Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism

Rethinking Existentialism Book Cover Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
Hardback £45.00

Reviewed by: Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth (Queens University Belfast)

‘Existentialism’ has long been held as a concept of contention. It has been used as a buzzword for bleakness, and a synonym for pessimism. Despite its misuse within popular culture, it has also been employed as an umbrella term to denote a philosophical movement. The conflation of this concept has led to a legacy of confusion regarding precisely that which constitutes existential thought, and who ought to be considered as an existentialist. Even much of the secondary literature has failed to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘existentialism’. Instead, we are often offered a constitutive list of themes which ‘existentialists’ supposedly share in common, such as nihilism, absurdity, and authenticity. It is precisely this linguistic ambiguity that causes Jonathan Webber to rethink existentialism, and that which he sets about dispelling. In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label. Instead, Webber offers a carefully considered account, defining existentialism in accordance with the Sartrean maxim ‘existence precedes essence’. It is from this standpoint that Webber takes the reader on a journey of rethinking ‘existentialism’.

Webber begins to clear the confusion by demonstrating why the label ‘existentialist’ should not be applied to certain associated thinkers. In the second chapter, Webber addresses the misattribution of Camus to the inner circle. Here it is illustrated that Camus rejects the central tenants of existentialism, and that the disagreement between Sartre and Camus is a consequence of their subsequent philosophical stances. Another thinker who was initially associated with existentialism, but whom Webber demonstrates to be on the periphery, is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In chapter three, Webber depicts Merleau-Ponty’s divergence in terms of his criticism of Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and Beauvoir’s defence that Merleau-Ponty has misunderstood Sartre. Although Webber does an excellent job of disentangling the intellectual connections between these theorists, one would appreciate further elucidation as to why additional thinkers ought to be excluded. Whilst Webber focused his attention on the development of existentialism in post-war France, there are two further thinkers who could have been addressed. Gabriel Marcel, for example, released his Philosophy of Existentialism in 1946, and Jacques Maritain published his Existence and Existent in 1947. As contemporaries of Sartre and self-proclaimed existentialists (at least initially) it would be interesting to see how they fit into Webber’s narrative.
In the positive phase of his project, Webber sets about determining who ought to be included. Until recently, Simone de Beauvoir has been believed to be without philosophical merit. The reason for overlooking her intellectual prowess is often attributed to her own rejection of the label ‘philosopher’ and referral to Sartre as the brains behind their project. Webber takes this to task in chapter four, where he demonstrates that Beauvoir articulates the existential ideal ‘existence precedes essence’ within her metaphysical novel She Came to Stay. Moreover, that the account which Beauvoir presents contains the concept of ‘commitment’ which presents a significant development upon Sartre’s theory of mind. Within chapter eight, a further important, and unexpected, contribution which Webber makes, is to include Frantz Fanon within the existentialist camp. Webber argues that within Black Skin, White Masks Fanon can be seen to ground his theory on the definition of existentialism insofar as he rejects that there is any essential difference between black people and white people. That is, for Fanon the belief that black people are inferior is caused by the sedimentation of a negative cultural representation in the collective consciousness. This is shown to make a significant development from Sartre’s own attempt to explain racial prejudice in terms of bad faith in Anti-Semite and the Jew.

Although Webber defines existentialism in accordance with the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, he notes that Sartre and Beauvoir initially disagreed upon what this concept entailed. In this way, he maps the development of the definition amongst the advocates themselves. Whilst Sartre is usually considered to be synonymous with existentialism, Webber illustrates that Sartre’s early work is flawed in terms of addressing the problem of absurdity. By tracing the development of Sartre’s thought, Webber shows that Sartre later comes to adopt Beauvoir’s position to reach the mature position where his version of existentialism corresponds to those of Beauvoir and Fanon in terms of their respective concepts of commitment. Having illustrated the various stages in the development of the concept of existentialism, Webber differentiates these forms, which includes Sartre’s early approach, from what he terms the canonical account. Existentialism proper, for Webber, entails that there is no predetermined nature, and that one’s essence is formed through the sedimentation of projects. The canonical accounts of existentialism, according to Webber, are represented by Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Sartre’s Saint Genet.

The ethical ideal espoused by existentialism is ‘authenticity’ and which is a response to absurdity. Sartre and Fanon are shown to offer eudaimonian arguments for authenticity, which suggests that the desire for authenticity emerges in relation to the realisation that inauthenticity leads to psychological distress. However, Webber notes that Sartre’s and Fanon’s accounts of authenticity fail to sufficiently overcome the issue of absurdity because they cannot address the meta-ethical problem of the grounding of normativity. Although Sartre appears to be at the centre of attention at the beginning of the book, it is Beauvoir who emerges as the hero of absurdity, insofar as she is shown to present the most fully articulated account of authenticity. Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity is shown to be supported by the categorical imperative that we should not value any ends which conflict with the value of human nature. Throughout the text, Webber refers to the ‘virtue of authenticity’, however, he does not explain why we ought to conceive of authenticity as a virtue. It is also difficult to understand the way in which authenticity could be construed as a virtue. If in relation eudaimonia, it does not make sense to refer to authenticity as a virtue because eudaimonia is not a virtue for Aristotle, but the end which the virtues lead to. Again, on the Kantian account, virtues are ends which are also duties, but it is questionable whether a way of life could be considered authentic if we have a duty to live in that particular way. Thus, clarity regarding that which is meant by ‘virtue of authenticity’ would be appreciated in avoiding any such confusion.

Webber makes a number of interesting observations and insights within his book. Whilst existentialism is often thought to be at odds with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is demonstrated that this is not the case. In chapter five, it is argued on the contrary that existentialism in fact falls within the Freudian tradition. Although Freud’s account appeals to innate drives, and the existentialists reject the idea of a predetermined essential-self, Webber illustrates that there is no contradiction, but instead a sustained engagement with Freud in attempting to overcome the Cartesian subject. In chapter six, Webber offers an original interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. The standard interpretation is that since ‘hell is other people’, we ought to prefer our own image of ourselves as opposed to that projected upon us by other people. Webber, however, claims that the real moral of the play is that bad faith inevitably impairs our relations with others. In each of these chapters, Webber offers interesting insights which make original contributions to the literature. However, with regards to the overall aim of defining a canonical account of existentialism, neither of these chapters seem directly related.

In the final chapter, Webber brings his analysis to a close by discussing the future direction of existentialism. In particular, he illustrates the practicality of his canonical account and the impact that it could have upon interdisciplinary exchange. Namely, he portrays what experimental science can learn from a more refined account of existentialism, and that this will enable existential-infused approaches to develop further. Although psychoanalytic approaches which have been built upon Sartre’s concept of radical freedom are subject to the same criticism as Sartre, Webber claims this field could undergo a revival were it to instead be built upon the theory of commitment.  Webber also notes that there are further lessons which can be learnt from existentialism. Whilst certain insights have been confirmed by experimental psychology, other claims, such as Fanon’s suggestion that psychiatric problems stem from the internalisation of stereotypes by the victim, remain unexplored. Thus, not only does Webber provides us with an analytically satisfactory account of existentialism, but also demonstrates the benefits possessing a more accurately defined theory.

The current political landscape has been marked by the sustained engagement with race and gender discourse. One can hardly open a newspaper, or read a social media news-feed without encountering a story about gender wage gaps, for example, or racism within first world countries. Whilst much philosophy remains decisively abstract in terms of application, Webber demonstrates how existential philosophers, such as Beauvoir and Fanon, engage with these very issues. In this respect, Rethinking Existentialism is a timely text which demonstrates the contemporary relevance of existential philosophy. Moreover, Webber’s book is lucidly written, and composed in an accessible manner which navigates both the personal relationships between theorists, and the development of their thoughts. Rather than individual sections which trace the trajectory of each theorist’s isolated intellectual development, Webber presents an interwoven account, articulating the development of particular existentialist figures in relation to one another. Whilst other authors confuse and conflate existentialism and existentialists, Webber clears the rubble piled-up and built upon by previous commentators. Webber provides elucidation and a clearing for those with an obscured view of existentialism, and a fresh and coherent perspective for those first approaching the subject. In this way, Webber’s Rethinking Existentialism is not only essential reading for anyone interested in existentialism, but the only book one needs.

Bernhard Waldenfels: Erfahrung, die zur Sprache drängt – Studien zur Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie aus phänomenologischer Sicht, Suhrkamp, 2019

Erfahrung, die zur Sprache drängt - Studien zur Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie aus phänomenologischer Sicht Book Cover Erfahrung, die zur Sprache drängt - Studien zur Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie aus phänomenologischer Sicht
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft
Bernhard Waldenfels
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 24,00 €

Richard Gipps, Michael Lacewing (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, Oxford University Press, 2019

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry
Richard Gipps, Michael Lacewing (Eds.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £105.00

Michael N. Forster, Kristin Gjesdal (Eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics, Cambridge University Press, 2019

The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics Book Cover The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics
Cambridge Companions to Philosophy
Michael N. Forster, Kristin Gjesdal (Eds.)
Cambridge University Press
Paperback £ 22.99

Rudolf Bernet: Force, Drive, Desire: A Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, Northwestern University Press, 2019

Force, Drive, Desire: A Philosophy of Psychoanalysis Book Cover Force, Drive, Desire: A Philosophy of Psychoanalysis
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Rudolf Bernet. Sarah Allen (Translator)
Northwestern University Press
Paper Text $39.95

Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood: The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge, 2018

The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives Book Cover The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives
Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood

Dorothée Legrand, Dylan Trigg (Eds.): Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis

Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis Book Cover Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis
Contributions To Phenomenology, Volume 88
Dorothée Legrand, Dylan Trigg (Eds.)
Hardback 106,99 €
XVII, 281

Reviewed by:  Philip Hoejme (University of Amsterdam)

The 88th volume in the series Contributions to Phenomenology – Unconsciousness Between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis deals with the unconscious as a phenomenological concept. The volume, edited by Dorothée Legrand and Dylan Trigg, contributes to the discussion of how different interpretations within phenomenology deal with unconsciousness. The focus is on the manifestation of an unconscious within the phenomenological tradition, both explicit and implicit. This way of working with a psychoanalytic concept within phenomenology is described by the editors in the introduction as, “all authors let themselves be informed by psychoanalysis and are oriented by phenomenology.” (ix). The first chapter examines this from within the phenomenological framework developed by Husserl, while the second chapter does the same with phenomenology as developed by Merleau-Ponty. After these two chapters, the following chapters describe and examine the limits of phenomenology, together with what might lie beyond these limits. In the third chapter, questions concerning the status of the unconscious within the limits of phenomenology are dealt with; the fourth chapter starts to move beyond these limits. This chapter deals with topics such as anxiety, affect figurability, and non-linguistic modes of thinking. The fifth and last chapter briefly looks at what is beyond phenomenology, examining the notion of surprise as an unconscious phenomenological marker and the unconscious in both psychoanalysis and surrealism, relieving psychoanalysis of its insistence on interpretation.

In the first part, Within the Husserlian Framework, Dermot Moran and Alexander Schnell examine the unconscious within Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl is considered as dealing with an unconscious in the sense that, for him, “patterns of intentional behaviour that have ‘sunk down’, through habituation, so as to be unnoticed or ‘unremarked’ (unbewusst),” (15) evidently closely resemble Freud’s own description of the unconscious.

“Bernheim had given the injunction that five minutes after his [the patient] awakening in the ward he was to open an umbrella, and he had carried out this order on awakening [from hypnosis], but could give no motive for his so doing. We have exactly such facts in mind when we speak of the existence of unconscious psychological processes.” (Freud, 2012[1916-1917]: 234-235)

In addition to this, Moran writes that “Both [Freud and Husserl] have a conception of human life as the harmonization or balancing of conflicting forces”, (12) suggesting that there is an unconscious to be found, opposed to consciousness. For Husserl, as for Freud, unnoticed behaviours constitute how humans “saturate situations with meaning including imagined intonations and implications.” (22). This point is close to the psychoanalytical claim that we tend to instil meanings and desires on situations or people unconsciously. In these situations, psychoanalysis would, through analysis, come to make these unconscious processes part of our conscious experience. This means that psychoanalysis would often confront us with desires, wishes or fears we did not know we had, or that run counter to what we perceive. Schnell, in his text, takes the perspective that “if consciousness is defined by intentionality, the unconscious can only refer, in phenomenology, to a non-intentional dimension of consciousness.” (27). Thus, he links the conflicting forces to a difference between intention and non-intention.

Such an understanding seems to be in line with Moran’s notion that the similarity between Husserl’s and Freud’s views is their claim that life is filled with unconscious meaning. Schnell generalizes three kinds of phenomenological unconscious, based on the works of Husserl, Levinas and Richir. The first is an unconscious he describes as being constituted when moving beyond the “immanent sphere” (45). He calls this generative unconsciousness, signifying an unconscious that has “a surplus of meaning both beyond and below phenomenology’s descriptive framework” (25). The second kind of unconsciousness is hypostatic unconsciousness, which, according to Schnell, relates to genetic unconsciousness much as Freud’s death drive relates to the life drive. This is a relationship between a drive to be a self and a drive to be with the Other (viz. to be social). Freud, prior to postulating the death drive, had written only of the libidinal drive, but in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the death drive was added. The death and life drives relate to each other as creation and destruction, and in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud again develops the death drive to explain the aggressiveness (the death drive) of some civilizations. The third kind of unconscious phenomenology is the reflective unconscious, reflecting not only on itself but also on the two other types of the unconscious. Hence, this third kind of unconscious brings with it a totality of all these variations of the unconscious.

The second part, From the Specific Perspective of Merleau-Ponty, elaborates on the unconscious in relation to the writings of this French philosopher. Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, in his essay, argues that the unconscious, as proposed by the late Merleau-Ponty, is not constituted by repressed representations. Instead, the unconscious is understood by Merleau-Ponty as cited by de Saint Aubert (50): “the fundamental structure of the psychological apparatus … [and as our] … primordial relationship to the world.” In this understanding of the unconsciousness, Merleau-Ponty posits the idea of “the body as mediator of being” (as cited by de Saint Aubert [52]). Such an understanding breaks with the classical Freudian notion of the unconscious. For Freud, the unconscious was composed of repressed representations, forbidden desires, and unfulfilled wishes. By breaking with this understanding, Merleau-Ponty reveals an interpretation of the unconscious that equates it to a bodily aspect of lived life. This is taken up by Timothy Mooney, who expands on the assertion that habits are modes of the unconscious, as already posited by Moran and Schnell in their essays on Husserlian phenomenology. In his essay, Mooney uses Merleau-Ponty’s examination of phantom limbs, where “a patient keeps trying to walk with his use-phantom leg and is not discouraged by repeated failure.” (63) This is an example of how bodily habits, in Merleau-Ponty, become unconscious. Hence, an amputee can attempt to move an amputated arm repeatedly because such an action has become habitual, even if the arm is no longer there.

By examining the way in which one’s past experiences shape bodily habits, and how these habits come to influence one’s future, Mooney argues that the unconscious nature of habitual bodily functions constitutes an unconsciousness that, at the very least, shares some similarities with unconsciousness in psychoanalysis. These are bodily (unconscious) habits: a “common embodiment” (xi) shared by all, meaning that we all have unconscious bodily habits. As examples of these, the fact that I am hardly aware of breathing, or that most of us use hand gestures when speaking, seem to be instances of such habits. However, this is a radically different notion of the unconscious from the one proposed by Freud, who claimed that the unconscious is created by a repressive culture that ties us together. Lastly, James Phillips examines the notion of a nonverbal unconsciousness in Merleau-Ponty. This understanding of the unconscious interprets it as being the nonverbal part of ordinary thoughts. Such an understanding of the unconscious is, however, a development of the Freudian concept of unconsciousness, which is more of a repression of desires and wishes.

The third part, At the Limit of Phenomenology, examines whether it is possible to talk of a phenomenological unconscious. Questions pertaining to this inquiry are dealt with over four essays. In the first essay, one of the editors of this volume, Legrand, examines both how the unconscious in psychoanalysis and phenomenology deal with revealing the/an unknown as a way to examine how the unconscious in psychoanalysis breaks the defined limits of phenomenology. Legrand, in her essay, clearly expands upon what was already stipulated by Schnell, for whom the unconscious in phenomenology constitutes those instances where habits have become second nature, i.e. unconscious. In Danish, there is an idiom: jeg gjorde det på rygraden (trans. I did it on my spine, viz. without a second thought.) This is an example of how we accept that some things come to us from an unconscious place, e.g. that we often do things without being aware of many of the underlying processes. However, Legrand argues that there are problems with relating phenomenology and psychoanalysis to each other. This problem becomes clearer in the essay by François Raffoul, who continues Legrand’s line of thought by examining Heidegger’s ‘Phenomenology of the inapparent’ and Levinas’ claim that ‘the face of the Other’, understood as a secret, an unknown, posits an ethical dimension that creates a limit for phenomenological inquiry.

In this essay, the limits of phenomenology are tested by Levinas’ claim that ethics is first philosophy. In Levinas, the face of the Other is an unknown: it cannot be reduced to an object by the conscious perceiver. This is the limit of phenomenology mentioned by Legard. By claiming that the Other is unknown, Levinas’ phenomenology brings up an ethical aspect in its phenomenological investigation; an ethical aspect that also constitutes an unconsciousness. In his introduction, Raffoul writes that “What the term ‘unconscious’ designates, perhaps improperly, is such an alterity escaping presentation, an alterity that frustrates any effort of presentation by a phenomenological disclosure.” (114) This alterity is what Levinas posits in the face of the Other, which comes to frustrate any further phenomenological disclosure because it is an inapparent, or unknown. Thus, if it is impossible to get rid of the unconsciousness in phenomenology, Joseph Cohen’s essay expands on this by seeking to answer the question of whether there could be an unconsciousness that will not let itself become conscious. Or, as Cohen poetically frames this question, is there a night which is not followed by a day? Husserl, Cohen posits, did not see this being a possibility, as for Husserl there “always lies the possibility of conversion … of transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar, the improper into the proper, the ‘un-world’ into the world.” (135) However, as Cohen explains, there is an unconscious in Husserl that precedes any self-consciousness: an unconsciousness of the night. Husserl claims that this awakes in the morning as a consciousness, but in Cohen, this conversion of the unconscious to consciousness does not happen.

Following Cohen down into the night, Drew M. Dalton, in line with de Saint Aubert, insists upon the unconscious nature of bodily experience. Thus, he comes to regard the body (the dead body, a corpse) as an entity that can be recognized by consciousness, without being a consciousness. A corpse, in this view, is “an inhuman asubjective unconsciousness,” (xiii) and the dead body comes to confront a subject with an ethical dilemma, namely its own vulnerability. This ethical dimension is similar to how the face of the Other, in Levinas, brings ethics into the phenomenological endeavour. Hence, the corpse comes to constitute an unconscious unknown to us, but which nonetheless fills us with dread: an experience of our own mortality. Following Freud’s claim that the corpse is the uncanny par excellence, Dalton, in concord with both Freud and Lacan, concludes that the face of the Other, and the corpse, constitute a traumatic presentation, captivating us, perhaps, much as a deer is captivated by a light rushing towards it.

The fourth partr, With Phenomenology and Beyond, begins with the second editor’s essay. Here, Trigg elaborates on the experience of not fully being ‘me’. By examining states of consciousness where this very fact, of being conscious, is ambiguous, Trigg examines unconscious bodily states. As an example of such an experience, Trigg offers up hypnagogia: a state wherein the subject might experience lucid dreams or sleep paralysis. In such a state, Trigg argues, one is simultaneously both conscious and unconscious. Trigg describes this in the following way: “the hypnagogic state is a liminal state, it occurs in-between dreaming and waking, such that there is an overlap between the two spheres.” (164). Consequently, hypnagogia is a bodily unconscious experience, similar to that already discussed by Cohen and Dalton. There seems to be a clear resemblance between a dead body (Dalton) and the body of someone experiencing sleep paralysis, since neither body, to any perceiver, constitutes a conscious subject. On this topic, Freud wrote that “The state of sleep is able to re-establish the likeness of mental life as it was before the recognition of reality.” (Freud, 1911: 219) Hence, in Freud’s own writings, we are also able to find a description of sleep that relates it to the realm of the unconscious, or the unreal. This interpretation is echoed by V. Hamilton, who, in her book Narcissus and Oedipus writes that “For Freud, the sleeplike state of withdrawal involved ‘a deliberate rejection of reality’” (Hamilton, 1982: 30). It is not only during sleep, or in hypnagogia, but also in actual sleep and in sleeplike states of (mental) withdrawal, that we reject reality in favour of something else. In all of these instances, Trigg argues, we encounter a phenomenon that might constitute an unconscious state of being within (and beyond) phenomenological inquiries. That this point is also found in Freud’s writings suggests that this unconscious, which Heidegger claimed could not be dispelled from phenomenology, is to be found in psychoanalysis. It should be added, however, that the unconscious for Freud is a mental process, and not, as it is here, an unconscious state or phenomenon.

Whereas the unconscious for Freud is created by culturally repressed drives, Thamy Ayouch posits an unconscious that is not created by the cultural repression of natural drives. Instead, Ayouch suggests an unconscious which is an instituted affectivity: “This notion bridges the gap between past and present, the self and the Other, activity and passivity, but also nature and culture.” (199). By reformulating the unconscious in this way, Ayouch deals with non-binary gender configurations far more convincingly than Freud, who thought that homosexuality and heterosexuality develop based on a child’s successful resolving of the Oedipal complex. An unconscious not understood as in a binary relationship with consciousness greatly differs from Freud’s perspective. This critique of Freud has also been put forward by others: an example of such can be found in works by Judith Butler (see, for example, Subjects of Desire, 1988, or Gender Trouble, 1999.) Ayouch writes that the concept of institutional affectivity, as taken from Merleau-Ponty, leads to the conclusion that “sleep would be only a content of the transcendental subject, the Unconscious only a refusal to be conscious, and memory only a consciousness of the past.” (200). This line of argument (refusing to be conscious) is taken up by Dieter Lohmar, who sets out to examine non-linguistic modes of thinking using the phenomenology of Husserl. One such mode of thinking is called scenic phantasma, or daydreams (211). These are modes of thinking that Lohmar describes as allowing a subject to play out different life scenarios. Thus, in such instances, “we are playing out possible solutions to a problem, mentally testing our options, their usefulness for a solution and their respective consequences.” (211) Daydreams are unconscious acts, and Freud saw these as an escape from reality. But for Lohmar they are also private, and therefore not located within the consciousness of anyone other than the person experiencing the daydream. Another kind of unconscious day-to-day experience is examined by Line Ryberg Ingerslev. In her essay, Ingerslev examines how many habits have become unconscious processes in our day-to-day lives (see: Moran, Schnell, and Mooney.) Habits, in this sense, are understood by Ingerslev as unconscious processes that prevent us gaining self-familiarity. Hence, habits allow us to ‘automate’ functions that relieve us of familiarity with ourselves, freeing up our mind for other tasks. Ingerslev argues that our lack of unified control over many aspects of our bodily life, constitutes breaks with a unified conscious experience of life. This, Ingerslev claims, is the effect of an unconscious phenomenon at work. As an example of this, one might think of riding a bike, or similar actions. During such feats of motor control, the subject is hardly aware of the minor adjustments being made unconsciously to maintain balance. We might also add that if one attempts to be conscious of this activity, it probably becomes even harder to cycle. This is not unlike the earlier claim by Mooney. Ingerslev concludes by positing that one does not consciously act, but instead responds to actions already instigated unconsciously by habits.

The fifth and last part, Beyond Phenomenology, concludes this volume by examining those experiences located beyond phenomenological inquiries. Both of the texts examine the notion of surprise, either as a biological response to outside stimuli, a response which can be measured, or as a way to create art within the surrealist art movement. Natalie Depraz argues that surprise constitutes a disturbance of one’s conscious life, which is both objective and measurable. As an example of this, she states that the pounding of the heart due to a shock might be a way to measure the unconscious, since this is an unconscious reaction to outside stimuli. This she relates to Freud’s notion of ‘slips of the tongue,’ a concept developed by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901[1904]). In this idea, the unconscious thought comes to reveal itself to the subject by (unconsciously) forcing its way into verbal language. A racing heart, according to Depraz, opens up the possibility of examining the unconscious as the cause of a bodily reaction. The beating of the heart is like a slip of the tongue in Freud’s example. Both are posited as measurable evidence of an unconscious, in the sense that the reaction is instigated unconsciously. But there are also differences between the two examples: the beating of the heart is an objectively measurable fact, whereas a slip of the tongue could (possibly) be a wilful act.

Another kind of unconscious is scrutinised by Alphonso Lingis, who examines artistic creation within the surrealist movement as a form off unconsciousness. Lingis begins by questioning the role of the unconscious in orthodox psychoanalysis, asking how the unconscious could function if freed from psychoanalysis’ insistence on using interpretations to root out the cause of the unconscious. Such an examination leads to an exposé of the surrealist movement, whose adherents, inspired by the theories of Freud, used the technique of automatic writing (among other techniques) to stimulate their production of art. Lingis writes that the technique of automatic writing is similar to Freud’s technique of free association, a technique grounded in the inquiries made by Freud and Bernheim in the early days of psychoanalysis. Freud and André Breton (a key figure from the surrealist movement Lingis focuses on) differ considerably regarding the importance of the latent content in dreams. While Freud was interested in this content, Breton was, on the other hand, “interested in the manifest images for their irrational and marvellous, poetic character.” (264) By focusing on the manifest content, Breton moved the focus from interpretation to experience, thus breaking with the orthodox psychoanalytic focus on the latent dream content and the primacy put on interpretation.

In conclusion, this volume succeeds in its aim of describing and examining the psychoanalytic unconscious from within, at the limits of, and beyond phenomenology. The authors and editors have written a contribution to the field of phenomenology that clearly examines what a phenomenological unconscious is, how one can think of an unconscious as a concept within phenomenological discourse, and how the notion of the unconscious can push beyond the limits of phenomenology. In particular, I would highlight the fourth chapter, as it deals with phenomena that are also central to psychoanalysis and the works of Freud. By connecting seminal works within phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Lavinas, and Merleau-Ponty) with different psychoanalytic works (particularly the works of Freud and Lacan) this volume brings these two disciplines into a fruitful relationship with each other. I do, however, wish to point out that the theoretical breadth of the psychoanalytic notion of an unconscious is dealt with in a limited fashion, but this is in line with the overall goal of this volume. Specifically, I would have liked to see more discussion of the differences between Freud’s and Jung’s conceptions of the unconscious. It would also have been interesting to incorporate an examination of the disagreement between Freud and Ferenczi: a difference of opinion relating to the technique of free association, or some discussion of the Rorschach test as a way of measuring unconscious processes. Notwithstanding these minor flaws, this volume is of interest to anyone concerned with either phenomenology or psychoanalysis (both clinical and theoretical), as it bridges the two disciplines over an impressive span of topics, without becoming trivial. The themes tackled might cover a broad spectrum, but what they all have in common is a questioning and engaging examination of how an unconscious might be found within, at the limits of, or beyond phenomenology. In addition, the volume is written in clear and accessible language, making it a useful starting point for anyone who might be interested in a phenomenological examination of the unconscious.


Freud, S. (2012). Eighteenth Lecture: Traumatic Fixation – the Unconscious. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1916-1917), 231-242. Wordsworth Editions Limited.

Freud, S. (1911). Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII, Case History of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works (1911-1913), 213-226. Hogarth Press.

Hamilton, V. (1982). Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism, Oxford University Press, 2018

Rethinking Existentialism Book Cover Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
Hardback £45.00

Eileen Rizo-Patron, Edward S. Casey, Jason M. Wirth (Eds.): Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard

Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard Book Cover Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Eileen Rizo-Patron, Edward S. Casey, Jason M. Wirth (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardcover $90.00

Reviewed by: Dylan Trigg (University of Vienna)

In Anglo-American philosophy, Gaston Bachelard has never assumed the influence of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, or Levinas, much less Heidegger. Where his work has been addressed, it has tended to be outside of philosophy, especially in literary studies, human geography, and branches of psychology. Monographs devoted to his work from a philosophical perspective tend to be rare while research on his philosophy together with the proliferation of this thought tend also to emerge from a handful of scholars and institutes, not least the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which has championed the translation of Bachelard for several decades. There was also a brief surge of interest in Bachelard in the UK via Clinamen Press who published several key texts before they went out of business.

Beyond these contingent circumstances, quite why Bachelard has been neglected in this fashion is a contentious matter. In part, it may be because of the idiosyncrasy not only of his work, but also of the course of his thought. Although he is more commonly known for his work on the philosophy of imagination, Bachelard started out as a philosopher of science, working extensively on the epistemology of science. This disparity in the course of his philosophical research tends to generate the impression of a thinker on the margins, neither fitting entirely into the traditional context of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and so forth, but nor fully belonging to the philosophy of science, at least in a traditional sense. In part, this is true. Although he lived through the era, Bachelard was never part of the ethos of existentialism, much less a political philosopher in the manner that Sartre would eventually become. Yet the notion that there are two distinct trajectories in Bachelard’s thought may be one-sided. Much like Merleau-Ponty, there are strands of thought in the early Bachelard, which, far from being left behind, are returned to in his late work, only now from an enriched perspective (one thinks of his striking discussion of Baudelaire’s notion of “smiling regret” in the 1932 text Intuition of Instant and its subsequent reappearance in his 1960 book The Poetics of Reverie).

The neglect of Bachelard is regrettable, not least because the gap between the sciences and humanities is one such area where he can assume a pivotal role. Furthermore, where philosophers have engaged with Bachelard, it has tended to be in a dismissive if polite fashion (to think here of Foucault’s comments on Bachelard’s in the former’s essay “Of Other Spaces). Because of this dismissal, an entire area of research on Bachelard remains underdeveloped (not least his relation to other thinkers within the tradition, especially Merleau-Ponty).

In spite—or because—of the peculiarities of his thought, over the last ten years or so, we are beginning to witness something like a slow revival in the thought of Gaston Bachelard. Beginning with author such as Roch C. Smith, Mary McAllester, and Mary Tiles in the 1980s, after a latency period, a new generation of thinkers resumed scholarly work on Bachelard either by tackling specific thematic and conceptual strands of his thought (as in Miles Kennedy’s book on the role of home in Bachelard) or through employing Bachelard in a dialogical fashion to develop an applied analysis of a certain phenomenon (as in Ed Casey’s work on place or Richard Kearney’s work on imagination). Eileen Rizo-Patron is another key figure in the contemporary revival of Bachelard, translating his important early book Intuition of the Instant (2013) as well as being the lead editor on the present volume under review, Adventures in Phenomenology: Gaston Bachelard.

This is an impressive, wide-reaching, and important volume in several respects. Over the course of sixteen chapters, the collection covers topics as varied as Bachelard’s philosophy of time, his place within the phenomenological tradition, his analysis of language, and the usage of his philosophy in issues such as environmental politics and theories of space and place. These issues are tackled by many if not all of the key players in Bachelard studies, including notable figures such as Ed Casey, Richard Kearney, and Mary McAllester Jones. It would be impossible to review the book as a whole given its complexity and range, but in what follows I will critically survey some of the book’s salient themes, addressing to what extent the volume as a whole develops Bachelard studies for contemporary research in phenomenology.

Eileen Rizo-Patron’s introduction to the volume establishes the aims and context of the collection clearly and coherently. From the outset, the aim is established of positioning Bachelard in dialogue with contemporary continental thought (1). In the first instance, this requires a historical context, which Rizo-Patron provides. The “cavalier attitude toward Bachelard” by his contemporaries is conceived in both institutional and conceptual terms (4). Bachelard’s appointment as chair of History and Philosophy of Science at the Sorbonne was contentious when set against his wide-ranging—and autodidactic—interests, not only in the philosophy of science but also of his then burgeoning interest in Jungian psychology, alchemy, and the philosophy of imagination. Yet this methodological stance, far from a weakness, emerges as a strength insofar as Bachelard can be read as a “subversive” figure both within the history of philosophy but also in terms of his broader thought. Bachelardian concepts such as reverie and oneirism anticipate the ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s late thought sought to undermine binary divisions and address the ways in which experience and thought appear for us long before those same thoughts have been culturally and intellectually sedimented into habitual patterns.

Such is the theme of the first chapter of the volume, a provocative exploration of Bachelard’s account of temporal duration by Ed Casey. At the heart of this chapter is a question that is central to both Bachelard and contemporary continental philosophy; namely, is time continuous or disruptive? (19). Indeed, the question forms a leitmotif in Bachelard, evident from the outset to the end of his life, either appearing explicitly in temporal terms or through a series of different guises (be it spatiality in The Poetics of Space or animality in Lautréamont). From the outset the question is posed against a critical reading of Bergson. What Bachelard finds problematic in Bergson is the assumption that duration can involve continuous change. For Bachelard, this paradox can only be resolved through the introduction of a dialectical model of time that recognises how discontinuous and disorders of time are consolidated into the appearance of continuity. As Bachelard writes in the 1936 book Dialectics of Duration, there is a “time which is ineffective, scattered in a cloud of disparate instants and on other [hand] time which is cohered, organised, and consolidated into duration.”[1] In a word, time is that which is to be worked on, formed, reformed, consolidated, reconsolidated, renewed, and returned to. Duration is never given to experience as a unitary field, but instead becomes in Bachelard an achievement of sorts.

It is in the 1932 book Intuition of the Instant—thus written during Bachelard’s “scientific” phase—where these issues are first explored at length, and it is this formative text that Casey attends to in his contribution. As Casey makes clear, Bachelard’s motivation for introducing the notion of the instant is to undercut the dichotomy between thinking of time as either continuous or discontinuous. Casey contextualizes this claim through applying Bachelard’s notion of the instant to an analysis of the distinction between the sudden and the surprising, with the two terms being “coeval if not precisely coextensive” (22-23). Both occur instantaneously, and, moreover, “all of a sudden,” even if the result of a sustained process of rumination. Both moreover, are taken up in the overarching theme of newness, which Casey offers a threefold taxonomy, from the new as “utterly unprecedented” to that which is already but renewed in its newness upon each contact (as in engaging with a great work of art that generates new perspectives), and then finally to the cases of what is new in relation to what is familiar (as when we are presented with something novel that is situated with an already established context).

What is important about these reflections is that they enrich Bachelard’s idea of the instant and what he will enigmatically call “verticality,” a key concept that several of the chapters explore, and one that I will return to. Bachelard’s own remarks on this concept consist of several sketches and some incisive though underdeveloped passages. An appendix in the English translation of Intuition of the Instant includes Bachelard’s short essay “Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant,” written in 1939, which unpacks his notion of vertical or poetical time. But much remains to be said on what implications Bachelard’s philosophy of the instant and his analysis of time more generally have for contemporary research. In extending Bachelard beyond his own remit, Casey’s elaboration of these ideas positions us in a much better place to grasp the “unthought thoughts” within Bachelard.

Alongside Casey, Richard Kearney also tackles Bachelard’s concept of the instant, giving more specific attention to the enigmatic essay “Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant” and its adjoining notion of vertical time. Some words on Bachelard’s usage of poetics and poesies is needed here. By “poetic,” Bachelard refers not only to sensuous experience and that alone, but rather insofar as it involves poesies, the act of creation that is as much concerned with the composition of time in the present as it is that of the past. Such is the task of poesies, to shatter “the simple continuity of shackled time,” revealing therein an “element of suspended time, meterless time—a time we shall call vertical in order to distinguish it from everyday time.”[2] With his idea of vertical time, Bachelard offers a rejoinder to Bergsonian durée, which he finds unconvincing on both a conceptual and phenomenological level, not least because it fails to account for how paradoxes and contradictions are central to the creative act of time. It is, Bachelard writes, “astonishing and familiar…a harmonic relationship between opposites [which] compels us to value or devalue” (59). More than a detached aesthetic pleasure, the poetic instant confers upon the reader an imperative to assess our understanding of time itself and to recognise that within that understanding there lies an enduring ambivalence that is fundamentally “androgynous” in nature (59).

Bachelard explores these rich concepts through literary illustrations, Baudelaire’s motif of “smiling regret” being one such articulation of the androgyny of the poetic instant. As mentioned above, Bachelard was so taken with this image that he would return to it at the final stages of his life, in The Poetics of Reverie, a book that expands and to some extent fulfils the promise of the earlier sketch of vertical time. In speaking of a smile that regrets, the question is not of trying to resolve this contradictory image, but of preserving it. Through this preservation of two apparently disjoined states entering the same affective orb, time, Bachelard insists, comes to a standstill.

Both Bachelard and Kearney distance this temporal structure from that of nostalgia, even though Bachelard will speak of the poetic instant as allowing us to “experience, belatedly, those instances which should have been lived” (60). I would question to what extent this distancing from nostalgia is tenable, given the direction Bachelard’s philosophy will proceed, with its eventual veneration of childhood as a model of the cosmos. But for Kearney the movement toward polarised time is less a question of nostalgia and more of a fascination with the “poetic conjunction of opposites,” which derives from Bachelard’s broader intellectual landscape, especially that of depth psychology and alchemy, where the conjunction of opposites assumes a vital role. Such influences are traceable in Bachelard’s notion of vertical time, where we find a plurality of timescales inhabiting the same sphere.

Naming this movement of time standing still an “epiphanic instant,” Kearney broadens Bachelard’s privileging of poetry over fiction, locating the movement of vertical time within Proust and Joyce, as Kearny puts it, “these novels are narratives constructed around certain vertical moments of ‘epiphany’ which cut through the linear plot line and liberate the story into a series of circular reprises … chronological time is upended and reversed, as past and future are reinscribed in a timeless moment” (52). Kearny notes in a footnote that there is a striking rapport here between Bachelard’s notion of vertical time and that of Benjamin’s concept of the “Messianic instant,” with Benjamin employ a metaphorical figure of flashing lightning and Bachelard invoking the figure of a “phoenix poetic flash” (56). While there is no evidence of a mutual influence between Benjamin and Bachelard (indeed, Benjamin would write a critical letter on Bachelard’s book, Lautréamont, toward the end of his life), untapped connections of this sort (not least between Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard) litter the work of Bachelard and remain to be developed. There is much more to be said on Kearney’s paper, which is exemplary in not only unpacking but also situating Bachelard’s critical (and overlooked) account of the poetic instant within his work as a whole.

Moving on from time, the middle parts of Adventures in Phenomenology deal with Bachelard’s methodology and his concept of language. Of these parts, Anton Vydra’s chapter is especially notable for critically assessing Bachelard’s place within the phenomenological landscape. Despite his avowed passion for phenomenology, especially in the later works, Bachelard’s relationship to the method is ambiguous. Vydra’s chapter explores these points of ambiguity, situating Bachelard’s methodology in relation to the concepts of phenomenon and noumena, his evolving concept of a “non-phenomenology,” his perspective on the phenomenological attitude, and how these dimensions contribute to an authentic formulation of phenomenology. Of note here is the phenomenological pathway Bachelard was developing and its potential relation to Merleau-Ponty. As with Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard calls into a question a phenomenology that centralises explicit modes of act intentionality. What this prioritizing omits is the way in which intentional relations are structured in the first place. In a word, it confines itself to things rather than what Bachelard terms “elemental matter” that has yet to assume a static quality. The rapport here not only with Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh, but also of his own development of “non-phenomenology” (of course, long before its formulation in Laruelle) is a rich area of research that is currently under-investigated. Vydra is exemplary in negotiating with the trajectory of Bachelard’s thought, but it would have been enriching to read a more sustained analysis of the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard, especially in their joint understanding of the term “element.” In addition, while Vydra ends his rich chapter with an inclusion of Bachelard’s “turn” toward poetics, there remains much here to say on the ontological and conceptual significance of concepts such as reverie, ontological amplification, and oneirism, which are touched upon but only in passing.

Both of Eileen Rizo-Patron’s contributions to this volume are noteworthy by dint of their incisiveness and lucidity. In her first chapter, Rizo-Patron picks up where Vydra left through tackling Bachelard’s relation to psychoanalysis. This relation is situated within Bachelard’s “psychotherapeutic period” in the 1940s, and the beginning of his concern the value of repose in response to what he will term in The Dialectic of Duration “ill-made durations” (108). By this, Bachelard seems to have in mind something like a Freudian complex, a dysfunctional “affective knot” that binds humans to impoverished ways of being, dwelling, and thinking. Rizo-Patron’s first chapter is especially helpful in teasing out these complex strands through identifying the central role alchemy plays in Bachelard’s intellectual background. Rizo-Patron maintains that Bachelard’s hermeneutics frames poetic texts as “proverbial ‘philosopher’s stones’ capable of drawing out the latent energies in other ‘stones’ (readers’ souls) while assisting in their distillation and transmutation” (114). This language may appear ornate, but I think it is more than a whimsy on behalf of Bachelard and Rizo-Patron. Bachelard’s hermeneutics is alchemical insofar as it revolves around themes of change and transformation, both within the texts and within the reader. Alchemy forms the allegorical counterpart to Bachelard’s insistence on the value of opposites, the significance of elemental images, and the centrality of reverie, and marks the way of attending to phenomena that implicates the reader as an active constituent in the formation of the world.

The volume’s middle section on language offers more detailed studies of the role language plays in the formation of Bachelard’s thought. Essays here concern the relation between Bachelard and Henry Corbin; and Bachelard’s relation to Nancy as well as his relation to Gadamer. Roch C. Smith’s chapter on Bachelard and the logosphere, although published in another form in 1985, is a welcome inclusion here for its astute analysis of a lesser known essay, “Reverie and Radio” in which Bachelard makes a plea to nothing less than a global logos (157).

The final part of the volume considers various applications of Bachelardian phenomenology as understood through the theme of alterity. The theme is pertinent, given that much of Bachelard’s thought prima facie invokes a solitary world sealed off from otherness and others. It is true that in The Poetics of Space, he devotes a chapter to the dialectical relationship between inside and outside, and suggests that this relation can always be reversed. It is also true that he emphasizes temporal discontinuity over a pregiven durée. But in all this, the overarching sentiment seems to be establishing a quiet space far from the hum of urban life, in which individual memories and dreams are protected by drawn curtains (to think of Bachelard’s discussion of the house in the snow in The Poetics of Space). While this part of the volume intends to confront whether Bachelard’s philosophy is receptive to the other, I think it only partly succeeds in this task.

Both Edward Kaplan’s chapter on Buber and Bachelard and Madeleine Preclaire’s contribution on solitude deal in some part with the question of alterity in Bachelard, both of whom argue passionately for Bachelard’s commitment to the other. Preclaire’s chapter is especially notable for its insistence on this point. Despite the impression of Bachelard as a philosopher of solitude, Preclaire claims that solitude is but a first step toward a shared world, a “call” of sorts that leads us out of ourselves and toward the other. The theme is taken up here through Bachelard’s discussion of the flame, love, and reading. In each case, a gesture is made toward drawing the other into contact with the self through a paradoxical deepening of solitude. “[Solitude] alone,” Preclaire writes, “enables the discovery of deep being, that which in the midst of the din and stress of the world reserves its secret, but which is therefore the source and springboard of dialogue and sympathy” (261). We are certainly rather removed from the ethical demands Levinas places upon the reader to recognise the primacy placed on the alterity of the Other. Bachelard’s intersubjective world, in sharp contrast, is described as “solitudes filled with company” (267).

While there is no doubt that Bachelard as a human being was receptive to other people, a fuller defense of whether Bachelard’s philosophy is welcoming to the other would require a more sustained look at his writings on dwelling. Yet for a philosopher most commonly associated with his work on spatiality, the theme itself in Bachelard is surprisingly underplayed in this volume. Ed Casey’s contribution on the topic of “missing land” is the exception; though alterity is not a central theme despite being placed in this section (a section on spatiality may have been more judicious). In short, while the section on alterity is welcome, to my mind, a critical assessment of Bachelard’s account of intersubjectivity, his openness on the other, to say nothing of his account of gender, remains to be undertaken.

Despite this shortcoming, this is an excellent volume, which will be of immense benefit not only to Bachelard scholars but also to the contemporary continental philosophy community more generally. As a whole, the volume is edited with care, though several unfortunate typos were found, including blank empty page citations (“000”) that were presumably pending actual page numbers. This is a minor point in what is otherwise a necessary and welcome collection.

[1] Bachelard 2016, 81.

[2] Bachelard 2013, 58.

Markus Enders (Hg.): Selbstgebung und Selbstgegebenheit: Zur Bedeutung eines universalen Phänomens, Alber Verlag, 2018

Selbstgebung und Selbstgegebenheit: Zur Bedeutung eines universalen Phänomens Book Cover Selbstgebung und Selbstgegebenheit: Zur Bedeutung eines universalen Phänomens
Seele, Existenz und Leben, 30
Markus Enders (Hg.)
Alber Verlag
Hardcover 32,00 €