Adam Tuboly (Ed.): The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic

The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic Book Cover The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic
History of Analytic Philosophy
Adam Tamas Tuboly (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Ebook 93,08 €
XV, 370

Reviewed by: Piotr Stalmaszczyk (University of Lodz, Poland)

Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic was first published in 1936, a second, revised edition appeared in 1946. Chapter 1 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’) of this book opens with the following paragraph:

“The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful. The surest way to end them is to establish beyond question what should be the purpose and method of a philosophical inquiry. And this is by no means so difficult a task as the history of philosophy would lead one to suppose. For if there are any questions which science leaves it to philosophy to answer, a straightforward process of elimination must lead to their discovery.” (Ayer 2001: 13)

The author of these words was only twenty-five when he finished writing a book which became a milestone in contemporary philosophy. It was indeed “a young man’s book” (…) “written with more passion than most philosophers allow themselves to show”, as Ayer admitted in the second edition (Ayer 2001: 173). “With these and similar assertions the young Ayer embarked on a course of discussion that was designed to shake the philosophical establishment” (Hanfling 1997: 4). And even though time has clearly demonstrated the flaws and shortcoming of Ayer’s text and its main ideas, it needs to be acknowledged that Language, Truth and Logic (henceforth LTL) is a major achievement in the field, with long lasting influence, provoking over the years vivid discussions and reactions, especially in the areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.

The volume edited by Adam Tamas Tuboly reconsiders the philosophical and historical importance of LTL, and discusses its more contemporary legacy in several different disciplines. Tuboly specifies that the questions that need to be asked and discussed: “are the following: how did Ayer preserve or distort the views and conceptions of the logical empiricists, especially those of Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap? How are Ayer’s arguments different from those he aimed to reconstruct? How influential was LTL really, and what are the factors that explain its success in Britain and especially at Oxford?” (3).

The book comprises an introduction and five parts (each consisting of two chapters). The introduction gives necessary background information, part one contextualizes Ayer’s book, part two concentrates on philosophy of language in LTL, part three discusses philosophy of mind and psychology, part four looks at epistemology and truth, and part five focuses on ethics and values. The individual chapters provide critical re-examinations of LTL, with the final chapter offering a highly critical analysis within a wide context of philosophy and culture. Each chapter is furnished with an extensive list of references.

In the first, introductory chapter, ‘From Spying to Canonizing – Ayer and His Language, Truth and Logic’, Tuboly traces Ayer’s road to LTL, his first encounters and contacts in Vienna, and provides a brief overview of the book’s content and its main theses. He observes that Ayer’s main task is “twofold: to show that all metaphysicians try to go beyond the empirical realm and to buttress his core thesis that only empirical propositions are meaningful in a literal sense” (12).

An important part of this chapter is devoted to discussing the controversy surrounding the significance and influence of LTL. Tuboly offers here a brief overview of the most important references on the subject and concludes this section observing that “the influence of LTL can be measured on two grounds. First, it was quite negatively received by the philosophical community, as it stepped on many toes and produced a mainly critical response among both philosophers and public intellectuals. (…) On the other hand, Ayer’s book was more than successful in other ways. LTL is one of the best-selling philosophy books of the twentieth century; every student of analytic philosophy has to read it at least once (…), and many educated laymen know it as a source of inspiration and a seminal text from the intellectual history of positivism – a distinction shared by only a few books in analytic philosophy. Whether institutional success is enough for philosophical success, however, is a different question” (27-28). Tuboly also stresses that LTL, though written when the Vienna Circle was past its peak, provides rather scarce information on logical positivism and its historical and theoretical developments. These remarks prepare the ground for more detailed analyses in the following parts of the volume.

Further contextualization of Ayer’s book is provided by the two chapters in Part One (‘The Book and Its Context’). Andreas Vrahimis discusses LTL and the Anglophone reception of the Venna Circle, he further investigates the issue of omissions made by Ayer in tackling the history of logical positivism, the debate around the Neurath-Haller thesis, and Ayer’s divergences with Carnap. Vrahimis observes that the linguistic Empiricism of LTL is presented as partly conceding the Rationalist critique of classical Empiricism, while rejecting the metaphysical conclusions the critique had driven them to; fortifying Empiricism by rejecting the mistaken assumptions of its classical proponents; and both aligning itself with the Empiricist side of the dispute, and also resolving the dispute in an Empiricist manner (47). In concluding remarks on the aftermath of the publication, Vrahimis observes that:

“Ayer’s book focused on discussions of particular problems and only very briefly touched upon the context in which they had initially been addressed by the Vienna Circle and its predecessors. The reception of his work also followed course, and the bold claims made by LTL resulted in bringing a critical debate over the viability of verificationism to the center of Anglophone philosophy during the 30s and 40s. Within this debate, there had been little concern about the acceptability of Ayer’s brief history of Logical Empiricism”. (63)

Chapter 3, by Siobhan Chapman, concentrates on ‘Viennese Bombshells’, i.e. reactions to LTL from Ayer’s philosophical contemporaries, especially John L. Austin, Arne Naess, and L. Susan Stebbing. All three philosophers found interesting elements in LTL but also had objections to the implications of Ayer’s study for the study of language. Chapman focuses on the reaction of these three philosophers to LTL, and on their further influence upon the study of language. Austin’s name is closely associated with ordinary language philosophy, one prominent version of the ‘linguistic philosophy’ (acknowledged by Ayer in his retrospective). Naess is less well known in Anglophone philosophy, “but was extremely influential in the development during the middle part of the twentieth century of philosophy in Norway, where he was celebrated as the founder of the school of empirical semantics” and finally Stebbing’s work “has been relatively neglected in recent decades, but in the 1930s and 1940s she was recognized as a leading figure in British analytic philosophy, particularly in relation to what became known as the Cambridge School of directional analysis” (71). In the remaining parts of the chapter Chapman discusses some subsequent developments connected with LTL and ordinary language philosophy in the fields of philosophy and linguistics, and she claims that after initial criticism connected with the fact that Ayer failed to recognize the disjuncture between philosophical inquiry and the assessment of ordinary linguistic usage, in the last few years “some analytic philosophers have returned to the idea that ordinary language might be of relevance, and even of vital methodological significance, to philosophical inquiry” (85). She also points at some interesting developments in Critical Discourse Analysis which might have been inspired by the close attention to different uses of language explicit in ordinary language philosophy (92).

The two chapters in Part Two are explicitly devoted to philosophy of language in LTL. Nicole Rathgeb discusses Ayer’s stance on analyticity, and Sally Parker-Ryan studies Ayer and early ordinary language philosophy. Ayer’s definition of analyticity is of great significance for his whole philosophy, not least because he regards philosophical truths as analytic propositions, hence his conception is often cited as ‘truth in virtue of meaning’ (101). Rathgeb carefully traces the inspirations and sources for Ayer’s ideas, the developments of this conception, changes between the first and second edition of LTL, and objections voiced against this approach. In the conclusion, the author suggests that Ayer’s account of analyticity is fundamentally correct, and that “the two definitions of analyticity given in LTL and in the introduction to the second edition can be brought into accord, that the truth of analytic propositions so understood is not contingent upon the existence of language, and that the different factors Ayer appeals to in his explanation of the necessity of analytic propositions are all important, although one of them is more fundamental than the others” (120).

In chapter 5, Parker-Ryan examines the development of two approaches to language: the concept of ideal language, and the concept of ordinary language. The former is connected with Ayer’s views expounded in LTL, whereas the latter is discussed by Parker-Ryan with reference to the work of John Wisdom. The author briefly presents the origins of the method of linguistic analysis, the influence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and of his later views, succinctly introduces ordinary language philosophy and contrasts it with theories advocating ideal language. In conclusion, Parker-Ryan claims that Ayer and the positivists “understood linguistic analysis as the weeding out of nonsense, such that the ‘logic of science’ could emerge. Such a language would be ideal, in the sense of being perfectly transparent logical form, and comprised exhaustively of empirically verifiable propositions, logical propositions and nothing else” (146). On the other hand, for ordinary language philosophy, the aim was also to resolve philosophical confusion; proponents of this movement “believed that a closer and more thoughtful examination of how language really is used, in various circumstances, can be philosophically revealing” (147).

Part Three is devoted to philosophy of mind and psychology. Gergely Ambrus traces the evolution of Ayer’s views on the mind-body relation, whereas Thomas Uebel investigates the puzzle about other minds in early Ayer. Ambrus observes that the analysis of Ayer’s views, “beyond being interesting in itself, is also important in that it provides further details about the large-scale development of analytic philosophy, stretching from the logical positivists’ radical anti-metaphysicalism in the 1930s to the 1960s when (some) classical metaphysical problems like realism or idealism, and the mind-body problem, were treated as being meaningful and legitimate once more” (153). The chapter discusses the phenomenalist background, focuses on the relations between the mental and physical events (a core issue in contemporary philosophy of mind) and on reinterpretations of the psychophysical relation within Ayer’s ‘sophisticated realist’ framework. Ambrus sums up the developments in Ayer’s thought in the following way: “the changes in Ayer’s views about the nature of the psychophysical relation were embedded in the evolution of his overall approach to philosophy. He departed from the radically anti-metaphysical attitude of logical positivism and arrived at a sort of pragmatist realism” (187). The shift from radical anti-metaphysical to ‘soft’ metaphysical views (with simultaneous faithfulness to earlier empiricist foundations) is characteristic of developments in Ayer’s thought (188).

Chapter 7 provides additional evidence for Ayer’s changing views in what today might be referred to as proto-philosophy of mind. Uebel concentrates on the account of knowledge of other minds as formulated in LTL, provides different interpretations and reinterpretations, and discusses Ayer’s approach to logical behaviorism: “once it is noted how his verificationism limited his options, it is of course difficult to dispute Ayer’s conclusion that no knowledge of other minds is provided at all, but this limitation does not apply unless the doctrine of logical behaviorism is also reinterpreted” (211).  Uebel also points to the discrepancies between the argument as presented in LTL, and as later interpreted by Ayer himself (240), a very interesting observation connected with authorial methodological consciousness (or lack of it).

Part Four deals with epistemology and truth. First Hans-Joachim Glock takes a close look at Ayer’s verificationism, next László Kocsis focuses on the problem of truth and validation. Truth, the second element in the title of Ayer’s book, was crucial both for the author’s line of investigation, and for the interpretation of his theory. Glock opens his chapter observing that the most fundamental aspiration of LTL is meta-philosophical: “Its stated aim is to argue for a positivist, anti-metaphysical conception of philosophy, its tasks and proper methods” (251). Further in this chapter, Glock discusses the importance of verificationism in LTL, different criteria of verifiability, the principle of verification, and the differences between the two (also in the context of Wittgenstein’s use-theory of meaning); it follows from this discussion that “there remains more to be said both against and for Ayer’s verificationism” (275).

In chapter 9, Kocsis starts with examining the difference between the definition and the criterion of truth and how they can be connected; next, he devotes some space to Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth and his place in the famous protocol-sentence debate, including his defense of a correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. In the final section he shows that Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth is not in conflict with his correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. This is because, contrary to his logical positivist contemporaries, Ayer did not admit any intimate connection between the two above-mentioned truth-theoretical tasks. According to Kocsis, “Ayer was convinced that the correspondence criterion could be applied to synthetic propositions, but as a fallibilist he did not distinguish between epistemically basic and incorrigible propositions (…) and all other non-basic propositions (hypotheses)” (301).

Part Five brings two chapters dealing with ethics and values. In chapter 10, Krisztián Pete compares Ayer and Berkeley, and their concepts of the meaning of ethical and religious language. Ayer starts the preface of the first edition of LTL with the following claim: “The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which are themselves the logical outcome of the Empiricism of Berkeley and David Hume” (Ayer 2001: 9). Berkeley’s and Hume’s influence on Ayer, and Ayer’s interpretation of Empiricism have already been discussed in chapters 1 and 2. Pete discusses in some detail Ayer’s and Berkeley’s views on emotional and theological use of language, he also explores the claim that Ayer is indebted to Berkeley “not only for the core ideas of his phenomenalism but also for his emotivism” (307), and provides a Berkeleyan reinterpretation of Ayer. Pete concludes that “by examining the semantic theory of one of Ayer’s distant empiricist predecessors, we can get some guidance on how to modify the ethical theory that Ayer outlined in LTL” (330).

The last chapter, by Aaron Preston, is significantly entitled ‘Ayer’s Book of Errors and the Crises of Contemporary Western Culture’. Preston offers a highly critical reading of LTL, with an equally critical assessment of its influence:

“Given that its flaws were both grievous and fairly obvious to many, LTL and the simplistic positivism it exemplified would be mere curiosities in the annals of a very curious century if it weren’t for the fact that they had massively harmful effects on culture, effects which persist to this day. (…)

LTL’s real significance lies here, in its role as a sophisticated and successful bit of propaganda for an ideology that played a critical role in loosing Western culture from its moral and epistemic moorings”. (334; 335)

Preston considers the rise of positivism in the light of the crises of contemporary western culture, including contemporary politics, fake news and post truth politics. Parts of this chapter sound rather like a political manifesto; however, it is interesting to see the line of argumentation leading the author from flaws in LTL to analyses (neither very deep nor original though) of Trump’s presidency. The tenor of the conclusion is predictable: “What, then, is the real significance of LTL? Sadly, its significance is overwhelmingly negative. It resides in the fact that it gave a distinctive and rhetorically powerful voice to a form of scientistic naturalism which has played a powerful role in fouling our relations to moral truth” (361). A brief critical remark with respect to these claims is included earlier in the volume, in chapter 8, where Glock observes that Preston’s dismissive attitude is precipitate, for:

A. Ayer’s later assessment leaves open that LTL also includes important truths.  B. Mistakes can be philosophically significant. C. By its own lights, LTL aims at introducing and implementing a method of clarification and critical thinking rather than at propounding a true doctrine.” (273-4)

The above points provide a good coda to this final chapter; however, it would be interesting to see a chapter polemic with regard to Preston’s stance.

In the conclusion of his brief introduction to Ayer’s work, Oswald Hanfling observed that “just as one must admire the bravado of his early book, so one must be impressed, when reading his later work, by his cautious and painstaking treatment of the questions at issue, and his constant striving to do justice to alternative views before arriving at his own conclusion” (Hanfling 1997: 51); and Ben Rogers added that the greatness of LTL resides in the fact that “it exudes a rare and inspiring passion for truth” (Rogers 2001: xvi). The papers collected in the reviewed volume attest to the depth and breadth of Ayer’s thought, they demonstrate that the shortcomings of his early work cannot overshadow its lasting influence in several philosophical disciplines.

Ayer’s book provoked reaction also within literary studies, and its title inspired at least two publications – Hamm (1960) and Martin (1975) – with both authors consciously alluding to the original title, and both investigating the benefits and shortcomings of logical positivism as applied to literary analyses. This aspect of Ayer’s influence is not discussed in the reviewed book, however, it additionally confirms the importance of LTL for various developments in several disciplines.

The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic provides an excellent overview of the topics discussed by Ayer, the controversies surrounding the publication and its influence. Additionally, it provides important (not only historical) considerations connected with the developments in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.


Ayer, Alfred J. [1936/1946] 2001. Language, Truth and Logic. London: Penguin Books.

Hamm, Victor M. 1960. Language, Truth and Poetry. The Aquinas Lecture 1960. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Hanfling, Oswald. 1997. Ayer. Analysing What We Mean. London: Phoenix.

Martin, Graham Dunstan. 1975. Language, Truth, and Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rogers, Ben. 2001. “Introduction.” In: Ayer (2001), ix-xviii.

Jean Vioulac: Apocalypse of Truth, University of Chicago Press, 2021

Apocalypse of Truth: Heideggerian Meditations Book Cover Apocalypse of Truth: Heideggerian Meditations
Jean Vioulac. Translated by Matthew J. Peterson. With a Foreword by Jean-Luc Marion
University of Chicago Press
Cloth $40.00

Theodore George, Gert-Jan van der Heiden (Eds.): The Gadamerian Mind, Routledge, 2021

The Gadamerian Mind Book Cover The Gadamerian Mind
Routledge Philosophical Minds
Theodore George, Gert-Jan van der Heiden (Eds.)
Hardback £190.00

Chad Engelland: Phenomenology

Phenomenology Book Cover Phenomenology
The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series
Chad Engelland
Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press
Paperback $15.95

Reviewed by: Robert Farrugia (University of Malta)

From its onset, phenomenology has been highly concerned with new beginnings.  Its insistent demand to relearn how to see things in a new light is evident not only in its method but also in the phenomenologists’ relentless dedication to reintroduce and describe anew this project in myriad ways, time and time again, through their works and lectures to a variety of audiences. One of the main driving forces is that the notion of ‘beginning’, in phenomenology, takes on a wider and fuller meaning: to go back, again and again. This is precisely because phenomenology takes the starting position very seriously.

Chad Engelland’s book, Phenomenology, is both for beginners and about new beginnings; an invitation to re-examine and renew what it means to be a philosopher by analysing how we experience our very own experiences. In his own words, “philosophy is a rigorous intensification of ordinary reflection, and phenomenology is a renewal of philosophy” (151). Engelland’s book is not just a  highly accessible introduction to this 20th century movement but, moreover, it is  a way (the phenomenological how) of presenting the subject itself. The content  list Engelland presents is itself not conventional for academic books introducing phenomenology. Instead of the typical chapters titled ‘intentionality’ or ‘consciousness’ we find chapter titles such as ‘love’ and ‘wonder’. Nevertheless, all the key concepts and main thinkers are mentioned within these chapters throughout the book, in Engelland’s own way of offering them. When one starts reading his book, it becomes immediately clear that the author intends the reader to read this work not as a mere theoretical exercise but, rather, as a means of shifting from the conceptual to the experiential. In many ways, this book is a guide on how to do phenomenology on a daily basis.

As Engelland immediately points out in his preface, phenomenology invites us to look back again in order to bring to our attention that which was previously unnoticed and hidden from us. This call for renewal summons one to embark on a quest of regaining a sense of wonder and fascination with the world. It is a call to revisit that which we take for granted and, as a result, end up filtering and losing significant details about both the world and ourselves as the ones undergoing experiences.

Throughout his whole book, Engelland makes sure that significant words are not taken lightly as he frequently stops and reflects on them. In his preface, he gives us an insight on the word ‘fascinate’ as it is understood in its original meaning: to be under a spell. As he maintains, this fascination is precisely what phenomenology brings back in philosophy: an enterprise that dazzles, beguiles and bewitches us. This sense of fascination is not here understood as one which closes us on ourselves, in turn making us insensitive to the ordinary world but, rather, one which projects us outwards towards the world which, in turn, becomes understood in a fuller, richer and wider sense, since “phenomenology fascinates by restoring charm to the things of this world” (xii). It is, moreover, an enterprise which “captures our hearts by setting us free” (xii), allowing us to explore the truth of things together with others, via our very own shared experiences.

In his first chapter, titled ‘To the things themselves’, Engelland starts by giving a concise description of what phenomenology is: “the experience of experience” (2). Just as Husserl had struggled so hard to reopen up a space for philosophy in an overly growing scientific world, Engelland grapples with the physicists who, in our time, have proclaimed the death of philosophy. What this proclamation entails is the self-aggrandizement of the scientific view which ends up reducing all knowledge to its own episteme. It is this scientific reduction which phenomenology must resist, in order to shift from a view from nowhere towards a view from somewhere. Scientists themselves must presuppose this latter subjective view in order to do science: “there would be no science if there were no scientists” (5), for it is the very act of wondering that gives rise to science itself. In turn, as Engelland explains, phenomenology comes on the scene with its own reduction: the transcendental reduction – which allows us to step  back in order to retrace how we experience things. He argues that just as biology  is the study of being qua biological life, phenomenology, as a science in itself,  studies being qua appearances – phenomena. However, Engelland stops to reflect on what is here meant by appearances. His claims is that it is not mere appearance which phenomenology studies but, moreover, the “true appearance of things” (3). In this sense, the principal goal of phenomenology is to discern the truth of experience itself; “the truth about truth itself and how it arises in our experience” (9).

One of the contributions Engelland makes here is to delineate how phenomenology cannot be understood as a mere modern epistemological enterprise. Rather, it is an inquiry in the classical investigation of the whatness of things coupled with the way, or how, these things are experienced. In this sense, Engelland argues that phenomenology brings back pre-modern philosophy within the modern epistemological paradigm by examining “how can we experience essences, and what is the essence of experience” (11). In many ways, phenomenology is both new and old, as it always seeks to make a fresh start by returning to philosophy’s origin in experience. Moreover, Engelland proposes that the centrality of a phenomenology is its publicness – which entails that such experiences are not happenings inside the brain but, instead, belong to the public world.

From the early stages of this movement, numerous phenomenologists have engaged with art to formulate and articulate their ideas. Engelland refers to this love affair between art and phenomenology in his second chapter, as he starts off by bringing into our attention Paul Cézanne’s bold emphasis on the individual things within his paintings. Merleau-Ponty had written extensively on this French artist in order to highlight that perception is not merely composed of passive impressions but, moreover, it is the activity of allowing things to show themselves as they truly are; what Husserl calls constitution. It is here that Engelland introduces the key theme of phenomenology: intentionality. Put simply, he formulates this notion by stating that “all experience is a matter experiencing something as something” (22). The author provides various ways of how our experiences appear in this way, using several examples from popular culture. However, as Engelland rightfully claims, the truly ground-breaking discovery of phenomenology is that it expresses the publicness of appearances, in opposition to the modern understanding of the privateness of things confined to the mind. His claim is that “appearances belong to the experiential world that each of us shares through our own resources” (24).

Engelland confronts Hume’s notion of subjective impressions as he finds in it a barrier which hinders any access to the things themselves. In a very concise and accessible format, which also includes sketched diagrams, the author shows the ways in which Hume and Husserl remain radically different in their conclusions: whereas Hume would conclude that we perceive mental images since our perception of things constantly changes whilst the real things remain the same, Husserl would conclude that the changing perception itself presents the same real thing in all its reality. This is because Husserl maintains that, within experiences, the changing and unchanging are necessarily intertwined. Thus, phenomenology puts forth the idea that “the thing does not hide behind its appearances. The appearances rather are the thing’s disclosure” (29). This entails that appearances put us into close contact with the public features of things; i.e. to the very being of the thing that appears. The main conclusion to this chapter is summed up into three points: 1) experiences involve a rich context which involves others, 2) experiences involve interplay of presence and absence, and 3) this interplay is what we mean by ‘world’.

Engelland also grapples with the phenomenological nuance of ‘flesh’ – the twofold experience of one’s body as both living (Leib) and physical (Körper). This means that, phenomenologically, our body can both feel and be felt; or sees and is seen. In this sense we are the perceivers and the perceived at the same time. Ultimately, as Engelland claims, “flesh opens us to explore the world and meet with not only things but also fellow explorers of thing” (46). This builds upon the idea of interplay between presence and absence since presence is always a presence to someone. Thus, experience is an active exploration accomplished by one’s flesh within the world; highlighting, yet again, this public feature of phenomenology. Engelland makes some references to child psychology to elaborate further on the significance of the body within phenomenology, arguing that it is thanks to the natural manifestation of flesh that infants learn to speak. By this he means that meaning is embodied in the world and, hence, involves body-reading rather than mind-reading.

Engelland invokes Descartes and his meditations on the appearance of the world populated by others like me. The father of modern philosophy had notoriously adopted a sceptical attitude when it comes to understanding the world, leading him to be uncertain of what he is experiencing. As a result, he categorizes the world in two kinds of things: subjects, experienced internally, and objects, experienced externally. Engelland explains how phenomenology sees this inner-outer division as an artificial construct and, hence, a pseudo-problem which needs to be dismantled: “other people do not show up in the first place as objects: they show up as fellow people” (52). This means that we have the same access to others as we do to ourselves. Here, Engelland skilfully brings into the discussion Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, Stein and Merleau-Ponty together, thinkers who, in their own ways, have all wrestled with this Cartesian problem. Emphasising the shared aims in all these phenomenologists’ ideas, Engelland maintains that “we have the world thanks to flesh and in having the world we meet with the flesh of others who likewise have the world” (57).

Speech, writing and images also occupy a central stage in Engelland’s work as, for him, they are essential to comprehend our world. His claim is that “words hold this power of enabling us to share thoughts about things even when they are absent to our perception” (60). To highlight the interplay between words and images, Engelland calls our attention to René Magritte’s popular painting, titled ‘The Treachery of Images’ (La Trahison des images), which opens up a window onto a thing which, we know, is not the thing itself. To highlight this ambiguity, the artist relies on the power of writing. Engelland uses this example as a means to show that words go beyond the visual image since the latter is always given to us in a perspectival way, hence in parts; what Husserl calls adumbrations. This entails that the perceptual object can never be given all at once from all sides. However, this is not the case with words since they do give the object as a whole, in its totality. Moreover, as Engelland maintains, speech starts with what is present but soon goes beyond, towards things which are absent; such as the past, the future, the abstract, the hidden, and the imaginary. In this sense, the ‘phenomenological’ brings about the ‘poetical’ as “phenomenology wishes to make explicit the wonderful, life-giving relation of language and experience” (72). Engelland’s point rests on the idea that phenomenology helps us appreciate the richness and multiple layers of experience which language has the ability to articulate in a variety of ways.

Ultimately, as Engelland insists, it is truth which is at the heart of phenomenology since, as he boldly claims: “there is truth, or, if you prefer, truth happens” (79). Phenomenology has from its onset resisted the reduction of truth to contingent facts such as those of biology or psychology. Nevertheless, phenomenology is not against science per se but, rather, what scientists can argue for and uphold. Thus, phenomenology’s true opponent would be anyone who denies the reality of the experience of truth and of essence. But what is the condition for the possibility of truth? Engelland’s answer is clear: “an openness that offers a place for the things of the world to become manifest as the things that they are” (83). In this sense, the starting point of phenomenology is that we are open to the natures of things, which is in itself the presupposition for all other research. Pressing this further, one can ask: how does truth happen? Engelland states that “truth is not anonymous but personal” (83). His claim is that it happens for someone by making something present as it really is. This truth is only possible because we are always already open in our very being such that things can manifest themselves to us as they truly are. In this sense, truth can happen thanks to our personal experience of things.

Engelland relentlessly brings into discussion the possibility that phenomenology can be misinterpreted to be merely the study of appearances and, therefore, is not able tell us anything about how things really are. Such an interpretation will in turn hinder the possibility of ever attaining truth about anything. Engelland sees this as a dangerous place for both philosophy and anyone in search of the true meaning of things. Our job, as he contends, is not to stop at appearances but, moreover, to find out the true appearance of things. This entails that we must search for the adequate intuition that can clear up any confusion and falsity about things in order to give us the thing itself: “it is always by true appearance that we can sort how something is from how it seems” (90). This means that seeming and being are not necessarily opposed and it is, in fact, this central point which makes phenomenology stresses upon within the philosophical tradition. Ultimately, Engelland’s aim is to defend phenomenology from falling prey to relativism: “to say that truth involves a relation between things and us does not mean that truth is relative” (93). The latter simply merges appearance to reality whilst the former distinguishes between genuine and false appearances. It is confused thinking that ends up equating phenomenology to relativism, since, as Engelland claims, “truth is a feature not of things or of us but of a modality of the relation of things to us in which things show themselves as they are and are registered by us as such” (93). In this sense, truth is always relational, hence a relation of thought to things, where thoughts are subordinated to the self-showing of things. What this entails is that our thoughts can match with things the moment things are allowed to lead and manifest themselves as they truly are. Thus, Engelland argues that phenomenology is the virtuous mean between relativism and rationalism; the former demanding that truth is simply appearance whilst the latter stating that truth does not involve appearance at all. Ultimately, what phenomenology highlights is that truth is in itself experiential and, thus, personal.

Engelland dedicates a whole chapter on a theme which has gained quite some traction in phenomenology: ‘Life’. This notion of life is a crucial component of experience since, as the author maintains, “right there in the tasting, in the viewing, there is an implicit, background experience of oneself” (99). Were it not for this experiencing of our own self, it would be impossible to delight in the experience of things. In the opening lines of this chapter, Engelland refers to the French phenomenologist Michel Henry, who has written extensively on this theme. For Henry, life is precisely this immanent self-experience; or what he sometimes calls auto-affection, and it is this experience from within that makes possible the experience of the life of the other. All this ties with the previously aforementioned twofoldness of flesh: “we perceive ourselves perceiving and we perceive others perceiving” (100). Engelland also invokes Stein as one of the early phenomenologists who had shed light on this centrality of phenomenological life to contest the limitations of a mechanistic interpretation of the world. A biological reduction of life understood as purely physiologically and outwardly does not seem to satisfy the realm of life, which must include the inward. When we encounter the other, we encounter more than their outwardness: “I see the dog sad to see me go, happy to see I have returned, and keenly interested to discover who’s at the door” (100). Engelland’s claim is that life involves a world which must be understood as interwoven with it. On this point of chiasm between life and world, Henry would have some disagreement but, for the sake of keeping the argument flowing for the intended reader, Engelland does not go into the nitty-gritty of such disputes. The author’s central aim is to show that human beings are world-forming, hence are receptive to the essences of things, and can, thus, tap into the domain of truth. Engelland defends phenomenology from being determined or undermined by our biological make-up, as it would leave us with a truth that is relative, and not transcendent and accessible to us: “it must be maintained that we humans are tapping into something that transcends the idiosyncrasies of our biology and our environment when we tap into truth” (108).

Moreover, phenomenologists aim at showing that we are responsive to this truth that arises in our experiences. In a Heideggerian sense, this entails that we care about this truth. The temporal structure of experience and the interplay of presence and absence allow truth to manifest itself to us. This points to our hold upon experiences and the way we choose to face them: either authentically (deep and meticulously) or in an inauthentic mode (shallowly and superficially). Engelland describes this shift of attitude as choosing between “being faithful to the truth we have seen and not being so faithful” (109), respectively. In his chapter on ‘Life’, Engelland also introduces the reader to the phenomenological notion of the Lifeworld: “the world of our everyday things and ordinary perception” (110). Again, he brings into the discussion the distinction between the scientific worldview and the phenomenological one. Whereas the former sees the reality of objects only in what is measurable – dimensions, mass, etc. – the latter sees the reality of objects in terms of their meaningfulness and context. But, as Engelland clearly points out, the former must assume the latter for in order to measure anything one must first perceive it as such and such an object. The life lived around inanimate objects and living beings incorporates meaningful relations and it is precisely this realm which should be prioritized over a scientific view which divorces things from our human lives. As Engelland maintains, it is because of the lifeworld that speech, gestures, feelings and our flesh happens and present themselves to others. Moreover, it is within this lifeworld that the sense of wonder springs forth to give rise to science, poetry and philosophy in the first place. In simple terms, “the contrast between the lifeworld and science is not the difference between feeling and fact, but the difference between experience and experiment” (113). In this sense, Engelland affirms that it is not the scientific objects together that bring about the lifeworld but, rather, scientific objects are made possible because of the lifeworld.

Engelland also explores the theme of ‘love’ as he dedicates a whole chapter to it, showing that this theme has a vital role within phenomenology, and philosophy in general. But, what is love? Even though this question has been puzzling philosophers throughout history, it would be fair to say it has rarely been truly investigated and given its proper prominence and attention within the history of ideas. As Dietrich von Hildebrand had exclaimed in The Heart, the affective sphere has been treated in philosophy like the “proverbial stepson” (2007, 3) with the highest rank almost always given to the intellect. Engelland’s answer is that love allows us to see what can be seen and receive what is given, since love involves a relational dimension of openness and trust between the lover and the beloved. In turn, phenomenology “lets us discover the truth of love. In doing so, it frees us to uncover the truth of things” (120). Moreover, love changes the way we see the world, and this is precisely what is at the very centre of phenomenological inquiry. Against the idea that what one loves is their own desire rather than the desired, Engelland claims that phenomenology responds to such a claim by stating that love draws us outwards, beyond our own minds, towards the beloved’s world and, in the process, makes us attain new insight of this novel world. Engelland, with references to Scheler, points out that before we are a thinking being (ens cogitans) we are a loving being (ens amans). The latte entails that we are open to the world. Ultimately, it is love that makes the intentional relation possible.

Engelland presses the question of love even further in order to elaborate on the various kinds of love that exist: 1) idolatrous love, loving something of relative value by giving it an absolute value, 2) inverted love, loving something of lesser worth over something of higher worth, 3) inadequate love, loving something with an intensity that falls short of its worth, and 4) ordo amoris (order of love), which is the one Engelland defends here against the rest. This latter kind of love questions and seeks what really is loveable and worthy of love. Engelland finds that the popular view on love as altruism offers an unfitting understanding of true love, as it leads us to focus on the others in order to avoid our own selves. However, the ordo amoris does not require denying one’s own self for the beloved. The lover’s satisfaction does not weaken love as to love another requires rightly loving oneself.

Within the same discussion, Engelland also brings in some of the central concepts in phenomenological inquiry: shame, solitude and solidarity. The experience of shame “reveals that our bodies are not analogous to slabs of meat. Instead, they are the outward face of our inward selves and are charged with personal significance” (129). This brings out the distinction between love and desire as, under the former, shame disappears. In this same light, solitude is different than loneliness, as the latter is marked by a feeling of unrest. Engelland maintains that the experience of solitude is not something negative at all. Rather,  it is an experience of oneself and its orientation towards others which lies at the basis of communion, which brings in the presence of others. On the experience of solidarity, Engelland adds the involvement and participation with other persons: “participants experience themselves as meaningful parts of the whole. They take delight in working for the good of the whole and thereby experience solidarity” (133). Moreover, participants express their own distinct voices to the whole which they belong to. This promotes genuine dialogue marked by an openness to truth which is necessary for the good of the whole. Thus, genuine participation entails being perceivers of truth. Engelland sees in phenomenology not a solitary exercise of the mind but, on the contrary, an invitation to see our lives as susceptible to truth, which can be shared thanks to dialogue and good works.

In another chapter on ‘wonder’, Engelland discusses the different notions of work and play; the former understood here as centring on utility whilst the latter on an activity which is done for its own sake of enjoyment. According to the author, phenomenologists focus on play as “it involves a sense of external display” (140), comprising of the experiences of the other as witnesses and interested participants. In this sense, we are invited to witness each other as beholders of the wonder of being human and, in turn, become moved to contemplate the truth of what we are. Engelland invokes another central notion which has been a popular subject for phenomenological inspection: boredom. This feeling is characterized by a superficial interest in things and is contrasted with a deeper interest which is imbued by a sense of wonder. The difference between the two has direct implications on being human: whilst the former evokes indifference, the latter actuates care. Our sense of lethargy and apathy result from running away from ourselves, resulting into an inability of finding any meaning as we fail to experience things deeply. As Engelland clearly points out, this is the epitome of the consumer self who chooses freely but remains unaffected by the content of things. As a result, experiences fail to transform us since we do not allow them to consume us instead: “if modern life bores, it is for no other reason than experience has become turned inside out” (143). This requires from us to relearn to see ourselves as pilgrims rather than tourists.

Engelland’s insisting rallying cry is a return to the familiarity and intimacy of experiences. The struggle becomes harder as we become more dependent on our technological world, which leaves us more disconnected, alienated, exhausted and bored. In the author’s own words, “it is a matter of becoming aware of the contours of experience and making a commitment to sharing the truth of the world through speech and flesh” (146). Phenomenology is here presented as a means to turn away from distraction and, instead, dwell deeper in the dimensions of human experiences. It is, in many ways, a means of discerning that which is really important and meaningful in our lives by salvaging us from getting lost in a world of idle talk and gossip, throwing us, instead, towards wonder and genuine admiration. As a renewal of philosophy, phenomenology invites us to step back to gain much-needed perspective. This opening up of distance, paradoxically, brings us closer to the things in question, which, as Engelland notes, is a renewal of the Socratic method by connecting it to experience. In Engelland’s words, “phenomenology, then, is nothing other than the advent of a new wonder, the wonder before the truth of experience” (156).

Intriguingly, the author concludes his chapter on ‘wonder’ by briefly providing the initiating stages of someone beginning to delve deep into phenomenology: 1) Marvelling Stage – which reveals the tension between what one has always been told and what one had construed to be true, resulting in a hunch that phenomenology might lead to some truth and, thus, one ends up reading more about the topic even though a state of bafflement still resides; 2) Speaking Stage – where one becomes an enthusiastic student of phenomenology and, even though still an amateur in the language-game, one starts becoming familiar with the novel vocabulary used and accustomed to the phenomenological way of speaking; 3) Thinking Stage – where one becomes an expert, rigorous speaker of this new language game and can write about the different topics with clarity and coherence; 4) Truthing Stage – which goes beyond mere fluency in speaking and thinking, in turn accessing a whole class of truths. In this final stage, Engelland explains that one becomes transformed from within as the language of phenomenology becomes just like one’s mother tongue, as the need insistently arises to phenomenologize. “Phenomenology is something we learn by doing; it is something that is first experienced and then afterward understood” (161).

In his last two chapters, which are followed by a concise glossary of key terms used in phenomenology, Engelland discusses the method and movement of phenomenology. The choice of placing these chapters at the end – and not at the beginning, as many books introducing phenomenology normally do – seems to show us that the author wants the reader to first fall in love with the new paths opened by phenomenology within one’s lived experience before concerning oneself with the historical development and its methodology. In his chapter titled ‘The Method’, Engelland explains the main difference between doing science and doing phenomenology. In the former one observes, hypothesizes and experiments, whilst in the latter one indicates, returns and explicates; whereby indicate directs us “beyond observation to a more original layer of experience” (165), through return we go directly, “close and personal, with the fundamental layer of experience, a layer presupposed by science” (166) and in explicate we articulate the exhibited phenomena, since “phenomenology recognizes an inner kinship between experience and language” (167).

In his final chapter, titled ‘The Movement’, Engelland aims at highlighting how phenomenology has originated in Husserl’s works and developed by other key philosophers from the dawn of the 20th century all the way through our contemporary times. He explicitly states that “at its heart phenomenology remains a collaborative venture of researchers renewing the very movement of experience” (183). Engelland maps the origins of this movement and how it sought to bring back experience at the centre of philosophy. As his concluding chapter, the author highlights that phenomenology is a discipline which has a history with its own modifications which, nevertheless, resists becoming an ideology, or system, with a final say. Rather, as he presents it, phenomenology remains an on-going, unfinished project which “invites us to awaken to the joy dulled down by habit, to recover and renew the riches of experience, which does not close us in on ourselves, but throws open a world of dazzling things” (212).


Chad Engelland. 2020. Phenomenology. MIT Press: Cambridge.

Dietrich von Hildebrand. 2007. The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity. St. Augustine’s Press.

Karl Kraatz: Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie, Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie, 2020

Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie Book Cover Die Methodologie von Martin Heideggers Philosophie. Über die Grenzen der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und die Möglichkeiten der Philosophie
Karl Kraatz
Königshausen & Neumann
Paperback 68,00 €

Hans Blumenberg: Die Nackte Wahrheit

Die nackte Wahrheit Book Cover Die nackte Wahrheit
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Hans Blumenberg. Edited by Rüdiger Zill
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 20,00 €

Reviewed by: Sebastian Müngersdorff (University of Antwerp)

On Unbearable Reality and Beautiful Appearances


Ferdinand Hodler’s painting ‘Die Wahrheit’ features a naked woman dispelling six cloaked male figures as if they were dark thoughts. She finds herself standing on an isle of grass while the men – lies? – turn from her and look for shelter in barren lands. In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s depiction of the truth, titled ‘The Truth Coming from the Well with Her Whip to Chastise Mankind’, one sees exactly what the title promises. At least, presuming the beholder knows that truth always comes as a naked, angry woman ready to hysterically chase you down. I would hardly be surprised if the painter kept the words “How could you!” in mind, or, more accurately, “Comment peux-tu!”, when drawing the contours of her screaming mouth. Perhaps he even pictured the face of his wife at the moment he told her the truth about his many models and the adulterous state of affairs.

In other paintings, by Merson, for example, or Lefebvre or Baudry, lady truth brandishes a mirror instead of a whip. In the version of Édouard Debat-Ponsan, two men, one of whom is blindfolded, try to restrain her and her charged mirror, to no avail. Her clothes tear from the male grip while her flaming red hair blows bravely and unhinderedly, her gaze aimed at some point outside the frame: her holy mission? Ultimate victory in the Age of Reason?

Venus, Eve, Leda, the Sirens, Diana, Phryne, nymphs: figurative painting has always gratefully seized upon the offer to depict naked women. Nonetheless, it is not self-evident that Hodler’s ‘The Truth’ belongs to this list of subjects. Why is truth female? Why can she only show herself unveiled? Why is she angry? Why is she victorious? Why is she armed? Why is she white? And why does she have no pubic hair?

At least some of these questions spurred Blumenberg’s collection of small excerpts exploring the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ in Western thought, now published from his archives as Die Nackte Wahrheit by Rüdiger Zill. This book makes quite clear that the depiction of truth as naked is more than a mere representation. There is a longstanding tradition in which truth is deeply intertwined with a pure female nature understood as clarity, innocence, attraction and unapproachability. Such equation of truth with female nudity creates a variety of unuttered associations. Truth, for example, is accessible only to few – something that will play into the democratizing project of Enlightenment. It installs a connection between eros and the pursuit of truth, a desire, a libido sciendi. Prohibition is involved and it gives rise to the problem of whether truth is still truth when she presents herself dressed up. Truth becomes contaminated by male deception. The quest for truth becomes “an expedition to some exotic place”, as Kołakowski terms it in his text on nakedness and truth (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Truth becomes a capture, an ambiguous purpose of curiosity, an ideal of knowledge which is godlike, forever beyond reach yet nonetheless worth chasing, “a passion deserving of death” as Blumenberg calls it (NW 105). Just like in the story of Artemis and Actaeon (NW 104-6), the male gaze automatically becomes indiscrete and inappropriate, and curiosity becomes a kind of unacceptable voyeurism. Just like Actaeon, anyone who looks at the divine must die, an implication of a lethal danger of pursuing truth. It is worth considering that such a passion is rewritten in the expression “vedi Napoli e poi muori”, especially when bearing in mind how often a beautiful city – the word city, like truth, has a female genus in most European languages – is considered in similar female terms: the Jewel of Europe, La sposa del mare, the Pearl of the Orient, la Superba or Elbflorenz. In the case of Paris, it is expressed in terms of this other metaphor for truth: la ville lumière.

That in the European languages “truth appears on the stage as a female act”, Blumenberg writes, gives “truth an erotic-aesthetic trait […] which is not taken for granted by the misogynist” (NW 126). Whether this implies that skeptics must also be misogynists remains unclear. And whether this applies to the skeptic Blumenberg himself is a question that perhaps only a modern Diogenes might dare to ask Blumenberg’s daughter, Bettina.

Be that as it may, in view of the topic it is rather striking that this book devotes only a single page to a female writer, Madame du Châtelet. This one page, however, does not discuss her writing or thought; instead, it addresses an anecdote that tells how Mme du Châtelet shamelessly undressed in front of her servant Longchamp. Blumenberg links this behavior to the project of Enlightenment itself, in which “truth shows herself unembarrassedly in front of those who ought to serve her” (NW 103). In short, rather than her writings and ideas, it is only Madame du Châtelet’s indifference to her own nakedness that becomes a significant expression of the “new methodological ideal of objectivity” (NW 103).

Although Blumenberg does not render it explicitly, the short chapter on Actaeon following this page suggests that the divine nakedness of truth becomes human in the nakedness of Émilie du Châtelet. The hunter Actaeon, servant of the goddess Artemis, watches his mistress undress and consequently he must be punished for seeing her in her nudity. Someone who looks at Medusa, however, instantly dies. In other words, Acteon already signals an alteration in the mythic gaze upon a deity, which in Artemis’ bathing scene changes from tremendum into fascinosum. He doesn’t die immediately, he is punished for his violation. In the anecdote of Madame du Châtelet, then, a succeeding shift occurs. In contrast to Actaeon, the servant Longchamp is not punished, he is not even noticed. Longchamp becomes a subject “of conscious exposure” and is regarded as not being there: “in the witness of nudity an awareness is raised […] of remaining unnoticed in his presence” (NW 103).

This reversal in the relation of nakedness, fascinosum, between mistress and servant, punisher and the one punished, is still far from Nietzsche’s later take, “to think of the naked truth as a frightening and unbearable dimension” (NW 126). Whether a comparison of Nietzsche’s views on the ugly truth and his lashing attitude towards women – note the double inversion of Gérôme’s depiction concerning the appearance of lady truth and the one who is cracking the whip – could add something to the debate about his possible misogyny is merely a suggestion discerned between the lines.

Like this example, and completely in line with his longstanding interest in the non-conceptual (Unbegrifflichkeit), i.e. metaphoric, narrative, anecdotal and mythic substratum of conceptual thought, Blumenberg delves into the layers of implicit imagery and associations so as to note significant changes in meaning over time. Moreover, he lays bare – an expression which is itself already part of the semantics of the naked truth – inconsistencies in the rational discourse that is built on this metaphoric level and shows how it can be deconstructed and eventually turned against itself. He does so by discussing writers and philosophers such as Adorno, Kafka, Pascal, Fontenelle, Rousseau, Vesalius, Fontane, Schopenhauer, Kant, Kierkegaard and Lichtenberg. The seemingly incoherent order of these names mirrors both Blumenberg’s own avoidance of chronology and his preference of association. Although he refuses an all too systematic approach of the issue, the intrinsic connection of the different chapters is always clear: “How does the metaphor portray the position of the thinker, in which he maneuvered himself because of more or less compelling reasons and under more or less unavoidable conditions” (NW 127)?

Applied to truth, this question brings him to many considerations about the implications of viewing truth as naked: “If truth only is right when naked, then every cover is a disguise and eo ipso wrong” (NW 71). However, when we embrace the conviction that truth is true only when it is naked, we can never undo the threat that “even its nakedness is still costume” (NW 92). Nakedness then turns into “the illusion […] which is created by the gesture of tearing down dresses”, which in turn evokes “the scheme of the onion skin” (NW 97). “When once opened, nothing ever is something final” (NW 102). And at the same time, there is the thought that “truth might be as unbearable to humans as nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 51). In this case, “the cover of truth seems to grant us our ability to live”, a thought which appears in “Rousseau’s pragmatic exploitation of the metaphor of truth in the water well […]: leave her there. The depth of the well protects us from the problem of its nakedness” (Blumenberg 1960, 57).

In this regard, it is remarkable how rarely Blumenberg refers to the Christian tradition. In “The Epistemology of Striptease”, Leszek Kołakowski, for example, traces “the entire foundations of the theory of nakedness which has been so important in our culture” back to the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Kołakowski 2004, 225). The Book of Genesis indeed tells of an intrinsic connection between the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the shame which immediately manifested itself when the fruit was eaten. A shame “not of their crime, but of their nakedness” (Ibid., 223). Thus, “a double relation has been established: between truth and nakedness on the one hand, and between truth and shame on the other” (Ibid., 225).

Another absence which resounds throughout the book is that of the name Heidegger, which appears not even once. Nonetheless, Die Nackte Wahrheit can be read as an implicit yet fundamental critique of Heidegger’s conception of truth as alètheia. By dissecting the metaphor of truth, Blumenberg’s text offers a perspective which shows that Heidegger still fits perfectly within the dominant Western tradition, a tradition Heidegger himself sought to destruct by thinking beyond the ontological difference and the forgetting of being. Blumenberg, however, implicitly shows that Heidegger and his conception of truth as disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’, still wades through the Western waters that Heidegger himself thought he had traced to their source.

Despite this absence of Christianity and Heidegger, Blumenberg convincingly illustrates how metaphor functions “as a more or less easily fixable crack in the consistency of thought, a stimulant, and as such it refreshes reason; it also is, however, a sedative in other cases, where it covers up the failure of the concept or remedies its lack by a merely different procedure” (NW 127).

At this point, Die Nackte Wahrheit surpasses being just a study of the naked truth and begins to concern the project of metaphorology itself. As Rüdiger Zill notes, “already since the late 1960s, Blumenberg had been thinking about a detailed revision of his metaphorology” (NW 186). Concerning his distanced relation to his initial approach, Blumenberg wrote to his English translator: “The text is not only outdated – after a quarter of a century! – it is also poor” (NW 189).

In Blumenberg’s project of ‘metaphorology’, metaphor is always more than a disguise of truth or a thought expressed in non-conceptual language. “It is essentially aesthetic”, which means “that it is not something like the mere cover of the naked thought, of which one had to constantly think as the true purpose of its interpretation and unlocking that has to be reached in the end. Who constantly thinks beyond its limits, loses what he has without receiving what he cannot possess” (NW 176). In other words, there is no naked truth to be found beyond the metaphor. And more specifically, the power of metaphor is precisely this lack of precision sought by advocates of a clear and distinct conceptual language. Thus, Blumenberg argues, in contrast to the views of many thinkers he discusses, that “history” is not the “course of the self-exposure of the concept” (NW 155). Blumenberg’s associative selection of authors and topics stresses that metaphor, with its ambiguity and openness to many interpretations, is always “far more intelligent than its composer” (NW 176).


The first fifty pages of Die Nackte Wahrheit concern Nietzsche and Freud. The only other pieces that come close to even ten pages are those on Pascal, Kant and the Enlightenment. Thus, of all the names figuring in Blumenberg’s posthumous book, Nietzsche and Freud can be called his main interlocutors.

Nietzsche immediately shows a fundamental reversal of truth as a beautiful naked creature. When he writes that “Truth is ugly. We have art so that we are not ruined by truth” (NW, 14), it is clear that something in the metaphor of truth changes. We are no longer in pursuit of the naked truth – she lies within reach in her unbearable ugliness – and so our interest shifts to the beautiful veils that are produced to conceal her.

“There would be no science, if science would only care about this one naked goddess and about nothing else” (NW, 20). With this thought, both Freud’s concept of sublimation and Blumenberg’s apotropaic function of myth are prefigured: art and culture function as a “human safety device” (NW 15), a protective shield which safeguards us from something insufferable. Or as Nietzsche formulates it: “Every type of culture starts with an amount of things that are veiled” (NW 15).

Blumenberg’s text from 1971 on the relevance of rhetoric and anthropology directly evidences the strong influence of this Nietzschean thought: “Ah, it is impossible to have an effect with the language of truth: rhetoric is required” (NW 31). Nietzsche defends rhetoric as a right to deceive vis-à-vis an unbearable truth. For the sceptic Blumenberg, however, truth cannot be unbearable, because the very possibility of truth itself is bracketed and remains an open question. In his writing on Hannah Arendt and Freud it is “the absolutism of truth” which becomes unbearable, this intimate European conviction “that the truth will triumph” (Blumenberg 2018, 57). Yet, as Blumenberg proclaims, “[n]othing is less certain than that the truth wishes to be loved, can be loved, should be loved” (Blumenberg 2018, 3).

This critique of Freud, already present in Rigorism of Truth, is continued in Die Nackte Wahrheit. The notion that psychoanalysis lives from the metaphor of revealing and concealing and connects the intellectual with the sexual can only barely be called a renewing insight. Blumenberg, however, uses this as a step to a subtler point. He reproves Freud’s rigorism because his therapy prioritizes the affirmation of his theory rather than the well-being of his patients. In other words, via Freud, Blumenberg criticizes the longstanding tradition “in which truth is justified at every cost” (NW 38), the same rigorous conviction that resonates in Thoreau’s famous phrase that “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

Read from within the metaphor of ‘the naked truth’, Freud’s quest for truth – a quest strongly intertwined with the centrality of sexuality and the prudery of the society in which he lived – shows that it is not at all clear when something is yet more ‘resistance’, a symptom, a still-clothed kind of nudity, and when exactly someone has encountered the bare piece of the reality they are searching for. “The general premise for resistance as a criterion might be (this): what people gladly accept cannot be the truth” (Blumenberg 2018, 59). In discussing this central concept of resistance as an element of Freud’s “para-theory” (loc. cit.) he comes rather close to Popper’s rejection of Freud’s methodology. In his archive there are two manuscripts with the respective abbreviation TRD and TRD II, in which Blumenberg shows how ‘resistance’ is a kind of parachute that recuperates elements falling from or even objecting to Freud’s main theory (Zill 2014, 141-43). This way, even the critics of his theory can still be fitted within it. Blumenberg points out how Freud’s quest for countering resistance and his rigorist search for truth, his urge to reveal secrecy after secrecy, eventually lead to a “hysteria of revelation for which history has an analogy in hysteria of confession” (NW 47).


Die nackte Wahrheit is certainly not Blumenberg’s first engagement with either Nietzsche or Freud. He had already dealt with both authors extensively and quite similarly in his earlier writings: reading them through the lens of their own imagery in order to criticize them from within the logic of these images and metaphors. In Arbeit am Mythos, for instance, both authors receive ample treatment on several occasions and are the focus of important passages. Freud and Thomas Mann, for example, are bound together in a trenchant and meaningful anecdote: Mann reading his lecture on Freud to Freud himself during his visit to Freud’s villa in Grinzing on Sunday, May 14, 1936. Blumenberg calls this a “great scene of the spirit of the age, which hardly had another scene comparable to it”, and notes that one of the “preconditions” of this “incomparable event” precisely “is the relationship to Nietzsche that both partners shared” (Blumenberg 1985, 516).

Other important passages include Blumenberg’s extensive discussion of Nietzsche’s approach of Prometheus against the light of his aesthetic conception of reality and of Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In the last section, ‘The Titan in His Century’, Blumenberg’s analysis of Freud’s use of Prometheus follows his assessment of Nietzsche’s use of Prometheus, such that Freud and Nietzsche, joined by Kafka, share the final page of Work on Myth. In Die nackte Wahrheit Kafka likewise follows upon Nietzsche and Freud, although it would surely be mere speculation to look for further significance here. Nonetheless, despite his longstanding and rather critical occupation with Nietzsche and Freud, Blumenberg clearly incorporated and continued many aspects of their thought.

Blumenberg’s aesthetic conception of reality, his attention for rhetoric, myth and metaphor and his truth-sceptic attitude can all be directly linked to Nietzsche. Just as rhetoric gains importance when the conviction of “the one clear and whole truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350) is given up, so too does myth return to view when this ideal of truth is abandoned. And here Blumenberg, already in his earlier work, shows himself to be an heir of Nietzsche. As Blumenberg writes in his first text on myth, “Nietzsche’s affinity to myth begins with the rule of truth becoming problematic to him. The poets lie – this saying comes back into favor” (Blumenberg 2001b, 352). Blumenberg’s name can be perfectly interchanged with Nietzsche’s here. The shift towards the aesthetic, and the revaluation of the ancient Platonic reproach of the poets implied in this reference, is a central concern underlying all of Blumenberg’s aesthetic texts from the 1960s, as assembled by Anselm Haverkamp in his Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften. Moreover, Blumenberg‘s two important texts on rhetoric and myth from 1971 both start from the truth-sceptic premise he shares with Nietzsche and which spans his work from the very beginning to this posthumous publication of Die Nackte Wahrheit. And this last publication is probably inconceivable without Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. Indeed, Blumenberg’s general endeavor is essentially summed up in one of Nietzsche’s most famous sentences: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins”.

Blumenberg’s approach of die vakante Stelle and his descriptions of Umbesetzung, elaborated in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, can be read as a direct translation of Nietzsche’s worn-out coins and his dictum of the “Death of God”. Herewith, Blumenberg translates Nietzsche’s nihilism into a general philosophical endeavor of Entselbstverständlichung, a process marking “the great epochal revolutions of historical life” (Blumenberg 2017, 54). This endeavor, according to Blumenberg, eventually is “the basic process of philosophical thinking: for how could the inherent task of philosophical work be characterized more fittingly than as the persistent opposition of matter-of-factness with which our daily life and thought is interspersed, yes, substantiated into their very cores – much more than we could ever suspect?” (Blumenberg 2017, 54).

Furthermore, Blumenberg’s later, more literary and anecdotal style evokes Nietzsche’s claim that it is possible to present the image of a person with only three anecdotes, just as it should be possible to reduce philosophical systems to three anecdotes. When, for example, it comes to Blumenberg’s highly ironical and critical pieces on Heidegger in Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, he not only takes up Nietzsche’s challenge but even seems to have added something to it: the challenge becomes not only to render an image of the person and a summary of his philosophical thought, but also to get even with him in the same move.


Rüdiger Zill has wittily but quite perceptively characterized the sort of relation Blumenberg has with Freud: “Just like family members you sometimes hate and sometimes love, who from time to time grate on your nerves but who also occasionally inspire, yet always, however, still belong in the family, authors as well can be ranked among the intellectual family formation” (Zill 2014, 148). Zill’s assessment on this matter is clear: Freud undoubtedly belongs to Blumenberg’s intellectual family. However, the more he reads Freud, the more critical Blumenberg becomes, without Freud ever losing his force of fascination (Zill 2014, 128). Ironically, when Blumenberg received the Sigmund Freud Prize for Academic Prose in 1980, he did not refer to Freud in his acceptance speech. He mentioned Socrates, Diogenes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as exemplar thinkers who should be admired because they did not allow their thinking to be hindered by any safeguarding method.

There is, however, quite some common ground between Freud and Blumenberg which might be easily overwritten by Blumenberg’s recent critical works on Freud from the archives. When Blumenberg ascribes rationality to aspects of thought, such as metaphor and rhetoric, that have been banished to irrationality by the tradition of philosophy there is a general similarity to Freud’s Traumdeutung and his overall endeavor of psychoanalysis. Indeed, there are at least two specific and critically important points of contact between them: Freud’s idea of sublimation and detours.

In his text on rhetoric, Blumenberg refers to Freud’s analysis of the funeral repast: “Freud saw in the commemorative funeral feast the sons’ agreement to put an end to the killing of the tribal father” (Blumenberg 1987a, 440). It is the Freudian principle of sublimation that is evoked here and Blumenberg is explicit about the importance of this matter: “If history teaches anything at all, it is this, that without this capacity to use substitutes for actions not much would be left of mankind” (loc. cit.). Herewith an important crux of Blumenberg’s thought is laid bare: “The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all ‘metaphorical’” (Ibid., 439). This means that metaphor is not a deficit of rational thought, as it has been understood by Descartes or British empiricism (NW 110-1); nor is it even an aid of theory or merely a way of thinking in its own right; rather, it is a way of coping with reality. This “metaphoric detour by which we look away from the object in question, at another one” (Blumenberg 1987a, 439) immediately ties to the second important overlap between Freud’s and Blumenberg’s work: if Blumenberg acknowledges sublimation as the human capacity to have culture, and if sublimation – the possibility of taking a metaphoric detour – lies at the heart of this capacity, then Blumenberg’s concept of culture should be one of detours.

Blumenberg, in his 1971 text on myth, refers to Freud’s notion of Umwege. In his “Jenseits des Lustprinzips”, Freud classed the drives of self-preservation under the general concept of “detours to death”. As Freud states, “If we can accept it as an experience without exception, that all the living dies because of internal reasons, that it returns to the inorganic, then we can only say: the purpose of all life is death” (Freud 1940, 44). Everything working against this destruction and everything delaying “the achievement of the purpose of death” (Ibid., 45) becomes a “detour to death”. In this Freudian scheme, life itself is “a still more difficult and risky detour” (Blumenberg 1985, 90) and Blumenberg recognizes in these “detours to death”, this “final return home to the original state” (Ibid., 91), the same mythic circle underlying the Oedipus myth, the Odyssey and even Nietzsche’s thought of “the eternal return of the same” (loc. cit.). On the one hand, Blumenberg critically reveals the total myth (Totalmythos) of the circle underlying Freud’s thought; on the other hand, Blumenberg incorporates this notion of detour in his work as a life-spending mechanism opposing omnipotence. As he writes, for example, in his 1971 text on myth, “Essentially, omnipotence refuses somebody to tell a story about its bearer. Topographically represented, stories are always detours” (Blumenberg 2001b, 372).

Die Sorge geht über den Fluss, published in 1987, includes a short chapter titled Umwege, in which Blumenberg again stresses the importance of the possibility of taking detours: “It is only if we are able to take detours that we are able to exist. […I]t is the many detours that give culture its function of humanizing life. [… The] shortest route is barbarism” (Blumenberg 1987b, 137-8). In these descriptions of culture as Umwege, some of its psychoanalytical origin still sounds through: it is by means of culture, by the possibility of taking detours, that we can avoid our own self-destruction. As Blumenberg puts it, “Not to choose the shortest path is already the basic pattern of sublimation” (Blumenberg 1985, 93). Or as Freud states in the penultimate sentence of his letter to Einstein: “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war” (Freud 1950, 27).

This is the very basis of Blumenberg’s thought. Whether it is his approach to rhetoric and its power of delay, whether it is the apotropaic function of myth and the dynamic of storytelling vis-à-vis the absolutism of reality – man’s metaphoric way of dealing with the world – whether it is Blumenberg’s own elaborate and meandering writing style or his anecdotal and narrative philosophy as an effort to ironically undermine the authority of certain thinkers, whether it is the construction of his archive and the delayed publication of his own works or this metaphoric study of the naked truth aimed against the “Absolutism of Truth” (Blumenberg 2001b, 350), all of it falls under this “basic pattern of sublimation”, this decision “not to choose the shortest path”. In this specific sense and despite his highly critical piece on Freud in Die nackte Wahrheit, Blumenberg’s thinking remains Freudian at its very core.


As Blumenberg had noted in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie, “The metaphor of ‘the naked truth’ belongs to the pride of enlightened reason and its claim to power” (Blumenberg 1960, 54). Hence, it is clear that Die Nackte Wahrheit should be understood as a critique of this enlightened self-consciousness. And yet Blumenberg did not abandon the project of rationality entirely, despite paying profound attention to non-standard philosophical topics such as metaphor and myth. “Myth itself is a piece of high-carat ‘work of logos’”, he points out in Work on Myth (Blumenberg 1985, 12) and Blumenberg himself employs this power of reason to trace the metaphor of the naked truth in thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau and Fontenelle. Herewith, a last characteristic of Blumenberg returns in Die Nackte Wahrheit: the correspondence of form and content. In Work on Myth, for example, Blumenberg offers a theory of how myth is a process of variation and, as he develops the theory, he himself engages in the same process of selection and rewriting. In his fragmentary book Die Verführbarkeit des Philosophen, in which Blumenberg exposes thinkers such as Heidegger, Freud and Wittgenstein and shows how they seduce their audience with rhetorical tools and attractive imagery; he himself tries to persuade his readers by rhetorically and wittingly affirming his own superiority of thought. The same applies for Die Nackte Wahrheit, where Blumenberg discusses the traces, consequences and changes of the metaphor of the naked truth, as he himself undresses other thinkers. As he emphasizes, the use of metaphor often indicates the “embarrassment of its theoretical situation” (NW 127). In other words, he seeks for the weak spots of thinkers such as Freud and Pascal in order to unmask them. If metaphor is indeed at work in the “front court of concept formation” (Blumenberg, 2001a), then Blumenberg clearly seeks to expose his interlocutors in their changing rooms. At the same time, he precisely questions these implications of thinking about truth in such terms of covering and uncovering. Certainly, Blumenberg does not claim that his disclosures touch upon “the naked truth” or a final word about these writers, yet nonetheless he somehow contributes to this enlightened topos of “tearing down the mask” (NW 134). He still partakes in what Kołakowski calls this “sadistic game” of “intellectual curiosity”, even as he precisely lays bare its rules and tools and does away with the purpose the game has pursued for ages. However, one asks after reading Blumenberg’s book, what use does this vocabulary preserve when the “reality” revealed under this mask is yet another mask, no more or no less reality than the one just dispelled. To make a final appeal to Kołakowski: Blumenberg involves us in a philosophical striptease, in which he exposes, “from a superior (clothed) position”, “another’s shame (nakedness)” (Kołakowski 2004, 235). Only it has become uncertain what happens with a philosophic tradition of revealing when the possibility of truth disappears, nakedness itself becomes yet more costume and the feeling of shame is revaluated. No purpose, no revelations, only detours and descriptions (Umschreibungen). Nonetheless, Blumenberg certainly exemplifies like no other that whenever philosophy thinks there will be a moment that Lady Truth will rise from her well and create clarity, philosophy, just like science, is once more deceived “by a pipe dream […] which its scholars pursue without ever achieving it” (NW 77).



Hans Blumenberg, Die Nackte Wahrheit, Hrsg. von Rüdiger Zill (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2019).

–, Rigorism of Truth. “Moses the Egyptian” and Other Writings on Freud and Arendt, ed. by Ahlrich Meyer and transl. by Joe Paul Kroll (New York: Cornell University Press, 2018).

–, Schriften zur Literatur: 1945-1958, Hrsg. von Alexander Schmitz und Bernd Stiegler (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2017).

–, “Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit. Im Vorfeld der philosophischen Begriffsbildung” in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001a), 139–171.

–, “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos“ in Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, Hrsg. von Anselm Haverkamp (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001b), 327–405.

–, “An Anthropological Approach on the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric”, in After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, ed. by Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987a), 429–458.

–, Die Sorge geht über den Fluss (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987b).

–, Work on Myth, transl. by Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985).

–, “Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie,” Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 6 (1960): 7–142.

Sigmund Freud, “Warum Krieg?”, in: Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke. Band XVI, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1950), 11–27.

–, “Jenseits des Lustprinzips” in Gesammelte Werke. Band XIII, Hrsg. von Anna Freud e.a. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1940), 3–69.

Leszek Kołakowski, “The Epistemology of Striptease,” in The Two Eyes of Spinoza & Other Essays on Philosophers (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 222–238.

Rüdiger Zill, “Zwischen Affinität und Kritik. Hans Blumenberg liest Sigmund Freud” in Blumenberg Beobachtet, Hrsg. von Cornelius Borck (München: Karl Alber Freiburg, 2014), 126-148.

Martin Heidegger: Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Gesamtausgabe 38 A), Klostermann, 2020)

Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Freiburger Vorlesung Sommersemester 1934) Book Cover Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Freiburger Vorlesung Sommersemester 1934)
Martin Heidegger Gesamtausgabe 38 A
Martin Heidegger. Auf der Grundlage des Originalmanuskripts neu herausgegeben von Peter Trawny
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Michel Foucault: Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972

Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972 Book Cover Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972
Michel Foucault, Lectures at the Collège de France
Michel Foucault. Translated by Burchell, G.
Palgrave Macmillan
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Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Penal Theories and Institutions contains the lectures delivered by Foucault in his second-year tenure at the College de France (1971-2). It is also the last volume of this series, concluding a publication cycle of close to twenty years. The publication of Foucault’s lectures started mid-way with the 1976 course and then proceeded sideways, preventing us from grasping the development of his thought during the last fifteen years of his life.

Foucault did not prepare his lectures for publication, and their initial publication in 1997 was initially considered a transgression to Foucault’s last wishes for his posthumous writings not to be published. However, the proliferation of unauthorized versions of the lectures, based on transcriptions from audio recordings of unequal quality, decided the family and friends to allow their publication.  After the first tentative publications, a sophisticated protocol developed. First, the editors give priority to the transcription of Foucault’s oral teaching. Any additions, such as materials from the preparatory notes, and bibliographical references, are dealt with as footnotes.  The editor’s additions and amplifications are recorded in the endnotes. Foucault’s summary published yearly in the Yearbook of the College is then printed.  A general introductory essay, with the title “situation du cours” follows, which provides contextual information for Foucault’s lectures.  Finally, a detailed index of names mentioned and of concepts. While this is the general model for each one of the publications of the lectures, there are some variations.

In the case of Theories and Penal Institutions (thereafter: TPI), there are no extant recordings. Therefore, the editors had to use Foucault’s preparatory notes. This volume also makes more use of additional materials from Foucault’s unpublished papers than previous volumes.  In addition to the ‘Course Context’ essay, this one includes two interpretative essays, one by É. Balibar and the other by Claude-Olivier Doron that provides context for the lectures. Doron was also responsible for the endnotes, which provide useful bibliographical information and also excerpts from the preparatory materials.

François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana refer in their introduction to the problems faced in the preparation of this volume. First, the lack of recordings required them to work directly with Foucault occasionally cryptic and tentative notes, which sometimes leave us wondering about Foucault’s intentions. To clarify those, the editors decided to bring as footnotes text that Foucault crossed out in his preparatory notes. An additional difficulty signaled by the editors is specific for the translated text, insofar as Foucault refers to old and today little-known French institutions and practices.

The English version includes an introduction by Arnold I. Davidson, a distinguished scholar of Foucault’s work.  He enjoins us to ‘read everything,’ i.e., to forget the hierarchy between a binding statement by Foucault, and the more tentative reflections contained in his sprawling archives. Ultimately, what Davidson is evoking is the tension between a scholastic effort to reconstruct Foucault’s corpus and a more creative appropriation of his insights. The latter is, according to Davidson, closer to Foucault’s thought, which Davidson labels as ‘atopos,’ unclassifiable according to the academic standards (xxvii).

The course itself consists of thirteen lectures, which we can divide into three groups. Lectures one through seven, deal with the emergence in the 17th century of the absolutist State with its specialized institutions. Lectures eight to twelve deal with Germanic law, which preceded the absolutist one, and finally, in lecture thirteen, Foucault addresses the question of the ‘knowledge effects’ of the newly instituted penal practice that emerges from the feudal order.  This last lecture connects with the subject-matter of the previous year, and more in general, with Foucault’s long-standing interest in the emergence of the human sciences.

Lecture One starts establishing the subject matter of the course and its methodology. The subject is to study the peculiar forms of repression of a popular riot that took place at the beginnings of the 17th century and is known as the revolt of the Nu-pieds (barefoot). By placing repression in the center of his analysis, Foucault expects to be able to overcome the dilemma between an approach based on the study of penal theories versus an approach based on the study of penal legislation or institutions. It is as a system of repression that penal theories and institutions emerge (2). Foucault speaks of a continuum of ‘refusal of the law,’ whereas it is difficult to identify the purely criminal from the political.  To some extent, we can say that Foucault’s purpose is to study the separation between criminal and political, to show that is characteristic of modern penal systems and that it is a relatively new development.

A central stage in Foucault’s account are the events of the repression of the Nu-pieds revolt (1639) by Chancellor Séguier.  Foucault analyzes, in great detail, what he characterizes as a ‘penitential ceremony,’ a ‘theatrical representation of power,’ a ‘manifestation of power in his repressive pomp’ (5).

According to Foucault, the Nu-pieds revolt was different from previous revolts in the Middle Ages. Not only peasants participated in the uprising, but also workers and journeymen in the towns, and a certain number of nobles and bourgeois (9).  Even the local Parliament (at that time a judicial and not a legislative body) adopted an ambiguous middle ground between the rebels and the tax authorities that they targeted.  In the endnotes to this first lecture, the reader can find detailed information on Foucault’s sources and on the chronology of the events to which Foucault refers (11-13).

The second lecture introduces the notion of ‘armed justice’ and asks how to write a history of this new form of repressive apparatus.  Foucault also emphasizes the revolutionary nature of the revolt, which not only protests against the tax authorities but introduces a new legality and a new authority, though one that refers to their authority as derived from the King. The rebellion and the bourgeois and nobles’ lack of enthusiasm to suppress it provokes the military response from the Monarch and leads to the formation of a new royal justice, which eventually will be adopted by the bourgeoisie. Justice will become State-controlled, juridical, and exercised by a specific state organ: the police (23).  This justice appears as an order which stands as a neutral arbiter between the social classes (24), while in reality, it is a representative of the capitalistic order.

In lecture three, Foucault further develops the notion of ‘armed justice.’  ‘Armed justice’ is a transitional stage, which will evolve into a specialized armed repressive apparatus, different from the army, but like the army, State-controlled (37).  What retains Foucault’s attention is not so much the fact that the army was used to suppress the revolt, but the unusual interplay between the army and Chancellor Séguier, who represented the State. Once the army defeated the Nu-pieds in the city of Caen and the countryside, it took time before taking Rouen, which was not the scene of grave disturbances.  Then, it took time for Séguier to enter the town, and he did so in a very protocolar way. In a lecture that Foucault delivered a short time after the course and is reproduced in this volume (‘Ceremony, Theater, and Politics in the Seventeenth Century’, pp. 235-239) he explores these ambiguities in search for clues for the process of emergence of a distinct state repressive apparatus. In this context, Foucault characterizes his approach as ‘dynastic’ (this is the first time that the term shows), a notion that is loosely equivalent to ‘genealogy’ (cf. 52-3, note 16).

Lecture Four explores in detail the theatrical nature of the repressive tactics employed by Séguier. He first attacks the Nu-pieds. They are not acknowledged as a foreign power, and therefore the rules of war do not apply to them. But they are not recognized as having a place in the civil order, and therefore they are not entitled to due process (58). Foucault sees a continuity between these repressive measures and the 1639 and 1670 ordinances which dealt with unemployed, beggars, and vagabonds.

Nevertheless, the repression does not end with the Nu-pieds. It is also exercised against those who attempted to place themselves between the King and the insurgents. Séguier rejects the ‘theory of the three checks’ (religion, justice, and the privileges granted for different social groups), which sets limits to the King’s power. According to Foucault, Séguier’s proclamation: ‘The innocent have nothing to fear; only those who have failed will feel the effects of the King’s just anger and indignation’ (62), is an explicit rejection of the ‘three checks’ theory.  Séguier is declaring that the King is not subject to the laws of his kingdom because the law is identical to his will (62). What we see here, claims Foucault, is an ambivalent outcome, a redistribution of repressive instruments and powers, but one that ultimately benefits the privileged classes.

The fifth lecture goes in some additional detail into the events in Rouen, which signal for Foucault the apparition of a purely repressive aspect of the Sate. However, the State lacks, at least initially, specialized institutions, and depends on feudal ones for carrying out these new tasks.

Lecture six deals with the stabilization of the situation.  This is achieved using three strategies: 1) differential sanctions to break up the previous alliance of social groups; 2) financial incentives for the privileged classes in return for the maintenance of order; 3) Mainly because the previous strategy was not very successful, the establishment of a third instance of the State, neither purely military nor juridical: the Intendants of justice, police, and finance (94).  The Intendants were supposed to guard against sedition, but also to arbitrate the conflicts between rent and tax. Another characteristic of the new repressive apparatus is the removal of the dangerous population.  The institution of a mechanism for the segregation of a stratum of delinquency out of the mass of the plebeian population connects the changes in the nature of the State with the development of the capitalist form of production. Foucault does not explain the emergence of capitalism as a change in the system of production. He characterizes the relationship between State and emerging capitalism as ‘linkage’ (105), ‘favorable’ (105), ‘oriented and functionally linked’ to Capitalism.  In a more rounded statement, he summarizes this relationship: ‘We should say that capitalism cannot subsist without an apparatus of repression whose main function is anti-seditious. This apparatus produces a certain penalty–delinquency coding. What has to be studied now is the installation of this new repressive system – the way in which it finally prevailed as the political system of capitalist production developed and was completed; – through what episodes it was finally institutionalized in the nineteenth century in the forms of the courts, the police, prisons, and the penal code’ (106). Foucault bases his analysis, to some extent, on the work of the Russian historian Boris Porshnev, whose work was challenged by some French scholars about that time. An essay by Claude O. Doron, included in this volume, recreates the positions of the parties, the issues at stake, and how Foucault relates to each one of them.

Lecture number eight changes focus from the 17th century to the 12th century to study the slow constitution of a separate judicial system from its predecessor feudal Germanic penal law.  Foucault observes that there was a long line of attempts to establish a centralized justice system, but until the 18th century, they failed. Whenever those institutions were stripped of political and administrative functions, retaining judicial functions only, they were eventually assimilated by the feudal institutions.  It is in order to ‘get the measure of the transformation carried out’ (114) that Foucault takes a step back in history, and points to German criminal law. This move marks an inflection in Foucault’s text. In the earlier lectures, he seems to look for a constitutive break taking place in the 17th century. Now he is inviting us to consider a much longer evolution, a slow separation from Germanic custom, and the constitution over centuries of a State differentiated from Civil Society. This approach is not only more comprehensive but also grounds Foucault’s underlying conception that the justice apparatus is a realm expropriated from civil society and sedimented into a separate body of functionaries.

Foucault begins his account remarking that whereas private and public law was Romanized fairly early, criminal law was Romanized late and only superficially. In the Germanic custom, the juridical act, the process in the broader sense, is ‘the regulated development of a dispute’ (115). The juridical order is a struggle. It was only later that the ‘acts and operations of justice’ are confiscated by a judicial instance. Justice is originally an interpersonal relationship. Importantly for Foucault, truth—the truth of the facts at the basis of the conflict between the parties—does not play an important role or is instead a mark of the outcome of the struggle. The penal system that developed in the Middle Ages acted at the level of the levy of goods (fines, confiscations, fees). The judicial is subordinated to the fiscal, But, elements from the old Germanic system remain in the Middle Ages legal apparatus.  In particular, Foucault mentions the need for an accuser, which is one of the parties in the conflict. The form of a dispute between two individuals remains central to the judicial process. The public power may intervene through the aggravation of the penalty, taking sides in the dispute, but the basic structure remains intact. Foucault’s main interest seems to be the transition between this old Germanic custom and the emergence of a recognizable concept of justice. This transition operates through the absorption of justice into the judicial, a power that can initiate action and present it as a public action.  How was the transformation possible, asks Foucault?  Certainly not because of the rise of a juridical conception of the State, or of a religious notion of wrongdoing.  Instead, Foucault explores an economic interpretation of the origins of justice. This interpretation is not Marxist, even though Foucault utilizes a Marxist sounding terminology.

First and foremost, Foucault rejects the interpretation of the law as ideology or superstructure. He speaks of relations of appropriation and relations of force, in a way that echoes the Marxist’s ‘relation of production.’ However, Foucault does not refer to production but to circulation: ‘the distribution of justice forms part of the circulation of goods’ (133).  Justice controls the circulation of goods at the level of civil law (contract, marriage, inheritance, and taxation), and of the penal law, by imposing fines and confiscating property. Foucault’s characterization is suggestive of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s description of society as a network of circulation and exchanges (cf. 147, note 44).

At the time, Foucault was active in a movement advocating for penal and carceral reform. The 1968 student and youth revolt generated a climate of criticism of the justice system. This climate was strengthened by the government’s prosecutions of activists of the extra-parliamentary left, and by those groups that made claims to a different justice. As we learn in note 12 (142 f), Foucault opposed on theoretical and political grounds the demands of the militants, who reclaimed for themselves the status of political prisoners. Foucault claims that all criminal offenses are political ones, and no distinction should be revendicated. Foucault also rejected in his interventions in this period, the notion of ‘popular courts;’ (espoused by the militants of GP ultra-leftist group and supported by Sartre).

In the first part of the 10th lecture, Foucault returns to the relationship between penal practice and transfer of wealth, goods, and property. Justice imposes penalties, establishes a system of compensations, and extorts wealth through the system of costs of justice. At a time of monetary scarcity, the flow of wealth passed through the judicial dispute. Judicial disputes and marriage are the main mechanisms of wealth circulation. Foucault differentiates two forms. One in which there is an interplay between civil and criminal justice. The second one is closer to violent appropriation, as in the case of the eviction of Jews and Lombards at the end of 13th century, and the anti-heretical crusades in the Provence. The rest of the lectures maps the transformation of the medieval system into a system of royal justice, armed with an institutionalized judicial State apparatus.

Lectures ten through twelve delve with different aspects of the thesis that a judicial system was crucial for the development of the Absolutist State and later on, of the capitalistic State.  It acquires this role initially as a response to the lack of monetary wealth and the weakness of markets. These judicial and penal systems are not yet a State apparatus, but they exercise some functions of a State apparatus.  Eventually, this proto-judicial will become specialized in different separate functions: judicial, police, and penitentiary.  Foucault comments on the functional role of the centralized army. Justice as state apparatus developed in the shadow of the army. He speaks of an army of mercenaries and a justice of functionaries (160).

In lecture eleven, Foucault reflects on the relationship between law and the economy.  It may be true that ‘juridical forms’ express ‘economic relations.’ There is another level, though, at which the juridical is neither expression nor reproduction of economic relations.  As a power relation, the judicial apparatus operates within economic relations and thereby modifies them. Foucault uses terms such as ‘transcribes,’ ‘investment,’ ‘presence,’ to describe the relationships between judicial and economics.  The following text shows the kind of interplay between economic and judicial system that Foucault is striving to describe: ‘If we stick to the example of feudalism, we can see how, through the judicial apparatus (but we could also take the military or religious apparatus), from the surplus-product which permits feudal rent, a surplus- power, an extra power is extracted

– on the basis of which certainly this rent itself is demanded,

– but on the basis of which the forms and relations of production are displaced.’ (172)

In a crossed-out note, Foucault adds: ‘the power relations are not superimposed on economic relations… relations of power are as deep as the relations of production. The former is not deduced from the latter. They accompany and relay each other’.  Notes 9 and 10 (178-179) refer to the context, in particular concerning Althusser’s work. Doron summarizes  ‘Foucault’s objective, which we find in subsequent courses, notably The Punitive Society, is to stress rather the constituting role of power relations at the very heart of relations of production: the former acting as veritable conditions of the formation and transformation of modes of production, be this in the constitution of man as “labor-power” or the process of accumulation and circulation of wealth’ (179 and 97, note 11).

Lecture twelve adds some more concrete historical context to the discussion. It was the economic crises of the 13th and 14th centuries that lead to the centralization of royal power and the setting of royal justice. This led to a doubling of the judicial system and the separation of the penal and civil law.  To some extent, Foucault seems to be transposing to the 13th and 14th centuries what earlier in the lectures he described as results of the suppression of the countryside revolts of the 17th century.  By emphasizing this proto-State developing from within feudalism, Foucault is perhaps putting distance between the development of the centralized national state and the emergence of capitalism.

In the thirteenth lecture, Foucault reexamines his previous analysis in terms of the question of power/knowledge. What is the knowledge effect of penal justice in the Middle Ages? And what is the power/knowledge effect in the proto-state and latter absolutist State? By ‘knowledge effects’ Foucault is not referring to the ideological dimensions of the justice system, but to the mode of knowledge that develops within it and that constitutes its modus operandi. This question is connected both to the 1970-1971 course and to the lectures that Foucault will deliver in Brazil in 1973, published under the title Truth and Juridical Forms.

Foucault defines ‘knowledge effects’ as ‘the carving-out, distribution, and organization of what is given to be known in penal practice’ (198).  Knowledge effects comprise the position and function of the subjects authorized to know (judges, their attendants), the forms of knowledge they use and create in their function, the kind of information, revelation or manifestation that is at stake at this level.

Foucault proceeds to review first the knowledge effects of the Germanic juridical system. According to Foucault, the old system was not intended to elicit a truth. The system was based on the notion of ‘test’ (épreuve) to which the parties could either succeed or fail. The outcome of the test is the outcome of the trial.  If the test indicates a truth, it is only in a secondary or derivative way. The test is not a sign of truth, but a mark.

With the establishment of a system in which the King’s procurator is the main actor, the older system of the test is no longer possible. What then makes it possible for the procurator to pass sentence? Foucault answers that it is the inquiry (inquiry-truth; Enquête vérité), which is the repurpose of a pre-existing administrative tool for the function of Justice.

Foucault describes the form of knowledge of this early judicial system that emerges from the replacement of the Germanic-feudal one as one of ‘extraction of truth.’ The procurator can request from the notables what is the common knowledge or notoriety. He has the right to elicit knowledge from those who know. The truth established in this form is a sort of substitute for the capture in the act (flagrance).  Truth introduces into the field of the penal law acts that are not injuries committed against specific individuals, but disorders. They may not have a specific victim but are perceived as disrupting the public order.

Foucault has not much to say about the inquiry, which was initially an administrative technique in use in the Church and the Carolingian kingdom.  After a brief review, Foucault concludes with two fundamental aspects that the inquiry introduces in the judicial system are: 1) The establishment of the truth through the interrogation of witnesses, those who have seen the deed; 2) The written procedure.  The last note of the lecture simply concludes that witnessing the truth and its faithful written recording replaces the event-test (203).

Following the lecture, the editors published several pages that seem to continue and to amplify the previous discussion. Foucault proposes a history of questioning as a form of exercise of power.  He suggests that questioning plays a role in the constitution of the subject. The inquiry may have been more critical for the emergence of the subject even than theology, says Foucault, echoing a widespread belief that there is a strong connection between subjectivity and Christianity (206).

Confession is transitional between test and inquiry. Foucault refers here to the judicial aspects of confession, leaving aside the religious ones, that he will explore in detail elsewhere.  According to Foucault, confession is depicted as a test of wills between accused and judge. This struggle is the background for the re-appearance of torture in the criminal procedure. Torture should be understood as an ordeal or test of truth (207). This form of knowledge/power gives origin to an arithmetic of proof, based on the nature of the crime, that binds the judge’s decisions. This system of legal proof persists until the end of the 18th century.

Foucault claims that with the first steps of the takeover of justice by the State, the inquiry shapes the practice of the penal procedure. Foucault mentions other uses of the inquiry, in civil law, in legislation, in social struggles (bourgeoisie versus feudalism), in the administrative process of centralization, and in the new forms of inquiry that the Church exercises over the population (inquisition).

Like measure (which was the object of Foucault’s previous year’s course), the inquiry is a form of power/knowledge, which means that power is established through the exercise and acquisition of this knowledge (209).  Foucault sees the inquiry, together with taxes and the army, as a central tool in the process of state centralization. Furthermore, conversely, ‘the inquiry, which puts questions, extracts knowledge, centralizes it, turns it into a decision, is an exercise of power’ (209).  Foucault speaks of the inquiry as a ‘levy of knowledge,’ similar to the appropriation of resources through taxation.  He adds that  ‘the knowledge power needs, the knowledge it calls for and to which it gives rise, is knowledge taken, channeled, accumulated, and converted into decision; the governor being the one who calls for this knowledge, goes through it, and judges accordingly what decision has to be taken (211).’ Further, Foucault suggests a typology of types of extraction of ‘surplus-knowledge’ (211). These pages, albeit fragmentary, contain many valuable insights on Foucault’s transition between his earlier archaeology to a genealogy of knowledge.

Finally, Foucault adds a remark that points out to other schemas of power-knowledge, in particular, ‘examination,’ which is the one constitutive of the normative human sciences (125). Foucault will devote the final lecture of his next year course to this subject (The Punitive Society, New York, 2015, pp. 225-241)

The “Course Summary” was written shortly after completing the teaching season and published in the College yearbook. Foucault presents his lectures as being an introduction to the study of 19th century French penal and social control institutions. They are part of the broader project of studying the formation of certain types of knowledge (savoir) based on the juridical-political matrices, which gave them birth and sustain them.  Foucault’s working hypothesis is that power does not act only by facilitating or obstructing the production of knowledge. Power and knowledge do not stand in a relation of interest versus ideology. More generally, Foucault argues that knowledge and society do not stand on opposite sides but are unified in the form of ‘power-knowledge.’  Accordingly, explains Foucault, the lectures are divided into two parts. The first part studies the inquiry and its development during the Middle Ages. The other part of the lectures was devoted to the study of new forms of social control in 17th century France. A few concluding lines of the summary refer to the seminar in which Foucault and associates prepared for publication the story and memories of the infamous Pierre Rivière.

In the summary, Foucault inverts the order and the importance of the themes discussed. He also disregards his earlier attempt to study the ceremonial aspects of the reinstatement of the monarchical power carried out by Séguier.

Under the title ‘Ceremony, Theater and Politics in the Seventeenth Century,’ the editors bring a summary, made by an auditor, of a lecture given by Foucault at the University of Minnesota in April 1972. This conference describes in a more streamlined form Foucault’s description in lectures 4 through 6 of the elaborated ritualized strategy followed by Chancellor Séguier in his repression of the Nu-pieds rebels. Foucault’s interest in the symbolic and ceremonial exercise of power does not appear elsewhere, the account of Damian’s execution in Discipline and Punish being an exception.

‘The “Course Context’ is a thirty-seven-page extensive interpretative essay, written by François Ewald (Foucault’s former assistant at the Collège de France) and Bernard E. Harcourt (Columbia Law School professor and the editor of several of Foucault’s unpublished works).

The essay first describes the manuscript and additional materials from which the editors collated and transcribed the lectures.  Section II refers to the general societal context in the aftermath of the May 68 events, the subsequent repression of the political movements that originated in the students and young workers revolt, and its impact on Foucault’s development. This section is of paramount importance for those less familiar with the contemporary history of French society. Section III evaluates the place of this course in Foucault’s work. Ewald and Harcourt refer to Foucault’s evolving position about Althusser and Marxism in general.  They speak of a ‘counter-Marxism’ which is not an ‘anti-Marxism’ (255).  They find a difference of objectives between Foucault and Marx, differencs of method, differences of objects, a different way of referring to class struggle, and a divergence on the subject of ideology.  The authors also stress Foucault’s elaboration of an original analysis of law. In TPI, Foucault revolutions our way of viewing law, proposing a political theory of law instead of a juridical theory of power. In that respect, Ewald and Harcourt suggests that Foucault’s embryonic proposal can be compared to other schools, such as the French Marxist critique of law school, or the American Legal Realism school.

Étienne Balibar contributed to his volume a letter in which he reflects on Foucault’s text. Balibar was younger than Foucault, more politically engaged, closer to Althusser. He has the advantage of having witnessed the evolution of the after 1968 struggles, the downfall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the transformation of China into a capitalistic-bureaucratic society. Therefore, his insights on the background for Foucault’s analysis are an important complement to the ‘Course Context’ essay.

Finally, Claude-Olivier Doron contributes an essay dealing with Foucault’s position about the discussion between the Russian historian Boris Porshnev and the French historian Roland Mousnier and his students.  Doron reconstructs and interprets the background for Foucault’s discussion of the Nu-pieds revolt. Those readers interested in this angle of Foucault’s analysis could also profit from Stuart Elden’s commentaries (Foucault: The Birth of Power, 2017, Chapter 2). Doron limits its piece to ‘some elements concerning the debate.’  He emphasizes the need to connect the debate between the historians with the discussion within the Marxist field, notably between Nicos Poulantzas (close to Althusser) and Ralph Miliband, debate that was also referenced by Balibar in his contribution (297 n. 1).  Doron concludes that Foucault did not endorse any of the opposed parties. Foucault’s approach centered on the novel way in which the revolt was suppressed.  He sought a connection between how the revolt was suppressed and the emergence of a state not yet been endowed with specific repressive organs.

The completion of this publication project is not the end of Foucault’s story.  A new and ambitious project sets up to bring to print the ‘cours et travaux de Michel Foucault avant le Collège de France.’ Of these, a volume was already published that contains two lectures on sexuality that Foucault taught in 1964 and 1969.  Additional volumes on Nietzsche, on Biswanger, on Foucault’s tenure in Tunis and others are in the program.

Also, a group of researches grouped in L’École normale supérieure de Lyon is digitizing and organizing Foucault reading notes.  Out of 25 boxes, three are already available online (open access), and the others will be available in the future. These publication concerns only Foucault reading notes, not his manuscripts or other documents. What is already available can be accessed in Box 001 which contains some of the notes taken by Foucault for the preparation of TPI is among the one already accessible.



Jorge Montesó Ventura: Interés, atención, verdad. Una aproximación fenomenológica a la atención

Interés, atención, verdad. Una aproximación fenomenológica a la atención Book Cover Interés, atención, verdad. Una aproximación fenomenológica a la atención
Jorge Montesó Ventura
Paperback 18,00 €

Reviewed by: Diego D'Angelo (Universität Würzburg)

Jorge Montesó Ventura delivers with his book Interest, Attention, Truth. A Phenomenological Approach to Attention (all translations in the following are mine) a valuable contribution to ongoing debates on the phenomenology of a particular phenomenon, that is, of attention. In general, phenomenological authors (e.g., Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels, Depraz, Blumenberg, and many others) understand attention as a phenomenon that occurs mostly at the level of perception. Montesó’s book is no exception to this approach, although with some necessary distinctions, since for Montesó attention is also related to truth and to anthropological questions. In what follows, I will try to make this clear by pointing out the main ideas of the book, which could be of interest also for scholars who do not read Spanish.

From the start of the book it emerges clearly that Montesó adopts a perspective on attention which is clearly cognitive: on the very first page of the book it is expressively stated that attention occurs when we “want to know” something (2). This cognitive approach is also clearly visible in the title of the book, which gives attention the central role between interest and truth.

These three concepts (attention, interest, and truth) are also the main concepts of the three parts into which the book is divided, although the first (and longest) part of it deals with attention, which therefore emerges as the leitmotif keeping interest and truth connected together. That this is possible is due precisely to the fact that the author understands attention in a cognitive fashion. Attention is powered by our interest to know truth.

But the stress I lay on the author’s cognitive approach should not be taken as the claim that the author’s view is blurred by a lens that allows him to see only the cognitive aspects of the phenomenon he wants to analyze. Quite the contrary: the cognitive dimension is the starting-point for an analysis that is focused throughout on the human being as such. The enquiry is therefore at once existential, anthropological, and cultural. The book ends with a call for the development, out of a phenomenology of attention, of a philosophy of culture as such.

A word should be said about the meaning of “phenomenology” in this book. The author has already published a monograph dedicated to José Ortega y Gassett, surely the most prominent phenomenological and existential philosopher to write in Spanish (La atención en el piensamento de Ortega y Gassett, Centre D’Estudis Antropològics ACAF, Castellò 2016). And Ortega y Gassett remains the point of reference for the way in which phenomenology must be understood in this newer book as well. This means that we are dealing not so much with a phenomenology in the sense of Husserl, with all the different technical means he developed for the analysis of a pure experience, but with an existential phenomenology mediated by Scheler and by Heidegger. An approach of this kind to the phenomenology of attention is quite unusual and therefore deserves careful engagement.

In the first part of the Book Montesó delivers a balanced reconstruction of some of the most important points in the history of the concept of attention and of its philosophical, but also psychological, analysis. Wherever possible, Montesó complements philosophical insights with the results of empirical research in neurosciences and psychology, although he never precisely discusses the methodological problems related to this way of proceeding. This omission is somewhat problematic. Obviously, the aim of the book is not to provide a general methodological framework, but if the reference to empirical literature is to be more than the simple attempt so “spice up” the philosophical soup, then one should make clear when the recourse to empirical sciences makes sense and when not, at least in a very preliminary and superficial way.

Nevertheless, the attempt to merge phenomenology and empirical sciences is obviously laudable and profitable in many respects. This first part of the book is cleverly designed as the piece-by-piece assembly of the definition of attention; the full definition is delivered after the single parts have been introduced and discussed at length.

“[…] Attention presents itself to us as a singularity of intentionality in its cognitive or understanding capacity, as the token or expression of the tendencies of the subject in its possibilities to apprehend something cognitively. For this, it works like a lighthouse which, requested or solicited, emerges to reality (be it sensible or imaginary) through a systemic mobilization of the body, selecting (voluntarily or automatically) the things on which the light falls, the things it discovers” (104).

As we can see from this definition, attention is conceived in a fairly straightforward way, since – as Merleau-Ponty already pointed out in the Phenomenology of Perception – the use of a spotlight metaphor when discussing attention was already common in the 1940s. If we add the idea that this light not only makes things stand out more clearly from the background but selects those things, we add to the classical metaphor of attention as a spotlight the equally classical view of attention as a selection mechanism, a metaphor that goes back (as Montesó briefly but exhaustively reconstructs) to the work of Broadbent in the 1950s. This selection mechanism can be voluntary or automatic – that is, in the parlance of current research, top-down or bottom-up. Moreover, attention is an entirely cognitive capability and does not create anything but only illuminates things (cf. 70).

However, building on the basis of this classical understanding, the phenomenological and existential approach of Montesó adds that attention is a bodily gesture that expresses and betokens the tendencies of the subject. In this aspect of attention, which Montesó rightly stresses more than many other researchers on this phenomenon, we have two moments, on the one hand the necessary relation of attention to interest, and on the other the necessary relation of attention to corporeality.

Indeed, this point of novelty is also the point that allows Montesó to construct his own narrative about attention. Precisely by diving into the phenomenon of interest, in the second part of the book he is able to stress the fact that attention is always already shaped by the culture in which the active subject is embedded, because culture is one of the most important builders of interests, if not indeed the single most important. Indeed, the world in which we live is shaped, according to Montesó (and to Ortega y Gassett), first of all by the way in which the culture we live in interprets the surrounding things and phenomena. And in this collective act of interpretation, interests play a crucial role and are the real “motivators” of attention: the phenomenon of interest “plays the same role as the fuel that gives energy to the attentional gesture, it is the impetus that moves attention from one part of reality to another” (129). The idea is basically that interest is the “hand that moves the attentional lamp” (41). Attention rises, in the eyes of the author, always on the basis of some previous interest. Against some of the most classical ideas, according to which only the material features of the object attract our attention, Montesó stresses the meaningfulness for our lives that is the basis for interests to be built and therefore for attention to rise and, as the Author says, “come to reality”: “The life-project of the subject activates and deactivates in each case the functioning of attention, thereby creating her own landscape, her own truth” (101).

Through the interest, attention raises and allows the subject to select her own perspective on realty, within which each subject then selects her own “truth”: “the couple interest-attention is responsible for our particular view of the universe” (181). The notion of truth, which is clearly derived from Heidegger’s understanding of truth as Unverborgenheit (cf. 229), remains fairly open and unclear. Montesó seems to understand truth in the sense of discovery. Attention and interest allow the subject to discover the surrounding world in her peculiar way. This way is certainly subject-centered and peculiar, but not therefore already completely relativistic (in the negative sense of the term), since an intersubjectively shared culture functions as the motor of interests and, therefore, of discovery of the surrounding world: “every culture represents a specific regime of attention within which every individual acts as a unique organ of perception” (119). Attention and interest gives rise to the particular Weltanschauung of a particular people in a particular time (cf. 246).

In the end, one could argue that the concept of attention for Montesó is excessively vague and that it encompasses many different phenomena, from the perceptual, to cultural forms of attention, all to way to love (some nice analyses are developed on falling in love and neurasthenia – cf. 218 ff. – following Ortega y Gassett) and so on. But precisely this is one of the most important achievements of this book: keeping together many different ways (many different “cognitive phenomena”, 20; cf. also 41) in which we speak about attention in a view that defines accurately the phenomenon itself, but which also keeps this phenomenon in the broader context of other phenomena without which attention would be incomprehensible, such as interest and the anthropological striving for truth and knowledge. Furthermore, the author seems to explicitly go in that direction and to recognize the (necessary) vagueness of the concept of attention when he states that “everything is attention” (254). And this way of understanding attention as a “constant and unavoidable gesture” (16) reflects the main intuition of Ortega y Gassett on attention: “tell me what you attend to and I’ll tell you who you are” (Ortega y Gassett, quoted on 117).