“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.
By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.
§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.
From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).
Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).
In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.
In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.
§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).
§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ – der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.
In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.
In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.
The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.
Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.
Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.
Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
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.