion to Heidegger’s analysis of moods in terms of finding, and by stressing how moods are relative to our projects (citing Aristotle: “what is frightening is not the same for everyone”). To the second, she replies by arguing that it is not obvious that the body plays a necessary or essential role in finding, despite acknowledging the importance of embodiment as a project (170-171). These arguments result in a rich, intriguing analysis that leaves plenty of possibilities for further discussion.

Equally fecund is Denis McManus’ chapter, which brilliantly showcases the virtue of deftly setting limits to one’s exegetical goals and sustaining a focus on the matter under consideration, resulting in a modest and elegant argument for a new, recognizably Heideggerian understanding of practical deliberation. McManus considers two different models for the interpretation of Heidegger’s notoriously difficult notion of authenticity, and proposes a third of his own, in which authenticity is explained in more close conjunction to disposition. The first ‘decisionist’ model, held by Michael Friedman, claims that a person has the freedom to make a resolute decision, which takes action of its own accord and makes that person answerable with regard to it. McManus shows this model to be at odds with Heidegger’s ideas, in so far as a person always submits to a world by ‘constantly being summoned by the world’ (132), limiting the volitional mastery of such decision-making. McManus then underlines the problematic nature of the decisionist model by recounting criticisms of Heidegger by Iris Murdoch and Ernst Tugendhat. Both authors McManus takes to make the important point that such freedom removes the person from ‘the medium within which our thinking, doing and acting happen’ (134). The second model, the ‘standpoint’ model, points out the commonality between a variety of existing Heidegger interpretations. Authenticity is, according to this model, taken to be the owning of a standpoint, meaning something like a commitment to a project that involves a particular set of norms. Contra the decisionist model, this model accommodates the predisposed and embedded nature of resolutions by allowing for consistency in one’s subjection to characteristic affects. A person can, for instance, be committed to readiness for righteous indignation, outlining in advance how the principle of social injustice matters to that person (example drawn from Somogy Varga, 135-136). In order to substantiate the pluralist intuition that one may have to answer to all kinds of competing normative demands, McManus proposes an ‘All-Things-Considered Judgment’ model. He invokes Heidegger’s account of guilt to make the point that a person always already waives possibilities for the sake of others. This point shows that a person incorporates a multi-dimensional, guilt-laden treatment of possibilities in moments of action (140-141). Authenticity, therefore, must consist in meeting the challenge to “be open to my situation in its concretion in allowing my many emotions a voice in my deliberations, acknowledging rather than evading the full range of ways in which I am already attuned to my situation” (144). In this way, McManus makes a strong case for the way in which affects must condition the success of deliberation, even where one is confronted with ‘mixed feelings’.

On a whole, then, Heidegger on Affect is a worthwhile collection of essays on affectivity that is accessible to readers with broader interests than just ‘Heidegger’. Hadjioannou has included work that is representative of some of the weaknesses, but most of all of the imaginative strengths of the field. Heidegger’s work, although descriptively limited to a small number of moods, provides resources for philosophical discussion on a large variety of topics, and the authors in this volume put forward a number of interesting considerations in relation to them. Given that, as Hadjioannou has said, “affective phenomena are central to all of Heidegger’s work” and “no single collection of essays has been exclusively dedicated to this theme” (ix), this collection can be considered a major contribution to its own field, one that simultaneously invites further productive engagement with the theme from anyone interested in what Heidegger brings to bear on affects (be it from within the field or from without). The volume’s efficacy lies in seriously considering how affects are existentially pertinent to human beings, deepening the widely-held intuition that they are. For that reason, it is of considerable merit and should be of interest to many.

Bibliography

Golob, Sacha. 2017. ‘Methodological Anxiety: Heidegger on Moods and Emotions’. Chapter 12 in Thinking about the Emotions, A Philosophical History: 253-271. Edited by Alix Cohen & Robert Stern. Oxford University Press.

Gross, Daniel M. & Kemman, Ansgar. 2005. Heidegger and Rhetoric. State University of New York Press, Albany. Part of the SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, edited by Dennis J. Schmidt.

Hatzimoysis, Anthony. 2009. ‘Emotions in Heidegger and Sartre’. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion. Edited by Peter Goldie. Oxford University Press.

Martin Heidegger. 2005. Sein und Zeit. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen.

Ratcliffe, Matthew. 2009. ‘Why Mood Matters’. Chapter 7 in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Edited by Mark Wrathall. Cambridge University Press.

Shockey, R. Matthew. 2016. ‘Heidegger’s Anxiety: On the Role of Mood in Phenomenological Method’. Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique 12.1.

Staehler, Tanja. 2007. ‘How is a Phenomenology of Fundamental Moods Possible?’. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 15 (3): 415-433.


[1] My personal favourites include Golob 2017, Hatzimoysis 2009, Shockey 2016, Staehler 2007, and works from Ratcliffe – 2009 for instance – and from the various authors in this book.

[2] Gross & Kemman 2005.

[3] Heidegger 2005: 134.

Alexandre Kojève: Atheism

Atheism Book Cover Atheism
Alexandre Kojève. Translated by Jeff Love.
Columbia University Press
2018
Hardback $32.00 £28.00
248

Reviewed by: Hans Krauch (Canada)

This work was compiled from an unfinished essay originally written in 1931, a part of the vast trove of documents left behind by Alexandre Kojève that publishers are finally starting to take out and disseminate to the world.  At the time this was wrote, atheism was not just blindly implemented by Soviet ideology, but it was the sign of the final death throes of faith in its fight against the Enlightenment movement.  Indeed, the Enlightenment proved victorious, though it was a Pyrrhic victory as the Enlightenment movement itself died with the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century.

The introduction does a very good job at going over the general points of the book – and indeed the author of the intro is quite right to say that it does not take away from the joy of reading the original work.  The work reads like is a man struggling with these very difficult concepts, at a time when these concepts were shaping nations. Knowing the topics of atheism versus theism meant knowing the bloody history of the 20th century – with its creation and destruction of empires, nations, and people’s lives numbering in the hundreds of millions.

The topic of atheism was not merely academic as it had real world impacts, so one could detect the urgency and importance of the topic in the tone of Kojève’s writing. To be sure, the true philosopher is one that realizes that their work has real world implications, that it is important to all people – not just relegated to the world of academics.  In this spirit, Kojève can be understood to meet that criteria of philosopher quite easily.

Atheism is still quite prevalent today, and this book will shed light on today’s stance on this belief of non-belief in a way few else can. Kojève was there when the contemporary atheism movement begun and therefore has insight that contemporary academics cannot understand.  Kojève separates people into two camps – the theist and the atheist.  Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between these two camps, but in order to properly understand either he has boiled down the types into purities, then compared the differences between the two.

Kojève was not particularly interested in promoting one side or another, merely trying to figure out what they were and where they base their particular life-axioms.  From the spirit of the book, the best Kojève (or arguably anyone) can do is speak about both sides in general terms, mostly because the main concepts held by either side is, at best, understood in general terms.  He divides further the concept of the theist and atheist as ‘qualified’ – this would be one whose ideologies are solidified, extreme, and self-aware.

The qualified theist is one where God’s existence is simply accepted, and there is nothing more to say on that.  God is understood to be a thing with some kind of quality, a thing that makes God a God.  But, is God a ‘thing’? Indeed He is, however it is a thing that is very different from other things – other things that inhabit the material realm.  Therefore, a qualified theist is one that understands that God(s) have predicates.

The theist is a person who believes in God, whatever that may be, and the atheist does not believe in God, whatever that might be.  That being said, faith itself is considered irrational, so both the theist and atheist are more similar than they would like to admit.

The basic question asked in this work, though cannot be answered definitely, is “Is it possible for the atheist to claim that there is nothing beyond the world without entering into contradiction.” (Kojève 2018, xvii). The atheist is the one that mostly uses rationality as their basis of belief, but on what basis can they claim to be more rational than the theist (if proving the existence of God is unfalsifiable)?

For Kojève, how people believe to interact with the external world is very important to his conclusions.  Firstly, we have the human being in the world – this is one that interacts with the material world.  The concept of homogeneity is used, and this is to give us the notion that our own experiences are similar enough amongst other humans that we can all assume that we interact with the world in more or less the same way so that it can be described in general terms.  Homogeneity is the concept that things outside the self are similar enough for us all.

The concept of estrangement is that it only applies to human beings, and that the world presents itself to us and as such we cannot escape from this world and remain sane.  Kojève posits that things are ‘given’ to us, but it is God that does the giving (for the theist).  The theist is aware of this stuff given to us and therefore suffers anxiety.  The atheist cannot care less about such things and therefore suffers not.

The big question in this work is how can God reach thorough the realm of the outside world into our plane of reality?  It reminds me of the difficulty of passing from subjectivity to objectivity – are such things possible and how can we do this without sacrifice of quality?

Kojève’s greatest accomplishment in this work is the position on death itself.  He posits that we all agree that there is a passing to an outside world, to some degree, when we die.  This is simple enough to grasp as we can witness the death of others.  Where things become complicated is when it comes to understanding our own deaths, because we can never experience our own deaths (as it occurs after we lose consciousness, and consciousness is the sense that enables the other senses to process external information).  The concept that we cannot imagine our own demise or nothingness is very important, and one that is ought to have the highest dissemination to the world as possible.

Death is both nothingness and thingness at once, which is similar to the problem of the existence of God:  “Death is thus available to us only in its unavailability, as unavoidably enigmatic, the genuine, essential, and ineluctable mystery.” (Kojève 2018, xxii)  This is the basic human condition.  How we deal with that differs on whether or not we are an atheist or a theist.  All of us face death with horror, in one way or another. This is why the medieval art featuring people facing all kinds of horrible violent deaths with a stone, uncaring face is seen as ridiculous rather than pious, to contemporary minds.

Where Kojève goes wrong is his stance on suicide.  For him:  “…suicide is the highest expression of freedom.” (Kojève 2018, xxiii) He is not technically wrong, as overriding our own self-preservation instincts requires a strong will, but the problem is that if we cannot fully comprehend our own demise or nothingness then how is this freedom?  In suicide we aren’t merely experiencing the unknowable, but forcing it on ourselves.  We shall explore this topic further near the end of the paper.

The theist sees death as the release of the soul from the body.  The atheist sees this as simply being done with the world, and just wants to be done with living within it.  Most people believe in a little bit of both theistic and atheistic aspects of death.

Regarding suicide, is it overcoming pain and fear, or is it a submission to it?  There are those who survive suicide attempts all the time, so do know this we would have to ask them.  Suicide is also prevalent within other species – there are well documented cases of animals drowning themselves or stop eating until they die, after they lost a mate or suffered some other tragedy.  That being said, all the problems with our own lives end with our lives, for better or worse.  That doesn’t mean it has no effects on the living, however.

This problem is similar to God the infinite – another concept that cannot be proven.  The infinite, for Kojève, is the surpassing of limits, yet no such thing is possible because there is only the finite:  “No attempt at liberation from the world is possible.  Our interaction renders us vulnerable, limiting our freedom and ultimately tying us down to death.  If Kojève were to say that only a God could save us, it would be that God achieved by Kirillov in suicide.” (Kojève 2018, xxv)  If life is such a burden then why would we want to be free of its limits?  Satisfaction is found in the conquest of limits, with no challenges to overcome then nothing is there to look forward to, an existence without purpose or meaning.  Perhaps the true freedom is not freeing ourselves from limits, but from the shackles of fear of not overcoming limits.

Kojève is quite correct that both the atheist and theist want to break out of our obvious limits and achieve greater things, outside the world (or our perception of it).  He is correct that speculation cannot provide proof, but this is the beauty of philosophy.  We deal in matters that cannot be proven objectively, and in the absence of objective (material world) proof it is the best we have.  The same goes for knowing when to mark the proper end for ourselves (like Hegel’s ‘End of History’).  This question, I believe, is the same as understanding our own deaths/nothingness.  Our end is the end of life – therefore to go into understanding that we need philosophical speculation to take the first steps towards knowledge.

The concept of courage in the face of death is described as simply a cover up for our own fear.  Indeed that is the definition of courage – doing something in spite of a strong feeling of fear.  It must be stressed that fear will always exist, so denying it exists at our own deaths would be inauthentic.  So, an atheist would be one that feels they are ‘honest’ in the face of death – that after their body dies that is the end of them forever.  The theist would be one that ‘hides’ behind hope that there is some kind of life (existence) after death.

Kojève is quite right to posit that an atheistic religion can exist if they limit themselves to believing in a non-existent nature of whatever God other people believe in.  It is a matter of belief in the unfalsifiable versus the non-belief in the unfalsifiable, which brings us to another very interesting point in Kojève’s work – the discussion of atheism or theism does not belong within the realm of religion.  This discussion goes beyond the confines of religion to encompass the foundations of how we think – logic.

Kojève’s work does bounce back and forth between concepts, as if he is having a conversation with himself – talking himself into a position, then thinking himself out of it.  He understood that the atheist/theistic world views encompass the types of world they live in, and to understand those views properly is not so simple.  At this time it would be appropriate to interject into the rather odd style of writing used by the translator.  Obviously the translator has a firm grasp on the material, however there are some irregularities that would require some clarification.

For example, Love refers to God as ‘him (Kojève 2018, xxxii)’ when the proper way to refer to God is Him.  Love later quotes Kojève as referring to God as Him (Kojève 2018, 15), so the grammatical inconsistency must have been known.  It is not a catastrophic inconsistency, just one that peaks me to ask why such a thing was done in the first place. The other is the choice to refer to the generic person as she.  Indeed, in the past ‘he’ was usually used, and this style of using ‘she’ is certainly en vogue these days, for whatever reason.  I would have recommended to get away from any gender specific pronouns, if one’s goals were to avoid appearing sexist by using only one pronoun in particular over another.

The terms used are much appreciated, like ‘giveness’, but understand that these are not translation errors, but an expression of how a Russian or Frenchman in the 1930s would express such concepts of being an animated meat robot inhabiting a class M planet within a finite universe composed of matter and energy – and with all those things that go along with that.  Another language oddity here is the usage of the term ‘tonus.’ The use of it here does not match the English dictionary definition of the word; being “The normal tension of a muscle at rest.” (Merriam-Webster 2019, 1) – unless Love is inadvertently using the French word tonus, which is tone in English, and in that case the word ‘tone’ works just fine in the contexts of this text.  All that aside, we may now return to the text itself.

Concerning death and giveness, Kojève prompts some very interesting ideas.  For example, Kojève himself is quite dead today, yet his words still reach out to me when I read his works – so in a way he is not truly nonexistent in the same way his body no longer functions.  This paradox of ‘giveness’ Kojève talks about is quite interesting, perhaps we may need to accept this paradox as insolvable.  We cannot have a conversation with Kojève, as we can only read, listen and reflect on his works.  Kojève’s giveness continues after his physical death, but the living cannot present their giveness to him (in a way that affects himself as a living thing).  That is, the dead can give to the living, but not vice-versa (unless we count the living keeping the memory of the dead alive, this can be a sort of giveness, but what is it – the dead giving to the living or the other way around?).  This may not be solved, but at least it is something that will require more study in the future.

As far as we can understand life and death, death is seen at the destination at the end of all life, but this is not as important/valuable as the journey.  Skipping ahead to the destination (by dying early) does not do anyone any favors.  Journeys require destinations, but the destination itself gives little value in comparison to the experience of the journey.  For example – there is little value in simply getting 100% on a test if passing it required no learning or effort.  Indeed: “Life is not death, but without death there is no life.” (Kojève 2018, 61)  Therefore, death is the impassible limit on life, and without limits there is no life.  Therefore, we need limits in our lives for them to be considered lives.  Finitude is necessary to complete our concepts of life.  Additionally, one’s death is not entirely valueless – one may die well (self-sacrifice), poorly (by killing innocent people along with themselves), or everything in between.

Where Kojève goes awry is on his stance of suicide.  On one hand, the concept of non-existence is unthinkable to a person, yet:  “Suicide is the conscious and voluntary end of the existence of the human being in the world.” (Kojève 2018, 82)  So, how can anyone consciously and voluntarily enter into a state of existence in which they have no possible way of understanding it?  A contract is not considered valid unless both parties understand what they are agreeing to, so the person committing suicide is entering into a contract where they have no possible means of understanding it.  If one is unable to know what one is agreeing to, then that is hardly a decision one are capable of making.

This is why we have laws against underage drinking or sex – the individual may be physically capable of drinking beer or having sex, but we have learned that under a certain age of mental development people are unable to understand the consequences of those types of behavior.  Therefore, by granting any kind of positive attributes to suicide is at best naïve and worst morally repugnant as we know that there is no age in which we can be mentally competent enough to know that killing ourselves is the right choice.

Indeed, our freedom is linked to our finitude, both in the idea that yes we can drop dead at any moment and for a myriad of reasons.  I believe Kojève is saying that we can understand that we are mortal and can die at any time, but at the same time not truly know what it is like.  The freedom we have in life is knowing that there is an end, so we have this motivation to act in the here and now.  If we were immortal – what would be the rush to accomplish anything?  Free from the shackles of immortality, we strive to learn, to extend our ‘giveness’ to the outside world.

The concept of death and suicide aside, Kojève does a marvelous job of placing atheism and theism within their proper spheres.  Both sides pride themselves on their differences, but they are actually more alike than they would admit, and Kojève puts them together enough so that dialogues can be opened:  “By equating the non-atheist with the theist, I have identified all of what is not the world with God or, better, with divinity.” (Kojève 2018, 98)

Kojève is correct to posit that one’s atheism or theism infuses itself into their very work – most importantly into their science or philosophy.  It is a far too common occurrence for people to assume that because they do a thing for a paycheck, the particular ideology they prescribe to will not affect their jobs in anyway.  Every time someone kneels on the prayer mat, or consumes the host wine, or stands at attention to the national anthem – are strengthening their own ideology – and through it will influence the way we perceive and act within the world in a way they cannot be aware of.  Atheism or theism is an important part of one’s ideology, and since ideology is the unseen mover that shapes peoples thoughts and actions, then it is fair to say it influences everything we do or think.

Both the theist and atheist feel the other is lacking in something and do not truly understand the other’s position.  The theist has as a part of themselves that is something outside the material realm, while the atheist does not.  Kojève is right to claim that secularity and religion is not the same realm of understanding as atheism and theism – as those are matter of logics.  Religion and Secularism play by their own rules, by that they have their own axioms that fall outside logic itself.  Christian religious studies simply assume God exists, and from there all their work goes from that point.  The same for atheistic works – they assume no God exists and from there all conclusions are reached.  Kojève’s conclusions predate either and seek to understand where both views originate.

On further study – it would appear both are closer to the realms of religion than logic: “…the God of science is not the same as the God of religion, this is nonetheless God.” (Kojève 2018, 122)  Better understood, however, is that the beliefs of both atheists and theists are within the realm of religion, but the particular values of each are understood in the realm of logic.

We cannot describe either position exactly, as there are varying degrees of theist and atheism most of us hold onto.  Still, Kojève does a good job in describing each as best as humanly can.  All in all, this was a fine introductory text to Kojève’s positions on death, suicide, atheism and theism.  Additionally, even those unfamiliar with his other works can enjoy this text as an introduction to these concepts presented here.  Indeed, I would recommend it to anyone interested in these topics as a foundation to further study in the matters at hand.

The only drawbacks to the text are the few oddities of language usage, and that the text itself does not give us more.  It is as if Kojève was wise enough to have the concrete answers on what it means to be atheist and theist, but is hiding it from us – so we are wanting more (if we can call this a drawback).  A truly successful paper in philosophy, like art, is one that sparks the imagination, encourages debate, and leaves us open to a new slew of problems that we were previously unaware of.  Considering these criteria, this book is a resounding success.

Bibliography:

Kojève, Alexandre. 2018. Atheism. Translated by Jeff Love. New York: Columbia University Press.
“Tonus.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tonus. Accessed 9 December 2019.