Kate Kirkpatrick: Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness

Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness Book Cover Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
Kate Kirkpatrick
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardcover £65.00
288

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (Independent Scholar)

Kate Kirkpatrick’s Sartre on Sin broaches a difficult topic; the relation between Sartre and theology. It does so, more specifically, through one of theology’s most difficult topics, the question of sin. The volume consists of an introduction and three main parts. Kirkpatrick’s work is informative and makes for a good ‘dossier’ for anyone who wants to read up on Sartre’s stance toward theology. Having not read Sartre in a long while and unaware of any links of his theoretical links with theology, I found helpful to read Kirkpatrick’s Sartre and Theology at the same time.[i]

Sartre was aware that a certain type of God was dead and the second part of the book demonstrates that he was informed when dismissing that concept of God. It is Kirkpatrick’s merit to show how theological debates informed Sartre’s education in philosophy and literature. Furthermore, she demonstrates how these debates are echoed in the works of Racine, Voltaire and Victor Hugo.

The book shows “a level of theological sophistication that is underexplored in Sartre scholarship” (2017a: 17). Kirkpatrick extrapolates certain themes within Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and then shows how these themes make for a “realized eschatology of damnation” (2017a:181) by focusing on a number of ‘unrealizables’, including inadequate knowledge of the self, others and the world. Kirkpatrick almost exclusively focuses on what she calls a pessimistic reading of Sartre—one of the reasons why her reading focusses mainly on Being and Nothingness.

Kirkpatrick concludes that Sartre takes from Jansenist pessimism and, later in his life, from Kierkegaardian despair, the figure of a “tragic refusal” (2017a: 83). For Calvinism and Jansenism, the nothingness of nature is such that humanity qua being is dependent upon God (as a creator or maybe even in a creatio continua). For Sartre, “the human exists in a tensive state between being and nothingness” (2017a:60). However, “while there exists a nothingness of nature and (arguably) of sin, there is no nothing of grace” (ibid.). Sartre accepts the disease, one might say, but “rejects [the] cure” (2017a: 61). He refuses the grace that cures the pains of the tension between being and nothingness – an assessment Kirkpatrick shares with Gabriel Marcel (2017b: 157). Kirkpatrick finds in Sartre not a determinism of grace (as Jansenists and Calvinists would have it) but a “determinism of nothingness” (2017a: 162). In other words, our endeavors are bound to fail and will lead to nothing whether we seek knowledge of the self or of others. Theologically, Sartre shares with Pelagius the view that the human being is able to seek transcendence but, unlike Pelagius, nothingness is that into which we try and transcend. Whereas, for Pelagius, the perfectibility of human beings unfolds through their own doing, for Sartre, this freedom is now directionless. Beings can do whatever they want, whenever they want though not with whomever they want (Sartre’s limit on freedom is determined by others and the world).

One of the best parts of Kirkpatrick’s book concerns her insistence that philosophy should be lived. It is through this lens that she reads The Transcendence of the Ego. Here, Sartre lays bare the gap between the cogito and reflective consciousness arguing that the first is constituted by, as much as it would be constitutive of, the self, others and world. If the transcendental ego itself is constituted (rather than constituting) then it seems no more than a side-effect of being-in-the-world. Consequently, one can see in Sartre a further decentering of Descartes’ cogito. Whereas Cartesians tell us that this cogito can only be certain of itself when it thinks and as long as it thinks, theologians of the seventeenth century undermine this certainty by insisting on the nihilism of sin (cf. 2017a: 59, ‘he did not discover that he was but rather he was lacking’). For Sartre, between being (‘in itself’) and reflective consciousness (‘for itself’) a cleavage exists that cannot be bridged. This gap is a nothingness that creeps into being (ontologically), into what we can know (epistemologically) and into what we can do with and for others (ethically). Consequently, this gap between reflective consciousness and the ego is a perpetual ‘filling-in-the-blank’—human being becomes the being “by which nothingness arrives in the world” (BN 47). However, a human being knows such a négatité—the absence at the heart of being—in and through anxiety, which reveals the freedom for human beings “to become other than we are” (2017b: 95). Anxiety and freedom thus reveal a non-being and an indetermination of the self. Anxiety is a fear and trembling before the fact that things can always be different than they presently are. However, according to Sartre, we flee from this anxiety.

Kirkpatrick recalls that this nothingness (or lack of being) is a nothingness of sin, a nothingness stripped of God and grace. There’s no overcoming this lack (2017a: 102/BN 67). In many respects Kirkpatrick follows Judith Wolfe’s analysis in Heidegger’s Eschatology, where she describes Being and Time as an ‘eschatology without eschaton’. However, whereas Heidegger’s eschatology was a bit utopist, Sartre’s tends towards dystopia. Kirkpatrick concludes that “to be free is to be between being and nothingness” (2017a:102). Intriguingly, Descartes still claims, on basis of the Augustinian-Bérullian tradition that Kirkpatrick traces, that humans are ‘between God and nothingness’ (2017b: 54).

Since, for Sartre, human being is between facticity and transcendence, it is the conclusion that Kirkpatrick does not draw that seems to me to be more important. Whereas, in classical theology, sin cannot be conceived as an entity in the sense that it has no real being and, therefore, must be understood in terms of its relation to grace, its presence (in the world and in being) cannot be looked at otherwise than as the disruption of the balance between sin and faith. Where there is sin, grace is not. If there is grace, there is no sin. In Kierkegaard, sin shows itself in a double way: first, in not wanting to be oneself; secondly, in too much wanting to be oneself (elucidated in pride). For Kierkegaard, faith navigates this tension by allowing for a self that wants its self just as God wants this self (Cf. 2017a: 81-87). However, if Sartre can be conceived as a secular translation of theology’s account of sin (cf. 2017a: 113, quoting Robert Solomon), and if sin is a thoroughly relational term, then it in the (dis)order and unbalance of facticity and transcendence that we need to look.

For Sartre, faith cannot navigate the tension between facticity and transcendence. On the one hand, there is the flight from freedom through bad faith. On the other hand, because of freedom, there is transcendence towards the world. Sartre, Kirkpatrick notes, mentions that there is a “valid coordination” (BN 79) between these two aspects. Yet such a coordination is of a peculiar kind, and it is one that can never be ascertained and assured by a certain idea of God and theology. Kirkpatrick argues that, because Sartre opts for an autonomous subject (2017a:177-81), it must be an account of sin (an absence of a relation with God). However, it seems that, for Sartre, existence is far from non-relational; it is just that, because of its being stripped from grace—a secular translation of sin—a just and faithful way of coordinating facticity and transcendence is never a (phenomenological) given. Where Kirkpatrick sees Sartre’s subject as a conscious turning away from relation(s) and veering towards an autonomous monad—a ‘walled city’ (2017a: 222)—and for this reason she discerns a phenomenology of sin, I think something else is going on: not the absence of relation, but the perpetual missing out on each other, the failing of relationality in its very act.

Kirkpatrick does not explore this coordination between facticity and transcendence in Sartre. The only ‘valid’ coordination, for her, seems to be theological in nature. Yet what Sartre wanted to point to was precisely the absence and the lack of the assurance that theology could provide. It is not that there is no coordination ‘between being and nothingness’, it is that no one knows just how to balance these coordinates. Whereas theology, in a sense, always brings the tension to a halt, Sartre wanted to keep his eyes on the very existence and presence of this conflict. Sartre’s trouble with theology, then, was perhaps not so much with sin, but rather with grace and how theology conceives it as the privatio peccatum—the end of sin and the end of tension.

How are the gaps between the ego and reflective consciousness and between transcendence and facticity lived? Kirkpatrick’s fifth chapter explores this gap on an epistemological and anthropological level. The self is but a presence to itself (2017a: 118). On the one hand, the self is a longing for the identity of an en-soi (which can simply be what it is). On the other hand, it is a consciousness of the perpetual escape of such an identity (we are conscious of the fact that we always are in relation towards what we are not). For this reason, the self exists as its own non-coincidence (it is what it is not, perpetually). Sartre writes that the self posits this identity as a unity and as a “synthesis of multiplicity” (BN 184). In short, the self believes that there is a recognizable ego underlying its diverse experiences. The self reaches for identity but knows that it cannot obtain one.

Kirkpatrick points out that this non-coinciding relationship with oneself is the source of “suffering”, that is, an understanding of oneself as a contingent and unjustifiable factum (2017a: 121-22). This epistemology gives way to ontology. For Sartre, “lack is […] an element of the real. But it is important that this lack is not lived neutrally, as a brute fact among brute facts. Rather, [it] is an experience of failure (échec), of missing the mark” (2017a: 128). In other words, the self has to be this lack-of-being while being-in-the-world-with-others. However, in my opinion, the world and others make for more obvious adversaries than ‘being’ or ‘consciousness’. This problematizes Kirkpatrick’s interpretation, a problem hinted at when she considers the worumwillen of the self in Sartre. The self suffers from not having a self. As Sartre claims, “the self haunts the heart of the for-itself as that for which the for-itself is” (BN 117-8). Consciousness, Kirkpatrick concludes, is haunted by the desire “to be meaningful” (2017a: 129). With such meaningfulness, I suggest, the self comes across something that is not of its own making, something present in the world and in others that, in more than one sense, is granted and given to the self (with a special kind of facticity, one that disrupts Sartre’s neat distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself).

The sixth chapter turns on the question of being-with-others. Kirkpatrick explains that “while the distance between consciousness and the ego arises on account of time, the distance between consciousness and the other arises on account of space: Sartre attributes the separation of consciousness to the separation of bodies (BN 255)” (2017a: 139). Elaborating, she claims that “when alone, I can see the fissure between the self-knowing (consciousness) and the self-known (intentional object of consciousness)” (2017a: 143/2017b: 91). As a result of this fissure, we can know something pertaining to the world but the instance of knowing remains in the dark about itself. Kirkpatrick argues that “the self-known is always indeterminate, because it is always subject to the freedom of others” (2017a: 143). The intentional object of the other leaves me and my being, in a way, at the mercy of the other. Consequently, the intentional object of consciousness is something that I cannot master—“the other reveals something I cannot learn on my own, which is how I really am” (2017a: 153.

It is in this context that Sartre discusses the Book of Genesis and the concepts of shame and nakedness. The shame we feel before the other is described as an “original fall” (BN 312). Karsten Harries notes the Christian overtones in Sartre’s work and queries whether Sartre’s philosophy is not excessively burdened by an uncritically assumed Christian inheritance (Cf. 2017a: 153). The questions that would need to be posed are whether Sartre’s references make for an inheritance (as something acknowledged) and in what sense such an inheritance can be considered to be a burden. Kirkpatrick does not address such questions. She does claim, however, that with guilt, and after God’s departing, “there is no true being to be neglected” (ibid.). For Kirkpatrick, the body becomes “both warrior and warzone in the fight for my identity[;] it is both active agent and passive site. [I]n the face of objectification, one can either give in (in bad faith) or fight back” (2017a: 155 and 159). This tension and conflict is one between identifying and being identified, between defining as and being defined as.

The problem is that Kirkpatrick does not consider the fact that the other exists in a perceptual relationship with the subject. Furthermore, as much as others reveal themselves to me as the image I have of them, they have but an image of me. One might legitimately wonder whether this presence-to-self (as it concerns the other) might not limit intersubjective objectification. After all, there is little reason to assume that if the other knows that he or she is incapable of obtaining a definitive self, he or she can define me once and for all. If the presence-to-self needs to be extrapolated to the consciousness of the other, then perhaps what is going on here is not so much a battle and a war but a perpetual ‘missing out’ on each other, an overreaching that comes with suffering and conflict.

Chapter seven focuses on Sartre’s account of freedom as “anti-theodicy” (2017a: 13). Contra Leibniz, Sartre argues that freedom is not sufficient reason to explain the presence of evil in the world. In this context, Kirkpatrick argues that Sartre offers no proper account of freedom. A case can, of course, be made that Sartre did not insist on the notion of responsibility until Existentialism is a Humanism. Kirkpatrick is clear, however, that she does adopt an “optimistic reading” (2017a: 178) of Sartre, one that would focus on responsibility, authenticity and salvation through art. The reasons for adopting a pessimistic reading are unexplained, but it is clear that Sartre’s footnotes on salvation through art and ethics do not convince her (2017a: 127 and 160).

Kirkpatrick admits that Sartre’s discussions regarding the limits of freedom as they concern the other might “mitigate the charges of radical voluntarism” (2017a: 177). However, she goes on to claim that “the other limits my freedom only insofar…as I let her” (ibid.). Kirkpatrick concludes, in ways similar to Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, that Sartre’s ‘determinism of nothingness’ resembles Calvinist predestination but she insists that such determinism is not arbitrary (like grace in Protestantism) but egalitarian—we all have an equal share in this tragic existence and all of us are ‘condemned to freedom’. That said, Kirkpatrick acknowledges that this account of tragedy is but one component of Sartre’s ontology of freedom. The stress on tragedy “[misses] an important component: namely that it is an account of refusal, an anti-theodicy” (2017a: 190). The utmost freedom is “to refuse God and the good” (ibid.). We refuse God because God can put an end to freedom and so submit to the tyranny of freedom and its concomitant ‘determinism’.

That Sartre was acutely aware of the death of God is evident from his review of Georges Bataille’s Inner Experience with which the fourth part of Kirkpatrick’s monograph begins. Here, Sartre speaks of a mute God that remains as a corpse (Cf. 2017a: 201). Kirkpatrick focuses on Sartre’s view of love in a “loveless” world where relationality is but a ruse. The aim is to demonstrate how Sartre “might […] inform contemporary hamartiology, arguing that […] theological categories […] cannot be known merely conceptually, but must be acknowledged personally” (ibid.). This happens, Kirkpatrick concludes, in a situation of “original optimism [entailed by] the Christian doctrine of sin” (ibid.).

In Augustine, sin is but a “disordered love” (2017a: 203), a love that, to resort to Kierkegaard, focuses too much or too little on the self. The ‘proper’ love of self, others and world, in theology, is of course ordered by God. For Sartre, love promises more than it can actually offer, even when the other whom I love might for a while “save my facticity” (BN 392/2017a: 207) and justify my existence. Love, then is “deceptive” (2017a: 207) and entails a self-love that demands of the other a complete surrender or objectification—Sartre’s thought that love easily gives way to sadism and masochism is well-known. Kirkpatrick reminds us that “all love is ultimately reducible to amour-propre” (2017a: 205). We should in effect consider “how theological Sartre’s ‘unrealizables’ are” (2017a: 204). What Sartre offers is more than just a suspicion about theology—e.g. unmasking some aspect of neighborly love as one more instance of self-love—he shows us a loveless world that is abandoned by God (2017a: 209).

According to Kirkpatrick, if the Jansenists temptation was to despair over grace, the Sartrean temptation is, in despair over sin, to refuse (2017a: 212). For classical theology, sin and evil are to be understood on a scale, admitting of degrees, and are always balanced within the broader horizon of God and goodness. For Sartre, the presence of evil negates the idea of God. Kirkpatrick’s concludes that Sartre “explicitly inverts the imago Dei, embracing instead the fallen human desire to be sicut Deus”. Furthermore, “his psychological description of unrealizables can be read as affective consequences of God’s absence” (2017a: 211). However, one might question whether this conclusion is a matter of theology at all. After all, Sartre may well be describing the consequences of God’s death without drawing any theological conclusions. One could claim that this desire to be ‘like God’ is, for Sartre, phenomenological commonsense. What matters for theology is precisely Sartre’s insistence on the failure of love and the concomitant need to think of God otherwise than the assurance that our relationships of love will succeed. The death of God, for Sartre as for theologians, ought to mean that what has died is precisely the God that serves to remedy, and is instrumental to, our own failures.

Kirkpatrick ends with an interesting rapprochement between phenomenology and theology. For a philosopher who does not acknowledge the least possibility of ‘salvation in Christ’ (2017a: 2014), what function does theology serve? According to Kirkpatrick, theologians either believe that it is through revelation that we know what sin is or they believe that it is sin that puts us on the path to salvation. For those that believe the latter, lived experience with sin might shed light on revelation. A particular understanding of phenomenology will aid theology here. Far from presenting a survey of inner experiences, phenomenology tends to interpret our experience in the world. In this regard, recognition serves as a criterion of correctness for description—if no one really knew what Heidegger meant when writing on angst, for instance, it is unlikely that Sein und Zeit would have been such a success (Cf. 2017a: 217). Theology seems to allude to such a criterion when it speaks of the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘acknowledging’—I might know everything there is to know about sin in classical theology, for instance, without ever acknowledging any sins of my own (Cf. 2017a: 220). It is for this reason that Kirkpatrick focuses on Sartre’s literary legacy. She claims that his “use of narrative […] was undergirded by a conviction that […] precision concerning individuals can only [occur] when individuals are considered in […] their situated, lived experiences” (2017a: 219). Kirkpatrick argues that Sartre’s notion of ‘the unrealizable’ can be interpreted within the context of this relationship between knowledge and acknowledgement (2017a: 220-221).

For Kirkpatrick, “to refuse anything that comes ‘from without’ (BN 463) is to refuse the gaze of love” (2017a: 221). Although not everything that comes ‘from without’ should be confused with a gaze of love, it is remarkable that Sartre should not consider the fact that the other’s point of view might be at least as valid as our own. Kirkpatrick neglects the fact that this immunization against otherness, this attempt at a ‘walled city’, is itself a ‘useless passion’. What matters is that, for Sartre, there is a multiplicity of others. It is not the case that one is either a free, autonomous subject or ‘condemned’ by the other. Amidst a multitude of viewpoints, one should still try to assert oneself in the world. For Sartre, the point is that no one can step outside of their situation, a situation that always concerns a “multiplicity of consciences”. This “antinomian character” of the totality of beings-in-the-world is “irreducible” and obeys no laws that would oversee it. Consequently, it is impossible to “take a point of view on this totality, that is to say, to consider it from the outside”.[ii] I am always and already engaged, immersed and absorbed by the world and being-with-others. Furthermore, there is no ‘God’s eye point of view’ of this being-with-others.

Kirkpatrick’s sympathizes with Beauvoir, who is “closer to the Christian position [where the] self is invited to a life of intersubjective co-creativity. It is an invitation to know that we are both constituted by and constitutive of the others in our lives, and to acknowledge our co-constitution in humility, love and mercy” (2017a: 222 and 224). It is toward such love and mercy that Kirkpatrick gestures in the final chapter of her book. She asserts that it is theology that is able to offer us a “rightly ordered self” (2017a: 225). This theology is developed through two provocations: the first is that Sartre is right in stating that optimism, considering the state of the world, is irrational and that optimism is justified only if God exists; the second extends her interpretation of Sartre as a Westphalian ‘master of suspicion’—an “atheism ‘for edification’” (2017a: 212)—by questioning how love is to be set in order. For Kirkpatrick, one must first “recognize—and acknowledge—our own failures in love” (2017a: 234). Kierkegaardian ‘edification’ turns out to be “self-examination” (2017a: 235). She argues for a position between néantisme (nothing is any good) and Pelagianism (an overconfident claim toward self-assertion). Identification with facticity entails a passivity that would reject all responsibility while identification with transcendence entails an oversight of our thrownness in determinate situations with determinate others. Humility and love require both activity and passivity: a “personal transformation [which] takes into account the situatedness of our convictions and the importance of our conduct in relation to them” (2017a: 238). Such an autonomy from within heteronomy warrants the optimism that “failures don’t have the last word” (2017a: 241). Kirkpatrick’s hope is that the reality of sin might give way to an intellectual climate that “hold[s] open the possibility of taking religious points of view seriously” (2017a: 233). However, Kirkpatrick stops short of dealing with those questions that attracted me to this book in the first place, such as, “if we find recognizable descendants of […] sin in some of the twentieth century’s most prominent philosophers: why?” (2017a: 233, her italics).

Kirkpatrick is to be commended for the conversation she establishes between philosophy and theology. She makes a strong case for interpreting Sartre as ‘phenomenologist of fallenness’. One learns in her other book that the great theologians that responded to Sartre—Barth, Tillich, Wojtyla and Yannaras—agree upon one thing: that Sartre’s account of self-alienation stands in clear opposition to the Christian stress on relationality (Cf. 2017b: 136, 142, 173 and 181). Yet the trouble for theology, then and now, is that this does not seem entirely correct and its praise for relationality is premature. If Sartre was describing the failure of relationality in the very act of relating to self, others and world, then one is left wondering, whether and how theology could respond to such a situation.


[i] Kate Kirkpatrick, Sartre and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2017b). The work under review will be referred to in the text as (2017a). References to Being and Nothingness, trans. H. Barnes (London: Routledge: 2003), the editions which Kirkpatrick uses, will be given in the text.

[ii] Sartre, L’être et le néant, p. 349.

Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.): A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, Wiley, 2017

A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir Book Cover A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir
Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.)
John Wiley & Sons
2017
Hardback $195.00
552

Françoise Dastur: Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident, Les Belles Lettres, 2018

Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident Book Cover Figures du néant et de la négation entre Orient et Occident
Encre Marine
Françoise Dastur
Les Belles Lettres
2018
Broché 25.50 €
224

Béatrice Longuenesse: I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Kant Again

I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again Book Cover I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again
Béatrice Longuenesse
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £30.00
288

Reviewed by: Çağlan Çınar Dilek (Central European University)

I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again by Beatrice Longuenesse presents a comprehensive study on different understandings of the notion of ’I’ through focusing particularly on how ‘I’ is used by Kant in ‘I think’ and comparing it with its usage by Descartes, Wittgenstein, and Sartre. This book presents the provocative claim that Freud is a good candidate for being a descendant of Kant by naturalizing his view of ‘I’. The book consists of three parts. Firstly, the author starts with a comparative analysis of ‘consciousness as a subject’ in Kant, ‘usage of I’ in Wittgenstein and ‘pre-reflective cogito’ in Sartre. Then she moves back to Kant’s understanding of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ and in ‘I ought to’ through his criticism of rationalist ideas on the nature of ‘I’ as a substance, as simple, and as a person. Lastly she presents how Freud’s notions of ‘ego’ and ‘superego’ have similarities to Kant’s ‘I think’ and ‘I ought’ and how Freud can naturalize Kant’s transcendental philosophy.

Longuenesse does not intend to give an historical study but rather aims to present a strong Kantian picture of ‘I’ that is most loyal to him and also strongest in today’s discussions, as the topic fits nicely into the contemporary discussions in philosophy of mind and language. The choice of historical figures in this sense works towards a better understanding of the intended strong Kantian position. In this direction, Descartes’ argument against skepticism for the existence of ‘self’ provides also a foundational starting point for the peculiarity of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ – that we necessarily experience ourselves as a simple substance and as a person with diachronical unity, but we cannot infer these qualities of the ‘I’ as an object as conceived by rationalists. While Wittgenstein’s distinction between ‘use of I as subject’ and ‘use of I as object’ has framed discussions in philosophy of language on self-ascription and the referent of ‘I’, phenomenological ideas like ‘pre-reflective consciousness’ have made a great influence in the philosophy of mind and consciousness in last decades, reviving a move towards One-Level Accounts of Consciousness in contrast to Higher-Order Representational Theories of Consciousness. And Freud’s notions help us to understand Kant’s ‘I’ in his theoretical and practical philosophy in an embedded and embodied context.

In the first part (Chapters 2 and 3), Longuenesse starts by treating self-consciousness as a first-person usage of ‘I’. In this direction, she introduces Wittgenstein’s distinction between two uses of ‘I’: ‘the use as an object’ and ‘the use as subject’. The author then compares this distinction by Wittgenstein with Kant’s distinction between ‘consciousness of oneself as subject’ and ‘consciousness of oneself as object.’ For Wittgenstein, the ‘use of I as object’ is exemplified in cases where you utter sentences like “my arm is broken,” “I have grown six inches,” while the ‘use of I as subject’ is exemplified as you say “I see so and so,” “I think it will rain,” and “I have toothache”. The distinguishing feature of the ‘use of I as a subject’ is that there is no possibility of error, while there is one in the ‘use of I as object’. Shoemaker describes this by saying ‘the use of I as subject’ is “immune to error through misidentification relative to first-person pronoun” and Longuenesse goes along with this description throughout the book while treating Wittgenstein’s notion. Accordingly, even when ‘I’ actually refers to ‘oneself as an object’ and that person later infers that the mentioned subject is identical to himself (as in John Perry’s example where he finds out that the person who is making a mess in the market turns out to be himself), the final criterion for finding out the truth about the statement (person x = ‘I’) is not objective. Rather, “there needs to be a point at which no more search for objective criteria is called for in order to establish the identity between the entity of which the predicate is true, and the believer and speaker of the current thought asserting the predicate to be true.” To establish this, the believer should have a special access to information about herself.

Longuenesse argues that even the ‘use of I as object’ depends on the kind of information that, expressed in a judgment, would ground a ‘use of I as a subject’. So, the question becomes what this ‘I as subject refers to’ (of course if it refers to anything at all; Anscombe argues that it does not, but Longuenesse argues against such a position). Evans thinks that the referent is the embodied entity. Accordingly, self-ascriptions, which are immune to error through misidentification (IEM), “are not limited to mental states but include bodily mental states.” For him, the referent as an embodied entity constitutes the conditions of the possibility for a referential use of ‘I’. He makes use of Kant’s ‘I’ as accompanying all our perceptions, and argues that without such an embodied and embedded referent we end up with at most a formal ‘I think”. It follows that ‘I’ in ‘I think’ represents only “a form of thought and it is not used to refer to any entity at all.” Longuenesse agrees with Evans on emphasizing the role of the embodied entity, while she disagrees that Evans’ claim about the referent of ‘I’ is true, both as a Kantian interpretation and as a claim in itself. According to Longuenesse, it is right only to say that in the lack of information about the properties of the referent of ‘I’, one cannot derive any property ‘I’ refers to. Nevertheless, this does not mean that ‘I’ in ‘I think’ does not refer to any entity at all. This is an important point on which Longuenesse builds the second part of the book where she treats Kant’s criticisms of rationalist claims about the nature of ‘I’. Accordingly, Kant denies that we can infer the properties of the ‘I’ – as being a substance, simple and a person, as claimed by rationalists, while he does not deny that ‘I’ refers to any such entity at all.

Longuenesse thinks that Kant`s distinction between ‘consciousness as a subject’ and ‘consciousness as an object’ does not match Wittgenstein’s distinction. The ‘use of I as a subject’ that grounds all the uses of I (as an object or subject) is better understood through the Kantian notion of ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’, which maps only a part of  Wittgenstein`s ‘use of I as a subject’ – as in ‘I think’. So one needs to distinguish different uses of I as subject: 1) self-location, 2) self-ascription of bodily predicates, 3) self-ascription of P predicates and 4) the unity of `I’ that grounds `I think’. The fourth kind of self-consciousness on which ‘I think p` rests is presupposed in all other uses of I and is a necessary condition for any use of I and any judgment.

Chapter 3 is devoted to different uses of ‘I’ as a subject, this time from a phenomenological perspective, and continues to investigate its relation to ‘I’ as an embodied entity. Longuenesse makes use of Sartre`s distinction between ‘non-thetic/non-positional’ consciousness and ‘thetic/positional’ consciousness. ‘Non-thetic consciousness’ accompanies all consciousness that is directed to an object, and it is omnipresent, while it is not itself taken as an object (which is the case in thetic consciousness). Thetic consciousness is a reflective kind of consciousness where one`s attention is directed to the non-thetic consciousness. Sartre considers both the awareness of one`s own body (body-for-itself) and awareness of the unity of mental activity (pre-reflective cogito) as forms of non-positional consciousness. Longuenesse makes a comparative analysis between Sartre`s ‘pre-reflective cogito’, Wittgenstein`s ‘use of I as subject’ and Kant`s ‘consciousness of oneself as a subject’. She argues that Sartre`s and Wittgenstein`s notions share the weaknesses vis-a-vis Kant`s notion: Sartre and Wittgenstein defend stronger and broader claims than Kant by aiming to offer an account of the kinds of self-awareness that back all cases of the use of I as subject, but then they fall into a contradictory position. Kant`s position is stronger by presenting a less comprehensive position: it only tries to back the ‘use of I as subject’, which is then considered as a ground for other kinds of uses of I (like of our body).

It is interesting to see a comparison between Kant and Sartre that also includes Wittgenstein, if we consider recent discussions on consciousness in philosophy of mind. Phenomenology has been having an effect on theories of phenomenal consciousness in the last decades, through using ideas by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre. Dan Zahavi has been one of the pioneers to bring these ideas back to analytical philosophy to argue against representational theories – particularly Higher-Order Representational Theories. An important focus of attack of such phenomenological approaches is David Rosenthal with his classical Higher-Order Thought Theory. He argues that one can explain what-is-like-ness, a subject’s being phenomenally conscious of being in a mental state, through explaining state-consciousness. State-consciousness of a particular state that is directed to the worldly object is explained through a higher-order mental state, which is thought-like in form and makes the first-order mental state conscious by representing it in an immediate and non-inferential manner. Without the presence of such an occurrent Higher-Order Thought (HOT), our first-order mental state is not conscious and there is nothing-it-is-like to undergo that particular mental state. This state has still the property of ‘mentality’ as having a particular qualitative object as its content and this is explained though a theory of mentality, distinct from a theory of consciousness. Dan Zahavi argues against such an approach by using notions from the phenomenological tradition such as ‘mineness’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘first-person perspective’, and ‘pre-reflective consciousness’. The essential idea is that there is always a form of pre-reflective consciousness present in our experience, for which a higher-order representation is not necessary and even destructive to understand that particular phenomenological consciousness, because representation changes the nature of conscious experience by objectifying and thus modifying it. This pre-reflective consciousness makes an experience ‘for-me’, through which I experience the world and of which I am always aware. Thus, this is at the same time a form of self-consciousness: there would not be any form of self-consciousness possible without the minimal, pre-reflective consciousness, and we don’t need to give a different account for self-consciousness by explaining it through meta-representation or reflexivity.

It is important for such a discussion that Longuenesse points to the relation between a Kantian ‘I’ in ‘I think’ as the condition of possibility for any experience and ‘pre-reflective cogito’ as the condition for Cartesian ‘cogito’. But the similarities are not limited to this: both in Sartre and Kant ‘I’ is not an object, the representation of which falls under the concept ‘I think’/cogito, but rather ‘I think’ is “the very expression of the act of thinking.” This emphasis is again important to consider the activity and the subject of activity together. Only by understanding this interrelatedness is it possible to discuss the subject of experience in a proper way, for which phenomenology has had important effect against theories distinguishing between subject and its experience (and which then try to understand how an experience belongs to a self and how the unity of self is constituted through distinct theories), and against views which treat ‘I’ as representation as the outcome of a developed ability of concept usage.

The second part of the book (Chapters 4, 5 and 6) deals with the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’ and with the question of whether we can infer anything about the nature of ‘I’. Kant accuses “Descartes and his rationalist followers for having been under the illusion that they could derive not only ‘I exist’, but also an answer to the question ‘What am I?’ from the mere consideration of the proposition ‘I think’” (74). Chapter 5 deals with the different reasons Descartes and Kant choose to infer from ‘thinking’ to ‘I think’ rather than ‘it thinks’. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with Kant`s refutations of rationalist arguments that `I’ is i) a substance , ii) simple, and iii) a person (with personal identity across time).

It is illuminating to see in Chapter 4 how far Descartes and Kant agree on the role of ‘I’, while they have different motivations to use ‘I think’ in their arguments. Longuenesse explains how Descartes deals with skeptical doubt and presents ‘I think’ as a foundational solution to it, while Kant responds to a Humean skepticism that is “primarily directed at the objective validity of the idea of causal connection.” According to Kant, for a representation to be possible or to be something to me, it should always be accompanied by the ‘I think’. Kant does not progress from there to “I think cannot be true unless ‘I’ is true”, nor does he infer the nature of ‘I’, but he rather moves to the claim that “all representations I ascribe to myself are so ascribed in virtue of being taken up in one and the same act of bonding and comparing them, an act that is determined according to some universal concepts of the understanding,” and the concept of causal connection is one of these with which Kant primarily deals. The author does a great job comparing the notion of thought and consciousness between these two philosophers in depth that is helpful towards any contemporary theory of consciousness, as lots of theories lack clear distinctions between different kinds of consciousness and how these relate to ‘thought’ and ‘I’.  Accordingly, Descartes’ notion of ‘thought’ is broader than Kant’s in terms of including any occurrent mental state, while Kant refers only to conceptual representations, particularly to judgments.

Longuenesse’s categorization of three kinds of consciousness in Kant is useful to compare him with Descartes and Sartre: 1) the mere consciousness of the act of thinking, 2) the indeterminate perception that I think, 3) the empirically determined consciousness of the sequence of one’s mental states. The first one is self-consciousness as consciousness of the pure act of thinking. We cannot represent it as an object and we cannot categorize it. We cannot infer anything about its essence, even if we cognize it as the subject and ground of thinking. This spontaneous consciousness is considered similar to Sartre’s ‘pre-reflective cogito’. The latter kind of consciousness is an empirical intuition, “a mere perception of an act of thinking I take to be mine.” It has ‘time’ as its form and ‘sensation’ as its matter that is constituted of affecting oneself with one’s own act of thinking. This propositional ‘I think’ is located in time in relation to other perceptions but it remains indeterminate in so far as it is not. The third one is a “consciousness of my own existence in time as a thinking being” and here ‘I think’ contains ‘I exist.’ Longuenesse compares this explicit reflection on the sequence of my thoughts with Sartre’s ‘reflective self-consciousness’. The first kind of consciousness provides an immediate consciousness of myself, while the third kind of consciousness plays an important role to refute Descartes’ idealism. Descartes establishes the epistemic certainty of ‘I think’ through the identity between ‘perceiving that one thinks’ and ‘thinking’, and then infers ‘I exist’ from ‘I think’. On the other hand, Kant does not need such a move by considering ‘I think’ as a Cartesian, simple inspection of mind, because his argument is that ‘I think’ just means ‘I exist thinking’. Kant secures our knowledge of ‘I think’ through ‘perceiving that I think’, but he characterizes that perception as an act of self-affection differently from Descartes. So Longuenesse argues that there are more similarities than supposed between Descartes and Kant, while she shows that Kant essentially differs from Descartes by arguing that the consciousness of my thinking that grounds the consciousness of my own existence does not show anything about the nature of ‘I’. From the premise that ‘I think’ includes ‘I exist’, it does not follow the conclusion that “I exist merely as a thinking being distinct from my body.” This entity only refers to the individual currently thinking the proposition in which ‘I’ is used.

Chapter 5 deals with Kant’s argumentation against the ‘Paralogism of Substantiality’ and ‘Paralogism of Simplicity’ – fallacious arguments used by the rationalists towards the nature of ‘I’, respectively, that it is a substance and that it is simple. For Kant, they make use of a middle term, which has a “different meaning in [the] major and minor premise[s].” This is the reason they make syllogistic inferences from the apparently same concept that has in fact two different meanings. Kant aims to analyze these different meanings to show how rationalist arguments are valid in appearance but in fact invalid.

According to Kant’s formulation, the rationalist arguments have a ‘major premise’, a ‘minor premise’ and a ‘conclusion’. In the Paralogism of Substantiality, rationalists refer from the major premise that a subject that cannot be thought of something other than a subject as it cannot be a predicate of something else, and the minor premise that ‘I’ as thinking can only be thought of as a subject and cannot be predicated of something else to the conclusion that ‘I’ as thinking is a substance. However, there is a difference between saying ”I can only think of myself under the concept of substance” and “I am a substance,” where Kant agrees with the former claim and rationalists infer the latter one. For Kant, the minor premise is wrongly constructed to lead to an invalid inference from major premise and minor premise to the conclusion: The “entity thought under the concept ‘I’ is represented as an absolute subject only in a logical sense.” While ‘subject’ in the major premise refers to an absolute subject, ‘subject’ in the minor premise refers to a ‘logical subject’ – the substantiality of the subject is only represented to the subject itself. Hence ‘subject’ (and thus substance) that is used as a middle term by rationalists is actually not a middle term at all. Similarly, in the Paralogism of Simplicity, from the major premise “that something whose action can never be regarded as the concurrence of many acting things, is simple”; and the minor premise that “‘I’, as thinking, am something whose action can never be regarded as the concurrence of many acting things”; the conclusion “So I, as thinking, am simple” is inferred. Again, the concept ‘I’ is only logically simple and the subject thought under the concept ‘I’ is necessarily thought to be simple because “its action is thought to be indivisibly one.” However, the simplicity of the subject of the action is represented only to that subject itself.

Longuenesse infers from these discussions a positive Kantian idea that has found its place in contemporary philosophy of mind in the distinction between the “first-person standpoint and third-person standpoint”. Accordingly, the entity that represents itself under ‘I’ necessarily represents itself as an existing thing (substance), as indivisibly present in all its thoughts (simple), but ‘this first-person standpoint’, however universally indispensable to the act of thinking, tells us nothing about the objective nature of the thing that thinks” (131). That Longuenesse considers this distinction as the positive Kantian idea is valuable when we consider the discussions in contemporary philosophy of mind, epistemology and science on the question whether one should apply a special first-person methodology for a research on consciousness, or whether one can give a scientific and/or reductive explanation of consciousness with a third-person methodology that is used by science and on other philosophical notions.

In Chapter 6, the focus is Kant’s argument against ‘Paralogism of Personality’ – the claim that ‘I’ is a person. For Kant, the rationalist argument has a similar structure, inferring from the major premise that someone conscious of the numerical identity of itself in different times is a person, and the minor premise that ‘I’ as thinking is conscious of the numerical identity of itself in different time, to the conclusion that ‘I’ am a person. Again, Kant accepts the major premise and he is in favor of an idea of person that is diachronically synchronous contrary to the Lockean idea of person whose memory is enough to establish psychological continuity. However, Kant rejects the idea that the consciousness of identity expressed by the use of ‘I’ in ‘I think’ is sufficient to infer that I am, as an existing entity, a person. Longuenesse sums up this issue nicely as follows:

So the paradox of ‘I’ is this: ‘I’, as used in ‘I think, refers to an existing thinking, known by the I-user (the thinker) to exist, in virtue of the fact that the I-user, in each instance of thinking knows herself to exist. ‘I’, as used in ‘I think’, is even the only purely intellectual concept that does give access to an existing thinking. But if, from the way we think of ourselves in using ‘I’ in ‘I’ think, we infer there is an object that we take to be, as a thinking thing, a substance, simple, and numerically identical through time, then we make a mistake: that object is a fiction. The error of the rationalist metaphysician (the error of Kant himself in his pre-critical incarnation) is to insist that on the basis of the thought ‘I’ think we have sufficient ground to assert that the fictitious object of that representation is transcendentally real: real in itself. The mere thought ‘I think’ in fact provides no such ground (164).

What is especially different in the discussion about personality is that Kant enriches the concept of personality by focusing on moral personality in addition to psychological personality. Moral personality is dependent on two components: i) “being an empirically determined, persisting entity, conscious of its own numerical identity through time, and ii) having the capacity to prescribe the moral to oneself, as the principle under which one’s maxims are determined.”  Without an understanding of moral personality, it is not possible to comprehend Kant’s criticism of Syllogism of Personality and also his full picture of ‘I’ in general. This notion also relates previous discussions in the book to Longuenesse’s important final claim in the last part (Chapters 7 and 8) that Freud can be considered in a sense a descendant of Kant, if we consider the parallels between Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ with Freud’s ‘ego’, and Kant’s ‘I ought to’ with ‘superego’.  Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I’ think, as the concept of ‘unity of apperception’, is an organization of mental processes governed by logical rules. This is a formal condition and Kant is known to assign this capacity “to an unknown and unknowable transcendental subject” (175). Kant’s methodology is clearly not empirical and the discussion is part of his transcendental philosophy, which constitutes a clear polarity to Freud’s empirical investigation and causal-developmental account of the capacity to think in the first person. Despite the differences, Longuenesse argues that we can see important similarities between them, and Freud can naturalize Kant’s transcendental subject.

The author considers the similarities under four points: Firstly, Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ (‘I’ as discursive thinking) has its counterpart in Freud’s ego. Kant’s ‘logical use of the understanding’ is similar to Freud’s ‘reality principle’. Ego functions in line with the ‘law of secondary processes’ according to this principle and it can conflict with ‘id’ and the ‘laws of primary processes’. “Intuitions are brought under concepts and then combined in judgments and inferences according to logical rules.” So, the differentiations Freud makes between ‘id’ and ‘Ego’; ‘laws of primary processes’ and ‘secondary processes’; ‘consciousness as an immediate quality of mental states’ and ‘consciousness as the property of mental states’ (whose content obeys the rules of the ego) can be compared to the distinctions Kant makes between different kinds of consciousness (as discussed in Chapter 5). The nature and function of ‘ego’ is parallel to the second notion of consciousness in Kant, “according to which I am conscious of a representation if it is taken up in the unity of consciousness that makes objective representation and thinking possible.” Secondly, there are parallels between Kant’s ‘synthesis of imagination’ and Freud’s perceptual images that are organized according to the rules of ego. Just as in Kant the discursive expression of the unity of consciousness in concepts and judgments presupposes a “prediscursive activity of combination or synthesis performed by the imagination,” in Freud perceptual images and representations of imagination are subject to the rule of the ego, and if they are pre-conscious, these images can become conscious only if they are associated with words. Thirdly, Kant and Freud have parallel views on the mental activities of which we are generally not conscious. For Kant, there is no thought without language and intuitions are blind if they are not subsumed under concepts. In Freud, “access to words is the way a representation enters the realm of reason and level-headedness.” Kant emphasizes that qualitative or intentional consciousness of the working of our imagination is blind (not conscious), while Freud also argues that “the complex operations that go on in our minds are mostly unconscious.” Fourthly, it is necessary for Kant that ‘I’ is represented as an object in the world. The transcendental unity of apperception gets information of the body via the sensory information carried by a bodily state. Freud also argues that “the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego” and thus the emphasis on embodiment of ‘I’ in Kant and ‘ego’ in Freud is again parallel.

Freud’s naturalization of ego makes use of ‘second nature’ as the developmental account he presents on the occurrence of ego happens in a social context. This structure that includes the social aspects of this developmental process is understood through his notion of ’super-ego’ (ego-ideal). This is in accordance with the notion of ‘I’ in Kant’s ‘I ought to’ and his account of ‘personality’ that includes a moral self (as dealt in Chapter 6). The argument on this similarity between Kant and Freud has the same structure:  just as we can give a causal-development account of Kant’s ‘I’ in ‘I think’ through Freud’s ‘Ego’, we can do the same of ‘I ought to’ through Freud’s ‘super-ego’, which “can be seen as providing a developmental story for the conflicted structure of mental life that grounds, according to Kant, the use of ‘I’ in the moral ‘I ought to’” (226). Freud considers Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ as the direct heir of ‘Oedipus complex’ – as an unconditional normative constraint on the ego. Freud explains the practice of reason-giving and justification as characteristic of a developed ego, and gives a causal history of the idea of categorical imperative through the development of ideas from eigtheenth-century rationalistic philosophy. More than that, just as Kant considers the manifestation of moral attitude primarily through a feeling of respect, there is also a moral feeling at work in Freud’s picture on “curbing libido and aggression,” which he calls the “supra-personal side of human nature” (221). Another point is that in both pictures we have blindness to one’s real motives. Even if this blindness is to be treated in different ways, there is one thing in common: Freud’s ‘unconscious’ and Kant’s ‘motivated blindness’ both refer to our lack of knowledge of our real motives for performing an action, even in cases when we believe we acted upon a universal maxim. Lastly, the relation between ego and body is comparable to the way Kant indexes transcendental unity of apperception to a particular body.

After showing the similarities and differences, Longuenesse ends up with the claim that Freud gives us a naturalized account of Kant’s picture of ‘I’:  firstly, in Freud we do not need to refer to an unknown and unknowable transcendental subject to explain ‘I’ in ‘I think’ and ‘I ought to’. Secondly, a developmental history is presented to our capacity to settle norms of cognition and practical agency. Thirdly, second nature is naturalized. The contents of our norms are constituted by the internalization of parental figures and (through language) by the social and symbolic tools, rather than by our relation to nature. All of these parallel points present us a path to understand a non-transcendental subject through relating bodily and transcendental self in an empirical way, while also doing justice to a Kantian, broad understanding of ‘I’ by including psychological and moral self under the study of self.

Longuenesse’s book does not only provide us with a deeper and enriched understanding of Kant’s understanding of ‘I’, but it is also packed with many insightful ideas about how we can relate different notions of various philosophers from different paradigms and disciplines. She fills in the gaps within the history of philosophy to get a better understanding of contrary positions both within a particular time-period and across time, and traces back many important distinctions and ideas in contemporary philosophy of mind to Kant. This is a special source for anyone working in Kant for sure, but other than that it will also be an invaluable source for philosophers of mind and language and epistemologists who work in any aspect of self and consciousness such as phenomenal consciousness, phenomenology of our experience, the nature of self, first-person perspective, unity of self, first-person usage of ‘I’, personal identity, agency and moral self, and ego. I believe it will lead to further analysis of Kant under the auspices of such contemporary discussions, and it will motivate further comparisons between Kant and other historical figures. Most importantly, her treatment of Kant through Freud’s ego and superego opens up a new dimension of discussion, and as her argumentation has a deep and solid structure, it is not easy for anyone working in philosophy of mind and ethics to stay unresponsive to this provocative and thought-provoking comparative analysis.

Kate Kirkpatrick: Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness, Oxford University Press, 2017

Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness Book Cover Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
Kate Kirkpatrick
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £65.00
288

Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, Luca Vanzago (Eds.): Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology, Routledge, 2017

Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology Book Cover Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, Luca Vanzago (Eds.)
Routledge
2017
Hardback £120.00
358

Andrea Staiti, Evan Clarke (Eds.): The Sources of Husserl’s ‘Ideas I’, De Gruyter, 2017

The Sources of Husserl’s 'Ideas I' Book Cover The Sources of Husserl’s 'Ideas I'
Andrea Staiti, Evan Clarke (Eds.)
De Gruyter
2017
Hardcover 109,95 €
450

Béatrice Longuenesse: I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again, Oxford University Press, 2017

I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again Book Cover I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again
Béatrice Longuenesse
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £30.00
288

Raoul Moati: Levinas and the Night of Being

Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity Book Cover Levinas and the Night of Being: A Guide to Totality and Infinity
Raoul Moati, Translated by Daniel Wyche, Foreword by Jocelyn Benoist
Fordham University Press
2016
Paperback $28.00
240

Reviewed by: Innocenzo Sergio Genovesi (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

From Deleuze to Derrida, from Badiou to Nancy and Marion, the concept of event (évènement) witnessed an important development in the last fifty years of French philosophy and it is present in the most influential authors’ thought. Today, this notion still plays a central role in several attempts to rethink ontology and phenomenology, such as Claude Romano’s evential hermeneutics (hermenéutique événementiale). Even if the ideas of these philosophers substantially differ from each other and cannot be simply grouped together, we can trace at least one common issue in the notion of possibility. Events – with capital E – are happenings inaugurating a new horizon of possibility. They can actualize unforeseeable potentialities or make the impossible possible. For this reason, Events are said to be extraordinary moments and it has been argued that they should be unpredictable (imprévisible) or even impossible (impossible) since they lie beyond the ordinary structure of possibilities in which normal ontological movements take place. It goes without saying that the foundation of the modal structure of Being in such Events attests several theoretical problems If such Events overstep the general structure of Being, how are they supposed to happen? And where should an Event take place and have a place if Being cannot harbor its excess?

Some years before the flourishing of French “event” philosophy, Emmanuel Levinas formulated the notion of nocturnal events (événements nocturnes) in the preface of his masterwork Totalité et Infini. Levinas’ purpose is not to develop a philosophy of events. Indeed, in the whole book the expression “nocturnal event” is no more used and the adjective “nocturnal” appears just a few more times. However, even this parsimonious use of the term is enough to give us an important suggestion. The ultimate events that allow the deployment of new possibilities and which our comprehension of the world is based on are maybe not to be thought as impossible (im-possible), neither as unpredictable (im-pré-visible). They could rather be just invisible (in-visible).

After his impressive book on Derrida and Searle, Raoul Moati keeps deepening his researches about contemporary French philosophy dedicating an entire essay to Levinas and his idea of nocturnal events. What these two works have in common is the great attention given to the concept of intentionality and its Husserlian origins in the phenomenological tradition. Levinas and the Night of Being offers a fine reconstruction of the path undertaken by Levinas in Totalité et Infini to trace the way from the sensible ego to the infinite Other. Moreover, Moati shows us to what extent Levinas takes distance from other phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre as well as what does he own to their ideas. This review will first address which are the ontological and phenomenological involvements of nocturnal events that Moati highlights in his book. We will then retrace the way to the infinite in the context of a nocturnal conception of Being. Finally, we will have an overview of this book and its English translation by Daniel Wyche.

The Night of Being.

What Levinas reproaches to ontology and phenomenology is not, as other philosophers would have it, to be a sort of metaphysics of presence. Moati shows that the main critique that Levinas addresses to ontology and phenomenology is to be in a certain sense a metaphysics of light: they are based on “structures of illumination” (65), such as intuition, intentionality or comprehension. Sight and touch tended to have absolute primacy in the philosophical tradition, where “to be” means thus to be visible and graspable (67). The immediate consequence of this “diurnal sense of being” (XVI), from which Totalité et Infini attempts to liberate ontology, is that there is no more room left for otherness and exteriority: being becomes a totalizing structure and the Other is reduced to the self. A drastic rethinking of ontology, as a nocturnal broadening, is therefore needed in order to establish a place for those events that cannot be understood as being part of Being as a totality. That is to say, the nocturnal events:

There must be an ontology that establishes a place for ultimate events of being. […] Such events will no longer draw their significance from a Hegelian totalization or even from phenomenological constitution (Husserl) or the comprehension of the sense of being (Heidegger). The horizon of their deployment consists in a relation to being that overflows the light of objective evidence and of which all of these cases constitute various avatars (11).

The representation of Being that Moati presents us with is thus not that of a light irradiating the sensible world anymore, nor would it be that of a unique and totalizing illuminated surface. There are actually more than one illuminated surfaces, and we are only able to perceive them because of the dark background that encloses and undergirds them. Being does not correspond to these bright spots, but rather to the infinite night surrounding them. This night can be lightened by our “structures of illumination” and this is what originates diurnal events. However, there will always be a dark part not being seen in which nocturnal events are taking place.

Nocturnal events are “the nocturnal dramas by which being exhaustively produces itself” and amount to “a more originary experience for consciousness than transcendental constitution” (15). Is it possible to find a concrete case of nocturnal events? Moati provides us several examples taken from Levinas’ philosophy to describe these “nocturnal dramas”, among them we find the erotic encounter, fecundity, sociality and messianic peace. All these are for Levinas elements that, on the one hand, ground our primordial openness toward the Other and his or her face and which, on the other hand, constitute the base of an ontology that renounces to contain Being within the unity and recognises rather its plurality, taking up the discontinuity of the same and the other (81).

Even though Levinas affirms the primacy of events that are more primordial than subjective comprehension and transcendental constitution, Moati decisively stresses that this gesture does not correspond to a denial of the fundamental role that subjectivity, sensibility and ego play on the path to infinity. Indeed, without the ego’s sensible rooting in Being, no experience of infinite otherness would be possible: “the metaphysical alterity of the Other requires the precondition of the position of the self, a here-below positioned in relation to an over-there” (30). We will now see how nocturnal events and the sensible ego lead us on the way to infinity.

The Terrestrial Condition.

While in the first and last chapters of Levinas and the Night of Being Moati outlines the idea of a nocturnal ontology and unfolds the ontological involvements of nocturnal events, in the central chapters he deploys Levinas theory of the sensible ego and follows the path to infinity he had already sketched in Totalité et Infini. The book structure self is in this way a good representation of the nocturnal conception of being, where nocturnal events are the dark frame of our illuminated terrestrial experience.

First of all, Moati recalls the Levinasian notions of jouissance and element (élément). As it is known, according to Levinas the pre-objective degree of sensation corresponds to what he calls il y a (there is), that is the undefined existence without the existent, the undifferentiated element in which the self is originally immersed, the starting point of any further experience: “the element is the content from which forms are carved out, but it is not, as such, itself delimited by anything” (52). The first break in the uniformity of the element coincides with the subject’s jouissance, representing “the concrete mark of separation” (41). Enjoyment is “the contact between sensibility and the formless quality of the element” (94). It corresponds to sensation and more precisely to the very moment when the instrumental schema of the sensible is rejected and the subject just perceives his or her distinction and independence from the elemental world. Before having the possibility to be part of an ethical encounter with the Other, the subject should first have an ontic consistency: “enjoyment thus reveals the fundamental priority of the ontic for ontology” (47). This idea of a detachment and a constitution of the subject from and through the element questions the phenomenological distinction between constituent and constituted. Indeed, if on the one hand the ego shapes objectivity starting from the undifferentiated element, it is itself in turn delimited by the element:

Enjoyment reveals the impossibility of reducing the constituted to the position of the intentional correlate of the constitutive acts of transcendental consciousness. Every constituted object reveals itself through enjoyment just as much as it occupies the position of the constituent, which is to say the sensible nourishment of the self (55).

Once subjectivity consolidated, the self is ready for the encounter with the Other. This encounter begins in two other well known topoi of the Levinasian production: the dwelling (demeure), that is “the starting-place of any finalized human activity” (91), and the labor (travail), that consists “in the transformation of elemental nature into a world of identifiable things” (94). In order to encounter the Other, that is to manifest himself or herself to the Other, the subject should first have some possession to share with the Other, something to communicate to him or her. Here lies the fundamental importance of labor. It allows us to substantialize the element and fix it between the dwelling’s walls. Through labor we make the world and its objects identifiable and we start having possessions. At this point, Moati highlights and develops another great Levinasian intuition that, as the idea of a nocturnal ontology does, anticipates and responds to several difficult theoretical issues emerging in later event philosophy, especially the ones related to the possibility of the given and to its ontological status. Labor and possession – says Moati – turn the category of being into the category of having and they do that through a neutralization of being:

The thing is also, therefore, nothing more than the element, because it coincides with an element whose ontological independence has been neutralized and, in other words, whose being has been anesthetized. Put differently, through labor and the possession that results from it, the being (l’être) of the element becomes the having (l’avoir) of the self. […] The element becomes something only through the suspension of its being. Here, the ontological frontiers of the element no longer exceed those of the self, which is to say that we are now dealing with being insofar as it is possessed by someone (the self) (95).

Furthermore, in the event of the encounter our possessions become gift for the Other (136), and this gift is the content of the fundamental relation of teaching, that is the constitutive relation that marks the Other as such. As someone being my master not because of his or her deeper knowledges, but because of his or her radical otherness (126). Our shared world, that is the object of our ontology, does not follow the logic of being anymore, but that of having and giving. We are here facing a movement from être to il y a, from sein to es gibt.

Nocturnal Events.

Our possessions, shared in the social contest, exceed thus the ontology of light and become constitutive of the nocturnal event of sociality, a feature that marks us as humans. As the last step of the reconstruction, Moati finally points out how such nocturnal events, way far from being transcendent moments indirectly concerning the terrestrial condition, are not to be thought separately from our sensible way of being and how it grounds all other diurnal activities. We will now cite two cases Moati presents us with: sociality and fecundity.

Sociality is the base of our relationship with the Other. Because ofit we always already possess the idea of the infinite (107), which otherwise would be paradoxical and unreachable, for it would be reducible to totality of the self. Through sociality, ultimate event of Being, it is possible to articulate a relationship between the two terms (me and the Other) and at the same time maintain their separation (112). It is remarkable that sociality is an event of Being itself, constitutively belonging to its nocturnal structure. Because of sociality, Being is not a totalized monolithic Eleatic Being but is rather open and plurivocal. Moreover, in reason of this fundamental sociality, subjects can live their ethical relationship with the others expressing themselves through their discourse and interlocutory presence. Discours and teaching are the way in which the Other reveals to us his or her transcendence and allows us to have a relation with the infinite without reducing it to ourselves. Moati stresses one more time that this kind of expression is not to be understood in the context of a structure of illumination: “The one who expresses himself or herself does not draw his or her intelligibility from the light ‘borrowed’ from intentionality and unveiling, from which the same emerges” (115).

If sociality allows a relation without totalising elements of a plurivocal being, fecundity makes possible the production and realization of the infinite becoming of being. Moreover, it also represents a valuable alternative to the Heideggerian Geworfenheit to describe our terrestrial condition and our rooting in the concrete temporal situation. Moati recalls the famous example of the father/son relationship and gives us an account of its ontological meaning:

For the self, to be is also, through fecundity, to be other. The father is his son, in the precise sense in which the father transcends the horizon of his own selfhood in the son. The selfhood of the son, in the form from which the self of the father emerges, no longer coincides with the selfhood of the departure, that of the father. In fecundity, the self is discontinuous, fragmented. This discontinuity is an ultimate event of being itself, insofar as it is social, which is to say, transcendent and plural (172).

Levinas and Phenomenology.

As we mentioned before, together with a detailed development of the concept of nocturnal events and a reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation with the infinite, Moati provides us with illuminating comparisons between Levinas and other prominent phenomenologists throughout this book . These comparisons aim at explaining to what extent he kept following the Husserlian and Heideggerian ideas and what kind of disagreements he had with his contemporaries.

It goes without saying that the greatest dissent with Husserl concerns the ideas of transcendental ego and intentionality. We already saw how Levinas gives up the primacy of intentionality as a mean of objective representation since it is reduced to a structure of illumination, and how the distinction between constituent and constituted is questioned. Besides it, Moati also stresses the fact that Levinas cannot accept Husserl’s notion of transcendental ego for at least two reasons. First of all, the ego is always already sensible and we cannot think of an ego beyond its sensible situation. Second, Levinas reproaches the subjective non determination of the concept of transcendental ego. Indeed, its generality “hinders the possibility of establishing a relation that departs from the concrete immanence, from which only the other may speak — which is to say, deploy its ethical infiniteness” (182). All these remarks could be summed up in the general critic that Husserlian phenomenology brings about a totalization of the other and reduces it to the self.

Concerning Heidegger, Moati highlights that in the eyes of Levinas his historical and temporal conception of Dasein and thrownness (Geworfenheit) surely represent a step forward compared to the Husserlian suprahistorical model of consciousness. However, it would be a mistake to describe the sensible installation of our sensible ego within the element in terms of thrownness. More specifically, the concept of thrownness is linked to a conception of our existence based on the notion of power, that Levinas instead wants to quit: thrownness reveals our limits only in regard to the power that we have over our being. On the contrary, for Levinas our primordial situation is a position that locates consciousness beyond any positive or negative reference to power (78) and corresponds to the nocturnal event of fecundity. While thrownness puts us in the tragic condition of being powerless faced with our historical sensible determination and subject to the given horizon of possibility that is opened up to us with our birth, fecundity frees our terrestrial condition from this tragic connotation. Indeed, fecundity is here situated in the context of an ontology that renounces every claim of totalization and, therefore, renounces the primary role of power in representing our relationship with the Other: “the primacy of sensible happiness over any condition of misfortune becomes intelligible only once the nocturnal event of fecundity is elucidated, which in turn opens up the sensible depth of our being-in-the-world. It is thus fecundity that exhausts the reference to power and allows us to grasp the depth of our foundation in being” (83).

Another important disagreement drawn by Moati concerns Sartre. It is true that for both Levinas and Sartre the Other cannot be the object of a phenomenological reduction because of his or her transcendence and the encounter with the other takes the form of a dispossession of the world. But in this disagreement, Sartre understands this dispossession as a kind of alienation from the world, while for Levinas it actually corresponds to the “real becoming an objective world” (135). Indeed, Levinas sees a world that is only possessed and not shared, a silent world without discourse, as a contradictory world that remains subjective and relative. Since sociality grounds our being in the world, sharing our possessions with the other becomes the realization of our humanity and does not imply for us any kind of loss. The world is always a common world.

The last comparison that Moati presents us with is the one with Derrida and focuses especially on Derrida’s essay Violence et métaphysique. First of all, Moati points out a misunderstanding concerning the concept of “transcendental violence” in Derrida’s reading of Totalité et Infini. This misunderstanding is caused by the different grasping of the concept of intentionality and egoity that the two authors have: while Derrida thinks about the ego in the ethical relation as a transcendental ego (even if, as we all know, he strongly criticizes the Husserlian idea of transcendental), Levinas is instead talking about a sensible ego. The critique Derrida addresses to Levinas on “transcendental violence” thus misses its addressee, since Levinas refuses to problematize the subject’s relation with the other in transcendental terms (181). Moreover, the most stimulating remark that is formulated by Moati in this comparison is for sure the one concerning their two different conceptions of eschatology, for this thematic directly relates to event philosophy. Roughly, the greatest difference between the two authors lies in the fact that Derrida thinks the infinite in eschatology as a negativity, an endless process of spacing produced by the infinite waiting for an Other that never comes. In other words, as an infinite différance. For Derrida history designates “the ever-unachieved work of transcendental constitution” and is to be understood as “opening up to a nonpresence at the heart of phenomenality” (186). On the other hand, eschatology “lies in history as the movement of overflowing the closure of finite sameness” (187). Quite the opposite, Levinas sees eschatology as a relation to positive infinity. The Other manifests his or her infinite transcendence to us in a positive way, without a negative withdrawing. For Levinas eschatology is not contained within history but rather suspends it, “not only in that the transcendent passage from finite totality to the positivity of the infinite happens through it, but also in that eschatology suspends any recourse to our constituent powers to deduce the event of the revelation of the infinite” (187).

I would like to underline this final remark. In his late works, starting with Psyché. Inventions de l’autre, Derrida explicitly mentions the event of the coming of the Other as a fundamental – even quasi-transcendental – element of our experience and the human condition. Nevertheless, for Derrida the Other never comes and should never come in order to keep open the empty space needed to welcome him or her. This is why the event is impossible for Derrida; its conditions of possibility are its condition of impossibility. Levinas’ nocturnal events, and above all the event of sociality allowing our relationship with the infinite transcendence of the Other, free us from the paradox of an impossible foundation of our experience and knowledge. Indeed, both in Derrida and Levinas, our theoretical openness is based on the previous ethical striving for the Other. But while the Levinasian ethics finds its foundation in the nocturnal event of sociality, Derrida always misses the fundamental encounter with the Other.

In the night of Being, the Derridean spectre of the impossible could be chased by invisible ghostbusters: the nocturnal events.

Conclusion.

Levinas and the Night of Being is an outstanding work of research in which Raoul Moati fully develops the ontological and phenomenological consequences of the notion of “nocturnal event” – on which very few was previously written – and properly contextualizes Levinas production in the phenomenological frame. Moati’s reading of Levinas thus provides us with new conceptual instruments to understand the key concept of ethics and otherness, theoretical core of Totalité et Infini. Inlight of his knowledge of phenomenology and French philosophy, Moati manages to explain with a remarkable clarity what is Levinas’ relation toward Husserlian phenomenology and how it is developed in contemporary philosophy, while also presenting critical readings of his work, such as the Derridean argument. Even though the chapters dedicated to the reconstruction of the sensible ego’s relation to infinity give us a general glimpse of Levinasian main concepts, I would not suggest reading this book to first approach Levinas’ philosophy because of its complex critique of ontology and phenomenology. I would rather warmly suggest this reading to anyone who is already familiar with Levinasian ideas in general and with Totalité et Infini in particular. Indeed, Moati’s book not only helps us understanding his work by giving us a rigorous phenomenological context but it also prevents us from misreading Levinas as an anti-metaphysical or anti-ontological author. On the contrary, Moati shows us that an ontology is definitively possible insofar as we accept to also consider its nocturnal component.

Last but not least, I would like to spend a few words about Daniel Wyche’s translation as conclusion. Translating such a book is for sure not an easy task. Beyond the difficulties caused by philosophical jargon and complex argumentative structures there are several expressions in French, untranslatable in English, that should be rendered with neologism or directly rewritten in French. The most complex paragraphs may therefore prove more difficult to understand in the English version. It is maybe for this reason that the author chose to completely rewrite several passages exclusively for the English version. Overall, Wyche’s realized an elegant translation and managed to render in English concepts that are so idiosyncratically French. However, I would suggest to francophone readers to check also the original version, at least the least clear passages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails Book Cover At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
Sarah Bakewell
Other Press
2016
Hardcover
439

Reviewed by: Anthony Clemons (Alma Mater Europaea/Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Nietzsche wrote that a philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher. However, a philosophy taken outside of the context of the philosopher’s life can make their ideas seem, at best, un-relatable and, at worst, inaccessible.

In her latest work At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell revisits the texts that defined her adolescence and adopts this premise, writing, “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so” (p. 326) This feeds into her interest of investigating the lives of the seminal philosophers who re-appropriated German phenomenology into a redefined brand of continental philosophy known as existentialism. In doing so, Bakewell assumes the role of cultural tour guide and frames an ever-vivid and occasionally nostalgic milieu of love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, lifelong partnerships, and the fallings-out of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Richard Wright, Edmund Husserl, Jean Genet and other larger-than-life thinkers who defined the thinking and culture of the post-World-War II generation.

In the book’s opening pages, Bakewell encapsulates the depth of her scholarship and biographical pluck by encapsulating the birth of existentialism into a singular point, “near the turn of 1932-3 when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails” (p. 1). These burgeoning philosophers included a 27-year-old Sartre, his 25-year-old girlfriend Beauvoir as well as Raymond Aron, an academic colleague of Sartre’s who was visiting during winter break from his philosophical studies in Berlin.

Suffering from intellectual atrophy in their own careers, Sartre and Beauvoir were interested in the intellectual discoveries Aron had unearthed in Berlin. Aron was only happy to oblige by describing a new brand of philosophy purported by Martin Husserl and refined by Aron’s mentor, Edmund Heidegger. Using vivid prose, Bakewell richly describes the Husserlian word phenomenology,

[Aron] was now telling his friends about a philosophy he had discovered there with the sinuous name of phenomenology—a word so long yet elegantly balanced that, in French as in English, it makes a line of iambic trimester all by itself (p. 2).

Though well-educated in their own right, neither Sartre or Beauvoir found Heidegger’s treatise on phenomenology to be linguistically accessible. However, on this day, in this café, Bakewell describes the moment Sartre and Beauvoir jumped into the phenomenological abyss, arguably spurring the most influential cultural movement of the 20th-century. Speaking directly to Sartre, Aron said, “You see mon petit camarade…if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p. 3).

Flying in the face of the analytic calculus in which they were formally trained, Beauvoir wrote that, “Sartre turned pale on hearing this” (p. 3). Similarly, Sartre would recall in an interview some 40 years later that moment “knocked me out”, because there was now a treatise for, “doing philosophy that reconnected it with [the] normal, lived experience” (p. 3). In fact, Bakewell’s rendering of just how much Aron piqued Sartre and Beauvoir’s curiosity gives her opening a flavor of France at that time; feverish, yet relaxed.

Ultimately, this new-fangled notion of phenomenology was the ingredient that both young philosophers needed to refine their own theories and a starting point for Bakewell to chronicle how their ideas fuse and infuse the European cultural scene.

Yet, a discussion of phenomenology and existentialism would be incomplete without considering the role of World-War II. Bakewell does this by recounting how even the celebrated minds of philosophy are sometimes thrust into the fray of reality. She illustrates her case with an account of Sartre being held as a German prisoner of war and his anti-climatic escape by making an ophthalmology appointment and leaving unattended, only to never return. Bakewell also parallel’s Sartre’s experience with the measures Beauvoir was taking to survive the rationing of food and other items in Nazi-controlled Paris.

Upon Sartre’s return to France, Bakewell sets the stage to evidence just how much reality can affect even the staunchest of pure practitioners, writing, “Beauvoir was briefly jubilant at seeing Sartre, then frankly pissed off by the way he began passing judgement on everything she had been doing to survive” (p. 143). Sartre’s confrontation with Beauvoir regarding her philosophical compromises would ultimately cause both philosophers to make an introspective inquiry as to how existentialism should now be defined, leading to Sartre’s seminal work Being and Nothingness (1943) and Beauvoir’s feminist treatise The Second Sex (1949).

Combined, these examples are the formative means that Bakewell uses to frame the case that phenomenology and existentialism are more than just a couple of philosophical theories. Rather, they are rather formative notions of the nature of living, suffused with the real experiences and personal sufferings of those who developed the ideas and lived their lives according to their dictates.

Early-on, Bakewell acknowledges the influence existentialism welded on her adolescent years and acknowledges the cherished the role it serves in her life today. She writes, “when reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Albert Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology and Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news” (pp. 28-29). This is why Sartre, Heidegger, and especially Beauvoir would likely approve of Bakewell’s approach to telling the story of existentialism. As a storyteller, she reconnects their lived experiences with their contribution to the development of existentialism as a philosophy. She also pervades her storytelling with the mark of her own interdisciplinary education and experiences.

Born in England and raised in Australia, Bakewell is a polymath and self-reformed academic. She read philosophy at the University of Essex and eventually took a postgraduate degree in Artificial Intelligence. Professionally, she has worked as a factory worker on a tea-bag assembly-line, bookshop attendant, library cataloguer, and is now an award-winning full-time author and professor of Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford, UK. These experiences have influenced Bakewell’s biographical style, giving rise to her willingness to ground the high-brow, biographical tone of her characters to their own story, while also intertwining her own lived experiences.

At the Existentialist Café offers a nostalgic and introspective look at the birth and development of pure existentialism through the eyes of the most notable philosophers of the movement and the author, whose experience with the philosophy provides grounded clarity. The book is also a refreshing glance at the mid-twentieth century ideas that led to the post-modern and deconstructionist philosophies that we continue to refine. Ms. Bakewell’s method of storytelling exudes a personal sense that is neither overreaching nor overtly critical. It is seemingly the result of a conversation between her, a historian, a philosopher, and a cultural critic, all draining Apricot cocktails along a bustling Parisian street, while reminiscing on an earlier period forgotten by most, remembered by some, but loved by all.