Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts, trans. Eduard Levin, Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021 (shortened as Inner Religion hereafter), presented before us by Professor Ron Margolin, is an informative handbook with abounding materials. The thesis Margolin offers to defend is a simple one, and he defends it through this hefty book of 600 pages. The thesis is, despite criticisms issued from other religious or secular groups, Judaism is a tradition that holds a high regard for the interior, intrinsic, or immanent features of religious consciousness. Put in other words, the Jewish people’s observing of the commandments or of maintaining the love for God, is not triggered by fear, nor motivated by outer purposes (physical, social, political, etc.). Their piety results from inner experiences and aspires after inner goals, e.g., the cultivation of their own souls.
To defend this religious thesis, however, Margolin treads the detour of phenomenology. On the one hand, it is a natural choice, since this philosophical tradition lays its emphasis on reduction, givenness, consciousness, and so on, prioritizing subjective experiences to objective validities. On the other hand, nonetheless, Margolin disagrees with the majority of the phenomenologists of religion and theology: van der Leeuw, Levinas, Chrétien, among others. This independent spirit, which, by the way, surpasses the scope of phenomenology and also applies itself to the domain of the research of Jewish mysticism (whose forerunners, above all Gershom Scholem and Idel Moshe, become the targets of sober criticism in many places of Inner Religion), is one of the features that render this book a good read. There are deficiencies, indeed, as will be addressed at the end of the review, but they will by no means prevent readers from appreciating the meticulous interpretative efforts Margolin dedicates to the defending of whatever he tries to defend.
In this article, I will first go over the key concepts (inner, interiority, interiorization) and, second, three of the instantiations (ritual, conceptual, and experiential interiorization) of inner religion. The length of my review will prevent me from reproducing the material abundance waiting for readers in Margolin’s work, but this needs not to be done, due to the nature of the monograph (a handbook, as mentioned in the beginning): instead of arguments piling up on one another, the book, an anthology, rather, consists of a singular overarching principle applied to a variety of literatures. Thirdly, I will comment on the methodology adopted in this book in general (phenomenology and others). At last, as predicted, I will raise a critical remark that concerns in particular the problem of history, which, I believe, is not treated as a problem per se, despite the historical appearance of the work (it is, after all, a commentary on materials from the Bible to Hasidic texts).
Before we start the thematic discussions, however, I should notify the readers of one underlying attitude of this review article. Given the nature of the journal, I will focus primarily on the phenomenological part of Inner Religion, although it occupies a somewhat marginal place in the book. One should not fail to notice that this monograph pertains, to a larger extent, to the studies of Jewish religion and theology. Its central mission, as just mentioned, consists in the apologetics for the Judaic religion, instead of working out an elaborate systematics of phenomenology. It goes without saying that the abundance of sources from the Jewish background does not at all obstruct the phenomenological potentials of the study, but, on the contrary, opens up a new perspective for philosophy. However, this pre-emptive reminder is still needed for the purpose of helping the readers establish a fitting attitude toward Inner Religion: To be found within is, I repeat, not architectonics composed of Husserlian or Heideggerian jargons, but an applied phenomenology that mobilizes the fundamental methods or conceptual framework in the field of religion.
Ambiguity of the term inner
The most crucial term of Inner Religion, is, naturally, “inner”. The Hebrew language has several terms that connotes what Margolin means by it. A metaphorical and hence the most straightforward one is the word lev [heart] (35), but the same idea can be expressed by more theoretical or epistemological jargons, whose exemplar specimen is the word Kavanah [intent] (36-37). This concept connotes proactive planning (87) or attentiveness (89).
A spacial metaphor itself, the equivocal notion “inner” harbors a leeway of interpretation. There are several options that appear thematically or unthematically throughout Inner Religion. First, inner as mental or psychological, as opposed to somatic or physical; one practices belief for the good of her soul, not to strengthen her body. Second, inner as subjective or self, as opposed to objective or others. Third, inner as private, as opposed to public; faith is best tested when one is isolated from the crowd. Fourth, inner as inherent, as opposed to instrumental; religion should be intrinsically good, not a tool to seek respect or other social benefits. Fifth, inner as immanent, as opposed to transcendent; God is dwelling in men’s souls, so there is no need to search for Him outside of oneself, a credo reminiscent of St. Augustine’s teaching. Granted, these understandings of the term “inner” partially overlap with one another. For example, mental, subjective/self, and private are used quite interchangeably by the author in the introductory chapter. But they have different connotations with regard to their oppositions.
Margolin does not intent to categorically distinguish these multiple significations, but he knows how to discern the inner he wants in numerous religious phenomena: “most importantly, this book will focus on practices that the religious individual perceives as means to stand before, or to make contact with, the divine” (13). Where certain events or testimonies attest to one’s—immanent—direct union with the divine, there is inner religion. Two remarks to be made here. First, the innerness Margolin has in mind presents itself, paradoxically, in transcendent or ecstatic experiences. Second, this transcendence is nevertheless not referring to anything really exterior, outside of one’s soul or consciousness, but precisely manifested within interiority. In other words, special attention will be given to the experience of union with divinity, but it is a transcending union as perceived by the mind of an individual: a transcendence from the point of view of immanence.
Margolin, however, does not let this overtly reductive approach develop into a full-blown annulment of the demarcation between the inner and outer. Indeed, the insistence on the distinction between, i.e., the claim that all interiority does not correspond with an outer expression, is what distinguishes Margolin from other phenomenologists. This gives rise to a difficulty, namely whether there is an enclosed domain of interiority, a private spiritual sphere absolutely insulated from outer influences, forming an empire within an empire.
The tendency to espouse this substantial reading, proposing a static, fixed, or idealistic conception of men’s interiority, is an attitude not unlike that of the phenomenological eidetic method in early Husserl. Nevertheless, Margolin does point out yet another way to talk about the inner, which assists to avert the criticism. Instead of substantiating an interiority, he mentions the term “interiorization”, referring to “the process of change that occurs within a given religious culture, when the center of attention is shifted from the ‘objective world’ of nature or myth to the ‘subjective world’ of the individual’s psyche” (15). The wording “center of attention” here echoes on another plane the author’s phenomenological method: inner religion proposes a change in attitude, not an ontological claim about some self-sufficient inner space. The outer perception is not simply cancelled out in favor of the inner, but rather regarded as an achievement, a constitution of it. To be more precise, the religious texts that pertain to outer qualities can be (re-)interpreted as metaphorical language that, at the end of the day, alludes back to the inner ones. As Margolin notes down: “The term ‘interiorization’ presumes a transition from outer to inner perception, but the assumed existence of a developmental transition does not necessarily mean the prevalence of inner perception. Often, both perceptions continue to coexist.” (15)
Three kinds of interiorization
The body of Inner Religion is carried out in three parts, each explicating on one or several possible forms of interiorization: ritual, experiential, and conceptual, existential, and epistemological interiorization. Since the space here is limited, I will focus on the first three of these possibilities: ritual interiorization, conceptual interiorization, and experiential interiorization.
First, in line with the author, I start with the rituals, and I believe there is a reason for doing so. The author can best demonstrate his claim if even in rituals, often believed to be social and public events, there can be found elements of inner religion. Second, I single out what is called “conceptual interiorization” because Margolin considers this idea as one of his contributions to the discussion of inner religion. Third, I reverse the order of experiential and conceptual interiorization, because it is in the former that Margolin’s polemical tone reaches a high point, which allows us to more easily situate the author in the traditions both of phenomenology and of the studies of Jewish mysticism.
The technical term “interiorization” mentioned above first manifests itself in the phenomena of ritual and customs. Due to their public features, the practices of rituals and customs permit at the outset no enclosed domain of interiority, but an interplay between the outer and the inner. Or to be more precise: public and exterior in the first place, religious rituals have nevertheless the potential to let their participants focus back on themselves, on the well-being of their souls, instead of that of the bodies that are actually carrying rituals out.
In the beginning of the chapter in question, “Ritual Interiorization and Intent for Commandments”, Margolin invokes an understanding of rituals opposite to his own. In this view, ritual is defined as “a category of standardized behavior (custom) in which the relationship between the means and the end is not ‘intrinsic’, i.e. is either irrational or non-rational” (proposed by Jack Goody, quoted in Inner Religion, 61; emphasis mine) This definition hinges on a merely extrinsic relation “between the means and the end”. We now will see how Margolin argues for the contrary with the aid of Jewish sources. There are several steps in ritual interiorization, as can be seen in the formalization of rites, a process that dates back to the Scripture, and through the prophets and rabbis, reaches its pinnacle in the mystics and Hasidim.
The first step is the replacement of rituals that are more demanding or cruel with ones less so. The Torah already initiates a nascent form of ritual interiorization, which is especially patent in the story of the Binding of Isaac. It is a well-known tale: God demands Abraham to sacrifice Issac, but in the last moment, when Abraham was raising his knife and ready to kill his only son, God sends him a ram, instructing him to perform an animal sacrifice instead. The sanguinary rite is preserved, but, at least from an anthropocentric point of view, it becomes more humane. In line with Martin Buber, Margolin interprets this episode as a demonstration that “God wants the intent and not the actual act” (82) The actual, material, actions being carried out or not, it is men’s sincerity and good faith that count.
The history has seen the intensification of the figure of Abraham, who gradually becomes a figure that not only embodies a sincere intent, but, through his love alone, had fulfilled the entire Torah even before God gave it to human beings. This can be read in, for example, in R. Menahem Mendel, a grand-disciple of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism: “with a single attribute, namely, love, he fulfilled the entire Torah” (quoted in Inner Religion, 151). The Hasidim “attack the rabbinic formalistic conceptions, which assume that the commandments do not require intent, by imparting inner content to the halakhah” (156), manage to fulfill the incipient tendency of interiorization in the Bible. Hasidism, with its disobedient attitude, exploits ritual interiorization to an unprecedented degree. Here, rituals become a method to intensify the experiential dimension, without eliminating the social, public, objective elements of religion, only aiming to refer therefrom back to its men’s soul: “The method of ritual interiorization adopted by the early Hasidic masters maintained the external religious ritual while infusing the fulfillment of the commandments with inner meaning.” (156) The consequence of this method is twofold: the outer forms are retained, but transformed, e.g., from the original human sacrifices to prayers in the end, and it is now permeated with subjective significance, with intent.
Margolin offers a special treatment to the phenomenon of “conceptual interiorization”, regarding it as an independent category that, in his opinion, shares the same right with “epistemological interiorizations, existential challenges of religious life, inward focusings” (276).
The particularity about conceptual interiorization is that it establishes an inner religion not through religious or in particular mystic experiences, but via the mediation of the interpretation of statements or concepts in religious texts. (In fact, I would go one step forward and describe this practice as “interiorization through interpretations”, not just through conceptualization). By this conceptual labor, it transforms “sanctified myths, laws, and narratives in the conceptual formulations that mainly emphasize the inner meanings relevant to every person” (276).
Margolin begins to elaborate conceptual interiorization by quoting Nachmanides’s commentary on one passage in Book of Deuteronomy, which is translated in English as: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you…” (Deut. 6:18; Inner Religion, 277) Nachmanides’s exegesis goes like this: “Also when He did not command you, think to do what is good and right in His sight, for He loves what is good and right.” (Inner Religion, 277) In Margolin’s reading, this interpretation expends the original semantics of the biblical statement in a way that favors inner faithfulness to merely exterior or instrumental observations of the commandments. The hinge of Nachmanides’s explanation lies in the phrase “do what is right and good”. Similar wordings can be found, e.g., in Psalms, “Do good, O Lord, to the good, to the upright in heart” (Ps. 125:4; Inner Religion, 277; emphasis mine). In Rabbinic teachings, “‘Do what is right and good’—this refers to a compromise, acting beyond the strict demands of the law”1. We should then be able to notice that, by drawing associations between the biblical passages and rabbis’ teachings, Nachmanides harvests an inner reading of the Law, a reading that instructs people to act well even in the absence of laws and commandments (“Also when He did not command you…”).
However, although Margolin esteems the conceptual approach to interiorization as an independent form of inner religion, he does not fail to point out that there is an antagonistic, i.e., non-conceptual method, which is as legitimate as those immanent interpretations. In fact, the chapters about the non-conceptual or non-verbal interiorization, that is, about “paranormal experiences” and “introspective contemplation and inward focusing” (chapter 2 and 3), antecede the one that evolves around the conceptual counterpart (chapter 4). I invert the sequence in the review article on purpose to, I hope, show that Margolin’s own emphasis lies on the former. If language, concepts, and interpretations should indeed have their fair share in the Jewish inner religion, they can nonetheless never eclipse the pre-linguistic or pre-predicative religious experience.
The discussion of experiential interiorization, instantiate by contemplation and inward focusing, appears in the middle of a scholarly debate as to how to interpret the ecstatic experience documented in the Heikhalot literature (233-234). Pioneers in this field of research, above all Gershom Scholem and Idel Moshe, have set the keynote: this experience reflects a “mystic ascent” (233) that leads one away from oneself. Margolin, however, chooses to side with the opposite interpretation, as proposed by Rabbi Hai Gaon, which tones down the exterior or self-alienating dimension of ecstatic experience but emphasizes its immanent character: those who experience ecstasy do not depart from the body, but have visions precisely “in the chambers of their hearts”. (235) As Margolin puts it: “‘Ascent to Heaven’ is therefore an expression of an inner experience of the consciousness of a fierce inner sensation of ascent and detachment from the body; but we need not assign it a meaning of changed outer, spatial location.” (237)
That being said, it is worth noticing that the pre-linguistic and inner faithfulness is, once again, registered in a linguistic or ritual practice: the reciting of the prayers. Therefore, this particular religious practice brings the three kinds of interiorization together. Prayer is a ritual; it is linguistic (and therefore open to interpretation); and it, as just said, elicits experience. The discussion of prayer is scattered over multiple chapters and sections in the book. It appears first when the author is handling the issue of intent and rituals (chapter 1), returns when he talks about inward focusing (chapter 2), and emerges again in the end where he critically situates himself within the tradition of phenomenology (Afterword). Moreover, prayers should be distinguished in different kinds. Scholars have proposed diverse distinctions (for example, see the discussion on p.91-95), but Margolin chooses to draw it by—like everywhere else in the book—the scale of interiority: There are outer prayers, and there are inner prayers. This particular dichotomy incarnates his problems within the phenomenological tradition.
Apparently, Margolin regards this distinction as significant, since he, after all the discussions of the body, comes back to it in the afterword. The discussion of prayers, the distinction between inner and outer prayer, also allows Margolin to situate himself, albeit in a critical manner, within the phenomenological tradition. He contrasts his own idea with that of a French phenomenologist of religion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, whom the author of Inner Religion accuses of “not distinguish[ing] between different types of prayer, focusing rather on what he sees as the fundamental element common to all prayers: standing before the transcendental Thou.” (519) The same fault is registered in an earlier phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas, who is, according to Margolin, still too obsessed with the transcendent Otherness likewise. (518)
Immediately after the polemic, Margolin reasserts the existence of two, not merely one, kinds of prayers. He defines them as such: Outer prayer is that which is “directed to the transcendent Thou who stands opposite him, for the fulfilling of his [the reciter of the prayer] desires”, while inner prayer is represented in “an act of self-negation or negation of the consciousness” (519). There is nothing surprising anymore about this central claim of Margolin’s; the prominence of the interiority of religious experience has been established by the abundant materials Margolin offers so far. However, there is still one consequence to be addressed, a consequence that surpasses the mere intellectual debate regarding which is the preferable, the inner or the outer dimension, but that bears an existential significance. We should not fail to recognize between the lines in this afterword that the term “outer”, and mutandis mutatis, “inner”, adopt a very specific meaning. Not that bodies or rituals or commandments or social recognition are outer, but God Himself, the transcendent divinity, is the ultimately outer element. Combined with the appeal for the coming back to “inner religion”, this equation of outer with transcendent has a theo- and anthropological importance. To put it in more phenomenological (and less controversial) terms, inner religion brackets the validity of the transcendent in its reductive regression to men’s religious experiences. This humanistic undertone makes itself tangible in many places of the book, for instance, in his discussions of the Zoharic doctrine “the awakening below results in the awakening above” (314-318) as well as his retelling of Etty Hillesum’s diary: “I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away […] You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves.” (537)
Margolin’s debate about prayers with other phenomenologists, moreover, allows us to draw a clearer association between his own project and the phenomenological tradition. This, however, is a problematic relationship. Indeed, as said above, the phenomenological method is apt for the subject matter of this book: inner religion. The emphasis on intentional consciousness and subjective experience enables the author, first, to revitalize the debate about the distinction of pure interiority and pure exteriority (5), and second, to bracket “everything except the reality of the self” (21): while the first reflects the gist of the concept of intentionality, the second, that of reduction. Nevertheless, although he evidently follows the method of reduction, Margolin harbors a quite special idea when it comes to the inner-outer problem. For one, he persists in the distinction between the inner and the outer, although it has been put in doubt by van der Leeuw (“here can be no inner without the outer”, 2). For another, as said just now, he stringently restricts himself within the domain of interiority, keeping the transcendent out of discussion, in contrast to Levinas and Chrétien’s approach. These polemics distinctly locate Margolin’s phenomenology in the historical map of the phenomenology of religion.
Notably, however, the strictly descriptive, eidetic, science of consciousness that Husserl establishes in his earlier career is not the exclusive approach the author adopts. Strictly speaking, the author of Inner Religion uses three methods instead of one, the other two being comparative study of religion and hermeneutics. I do not want to go into details regarding the other strategies but am satisfied with pointing out their most fundamental traits: by comparative study of religion, I mean the method used to demonstrate a fact in a particular religion by gathering data from other religious traditions; by hermeneutics, the (re-)interpretation of a passage such that the original text proves whatever the author tries to show. That said, let me tarry a little longer with the first of these two methods, because it reveals one of Margolin’s underlying principles.
That comparative religion is contestable (48), does not prevent Margolin from carrying on with this method. He starts each chapter in this book with an overview of world religions, and believes himself justified in doing so because “[similar] religious phenomena occur in distant parts of the globe and in different historical periods” (48-49), and the term religion indubitably “[denotes] a universal phenomenon” (49). There is undoubtedly a universalistic undertone in the application of the comparative method in Margolin, who explicitly claims that his aim is “to highlight the common denominators of religious phenomena throughout the world” (49). Particularly, as pertains to the scope of this book, the author finds out that there exists in world religions a highly similar tendency to approve of the inner dimension of religious consciousness: “the types of rites in Hinduism and Judaism, for example, they both demonstrate interiorization: the attention of people performing Hindu and Jewish rites shifts from the (‘objective’) world to the (‘subjective’) mind and soul.” (49) Margolin is convinced that the subject matter of his study, men’s interiority, grants him permission to treat different religions in different peoples, at least in this respect, alike. A book centered on the “Jewish sources”, Margolin’s research is however not confined in Judaism alone. The result is transferable to all human beings:
Comparisons of Western interiorization processes with those typical of the Eastern religions, most evident in the Chinese Tao and in Buddhism, also strengthen our understanding that interiorization processes are not dependent on any specific religious worldview. (Margolin, 2021, 522)
A history of the a-historical?
However, we might wonder whether the universalistic understanding of interiority will cause a substantial problem that can undermine the genre of historical research in general, of which Margolin’s study seems a part. Since this book ranges over a span from Bible to Hasidism, readers might expect that it must take into consideration the temporal elements within the development of Judaism, that the author must encounter the diachronic aspect of what he calls “inner religion”. The opposite, however, seems to be the case. The inner, due to the very fact that it is inner and not outer, has in the first place been insulated from the plurality and mutability of empirical ethnicities and religious traditions. For that which has no history but universality, there is only compilation and no historical research.
In line with Idel Moshe, Margolin clearly regards himself as a contestant of Gershom Scholem, the founder of historical science of Jewish mysticism, and sides with Martin Buber in the Buber-Scholem polemics. Margolin’s criticism is centered on how to interpret Hasidism. He criticizes Scholem of going too far in his rebuke of Buber, of negating the whole existential dimension in Hasidism (102, footnote 174; see also 430 and 445), although from time to time, he tries to reconcile his approach with Scholem’s (see, e.g., 27, where Margolin comments in a favorable tone: “To a large degree, Scholem’s work was based on his desire to uncover the experiential inner dimensions of the Jewish religion.”). However, his difference with Scholem has yet another fundamental dimension, which pertains not to the problem of existentialism, but to history. The author of Inner Religion does not explicitly point it out in this book, but already addressed it in an earlier paper (Margolin 2007) — not sufficiently, however, as will be discussed in what follows.
As Margolin also sees it, tradition and history, that is, the diachronical dimension, of the Jewish religion plays a crucial part in Scholem’s reading of mystic experiences. For example, in the opening chapter of his masterpiece, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, “There is no mysticism as such, there is only the mysticism of a particular religious system[.]”(Scholem 1971, 6) Indeed, despite this contextualistic attitude, Scholem acknowledges the universal experiences that are able to unify all mystics regardless of the different traditions, but he also warns his readers not to exaggerate it, a danger in which the modern age is too willing to indulge in. (ibid.) A danger, indeed, to which Margolin may be already exposed.
In both the earlier essay and the recent monograph, Margolin holds a simplistic reading of history that goes hand in hand with his minimalist adaptation of phenomenology. Just as he limits his phenomenology in the study of the static human psyche, history as he conceives it is but a compilation of empirical and exterior facts. His phenomenological analyses, correspondingly, consist in the elaboration of men’s (first-)personal feelings as such and all the other psychological complex happening directly within subjectivity, while the historical ones are conceived as non-phenomenological enterprises that assign those experiences to objective elements: environment, society, historical events, etc., which, at best, harbor an indirect relation with individuals. History in this sense, as an instance of inauthenticity, becomes an easy target, for it surpasses the domain of the intrapersonal consciousness. But a later Husserl would argue that history, in fact, adds an interpersonal or intersubjective dimension to phenomenology, an equally or even more constitutive component without which nothing individual, personal, or “inner”, can emerge.
Therefore, Scholem’s historical attitude, although it is not really new and criticized by Margolin, keeps reminding us of a fundamental problem: to which extent is Margolin’s universalistic and, indeed, ahistorical, treatment of inner religion justified? If we come back to the distinction between interiority and interiorization, men’s soul or spirit — this ideal interior space — might have no history, but the painstaking process of excavating it or coming back to it has one: Just like dots, lines, planes and all other eidetic mathematical objects do not permit developments, but mathematics as a discipline in history are perpetually subject to the governance of mutations. In fact, despite all the universalistic attitude, the author still makes a, however minimal, historical claim that borders on teleology. From Bible to Hasidim, there is after all a history of ascent: first hidden between the lines in the Bible, the interiority of religion was gradually excavated by prophets and rabbis, and this movement of turning inside finally reached its pinnacle in Kabbalah and especially Hasidism in the 18th century. Inner religion is a phenomenon whose embryo already appears in the earliest religious scriptures, but its growth requires a whole complex system of irrigation that entails ritual, conceptual, experiential, existential, epistemological operations. However, without any comparison with other eras, we could not understand what Hasidim really contributes to Judaism and to religions in general. The a-historical attitude which suggests that they are fulfilling a universal mission, a platonic idea of inner religion, does not really explain to us the particular reason why human beings should choose this moment, and not in others, not earlier in the Bible itself, to push the process of interiority to its extreme. To look for insights in this, we still have to turn to Scholem, and not Inner Religion. What this book offers us is a comprehensive reader, a neat elaboration of all the human psyches, as well as human endeavors to search for connections with God. The author lays out before us a vast map of religious consciousness but hides from us its depth.
To be clear, this judgement is not at all a criticism of Margolin’s contribution to our understanding of Judaism as an inner religion. It is a matter of choice, or a matter of perspective. Margolin chooses to write the book in a horizontal and static way, not vertical or genetic. But this choice is made from a phenomenological point of view, and it bears consequence to our understanding of phenomenology, so I choose to split hairs with Margolin’s phenomenology. Hairs are to split because, although the debate about Hasidism in particular and the Jewish religion in general might sound peripheral for many phenomenologists, yet the problem of history carries weight with phenomenological researches: how do we do phenomenology after Husserl, how do we do it when even he himself realizes the problem behind his static and eidetic method?
Margolin, Ron. 2007. ‘Moshe Idel’s Phenomenology and Its Sources’. Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 6 (18): 41–51.
———. 2021. Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts. Translated by Edward Levin. Boston: Academic Studies Press.
Scholem, Gershom. 1971. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books.
1 BT Bava Metzia, 108a10; translation Levin. In fact, the anomic tone becomes more patent in translation of Koran Noé Talmud: “One should not perform an action that is not right and good, even if he is legally entitled to do so.” (Quotation taken from: https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.108a.10?lang=bi&with=Translations&lang2=en, accessed November 2021).
The Transcendental Project in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze
I. Introduction: The Question
Judith Wamback’s book, Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, proposes a highly original reading of two central authors from the 20th century, one that sheds new light on their most important insights.
According to the Wamback herself, she is reacting to a consensus that has been established about the relation between the two thinkers, a consensus that sees their respective works as being either alien or in opposition to each other. This reading of their relationship was championed not only by Foucault but also by Deleuze himself, in his few and mostly negative comments on Merleau-Ponty. As Wamback shows, Deleuze does not seem to recognize either in phenomenology in general or in Merleau-Ponty’s work in particular the main sources of his thought.
Against this interpretation, Wamback explicitly proposes to find a philosophical argument that legitimates bringing them into proximity. She is not, therefore, interested in reconstructing the common history of their reception or perhaps in uncovering a heretofore ignored biographical connection; on the contrary, what she seeks is to make explicit a conceptual connection between two thinkers that critics—including Deleuze himself—have become used to seeing as radically alien. This is the central motivation of this book, one that is also central in evaluating the relevance of its implications.
In order to bring this project to fruition, Wamback proposes a precise framework, which she herself describes as “metaphysically” bent, and which takes up a classical philosophical question, namely the question of the relation between being and thought. She investigates the way both thinkers understand this question, thus providing the ground for her attempted rapprochement.
Indeed, as the book progresses, this question becomes increasingly more precise, and the way Wamback frames and focuses her discussion, notable for its clarity, is one of the main strengths of the book. The debate about the status of thought is revealed as a discussion about the transcendental project behind each thinker’s work, highlighting the intrinsic relation between this project and what Wamback describes as a “philosophy of immanence.” This philosophy of immanence is, according to her, a central dimension of both philosophers’ thoughts, one that brings to the forefront the necessity of understanding the articulation between the transcendental and the immanence.
Wamback, therefore, centers her comparison on the idea that Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty both recognized an immanence between the condition and the conditioned, one that finds its privileged “place” in the notions of expression and simultaneity. This is the central thesis defended by this book, an original and unusual contribution when considered against the backdrop of most studies dedicated to this topic. Let us then examine the way Wamback organizes her book.
II. The Path
In order to accomplish her proposal, Wamback delineates five main steps, thus establishing a work method that is followed throughout the book and that structures the overall path of the investigation. First, a description of the highlighted concept as it is formulated by each of the authors. Second, a discussion about the relationship between the two topics or concepts. Third, a description of the way this articulation sheds light on each of them and, based on this, on the respective reflections in which they find themselves. Fourth, an attempt at finding an “equilibrium” or “balance” between the singularity of each work and its possible openness by way of this articulation. Fifth, the configuration of a new image of the history of philosophy to which these philosophies belong.
In fact, the fifth item is the broader horizon that frames Wamback’s discussion (5). She is not interested in creating a common narrative thread that would encompass both philosophers’ work—indeed, such a common thread may not even exist. Rather, by doing justice to the way each author relates to other thinkers, she intends to “anchor” the “resonances in their work to the history of philosophy”, thereby formulating an “alternative image of the philosophical alliances in French academia over the last two centuries” (5). Here the most ambitious facet of the project is revealed, namely to go beyond a book directed to a specialist audience by retracing kindred context or horizons, thus making explicit the way philosophy is built as a series of answers to the great questions posed by other philosophers (5). This implies the recognition of a historical dimension that is not exclusively factual—if it were possible to think of it in this way—, intrinsic to a specific philosophical debate, perhaps (in a first moment) even in a latent way, but which would even so still be affirmed in each of them. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in the fifties, this would be a kind of subterranean or indirect history, a history that is expressed in the facts without being reducible to them and without detaching itself from them.
In this sense, according to Wamback, the question about thought and being, which is as ancient as our most ancient sources on Western thought, is revealed as a privileged problematization axis, allowing her to trace out the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze pursue this classic problem in their respective philosophical reflections on the basis of their network of references and their theoretical frameworks. She is, therefore, able to uncover deeper and broader debates than those one would glean from a first reading, or even a reading that pays more attention to the schools and neglects the “secret” historicity that animates them. This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of Wamback’s work.
The book is organized around five main cores. I will first describe those cores in a general way, and then I will offer a more detailed analysis of each of them, following the way Wamback builds her argument.
The text is divided into seven chapters, each of which is further divided into topics. These chapters all follow a general methodology: first Wamback presents the position of one of the philosophers being analyzed, then the position of the other, and finally compares them. This methodological option greatly contributes to the clarity of the text and to the strength of her argumentation.
The first and the second chapters focus, according to Wamback herself, in a more direct discussion between the two authors. The idea is not to pit one against the other but to discuss the way each of them approaches similar questions in a kind of textual confrontation, one that is more intimately connected to the analysis of specific works and texts.
The first chapter is dedicated to the topic of thought, focusing on what Wamback describes as “original thought”, seeking to formulate what are, for each author, its nature and conditions. The main axis of the chapter is the argument that both authors think this notion as a way of distancing themselves from the representation model and its implications. This move demands an analysis of the objective and subjective dimensions that constitute this “original thought”, which leads us to the problem of the ontology therein implicit. This question is pursued in the second chapter, which seeks to understand in what sense the way both authors formulate the question about the status of thought—and its distance from the representation model—is grounded in an understanding of being. In particular, Wamback shows how this ontology recognizes being as unitary, even if it admits—indeed, demands—difference and indetermination.
The third chapter focuses on what Wamback considers a kind of epistemological or ontological “project” or even “decision” present in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze’s philosophies, discussing the extent to which their paths (delineated by the first two chapters) are connected to an understanding of the sense of philosophical work, especially in the framing of its own field of investigation—which is connected to what Wamback describes as the “empirical”. She will here follow the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze absorb the much-debated “transcendental empiricism”, tracing out their divergences from Husserl and Kant. This absorption is, to Wamback, one of the main points of proximity between the two, a point to which I will return below.
This investigation is carried a step further by its incursion into the relationship between the condition and the conditioned, an examination that will be carried out in the fourth chapter, with its reference to Bergson. As is well known, the relation between Deleuze and Bergson is much more explicit than the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bergson. However, more and more recent scholars have highlighted this last relation, and Wamback’s work is part of this recent trend in the scholarship, which presents a broad yet still unexplored horizon. In particular, Wamback’s reference to Bergson appears as a central element—both for Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze—in the understanding of the relation between the condition and the conditioned, especially in connection to the notion of “simultaneity”.
Chapters five and six focus then on this relation, particularly in its connection to the question of “expression”, a question central to both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze and which is organized precisely around the articulation between the “ground” and the grounded. To understand this question, the fifth chapter is dedicated to the description of its connection to literary experience—examining the reference to Proust, which is common to both and which is of undeniable relevance—, and the sixth chapter is dedicated to its connection to visual dimension—examining the also common and very important reference to Cézanne.
The seventh chapter also has recourse to a common denominator but now approaching the discussion from a different angle. According to Wamback, the previous chapters had as their goal to show, in different ways, the proximity between the two philosophers, by exploring how their common horizon is structured by the assertion of a unity between the condition and the conditioned, an inseparability of the ground and the grounded—a logic that is particularly notable in the notion of expression. The last chapter then attempts to shed new light on this logic, highlighting the way in which a differential dynamic operates inside this logic. The common denominator mentioned above is Saussure.
Wamback uses this reference to Saussure to explain how a “solid immanence requires a differential theory of how the condition generates the conditioned (which nevertheless determines it)” (7). She shows how this differential dynamic is to be found in both authors, especially in the way each of them appropriates Saussure’s thought, and how its constituting logic is marked by a tension between the condition and the conditioned.
Finally, the conclusion seeks to discuss the resonances and the divergences between the two philosophers, taking a stand on whether it is possible to establish a common horizon to them, or whether their distance from each other is so great that there would be no effective dialogue or convergence.
This finishes the general presentation of the book. Before continuing, it is still worth noting an important methodological option defended by Wamback, one responsible for the tight circumscription of her project. It is the option of not analyzing the relation between the two authors in terms of the notion of perception. According to her, the way each philosopher situates this notion is extremely different. In the case of Merleau-Ponty, the description of perception is carried out in an ontological or “epistemological” horizon, whereas Deleuze would think it as connected to an ethical discussion, conceived according to relations of force intensity. Such an observation is also helpful in understanding Wamback’s second methodological choice, which is connected to her first: the works on which she focuses. In Merleau-Ponty’s case, Wamback focuses primarily on The Visible and the Invisible, since—according to a widespread reading—his ontology would be the most developed at that point in his career. This would justify relegating The Phenomenology of Perception to the sidelines, since this work is considered by this line of interpretation to be “propaedeutic” to the ontology of his last work.
With this counterpoint as the horizon, it is possible to highlight the relevance and the originality of Wamback’s proposed framing, especially her option of discussing both authors from the point of view of their understanding of the status of thought. This point of view is the starting point of her proposed approximation and of her discussions, presenting an unusual take when considered against the backdrop of the most common studies about this relationship. Moreover, as I will discuss in the next section, this point of view culminates in a discussion about the sense that the “transcendental project” assumes in each philosopher. Wamback rests her argument especially in the recognition of “immanence” as an irresistible dimension, turning the articulation between the condition and the conditioned, between the ground and the grounded, into a central element in each author’s formulations. Let us, therefore, see in more detail how she builds her analysis.
III. The Book
Wamback bases her reading on the idea that there is, from the beginning, something in common to Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: not only the fact that both reflected on the topic of thought but also the fact that they distinguished two types of thought. On the one hand, a properly original thought, and, on the other hand, a thought without any originality or expressiveness. The second type of thought is merely an application of given concepts, whereas the first type—which is the type that really intrigues the two philosophers—is a kind of “creative” dynamic. Recalling the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty between “speaking speech” and “spoken speech”, as well as the distinction between “thought” and “knowledge” as described by Deleuze, Wamback proposes a peculiar framework, extremely revealing of her reading: the distinction between a “thinking thought” and an expressive thought. “Thinking thought” is the type of thought which is central to both authors and which is the starting point of Wamback’s investigation, demanding an understanding of the way each author conceives of it. The first piece of evidence highlighted by Wamback is the way this notion figures in both as a refusal of the modern conception of “representation”.
Starting with Merleau-Ponty’s reflection, Wamback appeals to some of the central notions of the Phenomenology of Perception to circumscribe his notion of thought. She then briefly examines the way Merleau-Ponty understands the sense of perception, with special emphasis on his criticism of the intellectualist and empiricist theories and on his notion of “field”, showing how the perceptual dynamic is grounded on the “original intertwinement of body and world” (18). From this point on, the question becomes whether his notion of thought is grounded in the same articulation, being always in relation to something. To pursue this question, Wamback examines the notions of the cogito—especially its negative dimension—, of geometrical thought, and of linguistic expression.
At this point in her analysis, Wamback introduces the notion of Fundierung, proposed in the Phenomenology of Perception as a “two-way relation”, an alternative to the classical understanding of the ground and the grounded as sundered elements, since they are now defined as relational dimensions in reciprocal determination. While this is a central notion in Merleau-Ponty’s work, Wamback uses it here only to think the relation between “thought” and “language”. She defends that, in spite of all its implications, there is still in this notion an asymmetry: the expressed still has “ontological priority” (35), preserving a difference between the terms. On her reading, this asymmetry would only be dissolved later, with Merleau-Ponty’s introduction of the notion of “institution”. Nevertheless, Wamback highlights that the Fundierung relation already contained a central idea, namely “excess” as an indication of the “immanence of the ground that transcends itself in the expression” (26). Her conclusion is that, for Merleau-Ponty, thought is not a “mediating activity”, but is, rather, “familiar with the world”, “it has direct contact” with it and is “in a certain sense shaped by it” (30).
Wamback shows that something similar takes place in Deleuze’s thought. From the beginning, Deleuze proposes to understand thought by confronting the sign, refusing the idea of a natural inclination to the truth, and recognizing it as always characterized by “the singularity of the meeting”, in which signs appear as “enigmas” (31). Here, more than with Merleau-Ponty, the spotlight falls on the differential character of sign and sense. Wamback shows how these notions are thought of in order to move away from the most characteristic presuppositions of representational thought: on the one hand, the idea of identity and unity, and, on the other hand, the notions of nature and of affinity with the truth. Deleuze recognizes, under the eight postulates of representational thought, a “confusion of empirical and transcendental features” (47) that obscures the proper sense of thought.
Wamback proposes that, in this perspective, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are extremely close, meeting in this movement that she describes as a “transcendental examination of thought”(49), a discussion about its conditions and about the human capacity to think. One consequence of this proximity is that both authors recognize that the object of thought is characterized by a “certain exteriority” (50). This means that both authors recognize—and hold it in high esteem—the “grounded” dimension of thought, focusing on the description of the relation between the ground and the grounded as intrinsic or immanent (51). It is precisely this intrinsic or immanent relation that guarantees its creative genesis: “In sum, for both authors, the creative nature of thought is due to the necessary role of thought in the grounding relation” (51).
After examining these conditions for the investigation of thought in each author—and the presence of a certain undeniable immanence—, Wamback focuses on describing their respective ontologies. As mentioned above, she holds that the way they understand thought, particularly their conception of thought as sustained by this intertwinement of immanence and transcendence, demands a description of the ontological ground therein implicit.
In Merleau-Ponty’s case, as described in the Introduction, Wamback focuses on the ontology of his last texts, notably The Visible and the Invisible. She emphasizes there the differential character that is central in his formulation, particularly through his notion of flesh—described by him in its originally dissonant and, simultaneously, unitary character (58), from which Wamback detaches the notion of “style” or “typicality” (59). She insists that it is not a matter of identity, but of a differential unity, which is connected to the notions of openness and constitution.
In Deleuze’s case, on the other hand, Wamback defends that the same dimensions present in Merleau-Ponty’s proposition can be found in the former’s ontology. The two authors supplant the distinction between the abstract and the concrete by reporting being to another level, which, in the case of Deleuze, is thought of as the virtual: like Merleau-Ponty’s flesh, the virtual is characterized by a nonidentical unity that cannot be divided into an inside and an outside; also like the flesh, the virtual is characterized by a fundamental openness, being also the condition of concrete things (65).
On the other hand, concerning the differences between them, Wamback holds that Deleuze devoted more time to the task of showing that unity and difference are not in opposition, that indetermination does not imply undifferentiation and that the constitutive nature of the virtual does not detach it from the things and concepts that are conditioned by it (65). In spite of this difference, she concludes that, for both, the object of thought—the flesh and the virtual—is not an identity: “The flesh and the virtual are disguised (VI, 150; DR, 133), displaced with respect to themselves” (79). The two notions combine unity and difference, acting as the condition of concepts and things, be they living or non-living (80). These dimensions are responsible for the individuation and crystallization processes, situated in the articulation between, on the one hand, the visible and the actual, and, on the other hand, the virtual and the invisible flesh, acting in the region between conservation and creation.
Supported by this discussion about the two philosophers’ ontologies—in their closeness and in their distance—, Wamback proceeds to study that which she describes as their “transcendental project”, seeking to situate their proposed investigation about the nature of thought in a broader framework:
“What is at stake, philosophically, when they refuse a representational account of thought, and prefer instead to situate the origin of thinking not in the thinking subject, but in the encounter with an exterior sign (Deleuze), or in the participation in a wild being (Merleau-Ponty)? Why do they both attack the representational account of thought?” (85).
She defends that they are brought close together by their affirmation of the non-exteriority between subject and object, between the one who thinks and what is thought—an affirmation that, according to her, is at the basis of what the two of them recognize as philosophically being “immanence” (85). Wamback defends that immanence is articulated with the idea of “difference”, even with all the distance that separates their respective ontologies.
Deleuze’s transcendental project is carefully presented by a confrontation with the Kantian project and by a discussion of a series of thinkers that heavily influenced him, especially Spinoza, Maimon, Leibniz, and Husserl. Merleau-Ponty’s project, in its turn, is presented through its confrontation with Husserl and, more generally speaking, with phenomenology, a relation characterized simultaneously by connection and distance. Wamback highlights that, beyond their idiosyncrasies, they have a common inspiration in their criticism of Husserl and his proposal of a return “to the things themselves”:
“A transcendental philosophy should look not for the conditions of possibility of experience but for its conditions of reality. For Merleau-Ponty as much as for Deleuze, this implies that the transcendental ground is to be situated in the empirical. The ground must be immanent to the grounded and thus possess a certain historicity that cannot be reconciled with the invariability of transcendent essences. Philosophy’s task, then, is defined as the explanation of how the empirical, the grounded, can be produced immanently. For both thinkers, philosophy is to be a philosophy of genesis.” (121)
There is also a resonance in what they reject from Husserl, especially his notion of a transcendental subject (122). According to Wamback, they both see in this notion an obstacle to a consistent transcendental project, since it prevents it from “becoming an immanent ontology” (123) and weakens its differential dimension.
After this more general perspective, it is now possible to return to what Wamback calls the dimension of “immanence”, present in the two authors’ respective transcendental project. To analyze this notion, it is worthwhile to focus especially on its differential dynamic—something that Wamback has worked on from the beginning by way of the relation between the ground and the grounded, the main axis that articulates her analyses.
Here one should mention a central element both for the two philosophers and for Wamback’s argument, namely the notion of expression, precisely as a way of understanding this articulation between the condition and the conditioned. The following chapters focus, each in their own way, on this notion, circumscribing it through diverse and correlate points of view: through its relation to the notion of simultaneity, through its connection to literary expression, and, finally, by discussing its visual dimension. In a word: by their relations to Bergson, Proust, and Cézanne.
The first step is their common reference to Bergson, which is circumscribed by Wamback through the notion of simultaneity. She seeks to understand how the appeal to Bergson helps Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze to build, each in their own way, a transcendental project that attempts to situate the transcendental in the empirical, the basis for what she considers the “philosophy of immanence” that is characteristic of both (125).
Wamback argues that Merleau-Ponty’s initial reading of Bergson, particularly in the Phenomenology of Perception, is “essentially unfair” (132), since he accuses Bergson of “not considering other kinds of spatiality in order to think time” (ibid). This diagnosis would be partially revised in The Visible and the Invisible, especially through the notion of “partial coincidence” and through his discussion of depth—both topics that are also to be found in Deleuze’s reading. Here the two meet each other again, since the two of them recognize depth not as a spatial but as a temporal dimension, connected to the idea of simultaneity—explicitly as a refusal of a notion of succession, recognizing the present as a “contraction of the past” (142). This formulation would lead them to similar consequences, especially the affirmation of an impossibility of directly accessing the past.
“These ressonances between Merleau-Ponty’s and Deleuze’s references to Bergson also reveals resonances at the most general level of their conception of the relation between the ground and the grounded. Both appeal to Bergson’s idea that the passing of time must be explained through the simultaneity of future, present, and past, because that offers a possible solution if your goal is to avoid referring, in the explanation, to an exterior or transcendent element. In other words, Bergson’s notion of simultaneity is a very good illustration of how one can keep the relation between the ground and the grounded immanent.” (143)
Wamback emphasizes the notion of simultaneity as a central element in their philosophies, a kind of “field” that articulates transcendence and immanence. The study about expression—about the way this relationship is realized and is inscribed in their respective transcendental projects—continues through an analysis of Proust and Cézanne.
The careful chapter devoted to Proust shows, on the one hand, that both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze find in the writer inspiration to understand an achronological, original time, composed of dimensions and not divided into successive moments, configured around a “centre of envelopment” (163). On the other hand, Wamback sustains that their respective readings diverge to the extent that, beyond this direct reference to time, Proust also contributed to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the body, something that did not occur with Deleuze.
The following chapter continues the discussion about the notion of expression, focusing now on its visual dimension and finding support in Cézanne’s presence, also common to the two philosophers. Wamback shows how both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze insist on the nonrepresentational character of art, which leads them both in the direction of a “nonimitative resemblance” (170). The guiding thread is the understanding—that brings them very close to each other—of the painting process and its nature (178).
Finally, the seventh chapter is devoted to a description of how Saussure figures in each author’s work. In the previous chapters, recall, Wamback strove to make explicit the way they tried to “ensure the immanence of their transcendental projects by characterizing the relationship between the ground and the grounded as one of simultaneity (chapter 4) and expression (chapters 5 and 6)” (189). Now, in the last chapter, she explores another central element of these transcendental projects, namely the idea of difference. Wamback argues that, in spite of some differences, both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are interested in the same ideas from Saussure, especially “his discovery of the genetic power of difference” (211).
After briefly retracing Wamback’s path, it is now possible to summarize, in a few lines, her main proposal. It seems to me that the central—and strongest—of her claims is her proposal of a convergence between the transcendental projects of Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, especially due to the intrinsic relation between such projects and the field of immanence. According to Wamback, this immanence is an original articulation between the condition and the conditioned, formulated by the two authors through the notions of simultaneity and expression. Such a “philosophy of immanence” is on the horizon thanks to which a new sense of the transcendental could appear, bring the philosophers close together.
Such a similarity, however, does not erase their differences. Indeed, it illuminates these differences from a new perspective. This is what allows Wamback to finally conclude, without losing sight of their respective singularities, that there is still a “unity” among them, as a new horizon that does not reject dissonance, putting it into a new context and proposing it a new meaning. As she had proposed in the beginning, one of the main goals of her project was to retrace philosophical relations, to rethink more subterranean contexts, to reconfigure lines of influence and of exchange in a more general sense.
It is, therefore, a highly original proposal, resulting in an uncommon work among the current scholarship, one that is pursued with admirable care, clarity, and cohesion.