Our daily life is influenced deeply and massively by technical devices, while their effects on our economic, social or even political behaviour are largely unknown. It seems obvious that we are not yet at the end of the story regarding technology but rather at the very beginning of an unforeseeable change, a downright revolution whose real import only the future will show. Given that technologies always had a crucial impact on human mindsets we have now entered a new realm of reality in terms of a global digitization. What determines this new era as truly new relates to intricate challenges on every field of human activity or thought, touching upon our very self-image as human beings. Can we still take for granted that we only change our equipment without, in turn, being equally changed by it? How can we cope with this new situation? And how can we develop a proper understanding of what is going on around us – or even with us?
In this state of affairs Heidegger’s reflections on technology and his equally famous and opaque notion “das Gestell” have gained renewed attention. For addressing our current situation on an “ontological”, or to be precise: a “seinsgeschichtlichen” level, his approach provides the reader with deeper “insights in that what is” than a mere description of surface phenomena. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing with a technical mode of unconcealing that not only transforms both our practical and theoretical encounters with a mostly concealed world. For in doing so it increases the same concealment to an extent such that we even forget about its very “nature” or “essence” (“Wesen”, or rather “Unwesen” in this case). According to this setting the expectations run high where a publication like the present “Heidegger on Technology” is concerned, which not only lays claim to clarifying Heidegger’s relation to technology but even engages in a broader discussion, following the editor’s appeal “to apply Heidegger’s analysis of technology to some of the most pressing ethical and political problems we confront today.” (8)
“Heidegger on Technology” contains instructive contributions that provide its readers with plenty of insights concerning Heidegger’s development of thought, whether it be its breaks or its continuities. Like any other companion it offers useful hints, much needed clarifications, even congenial interpretations; but also mere recapitulations of already prominent ideas. The book contains 17 articles, starting with a former presentation by Mark A. Wrathall, first given at the University of Sussex in 2016 which is representative for the inner tension between “Gestell” and “Gelassenheit” (“releasement”) both in the outline of the volume and of our time in general.
In The Task of Thinking in an Technological Age Wrathall argues for a reconfiguration of the academic curricula based on a late Heideggerian approach which abandons homogenisation, forgetfulness, and efficacy in favour of what Heidegger calls “thinking”. Wrathall advocates a certain “sensibility” (“Besinnung”, 31) towards contingency and whatever is questionable in our lifeworld, a kind of sense for possibilities and options that we are to choose for the purpose of an alternative way of life: “to accomplish Heidegger’s purposes, an education in history needs to highlight the discontinuities in style, and emphasize the breaks and ruptures between worlds which show those worlds to be lacking in determinate foundations.” (33)
It is worth mentioning, however, that Wrathall does not stop at this point. May teaching first be conceptualized as a close collaboration of learning subjects (which finds an echo in Iain Thomson’s article)[i], he hereafter goes deeper into a “apprenticeship in skilful behaviour” (34) by stating: “All of this suggests that an education in thinking requires a curriculum that includes fostering bodily skills, even if–especially if–those skills have no ready value in the global economy. For instance, the inclusion of sports in educational curricula […] should not be on training a few athletes to play a role in the entertainment industry”. (36) Should “releasement” from the Gestell finally lead to sports in terms of a “non-calculable” flow, representing “the surprising, the genuinely risky, the open-ended”? (36)
In fact there is some evidence that this is indeed a genuinely Heideggerian line of thought, considering his affections for the former German team leader Franz Beckenbauer but also his attempts during his rectorship to militarize the academic curriculum. The latter rather foils Wrathall intentions but at the same time it sheds some light on the inherent dialectics of this case: playfulness seems to be an essential condition of releasement but when it comes to a normative structuring for the purpose of social engagement, like in the case of an academic schedule, the Gestell comes nearer and, finally, the game could be over before it begins. In other words: Unless we are not willing to serve the Gestell, could Gelassenheit remain something else than an end in itself? For taken as a means, instead, we have been already caught in the trap of gamification, understood as the post-industrial revenge of the Gestell, instrumentalizing creativity, inspiration, flow etc. for its own ends. From this perspective the question whether there could be other ways to (re)interpret Heidegger’s notion of releasement, and what they should look like becomes crucial.
Bret W. Davis’ reading of the Country Path Conversations appears to offer such a way: Heidegger’s Realeasement From the Technological Will. In a well-informed recapitulation of Heidegger’s intellectual development since Being and Time Davis shows that the concept of the will plays a central role during all periods. For the will is already literally present in the “umwillen” of Dasein’s care-structure, and thus marks an episode directly leading into Heidegger’s commitment to National socialism.[ii] But it was only after Heidegger resigned from his rectorship and his deeper study of Hölderlin and Nietzsche that he saw clearer: his own existential voluntarism had in a way imitated the ‘will to will’, carried out to its devastating consequences in WWII especially by the Nazis but also by the Communists or even the ‘Americans’. According to this late insight Davis states a “second turn”: “Heidegger’s thought-path also underwent a ‘second turn’ around 1940, a turn from a tendency to think the relation between human being and being (beyng) in terms of will, and a turn to a sustained attempt to think this relation in terms of a non-willing releasement and letting-be.” (136) This willing, however, exhibits a well-known dialectic: the “willing to/of non-willing”, in order to be successful, requires a releasement from quasi any “to”. And while releasement “to” is not under the dictate of being or a result of our mute obedience, every releasement “to” remains a willing, even in the case of a “non-willing” and is therefore no proper releasement (We will come back to this point later).
Following the Country Path Conversations, Tobias Keiling compellingly demonstrates that only in respect to particular beings a ‘will to thinking’ in terms of generalising subsumptions can be overcome. In his radical reading of Heidegger’s “Seinsgeschichte” the notion of “being” itself tends to occupy the horizons of possible interpretations when it comes to singular beings. By presupposing that there is one final horizon of all horizons, we fail to recognize (the basic insight of set theory) that the plurality of things is accompanied by a plurality of ontologies (108), settled in a strictly open “horizon”, and, therefore, open to a transfinite series of encounters. We only get in touch with “things for themselves”, instead of “things in themselves”, or things for us, if we learn to let things be in such a way that we cease our ontological commitment (104). Releasement in this sense means letting, not even letting be – and thus enables, in turn, the freeing of thinking from its own will to think only for itself. Correspondingly, one could say, released thinking is letting things be ends in themselves, and what is more: a thinking on behalf of things.
So far, so good. But does this apply only to a released thinking in Heidegger’s sense or also to a released thinking of the Gestell itself – a thinking that thinks on behalf of the Gestell by letting it be for itself? Looking for an answer, one of the first things that comes to mind could be the reply: Like science, the Gestell doesn’t think. But like in science, there is still a calculative intelligence at work, even if Heidegger is not willing to call it thinking. But then “was heißt denken”? Heidegger’s general answer amounts to letting beings be as well as thinking led by being. Now, Technology is a mode of disclosure, and the Gestell is the very “Wesen” of technology, a “Wesen” of being, thus even if the Gestell itself does not think, it lets think for itself by leading our thoughts (into itself). So, the question arises: Must we distinguish a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ thinking – as two modes of being’s disclosure?
In fact it is not Gelassenheit whose opponent is the Gestell, but the “Geviert”. And so releasement turns out to be a mere vehicle of transition on the way from Gestell to Geviert. According to this characteristic of Gelassenheit, as a vehicle or device, it shows striking resemblance to Husserl’s epoché, understood as the enabling condition of a phenomo-logic. As Christos Hadjioannou reconstructs in his text Heidegger’s Critique of Techno-science as a Critique of Husserl’s Reductive Method Heidegger’s early notion of a “formal indication” lays ground to his critique of a so-called “care about certainty” (66) in Husserl’s concept of phenomenology as transcendental science: “So, formal indication lets everything stand as is, without referring, without imposing on things any pre-judged order. By indicating phenomena, it unassumingly releases them into the open, allowing them to show themselves from themselves. Thus, with ‘formal indication’, Heidegger attempts to replace Husserlian phenomenological analysis with a hermeneutic praxis that does not objectify, that does not posit any sort of order or classification, that does not assume an indifferent stance towards the content of phenomena, hiding the enactmental character of the philosophical praxis, and that does not slip into an attitudinal/theoretical comportment.” (71)
Sounds familiar. But here we see now that Heidegger, right from the beginning, is engaged in the methodological question of how to let things be, in order to let them show themselves. “Hermeneutical praxis” in this sense shall overcome “phenomenological analysis” by giving things a voice in the conversation of being, whereas Husserlian phenomenology seems to objectify things by quasi scrutinizing them only in respect of its own ‘worldview’. In other words: Heidegger’s methodological ground (or unground) is language, rather than the supposed ocularcentrism of Husserlian phenomenology. Therefore, Heidegger’s own philosophical praxis approaches poetry. Until this reversement from scientific classifications to the inner heart of the named holy, the Geviert, is executed, there will be no releasement from the Gestell according to Heidegger.
A deeper discussion of this relation is found in Susanne Claxton’s Poetry and the Gods. From Gestell to Gelassenheit, and here again, the emphasis lies on Gelassenheit. While not being wrong, this constitutes only one half of the way towards Heiddegger’s language as a phenomenology of poetry. As Claxton herself knows, Heidegger’s evoking of gods, the mortals, sky, and earth within the Geviert is not metaphorical in a pejorative sense. Instead, he truly believes in gods that rise to speak through their prayer-like addressing by mortals. As Claxton puts it: “For myths are not explanations, but rather ways of creatively conceptualizing experiences, experiences felt and perceived by mortals to be encounters with something outside themselves, something that has force.” (238) And later: “A given god, as such, can feel nothing in himself; the god needs a mortal to feel for him. Understood in this way, divinities may be seen as affective powers intending toward manifestations via mortals as embodied expressions thus experienced. In the coming together of mortal and divinity, fullness of experience is achieved.” (239) In other words: What is to be saved from the Gestell are certain extraordinary “feelings” (“Stimmungen”) that are conveyed, articulated, and experienced through a quasi-divine poetical language. These “Stimmungen” need “Stimmen” (“voices”) in order to not be ignored and forgotten. And so, it is not only for the sake of the gods that “Dasein” shall listen attentively to what ‘his’ experiences tell him.
Yet as we have already heard, gods are not the only ones who “need” or “use” (“brauchen”) Dasein as a kind of resonator. Moreover, the question seems to be whether gods simply do not feel or whether they do not think either. If the latter, there could very well be other gods than the mythological ones – for instance, technical ones or what we tend to call artificial intelligences. Without going too much into detail here, it seems quite obvious that they (still) need and are (already) using (“brauchen”) us, as well. Whereas the Geviert, in Heidegger’s view, stands for the holy shrine of the mystery (“Geheimnis”), the Gestell could turn out to be the secular shrine of the “need of needlessness” (“Not der Notlosigkeit”)[iii]. To put it another way: Are we still in need (and use) of Heidegger’s gods? – I’m not sure. Maybe in need and use of others? But why call them gods any longer?
Moving on from the gods some of the contributions to the volume rightly stress the point that there is still a lot to concerning big issues of our time such as the need for a new ecology (Michael E. Zimmerman and Trish Glazebrook) or the outcomes of an “audit society” (Denis McManus). In all the three cases Heidegger’s notion of the Gestell (or its forerunner “Machenschaft”) functions like a guideline to conceptualize what is going wrong, even if there might be no complot or genius malignus behind the scenes. Especially in the case of the audit society we are facing developments that foil the intended results: “So despite audit’s ‘promise of accountability and visibility’ (Power 1997, 127)[iv], there is reason to think it makes it significantly harder to see where power actually lies.” (277) If we cede our powers of decision to anonymous evaluation systems or even algorithms we get lost in our own lifeworld when it comes to human politics.
To be clear on this point, I do not deny that it is crucial to engage in such critiques as supported by Heidegger’s conceptual framework. Releasement is fine and I acknowledge the policy of emphasizing this notion in place of the Geviert. Yet I side with McManus here when he asks at the end of his chapter: “even if we accept that Heidegger’s diagnosis of our contemporary situation sheds light on the phenomena that Power describes, is it the best diagnosis?” I think it is one of the best, and two out of four names which McManus mentions subsequently even based their own diagnosis on Heidegger’s (Foucault and Arendt, while Marx and Weber undergo Heidegger’s critique). The only question I am asking here is, how far one can get, sticking to Heidegger original attempt. Of course, there are still points to be made, for instance, against Habermas, when Julian Young points out that a Habermasian communicative rationality ignores a certain “need for dwelling” (205 et passim). Or when Aaron James Wendland shows that the Kuhnian concept of “paradigm shifts” still emphasizes assimilation tendencies after the break where Heidegger rightly sees a needful release (297). And even when Taylor Carman, regarding the controversy between Heidegger and Heisenberg, argues that ‘science still doesn’t think’ because of its reductionist concept of “physis” (309 et passim). But does this lead to Heidegger’s final insight that only a god can save us–a god of poetry and a poetry of gods?
I am afraid it does, but only if we accept that Hölderlin is the greatest poet and that dwelling means to ensconce oneself in Heidegger’s ‘house of being’, viz. in his private language of thinking under the advice of being, including his idiosyncrasies, wrong etymologies, and ‘mystery’ lecture performances. Then we might believe that we live in times of the “Not der Notlosigkeit” in an era of a self-accomplishing forgetfulness of being, of self-deceit, which manages to ignore its own need to be saved. And even today there are still several believers among Heidegger’s readers. But maybe (according to Heidegger’s late reticence) there will be no saving needed anymore. Not because everything is just fine, but because the Gestell, along with its essence, the “danger” (“Gefahr”), could be in itself already the saving (“Rettung”)–not the saving from it, but the saving for itself. In other words: Could there be a saving of the Gestell by letting it be (for itself)? Having said this, what would this actually mean?
There is one moment in his Bremen Lectures where Heidegger comes close to this point: “Das Wesen der Technik ist das Seyn selber in der Wesensgestalt des Ge-Stells. Das Wesen des Ge-Stells aber ist die Gefahr. […] Die Gefahr ist das Ge-Stell nicht als Technik, sondern als das Seyn. Das Wesende der Gefahr ist das Seyn selbst, insofern es der Wahrheit seines Wesens mit der Vergesslichkeit dieses Wesens nachstellt.“ (GA 79, 62)
Can being be forgotten, or even forget itself? In this passage Heidegger reflects on the essence not only of the Gestell and on what is meant to be the Gefahr, but also on the essence (or ‘the essenceing’ = “das Wesende”) of the Gefahr: “das Seyn” being after itself (“nachstellen”), and in so doing, disguising (‘verstellen’) itself with the “Ge-Stell”. Hence, the danger is, according to Heidegger, that there seems to be no danger. Like the “need of needlessness”, Heidegger conceives of a danger of “safety” (“Gefahrlosigkeit”, literally ‘dangerlessness’). According to its own dialectics, the essence of danger is un-essence (“Unwesen”), an essence (“Wesen”) that denies itself and in doing so finally would become the ‘essencelessness’ (= “Wesenlosigkeit”) of being, if it is not recalled by Dasein anymore as the danger of being or the threat of its own forgetfulness.
To let the Gestell be for itself would therefore mean not to ignore the danger of forgetting, but to recognize the danger of forgetting as that what it truly is: our fear of death, angst. The real danger seems to be that not even danger will remain when we are gone. But that is probably going to happen. In contrast, the inherent ‘nihilism’ of the Gestell reminds us not of death, but of the forgetfulness of death (expressed through the loss of angst). As a result, the threat to Heidegger’s own thinking, as a permeant contemplation of the meaning of death, is simply that it could be pointless–because of the meaninglessness of death. This, in turn, doesn’t mean that there is no being and yet it means that the meaning of being is not necessarily the being of meaning, or what Heidegger would call the “Ereignis” of meaningfulness.
To conclude I return to the Country Path Conversations and listen to what Steven Crowell has to say about the correlation between “Sein” and “Dasein” in his chapter: The Challenge of Heidegger’s Approach to Technology. A Phenomenological Reading: “The first thing to note is that Heidegger’s attempt to overcome representational thinking does not abandon correlationism […]. Heidegger is quite clear about this: ‘das Seyn braucht den Menschen’ (GA 65: 261), the worlding of world requires the thinking being (GA 77: 147). But one might wonder whether Heidegger’s late notion of thinking as the ‘indwelling releasement to the worlding of world’ retains the feature of the care-structure that […] is the phenomenological ground of meaning–namely, trying to be (Worumwillen). Is the ‘relation to the essence of the human being’ that allows the Open ‘to be as it is [wesen…wie es west]’ (GA 77: 146), a relation that involves my being at issue in trying to be a thinker?” (89)
In the last sentence before this passage Crowell added an endnote. In this endnote Crowell replies to Quentin Meillassoux in defence of Heidegger’s correlationism: “Calling something an arche-fossil or a hammer or an electron–or a jug or a Gegnet or a Geviert, for that matter–has a determinate meaning only in a normative context grounded in the speaker’s commitment. The ‘realism’ which opposes this is perfectly suited to Ge-stell since, by denying the correlational conditions of meaning, it does away with meaning altogether and bottoms out in nihilism.” (94)
This punchline is remarkable, not primarily, however, as a critique but rather in the sense that Crowell laudably clarifies the relation (or correlation?) between a so-called “speculative realism” (or in the case of Meillassoux: speculative materialism) and the prevailing Gestell. Indeed, we are living in the Gestell, and Meillassoux somehow approves this insight by transcending every correlationism stemming from an anthropocentric vision of thinking. Now, is there a contradiction implied in what Crowell refers to? So far as I can see, none that Meillassoux hasn’t already dealt with elsewhere. Instead, there are consequences that concern not least the Heideggerian concept of releasement. Whereas Heidegger tries to free thought from the Gestell in order to gain a free relation to technology, speculative realism takes the opposite view: the freeing of thought from “Dasein”.
There still might be “the correlational conditions of meaning” but only for us as a species which cannot cease to make sense of everything, even nothing. But unfortunately that does not guarantee that beyond human comprehension meaning exists at all. Instead, we are today facing a situation wherein an intelligent form of calculation takes command without any proper understanding of its own agenda. And the same holds for philosophical speculations on the necessity of contingency, necessitating us to think the end of thinking as a possible, although unthinkable event (or rather “Enteignis”). Therefore, to talk about releasement under present conditions points, if anything, to a releasement into “nihilism” – according to our human, all-to-human presuppositions and expectations. Even though this does not mean that meaning does not mean anything to us, we find ourselves alone, surrounded by silicon and silence.
The German term “Gelassenheit” has its Latin equivalent in the Christian notion of “resignatio”. What in English still echoes the expression “resignation” or “resign” is translated into German as “Entlassung” – another, often unmentioned morphological derivation of “lassen”. Could it be that Heidegger’s own “releasement” from onto-theo-technology only renamed his resigning, his resignation by the Gestell, seine Entlassung durch die Seinsgeschichte? In this case he would have been the first and last thinker of the complete “Enteignis”: ‘The end of philosophy and the task/capitulation (“Aufgabe”) of thinking’ within the Gestell…a releasement from a self-annihilating being (“Sein”), and into a new substantial commitment with beings (“Seienden”)…the reversal from resigning to designing?
[i]See Technology, Ontotheology, Education, p. 185: “At the heart of Heidegger’s reontologization of education is a rethinking of what is called ‘learning,’ in which teaching itself becomes ‘the highest form of learning,’ an exemplary art of ‘learning-in-public,’ from which students learn how to learn by example, and learning comes to stand higher than being learned or knowing. (In what I have called ‘the pedagogical truth event,’ teachers learn to come into their own as teachers by showing students how to disclose the being of entities creatively, responsively, and responsibly, thereby helping students, things, and being all come into their own together.)” This “pedagogical truth event”, as Thomson calls it, seems to be already a common praxis, especially in demographic societies where youthfulness represents a rare good, whereas maturity is believed to be a kind of sale out.
[ii]For a closer reading of Heidegger’s thinking having an affair with National Socialism see Aaron James Wendland contribution to the present volume: Heidegger’s New Beginning. History, Technology, and National Socialism.
[iii]The German expression “Not” has also the connotation of “misery”.
[iv]McManus is quoting the inventor of the term “Audit Society” Michael Power in his book: The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.
This book succeeds as a phenomenological project guided securely by Heideggerian principles, in its philosophical assessment of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), which conspire literally, in the making of mothers. Belu draws almost exclusively and analogously upon Heidegger’s concepts outlayed in The Question Concerning Technology (most overarchingly: the principle of Gestell [Enframing]) to fashion a critique of ARTs protocols and practices, which, since their initial inception/acceptance in the last quarter of the 20th century, have achieved globalized integration into the process of bringing a new human into the world. Although in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the premier ART, was successfully employed to fertilize a human egg in 1944; not until 1977 was an in-corpus pregnancy achieved; it’s outcome was unsuccessful. A year later in 1978, the famous ‘test-tube’ baby Louise Joy Brown was conceived via IVF technologies and successfully birthed. Today, some forty years hence, several variations of ARTs are in common use not only by heterosexual couples experiencing negative fertility, but by same-sex couples, single-mothers or fathers seeking to start a family or add an additional family member, and others who claim a banner along the now-evolved gender identity spectrum. Belu relates how the original IVF procedure has morphed into ever-more sophisticated technologies and methods designed to assist in the coming to fruition of a live birth, such as cytoplasmic transfer, the use of donor eggs and/or gestational surrogates. She also makes clear how the latter two protocols function as particularly egregious political economies which implicate younger and older women alike in a market project of conception: younger women sell their viable eggs, and surrogates of proven child-bearing capacity ‘sell’ the services of their wombs, to those [often older] women or couples who desire a child but who are either infertile, cannot physically carry to term or who simply cannot, or do not, wish to participate in the pregnancy process. The ARTs industry has succeeded in “medical fragmentation” of a women’s reproductive system into components–eggs, womb, tubes, ovaries and cycles–which are ‘optimized’ via drugs and various surgical procedures and kept primed in the manner of Heidegger’s standing reserve for use in achieving the desired goal of conception of an embryo. The reproductive parts no longer need be attached to or within the singular corpus of an intact female body, in fact, more often they are not. Such mechanistic fracturing destroys women’s bodies as wholistic “autonomous agents” according to Belu (5, 23), and has ushered in what she terms the ‘Motherless Age’.
The ‘Motherless’ Age
Belu’s use of the term motherless seems at first blush metaphysical meaninglessness[i]–an ontological dystopia or ontically obtuse ‘teaser’.[ii] Mothers are in fact in existence in our epoch–we do not lack mothers, per se, yet the traditional mother-child biological dyad relationship, which begins at conception and ends with the death of either the mother or child (some would argue against that as well), has experienced a post-modern existential crisis (if late in the game), brought on by the extended, if not ubiquitous, use of ARTs on a worldwide scale.[iii] Belu’s position sets forth (and ostensibly argues against) the phenomenological logic of ARTs which has encouraged ‘the splitting of the atom’ in relation to the term mother, historically defined as a secure subject with distinct boundaries and a single physical corporeal existence. Motherhood is now conceptually plural across an array of subjectivities that all qualify to be defined by, or at least attached to, the term. It is now possible for a baby born via gestational surrogacy to potentially have four different mothers if cytoplasmic transfer is employed: two genetic mothers (one who has lent her eggs and the other who lends her cytoplasm) (Belu, 59, fn 80), the gestational mother who bears and births the fetus, and the ‘social’ mother who rears the child (Belu, 45). In market terms, the first two mothers are the sellers, the third the worker or laborer, and the fourth and final (who is responsible for the child’s care) is the buyer, or consumer. Conversely, IVF also allows the production of offspring with no living genetic mothers at all–as viable eggs are collected from the ovarian tissue of aborted fetuses, and coaxed into near maturity via hormone stimulants. Thus a child can now be borne from a ‘mother’ who was never an actual fully grown person, much less an adult (Belu, 70). It is the offspring i.e. the child, in this process, who must ultimately face the “motherless” aspects of his/her birth. As the situation presents itself, it may even be more appropriate to use the term motherfull; the latter suffix however, conveying a generally positive connotation of maternal agency which Belu clearly argues that ARTs subvert (Belu, 79, 105).
Belu establishes ontological erasure of the ‘mother’ in the original etymological sense, at virtually every turn, particularly in Chapter 4 wherein she engages and privileges Heidegger’s concept of enframing over Aristotle’s causal concepts of physis and techné, in the argument over whether IVF processes ‘assist’, or ‘replace’, natural conception. Belu does not so much detail the legal ramifications of determining “the spark of life” (Belu, 61)[iv], but urges phenomenological clarity and currency as it might reroute a prevailing cultural attitude of “complacency” toward human artificial reproduction. We shrug off the extent of IVF’s practical ramifications for humanity, because we persist in (along Aristotelian lines), and even dote on, the misunderstanding of the role of technological prowess as a handmaid to, and not creator of, human life. This is of course, the “forgetting of the clearing” (Lichtungvergessenheit) which Heidegger says chiefly enables the chokehold of Enframing. As we do not do what Heidegger urges: “experience its unthought essence first of all”, or else we broach it superficially, we cannot see “the extent that the essence of enframing does not appear as the danger, and the essence of the danger does not appear as Beyng [sic]”; which “accounts for our misunderstanding” [of] above all technology” (Belu, 12-13, 21, fn. 26).
Citing the wry ‘twist’ of analogizing Aristotle’s male-active/female-passive principle of nature to IVF procedures within our causa efficiens-hegemonic techno-modernity (Belu, 68), Belu seriously implicates the medical establishment in the authority of its arché position, which allows it to usurp the agency of a natural mother in order to supervise the engineering of life. Ultimately, in the motherless world, the mother-effect, a term first coined by Kelly Oliver,[v] obliterates both the participation of the ‘real’ mother and ‘mother nature’, such representatives of our lingering cultural dedication to biological ownership. Moreover, these absences are “covered over” in the persistent need to preserve normativity: the arché role of the fertility doctor and the techné role of the IVF procedure are minimized as the birthed child is attributed to nature’s grace, or termed something like a miracle “Child of God”. Belu states:
IVF participants (the women, doctors, and media) can be seen to reproduce the mother-effect, caught up in a play of affirming the significance of technology for conception and gestation, yet undermining this significance in the final product, calling it (mother) nature (Belu, 71).
A Feminist Phenomenology of ARTs
In her zeal to establish a feminist phenomenology for ARTS, Belu details various reproductive enframing processes, where human life is engineered from start to finish (challenged forth). It is still startling to read, in 2017, how, after a woman’s body is shot through with hormones [via extremely painful injections] to spur superovulation (wherein her ovaries will produce up to 10 eggs or more at once) that “the eggs are then sucked out of the woman’s ovaries” and
fertilization is engineered in the Petrie dish. These procedures reveal the woman’s reproductive body as passive, fungible material, a biological system that is broken up into its component parts of uterus, tubes, eggs, endometrium and hormone cycles that are worked upon by the technités (Belu, 66).
Belu notes as well the striking ambivalence toward women, such as surrogates and/or egg/cytoplasm donors, who have offered up their body and/or its reproductive components to the commercial market toward the end goal of a live birth.[vi] Often, a woman’s psyche is outrightly neglected as it undergoes this process. The woman is treated as a “purely functional” resource (Belu, 32). Feenberg terms this autonomization, “the interruption of the reflexivity of technical action, its impact on the user, so that the subject can affect the object of technical production seemingly without being affected in return.” (Belu, 32). Heidegger’s concept of fungibility rears its significance in an extremely ugly duality in this situation: the laboring subject is also the object of technical imposition, yet any mental or physical distress she may encounter in her dual role is downplayed or remains unaddressed by the life-engineers (Belu, 32).
Belu is also keen to cite the lack of medical follow-up studies over the years on certain groups of women who have participated in any part of the IVF process (Belu, 58, fn 66). She particularly notes the plights of young women egg donors (27) which have not been studied in depth. Moreover, there is a lack of research on the children who have been borne from these procedures, in terms of issues surrounding their mental and physical health (58, fn 66).
Ultimately, Belu sufficiently establishes patriarchal bias of IVF procedures, particularly when healthy women undergo IVF in the service of men whose sperm are unhealthy or otherwise deficient (Belu, 35), or when cross-fertilization (the use of sperm from many different men in a ‘lottery’ setup in order to determine which will fertilize a woman’s egg) is employed (Belu, 34). However, she misses an opportunity to make certain inroads as to how ARTs may functionally chip away at patriarchy; she instead places their use and control firmly in the hands of patriarchy as powerful instrumentum.
Belu’s introductory chapter states her intent to devise a feminist phenomenology of ARTs and summarizes content of succeeding chapters. Chapters 2-6 each open with a brief abstract which functions as a sort of a mini-“Heidegger 101” for the uninitiated. Belu weaves each chapter’s argument in strong relation to stated Heideggerian terms or tenets, which she evidences have proven themselves as prescient ontological reasoning vis-a-vis ARTs proliferation. The book’s through-line leads from Belu’s attempt to solidify a binarist interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of Enframing as partial or total–which reinterpretation holds serious implications for female agents as they experience reproductive enframing via the IVF process; to an engagement of Heideggerian thought with Aristotelian concepts of physis and technê in determining the authority of IVF procedures to ignite “the spark of life” (Belu, 61); continuing through technophilic and technophobic representations of modern-age childbirth; and culminating in Belu’s ‘solution’ (to what she perceives are complications and difficulties caused by technical childbirth) via poiésis. Belu’s compelling argument and concluding proposal in themselves embody Heidegger’s concept of safeguarding,[vii] the idea that Being (life) is granted as a gift, which we must foster and husband via Heidegger’s suggestions of meditation, waiting, and careful use of artisanal methods, rather than mindless challenging forth via quantization, endless ordering and stockpiling. ARTs processes, Belu is saying, are often hell-bent on a singular result (conception of Life) while heedlessly disregarding of the suffering of those (mothers) who are used or even abused, to obtain such result.
Belu’s Heideggerian Debt
Acknowledging Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology as a key resource,[viii] Belu is quick to note that Heidegger “writes virtually nothing about reproductive technology” although from his chronological position in history he does foresee processes of “artificial breeding of human material” (witness his 1954 essay Overcoming Metaphysics). Whether Heidegger’s comment of foresight launched this book (given current ART practices), Belu does not make clear, but the extended analogy of enframing to reproductive enframing holds sway. Throughout, Belu engages phenomenologically with select other philosophers, both of antiquity (Aristotle, and to a lesser extent, Plato) and modernity (Arendt, Feenburg, Oliver, Marcuse, Ruddick, others).
Couching “Motherless Age” as a Useful/Critical Resource
Heidegger, Reproductive Technology and the Motherless Age is first and foremost a phenomenological critique of social (medical) practices which have in the 21st-century become institutionalized. That is to say, ARTS are now viewed as mainstream medical procedures marketed to women of all strata as viable options for live birth, rather than “luxury” alternatives to natural sex in the service of conceiving a live human. It is still the case however, that women who enjoy economic freedom and possess excellent health insurance to pay for the still-astronomical cost of these procedures, are most often slated to benefit from the ARTS industry.[ix]
As such, this book will most likely not find a table or shelf position in the reading rooms or professional libraries of ARTS medical professionals. Such industry professionals are essentially selling a service [technological assistance] to produce a product [a live birth], in Belu’s overwhelming view. Yet some women (including the range of ARTS participant mothers) do not have a problem with this type of economic exchange, and in fact happily undergo these procedures in committed fashion, hoping for a successful outcome. A major drawback of this book is that Belu virtually ignores the scores of women and men whose lives changed toward the better via the use of ARTS technologies by granting them children–however and by whomever these children were conceived, gestated and borne. Belu sets up an overarching negative polemic of Technology (ARTS Doctor) vs. Subject (Patient) at the beginning of her argument; such polemic holds sway until the end of the book. Additionally, Belu concerns herself neither with individual case studies reflecting either positive or negative outcomes, nor with applications of ARTS to male-gendered subjects. Finally, Belu’s text is also woefully deplete of statistical input; while it does remain primarily a work of critical theory, a chart or two inserted to support her claims–particularly those regarding ARTS damages to the psyches and physical bodies of women–would not hurt. (In her defense, Belu does state that the industry itself has largely failed to undertake either national or international studies that would statistically emphasize the negative aspects of ARTS (Belu 58, fn 66)). Ultimately, Belu’s phenomenological argument holds many truths, which are corroborated by a number of current texts on this issue which are more sociological and/or statistical in nature, in particular: Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, also published in 2017.
Conclusion: Interdisciplinary Dialogue/Action is Needed
In conclusion, this text reflects the state of dialogue, conversation and problem-solving among the disciplines in place to move civil society forward: that is to say, these types of interdisciplinary activities are still in their infancy. Inter- and trans-disciplinary dialogue between and among medical ARTS professionals, academic philosophers, sociologists and social workers, ethics consultants and economists to improve the conditions and levity for all those across the board who seek to conceive/bear a child could only work for the good of these persons, and ultimately, for the human race. Unwittingly, Belu’s critical stance points the way forward toward such a dialogue even as her text concludes in what technophiliacs might consider highly Ludditian fashion: with an accent on waterbirth as an alternative to technologically-ruled live births. (A water birth assumes there is something to be born, whether technology has assisted in conception/gestation or not).
As we move into an ever-increasing technologically-mediated age for nearly every human activity or thought, a return to Heidegger’s prescient phenomenological warning to humanity is seemingly warranted. This, Belu accomplishes, with deft reverence to Heideggerian principles.
Dr. Belu ethically provides a short epilogue to her main text, explaining her position on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (as revealing of his anti-Semitism.) Belu points out, but does not de-crypt, Heidegger’s “equivocation” (Belu, 122) regarding the ontic or ontological origins of machination. Confirming Heidegger’s conflation of machination and “World Jewry” (via causality) as “racist and condemnable” (Belu 122), Belu nevertheless finds that Heidegger’s expression/espousement of a political stance that is overwhelmingly viewed as reprehensible does not specifically deconstruct the actual application of the phenomenological principle of enframing to a study of ARTS as implicated in women’s reproductive processes (Italics mine).
[i] See Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaphysics/. Section 5. “Is Metaphysics Possible?”
[ii] Belu explains her quasi-titular use of the term motherless thusly: “I do mean…that in the age of reproductive enframing the figure of the mother is being replaced by various technologies and maternal figures who perform maternal work. In this new context, almost anyone can be seen to be a mother–so that no one is the mother” , 51.
[iii] Linda G. Kahn and Wendy Chavkin, “Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Biological Bottom Line” in Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), Kindle version,39. The authors note the sociobiological implications of the proliferation of ARTs use from 1978-2012, during which period “five million babies had been born worldwide using IVF”. See also Belu, 25.
[iv] Belu offers an explorative footnote in this regard. See fn 14, 75.
[v] Kelly Oliver, Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013). Oliver defines mother-effect as “the result of the absence of a real mother who is therefore mythologized and romanticized as the origin and plentitude of Nature, but whose disappearance is a prerequisite for the myth itself”, 57.
[vi] The one exception to this ambivalent treatment of the female ‘resource’ is the surrogacy market in India, whose surrogacy clinics take great pains to ensure that their ‘worker’ mothers (gestational surrogates for wealthy individuals and couples) are “as comfortable as possible, healthy, well feed, well rested, entertained, and well paid” See Belu, 50; Bailey, 19.
[vii] See Martin Heidegger, Building, Dwelling, Thinking p. 352 in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) (http://designtheory.fiu.edu/readings/heidegger_bdt.pdf) and Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 3.4, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/.
[viii] Belu also references, to a lesser extent, material from Heidegger’s earlier essays The Danger, The Turning and Building, Dwelling, Thinking, (as well as Being and Time) the first two of which he drew upon significantly in writing The Question Concerning Technology.
[ix] Reassessing Motherhood notes the lack of agency for women situated in disadvantaged economic strata in terms of their ability to choose ARTS procedures for their own wombs, rather than lending their own wombs to those women who can easily afford to “purchase” their services. A double standard based on economic capability is firmly in place in which poor women are implicated as “tools” for economically secure women. This produces a “double whammy” for women from underdeveloped countries, who find themselves in the position of “seller”, although this phenomenon is not necessarily a Western/underdeveloped nation problem. See pp. 185, 224 and 295..
This study by junior scholar Anna Kouppanou proposes to recast Martin Heidegger’s conceptions of nearness, technology, and imagination in terms that show their interrelated phenomenological character as this speaks to the philosophy of education. Drawing substantially on the work of Bernard Stiegler, as well as Jacques Derrida, her method of analysis is less oriented in a Heidegger-studies approach per se, and more geared toward re-directing Heideggerian themes in service of specific questions. Kouppanou reads Heidegger from a persuasion such that the latter’s critique of technology is one-sided and negligent of considering how technology may overlap with other, more originary modes of being’s disclosure. She entertains a number of provocative theses. Among these theses are the following: nearness characterizes the event of truth and an essential aspect of education; technology affords nearness; imagination and temporality are co-constitutive; language, perception, and imagination are metaphorical; and the philosophy of education demands rethinking the interrelation of technology, imagination, language, and truth. All in all this project is an ambitious one, but Kouppanou gracefully weaves together a number of Heideggerian concepts and gives us new insights for understanding the scope of Heidegger’s notion of technology. I will say at the outset that I believe the study is actually much more effective on this score than it is on a philosophy of education front. To my mind this book’s most significant and groundbreaking contribution is its inventive interpolation of the connection between imagination, nearness, language, and technology in Heidegger’s philosophy. The concept of imagination in particular has historically been neglected in Heidegger studies, given Heidegger’s dismissal of imagination as a vestige of aesthetics and Cartesianism. Kouppanou’s book should broaden current understanding of imagination in Heidegger, especially in its positive sense.
Kouppanou prefaces the study in the Introduction by raising the question of how the concept of technology might be reconciled with Heidegger’s notion of authentic nearness. Kouppanou suggests that nearness ultimately concerns imagination, given that for something to be near entails that one sees it “as” this or that. Or vice versa, to see something in a particular aspect is to have it phenomenologically near. In other words, following Kant, the schematizing condition of perception is imaginative. This notion restates the hermeneutic turn in Heidegger, that any state of human understanding, any state of meaning, is always already interpretive. Kouppanou regards imagination (Einbildungskraft) as a core concept here because it unifies the schematization bound up in technology as Gestell with education conceived as Bildung (4). In this light there is a connection between technology’s enabling of nearness and education’s model of culturation; a guiding idea Kouppanou borrows from Véronique Fóti is that Heideggerian Gestell possesses a formative character similar to education. In other words, maybe there is not as sharp a distinction between Gestell and other, more originary manifestations of being as one may think.
The first chapter begins by addressing these issues further, taking up the concept of education from the critical standpoint of Heidegger’s concept of Gestell. Kouppanou highlights the current trend in education to demand measurement in terms of assessment, outcomes, research outputs, and so forth. The implicit notion is that, as “enframed” in a Heideggerian sense, education is removed of all freedom. The human subject in this situation is understood according to a pre-defined set of conditions, and her education is directed toward predetermined measures for future productivity. A text of focus for Kouppanou is Heidegger’s essay “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,” particularly in its pertinence to Heidegger’s notion of education qua aletheia. As a reader of this essay would know, Heidegger interprets Plato’s Cave allegory in terms of the precedence of aletheia, truth as discovery, in paideia, education. According to this text, education means being brought into light from out of darkness. Kouppanou emphasizes the equally decisive presence here of “nearness.” The cave prisoners experience aletheia and enact paideia by being brought nearer to the real things they formerly saw in shadow form. As the story relates, education has its apex when one’s intellection attains nearness to the original sources of sight and being. Importantly in Kouppanou’s reading, this allegory introduces the distinction of truth as aletheia from truth as orthotes, or correct judgment, which is predicated on one being in the presence of the actual thing. As Heidegger holds, this moment is the advent of metaphysics, and likewise of knowledge conceived as adequate representation modelled after the actual thing (13). For Kouppanou, this distinction is emblematic of Heidegger’s accounts elsewhere of the epistemological commitments of “productionist metaphysics,” where the human being achieves knowledge by receiving and grasping the model. Pre-given standards are contained in the model, rather than discovered in the nearness afforded by aletheia. Another way to understand the phenomenon of nearness occurs in the later Heidegger, particularly in Heidegger’s accounts of the poetic image. These accounts concern production that is not derived metaphysically (16). This distinction is perhaps best borne out, as Kouppanou observes, in Heidegger’s notion of the work of art, where the work affords an originary instance of aletheia, not a mere copy of an externally existing thing (17). As Chapter One concludes, a principal question for Kouppanou becomes that of a middle ground between originary presencing and subjective imagination; that is, are there modes in which human beings can conjure or fashion images which nonetheless emerge from out of the originary presence of things? For Kouppanou, this is a question as to whether technologically-mediated images can afford nearness in a fashion akin to the nearness afforded by works of art (19). Kouppanou writes:
The distinction between poetic and non-poetic image opens up a whole new discussion concerning types of images (Bild), types of forming (Bilden), their relation to imagination (Ein-Bildungskraft) – as the one being affected in receiving and producing forms of imagining, and ultimately their connection with Bildung as the very process concerned with human formation (19).
Employing a more expansive notion of this concept than Heidegger, the author understands “nearness” as a mode of knowing and connectedness to the world that allows the human being to participate in the unfolding of life through formative procedures (19-20). Thus, she regards nearness as intimately bound up with education.
The second chapter explores these issues in relation to the dimensions of nearness afforded by Heidegger’s conception of phenomenology, especially the spirit of phenomenology’s dictum to allow the things to show themselves. For Kourannou, this overlaps with the phenomenon of authentic temporality, by which one allows the voice of conscience to be heard. This overlap is made evident in the temporal aspect in which everyday engagement with things derives from a temporal, historical origin. As Heidegger observes in Being and Time, perception is grounded in “seeing-as.” Nearness to things is predicated upon their presence “as” this or that. Our everyday world-involvement is already interpretive, and this interpretation is typically framed by the historical reception of the given (25). In other words, as Kouppanou describes, Heidegger’s brand of phenomenology “affirms an openness that lets beings be received” (25). This as-structure works forwards as well as backwards in time. Authentic temporality entails a seeing-as that frames what is to come, from out of the nearness of what is present. Language is likewise a mode for Heidegger through which the nearness of things is gathered. As Kouppanou highlights, a key distinction that emerges in Heidegger’s conception of language lay in language’s tie to phenomenology – language is the logos of the phaino. Kouppanou cites a passage from Being and Time according to which discourse or logos in the guise of spoken language allows for things to be “sighted,” in the Greek, phone meta phantasias. The term phantasia here is decisive for Kouppanou precisely because it at once entails the originary character of bona fide phenomena (through its root pha-, which refers to “appearing” and “showing”) while it also refers to the later Aristotelian notion of imagination, the more familiar brand of seeing-as (27-28). This later notion of phantasia as imagination characterizes the way something appears to one, as when a blip on the horizon of a desert landscape is “imagined,” seen as an oasis. The point Kouppanou leverages here is that the Greek conception of phantasia, understood as a microcosm for nearness and imaging, is at once passive and active. On one hand, it characterizes the human capacity for receiving appearances from outside oneself – of having appearances show up – in the form of images. On the other hand, phantasia is the capacity of image-formation, for imaginatively bringing an absent something near to one through one’s own constructive powers. The challenge is to understand how Heidegger can regard the active dimension of phantasia in terms other than the representational, when he holds at the same time that phantasia comprises the “sighting” of what appears. As Kouppanou describes this tension, the task for Heidegger is to “reimagine imagination in terms of a knowing that is transformative and yet responsive to things” (28). To resolve this dilemma, Kouppanou cites Heidegger’s own engagement with Kant on the question of imagination’s relation with subjectivity. The key to resolving the dilemma of phantasia conceived as representation versus phenomenological disclosure is the temporal nature of imagination, in the mould of Kant’s account in the first Critique. Imagination not only figures into Kant’s account of the conditions for the possibility of experience in the First Critique’s A-Deduction; imagination also drives Kant’s account of schematism, the subjective component of perception by which one forms images while also deriving such formation from things. Kouppanou cites John Sallis to emphasize that transcendental imagination is identical with originary time, writing “[i]magination thus lies at the heart of the unity of time, since temporality necessitates, above everything, connection and association” (32). Another way to describe this structure, Kouppanou continues, is to understand nearness as coextensive with temporal experience as Heidegger understands the latter. As Kouppanou puts it,
Taking this reorientation into account, image, formation, and imagination become indistinguishable from Heidegger’s temporality. For Heidegger, time is the result of synthesis, an originary association that allows past, present, and future to come together and give time. This original nearness of moments allows time consciousness and consciousness in general. Without this bringing-near of past and present, and presence and absence, time cannot be formed (32).
So in this light, imagination (Einbildungskraft), education (or “formation,” Bildung), and image (Bild) consciousness are co-constituted through temporality. Or what is the same, Heideggerian temporality is conditioned by the underlying synthesis or formation manifested in imagination, with nearness operating as a crucial component. A question that remains to be taken up in the third chapter concerns the nature of future-directed imagination, or what Kouppanou calls “in advance formation.” If imagination transcends mere subjective representation, then the question becomes one of how imagination’s future-oriented, schematizing mode avoids this limitation. The question she poses is whether there are other structures involved that make this possible – and in particular – what is language’s role, insofar as it plays into the formation of originary poetic images?
The third chapter explores these issues in greater depth. One aspect Kouppanou highlights in further analyzing the futural character of imagination is the moment of vision, the augenblick, as a poetic image. Here she invokes the three ecstatic modes underlying temporality in Heidegger’s account from Division II of Being and Time. The mode of futurity lay in Dasein’s character of being-ahead-of-itself, of projecting forward interpretively from one’s own factical state. Yet, Dasein’s futural orientation also possesses an imaginative aspect insofar as it can be influenced by Dasein’s authentic acknowledgement of the voice of conscience. Dasein’s potential for authentic temporality has its seat in allowing conscience to be heard and in wanting to respond to this voice. Imagination would seem to be a crucial component here in that Dasein’s responding to the voice of conscience is necessarily a seeing-as, a hermeneutic moment of vision that is poetically gathered for one and disclosed in image form by virtue of Dasein’s self-understanding through heeding its own death. Similarly, as was observed in the look at imagination in Kant, the notion is that the image-formation of authentic temporality does indeed stem from both a subjective foundation and one that responds to things. As Kouppanou summarizes this point, authentic temporality instantiated in one’s owning of death is a process of bringing-near, to make present what is absent (38-39). However, she also adds the rejoinder that nearness is not a concept that can be expressed propositionally. “[N]earing, just like the originary image, is less of a designation and more of a metaphor, an irony, and a paradox” (39). For “nearness” itself is a metaphorical idea. It does not refer to an objective orientation in space or a property neatly predicable in a sentence. Rather, it is an interpretive mode in which things appear to one. In this light, Kouppanou suggests that the linguistic origin of the notion of nearness qua metaphor merits further discussion. On one hand, metaphors are antithethical to Heidegger’s attempt to transcend metaphysics insofar as they postulate a divide between sensuous and nonsensuous reality. On the other hand, as Kouppanou suggests, Heidegger’s accounts of perception in various texts suggest that he understands sensation (aisthesis) as subject to metaphorical transformation in perception. This is to say, everyday human perception occurs through metaphorizing of sensation, given that all seeing is in fact seeing-as. Kouppanou writes: “The world as phenomenon, as Heidegger seems to argue, is perceived with the assistance of both aisthesis (the senses) and phantasia (imagination), or better yet: aisthesis perceives imaginatively and through the modification of sense data” (42). To say that perception metaphorizes the stuff of things is to regard perception as imaginative, as a kind of image formation. (An aside Kouppanou hints at here is that language’s metaphorical character is likewise imaginative, based in image-formation, similar to Nietzsche’s account of metaphor.) Kouppanou finishes out the chapter by again invoking the role of productive imagination by way of Kant. If one concedes that perception is imaginative, this assumes that perception requires “exterior images” (44). This is to say that, as concomitant with productive imagination, perception also engages the retentive aspect of time-consciousness by which images are frozen as schemas that inform future experience. In brief, perception is imaginative reproduction. In the chapter’s conclusion, the primary question asks whether nearness is confined to the relation of imaginative schematization and language, or whether there are other media in which nearness can occur.
Chapters Four, Five, and Six explore the concept of nearness according to its various treatments in the early, middle, and late periods of Heidegger’s thought, respectively. Chapter Four takes up nearness as it is implicated in the early Heidegger’s concept of things “ready-to-hand.” Chapter Five examines the role of nearness in Heidegger’s political thought, particularly as it pertains to Heidegger’s thought on homeland and native soil. Chapter Six focuses on Heidegger’s perhaps best-known discussions of nearness, from the later writings on poetic experience and the life of the “thing” (Das Ding), where nearness is conceived as an alternative mode of dwelling to modern technology. In what follows I will summarize these studies briefly before taking up the final two chapters of the book.
Chapter Four analyzes the early Heidegger’s account of nearness as revealed in things ready-to-hand (such as Being and Time’s tools) in order to better understand Heidegger’s attempt to “eliminate the technological aspects of being from his theorization of authentic time” (51). Kouppanou suggests that Heidegger’s avoidance of emphasizing aspects of existence such as “materiality, embodiment, spatiality, and prostheticity” (51) in his accounts of perception and world are reflective of his disinclination to include technology in the sphere of authentic temporality. Whereas, Kouppanou wants to suggest here that such a divide between the poetic or originary, and the technological, is artificial, given that technology is embedded in historicality. Technological being informs the imaginative character of perception no less than the rooted and homely in Heidegger’s early account of Dasein’s being-in-the-world.
Chapter Five examines Heidegger’s notion of nearness in its guise as a “political scheme.” The primary goal of Kouppanou’s focus here is to highlight Heidegger’s recasting of nearness into the political dimension of rootedness (76). Technology is to blame, according to Heidegger, for creating a false sense of nearness that results in rootlessness. Citing Stiegler, Kouppanou argues in contrast that technology does in fact have a constitutive role in the formation of the polis and the emergence of nearness; she emphasizes that “time cannot be a single destiny,” nor can time circumvent the mediation of technology (81). Simply put, authentic temporality cannot occur outside the sway of technology. Part of Heidegger’s error here, Kouppanou suggests, is to absolutize space as a metaphysical principle, whereas in Being and Time, he makes a stronger case that the nearness of space is a metaphor disclosed by Dasein. Kouppanou comments: “Heidegger’s return to space [in the critique of technology] coincides with the distortion of the very process that his thinking attempts to become: the poetic image. Instead of letting poetic imagery to be freely received, Heidegger imposes interpretations that temporalize space and emphasize the historicality of the homeland” (77).
Kouppanou transitions to Chapter Six by highlighting the later Heidegger’s move away from thinking nearness in terms of the futural, spiritual, and cultural. In particular, she emphasizes Heidegger’s remark in “The Origin of the Work of Art” that the poetic can no longer be understood from the standpoint of the imagination, but instead relies on a freely-received letting-be of the historical manifested in the interplay of world and earth (84-85). In other words, the later Heidegger seems to allow for historical being to occur as a disclosure of truth from without. However, Kouppanou suggests that the concept of imagination remains in play for Heidegger by virtue of informing his position on the relation of truth, language, and art. In particular, the function of metaphor as a proto-linguistic imaginative stuff underlying poetic experience suggests that imagination still figures into the primordial disclosures of being occasioned by art. Thus, poetic experience can still be regarded as imaginative in its foundations. In this vein Kouppanou writes:
While language is presented as the basic process that lets things be and affords nearness, Heidegger’s own metaphorical language says much more about the way nearness and the poetic realm unfold than his explicit argumentative language. What’s more, his discussion concerning the work of art, as a site for truth, emphasizes the spatiotemporal dimensions of revealing and accounts for the material and embodied aspects of its unfolding. This in turn provides us with an opportunity to reconsider poetic image as a mode of presencing that does not belong to language exclusively (90).
In the ending sections of Chapter Six, the final chapters of the book are previewed in some explorations of how Heidegger understands true nearness in the lived world of “things” (as in the essay “The Thing”) versus his view of the alienated state of being afforded by technology. Kouppanou highlights the primacy of the human hand for Heidegger in the creation of works fostering true nearness, as the hand is integral to both traditional handicraft and originary language conceived as gesture. Heidegger highlights this phenomenon when he contrasts the hand’s use in speaking and writing with the hand’s diminished capacity in these activities upon the advent of the typewriter. A pervasive ambiguity Kouppanou identifies here in Heidegger is the equal role of the hand in making use of differentiated, external being. It would be a mistake to claim, as Heidegger seems to suggest, that works of the hand constitute self-contained, holistic processes of creation. As Kouppanou suggests, there appears not to be a sharp underlying divide between Heidegger’s notion of the lived experience associated with tools and “things” of handicraft, which are derivative upon metaphorizing imagination, and robust manifestations of modern technology. Both make use of beings external to themselves in fostering their brands of nearness. It is not sufficient to claim that modern technology is problematic simply because it maximizes nearness and totally removes distance. The thrust of Kouppanou’s argumentation is that there seems not to be a fundamental difference between the imaginative disclosure afforded through, say, the hammer and the disclosure given through 21st-century computing.
The final two chapters of the book engage the findings of Chapters One through Six as they pertain to education and technology in current times. Of particular emphasis for Kouppanou is the type of nearness fostered by the imaginative schematization prevalent in the World Wide Web and social media. Kouppanou’s central argument in these final portions of the book rests on the claim that the nearness availed by modern technology is coextensive with Heidegger’s core assumptions about the relation of nearness, language, metaphor, and imagination. She writes that “technology is always already constitutive for our ways of seeing-as,” and “[a]ll technology participate in our hermeneutical processes” (119). In sum, “hermeneia is itself a material exterior and embodied metaphorical process unfolding through a twofold process of discretisation and synthesis instantiated through both language and technology” (Ibid.). For Kouppanou, this last view is decisive because it drives home the imaginative, metaphorical basis equally latent within “gestures, tools, words, and stories.” Metaphoricity is simply a constitutive element of things and their lived meaning (Ibid.). Kouppanou then grafts this reasoning onto the digital being of the contemporary computerized world. The digital world is not simply the alienated world of technology; for human Dasein the digital world is still being-in-the-world. (This view has been developed by other Heideggerian philosophers including Michael Eldred.) Online experience is coextensive with the worldhood of everyday, “real” experience. The metaphorized images of online being are equally meaningful as the “real” world of meaning (123). A core assumption of these passages is that the online experience fostered in media such as Facebook is always derivative from the meaning-structures embedded in intentionality.
In the final chapter, Kouppanou addresses these issues as they pertain to the philosophy of education. The primary question concerns whether modern technology’s current manifestation fundamentally alters the outlook for education conceived in its original guise as Bildung, formation through images. On one hand, she notes, the temporal form of “nowness” or constant immediacy created in online being would seem to encourage a pervasive lack of freedom. Online experience in this light is one of the individual perpetually being formed or educated from without (145). The danger Kouppanou sees here is the metaphorization or formation of the human latent in the pervasive reach of computing technology. For, technology, like handicraft is not merely metaphorized being in its own right; technology also leads its user to become metaphorized. This phenomenon has been documented in empirical science, as research has shown different types of media cause the human brain to rewire itself. Therefore, Kouppanou’s position here argues that technology’s power to completely metaphorize and rewire the educational process risks undermining the processes of discovery, scaffolded learning, and above all, hermeneutical freedom that are integral to education (150).
This book is a very impressive piece of scholarship for an early-career researcher. Its reassessment of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology in terms of the concepts of nearness and imagination is especially fruitful. Stylistically I believe the chapters proceed somewhat quickly at times, jumping from one dense source to another in often rapid fashion, when the author might in fact benefit from covering less material and proceeding more slowly. The connections between the chapter topics also sometimes suffer from a similar feeling of disjointedness, where the inclusion of certain topics and subtopics comes off as unmotivated and ad hoc. The fifth chapter on Heidegger’s political agenda struck me particularly strongly in this regard. The first four chapters of the book, along with Chapter Six, come across much more cohesively in contrast. However, these are all small caveats given the strong total contribution of the book. As I noted at the beginning, the book’s principal shortcoming may be that its conclusions vis-à-vis the philosophy of education are relatively lukewarm and prefatory. The final chapter in which education takes center stage reads somewhat more like an appendix, whereas the chapters dedicated to Heidegger are more focused on making sense of a complex line of inquiry in his thought.
Frank Schalow’s new book, Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction, offers an important contribution to the philosophical study of addiction. While, as Schalow notes at the start of his work, the topic of addiction has spawned many studies from a variety of fields in the past years, relatively few of these have examined addiction using the methods of philosophy, and specifically, of phenomenology. Schalow argues that this leaves an important gap in our approaches to addiction, given that studies that consider addiction in purely physiological terms overlook the meaningful dimension of the addict’s experience, specifically, they fail to consider the life world of the addict. It is this lack that Schalow’s new book intends to redress.
Schalow uses phenomenological methods and concepts, primarily drawn from Heidegger’s Being and Time and later work on technology, to illuminate the phenomenon of addiction, often with considerable success. As the subtitle, “Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence,” suggests, Schalow is primarily interested in understanding addiction with respect to the body, the technological context of addiction, and the existential dimension of addiction. While anyone seeking a detailed account of the role of the body in addiction might be left wanting more from Schalow’s book, they will nevertheless find probing analyses of the role that technology and transcendence can play in understanding addiction. With respect to the former, Schalow argues that the prevalence of addiction in the present era ought to be considered a referendum on the role of technology in our culture. With respect to the latter, Schalow argues that the phenomenological concepts of transcendence and authenticity can provide a key to addiction treatment.
Schalow’s first five chapters offer a phenomenological diagnosis of addiction, while the final three begin to develop phenomenological principles of addiction treatment. The first chapter argues for the importance of a philosophical, as opposed to neurological or psychological, approach to addiction. Schalow does this, in part, through the contention that addiction ought to be understood as a cultural-historical phenomenon – a “historical and cultural transformation of our ‘way to be'” (4) – which therefore cannot adequately be understood merely in terms of the physiology of the body, but only in terms of the meaningful features of the addict’s life-world. Schalow makes clear from the first that he intends to broaden our concept of addiction and to stand the common sense appraisal of the place of addiction in our society on its head, via his claim that addiction ought to be understood as a way of being that is in a certain sense the norm for our society (9).
Chapter 2 begins work on the phenomenological study of addiction, showing how many of Heidegger’s key concepts from Being and Time provide the existential preconditions of addiction. Schalow’s central argument here is that the possibility of addiction is rooted in structures of Dasein common to addicts and non-addicts alike, namely everydayness and being-with-others. Specifically, Schalow proposes to understand addiction as “a permutation of inauthenticity or unownedness” (29). Similarly, addiction can be seen as rooted in being-with-others: dissimulating one’s self-responsibility in terms of conformity with the they-self, as described by Heidegger, creates an environment in which addiction can flourish. Further, Schalow shows how phenomenological analyses of spatiality, in terms of de-severance, and temporality, in terms of making-present, can illuminate the situation of the addict. Chapter 3 continues this work, specifically with regard to the “hook” of addiction. Schalow argues that the hook ought to be understood in terms of the concept of a “fetish,” insofar as one becomes “hooked” on a substance or process when it acquires a disproportionate significance in one’s life, when an object or process operates as a locus of attraction beyond its immediate meaning, e.g., as a means of escape or inducing satisfaction. For such mediate significances, fetishes rely on our capacity for fantasy, or imagination. In a commodity fetish, for example, a commercial object becomes invested with the meaning of a marker of economic status. This is only possible insofar as the imagination opens up a space of possible meanings for an object over and beyond its immediate significance. However, when the fetish supplants the fantasy, according to Schalow, the fetish closes off other possible meanings and becomes addictive. Insofar as the addict, in being fixated on this object, is taken in by it, rather than projecting a meaning for it, addiction is in Heidegger’s terms a form of “fallenness,” i.e., of being lived by the world rather than choosing oneself (62). Chapter 4 completes the existential analysis of addiction, focusing on self-understanding and being-with-others. Here, Schalow argues that addiction corresponds to a form of self-evasion familiar in terms of “denial.” At the same time, addiction often corresponds to inauthentic modes of relation to others, e.g., in terms of leaping-in familiar as a kind of “co-dependency.”
In chapter 5, Schalow turns to the technological dimension of his project. As I indicated above, his claim is that addiction can be considered as a referendum on technology (91), or in other words, the ubiquity of addiction in our society can only be understood in terms of its technological backdrop. Schalow makes this point by connecting technology and addiction in a number of ways. First, new technologies often facilitate certain kinds of addiction that pre-exist those technologies, as, e.g., the internet facilitates a gambling addiction. Second, new technologies give rise to unique forms of addiction, e.g., addictions to social media or video games (89-90). But, thirdly, Schalow is engaged in a larger claim, namely the Heideggerian claim that technology essentially amounts to an “enframing” of the world, characteristic of our culture, i.e., in which everything (including humanity) becomes standing reserve. This “enframing,” in turn, is bound up with addiction in a number of ways. First, it fosters a culture of excess and immediate gratification which promote addiction. Second, this technological culture infuses the life-world of the addict with boredom and stress, and thereby motivates release via addictive substances or processes (section 5.2). Finally, there seems to be a deeper sense in which technology mirrors addiction: just as in addiction one seeks control over one’s life and moods through the use of a substance or process, but thereby in fact gives control of one’s life over to the substance or process, similarly technology offers the promise of control, the “enframing” of resources, only at the price of losing control of human life to this enframing (110). It is, I think, especially in this sense that Schalow understands his central claim that addiction should take on the broad sense of a “historical and cultural transformation of our way-to-be” (4).
In the final chapters of his work, Schalow turns to an existential analysis of methods of treatment. Since Schalow considers the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program to be the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111), Chapter 6 investigates the historical backdrop for the development of this program, explaining connections between AA founder Bill Wilson and the important figures and movements of his time, including Carl Jung, Rudolf Bultmann, and the Oxford movement. In chapters 7 & 8, Schalow argues that existing approaches to treatment are overly dependent on a mind-body dualism – i.e., they focus on either spiritual practices (e.g., AA or talk therapy) or purely physiological treatments – and so leave an important gap in treatment that would be targeted at the addict’s life-situation. Further, the hermeneutic-phenomenological method, insofar as it has long subverted the dualism of mind and body, can prove an important corrective here, by suggesting contours of treatment that would fill this gap. While these contours are multifaceted – e.g., involving the addict adopting new life-contexts (147) – Schalow focuses on transcendence, or responsibility, claiming that addiction cannot be treated without some “resoluteness” (in Heidegger’s sense) on the part of the addict. According to Schalow, “resoluteness” is the appropriate category by which to understand the addict’s choice of recovery, because the decision to quit a habit is not merely a choice, but really a choosing to choose. One does not overcome addiction through a single choice, but rather through choosing, day by day, sobriety, in a manner that is thus the opposite of the culture of immediate gratification fostered by technology. Addiction can only be treated with a commitment, on the part of the addict, and thus insofar as the addict takes responsibility for her or himself.
These analyses accomplish a number of important tasks. Schalow’s greatest accomplishment is to translate Heidegger’s phenomenological concepts into the context of addiction, and show that these concepts can be productively employed in this context. Second, Schalow draws together and develops Heidegger’s scattered thoughts about addiction into a sustained account, offering a cohesive existential analysis of the phenomenon. Third, Schalow makes a number of interesting claims about the cultural backdrop for the prevalence of addiction in today’s society, in particular, raising important questions about the role technology may be playing in this phenomenon. Fourth, in his final chapters, Schalow suggests the principles of an existential approach to recovery, an approach which may indeed offer some novel principles for treatment. Fifth, Schalow makes and supports the provocative claim that addiction is in some sense the norm for our society, and cannot be considered merely pathological. Finally, especially in Chapter 6, Schalow draws connections between a number of figures important in the early 20th century and demonstrates their relevance to the formation of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program.
Along with these significant accomplishments, there are some problems with Schalow’s account. In the following, I’ll outline four kinds of concerns about Schalow’s book: those dealing with his interpretation of Heidegger, with the connection he draws between technology and addiction, with his reliance on the AA program, and with his principles of treatment.
First, there are some issues with Schalow’s interpretation of Heidegger, three of which are especially significant. First, Schalow uses Heidegger’s analysis of technology to shed light on the role technology might play in the present addiction crisis. But it seems to me that Schalow often blurs the distinction, important to Heidegger, between technology and the essence of technology (e.g., Heidegger’s claim that “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological” ). But Schalow seems to move readily between the claim that specific technologies facilitate addiction and the claim that enframing, or the essence of technology, permeates the present addiction crisis, leaving it unclear to what extent his argument is Heideggerian. Second, and relatedly, it seems to me that Schalow risks misunderstanding the “danger” posed by the essence of technology according to Heidegger. Heidegger writes that “Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. … The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing is the danger” (333). The danger is not that of “the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” but that enframing blocks a more primordial engagement with Being. But Schalow is at the very least ambiguous in his understanding of the danger when he writes that “Heidegger argued that technology wields a double-edged sword, namely, that the greater opportunities afforded to human beings, including leisure-time, simultaneously brings its specific drawbacks and even risks. In his words, for every mode of ‘unconcealing’ what is, i.e., the opportunities created by new innovations, there are also equally ominous modes of ‘concealing,’ i.e., unanticipated and destructive consequences” (96). Third, if Schalow is right to think that addiction is a symptom of the essence of technology, then it is unclear that an individual’s resoluteness could free her or him of addiction. Heidegger writes that “Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it” (339). Schalow presupposes that terms like “resoluteness” (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s early work in Being and Time) can offer a resolution to a problem posed at least in part by technology (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s later work), a presupposition which is at least contentious. And if no human activity or achievement can directly counter the danger, then it is unclear to me how efficacious reflection on the kinship of the endangered and the saving power would be for the addict.
Second, the connection between technology and addiction could be better established. For example, at times Schalow claims that certain technologies or technological processes are addictive. But it would be helpful to cite some empirical research in this regard, especially given that the medical community has not yet concluded that there are such addictions (though some research does support this conclusion, e.g., Leeman and Potenza ). Here too it would be helpful if Schalow were clearer about the kind of connection he envisages between technology and addiction, whether in terms of technologies influencing addiction or technological thinking being in some sense essentially addictive.
Third, Schalow focuses much of his thinking about treatment around the AA twelve-step program, but does little to argue for the validity of this program. Instead, Schalow seems to assume that the AA program offers a valid point of departure for analysis, justifying it by appealing to it as the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111) or as the first addiction treatment program (ix). But the efficacy of the twelve-step program is controversial (see, e.g., Dodes  or Humphreys et. al. ). Granted, Schalow sets out to offer a philosophical and existential approach, rather than an empirical or medical approach, but a phenomenological approach must exercise care in its choice of a point of departure for analysis. Some other finer points raise similar concerns, e.g., Schalow’s referral to “neurasthenia” (161), a condition no longer recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In general, Schalow’s analysis would have benefitted from greater fluency with psychological and medical results.
Fourth, I have some concerns about Schalow’s principles for treatment. Foremost of these is that it is hard to see how Schalow’s prescription of “resoluteness” wouldn’t entail a return to the moralistic myth that the addict is merely lazy. Schalow recognizes this possibility, and certainly aims to avert it, for example, writing that he defines “responsibility” in a Heideggerrian manner (in terms of “answerability”) rather than in the traditional sense of a volitional act or exercise of the will (151). Nevertheless, the ensuing discussion of responsibility (especially Schalow’s use of Kant) makes it hard to see how he is not resorting to a more traditional sense of responsibility. Schalow is very likely correct that resoluteness is a necessary condition for recovery, but it is unclear how far it is supposed to get the addict. Further, if Schalow’s aim is to bridge the gap between treatments aimed at the mind and treatments aimed at the body (considered in biological terms), then “resoluteness” or “choosing to choose” might not be the best resource: a phenomenological analysis of human existence aimed at a level beneath deliberate choice might provide more novel approaches to treatment. Indeed, some of Schalow’s most interesting insights about treatment are found in discussions not directly oriented toward resoluteness, e.g., in his suggestion that for the addict to reorient her priorities she must begin to “inhabit a new space” of relations with others (146).
Schalow’s Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction succeeds in developing a phenomenological framework for thinking about addiction, and raises interesting questions about the role of technology and transcendence in addiction. Anyone led by Schalow’s subtitle to look in this book for a close treatment of the role of embodiment in addiction might be left wanting more, for Schalow treats this theme more sparingly than the others. One wonders if Husserl or Merleau-Ponty might have proven better resources in this regard for Schalow than Heidegger, and indeed, some of the most acute passages related to embodiment come from Schalow’s brief discussion of habituality and Merleau-Ponty (40-1). Nevertheless, Schalow succeeds in this work in knitting together a host of phenomenological themes around the topic of addiction, and perhaps it would be unfair to ask him to incorporate yet another with equal care. Its successes make this book a considerable step in the phenomenological and existential analysis of addiction, and no doubt it will prove an important study for anyone interested in this topic.
Dodes, Lance and Zachary Dodes. 2014. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. 307-352. New York: HarperCollins.
Humphreys, Keith, Janet C. Blodgett, and Todd H. Wagner. 2014. “Estimating the Efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous without Self-Selection Bias: An Instrumental Variables Re-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 38 (11): 2688-2694.
Leeman, RF and MN Potenza. 2013. “A Targeted Review of the Neurobiology and Genetics of Behavioral Addictions: An Emerging Area of Research.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 58 (5): 260-73.
For those who are interested in the exchange between early phenomenology and China a new interesting study has appeared. The book is divided into nine chapters, some of which are based on articles that have been published before, most of them in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy. The first chapter describes the reception of Confucianism in Germany. It relates how different writers, such as Martin Buber, Georg Misch, Helmuth Plessner, and Karl Jaspers debated the merits of Confucianism.
The second chapter deals with different views on the meaning of life in China and Europe, as expressed in the exchange between the Chinese writer Zhang Junmai and the German vitalists Rudolf Eucken and Hans Driesch. In China, Zhang’s defence of German idealism strongly influenced Chinese philosophy in the 20th century. The third chapter is a comparison of Confucian ethics with the philosophies of Nietzsche and Max Scheler. It focuses on the concept of resentment, in the Western view often considered as caused by a lack of equality, but in Confucianism seen as a flaw in the inner cultivation of harmony.
Next follow three chapters that investigate the different aspects of Euro-centrism in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. One of those aspects is the naturalistic influence of Taoist thought on the critical attitude towards technology of both Buber and Heidegger. Another aspect is the question of whether philosophy is a single historical event or a general human activity which unfolds itself in different situations and from different causes. Finally, before a concluding chapter investigates the possibilities of an intercultural philosophy, two penultimate chapters explore a confrontation of Martin Heidegger with Zen Buddhism and the relation between emptiness and language. The book is well written and further study is facilitated by many footnotes and an extensive bibliography. There is a general index for quick reference that includes subjects as well as names of Chinese and European writers.
The chapters consist of a series of philosophically-orientated historical case studies, focusing on the confrontation between Chinese and German philosophy. Against the often-quoted opinion of Husserl and Heidegger that philosophy can only be European, the author proposes a more universal concept of philosophy, assuming that philosophy is a universally human potency. The rejection of non-Western philosophy is therefore associated with the denial of humanity to non-Western cultures. For Nelson the intercultural approach also implies a rejection of essentialism, which leads to the conclusion that a multicultural or comparative approach is out of the question. There are no essences or identities of philosophy that can be compared, no inherent differences that can be listed and opposed to each other. The key word Nelson uses is ‘inter-textualism’, the dynamic exchange between texts through the ages by which they cooperate and refer to each other.
Arguably classical Greek and Roman philosophy, in which philosophy is an enquiry about the good life, is closer to non-Western philosophical discussion than our modern Western conception. Nelson complains: “Modern Western philosophy—which is simultaneously universal in its pretensions about its scope and provincial in its actual practises—has been largely indifferent, when not allergically antagonistic, to non-Western forms of thinking” (13).
The first chapter concerns the bad press of Confucianism. This prejudice is, according to Nelson, a heritage of colonial thinking. The prejudices towards Confucianism and the term itself initiated from the reports of Jesuit missionaries who stayed for some time at the court of the Chinese Emperor during the late Ming and early Ching dynasties (roughly the seventeenth century). Since then Confucianism has met with little appreciation in the West, but according to its admirers it can offer interesting ethical political insights that can be useful in Western political philosophy. Nelson mentions some philosophers who were more sympathetic. Pierre Bayle and Nicolas Malebranche identified Confucianism with the pantheism of Spinoza. Christian Wolff even had to leave the University of Jena in 1726 because of the protests of Christian theologians after he equated Jesus and Confucius in his lecture on the practical philosophy of the Chinese.
In the sayings of Confucius, the Analects (Lunyu ), he often appeals to the will of tian 天 (mostly translated as ‘heaven’; sometimes as ‘God’). Because of this translation many philosophers interpreted Confucianism as a kind of Deist or atheist ethics, and inadequate to the rational individualism of the West. Nelson argues that the critics overlooked the openness of Confucianism to critical reflection and reformation of practises and institutions along with the acceptance of the authority of the existing ethical order. Hegel was the most outspoken critic, because he thought Oriental peoples were not capable of understanding the concept of true freedom. Weber admitted that the Chinese and Islamic culture used to be more advanced than the Western, but found them incomplete, because they both lacked transcendence and final redemption. Moreover, Chinese philosophy failed in the complete rationalisation of the life-world and never rid itself of traces of magical thought. Nietzsche associated Confucian and Buddhist ethics with an altruistic ethics similar to Christendom, which he rejected. On the other hand, others were enchanted by the Chinese pure aesthetics that was supposed to be in harmony with nature. Confucius was sometimes compared to Socrates, for instance by Karl Jaspers, but Schelling makes him an anti-Socrates. In the intercultural hermeneutics of Georg Misch (in his book The Dawn of Philosophy), however, Nelson finds some well-founded argumentation for a positive reception of Confucius and of non-Western philosophy in general. Martin Buber and Helmuth Plessner elevated Confucianism beyond the scope of philosophy, because they found it too subtle and noble.
The second chapter describes the work of Zhang Junmai (1886-1969), who introduced the principle of self-reflection of life (shengming 生命) into modern Confucian philosophy. His early work reflects the crisis of meaning that befell the Chinese during the late 19th and early 20th century when several political changes and revolutions took place and the Chinese army appeared to be no match for the Western forces. After a first attempt to assimilate the philosophy of the Western invaders, Zhang looked for concepts similar to Western ideas in the Confucian tradition. If necessary, Confucian ideas could be reformulated or adapted to match the demands of the new era. This was a hazardous strategy, because it could be seen as giving in to the foreign domination and cutting ties with the very Chinese tradition that was to be saved. Zhang wrote a book together with Rudolf Eucken, called The Problem of Life in China and Europe (Das Lebensproblem in China und Europa, 1922), which consists of an abridged history of Western philosophy, an overview of the history of Chinese ethics and a diagnostic reflection on the contemporary ethical situation in China and Europe. Nelson praises it as a nice example of a cross-cultural dialogue, in which Eucken was convinced of the need of a renewal of spiritual life in the West as an answer to the crisis of modernity that had unleashed so much cruelty in the first World War. What is at stake is reason, its nature, its relation to life, and the question of whether it is universal or restricted to the mainstream of Western philosophy.
Nelson relates how Zhang thinks that Western philosophy, with exception of German idealism and the philosophy of Eucken, has failed to integrate life and reason. Eucken maintains that life has originated from metaphysical sources. In this aspect his philosophy contains a spiritual ontology. According to Nelson, Zhang wants to counterbalance the Western will to power by the Chinese emphasis on personal ethical development. In China this message resonated with the classical philosophies of Mengzi (372-289 BCE) and Wang Yangming (1472-1529), but it did not quite fit in with the discourse in China at the time. Zhang was very much opposed to racist and nationalist ideologies, and he rejected the theory that the Han people were a group of one blood and identity. Hans Driesch, who stayed with Zhang in China for nine months, also rejected any difference of essence, nature, or substance between Eastern and Western people, or between Germans and Jews for that matter. In those days the fear of the ‘yellow peril’ (sinophobia) spread around, amongst others propagated by Kaiser Wilhelm, who had a nightmare in 1895 in which the Buddha riding a dragon was conquering Europe. In 1950 this idea was even endorsed by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Zhang was later forced to go in exile to the U.S.A., and his successor Mou Zongsan became one of the most important philosophers in China. On both sides of the globe, Nelson writes, xenophobia had permeated the pores of academics as well as politicians. Nevertheless, there was an opposite current of fascination with the East, both in art and philosophy. However, in the eyes of many this current became affiliated with the romantic and magical thought of theosophy and the New Age. In the meantime China had adopted Marx and Western capitalism.
The third chapter deals with the view on China of Max Scheler and Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that China suffered from a culture of ressentiment. According to Nelson, Scheler maintained contra Nietzsche that ressentiment (resentment being a feeling of unhappiness due to exposure to unfairness and ressentiment a complex attitude of hating life because of spite towards successful people, blaming them for one’s own misfortune) is not linked to Christendom, but to its negation and that of religion in general. It defies the basic moral character of humanity, which can be found in many places in human history, like the teachings of the Stoics and Epicureans as well as those of Taoism and Buddhism. For Nietzsche, however, ressentiment is the very source of all moralities, especially the Christian one, because they all hold that the strong are repressed for the benefit of the week. The opposite of ressentiment is self-affirmation. In Nietzsche’s book Twilight of Idols, Confucius is a preacher of ressentiment, just like Jesus and Plato, in comparison to Nero and Napoleon (84). Nietzsche claims that China is a warning, because there ressentiment merely seems to have been overcome, whereas in fact it still silently rules the hearts of the people. In Nietzsche’s view, the altruism preached by the Buddha and Confucius made the Chinese passive and fearful. This had to be avoided in Europe in order to liberate the strong and noble persons from the domination by the weak masses. Nelson does not share Nietzsche’s verdict; he is convinced that in the Analects many examples are to be found where a selfish attitude is cut short by the cultivation of sincere benevolence and altruism. In his view, earlier Confucian ethics integrates a realistic moral psychology of negative emotions such as resentment with a model of self-cultivation that is aiming at an attitude of benevolence towards others. Early Confucian ethics in general minimizes the expectation of others and maximizes the need for self-discipline, obviously because one is powerless over the other’s expectations and high expectations could lead to resentment. Moreover, the noble person earns respect by helping others. According to Nelson, this is not a matter of self-sacrifice as Scheler and Nietzsche would have it, but a matter of self-cultivation.
Nelson remarks in the fourth chapter that the reception of Chinese philosophy is flawed by inadequate translations, prejudice, and lack of familiarity with the cultural context and differences in circumstances. Intercultural philosophy is captured in a dilemma between rigorous and narrow expertise, and free, creative reading between the lines. Romantic writers contrasted Taoist spontaneity and naturalness with the alienation of the technological modernity. The image of mystic love of nature was combined with wild Orientalistic imagination. Nelson finds in Schelling the first to write an intelligent commentary on the Daodejing. Schelling describes the dao as pure potency, the link between finite and actual being. Knowledge of the dao requires practical wisdom. A milestone in the understanding of Taoism in Germany was Martin Buber’s German translation of the Zhuangzi from the English translations of James Legge and Herbert Allen Giles, which appeared in 1910. Heidegger reportedly read it several times (121). Buber’s preference for this book is quite understandable in light of his most famous book I and Thou that appeared in 1923. Zhuangzi looks in Buber’s eyes a lot like the hasidim of the Jewish tradition, of which he knew the stories all too well. Moreover, the Zhuangzi teaches through humour, contrary to the Daodejing. Ten years later, however, Buber preferred the Daodejing because of its political dimension.
Buber has, according to Nelson, a positive view on Taoism, in which to be one with the dao is to be one with the creativity of life, through non-doing (wu wei). Buber finds a drive towards the actualization of the divine in ordinary life by sensitive persons in both Taoism and Hasidic Judaism. Nelson speculates that Buber’s language of surrender, letting go and inaction anticipated and perhaps influenced Heidegger. Buber once even uses the word Gelassenheit (‘releasement’), which is quite similar to the Chinese concept of non-action (wu wei), but Heidegger claims to have found it in the work of Meister Eckhart. Interestingly enough, however, Buber expressed his concern about the threat of modern science and technology before Heidegger did, emphasizing the need for a European alternative for Taoism. He calls the Taoist writings a source of inspiration (anticipating Peter Sloterdijk’s book Eurotaoism). So in this way Buber thinks an encounter between Chinese wisdom and European rationality to be possible and even necessary. Confucianism is in Buber’s opinion too demanding for the egoist Westerners and tied up with traditional Chinese values, while Taoism looks more promising. Although there is nothing of the Zhuangzi in his writings, Heidegger seems to have taken a great interest in the book. He was inspired by it for his conception of being-with (Mitsein), natural artistry without relying on a technique, and finally the necessity of the unnecessary or the use of the useless. At the end of the second World War the Chinese scholar Paul Shih-yi Hsiao engaged with Heidegger in conversations concerning the Daodejing and they translated sections of the text together into German. Heidegger interpreted the text rather idiosyncratically; understanding other cultures was not his forte. He mentions in the collection On the Way to Language the Chinese word for way, dào, and equals it to the Greek word logos. He calls it “the secret of all secrets of thoughtful saying.” As for Buber, it serves Heidegger as a counterbalance to the threat of technology that is hanging over Western philosophy. Technology causes humans to treat each other as objects, putting all personal relations into oblivion. So for both Heidegger and Buber, Zhuangzi provided a model for non-religious aesthetic freedom. Asian philosophy does not play any part in Heidegger’s history of being; the latter is increasingly assimilated in the West through the planetary advance of the technological world-image and its destructive reduction of beings to instrumental calculation, which originates in the Greek experience of nature as physis. So what makes Asian philosophy relevant to Heidegger? According to Nelson, Heidegger tries to dismantle the history of being and reveal the origins of philosophy in order to reawaken the freshness of its origin. Heidegger insists, however, that this new beginning must come from Greek philosophy. Heidegger is explicitly opposed to the possibility of non-Western philosophy, despite his plagiarism of Taoist texts. Nelson mentions the most famous quote in that regard, which comes from a talk Heidegger gave for the Bayerischen Rundfunk (German radio) in 1952 called What is Called Thinking? (Was heisst Denken?) Asian people are not without thought, but they cannot think, because they do not understand the logos. Nelson thinks Heidegger’s decision to part with Taoist texts must have been taken in 1934, when his sympathies for Hitler increased, such that Heidegger seems never to have reconsidered this decision. Even in 1960 he called the Asian culture ‘dark’ and the ancient Greek one ‘light’. In the interview in Der Spiegel of 1966 he warns against the barbarian influence of Zen Buddhism. He is not alone in this. Even deconstructive philosophers as Derrida and Rorty stated that a non-Western philosophy is not possible. Heidegger rejected Dilthey’s thesis of the multiple origins of philosophy in his Introduction into Philosophy. His argument is that philosophy must be a unity, because there is only one real question, the question of being. This leaves very little room for discussion since Heidegger himself is the only one in the history of philosophy who has asked this question. Nelson does not agree, of course. He thinks that the point of departure for reflection necessarily is the hermeneutical situation of life itself. Whereas the ontological prejudice inhibits every possibility for a dialogue.
Nelson explains that for Misch, as well as for Dilthey, every interpretation oscillates between the alien and the familiar, so in that case no radical difference exists between the hermeneutics of texts from one’s own culture and texts from other cultures. Philosophy does not begin at a certain place at a certain time; it happens every time a human being is confronted with the abyss of meaninglessness. It is an internal break with immediacy and an occasion for self-reflection. Nelson notes that Misch points to several stories in the Zhuangzi that serve as examples. The Analects of Confucius show in Misch’s view that not all philosophy started with the question of being. In China it started with the question of ethics. This fact suffices in Misch’s eyes to falsify Heidegger’s thesis (later he also mentions an Indian origin of philosophy). Moreover, Misch contends that the beginning of philosophy in Greece was not the question of being but the concrete self-reflexive moment of life concerning itself.
Nelson notices that Taoism takes special place in the philosophy of Misch. All philosophies are expressions of the self-reflection of life, but Zhuangzi has the final hermeneutical word. Misch thinks Zhuangzi provocatively challenges, expands and reverses life’s perspectives and horizons. His stories and paradoxes liberate one from dogmatic inhibitions and put situations into perspective through articulating life from within life itself. In the oracle book the Yijing Misch finds a logic that is different from that of Western philosophy. The book consists of comments on ideograms. The comments are generated by a detached observation of worldly situations, combined with self-reflection. It has a holistic structure, the parts are reflected in the whole, and vice versa. Each input ideogram or symbol describes a situation together with preferred strategies. Nelson, in dialogue with Heidegger, thinks this is another beginning of philosophy, one which is even more in tune with the concrete human being that lives his life, seeks to adapt to circumstances, and make sense of his existence. To make a long story short, Nelson praises Heidegger for taking an interest in Chinese philosophy, but blames him for not having understood one shred. Heidegger’s monologue about being is totally unsuitable for any kind of cross-cultural philosophy.
Classical phenomenology can be helpful for understanding Asian philosophy, Nelson admits. Returning to the things themselves opens a cross-cultural perspective, because those things are not restricted to just one culture. This has often been overlooked. Merleau-Ponty, however, remarked that: “[philosophy’s] centre is everywhere, its circumference nowhere” (164). Both Husserl and Heidegger made clear they were opposed to the idea of a non-Western philosophy, but in a few short texts Husserl wrote very positively about Buddhism (167). The first is called “Socrates – Buddha.” Here he comes to the conclusion that Indian philosophy does not go beyond the practical and ethical level; it never reaches an epistemological bracketing of the whole world as Descartes has achieved. Husserl argues that the Buddhist path pursues knowledge for the sake of emancipation, but the Socratic path leads to knowledge for its own sake. So it is only through the eyes of the Western philosopher, who is seeking knowledge as such, that Indian philosophy becomes real philosophy. According to Husserl Buddhist philosophy never transcends the natural attitude of daily life, because it is not capable of a complete reduction. Even Buddhist meditation does not transform the natural attitude.
The other short text is a review of a translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, the collection of middle-length discourses of the Buddha. Here the Buddhist teachings are said to be parallel to the highest achievements of Western civilization. Western philosophy can come to a breakthrough of its own predicament of degeneration by the confrontation with the Buddhist teachings. The adoption of Buddhist philosophy by the West or a possible fusion of Western and non-Western philosophy is still out of the question. So here too Husserl sticks to his paradigm of the historical uniqueness of Western philosophy. He justifies his position by pointing to the unique development of science in the West, which he sees as a result of a unique theoretical attitude. Husserl also published three articles in the Japanese journal Kaizō (167). In these he articulates a sense of an intellectual and spiritual crisis; he calls for a renewal by returning to the origins of philosophy. The Japanese are invited to join in, because Japan is becoming a new branch of European culture.
Nelson describes how other phenomenologists even went a step further (172). Stanislaw Schayer published a comparison between the phenomenological method of reduction and Buddhist meditation. He found the Buddhist method of reduction even more radical than the one Husserl practised. Dorion Cairns, who worked closely together with Husserl and his assistant Eugen Fink, also claims that the various phases of Buddhist self-discipline were essentially phases of phenomenological reduction; both consist of an analysis of the structure of subjective consciousness. In both cases the interdependence of consciousness and world is revealed. So while the phenomenological method appears to have strong affinities with Buddhist meditation, their framework and goals are radically divergent. Husserl aims at a fundamental philosophy that has to become a new foundation for science, which he sees as a logical result of a development that started with the ancient natural philosophers. Within this framework he could not recognize genuine philosophy in the Indian and Chinese cultures.
Nelson accepts that cultures have each their own histories, but he thinks that the encounter between different cultures can create new individualities, that histories may intertwine. The problem he finds with Husserl is the priority of a life-world which is not phenomenologically neutral, but tainted by historical and ideological bias. In Heidegger’s mature thinking technology and globalization are pathologies of the culmination of the history of Western metaphysics. The only solution is a new beginning, which means a return to the Greek origins of philosophy, because the West is appointed by history to be in the lead.
Nelson mentions an essay by Heidegger about the differences between French and German philosophy, called “Ways of Speaking.” Here Heidegger mentions the confrontation with the other that articulates by mutual understanding the differences and the identity of each participant. He called it a strife for the sake of understanding. An example of this would be the dialogue with Count Kuki about the translatability of the Japanese word ‘iki’ entitled “A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer” (‘Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache‘, in the collection ‘Unterwegs zur Sprache‘). Nelson makes clear that Heidegger is not very interested in the understanding being mutual. The latter maintains that ‘iki’ is untranslatable and reproaches Kuki for not being true to his own culture. In other words, Kuki doesn’t play the part Heidegger had mind for him. Japanese are (according to Heidegger) unfit to understand the concept of aesthetics because the Japanese language is incommensurable with the German one. (Quite a risky claim for someone who does not speak any Japanese, I would say!) So the reason for the dialogue seems to be rather enigmatic. Heidegger maintains that a genuine dialogue is anticipated, but obviously impossible as well. Heidegger opens a dialogue, but only to prove the impossibility of any mutual understanding!
Nelson describes very well how attempts of Martin Buber to interpret Eastern texts are a gust of fresh air into the heavy atmosphere of East-West dialogue. Buber was attracted by the laid-back attitude in these texts and he thought they could teach Westerners to go easy on consumerism. Heidegger knew Zen-Buddhism from the introductory works of Suzuki and other anthologies. According to Nelson, Buber moved away from the Eastern philosophies later in his life because he shifted from mysticism to ethics. In Buber’s work on Hasidism Nelson finds, however, many comments on Zen. He notes that Buber rejects full transcendence, because it is selfish to merge into a mystic state and leave your neighbours behind. Nevertheless Buber writes about the Buddha with sympathy, but he does not want to follow him all the way. According to Buber, the Jewish experience is fundamentally different, because it celebrates the divine while being exiled in the world. He remains, however, true to his principles and keeps the dialogue with other philosophies open, stressing their validity and good intentions.
Nelson also relates the criticism of Keiji Nishitani, member of the Japanese Kyōto school, a philosophical movement famous everywhere but in Japan itself. Nishitani wrote an essay called “the I-thou relation in Buddhism,” in which he describes the profoundly dialogical character of the Zen kōan. Nishitani criticises Buber for keeping the interpersonal dialogue on the level of just words and not touching the level where the communication between Zen master and pupil really takes place. He claims that Buddhism developed an ethics that transcends the self; Zen ethics is therefore an ethics of encounter where the care of the other is paramount. What Western commentators on Zen didn’t realise according to Nishitani, was that the irrational and seemingly unethical utterances of Zen masters were meant to break through the cultivation of personal idols, they are not academic philosophical statements.
Before he reaches the concluding chapter, Nelson presents a comparative analysis of emptiness. According to Nelson both Zen and Heidegger came close to primordial experience through a dismantling of conceptual thinking (228). In Heidegger’s work the deconstruction discloses an original experience of being; in Zen there is the disclosure of original mind and self-nature. Nelson thinks that there still remains a trace of reification in Heidegger’s concept of nothingness. Since Parmenides, he claims, nothing comes from nothing, so we need God or being in order for something to exist. Western philosophers understood Buddhist emptiness either as a self-contradictory concept or a nihilistic void. Heidegger is said to question these suppositions. He returns to Leibniz’s question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The answer in the Western tradition, where nothingness is conceived as the absence of being, seems to need a third term, God, who transcends both and is the ground. Heidegger speaks of an uncanniness at the moment when existence is experienced as slipping away. Like death, it is an abyss that cannot be anticipated. According to Nelson, Heidegger is looking for a new language that is not re-presentational, but he tries to do this by asking questions about metaphysics. Zen practises a way of speaking without speaking, which is not referential but performative. Emptiness is not a thing, because it is empty of itself. Nelson sees an affinity with Heidegger’s groundlessness of the ground. In Zen language is self-deconstructing, it is performative, it indirectly enacts a reorientation of human dwelling through various strategies by the anecdotal and the shocking. Zen’s emptiness and Heidegger’s nothingness approach each other, according to Nelson, in emphasizing the original groundlessness and temporal impermanence of human existence.
One of the pitfalls of an intercultural hermeneutics is that no philosopher can cover all points of view exhaustively on their own. There is the risk of purifying the other so much that it becomes sterile. Nelson sees a beginning of cross-cultural hermeneutics in Dilthey’s philosophy of worldviews (which was criticised by Heidegger in his article the era of world views, “The Age of the World-View” (Die Zeit des Weldbildes, in the collection Holzwege)) and the comparative work of Georg Misch. Nelson hopes for an intercultural hermeneutics that keeps apart from nationalistic bias, gives ample room for the opponent to expose his or her points of view, is sensitive to complexity, and critically reflexive.
Nelson’s book is quite informative and covers most of the interchange that took place between Zen and Germany in the beginning of last century. Many more Buddhist schools existed in Japan and China of course, but those did not take much part in the exchange. Nelson does not mention what happened in this area in France or Great Britain, so the picture he offers is not quite complete. It is also not as neutral as he likes it to be. Confucianism has become the official philosophy of the ancient and new empire, but this was and is mainly for political reasons, not because it is philosophically more interesting than its competitors. It is diverse, its history is rich with reorientations and discussions, as is the history of Chinese Buddhism. The recent upsurge in praises of Confucianism might have a nationalistic bias, therefore Confucianism is often erroneously presented with an unequivocal message.
On a few occasions Nelson makes disputable claims. Confucius did not advocate equality, but a natural hierarchy. This was one of the main topics of the so-called mo-ru discussions between his followers and those of Mozi. To call Li (禮) “appropriate practices, socially oriented individual self-cultivation, and learning and self-reflection” (17), seems a modernistic rationalisation, as it usually means ‘rites’. Mozi called it a waste of time and money, because it required the payment of lots of musicians and people walking around with funny hats. Another example is the obligation of a three-year mourning period following the death of a parent: this could mean ‘bankruptcy’. In Chinese texts many things are not as they appear to be and philological research remains very important. The Confucian texts are not the sayings of a single historical wise man; most of them are from different sources and from a later date. And the history of Zen is not quite like the monks themselves think it is. Nelson leaves these problems out of the discussion, but they are part of the exchange between East and West. The discussion between Zen and Heidegger is incomplete, because the latter wrote like he did not have a body, whereas Zen monks are sitting motionless for hours at a stretch, training their body and mind to be one. It is also a pity that Nelson did not follow up on his own suggestions and pay more attention to the carefully executed Husserlian reductions and genetic phenomenology. This could have been more fertile than a discussion about nothingness.
Nevertheless, this book offers lots of valuable information and entries for further research. It is well-written and has all the tools for easy reference and an impressive bibliography.