James Mensch: Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining

Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining Book Cover Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume: 17
James Mensch
Brill
2018
Hardback €157.00
X, 342

Reviewed by: Jakub Kowalewski

The scope of James Mensch’s new book is truly impressive. On the one hand, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining does not shy away from the rather unfashionable task of proposing a systemic account of human existence. In a manner reminiscent of some of the most exciting works in the history of philosophy, Selfhood and Appearing intervenes in an array of philosophical, political, and religious debates, which, in turn, allow it to propose a unified model of human reality: from subjectivity, through science and politics, to the divine. On the other hand, Mensch’s engagement with wide-ranging and diverse sources relies on insights afforded by one tradition of philosophy in particular – phenomenology. It is on the basis of his close reading of various phenomenologists (perhaps most importantly, Patočka and Merleau-Ponty), that Mensch is able to develop an interpretative key capable of unlocking hidden possibilities of diverse theoretical debates. In other words, the ‘macroscopic’ account of human existence proposed in Selfhood and Appearing presupposes a ‘microscopic’ argument grounded in phenomenological literature.

One of the undeniable achievements of Mensch’s book, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates the continuous importance of phenomenology, not only for questions which remain unsolved (or, at least, remain solved insufficiently) in other traditions and disciplines, but also for a more consistent understanding of our multifaceted existence – on Mensch’s reading, phenomenology is a force to be reckoned with.

In consequence, Selfhood and Appearing can be read in three ways (simultaneously): as a comprehensive analysis of the various levels of human reality; as an interpretative intervention in contemporary phenomenological studies; and, finally, as a love letter to phenomenology.

Selfhood and Appearing is divided into four parts: Part One examines the role of intertwining in subjective experiences; Part Two deals with intertwining and intersubjectivity; Part Three continues the analysis of the previous sections by exploring intertwining in the context of political violence; and Part Four focuses on intertwining and religion.

Since it is the notion of intertwining which allows Mensch to successfully navigate through diverse theoretical landscapes, in this review I will focus primarily on the role intertwining plays in the main argument of the book. As I hope to show, although extracted from the works of other philosophers, intertwining is a specifically ‘Menschean’ notion, which in Selfhood and Appearing is endowed with a double function: firstly, intertwining characterises human experience as a whole, and as such, it is the unifying thread which weaves together the various levels of human reality, which from a traditional perspective are in opposition to one another. Secondly, intertwining enables Mensch to re-interpret and bring together otherwise dispersed philosophical arguments, debates, and traditions; the concept of intertwining is formed on the basis of a phenomenological analysis, and because of that it can be found (for the most part implicitly) in any philosophy attentive to this fundamental structure of human experience.

I will conclude this review by alluding to a tension between two effects of intertwining. Throughout Selfhood and Appearing, intertwining reveals human existence to be chiefly harmonious: the traditionally opposing terms—for instance, self and other, self and the world, the world and divinity—are shown to be intertwined and thus essentially compatible with one another. Likewise, the history of philosophy appears to be interwoven and unified due to a shared attentiveness to the concept of intertwining. In short, the main effect of intertwining is a reconciliatory vision of existence and philosophy, in which antagonisms between divergent elements are dissolved in a more fundamental interlacing. However, occasionally, Mensch allows us to glimpse a different effect of his concept: some phenomena and philosophies are excluded from the reconciliatory work of intertwining. In such cases, a phenomenon or a philosophy is so radically antagonistic that it becomes separated from the otherwise all-encompassing intertwining. As a result, Selfhood and Appearing—in addition to demonstrating the possibility of a harmonious existence and theory—invites us to think the irreducibility of antagonisms in both experience and philosophy, and with it, to conceptualise notions like separation and exclusion opposed to, yet effected by Mensch’s intertwining.

The definition of the concept of intertwining finds its first expression in the Introduction. In the section devoted to Merleau-Ponty, Mensch discusses our natural belief that my perception of external objects is an internal process which takes place “in me,” and that I also count myself as one of the external objects, out there in the world. Our natural belief, therefore, is that ‘I am in the world and the world is in me’ – the “natural” person:

‘lives in a paradox, undisturbed by it. He thinks both that he grasps external objects and their apprehension is within him. The basic tenet of such belief is that our relation to world is that of a double being-in. We are inside that which is in us.’[1]

The paradigmatic example of intertwining, therefore, is our double position as perceivers of objects and—by virtue of our embodiment—as objects to be perceived. These two perspectives, according to Mensch, reveal something ‘more than the fact that our embodiment places us in the world, which we internalize through perception. At issue here is the appearing of the world.’[2] In other words, the fact that my perception of objects is “in me,” while I am “out there” with the objects, is not an inconsequential paradox, which philosophers may try to resolve in their free time. On the contrary, the intertwining between the “inside” and the “outside” found in our embodied perception, is a condition of possibility for any manifestation: I reveal myself and the world which I inhabit thanks to the “double being-in” of the world in me and of me in the world as embodied. Intertwining, therefore, has a transcendental function of making possible the appearing of subjects and objects.

Mensch extends his definition of intertwining in the next section devoted to Patočka. Intertwining, and the manifestation it makes possible, should not be understood as an essentially subjectivity category; nor can it be reduced simply to an objective structure:

‘Appearing as such, however, can be derived neither from consciousness nor the realities that appear to it. Considered in itself, it is a “world-structure”… Prior to subjects and objects, it informs both.’[3]

Whereas Merleau-Ponty enables Mensch to posit intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance, Patočka helps Mensch to argue that intertwining cannot be categorised as simply subjective or objective. Since intertwining makes possible disclosure as such, it is the structure which underlies the manifestation of both subjectivity and objectivity.

Importantly, Patočka contributes a further insight: intertwining is not a static function of appearance. Rather, ‘appearing… is to be understood in terms of motion.’

‘As Patočka expresses this, “movement… first makes this or that being apparent, causes it to manifest itself in its own original manner.” The moving entity does this through affecting what surrounds it… Without this ability through motion to affect what surrounds it, an entity cannot distinguish itself from its environment. But without this, it has no presence either to inanimate or anime beings. In living sentient creatures, this manifests itself as experience. It forms the subjective component of appearing. The objective component is simply the physical presence that the entity has through its action. It is, for example, the depression on the pillow left by an object pressing on it.’[4]

The engagement with Merleau-Ponty and Patočka in the Introduction provides the basic definition of intertwining: it is a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. In the remainder of the book, Mensch demonstrates the way in which intertwining is effective in various aspects of our existence. It is precisely here that the concept becomes ‘Menschean’: intertwining enables Mensch to offer a coherent re-interpretation of the writings of figures in the history of philosophy; these re-interpretations, in turn, allow him to propose a unified account of human existence in its various guises.

In the first part of the book, in addition to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and other phenomenologists, Mensch engages at length with Aristotle, who helps him to conceptualise space and time in terms of intertwining. The discussion of Aristotle is exemplary since it illustrates well the trajectory of Mensch’s argument as a whole. Selfhood and Appearing takes up notions theorised by other thinkers and reframes them by demonstrating their reliance on intertwining. Aristotle offers resources which enable Mensch to identify the effects of intertwining on the appearance of subjects and objects in space and time.

According to Mensch, the notion of space described by Aristotle, is a space produced by the motion of entities. The particular movement of a subject, for instance, determines its “first unmoved boundary” and with it, the space it occupies and in which it moves. Furthermore, as Mensch points out, these Aristotelian conclusions can be applied beyond a simple physical presence – space can be constituted by a practical motion of a teacher who teaches, or a builder who builds. Importantly, on Mensch’s reading, space depends on embodied entities which produce it by their motion. [5] Furthermore, since motion is a structural feature of intertwining, it is, in fact, the latter which, indirectly, gives rise to space.

Likewise time can no longer be thought of as independent from the movements of embodied entities, and thus from intertwining. The constant presence of the body to itself (e.g. my continuous embodiment) constitutes the now: ‘This present “corresponds” to the body by virtue of being part of the body’s continuous self-manifestation.’ The flow of time, by contrast, ‘corresponds to the body’s movement insofar as it manifests the body’s shifting relation to its environment.’ [6] Time, therefore, depends on the permanent yet moving body, producing a temporality responsive to the entity’s motion: the flow of time is effected by the body’s movement, whereas the persistence of the present (the fact that I am always in the now) results from the uninterrupted presence of the body to itself.

Both space and time, therefore, are the effects of embodied entities and their motions; as such, space and time presuppose intertwining as the structure which makes possible the appearance of embodied entities in motion.

A similar argument can be found in Part Two of Selfhood and Appearing. In this section of the book, Mensch re-examines Hannah Arendt’s discussion of public space, which, he says, ‘should be understood in terms of our embodied motion in the world… To think public space in terms of this embodiment is to understand how the intertwining of self and world shapes the public space we share.’[7] Interestingly, in his engagement with Arendt, Mensch makes more explicit the distinction between intertwining as a fundamental structure of appearance, and intertwining as an interpretative key useful for the re-reading of other philosophers. When Mensch takes up Arendt’s categories of labour, work, and action, in order to demonstrate their intertwining, he uses the latter primarily as a concept enabling him to bring together the otherwise separate aspects of human activity theorised by Arendt. Here, intertwining designates a conceptual structure in which category A manifests within itself external categories B and C, while itself remaining one of the external categories. ‘To claim in this context that labor, work, and action are intertwined is to claim that they achieve their presence through embodying one another. Doing so, they serve as a place of disclosure for each other’.

Naturally, the demonstration of the intertwining of different aspects of human activity – that is to say, intertwining as a theoretical tool – presupposes the intertwining of embodied entities in motion (i.e., the intertwining as the transcendental structure of appearance). The intertwined manifestation of labour, work, and action, ‘occurs in conjunction with our disclosure of the world… The public space we share is, in fact, the result of both forms of disclosure.’[8]

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between intertwining as a conceptual tool and intertwining as the condition of experience – whereas the former is derived from the latter, the two notions are endowed with different functions. Intertwining as a transcendental structure allows for the manifestation of entities; intertwining as an interpretative key enables Mensch to re-read the writings of other philosophers.

This distinction between the two functions of intertwining was already operative in Mensch’s interpretation of Aristotle, however, it becomes more explicit when Mensch first presents Arendt’s categories as intertwined, and only then links them with intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance. Of course, Mensch could not re-interpret Arendt without identifying intertwining as a fundamental structure of experience; however, the fact that he is then able to free intertwining from its original context in order to apply it to the discussion of other philosophers, makes intertwining an effective (and genuinely interesting) theoretical notion.

The efficacy of the concept of intertwining is explored further in Part Four of the book. There, intertwining is used to examine questions related to religious life, and, specifically, to unravel a paradox which, according to Mensch, lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions:

‘Thus, on the one hand, we have the binding insistence on justice, on the punishment of the offender, on the payment of the transgressor’s debts to God and society. On the other hand, we have an equally insistent emphasis on the unbinding of mercy, on the forgiveness of all debts. How can these two perspectives be combined? How are we to grasp this binding that is also an unbinding?’[9]

The problem which motivates Part Four echoes the paradox of our natural belief in Part One (that the world is both “in us” and we are “out there in the world”) with which Mensch introduces intertwining as transcendental structure of appearance. However, the respective questions of Part One and Part Four remain distinct – what interests Mensch towards the end of this book is not, for the most part, the intertwining between embodied perceiver and the world; rather, his focus turns to a theoretical problem inherent in the biblical concept of religion, which can be solved by means of intertwining.

Importantly, intertwining as the solution to the paradox of religion is only analogous to the intertwining found at the bottom of appearance: ‘For Merleau-Ponty, the intertwining concerns our relation to the world… The religious analogue of this intertwining places God and the world inside each other.’[10] In other words, in part four intertwining becomes a device used to solve theoretical problems, with only an analogical relationship to the intertwining of experience of oneself in the world.

Of course, this is not say that the two notions of intertwining—as a theoretical tool and as a foundational experience—are separate. On the contrary, the latter continues to inform the former. However, the fact that, despite the change of conceptuality (from phenomenological terms to religious vocabulary), intertwining remains effective, attests to the theoretical efficacy of intertwining outside of a strictly phenomenological analysis of experience. This flexibility of the concept of intertwining enables Mensch to solve the “religious paradox” of part four in a manner reminiscent of the book’s previous arguments – that is to say, by arguing for the religious structure of intertwining: ‘…in the Mosaic tradition, religious selfhood is constituted through intertwining of binding and unbinding. This selfhood is such that the binding and unbinding provide for each other a place of disclosure.’[11]

I have attempted to decouple the two functions of intertwining (as a theoretical tool and as a fundamental structure of appearing) because it strikes me that they are able to generate distinct effects, which are in tension with one another.

This tension is most apparent in Part Three, where Mensch discusses the relationship between violence and politics. There, Mensch engages with the thoughts of Schmitt and Heidegger. Mensch does not attempt to hide his intentions – in contrast to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka, Aristotle, and even Arendt, all of whom contributed something positive to the argument of Selfhood and Appearing, the two Nazi-sympathisers are shown to be wrong, and only wrong (and rightly so, I should add).

From a perspective of the history of phenomenology, one of the ingenious aspects of Mensch’s reading of Heidegger is that he finds him “in” Schmitt. As a result he is able to disclose the Heideggerian basis of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, which invalidates Schmitt and Heidegger as appropriated by Schmitt. This way, Mensch is able to please both the anti-Heideggerian readers (who will be satisfied with the demonstration of the explicit relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt), and the pro-Heideggerian readers (who will point out that the relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt is possible on the basis of partial convergence of their respective thoughts). Take, for instance, these two passages, which follow one another in the text:

‘… we can say that Schmitt’s use of the “extreme situation” to define our collective identity is based on a specific notion of human existence, one that he shares with Heidegger… Given the essential lack of content of our existence, seriousness means taking responsibility or the decisions that shape it and, hence, affirming our identity through such responsibility. For Heidegger and Schmitt, what forces us to do this is the enemy that confronts us. For both, then seriousness involves a readiness for conflict, a need to seek out the enemy.’

‘Heidegger takes our confrontation with death as primarily individual. For Schmitt, by contrast, both death and the enemy that threatens it are thought in terms of the collective.[12]

Mensch then skillfully demonstrates how Schmitt’s understanding of the collective (that is to say, the point at which he differs from Heidegger) helps the jurist to elaborate his concept of sovereignty – thus creating a distance between Heideggerian ontology and Schmitt’s theory of the sovereign.

Almost immediately afterwards, Mensch returns to the similarities between Schmitt and Heidegger – the decision of Schmitt’s sovereign is ungrounded, and the ‘nothingness that is its source is, in fact, the political equivalent of the nothingness of death.’[13] Nevertheless, despite the equivalence of their concepts, the reader is reminded that is Schmitt who contributes the more explicitly problematic dimension to the discussion of decisionism.

The most interesting aspect of the discussion of Heidegger and Schmitt, in my opinion, is their uneasy position in relation to the concept of intertwining.

Schmitt’s (Heidegger-inspired) sovereign escapes the intertwining which constitutes legitimate politics, and in which the subject is free to act in the world while being limited by its norms and values. The sovereign does act in the world, however, he or she is not constrained by the world’s values.[14] The sovereign constitutes a “liminal” figure: ‘this liminality signifies that the sovereign has complete authority with regard to the legal system, being himself unconstrained by it.’[15]

Interestingly, the concept of liminality (embodied by the figure of the sovereign) is used by Mensch to identify phenomena which sit uncomfortably on the border of intertwining and its beyond. These phenomena are dangerous, because they act in the world from the position external to the world’s norms. This is why liminality should be eliminated by ‘the inclusion of the [liminal] agents into the world in which they act. It can only come through the reestablishment of the intertwining that joins the self and its Others in a world of shared senses.’[16]

Intertwining, therefore, functions as a way to reintegrate liminal figures – such as the sovereign – back into the shared world of values and norms, and thus to eliminate the threat of senseless violence which liminality makes possible.

However, despite the call for the inclusion of liminal figures, the works of Schmitt (and to a lesser extent, Heidegger) are excluded from Mensch’s theoretical enterprise. After finishing Part Three of Selfhood and Appearing, the reader has no doubt that there is no place for Schmitt (and Schmitt’s Heidegger) amongst the thinkers of intertwining. This is a result which speaks favourably about Mensch’s project as a whole – we can safely assume that Mensch does not want to have Nazi-sympathisers on his side. However, this exclusion of Schmitt seems to be at odds with the inclusive work of intertwining attested to by Mensch in his demand for the reintegration of liminal figures.

My hypothesis is that the tension between, on the one hand, the exclusion of Schmitt, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of liminal figures, can be explained by the distinction between the two types of intertwining identified above.

As a transcendental condition of manifestation, intertwining aims to reconcile oppositional terms (e.g. subjectivity and objectivity, or the world and divnity). As a theoretical tool, however, intertwining can be used to separate and exclude philosophies which are irreconcilable with the ultimately harmonising and inclusive project of Selfhood and Appearing.

This suggests, in turn, that at least on the theoretical level antagonism is irreducible: philosophy attentive to intertwining cannot be reconciled with philosophies which pay no attention to this fundamental structure.

It remains an open question, however, if a similar antagonism can be located on the level of experience: is there anything which intertwining as a transcendental condition of manifestation is incompatible with?

Mensch’s discussion of liminality hints on such a possibility. The liminal figure is both within the structure of intertwining, and external to it. Furthermore, as the possibility of sovereign violence demonstrates, this sphere external to intertwining is an effective and dangerous dimension, with real consequences for the intertwined existence. Thus, ultimately, we might find an irreducible antagonism also in experience – the external dimension attested to by liminal figures is fundamentally opposed to the harmonising structure of intertwining and the manifestation it produces.

If we were to continue our hypothetical musings, we can ask: how is this dangerous dimension external to intertwining constituted?

Perhaps it is produced by intertwining itself, which separates and excludes elements which cannot be integrated in its structure. Intertwining is defined as a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. Does this definition not imply the separation and exclusion of elements which are static, purely subjective or purely objective, and as such invisible from the perspective of intertwining? Would these non-integrated elements, in turn, constitute the hostile dimension external to intertwining, threatening the harmonising work of its “enemy”?

In addition to all its other achievements, the fact that Selfhood and Appearing invites us to pose such questions, and to consider the irreducible antagonism between intertwining and the dimension external to it, shows clearly that Mensch’s new book truly has an impressive scope.


[1] J. Mensch, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill 2018, p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 16

[3] Ibid., p.19

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[6] Ibid., p. 89

[7] Ibid., p. 168

[8] Ibid., p. 171

[9] Ibid., p, 283

[10] Ibid., p. 288

[11] Ibid., p. 288

[12] Ibid., p. 265

[13] Ibid., p. 268

[14] Ibid., p. 253

[15] Ibid., p. 250

[16] Ibid., p. 254