Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Hardback $120.00
200

Reviewed by: Walter D Hopp (Boston University)

“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil—such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).

DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).

At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.

But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.

Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).

For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.

That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).

Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.

From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).

This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.

Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.

Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).

But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).

I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).

All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate[] those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.

Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.

Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).

For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:

A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).

And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.

It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.

More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.

How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.

But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.

We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).

Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.

This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.

This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?

DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:

…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?

Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.

That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.

Works Cited

Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.

DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.

Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.

Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Sebastian Luft: Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 2021

Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology Book Cover Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology
Sebastian Luft
Northwestern University Press
2021
Cloth Text $89.95
464

Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Hardback $120.00 £80.00
199

Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Book Cover The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
256

Reviewed by: Françoise Monnoyeur (Centre Jean Pepin, CNRS, Paris)

The Mathematical Imagination focuses on the role of mathematics and digital technologies in critical theory of culture. This book belongs to the history of ideas rather than to that of mathematics proper since it treats it on a metaphorical level to express phenomena of silence or discontinuity. In order to bring more readability and clarity to the non-specialist readers, I firstly present the essential concepts, background, and objectives of his book.

The methodology of this book is constructed on the discussion of concepts and theoretical perspectives such as Critical Theory, Negative Mathematics, Infinitesimal Calculus, expression and signification of silence and contradictions in language. Borrowed from the mathematics or from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, each of these concepts becomes refined, revisited and transposed by Handelman in order to become operative outside of their usual context or philosophical domain. The term Critical Theory was developed by several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory as it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating tool, and works to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings (Horkheimer 1972). Handelman revisits what he calls a “negative mathematics”: a type of mathematical reasoning that deals productively with phenomena that cannot be fully represented by language and history, illuminating a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities.

In The Mathematical Imagination, negative mathematics encapsulates infinitesimal calculation, logic and projective geometry as developed by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). These three German-Jewish intellectuals were connected to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School but distinct because they found ways to use math in their cultural theory. The negative mathematics found in the theories of Scholem, Kracauer or Rosenzweig (inspired by their famous predecessors Salomon Maimon (1753-1800), Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)), are not synonymous with the concept of negative numbers or the negative connotation of math that we see in the works of the other members of the Frankfurt School.

Handelman’s objective is to present his book on the path of Scholem, Kracauer and Rosenzweig using math and digital technology as a powerful line of intervention in culture and aesthetics. The Mathematical Imagination investigates mostly the position of these three German Jewish writers of the XX century concerning the relationship between mathematics, language, history, redemption, and culture in the XX century and extending his analysis to digital humanities. Mathematics is convened metaphorically in their theory of culture as pathways to realizing the enlightenment promises of inclusion and emancipation. The silence of mathematical reasoning is not represented by language but by the negative approach that is to say absence, lack, privation, discontinuity or division like in the conception of the infinite. One example of this productive negativity is to look at how mathematics develops concepts and symbols to address ideas that human cognition and language cannot properly grasp or represent, and surfs metaphorically with the concept of the infinite (Monnoyeur 2011, 2013). The infinite calculation is a generative spark for theorizing the influence of math in culture as differentials represent a medium between experience and thought. For Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer, these mathematical approaches provide new paths for theorizing culture and art anew, where traditional modes of philosophical and theological thought do not apply to modern life or situation of exile.

In The Mathematical Imagination, Matthew Handelman wants to give legitimacy  to the undeveloped potential of mathematics and digital technology to negotiate social and cultural crises. Going back to the Jewish thinkers of the Weimar Republic, namely Scholem, Rosenzweig and Kraucauer, he shows how they found in mathematical approaches strategies to capture the marginalized experiences and perspectives of German Jews in Germany or exile at the beginning of the XX century. In doing so, he re-examines the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically those philosophers who perceived in the mathematization of reason a progression into a dangerous positivism and an explanation for the barbarism of World War II. Handelman re-evaluates Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conception of mathematics, according to which math should not be treated as a universal science able to solve any problem because it is not able to rule the human world of culture, art and philosophy. For them, as for Adam Kirsch, who wrote in 2014 the article “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” (published in New Republic), both mathematical and computational mechanization of thought exclude the synthetic moment of the intellect and cannot produce new or meaningful results.

The first chapter, titled “The Trouble with Logical Positivism: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and the Origins of Critical Theory,” recounts the debate that took place between the members of the Frankfurt School — Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)—, and members of the Vienna Circle, such as Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Mathematics, according to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, is in apparent opposition to language, since there is a dialectical tension between two forms of thought, one expressed in mathematics that circumvents representation and the other mediated by language and representation. Adorno gave, through the tension between mathematics and other forms of knowledge, the political dimension that we find in his works and his confrontation with the Vienna Circle. For Adorno, the attempt in mathematics to abandon meaning, the ability to signify something else, constitutes the philosophical flaw of the logical positivists’ proposal to reduce thought to mathematics.

The second chapter, titled “The Philosophy of Mathematics: Privation and Representation in Gershom Scholem’s Negative Aesthetics,” revisits the relation between language and mathematics in the context of Kabbalist culture. In his writings on the language of lamentation, “On Lament and Lamentation,” Scholem explores the dilemma of saying the ineffable and the oscillations between spoken and unspoken language, in order to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in language (Scholem, 2014). At the heart of these paradoxes lies the deep dialectic between openness and secret, concealment and revelation. He underlines a common privative structure of communication in mathematics and laments that it negatively communicates language’s own limits, but it also reveals an aesthetic strategy. For Scholem, the philosophy of math deals with the problem of language by omitting its representation, and its inexpressibility represents the privation of life in exile with the possibility to recover a productive vision of mathematics. Math is done to speak purity, privation, a language without representation, and it deals with the shortcomings of language. According to Gershom Scholem, this fruitful approach lies beyond language within the sphere defined by the signs of mathematical logic. Scholem understands math, history, and tradition metaphorically, as characterized by silences and erasures that pave the way for the acknowledgment of historical experiences and cultural practices which rationalist discourses, majority cultures, and national, world-historical narratives may marginalize, forget, or deny.

The third chapter analyses the relation between infinitesimal calculus and subjectivity/motion in Franz Rosenzweig’s Messianism. Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal and, for him, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. He understands knowledge not as what is absolutely proven, but rather what individuals and groups have verified through their experience. For Rosenzweig, verification did not mean that ideas substantiated in experience automatically counted as knowledge; neither does it imply that theoretical statements become meaningful when verified by experience, as Carnap later argued. He analyzes thus how concepts such as subjectivity, time, and redemption are central to critical theory and avoided by the official languages of philosophy and theology. Rosenzweig’s thought is an example of how cultural criticism can borrow from mathematics to illuminate its concepts without mathematizing culture. For instance, the way infinitesimal calculus linked nothingness with finitude represented a tool that could be used to reorient epistemology around the individual subject. For him, mathematics possesses the ability to resolve a fundamental problem for both theology and philosophy, which is the creation of something from nothing. Calculus is motion over rest, reveals multiplicities of subjectivity and representation, and shows how the theoretical work done by mathematics offers epistemological tools useful for cultural criticism. These tools could help theorists to think through concepts that remain obscure in aesthetics and cultural theory, as fractal geometry illuminates the theory of the novelty. Mathematics helps us to construct more capacious versions of these concepts as well, and conceptual tools exist that allow us to intervene more immediately in a project of emancipation, in the service of theories of culture and art, and where they are at work.

Chapter fourth presents geometrical projection and space in Siegfried Kracauer’s Aesthetics. In The Mass Ornament, written in 1921 but published in 1960, Siegfried Kracauer reads the ephemeral unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday city life as an ornament.  His attention to the quotidian leads him to decipher in urban life a hidden subtext referring to biblical figures that comfort his experience of intellectual exile. Improvisation constitutes a key category in Kracauer’s critical engagement with metropolitan experience and modern culture; improvisation, with its invocation and representation, lies at the confluence of Kracauer’s preoccupation, the contemporary cityscape. In this book, he decodes the surface meanings of the new city phenomena in their shallowness, personal and political significance. These collected essays dream wild about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful in cities and gather a diverse range of observations such as boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology, theology and Biblical translation. The Mass Ornament offers an opportunity to reflect historically on culture and connects the theoretical or philosophical discourse to the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian life in the city. As a report from the past, this book invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition. Kracauer, in relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena, includes fascinating portions of history and situates man’s relation to society and time. By rearranging the language and textual space as a projection of rationalization, Kracauer explores the point of transference where geometric projection and the metaphors of space become a natural geometry in cultural critique. For Kracauer, geometry is a bridge across void because the mathematical study of space bridges the void between material reality and pure reason. The logic of mathematics informed his readings of mass culture, which sought to advance, rather than oppose, the project of the Enlightenment. For him, geometry enabled a literary approach to cultural critique in which the work of the critique helped to confront the contradictions of modernity and, through such confrontation, potentially resolve them. In The Mass Ornament, geometric projection turned into a political mode of cultural critique, projection, and the metaphors of space became aesthetically operative in the exploration of the rationalized spaces of the modern city.

In his final historical book, titled The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Kracauer presents mathematics as a web of relationships between elements abstracted from nature (Kracauer, 1969). The surfaces Kracauer describes are not an objective reality in the sense of the natural sciences describe them; surfaces exhibit innate breaking points built into by the phenomenology of his approach of a reality stripped of meaning. For Kracauer, the study of history had to mediate between the contingency of its subject matter and the logic of the natural sciences. Nonetheless, this type of cultural critique, enabled by negative mathematics, must resonate with those of us who live in a world of new media, one ever more mediated and controlled by computers and other digital technologies. Kracauer assessed popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to new technology and communications, and articulated a still valid critique of popular culture.

In his last chapter, titled: “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics? Critical Theory in the Digital Age,” Handelman concludes that digital technology with textual analysis is engaged in social emancipation and can give an answer to the crisis in the humanities. In his analysis of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegfried Kracauer’s project, he develops the concept of Negative Mathematics in the tradition of Maimon, Mendelson, and Cohen to show how certain mathematical features and concepts can express the unexpressed part of language. In this endeavor, he focuses on infinitesimal calculation and reveals how culture, emancipation and social life can benefit from mathematics. That is to say, the seemingly tautological repetition of mathematics or digital technologies can act as a cultural aesthetics and interpretative medium. Handelman considers that mathematics and digital technology are by nature able to be a tool of liberation and emancipation if a good use is made of them. According to Handelman, if critical theory accepts the way Horkheimer and Adorno associate mathematics with instrumental reason and politics of domination, it risks giving up the critical potential of mathematics and any other interpretive tool such as technology or computer science.

Handelman poses the question: what happens if we allow mathematics to speak with analogy and image, to work with the integral of tradition, the continuity and derivative of truth? What if we applied mathematics more directly to cultural criticism? What possibilities, if not also, dangers, arise in using mathematics as an instrument of cultural thought?

Conclusion

Handelman’s choice to focus on Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer’s approach to mathematics in order to reveal pathways through the apparent philosophical impasse and an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment promise of inclusion and emancipation is exhilarating. His endeavor to build on the thought of these three lesser-known German-Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period can help move today’s debates that pit the humanities against the sciences. By locating in mathematics a style of reasoning that deals productively with something that cannot be wholly represented by language and history, The Mathematical Imagination illuminates a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities. Furthermore, this volume explores mathematics as more than just a tool of calculation but one that is a metaphorically powerful mode for aesthetics and cultural analysis. Handelman reintroduces critical theory in the benefice of mathematics as access to culture and expression of the inexpressible. In other words, Handelman revitalizes a forgotten field of research at the intersection of language, math, history, and redemption, so as to capture the irrepresentable presence and interpretation of the complementarity of silence, and the language to express what was forgotten by the official language and culture. He also questions Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School as unremitting opponents to mathematics. Instead, negative mathematics offers a complement to the type of productive negativity that Adorno, in particular, had located originally in the Hegelian dialectic. Negative mathematics reveals prospects for aesthetics and cultural theory neither as a result of being opposed to language, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested, nor because it uses the trajectory of history or the limit of tradition. Instead, negative mathematics constitutes its own epistemological realm alongside history and mysticism, illuminating, based on its problematic relationship to language, in the dark corners and hidden pathways of representation. In this sense, it is positive because it deals successfully with what cannot appear in normal use of language or disappears behind official discourse. To this point, Handelman maybe meets the critical and social purpose of the Frankfurt School and fulfills his ambition to produce a theory both critical and mathematical, and even digital.  If we take the Frankfurt School main critique regarding mathematics, according to which mathematical and computational mechanization of thought excludes the synthetic moment of the intellect and thus cannot produce new or meaningful results, we have to question then if Handelman’s negative mathematics can actually produce new and meaningful results? Handelman’s negative mathematics does not propose a general way to social critique as a block but rather opens space for the expression of what is suppressed, forgotten, hidden or impossible to realize because of official culture. Silences, disruption, movement, fashion, improvisation, news and materiality occupy the world of culture and are brought to existence by adapted mathematical processes. In this sense, the special treatment of mathematics does not repress the synthetic moment of the intellect but gives a voice to what could not exist before. Common, traditional, usual and politically dominant ideologies cannot resist or foresee this new critical mathematical cultural theory. Of course, this perspective is limited and is not enough to prepare a general critique of society as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School pursued it but improves significantly cultural and critical analysis.

Matthew Handelman noticed that many humanists nowadays have turned to mathematics and digital technologies and tries to forge new paths for modernizing and reinvigorating humanistic inquiry. The Mathematical Imagination presents mathematics and digital technologies as providing a key to unlock the critical possibilities hidden in language to give a voice to silenced communities. Handelman’s book improves cultural and critical analysis, and results into a new and thought-provoking Critical Theory bridging humanities and digital/mathematical technologies. His methodology and ideology are deliberately provocative, and he intends to develop a post-academic approach to fix the weaknesses of traditional and official discourse. His endeavor is also fruitful from the perspective of the history of the science as it shows the relation between various mathematical processes, such as the infinitesimal calculation and everyday phenomena that remain unexplored.

References

Horkheimer, M. 1972. Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.

Kirsch, A. 2014. “Technology Is Taking Over English: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” New Republic, May 2, Article 117428.

Kracauer, S. 1969. History: The Last Things Before the Last. New York: Oxford Univ Press.

Monnoyeur, F. 2011. Infini des philosophes, infini des astronomes. Paris: Belin.

Monnoyeur, F. 2013. “Nicholas of Cusa’s methodology of the Infinite.” Proc. Conference on History & Philosophy of Infinity, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1595.0881

Scholem, G. 2014. “On Lament and Lamentation.” In Ferber I. & Schwebel P. (Eds.), Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives, 313-320. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Ulrich Dopatka: Phänomenologie der absoluten Subjektivität. Eine Untersuchung zur präreflexiven Bewusstseinsstruktur im Ausgang von Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry und Jean-Luc Marion, Fink, 2019

Phänomenologie der absoluten Subjektivität. Eine Untersuchung zur präreflexiven Bewusstseinsstruktur im Ausgang von Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry und Jean-Luc Marion Book Cover Phänomenologie der absoluten Subjektivität. Eine Untersuchung zur präreflexiven Bewusstseinsstruktur im Ausgang von Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Henry und Jean-Luc Marion
Phänomenologische Untersuchungen, Volume 36
Ulrich Dopatka
Wilhelm Fink
2019
Hardback €176,64
435

Kevin Aho: Contexts of Suffering: A Heideggerian Approach to Psychopathology, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019

Contexts of Suffering: A Heideggerian Approach to Psychopathology Book Cover Contexts of Suffering: A Heideggerian Approach to Psychopathology
New Heidegger Research
Kevin Aho
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Hardback £90.00
164

Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory, Fordham University Press, 2019

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Book Cover The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
256

Michel Henry: Marx: An Introduction, Bloomsbury, 2019

Marx: An Introduction Book Cover Marx: An Introduction
Michel Henry. Preface: Frédéric Seyler. Translator: Kristien Justaert
Bloomsbury
2019
Paperback £11.69
136

Rudolf Bernet: Force, Drive, Desire: A Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, Northwestern University Press, 2019

Force, Drive, Desire: A Philosophy of Psychoanalysis Book Cover Force, Drive, Desire: A Philosophy of Psychoanalysis
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Rudolf Bernet. Sarah Allen (Translator)
Northwestern University Press
2019
Paper Text $39.95

Stefan Kristensen: La Machine sensible

La Machine sensible Book Cover La Machine sensible
Tuchè
Stefan Kristensen
Hermann
2017
Paperback 28,00 €
318

Reviewed by: Louis Schreel (Ghent University, Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences)

  1. Introduction

In his new book, La Machine sensible, Stefan Kristensen conceives the human mind as a sensible machine: a machine that seeks to stabilize incoming fluxes of sensory stimulation, before being rationally reflected. This opens up a thought-provoking discussion with contemporary phenomenological conceptions of the minimal self, which reappears as a technical invention, an artifact produced by the sensible machinery that works beyond our conscious grasp and reflective understanding. Like the technical object, the minimal self is for Kristensen an artifact produced to stabilize the relation between man and his environment. But in La Machine sensible technical invention does not amount to the application of a given system of knowledge. Machinic invention has its roots in the irrational and becomes rational ordering only after having fulfilled its primordial function: the organization of matter by life.

For the sake of brevity, this review will focus strictly on the theoretical issues that animate La Machine sensible. The true strength and originality of Kristensen’s book lies in combining a rich conceptual framework with detailed commentaries of empirical work both in psychopathology and in twentieth century art. Of the three parts that make up the book, I will discuss only the first (“The Self and the Machine”) and the third (“The Essence of the Machine”), the second (“The Machine and the Figuration of the Self”) being entirely devoted to the motive of the machine and the figuration of the self in art brut, James Tilly Matthews, Fernand Deligny, Victor Tausk, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Epstein and Jean-Luc Godard. Kristensen has a deep background both in the phenomenological and psychoanalytical traditions and his astute appreciation of their respective virtues does not make him any less perceptive of their respective weaknesses. Honest about its goals and the unresolved puzzles pertaining to its rather brief examination of phenomena of biological organization, the book is most sharp in its ability to set up a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Szondi, Maldiney and Deleuze & Guattari. With that in mind, La Machine sensible is highly recommendable for anyone interested in the crossovers between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, and the way these can open up an original reflection on contemporary visual art.

  1. Aisthesis Disturbed: Machinic Delusions

The first part of Kristensen’s book begins by turning to the literature on schizophrenia, in which the motif of an ‘influencing machine’ (une machine à influencer) represents a particular kind of delusion that is important for a good understanding of schizophrenia. The delusion of an influencing machine stands for an experience in which the patient is convinced to be manipulated through a machine, which itself remains beyond his or her grasp. Examining the subjective dimension of schizophrenia, Kristensen approaches this delusional experience as a particular kind of feeling. This avoids categorizing schizophrenia as a disturbance of either the psyche or the soma, since feeling usually involves both. Kristensen argues that whatever the person’s predominant schizophrenic symptoms, these can be regarded as instances, appearances, expressions of the same disturbance, the same fundamental kind of psychotic feeling of an influencing machine.

To situate the disturbance at the level of feeling is not to deny, however, the neurobiological basis of schizophrenia. Discussing the early clinical work of Viktor Tausk and Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault in the light of recent work of Alfred Kraus, Thomas Fuchs, Louis A. Sass and Josef Parnas’ phenomenological Examination of Anomalous Self-Experience (EASE), Kristensen acknowledges that neurally based cognitive dysfunctions often play an important role, and indeed that they may often play the causal role in terms of kicking off symptoms. This does not mean, however, that subjective experiential phenomena, together with subjective responses to these phenomena, may not also play a key role. Rather than proposing an either/or dichotomy between neurological explanation and phenomenological description, our author follows Parnas in the viewpoint that phenomenology may just as well offer an explanatory contribution for the understanding of psychotic delusions. Accordingly, ‘the investigation concerns here the sense of this experience of alterity, from the point of view of the subject undergoing it’ (29).

In the most general terms, it is for Kristensen a person’s most immediate and fundamental, affective relationship to self and to world, which is disturbed in schizophrenic psychosis. This disturbance is a feeling of losing contact and connectedness with the world, of withdrawing into a world of one’s own, and of sensing the world as a hostile otherness. In schizophrenia, patients lose their sense of ownership; they seem to have no sense of property, not of a world but also not of themselves, even to the point of owning their bodies. It is this alienating feeling, which the patient’s language is unable to articulate and make sense of, and which may lead to a breakdown of personality, a cleavage of several personalities, and to several kinds of corporeal symptoms.

The sense of losing possession or control, at once over the world and over oneself, implies that possession, power or control lie elsewhere. The delusion of the influencing machine involves ‘the experience of domination, of a relation of asymmetrical force, which the machine is a particularly emblematic image of’ (36). One may certainly have the feeling of great energy and feel compelled to use it, but one seems to have no power to control it. It is as though something else is exercising this control and the patient does not know what this other is: he or she feels it as a foreign power that is mechanically triggered by an external causality.

Whatever form these experiences take, their presence is for the subject always an ordeal that gives rise to different strategies to confront these impulsions, whose essential trait is that the subject cannot escape them. It is due to this experience of passivity and powerlessness on the noetic level that one can speak of a machinic phenomenon on the noematic level (taking up a Husserlian vocabulary here) (30).

In an important concluding passage of the first chapter, Kristensen argues that one shouldn’t understand the schizophrenic delusion only negatively, as the delusional construction of a threat. Following Kraus, Fuchs and the psychoanalyst Ludivine Beillard-Robbert, he argues the schizophrenic delusion is ‘a fundamentally ambiguous phenomenon’ (13, 23) that can be considered at once as a symptom of disturbance and as an act of resistance, offering a certain stabilization. Indeed, ‘the simple fact that a hallucination is produced, that an image be drawn, that a text be written, either in front of the psychiatrist or in the most intimate reclusion, means that the delusional subject is in a process of resistance in the experience that he goes through’ (36). Kristensen emphasizes this point to debut the idea that the delusion would be itself a phenomenon empty of meaning. One must distinguish the patient’s primordial experiences, which appear to him or her as meaningless, and the delusion, which is produced as an attempt to make sense of them. Without this distinction, one cannot account for the fact that the schizophrenic is still a self and that he or she maintains a perspective onto the world. Like the drowning man who cannot swim, the patient continues to struggle[1]:

The creation of an influencing machine in the psychic realm of the schizophrenic subject corresponds to a situation of complete powerlessness within which, nonetheless, the possibility of emancipation is given, although it is remote and inaccessible. This is exactly the paradoxical meaning of the delusion: to express the need of liberation by giving form to the confinement (38).

  1. The Bodily Self and the Sensible Machine

Kristensen’s understanding of the delusion of the influencing machine as at once a passive confrontation to something unknown and an active response to it, is central not only to his analysis of schizophrenia, but also to his philosophical understanding of selfhood (ipseity) in general. Against a conception of the self as characterized by full-fledged autonomy and self-reflective transparency, Kristensen argues the self is ‘structurally constituted by the internal tension between necessity and liberty’ (37). More precisely, Kristensen proposes a two-level model of the self, whereby the higher-level properties (the intentional, cognitive structure which has a degree of autonomy from the world) emerge from lower-level, sub-personal and non-conscious dynamical processes that act deterministically. The reflective, cognitive structure of the self, which is the mark of subjective autonomy, is for our author constituted by three fundamental, pre-reflective dimensions of experience: temporality, embodiment and self-differentiation inherent to pre-reflective experience. For Kristensen, these pre-reflective dimensions manifest dimensions of internal or intra-subjective alterity, which are never fully dominated and controlled by the subject. In Dan Zahavi’s terms, which Kristensen cites approvingly:

Subjectivity seems to be constituted in a way that allows it to relate to itself in an othering way. This self-alteration is something inherent in reflection. It is not something that reflection can ever overcome (Zahavi 2004: 150).

Although the pre-reflective, embodied level of the self is perpetually self-differing within the ‘diachronical’, egoless flow of time-consciousness, Kristensen agrees with Zahavi that one can speak already at this rudimentary level of a ‘minimal self’ (122).[2] However, he disagrees with Zahavi’s view that minimal self does not depend upon social interaction for its development and/or its sustenance. Following Matthew Ratcliffe, Kristensen argues the constitution of minimal self should be re-conceptualized in interpersonal terms: ‘the primitive level of self-experience is always already of an intersubjective nature’ (126).

Our author develops this reconceptualization around two ideas. The first is that minimal self and alterity construct each other reciprocally through a pre-reflective libidinal and social dimension of ‘body schema’ (47, 54, 64). Drawing on the late work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder (whose influence on Merleau-Ponty he reconstructs in detail), Kristensen conceives bodily ‘sensing itself’ (le sentir lui-même (49)) as a perceptual process that happens independently from conscious intentionality and reflection, and is interdependent on action. According to this account, sensing is a skillful bodily activity in which perception and action are constitutively interdependent, unlike at the personal level, where the action a perception leads to may depend on the agent’s intentions (105, 271). In Schilder’s sense, the body schema designates an integrated set of dynamic sensorimotor processes that organize perception and action in a sub-personal and non-conscious manner. As such, the body schema must be distinguished from what is sometimes called the ‘body-image’, which is the body as an intentional object of consciousness, i.e. the body as experienced as owned by the experiencing subject. For example, the body schema appropriates certain habitual postures and movements automatically. The body schema also incorporates certain significant parts of its environment into its own schema: the painter’s brush becomes an operative extension of her hand; the blind person’s cane becomes a sensing extension of the hand.

At this primordial level, a minimal self emerges from a libidinal, bodily relation to alterity. That is to say, the sensorimotor contribution of the body schema is actually constitutive of selfhood, rather than being merely causally implicated in experiences. But this dimension of embodiment is not of the order of personal ownership: the libidinal production of the bodily self through body schema precedes the constitution of an ego that distinguishes itself from its libidinal investments, and the primordial relation between self and alterity is characterized by a ‘fundamental polymorphism’ (52). This means that the libidinal body forms with the environment a system of reciprocal implication, stimulation and expression, a pre-personal, essentially ‘anonymous and general existence’ in which there is ‘confusion of an individual body schema with that of the other’ (53). Being essentially anonymous, non-personal and non-conscious, the body schema forms a ‘sensible machine’ that is not phenomenologically available to the reflective subject: it is neither the perception or imagination, nor the cognitive understanding, nor the emotional apprehension of ‘my’ body, but rather the libidinal drives that organize the body as it spontaneously interacts with its environment.

From this perspective, the unconscious is this libidinal dimension of my being in the world; if it remains inaccessible to consciousness and to explicit intersubjective sharing, this is not due to its radically intimate [psychic] character, but rather to its pre-reflective, corporeal generality (56).

As Henri Maldiney writes, paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, the bodily sensing itself forms the ‘untouchable’ side of the self, ‘that of the self which I will never touch [cela de moi que je ne toucherai jamais]’ (Maldiney 2007: 138).

The second idea is that human subjectivity, that is to say, full-fledged selfhood with a degree of ‘ontological depth’ (123), emerges from a cultural-reflective dimension of interpersonal relations and symbolical-cognitive structures, such as language. Our author is fully aware that this second idea, as well as the identification of the libidinal basis of embodiment with the impersonal, non-subjective order of the unconscious, brings him particularly close to the position of Lacan. In fact, one of the strengths of the second chapter of La Machine sensible lies in showing how – despite the different conceptions of the unconscious in the early Merleau-Ponty and Lacan– the late Merleau-Ponty’s identification of the unconscious with the anonymous ‘flesh’ (chair) of the world is compatible with Lacan’s views on the discontinuous, problematic relation between consciousness and the unconscious. Despite valuing this proximity, however, Kristensen is also critical of Lacan. In conceiving the developmental emancipation to the symbolical dimension of subjectivity, Lacan neglected the importance of the productive role of the libidinal body and of affectivity in the constitution of the self. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, Lacan’s conception of the symbolic led him into an ‘idealist deviation’ (58, 63), conceiving the emergence of subjectivity strictly in terms of the symbolic and conscious mediation of instinctually driven life. For the generative constitution of the self, a model which does not do right to its bodily, affective, emotional and temporal constitution remains incomplete indeed.

By contrast, the psychoanalytically inspired work of the phenomenologist Henri Maldiney and the schizo-analytical work of Félix Guattari (both with and without Gilles Deleuze), demonstrate for Kristensen the possibility of a constructive conversation between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, which is in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty’s late project of an ontology of the generativity of the flesh. Reading Guattari, Maldiney, Deleuze and Leopold Szondi in this light (whose influence on Deleuze & Guattari he also reconstructs in detail); our author’s goal is as follows:

… to construct a position from which to sketch a critique of the dominant reception of Merleau-Ponty in the domain of the theory of the self – a reception that draws mostly on the Phenomenology of Perception and leaves aside the objections and new perspectives in his seminars at the Collège de France and in the corpus of The Visible and the Invisible (47).

  1. The Minimal Life of the Self: Three Challenges

There are three general theoretical points that are key to Kristensen’s two-level model of the self that are helpful to see where his challenges lie. These points concern the emergence of self, the relational role of the environment, and the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

i). Emergence: In thinking about the productive character of the self-organizing dynamics of sensorimotor processes, Kristensen seeks to conceive of a sub-personal level at which the biological and the mental are fundamentally indistinct (108). Against Szondi, who still remained caught in a dualism between blind sub-personal biological processes and the autonomous, mental realm of the self (‘le moi pontifex’ (106)), Kristensen aims to show how minimal self emerges in development from repetitive cycles of sub-personal, ‘infra-subjective’ sensorimotor processes of perception and action (235). In a touching passage on the work of the Feldenkrais therapist and choreographer Mara Vinadia (178-181), Kristensen notes how higher level cognitive processes and symbolical, linguistic forms of communication can be entrapped by sensorimotor disorders; as in the case of an autistic girl of three years and nine months old who expressed herself only by crying and shouting, who didn’t allow any eye contact and who didn’t let anyone get closer to her than three meters.

Faced with any kind of frustration or transgression of these limits, she would respond with immediate violence, bending her body like an arc and hitting her head against the ground. The therapist approaches this situation as follows: keeping her distance from the patient, her face and body averted, she takes on a series of immobile bodily postures, holding each figure for a fixed time interval, followed by a few steps in the room. When Vinadia arrives at her sixth posture, she notices the child has risen and begins to imitate her accurately, step by step. Yet, the patient doesn’t imitate her last posture: rather, she begins with the first, forcing Vinadia to start over from zero, and maintaining a lag of six between her and Vinadia’s postures. Astonishingly, after a number of weeks of repetitive sequences the child allows for more and more proximity, imitating Vinadia’s with lags of 5, 4, 3… up to the point of allowing the therapist to face her, and moving in perfect unison with her, such that it becomes impossible to designate who is initiating and imitating. Eventually, the child allows for more people, even strangers, to approach and address her.

Kristensen emphasizes that the initial refusal to enter into relation is not a sign of indifference but of a hyper-sensibility to the presence of others – an interpretation confirmed by neuro-scientific approaches of autism. The therapist’s work has consisted in establishing a reciprocal relation between the child and herself, a corporeal relation of sensing reciprocity that restored the sensorimotor dynamics constitutive of minimal self. This does not mean, of course, that a sequence of physical gestures alone could implement a cognitive state or a sense of possessing a self. The main takeaway is rather, that aside from higher-level neural processes, sub-personal sensorimotor processes of perception and action make a special, constitutive contribution to the machinery of selfhood.

ii). Environment: The second issue is about the relational role of the biological and social/collective environment and concerns the idea that minimal self is not only intimately embodied, but also intimately embedded in its environment. How does attention to this environmental embedding contribute something important to an understanding of the emergence of minimal self? In this regard, Kristensen distinguishes the kinds of account that typically stress features of organic integration, unitary functioning and sense-making across different levels of bodily embeddedness, from the more radical dynamic viewpoint he finds in Guattari and Deleuze, which stresses features of instability, chaos and heterogeneity characteristic of the energetic dynamics constitutive of minimal self (244-255).

For Kristensen, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of our perceptible integrations with the world in Phenomenology of Perception is exemplary of the first kind of account, as he conceives these integrations as the emergence of one unified ‘flesh’ by means of a reversible ‘chiasmic’ relation between body and environment. This approach emphasizes there is a minimal ‘nucleus’ of stability that constrains and directs the ongoing dynamics, a self-organizing nucleus that enables meaningful interactions to take place between the system and its environment (254, 294). Kristensen refers in this regard to Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, which defines living ‘autopoietic machines’ by the self-referential organization of the causal interactions taking place in material systems, i.e. the self-referential, recursive organization of the causal loops that determine the particular dynamics within or between systems (254, 260). As the name suggests, autopoietic machines are essentially self-producing: the system produces ‘itself’ through the reciprocal causation between the components of the system and relations between them. One might say that from this viewpoint, one focuses on the product (minimal self) that emerges from dynamic processes: a composed, structured, organizationally closed system of self-production that to a certain extent determines the range and meaningfulness of its material interactions.

On the other hand, Guattari and Deleuze’s approach, which Kristensen is more sympathetic to, places emphasis on a system’s material, intensive dynamics, which are essentially driven by perturbations, ruptures in direction, breakdowns and failures, and which have no meaningfulness at all (they can acquire meaningfulness only for an eventual emergent system capable of controlling these dynamics). For Kristensen, the first, phenomenological point of view, tends to remain too one-sidedly focused upon the result: connections of meaning, autonomy and structure (254).The schizo-analytical viewpoint, however, stresses the primacy of dynamic material processes, and as such it emphasizes the heterogeneity underlying all constructed unity, the initial ‘chaosmos’ from which all order and stability emerge:

The point of view of the schizophrenic reveals the fact that the machinic assemblages [agencements machiniques] do not self-organize according to a meaningful order [selon un ordre sensé], but consist in the coexistence of heterogeneous elements whose mutual presence creates movements, displacements, production of novelty (245).

Within the phenomenological viewpoint, it is difficult to include the dimension of force or intensity. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible is a philosophy of the birth of meaning [la naissance du sens] and as such it tends to suspend or neglect the dimension of force. (…) The main merit of the notion of the machine within the perspective of a theory of subjectivity is that it allows for the articulation of these two dimensions and to make them appear as reciprocal conditions: the force of the machine is the condition of manifestation of meaningful forms, and the meaningful forms are conditions of apparition of the movements of the machine, which are heterogeneous to the register of meaning and which appear precisely as perturbations of meaningful structures (269).

iii). The relation between the personal and sub-personal: We have seen that instead of assuming minimal self as a kind of a priori form that is necessary for any kind of sensorimotor processing or cognition to take place, Kristensen argues that a better viewpoint on minimal self should help to understand how it might itself emerge from dynamic sensorimotor systems and the role of environmental embeddedness in such systems. These two points about emergence and the role of the environment naturally have consequences on how to view the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

One way of considering the relation between the sub-personal and the personal is to conceive sub-personal sensorimotor processes as a kind of primordial, mute intentionality of the animal body with regard to the world – a Merleau-Pontian ‘I can’. Again, this insistence on the necessity of a primordial kind of subjective structure that is formally present in organic processes of self-regulation and self-production points to a tension with Kristensen’s point of view. Drawing on the work of Guattari and Deleuze, he stresses that the regulatory structures constitutive of the organism are not only constraining, but are themselves also constrained by material processes of individuation. These are morphodynamic, structure-making processes which grow out of intrinsic physical (thermodynamic, chemical) properties of their material elements. Preceding the passage to functional life, which they organize, these structure-making processes form a kind of static life that is intermediary between inorganic reality and functional life properly speaking. This intermediary order between matter and life fully organized is not a property of a self-referential, organic machine (a homeostatic, autopoietic, or organizational whole), but rather of an inorganic machine (an ontogenetic system of individuation).

Kristensen points out that for Guattari and Deleuze as well the organizational closure of psychic systems manifests itself as the emergence of a minimal self, i.e. an ‘I sense’ (129-130). But this minimal self is always secondary with regard to material processes of individuation, which it emerges from. Unlike Varela, Guattari and Deleuze do not consider the organism’s unity to be derived from a particular type of minimal selfhood or internal unity that is essentially intrinsic to it, over and against the mere aggregates encountered in physical nature. What distinguishes them from the Varelian view of the organism as subjectivity is that they posit rather something like an inorganic machine, which ‘processualizes’ subjectivity. It is not minimal self which is the ground of the process of individuation, but rather it is individuation which grounds minimal self.

La Machine sensible makes a convincing case that in postulating the essence of minimal self is an irreducible first-personness, an intentionality or organizational closure, phenomenological viewpoints risk neglecting the material conditions within which minimal self is produced and meaningful interactions between the self and its environment take place. This is probably due to the fact that these approaches seek to refute reductionist approaches to consciousness, which would reduce the latter to its material basis. Although Kristensen shares this non-reductionist Husserlian spirit, he argues the opposite gesture is no less unfortunate as it risks disregarding the matter and keeping the organizational structure, emptied of all “ontic depth” (121). For Kristensen, psychic phenomena such as minimal self must also be conceived of in materialist terms, which means one must understand sub-personal, generative processes also in terms of specific, concrete mechanisms that are applicable to material elements. The challenge here is to define the continuity between the material, the living and the psychic, whilst acknowledging that material elements are ‘a-signifying’, i.e. heterogeneous to the semiotic domain in which the living and psychic create meaning (65-6, 74). This final challenge, then, is what allows Kristensen to inscribe Guattari’s ‘machinic phenomenology’ (80) into the phenomenological program as formulated by the late Merleau-Ponty:

The ultimate task of phenomenology as philosophy of consciousness is to understand its relationship to non-phenomenology. What resists phenomenology within us – natural being, the ‘barbarous’ source Schelling spoke of – cannot remain outside phenomenology and should have its place within it. The philosopher has his shadow, which is not simply the factual absence of future light (Merleau-Ponty 1960: 176).

References

Maldiney, Henri. 2007. Penser l’homme et la folie. Grenoble: Éditions Jérôme Millon.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1960. Signes. Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard.

Stein, Waltraut J. 1970. ‘De-Animation: The Sense of Becoming Psychotic’, p. 87 in: Straus, Erwin W., and Griffith, Richard M. (eds.). 1970. Aisthesis and Aesthetics. The Fourth Lexington Conference on Pure and Applied Phenomenology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Zahavi, Dan. 2004. ‘Alterity in Self’, p. 150 in: Gallagher, S., Watson, S. , Brun, Ph. and Romanski, Ph. (eds.). 2004. Ipseity and Alterity. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Rouen: Presses Universitaires de Rouen.


[1] This metaphor of drowning appears in an article by the phenomenologist Waltraut Stein. She writes: ‘Like the drowning man, the schizophrenic continues to struggle with surprising energy. He tries to “learn to swim” to come to terms with his psychosis in some way. Perhaps if he can go along with it for a time it will cease to disturb him so and he can find a way to overcome it, he thinks. But eventually he finds that it is too late and that there is no going along with it. Whatever he does, this power is always against him. Usually he finds that his efforts even increase his sense of being dispossessed’. (Stein, 1970: 99)

[2] In Zahavi’s characterization, the ‘minimal self’ designates the most fundamental sense of subjective ‘mineness’ or ‘first-personal givenness’ that accompanies all of our experiences and functions as a condition for the spatiotemporal structuring of experience. Cf., Dan Zahavi, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy and Shame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.