Alexandru Dragomir: The World We Live In

The World We Live In Book Cover The World We Live In
Phaenomenologica, 220
Alexandru Dragomir, Gabriel Liiceanu (Ed.) & Catalin Partenie (Ed.)
Springer International Publishing
2017
eBook €74,96
xiii + 167

Reviewed by: Anco Peeters (Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia)

Time, Space, and Technology in the Phenomenology of Dragomir

After studying at the University of Bucharest during the Interbellum, Alexandru Dragomir (1916–2002) opted to become a doctoral student with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg. The Second World War, however, intervened in his studies, initially by forcing him to return to his native Romania for military duty and, after the end of the war, by preventing him to return to a politically suspect philosophy supervisor. The combination of Romania’s communist regime and Dragomir’s lack of interest in publishing resulted in zero philosophical publications in his lifetime, but it did not stop him from becoming one of Romania’s most characteristic and inspirational post-war philosophers. In the period after the war, he joined a small circle of young philosophers who met to develop, or tried to develop, philosophical thoughts independent of the approved Marxist framework. Some of the participants in these meetings later came to hold important academic positions in Romania and it is through their efforts that we now have a chance to read their mentor’s ideas in the present volume.

The World We Live In contains private lectures given by Dragomir spanning a period from 1985 to 1998. Some lectures are graceful examples of ‘live’ philosophical thinking, where phenomenological investigation and philological skill are combined to probe issues concerning time, space, and technology. Other lectures are less polished and should perhaps not have been published. Almost all the lectures engage with classic philosophical texts, primarily by Plato and Aristotle, and, to a lesser degree, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Dragomir’s mentor Heidegger is more often than not present in the background, through the method of analysis. The volume is divided into two parts, with part I containing a number of shorter lectures, usually only a handful of pages long, and part II containing three larger lectures of about twenty pages each. At least three of the lectures have been previously published in the journal Studia Phænomenologica in the combined 3/4 issue from 2004, though any mention of this is conspicuously absent from the present collection. Specifically, these lectures are “Utter Metaphysical Banalities”, “About The Ocean of Forgetting”, “About the world we live in” (the title has been slightly changed). The introduction and epilogue – respectively authored by Gabriel Liiceanu and Andrei Pleşu – were previously published in the same journal issue also, but more about these later. The lectures are generally presented in a chronological order and this works well to give the reader a feel for the progression of Dragomir’s thinking. James Christian Brown has done an admirable work translating the text into accessible English prose, though my no more than elementary knowledge of Romanian prevents me from vouching for the reliability of the translation.

“Utter Metaphysical Banalities” is the most philosophically rich among the nine shorter lectures of the first part. The metaphysical ‘banalities’ in question are the spatial and temporal environment, which are named so because everybody experiences and, usually, does not question them. Dragomir does. He investigates these environments phenomenologically by relating them to the self, particularly by showing what range is being opened up by the spatial and the temporal, and what is delineated by their horizons – a key term in Dragomirean analyses. For example, he argues that familiar spatial environments are oriented towards me, not merely physically but also spiritually in the sense that I know how my environment relates to me – they are familiar precisely because I have mentally appropriated them. This is why a room that looks like chaos to one person may look familiar to another, and why a room that is ordered by someone else may remain foreign and chaotic to me because I have not yet related myself mentally to it. Dragomir introduces the concept of ‘contemporaneity’ in his analysis of the temporal. When someone lives in a contemporaneity, one lives in a certain social and cultural web. Children acquire a contemporaneity when they grow up, appropriating the pop-culture, customs, and icons of their day; on becoming adult they have acquired a contemporaneity that is contemporary or current; when they grow old, their contemporaneity stays with them and loses its synchronicity – slowly the threads that link them to the social and cultural web that is familiar to them are severed until they no longer share the same temporal environment with those around them. Though clearly dealing with Heideggerian themes, the current analysis forms an interesting contrast with that of Dragomir’s mentor. A comparison with, for example, Heidegger’s 1924 lecture on Der Begriff der Zeit is useful to note an interesting difference. While for Heidegger time is to be understood in relation to a Dasein, for which it plays primarily an anticipatory and existential role – it gains importance by its grasping toward the future – Dragomir’s analysis of the experience of time hinges on the building of a social and cultural web, and thus should be understood in relation to the past and present. Taking note of the analysis in “Utter Metaphysical Banalities” gives the reader a useful point of reference when tracing the progression of Dragomir’s thoughts on time in the other, later lectures.

Among the other lectures in the first part, “Nations” stands out as a thought-provoking and surprisingly contemporary discussion of politics. In it, Dragomir examines the notion of ‘nation’ through a phenomenological lens and, through this examination, comes to a diagnosis of the essential strong and weak points of political constructs such as the European Union. The central role is played by the understanding of a nation as composed of people’s investment in three signals: its geography, which points to ‘our country’; its history, which points to ‘our past’; and its language, which points to ‘our mother tongue’. While I am not sure I agree with the conclusion drawn, namely that a nation is irreducible by virtue of its citizens’ investment and that this makes international collaboration inherently unstable, the analysis is, as far as I can tell, highly original. Furthermore, it allows for an understanding of the tensions within the EU from the political macro to micro level. This makes “Nations” relevant for contemporary scholars that work on the EU and UN in political philosophy and theory.

The other lectures in the first part are less-developed. “The Ocean of Forgetting” – on the role of remembering and forgetting – deserves a special mention: not much new is said in here, but the argument that we forget an extraordinary amount of experiences and that this in itself should make us feel skeptical of the value of cultural canons, is sound. The less that is said about “About Man and Woman” the better. The assertion that feminism should not forget ‘essence’ is laughable and shows a thorough misunderstanding of what most feminist approaches to philosophy and politics are about. This thirst for understanding the masculine and feminine as essences makes the argument circular and, together with other statements in the volume about how “women excel” at blaming others (51), reinforce the picture of a bad case of value dissonance between public academic discourse and the relative privacy of the living room in which Dragomir’s lectures were given. Phenomenology need not be this subjective (see Gallagher and Zahavi, 2007) and any reader with a genuine interest in phenomenology and feminism would be better served by picking up Sara Ahmed’s Queer phenomenology (2006). Perhaps it is best to just conclude that the Dragomir of “About Man and Woman” is no longer synchronous with the current contemporaneity and leave it at that.

The first two of the three longer lectures that we find in part II deal with Platonic themes and in them Dragomir performs some philological heavy-lifting. In “Socrates: Philosophy Confronts the City”, we find an examination of Socrates’ famous adage of ‘knowing that I do not know” and his subsequent maieutic approach to questioning experts. This is done in the first part by a Hegelian dialectic of distinctions between types of experts, life and death, and good and evil. Later on, we witness how Dragomir intertwines several strands of his earlier work on horizons and applies them to Platonic epistemology: that what we can know is defined by the limitations of our knowing and our relation to those limitations. Phenomenologists and exegetes of Heidegger’s work might find the later part of the discussion, on how Being as understood by the ancients relates to Sein und Zeit, of use.

“Comments on the Philebus” is lauded by one of the editors as “extremely original” (114), though it is unclear to me exactly what part of the lecture deserves such praise. The Philebus is one of Plato’s later dialogues and widely regarded as one of the more difficult (Frede 1992, 425). There have been discussions on whether the dialogue is internally consistent (e.g., like Hackforth 1945), or whether the passages contradict each other (e.g., Gosling 1975). Dragomir’s conclusion that we are left “in a state of questioning” (128) suggests he leans towards the later point of view. Furthermore, commentators often try to either argue the consistency of the discussions in the Philebus with Plato’s earlier work on the Ideas (e.g., Frede 1992), or make the case that the Philebus shows a progression of Platonic doctrine (e.g., Shiner 1974). Dragomir notes the seeming discrepancy in the dialogue (e.g., on 126–127), but does not draw a conclusion either way. It is frequently asked why the titular character of the dialogue is himself so quiet during the exchange. Friedländer (1969, 309–310) proposes that since Philebus is the personification of pleasure, it would be self-defeating to engage in a discussion on the value of pleasure with Socrates, who could be seen as the personification of reason. Dragomir’s suggestion (116, 128) that Philebus’ silence serves to emphasise the difficulty of the topic looks rather inelegant in comparison. Perhaps one would argue that the originality may be found in the lecture being a phenomenological reading of the Philebus. Such a case would require a comparison of the lecture with Gadamer’s 1931 work on Phänomenologische Interpretationen zum Philebos, but there is time nor space to do so here. Instead, I propose that the two lectures just presented are a clear example of what was earlier pointed out as one of Dragomir’s key characteristics: not originality, but understanding and letting the text speak for itself is his aim here. These lectures therefore offer a student of said Platonic dialogues a useful interlocutor and should not be presented as something they are not.

“The World We Live In” is the final lecture in the present volume and it deals with a question concerning technology. In it, Dragomir develops a warning: though the power of our intellect allowed us to develop the scientific method, which in turn allowed us to enslave nature through the use of technology, this overall structure alienates us from our basic state of being. Aristotle and Descartes are singled out as humanity’s main enablers of technology dependence. The argument is reminiscent of the animosity that Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers display towards the ongoing technologisation of our existence. But where Heidegger argues the danger of technology lies in its power to reveal the world to us as raw material, available for consumption and manipulation, Dragomir instead claims that technologies hide our initial relation to the world. He argues that, because of technology’s growing prominence, the original role of the intellect as guide to the bodyi is transformed into the intellect as producer: it is the intellect that produces science and technology which leads us to a increasing abstraction of the world around us. Dragomir’s argument depends heavily on the power of the intellect and his assumption that current technologies alienate us from what it means to be human. It might be fruitful to compare his analysis to other phenomenological discussions of our technologically mediated life experiences – such as Ihde (1990) and Verbeek (2005) – which take the role of the body and the assumption of our technological nature seriously.

The texts in the middle of the book are framed by two discussions of Alexandru Dragomir’s personal life. While the introductory chapter at the front paints a detailed picture of the rise and fall of Dragomir’s professional career, the epilogue provides a more intimate portrait of Dragomir the person. The latter contrasts Dragomir with his contemporary Constantin Noica, that other pillar of contemporary Romanian philosophy and also the one who invited Dragomir to the aforementioned circle of philosophical fellows. Where Noica stressed that one should impose one’s own thoughts on philosophical texts, Dragomir was driven by an effort to let the text speak for itself and to retrace the author’s thought process, in other words, to understand what a text says.ii The introductory chapter presents a very useful and accessible introduction to Dragomir’s early career and life in Germany, but in the latter half devolves into something resembling a love-letter from the editor to the author, becoming prone to romantisation and adoration. Both reader and editor would have been better served by shortening this chapter.

I mentioned earlier that there is a curious absence of any reference to the previous publication of at least five texts in the present volume, but this is not the gravest editorial lapse. What is most disturbing is the lack of transparency with regard to the editing of the source material. Granted, it may have been practically impossible to “reconstruct” (39) Dragomir’s thoughts into readable and coherent lectures “based” (e.g., 45) on tape recordings and note scribbles without substantial intervention by the editors. It seems, however, to be a very slippery slope to then also take the liberty to rewrite and rephrase passages “in a more succinct form” (89) or even claim that other passages “are my own [i.e., the editor’s], yet I believe they have been written in the spirit of Dragomir’s interpretation” (89). Readers might rightly expect to be notified exactly which passages are those of the editors and which ones are Dragomir’s, yet there are no foot- or endnotes or other indications of this in the running text. Scholars who want to read Dragomir’s own writings now have no way of knowing which parts of the texts are Dragomir’s and which are the editors’. Perhaps there was no other way of transforming the tapes and notes into readable and coherent form without adding an overly cumbersome notational apparatus. Even then, there is no excuse for not either, on the one hand, adding at least some notes or a more extended discussion of the editorial process than we currently find in the preface, or, on the other, presenting the notes and recordings as-is, in a fashion similar to parts of Nietzsche’s Nachlaß. One cannot help but wonder why those who have displayed such passion to conserve Dragomir’s thoughts have not been more careful in separating those from their own.

Dragomir is regarded by many Romanian philosophers as one of their big heroes; I witnessed this admiration first-hand when I visited the universities of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca on a study-trip in 2008. In secondary literature, our attention is often drawn to how impressed the otherwise hard-to-please Heidegger was by his Romanian student.iii While inspiring, such adoration stands in the way of how one can best show respect to a fellow philosopher: by fairly yet critically engaging with their thoughts. Dragomir makes a prescient remark when he observes what happened to Wittgenstein’s posthumous writings: “Others came along later, took the papers from the drawer and put them in order, giving them the form of immortal ‘works’” (49). The present book seems to have suffered a similar fate and this makes it difficult to show proper respect to and appreciate the brilliance of the few lecturial gems that are covered in editorial darkness.

References

Ahmed, S. (2006). Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ciocan, C. (2007). Philosophy without Freedom: Constantin Noica and Alexandru Dragomir. In Ion Copoeru & Hans Rainer Sepp (Eds.), Phenomenology 2005, Vol. III. Selected essays from Euro-Mediterranean area (pp. 63–79). Bucharest: Zeta Books.

Frede, D. (1992). Disintegration and restoration: Pleasure and pain in Plato’s Philebus. In R. Kraut (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Plato (pp. 425–463). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friedländer, P. (1969). Plato: The dialogues. Vol. 3. Hans Meyerhoff (Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gadamer, H.-G., (1931). Platos dialektische Ethik: Phänomenologische Interpretationen zum Philebos. Leipzig.

Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, D. (2007). The phenomenological mind: An introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science. London: Routledge.

Gosling, J.C.B. (1975). Plato: Philebus. Translated with notes and commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hackforth, R. (1945). Plato’s examination of pleasure. London: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1924). Der Begriff der Zeit. 1995 Edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the lifeworld: From garden to earth. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Shiner, R.A. (1974). Knowledge and reality in Plato’s Philebus. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2005). What things do: Philosophical reflections on technology, agency, and design. R.P. Crease (Trans.). University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.


Notes

i For Dragomir, the intellect is that what primarily constitutes the self. He states: “For me, I am a body subordinate to my intellect. My body is an ὄργανον, an instrument guided by my intellect” (133–134). Not every phenomenologist would agree that the body is an instrument guided by the intellect and this is admitted by Dragomir a few sentences later.

ii For a more detailed side-by-side of Dragomir and Noica, see Ciocan (2007).

iii The irony of constantly being presented in relation to his famous German supervisor, even though he was not able to finish his dissertation, was not lost on Dragomir who in the present volume remarks: “Some rely all their lives on the fact of having once been pupils of Heidegger” (52).