In Levinas’s Politics, Annabel Herzog attempts to articulate whether there might be something like a positive and coherent political philosophy in Levinas’s thought. As Herzog is the first to admit, for many critics of Levinas this effort will seem doomed from the outset. For if it cannot be denied that Levinas’s works frequently mention politics and political reasoning, these considerations seem merely peripheral to what is generally considered Levinas’s ‘real’ philosophical interest, that is, the ethical (or moral) relation between the subject and the absolute alterity of the other person. What is more, Levinas regularly opposes this ethical relation to politics, seemingly emphasising only the essential violence and irrelevance of politics for morality. Indeed, one need only turn to the very first page of Totality and Infinity to find a clear expression of this sentiment: “The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means—politics—(….) is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naïveté” (Levinas, 1979: 21).
From this standpoint, it might indeed seem that Herzog will be hard pressed to find a positive and nuanced conception of politics in Levinas’s work. As Herzog opens her book by countering, however, even in those texts where Levinas speaks of an opposition between politics and morality, there is more than a simple relation of mutual exclusivity between the two domains. In Totality and Infinity, for instance, this involvement between politics and morality is conceptually signalled by the “entrance of the third party”, who is said by Levinas to introduce the considerations of politics into the ‘dual’ ethical relation between the subject and the other. Crucially, far from conceiving this third party as wholly external and somehow posterior to morality, Levinas explicitly holds that its presence is always already felt in the ethical relation with the other: “The third party looks at me in the eyes of the other” (Levinas, 1979: 213). That being the case, the relation between politics and morality is certainly much more complex than Levinas’s own assertions on the opposition between those two domains might at first lead us to believe—and indeed, than some of Levinas’s critics give him credit for.
The majority of Levinas’s Politics directs itself to this intricate relation that is posited between the fields of politics and morality in Levinas’s thought. Now, Herzog is of course not the first scholar to recognise that Levinasian politics and morality are in a certain sense “inseparable and contained within one another” (Fagan, 2009: 7, cited in LP 2-3). Instead, the major contribution of Levinas’s Politics consists of its attempt to explore this inseparability “in light of a close reading of [Levinas’s] Talmudic readings—that is, Levinas’s ‘Jewish’ works” (3). As Herzog notes, the traditional approach to Levinas’s philosophy has tended to consider these Talmudic commentaries as distinct and separable from the more central ‘philosophical-phenomenological’ works. Following Levinas’s own insistence on the distinction between the two bodies of work, traditional scholarship has also tended to regard these ‘religious’ or ‘confessional’ writings as being of merely illustrative interest for the philosophical substance of Levinas’s thought. By contrast, Levinas’s Politics studies Levinas primarily from the perspective of his Talmudic writings, and it turns to the phenomenological works only in order to “document [its] interpretations of the readings, thereby inverting the traditional approach to Levinas’s work” (6).
In her Introduction, Herzog begins to defend this decision by insisting that both of Levinas’s corpuses should be considered philosophical. The distinction between the two sets of texts is not therefore that is one ‘philosophical’ and the other merely ‘confessional’. Rather, according to Herzog, this distinction is best understood in terms of differences in approach. “The ethical philosophy published in the phenomenological books expresses an unconditional and immemorial call [to responsibility] that can be considered ‘prophetic’. One hears the call and accepts it as it is” (7). The Talmudic readings, by contrast, are said to confront this apodictic and unconditional call to ethical responsibility with concrete situations. “The readings ask the question: What does ethics mean in situations that involve more than the ego and the other?” (9). In other words, though both sets of texts are similarly concerned with philosophical questions of ethical responsibility towards otherness, they each respond to these questions from a differing perspective: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impracticable ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5).
Herzog’s wager is that this difference in approach makes the Talmudic readings a particularly fruitful place to unearth Levinas’s positive conception of politics. Indeed, because those readings focus specifically on the meaning of ethics in concrete situations, they “constitute a genre subject to different constraints and impositions compared with Levinas’s phenomenological style” (10). That is, the situational focus of the readings gives Levinas the scope to think politics otherwise than through some of the guiding presuppositions of his phenomenological works. Significantly, they allow Levinas to “moderate” (10) what the phenomenological texts call the absolute precedence of ethics: the idea that ethics is first philosophy, or that the ethical relation constitutes the primary reference point for any philosophical investigation. And in moderating this presupposition, Herzog argues, the Talmudic readings not only “manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (5, emphasis added), but they also offer a radically different conception of Levinasian politics. In Herzog’s own words: “In the readings (…), Levinas tried to do two things that he could not do in the phenomenological works: first, prevent politics from bringing about the failure of ethics; and second, construct politics positively, and not as the interruption and collapse of ethics” (10).
The first chapter of Levinas’s Politics begins to advance this political portrayal of Levinas by further reflecting on what distinguishes his Talmudic from his phenomenological writings. According to Herzog, the unique character of the Talmudic readings can be approached from the perspective of Levinas’s famous distinction between the “saying” and the “said”—that is, in terms of the distinction between “the manifestation of presence through discourse” (the said), and “a form of language that does not reduce (…) otherness into sameness” (the saying) (20-21). Following Ricoeur’s reading of this distinction, which emphasises a complex mutual interplay between said and saying, Herzog’s argument is that the form of Levinas’s Talmudic writings “must be understood as part of a larger expression of the relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘said’, in which ‘saying’ and ‘said’ cannot exist without each other—indeed must confront each other” (28). For whilst, as Herzog demonstrates, Levinas certainly considers the Talmud to be the expression of an ethical saying that is irreducible to the said, his Talmudic commentaries—because they seek the unity of the many disparate texts that make up the Talmud—can be regarded as attempting to “integrate these ‘sayings’ into a thematised philosophical ‘said'” (26).
Though somewhat technical, this discussion on the form of the Talmudic readings allows Herzog to successfully articulate some of the guiding threads of her political reading of Levinas. In particular, Herzog uses this discussion to posit an essential inseparability between the domains of ethics and ontology in Levinas: “The inseparability of ‘saying’ and ‘said’ comes from the concreteness of life itself, in which ethics and ontology develop together” (28). Now, for Herzog, this inseparability is crucial from the point of view of Levinas’s politics not only because politics and ontology are regularly equated in his philosophy. More broadly, the interplay between saying and said that is formally expressed by Levinas’s Talmudic writings also tells us something about their positive political content. Specifically, it points to a substantive conception of Levinasian politics—“a livable politics” (15)—where political activity is that which simultaneously confronts and materialises the irreducible ‘saying’ of ethics.
Herzog further expounds this Levinasian conception of politics in Chapter 2. Here, Levinasian politics is introduced as an institutional enterprise that concerns itself with how responsibility and goods should be shared across humanity. On this reading, Levinas defines politics neither as a monopoly of power, nor as the guardianship of individuals’ natural rights. Rather more starkly, the Talmudic readings define politics “as concern and care for people’s hunger” (40). “To think of men’s hunger is the first function of politics” (Levinas, 1994: 18). This means that in distinction to ethics, politics also does not consist of the absolute obligation to give oneself wholly to the other. Politics is not exactly “the duty to give to the other even the bread out of one’s own mouth”, as Otherwise than Being defines ethics (Levinas, 1998a: 55). Indeed, as Herzog states, though the other’s hunger is in a certain sense the problem that unites both politics and ethics in Levinas, each of those domains develops a radically different solution to that problem. “Ethics is the name of the principle by which the other has priority over the ego. (….) That is, ethics calls for giving the other everything, now” (LP 41). Politics, on the other hand, concerns itself with calculating how some hunger can be institutionally appeased “through the practice of sharing and distributing responsibility and goods” (41).
As well as elucidating this conception of politics, Herzog’s second chapter also offers the intriguing claim that Levinasian politics is that which in a certain sense realises ethics. Taking her cue from Levinas’s text on “Judaism and Revolution”, Herzog’s argument is that “ethics alone has no materiality. It becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). Now, insofar as it finds clear textual evidence in Levinas’s Talmudic readings, this argument is largely successful in dispelling the “common misconception” that Levinas is wholly ‘against’ politics (42). Importantly, in pursuing this argument, Herzog also innovatively identifies a conception of Levinasian justice that finds no clear expression in the phenomenological writings: merciful or non-indifferent justice. Under this conception, justice “is synonymous with neither ethics nor politics but consists in the relation between the two” (11). Put differently, justice is that differential which expresses the extent to which the infinite responsibility of ethics has become fulfilled, or materialised, through the institutional calculation and distribution of politics.
Chapter 3 deals with another unique contribution of Levinas’s Talmudic work, namely, its conception of the social. According to Herzog, in works like “Messianic Texts” and “Cities of Refuge”, Levinas thematises a distinctive social domain that can be called neither ethical nor political. This social domain, which Levinas equates with both contemporary urban life and Western liberal democracies, is one that is characterised by individualism, conflict, and a lack of concern for others. In Herzog’s words: “the social [is] a domain of indifferent care for the self, unaffected by ethical responsibility” (54). As such, the social clearly distinguishes itself from both ethics and the political: “[it] consists of neither infinite responsibility nor the implementation of those laws of justice that that would transform the ethical demand into viable practices” (46). Nevertheless, far from being simply irrelevant to Levinas’s overall conception of politics, for Herzog, this conception of the social in fact further highlights the positive role that Levinasian politics can play in realising ethics. Indeed, Herzog’s conclusion in this chapter is that if there is never any responsibility or concern for others in the social, then “politics—understood as institutions and leadership [of shared responsibility]—is the sole way to concretely implement the ethical principle (….) the sole way, for Levinas, to give some materiality to ethics” (53).
Having in the first three chapters presented a mostly positive vision of Levinasian politics, in Chapter 4 Herzog begins to focus on the necessary connection between this politics and the problem of violence. Herzog opens this chapter by noting that the critique of politics that famously appears in Totality and Infinity—where politics is defined as the violent art of war—is not entirely absent from Levinas’s Talmudic readings (55). In essays like “The State of Cesar and the State of David”, Levinas continues to attribute an essential violence to politics: “‘By serving the State one serves repression’ (….) by which Levinas means that all State servants, like police officers, use or condone violence or repression” (60). But unlike Levinas’s phenomenological writings, Herzog adds, the Talmudic readings do not entirely reject the value of politics and the state. Indeed, despite continuing to describe politics as violent, Levinas’s Talmudic writings also insist that political violence is necessary for the task of fighting evil (60). In this particular sense, and as Herzog persuasively demonstrates, Levinas not only judges politics to be violent, but he also “accepts that the aim of political violence, namely, the fight against evil, is important and legitimates its means” (66).
In Chapter 5, Herzog further develops this account of political violence by reflecting on what Levinas understands by evil. Drawing on the notion of merciful justice introduced in Chapter 2, Herzog’s central contention in this chapter is that “evil in the Talmudic readings is the impossibility of justice” (64). Put differently, evil is a kind of disjunction between politics and ethics: it is the antithesis of that productive relation where ethics is realised or materialised by politics. “Evil is the situation of an unattainable relationship between ethics and politics, a situation in which politics and ethics cannot coexist” (64). Now, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas considers the phenomenon of evil to be possible in three different contexts. First, evil can occur when an individual—or its political community—chooses to build a private domain (or home) that is detached from otherness and collective action. Evil “is the attempt to build a fortified self—be it an individual or national home—erected against the world” (71). Second, evil for Levinas is what happens when the state, instead of fighting injustice and oppression, becomes dominated by “ideology” and “idolatry”—that is, by two deceptive forms of language that disguise themselves as moral reason, but which are in fact mystifications intended to oppress and dominate (74). Third, “evil is linked to animality, namely to a certain understanding of being” (65). More accurately, evil is what happens when we choose to give our biological and psychological inclinations—our ontological or animal desires—a preponderance over political responsibility (77).
As well as bringing Levinas into a productive dialogue with a number of significant political thinkers (including Arendt, Weil and Nussbaum), Herzog’s account of evil also begins to illustrate one of the key claims of Levinas’s Politics, namely, the idea that the Talmudic readings moderate some of the positions of Levinas’s phenomenological writings. In short, Herzog’s contention is that because the Talmudic readings conceive evil as “the choice of an order of things” (79), they are also able to develop more nuanced accounts of phenomena like dwelling and ontology than the phenomenological writings. Thus, for instance, because in the Talmudic readings “evil is not anchored in biological or psychological inclinations but in choosing to give these dispositions precedence over responsibility, (….) the extreme claim of Levinas’s 1948 book Time and the Other, that ‘Being is evil’, is, in the readings, moderated into a more complex view: Being is evil, but only when it is not subordinated to ethics” (78-79).
This line of thinking is extended in Chapter 6, which focuses on Levinas’s conception of nature in the Talmudic readings. Herzog opens this chapter by stating that due to their largely anti-Spinozist slant, it is not always easy to find an appreciation of the ethical value of nature in Levinas’s phenomenological writings, where “transcendence, or God, is not nature, and is other than nature” (81). Contrastingly, the Talmudic readings do sometimes connect the uncanny infinity of transcendence to the natural world. Indeed, as Herzog reveals, despite maintaining a distinction between the human and the natural, Levinas’s Talmudic writings do intriguingly consider non-human animals, like dogs, to in certain cases “sense or express ‘transcendence'” (88). Furthermore, this expression of transcendence in nature is not limited to the case of humanity’s ‘best friend’. Indeed, in what is this chapter’s main contribution, Herzog also attempts to demonstrate that “Levinas uncovers the complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). Specifically, Herzog sees the Talmudic readings as providing a unique notion of “elevation”, within nature as a whole, which makes nature more than a simple perseverance in being or conatus (93). In other words, for Levinas, there is “an otherwise than nature in nature” (94). And for Herzog, this idea is politically charged because it shows that Levinas’s philosophy can open onto a sort of “prudent environmentalism” (94). That is, with Levinas, we can reassess our political relation with nature, and come to regard it as a domain that mixes both conative, an-ethical struggles and moments of genuine ethical rupture.
In Chapter 7, Herzog turns to what is potentially the thorniest aspect of Levinas’s Talmudic readings: their defence of Zionism and the modern State of Israel. Herzog is of course eminently aware that such defences have led many critics to classify Levinas’s philosophy as anti-Palestinian and even racist. And in this chapter, Herzog by no means denies that there are certain problems with Levinas’s reflections on Zionism. However, and in response to such critiques, Herzog holds “that Levinas’s take on Zionism is a specific instance of his broader conception of the relation between ethics and politics” (96). In other words, Herzog’s claim is that Levinas’s thought on Zionism receives its broad outlines from the more general political philosophy of the Talmudic readings—and not vice versa. Thus, Herzog’s first argument in this chapter is that Levinas defends the State of Israel because he sees it as the only way to politically ensure the survival of the Jewish people, and thus, as the only way to concretely implement or realise the “particular version of justice” that is expressed in the Torah (99). However, Herzog also tries to demonstrate that, in line with the notion that politics is necessarily violent, Levinas repeatedly criticises and holds the State of Israel to account for its violent tendencies. As she puts it: “despite the fact that the State of Israel serves an ethical purpose and is, indeed, necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, it nonetheless puts Jewish existence in physical and spiritual danger because it entails an embrace of ontology—idolatry of the land, rootedness, conquest, and destruction” (102). For Herzog, therefore, the ‘problem’ with Levinas’s thought on Zionism is not its silence or failure to denounce the violence and oppression of the modern State of Israel. Instead, “the main weakness of Levinas’s Zionism” is that it still lends itself too readily to the dialectical Hegelianism that Levinas elsewhere so strongly criticises (96).
The final chapter of Levinas’s Politics continues to clarify Levinas’s relation to Hegel, but this time from the perspective of the general issue of political messianism. Herzog’s effort in this chapter is two-fold: first, to clarify the relation between Levinasian eschatology and concrete political laws; and second, to elucidate the relation between messianism and history. In both cases, Herzog’s key argument is that Levinasian messianism, despite signifying an anarchic divine Law that is entirely irreducible to—and even ‘ends’ the temporality of—political laws and historical realities, nonetheless relies on those same entities to find its expression in the world. As Herzog, quoting Levinas, writes: “the ethical law needs the support of political laws: ‘The Messiah is king. The divine invests history and the State rather than doing away with them. The end of History retains a political form” (116). In upholding this idea, Herzog argues further, the Talmudic readings also significantly nuance the conception of history that emerges in Levinas’s phenomenological works. Indeed, where in the latter Levinas frequently opposes ethical eschatology to history (cf. Levinas, 1979: 21), in the Talmudic readings “there is no contradiction between recognising the importance of political history and holding to an ethical messianism, because political history is the instrument that allows redemption to enter the phenomenal world” (120). Thus, for Herzog, even in their most ‘utopian’ of dimensions, that is, even where they speak of a Law that is in a certain sense irreducible to political realities, Levinas’s Talmudic readings remain political through and through.
Overall, Levinas’s Politics is a hugely successful text. Pace Levinas’s critics, Herzog’s text develops a compelling portrayal of Levinas as a thinker who does not exclusively consider politics and the state as hindrances to ethics and justice. Indeed, although from a certain perspective the aims of Levinasian politics and morality are indeed opposed, from another angle, as Herzog convincingly shows, those two domains in fact support and mutually complement one another. In this respect, there is indeed a political philosophy to be found in Levinas’s work. Furthermore, Levinas’s Politics persuasively demonstrates that this political philosophy attains a certain coherence throughout Levinas’s Talmudic writings, consistently manifesting itself in discussions of topics as varied as evil, violence, nature, and messianicity. In treating these and a breadth of other subjects with admirable clarity and succinctness, Herzog also demonstrates a commanding grasp of what is undoubtedly an underappreciated part of Levinas’s corpus. Readers of Levinas that are unfamiliar with the ‘religious’ aspects of his work will undoubtedly find a wealth of valuable new material in Levinas’s Politics, and they will likewise benefit from Herzog’s concise but supremely informative explanations of Levinas’s unique approach to religious material.
For all its scholarly richness and breadth, there are nonetheless some notable absences in Levinas’s Politics. Crucially, the text makes no reference to Bergson, a philosopher who Levinas famously described as one of the most important for his thought (second only to Heidegger and Husserl), and whose metaphysical conception of time as duration is well known to have influenced Levinas throughout his career. Yet, it is not exactly this metaphysical Bergson that might have been of interest to Herzog’s project, but rather the Bergson of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. In that text, as Levinas himself explains in a 1988 interview, what Bergson had previously understood as the metaphysical intuition of duration becomes “interpreted as a relationship with the other and with God” (1998b: 244). Furthermore, in a move that bears a striking similarity with what Herzog calls one of the key ideas of Levinas’s political thinking, The Two Sources continually maintains that for this ethical relationship with the other and God to be upheld, it must find its “point of support” in, and even “pass through”, a set of concrete political organisations and instruments, which, in their isolation, can be seen as opposed to the aims of ethics (Bergson, 1977: 309-310). As Bergson writes, though politics has historically tended to promote violence and war, it is only “with the advent of [Western] political and social organisations which proved experimentally that the mass of people was not doomed [to hunger and poverty] (…) [that] the soul could open wide its gates to a universal love [of humanity or God]” (226-227).
Now, in fairness to Herzog, the avowed aims of Levinas’s Politics are interpretative more than they are historical (LP 9). In that respect, Herzog can be forgiven for not tracing every single one of Levinas’s influences in the political writings. That said, the conception of the interaction between ethics and politics that emerges in Bergson’s The Two Sources is clearly not without relevance to what Herzog considers to be one of the central theses of Levinas’s political thinking, namely, the idea that ethics “becomes material and receives meaning only in the form of something that is very different from—and indeed, opposed to—it: politics” (41). At the very least, it seems that Levinas might have found inspiration for this political idea in Bergson. More strongly, we might say that just as the preface of Totality and Infinity famously considers Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption as being “too often present in [the] book to be cited” (Levinas, 1979: 28), so too, perhaps Bergson’s The Two Sources plays the same role for Levinas in the Talmudic readings—particularly if, as Herzog strongly argues, those readings establish a relation where morality, far from dispensing with politics, in fact depends upon it for its concretisation. In this context, a closer examination of Bergson’s influence on Levinas’s political thinking would not only have further enriched, but even seems to be demanded by, Herzog’s own chosen focus in Levinas’s Politics.
Another potential weakness of Levinas’s Politics concerns its treatment of Levinas’s phenomenological works. Unfortunately, and perhaps because Herzog is avowedly more interested in the “‘central unity'” of Levinas’s thinking (9), the text often speaks of works like Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being in a monolithic way, as if these were one and the same phenomenological text. For example, Herzog at times freely switches between the two texts as a way of explaining Levinas’s presumed ‘opposition’ to ontology (cf. 24). Now, it is true that in some respects, both Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being oppose ontology—particularly if by ontology we mean thematisation and the politics of identification this involves. But it is equally the case that in other respects Totality and Infinity ascribes a much more positive role to ontology than Otherwise than Being. This is especially true of the sections in the last part of Totality and Infinity where Levinas speaks positively of fecundity as “an ontological category” (Levinas, 1979: 277). Far from being opposed, ontological fecundity is there thought as that which “establishes [the subject’s] relationship with the absolute future, or infinite time” (268).
Now, it is true that these kinds of exegetical considerations are not where Levinas’s Politics claims to make its contribution to the scholarship. But these considerations are nonetheless important to Levinas’s Politics, and that is because, as Herzog herself concedes (LP 5-6), the text continually refers to the phenomenological works as a way of elucidating the ‘unique’ and ‘interruptive’ character of Levinas’s political philosophy in the Talmudic readings. For example, in the chapter on “Evil as Injustice”, Herzog asserts that Levinas’s Talmudic writings insist on the importance of the home for the project of justice (68). In Levinas’s own words: “There is no salvation except in the reentry into oneself” (Levinas, 1996: 190). Crucially, Herzog adds further that these remarks on the need for a home moderate and “contradict Levinas’s general critique of interiority formulated at length in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being” (LP 68). To be sure, in the very next line, Herzog shows some awareness that this thesis is perhaps more strongly upheld in the later text. But still left out of this analysis is the recognition that Totality and Infinity by no means contradicts the general affirmation that “a home is necessary to see the other” (68). Indeed, if, as Herzog claims, this idea appears in the Talmudic readings, likewise, in Totality and Infinity, not only is it dwelling which “accomplishes” the separation between the I and the Other (Levinas, 1979: 151), but even more strongly, “the whole dimension of interiority—the articulations of separation—are necessary for the idea of Infinity, the relation with the Other” (148).
These similarities are relevant for Levinas’s Politics because in a certain sense they blunt one of Herzog’s central claims in the text, specifically, the notion that “the readings manifest a political thinking that challenges the ethical analyses offered in Levinas’s phenomenological works” (LP 5). As we have already seen Herzog claim, this challenge boils down to a difference in approach between the two bodies of work: “the phenomenological books present a utopian and impractical ethics, while the Talmudic readings reflect a political, and at times pragmatic, mode of thought” (5). But if what grants the Talmudic readings a ‘political’ and ‘pragmatic’ character are ideas like the necessity of a home for justice, then surely, if the phenomenological works can be shown to offer similar affirmations, they cannot be easily be characterised as wholly ‘utopian’ and ‘impractical’. Perhaps, there is also a latent ‘politics’ and a latent ‘pragmatism’ in the phenomenological works themselves, particularly in those places—like the affirmations on interiority and the home cited above—where they come closest to the Talmudic readings. What this also suggests is that on some levels, at least, there is a greater reconciliation between the Talmudic texts and the phenomenological writings than Herzog’s reading of the essential ‘challenge’ or ‘moderation’ of one by the other is capable of accommodating. And perhaps Levinas’s Politics might have achieved an even more nuanced and unified account of Levinas as a political thinker had it further excavated these latent possibilities for reconciliation between the two bodies of work.
All that said, these criticisms will perhaps be of interest only to the expert, and they nowise undermine the immense of value of Herzog’s more general contribution to the field. More than any other scholar to date, Herzog has succeeded in dispelling the false idea that Levinas’s thought has nothing to contribute to the field of political philosophy. Indeed, Herzog has not only clearly shown that Levinas’s Talmudic texts do present a coherent political philosophy, but even one that is potentially valuable in highlighting the many tensions and opportunities of contemporary, Western liberal democracies. For these reasons, but also for its clarity, depth, and scholarly richness, Levinas’s Politics deserves to find a wide and attentive readership among Levinas scholars and political philosophers alike.
Bergson, H. 1977. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Translated by Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Bereton. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Levinas, E. 1979. Totality and Infinity: An Essay of Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. London: Martinus Nijhoff.
Levinas, E. 1994b. Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures. Translated by Gary Mole. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Levinas, E. 1996. New Talmudic Readings. Translated by Richard Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. 1998a. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. 1998b. Entre Nous. Translated by Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ventura, D. 2020. “The Intensive Other: Deleuze and Levinas on the ethical status of the Other”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58:2, 327-350.
 Herzog clarifies that by “Talmudic readings” she means “the body of texts related to the Talmud and other Jewish sources, which look different from Levinas’s phenomenological work” (5-6).
 Though for reasons of space I have here referred only to Levinas’s thought on the home, there are other points where the phenomenological works bear more similarity to the Talmudic readings than Herzog perhaps acknowledges. To cite another example, in the chapter “On Nature”, Herzog argues that where the phenomenological writings refuse to characterise nature as ethical, the Talmudic readings posit a “complicated relationship between the ontological and the ethical in all parts of nature” (91). But once again, this argument ignores that Otherwise than Being, for instance, also posits a complex relation of co-contamination between the realms of ethics and nature, particularly in those passages on enjoyment where Levinas insists that the immediacy of the sensibility to the elements is also the immediacy or the proximity of the other (1998a: 74). For a more extended account of this relation, see my: Ventura, 2020: esp. 341-348.
While Adorno and others maintained that, after the Second World War, poetry and philosophy are impossible, Blumenberg belonged to that group of post-war, German philosophers committed to exploring what would be possible in and with philosophy. Did Blumenberg succeed in this endeavour, and is that why some today find his work inspiring?
This new volume by Felix Heidenreich examines the operation of the work of Blumenberg, focusing on the operation of his metaphorology as political metaphorology. Yet he does not merely inquire into Blumenberg’s metaphorology. Indeed, there is a certain ambiguity in the title Politische Metaphorologie Hans Blumenberg heute. Hans Blumenberg heute is surely a more expansive topic than his metaphorology. What is the book about?
The book is structured as follows. In chapters 1-6 the author approaches metaphorology as philosophy, or more broadly as thought movement, thinking style. Chapter 6, on myth, is transitional, with chapters 7 and 8 being explicitly about political metaphorology. In chapter 9 the relationship of politics, morals, and truth is the central theme, with a focus on the political character of metaphorology. Chapter 10, the closing chapter, returns to the core question: What can we do with or make of Blumenberg’s philosophy and with his metaphorology?
The first chapter elaborates the core question: What is the operation of Blumenberg’s work? Thus it is clear that the book will not be an introduction to Blumenberg’s work (enough manuals are already available) nor an argument for a single thesis. Rather, it is a search for an answer to the question of what we are able to make of Blumenberg. Instead of a doxography, the author prioritizes investigation as a style of thinking. He wants to offer something other than the usual perspective, moving away from the question “What does Blumenberg say?” and towards the questions, “How does Blumenberg operate?” and “Is it possible to continue this operation?” By investigating these questions as paradigms, as examples of a working style and thinking style, the book attempts to contribute to the self-understanding of philosophy, as well.
The second chapter focuses on Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (1965), the book that made Blumenberg famous. Blumenberg examines European intellectual history, arguing that the modern representation of the self-assertion of the human, the representation that the human uses to take his fate into his own hands, is that by which he can and must transform his world. European modernity is thus not opposed to the Christian world, but procreated by it. The author refers to Anselm Haverkamp, who argues that Blumenberg at the end of the 1960s was conceived as left or progressive philosopher not least because of this book. In Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, the concept of rearrangement is important. Blumenberg’s conception of rearrangement suggests that themes and arguments exist in a functional coherence, in which separate elements can be exchanged and altered, but that there is no absolute “point zero,” an originary place from which new interpretations spring. Since every new idea arises from combinations of existing narratives, concepts, and metaphors, intellectual history becomes a series of changes, rearrangements, and bricolages.
In the third chapter the central question is whether there are any constants in innovation dynamics. What connects the contemporary person to the human being of the Middle Ages, to the ancients, or even to primitive times? Classically, philosophical anthropology gives the answers here. For instance, Kant’s question, “What is man?”, establishes a telos of the human being: Man is substantially social, substantially seeking knowledge, substantially gifted with reason. But according to Blumenberg, this essential determination cannot be continued today. As opposed to the essentialism of traditional European philosophy, he asks the question of man in his own, narrative way. The author points to two strategies in this context. First, in Blumenberg’s narrative philosophy, in place of attributions of being come stories and histories; second, there is Blumenberg’s plea for the generation and use of descriptive categories. In stories and descriptions, Blumenberg’s goal is also to produce distance, not a vision of the absoluteness of reality. He aims for an integration of the phenomenological, first-person-perspective on the one hand and natural-anthropological, third-person perspective on the other. In doing so, his descriptions are strongly bound to historical and personal circumstances, so that culture becomes a shield against the absolutism of reality. To describe this project, Blumenberg uses the metaphor of “caves” that are not built of stone, but of histories, texts, theories woven into houses. Thus, in his last major monograph, Höhlenausgänge (1989), the history of European philosophy becomes a series of cave metaphors. Yet, in contrast to Blumenberg’s emphasis on distance, Heidenreich argues that man is a being who alternates between distance and intimacy, and aligns one with the other.
In the fourth chapter the author discusses the relationship between culture and technology in Blumenberg’s anthropological variations. Not only do humans have means to anticipate danger and to prevent it, but animals also have rudimentary forms of technology: they build nests, communicate, and reap the benefits of their labour. Technology does not contrast with the world, but comes from it. The author applies Blumenberg’s concepts to phenomena that Blumenberg himself never described: digitisation, the Internet, development of self-learning machines. What do these technologies mean for people? They affect us by transforming us into data-producers and consumers. So, here, there appears to be a fruitful way to build on Blumenberg’s anthropological approach to technology.
In the fifth chapter the author points out something more explicitly about Blumenberg’s approach to anthropology and to rhetoric. Anthropological arguments always carry the danger of a certain reductionism. How does Blumenberg face this danger? As already indicated, for Blumenberg, description constants replace essence determinations. And while Blumenberg follows Kant in directing his thinking against a certain pathos of reason, his more powerful contribution is to rehabilitate a justification for rhetoric. Such rehabilitation is necessary because rhetoric has for too long been perceived primarily as an art of seduction. In contract, for Blumenberg, rhetoric is a technique of delay, a substitute for violence. Blumenberg is not so much interested in the rationality of rhetoric as he is in its formalising, delaying, and deflecting effect. In this context, Blumenberg’s understanding of education or Bildung as a kind of distancing or refusal to be impulsive is important. For Blumenberg, political education is not about rhetoric as display or framing, but about rhetoric as a kind of exercise in slowness and thoughtfulness. Nevertheless, rhetoric and metaphor do not always slow down, but can make things more complex, confuse, enthuse, but also oversimplify, leading to questionable cognitive “shortening.”
Criticism of an “essentializing anthropology”, which is based on a given being of man, cannot neglect to hold on to description constants, as already indicated. Chapter 6 starts with Blumenberg’s central thesis of the complexity reduction via narrative by man: Man likes to keep the world off the body and live with the things he experiences by telling himself and others a history. In this view, anthropology is systematically intertwined with myth. The foundational hypothesis here is that man as a narrative, myth-forming, myth-gathering being can never fully outgrow the premodern techniques of world-conquering. From chapter 6 onwards, the book moves towards Blumenberg’s political metaphorology. This chapter, not yet explicit about this, functions as a transition.
In German-language post-war philosophy, myth is a major field of study, and Blumenberg plays a central role in the intense struggle concerning how to understand myth and its function (the origins of this discussion are found in Carl Schmitt, Ernst Cassirer, and Albert Camus). According to Blumenberg, myths organize chaos. The first detailed and explicit presentation of the theme of myth theory can be found in Blumenberg’s contribution to the band on Probleme der Mythenrezeption (1968) under the title “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos”, on how myth production and myth reception relate to each other. Yet it is Blumenberg’s monograph Arbeit am Mythos (1979) that dogma becomes central, and with it a questioning of the Christian tradition. Unlike Plato, Blumenberg does not pit myth against logos, but instead opposes it to dogma. In particular, he conceives myth as liberal and open in the face of the closedness and authoritarian character of dogma. At the end of the 1960s, this view produced the Blumenberg –Taubes controversy. Whereas Jacob Taubes stressed that the myth can also become anti-liberal, even becoming a means of spreading terror, Blumenberg has no plausible reply. He does write about the Hitler myth, but simply assumes that myth must be ambiguity-tolerant and ambiguous. Nevertheless, even ambiguity can be dangerous, as evidenced by the ideological promiscuity of the national socialist elite. Heidenreich concludes, I think quite rightly, that the outlining the form of thought and presentation of myth does not yet say anything about its content, a point Blumenberg largely missed.
In the seventh chapter, Blumenberg’s investigation of metaphor, as developed in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphor (1960), takes centre stage. Indeed, Paradigms is Blumenberg’s methodically most important text, and perhaps the one for which he is most famous. Heidenreich argues that with this text Blumenberg opened up an entire field of research within philosophy, its important offshoot emerging, for example, in Ralf Konersmann’s Wörterbuch der philosophischen Metaphern (2007).
What is the core of metaphorology? The author indicates that this question is not easy to answer. The term suggests that it is a scientific treatment of metaphors, so that metaphorology relates to metaphor formation as a kind of reflexive science. But the significance of the project only becomes clear when it is placed in relation to the history of understanding, something that Blumenberg himself never accomplished. When concepts shape our thinking, the historically informed handling of these concepts becomes a requirement of controlled thinking. I think this implicitly shows a focus on the content of metaphors, but that is not yet an answer to the question of what metaphorology is. So, the question arises again: is metaphorology just the history of metaphors (akin to the history of concepts, which includes the history of their content) or a theory of metaphor and its function?
Another important question arises in this connection: Are metaphors ornaments or are they more fundamental? The view that metaphors should be understood not as an appendage but as a foundation of human language, is usually traced back to Nietzsche’s text Über Lüge und Wahrheit im aussermoralischen Sinne (1896). This is a central question about metaphor, but is it addressed by metaphorology? Blumenberg refers to Nietzsche, but offers no extended discussion, nor is Heidenreich clear on this point.
Heidenreich does point out that Blumenberg’s metaphorological texts have been compared to topos research. A classic objection to topos research is its associative character. One jumps among text types, eras, and reception contexts, to compare similar usage modes. But this purely associative linking counters Blumenberg’s approach, which looks to a structuring background narrative, as in Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit (1957). The decisive distinction between a metaphor-collecting topos-research and a metaphorological study is the presence in the latter of an historical thesis, which organizes the material. The concept of “Leitfossile” (leading fossils) is significant here. It means that metaphorology must assume significant cases in any given period, without which it would become a collection of bare materials.
The detection of analogies itself leads to thinking in analogies, for Blumenberg. Thus, the question arises: do people constitute metaphors or do metaphors constitute people? For Blumenberg, the study of metaphor shows that texts know more than their writers, since reality speaks through them. According to Heidenreich, this observation means that people do not have ideas, but ideas have people. But this leads to a methodological difficulty concerning the capacity of metaphorology to oversee the context of its research objects. This question about the relationship of metaphors and people, which appears in various places, seems to be a blind spot in the book, since the author never makes it thematic nor takes any real position on it.
Chapter 8 raises the key issue: what is political metaphorology? In Blumenberg, the word combination of political metaphorology does not occur. Heidenreich wants to investigate how metaphors themselves become political, and hence to understand how metaphors exercise power. His concern is not so much about metaphors within the history of ideas as it is about intellectual martial art, which keeps out questionable ideas. But it seems to me that one need not choose between the polemical function of metaphors, and metaphors as guiding fossils. Again, as far as I am concerned, the author does not offer a lucid treatment of this ambiguity in the functions of metaphor.
The author points out that the dimension of power in Blumenberg’s metaphorology remains implicit, but the next chapter considers political, military, and violent metaphors in the work of Blumenberg and of his pupils. It has long been acknowledged that such metaphors can lead from the point of view of theoretical knowledge. But, then, why is this discussion of violent metaphor necessary? Do these metaphors have depth, or do they serve as merely collective concepts? The same question can be asked about the author’s digressions about Brexit and about the French yellow jackets. Heidenreich even says that metaphors can at once be deadly and guiding. But the point of this observation eludes me. Perhaps we are once again asking whether metaphors form us or whether we form metaphors, but the discussion here does not gain any clarity on that question.
Though they do not resolve this crucial question, the author mentions several valuable features of Blumenberg’s approach. First, Blumenberg’s work clarifies the great relevance of cultural contexts and historical connotations to understanding metaphor: as a phenomenologist, Blumenberg knows that we always “see more than we see.” Second, Blumenberg’s approach makes it possible to consider the mixing of metaphors and myths. Indeed, metaphors can be understood as “micro-myths” insofar as they already have a narrative structure and are in many cases woven into larger narrative, which may even have its own mythical connections. Third, we learn something from Blumenberg about the dynamics of realignment.
The author then elaborates on the metaphorology of “the ship of state” and the question of the democratic “captain,” following Blumenberg’s Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer (1979). Here he refers in passing to Blumenberg’s analyses of the nautical metaphors that unfold in a Bundestag debate. The discussion of this example shows mainly how difficult a good political metaphor can be to unpack.
The author raises another methodically decisive question in this context: do these metaphors guide political relationships ornamentally, or do they have a real, channeling effect? How exactly should the relationship between expression and the expressed be understood here? Metaphors are plastic, so even the limited image of the state ship branches into a variety of theories and themes. Do metaphors really form our thought and action, or do we form metaphors as ornaments to our pre-existing ideologies and decisions? Could it be that metaphors are not deep guide fossils but rather a kind of surface foam?
The author tends somewhat towards the surface foam view. He holds, in a stronger way than Blumenberg himself, that one must assume the incoherence of human metaphor use. Blumenberg imagines that leading metaphors fundamentally pre-structure our view of the world, of which we ourselves are parts. In this view, metaphors are incoherent in the sense that they do not push our thinking through a single compelling channel, but rather through a complex network as in Venice, with side arms, dead-ends, main and side canals. Modernisation also contributes to this pluralisation, since in the absence of an absolute metaphor, there is rather a horizon of meanings, that terminate in one another. Our use of metaphors, including those that form political communication, is a bricolage.
For Heidenreich, the toolbox of Blumenberg’s political metaphor, unlike its pure framing analysis, provides an historically grounded analysis of primary philosophical leading metaphors. Against this background, the author indicates what he believes an integrative political metaphorology should look like. He makes a attempt at systematization, guided by a maxims of political metaphorology:
- Analyse the entire network of image fields! Metaphors are semantic compactions, or nets of concepts that refer to one other. For instance, consider the field of architectural metaphors such as buildings and houses, foundations, pillars or struts, and so on. Each metaphor in the network is constituted as a member of a metaphor family, the members of which, in Wittgenstein’s sense, bear a certain family resemblance to one another.
- Familiarize yourself with important matters! A broadening of the metaphorological programme concerns the exposure of technical historical and social contexts. For example, light can become a metaphor for truth because people see in light but not in the dark. When Blumenberg analyses the ‘Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit’, this analysis gains depth by examining the history of the luminous agent at the same time.
- Ignore media boundaries! This is not Blumenberg’s, though today it is trivial. It is precisely the manifestations of metaphor in the mass media that have the greatest political effect.
- Specify the character of the metaphor’s leadership! The most difficult step in political metaphorology is to show that there is not only strategic use of ornamental metaphors, but also a leading function in metaphor itself. Yet, according to Heidenreich, even Blumenberg often fails to show this.
In the end, the author also stresses that a political metaphor in the continuation of Blumenberg’s work has a deconstructive character: Metaphorology is hardly focused on the question of whether metaphor is “correct”, but will only make explicit what connotations and implications are built in; the metaphors of people in the struggle for the appropriate expression must be understood analytically.
Chapter 9 focuses on the relationship between politics, morality, and truth, based on Hannah Arendt’s writing on the Eichmann trial. The question of truth here is focused on the truth of the existence of evil, while Arendt emphasizes the banality of evil. Though it takes effort to see what relevance this has to metaphorology, the link seems to be that political metaphorology must be guided in terms of power and democracy, and therefore also in terms of good and evil. Blumenberg blames Hannah Arendt for creating the myth of everyday – and thus innocent – evil, by portraying Eichmann as a stupid pawn. I will not go into the discussion between Blumenberg and Arendt about Eichmann, because recent research on Eichmann has shed new light on her assessment of the man and his crimes.
What is important is how we value myth-making. According to Blumenberg, collective myths can have a function. The unsustainability of their imagination does not have to be presented to the weak. As a means of defensive self-confidence, community-forming myths can be legitimate. Myths and truth thus become pharmaka, substances whose use presupposes a context-related clarity. But how can myth distinguish between right and wrong? When is a political myth useful for self-defence and when does it become hegemonic? Blumenberg lacks an answer to these questions, according to Heidenreich, for principled reasons. These questions depend on common sense and practical experience that is indicated in traditional philosophy with the concept of phronesis or prudentia. Because these are eminently practical questions, there is no rule that can be used to answer them. So, Heidenreich argues, there is no moral philosophy in Blumenberg, or at least nothing that solves these practical questions. But if that’s right, does this disqualify Blumenberg’s metaphorology from being political?
Chapter 10 turns to a key question in Blumenberg’s thinking: Where can philosophy still be practiced? As Heidenreich portrays it, Blumenberg gets rid of hard dividing lines of classical philosophy: the image of rhetoric as the enemy of philosophy disappears, myth is no longer directly opposed to reason. Blumenberg is taken as a representative of a soft, empathetic, deconstructive philosophy that allows authors, theories, and perspectives to manifest their metaphorical, time-bound and literary assumptions. But what does Blumenberg have to say about the mission of academic philosophy? Does philosophy disappear into scholarly writing, argument and insight into essayistic commentary?
For Blumenberg himself, it was internal philosophical doubt that makes a certain representation of the profession questionable. He is also clear in his rejection of the usefulness or applicability of philosophy. Heidenreich agrees that the current culture puts research projects under heavy time pressure, a problem already stressed by Blumenberg. Blumenberg opposed the instrumentalization of philosophy by industry, its economization. But since for him, theory was already form of praxis, he also saw little interest in the left-wing thinkers’ demand for the coherence of theory and revolutionary political praxis. The idea that theory could produce solutions to social problems, must have struck him as naïve.
One problem that presents itself in interpreting Blumenberg is that he left few programmatic texts in that set out his intentions. Yet Blumenberg clearly has a narrative style intended to allow one to consider objects from different perspectives, to explore detours and side roads, and to slow down and to express doubts. He allows for impressions to be processed in freedom without immediately reaching a judgment. Blumenberg is therefore very much in a phenomenological tradition. But according to Heidenreich, this narrative style is not dialogical, so the reader is left wondering how any statement could be contradicted or corrected. Perhaps narrative and dialogical philosophy could indeed develop further together, without contradiction, but for further answers about Blumenberg’s philosophy, a lot of research is needed.
But could Blumenberg’s ideas nevertheless help us understand the leading metaphors of the present day? According to Heidenreich, the great potential of Blumenberg’s approach lies in the careful deconstructive effect of a consistent survey of unselected background metaphors and narrative structures, and the apparent plasticity of meanings within that structure. Analysis should focus not only on dramatic metaphors, such as “struggle” but also on less conspicuous metaphors. With Blumenberg, we can initiate the questioning of those images, which in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words “hold us captive.” Metaphorology is thus at once a cultural techniques and a reflective approach to meaning that may ultimately be more than a deconstructive act.
Although the book contains much of interest, its investigation of the main question, about the politics of Blumenberg’s metaphorology, makes no real reference to Blumenberg’s own conception of politics. The author writes as if Blumenberg approached politics as a necessary evil, about which philosophy does not have to make much of a fuss. And to be sure, we rarely find an explicit discussion of the political in Blumenberg. It does arise, however, in his discussions of political theology, in which he questions traditional views on human nature. Similarly, in his posthumous book Beschreibung des Menschen (2007) (Description of the Human), he treats the state not so much as representing the citizens, but as prevailing over them. That’s a little different than seeing the politics as a necessary evil. Perhaps Blumenberg does politicize philosophy, just in a very different way than Heidenreich would like.
A few other criticisms I made in passing can also be made more explicit. First, no clear definition of metaphor is offered. Since metaphorology is a reflection on metaphors, this makes it a little difficult to grasp what the book is reflecting on. More importantly, in Heidenreich’s argument, metaphor and metaphorology are often mixed, which leads to ambiguities, particularly when he asks about the political operation of metaphor. In many places in the book, he wants to draw on the politically operational nature of metaphors as understood by Blumenberg. But a politically operative metaphor need not depend on politically-operational metaphorology, nor would a non-politically-operational metaphor detract from a politically-operational metaphorology. By the end of the book, the author seems to agree with Blumenberg’s broad understanding of the political dimensions of metaphor, as thinking routines. But since this emerges only at the end of the book, much of the earlier discussion remains ambiguous.
Another criticism is that the author is not always sharp about which point he wants to make, especially when he asks whether we form metaphors or whether metaphors form us. This question is regularly run together with the question of whether a metaphor is a superficial ornament or a guiding or channeling idea, e.g.
The methodically decisive question now is: do these metaphors guide purely ornamental world and political relationships or do they actually have a channeling effect? How exactly should the relationship between expression and the expressed be understood here? …… Do metaphors really channel or do we form metaphors? (90)
We see that the author shifts to the second question, without the first question being answered. But whether a metaphor is ornamental or channelling, does not seem to bear on whether man determines it.
If humans are creators of language, they can produce both superficial metaphors and channeling ideas. But perhaps the author has a different view, and he believes that a metaphor can be a guiding idea, only if man is guided, and not creative himself. The author could have offered a clearer argument by drawing on the extensive French philosophical discourse on this subject (e.g. the work of Lacan, Kristeva, and Ricoeur).
Ultimately, it could be the case that Heidenreich fails to find unity in Blumenberg’s work simply because it is not there. Blumenberg hardly mentions metaphorology in his later work, perhaps because Gadamer in Wahrheid und Methode (1960) has sharply worked out this theme. Blumenberg moved on to myth and incomprehensibility, themes that mark a deepening of his phenomenology. The connection with the earlier work is increasingly loose and unclear, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see the political significance in his later work. Nevertheless, despite these concerns, with Politische Metaphorology: Hans Blumenberg Heute, Heidenreich has produced a rich book that provides a welcome, fresh look at Blumenberg’s work.
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.
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, 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).
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.
 See Carman, Taylor. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
 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.
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.