In their introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics, editors Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal immediately make clear that the volume differs in approach from other, similar guides to hermeneutics. Whereas there are a number of volumes available that offer histories of hermeneutics or treatments of individual hermeneutical theorists, this book focuses on the question of how hermeneutical issues relate to different fields of study, such as theology, literature, history and psychoanalysis. In this way, the authors aim to demonstrate how hermeneutical thinking thrives and develops through concrete interdisciplinary reflection.
The book opens with an article on “Hermeneutics and Theology,” written by Christoph Bultman. In this essay, Bultman offers a historical overview of different approaches to the interpretation of religious texts and focuses in particular on the various approaches that were developed and debated during the German Enlightenment. Although Bultman offers a clear overview of different approaches within biblical hermeneutics, to a certain extent his precise aim and argument remain unclear, with the central questions behind his overview not made explicit.
In an interesting contribution in the second chapter, Dalia Nassar focuses on the way in which the study of nature in the eighteenth century involved hermeneutical methods and insights that transformed the way in which we approach and represent the natural world. In her essay, “Hermeneutics and Nature,” Nassar directs attention to the ideas of Buffon, Diderot and, especially, Herder. Nassar starts her investigation by highlighting the fact that the emergence of a hermeneutics of nature that can be found in their works must be understood in light of the liberalization of science in the mid-eighteenth century. This liberalization meant that science was no longer understood as founded on mathematics, which led to the introduction of new modes of knowledge in scientific research. According to Nassar, one of the important ideas within the development of a hermeneutics of nature in the eighteenth century was Herder’s concept of a “circle” or a “world.” If we want to understand the structure of a bird or a bee, we should focus on their relationship to the environment or world. Instead of being devoted to classifying animals or other forms of life into different categories, Herder thus directs his attention to grasping the particular “world” a certain creature inhabits and to the way this world is reflected in the structure of its inhabitants. Interpreting nature thus implies seeing the parts in their relation to the whole and, in turn, seeing how the whole is manifest in the parts.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Romanticism,” Fred Rush focuses on the form that hermeneutics took in German Romanticism, and in particular in the works of Schlegel, Schleiermacher and Humboldt. It is in their works that hermeneutics becomes concerned explicitly with methodological questions. Rush sketches the historical and philosophical circumstances in which this turn comes about.
In his chapter on “Hermeneutics and German Idealism,” Paul Redding also focuses on the emergence of a philosophical hermeneutics in the wake of an era of post-Kantian philosophy. In particular, he explores the different stances taken by hermeneutical philosophers such as Hamann and Herder, and idealist philosophers such as Fichte and Hegel, towards the relation between thought and language. Particularly interesting is his reading of the later Hegel, in which he emphasizes that Hegel can be read not as the abstract metaphysician he is often seen to be but as a philosopher engaged with hermeneutical issues.
In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and History,” John H. Zammito explores the disciplinary self-constitution of history and the role of hermeneutics in that disciplinary constitution. Through this exploration, Zammito aims to show a way out of contemporary debates on the scientific status of disciplinary history. By investigating the views of Herder, Schleiermacher, Boeckh, Humboldt, Droysen and Dilthey, Zammito argues that the hermeneutical historicist’s attempt to give an account of the past is a cognitive undertaking and not a mystical one. The historian thus does not aim to relivethe past but to understand it. As Zammito’s exploration makes clear, such a view acknowledges the importance of the imagination in this practice, but at the same time ensures that this imagination is harnessed to interpretation, not unleashed fantasy.
Frederick C. Beiser also connects a contemporary debate to the period in which disciplinary history emerged. He starts his chapter on “Hermeneutics and Positivism” with the statement that the distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy has a harmful effect on many areas of philosophy and that one of worst affected areas is the philosophy of history. Beiser notes that, starting in the 1950s, there was a sharp rise in interest in the philosophy of history among analytic philosophers in the Anglophone world, but that these analytic discourses almost completely ignored the German historicist and hermeneutical tradition. The main cost of this, Beiser argues, has been the sterility and futility of much recent philosophical debate, and in particular the long dispute about historical explanation. The dispute has been between positivists, who defend the thesis that covering laws are the sole form of explanation, and their idealist opponents, who hold that there is another form of explanation in history. One of the reasons this debate has now ended in a stand-off can be found in the neglect of alternative perspectives, and in particular that of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition. Beiser argues that if these perspectives had been taken into account by analytic philosophers, they would have recognized that there are goals and methods of enquiry other than determining the covering laws. Had they done so, their focus of attention may have shifted in the more fruitful direction of investigating the methods of criticism and interpretation that are actually used by historians. Beiser therefore concludes that the philosophy of history in the Anglophone world would be greatly stimulated and enriched if it took into account these issues and the legacy of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition.
In the subsequent chapter, “Hermeneutics: Nietzschean Approaches,” Paul Katsafanas explores several key points of contact between Nietzsche and the hermeneutical tradition. As Katsafanas notes, Nietzsche is deeply concerned with the way in which human beings interpret phenomena, but also draws attention to the ways in which seemingly given experiences have already been interpreted. By highlighting these two aspects, Katsafanas argues that it is not wrong to characterize Nietzsche as offering a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur suggested, but that this statement can easily be misinterpreted. As Katsafanas notes, the hermeneutics of suspicion is often understood as a stance which discounts the agent’s conscious understanding of a phenomenon and instead uncovers the real and conflicting cause of that phenomenon. Nietzsche is clearly doing more than this. According to Nietzsche, the fact that a conscious interpretation is distorting, superficial or falsifying does not mean that it can be ignored. On the contrary, these interpretations are of immense importance, because they often influence the nature of the interpreted object.
The following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis,” also deals with one of the thinkers who Paul Ricoeur identified as developing a hermeneutics of suspicion, namely Sigmund Freud. In this chapter, Sebastian Gardner argues that there is an uneasy relationship between hermeneutics and Freud’s own form of interpretation. As Gardner shows, Freud may be regarded as returning to an early point in the history of hermeneutics, in which the unity of the hermeneutical project with the philosophy of nature was asserted. In line with this thought, which was abandoned by later hermeneutical thinkers, Freud can be seen as defending the idea that in order to make sense of human beings we must offer an interpretation of nature as a whole.
In “Hermeneutics and Phenomenology,” Benjamin Crowe explicates some of the fundamental insights and arguments behind the phenomenological hermeneutics developed by Heidegger and brought to maturity by Gadamer. Crowe shows how Heidegger opened up a radically new dimension of hermeneutical inquiry, because his conception of hermeneutics as a phenomenological enterprise intended to be a primordial science of human experience in its totality, and in this way took hermeneutics far beyond its traditional purview. By building on Heidegger’s approach, Gadamer developed this thought further, thinking through the distinctive role and value of humanistic inquiry in an age that prized exactitude and results above all else.
In “Hermeneutics and Critical Theory,” Georgia Warnke focuses on the critique of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics by Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, two thinkers from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Warnke starts her investigation by returning to Horkheimer’s description of critical theory and shows how these ideas form the basis of Habermas and Honneth’s philosophical framework. Taking Horkheimer’s framework as his starting point, Habermas seems to see many virtues in Gadamer’s philosophical ideas. Gadamer’s theory, for instance, begins with the social and historical situation, and in this way provides an alternative to the self-understanding of those forms of social science that assume they can extract themselves from the context. Habermas and Honneth nevertheless see Gadamer’s attitude to reflection as a problem, because his emphasis on the prejudiced character of understanding seems to give precedence to the authority of tradition and immediate experience instead of emphasizing the importance of reason and reflection. As Warnke shows, Gadamer’s response to this critique consists of showing that the dichotomies between reason and authority and between reflection and experience are not as stark as Habermas and Honneth suppose. We can, for instance, only question the authority of aspects of our tradition on the basis of other aspects, such as inherited ideals and principles that we do not question, just as we can only reflect on our experiences if we do not begin by distancing ourselves from them. Full transparency is therefore not possible.
In “Hermeneutics: Francophone Approaches,” Michael N. Forster focuses on the French contributions to hermeneutics during the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first part of the chapter, Foster argues that the roots of German hermeneutics were largely French. German hermeneutics, for example, arose partly as a response to certain assumptions of the Enlightenment, one of which was the Enlightenment’s universalism concerning beliefs, concepts, values and sensations, etc. According to Forster, this anti-universalism of German hermeneutics was largely a French achievement and was exported from France to Germany. In particular, Montaigne and the early Montesquieu and Voltaire had developed an anti-universalist position, which emphasized, for example, profound differences in mindset between different cultures and periods.
In the second part of the chapter, Forster focuses on some key figures within twentieth-century French philosophy who contributed to the development of hermeneutics, despite not describing themselves as hermeneutical thinkers. One of them is Jean-Paul Sartre, who gave a central role to interpretation in his early existentialism developed in Being and Nothingness, where he included what Forster calls a hermeneutical theory of radical freedom: although we do not create the world itself, we do create the meanings or interpretations through which we become acquainted with it.
Paul Ricoeur is the only French thinker Forster discusses who not only contributed to hermeneutics but also regarded himself as a hermeneutical thinker. Forster, however, does not seem to regard Ricoeur’s philosophy as very attractive. According to Forster, Ricoeur’s most important contribution to hermeneutics lies in his development of the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in this way drawing attention to the fact that three major philosophical developments in the nineteenth century, namely Marx’s theory of ideology, Nietzsche’s method of genealogy and Freud’s theory of the unconscious, can be classified as forms of hermeneutics. It is, however, somewhat strange that Forster does not give much attention to the way in which Paul Ricoeur, as the only philosopher he discusses who also regarded himself as working in the hermeneutical tradition, described his own philosophical project as a hermeneutical one. In particular, Ricoeur’s idea that understanding and explanationshould not be regarded as opposites but rather as being dialectically connected, perhaps deserved more attention.
In “Hermeneutics: Non-Western Approaches,” the topic of which is rich and broad enough to be the subject of a companion of its own, Kai Marchal explores the question of whether modern hermeneutics is necessarily a Western phenomenon. As Marchal points out, philosophers in Western academia only rarely examine reflections on interpretation from non-Western traditions. Marchal therefore offers a very short overview of some of the most important scholars and texts on interpretation from non-Western cultures, while at the same time pointing toward the problem that arises from the use of the word “non-Western,” insofar it refers to a multitude of cultures and worldviews which do not have much in common. Instead of presenting an overview of the different hermeneutical theories and practices around the globe, Marchal therefore focuses on one particular example: the history of Confucian interpretive traditions in China.
After this first part, Marchal changes the scope of his investigation and focuses on the possibility of a dialogue between Western and non-Western hermeneutics. As Marchal shows, Western hermeneutical thinkers from the eighteenth century, such as Herder and von Humboldt, engaged with non-Western thought and languages, while most representatives of twentieth-century hermeneutics highlighted the Greek roots of European culture and emphasized the idea that we are tied to this heritage. Many non-Western philosophers, however, have engaged with ideas that were formulated by Heidegger and Gadamer. Nevertheless, such non-Western philosophers often unfold their understanding of European philosophical problems in their own terms. Furthermore, they are encouraged to do so by Gadamer’s claim that understanding is necessarily determined by the past. Marchal concludes his short introduction to non-Western approaches to hermeneutics by emphasizing the value of engaging with hermeneutical thinkers from other traditions. This engagement may result in an awareness of the Other’s understanding of ourselves against the backdrop of their traditions, and even in becoming open to the possibility of a radically different outlook on things.
In a chapter on “Hermeneutics and Literature,” Jonathan Culler aims to answer the question of why the tradition of modern hermeneutics has not figured significantly in the study of literature. Culler starts his investigation by noting that in literary studies there is a distinction between hermeneutics and poetics: while hermeneutics asks what a given text means, poetics asks about the rules and conventions that enable the text to have the meanings and effects it does for readers. Poetics and hermeneutics therefore work in different directions: hermeneutics moves from the text toward a meaning, while poetics moves from effects or meanings to the conditions of possibility of such meanings. In his historical overview of literary criticism, Culler highlights two important evolutions that enable us to explain the absence of modern hermeneutics within contemporary literary studies. The first is the revolution in the concept of literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this period, the concept of literature as mimesis shifted to a concept of literature as the expression of an author. Although this means literary criticism no longer assesses works in terms of the norms of genres, of verisimilitude and appropriate expression, most discussion of literature nevertheless remains evaluative rather than interpretive. The change in the conception of literature, however, also inspired German thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher to propose a general hermeneutics, as opposed to the special hermeneutics that had focused on biblical or Classical texts. Once the mimetic model of literature is displaced by an expressive model, Culler writes, the question of what a work expresses also arises.
The arguments about what kind of meaning a work might be taken to embody or express seldom draws on this hermeneutical tradition. One of the reasons for this is the second evolution that Cullers highlights, which occurred in the twentieth century when hermeneutics itself changed. Modern hermeneutical thinkers such as Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer shifted their focus to the understanding of understanding. In this way, their hermeneutical theories offer little guidance on interpretation or in distinguishing valid interpretations from invalid ones.
In “Hermeneutics and Law” Ralf Poscher starts from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s claim that hermeneutics in general could learn from legal hermeneutics. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer about what exactly can be learned. As Poscher summarizes, Gadamer thought that what could be learned from the law is that an element of application must be integrated into the concept of interpretation. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer’s idea that hermeneutics is a monistic practice consisting of interpretation, and he argues that what can be learned from law is that hermeneutics is a set of distinct practices that are of variable relevance to different hermeneutical situations. Poscher develops this thought by exploring the different hermeneutical activities in which a lawyer must engage when applying the law to a given case, such as legal interpretation, rule-following, legal construction and the exercise of discretion, and he highlights the important distinctions between these different means for the application of the law to a specific case. To prove the point that hermeneutics is not a monistic practice but rather a complex whole of different practices applicable to hermeneutics in general, Poscher draws some minor parallels between the different hermeneutics applied in law and in art. These parallels are often very clear, although the fact that they are often reduced to brief remarks means that Poscher does not really engage with debates on the interpretation of art. Nevertheless, these remarks do indicate that such a profound comparison between legal hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of art could be an interesting subject for further investigation.
In the final chapter, “Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,” Kristin Gjesdal explores the question of how best to conceive of the relationship between philosophy and other sciences through the lens of hermeneutical theory and practice. Gjesdal reveals that different responses can be given to the question of what hermeneutics is, and she explores the various answers. First, she outlines the Heideggerian-Gadamerian conception of hermeneutics, in which philosophy is identified with hermeneutics and hermeneutics is identified with ontology. According to Gjesdal, this tendency is concerning because it takes no interest in the different challenges emerging from within the different areas of the human sciences, nor does it acknowledge different subfields of philosophy or textual interpretation. When looking for an answer to the question of how the relationship between hermeneutics and the human sciences might be understood, an investigation of hermeneutics in its early, Enlightenment form, seems to be more fruitful, Gjesdal argues. Through such an investigation, Gjesdal shows that hermeneutical thinkers such as Herder, Schleiermacher and Dilthey combined an interest in hermeneutical theory with hermeneutical practice and in this way can be seen as an inspiration to explore our understanding of the relationship between philosophy and the other sciences. Philosophy would then no longer be seen as the king among the sciences, and our thinking about the relationship between philosophy and the human sciences would start with a more modest attitude and a willingness not simply to teach but also to learn from neighboring disciplines.
It is clear that for a large share of the contributions to this companion, the history of hermeneutics itself and the way in which this history has been constructed by later hermeneutical thinkers is under investigation, leading to new insights into contemporary debates. In this way, this companion as a whole can be seen as engaging with the question of what hermeneutics is, with the various approaches leading to the formulation of different answers to this question. Furthermore, the different readings of the history of hermeneutics also means that a number of contributions go beyond the traditional understanding of hermeneutics, drawing attention to thinkers who are not commonly associated with the field. In this way, the approach to hermeneutics does not remain limited to an investigation of the works and ideas of those thinkers who are generally understood as belonging to the hermeneutical tradition, which also makes the relevance of hermeneutical thinking to diverse contemporary disciplines and debates more apparent. Although the diverse contributions to this companion engage with the fundamental question of what hermeneutics is in different ways, this book as a whole will probably not serve as a good introduction for someone who is not already familiar with philosophical hermeneutics and its history to some extent. Some of the contributions are successful in offering the reader a clear introduction to the subject and discipline they discuss, but this is not always the case, with some authors presupposing a lot of prior knowledge on the subject. Nevertheless, for those already familiar with the subjects discussed, several contributions to this companion will offer the reader fruitful insights and perhaps provoke thought that invites further research.
‘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.
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 ). 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). 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.