Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Levinas
Michael L. Morgan (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £125.00

Reviewed by: Tyler Correia (York University, Canada)

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas provides another key step on the way to entrenching the possibility of continued scholarship on the rich thought of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as well as providing an accessible entry-point into the ever-growing body of commentary on his works. Although at times the structure of the handbook makes gestures toward necessary contributions that are currently absent, both in outlining the field of Levinas’s influences or interlocutors, and in terms of key engagements with contemporary concerns, it has also amassed an exciting range of discussions from a diverse array of scholars. Contributions are well-researched, insightful, and make Levinas’s notoriously difficult thought comprehensible and intriguing. Further, certain departures with conventions of reference texts in the composition of contributions—he articles being of comparable length to those of scholarly journal’s—creates space not only for informative but critical treatments, as well as facilitating dialogue and challenge.

The editor, Michael L. Morgan is a prolific scholar in his own right in Jewish studies and on Levinas specifically. He has authored other introductory texts including Discovering Levinas (2007), The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (2011), and recently published on his ethico-political thought and practice in Levinas’s Ethical Politics (2016).

There are certainly benefits to a handbook both of this magnitude and this breadth. The text is a nearly nine hundred page collection of thirty-eight entries, including contributions from notable Levinas scholars such as Robert Bernasconi, political philosopher Annabel Herzog, Levinas translator Bettina Bergo and editor of The Levinas Reader (2001) Seán Hand. Also certainly, a text of this kind provides a crucial opportunity for a multiplicity of scholars of varied backgrounds to contribute—scholars of history, religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, classics and art, who contextualize Levinas’ expansive works and biography through critical, interpersonal, dialogical, feminist, hermeneutic, theological frameworks. It is divided into six section with entries on a wide range of topics and themes by which one could enter into scholarship: covering Levinas’ life and influences, key philosophical themes, religious thought, ethics, and critical assessments of his work.

One of the potential drawbacks of a ‘handbook’—and consistent with all genres of reference texts more broadly—is the prefiguration of a conversation as one in which specialists communicate information to non-specialists, rather than opening the possibility of dialogue and interpretation. The pragmatic context of a ‘handbook’ still makes it unlikely that professional scholars will refer to this text as an entry-point into key controversies and as a site of engagement even over more specific collected volumes. A text like this, then, fills the space of a general reference and guide into the multiplicity of avenues that Levinas’ thought might open, and in its capacity as a general reference book it does well, even though it is competing with a number of more specific works on Levinas—whether reference volumes, essay collections or single-author monographs—that are also available for Anglophone scholars with an equally wide breadth; works on Levinas’ engagements with Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers, with Asian thought and with ancient philosophy, on Levinas’ contributions to hermeneutics and theological exegesis, a swath of texts on Levinas’ ethics, on his interlocutions with poststructuralist and deconstructive thought, and texts that (re)situate and seek for his ethics to speak to their own and our socio-political contexts. In this way, a reference text of this sort helps best to locate oneself in relation to a veritable library of Levinas scholarship, and to identify those signposts, even if often as an index to an index.

Accordingly, the handbook attests to an emerging polarization of Levinas scholarship concerned with two key conceptual constellations in his ethical thought; on responsibility and vulnerability. The former has perhaps been considered the central aspect of Levinas’s work traced to the importance of the text most often called his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity (2011 [1961]). Not merely the outline of ‘responsibilities,’ Levinas’s conceptualization of responsibility grounds his fundamental claim that ethics is first philosophy. Not just in the content of responsibility, but in the provocation or the desire (later he will call this intrigue) to respond to and respond for the Other, Levinas finds the opening of ethics as an infinitely asymmetrical relation grounded in the unconditional command to be for the Other. In its poetic force and uncompromising gesture, one’s responsibility for the Other and on their behalf is perhaps the aspect of Levinas’s work that draws most scholars to him. It also becomes the rich ground from which he rejects conventional and general  practices of philosophy as projects of securing, organizing and reorganizing both ontology and metaphysics as the totalizing structure of ‘the Same.’ Beyond the sort of A=A identity, the structure of the Same is all that operates under the heading of ‘Being’ and at the disposal of the privileged Self. Thus, where philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular meet, Levinas finds a notion of the Self within a world that they might appropriate, incorporate, or otherwise violate as if it were exclusively ‘their own.

In contrast, Levinas finds an entirely unappropriable and thus infinitely transcendent disruption of the structure of the Same in the encounter with the Other, where the face to face meeting and the very face of the Other themselves, escapes all such appropriative attempts to fix them in place within the horizon of the world of the Same. Instead, the face of the Other seems to call to the Self with a commandment, the fundamental interdiction “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” further disrupting the absolute enjoyment (jouissance) that would otherwise be the prerogative and entitlement of the Self within its own world. In place of this enjoyment is the unsatisfiable desire to be with, and be for, the Other, the ground upon which an infinite and unconditional responsibility emerges. Then, all subsequent thought is a matter of bearing out the implications of this unconditional and infinite responsibility for the Other in its applications and tensions.

Incrementally, this picture, as outlined by readings of Totality and Infinity, has expanded as more scholarship has turned toward the ‘other pole’ of Levinas’s work as represented by Otherwise than Being (2016 [1981]). No longer willing to accept the ‘Self’ as originally in a position of comfort, chez soi, or at home with oneself, Levinas reconsiders the place of the encounter with the Other as both fundamental for thought and fundamental to the very existence of the subject before subjectivity can be claimed. In the exchange of the ‘word’—even the word that proclaims ‘I am I’—the Self is less so in proximity to an unchallenging world of their own, than they are in proximity to an Other. In this most basic sense, vulnerability is the fundamentally disruptive trauma of recognizing that the self comes after an encounter with the Other (see Bergo’s chapter as well as Staehler’s). Robert Bernasconi theorizes vulnerability in two particularly interesting ways. On the one hand, he notes that responsibility operates on the subject as disruptive enough to veritably tear the subject apart, what Levinas calls dénucléation. He explains, “Dénucléation is apparently a word used to refer to the coring out that doctors perform when, for example, they remove an eyeball from its socket while leaving everything intact. Levinas used this same word to describe breathing as a dénucléation of the subject’s substantiality, albeit in this context it also has an association with transcendence” (pp. 268-69).

Although Bernasconi will motivate a reading of Levinas that prefigures the need to defend both the subject and its subjectivity, he summarizes his exploration of the notion of vulnerability that is too traumatic to ignore: “I showed that he went out of his way to say that the exposure to outrage, wounding, and persecution was an exposure to wounding in enjoyment. This is what qualifies it as a “vulnerability of the me.” It touches me in my complacency. But vulnerability extends to the trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point where that hostage identifies with others, including his or her persecutors” (p. 269). He continues that this fact of vulnerability, then, is compelling enough to enact an experience of substitution in the subject, as if the subject is provoked to experience themselves as Other.

Following these considerations, I would like to make note of two particularly useful aspects of the handbook, and to applaud Morgan and the contributors for them. Firstly, some of its richest content is the contribution to an Anglo-American readership on the scope of Levinas’ writings of which we currently do not have complete access. Pieces by Sarah Hammerschlag and Seán Hand rectify this condition with stimulating discussions of his wartime notebooks and his early poetry and novel fragments respectively. Still an English-speaking public does not have access in particular to either the Carnets de captivité, nor to his wartime literary works in Éros, littérature et philosophie, both of which were recently posthumously published in French.[i] With Hammerschlag’s survey of Levinas’s wartime notebooks, though, (spanning, in fact, from 1937-1950), and Hand’s reconceptualization of Levinas in light of the literary dimensions of these personal writings, they make stellar contributions to Anglophone Levinas scholarship by filling those gaps. For this alone, the handbook is already an invaluable resource for scholars of all sorts.

Secondly, the fourth section of the handbook, dedicated to applications of Levinas’ thought beyond his own sphere is truly effervescent. Special attention should be paid to this section in its eclectic reach, where the very notion of a foundation (the presumed objective constraining any ‘handbook’ faces) opens up into a display of generative and rich ideas. Exactly where the ‘cut and dry’ necessity of a text of this kind breaks down, we are treated to an array of interventions and interpretive supplements that carry Levinas scholarship forward in great leaps. Again, Seán Hand’s resituating of Levinas’ works in light of early literary engagements is a delight, as well as Kris Sealey’s far-reaching discussion of Levinas’s contributions to critical race theory (which I will discuss further below). Moreover, not a single contribution in this section fails to illuminate and extend the possibilities of scholarship—from more traditional surveys of the possibilities of attending to philosophical thought within other domains of academic inquiry, such as psychology (David M. Goodman and Eric R. Severson), law (William H. Smith) and Levinas’ comments on war (Joshua Shaw), as well as his contributions to pedagogy (Claire Elise Katz), film (Colin Davis), and his use of food metaphors (Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft).

Similarly, Kevin Houser’s attempt to position Levinas across the Continental-Analytical divide is admirable. This is similar to Morgan’s attempts himself to have Levinas’ work placed in proximity to Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Christine Korsgaard, Stanley Cavell and others. In this piece, Houser finds Levinas speak to concerns of linguistic objectification embedded in the notion of reason as metaphysics against which he poses what he calls the ‘absolute interlocutor.’ He extends this discussion by placing him in conversation with P.F. Strawson on freedom and resentment. Houser’s claim is that “de-facing reason,” and not “reason itself as the practice of de-facing generalization,” is what is at issue in Levinas’s work. However, perhaps Houser’s reading can come off as reductive given that he seems not to be willing to take his own critical stance as far as Levinas would. That ultimately an analytical account of reason is valorized through a complementary reading of Levinas and Strawson would also be a grounding condition for the possibility of such reconciliation between reason and the face of the Other. Yet, this is something Levinas seems consistently to reject, and why Houser must work so hard to reconcile the positions in the first place; the position of reason itself with the positioning of a refusal of reason (not merely an ‘unreasonable’ or even ‘pre-rational’ stance).

Houser’s final discussion regarding the generalizability of ‘reason’—as something that is specifically not my reason, but a reason (p. 604)—bears many possibilities to build from, perhaps also anticipating a challenge to Levinas by deconstructionist linguistics. One can also imagine such a reading figuring importantly into the prefiguration of Otherwise than Being, which seems to bear out the not-yet-subject specifically in light of the pre-existence of language in the demand to speak as ‘giving reasons’ (see Baring, Coe and of course Bernasconi’s chapters). It also helps to reconcile how, for example, in Oona Eisenstadt’s chapter, she finds Levinas capable of saying that three rabbis in the Talmud—Ben Zoma, Ben Nanus and Ben Pazi—can offer three different answers to the question, “which verse contains the whole of the Torah?” where each will make a different universal claim as a manner of expanding upon the last (p. 462). Nevertheless, it would seem that the reason-and-objectivity oriented language of analytical thought does not prepare one to bear out this tension between the particular and the general in a way that is non-totalizing; it answers the question of responsibility rather than responding to it. As such, it substitutes the sphere of representational description in place of the vocative dimensions of language as address. In the end, even capturing the dialogical subject in relation to the absolute interlocutor, one is still speaking about language as if no one else is there, a sort of monological ‘dialogue,’ lest the reason they give may be contradicted. The Other seems to have faded into the background.

I would like to address, though, a potential drawback of the handbook. What is at times a lack of much needed general study of Levinas’ engagements not merely with particular thinkers—both predecessors and contemporaries, if not friends but fields of scholarship—can often leave the reader without proper orientation. No doubt, the task of presenting an exhaustive groundwork specifically for Anglo-American scholarship is at best aspirational, and to his credit, Morgan himself identifies certain oversights in the handbook that should be noted. In terms of groundworks, he rightly mentions that the handbook would have benefited from contributions that survey Levinas’s engagements with foundational Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Buber and Rosenzweig. There is also no specific account of Levinas’s debts to Russian literature. Finally, general overviews of both Levinas’s situation within French thought broadly from the 1930s to the 60s would have been extremely helpful to orient readers, even if they still find much needed context especially in Kevin Hart’s discussion of the relationship between he and Blanchot, and Edward Baring’s account of his encounters with Derrida. This is so as well for the absence of a general account of Levinas’s predecessors ‘at large,’ although one is able to orient themselves with texts on Husserl (Bettina Bergo), Heidegger (Michael Fagenblat), as well as Platonic or Aristotelian thought (Tanja Staehler), early modern thought (Inga Römer), and the German Idealists (Martin Shuster).

There are other oversights that a large reference text is especially beholden to ensure don’t go unnoticed that we might categorize as ‘essential additions’ to these groundworks. Increasingly important is a critical appraisal of eurocentrism and colonialism. It would also be imperative to outline Levinas’ reading of the Torah on ‘Cities of Refuge,’ something only tangentially touched upon by Annabel Herzog in her daring discussion of Levinas and Zionism.  One might argue that Levinas’s statements on the State of Israel in particular are critical for understanding some of the most recent explorations of a sort of Levinasian cosmopolitanism—especially where it intersects with Jacques Derrida’s (1999) explorations on the issue (and because it would seem Derrida’s encounter with the notion of cosmopolitanism is in large part due to their relationship). This is perhaps a particularly difficult oversight to reconcile because, as Morgan notes, readers of Levinas “…are drawn to him by the centrality of his insight that our responsibilities to others are infinite. To them, Levinas is the philosopher of the dispossessed, the displaced, the refugee, the impoverished, the suffering, and the hungry. He is the spokesperson for the weak and the oppressed; his philosophy, for all its difficulty and obscurity, in the end speaks to our most humane and caring sentiments” (pp. 4-5). Unfortunately, these concrete engagements are conspicuously absent in the handbook.

Kris Sealey has the sizeable task, then, of orienting readers looking for critical responses to Levinas relating to Eurocentrism, colonialism, and theories of race and racism. In that measure, Sealey does a spectacular job finding inroads between Levinas with both critical race and postcolonial scholars including Paul Gilroy, Orlando Patterson, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Michael Monahan. She also performs such an important task of bridging scholarship on critical race theory and Levinas studies by focusing her discussion on a review of literatures published in the 2012 volume of Levinas Studies contending with race, which included contributions from  Lisa Guenther, Oona Eisenstadt (also present in this handbook), John Drabinski and Simone Drichel.

Sealey’s contribution, though, may also give pause especially insofar as there remain some crucial tensions in her work with Levinas’s. Particularly, she draws her conclusions in a way that notions of race are ‘reified’ not on biological but communal and relational grounds that are perhaps difficult to square with Levinas’ statements on the ‘nudity of the face’—as much as they are in tension with Paul Gilroy’s (2000) rejection of both biological and cultural formations of ‘race.’ Sealey’s turn toward Michael Monahan seems to authorize the possibility that, “we can be against racism without being against race” (p. 653 n. 41). The statement from which this note arises is quite important, and perhaps should be quoted at length:

In an important sense, a creolizing subjectivity bears witness to her rootedness in the world, insofar as she is constituted by the ways of that world. But, as creolizing, she also bears witness to her transcending of that world, insofar as her antiracist praxis will invariably be an active contestation of the meaning of race. In other words, she is both obliged to her materiality and positioned to take a critical stance against that materiality as well. That critical stance calls for a vigilance that never ends, lest she succumbs to the inertia of a purity politics and the racist structures for which it codes. Might we not see, in this, echoes of what Levinas calls for in “The Philosophy of Hitlerism”? Is this not a recognition of incarnation (of one’s rootedness in, or entanglement with, history) without the essentialization and stagnation of biological determinism? (p. 644)

Here we might identify a key contention—the ground for what may be a generative controversy in the transposition of Levinas’ thought to an Anglo-American context. Levinas’ contention against the ideology of Hitlerism is not reducible to its relation exclusively to biologism, but speaks to a desire to escape the very notion of ‘incarnation’ itself (see Eaglestone, Fagenblat, and Giannopoulos’s chapters). Hitlerism itself is not exclusively a biologist ideology; rather it binds a notion of spirit with the materiality of the ‘body as much as it fetishizes that body as the material symbol of ‘racial purity,’ or the ‘spirit of a people,’ as an incarnation—the becoming-flesh of spirit. It’s not clear if any notion of identity, not even one proposed to be hybridized, socially and historically determined, or relational escapes this logic. One might point out how Sealey’s creolizing subject, recognizing their rootedness and transcendence, isn’t necessarily difficult, as both are already coded as positive identifiers in an unambiguous metaphysical structure, even if they contradict one another, and occlude the disruptive primacy of the Other. Being rooted—rather than being imprisoned or entangled—and transcendence—above, beyond, outside of the world—both already speak to their own ideals. But one finds in Levinas’ work instead both a potentially failed desire to escape (On Escape [2003/1982]being an aptly titled expression of this unabiding arrest in his early works), and an uneasy navigation of the rooted interior of identity.

We find further that the not merely biological implications of Hitlerist ideology entails also that—as Annabel Herzog notes of Levinas’ critical stance against the State of Israel—the entrenchment of the ‘Self’ within the soil (as in the Nazi slogan, ‘blood and soil’), and the attachment to land or territory remains also a critical site upon which Levinas rejects this manner of reification. That is, rather than being—or under the pretense that one ‘recognizes themselves to be’—rooted in their world, Levinas finds instead in political practices of justice a certain exilehood on Earth represented in the call of the Other and the asymmetrical responsibility that follows. This grounds the particularity of his claims on Judaism and often against the State of Israel (see below), even when he concedes that an otherwise uncompromising ethic needs account for survival. Thus, there remains a tension between justice and survival that is not comfortably set aside in order to commend one’s being ‘rooted in their transcendence,’ but always uneasily attested to as the disruptive and traumatic condition upon which a foundational ethics preceding ontology, an ‘ethics without ground’ which refuses to appeal to the world and the comfort of being rooted in it is asserted.

We might fashion two contrapuntal examples of scholarship that refuse these dynamics in the extremely careful readings offered by Annabel Herzog on Levinas’s relation to Zionism and Cynthia Coe’s feminist analysis of his works. Herzog has quite admirably explored a controversy well beyond even the scope of the academy by contending squarely with Levinas’s writings on Zionism in relation to his conceptions of ethics and politics. Even in the form of her analysis we can see a principled refusal to allow her representation of him to be anything other than embroiled in a complex set of concerns, where she presents first his defense, and then his criticism of the State of Israel. Of the former, it would seem that Levinas finds in the State of Israel the every-present possibility—a particularist possibility for Judaism—for the concrete actualization of his ethical ideal as justice. Such a state could make an ethic of dialogical solidarity, refusal of violence, and refuge for the Other practically real. It is also one that merges these ideals with the enduring need for survival following the Holocaust. Perhaps this rendering bears similarities to Sealey’s account of a creolizing subject.

On the other hand, though, the State of Israel is also always in a position to reject or neglect these ideals; where notions of space and place are re-instituted in the territory, in the very soil, or where the Other is banished from that territory. This is much like Sealey’s comment that valorizations of the logic of ‘race’ demands constant vigilance lest one find themselves once again under the inertia, and in the realm of a politics of purity. Herzog cites a telling instance in which Levinas refused to leave the tour bus while attending a conference on Martin Buber after hearing that Bedouin communities in Be’er-Sheva were required to burn their tents to be eligible to receive stone houses from the government (p. 478).[ii] She follows this tension up until the events of the First Lebanon War, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 when his statements on the matter of Israel become dispersed and infrequent, even if he does not waver in his defense by the time of his 1986 interview with Francois Poirié. It would seem, in this case, that the vigilance Sealey advises, and the enduring possibility of ‘purity politics’ reemerging finds a real example in Levinas’s subsequent silence. But leaving this possibility open seems already to speak to the need to refuse attenuation of a Levinasian ethic in the first place both in practice, and in the theoretical refusal of ‘rootedness’ or ‘incarnation.’

Cynthia Coe’s reading of Levinas is equally nuanced in its ability to balance a careful analysis of his works with an unwavering commitment to feminist scholarship. This is so even where she marks a delineation between—and within—texts of his that represent heterocentric and masculinist presumptions in his philosophy, and where concepts and arguments are coded in gendered language, while also being potentially capable of disrupting those structures. Particularly early Levinas (as Simone de Beauvoir attests regarding Time and the Other) seems to find ground for a narrative framework where a masculine protagonist is compelled to depart from totality. He does so by situating him in the dichotomy of a conception of the feminine as inessential and inabsolute alterity to a totalizing and interiorized masculine counterpart.

However, in this, and especially in her reading of Otherwise than Being, there remains a seed from which the disruption of this framework is enacted or can be enacted. Firstly, the reversal of values in Levinas’s work—rejecting totality in favour of a more ambiguous infinity, and subsequently masculinity for the feminine—begins this process, if in a way that remains deeply flawed. Secondly, Levinas’s subject is increasingly characterized, even by the time of Totality and Infinity, by events and experiences that are wildly outside of their control, not least of which is the face to face encounter with the Other. Thus, the notion of a masculine subjectivity ‘always in control’ is undone by their vulnerability to the Other. Finally, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas begins with the incomplete subject, one who is subjected to a responsibility primordial to themselves, before themselves as a traumatic disruption Coe also terms vulnerability. As well, she finds in Levinas (without romanticizing) the possibility that a mother might pass away in childbirth to be an expression of vulnerability which demands one reckons with a responsibility that interrupts their self-possession. This, by the way, is rendered also in Giannopolous’s discussion of Levinas and transcendence in terms of ‘paternity’; where one—coded as the ‘father’ in this case—must reckon with the birth of their child as “a way of being other while being oneself” (p. 230).[iii]

Potential tensions one might identify in one or another contribution are perhaps another way of branching some key difficulties the handbook faces on a structural level with its own self-contextualization. Morgan identifies the handbook as being a resource specifically for Anglo-American scholarship on Levinas—perhaps because in English-speaking contexts globally, or in the European context, Anglophone philosophy is already in proximity to Francophone and multi-lingual continental thought to ignore it. However, the reductive potential of such a translation—not merely into an English idiom, but into an Anglo-American one—seems to allow the possibility that conclusions like Housers’s which valorize rather than critique a notion of reason, and Sealey’s which affirms rather than contending with the logical structures of race, find little response in other places in the handbook. Morgan should be lauded for gathering together a diverse array of scholars from many backgrounds, even when he already notes that most are located in North America. It is also, perhaps, not feasible to engage a global scope of scholarship for a project like this. However, the implications of a foundational reference-work bearing such absences are reflected in the non-universal dialogue that manifests itself within its pages.

Even with these problems in view, there is no doubt that The Oxford Handbook of Levinas makes an important contribution to scholarship in the diversity and richness of its philosophical engagements, and in the explorations and controversies attested to. If it is any indication, studies of the profound works of Emmanuel Levinas are likely to continue, and perhaps even to expand in new and unforeseen ways. If so, this handbook will stand as a testament and signpost for all those looking to enter the field.


Derrida, Jacques. 1999. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 2000. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2003. On Escape. Translated by Bettina Bergo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

———. 2009. Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses. Edited by Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011. Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites. Edited by Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2011 [1961]. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

———. 2013. Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur.

———. 2016 [1981]. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Malka, Salomon. 2006. Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy. Translated by Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Morgan, Michael L. 2007. Discovering Levinas (2007). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2011. The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. Levinas’s Ethical Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Morgan, Michael L. ed. 2019. Oxford Handbook of Levinas. Oxford University Press.

[i] Emmanuel Levinas, 2009, Carnets de captivité suivi de Écrits sur la captivité et Notes philosophiques diverses, ed. Rodolphe Calin and Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). Emmanuel Levinas, 2013, Éros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et poétiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros, ed. Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur). These two texts were issued as part of a (currently) three-part collection by publishing house, Éditions Grasset, of the complete works of Levinas. The other volume gathers early lectures given at the invitation of jean Wahl to the Collège Philosophique. See: Emmanuel Levinas, 2011, Parole et silence, Et autres conferences inédites, ed. Rodolphe Calin et Catherine Chalier, (Paris: Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur).

[ii] This anecdote was quoted from: Salomon Malka, 2006, Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy, trans. Michael Kigel and Sonia M. Embree, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 217.

[iii] The passage is a quotation from: Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press): p. 282.

Elliot R. Wolfson: Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis

Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis Book Cover Heidegger and Kabbalah: Hidden Gnosis and the Path of Poiēsis
Elliot R. Wolfson
Indiana University Press
Paperback $60.00

Reviewed by: Alexandre Couture-Mingheras (Université de Bonn – Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Dans son nouvel ouvrage, de très haute facture, Elliot R. Wolfson met sa connaissance précise des textes de la tradition kabbalistique et plus largement son érudition dans le domaine des études juives, dont il figure aujourd’hui l’un des plus grands spécialistes, au service de l’étude, aussi précise qu’ambitieuse, de la phénoménologie de Heidegger, ressaisie essentiellement à partir de Sein und Zeit en 1927 jusqu’aux textes de maturité, dont Beiträge zur Philosophie (vom Ereignis) paru à titre posthume en 1989 en Allemagne. Cette comparaison, étonnante au regard du contexte houleux qui entoure la publication des Schwarze Hefte – je parle bien sûr de l’attitude de Heidegger à l’égard du National-Socialisme et de la question de l’antisémitisme, que certains thuriféraires s’efforcent, en vain, de gommer -, n’a évidemment rien d’arbitraire.

Le rapport de Heidegger au judaïsme fait l’objet, depuis quelques années, de plusieurs études, dont celle, remarquable, de Marlène Zarader, La dette impensée : Heidegger et l’héritage hébraïque : si Heidegger affirme l’opposition principielle entre la pensée, d’origine hellénique, et la foi, d’héritage biblique, en réalité les choses sont loin d’être simples, comme l’atteste la similarité entre ses propres écrits et certains tropes de la tradition hébraïque. Le judaïsme, exclu thématiquement de la pensée heideggérienne, pourrait bien en constituer « l’impensé » opératoire, non au sens de ce qui n’a pas été pris pour objet de pensée, mais ce qui sous-tendant et irriguant la pensée, terre d’accueil, en constitue l’arrière-plan, nécessairement voilé. S’amorce ainsi, après les propos dirimants de Derrida et de G. Steiner par exemple, une excursion hors du commentarisme crypto-phénoménologique qui fonctionne souvent en vase-clos. Ce tournant dans la recherche, qui suppose que l’on rompe avec une propension exégétique à rapporter sa phénoménologie au nazisme (au fond, question d’apparence provocatrice : quid du judaïsme de la philosophie de Heidegger ?) se trouve ici approfondi par un travail comparatiste prenant pour base la mystique juive, à savoir la Kabbale. De même que le Vedanta constitue la dimension « ésotérique » de l’hindouisme, sous l’angle de la theoria à titre de Métaphysique (l’Absolu même, le Sans-Nom), sous l’angle de la praxis à titre de mystique d’ordre sotériologique de l’Unio mystica avec ce qu’il y a de plus Haut en soi, de même la Kabbale est-elle la partie « occulte » du judaïsme.

Pourquoi cette étude comparatiste, qu’est-ce qui le justifie, et, surtout, que gagne-t-on à lire Heidegger au prisme de la Kabbale ? La Kabbale n’est évidemment pas un « thème » pour Heidegger, raison pour laquelle, dès l’introduction, l’auteur, au terme d’un état des lieux de la recherche mais aussi d’une justification philologique, déclare ouvertement son projet : non l’analyse « positive » (au sens du positivisme, de ce qui se fonde sur les faits) du rapport d’un auteur à la mystique juive du point de vue des textes car s’il est bien un jeu d’influence, avec notamment la mystique rhénane et l’idéalisme allemand, surtout schellingien, son importance tient à « l’arrière-plan » théorique, à une forme de Stimmung épocale ; une telle analyse est menée, bien sûr, mais là n’est pas l’essentiel : le rapprochement tire sa justification de ce que l’auteur appelle la corrélation de la mêmeté (Sameness) par la différence, à distance aussi bien de la recherche à tout prix de ce qui est commun (au prix d’une perte de la singularité – identité – de chacun des deux termes), que de l’exhibition stérile de la différence : en ce cross-over monographique, inédit et le premier à sérieusement établir une telle comparaison sur la base de critères philologico-textuels, c’est en effet tout aussi bien Heidegger qui se trouve éclairé par la Kabbale que la Kabbale qui se trouve introduite pour la première fois par le biais de l’outillage conceptuel heideggérien. Cet éclairage conjoint de la Kabbale et de Heidegger, en une méthode de variation thématique et perspectivale, ainsi que l’absence de présentation liminaire de la Kabbale, expliqueront sans doute qu’un tel ouvrage, dense et massif, ne soit pas d’un abord aisé pour qui est totalement étranger à la mystique juive. Cette absence se justifie néanmoins tout d’abord par le statut particulier de la Kabbale et la façon dont elle se rapporte à elle-même, se concevant en termes de différenciation diachronique d’une même vérité pour ainsi dire synchronique, à l’image de sa conception du monde comme manifestation en de multiples formes d’un seul et même être – le Seul qui soit; ensuite par la façon même dont Heidegger conçoit la tradition, non comme l’objet passé de la conscience historique, mais comme son avenir et, pour tout dire, son destin, parallèle à la rupture avec la conception linéaire et causaliste du temps. Mais, on le sait, tout ce qui est beau est aussi difficile que rare, et c’est là, par l’originalité de ses thèses et la manière dont Heidegger s’en trouve éclairé, un très beau livre.

Venons-en directement à la Chose même, aussi bien pour la Kabbale que pour Heidegger : l’Être. L’ouvrage se compose de huit chapitres, que je n’ai nullement l’ambition de restituer de façon thétique, comme si chacun d’entre eux constituait une Thesis que l’on eût pu dès lors résumer en quelques lignes, pour des raisons qui tiennent à la méthode dialéthéique (littéralement la « double vérité ») mise en œuvre. Cette méthode s’impose, c’est certain, du fait de l’inobjectivabilité de son sujet de recherche : le Seyn ou l’absolu kabbalistique nécessite un mode d’exposition qui chaque fois permette de l’éclairer ponctuellement sans le trahir, c’est-à-dire sans le travestissement qu’entraîne un mode d’exposition étranger à son objet ; la logique classique qui procède par identification (quand l’être est Ereignis) et par opposition (l’absolu sera transcendant ou immanent) ne saurait fonctionner ici. Si bien que l’ouvrage, fait rare et beau, fait ce qu’il dit et à mesure qu’il le dit, opérant une réduction, ou neutralisation, de la logique dualiste (l’être ne sera ni immanent ni transcendant), à la mesure donc de l’Être, Neutre, qui est par-delà toute opposition, et sans qu’il puisse faire l’objet d’une relève en un troisième terme synthétique : dire que l’être ou le divin n’est ni immanent au monde comme chez Spinoza ni transcendant (comme, en dépit de ressemblances, chez Plotin, avec le système d’émanation à partir de l’Un, Principe dont tout découle mais qui est lui-même absolument transcendant), c’est non pas indiquer un troisième terme, mais montrer la non-vérité même de l’opposition, autrement dit l’inexistence même de l’immanence et de la transcendance depuis la perspective de l’infini. Autrement dit, si le but est le chemin, en l’occurrence ici la méthode est la thèse elle-même, qu’on ne saurait dissocier de son récit, avec tout ce qui, en lui, donne l’impression de constituer un excursus.

Les divers thèmes abordés au gré des huit chapitres de l’ouvrage (la question de la circularité herméneutique qui ouvre l’ouvrage, la pensée du commencement, le rapport à l’altérité et au néant, l’auto-érotisme de l’être, du divin qui, par désir de Soi, caprice originel, se « manifeste » par le monde) s’articulent ainsi autour de l’Ain Soph (le « correspondant » kabbalistique du Seyn heideggérien) ainsi que de son exposition, de la façon dont on s’y rapporte par la parole, tant il est vrai que la réflexion « sur » le réel emporte avec elle, ou idéalement doit intégrer, le sujet réfléchissant : il y va pour le Sein d’être Da, comme pour le Dasein d’être ce qu’il est du fait de son ouverture à la question du Sein. Cette corrélation entre les deux pôles, qui en constitue la trame théorique, donne son titre à l’ouvrage : entre la « Gnose cachée » et la « Voie de la Poiesis », entre d’une part ce qui, comme lumière, illumine en restant soi-même voilé, ce qui manifeste sans être manifeste, l’Aimé Sans-Visage derrière tous les visages, bref, l’être en tant qu’être, et, d’autre part, la promotion d’un discours qui déjoue le partage même entre apophantique et apophatique, déjouant celui-là même entre néant et être, entre présence et absence, dont l’ouvrage constitue la patience méditation : tout se jouera donc dans cette atmosphère crépusculaire d’entre-deux, il est vrai au prix parfois de la clarté du propos (l’auteur est parfois prisonnier du style heideggérien), mais on comprend que se joue là l’Essentiel et que l’Être ne saurait être abordé si ce n’est par les voies indirectes du langage : méta-ontologique la « présence n’est pas l’absence de l’absence » pas plus que l’absence « l’absence de la présence » mais « la mise en présence (presencing) est plutôt l’absentement (absencing) de l’absentement de la mise en présence » (7).

Mais pourquoi rapprocher l’Être, le Seyn, ce qui, comme le dit Heidegger, l’emportant sur tous les êtres (tout être participe de l’Être, mais l’Être ne saurait être trouvé en aucune forme), est ce qui est le plus digne de penser, et l’Ain Soph kabbalistique, littéralement « l’infini » ? Cette question n’a rien d’anodin car elle engage bien la philosophie de Heidegger et, sans nul doute, de toute philosophie véritable. Or on le sait, la philosophie, chez Heidegger, présente des limites qui sont celles-là même de son histoire et du régime objectivant du langage. C’est pourquoi, afin d’éclairer la question de l’Être, il s’agit de procéder à la déconstruction des catégories sédimentées et dualistes du langage : l’oubli de l’être, rabattu sur un étant éminent, est corrélé à l’impropriété du langage à nommer ce qui échappe à toute dé-finition et ce qui partant ne saurait être pensé en termes de « transcendance » ou « d’immanence », à savoir ce qui n’obéit pas aux lois de la pensée, de non-contradiction et de tiers-exclu. Autrement dit, Heidegger quitte le palais de cristal du logos pour une parole qui, voulant dire l’origine, installée dans le silence du muthos, dit moins que, pareil au dieu dont parle Héraclite, elle ne « montre », se situant résolument dans la nuit compacte du mystère de l’être (de l’être comme mystère). Camper au niveau de l’aporie ontologique, sans la vouloir lever, telle qu’elle a été formulée par Aristote (l’être n’est ni un genre ni ne s’identifie à l’une de ses catégories, i.e. modes d’être : il n’est ni immanent à ses modes ni transcendant, « à part », en un autre lieu, ce qui reviendrait à en faire une « chose », à confondre, dans le lexique de Heidegger, l’être avec l’étant), c’est ainsi même se mettre à l’écoute de ce qui, à être dévoilé, échappe : l’être se médite, au crépuscule de la raison, à l’ombre des objets, parce qu’il y va de sa propre « essence » que de ne pouvoir souffrir la lumière objectivante du concept.

Sous cet angle, l’apport de la mystique juive pour l’exégèse heideggérienne tient à la manière dont elle pense l’Être, loin de toutes les figures qui instancient, selon Heidegger, la métaphysique comme onto-théo-logie, à savoir comme oubli de l’être par pensée de l’étant (le summum ens, ou Dieu comme super-héros de l’ontologie, porte le poids de l’ens commune). Le philosophique se trouve éclairé par ce qui en est devenu l’ombre : le « philosophal ». C’est là du moins un apport passionnant à la lecture de Heidegger, décentré par ce qui s’avère lui être le plus « propre », un ailleurs qui en détient la vérité. Je donnerai deux exemples, qui sont les deux axes qui structurent l’ouvrage (la Gnose cachée et la Poiesis). Le premier concerne le Seyn, ressaisi à partir du Ain Soph, à savoir l’essence infinie qui ne saurait elle-même avoir d’essence : la différence ontico-ontologique se trouve ressaisie à partir de la différence entre le Ain Soph et ses émanations séphirotiques. De même que Dieu est le lieu du monde sans que le monde soit le lieu où trouver Dieu, de même, dans le lexique du phénoménologue, l’être est-il au principe de l’étant sans pour autant que l’étant puisse le figurer ; et pourtant, l’étant n’est pas l’Autre de l’être. L’être chez Heidegger, est l’absolument Autre (être et étant) dans la Mêmeté (l’être est : seul l’être est, telle est la voie lumineuse qu’ouvre la déesse chez Parménide) ; la mystique juive nous fait mieux saisir, par contraste aussi avec le néo-platonisme, la nature de l’absolu ou de l’être : n’étant essentiellement présent que dans le retrait, se dissimulant soi-même dans les étants qui le manifestent, il est la Présence (le « il y a »)  absente, qui se dévoile sur le mode du voilement. L’aletheia, qui dit la vérité comme mise en présence, se trouve ainsi éclairée à l’aune de la gnose. Si la gnose est secrète, c’est bien parce qu’il y va de la vérité de l’être que d’être secret, non-manifesté, soustrait à toute parole qui le voudrait circonscrire. Mais cette différence se fait sur fond d’un monisme singulier, qui a neutralisé l’opposition entre l’un et le multiple, celui pour lequel le Monos, l’Être, Seul est (court-circuitant le partage entre être et non-être) : de même que la vague et la mer sont de la même substance, que l’ornement n’est que la mise en forme de l’or informe, de même l’Ain Soph éclaire-il le jeu interne à l’Être de l’être et des étants, jeu avec Soi-même qui, pour la finitude, est celui d’une perte et d’une errance (l’oubli comme destin occidental), mais qui, en dernière instance, est le Jeu différentiel de Cela qui a toujours été. De même que l’absolu, ou le divin, se révèle comme secret, car n’étant rien il n’a rien à révéler ni qui devrait être démasqué, de même l’être chez Heidegger apparaît-il ressaisi en son obscurité native par rapport à un Dasein dont la vérité est, à titre de sujet séparé, de n’être pas. A Bikkhu Maha Mani, moine bouddhiste de Thaïlande qui lui explique que la méditation consiste à se concentrer et, se rassemblant en soi, à déloger la racine du « Je », renvoyé à son caractère ontologiquement illusoire, par la réalisation de sa nature véritable, de Soi, qui est un Rien qui est tout (fullness), Heidegger répond : c’est ce que j’ai essayé de dire toute ma vie. Il y a dans, dans cette riche comparaison, une thèse implicite : que la mystique juive ne fait pas qu’éclairer la philosophie de Heidegger ; point culminant d’une pensée qui œuvre pour l’Impensé qu’elle ne peut approcher qu’en se dessaisissant d’elle-même, la mystique dit et fait ce que la philosophie, renvoyée à son propre mode discursif, ne peut que sourdement faire deviner, sauf à elle aussi mourir à elle-même, jetant l’échelle au terme de son ascension, en un dernier grand saut, de la pensée à l’impensé. C’est dans ce silence, cet « espace » de présence pure en lequel seul peut naître une parole authentique (non celle du « on »), qu’on atteint la « Gnose cachée » de l’être : il n’y a jamais eu de voile à lever, car le voile est celui de l’ignorance ontologique première : l’épreuve du fleuve du Léthé n’est pas celle de l’oubli de son être (de soi) mais de l’Être (de Soi). Caché, l’être l’est à qui le cherche ; mais à qui, dans le silence de la Présence, s’oubliant ne s’excepte pas de ce qui est, il Est, de l’ordre du That inqualifiable et non du What, selon la formule qu’utilise William James pour désigner l’expérience pure (à laquelle l’auteur fait référence du reste en de beaux passages sur Nishida Kitaro).

L’élucidation du statut de cette Gnose cachée appelle, comme je l’indiquais, une réflexion sur le langage lui-même qui l’articule, qui, à l’image de l’être, se trouve sous-tendu par la dialectique de la présence et de l’absence. Qu’est-ce que la connaissance véritable en effet (celle de l’être), comment opère-t-elle ? Il ne s’agit pas d’agrandir le stock de connaissance en y introduisant de nouvelles représentations, car ces dernières concernent uniquement les étants, mais bien d’une assignation du sujet à la vérité de son être, d’une connaissance de l’être qui est à la fois connaissance de soi (l’ontologie fondamentale ou analytique existentiale du Dasein) : la spiritualité n’est pas l’autre de la philosophie, mais son essence, comme le silence l’est du son (le son se détache sur le fond silencieux, toujours présent, tout comme l’être qui se manifeste quand les étants disparaissent dans la nuit du monde dans l’expérience de l’angoisse), ce qui explique l’aspect méditatif des Wege de Heidegger, chemins sinueux qui tournent autour d’un même centre qui illustrent le type de parole, poétique, tendu vers l’être comme non-manifeste, au bord du silence : car de même que la plus belle du bouquet est la fleur absente, celle qu’évoque la parole du Poète, de même l’être, inobjectivable, trouve en la Poiesis son abri. La parole véritable, en parlant, conduit au silence dont elle n’est que l’ornement. Le langage a pour sujet véritable, chez Heidegger, l’être même : le poète véritable ne dit pas l’être : son être est comme une conque dans laquelle faire résonner l’Ereignis, l’évènement de l’être, de l’ordre du es gibt. On ne saurait donc reprocher à Heidegger d’abandonner la logique au profit d’un irrationalisme non-scientifique, dans la mesure où il remonte à sa racine et que, par fidélité à son principe, il pense la vérité de l’être de façon plus fidèle et précise : car, loin d’être une technique formelle, la logique est le biais par lequel on s’exerce à dévoiler la vérité. A condition que le logos, loin de la parole codifiée et structurée par l’opposition, regarde en arrière de soi et, inventif, se situe au bord de ce qui, en en étant la vérité, en signe la disparition. Le langage, poétique, montre dans une parole qui déjà se laisse envahir par le silence, hors du régime objectivant du langage à valeur communicationnelle (qui dit le « what », l’objet). Cette thèse « gnostique » sur le langage et la vérité comme dévoilement du voilement du voilement (le passage, chez Platon, de la double ignorance – je ne sais pas que je ne sais pas – à la simple ignorance), gagne ainsi en clarté à la lumière de la compréhension mé-ontologique dans la Kabbale du Ain Soph et du statut du texte, à la fois spéculatif et dévotionnel, qui est autant commentaire de commentaire que Voie de Dévoilement (au sens d’aletheia) de l’Absolu. Le langage, sous cet angle, se laisse ainsi ressaisir à partir de la conception kabbalistique de la nature, comme abri de la signature secrète que Dieu a placée sur les choses.

 C’est, globalement, à l’aune de la mystique juive que la philosophie de Heidegger apparaît pour ce qu’elle est : comme une Poiesis, vaste méditation, essai d’une pensée sans lieu, utopique, ni suffisamment « logique », trop conceptuelle pour être poétique, trop philosophique pour être mystique. Certes, dans ce dépassement de la métaphysique, qui n’est autre qu’un saut hors de soi de la pensée, on y verra désormais bien des éléments de Kabbale, et il sera difficile au lecteur d’aborder de nouveau le Seyn, sans toute la richesse de compréhension qu’elle apporte. Mais, à tout le moins, c’est me semble-t-il la Kabbale elle-même qui fait l’objet des plus belles pages de l’ouvrage, et dans l’enthousiasme de l’auteur, mais aussi la profondeur de vue, fruit d’années de recherche, c’est le Feu sacré du Savoir véritable qui se révèle, contaminant jusqu’au lecteur lui-même. Quant à savoir si le destin historial de la philosophie ne serait pas du côté de la mystique, c’est là une question que nous maintenons ouverte. Comme si l’aridité et l’exigence conceptuelle de la philosophie servaient de tremplin à la simplicité du Verbe, que le philosophe n’était pas celui qui dit la vérité sur l’être (le totalisant, comme s’il le surplombait), mais celui qui, ouvrant à la vérité de l’être, doit désormais dans le silence se faire Myste. La Poiesis chez Heidegger est sans commune mesure avec la Poiesis véritable dans la mystique, avec le passage de l’Homme à l’Homme-Dieu, de l’existence éparpillée dans les étants à la réalisation de son essence. Mais cela, la phénoménologie de la finitude de Heidegger ne le pouvait penser.

Wayne Veck, Helen M. Gunter (Eds.): Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times

Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis Book Cover Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis
Wayne Veck, Helen M. Gunter (Eds.)
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £81.00

Reviewed by: Julien Kloeg (Erasmus University College)

Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis (ed. W. Veck & H. Gunter) is an edited collection which seeks to connect the thought of Hannah Arendt to education in the broadest possible sense. There are nine chapters in total, plus an extensive introduction that extensively prepares the themes considered in the book and a conclusion that takes stock of what has been achieved. Contributions cover a wide range. As the title suggests, there are interventions that are mostly practical in nature. Critical discussions of privatization in education (Gunter, chapter 5) and ‘Holocaust education’ (Morgan, chapter 7) are examples of this practical orientation. On the other, more theoretical end of the spectrum stand considerations on the notion of educational authority (Berkowitz, chapter 1) and the promise of narrative imagination in connection with the work of Paul Ricoeur (Dillabough, chapter 4). The volume as a whole is structured by the idea that we can today legitimately speak of “not only a crisis in education, but rather about the crisis of education”, which “encompasses the entire public realm” and thus creates “an existential crisis for the very idea of public education itself” (3). A sense of discomfort at the disorientation of adults, a general disconnect from the world, and the aforementioned privatization agenda pervades the volume. The public prominence of the likes of Greta Thunberg (1) and Malala Yousafzai (155) are included as convincing examples of admirable public action which is itself however a ‘symptom’:

“Nothing (…) could speak more loudly of the shunning of adult responsibility to the young than the situation in which newcomers feel themselves left with no other recourse than to take up responsibility for safeguarding the earth” (1).

But why is Arendt’s perspective the one that is chosen to explore this crisis of education? Arendt wrote two essays devoted to education, which means that from an exegetical perspective education plays a relatively minor role in her work. In the conclusion, the editors state the other structuring thought of the volume: of primary importance are Arendt’s “broader insights into the public realm that help educators and researchers to think about the purposes of education” (151). The typical approach of the contributions is thus as follows: first, a theme from Arendt’s writing on education is selected (authority, renewing the world, pearl-diving) and then, second, connected to more ‘mainstream’ writings by Arendt, mostly her political writings but also for instance her final, unfinished work The Life of the Mind (1977). Third, the elaborated theme is then either connected to a current challenge to education or put to the test on a conceptual level, depending on the practical/theoretical orientation of the chapter.

This three-step could have been a formulaic approach, but in truth this almost never shows. The only exception is the tendency of each author to once more explain Arendt’s The Crisis in Education (1954), which of her two essays on education is the main one that is referred to. The second, Reflections on Little Rock (1959), is controversial and does not receive as much attention in the volume – although Berkowitz (Chapter 1), Baluch (Chapter 2), and Nixon (Chapter 3) provide varying and thought-provoking evaluations of the latter. The editors seem to have avoided repetition with respect to themes from The Crisis in Education as much as possible, and the different emphases and points of departure of the contributions also mean that even when similar fragments from Arendt are selected, they are put to different uses. The only alternative seems to be to offer a ‘shared interpretation’ in the introduction, which contributors can then simply refer to – but this would somewhat break the integrity of the individual contributions. It thus seems that in volumes such as this one it is the nature of Arendt’s work itself that necessitates a certain level of ‘setting up’ and thus repetition. Future volumes would do well to follow the approach taken by the editors of Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times.

The second step, which connects Arendt’s writing on education to her other writings, sees the contributors relate to a wide variety of Arendtian themes and writings. Popular choices in the volume are The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958) and The Life of the Mind. This broadly reflects the general orientation of the volume: respectively the threat of the closure and destruction of the public sphere, Arendt’s technical notions of action and the world, and imagination, thinking and judgment. Still, the range of the references is impressive, featuring both the most well-known titles but also various more ‘minor’ writings. The references are laid out in a highly accessible fashion, following Bowring’s use of abbreviations of Arendt’s titles. This is clearly a good choice. At a few points in the volume references are made to entire works. When contributors simply refer to ‘(OT; HC)’, which happens in some of the chapters, one does wonder whether a more specific support for the contributors’ claim about Arendt would not have been preferable. In part this is perhaps a trade-off: the sheer inclusiveness of the volume with respect to Arendt’s work means that some ideas are not discussed in full. As a result of the wide range of works that is discussed, the volume has the considerable advantage that it can serve as an introduction to many of Arendt’s writings, for readers with an educational interest but also more generally for those interested in Arendt’s work as it speaks to our times. Authority in the Twentieth Century (1956) and Elemente und ursprünge totaler Herrschaft (1955) could have been consulted and Arendt’s doctoral thesis on Love and Saint Augustine (1929) is used quite sparsely considering the importance of Augustine for Arendt’s notions of action, temporality, and newcomers – all of which are important to the volume. Still, these are minor comments which reflect a specific approach to Arendt’s oeuvre. The volume breathes Arendtian scholarship throughout and on top of that makes Arendt highly relevant to current thinking about education. This is to be commended.

The third step takes us from Arendt on education and her other work to either a theoretical or practical area of interest where the Arendtian perspective on education is fully realized. Before we consider the success of this third step, we should reflect on the theoretical/practical continuum itself and the role it plays in the volume. The nine contributions are organized thematically in three parts of three chapters each: The Promise of Education, Education and Crisis, and Education for Love of the World. The three parts are set up dialectically: the first part “brings together new insights into the depth and complexity of Arendt’s thinking about and for education and its promise” (8), which then paves the way for reflections on the current crisis of education (3) in the second part through the perspective of “various social crises” (8). The final section is focuses on “prospects for education” (8). Much of the introduction is devoted to showing how the individual contributions fit into this thematic organization – however, the volume’s contents protest its dialectics. The contribution by Nixon (Chapter 3) in effect combines all three themes, reflecting on populism before connecting elements of Arendt’s ‘educational’ forays to possible strategies to move beyond today’s ‘dark times’. The following contribution by Dillabough (Chapter 4) indicates in its title that education theorizing is at stake, and does not connect to ‘social crises’ in the way Gunter (Chapter 5) does in connection to privatization in education, or in the way that Gunter (Chapter 6) does in connection to the education of refugee children. Chapters 5 and 6 do fit excellently. Whereas Nixon’s contribution seems to straddle the divides between the three parts, Dillabough’s contribution simply does not feel at home in the most practically oriented part of the volume. The third part is thematically the most open-ended and this is born out by the contributions: from ‘Holocaust education’ (Morgan, chapter 7), a comparison between Dewey and Arendt on the topic of their respective institutional-democratic proposals (Schutz, chapter 8), and, closing out the book, a reflection on Arendt’s notion of thinking and its connection to an educational perspective on her work (Duarte, chapter 9). There is thus more variety to the volume than it seemed to want to allow itself. This warrants a short discussion of the individual contributions.

The first chapter is by Roger Berkowitz, who is among other distinctions the academic director of the Hannah Arendt center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. His contribution reengages with the notion of authority, which is central to Arendt’s work on education and is also part of her history of politics. Berkowitz convincingly problematizes Arendt’s view of education as taking place within the private sphere, while also showing the power of her educational thought without avoiding Reflections on Little Rock. The political aspect of authority is not really considered as such; nor is there a consideration of earlier work on educational authority by Mordechai Gordon, which is mentioned in the introduction to the volume. However, the reflection on the importance of privacy adds to both educational and political considerations of Arendt’s work and sets up a valuable notion of public education.

Faisal Baluch, who is a versatile political scientist, reflects on education and temporality. He uses the notion of ‘thinking with Arendt against Arendt’ (Sayla Benhabib) to unravel the interdependency between Arendt’s notion of education and her notion of the political, keeping in mind Arendt’s own “method of reading” (32). This methodological exploration is both interesting and convincing. The interdependency between education and the political is based on Arendt’s notion of temporality, according to Baluch. As above, Gordon’s work would have been a useful reference point; this is also where a reflection on Arendt’s Augustinian notion of time would have added further depth to the text. The argument itself is philosophically inspired and may make readers wish for a more long-form reflection.

Rounding off the first part is John Nixon’s chapter on worldliness and education in a world of difference. This is in part a continuation of Nixon’s project in Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship (2015), one that in this volume is focused on the ‘dark times’ we live in and what this should mean for how we think about education. Important to this consideration is the threat of populism, which is mentioned at other points in the volume as well but here receives theoretical treatment – discussions of populism in other contributions can be overly general, which comes with the risk that the victory achieved by educational theory against populism is based on a strawman fallacy. In Nixon’s contribution populism is approached through the work of Jan-Werner Müller. Here, too, however, one may wonder whether this solves the problem completely. Müller’s work, while highly influential, offers a normative description of populism that does not sit well with Arendtian distinctions between morality and politics – and there are independent philosophical reasons to be critical of such a description as well. Here it shows that Arendtian notions of education and Arendt’s insight in public concerns more generally often intersect and interact with each other. Nixon’s educational answer to the threat of dark times itself is very interesting: he proposes to view education as a protected space devoted to and supportive of thoughtfulness, always in close connection with the world as it really is. This combines insights by Arendt on various topics, in various works, to produce a true synthesis.

The fourth chapter is by Jo-Anne Dillabough, who has researched a wide variety of topics related to youth culture and education, with a continued engagement with Arendt’s work. Using Ricoeur’s work, she argues for a notion of selfhood between self and other and shows how this links up naturally with Arendtian notions such as the plurality of public space. Dillabough suggests that ‘seeing each other as ethically meaningful’ requires a storied and interconnected rather than an isolated self. Education, then, is at its most powerful when it “moves us beyond ourselves precisely for the sake of others, and in the name of others” – and this again is connected to the Arendtian theme of the primary importance of action rather than the actor (78). Dillabough’s contribution, by adopting this perspective, also provides a strong argument against a bureaucratized notion of education “in the name of endless and perilous competition” (ibid). As indicated above, it is not clear that this chapter concerns ‘social crises’. Dillabough’s reflections on the ‘storied self’ and the way this is implied positively and negatively in different ways of thinking about education are highly memorable. It would be interesting to reflect more on the relationship between Berkowitz’ contribution, which insists on the ‘darkness’ of individual subjects, and this account of selfhood: this is simultaneously to ask to what extent – or perhaps in what sense – this account of selfhood remains Arendtian.

The two remaining contributions are by the editors – Helen Gunter writes on privatization and education policy, and Wayne Veck on providing education to refugee children. Both have written extensively on theory and philosophy of education as well as educational policy. These chapters are clearly the most practical in nature, addressing specific societal concerns and seeking to apply Arendt’s thought – not in order to generate clear-cut answers, but in order to offer another way of thinking about them. Gunter zooms into UK educational policy relevant to English schools and how its ‘privatism’ is depoliticized by references to biological determinism and eugenics, which she likens in Arendtian terms to the crystallization of totalitarian conditions (91-92). For Gunter, this has implications for social scientists who should avoid “becoming trapped by their own ideas” (79; 159) by seeing the “rationality in the segregation and disposability of children” and teachers, but instead should “challenge the attack on humanity” (92). All in all, this is a passionate knock-down argument against an entrenched normality, which could draw even more from The Origins of Totalitarianism than it currently does: for instance, related to the importance of the appeal to ‘anonymous’ forces such as History. Veck, in his own chapter, argues against ‘merely compensatory’ approaches to educating refugee children. Said children are ‘newcomers’ in a double sense and thus pose particularly pressing questions both of education and of the responsibility of educators (95). Here Arendt’s distinction between responsibility for the life of the child and responsibility for the education of the new person to orient them in a world that is not theirs is crucial. Approaches to the education of refugee children focus on the former at the expense of the latter, Veck convincingly argues; whereas refugee children, perhaps even more than other children, need to be introduced to the world as theirs. This enrooting in the world can take place precisely by allowing refugee children to withdraw from it at school, offering time and space for solitude (as opposed to loneliness, in Arendt’s technical sense) which allows “thinking and remembering” (105). This at the same time provides a powerful argument against narratives of assimilation. The contributions by Gunter and Veck are both exemplary applications of Arendt to pressing ‘social crises’, with Veck’s chapter especially demonstrating the sheer power of Arendt’s work, creating a new and forceful argument out of positions taken from different (sometimes less well-known) texts.

The third and final part starts with a reflection on ‘Holocaust education’ by Marie Morgan, who like Veck works at the University of Winchester and has written influentially on Post-Holocaust Jewish thought in America. Teaching on the Holocaust has difficult dimensions: disrupting and being disrupted is important, but in considering the Holocaust we are confronted with unimaginable suffering. Does this fit the protective environment of the school? Morgan shows how the freedom of the newcomer is not compromised by being exposed to suffering we may never understand, but rather enabled; but also that this makes the position of the educator particularly difficult, and that high demands are placed on his/her own ability to be at home in the world.  The chapter is also instructive for the continuity it establishes between ‘the political’ and ‘the educational’, in the face of the threat posed by totality.

Aaron Schutz, in the penultimate chapter of the book, draws on his research into theories of democratic education in schools and collective action for social change. His contribution can be construed as a reflection on the relationship between those two fields. Schutz uses John Dewey and then Arendt as his guides, even though the questions relevant to the two thinkers are in fact different, as Dewey is interested in outcomes and Arendt in action as such. The central question is: how does small-scale collaborative democracy in the style of what Schutz calls ‘classroom democracy’ translate to institutional politics on a larger scale? Here lies the problem with what Jane Mansbridge termed the ‘paradox of size’. Dewey did not solve the problem of ‘the public’ to his own satisfaction; Arendt can be usefully seen as carrying forward the discussion in a different, more inherently democratic, way. Schutz, with James Muldoon, offers the democratic council system praised in Arendt’s On Revolution as a “proof of concept” for the requirements Arendt poses for politics in terms of the participation of each unique voice in the public realm (132). Schutz gives the Deweyan perspective further importance by using it to reflect on potential shortcomings of a council system. This chapter provides a very insightful piece of analysis of the requirements and accompanying difficulties besetting a truly ‘public’ form of politics.

In the final contribution, Eduardo Duarte, who is well-known for philosophical work on education and musicality, unearths deep philosophical roots for Arendt’s “almost dialectical” note on schools in The Crisis in Education: “the function of the school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (137). These roots reach back to ancient philosophy in an attempt to reconstruct the ontological meaning of the common world for Arendt. Epictetus stands for the art of living, in the Stoic mold, and Heraclitus stands for teaching what the world is like. The Stoic starts with powerlessness in the face of inexorable Logos which leads to “passivity and fatalism” (147), whereas Arendt, as quote by Duarte, sounds a Heraclitian note: “For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality” (136). The repair and renewal of the world is thus a mimesis of the ever-changingness and permanent flux of the world on an ontological level, and that helps us to understand Arendt’s somewhat puzzling remarks about the out-of-jointness of the world. While it may be too much “to recognize in the Stoic sophos the prototype of the banality of evil” (147), which according to Duarte is not difficult to do, the ancient philosophical positions brought in to bear witness to Arendtian themes succeed in their purpose overall. While Duarte makes the clearest reference to Augustine in the volume, here too one wonders to what extent it is the Augustinian influence that makes itself felt, either directly or via criticism of his works.

In the conclusion (‘The promise of education revisited’), the editors return to the “themes that have shaped the essays” in the volume (151). This is structured by the idea of the ‘promise of education’, which was also the first theme of the volume. It thus seems that the reflections on social crises and love of the world have enriched the theoretical material out of which an Arendtian approach to education can be constructed: they jointly form an account of the “reality, potential and challenges” of and to the promise of education (152). The conclusion provides a summary of the preceding positions and debates and ends on a call for thoughtful research.

Many enduring lessons are on offer in this volume, which advances Arendtian scholarship as well as educational thought, and itself embodies the thoughtful research it calls out for. There is still much exploring to be done, of course, but the intention of the book was never to provide the final word on issues of education. All contributions are just that – solid contributions that clearly show the continued importance of Arendt in our day and age. It establishes, among other things, the importance and the problematic nature of authority, the interconnection between education, politics and the public realm, and the idea of thoughtfulness in education secured by a protective space of solitude in which to think and remember. Above we have already expressed the view that the reflections on populism in this volume do not yet rise to the challenge of the current ‘populist moment’, in Chantal Mouffe’s term. In addition, it is surprising that, in a volume that opens with a discussion of Greta Thunberg, climate change is only listed as an example along with other examples. Especially in terms of education in (response to) a crisis, one would perhaps expect a more sustained reflection on climate change education ‘with and against Arendt’, for instance in terms of her notions of world and earth. While these are critical remarks, it is always a good sign when new scholarship leaves the reader not only happy to have encountered it, but also wanting more.

Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times: Education for a World in Crisis makes a solid contribution to a research agenda that is theoretically promising and at the same time remains in touch with some of the most pressing problems of our age. It is an important document for anyone interested in Arendtian perspectives on education, and for many others, too.

Christina M. Gschwandtner: Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy, Fordham University Press, 2019

Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy Book Cover Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy
Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought
Christina M. Gschwandtner
Fordham University Press
Hardback $75.00

Matthew Eshleman, Constance Mui (Eds.): The Sartrean Mind, Routledge, 2019

The Sartrean Mind Book Cover The Sartrean Mind
Routledge Philosophical Minds
Matthew Eshleman, Constance Mui (Eds.)
Hardback £190.00

Adam Y. Wells: The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis

The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenosis Book Cover The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenosis
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Adam Y. Wells. Foreword by Kevin Hart
SUNY Press
Hardback $80.00

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College,  University of Oxford)

Radicalisation as Entmenschlichung

Notes on the credibility of a phenomenology of Scripture

Since the exegete exists historically and must hear the word of Scripture as spoken in his special historical situation, he will always understand the old word anew. Always anew it will tell him who he, man, is and who God is, and he will always have to express this word in a new conceptuality. Thus it is true also of Scripture that it only is what it is with its history and its future.

Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 296.[1]

Adam Wells’ new book, The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis, is a provocative one. With Husserl, it takes up once more the dream of phenomenology as an absolute science, that is to say, a presuppositionless science that as such is able to ground all positive sciences. In doing so, Wells sees an analogy between the phenomenological gesture of reduction and Paul’s so-called kenosis hymn (Philippians 2:5-11). Exploring this analogy by operating a kenotic reduction, he sets up a phenomenology of Scripture in which the phenomenological method and Scripture mutually clarify one another (97-117). It is in this phenomenology of Scripture that contemporary Biblical criticism ought to be grounded, according to Wells, because it alone does not let itself be restricted by dogmatic presuppositions that arbitrarily impose limits on how and to what extent the experience of Scripture enters the field of inquiry. Only this phenomenology would be presuppositionless, thus forming an absolute science of Scripture, that is able to ground the scientificity of positive Biblical criticism. The thrust of the book is then made up of an intriguing critique of contemporary Biblical criticism, the problem with which, Wells suggests, “is not that it is overly scientific, but that it is not scientific enough” (150).[2]

To those of us shaped by his most significant critics, Heidegger and Derrida, Husserl’s dream of an absolute science sounds more like the stuff of nightmares. Wells is all too aware of this and admits from the outset that there are very good reasons to be suspicious of the very idea of absolute science “as a modernist, metaphysical ideal” (1), pointing to the calamities of the twentieth century as an example. Yet, he says, entirely abandoning the dream of absolute science would amount to giving up “any ability to ground the sciences, to determine the boundaries of scientific inquiry, and to provide answers to meta-theoretical questions about the ethical status of the sciences. (…) For that, one needs absolute science; one needs a way to ground the sciences in the broader context of the life-world” (2). Returning us to the foundational need that was felt so urgently in the first decades of the last century—embodied philosophically by Husserl and theologically by Barth—, the “‘dream’ of absolute science is not a metaphysical ideal,” for Wells, “but a practical necessity” (2). Of course, this simply ignores the fact that said dream could very well be both a metaphysical ideal and a practical necessity at the same time: as it was for Kant, for whom the moral God is needed to make the scientific endeavour meaningful whilst remaining himself outside the scope of that endeavour, which secures the very nature of ethical reasoning as distinct from science and thus able to ask such questions about science.[3] Kant’s insight is precisely that even though something may be practically necessary, that does not make it theoretically possible; it is a question of making this impossibility into an asset rather than an obstacle (as Derrida knew all too well). Nevertheless, Wells intends “to dream Husserl’s dream again, to reopen the question of absolute science, navigating between the practical necessity of such a science and the temptation to universalize it” (2).

Aware of how this sounds, however, he is quick to note that both absolute and science will “lose their mundane imperial connotations when transformed phenomenologically” (7). The first half of the book executes that phenomenological transformation by spelling out what Wells means by absolute science. Throughout its three chapters, Wells tracks the radicalisation of phenomenology and its reduction from Husserl’s early static phenomenology, through his later genetic phenomenology, and up to the constructive phenomenology developed by Eugen Fink and Anthony Steinbock. This exposition perhaps contains little that would be new to anyone familiar with the basics of phenomenological philosophy and its transcendental method, but it is remarkably clear and—unlike much Husserl scholarship and to Wells’ great credit—avoids any self-indulgent revelling in the immense technical complexity of Husserl’s philosophy: like all good phenomenology, this is a constructive work.

The phenomenologically transformed conception of absolute science Wells ends up with is then the following. Starting with science, he says that whilst “mundane sciences are concerned with that which is given in the world; phenomenology is concerned with how the given becomes given” (60). In other words, unlike the positive sciences, phenomenology is not a science of innerwordly objects; as an absolute science, it considers the constitutive source of these objects as unities of meaning and is operative within the new ontological field that Husserl calls transcendental subjectivity, which is opened up by the reduction: “Absolute science must, therefore, be a science of transcendental subjectivity” (20), for “as the source of all objectivity,” it is “the proper subject matter of absolute science” (21). So far, so Husserlian. For his understanding of the absolute, then, Wells turns to Fink, who defines the absolute as the synthetic unity of the whole of transcendental life, not merely the constitution of objects, but also the transcendental act of phenomenologising itself. That is to say, phenomenology is absolute because it maintains itself in a circular self-referentiality: the transcendental reflection on the constitution of objects itself leads to a transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method, which then in turn renews the transcendental reflection on constitution. “In the phenomenological reduction,” as Wells puts it, “transcendental subjectivity investigates its own constituting activity. Consequently, if phenomenology is going to be complete, if it is going to investigate all aspects of transcendental subjectivity, then it must investigate its own investigation, in the form of a transcendental theory of method. (…) The ultimate ‘object’ of phenomenology is the transcendental subject” (57-58).

As such, Wells believes to have seen off the modernist imperialist connotations of the notion of absolute science: “Consequently, phenomenology is not a universal science even if it is an absolute science. As a scientific practice on the part of transcendental subjectivity, phenomenology is within the process of genesis even as it evaluates the generation of givenness. (…) Phenomenology has no right to the phrase ‘once and for all’” (46). Indeed, precisely because, as caught up in its own circular self-referentiality, phenomenology exists in an infinite hermeneutic circle that it cannot escape to define the absolute ‘once and for all’: since it is itself absolute, “phenomenology cannot transcend the Absolute in order to offer a final objective account of the absolute” (71). This is an impressive and sound argument. However, at the same time, if “phenomenology guarantees its absoluteness only to the extent that it is self-referential” (51), the conception of the absolute offered is merely a formal one that lacks any material content. Wells, as it were, gives us no entry into the hermeneutic circle.

Yet, this is entirely the point, for it is here that absolute science becomes an absolute science of Scripture, that phenomenology becomes a phenomenology of Scripture, which follows from the radicalisation of phenomenology as such. For, Wells remarks, “while Fink’s ‘theory of method’ goes a long way toward radicalizing Husserl’s concept of absolute science, it remains incomplete inasmuch as Fink never connects the theory of method to any particular phenomenal element. Fink never performs absolute science” (150). In virtue of phenomenology or absolute science’s circular structure, the absolute cannot be defined in advance, but only takes shape within the practice (the performance) of phenomenology, within the phenomenological analysis of phenomena: “absolute science only becomes absolute in concrete application. That is to say, the method of absolute science cannot be specified in advance; it must be derived from concrete engagement with phenomena” (2). The material element chosen by Wells to make the formal notion of absolute science substantive is Scripture: “the phenomenological idea of absolute science,” he says, “gains real content inasmuch as theoretical phenomenological reflection exists in a ‘synthetic unity’ with scripture itself” (156). That is to say, following Fink, Scripture is a positive phenomenal element, transcendental reflection on which leads inevitably to transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method itself and thus fleshes out that method (makes it leibhaftig). As such, it is indeed the case that “Scripture and phenomenology elucidate one another within the circular hermeneutic of absolute science” (3).  However, insofar as Wells seems to imply more generally that “if scripture requires phenomenological clarification,” it would be the case that “phenomenology requires scriptural clarification” (2), he seems to be taking this a bit too far: Scripture is but one possible material element amongst many capable of clarifying the formal method, even if phenomenological reduction and the kenosis hymn are analogous in structure.

Having made the bridge between phenomenology and Scripture—namely that, to be a properly absolute science, phenomenology must be performed or applied to particular phenomenal elements, in this case Scripture—, we can now consider how Wells performs phenomenology, how he develops his phenomenology of Scripture as an absolute science of Scripture in the second half of the book. He proceeds by reading the kenosis hymn phenomenologically in order to argue that it “operates as a type of phenomenological reduction—a kenotic reduction that is, in the end, far more radical than Husserl’s reduction” (97), which means, given the circular structure of phenomenology, that phenomenology is itself in the end kenotic. This kenotic reduction is a bold but perhaps flawed idea. Its original sin is perhaps that it is based on an extremely uncritical reprisal of Fink’s understanding of the reduction that links it to divine cognition, the formulation of which Wells repeatedly cites throughout the book: “already in German idealism,” Fink says, “there was the recognition that the traditional antithesis between ‘intellectus archetypus’ and ‘intellectus ectypus’, which constituted metaphysical difference between human and divine knowledge, in truth signified the antithesis between human and un-humanized (entmenscht) philosophical cognition,”[4] which would mean that “phenomenologizing is not a human possibility at all, but signifies precisely the un-humanizing of man, the passing of human existence (…) into the transcendental subject. (…) Before phenomenologizing is actually realized in carrying out the reduction there is no human possibility of cognizing phenomenologically (…). Just as man is the transcendental subject closed off to its own living depths, so too all human possibilities are closed off to the inner transcendentality of the subject. Man cannot as man phenomenologize, that is, the human mode of being cannot perdure through the actualization of phenomenological cognition. Performing the reduction means for man to rise beyond (to transcend) himself, it means to rise beyond himself in all his human possibilities.”[5] It is here, Wells says, that “the analogy between reduction and the kenosis hymn becomes clear. By bracketing the world, and all being in the world, the human ‘I’ of the natural attitude calls into question that which it fundamentally is. The human ‘I’ relinquishes its ties to the world, emptying itself of its own humanity” (104). Kenosis, for Wells, is thus not the divine emptying itself of its divinity and in doing so becoming human; but, somewhat bizarrely, the human being emptying itself of its own humanity (being-in-the-world) and in doing so achieving transcendental (un-worldly) consciousness, which is then identified with the divine: “what is ‘emptied’ is not Christ’s divinity, nor his status vis-à-vis God, but the status of the cosmos as the primary source of truth and value. The kenotic reduction opens up the possibility that worldly authority and value are not primary but derivative,” namely of transcendental, un-humanised, un-worldly, even divine (!) processes of constitution; indeed, “in the kenotic epochē, the cosmos is bracketed as the ground of truth and value, and the world is revealed as a new creation, which is renewed and sustained by God’s infinite love and power. Kenōsis, in this reduced sense, is not an ‘emptying out’ but an ‘overflowing’ of God’s love unto creation” (3).  The kenotic reduction, then, is a “reduction from cosmos to ‘new creation’” (107). The rest of the book is then spent outlining the structure of this ‘new creation’ through a critique of Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness, which, by the standards of the kenotic reduction, Wells considers not yet fully reduced (131). By way of an eloquent discussion of Lacoste and Fink, he shows how “the kenotic reduction brackets the cosmos, and discloses a new creation, in which space-time is a horizon whose essential horizontality is [divine] represencing” (147).

However, Wells’ conceptualisation of both kenosis and reduction strikes me as problematic, precisely because of the uncritical way in which it assumes Fink’s conception of the reduction and the related primacy of transcendental subjectivity understood as a transcending of finite being-in-the-world. First of all, Husserl’s notion of transcendental subjectivity has received its fair share of criticism, even Wells himself calls it “problematic” (9). It is therefore odd that this further radicalisation of transcendental subjectivity as explicitly un-humanised is taken over by Wells without reflecting on it critically at all (even though, as I said, the quotation returns multiple times, giving him ample opportunity). What does it mean to say that in doing phenomenology we would somehow transcend our humanity as such? What could possibly be left of me, or of any consciousness, once I have transcended my humanity?[6] What comes to mind here is Kierkegaard’s constant mocking of the thinker who—in his attempt to be sub specie aeterni, in forgetting to think everything he thinks along with the fact that he exists—simply ends up thinking something unreal, illusionary and irrelevant. Not even reduction can lift us out of our humanity, for even the reduction must first surely be initiated by finite human beings existing in the world: even the phenomenologist as phenomenologist is finite; Husserl is dead. “When one has abstracted from everything, is it not the case then that, etc.,” Kierkegaard sighs, “Yes, when one has abstracted from everything. Let us be human beings.”[7] Perhaps Fink and Wells have a counter-argument that refutes this exasperation at such overzealous use of the reduction; however, if they do, it is never offered and the critique—which nevertheless seems somewhat obvious—is not pre-empted. In the absence of a persuasive reason for why I should un-humanise myself in order to do phenomenology, it seems more worthwhile to remember Kierkegaard’s warning that “one who exists is prohibited from wanting to forget that he exists.”[8]

This Entmenschlichung can also be questioned theologically, this time not in terms of the reduction, but in terms of what functions here as its analogue, namely kenosis and its incarnational character. As we know, for Wells, “what is ultimately emptied in the kenotic epochē is not Christ’s divinity (…), but the status of the cosmos as the ultimate ground of truth and value; Christ’s kenotic act—whether one emphasizes the incarnation or the cross—turns worldly hierarchies upside down. The very idea that one who is equal to God (…) would choose to become human and become crucified is completely at odds with worldly notions of divine power and authority. From the worldly standpoint, it makes little sense to forgo divine power in favour of human existence and slavish death. One would never choose to die like a slave when given the option to be Caesar; to do so would be inhuman” (105, see also 114). This, in my view, gets it precisely the wrong way round: that it is a human being doing something inhuman is precisely the point. If it were simply God who chose to die as a slave, would we really be all that bothered? After all, for God, all things are possible­. It is a human being, in which God has emptied himself of his divinity and taken on the full existential reality of the human being,[9] who chooses to do something in-human—precisely that is what makes up the scandal of the Christian story and its power: worldly hierarchies are turned upside down from within the world itself by an event that transforms the structure of the world, opening it up from within unto the kingdom that is coming. That God’s power is completely at odds with ‘worldly notions of divine power and authority’ is likewise precisely the point of his power, namely that it is, as John Caputo puts it, “madness from the point of view of the ‘world’.”[10] Indeed, Caputo’s weak theology, which thinks God’s power precisely as his weakness, forms a much needed nuance to the disconcertingly strong theology of power that seems to be underlying Wells’ phenomenology: the divine is not reached by way of the impossible, by transcending the human (what on earth would this even mean?); rather, it is a question of being able to entertain the im-possible humanity of the un-human, the im-possible possibility of the impossible (Derrida).[11]

If uncritically relying on an un-humanised transcendental subjectivity is problematic, it surely is even more so when this transcendental subjectivity is identified with God. Yet, this seems to be the final move in Wells’ formulation of the kenotic reduction: “In reduction, the transcendental subject achieves that which is impossible for human subjectivity, namely, un-humanized or ‘divine’ philosophical cognition of the world (…). In reduction, man rises above the world as the pre-given ground of truth and value, and therefore exceeds worldly possibilities. The world, the cosmos, is revealed as the end product of the constituting acts of transcendental subjectivity; or to put it theologically, the cosmos is created” (107). This extraordinary claim, which amounts to a theologisation of the reduction in which transcendental cognition is identified with divine cognition and the transcendental field itself with divine creative activity, strikes me as unprepared by the argument and therefore unwarranted phenomenologically (in spite of the language Fink uses). In other words, a theological leap is performed here that must be resisted by phenomenology precisely as phenomenology until its legitimacy can be established phenomenologically. Without this, I see no reason again to follow Wells in his expansion of Husserlian notions of transcendence and subjectivity “by integrating the transcendental subject into the divine life” (117).

The problem becomes particularly acute, I feel, when this kenotic phenomenology is applied to Scripture in Wells’ absolute science of Scripture: for reading Scripture “in a kenotically reduced way,” would mean heeding the kenotic reduction’s instruction “to bracket the cosmos as the source of truth, validity, and meaning. No language or mode of reason derived from the cosmos should predetermine our reading of scripture” (108). We have now thus achieved Wells’ absolute science (or phenomenology) of Scripture, in the sense of an inquiry that “places no dogmatic restrictions on the experiences and contexts of scripture; every mode of scriptural givenness is, in principle, open for phenomenological investigation” (25). Though Wells stresses that this absolute science does not negate but instead underlies empirical Biblical criticism (23), it is worth noting that this does nevertheless appear to lay waste to immense parts of the tradition of said criticism: “So, for instance, Heidegger’s Dasein, restricted as it is to a worldly conception of finitude, cannot determine our phenomenological hermeneutic in the way that it determined Rudolf Bultmann’s strategy of ‘demythologisation.’ More importantly, in bracketing worldly modes of reason and language, huge swaths of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (…) are ruled out” (108). When reflected back, in virtue of its circular or absolute character, on the phenomenological method itself, we find that there too a conceptual purification (reduction) should be performed: Husserl’s idea of monadicity, for example, is simply declared “not relevant here,” for “divine life is the source of infinitely overflowing power and love, while ‘monadicity’ is a concept derived from worldly finitude” (117).

Yet, after so much reduction, after such a thorough cleaning out of our conceptual apparatus, what remains when the dust has settled? Not much of interest to anyone actually living their life, Kierkegaard might answer, which should worry us. Indeed, according to Wells, we would be left with the unadulterated “experience of scripture” (24). Yet, at no point does he provide a description of what this experience might be. Though again, as I discussed, this is of course entirely the point: he does not provide us with an a priori entry into the hermeneutic circle in which this experience takes shape, precisely because it only takes shape within or as that circle. However, one wonders if Wells has not closed that circle in on itself to the point of the experience having no worldly subject, and thus being inaccessible to us as human beings (hence, perhaps, Nancy and Derrida’s emphasis on the ellipsis, rather than the circle, that all writing and thinking completes).[12] For in reducing, if we reduce too far, it is very possible to reduce away the very structures that make appearance possible (say, human finitude), thus causing appearance to disappear in its own impossibility. Here again, Wells’ account fails to address or at least to pre-empt a powerful objection that is easily raised by someone like Caputo: “the truth is gained not by approaching things without presuppositions—can you even imagine such a thing?—but by getting rid of inappropriate presuppositions (frame) and finding the appropriate ones, the very ones that give us access to the things in question. (…) ‘Absolute’ knowledge absolves itself of the very conditions under which knowledge is possible in the first place. Presupposing nothing results in knowing nothing.”[13] Note that this critique is directed against absolute, rather than universal knowledge: it is not a question of the scope of the epistemic domain, but of the conditions under which the judgement is valid. As Kant might have said, absolute anything is simply nothing. Wells is often quick, like Husserl, to dismiss “dogmatic restrictions” placed on the field of inquiry by presuppositions; however, like Fink, he never considers whether it is perhaps these presuppositions that might be what opens up that field of inquiry (as opposed to reduction), what provides an entry into the circle absolute science completes (and which reduction closes off), for us as human beings in the first place: precisely because we are finite human beings living in the world, we are limited; “but that limit also gives us an angle of entry, an approach, a perspective, an interpretation. God doesn’t need an angle, but we do. Having an angle is the way truths open up for us mortals.”[14] To pretend that we are anything but mortals, that we could somehow transcend our finitude and humanity, is to disregard the problems that confront us as such. If we continue radicalising phenomenology (be it with Husserl, Heidegger, Fink, Marion, or Henry), instead of practicing phenomenology, we risk losing sight of what show itself as such.[15]

This is not merely, it should be said—and this is particularly evident in the work of Lacoste—, an atheist humanism speaking the language of phenomenology; but equally entails a theological imperative: indeed, “it is necessary to read Lacoste,” Emmanuel Falque argues, “probably above anyone else, in order to see and to understand the degree to which theology itself actually insists upon and does not contradict finitude as such (understood as the limiting horizon of our existence).”[16] The seriousness of this problem should not be underestimated, for it essentially concerns the question of who the Bible is for, who it speaks to, who can access the experience of Scripture. A distinction, borrowed from Nancy, that Falque makes in relation to the Eucharist, might be helpful here as well: the Bible “is not only ‘believable’ (by giving faith), it is also ‘credible’ (with a universalisable rationality)—in which the present work maintains the pretention of addressing itself to all,” for the Christian message “is not simply one of conviction, but also one of ‘culture’, or of pure and simple humanity.”[17] Instead of being absolute but not universal, perhaps the phenomenology of Scripture should be universal but not absolute: addressing itself to all (opening itself up as universally credible)—and thus doing so in the language of the human and worldly finitude we all share (whether the message is believed or not)—, without the violent insistence of being true for everyone (absolutely). Indeed, if no language derived from the world can be used to read or make meaningful the Christian message as it is found in Scripture (108), that message shrivels up in itself and dies, for there is no other language available. Essentially, the distinction between the transcendental or absolute (phenomenological) and the empirical or positive (historical) science of Scripture is simply not tenable: “the science of history goes to work on all historical documents,” as Rudolf Bultmann argues, “there cannot be any exceptions in the case of biblical texts if the latter are at all to be understood historically. Nor can one object that the biblical writings do not intend to be historical documents, but rather affirmations of faith and proclamation. For however certain this may be, if they are ever to be understood as such, they must first of all be interpreted historically, inasmuch as they speak in a strange language in concepts of a faraway time, of a world-picture that is alien to us. Put quite simply, they must be translated, and translation is the task of historical science.”[18] Readings of Scripture are always predetermined by some presuppositions shared by a particular community, otherwise there simply could not be any reading (or experiencing). Falque summarises this nicely by saying that it is above all a question of culture: “It is incumbent on each of us to decide on this, and it is also a matter for all of humanity, at least in the doctrine and tradition of Western culture that we inherit. (…) My basic argument (…) is not put forward so as to convert or transform others. It comes down to an acceptance or recognition that Christianity has the cultural means, as well as the conceptual means, to touch the depths of our humanity.”[19] In other words, it is a matter of securing for Christianity its credibility, the means by which it can continue to be meaningful to us and today, universally yet not absolutely, to all but not therefore believable in just whatever situation: “the issue at stake in philosophy, but also in the theology of today, is to envisage the meaning, including the cultural one,” of Christianity, for it forms “the condition for God himself to continue to address himself to man.”[20]

Wells’ absolute though not universal science of Scripture, because it is a closed circular system (the absolute), cannot account for how God could still address himself (credibly) to man as man, how Scripture could speak across traditions, engage humanity as such in its community of being (universally): “This brand of radical phenomenology may well apply outside of the Christian context,” he says, “but only to the extent that there are concepts analogous to kenōsis operating in other traditions (as there surely are)” (157). What these analogous concepts would be, we are left to guess. Ironically, if this were indeed to be true—and hopefully it is—, it would detract from Wells’ argument: if different religious traditions all have analogous concepts, that means that those concepts themselves are not theological, but precisely concepts belonging to the world and originating in human finitude. Having rejected monadicity, different traditions (or phenomenological ‘homeworlds’) seem to function very much like Leibniz’s ‘monads without windows’ for Wells. Simultaneously, whilst Christianity, or at least its Scriptures, would lack the means to speak meaningfully to non-Christians (because the science of Scripture is not universally credible); it risks—and I say risks, because Wells is unclear about whether intra-Christian differentiation counts as different phenomenological homeworlds—suppressing all interpretative difference within the Christian tradition itself (because the science of Scripture is absolutely to-be-believed). However, precisely because, as Bultmann puts it, “historical knowledge is never a closed (…) knowledge,” to the degree that it maintains a reference to the knower’s ‘life-relation’—unlike Wells’ transcendental or absolute science which is circular and thus only self-referential—, it is better at avoiding the modernist pitfall: “For if the phenomena of history are not facts that can be neutrally observed, but rather open themselves in their meaning only to one who approaches them alive with questions, then they are always only understandable now in that they actually speak in the present situation. (…) It can definitively disclose itself only when history has come to an end.”[21] I am therefore not sure whether Wells is justified in concluding that “kenotically radicalised phenomenology brooks none of the modernist hope for universal science” (157), for his absolute but not universal science still has the distinct flavour of a localised modernity: believable, within a particular tradition, and perhaps even to-be-believed (absolutely valid or grounded within a particular homeworld); even if it is not universally credible, outside of that tradition, in the human community of being where it has lost all meaning because it has transcended what that community has in common—human finitude.

There is no virtue in radicalisation when it amounts to Entmenschlichung—perhaps only within the dry vocabulary of transcendental philosophy could these words somehow appear innocent. Simply observing that securing an absolute ground for the sciences is a practical necessity does not make it theoretically possible, which is a lesson we should finally learn after having witnessed one attempt after the other fail over the course of what is now more than a century since Husserl first articulated this ambition (though, of course, it predates him). Instead, we need a discourse that “learns to appreciate the groundlessness of what is happening”[22] (Caputo), making the best of it in a “practical conversion of the theoretically ‘impossible’” that has “the objective reality of the task (Aufgabe)”[23] (Nancy), to be performed in the world itself as world. We must avoid that this ever-continuing radicalisation of phenomenology turns Husserl’s dream into a nightmare, whilst the coextensive desire for a scientific (be it a phenomenological or theological) grounding of Biblical criticism obfuscates the outrageous and life-transforming message of Scripture, or at least its worldly direction and medium: the result of a phenomenology of Scripture cannot be that the message found therein loses its credibility.[24] 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’ in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, trans. by Schubert M. Ogden (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), 289-296 (296).

[2] Wells also formulates this critique theologically, though less prominently, by saying that “modern biblical criticism (…) lacks a theological grounding” (81). In that sense, Wells’ phenomenological account of an absolute science of Scripture is similar to Darren Sarisky’s recent theological account of a theological reading of the Bible (published just two months after Wells’ volume) in that they both reject naturalistic readings of Scripture in an attempt to ground Biblical criticism. For Sarisky’s account, see his Reading the Bible Theologically (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[3] This is also the experience taking shape in those critics of Husserl that are dismissed by some as ‘nihilists’ because they would somehow have done away with very notion of an absolute. However, in reality, the exact opposite is true. Derrida, for example, expresses this well when he says that “there is a want for truth (il faut la vérité)” (see Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 58n32 (trans. modified)): there is a need or a want for truth, precisely because truth is lacking; deconstruction is indeed motivated by the absolute, namely by its presence as absence in its constant displacement, which forms the very movement of différance.

[4] Eugen Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation: The Idea of a Transcendental Theory of Method, trans. by Ronald Bruzina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 77.

[5] Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation, 120.

[6] It should be pointed out that the human being for Fink (and Husserl) is probably not the same as what Heidegger calls Dasein, but rather refers to worldly or empirical consciousness whilst transcendental consciousness is constitutive of the world. On this, see: James McGuirk, ‘Phenomenological Reduction in Heidegger and Fink: On the Problem of the Way Back from the Transcendental to the Mundane Sphere’ in Philosophy Today, 53.3 (September 2009), 248-264.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 97.

[8] Kierkegaard, Postscript, 256.

[9] In kenosis understood along incarnational lines, God does not simply empty himself of his divinity in order to come into the flesh (Verleiblichung); but, by coming into the flesh, he also takes on the whole existential reality of man, namely his finitude and facticity (Menschwerdung). On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘A Phenomenology of the Underground’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 45-75; Emmanuel Falque, The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018).

[10] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 103.

[11] More generally, what one would not know from reading the book is that the theme of kenosis has gained remarkable currency within contemporary philosophy: not just in Caputo and Derrida, but also in Catherine Malabou, Gianni Vattimo, Jean-Luc Nancy and Emmanuel Falque. Though Wells has a chapter situating the kenosis hymn within contemporary Biblical criticism and theology, a philosophical consideration of the issue of kenosis is entirely absent. It seems wrong to me to identify the phenomenon of kenosis with Paul’s kenosis hymn. This is a missed opportunity and might lead one to wonder whether what this book provides is actually a kenotic phenomenology of Scripture, rather than a phenomenology of kenosis.

[12] For more on this, see: Jacques Derrida, ‘Ellipsis’ in Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 294-300; Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Elliptical Sense’, trans. by Jonathan Derbyshire in A Finite Thinking (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 92-111.

[13] John D. Caputo, Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age (London: Penguin, 2013), 182.

[14] Caputo, Truth, 13.

[15] On this, see also Frédéric Seyler’s ‘Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life’ in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 27.3 (2013), 277-286.

[16] Emmanuel Falque, ‘The Visitation of Facticity’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 195-219 (196). See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man, trans. by Mark Raftery-Skehan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 194: “Man takes hold of what is most proper to him when he chooses to encounter God. This argument can now be made more specific: we can now assert that man says who he is most precisely when he accepts an existence in the image of a God who has taken humiliation upon himself—when he accepts a kenotic existence.”

[17] Emmanuel Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist, trans. by George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 43 (trans. modified).

[18] Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 292.

[19] Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 10.

[20] Emmanuel Falque, ‘Spread Body and Exposed Body: Dialogue with Jean-Luc Nancy’, trans. by Nikolaas Deketelaere and Marie Chabbert in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 26.1/2 (February-April 2021) (forthcoming).

[21] Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 294-295.

[22] John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 66.

[23] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Dies irae’ in La faculté de juger (Paris: Minuit, 1985), 9-54 (34).

[24] It is precisely this idea that forms the essential and lasting legacy of Bultmann’s work. David Congdon expresses it well in his ‘Is Bultmann a Heideggerian Theologian?’ in Scottish Journal of Theology, 70.1 (2017), 19-38 (38): “Translation is not the imperialistic removal of ideas from their native context; it is rather an act of intercultural communication. Translation is a dialogue between past and present that respects the cultural distinctiveness of both text and reader. It is actually the rejection of translation that is imperialistic, because that inevitably means denying the significance and value of some cultural context, whether ancient or modern.” Thus, even in asking valid and important questions like Wells does, “one must be careful not to criticise the act of translation as such, and thereby inadvertently undermine the capacity to facilitate genuine understanding across cultural barriers—thus undermining the possibility of theology itself.”

Michael L. Morgan (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Levinas, Oxford University Press, 2019

The Oxford Handbook of Levinas Book Cover The Oxford Handbook of Levinas
Michael L. Morgan (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £115.00

John Sallis: The Logos of the Sensible World: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenological Philosophy, Indiana University Press, 2019

The Logos of the Sensible World: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenological Philosophy Book Cover The Logos of the Sensible World: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenological Philosophy
The Collected Writings of John Sallis
John Sallis, edited by Richard Rojcewicz
Indiana University Press
Paperback $30.00

James Mensch: Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill, 2018

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

Keith Whitmoyer: The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking

The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking Book Cover The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Keith Whitmoyer
Hardback $102.60

Reviewed by: Frank Chouraqui (Leiden University)

Through the last decade, it was de rigueur for most reviews of the new books devoted to Merleau-Ponty’s thought to chronicle his late but increasing accession to the status of a canonical philosopher. Such books showed us how much we had to learn from Merleau-Ponty, how the distinctions he made were potent for philosophy, and how they helped us organize the tradition that preceded him, especially the relations between empiricism and intellectualism. In that view, Merleau-Ponty was in the process of becoming a great philosopher because it had become obvious that philosophical questions had been addressed in his work in ways so definitive that engaging with such questions made engaging with his work indispensable. One had to know Merleau-Ponty if they were to talk of embodiment, of the phenomenological reduction, of the relations of hermeneutics and metaphysics etc. In such cases, the value of reading Merleau-Ponty was dependent on the value of doing philosophy.

Whitmoyer’s new book may be taken as a signal that such a process of canonization has been complete, and that we’re now moving to a further phase: to speak like Heidegger, not only are we interested in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, we are now also interested in his “unthought.” This is a shift because one’s thought is interesting because of the reader’s interest in those things discussed by the author. An author’s unthought, on the contrary, is interesting insofar as the author is him or herself the object of interest. With this move comes a metaphilosophical line of questioning addressed to Merleau-Ponty: it is not just Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to philosophy that motivates our reading of his works, but rather, it is his meta-philosophy itself.  We now care about Merleau-Ponty’s views so much that we are even considering changing our notion of what philosophy is or should be in order to follow him. A second moment of canonization indeed, where the order of priority between the philosophical project and our attachment to one philosopher becomes reversed. This is a tendency exemplified by Whitmoyer’s book for in spite of a very thorough understanding and knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical position and argument, Whitmoyer chooses to focus on what he regards as Merleau-Ponty’s implicit but fundamental critique of the philosophical project, his implicit reappraisal of the “tasks of thinking.”

Whitmoyer chronicles Merleau-Ponty’s “Philosophy of Ontological Lateness,” but this expression, taken from the title, contains two zones of ambiguity, one surrounding the proper sense of “of” and the other the proper sense of “ontological.” As a result, one may have a philosophical or a metaphilosophical reading of the title. As I suggested above, Whitmoyer emphasizes the latter.

In the first, philosophical, reading, it is not Whitmoyer’s concern to describe Merleau-Ponty’s account of “ontological lateness” if by this we mean some sort of phenomenon, group of phenomena, or even a certain region of being meant to account for the cases in which being or the beings are, in some sense or other, late. In this reading, ontological lateness is not Merleau-Ponty’s topic, but rather, it is his metaphilosophical approach, and a universalisable structure. Secondly, what is so ontological about this lateness? For Whitmoyer, again, it is not a matter of the discipline of ontology being late. It is, rather, that lateness has something ontological to it. On the basis of such a sense of “of” and of “ontological,” one could reformulate Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s view in this one claim: “being is lateness.” This needs clarification, but as I will try to show, this is entirely sound, indeed a helpful formulation for Merleau-Ponty’s most complex set of ideas. And there is reason to believe that this portrays Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty too. But, as I mentioned earlier, Whitmoyer’s interest is metaphilosophical: it is a matter of knowing what the task of philosophy is or ought to be.

This metaphilosophical concern relies on a different reading of the title: in that reading, Merleau-Ponty provides or motivates a discussion about the lateness of ontology over being, in much the same vein as Hegel claims that philosophy is always late. In that line of argument, ontology is—and ought to remain—late before her object, and the metaphilosophical view Whitmoyer attributes to Merleau-Ponty could be formulated thus: “the task of philosophy is to refrain from foreclosing being.” The opposition between closing in advance (or foreclosing) and the lateness of ontology becomes dramatized as the opposition of what Whitmoyer calls “cruel thought” (the thought that has dominated the history of philosophy, obsessed with totalizing views) and what he calls “the philosophy of ontological lateness.” This opposition, as the notion of “cruel thought” suggests, should also be understood as normative: not only is Whitmoyer concerned with the place of philosophy (a topic that has become more and more discussed in Merleau-Ponty studies), he is concerned with philosophy’s value, its virtues and duties (something much newer).

Unsurprisingly, Whitmoyer seems committed to both the philosophical and the metaphilosophical-normative view, the first whereby “being is lateness” and the second, whereby philosophy must remain “late.” He focuses on the latter however, leaving some obscurity on the relations he sees as holding between them. We shall return to this. Once the metaphilosophical focus of the book is thus established, many reading difficulties become ironed out. Let me now propose a brief linear reconstruction of Whitmoyer’s argument.

In part 1, Whitmoyer begins by setting out the metaphilosophical project he attributes to Merleau-Ponty in terms of his later writings and their emphasis on interrogation. Before addressing the notion of interrogation on its own terms, it can be approached negatively: if philosophy is essentially interrogation, it is also, essentially, open and infinite. In Whitmoyer’s reading, this notion of interrogation encapsulates Merleau-Ponty’s polemical stance towards the Cartesian tradition which regards certainty as the end of philosophy (in both senses of “end”). Unlike “cruel thought,” which violates its object by reducing it to a function of thought, interrogation attunes itself or even submits itself to the world it observes, and thereby, it follows it. We have here an initial notion of lateness as following, and an intimation of the normative implications of this lateness: the lateness of philosophy expresses the priority of the world over it. This, it could be added (although Whitmoyer leaves it aside), is widely illustrated in Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Bolshevism as abusive application of theory to practice in the Adventures of the Dialectic. On this basis, Whitmoyer engages in a game of variations around this notion of cruelty: the objectivism of Descartes is cruel because it seeks objectification, but the transcendental idealism of Kant and Husserl’s Ideen I, is, if not cruel, at least “claustrophobic,” because it reduces the embodied subject to the transcendental confined ego. Yet, Whitmoyer regards Merleau-Ponty as committed to transcendental idealism, since “Merleau-Ponty’s critical stance with respect to realism requires that we include him in the tradition of transcendental thought” (52). This is a highly controversial claim, not least because Merleau-Ponty’s entire Phenomenology of Perception is busy preventing such non sequiturs by suggesting that there is indeed a way between intellectualism and realism; in other words, that the mutual exclusion that forces one to choose for either side is misguided. However, such a statement only serves to make Whitmoyer’s work all the harder, and therefore, it make things more interesting: how can Merleau-Ponty’s own putative brand of transcendental idealism avoid the charge of claustrophobia? In spite of such a mispronouncement, Whitmoyer remains a keen reader of Merleau-Ponty, and the subsequent sophistication he attributes to Merleau-Ponty’s so-called idealism shows it to be idealism in name only, for it becomes replaced, in terms Whitmoyer doesn’t use, to a form of metaphysical hermeneutics in which the center of apparition is not the ego but unmotivated and infinite meaning-making. But meaning, as Merleau-Ponty repeats constantly, is never complete, and so such a position reopens what was foreclosed by transcendental idealism, and allows Merleau-Ponty to evade cruel thought.

In part II, Whitmoyer initiates a move from a negative notion of ontological lateness provided in Part I (whereby ontological lateness” is defined in contradistinction to “cruel thought”), to a positive one. This move is motivated by the problem of idealism alluded to above, and by the search for a solution of the hermeneutic kind. As such, it is also a move to the Phenomenology of Perception, in which the possibility to avoid idealism and realism is the philosophical center. Here, ontological lateness becomes characterized as the lateness of becoming to being (82): sense is not the result of thought, but it is a dynamic, temporal act: sense is the same as making-sense. It is endless, and therefore constantly incomplete: its horizon is full meaning, a complete sense of self-identity (being), but its structure is purely dynamic (becoming): it is always held back from this self-identity, it shies before it, it is late over it. Note how this doesn’t suggest that being—this that we are late over—is something that is; but rather, being is a fantasy of becoming, and lateness is simply the self-experience of being as failing, the experience that this fantasy is indeed an unattainable fantasy.

In part III, Whitmoyer gathers his findings. This is where the axiological undertones that motivated the metaphilosophical-normative approach become more overt. The abandonment of cruel thought, he suggests, is motivated by a concern for freedom, for love, and for non-religious “faith.” Thereby, the advent of ontological lateness constitutes a eulogy for a philosophy motivated in epistemological terms. This approach naturally leads into an extensive discussion of Nancy’s Noli Me Tangere, in which, also, indeterminacy is the ground of ethics.

As is the rule with all good books in the history of philosophy, it is where Whitmoyer is at his most interesting that he is also at his most controversial. His reading of Merleau-Ponty is accurate and deep, but what makes it original is its tone, which is normative. In a post-enlightenment world in which we have become hypnotized by the notion of singularity, many scholars have considered Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body as containing the promise for a systematic basis to an ethics of the other, of care or of respect. As a result, we have witnessed a number of more or less ventriloquistic attempts at drawing an ethics from a body of work notoriously suspicious of normative arguments. In this context, Whitmoyer’s book will be of interest to any of the many scholars interested in making Merleau-Ponty formulate the ethics he never did formulate. Whitmoyer’s assumption here is that ontological lateness is elaborated out of a normative concern for evading cruel thought. The motivations for this are left vague, and indeed, Whitmoyer doesn’t seem to think that such motivations need providing: “cruel” thought should be avoided, for presumably obvious reasons (the hint is perhaps in the name). Let’s look at Whitmoyer’s notion of cruel thought, therefore, to see if we can draw from the aversion to cruelty, a positive, ethical ground. Cruel thought, Whitmoyer argues, is a violation of the integrity of its objects (it objectifies, and denies them their mystery, indeterminacy, and becoming). It is also, of course, hubris. He writes: “What is required for this love is not knowledge in the sense outlined above—not clarity, distinctness, and apodicticity—but pistis… the faith we demonstrate when we no longer take ‘knowing’ as our subject, when we let others—[Proust’s] Albertine, being—withdraw.” (3) The presumed motivation to evade pure thought therefore, should be something like respect (as non-intrusion), humility and love. Whitmoyer suggests that “Merleau-Ponty wishes to overcome the fear, jealousy and paranoia that motivate cruel thought and to re-think the sense of philia at stake in philosophia” (3). The decision to close the book with a discussion not of Merleau-Ponty but of Nancy’s Noli me Tangere should serves to confirm this. This is an interesting strategy, but to this reviewer, it seems misguided both philosophically and strategically. Indeed, if I am correct about this, it might even reflect onto the initial decision to place the stake of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in a question about the “tasks of philosophy” that is, a question about metaphilosophical normativity.

Here are the strategic worries: first, this is an approach that weakens Merleau-Ponty’s position. This may not be a concern for those who are interested in his “unthought” as they don’t need any further reasons to follow Merleau-Ponty. But to the others, it does: it detaches Merleau-Ponty from this tradition, it removes him from the context that makes his work meaningful and in my view, justified. Isn’t there a stronger rationale for reading Merleau-Ponty in his own claims that he’s dealing with the overcoming of the stalemate between empiricism and idealism for example? Or that he’s dealing with a stable account of the inherence of the so-called subjective and objective poles? Or body and soul? Secondly, and consequently, this commits Whitmoyer to too much: for example, it commits him to having to explain and trace this non-philosophical (or as yet non-philosophical) normative motivation at the root of Merleau-Ponty’s project, and it commits him to justifying Merleau-Ponty’s metaphysics in terms of value and not truth. But what the text gives us, is rather a Merleau-Ponty motivating his work with traditional questions, and his ontology of incompleteness as the result of fearless, unprejudiced and amoral focus for truth. Indeed, Whitmoyer seems to maintain a muted and ambiguous line of thinking in which the value of releasing philosophy from cruel thought is motivated in terms of truth. He writes: “The philosophy of ontological lateness, finally, is not an attempt to make sense of being, if we understand by that fusing and coinciding with it, but to make sense of the manner in which the sense of this becoming is constantly working itself out, to think through the fact that human inquiry, including the project of philosophy itself, is circumscribed by its immersion in the Strom, and that therefore what it seeks remains at a distance.” (150-151) This is both importantly insightful and ambiguous: insightful, because it is true that the object of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is not being as an object but being as a mode of “working itself out.” Ambiguous, because in Whitmoyer’s view, this is different form “making sense of being” whereby for Merleau-Ponty it is exactly the same: being is the same as this “working out.” We may see therefore how this false distinction between “being” and the “working out” of being leads Whitmoyer to read Merleau-Ponty as driven by concerns others than theoretical, to the point that he returns to the problem by asking: “But is there not something profoundly pessimistic in a philosophy that bids us to give up on completing the tasks of thinking? … These kinds of questions however, again, are only asked from the point of view of thought that began with a presupposed ideal of finality. On the contrary, for Merleau-Ponty, a philosophy of lateness is optimistic precisely because it does not seek closure.” (166). But who asked for optimism? Who thought that optimism could redeem a philosophy that would indeed divert us from our theoretical concerns? Isn’t this already assuming that our motivation for doing philosophy is normative? Furthermore, why need that move to the normative, when Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy entirely satisfies the traditional requirements of philosophy as theory? For who says that the discovery of the openness as the fundamental structure of being is not a discovery?

The philosophical worry becomes visible therefore: Whitmoyer is correct that Merleau-Ponty distances himself from the ideal of “knowledge” as objectivity. The fact that he discovers that this yields an ontology of being, and that this leads retroactively into a formulation of philosophy as seeking not knowledge (the truth of objects) but understanding (which is the truth of meanings) is correct and important, but it is the result, not the motive. Even more, the confrontation of the ideal of understanding against the ideal of knowledge is crucial, indeed, it could very well be the core of the current crisis in philosophy, where the opposition between the so-called “Analytic” and “Continental” approaches to philosophy may arguably boil down to a confrontation between these ideals. As such, siding with the ideal of understanding, which is definitely what Merleau-Ponty does, is a normative move indeed, and it is metaphilosophical too, but it is emphatically not a departure from an epistemic ideal towards the ideal of respect. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty never hesitated to submit values to the test of truth (the long polemic with Sartre in the letters as well as in the end of the Adventures of the Dialectic and the preface to Signs among many other passages, should count as a glaring examples of this). Finally, implicitly attributing the values of respect and humility to Merleau-Ponty runs the risk of trivializing his thought. For Merleau-Ponty, they may be virtues worth having, but not for moral reasons. On the contrary, they are themselves motivated by the philosophical urge to avoid deceptions, for objectification is undesirable as a fallacy well before it is morally wrong: cruel thought doesn’t portray the world as it is, it is false well before it is wrong.

Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s texts, especially the texts from the Forties to the mid-Fifties, is reliable and often deep and insightful. His grasp of the Merleau-Pontian vision of a hermeneutic metaphysics and its connections with openness and becoming offers far-reaching systematic perspectives. His metaphilosophical and normativist reading, although open to the criticisms I have tried to outline here, is original and potent, and its purported weaknesses don’t affect the accuracy of his readings of the texts. Perhaps such an idiosyncratic decision was the cost of motivating and initiating a new kind of discussion around the ethics one could draw from Merleau-Ponty’s work. In that context, it offers a new, original and systematic way to pose the question. Whether this question is Merleau-Ponty’s own or his reader’s will soon become an academic distinction, as Merleau-Ponty increasingly becomes what he himself calls, a “classic.”