Rafael Winkler: Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche

Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche Couverture du livre Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche
Rafael Winkler
Bloomsbury
2018
Hardback $102.60
208

Reviewed by: Denis C. Bosseau (University of Sussex)

With the publication of the Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche, Rafael Winkler embarks on a much needed contemporary re-evaluation of the human cogito beyond a traditional Cartesian and Kantian framework of analysis in which what is own-most to human experience, its uniqueness, must be understood beyond the limits of the ‘I think’ of the first person as the necessary condition and foundation of possible experience. On a walk of thought that is, at least for this reviewer, echoing a problem poetically explored by Paul Celan’s Gespräch im Gebirg[1], the present book is concerned with the existential movement from one’s being to one’s self; a passage seemingly accomplished on the horizon of a fundamental absence. This absence is that of the unified self and the sense of ownership one may often take for granted regarding one’s uniqueness as conveyed by the human cogito, the cardinal ‘I’ of the first person which is commonly thought to accompany all possible human experience.

Here, we could say that ‘thought’ is directed upon the ‘one’ that does not accompany our ‘self’ in its life experiences[2]; this part of what we are which is absent from the conscious mind of everyday deliberative thinking. Winkler’s analysis asks us about what happens when the seeming certainty of the Cartesian ‘I think’, as the ground of human existence, dissolves and one’s experience can no longer be thought of, or expressed as ‘mine’, my own, as if emerging from an unrecognisable other. Most importantly, one may ask how this phenomenon itself emerges. What may such an experience, if at all possible, tell us about what we are?

As the reader discovers early on in the pages of the first chapter, Winkler invites us to consider the figure of the schizophrenic as an example to shed light on this existential problem in concrete terms. By turning one’s attention to the issue of dissociation or dislocation of the self, what is posed as a problem here is not the discovery of the unique as a singular entity or what is own-most to Man as an essence or a ‘what’ which would lie behind the I of the unified self rather, the problem posed is that of the whole horizon of being as a passage which itself discloses the plenitude of what we are as human beings. It is not question of uncovering that secret chamber of the mind in which may lie the true nature of human uniqueness, who we truly are. The book generously approaches the ground of uniqueness as a passage and movement through which the anonymous language of the ‘other’ of Man, of this absolute stranger, gradually trans-forms into the language of the subject who identifies himself as an individual, a recognisable self. As such, what is at stake is then not only to see whether such an experience of the dissolution of the self is even possible, but how to talk about it. Winkler presents a philosophical attempt to bring intelligibility to the ambiguous and anonymous language of absolute difference and by this process, he also provides the reader with a highly interesting contribution to contemporary phenomenological thinking.

Exploring the legacies of Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche, Winkler invites us to confront the possibility that the genuine uniqueness of human experience is prior to its formalisation under the expression of the ‘I’, which at first glance, always seem to accompany conscious thought. The bold nature of this claim is best expressed when Winkler tells us that ‘the unique is not the individual’[3] but a ‘formal feature of existence’; one that is experienced as an original absence in the world and makes the emergence of the first person possible. And it is as such that a thinking of uniqueness may be approached as a thinking of absolute difference which, as he argues, calls for a thinking of finitude. But as the author carefully reminds us, the language of finitude must extend beyond the consideration of Man’s ultimate finiteness, the inescapable advent of its death. A thinking of finitude must press us to the very limits of thought, of the thinkable, as it is perhaps only when the unity of the self is dissolved and our habitual reliance on the concept, language and experience of identity is overcome, that we can really start to embrace the thought of uniqueness. Maybe it is here that lies the most enduring relevance and actuality of phenomenology; when it reminds us of the un-thought of thought as the inescapable and unremovable ‘other’ of Man where the unique really emerges. Here, it is with particular attention to the works of authors such as Derrida, Levinas, Ricœur and especially Heidegger that Winkler invites  his readership to consider the unique in terms of ‘the uniqueness of being, of the self, of the other human being, of death, and of the responsibility for the other’.[4]

***

If the general theme of the book allows for a wide variety of philosophical approaches, its overall tone and character would be best described as scholarly and aimed at a specialised audience interested in Heidegger studies more specifically. The methodology sustained in this volume is exegetical and the specialism of its author is made particularly evident by an ubiquitous focus on Heidegger’s works of the 1930s and 1940s, which at times appear to overshadow other philosophical discussions regarding the two other thinkers announced in the title of the book, namely Levinas and Nietzsche.  Although the chapters are often dominated by a sustained exercise in textual interpretation of this interesting period of Heidegger’s work, it cannot be said that it diminishes the impact and relevance of the general thesis presented in the volume. In fact, Winkler’s clear interpretative competence and lucidity regarding the author of Being and Time adds a certain degree of depth to a contemporary re-thinking of finitude. However, it must be said that the title of the book may appear somehow confusing to some readers expecting more of an interpretative balance between the three major figures which the title announces. One is at times surprised to read more about Derrida and Ricœur than about Levinas and Nietzsche, more particularly as the latter’s published works are unfortunately only mentioned and discussed with greater depth in section 7 of the 5th chapter of the book. Elsewhere in the same chapter, the reader will find out more about Winkler’s interpretation of Heidegger’s Nietzsche than about Nietzsche’s own significance and original contribution to a thinking of finitude. It is perhaps only when one comes to read the introduction to the volume that one may realise that an exegetical exercise focused on Heidegger’s literature of the 1930s and 1940s is the connecting rod which holds the book together. Taking this issue into consideration, this most interesting project may be better characterised as a significant contribution to Heidegger Studies. The symptoms of this analytical posture are visible in each chapter of the book through the unmissable reliance on a Heideggerian vocabulary which non-specialists may at times struggle with in the case of a first encounter.

The opening chapter of the book concentrates on the idea of the uniqueness of existence where the author argues that what we may call ‘existence’ in ontological terms does not emerge from the unity of the first person but from immanence of death or the responsibility for the other. From the onset, the Heideggerian focus sets the tone. This may give a hint to the reader that the use of the word ‘existence’ will from now on have to be understood in Heideggerian terms, in a way  closer to the Latin ‘Ex –sistere’ denoting the idea of that which stands out of itself or of that which is ‘made to stand out and beyond’[5]. Only with this prior understanding in mind will the reader feel comfortable with the term’s relation to the other notion of Dasein (being there), which is here recurrently used to explore the theme of uniqueness. Indeed, as Heidegger suggests in Being and Time, one would have to see the uniqueness of Dasein in its existence [6] and thus the study of fundamental ontology will have to be found in ‘the existential analytic of Dasein’[7].

As previously mentioned in this review, future readers for whom Heidegger’s philosophy remains an unfamiliar terrain may find it difficult to get to grips with this meticulous and rich vocabulary which is not often problematized or re-evaluated in this book.  That said, Winkler’s scholarly analysis does carry the message across with its clarity of phrasing and with a carefully executed argumentative development which is always impeccably introduced in all chapters; an aspect which most readers will greatly appreciate. This indeed may help the reader overcome the complexity of the Heideggerian terminology and the first chapter does succeed in bringing an interesting discussion of the dynamism or mouvance implied in the notion of  ‘the uniqueness of existence’, which, as Winkler reminds us, is not to be misunderstood as implying an essence or fixed entity.

To explore the notion of the uniqueness of existence in this important first chapter, the author argues that Heidegger and Derrida’s reflections on death may call for a radical rethinking of the sense of consciousness or experience one may usually find in previous contributions to the history of transcendental phenomenology. That is, both thinkers may be read as presenting the human relation to death as dissolving the unity of the self, and moreover, as making the argument that the relation to death and this phenomenon of estrangement is indeed a possible experience or encounter. This brings Winkler to boldly ask the reader: ‘Is Dying Possible?’[8] Or in other words, can one encounter one’s own death, this ultimate finitude, this absolute absence of presence where one is no longer ‘able to be able’[9]? A possible answer, according to Winkler, may lie in Heidegger’s analysis of the phenomenon of being-towards-death. Through a close reading of the latter, it is suggested that finitude should not be reduced to the thought of a morbid passivity of the human animal (das Man) destined to die but should rather be thought through as the very activity which in itself calls for emergence of one’s receptivity regarding what is. The idea seems to be that, in order for something (e.g. death, finitude) to possibly be encountered, the horizon of its appearing (i.e. the phenomena) must have already been deployed. Perhaps, one could then say that the relation of the human being towards death and dying, rather than being a relation of passivity and mere resignation to fate, is a relation that is itself constitutive of Man’s own being. Hence, our relation to death, this active mode of being-towards-death can be understood as a formal or constitutive feature of existence. As such, this uniquely Human mode of being towards death is here given sense to as prior to, and constitutive of, the emergence of the first person of the ‘I think’ which will subsequently accompanies conscious experiences.

As Winkler interestingly points out across sections 3 and 4 of this first chapter, this particular instance of a Heideggerian ‘thinking of finitude’ would suggest that Man, in its unique existence, already has a relation or encounter with death prior to being able to consciously called it ‘his’ as one would talk of ‘my death’, ‘her death’, ‘theirs’ etc. as if it were possible to be in possession of it and individually declare ownership over it. As Winkler remarks concerning Heidegger’s confrontation of the idea of one’s sense of ownership over one’s own death: ‘death is in every case mine’ but only ‘in so far as it “is” at all’[10]. With diligence and clarity, Winkler at this stage understands that the discussion of this possible experience with uniqueness, in terms of the Human being’s relation to death, must be extended to the possibility of expressing this experience; of making it intelligible by giving it a voice. In that regard, he succeeds brilliantly by introducing the reader to Heidegger’s treatment of ‘anxiety’ as a mood (stimmung) which discloses this unique mode of being towards death. The uniqueness of this experience, if it indeed comes prior to the emergence of the first person, could hardly be thought as expressible conceptually through the habitual language of identity. As Winkler puts it:

‘The unique is, strictly speaking, the unclassifiable, the unidentifiable.(…) That is why an experience of it leaves us speechless, is traumatic, is, like an event that cannot be anticipated in advance, an absolute surprise, a shock.’[11]

Hence, the language of the experience of the unique can only be grasped as the anonymous language of the absolute ‘other’ of Man. The conscious I of the Cartesian cogito is here absent in such an experience. The experience is one that is felt or thought in the sense of the activity of the un-thought of thought. As Winkler suggests, it is in such terms that we could better understand what Rimbaud meant when he expressed in a poetic letter to an old mentor that in the process of one’s poetic encounter with oneself, ‘I is another’ (Je est un autre). It is through this subtle approach to the problem of the possibility of one’s experience of the unique that Winkler, is at the end of the chapter, able to meet previous scepticism, as that expressed by Derrida in that regard, by arguing that the unique relation to death is possibly one that could only be encountered as an anxious anticipation and ‘a mode of being beyond mere presence’[12].

In chapter 2 titled ‘Self and Other’, Winkler brings the discussion of the uniqueness of human experience, of this ‘other’ of Man (i.e. absolute difference) deeper by arguing that the experience of uniqueness does not grant access to the uniqueness of some other human being. Here the author refers to this problem as the ‘principle of singularisation’ which finds its expression in Heidegger through the notion of the ‘immanence of death’ and as the ‘responsibility for the other’ in Ricœur and Levinas. In Winkler’s own words, the core of the argument in this part of the book is that the fundamental alterity that is interior to oneself, the unique, is ‘neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to access the alterity of the other human being, that is, his or her uniqueness’[13]. Here the author chooses to approach this problem by focusing on comparative accounts of Heidegger’s position in the period of the 1930s and 1940s with selected elements Levinas’ thesis in Time and the Other and Totality and Infinity. The chapter thus attempts to offer a new reading of Heidegger’s position which would effectively undermine the Levinassian stance which proposes that the irreducibility of the ‘alterity of the other human being’ to ‘the alterity that inhabits the self’ is ‘a necessary and sufficient condition of ethics, and by extension, of sociality’[14]. With added support extracted from the more recent works of Ricœur (i.e. Oneself as Another), as well as Heideggerian scholars such as Françoise Dastur (The Call of Conscience: The Most Intimate Alterity) and François Raffoul (The Origins of Responsibility), the main concern of the author is to show that the Heideggerian perspective would bring a serious challenge to the idea that one’s uniqueness of being allows for the experience of another’s, thus destabilising all possibility of founding an ethics on such a basis.

Although the introduction to the chapter suggests an in depth analysis and discussion of Levinas’ legacy as a thinker of finitude, one gradually realises that Levinas’ corpus will not be the subject of the same depth of engagement that is reserved for Heidegger as the cement which connects each chapters of this book. In fact, rigorous discussion of Levinas’ material is mostly limited to the first three sections before a return, for the three remaining sections of the chapter, to the more familiar domain of Heideggerian scholarship. Perhaps, we could say that the genuine originality and strength of this chapter lies less in its analysis of Levinas’ work and more in hermeneutical efforts to dissect Heidegger’s perspective from Being and Time up to the finer tuning of his positions in the 1940s. In this chapter, the reader will find the themes of ‘alterity’, ‘the call’, ‘guilt’ and ‘responsibility’ as the points of articulation of Winkler’s exegetical work. Therein, most of the other sources called upon to approach the theme of ‘self and other’ seem to serve as a fulcrum enabling the author to test the ‘workability’ of the Heideggerian system, which will ultimately be presented as getting us ‘closer to the truth’ of the matter[15] while Levinas’ perspective is presented as doomed to fail as a phenomenological argument. What remains undeniable is that the originality of the argument in this chapter lies in the competency of the exegetical exercise prompted by each of the chapter’s subsections; and it may be best not to spoil the reader’s pleasure by pre-emptively dissecting each part of the chapter. That said, it would not be doing justice to the rigour and assertiveness of the voice of this book’s author if we were to abstain from providing an example of clarity with which the core of the argument is expressed in the concluding section of this chapter. There, after careful considerations of Ricœur’s thesis in Oneself as Another, Winkler asserts that:

‘There is no phenomenological or hermeneutic justification for transposing the vertical relation that structures the interiority of the self onto the social relation between the self and the other (something that Ricœur apparently thinks we can do with good reason). In the final analysis, I know who the source of the injunction is. It is my conscience that enjoins me in the second person that I am indebted to the other. I assign myself that responsibility towards the other in the hetero- affective experience of conscience. Since it is authored and conditioned by nothing other than myself, it issues from an act of freedom.’[16]

Having shown us how one’s relation to death (chapter 1) and sociality (chapter 2) can, in different ways, only be accomplished as a relation with a future that is discontinuous with the present; chapters 3 and 4 attempt to bring intelligibility to the phenomenon of being as a passage, a movement towards. To do so, the third chapter considers the idea that ‘being’ is perhaps unthinkable otherwise than as a ‘figuration of someone or something’, an image formed around a potentiality or possibilities rather than an actual entity which can be truthfully seized and represented. This figurative atmosphere with which the philosopher wraps the phenomenon of the uniqueness of being could indeed be argued to be more real, that is, closer to the phenomena than the mundane representation one could formulate through the language of identity.

In this chapter, Winkler attempts to make the phenomenon of being intelligible in these terms through two different figures of ‘hospitality’: the ‘feminine’ in Levinas and the ‘Absolute Arrivant’ in Derrida. Here once again, Heidegger comes into the picture as a key reference point to evaluate the fruitfulness of these two figurations of being proposed by Levinas and Derrida. These figures of the ‘feminine’ and the ‘absolute arrivant’ are discussed against the background of Heidegger’s notion of ‘dwelling’ which Winkler presents as inextricably linked to the notion of hospitality; especially in the latter’s literature of the 1940s[17]. This argumentative strategy on the author’s part will then prepare the reader for a deeper consideration of the theme of dwelling in Heidegger in chapter 4 which explores the possibility of ‘being at home in the world’ without relying on the traditional metaphysical assumption of being as presence and the language of identity. Here, Winkler considers some of the said ‘figurations of being’ that appear in Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin, with a particular accent on the 1934-5 lecture on Germania and the 1942 lecture on Der Ister. In these complementary chapters, Winkler sails to and fro between a variety of images of thought present in Levinas, Heidegger and Derrida in order to highlight the necessarily protean quality of the language of being. The language of figuration is an original and pertinent addition to Winkler’s analysis and one which convincingly shows that the phenomenon of being can only be rendered intelligible if it actively resists the ossification that the language of identity would bring. It is precisely because the phenomenon of ‘being’ existentially precedes the advent of the conscious ‘I’ that we cannot reduce it to a stable language, a singular point of reference, word, concept or even image. As Winkler seems to suggest in these two chapters, the uniqueness of being and its experience could best be expressed through a multiplicity of figures of passage and transition. Echoing the insights of the first chapter which posed the problem of the nature of the unique and the possibility of experiencing the uniqueness of being and absolute difference, it is here question of the possibility of talking about the experience of uniqueness and therefore the limits of its expressibility. Thus, what the philosophers of finitude tell us is that expressing the ground of the uniqueness of being might require us to think and talk about it in terms of a passage or movement between Man and its other. Never one with ourselves, it would seem that what we are, the uniqueness of our being, lies in the multiplicity of facets by which it emerges in time as an ever unique event that is always in the process of being determined.

With the fifth chapter of this volume, Winkler announces an analysis of Nietzsche’s contribution to the philosophy of finitude which he titles ‘Beyond Truth’. At first glance, one may justifiably think that the problem of truth, which hasn’t been discussed in the book so far, presents an awkward shift from the previous discussions about the possibilities of thinking and talking about the uniqueness of being as the ‘really real’[18]. In fact, the introduction to the volume only mentions Nietzsche in one brief sentence, thus leaving the reader somehow in the dark as to the possible importance of the author in Winkler’s project. From the onset, Winkler’s concern seem to lie more with how the author of Also Sprach Zarathustra has been painted in 20th century philosophy than with the latter’s enduring relevance in contemporary thought as a thinker of finitude. The aim of the chapter is thus announced: to offer ‘an alternative reading of Nietzsche to the one Heidegger and Derrida respectively provide and consider the non- metaphysical sense of being as light that is operative in Nietzsche’s text’[19]. These two authoritative readings of Nietzsche Winkler seeks to overcome are described as such: ‘Nietzsche, the metaphysician of the will to power and the eternal return’ whose main proponent is Heidegger, and ‘Nietzsche, the sceptic, the iconoclast and the destroyer of metaphysical systems and ideas’ which Winkler perceives in Derrida’s treatment. These two categorisations are, to say the least, rather broad and do little to tell the reader how they may come to be antithetical in the first place. However, as the chapter develops, one is able to see the main trajectory of the author unfold with greater clarity: to dress a portrait of Nietzsche and Heidegger as thinkers of the ‘limit’ of Metaphysics. What this ‘limit’ – in the singular – is, however, remains unclear and underdeveloped within the chapter as the analysis therein privileges a textual interpretation of Heidegger’s 1930s and 1940s reading of Nietzsche’s late notebooks and posthumously crafted Will to Power. That said, the chapter offers its strongest arguments in the last three sections where Winkler’s own reading of Nietzsche emerges and where selected parts of the latter’s late published works are analysed. Here, the strength of the chapter lies less in the analysis of Heidegger’s Nietzsche and the critique of the ‘will to truth’, than in Winkler’s exploration of the physiological dimension of Nietzsche’s thought of finitude through a discussion of the latter’s attempt at a philosophy of self-overcoming which would assert as its condition of possibility, the ‘forgottenness of being’[20].  This is perhaps the more pertinent element of the analysis in relation to the book as a comprehensive whole as it links Nietzsche’s late work to previous discussions of European thought’s attempt to overcome traditional metaphysics’ reliance on the language of identity and being as presence which had been dominant since Plato.

Finally, in its sixth and final chapter, the book offers what may be its most original contribution with an interesting philological approach to the language of substance and the peculiarity of its philosophical uses  in Roman literature (1st Century BC – 4th Century AD) – with a particular focus on Cicero and Seneca. This tactful exploration of the language of substance allows Winkler to bring back the discussion to the problem of the uniqueness of being as substantia without its traditional metaphysical amalgamation with the language of determinable identity and entity. This is a brilliant move on Winkler’s part and an original way to close the volume. Indeed, this brings to the author the possibility to present a strong argument regarding the need for philosophy to adopt a plastic, supple attitude towards the language of being via metaphorical language or what Nietzsche would call the importance of learning to ‘think in images’. The chapter thus comes to strengthen what was previously argued in Chapter 3 wherein ‘being’ is presented as ‘unthinkable except as a figuration of something or someone, that is, as a figure in which the force of the distinction between the who and the what is suspended’[21]. In the pages of this chapter, the reader is invited to re-think the relevance of previously discussed authors such as Derrida and Levinas whose figures of the ‘absolute Arrivant’ and the ‘Feminine’ could now be read anew as examples among a multitude of possible simulacra for the experience of the ‘really real’ or the uniqueness of being which Winkler has attempted to make intelligible in this interesting project.  With this return to the problem of possible figurations of being, the reader is now better equipped to consider the unique as the differential element grounding all discursive representations in Human experience and to ponder upon the significance of such claims. The last chapter of the book ultimately reminds us of the enduring relevance of phenomenological inquiry for contemporary philosophy. However, it is perhaps because of the highly relevant nature of the topic explored here that a more fastidious reader may wonder what could have been or could be if the author wondered away from Heidegger’s gravitational pull and turned his attention to more secondary, yet key, philosophical sources such as Deleuze’s influential analysis of ‘Différence’ as found in Différence et Répétition or indeed Michel Guerin’s ‘Figurologie’ as it appears in La Terreur et La Pitié, among others.

***

Overall, with the publication of Philosophy of Finitude, Rafael Winkler offers a highly relevant and insightful analysis of key figures who have effectively shaped the way contemporary philosophy explores the problem of the unique and the ‘other’ of Man. However, the very manner in which the philosophical investigation is here conducted could have benefited from a greater degree of reflexive engagement. One could here think that the predominantly exegetical nature of the exercise, if left unquestioned by the inquirer, could mask a non-negligible issue which today often seems to mark philosophical practice. Indeed, each time that we meticulously dig within the depth of such authors’ corpus and translate their work into our professional philosophical agenda, we do what is required, but as Ansell-Pearson and Hatab have pointed out, in doing so we perhaps also ‘bring to ruin something special and vital. … It seems we must “murder to dissect”’[22]. But what does it mean? And what is the nature of the risk? This problem extends far beyond the present book and is not specifically directed at it but to all of us who engage in philosophical research today.

William Wordsworth once tried to bring this issue to our attention in his beautiful poem the Tables Turned (1798) in which he suggested that all too often in our appreciation and at times scientific exploration of literature, ‘Our meddling intellect — Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; – We murder to dissect’. And indeed, this warning was not left unheeding by two of the key figures considered in the present volume. Namely, Nietzsche and Heidegger for whom our search for knowledge should resist being turned into an autopsy by which the inquirer is compelled to cut and dig within the entrails of the author’s corpus in order to bring to the light of the microscope elements of clarity concerning the ‘workability’ and soundness of the thought presented therein.  Yet again, it will be argued that it often must be done in order to encounter the author, to find him or her and ‘understand’ the material. But can this only be achieved by means of analytical vivisection, by having blood on our hands? A difficult question to answer, without a doubt; but one that should not escape the contemporary philosopher’s scrutiny. As Heidegger himself noted, being no stranger to the complexity of this issue which Nietzsche’s works would have brought to his mind: ‘(…) in order to encounter [the author’s] thought, one must first find it[23]. And as both he and Nietzsche remarked[24], the task of the philosopher as well as that of the respectful and agile reader is not to re-cognise signs, ideas and fragments within the corpus of the author, but rather to encounter the thought of the author; and from this vivid encounter, to find the other’s thought only in order to lose it. Thus, opening ourselves to the possibility of thinking differently, of creating new images of thought and thereby even bring new life to a contemporary thought of finitude. But losing the thought of the author that inspires us does not mean discarding or leaving it behind as one would dispose of an inanimate object of inquiry. Rather,  it implies leaving the thought of the author alive, to rest in its own enigmatic place awaiting future encounters from which could spring new thought, new possibilities of life. Here, the tact and obvious respect Winkler demonstrates with regards to the authors analysed in this book only too clearly suggest that such a path of thought has a place within contemporary academic writing; but it may also show that it could be pursued with a greater degree of intensity if it is to become ever more fruitful in the future.


[1] Celan, P. Entretien dans la Montagne [Gespräch im Gebirg]. Verdier (bilingue), Der Doppelganger. Lagrasse. 2001.

[2] Cf. Blanchot, M. Celui Qui Ne m’Accompagnait Pas. L’Imaginaire, Editions Gallimard, Paris. 1953.

[3] Winkler, Rafael. Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas, Nietzsche. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. 2018, p. xiv.

[4] Ibid. p. xvii.

[5] Sheehan, T. Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift. New Heidegger Research Series. Rowman & Littlefield Int. London. 2015, p. xvi.

[6] Winkler, R. Philosophy of Finitude: Heidegger, Levinas and Nietzsche. Bloomsbury Press. London. 2018, pp. 1-2.

[7] Heidegger, M. Being and Time. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962 (first published in 1927), 3: 33–4.

[8] Winkler, 2018, pp. 6-9.

[9] Levinas mentioned in Winkler, 2018, p. 28.

[10] Heidegger cited in Winkler, 2018, p. 7.

[11] Winkler, 2018, p. xv. See also, pp. 15-19.

[12] Ibid. pp. 19-24.

[13] Ibid. p. 25.

[14] Ibid. pp. 25-26.

[15] Ibid. p. 46.

[16] Ibid. p. 45.

[17] Ibid. p. 55.

[18] Ibid. xii.

[19] Ibid. xvii.

[20] Ibid. p. 88-110.

[21] Ibid. p. 126.

[22] Keith Ansell-Pearson. Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy – On the Middle Writings. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. 2018, p. 6.

[23] Martin Heidegger. Was heißt Denken? [Qu’appelle –t- on penser?], Trans. By Gerard Grand, 1959. PUF, Paris. [1954], p. 50.

[24] Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche. UM, I, 6. pp. 36-7.

Martin Eldracher: Heteronome Subjektivität. Dekonstruktive und hermeneutische Anschlüsse an die Subjektkritik Heideggers

Heteronome Subjektivität. Dekonstruktive und hermeneutische Anschlüsse an die Subjektkritik Heideggers Couverture du livre Heteronome Subjektivität. Dekonstruktive und hermeneutische Anschlüsse an die Subjektkritik Heideggers
Martin Eldracher
Transcript Verlag
2018
Paperback 39,99 €
404

Reviewed by: Viktoria Huegel (University of Brighton)

Why we hesitate

Halfway through Heteronome Subjektivität, Eldracher explores Derrida’s idea of différance in order to engage it for a restoration of the subject in a heteronomous understanding. In a footnote in the same chapter the author indicates that this appropriation of Derrida’s work is not self-evident:

The late works (of Derrida) (after around 1985) are often marked by an indecisiveness (Unentschlossenheit) concerning the question whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role in deconstruction or whether it was so disrupted by Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein that there is no place for it anymore.[1] (52)

It is true. Not without reason, Heidegger had dismissed the term from his thinking and instead replaced it with the notion of Dasein. Certainly, as Heidegger himself writes, “Da-sein is a being which I myself am, its being is in each case mine.” (Heidegger, 1996: 108) It experiences its own self primarily by distinguishing itself from all other beings it comes across in the world. This determination however indicates an ontological constitution: the assumption of the substantiality of Dasein describing it as the ontological interpretation of a subject is nothing more than that, an assumption. Any notion of an “I” must consequently be understood as a noncommittal formal starting point for a hermeneutical examination of the Dasein’s being, always being aware that it might well not be me that is the who of the everyday Dasein. As Dasein is in-the-world there is no such thing as a subject behind it which is isolated from its surrounding world.

In order to justify his endeavor, Eldracher therefore appeals to Heidegger’s earlier work in which he still speaks of an exit out of a philosophy of subjectivity without having to give up the “subject” as a term.

There is world only in so far as Dasein exists. But then is world not something “subjective”? In fact it is! Only one may not at this point reintroduce a common, subjectivistic concept of “subject”. Instead, the task is to see that being-in-the-world, which as existent supplies extant things with entry to world, fundamentally transforms the concept of subjectivity and of the subjective. [2]  (108)

Eldracher demonstrates how the figure of Dasein opens up the metaphysical subject toward its temporal dimension. The subject is decentered and temporalized as it only understands itself in its throwness into a world which it shares with others. Subjects are therefore not understood as initially autonomous actors whose subjectivity is grounded in the subject itself; instead its constitution rests in the subject’s existence.

Still, Heidegger falls back into an individualized understanding of the subject by interpreting this existence from the perspective of the subject’s constitution. After his turn he shifts the perspective from Dasein to Being (Sein), which suggests that ontological phenomena are no longer thought as aspects of Dasein, but instead as moments of withdrawal. Being is now depicted in the figure of an abyss (Ab-grund). It is Being that brings beings and therefore Dasein into existence. Yet it cannot be grasped as a foundation (Grund) due to Being’s temporal character. In the moment of founding, Being is always already withdrawn. Being moves between presence and absence. With this deconstructive gesture Heidegger is able to capture how the impossibility of foundation is the condition for its possibility. The metaphysical moment of foundation becomes temporalized and with the gift of Being man too becomes temporalized: man ek-sists (ek-sistiert) (cf. 87).

Eldracher argues that Heidegger himself misses the decisive conclusion from his analysis: The subject owes its constitution as a subject to an experience which is profoundly foreign to it (49). With that the metaphysical opposition between the subject and the world collapses. Yet Heidegger himself does not realize the possibility of a re-interpretation of the subject, because the subject as a term and concept is liquidated.

Heidegger’s critique of the subject is therefore ambivalent: It provides us with all essential movements for evading the philosophical tradition of the subject and to re-think subjectivity as heteronomous; it however resists this venture as a project which focuses on ontology neglects freedom (to act, Handlungsfähigkeit), responsibility and self-understanding. (16)

Eldracher’s book commits to the subject as a philosophical category and therefore to the enterprise of an affirmative turn in Heidegger’s subject critique which is appropriated for a re-interpretation of the subject as heteronomous. This understanding aims to respond to an aporia which lies at the heart of the metaphysical idea of an autonomous subject: even though autonomy is assumed as being immanent to the subject, the subject constitutes itself through a liberation from all those dependencies that threaten the subject’s autonomy. This however implies an existential dependency on something other than the subject itself: “without the heteronomous there is no opponent, against which it needs to be fought” (10). Eldracher therefore attempts to comprehend those heteronomous aspects which are constitutive for the subject’s constitution in the concept itself. With this heteronomous subjectivity Eldracher hopes to write a counter-narrative against the dominant idea of autonomy.

Eldracher chooses Heidegger’s subject criticism as the bedrock for his venture because he was “the first philosopher who alludes to exposure of human beings to something other” (90). Although, for a heteronomous understanding of subjectivity, Heidegger’s figure of the abyss still needs to be radicalized. It needs an appropriation of it from an ontic, rather than ontological perspective in order to open up the subject towards alterity.

With this prospect in mind, Eldracher first adheres to the ethical turn in the work of Levinas which is meant to renounce Heidegger’s ontology. Levinas reproaches Heidegger for still attempting to incorporate alterity into an underlying structure of Being. The unity and symmetrical movement of the ontological structure ultimately rejects alterity and thereby makes it impossible for a philosophical analysis to take into focus the exposure of the subject towards the Other. According to Levinas, it is not Being but the Other that touches and thus forms the subject.

With that Levinas is able to break with the notion of totality by describing alterity with the experience of infinity over the “absolute Other” (119). It cannot be grasped by the subject; it evades our language. The Other obstructs the closing of totality, it disrupts the homogeneity of the order and does not integrate within its logic. Here, Levinas connects Heidegger’s explication of temporality with the idea of infinity. The face of the Other is the (non)place where infinity and temporality meet, and at the same time constitute subjectivity. Levinas translates the abyssal relationship found in Heidegger’s thought: the subject encounters the Other at the very border of the world which means that the encounter has already happened before the subject identifies itself, and is identified as a subject. The Other repeatedly divides and thus re-constitutes the subject which is therefore always disrupted in its autonomy and self-referentiality. Levinas is thereby able to avoid Heidegger’s individualizing notion of the conscience and instead interprets the possibility of responsibility as originating in the constitution of a heteronomous subject (137). According to Levinas the call to responsibility which Heidegger originated from within Dasein, reaches the subject from a constitutive externality, namely the Other. The subject cannot determine whether it is called or not –  the (non)relation to the Other is always already there. Yet it can still choose whether it responds to the calling and this is where the freedom of the subject can be located. Freedom arises in dependence and the subject’s limitations and is only experienced in the burden of an infinite responsibility for the Other. The responsibility which cannot be refused becomes the content of identity. The subject becomes singular not through its inner unique personality but the fact that it is not able to delegate its guilt to someone else.

For Eldracher, this suggests that Levinas proceeds Heidegger because with the ethical turn to the Other he is able to address the question of how subjects can develop an idea of the self. The quasi-normative conclusion the author draws is that subjects can understand themselves best in their experience of alterity (148). He locates the corresponding decisive shift from the deconstructive towards the affirmative aspects of Heidegger’s subject criticism in the work of Michel Foucault.

While genealogy describes Foucault’s rather deconstructive project, his later works explore the possibilities of resistance and freedom by including the constitutive aspects of power. Close to Levinas’ account, freedom here needs to be understood as relational and not an inherent capacity of the subject. It happens in the very resistance against, thus dependence on, those powers to which the subject is already subjugated. Foucault’s understanding of freedom further allows us to consider the participation of the subject in the process of its constitution. In fact, it constitutes a decisive step to understand how subjects can form self-referentiality which allows them to understand themselves as agents in a historical and cultural context (249).

Foucault draws upon the Ancient concept of self-care to describe how the subject forms itself in taking on a stance to the given moral codes and thus a certain way of life. Instead of the sole subjugation to moral laws and norms, social practices such as relation of power and truth are understood as a framework within which the self cultivates itself. In this context, the idea of parrhesia indicates the subject being open to the world, which does not stand opposed to him as its object, but instead always already asserts itself in the subject. With this, Foucault is the first to introduce an affirmative notion of subjectivity into his thought which enables him to address the role of self-relationality in the subject’s constitution (260).

The chapter on Foucault’s work heralds a decisive hinge for Eldracher project: A deconstructive tradition which breaks down the concept of subject by laying bare moments of alterity meets a hermeneutical approach which is used to incorporate these moments of alterity in the constitution of self-understandings.  According to Eldracher, it needs both traditions for an affirmative turn of Heidegger’s critique of the subject. Deconstruction aims to destruct erroneous self-understandings by demonstrating the impossibility of a fixation and naturalization of subjectivity and point out how the self of subjects always relies on alterity.  It thereby intervenes when the hermeneutical approach risks to close the openness of the subject. Similarly, hermeneutics aims to reveal all those obstructions due to which the subject is not able to understand itself as being open to the world and others, but instead understands itself (erroneously) as a substance. It steps in where deconstruction risks to losing sight of the constitution of self-understandings of the subject, or in fact the subject itself.  For Eldracher hermeneutics and deconstruction hence describe two sides of the same coin. The proximity of both approaches is already illustrated by Heidegger himself: “Hermeneutics is destruction!” (62).

For this reason, the project leads towards Taylor’s work to which Eldracher turns in order to develop the participatory aspect of subjectivation which Foucault already touches on in his analysis of self-care. Eldracher uses Taylor’s concept of moral ontology in order to demonstrate how being human is always a being. Moral ontology in this context is understood as fundamental and ontological condition of potentiality. Every subject is always somehow thrown into the world, which the subject cannot determine and which stipulates its existence. Taylor emphasizes that world always appears in historical concrete relations; there are thus always worlds. At the same time, moral ontology is bound to the ontic: it depends on its reproduction and interpretation through subjects. With that, the self-understanding of the subject is thus always captured between past and future. The self-understanding has always already formed but simultaneously needs to be actualized through future interpretations. Eldracher claims that with this ontologically re-interpreted humanism Taylor is able to address freedom and self-understanding without understanding them as belonging to the substance of a subject (315f).

Taylor and Foucault take on different perspectives on the genesis of modern subjectivity which is why they can complement each other. While Foucault reveals illegitimacy of subordinating processes of subjectivation, Taylor’s affirmative genealogy draws out how self-understandings are stabilized and how they overcome previously dominant self-understandings. Like Foucault, Taylor draws on the contingency of certain self-understandings; however, he does not follow Foucault’s move to simply delegitimize them. Instead, a genealogy needs to affirm positive historical narratives in order to keep identity in the sense of a reference point for subjectivity (333).

Similar to deconstructive authors before him, Taylor reveals which narratives have laid the discursive ground for the idea of autonomous subjects. He overlooks problematizing how those narratives and in particular the narrative of nature as the source for morality not simply ground autonomy, but further suppress any notion of heteronomy. Nevertheless, Eldracher argues that Taylor’s anthropology of being human is able to avoid falling back into a metaphysical humanism as it is bound to a moral ontology. It is not transcendental but instead always refers to a certain historical praxis.

Eldracher insists on the contribution Taylor’s approach made by including the inner perspective of the subject and the role of self-interpretation. He argues that without an affirmative re-interpretation of the subject the criticisms raised by deconstructive works remain politically insignificant. This is why the author is rather dismissive of Derrida’s work as being limited to a structural analysis (197).

Derrida follows Levinas’ criticism in his venture to open up metaphysical thought towards alterity. He resumes Heidegger’s explication of temporality on the structural level asking how language subjugates the three-dimensionality of time under presence and thus affirms the closure of metaphysics into totality. Derrida attempts to demonstrate this supremacy of presence in language though the notion of différance. Like Heidegger’s figure of the abyss and Levinas’ call of the Other, différance describes a play of withdrawal and reference. It puts metaphysical logic into question as it exposes the supplement or the doubling in any transcendental signified. In every meaning of a signified there is subsequently a surplus of meaning; this surplus is contained in the meaning of the signified itself at the same time breaks with its unity. The identity of any phenomenon including the subject therefore always already relies on something which is foreign to it; the phenomenon is never identical to itself (175).

Derrida’s critique focuses on how the criticism of the metaphysical subject is consequently interwoven with a deconstruction of our understanding of meaning. According to Eldracher, it therefore appears to be more precise than Heidegger’s critique of the subject because not only does it reject the category of the subject as a metaphysical construction, but it further problematizes a specific, historically contingent understanding of subjectivity (160). He concludes that it needs a heteronomous understanding of the subject which is able to acknowledge those traces of alterity and non-identity which can be discovered by différance.

As stated above there is an indecisiveness to be found within Derrida when it comes to the subject, similar to the hesitation we can also detect in Heidegger’s work. For Eldracher, this moment of indecisiveness constitutes an important juncture in the deconstructive project. It needs a decision as to whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role. Eldracher’s response is yes. He commits Derrida’s thought to a re-constitution of the subject in a heteronomous understanding and thereby attempts to comprehend Derrida’s notion of différance to utilize it for his own endeavor. It seems however that by that Eldracher misses the depth of Derrida’s venture and the extent to which he radicalizes Heidegger’s subject criticism.

Let us take a moment at this juncture to take Derrida’s indecisiveness more seriously. Taking the named conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy as a whole, Derrida’s indecisiveness is not simply a transitory moment. He is not temporarily torn between an acceptance or rejection of the term because, according to Derrida, there no such thing that could be accepted or rejected. In fact, what has been shown by deconstructive work is that there is no agreement of those thinkers who speak of the subject on what the term actually means. Instead it seems that once certain predicates have been deconstructed, we cannot be sure anymore what we are even designating with the term; the unity and the name have been radically affected. As it turns out, “the subject is a fable” (Derrida 1991, 102).

For Derrida something happened when Heidegger introduced the idea of Dasein, a gap opened. For the first time, thinking was decentered, it moved away from the subject. But it did not go far enough. Ultimately, his endeavor was still restricted and came with new problems as Dasein ultimately repeats the metaphysical logic of subjectivity. Derrida reminds us that “We know less than ever where to cut – either at birth or at death. And thus means that we never know, and never have known, how to cut up a subject” (Derrida 1991, 117), or Dasein in fact.

He hence follows Heidegger’s late shift of perspective away from human beings as those carrying language, to language itself. Certainly, there is a possibility that there is a who as the power to ask questions (which is how Heidegger defines Dasein). But Derrida is interested in how the question of the who? itself is overwhelmed if language is no longer defined as being reserved for what we call man. He speaks of an “originary alliance”, an affirmation, a “yes, yes” of language (Derrida 1991, 100). Before any question can be raised, language is already there. This original alliance is why, according to Heidegger, language cannot be anymore an attribute which characterizes the human. Instead language withdraws itself from us: “In its essence, language is neither expression nor a confirmation of man. Language speaks.” (Heidegger 1950 cited in Eldracher, 105) Derrida continues this by asking: “What if one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompasses it but mark irreducibly from inside, everything changes.” (Derrida 1991, 116).

Derrida does not go beyond a structural critique as there might be nothing behind the subject. It remains a metaphysical construction. This however does not support the argument that such a structural critique remains ethically and political neutral thus insignificant, as Eldracher states. Derrida puts into doubt Eldracher’s assertion that the traditional position of the subject is the self-evident center for any inquiries on political and ethical dimensions of freedom (Handlungsfreiheit) and responsibility (345).

Derrida warns us to not rush into those words because they risk to over-hastily reconstituting the program of metaphysics together with the suffering that comes from its “surreptitious constrains” (Derrida 1991, 101). Instead he intends to start with responsibility itself, a responsibility which cannot first come after a subject has been established, but is an axiom that must be assumed (108). The reason for this is that there simply is no understanding of the subject, in fact no concept at all, which could be adequate for the responsibility Derrida emphasizes; a responsibility which is “always more and to come” (108). Any endeavor to reconstitute the subject, even in a heteronomous understanding would still assert a calculation and therefore a limitation of responsibility.

For that reason, Derrida demands to eschew the term to some extent. Certainly, he agrees with Eldracher that it is impossible to forget it; yet one might be able to re-arrange it in a way that it no longer dominates the center of ethical or political enterprises.

Against Eldracher’s perception, Derrida’s work does not simply languish indecisiveness, instead it declares an undecidability when it comes to the subject which is demanded by responsibility itself: “there is no responsibility, no ethico-political decision, that must not pass through the proofs of the incalculable or the undecidable. Responsibility demands an “unconditional commitment to deconstruction” (107). It appears that Eldracher’s project seems to struggle with its own indecisiveness: Accepting the aporias of subjectivity which have been laid bare by deconstructive ventures, he still holds tight to the term of the subject. Let us therefore turn the question on its head for a moment: Eldracher seems to acknowledge the extent to which certain predicates of the subject have been deconstructed, in Heidegger’s critique as well as in the works of Levinas, Derrida and Foucault. What is the benefit, and to what right then does he still speak of the subject? Throughout the book, Eldracher only mentions the “traditional connection” of the term to discussions of political and ethical dimensions of freedom and responsibility to defend the subject, as well as the idea that the metaphysical discourse of subjectivity could never be eliminated and corrected (349). But is this enough? In light of Derrida’s work these arguments appear rather rash. Disregarding potential flaws for a moment, both Heidegger’s and Derrida’s ventures remind us to slow down, to take a moment before throwing oneself into the enterprise of re-interpreting the subject. They demand to first ask oneself to what questions such a project even intends to answer. And at times, it might even be the rightly posed question, and not the answer that can prompt political consequences.

Bibliography

Derrida, Jacques. ‘“Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’. In Who Comes after the Subject?, edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, 96–119. London: Routledge, 1991.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

[1] All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Translation found in Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 195.

Geoffrey Dierckxsens: Paul Ricœur’s Moral Anthropology

Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice Couverture du livre Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice
Geoffrey Dierckxsens
Lexington Books
2017
Hardback $100.00
266

Reviewed by: Alex de Campos Moura (University of São Paulo)

Ricoeur Between Moral and Anthropology

For researchers and readers accustomed to Ricœur’s thought, the book of Dierckxsens is full of remarkable surprises. Both for those who are habituated to the philosopher of the “word” and of the “poetry”, concerned with reflections about narrative and its multiple dimensions, and for those who are involved with his discussions about hermeneutic, historically and genetically conducted. In this sense, the investigations brought by the author reveal a new and largely unexplored field of Ricoeur’s philosophy.

The book by Geoffrey Dierckxsens, Paul Ricoeur’s moral anthropology: singularity, responsability and justice, undoubtedly brings a considerable contribution to studies in the area. Choosing Ricoeur’s reflection about what is here called his “moral anthropology” as the main theme of his investigation, Dierckxsens’ text is articulated around three main axes, that could be gathered, under the risk of a little extrapolation, as an “ethical” discussion, taken in its largest sense: the concepts of moral, anthropology and hermeneutic.

These three axes, as we will see, offer the author an original perspective to consider the philosopher’s thought, and, at the same time, allow him to propose an extension in the way we understand the recent conflicts faced by current moral discussions, in which they reveal their limits and their contradictions. This possibility is strongly affirmed by Dierckxsens, seeking to establish a cohesive triad where these three elements become inseparable.  The core of his thesis is the defense of this articulation, simultaneously complex and full of deep implications.

Through this preliminary delimitation, beginning with his first descriptions, Dieckxsens sets the context from which he builds his investigation. And here is the first remark to be made to his work: the clarity of the text, a characteristic that immediately appears to the reader. The author, in a careful and accurate construction, structures his text not only with extreme acuity, but also communicating this “architecture” to his readers, outlining its stages and its internal logic. The text systematically presents clear parts and objectives, progressing safely step by step in its main strategies. That accurate construction reveals the author’s full mastery over the direction of his investigation.

This is what can be noticed if we accompany the main center of his work, concentrating on the three main axes mentioned above. The first important observation to comprehend is exactly the idea of a “moral anthropology” itself.  About this, we would like to highlight two points.

The first, and most evident, is the choice of the philosopher who guides the discussion. This issue will be worked in the second part of this review, but it’s important to correctly introduce the theme to enhance some aspects of this option and the peculiar appropriation that it implies.  In a perspective that is now gaining strength, but which is still with a wide horizon remaining to be explored, the Ricoeur we see here is quite different from the one we are most accustomed with, especially considering his inescapable phenomenological accent. It is not that this “tradition” is absent from Dierckxsens’ debate, but his proposal seems to accomplish a certain dislocation, moving Ricoeur’s major themes – like narrative, singularity and alterity – to a new scenery, not one opposite to, but without a doubt different from the traditional comprehension of phenomenological and hermeneutical perspectives.

But where could we situate this new “place” where the philosopher can now be found? The Ricoeur presented by Dierckxsens study is, in many aspects, very close to the analytical philosophy. Yet this “proximity” involves a large spectrum of dimensions. It concerns not only the themes or the general issues here considered, but much more significantly, it refers to a kind of structural affinity that the book intends to reveal. It doesn’t mean, and this is an important strategy implicitly assumed by the author, to seek direct relations of affiliation or influence, but rather to develop a kind of confluence or an intersection zone in which Ricoeur’s thought and the main themes of analytical analysis would find their community.

The proposal is captivating, bringing new horizons to research and debate around Ricoeur’s philosophy. His approach to this strand of thought, despite an increasingly growing number of studies, remains a new zone of investigation, yet to be consolidated. Thus, two important points seem to guide the ongoing research, indeed offering significant prisms under which the philosopher is read in Dierckxsens’ text. On the one hand, we have Ricoeur as proponent of a « moral anthropology », which, as we shall see, brings a new dimension not only to the notions of singularity, justice, and responsibility, but through them also retraces the understanding of the human condition and its limits of action. On the other hand, exactly because of this reconfiguration, the philosopher appears as someone capable of shedding new light on the current debates of analytical thinking, especially those related to morality and the implications of human performance. In other words, from the recognition of the proximity between Ricoeur and analytical thought, Dierckxsens defends the possibility of a reciprocal re-interpretation.

On the one hand, proximity, and on the other, reciprocal reading, the two prisms which in our view support the perspective assumed by Dierckxsens. Let us address each of them, always remembering the complexity of such a proposal that in principle requires strong mediations and a very careful construction, recognizing the impossibility of reconstructing them entirely here, given the limited space of a review.

An Anthropological Morality

As mentioned above, Dierckxsens clarifies, in an accurate and consistent way, the perspective under which he will develop his reading of Ricoeur. The main proposal is the description and the comprehension of the idea of “moral anthropology.” The subject — and the reunion of these two terms into “one-word”, into one unique concept — is, by itself, neither immediate nor free of difficulties. This observation seems to be shared by the author, as he is, from the start, concerned in carefully delimiting the sense in which this concept is to be understood. This circumscription is necessary since the articulation between morality and anthropology, as well as the possibilities of its effective achievement, remain the subject of intense debate, not only for analytical thought, but, in a larger sense, for contemporary reflection in general.

Full of implications by itself, this proposal gets even more complex, since another step is taken by the author and another term introduced to this “pair”. To the idea of an anthropological morality is added an element that is also intrinsic to Ricoeur’s thought, and also not peacefully comprehended by his researchers: the hermeneutic. According to Dierckxsens’ thesis, the moral anthropology proposed by Ricoeur only achieves its valid meaning when comprehended by a hermeneutical perspective. The question then gains in density and sophistication.

Let the author, then, speak in his own words: “By moral anthropology I understand the philosophical and hermeneutical approach to the ontological conditions of the moral existence of human beings” (VII). And, in the sequence, he complements: “By hermeneutics I mean the theory of the interpretation of concrete lived existence in relation to narratives.” (VII)

Once these axes are set, Dierckxsens is able to place his proposal and its originality in relation to other studies about Ricoeur that could be considered closer to his perspective. Following his delimitation, it’s possible to recognize two main lines of reading, in relation to which his work might be approached, even though without strictly converging with any of them. On the one hand, there is a tradition of studies on the philosopher — notably the most recent ones — that recognize and discuss the centrality of anthropology in his thought[i], dealing mainly with the problem of action and its implications. On the other hand, there is a number of researchers that work with the moral aspects of his philosophy and, simultaneously, propose a comparison between them and the current developments in morality studies, particularly those related to the ethics of care and to feminist theories.[ii]

There would be, therefore, a line of research specially occupied with the anthropology dimension of his reflections and, another, focused particularly on his arguments about morality. In fact, the articulation between these two aspects of his thought is not feasible without solid mediations. This is where an original mark of Dierckxsens’ work is inserted: the meeting of these two elements, not only recognizing them as closely related, but actually treating them as a single concept, in which the sense of morality is established by an anthropological view.

Following the author himself, however, the originality of his perspective only appears completely with the inclusion of the third axis mentioned above, the hermeneutic. According to him, “[…] few works so far examined the significance of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach to anthropology in light of contemporary moral theories in analytical philosophy” (VII). In other words, the originality of his proposal would be related to an effort to comprehend how a certain conception of contemporary morality could illuminate the way in which Ricoeur understands the approximation between hermeneutic and anthropology. It allows him to reveal a kind of “organic connection” — to use a term typical from another philosopher, to which Ricoeur also owes a large influence, Merleau-Ponty —, between these two axes, marking not only the originality of the philosopher’s reflection, but also of Dierckxsens’ own investigation. The discussion, then, gets even more focused: the project is to understand how an analytical moral view can shed new light on the philosopher’s thinking.

This makes more explicit the movement we are trying to highlight, accentuating the originality of his investigation. The point, defended by his thesis, is that it is not any moral that can fulfill this function. It is not any general discussion about the strong themes of the political and philosophy that is able to establish such connection to the philosopher’s reflections. The philosophical current most able to serve as a “clarifying” instrument of Ricoeur’s thought, especially in the way it’s presented here, is the analytical one. According to this, understanding the moral anthropology constructed by him demands this passage to a field nowadays mostly occupied by analytical studies.

But then a caveat is required. There would be a kind of one-side view if the author’s analysis were to dwell only on this perspective. There is a counterpart, and that brings some of the most interesting elements to the discussion. On the one hand, the analytical proposal about morality is able to illuminate the philosopher’s reflection, on the other hand, his reflection is capable of shedding new light and new horizons on this analytical thinking itself. In this sense, the importance of Ricoeur, rather than being re-read by this school of thought, is allowed a new understanding of the issues with which it operates, giving it the means to extend its spectrum. In the words of the author:

“This orientation toward reduction in moral invites to reflect on Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, which aims for a more cohesive, metaphysical-ontological account of human actions and responsibility. Whereas theories in analytical philosophy tend to naturalize our understanding of morals, Ricoeur, on the contrary, defends a hermeneutical approach to understanding what it means to be human and to be capable of responsibility and justice by living a concrete existence.” (VIII)

Against a reductionist appeal to the “data” and against a biological or neuro-scientific tendency that has crossed the current discussions on the moral, the philosopher’s thought brings a hermeneutical approach, in charge of understanding what is human and what is its capacity of responsibility and judgment, considering them in a concrete existence. Just as a parenthetical note, we can not fail to mention a similarity of this project assumed by Ricoeur, to a certain direction of contemporaneous thinking, expounded, among others, by Hannah Arendt. Even though in a completely different context, once she deals with a strong conception of politics and does not operate with this articulation between moral and anthropology, here enhanced by Dierckxsens, the problem concerning the human condition, its capacities and its ways to act and judge, is an extremely important issue for her. In fact, we believe the possible convergences between the two authors offer a subject to be thought trough and to be worked on.

Back to our main subject, one of the axes that is widely worked in the book — and that we, also, would like to emphasize as one of its most important contributions — is this idea that Ricoeur’s thought can bring an expansion to the conception of morality, in particular to that developed by analytical thinking, currently the subject of intense debates. The proposal brings these two main movements together, not independent but correlated. On the one hand, to argue that certain conceptions and perspectives present in analytical philosophy can contribute to thinking about the way Ricoeur approaches anthropology and hermeneutics, re-reading his reflection on moral action. And, on the other hand, to understand how Ricoeur allows the amplification of the current debates on morality, bringing new layers to the understanding of human existence. It is to satisfy the “gap” of this perspective in studies about the philosopher — that, even in their closer versions to the Dierckxsens’, oscillate between an approach from analytical theories or from morality, incapable to internally articulate them — that his work presents itself, emphasizing Ricoeur’s moral anthropology as a central and original contribution to the current discussions.

Notably, this becomes clear when we consider the debates in analytical philosophy about moral responsibility and justice. Faced with a kind of reductive tendency present in the most recent discussions, polarized between anthropology and psychology — taken in their more conventional sense —, moral anthropology emerges as an appeal to a more cohesive and inclusive view, inaugurating a new comprehension about justice and responsibility. It is as a refusal of the current “naturalism” that this moral perspective gains greater weight. Instead of explaining morality in terms of mechanical processes or through natural conceptions, the philosopher calls for a unified understanding of human capacities that constitute the ethical and moral life, remembering us that they must be comprehended, first of all, by a hermeneutical interpretation of the narratives and the concrete existence in which human lives take place. In other words, in contrast to mechanistic and naturalistic perspectives, Ricoeur appeals for a hermeneutical approach.

The Structure of the Text

In this movement, in this project of a hermeneutical “re-reading” of moral and anthropology, one notion will be especially mobilized by Dierckxsens to guide his analysis, the idea of singularity. It is based on this concept that he structures the book in three parts. Singularity, he argues, is one of the most adequate concepts to recognize the originality of the philosopher’s thought and its capacity to bring new elements to current moral discussions. The problematization of this notion is the way Dierckxsens finds to achieve a new understanding of the questions concerning responsibility and justice, establishing the three main topics on which the book is organized. Working on these ideas — singularity, justice and responsibility —, the text proposes increasingly closer links between the philosopher and analytical thinking. The internal connection between these elements is, in his view, almost organic:

“The case I will aim to make in the following pages is that the concept of singularity, which lies at the heart of Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, highlights the importance of hermeneutical phenomenology for understanding responsibility and justice in light of analytical moral theories. Singularity is without doubt an important concept in contemporary European philosophy in general, and in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics in particular.” (IX)

According to this perspective, the structure of the book, organized in three parts — ipseity, alterity and “evil and narrative” — establishes a way of discussing the notion of singularity, exploring in each part one of its different meanings. Dierckxsens argues that each step is an explanation of the “place” taken by this concept in Ricoeur’s moral anthropology. At the same time, through this path, it becomes possible for him to describe the meaning of hermeneutics for the notions of responsibility and justice, reconfiguring the general constellation in which they are inserted. This discussion allows the internal articulations between anthropology and the moral to become more evident, supporting his main thesis. Once again, it is important to emphasize the remarkable clarity and the careful organization in which all this argumentation is constructed. The reader can follow, step by step, the progress of the investigation, in an accurate and logical system that leaves little spaces for doubt. Ricoeur’s thought appears, progressively, each time closer to an analytical field.

But it is worth remembering yet another aspect of this proposal, that was mentioned before and that can now be adequately explained: the recognition that it is not only in its objectives that this intersection appears in the text, but, much more organically, in the very way Ricoeur is here read and presented. Unlike several other studies about the philosopher, here he appears as if he were, almost, an analytical thinker, or, if this affirmation sounds too strong, as if his thought could be structured on an analytical basis. The idea the author suggests is that they are not just close, but in some way and more importantly, that they are communing the same main lines, especially the ones here enhanced. Curiously, it seems to us that it is this element that provides more solidity to Dierckxsens’ thesis. The reader has no problem following his path because it seems, throughout all his exposure, that Ricoeur’s approach to this school of thought was drawn from the beginning, somehow inscribed in the philosopher’s writings and works. It is almost as if the philosopher were a precursor of the style of thought with which he would after be confronted.

Corroborate to this, as Dierckxsens reminds us, the philosopher’s own references to this school, variously recalled throughout the book. Yet, though frequent, they do not seem to us the central axis on which this approach can be sustained, nor its most solid point. The reference or the interest — and sometimes even the admiration — of a thinker by an author or by a current of thought, is not in itself capable of sustaining an affiliation or even an approximation in more strict terms. Moreover, such relations are being largely debated nowadays, and the approaches and distances among them are neither wholly clear nor entirely peaceful.

In our view, the strength of Dierckxsens’ work comes precisely from the way Ricoeur is, from the beginning and throughout all the argumentation, presented in terms of analytical thinking. We know that this interpretation is by no means consensual — and we know, at the same time, how this word loses force in philosophy, meditation and endless dialogue born from dissent and exchange. What seems more relevant to us is the recognition, implicit in Dierckxsens’ proposal, of the greatness of Ricoeur’s thought, capable of opening horizons such as the one defended here. As Merleau-Ponty argues in a commentary dedicated to Husserl, in his text The philosopher and his shadow, the greatness of a philosophy lies precisely in the Tradition he is capable of founding. Dierckxsens’ reading testifies, without any doubt, to this power of Ricoeur’s thought. Philosopher’s appropriation by the analytical thought, rather than instituting a divergence of interpretations, should be read as the establishment of one of the multiple dimensions his thought is capable of illuminating and, at the same time, under which it can be illuminated.

Following the author in his central proposal, the philosopher’s reflection allows us to bring new light to current ethical discussions, opening unsuspected horizons to analytical thinking, strained between explanations that place all its bets on the causes, or place them in cognitive processes, leaving aside the dimensions of “affection”, “empathy” and, in more general terms, all the knowledge and all the relations that involve the “other”. Ricoeur, on the contrary, would have been able to construct an ethic of responsibility structured precisely on notions such as affectivity, care, and solitude: “According to Ricoeur, ethical and moral interactions with others are motivated  by affection for others: compassion, conscience, neighbor love, or love for humanity and respect for other persons”.(167)

As we know, these sort of questions, concerning relational fields, alterity and affectivity, have always been essential to Ricoeur. These concepts — and this shouldn’t be forgotten — necessarily brings a phenomenological and existential support to the discussion. And that’s why we mentioned before that the work of Dierckxsens doesn’t properly present an “other” philosopher, but, more specifically, a “different” perspective of him, “dislocated” from his habitual context. Enhancing his greatness, a “unique” Ricoeur is able to bring together different directions of thought, different layers of understanding.

That’s why notions like singularity — without doubt, related to a phenomenological approach — can be here appropriated in moral debates without conflicts or contradictions. If the author operates a peculiar shift toward analytical thinking, inviting us to extend our ethical conception, an idea of singularity that does not exclude otherness will be particularly important for him. If the current discussions of analytical thinking seem to entrench ethic in the regime of a solipsism difficult to escape, Ricoeur’s thought appears as a crevice from which the relation — and all the dimensions brought by it, like affection, care and solitude — are able to figure, allowing us to rethink its limits and its deepest sense.

This is one of the main stakes of this book. And it is here that we rediscover the philosopher whose phenomenological and hermeneutic accents are clearly present, in charge of a reflection on responsibility articulated to the issues of care and relational affectivity inscribed in an existential field. That’s how, beyond approximations, Ricoeur is constructed, simultaneously, as a kind of precursor of analytical thought, and, curiously, as its antithesis or, even deeper, as its antidote, re-discussing and re-opening its frontiers. In this way, the question established by Dierckxsens is more complex than it may appear at first. Is it possible to think of the philosopher in these terms? The book, we saw, defends an affirmative answer, not only supporting the approach itself, but making it internal and organic.

However, sagaciously, at no time does the author refuse any of the other possible currents, or defend one against the others; there is no suggestion of a direct confrontation, which strengthens, once again, his description. That is one of the reasons that makes his work a significant contribution in a debate that concerns not only Ricoeur’s thought, but also his dialogues, exchanges and affiliations. As he implicitly assumes, there isn’t a unique answer to this problem; on the contrary, like we argued above, the strongest point of his work would be precisely the testimony of the openness and the inexhaustibility of Ricoeur’s thought. As the philosopher himself has taught us, the space to comprehend this kind of question should be searched for in some place that does not build walls or divided elements, instituting conflicts and separations, but, on the contrary, one that recognizes a more plastic, open and dialogical field, made of transitions and reversibilities, capable of sustaining the difference, without transforming it into conflict or separation. What is clear, in Dierckxsens’ work, is this recognition of Ricoeur’s strength and appeal towards a stronger, larger and more inclusive ethic[iii]; one solid enough to face the problems brought by contemporary issues. This extended ethical sense is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest teachings of Ricoeur’s philosophy.


[i] Dierckxsens himself enhances some examples: Richard Kearney (Ed.), Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action (London, SAGE, 1996); Jonathan Michel, Paul Ricoeur: une philosophie de l’agir humain (Paris: Cerf, 2006); Todd S. Mei and David Lewin (Eds.), From Ricoeur to Action. The Socio-Political significance of Ricoeur’s Thinking (London and New York: Bloomsburry, 2012).

[ii] The author enhances, particularly, two works: Nathalie Mailard, La vulnérabilité. Une nouvelle catégorie morale ? (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2011); Cyndie Sautereau, “Répondre à la vulnérabilité. Paul Ricoeur et les éthiques du care en dialogue”. Journal for French and Francophone Philosophie/Revue de la philosophie française et de la langue française, 23, n. 1, 2015, 1-20.

[iii] “In that respect, the task of hermeneutics is not so much to search for one universal objective truth about morality, like a blueprint of our ethico-moral constitution, but rather to understand what humans have in common along their differences, through dialogue and interpretation and across their singular lived experiences, in order to understand what motivates their ethical and moral actions.” (73)