Witold Płotka, Patrick Eldridge (Eds.): Early Phenomenology in Central and Eastern Europe. Main Figures, Ideas, and Problems

Peter Andras Varga

Early Phenomenology in Central and Eastern Europe: Main Figures, Ideas, and Problems Book Cover Early Phenomenology in Central and Eastern Europe: Main Figures, Ideas, and Problems
Contributions to Phenomenology, Vol. 113
Witold Płotka, Patrick Eldridge (Eds.)
Softcover 72,79 €
IX, 220

Reviewed by: Peter Andras Varga (Institute of Philosophy, Research Centre for the Humanities, Budapest, Hungary)

Why study Central and Eastern European Phenomenology?

I. Introduction: The Geographies of Phenomenology

There have been conspicuous asymmetries in the historiography of local phenomenological traditions which are as unjust as they are pauperizing phenomenology in its entirety. Already the pioneering professional historian of phenomenology, Herbert Spiegelberg (1904-1990), a late-generation Munich phenomenologist who studied at Husserl in Freiburg in WS 1924/25, contributed dedicated studies on key episodes of the nascent Anglophone reception of phenomenology (see esp. Spiegelberg 1981, 105 ff., 144 ff.), and the research field has, in the meantime, matured enough to accommodate, e.g., a comprehensive survey of the institutional focal points and leading figures of North American phenomenology (Ferri 2019). In the recent decades, the historiography of Francophone phenomenology has developed into a genre on its own (see esp. Waldenfels 1983; Gondek and Tengelyi 2011), which is arguably on the verge of being a form of productive phenomenology in historiographical disguise (consider, e.g., the announcement of a purported “theological turn” of its subject matter, see Janicaud et al. 2000). Regardless of its creative ambitions, there also exists an exemplary historiographical study of the origins of Francophone phenomenology, written as early as in 1997 (Dupont 2014).

Other local branches of phenomenology proved less fortunate. Witold Płotka and Patrick Eldridge aim to remedy one of the most conspicuous omissions by charting the large terra incognita that lies east of the Central European phenomenological heartland on the imagined historical map of phenomenology. Geographical explorations have always been welcome parts of scientific endeavor, and maybe it is ample time for phenomenology, which turned from an iconoclastic philosophical revolution into a century-old philosophical tradition, to engage in comprehensive stocktaking, including the survey of its own geographical diversity. However, this raises the crucial question as to whether the historiography of local phenomenological traditions would become capable of enriching phenomenology in a direct and generally relevant way. The editors of the reviewed volume appear to think so, as they not only argue that the “survey of Husserl’s students from Göttingen, or from Freiburg, or Stumpf’s pupils from Berlin” (3) could provide us with East European phenomenologists in dire need of dedicated scholarly analyses, but the editors also emphasize the potential broader contributions of Central and Eastern European (CEE) phenomenology, respectively of its study, to phenomenology in general: The inhabitants of this white patch “confronted phenomenology with new schools in philosophy, e.g., the Prague school in linguistics, the Lvov-Warsaw School in logic, or the strain of irrationalism in Russian thought,” thereby fostering “a permanent dialogue and confrontation with these traditions” (5). The promise of cross-fertilization with local traditions undoubtedly constitutes one of the main rationale for studying the local varieties of intellectual traditions in general, but Płotka and Eldridge put forward another, more specific and simultaneously more phenomenological consideration in favor of including Central and Eastern Europe in the general historical narrative of phenomenology: The “lack of centre,” which is a peculiar feature of this geographical region, “resulted in pluralistic interpretations and reinterpretations of Husserl which were not dominated by any ‘standard’ reading” (6). The purported standard reading of Husserl is, the editors believe, epitomized by the case of Germany, where “the reception of Husserl was to some extent centralized, or dominated by such a reading” (ibid.). The latter claim might sound surprising, given the relatively low profile of phenomenology against other contemporaneous currents of thought in Germany, e.g., pre-war Neo-Kantianism, not to mention Husserl’s delayed academic career (his first full professorial appointment came only in 1916), and the sweeping rise of aphenomenological scientific philosophy in the post-1945 German philosophical climate. In fact, pre-1945 phenomenology, even in its heydays, is probably best regarded as a creative philosophical niche (especially in terms of its institutional footprint), the radiating philosophical and general scientific-cultural influence of which had much exceeded the number of its actual followers. But let us set aside the historiography of German-speaking phenomenology (by the way, writing the specific history of phenomenology in German-speaking countries, in contrast to the usual German-centric universal history of phenomenology, still remains an unfulfilled desideratum; not to mention the inexplicable lack of biographical attention dedicated to phenomenology’s founding fathers); and let us return to the subject matter of phenomenology in Central and Eastern Europe.

I am inclined to concur with the editors that there is also a specifically phenomenological stake of studying CEE phenomenology (besides the usual legitimation of comparative investigations detailed above); albeit it might be less trivial to ascertain what this alleged benefit consists in. The review of the individual chapters in Section II below, thus, simultaneously serves the aim of identifying the purported larger stakes of studying CEE phenomenology. Finally, in Section III, I will try to directly address these general observations.

II. Individual Chapters: From an Eccentric Baron to the Passengers of the Philosopher Streamer and to a Magnum Opus lost in a Ghetto

Hynek Janoušek and Robin D. Rollinger’s study of the Prague roots of phenomenology – which, as the authors point out, reach as deep as Carl Stumpf’s Prague professorship between 1879 and 1884 (!) – is, as always, impressively well-informed and conceptually insightful. They introduce a fresh angle by contrasting Anton Marty (1847-1914), the doyen of the Prague School of orthodox Brentanoism, with baron Christian von Ehrenfels (1859-1932), an eccentric philosopher associated with the heterodox wing of Brentano’s disciples. Marty was not only self-avowedly unoriginal in transmitting Brentano’s doctrine, but he also constitutes a surprise counterexample to the conspicuous lack of progress in publishing Brentano’s Nachlass (see esp. Marty 2011; cf. Binder 2012). Based on these texts, the authors present Brentano’s idiosyncratic tripartite division of psychical phenomena into presentations, judgements, and emotive-volative acts. They skillfully contrast Marty’s reluctance to bestow object-presenting power to the acts of the third class with Ehrenfels’s less-studied theory of values. The object-presenting function of acts beyond presentations also played a prominent role in Husserl’s own development between the two editions of the Logical Investigations (cf. Melle 1990), which, in turn, is mirrored in Husserl’s correspondence with Marty that the authors analyze with an exemplary sensitivity towards its polyphonic historical subtexts.

Janoušek and Rollinger’s chapter is, regrettably, the only one dealing with phenomenology’s (pre)history prior to Husserl’s watershed first publication of the Logical Investigation in 1900-1901, respectively one of the very few parts of the book exclusively dedicated to pre-WWI phenomenology. It is not only that, as even the editors seem to admit (cf. 8), the School of Brentano constitutes an integral part of Early Phenomenology (extending, by the way, well into the 1930s); but the different political geography of pre-WWI Central Europe, especially the existence of the Habsburg Monarchy until 1918, created the preconditions of a shared cultural and scientific space, without which the eastward migration of phenomenology – or, maybe, its genesis in the first place (!) – would not have been possible.

One is even compelled to ask whether pre-WWI CEE phenomenology should be regarded as part and parcel of phenomenology per se? In terms of the geographical designator employed, one might wonder whether it would be better suited with regard to pre-war phenomenology to talk about Central European phenomenology (especially given the general prominence of German-speaking culture and philosophy at that time)? Conversely, whether and to which extent could the undeniably distinct philosophical and cultural identity of CEE phenomenology be regarded as a product of the political and life-world divisions introduced in the wake of the wars, most notably, the installment of the Iron Curtain?

The equally excellent chapter by Dariusz Łukasiewicz is dedicated to another branch of the early School of Brentano, namely the semi-heterodox Viennese student Kasimir (Kazimierz) Twardowski (1866-1938), even though the chapter’s temporal focus is shifted towards the first half of the twentieth century. The author intends to map the historical and conceptual interactions between not only Husserl and Twardowski, but also the Lvow-Warsaw School (LWS), “one of the first branches of analytic philosophy in the world” (37). Not unlike the authors of the previous chapter, Dariusz Łukasiewicz is also preoccupied with the ontological status of intentional objects, though he confined himself to theoretical acts. In exchange for this thematic limitation, his chapter involves a compelling metaphilosophical perspective, ranging from Jan Łukasiewicz (1878-1956) – who not only was a “Christian believer,” loyal “to the Roman Catholic Church in public,” but also believed “that logic and mathematics have their foundation in the divine mind” (48), even though he restraining this conviction from directly influencing his scientific research – to the “logical anti-irrationalism” (3) of the LWS, which, as Dariusz Łukasiewicz argued, still significantly differed from the standpoint of the Vienna Circle, insofar as metaphysical propositions were regarded by the former as “scientifically undecided,” rather than “cognitively nonsensical” (39).

However, the declared main aim of Dariusz Łukasiewicz’s chapter is to identify influences (including both unilateral influences originating from Husserl, as well as interactions and parallel developments) between Husserl’s early philosophy and the LWS. He seems to concur (see esp. 48) with an interpretative tradition in the Polish history of phenomenology, namely with the claim of Władysław Tatarkiewicz (1886–1980), according to which Twardowski’s Viennese habilitation thesis (Twardowski 1894) “inspired Husserl to reject psychologism” and “even stimulated the beginning of Husserl’s phenomenology” (43). At the same time, he claims (see 51 ff) that precisely his pronounced metaphilosophical framework prevented Twardowski from developing a detailed theory of states of affairs (Sachverhalten), in contrast with the developments around Husserl in Göttingen (cf. esp. Reinach 1911).

The question of influences undeniably stands in the focal point of the research in CEE phenomenology, since influences – especially ones purportedly originating from Eastward directions (as assumed by Tatarkiewicz’s original thesis) – would, all at once, solve the aforementioned problem of the relevance of studying the history of CEE phenomenology. This kind of solution, however, is too attractive and convenient to be true. For instance, and with all due respect to long-standing local interpretative traditions in the history of philosophy, Tatarkiewicz’s thesis about the origins of the content-object distinction (COD) is, at best, oversimplifying: Even though Husserl indeed penned a text he himself described an immediate “reaction to Twardowski” (Husserl 1994, I:144; cf. Husserl 1990); the development of his theory of intentionality between 1894 and the Logical Investigations in 1900/1901 is complex and far from being linear, not least due to the roots of COD at others members of the School of Brentano (e.g. Alois Höfler’s [1853-1922], cf. Höfler 1890), as well as Robert Zimmermann (1824-1898), the oft-ignored teacher of Husserl and other Brentanoists in Vienna. This clue is briefly mentioned, but left undeveloped by Dariusz Łukasiewicz (see 44), even though a broader survey of published and archival sources could further corroborate the non-Brentanoian roots of Husserl’s theory of intentionality (see also Varga 2014, 2015, 2018a). What renders this subordinated question of historical details especially important for the purposes of CEE phenomenology is, I think, that precisely these non-Brentanoian sources of Husserl’s philosophy represented the specifically CEE philosophy of the late nineteenth century (e.g., Herbartianism and the omission of German Idealism in general, cf. Sauer 1982).

In general, the historiographic model of simple causal »influences« – let them be uni- or bidirectional – will probably have to be refined, as already indicated by clues of a more nuanced understanding scattered in Dariusz Łukasiewicz’s sophisticated chapter (e.g.: “indirect reference to Husserl,” p. 41, n. 11; “partial” influence, p. 41; historical prejudices concerning a certain epoch of the history of philosophy, p. 45, n. 24 etc.). On the one hand, such a refined notion of »influence« designates an even broader fertile field of research for historians of CEE phenomenology. On the other hand, it could also prevent us from reducing the merits of CEE phenomenology to its purported direct influences on some canonical figures of the general history of phenomenology.

Natalia Artemenko’s thoughtful and thoroughgoing chapter not only moves the geographical focus further Eastwards, but her investigation of Gustav Špet (or Shpet; 1879-1937) also involves another promise – and, simultaneously, another methodological challenge – of mapping the potential contribution of CEE phenomenology: namely, the issue of isolated »towering figures« who were philosophically significant on their own (at least in their local cultures and under the constraints of their personal fates), but whose actual ties to the mainstream Phenomenological Movement were not always unambiguous, both in biographical and intellectual terms, as well as regarding their reception histories. While Artemenko acknowledges that Špet’s “early creative work […] lies in the wake of phenomenology” (already allowing for some “deviations;” 60); she argues that Špet’s oeuvre is best regarded as an example of “the synthesis of the humanities that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century” (ibid.). What makes Špet’s case intriguing is that the historical problem of his allegiance to the Phenomenological Movement (Špet studied at Husserl in Göttingen in 1912-1913) is, at the same time, a theoretical problem of the viability and outlook of his “conjunction of phenomenology and hermeneutics” (70). Similar projects aiming at the phenomenology of historical knowledge were also pursued by other phenomenologists in Husserl’s shadow (to name a less prominent example: Landgrebe 2010); but what distinguishes Špet’s one is its proximity to Husserl’s Ideas (Husserl 1913), not only temporally, but also in terms of Špet’s appropriation, though not entirely uncritical, of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology expounded therein, which infamously became the stumbling block for early phenomenologists around Husserl in Germany (even if, contrary to p. 62, the prize for the first monograph on Husserl’s  Ideas goes, technically, to Eugen Enyvvari’s [1884-1959] fifty-five-pages-long book of descriptive nature: Enyvvári 1913). Špet, Artemenko believes, was “immersed in the tradition of humanistic thought (Dilthey, Schleiermacher)” (69) but “adhered” to Husserl’s “phenomenology” “in his hermeneutical studies” (67); thereby challenging the path famously taken by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002). As Artemenko aptly remarks, this raises the question: “does the semantic history [of hermeneutics] coincide with the actual history and chronology?” (66.)  It is all the more regrettable that the unfolding of Špet’s philosophy, as well as of its contemporaneous reception, were tragically precluded by the course of history; even if Artemenko, interestingly, regards Špet’s status as “ ‘outsider,’ […] not shackled by institutional constraints or disciplinary frameworks” (63) as a philosophically beneficial factor for him. In any case, it tells a lot about the Sitz im Leben of twentieth-century CEE phenomenology to compare the admittedly not entirely unhospitable conditions, under which Paul Ricoer (1913-2005) translated Husserl’s Ideas in Western prisoners of war camps (see Reagan 1996, 9 ff.), with Špet’s ill-fated attempt to re-translate Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit in a lager in Siberia.

The descriptive-phenomenologically dense and rewarding chapter by Alexander Kozin continues the thread of Russian contributions to phenomenology, even if its subject matter exemplifies a different, though not uncommon kind of biographical trajectory. Semyon Frank (1877-1950) was born and raised in an affluent Jewish family in Moscow. Around 1912, he became converted to orthodoxy; within one decade, he found himself aboard one of the two infamous Philosophy Streamers, which deported more than 150 members of the Russian intelligentsia – handpicked by Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) himself – from Petrograd (today’s Saint Petersburg) to Stettin (today’s Szczecin in Poland), where, unbeknownst to many, another series of misfortunes awaited them (see Chamberlain 2008).

While Frank is not customarily labelled as phenomenologist, Kozin argues that “Frank’s philosophical psychology is more phenomenological than it seems” (90); thereby Frank could belong to the series of thinkers embodying the intertwinement of CEE phenomenology and religious thought (more specifically in Frank’s case, “Christian idealism;” 76). In order to demonstrate this classification, Kozin analyses at length Frank’s phenomenological psychology of the soul, which involved not only Brentano and Husserl, but also Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). In an interesting footnote, Kozin claims, on the basis of referring to Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (first partial edition: Husserl 1936; unabridged critical edition: Husserl 1962), that “Frank anticipated Husserl’s appreciation of psychology as a discipline adjacent to phenomenology by its purpose and method.” (82, n. 7), since Husserl’s Crisis “points to psychology as one of the two ways into phenomenology” (ibid.). I think this insightful remark could be made even stronger on the basis of Husserl scholarship, insofar as Husserl, according to the received scholarly view, regarded the »way through psychology« as any one of three main types of introducing phenomenology philosophically (see its classical exposition: Kern 1962). In other words, Husserl was convinced throughout the entirely mature phase of his career that a pure (i.e., non-transcendental) psychology, if executed in a careful enough way phenomenologically, would necessarily transfigure into transcendental phenomenology (or, at least, lead us directly to the doorsteps of the latter). From this point of view, the envisaged historical parallel between Frank’s religious psychology of the soul and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology could acquire a deeply theoretical-philosophical underpinning.

The informative and sensitive chapter by Dalius Jonkus on the Lithuanian and Russian philosopher Vasily (or: Vosylius) Sesemann (1884-1963) also involves one of the main historical counterparts of phenomenology, namely Neo-Kantianism, especially its scientifically-oriented Marburg variant, as epitomized by Paul Natorp (1854-1924), with whom, by the way, Husserl sought to be on friendly terms, even if this friendship remained somewhat unilateral. According to Jonkus’ theses, Sesemann’s philosophy was “more associated with the phenomenological tradition rather than the Neo-Kantian one” (94); and, furthermore, Sesemann’s philosophy “is very close to Husserl’s own late project of genetic phenomenology, which Husserl developed within roughly the same timeframe” (109). While Jonkus’ reconstruction of Sesemann’s analysis of the significance of non-objectifying, pre-scientifical knowledge is convincing, this thesis hints at a serious challenge for the historiography of phenomenology in general, namely the lack of an effective two-way communication of ideas between the historical figures, especially the asynchrony between the inner development of Husserl’s thought and what his disciples, located in Germany or abroad, ascribed him as influence. After all, as seen above, already in the 1900s Husserl started working in the 1900s on the problem of non-objectifying presentation that involve domains of knowledge beyond pure logic (see already Melle 1990), not to mention that Husserl seems to have formulated the basic tenets of his genetic phenomenology already around 1910-1911 (see already Sakakibara 1997). In this regard, one could speak of the »synchronicity of non-synchronicities« within the history of phenomenology. Of course, what it implies for us is only to double-down our efforts at writing the history of phenomenology. It also belongs to the merits of Jonkus’ chapter that he also takes into account possible lateral connections between early phenomenologists (involving not only Max Scheler [1874-1928] but even Dietrich von Hildebrand [1889-1977], see 100).

The impressive chapter by Marek Piwowarczyk is dedicated to Roman Ingarden (1893-1970). There is, Piwowarczyk observes, a tectonic movement taking place in Ingarden scholarship, insofar as “now his ontology and epistemology” comes to the fore (instead of “his work on aesthetics;” 111), which goes hand in hand with a change in scholarly audience: “analytic philosophers” nowadays “seem to be more interested in the Ingardenian legacy than phenomenologists” (114). I wonder whether this shift is not entirely unconnected to a certain general waning of Ingarden’s fame in the phenomenological pantheon (even though he still counts as one of, if not the most known CEE phenomenologist, especially as we become more and more distant from the core scholarly community of present-day phenomenologists). In any case, Piwowarczyk’s study of Ingarden’s early works (up to Ingarden’s habilitation thesis) undoubtedly transcends the old rigid dichotomy between analytical philosophy and phenomenology: it combines a meticulous conceptual and philological analysis (he is aware, e.g., of Ingarden’s “change of mind” between the “first and second parts” of a text; 177) with general references to the scientifical-philosophical mainstream views of that time (cf. 115). In his hands, Ingarden’s “youthful theory of the objects” manifests itself as a theory that is not only distinctly different from its version at the mature Ingarden, but maybe even exemplifies a “sui generis doctrine” (125) that cannot be directly classified under any of the textbook object theories that gained currency in contemporary analytical philosophy (cf. 118 ff.).

The informative chapter by Viorel Cernica on Nae Ionescu (1890-1940), who studied at Husserl around 1913-14 (cf. 129), and Romanian phenomenology in general is important not only because it further augments the picture of local sub-histories of phenomenology, but also because it touches upon a topic that animated the interest in phenomenology in CEE and beyond, namely religion and metaphysics (not to mention their »grafting« onto phenomenology by Martin Heidegger). According to Cernica, Ionescu could legitimately be regarded as phenomenologist, because, even though his oeuvre undoubtedly belongs “to a metaphysical way of philosophizing, he carries it out with phenomenological techniques from Husserl’s toolbox” (137). Intriguing elements of this toolbox include the phenomenological ontology of images and the issue of “virtuality” (133), respectively intentional modifications in general; while the open questions raised by Ionescu’s approach and Cernica’s interpretative thesis range from the long-standing debate on whether phenomenology should be considered as a system of doctrines or, rather, as a mere method to the question of theistic intentionality – in this regard, Cernica rightly invokes Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenological theology (see 139) – and to the historiographical questions of school formation and philosophical lineages. In the latter regard, Cernica mentions that Ionescu himself instructed some of his own pupils to study phenomenology in Germany in the 1930s (cf. 142), which hints at a certain generational dynamism – in phenomenological parlance: generativity – in the encounters between CEE and global (German) phenomenology. In each of these facts, Cernica’s chapter manifests the richness of the Romanian local sub-history of CEE phenomenology, as well as the exemplary intensity of interest in phenomenology by present-day philosophers in Romania.

The chapter by Uldis Vēgners on the Latvian phenomenologist Theodor Celms (1893-1989) is well-researched and philosophically engaging. While Vēgners definitely maintains an independent scholarly profile with regard to Celms (see, e.g. Vēgners 2012), he also stands on the shoulders of giants: one can but wish that all CEE phenomenologists would be devoted as much scholarly attention as Celms, who is not only subject of a several research articles but there also exists a scholarly edition of his selected writings in German. The other side of the same coin is that Celms, as acknowledged by Vēgners (see esp. 147), stands in the intersection of complex historical and philosophical identities: he could be equally well regarded as member of the Freiburg Phase of Early Phenomenology (after all, he studies at Husserl in Freiburg in the 1920s), not to mention his explicit ties to unambiguously non-phenomenological philosophers (to begin with, Celms obtained his doctoral degree in 1923 under the supervision of Josef Geyser [1869-1948] who, even though Vēgners did not mention this, was a Catholic philosopher explicitly committed to philosophia perennis and his professorship was officially a Catholic chair, see, e.g., Husserl 1994, VIII: 163, n. 6). What I find particularly fascinating is that prior to 1928, Celms had been working on interpreting “Husserl’s phenomenology as transcendental historism” (146). Together with the aforementioned Ludwig Landgrebe and Gustav Špet, there seems to have been a forgotten strain of phenomenological hermeneutics – i.e., Husserlian phenomenology of history and interpretation – with a noteworthy considerable CEE involvement, which is completely overshadowed by Dilthey-Heidegger-Gadamer lineage, not to mention the charges of Husserl’s lack of sensitivity towards history which were circulating already amongst his contemporaries.

Vēgners’ chapter is, however, dedicated to another facet of Celms’ oeuvre, namely his involvement in the ill-fated Idealism-Realism Debate, which erupted already in Göttingen by 1913 at the latest and which, sadly, led to the deterioration of the personal and professional relationships between Husserl and his disciplines and, possibly, to the demise of classical phenomenology as such (and the subsequent rise of Heidegger’s fame). In this debate, Celms is customarily perceived as a comrade-in-arms of the realist Göttingen phenomenologists, but Vēgners also argues that Celsm, on the basis of his philosophical allegiances and occasional writings, “actually might not have been a phenomenologist anymore, but rather a critical realist” (149) by that time. He provides a meticulous analysis of Celms’ standpoint and arguments. It belongs to Vēgners’ virtues that he pays special attention to the reception of Celms, including not only the historical thesis that Celms was behind the anonymous objections to which Husserl replied in his Fifth Cartesian Meditation, but also the discussion of Celms 1928 book by his contemporaries, in which CEE phenomenologists, too, played a fully legitimate role. Interestingly, the issue of phenomenological hermeneutics returns twice: First, Vēgners conjectures that Celms’ “turn was a consequence of his realization that Husserl’s phenomenology does not lead to transcendental historism as he previously believed” (149). The second promising lead is constituted by Vēgners’ discussions (see 155-156) of Celms’ idea of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology being a “Lebensphilosophie” (155), more precisely an “absolute biographism” (156).

That said, I disagree with the way Vēgners, in the introduction of his chapter (145 f.), equates phenomenological reduction and transcendental idealism (following in the footsteps of the old Munich interpretation by Eberhard Avé-Lallemant and others). I think that the former is a method of avoiding explanatory circularities (see the masterly interpretation: Lohmar 2002) and the latter is a standpoint vis-à-vis the classic metaphysical question regarding the priority of opposite poles (usually the world and the sense-giving ego). This sense of transcendental idealism is, I think, well expounded in the texts of the recent volume of Husserliana on transcendental idealism (Husserl 2003), which might have been a good addition to Vēgners’ bibliography. By the way, it also makes the historical case that Husserl already arrived at idealism in around 1908 (while the discovery of reduction is customarily dated at 1906).

The exemplary chapter by Witold Płotka on Leopold Blaustein (1905-1942/1944) explores a “rather unknown” (164) actor of CEE phenomenology and his contribution to aesthetics, another neighboring discipline of core phenomenological philosophy (which Blaustein, in a fascinating way, also applied to the new media of his age: “radio” and “cinema;” 180). Blaustein’s intellectual biography epitomizes the multifaceted and, more often than not, ruptured nature of CEE phenomenology: born in a Polish-Jewish family in Lemberg in Galicia (then part of the Habsburg Empire; during Blaustein’s adult life: Lvov in Poland; today Lviv in Ukraina), his philosophical allegiances ranged from Twardowski and the LWS to Husserl, at whom he studied in Freiburg in 1925, and to orthodox members of the School of Brentano, e.g., Alexius Meinong (1853-1920). He never assumed a teaching position at a university and died, together with his wife, a fellow disciple of Twardowski, and their child in the Lvov Ghetto (it is also possible that he took his own life). His German “magnum opus” (165), entitled Die ästhethische Perzeption (The Aesthethical Experience), was also lost in historical calamities.

Płotka’s masterful chapter is a match for the complexity Blaustein’s biography and oeuvre: It is not only that Płotka offers a meticulous reconstruction of the circumstances of Blaustein’s encounter with Husserlian phenomenology (up to the question as to exactly which portions of Husserl’s lecture courses were attended by him, cf. 166, esp. n. 4), as well as his philosophical standpoint on the basis of his extant Polish doctoral dissertation of 1928 and other minor writings (including Blaustein’s review of Ingarden). As if that were not enough, Płotka goes on to reconstruct a possible Husserlian counter-critique of Blaustein’s critique of Husserl, based on not only Ingarden’s own critique of Blaustein and what Blaustein could have learnt from his studies at Husserl (cf. 175), but also on the most recent text on Husserl’s eidetical phenomenology (Husserl 2012), not yet available to many of the scholars writing about Blaustein (not to mention Blaustein himself). Blaustein’s misconstruction of eidos as “transcendent timeless object” (174) is, Płotka argued, ultimately rooted in a combination of specific and general misinterpretations: e.g., overseeing the iterative closure operation of eidetical intuition, as well as a general ignorance of the proper nature and vistas of transcendental-constitutive phenomenology. Just one side remark: it might also be interesting to assess the possible consonance between Blaustein’s proposal of anti-eidetical phenomenology as a “descriptive science of types […] of lived experiences” (as quoted on p. 167) and the understanding of eidos as intuited type (Typus), as proposed by the interpretation devised by Dieter Lohmar (see, e.g., Lohmar 2005), in contrast to the interpretation by Rochus Sowa (see already: Sowa 2008), upon which Płotka’s analysis relied.

Płotka goes even further, insofar as he proceeds to locate the own merits of Blaustein’s aesthetical theory, using philosophically tricky edge cases of intentionality (mathematical objects possessing too many sides to be intuited, nested pictures etc.). In sum, Płotka’s chapter aptly demonstrates that historical and philosophical-thematical sensitivities are far from being mutually exclusive alternatives in approaching the history of philosophy.

The chapter on Jan Patočka’s (1907-1977) early confrontation with Husserlian phenomenology by Karel Novotný is yet another masterful contribution in an excellent volume. In fact, it is safe to regard Patočka as the currently most studied CEE phenomenologist and Novotný as not only one of Patočka’s most skilful interpreters but also as one of the major voices of contemporary phenomenology eastwards of Germany. The philosophical and historical analyses and the textual basis of the chapter are correspondingly dense (to begin with, it relies on writings of Patočka first published posthumously only in 2014 and even then, only in Czech). Patočka was “the first in the Czechoslovakia to” (189) introduce Husserl’s ideas but, in contrast to his fellow philosophers with same epitheton ornans throughout CEE (as presented in the reviewed volume), Patočka was also keen to embrace Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology as well. I dare to think that the latter fact is not entirely unrelated to his later ability to put forward an original philosophical oeuvre that deserves a place in the global canon of twentieth century philosophy in general. At the same time, Patočka was also not devoid of an interest towards Lebensphilosophie, another recurring thread of CEE phenomenologists in the reviewed volume. It must also be said, in defence of Patočka’s fellow CEE phenomenologists, that the Czech philosopher was fortunate in two key respects: (1) he had a privileged access to Husserl’s mature research manuscripts (see esp. p. 191, n. 6 and p. 192, n. 7), which enabled him, inter alia, to harmonize Husserl’s mature genetic phenomenology – that not infrequently speaks of »transcendental life« – with the pretensions of Lebensphilosophie; (2) his habilitation thesis late (and well-informed) enough to investigate the published fragment of Husserl’s last book torso, the Crisis (Husserl 1936), which is not only the most accessible amongst Husserl’s mature published writings (in 1937, Husserl himself deemed his previous book nearly incomprehensible, see Husserl 1994, IV:60), but also promising thematically.

The novel texts discussed by Novotný manifest “fundamental change” in Patočka’s understanding of Husserl’s genetic-transcendental phenomenology (Patočka as quoted by Novotný, p. 197); and, according to Novotný’s central and significant interpretative thesis, in is this “novel interpretation” upon which the post-war writings “that garnered Patočka the most fame as original philosopher with innovative views […] were grounded” (201). This tectonic change stems from Patočka’s quest for a “pristine” coincidence “between subject and object enclosed within itself” (Patočka as quoted by Novotný, p. 197), on the basis of which special experience (“lacking the very possibility of distance;” 199), Novotný argues, Patočka developed a non-subjective version of the transcendental-phenomenological correlation that became productive when, in the post-war period, Patočka once again resumed his intellectual investment in the philosophy of life. In this regard, it might be interesting to draw a comparison with the contemporaneous ideas of Eugen Fink (1905-1975) who, in an even closer personal proximity to Husserl, also experimented in a similar, though more overtly metaphysical form of closure of the subject-object movement in the form of his ambitious notion of the meontic absolute. Even though the declared scope of Novotný’s chapter prevents him from dwelling upon Patočka’s biography, it is worth mentioning for the sake of foreign readers that Patočka’s life, too, ended prematurely at the merciless hands of history: the septuagenarian philosopher had to become hospitalized and died after being interrogated by the secret police due to his involvement in the Charta 77 anti-communist civil rights movement.

The last chapter of the book, written by Dragan Prole on the Zagorka Mićić (1903-1982), not only casts light on a lesser-known local sub-history of phenomenology, but it is also of paramount importance because Mićić is the only woman amongst the protagonists of the reviewed volume (apart from the passim reference to Eugénie Blaustein née Ginsberg; cf. 165).

It is generally acknowledged that Early Phenomenology, especially the circle of disciples around Husserl in the late Göttingen and early Freiburg years, was at the forefront of academic emancipation of women. Several of the female early phenomenologists – most notably Edith Stein (1891-1942) and Hedwig-Conrad Martius née Martius (1888-1966) – embarked on philosophical careers on their own and the academic hindrances they encountered in doing so, e.g., the refusal of Stein’s repeated habitation attempts, were, I think, outside of the scope of control of the core Phenomenological Movement (at least, when it comes to the scope of Husserl’s direct influence). From this point of view, it might be desirable to address this aspect of CEE phenomenology in more detail, as I am convinced that CEE phenomenology was in no way inferior to its global counterpart in this regard.

Prole thankfully introduces a refreshing angle into presenting the early reception of phenomenology in the inter-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia, insofar as he discusses the broader political and cultural debates in the wide-ranging and often contradictory contexts of which the reception process took place. Not unlike the intellectual preconditions in other countries (the German heartland included), the pioneers of phenomenology in Yugoslavia were, Prole wrote, philosophers who “no longer believed in the mere appropriation of inherited forms” (206). It also belongs to the virtues of Prole’s chapters that he takes into account the explicitly theological strain of the early reception of phenomenology (curiously or not, phenomenology was fiercely opposed by Jesuits on the grounds that it “embodies the Protestant longing for the truth and the real world;” 207).

Mićić’s private studies at Husserl and Fink – in early 1935 (see Husserl 1994, IV:373, n. 219) or in 1934 (cf. 210) – dated at the less-documented period when only a seclusive tiny group of disciples remained around Husserl (in exchange, Mićić had easier access to Husserl’s Crisis that was published in an exile journal precisely in Belgrade). Mićić’s dissertation, originally defended in 1934, was published three years later, thus she was able to utilize Husserl’s book published in the meantime (Husserl 1936), not to mention her “personal communication” with Husserl, as well as the ability “to consult a wealth of Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts” (209). The threads of the chapter’s investigation join in Mićić’s claim that the exposition of transcendental phenomenology must pay a greater attention to history (cf. 211). In doing so, she self-avowedly diverged from Fink’s views – who contributed a separate preface to her book – with regard, e.g., to the possibility of motivating or criticising phenomenology from an external, non-phenomenological standpoint (while she simultaneously participated replied to a fierce external critique of Husserl by one her compatriots). Ironically, the young doctoral student whose dissertation had, until now, buried by being written in a non-Western language (not to mention its place of publication), could have been closer to Husserl’s own specific understanding of the methodology of his mature phenomenological philosophy, than Eugen Fink, Husserl’s privileged assistance and co-philosophizing partner in Freiburg. It is, thus, not only the circumstances of her life that, I think, should make translating her original doctoral dissertation into English or German into one of the top priorities of scholarly efforts dedicated to CEE phenomenology (besides expressing our gratitude to Prole for filling the gaps of our knowledge about Mićić).

III. General Remarks: The Movement without a Centre?

It is hard to overstate the merits of Witold Płotka and Patrick Eldridge in putting together this volume. For international readers, it is also worth highlighting that Witold Płotka not only maintains a strong scholarly profile in researching the history of phenomenology in Poland (see, e.g., Płotka 2017), but – through his enthusiasm, commitment,  and professionalism – he is one of the main driving forces behind the current fortunate revival of cooperation between younger CEE phenomenologists (following in the footsteps of similar earlier revival attempts undertaken by the previous scholarly generations in this region, several meritorious representatives of them are included amongst the contributors of the reviewed volume). For a venture of this kind, it is only natural that the reviewed volume did not attain an exhaustive enumeration of the history of CEE phenomenology, either geographically or temporally or in terms of senior contemporary representatives of phenomenology in this region (as far as I am aware of it, what came closest to such an attempt was the enumeration of the local traditions of phenomenology in the entries of Lester Embree’s [1938-2017] encyclopedia: see, e.g., Mezei 1997). It also goes without saying that the selection and weighting of historical figures in such a volume do not exactly correlate with the full historical canon of CEE phenomenology (not least because the complete exploration of the latter still remains a scholarly desideratum). While many of the omitted historical figures are buried by their primary and secondary literature being available only in local languages; there is, in a welcome change, a growing body of scholarly editions and research literature on CEE phenomenology in Western languages. In their introduction, the editors mention some of these publications which might help augmenting the historical picture provided by them (e.g., Zoltán Szalai’s German monograph [Szalai 2017] on the Hungarian-born Wilhelm Szilasi [Szilasi Vilmos; 1889-1966] who was teaching at the chair of philosophy in Freiburg, once assumed by none else than Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger). Let me mention only one further piece of writing in this regard (Vydrová 2020), both for the sake of its methodological sensitivity and as a representative of the local phenomenological and interpretative traditions in the CEE region not covered by the reviewed volume.

One general aspect that the readers might find underexposed in the reviewed volume is, though, the presentation of CEE phenomenology’s deep embeddedness in its multifaceted historical, political, and social contexts (some of these possible contexts were specially emphasized above in the present review essay). Perhaps we can attribute this underexposure to phenomenology’s deep-seated aversion against a historical approach to philosophy: “the mathematician too will not turn to historical science,” Husserl once thundered in his ill-fortunate Philosophy as rigorous science, “[…h]ow, then, is it to be the historian’s task to decide as to the truth of given philosophical systems” (Husserl 1911, 325–326; quoted translation: Husserl 1965, 126)? But this heritage should not necessarily bind the historians of CEE phenomenology, especially since investigations of these rich contexts could serve as a bridge between scholars of phenomenology and other disciples in humanities and social sciences. What I find particularly fascinating in this regard is the fact that the reception of phenomenology fulfilled different, sometimes even diametrically opposed roles in this region, especially in the Eastern Bloc states. For instance, it is instructive to compare the role classical phenomenology played in the thinking of, say, Karol Wojtyła (Pope St John Paul II; 1920-2005; cf., e.g., Gubser 2014, 188 ff.) vis-à-vis some members of the Budapest School around Georg Lukács (1885-1971), see: Vajda 2016. This variety of phenomenology’s multifaceted political involvements and social contexts – in which respect CEE phenomenology might be ahead of its more fortunate Western counterpart – seems like a worthy and promising subject matter of further scholarly investigations.

CEE phenomenology has, since its inception, been haunted by its geographic and linguistic fragmentation, resulting in a strange form of compartmentalized parallel sub-histories of phenomenology in this region, with little vertical integration between its strains, except for the Western (i.e., German and French) tradition of phenomenology being their common origin and contemporary points of reference. Curiously, one of the rare counterexamples to this peculiar twist of reception history took place precisely due to the now-forgotten dialogue between phenomenology and Eastern bloc Marxism that might be worthy of further scholarly attention (see, e.g., Waldenfels et al. 1977 and the subsequent volumes), including the general institutional substructure of philosophical exchange of ideas within the Eastern bloc (e.g., the regular symposia in the island of Korčula in the then relatively permissive Yugoslavia). It also goes without saying that the unfolding of the full promise inherent in CEE phenomenology has been further impeded by the multifaceted calamities of history in this region, as well as its comparative lack of academic and general cultural and societal resources. The latter issue, arguably, still persists today, even if only to a lesser degree; and we can but hope that history will not repeat itself in the former respect.

From a scholarly point of view, there is, however, a further scientific factor that impedes the historiography of CEE phenomenology, namely yet incomplete task of writing the history of CEE philosophy in the first place. Given its similarly fragmented and compartmentalized nature, as well as its incomparably broader scope, this task present itself as an even more demanding and, more often than not, a thankless job. To cite a specific local example: The nineteenth and twentieth century Hungarian philosophers frequently questioned whether Hungarian philosophy existed at all, referring to the specifically anti-philosophical nature of their supposed national character (see Steindler 1988), which, of course, amounts to a form of performative contradiction, ultimately rooted in the tension of philosophical creativity versus reception (cf. Perecz 2003). At the same time, the “chimaera of the concept of national philosophy” is, at least from a historiographic-scholarly point of view, probably better accommodated within the framework of a comparative history of CEE philosophy and its neighboring disciples, e.g., literature (Mester 2012, 271); and exploratory research (e.g., Varga 2020) may still be needed in many areas. Yet, non-phenomenological historical figures could shed light even on the (pre-)history of global phenomenology (see, e.g., Alexander 2018; cf. Varga 2018b). In sum, even though the actual intricacies of CEE history of philosophy might vary from region to region and from language to language, it could be safely assumed that neither of them constitutes an easy historiographical prerequisite for writing the history of the corresponding local chapter of phenomenology that is to be embedded in it (not to mention the problem of their comparative investigations).

Interestingly, an analogous problem arises within the history of German philosophy: Rather than being a creatio ex nihilo, phenomenology originated from the oft-ignored historical context of late nineteenth century post-Hegelian German academic philosophy (Universitätsphilosophie). This period has, for long, been overshadowed by an alternative canon of the history of nineteenth century German philosophy after Hegel, the monumental protagonists of which were proto-existentialist and left-Hegelian thinkers (as presented emphatically by, e.g., Löwith 1941). This scholarly situation is gradually changing (cf., Köhnke 1986; Beiser 2014), even though comparatively less attention is paid to finding the place of phenomenology within this new paradigm of post-Hegelian German philosophy (cf. Varga 2016a; a case study on the role of the hitherto forgotten nineteenth century logician Christoph von Sigwart [1830-1904]: Varga 2016b). In this regard, the compartmentalized pre-histories of CEE phenomenology can serve as instructive example for the historiography of phenomenology in general. There is, however, more to it, insofar as CEE phenomenology could bring more to global phenomenology.

As I said above, I disagree with the editors’ assessment that CEE phenomenology were a “pluralistic movement which we cannot reduce to a few research centres” (5). I disagree because I think it applies not only to CEE phenomenology, but, a fortiori, to global phenomenology as well. Setting aside the historical question concerning the weight of the Phenomenological Movement in pre-war and inter-war periods of German philosophy; it is a well-known phenomenon of contemporary academic philosophy that phenomenology (especially its classical core), is to a large extent, sustained by an intense interest in it by scholars on the peripheries, rather than at the academic centers in Western world – i.e., the nominal centers of phenomenology – which are, with some honorable exceptions, dominated by Analytical Philosophy or other branches of contemporary nonphenomenological philosophy. Central and Eastern Europe, esp. the former Eastern bloc, is, of course, not the only such periphery (in this regard, one should definitely mention Far East and South America as well); but it is undoubtedly one of the regions whose historically rooted, rejuvenating enthusiasm for phenomenology contributes to keeping phenomenology at the forefront of contemporary philosophy. It is through the laudable and courageous achievement of Witold Płotka and Patrick Eldridge, as well as their authors that this lesson – and with it, the special legacy of CEE phenomenology, namely the heightened sensitivity towards historical and thematical ruptures – is brought to our attention once again.


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* Page numbers without further bibliographical specifications refer to the reviewed volume. If possible, I only cite literature that is not mentioned in the reviewed volume.

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