A text as ambitious as Malvezzi’s The Archetype of Wisdom provides a particularly challenging subject for review – precisely because of the wide aim and reach of this project. Far from considering the ambition of this work pejoratively, my intentions in this review are to make explicit the way in which Malvezzi’s text opens (or at least attempts to open) space for a philosophical project of much greater length. The text itself, standing at roughly 100 pages (omitting the use of illustrative plates) is very short, especially when this length is considered alongside the breadth of Malvezzi’s interest. Indeed, he acknowledges this explicitly when he states that the work’s wide angle makes impossible a certain level of comprehensively (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 15). It is therefore my view that The Archetype of Wisdom should be read as a kind of philosophical manifesto – as the extended opening remarks of a much larger philosophical project. As such, my review seeks to bring out the key components of Malvezzi’s position in light of the project this work seeming precipitates. Given the breadth of his project, it is perhaps understandable and forgivable that Malvezzi does not always tease out the full conclusions of many of the comparative claims he makes within his work. This review shall draw out these claims, particularly attending to the similarities and difference between Malvezzi’s project and Husserl’s phenomenology, as well as to how orientation figures within his work.
The Archetype of Wisdom is a bold unification of several distinct areas of scholarship. Not only is it a work of phenomenological philosophy, but it is explicitly concerned with classical architecture, and philosophy of religion – with the latter’s role in the text specifically concerned with questions of cosmology and metaphysics. Given its classical subject matter, the text raises further questions pertinent to history and archaeology – though these concerns are largely outside of my field of expertise, so shall not be central to my appraisal of this work. Malvezzi makes explicit that his primary concern throughout the text is with the spatial metaphysics of Greek spiritual thought, specifically with their conceptualisations of the relationship between what is considered human and divine. To paraphrase this, we could suggest that Malvezzi’s concern is with the constitutive relationship between practices of worship – with their explicit concern, in the Greek context, with wisdom – and the embodiment of these practices within physical space. In order to understand this, he insists, we must begin with the spaces within which this relationship was placed and enacted: the Greek temple. Yet no sooner than this project has established its central concern as architectural, it immediately problematises this notion, at once insisting that we must understand the temple as constituted both by its architecture and by the lived experiences of the Greeks. Through his early invocation of Schulz’s observation that “temples are regarded as “individual concretizations of fundamental existential situations””(Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14), Malvezzi’s project comes to rest its interests on the site of worship as a phenomenologically constructed space. The primary implication here is that Malvezzi’s project is concerned with how the Greek temple is a site wherein meaning and significance are constructed, mobilised, and proliferated – that the temple should be understood as the staging ground for particular religious practices that are primarily concerned with phenomenological experience. We are thereby implored to reject any understanding of the temple as a static system, as a fixed concretisation of some transcendent divine power, but as a site wherein and upon which “the changing conditions of life from all around are unceasingly acting” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 74). It is on these grounds that he presents his work as applied phenomenology. In so far as the temple itself represents the divine (and, for Malvezzi, on some level it clearly does) Malvezzi’s approach encourages us to consider the temple as an experience, which is to say in relation to those that use the site. As such, Malvezzi’s work foregrounds the relational aspects of the temple and the divine to human experience.
Perhaps the most overt point of continuity between Malvezzi’s project and the standard canon of phenomenology is his invocation of the term erlebnis. One of the central terms deployed with Husserlian phenomenology, erlebnis is experience in and of itself – the product of his specific schema of philosophical reduction (Husserl, 1982). The direct parallel within the context of the Greeks is the stress placed on the role played by pre-rational elements of thought when considering the wider, universal existential structure embodied within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14). Though some of us may be sceptical of this division between pre-rational experience and cognition, the Greeks – according to Malvezzi – mirror Husserl quite closely when they suggest that the point of their project is to investigate universal structures. Yet within this similarity is the implicit, yet stark, distinction between the erlebnis of Husserl and the erlebnis of the Greeks: the latter has an explicitly existential concern. As aforementioned, Malvezzi’s project is – at least in part – a work of the philosophy of religion, at least in so far as the focus on Greek life is within the conceptual framework of religious metaphysics. Taken together, these elements frame The Archetype of Wisdom as attempting to provide a phenomenological account of Greek religious experience, yet precisely what this project reveals is that these experiences express a clear existential attitude of humanity’s relationship to the divine.
This deep link between existential erlbenis and the Greek religious experience of the divine is further explored within Malvezzi’s brief treatment of other aspects of Greek architecture (loosely conceived). He speaks of monumental statues, those that depict mortals and Gods, represented in the like form of the human being. Their prevalence, for Malvezzi, speaks to the true object of reflection for Greek thought: “man himself” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For any concern the Greeks may have had with a transcendent divine, the transcendent becomes intimately connected to human experience – it works to ground the divine whilst also working to unground the everyday. In his consideration of these statues, Malvezzi focuses on the prevalent pose many of these monuments took – depicting the figure as taking a step forwards (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For Malvezzi, this is not to be read as a mere hint at movement, but instead allows us to read this statues as having intermediate dimensionality, as neither rooted nor moving, and this challenges the very idea of human stability. This becomes implicitly existential for Malvezzi, specifically in so far as it comes to challenge the advice of Tirtaeus: that one should “have both feet planted on the ground” (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 53–4). This picture of the fundamental existential condition as one of rootedness is thereby overcome by a new image: that of a youth looking at the world around him and attempting to find his path (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Though Malvezzi does not explicitly illuminate this as an existential dimension to his work, it is explicitly concerned with action. To extend Malvezzi’s reading of this example, we can regard the intermediary status of man – as expressed through the statue – as core to his reading of the Greek’s as phenomenologically oriented, for the youth is attentively considering the relationship between the world as he experiences it and his action. Though Malvezzi does not use the term, I think it useful to consider this image in terms of the language of orientation, specifically in the phenomenological sense explicated within Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (Ahmed, 2006). Upon this reading, we can see Malvezzi present us with a reading of Greek architecture as furnishing us with a series of anchors upon which their philosophical practice hangs, with statues and temples acting as both sites of practice but further as points of reference, through which the Greek individual could find their orientation.
This notion of orientation, specifically as part of a process of disorientation and reorientation, becomes more overt (though is never actively avowed), within the Greek sense of the divine as Malvezzi explicates it. Importantly, his reading stresses that for the Greeks wisdom is rooted in experience itself, not upon the accumulation of information (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Again, we can see the clear link to Husserl’s project – in so far as the investigation concerns experience rather than specific objects of knowledge – but also, I hope, a clear point of divergence: the Greeks do not present this as a project with an end, their practice is innately sceptical of the codification of this experience. Greek spiritual practice never overcame the need for novelty, it cannot be codified precisely because this codification would be its end (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 79). This scepticism, on Malvezzi’s reading, is foundational within the very building of the temple itself, for the temple was to act as a site of provocation, as a reminder of the ‘divine experience’ at the root of Greek wisdom (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 13). Indeed, the temple itself is as far as the Greeks can go in terms of codification, for the temple is an approximation and a reminder of the divine experience itself, an experience that – being pre-rational – cannot be clearly expressed within language, and thus resists standard forms of philosophical codification (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 66). Expressed more succinctly – the temple itself is the best codification of this experience. Attempts at the rationalisation of this experience must, at least on Malvezzi’s account, be considered definitively as moving away from the experience itself. Whereas we may read Husserl as seeking what can be codified within experience, what rational structures we can tease out of the experience itself, Malvezzi’s account of Greek divine experience resists this kind of determination.
This is precisely expressed within the division between the two worlds: mortal and divine. The former is primarily characterised by peras, by ephemerality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 31). The mortal world is limited and determined, it is the realm of what dies. Conversely, the divine is characterised as apeiron, as that which cannot undergo any kind of determination (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 32). The world of mortals is limited just as the world of the divine is infinite. Understanding divine experience in this way, we must read Malvezzi’s as strongly differentiating between this experience and attempts at codification through rational thinking. Divine experience – being so limitless – challenges the limits of everyday life and thus cannot be approximated to them. We must recall that divine experience is fundamentally pre-rational for Malvezzi, and it cannot be rationalised without the experience itself becoming essentially changed.
Indeed, the opposition between rationalisation and the divine is most keenly expressed within Malvezzi’s treatment of chaos, which is considered as “unknown divinity” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Malvezzi appears to suggest a certain temporal structure to one’s relationship with the divine, as one at first encounters the divine as an unknown. One’s initial experience of the divine is presented in terms of unveiling – as aletheia – wherein the mind is opened to truth (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). Malvezzi expresses this by drawing on Hesiod’s account of the genesis of the divine: “at first Chaos came to be” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Hesiod presents this as a mythological account, as a creation myth for the Grecian pantheon. Malvezzi understands this as a part of the phenomenological process. Chaos is a logical opening, it is at once aletheia and epoche – it is the collapse of one’s preconceived ideas. But this collapse is an exposure to truth, not as a series of universal structures of thought or propositions about reality, but as a direct experience of harmonia. If we are to experience harmony – the divine truth, “an underground weaving from which everything can rise and vanish” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 35) – we must first experience chaos. Both are core aspects of the divine experience. For Malvezzi, divine experience is at once terror and beauty.
To best explicate Malvezzi’s view, I return to the notion of orientation. How he presents the phenomenology of the divine appears to follow a movement from orientation to disorientation, a movement engendered by the chaotic component of divine experience. Having passed through chaos, we arrive at harmony, we move from disorientation to reorientation. This reorientation is not a return to one’s original perspective, but a transformation of one’s relationship with the world. This new relationship is rooted in understanding, not as rationalisation, but as facing the divine substratum – as rootedness in one’s phenomenological experience of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). The movement to reorientation is the taking up of a divine orientation, the availability of which depends directly upon this experience. But this experience is transitory, its impression fades and we return to our original, everday orientation – and this precipitates a need to return to the temple, to relive our encounter with the divine. We must once again pass through chaos to reach harmony. Malvezzi does not provide an extended treatment of orientation in this way, though he does mention the concept in connection with Prometheus, who “showed men what to see and hear in order to get oriented” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). This is to say that Prometheus provides us with a shift in perception through revealing a fundamentally element of the world: fire. Through extending this metaphor of orientation, I have attempted to more clearly demonstrate Malvezzi’s position and its implications.
I regard Malvezzi’s project as heavily relying upon these notions of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation even if these are rarely avowed. Indeed, his project appears to suggest that the distance between the mortal and divine worlds is a precisely the distance between two forms of orientation. To be situated in one world or the other is a matter of one’s attitude, as to whether or not one is oriented towards the divine substratum or merely to the surface appearance. This is not to suggest that Malvezzi regards the surface as superficial in such a way as to dismiss it. Instead, the suggestion is that the Grecian model implies that the surface can only attain its full relevance and meaning through an appreciation of its divine support (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37).
Indeed, the fundamental distinction between the mortal and divine worlds becomes blurred in his discussion of Ananke. As a Goddess, Ananke is the divine personification of fate – she is at once a divine being and a constraint on divinity itself, for not even Gods fight Ananke (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 47). As a figure, Ananke comes to represent a divine limitation, she is at once apeiron and peras – blurring the distinctions between the divine and mortal worlds. The blurring of this distinction enables man to understand the divine through a new form of codification. For Malvezzi, Ananke is thus the possibility of accumulating knowledge about the divine, for her status is precisely that of a boundary. Accordingly, it is through her that we move from the fluidity of the divine to the solidity of the Gods – aspects of the divine personified and settled into entities. Malvezzi considers Ananke – and what is made possible through her – to be an advancement in the ontological status of the human being (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). By allowing the divine to settle into human shapes, mankind is given a framework through which they can conceptualise their relationship to the divine in a clear manner. A mythos is born and settled. The pre-rational experience is given a multitude of faces to facilitate its encounter with humanity.
But though the Gods are a result of this experience, though they are a codification of this experience into a more ready-to-hand framework of understanding, the Gods exist to be transcended. The very reason that the Greeks can afford not to resist the codification of the divine experience into Gods and yet could not afford to allow this experience to be claimed by reason is precisely because the Gods can point us back to the originary experience in a way that reason cannot. This is to say that rationalisation pulls us directly away from the divine experience, it leads us only into abstraction. As a form of codification, rationalisation keeps the experience itself at bay. The Gods, however, like the temples in which they are spatially located, become sites of experience in and of themselves. This is to suggest that the Gods return us to the divine experience, that they enable us to experience harmony.
On Malvezzi’s account, the Gods thus become vehicles for experiencing the divine, which at once return us to this experience of chaos and then harmony, but which also foreground a human element of this harmony. This is fundamentally why the Gods are concerned with wisdom, not because they provide codified doctrines of teachings, but because each of them provides human beings with access to wisdom. Wisdom, on Malvezzi’s account, is the phenomenological experience of, and ability to interact with, the invisible harmony of the world. Wisdom fundamentally depends upon this phenomenological experience, which in turn depends upon the conditions embodied within the temple and its Gods. As such, it would be appropriate to extend Malvezzi’s use of architecture to suggest that temples and their Gods are themselves the architecture of wisdom, as well as the archetype.
To extend Malvezzi’s project into the claim that the Gods serve as an architecture of wisdom is to foreground the temple as a catalyst for a phenomenological encounter with the divine. Malvezzi’s project has a strong historical thread through which he provides a reading of the origins and development of the Greek temple. Though I provide a summary of his account here, this subject is beyond my specialism and thus I am in no position to appraise it. Malvezzi’s history begins with the tѐmenoi, the “cut out lands” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 19) that serve as the predecessor’s to the Grecian temple structure. These were sites of worship in the open air, closed off spaces that were dedicated to a God – sacred spaces surrounding an altar. Such spaces are closed off in the sense that they are set apart from the corresponding outside: the mortal world. The structure of the tѐmenoi as closed off establishes the sanctity of these spaces as grounded in a shift away from everyday life. Central to this shift is that the tѐmenoi served as thresholds between civilisation and the natural world. Indeed, the location of these were not considered as accidental or as part of civic planning – but as chosen by the Gods. What marked these locations as chosen were their natural features, and thus we can see the roots of the temenoi and the divine within the natural world. Malvezzi notes that for the Greeks, nature was not to be regarded as a “dead”, for nature was alive (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 21). What this means philosophically is the suggestion that for the Greeks, nature was more than a factic state of affairs, not merely a collection of creatures and plants to be regarded merely as resources, but that the Greek spiritual life has its origins within the divinity of nature. Due to its association with the divine, however, it is unsurprising that the natural world was considered as distinct from the mortal world: from the civilised world of the polis. Malvezzi’s therefore regards the temenoi as sanctuaries that sat at the margins of the polis, marking the physical and psychological thresholds between civilisation and nature (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 22), between the known and the unknown, between the mortal and the divine.
Therefore, Malvezzi’s proposes that the general structure of the temple is that it constitutes an interstice between the two worlds – but this is not to suggest that each temple is identical. Malvezzi stresses the observations of other scholars who suggest that temples are each unique, that their construction cannot be entirely reduced to a singular schema (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 65). Despite this, Malvezzi asserts that there is a clear commonality upon which we can comment, and this is the use of light within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70). His treatment of the phenomenological experience of the temple comes to focus on the act of entering the temple and approaching the altar. Typically, the temple would have a single entrance, acting as the sole aperture through which light could enter the building. As this entrance was at the opposite end of the building to the altar and the God – herein represented as a statue – the procession towards the architectural representation of the divine would have been a walk into gradually intensifying darkness (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 80). One’s entry into the space was occasioned by the placement of the columns, which would again come to divide the internal sections of the building. Importantly for Malvezzi, the placement of these columns deliberated evoked a sense of a permeable boundary (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 69), crossed by the worshipper entering the holy site. Due to the single entrance, Malvezzi describes the temple as a prism, diffracting not only light, but also reality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70).
This image of worship amounts to what I regard to be Malvezzi’s most original claim within this project: that the temple demonstrates how the act and practice of worship was itself implicitly spatial for the Greeks. The temple is a space that one moves through, it is a path out of the mortal world and into the divine, a sojourn of discovery. The sculpted stones of the temple were regarded as living, as imbued with soul through the art of construction – all united within the secret recipe for arousing a sense of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 76, 81). It is for these reasons that Malvezzi speaks of the temple as grounded within a human hope that it was possible for all men to have this experience.
The Archetype of Wisdom is an ambitious project, drawing on resources from myriad disciplines across the academy. As a synthesis of these perspectives, Malvezzi’s work provides a compelling suggestion as to how we can productively read the Greek temple, as to how these sacred spaces can provide us with testimonies about Grecian practice, experience, and cosmology. Philosophically, Malvezzi draws several productive connections between Greek practice and later works of phenomenology – especially in his treatment of erlebnis and, in my suggestion, his implicit comments on orientation. Though I consider the text to provide a convincing demonstration as to the utility of pursuing a phenomenology of the classics, it remains limited in the amount it can achieve given its relatively short length. On these grounds, I consider The Archetype of Wisdom as a proposal for additional work – a proposal that implicitly calls for a collaborative effort across those disciplines with which it interfaces. In particular, it would be productive to consider this project alongside archaeology, which is mentioned somewhat sparingly in the text. Finally, another element that is somewhat absent from this text is a consideration of the temple as a political site, thus any further work within this area may wish to consider what contribution could be made by political philosophy. None of these omissions are damning to the central thesis of the text – but each could be addressed in whatever projects Malvezzi’s work precipitates.
Ahmed, S., 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, Durham.
Husserl, E., 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Nijhof, The Hague.
Malvezzi, R., 2018. The Archetype of Wisdom: A Phenomenological Review of the Greek Temple. Mimesis International, Milan-Udine.
 Malvezzi does not expand upon any connections between his use of this term and its place within the work of Heidegger. This may be another fruitful comparison for any future work.
Ein zentraler methodologischer Widerstreit der kontemporären theoretischen Philosophie kann als einer zwischen Beschreibung und Erklärung verstanden werden (Leiter 2004, Rorty 2010). Dieser Widerstreit ist bekanntlich zunächst von Dilthey (1984), dann auch von Wittgenstein (2002) metatheoretisch in den Blick genommen worden. Philosophie als Erklärung insbesondere in Form des Naturalismus ist die derzeitige Orthodoxie in weiten Teilen der Philosophie, insbesondere der angelsächsischen Tradition, aber zunehmend auch im deutschsprachigen Raum, der sich allmählich formalen und inhaltlichen Standards der analytischen Philosophie anzupassen scheint. Philosophie als Beschreibung wird maßgeblich von den Traditionen der Phänomenologie und Hermeneutik vertreten; Traditionen, die (glücklicherweise) zwarlebendig sind, aber im kontinentaleuropäischen Raum eben nicht mehr in der Form vorherrschen wie beispielsweise noch in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts. In diesem Sinne könnte man behaupten, dass Philosophie als Erklärung bereits „gewonnen“ habe oder sich auf dem „Siegeszug“ befinde. In diesem Spannungsfeld, das zentrale soziologische und metaphilosophische Aspekte berührt, sind detaillierte phänomenologische Studien wie Schaefflers Phänomenologie der Religion wertvoll, um ein Gegengewicht gegen eine relative Vormachtstellung des Naturalismus in (Teilen der) analytischen Philosophie zu entwickeln und Potentiale der Phänomenologie, i.e. Philosophie als Beschreibung, als Alternative zu verdeutlichen.
Das Ziel von Schaefflers Buch ist die Darstellung und Entwicklung der Phänomenologie in Anschluss an Husserl als geeignete Methode der Beschäftigung mit dem Phänomenon der Religion zur Beantwortung folgender Desiderate, die in der bisherigen Religionsphänomenologie laut Schaeffler unbeantwortet blieben: Die „‚Rückübersetzung‘ der Noemata (intentionalen Korrelate) in die Konstitutionsleistungen der religiösen Noesis (des religiösen Akts)“ (S. 32), die Herausarbeitung der Differenz des religiösen Aktes gegenüber anderen Akten, die Bestimmung der Bedeutung der religiösen Intersubjektivität gegen eine religiöse Individualität und die Ablehnung einer Überbetonung der Eigengesetzlichkeit der Religion, was Kritik an religiösen Formen verunmögliche. Schaeffler möchte diese Ansprüche durch eine exemplarische Entfaltung bestimmter Grundbegriffe der Religionsphänomenologie einholen. Die Entscheidung für die Phänomenologie gründet in der Überzeugung, dass die Religionsphilosophie der Religion nicht den „Selbst-Aussagen der Religion […] mit apriorischen Argumenten“ ins Wort zu fallen hat (S. 13). Zusätzlich zu dieser Setzung führt er folgende Gründe an (S. 32): erstens fängt Phänomenologie die Eigengesetzlichkeit der Religion ein und verhindert Reduktionismus; zweitens lässt Phänomenologie uns die Aspekte der religiösen Erfahrung aus dem religiösen Akt verstehen; drittens sorgt Phänomenologie für ein angemessenes Verständnis der Geschichte der Religion. Diese Potentiale sieht Schaeffler noch ungenutzt und erwirbt damit die Motivation zur Durchführung des Projekts. Dabei habe die phänomenologische Religionsphilosophie zugleich die kritische Aufgabe, „Fehlgestaltungen (Pseudomorphosen)“ (S. 14) religiösen Handelns aufzudecken und zu korrigieren. Das Richtmaß dieser Korrektur soll dabei jedoch der von der jeweiligen religiösen Praxis entnommene Standard sein.
Diese genannten Desiderate an eine Religionsphänomenologie sollen in diesem Buch geklärt werden. Im ersten Kapitel diskutiert Schaeffler mögliche methodologische Ausrichtungen der Religionsphilosophie: Philosophie als ‚Abkömmling‘ der Religion (i), religiöses Fragen als der Philosophie methodologisch vorgeordnet (ii), Religionsphilosophie auf Basis philosophischer Theologie (iii), transzendentale Theologie (iv), religionsphilosophische Phänomenologie (v) und der linguistic turn in der Religionsphilosophie (vi). Aus schon genannten Gründen entscheidet sich Schaeffler für die religionsphilosophisch-phänomenologische Methode.
Es ist leider den Kapiteln nicht je ein Desiderat zugeordnet. Es scheint, dass Schaeffler hofft, dass nach dem Durchgang des Buches von selbst deutlich wird, wie diese Desiderate zu den Teilen der phänomenologischen Darlegung passen. Hier wünscht man sich als Leser eine klarere Regieanweisung seitens Schaeffler, aus der deutlich wird, welche phänomenologischen Darstellungen für welches Desiderat tatsächlich relevant sind. In diesem Sinne ist es gut, dass Forschungsdesiderate klar benannt werden – nur die positive Lösung für diese Desiderate kann unklar bleiben.
Kapitel zwei bis vier handeln von verschiedenen Aspekten des religiösen Aktes. Das zweite Kapitel widmet sich der Eigenheit der religiösen Sprache als Teil des religiösen Akts, das dritte Kapitel widmet sich dem religiösen Kult als Einbettung des religiösen Akts, das vierte Kapitel widmet sich den Traditionen, in denen die Formen des religiösen Akts überliefert werden.Schaeffler betont hier zu recht, dass die Fähigkeit zum religiösen Akt nicht angeboren ist, sondern stets die Erlernung durch das Sich-Einordnen in eine vorhandene Tradition benötigt. Das fünfte Kapitel unternimmt die Überlegung, wie der Begriff Gottes (bzw. der Götter) ein Thema der Religionsphilosophie in phänomenologischer Hinsicht sein kann. Zu diesem Zweck stellt das Kapitel drei Denkweisen in Bezug auf Gott einander gegenüber: die Götter der Religionen, der Gott der Philosophen und den Gott der Bibel. Ziel dieser Gegenüberstellung ist es, das Verhältnis von religiösen Akten und religiösen Gegenständen zu verdeutlichen: Gegenstand („Korrelat“, S. 142) des religiösen Aktes ist Gott (bzw. Götter). Den Begriff Gottes (bzw. der Götter) will Schaeffler dabei aus der Religion als Phänomen selbst gewinnen und nicht ex cathedra im Sinne einer philosophischen Theologie entwickeln. Auf das fünfte Kapitel folgt ein Ausblick in Form einer Reflexion auf das Verhältnis von Religion und säkularer Vernunft. (Der Inhalt des Ausblicks ist weiter unten ausführlich behandelt.)
In nuce: Der Anfang des Buches stellt eine interessante Reflexion auf Methode und Sinn der Phänomenologie dar. Der Mittelteil – der Hauptteil des Buches – ist die konkrete Anwendung dieser Methode in Form eines phänomenologischen Flugs über die begriffliche Landschaft der Religion. Der Schluss – der Ausblick – fragt nach dem Verhältnis von Religion und säkularer Vernunft. Wie bei vielen philosophischen Werken geschieht die wichtigste Arbeit auch hier am Anfang und am Schluss der Darstellung. Im Folgenden beschränke ich mich daher in der kritischen Auseinandersetzung auf vier zentrale Punkte, die sich maßgeblich mit Anfang und Schluss von Schaefflers Monographie beschäftigen.
- Naturalisierung der Religion als Methode
Schaefflers Auseinandersetzung mit konkurrierenden methodologischen Ansätzen der Religionsphilosophie ist zumindest in der Darstellung und Kritik der reduktionistischen Strömungen zu kurz. Ein seit spätestens der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts zentral gewordener Topos im Nachdenken über die Religion besteht in naturalisierenden, i.e. reduktionistischen, Erklärungsstrategien. Diese Naturalisierungsstrategien kommen in bestimmten Formen daher. Zwei paradigmatische Ausformungen dieser naturalistischen Reduktionsind folgende: einmal solche, die das Phänomenon der Religion in einem weitgehend darwinistisch-evolutionstheoretischen Rahmen begreifen, wonach Religion vor allem ein selektionsrelevanter Faktor sei. Zweitens gibt es solche, die Religion und Glaube als nützliche Fiktionen psychologisieren wollen. Religion wäre dann nichts anderes mehr als eine evolutionsbiologische Laune bzw. bloße psychologische Einbildung.
Schaeffler lehnt zwar die Reduktion der Religion zugunsten ihrer Eigengesetzlichkeit ab (S. 32), es wird jedoch nicht klar, weshalb. Die Frage nach dieser sogenannten Eigengesetzlichkeit der Religion ist somit zugleich die Frage, weshalb die Religion zunächst stets an ihren eigenen und nicht ihr äußerlichen Maßstäben gemessen werden sollte (S. 141). Zwar mögen die konkurrierenden naturalistischen Ansätze selbst nichtbesonders sinnvoll oder überzeugend sind.Dennoch könnte Schaefflers Abhandlung durch eine Beschäftigung mit diesen Denktraditionen und einer detaillierteren Kritik an naturalistischen Ansätzen profitieren. Die fehlende Auseinandersetzung mit theoretischen Erz-Opponenten schmälert Schaefflers ansonsten sehr klare und lohnenswerte methodologische Abhandlung. In diesem Sinn erhält eine unbegründete Ablehnung des Reduktionismus, sollte sie auch korrekt sein, einen unnötigen dogmatistischen Beigeschmack. Daher wäre gerade für das erste Kapitel noch die Beschäftigung mit Naturalisierungsstrategien als weitere, siebte Methode der Religionsphilosophie interessant.
Der vorherige Punkt deutet auf ein allgemeineres Problem hin: das Literaturverzeichnis und die Referenzen. Schaefflers Buch ist von einer beeindruckenden Kenntnis religiöser Primärtexte gekennzeichnet. Jedoch bezieht Schaeffler sich größtenteils auf ältere Forschungsliteratur. Die jüngste Publikation, die er nennt, ist eine Monographie von Hermann Usener von 1996 (Schaefflers eigene Texte ausgenommen); die nächst-jüngere ist eine Monographie von Ingolf Dalfert von 1984. Nun ist es freilich nicht so, dass der Bezug auf aktuelle Forschungsliteratur ein Garant für Qualität ist. Es stimmt auch nicht, dass der fehlende Bezug auf solche Literatur einen Gedanken falsch oder eine Abhandlung schlechtmacht. Es ist jedoch der Fall, dass Schaefflers Darstellung und Argument für die Phänomenologie als rechte Methode der Religionsphilosophie durch einen breiter gefächerten Bezug auf Forschungsliteratur weiter an Überzeugungskraft gewinnen würde. Im Mindesten könnten solche Referenzen es für den geneigten Leser einfacher machen, Schaefflers Ausführungen in die derzeitige Forschungslandschaft und Debattenstruktur einzubetten.
Verwandt mit diesem Ausbleiben ist auch das Fehlen anderer phänomenologischer Autoren. Husserl ist der phänomenologische Held dieses Buches – Schaeffler stellt seine Abhandlung an mehreren Stellen durch direkten Bezug auf Husserls Vokabular in diese Tradition. Eine Beschäftigung mit weiteren großen Figuren der Phänomenologie wie Heidegger oder Merleau-Pontywäre hier jedoch auch interessant. Insbesondere die Frage, inwiefern Heideggers Transformation der Phänomenologie in Sein und Zeit, speziell durch den Begriff des Mitseins, nicht schon Schaefflers Kritik eingeholt hat, dass die Phänomenologie Husserls zur Individualisierung der Erfahrung neigt, welche er in seiner eigenen Abhandlung vermeiden möchte (S. 33). In diesem Punkt zumindest scheint die Phänomenologie teilweise schon weiter entwickelt zu sein als Schaeffler suggeriert.
- Religionsphilosophie und Religionswissenschaften
Da es nicht Gegenstand von Schaefflers Erklärungsziel ist, lässt sich folgender Punkt nicht direkt als Kritik verstehen, sondern eher als angeregte Nachfragen im Anschluss an seine Ausführungen. Es stellt sich die Frage, wie in Anschluss an Schaeffler das Verhältnis von empirischer Religionswissenschaft (und Ethnologie) und phänomenologischer Religionsphilosophie zu denken ist. Eine zentrale Gefahr scheint mir hier in einem Abgrenzungsproblem zu bestehen. Empirische Religionswissenschaft, zumindest die hermeneutisch geprägte, priorisiert nämlich allzu oft die Eigengesetzlichkeit und Nicht-Reduzierbarkeit der von ihr untersuchten Phänomene. Dies ist aber ein zentrales Merkmal, das Schaeffler für die Religionsphilosophie beansprucht. Nun ist es nicht ganz eindeutig, obes als Abgrenzungskriterium genügt zu behaupten, dass empirische Religionswissenschaft einzelne Religionen oder religiöse Praktiken untersucht und die phänomenologische Religionsphilosophie die allgemeinen Begriffe solcher Praktiken. Zumindest besteht die Gefahr, dass sich Religionswissenschaft hermeneutischer Prägung und Religionsphänomenologie zu ähnlich werden. Soll stattdessen die „Magd“ Religionswissenschaft der Religionsphilosophie Zuarbeit leisten (oder andersherum)? Soll die Religionsphilosophie im Sinn eines methodologischen Fundamentalismus den Religionswissenschaften ein begriffliches Vorverständnis liefern? Solche Fragen wären in Anschluss an Schaeffler zu klären.
- Transzendentale Vernunftpostulate – Das Projekt einer profanen Vernunft
Direkt auf das fünfte Kapitel, das sich noch mit dem Begriff Gottes als Thema der Religionsphilosophie befasst, folgt etwas unvermittelt Schaefflers Ausblick. Dieser Ausblick enthält vier Thesen und ist mit zwei Seiten vergleichsweise kurz geraten. Dennoch finden sich in diesem Ausblick die wahrscheinlich spannendsten philosophischen Punkte des gesamten Buchs. Im Folgenden werde ich Schaefflers stark kondensierten Projektentwurf rekonstruieren und im Ansatz kritisch einschränken.
Im Ausblick geht es Schaeffler um die Frage nach dem rechten Verhältnis von Religion und säkularer Vernunft in der Moderne, also um Religion als gelebte Praxis im Zeitalter des naturwissenschaftlichen Weltbilds, in dem Gott (wie man so meint) „tot“ sei (Nietzsche 1971, §108, §125). Ihm scheint es in der ersten These zunächst noch um eine Einschränkung der Religion gegenüber der säkularen Vernunft zu gehen: religiöse Argumente haben nicht in jedem Bereich Geltungskraft.
In Thesen zwei bis vier stellt Schaeffler nichts Geringeres als die ambitionierte These auf, dass die transzendentale Bedingung für Einzelerfahrung überhaupt in sog. Vernunftpostulaten besteht. Diese Vernunftpostulate „entdecken“ in den Einzelerfahrungen den Anspruch, mit dem „Gott uns seine Aufträge (‚Gebote‘) anvertraut“ (S. 209). Diese Vernunftpostulate haben den Status einer „in transzendentaler Hinsicht notwendige[n] Hoffnung: die Hoffnung, dass die Vernunft im Durchgang durch ihre Dialektik in verwandelter Gestalt [nämlich zur profanen Vernunft, TJS] wiederhergestellt werde, ohne dass die Art dieser Wiederherstellung aus Prinzipien a priori deduziert werden könnte“ (S. 210). In diesem Kontext wählt Schaeffler die an Kant (1911) angelehnte Formulierung: Postulate ohne religiöse Erfahrung sind leer; religiöse Erfahrung ohne Postulate ist blind. Die religiöse Erfahrung sichere, dass diese Vernunftpostulate kein bloßes Wunschdenken seien (denn sie seien ja mit religiöser Erfahrung unterfüttert). Im Gegenzug sicherten die religiösen Vernunftpostulate der religiösen Erfahrung eine Allgemeinheit, die sie von dem Verdacht, Teil einer „‚religiösen Sonderwelt‘ einer ‚Sondergruppe in der Gesellschaft‘“ zu sein,freisprechen soll (S. 210).
Diese Vernunftpostulate sind laut Schaeffler notwendig, da sich die säkulare Vernunft ohne sie in eine Dialektik aus Dogmatismus und Skeptizismus verheddere, welche in letzter Instanz die Vernunft selbst aufhöbe. Dabei bestehe der Dogmatismus in einem Dogmatismus der Wissenschaft, also einem Szientismus (nicht Schaefflers Wort), der nur die (Natur-)Wissenschaft als genuinen Weltzugang zulässt, und der Skeptizismus in einem Skeptizismus, der „jede Art von Geltungsanspruch auf die willkürliche Wahl einer unter mehreren möglichen Perspektiven erklärt“ (S. 209). Somit geht es Schaeffler hier doch darum, im Fluchtpunkt nachzuweisen, dass säkulare, i.e. nicht-religiöse, Vernunft die religiöse Vernunft und damit scheinbar den Verweis auf Transzendentes doch zur notwendigen Vorbedingung hat. Die säkulare Vernunft werde damit zur profanen Vernunft, die in der Erfahrung den Gott der Religionen wiedererkennt. Die Idee scheint zu sein, dass richtig verstandene transzendentale Phänomenologie das Verhältnis von naturwissenschaftlich-technischen Zivilisation (Tetens 2014) und der Religion neu auszurichten vermag als eine Form des nicht-reduktiven Nebenhers, bei der die religiöse Vernunft als transzendentale Notwendigkeit für alle Bereiche der Erfahrung verstanden wird.
Dieses Projekt ist in der Tat hochgradig interessant. Es ist daher umso mehr schade, dass uns Schaeffler nicht mehr Einzelheiten bereitstellt, sondern uns nur diese Denkanstöße zur eigenen Ausführung an die Hand gibt. In diesen sehr kurzen Überlegungen bleiben nämlich notwendigerweise zentrale Punkte unklar. Es bleibt beispielsweise unklar, weshalb genau die nicht-religiöse Vernunft sich in die Dialektik (oder meint Schaeffler eher „das Dilemma“?) von Dogmatismus und Skeptizismus verwickelt. Darüber hinaus wird es ohne eine Art Meisterargument für nicht schon Überzeugte nur schwierig einzusehen sein, wie eine profane Vernunft in der gewöhnlichen Erfahrung Gott zu erkennen vermag. Muss der Schritt in den Glauben erst vollzogen worden sein, um von der säkularen in die profane Vernunft überzutreten? Lässt sich dieser Schritt selbst allein durch die Vernunft vollziehen oder brauch es einen Kierkegaardschen Sprung in den Glauben? An dieser Stelle ist schon unklar, welche Art von Argument es zur Begründung von Schaefflers ambitionierter These bräuchte. Das ändert jedoch nichts daran, dass dieser Ausblick tatsächlich Grundlage für ein spannendes Anschlussprojekt sein kann.
Schaefflers Abhandlung demonstriert einen gewaltigen Kenntnisschatz, der sich im Laufe einer langen Karriere angesammelt hat. Das Buch liefert eine übersichtliche, nachvollziehbare und lehrreiche phänomenologische Kartographierung zentraler Grundbegriffe des Phänomens Religion. Diese Kartographierung der Grundbegriffe der Religionsphilosophie hat hier vor allem einen wichtigen exemplarischen Charakter. Anhand dieses Buches lässt sich ablesen, wie die phänomenologische Methode angewandt auf einen konkreten Begriffsbereich aussehen kann. Das Exemplum regt zum Nachmachen an. Es ist in seiner Nachvollziehbarkeit und methodologischen Grundsätzlichkeit für Studierende der Philosophie, Religionswissenschaft und Theologie geeignet, kann aber durchaus auch von Fachexperten dieser mit Gewinn gelesen werden.
Zusammenfassend: Schaefflers Überlegung krankt an fehlender Ausführlichkeit und Tiefe in der Auseinandersetzung mit konkurrierenden Positionen. Das führt unter anderem dazu, dass die phänomenologische Ausführung des Projekts in Kapitel zwei bis fünf teils im luftleeren Raum zu schweben scheinen und eben bloß als Exemplum der Anwendung der phänomenologischen Methode verstanden werden können, ihr Beitrag zur genuin philosophischen Debatte nicht ganz klar erkennbar ist. Ebenso bleibt das im Ausblick angelegte sehr interessante Projekt der Darlegung einer transzendentalen Grundlegung der säkularen Vernunft durch die religiöse Vernunft unkonturiert insofern nicht klar ist, welche Form ein solches Projekt nehmen könnte. Trotz dieser Defizite ist Schaefflers Phänomenologie der Religion gerade im eingangs skizzierten Widerstreit zwischen Philosophie als Erklärung versus Philosophie als Beschreibung ein wertvoller Beitrag zur Bildung eines Gegengewichts gegen eine Orthodoxie der Erklärungs-Philosophie im kontemporären intellektuellen Klima.
Dilthey, Wilhelm (1984): Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Heidegger, Martin (2006): Sein und Zeit, zuerst veröffentlicht 1927, Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1980): Phänomenologie des Geistes, Gesammelte Werke Bd. 9. Hg. Rheinisch-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Hamburg: Felix Meiner.
Kant, Immanuel (1911): Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Akademieausgabe, Bd. 3, Erstpublikation 1787, Berlin: Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Leiter, Brian (2004) (ed.): The Future for Philosophy, Oxford: University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1971): Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, Werke, Bd. 2, Frankfurt.
Rorty, Richard (2010): “Naturalism and Quietism”, in Mario De Caro & David Macarthur (eds.), Naturalism and Normativity, Columbia University Press, 55-68.
Schaeffler, Richard (2018): Phänomenologie der Religion, Grundzüge ihrer Fragestellung, Freiburg/München: Karl Alber Verlag.
Tetens, Holm (2014): “Der Glaube an die Wissenschaft und der methodische Atheismus. Zur religiösen Dialektik der wissenschaftlich-technischen Zivilisation”, Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 55 (3),271-283.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2002): Philosophische Untersuchungen, Werkausgabe, Bd. 1, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
The Possibility of a World is a transcript of a conversation between Pierre-Philippe Jandin and the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. The conversation, which broaches topics spanning philosophy, art history, ethics, politics, religion, community, the Bible, the French Revolution and beyond, exhibits the wide and almost unprecedented scope of Nancy’s writings. This journey through Nancy’s thought is guided by the careful and considered questions of Pierre-Philippe Jandin who, in playing an active role in the conversation, challenges and provokes Nancy with testing questions and comments. An important statement precedes the conversation: “in accordance with J-L Nancy’s wishes, we have attempted to preserve the spontaneity of oral discussion […]”. Owing to this, the reader finds herself standing “on the threshold” (to use Nancy’s phrase from an essay of the same name), observing a scene. This scene, or conversation, is composed of nine chapters, each devoted to a specific topic, and beginning with a question that dictates the direction of the discussion. However, unlike a well-planned interview, the charm of this conversation lies in its associative, non-linear (and not always well-explained) façons de parler.
In keeping with Nancy’s central preoccupation regarding the ontology of plurality as a fundamental ontology, what presides over the entire conversation is a concern with the need to rethink ethics in a “world [that] is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd” (28). In other words, a world that is neither harmonious nor orderly (in the sense of the Greek ‘cosmos’), but rather an irreducible plurality of worlds. Furthermore, this claim extends beyond the argument about the plurality of worlds, since what is at issue is “the plural itself as a principle”,[i] irrespective of whether it concerns politics, the thought of community, or the plurality of the Arts. These modes of plurality, and the consequent requirement to rethink ethics, preoccupy the body of this conversation.
The Possibility of the World does not—and is not intended to—introduce Nancy’s philosophy to the “novice”. Instead, it represents a journey through Nancy’s thought, with which we are already familiar. Owing to this, the book reads as though it were a director’s cut, adding another dimension to a movie or biopic. Given the broad scope of each chapter, in addition to their associative manner, I have chosen only to elaborate on the central issues evoked by each chapter, rather than reviewing chapters in their entirety.
The conversation commences with a preliminary, autobiographical chapter entitled “Formative Years”. This concerns Nancy’s childhood until his mid 20s. On this topic, Jandin begins with a provocative and ironic question:
How did you become a philosopher? Especially since you gave a lecture in 2002 at the Centre Pompidou entitled: “I Never Became a Philosopher.” What’s this non-becoming, then? (1)
I didn’t become a philosopher because I’ve always been one. All that I’ve known, or all that I’ve experienced, took place against a background that I wouldn’t call philosophical, though it’s close to it— a background of interest in the things of thought, in conceptions. (2)
The first chapter explores Nancy’s philosophical upbringing.
Nancy’s entry into the world, as Jandin puts it, unfolds in a time of turbulence. Born 1940 in the “thick of World War II” in occupied France, the young Nancy spent most of his childhood in Baden Baden, Germany, owing to his father’s work. As a young boy, Nancy recalls finding great pleasure in “meandering alone in nature” (3), but also, if not especially, in the solitude of reading, which he experienced as “a withdrawal from the rest of the world […] which was an entrance into another world” (3). In 1951, the family returned to France and the young boy entered French school in the middle of sixth grade, which he had in fact commenced already in a French lycée in Germany. He would later on join the Young Christian Students (YCS), a youth movement oriented towards leftist Catholicism, which he recounts as providing the “initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8):
As I realized much later, this was certainly the beginning of something for me, the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense [sens]. The biggest revelation that I had through this exercise was that, in a text, there is practically an infinite reserve of sense […] Basically, this is what I was trained to do: One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite. (7)
While the Catholic orientation of that movement provided the adolescent Nancy with his first encounter of biblical texts and their inexhaustible fount of sense, this encounter eventually culminated in a crisis of faith:
Suddenly the mere possibility of being in what I could think of as a relationship to God— addressing him, having to recognize myself as a sinner, having to confess, having to receive the communion of the body of Christ—all of this had completely lost any substance. (9)
Thus, while the YCS, with its religious orientation, provided the initial path to social and political advocacy, the young Nancy discovered that it was not the only path to becoming socially and politically engaged. Moreover, on account of his distancing from religion, he was increasingly drawn to philosophy. The first philosopher mentioned in this long conversation is Jacques Derrida, whose writings he came upon in 1964 (at the age of 24), and on whose philosophy he writes “I felt that something was bursting open. There was a timeliness to this thought […] A new language was trying, at least, to find itself” (14). However, even earlier on he had discovered Hegel and Heidegger (an encounter that Nancy elaborates on in “Heidegger in France”).[ii]
However, above all it was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that formed part of the aggregation that left the strongest impression on the young Nancy. Kant’s legacy, Nancy argues, is “enormous”, and far “greater than [Hegel’s]” (18). What changes with Kant is that there is no longer a distinction between the domain of pure reason and the domain of praxis, since after Kant “pure reason is itself practical, which is why it doesn’t need a critique, but rather a critique of its use” (19). Another leitmotif of Nancy’s writings was his preoccupation with the question of the relationship between the sensible and the intelligible, around which the entire Kantian critical corpus revolves (and which is referred to within Kant scholarship as “the Nature-Freedom problem”). These concerns, deemed the one thing “that had never been thought by metaphysics” (20) according to Kant writing to Marcus Herz, were centrally important to Nancy’s own writings, as evidenced (inter alia) in The Muses, Corpus, and The Ground of the Image.
As far as Nancy was concerned, challenging the distinction between pure and practical, sensible and intelligible, constituted a project originating in Kant. Such concerns inevitably move us away from the domain of the first Critique and its study into the possibility of a priori sensibility, to the domain of the third Critique, and its study into a different mode of sensibility.
It is here that the discussion turns to art and its difference from philosophy. “I envy the artist”, Nancy admits, because they “manage to do things which are real!” while “I have a feeling that my texts are too oriented towards the conceptual”. Philosophers “are a group of people who want clarity” (21). On this point, one need only recall Descartes’ fundamental distinction between clear and distinct ideas (as opposed to obscure and confused ideas) in The Passions of the Soul. While Western metaphysics is haunted by the metaphor of light, the artist has the freedom to dwell in the shadows. “I look into the night and enter it”, Nancy quotes Bataille, “but no philosopher truly takes it upon themselves to do that because philosophers are supposed to introduce light into the world” (21). For Nancy, philosophy is not an escape from a cave towards the bright light of the Idea. Philosophy is rather a dwelling-place between light and shadow, between philosophy and poesies: it is a form of writing that encroaches upon a reality that is irreducible to the conceptual, and which, in Nancy’s words, is an ex-scription (a writing from the outside). As he remarks, “words and ideas are not only words and ideas but the circulation of the real”.
The first chapter culminates with this ethically toned remark:
Human beings no longer live in the world in the sense of Hölderlin, reprised by Heidegger, when he writes: “poetically, man dwells.” “To dwell” [habiter] means to be in the habitus, not in the habit but in the “disposition,” an active disposition. In the end, habitus is not far from ethos; what we need is an ethics of the world. This is perhaps the greatest issue of Western civilization, which has now become worldwide [mondiale], or global [globale]—to have had this will to transform the world in order to make it a human world […] This is what Heidegger meant when he introduced what we translate as “Being-in-the-world” (in-der-Welt-sein); to say that the existent, the Dasein, is essentially in the world simply means that it’s necessarily involved in the circulation of meaning or sense, which is what makes a world. (26)
Notwithstanding this Heideggerian-toned observation, Nancy ends up invoking Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law of nature”:
The imperative is what has been given to human beings in order to make a world, in the end, this means that what’s at stake is to make or remake a world. (27)
This world, which has become an object of knowledge “is at the same time a world where human beings’ presence […] has been pushed aside” (26). We no longer live in the world as beings-in-the-world, we flee from this existential, from this mode of being, and in doing that we flee from our essence as existence.
Nancy interprets Kant’s principle of universality as the ethical obligation of each of us to remake a world, recreating it for the type of being that we ourselves are—Dasein—in order to recapitulate the question of being and our relationship to our being through this creation.
The second conversation, entitled “The World”, picks up the question of ethics and the remaking of the world in connection to one of the fundamental concerns of Nancy’s philosophy, namely the theme of plurality.[iii] Jandin begins by quoting Nancy’s argument in Corpus:
Our world is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd, the non-place of a proliferating population, “[an] endless, generalized, departure.” (28)
Today it is no longer possible to sustain thought about the world in terms of a cosmos in the Greek sense, that is, a uni-verse that is harmonious, beautiful, unified, and total. This narrative is no longer valid, not only philosophically, as Nancy remarks; it is also scientifically untenable: “today astrophysics is compelled in a way to think a plurality of worlds” (30), a multiverse rather than a universe. This thought has two repercussions: “that we no longer can retain the model of a single universe”, but additionally that:
from now on all theories of physics have to think of themselves as a construction of fictions. Moreover, in The New Scientific Spirit, Bachelard writes, in effect, that: [Instruments] are nothing but theories materialized. The phenomena they produce bear the stamp of theory throughout. […] [We] produce, we multiply new objects according to several approaches, and thus we manage to produce several worlds. It’s better to say, perhaps, in order to avoid harming the spontaneous, realistic feeling, that we produce several possibilities of worlds or even several fictions of worlds. Nevertheless, even this word, fiction, is dangerous because it could allow one to think that behind this fictional world lies the true world, when we are perhaps moving past the representation of science as an objective knowledge that comes closer to a real that exists in itself. (30)
The plurality of worlds, an expression coined by Fontenelle that Nancy appropriates as the subtitle of his essay, “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?: (conversation on the Plurality of Worlds)”,[iv] refers to plurality as ontological principle rather than as empirical ontic idea, which merely points to the diversity of our world. Referring to this essay, Jandin remarks:
[…] the multiplicity of the “arts” can’t be subsumed under the unity of a concept of “Art,” you insist on the irreducibility of plurality. It’s the world itself that’s plural, and plurality or space is, so to speak, what makes it shatter from the inside. (37)
This argument resonates with not only Nancy’s theme of the Singular Plural but also Kant’s definition of reflective judgment as opposed to a determinate judgment, as expounded in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. The difference between these forms of judgment can be summarized as follows: the former is a kind of judgment for which no determinate concepts are available and which is therefore cognitively unmastered;[v] the latter, by contrast, countenances the possibility of subsuming the manifold of intuition under a unified concept or law. In a similar vein, there is no concept of Art to unify the heterogeneity of the arts, “art would thus be in default or in excess of its own concept” (The Muses, 4), which is to say that there is no principle of homogenization under which to subsume the multiplicity of worlds that we inhabit as beings-in-the-world. This is, therefore, a thesis that goes to the heart of Nancy’s ontology, while sharing firm ground with Kant’s aesthetics.[vi]
What is lost as a consequence of the fact that we “no longer [live] in a cosmos […] we no longer perceive the totality of an ordered and thus beautiful world” (29), is the loss of the image of man as derived from the idea of humanitas. On the one hand, Nancy emphasizes the great emancipatory value of the Enlightenment: it freed human beings to think for themselves, and it inaugurated the moment of the “auto”. Nevertheless, today we face a different challenge, intimated by Nancy’s claim that our world today is a place of plurality, of multitude, which consequently furnishes us with a new ethical task. At issue is no longer the imperative “to think for oneself”, but rather the requirement “to think about the multiple as dis-position, as dis-tinction” (50), that is, to think of the plural itself as a principle without neglecting the singularity and particularity of each individual. In other words, we must think of plurality not in terms of the faceless masses, but in terms of co-appearances. We must think of the multiple as the new face of humanitas.
Extending the discussion of plurality and the plurality of worlds, the third chapter is devoted to the notion of community as a politically active force of resistance. Jandin begins by asking Nancy to clarify the notion of community “by differentiating it from related notions, such as, for example, crowds, which inspired Baudelaire and sparked Benjamin’s thought, or masses, classes, and the multitude” (51). Having addressed the notion of crowd, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of mass:
[It is] a word that we’ve almost forgotten about today, although it used to be very present, perhaps after the postwar period, the adjective “working” frequently accompanied it: the “working mass”, an expression that was used in a positive way, by people who were involved in the social conflict. (55)
Whereas the notion of mass has been made redundant on account of our having “given up on a certain vocabulary of struggle”, the idea of a political community remains, although it instead appears under new “modified” names. Taking the place of “mass”, Nancy argues, are notions such as Rancière’s “no part” (sans part), suggesting a political alternative: a possibility of a world in which “there’s no politics unless the ‘no part’ manifest themselves in a movement in order to claim or demand their right to have a part” (58). Thus, while the class struggle in the Marxist sense is obsolete—both in language and in praxis—in Rancière’s thought (which Nancy sees as Marxist critique within Marxism itself) we may hope for “a new distribution of the sensible”,[vii] that is, for a Dissensus (disagreement). What we lack today, indeed what is lost, as Nancy points out, is the self-interpretation of society in terms of a conflict. And notwithstanding the fact that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Marxist vocabulary is obsolete. We no longer hear about class struggle and exploitation. Instead we are caught in the mechanism of Capitalism, which provides the language of self-interpretation. This language is that of consumption and accumulation: of consensus rather than dissensus.
In these circumstances, there is no longer any distance between the crowd and Capitalist logic. Since the “good life” is now given in term of consumption there is no longer any conflict or resistance. Thus, as Jandin notes, in our culture “the workers themselves produce the objects that they must acquire in order to live the ideal life” (59). What is lost, nevertheless, is the distance necessary for developing a critical attitude: the distance between the subject and agents of power, which Foucault elucidates by identifying the prisoner’s with the guard’s gaze, bespeaking the loss of distance between the subject and the ideology of power, which is now internalized. This marks the wholesale loss of dissensus. Nancy names this situation the “rehomenization of society”, explaining through this phrase that we are facing a new kind of (so-called) equality, whereby everyone is equal before the ideal of consumption, understood as the newfangled ‘Highest Good’.
In a society that values large numbers (and large number of objects) we see how the logic of “accumulation for accumulation sake” operates. Today everything is commodified: art, nature, universities—even the human being. The chapter concludes pessimistically: if the word ‘emancipation’ comes from Roman law, an emancipated slave becomes a free man:
[Today], on the other hand, it’s perhaps no longer possible to think about an absolutely emancipated human being […] And we’re dealing with a question that’s come up before: Who? We don’t know who we emancipate—we say it’s man, but actually, since we don’t know who man is, we don’t know who we emancipate . . . (65)
The fourth chapter, entitled “People and Democracy”, centers upon the notion of “people”. This chapter recently received critical attention in the collection of essays What is a People? (Columbia University Press, 2016), addressing the ambiguity surrounding this notion, in particular whether it is one of “political emancipation” or whether it has become a notion akin to “a group of words like ‘republic’ or ‘secularism’ whose meanings have evolved to serve to maintain the order.”[viii] To demonstrate ambivalence towards this notion the conversation begins with an anecdote that Nancy recounts of giving a talk on the notion of “people” at a conference in Cerisy, dedicated to Jacques Derrida, entitled “Democracy to Come”. After finishing his paper, Derrida approached Nancy and said to him: “I would’ve said everything you said, but not with the word ‘people’”, to which Nancy replied, “Ok then, but give me another word”. He answered, “I don’t know but it’s not ‘people’”. What Derrida expressed, Nancy tells Jandin, “through this discomfort, the discomfort of our current philosophical situation, was this: At certain moments, we lack the appropriate words” (67). Derrida’s reaction demonstrates his suspicion regarding this notion, even though there is no better word to use in its place. This is not merely a linguistic or discursive failure but rather attests to a certain reality that this notion embodies as an “indication of something that exists, that must exist” (70).
Whereas “the people” are something that must exist, it is at the same time not given, for the construction of a “people” depends on an act of self-declaration, that is, a constituting speech act. In other words, a “people” can only become a political community in this act of self-constitution. Here, then, we can see the emancipatory value of the term in acts such as the one that constituted the “French people” during the Revolution. This act of self-declaration was unprecedented:
I don’t think the French people had ever declared itself as such before through anyone; the king declared himself “King of France” and by the same token all of his subjects were subsumed under or assumed by the royal declaration. The institution of the “sovereign people,” which is not an empty expression, will probably give rise to dangerous political problems. But the “sovereign people” is perhaps first the fact that the people must be able to make a self-declaration, without any superior authority to declare it or institute it as such. (71)
It was in this self-declaration of the French people (at that time of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the Citizen) that the Revolution began. Henceforth, the discussion turned to the question of the possibility of singularity within the plurality that the notion “people” connotes, as well as an interesting discussion on the implications of the notion of “people” in a culture, whereby what furnishes the tone is a concern with political correctness.
The fifth chapter deals with the question of political affects, which Nancy briefly touched upon in the third chapter. This chapter is governed by questions such as: “do political affects exit?” and if so “what are they?”, and “Why must there be something from the affective realm in order for political life to be possible?”. From the outset, Nancy dismisses what might have been the obvious answer to the first question, namely that political affects are essentially fear and terror, which one would normally associate with power relations. However, these affects, Nancy argues, are insufficient to “ensure the durability of a government”. Rather, the contrary is true: force must exhibit a sense of amiability so that one can trust the sovereign. This ensures a persistent, uninterrupted flow of power. This argument is supported by historical examples such as the case of Louis XV who was named “the beloved” or the image of the King as a Father, someone who takes care of a family, “the Patriarch”, looking after his subjects/children. But even if (as Machiavelli’s example makes explicit) one encounters the “virtuous appearance” of the prince, as Nancy rightly notes, “someone who has a cruel or perverse personality must be careful to present themself in a certain way” (87).
However, despite the intimate connection between sovereignty and affect, in the era of the modern state we witness the disappearance of affect:
To return to the topic of the modern State, one can say that, on the one hand, it’s forced to constitute itself outside of the affective realm of religion if it wants to claim its full independence, which would come to be called sovereignty, but on the other hand, it would still be forced to seek to qualify itself affectively in several ways and at several moments. (79)
Apart from the historical analysis of the dynamic between Church and state, it is noteworthy that, for Nancy, the question of affectivity holds an ontological significance, particularly in pertaining to the being-with of each of us. The connection between the singularities in this plural “body politic”, the community, is formulated in terms of touch (toucher), which is one of the fundamental concepts in Nancy’s philosophy. Marie-Eve Morin argues that touch is “somewhat equivalent to rapport or sense. That is, it names what happens between singularities, right at the extra of the partes extra partes”, rather than the merging of singularities into a unified whole.
Contra both the common-sense and philosophical understanding of touch as the sense of proximity (by opposition to the senses of sight, smell and hearing, which can sense at a distance), Nancy insists that in touching, what is touched always remains outside of what touches it, so that the law of touch is not so much proximity as separation.
The sixth part of the conversation, entitled “Politics and Religion”, is a shorter discussion on the difficult question of how the philosophical, the religious and the political interconnect. The discussion revolves around two axes: first, the implication of taking a theological term and using it in a non-theological context, and second, the question of the sacred.
Nancy addresses the first part of the question by making a reference to Gérard Granel’s essay Far from Substance: Whither and to What Point? (Essay on the Ontological Kenosis of Thought Since Kant). There, the Christian notion of “kenosis” (which appears in Paul) is given “an ontological index that is no longer theological” (96). Nancy recalls approaching Granel:
I remember asking him back then: What’s this about? Can we leave the theological behind? Today, very briefly, and as a start, I’d say we can’t. When we speak about “secularization” […] what are we talking about? Is it the complete transfer of the same content but in another context? If one takes a fish and puts it in a dry place, it can no longer live. Is it a metaphorical displacement? But then what does metaphor signify if one takes an element out of religion, it may no longer have a sense. If one extracts “kenosis”6 from its context, as Gérard Granel suggested, is there any sense in speaking about God “being emptied” of its deity in order to become a man outside of Christ, who was precisely this god who joined humanity completely? More simply, can one hold on to the term kenosis outside the context of creation and incarnation? (98)
Addressing the second part of the question, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of sacrifice and its relation to the sacred. Christianity, in its beginning was considered by many to be a philosophy, he claims. However, unlike philosophy or other religious groups it had a “relationship to a higher power and a higher ability to receive the complaints and the offerings of man at the same time, that is, a power that belonged to a logic of sacrifice in one way or another. Is this not what’s at stake in Christianity, which is perhaps the sacrifice that puts an end to all sacrifices, in the words of René Girard?” Nancy sees a connection between sacrifice and the “sacred” defined in The Ground of the Image as what “signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off”.[ix] If the sacred is what is set aside and cut off, how do we bond with it? Nancy’s answer is through sacrifice:
One attempt to form a bond with the sacred occurs in sacrifice, which as a matter of fact does belong to religion, in one form or another. Where sacrifice ceases, so does religion. And that is the point where, on the contrary, distinction and the preservation of a distance and a “sacred” distinction begin.[x]
However, if religion must involve a relationship to the sacred then Christianity is a “completely desacralized religion, which in a sense has been understood by modern society because it’s secular.” (100) But questions that remain are these: Can we be satisfied with desacralizing in this way? Is Christian behavior tenable as something that completely abstains from any relationship with the sacred? Given our over-scientific technological world:
one hardly sees how humankind could simply go back to the sacred now […] Perhaps the very grasping of what we call technology, reason, rationality, and so on will be transformed, but if this is the case, I don’t think that it will be in order to go back to some form of the sacred. (101)
In the seventh chapter the conversation turns to the question of art, a concern at the core of Nancy’s philosophy. While previously claiming to envy the artist who has the freedom to transcend the sensible/intelligible dichotomy, Nancy now turns to address the ontological implications of art, which he explored extensively in The Muses. Nancy begins by arguing that art presents us with a domain privileged for being able to reveal the “ontological range of what we’re after”, provided that we insist on the “heterogeneous multiplicity of the registers or regimes of the sensible” (112).[xi] But before exploring the theme of plurality, and the plurality of the senses, the discussion turns to the situation of art today, where by “today” Nancy means “a time in which the notion of art is no longer connected with the notion of cosmos or the notion of polis” (103) but is instead concerned with what is commonly referred to as “the crisis in art”. Nancy begins by exploring the historical background to this crisis (a crisis that we can perhaps simply call ‘modern art’) and the conditions leading up to it:
The decomposition, if not the rotting or certain disrepair or disassembling of something that was held to be a cosmic and cosmetic order until our time, or perhaps until the so-called “world” wars […]. This good and beautiful order, as it was thought about from the perspective of Europe or the United States, usually presented itself in the form of the nation-state. Besides, at the time of World War I, this order of the City […] began to crumble. (104)
However, despite the historical circumstances leading to a crisis in art, it is with Hegel that the idea of the “end of art” was introduced into philosophical discourse:
Here we can’t avoid returning to Hegel, to whom one always attributes the phrase that suggests art is dead or over, but whose actual words are that art is “a thing of the past.” With this expression, Hegel wanted to say that art as a representation of the truth, as the bearer of the representation of a general layout, was over, and I think he was spot on. (104)
Nancy here evinces agreement with Hegel’s thesis that art “is a thing of the past” insofar as art is no longer a representation of truth. Moreover, for Nancy art’s power is not in its mimetic function at all. Rather, art “consists [in] the gesture of taking sensation to a particular intensity” (104). This is not to say that art is merely about intensifying sensations, but instead that art first and foremost has to do with the discovery that our sensibility does not merely serve epistemological purposes—the sensible component in the acquisition of knowledge and cognition—but rather we can use our sensibility and our senses in ways that exceed cognition and induce pleasure. On this point, as Nancy remarks: “Once a man starts playing with his voice, not just speaking, perhaps already singing, we are no longer in the realm of phenomenology” (114). It is here where sensibility departs from its cognitive function—from its contribution to the cognition of an object, as Kant would have put it in the third Critique. Owing to this, the path to discovering a different aspect of sensibility is opened. Thus, in this respect the “end of art” designates both an end of an era, but at the same time the dawning of a new way of thinking about art, which is no longer committed to mimetic purposes, such as it had been since Plato’s Republic, but is rather (in Nancy’s words in The Muses) a “teckhne of existence”.[xii] For Nancy, while art has lost its representational function, it simultaneously gained ontological power: “like being, art presents itself as a surprise. It makes something visible without reproducing anything that would exist previously”.[xiii]
Nancy employs Focillon’s distinction between form and sign to argue that in modern art, color and sound function like “form” (which, one could add, was a fundamental category to aesthetic thinking since Kant’s third Critique). These, in being forms, signify only themselves, as opposed to being signs that “[signify] something else”. Thus, in departing from its representational vocation, art is freed to explore its own medium, and to make visible its own materiality. To this end, art “[makes] sound be heard for itself as it is being produced” (108), and “[does] color for color’s sake”, a paradigmatic example of the latter being, as Nancy notes, Yves Klein’s Blue (108).
The eighth part of the conversation is devoted to an elaboration of a distinction Nancy drew between “the present” and “presence” in After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes. Jandin begins by placing the topic in context:
[You] distinguish between two senses of the present: the present as it’s been criticized in the “metaphysics of presence” (being present to oneself, etc.) and the present that should be taken into account more seriously in the sense of what is ephemeral, in the words of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer you cite. In other words, has the moment come for carrying out a displacement of our thought, from a problem of time to a problem of space? (119)
J.-L.N.: Yes, a problem of space as in spacing, which may also be the spacing of time, which even our own Western tradition knows very well.
Nancy uses the term “spacing” to designate the act of the original unfolding of space as the site of the moment of the event. It is an original unfolding of spatiality that is exposed only temporally. In Corpus, Nancy describes this space as “a space which is more properly spacious than spatial, what could also be called a place”. Prior to any ontic, empirical space, it is the “ontological clearing” (lichtung) in the words of Heidegger, wherein Being is made patent. Following Heidegger’s critique on the metaphysics of presence, and the stasis, permanency and immovability associated with the thinking of being in terms of a substance, Nancy thinks being in the active transitive sense ascribed to it by Heidegger. As such being itself, presence, is always in movement which cannot be suspended:
All of us have in mind these lines from Lamartine: “O time, suspend your flight, and you, auspicious hours / Suspend your sequence on: / Let’s savor the rapid, evanescent delight / of beauty’s finest hour” — words pronounced by the woman whom the poet loves.3 It’s the request that the flow of time be interrupted, if you like, and this interruption is not a cut or an absence of continuity, but the suspension of the continuity through which it can present itself to itself. The female lover implores for the suspension of time, for spacing instead of the haste of successive moments, which end up nullifying the present moment. (119)
The suspension of continuity that the lover implores is a request to be in the present, to seize the “now”, to cherish the moment and freeze it just for a second so as to “be” in it. But this wish is of course in vain. Just as “time flies”, being is always in movement. In “Laughter, Presence” Nancy addresses the painter who paints the woman he desires, but this is “the painting of her disappearance or of her disappearing”.[xiv] If it is possible to long to paint her, it is because she has “appeared”—but “so rarely”, and “so quickly fled”. Ontologically coming and going, into presence and out of presence, is one and the same movement.
In Basic Problems, Heidegger reads a fragment of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander addressing movement in terms of the “arrival and departure” of Being: the “transition from coming and going” into presence. If the standing of Being in the Open is temporal rather than static or permanent then what emerges into presence is at the same time in the movement of departing from presence. This is the temporality of Dasein as opposed to the two other types of entity Heidegger defines in Being and Time that have a different existence in time:
But in this metaphysics, presence is actually considered to be something thrown on the shores of the river of time and that remains there in a sort of abandoned immobility. This is what Heidegger calls Vorhandenheit, that is, “Being-present-at-hand” [être-la-place-devant], a dense, motionless, silent, insignificant thing, to be differentiated from something “ready-to-hand” [sous-la-main] that is available for the activity or project of an existent, or what Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit. But one could say just as well that presence in this sense, even with the distinction between the two nuances, is not present at all or is present only for the existent that has it at its disposal. (120)
For Dasein, “one can understand presence in a completely different way as being intimately connected to manifestation or appearance, as we were saying, in the same sense as when one says that someone has a “presence” or that certain actors have a particular “presence,” which means the exact opposite of a thing’s presence. In this case, this presence is a “coming” (one “comes into the presence of”), an “appearing.” (120)
In the concluding chapter “Nihilism and Joy”, Nancy returns to the theme of affects. However, at issue are not political affects but affects that Nancy defines “as an affirmation of a sense of existence”. Jandin introduces the topic by questioning:
Our—final?—question is about nihilism and joy. Can one hear in “the possibility of a world,” the expression that seals our interview, an interrogation into the hope of exiting out of nihilism, which would mean being done with this world that’s ending and which has an affective tone of, in the words of Günther Anders, both hopelessness and the desire for revolution?1 Could one consider a world of joy—I’m aware of the Christian connotation of this expression—in the sense in which you write that “ there is not much joy in the human of humanism”? Must the “retracing” of the limits of the political leave room for the opening of spheres where joy would be possible? (127)
Jandin’s definition of nihilism in terms of the absence of joy appeals to Nancy (“I like this question’s position, which I’ve never thought about”). However, the latter attributes the “disappearance of joy”, and the “loss of enthusiasm – sacrificial, ecstatic, mystical […] [that] was present in all the mystery religions that existed up until Rome” (128) to the influence of Stoicism and Epicureanism, which [privilege] logos at the expense of Eros (128). Against the prominence of logos, Nancy claims, Christianity appeared with the theme of joy, particularly through participation in the divine, thereby fulfilling a need that was sought. In the modern world since the eighteenth century, Christian joy has been usurped by the idea of “happiness’, which Saint-Just, among the ideologues of the French Revolution (and an advocate of the Reign of Terror), declared as “a new idea in Europe”.
However, at the center of the discussion is Jandin’s evocation of the notion of jouissance (French for ‘enjoyment’ and ‘orgasm’, respectively), which Nancy addressed in both his essay on Lacan L’« il y a » du rapport sexuel, as well as in Dis-Enclosure. Jouissance , the Lacanian term for negative affects which store a possibility of enjoyment, affects which consist of both pleasure and pain, and are “beyond the pleasure principle, embody the separation between instinct and drive, and between procreation and pleasure (132). Once sexuality is dissociated from the aim of reproduction, once it is determined by the logic of the drive and its modes of representation rather than biologically driven, satisfaction is achieved through multiple fragmented erogenous multiple zones.
Just as in Freud, for whom the sexual drive, which although originally attaching itself to one of the somatic functions of the body can then exceed this function (e.g., the voice that is used for singing rather than for talking, the suckling of the breast in order to eat but shortly after, the suckling of the breast for pleasure, “sensual sucking”),[xv] Nancy similarly points to the dissociation between reproduction and pleasure, between life and what goes beyond it, to the intimate connection between jouissance and the death drive. As he remarks: “jouissance is how life shows that the desire to live, which is perhaps life itself very simply, goes far beyond the desire to go on living” (133).
[i] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 2.
[ii] Dominique Janicaud, Heidegger in France, trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
[iii] See Jean- Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University, 2000), “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in Jean- Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).
[v] An expression Rodolphe Gasché uses in The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2.
[vi] For more on this point, see Ross, Alison. The Aesthetic Paths of Philosophy: Presentation in Kant, Heidegger, Lacoue‐Labarthe, and Nancy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007.
[vii] Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Afterword by Slavoj Žižek. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004.
[viii] Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, et al., What Is a People?, trans. Jody Gladding (Columbia University Press, 2016), vii.
[ix] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, Trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).
[x] Ibid., 1.
[xi] For more on this point see “Why Are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
[xii] Ibid., 38.
[xiii] Peter Gratton, Marie-Eve Morin (eds), The Nancy Dictionary (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 27.
[xiv] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Bryne (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).
[xv] On this point see Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 17: “The crucial point is that simultaneous with the feeding function’s achievement of satisfaction in nourishment, a sexual process begins to appear. Parallel with feeding there is a stimulation of lips and tongue by modeled on the function, so that between the two, it is at first barely possible to distinguish a difference”
Michael Barber investigates Alfred Schutz’s psychological phenomenology (6) aiming at describing the possibility of emancipation from the stress of everyday life through non-pragmatic regions of meaning. Barber believes that Schutzian phenomenology has the potential of emancipation even though Schutz was weary of committing society to normative determinations and he considered reason to be merely an explanatory instrument in determining the relation between means and ends. Barber grounds the possibility of emancipation in Schutz as follows: 1) the “world of working” – the everyday life of an agent oriented toward pragmatic goals – consists of morally neutral pragmatic situations. At the center of these stands the ego agens as 0-point of all its projects and plans which it needs to master and accomplish. 2) The pragmatical relevances – i.e. the hierarchical ordering of one’s plans and projects – of the ego agens are often confronted with obstacles which may or may not be overcome. 3) The confrontation with higher-level obstacle – such as death, natural phenomena or societal restraints – leads to the ago agens developing pragmatic meta-levels of coping with obstacles and uncertainties such as “the medical industry, massive security measures, or the societal suppression of uncomfortable questions and the development of central myths” (24). Barber argues that such meta-level strategies – meant to defend lower-level pragmatic interests – may lead to pathological needs of mastering the world and exerting one’s control and manifest themselves as “domination of others” or “psychological neuroses”. 4) Relief from such pathologies can be provided by non-pragmatic regions of meaning such as literature, phantasy, dreaming, or theoretical endeavors. 5) These can however also be endangered by the pragmatic anxieties of not reaching one’s goals and thus require grounding in something more. 6) This something more would be, according to Barber, “someone else”, i.e the other embodied in the religious and humorous non-pragmatic provinces of meaning. Drawing and building on Schutz’s “On multiple realities” Barber speaks of religion and humor not just as opposing the world of working but also as provinces of meaning standing in a dialectical relation to everyday life: they can free us from pragmatic anxieties, shed new light on the possibilities of everyday life, and incorporate pragmatic bodily functions essential for communication. Thus, the pragmatic and non-pragmatic are also inter-dependent. Non-pragmatic provinces resist the pragmatic in not being accomplishment-oriented but rely on the latter to manifest themselves in communicative acts.
Barber’s book aims thus not only at reconstructing Schutz’s phenomenology but also at extending it to address the possibility of emancipation. In doing so he hopes to develop an account of non-pragmatic regions of meaning which can communicate and reflect on the pragmatic but also and more importantly address current social, racial, cultural, and psychological issues. In this vein he describes religion and humor as intersubjective experiences which can bridge the conflictual differences afflicting our current society. Barber’s undertaking is remarkable in several aspects: he describes in a Schutzian manner the constitution of the natural attitude; he accepts and further develops Schutz’s extension of this natural attitude through several regions of meaning; building on this he addresses the problem of intersubjectivity in phenomenology and tries to offer several solutions to current societal issues based on it; he addresses the relevancy of religion in a secular world and gives an exhaustive account of humor and its inner workings. Given that Barber relies on Schutz to achieve this I shall first give an account of his reconstruction of the Schutzian philosophy. From this I shall move to discussing in detail the above mentioned aspects of Barber’s book. Even though I appreciate Barber’s attempt I do believe that he runs into some issues discussing the character of religion and of humor as emancipating regions of meaning. This is why I shall also give a short account of the concerns I had reading the book presented here. This shall be followed by a conclusion in which I weigh in once again on the positives and negatives of Barber’s work.
Alfred Schutz and the World of Working
As Barber explains, Schutz – being influenced by Max Weber, Henri Bergson and Edmund Husserl – grounds his description of everyday life on a stream of consciousness in which present experiences are lived, future ones are anticipated and past ones are mediated by memory. He sees the formation of meaning of this stream of consciousness in a twofold fashion: first, experiences receive meaning via intentionality, i.e. by singling out experiences and reflecting on them; second, by planning in future past tense we can imagine a project, which as a goal provides meaning to any action we undertake. An important step in describing the world of working is the standardization of these meanings through culture. The standardization occurs as both general typification – concepts such as cats, dogs, trees, house etc. – and as personal typification – the ordering of our interests in hierarchical relevances (e.g. I study in order to receive a well payed job). Even though these typifications occur in culture and are thus intrinsically intersubjective – as language typification shows – they also pertain to subjective meanings as they are formed in the personal temporal unfolding of consciousness of each subject. Despite this they present a common pragmatic ground which makes communication possible. Communication and relating to others in general are also determined by our temporal and spatial state. When space and time are shared with another, subjects take part in the unfolding of each other’s stream of consciousness and influence each other’s typifications. When only time is a shared determination the other is only known as a Contemporary based on typifying inferences leading to an ideal-type. Other ideal-types would be Successors and Predecessors. This kind of pre-reflective typisations constitute our social world, which Schutz holds to be dominated by pragmatic relevances, though he does not accept pragmatism as a viable description of everyday world. Instead, he relies on phenomenology and its methods: aiming objects as form of interacting; eidetic variations as determining essences; the epoché as explaining transitions from one finite region of meaning to another. The latter are not to be understood as ontological structures but as coherent domains of experience which we determine as real by inhabiting them. These regions of meaning are spelled out by a shared “cognitive style” determined by six features: 1) a tension of consciousness which is described in a Bergsonian manner as the attention to life needed at accomplishing projects; 2) the epoché as accessing a certain region of meaning; 3) a form of spontaneity which in the world of working describes the pragmatic involvement of the ego agens, i.e. the pragmatic agent engaged in its projects, in the world through bodily actions; 4) “a specific form of experiencing oneself” ( 5) which in the world of working would consist in an undivided and non-reflective subject living in the present of its projects; 5) “a specific form of sociality (as it is experienced in common sense communication)” (5); 6) and lastly temporality. Given that Barber describes the religious and humorous region of meaning by means of these attributes of the cognitive style I shall present his account of religion and humor in the same manner.
Cognitive Style of Religion
The first attribute of the cognitive style addressed by Barber is the tension of consciousness. Barber associates religion with Bergon’s pure memory as release from the tension of everyday life (10; Bergson, 1950). The tension of consciousness is loosened in religion as believers turn over the control over their lives to a transcendent and establish the latter as the absolute value of their system of relevances. By doing this, a certain objective order is ascribed to the world, through which everything is part of a higher order plan. This, the unconditioned objective order which does not blame failure, helps the ego agens cope with the possibility of not achieving its goals. This in turn helps the ego agens have a more relaxed attitude towards its plans and help it better achieve them, without being plagued by anxieties of failure. Thus, the leaping into a non-pragmatic region of meaning can shed new light on the pragmatic and improve one’s engagement in the world by providing relief from the anxieties of the world of working. The transition from one region of meaning to another is achieved via a certain form of epoché. This transition functions in a Husserlian way by opening up new regions of meaning. In religion this is achieved through sacred spaces, times, and rituals. These isolate the individual from everyday life and inscribe one in a religious appresentative state: “the religious epoché displaces one from straightforward engagement with the world, reorients one’s system of coordinates, and alters one’s relevance scheme” (p12). One can however further engage the world both in a pragmatic and in a religious way. Both manners of involvement require a certain spontaneity of the individual. The involvement in the world of working is thought as being purposive, namely determined by the possibility of achieving goals. The assessment of this possibility and the non-reflective involvement of the ego agens rely on the typisation of past actions. Through the passive representation of accomplished past actions the pragmatic subject determines a certain goal as possible. This possibility is embodied in the sentence “I can do that again”. This determines the possibility of any goal starting from the ego agens as the 0-point of every action. In religion, the story differs. In this region of meaning, the transcendent is set as the ultimate goal, independent from us. This relativizes any other pragmatic goal and makes it lower-order. Such relativizing process may soothe personal anxieties regarding the possibility of pragmatic failure. Liberation however requires that we relate properly to the transcendent. The proper way proposed by Barber is absolute giving over to the transcendent which strips the ego agens of its characteristic as 0-point of all action. This stands in close relation to the fourth attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of experiencing one’s self. In the world of working one understands oneself as the unity of his involvement in the world and as the “0-point of one’s spatiotemporal and social coordinates” (13). In religion one sees one’s entire history as the appresentation of the transcendent. As such one does not see oneself as the sole conductor of one’s life. As such, one’s involvement in the world is relieved from anxiety as one understands failures not as absolute but as inscribed in a certain purposiveness. This departure from an egocentrical world view reflects itself in the fifth attribute – sociability – too. Just as in phantasy one can enter religion alone or with others. Religious experience accentuates though sociability as the temporality of religion allows for the “socializing” with predecessors in a ritual time. The same ritual aspect of religion weakens the self-oriented typifications and strengthens other-oriented ones. As such “religion engenders social responsibility for the others” (14). As it was shown, the temporality of religion also differs from the one of the world of working. In religion time presents a non-linear character in which passed events or moments may be re-actualized as actually present and not just as memories. This allows for a multivectorial time which provides relief from the linear and future-oriented time of the world of working.
These six attributes show how each aspect of everyday life can be reinterpreted in religion in such a manner that the pragmatic is made relative. Paradoxically, exactly this relativizing of the pragmatic reinforces the pragmatic possibility of the ego agens: not afflicted by anxieties, one can better accomplish one’s projects. This overarching pragmatic view can however raise certain questions. These will be addressed in the section to follow.
Intrinsic and Imposed Relevances
As explained shortly above, everyday life is mainly constituted by the pragmatic engagement in the world. This engagement relies on typisations and passive synthesis which standardize behaviors and actions improving the efficacy of pragmatic agency. Based on such standardized action, the ego agens determines the possibility of a future action based on past successful ones and concludes “I can do it again”. By inhabiting the world of working in this way it also posits itself as the 0-point of its actions. Starting from its spatio-temporal and societal coordinates the pragmatic self determines which plans and projects it can accomplish. The plans and projects are in their turn conditioned by one’s intrinsic relevance system: what one wishes to attain. However, the ego agens is also confronted with imposed relevances and obstacles. The confrontation between imposed and intrinsic relevances can give rise to the meta-strategies at mastering the world. These consist in converting the imposed relevances into intrinsic ones manifested as plans and projects which the ego agens carries out. The degree of imposed relevances can however bring about a conflict in the ego agens, which can lead, according to Barber and Schutz, to pathologies such as anxiety or depression: “it is this collision of intrinsic relevances and imposed relevances that prompts us to turn to non-pragmatic finite provinces of meaning like religion and humor” (47). It seems that non-pragmatic regions of meaning are responses to an increased level of anxiety determined by higher-order imposed relevances which cannot be overcome in a pragmatic way: non-pragmatic regions provide relief as the subject renounces control and ceases to act pragmatically. This may relativize the relevance of the pragmatic self and allow for a more relaxed repositioning of the subject in the world-of-working. This description however also presents some difficulties. The starting point in discussing religion and the transcendent is clearly the religious community regarded from a pragmatic standpoint. One gets the feeling, from the beginning of the book, that this entire involvement in religion only occurs because one is stressed and needs relief. The danger of this is to drag the non-pragmatic into the pragmatic as a kind of Feuerbachian response to finitude. Given that Barber states at times that the pragmatic subject re-identifies and sees itself as a new self from the point view of religion, I do not think that he thinks that religion is purely a non-pragmatic tool for the pragmatic. Nevertheless, one does get the feeling that this danger – which is announced in the beginning by Barber – is not dealt enough with and is also not overcome by the communicative dialectics, which Barber proposes as answer to the relation between the pragmatic and the non-pragmatic. The dialectic of communication states that religion not only opposes pragmatic provinces but also makes use of them as communicatory tools. This however does not answer my concern regarding the reduction of religion to pragmatics. A more plausible answer might be the fundamental aspect of the non-pragmatic region of religion explained by Barber as the absolute entrusting of oneself to the transcendent. This absolute entrusting would then eliminate the danger of reduction: even though one is lead to religion by pragmatically induced anxiety, the absolute entrusting ensures that one does not return to the region of pragmatics in the same manner and that therefore one’s relation to the transcendent is not pragmatically determined. Even though this makes clearer how religion interacts with the pragmatic region of meaning without being absorbed in it, it still doesn’t resolve all issues of the religious province of meaning. In the same context of mastering the world Barber says: “we address imposed relevances through all sorts of approaches, from ignoring them, suppressing them, or even developing central myths about the superiority of our own social group” (8.) Here, Barber explains how the pragmatic integrity of a pragmatic community can be defended by mastering strategies relying on a central myth, which can reinforce the mastering identity of said community. Barber does not explain in my opinion how religion avoids acting as a central myth and as such as acting as a hyper-mastering strategy, even when the subjects give themselves completely over to a transcendent. It seems that these issues need be addressed given that we are confronted time and time again with religious fanatism and discrimination. It seems all the more stranger that he does not discuss in detail such issues as he does address it in the case of humor. Barber acknowledges that religion may be seen in a negative way but chooses not to go into detail in this matter. Instead, he states that he deals with an ideal understanding of religion and does point to the necessity of religion being in contact to the theoretical region of meaning for constant revision. I believe that he does not address such issues in depth because he chooses to speak of religion in a universal manner, without differentiating too much between multiple forms of religion. Barber attempts to resolve the problematic of religious variety by ascribing a generic “transcendent” as religious object and appresentation as religious process. In addition to this, he provides several examples of rituals from different religions which match this description. I believe that this is not enough in order to resolve the above mentioned issue and moreover restrains Barber to a generic discourse, which cannot address very specific topics. Furthermore, this generic discourse also neglects the variety of “transcendences” present in different religions. This is for me the overarching problem with Barber’s analysis of religion. One gets the feeling that all forms of religion are constituted by a pragmatic response to an obstacle which relies on a ritualistic process in the name of an absolute power. As such, one could argue that non-pragmatic provinces are constituted by pragmatic ones and for the sake of pragmatic improvement: “Paradoxically, leaping into a province of meaning, in which pragmatic relevances no longer govern, may in some cases be the most pragmatic way of dealing with the difficult-to-control dangers jeopardizing lower-level projects and relevances” (25). This circularity might be problematic as the non-pragmatic provinces would be essentially pragmatically oriented and as such instrumentalized (the other included).
Cognitive Style of Humor
Barber relies on the incongruity theory to describe the intentionality of humor as a non-linear, disturbed one. He argues more precisely that intentionality does not attain its goal as the result of a certain comical event is unexpected: humor breaks away from the expectations of everyday life and does so with a flexibility which allows for laughter. This phenomenological description is, as Barber argues, universal for all humor related phenomena. He also states that the incongruity theory underlines the other two major humor description models: the superiority and the relief theory. In the first case it is argued that one finds something to be funny only as one adopts a superiority stance over that something. In the second description, humor is described as relief of built up tension. Barber argues that in both cases incongruity is first required. The definition of humor is completed later on (151) by two criteria: the first one is that the experience must be enjoyable and it leads to the second, namely that the person experiences the scenario as laughable. I do not know in what degree this really adds to the definition of humor. Incongruity is a powerful argument, but the laughability of humor somehow seems tautological. This concern is resolved later in the book (177) where Barber further explains what laughter and enjoyment actually stand for. Humor detaches itself from the world of working as it has no practical value, instead it only pertains to the enjoyment of incongruities without any other goal. Due to these characteristics it relaxes the restrictions of everyday life by showing that pragmatic relevances can be viewed from another, i.e. comical, perspective. Furthermore, it also has a cathartic function allowing for the venting of tensions in a – ideally – benign way. These last two aspects of humor pertain to the relaxation of the tension of consciousness. Furthermore, incongruities are not rationally interpreted in humor. Instead, they are processed in passive syntheses which surprise the subject with their speed of development. They pertain thus to a certain loosening of the control of the subject and therefore to a loosened tension of consciousness. The transition to these humorous region of meaning is again achieved through an epoché, in this case a comical one. The comical epoché makes apparent the intersubjective nature of humor “perhaps because the humorous province of meaning usually relies on companions, including comedians, who invite others to leap with them into the province” (182). I believe this is one of the most important distinctions to religion. While religion affords a solitary connection with the transcendent and a leap into its region of meaning, humor is conditioned by the immanent other, who has the role of inviting. In short, the transition to the humorous region of meaning relies on the invitation – mediated by body or language cues or specially designated times and spaces such as comedy clubs – of another. The leap in humor often happens in hindsight, when laughter occurs and incongruity is processed in reflection. The enjoyment of this incongruity is the form of the third attribute of the cognitive style, namely the form of spontaneity. Thus, humor relaxes spontaneity as disinterested and purposeless enjoyment. When this enjoyment or when the joke is not fully dedicated to the incongruity and for its own sake then the humorous region of meaning is not achieved. When this is though achieved, one’s experience of oneself – the fourth attribute – changes. The humorous self is a split self as it leaves the pragmatic region in which it is an undivided self, focused on the task at hand and often resorting to formerly developed patterns of behavior. Splitting the self occurs as the comical reveals hidden unconscious actions (such as weird bodily movements) and reorganizes one’s relation to one’s self. This, is explained by Barber through Helmuth Plessner (1970) who calls humans eccentric: “rooted in a body and yet able to take a perspective from outside itself upon itself” (198). Thus, while the pragmatic self thrives in predictability, the humorous self is directed towards incongruity and interruption which diversifies perspective. All this equips humor with a certain flexibility which not only loosens the tension of consciousness and helps the ego agens but also allows for reflection and reassessment of societal conditions. This of course also shapes one’s sociability. The experience of sociability can range from intimacy to aggression. However, when one respects the structure of humor, as Barber argues, humor normally tends towards intimacy, in which a comical community is built and which allows for a flexible ascription of roles: each one of the members can be the joker or the listener. In this community, trust plays an interesting and important role, namely it both determines the possibility of humor – without trust one might be insulted – and is itself determined by humor – trust that is met with trust is also reinforced by humor. The last attribute of the humorous province of meaning is its temporality. Just like phantasy, dreaming, or religion, humor does not deal with objects fixed in time. Instead, it brings a sort of temporal flexibility: it can slow down time, it can rearrange the temporality of a situation by re-assessing it from the viewpoint of incongruity (after the punch-line one reassess a certain temporal process as leading toward the comical climax). However, unlike religion, humor cannot reverse time and it cannot make something past or future present.
Barber gives an exhaustive account of humor contrasting Schutz’s view with other concurrent theories. The remarkably interesting aspect of the analysis of this region of meaning is its interracial and intercultural potential, as Barber explains it. Intersubjectivity is closely related to the humorous epoché: the very accessing of humor is determined by cues given by another. After the epoché is reached one’s expectations are shattered by the passive synthesis of events developing at a surprising speed. This incongruity re-shapes perspectives bringing to light hidden aspects of experience. Furthermore, as explained above, the very humorous style of an individual is influenced by the passive absorption of different humorous styles from different individuals. This also involves an interracial sensibility to humor: through associative absorbing, a situation – which could otherwise present interracial tensions – can be understood in a more relaxed and comical way. Barber further develops this thought stating that humor can reveal hidden cultural determinations of our behavior, submitting them in a comical way to a reflective process, which could loosen sociocultural preconceptions. This aspect of Barber’s book is interesting insofar as it deals with sensitive social issues through the agency of a more relaxed environment prone to intersubjecivity. Here, however, the idealistic manner of treating different regions of meaning is also felt. Barber often speaks of his African-American friend who through humor makes Barber conscious of his cultural background. This in turn helps Barber better understand himself and relate to his friend. Intercultural or interracial jokes and humor can however also turn into clichés and/or discriminatory typifications, which mediated by humor may appear benign. In the case of humor, Barber does see the danger of racism and discrimination and addresses it in chapter 7.4. Based on Schutz he argues that humor is also the medium of discriminatory typifications of closed groups through which they denigrate the Stranger. As a solution he offers a face-to-face humor, namely a humor based on interpersonal relationships. Face to face, says Barber, the subjects are constantly confronted with each other. This regulates humor insofar as the face-to-face situation forces both teller as well as listener to measure each other’s responses and exchange perspectives. He develops on this with examples of his already mentioned African-American friend. He states that his jokes make Barber aware of cultural differences as well give him insight in the oppression experienced by the African-American community. This opens the way for interracial communication. This account is indeed an interesting alternative to intercultural and interracial approaches but it does have, in my opinion, a weak spot. It remains ideal as it speaks of already friendly relationships in which respect is presupposed. Furthermore, it offers as example the jokes of a person which is described by Barber as kind and always willing to breach racial barriers (166). Based on this, it seems to me that the kindness of the joke teller and his disposition and respect to the other build the basis for non-racist jokes and not the face-to-face situation. The same can be said about another requirement of intersubjective comical community, namely trust. If trust is part of humor from the outset, then humor between parties in tension would not be possible. Furthermore, it strengthens the worry, that Barber bases his analyses of humor on examples of humor within an established relationship of friendship. This question would be answered, if one accepts a common, universal, and underlying trust between all people which can be reinforced by humor and thus improving interracial relations. There is however no argument for such a trust in Barber’s book and its mere presupposition would be problematic.
In conclusion I think that Barber’s handling of humor is more interesting and appealing than his expose on religion. I think the problem with his analysis of religion lies within the fact that he analyses religion as a unitary and uniform concept: he reduces a variety of religions to a system of relevances and a relationship to the transcendent which strips his analysis of specificity and in depth analysis of religious phenomena. On the other hand, humor is treated in its entirety as it is looked at on its own. A further advantage of humor in this book is that it is more universal than religion. Religions each have their own set of rituals and dogmas which I do not think can be reduced to some sort of universal set of relevances. On the other hand, humor is described as flexible and adaptable to each situation. Furthermore, each one of us can relate to a comical phenomenon and as such, humor is universal. I regret not being able to discuss other interesting themes of Barber’s book such as Schutz’s view on passive synthesis and the constitution of the natural attitude, the dialectical nature of the collective and the individual in religion, the relation between the reflexive and the pragmatic self in the world of working and its relation to death, etc. Unfortunately, due to lack of space I had to focus on the main goals of Barber’s book: explaining humor and religion as emancipating regions of meaning. As I have stated, I think the analysis of humor is more precise and clear. Nevertheless, both topics shed light on the possibilities of alternate solutions to intercultural, interracial and psychological issues. This makes Barber’s book worthy to read.
Schutz, Alfred. 1962. On multiple realities. In The problem of social reality, ed. M. Natanson, 207–259. Vol. 1 of Collected Papers. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Plessner, Helmuth. 1970. Laughing and crying: A study of the limits of human behavior. Trans. J.S. Churchill and M. Grene. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Bergson, Henri. 1950. Matter and memory. Trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. London/New York: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd./The Macmillan Company.
 Barber does not only discuss “On multiple realities”. He provides a detailed historical development of Schutz’ thought. Unfortunately, I am not able to go into detail concerning this historical account due to space restrictions. This aspect of Barber’s book would be nevertheless of great interest for any Schutzian scholar.
 This is important in Barber’s account of face-to-face humor.
 Barber explains this relation to the transcendent in a Husserlian way, namely by means of appresentation: symbols function as appresentative loci for the divine.
 One can of course re-live a past comical event by oneself, but this would also be intersubjective in nature as humor is often associative and reflected in connection to the humorous style of another. Barber refers here to a “passive absorbtion” of other humorous styles which shape the humor region of meaning in an intersubjective manner.
 As shown above.