In Self-Feeling: Can Self-Consciousness be Understood as a Feeling?, Gerhard Kreuch offers a well-expressed theory of self-consciousness that largely builds on insights from the so-called Heidelberg School – including such authors as Manfred Frank, Dieter Henrich, and Ulrich Pothast – and from the theory of existential feelings – developed by Matthew Ratcliffe, Achim Stephan and Jan Slaby, among others. His central claim is that understanding self-consciousness as an affective phenomenon – namely as a self-feeling – helps to overcome problems that beset other prominent theoretical branches in this area of research, such as various higher-order representationalisms or theories of pre-reflective self-consciousness. Besides providing a justification for this claim, Kreuch also aims to develop a model that allows us to build a theoretical bridge between basic, non-conceptual self-consciousness and its more sophisticated forms, such as full-blown first-person thoughts about one’s own character traits or values. In addition, Kreuch explores how feelings in general can have a fundamental impact on our self-interpretations, and analyzes the conditions under which we would evaluate such interpretations and self-feelings as appropriate or misguided.
Before going into further detail, allow me to sketch the overall structure of the text. The book is divided into four parts. The first chapter provides a brief but helpful overview of various current theories of self-consciousness and the alleged challenges they face. The second chapter discusses human affectivity in general and introduces the reader to the theory of existential feelings. The third chapter brings the two fields together. Kreuch explains why the theory of existential feelings can be very useful in research on self-consciousness and how the features that these kinds of feelings apparently exhibit fit the description of pre-reflective (or as Kreuch also calls them, “same-order”) forms of self-consciousness identified in the first chapter. The fourth chapter seeks to provide an adequate description of the relationship between self-feelings and those first-person thoughts which are attempts to explore one’s own identity.
In Part I the book begins with a comparison of what Kreuch terms “Higher-Order and Same-Order Models of Self-Consciousness”. Higher-order models maintain that a mental state can only become conscious if it is represented by a numerically distinct state, whereas same-order models hold that there is no need for such higher-order representation. Kreuch’s terminology could be considered somewhat misleading since many of the theories to which he refers (such as those of Armstrong, Gennaro, Carruthers or Rosenthal) are not primarily concerned with self-consciousness but with consciousness. Of course, some of them – such as Kriegel’s and Williford’s self-representationalism – are also intended to provide an adequate account of what is nowadays known as the subjective character, or the mine-ness or me-ishness of experience, but the central purpose of introducing these ideas is to give an informative explanation of consciousness. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to talk about consciousness, since self-consciousness is, after all, also a case of consciousness. Kreuch then presents reasons for preferring a same-order view of self-consciousness over a higher-order one. Central to this decision are the various regresses and vicious-circular explanations which, according to Kreuch, beset higher-order approaches. For instance, he claims that if we assume that a mental state (A) can only become conscious or self-conscious (Kreuch shifts between these two descriptions) if it is represented by a different mental state (B), then there also needs to be yet another mental state (C), which represents B to make B conscious/self-conscious, and so forth. Moreover, Kreuch maintains that genuine self-consciousness is not just a consciousness of something that happens to be oneself, but includes an additional awareness of the identity-relation holding between oneself and the object of which one is conscious (he uses Manfred Frank’s notion of De Se Constraint to denote this condition). Yet, the crucial question is this: how can a representation ensure genuine self-consciousness (or to use different terminology, fulfill the De Se Constraint)? It seems that in order to be able to recognize a representation as a representation of myself, I already need to have some prior knowledge about myself which enables me to do this. Hence, theories which attempt to explain self-consciousness in terms of self-representation presuppose what they try to explain, or so Kreuch claims.
For this reason, Kreuch sympathizes with pre-reflective theories of self-consciousness, which share his diagnosis and argue that not all cases of self-consciousness can be self-representations. However, these theories also provide a couple of other negative characterizations, such as the idea that self-consciousness is non-objectifying and non-relational. Kreuch adopts this characterization, and states that “[s]elf-consciousness is a pre-reflective, non-relational, single-digit phenomenon. There is no duality, inner perception, representation, etc., involved. Every conscious state is in itself self-intimating” (20). I am not entirely sure what “non-objectifying” or “self-intimating” mean, but I take to be the core of this approach the claim that some instances of self-consciousness have to be understood as non-relational properties rather than as relations one entertains to oneself (such as specific propositional attitudes). However, this is not a particularly rich description of these types of self-consciousness, as Kreuch rightly stresses: “Looking closer at alternative pre-reflective theories from the Heidelberg School and Zahavi/Gallagher we saw that they suffer from the ‘ex negativo’ challenge. They focus on refuting what self-consciousness is not and give little account on what it is.” (50). This is the theoretical gap Kreuch wants to close in the remainder of his book.
In Part II, Kreuch provides a general introduction to the philosophy of emotions and an account of existential feelings. He claims that one has to investigate what he calls fundamental human affectivity to come closer to an adequate theory of self-consciousness. Fundamental affective states, according to Kreuch, include moods, background feelings, and bodily feelings. He contrasts these with short-term, object-oriented emotions such as anger or fear, on which most of the contemporary philosophical literature focuses (67). While fundamental human affectivity has been discussed occasionally in the literature on emotions (e.g. in the work of Else Voigtländer, Edith Stein, Max Scheler, Bernard Waldenfels or Antonio Damasio), until recently it has never been the focal point. Kreuch maintains that Matthew Ratcliffe’s theory of existential feelings represents the most elaborated attempt to explore this dimension of affectivity and notes that he therefore relies heavily on Ratcliffe’s prior theoretical work on these issues (73ff.). Kreuch describes existential feelings as bodily emotional states which constitute “the affective background of all our experience” (74) and “shape our space of possibilities” (76). According to Ratcliffe, as Kreuch reads him, existential feelings shape our way of being in the world and are in this sense “about the world as a whole and our relationship with it […] They constitute our way of experiencing the world as a whole. Existential feelings are not about specific objects, and neither are they a medium through which something else is experienced” (80). As such, they shape “our sense of what is possible for us. Thus, they are background orientations that structure all our experience and thought.” (82). To illustrate how these existential feelings define our “space of possibilities”, Kreuch discusses a variety of cases: “In depression, the whole world feels deprived of possibilities, nothing is worth pursuing anymore. […] Similarly, a case can be made for more usual everyday situations. Imagine you had a very hard night with your baby crying for hours. You are tired and feel weak. […] Then you go to work where you are about to give an important presentation for a committee that decides on financing your long-time planned project. Under normal circumstances you would feel a bit nervous but fairly confident about it. This time, however, everything feels harder and less doable.” (84–85).
Although I find Kreuch’s idea rather intriguing, it is not entirely clear to me in what ways these feelings are supposed to define our space of possibilities. In the quotation above, for instance, Kreuch uses the words “feels deprived of possibilities” or “nothing is worth pursuing”. These are quite different things: I can believe that almost anything is possible for me while still thinking that none of these possibilities are worth pursuing, and I can believe that I am deprived of all possibilities while having the feeling that any possibility would be better than none. Do these existential feelings make me epistemically blind to certain possibilities, while presenting others as especially salient? Or do they present with a particular valence those possibilities of which I am already aware; that is to say, as possibilities that may or may not be worth pursuing? Later on, it seems as if Kreuch has in mind something along the lines of the first characterization, when he writes: “Self-feeling shapes what appears as possible action for us, it is a sense of what we can do or cannot do. For instance, when we feel vulnerable and rejected, it is unlikely that we find ourselves capable of holding a speech in front of a large audience” (137, my emphasis). However, it would be helpful to have a more precise description at some point of exactly how these feelings work and how they shape a person’s “space of possibilities”.
In Part III of his book, Kreuch seeks to develop a theory of self-feelings to overcome the problems outlined in Part I. This section can be seen as the theoretical heart of the book. Here Kreuch claims that self-feelings are not a subclass of existential feelings and existential feelings are not specific types of self-feelings, but “[i]nstead, existential feeling and self-feeling are two aspects of the one unitary phenomenon of fundamental human affectivity. Every existential feeling is always a self-feeling, too. At the same time, every self-feeling is always an existential feeling, too.” (122). As a first step, Kreuch summarizes the essential features these self-feelings are supposed to have. They are pre-reflective, non-reducible, pre-propositional, single-digit and irrelational De Se phenomena (124). As pre-propositional mental states they do not have complete propositions as their intentional objects but they always include the possibility of full articulation in one’s overall self-narration occurring in thought and speech (131). As bodily mental states, self-feelings integrate experiences of one’s own body with a feeling of the world and they also combine bodily aspects with cognitive ones. Kreuch explains: “When you touch the tip of a pencil there are two aspects involved: You feel the changes in your finger (as part of your body), your skin and tissue is deformed by the hard pencil. At the same time, you feel the pencil, you have a feeling of this object in the world. […] The situation is similar with self-feeling. In self-feeling we feel how we find ourselves in the world. It is at the same time a ‘world-feeling’, we feel our being in touch with the world.” (135). Later on, Kreuch introduces two additional features of these self-feelings. They also include a feeling of one’s own existence and one’s individuality. By virtue of entertaining them we become aware of the fact that we exist and thereby gain somehow an awareness of how we exist as this specific individual in the world. Kreuch mentions feeling healthy or welcome as examples of this how-aspect (139).
After this in-depth discussion of the essential characteristics of self-feelings, Kreuch addresses the problems he identified with higher-order (or reflective) theories of self-consciousness in Part I. He takes the following claims as the key conclusions to be drawn from Part I: (A) “mental states must be self-intimating” (i.e. “they must be conscious by virtue of themselves”); (B) “[a]ll feelings are mental states”; and (C) “all feelings are self-intimating” (150). I am not sure whether I understand Kreuch correctly here, but (A) cannot be true unless we assume that all mental states are conscious, since self-intimation is usually considered to be sufficient for that. And because not all mental states are self-intimating, the argument is not sound and provides no justification for the proposition that all feelings are self-intimating. The argument is more likely to work if we substitute “mental states” in (A) and (B) with “conscious states”, though I am not sure that all feelings are conscious (it also depends, I suppose, on one’s preferred terminology). Later on (153), Kreuch maintains that he does not necessarily have to defend (A) as it stands and that it would be sufficient for his theory if only self-feelings were self-intimating. This, however, seems to be in tension with the assumption that something like a pre-reflective self-consciousness is a universal feature of experience. Kreuch then addresses the circularity and regress problems which, he claims, beset higher-order theories of (self-)consciousness. According to Kreuch, theories which appeal to self-feelings do not entail a regress since these feelings are conscious by virtue of intrinsic properties (or as Kreuch puts it, because they are “self-intimating”) and not because they are represented by other mental states (151).
However, he rightly questions whether his theory is able to explain self-consciousness, since it seems to rely on the rather mysterious notion of “self-intimation”, which appears to presuppose some sort of self-consciousness without specifying or explaining it any further (152). Kreuch admits that he cannot completely avoid such circularity problems but that his theory, like all same-order views, is nevertheless superior in many respects to higher-order theories of consciousness and that therefore the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. First, the theory of self-feelings at least seems to avoid the problem of regress, since a conscious state does not have to be represented by numerically distinct states. Moreover, he argues that it “is plausible that it is advantageous for creatures if their most important mental states are self-intimating and do not need an additional mechanism to become self-conscious. For example, a creature that had to undergo a lengthy and exhausting process of self-reflection in order to be able to conclude that it is hungry would be disadvantaged from a creature that had the feeling of hunger right away.” (152–153). I don’t think that this is a particularly strong argument, since it is still rather unclear what consciousness is good for, and one might even hold that an unconscious hunger is better suited to trigger an immediate reaction, as consciousness might only be present during the performance of cognitively more demanding tasks (like complex decision-making or reporting one’s hunger). Finally, Kreuch claims that higher-order theories of consciousness also fail to explain why some mental states are accompanied by meta-representations while others are not, and therefore that they presuppose something they do not explain (just as his own theory of self-feelings does). Hence, even if Kreuch’s theory might contain some explanatory black boxes, this is a feature that it shares with every other currently available theory of self-consciousness (153).
In the final major section of Part III, Kreuch explores the appropriateness conditions of the self-feelings his theory posits. According to Kreuch, we cannot be mistaken in self-feelings about our own existence but these feelings can, on the basis of a number of criteria, be more or less appropriate or inappropriate (171, 194). In order to be appropriate, self-feelings may have to be balanced, stable over time (176), open to intersubjective reasoning (174), include an awareness of their own contingency (173), need to be biologically (180) or socially effective (181) and consistent, to some extent, with the network of other mental states in which they are embedded (182). However, none of these criteria alone is sufficient or necessary for an adequate evaluation of self-feelings, since this task is highly context-sensitive and in different contexts the distinct criteria are considered to be more or less relevant (183).
The final part of the book, Part IV, provides an account of how self-feelings are connected to first-person thought. It concerns the question of how these kinds of feelings inform our thinking about ourselves and influence our understanding of our own identity. Kreuch first provides some terminological clarifications which form the basis for the claim that a theory of self-interpretation should take theoretical center stage in the philosophy of self-consciousness, rather than the epistemological considerations which are usually associated with the notion of self-knowledge. Referring to the work of Cassam, Schwitzgebel and Lawlor, Kreuch suggests that research should focus more on interpretative, self-reflective activities which are pursued to “mak[e] sense of our own individual lives and create synthesized, general narratives about who we are” (204). This is also, Kreuch maintains, the theoretical field in which the concept of self-feeling can contribute valuable insights. While our self-interpretations or self-narratives are, to a certain degree, open and are unlikely to ever end, they are not based in mere imagining and therefore require a hermeneutical foundation that provides some clues as to which direction the interpretations should take. Building on Krista Lawlor’s concept of internal promptings, Kreuch proposes that self-feelings can provide such a hermeneutical base for our self-narrative thoughts (208). Later on, Kreuch writes: “[A self-feeling] offers a direct, affective experience of one’s overall being in this world. As affective resonance of one’s individual existence it can itself function as source of evidence for self-interpretation” (215). Moreover, self-feelings do not only shape our space of possible actions, as Kreuch has argued in Part II, they also determine the way we think about ourselves: “Thus, given a particular self-feeling there are thoughts that are possible and others that are not. For example, in the case of severe depression our self-related thoughts are predominantly concerned with our insignificance and disability. We believe that we are worthless and unable to live a normal life. Thoughts like ‘Things will become better for me again’ or ‘I have strengths and skills, too’ are likely to be impossible in severe depression” (211). Hence, self-feelings guide, limit, and provide evidence for our self-interpretations.
The next major section of Part IV analyzes how the evaluation of self-feelings and self-interpretations are related to one another (217). For this purpose, Kreuch discusses four different evaluative combinations of these mental states and how we might interpret them (220). According to Kreuch, there are: 1) inappropriate self-feelings with fitting self-interpretations (e.g. depression); 2) appropriate self-feelings with non-corresponding self-interpretations; 3) inappropriate self-feelings with misguided interpretations (as in narcissistic personality disorder); and 4) appropriate self-feelings and adequate interpretations (which Kreuch calls “authenticity”). A self-interpretation is only fully appropriate (or authentic) if it somehow captures the nature of the self-feeling on the basis of which it was formed. In addition, the underlying self-feeling has to be appropriate, too. If I feel a deep sadness for no good reason and understand myself as a melancholic person, both the feeling and the interpretation seem to be misguided, even if the interpretation resembles the feeling. Or, as Kreuch ultimately puts it: “There cannot be appropriateness on the higher levels if something is wrong in the foundation” (251).
Overall, Kreuch’s Self-Feeling is an important contribution to current debates on self-consciousness and addresses pressing issues which are rarely discussed within those debates. The author succeeds in demonstrating that it is worthwhile to investigate the neglected relations holding between self-consciousness and emotions more deeply. The book provides a novel account in a tremendously complex area of research and generally presents its ideas very clearly. While Self-Feeling covers a wide range of topics and appeals to different analytical and continental traditions, one never feels lost since the author is an excellent guide throughout the book. Yet, the broad scope of the book obviously comes at the cost of more detailed discussion of particular arguments, especially those which are presented as motivations for Kreuch’s own theory. Let me offer a few examples and thereby end this review on a constructively critical note.
The regress argument, which Kreuch presents as a problem for higher-order theories of consciousness, is highly debated in the literature. The crucial claim that needs justification or has to be accepted by higher-order representationalists to get the regress going is as follows: only conscious mental states can make us conscious of the things they represent. This, however, is an assumption that most of these theorists will not accept. David Rosenthal, for instance, writes: “Nor must a HOT [Higher-Order Thought] itself be conscious to make us conscious of its target. We’re conscious of things even when we see them subliminally, though we’re not in such cases aware that we’re conscious of those things. Similarly with HOTs and their mental targets. We’re seldom aware of having HOTs, which is what we should expect” (Rosenthal 2005: 9). And even philosophers who explicitly argue against higher-order models, such as Rowlands (2001), agree that at least some types of unconscious mental states, such as perceptions, can make us conscious of things they represent. Thus, in order to provide a comprehensive justification for a critique along these lines, Kreuch would need to put a lot more work into the argument.
Similar issues apply to the circularity critique Kreuch raises against higher-order theories of consciousness (or reflective theories of self-consciousness). Kreuch writes: “The challenge is then about how should self-consciousness emerge out of a set of completely unconscious states? The only explanation seems to be that self-consciousness was implicitly already there. Otherwise it remains dark how the combination of two unconscious states should make for self-consciousness” (15). I am not sure why there is supposed to be a circular explanation here. Higher-order theories of consciousness maintain that a mental state becomes conscious in virtue of being adequately represented. The meta-representations themselves, they claim, are most often unconscious. Hence, according to these types of theories, the only thing needed for consciousness to emerge is meta-representation. And we might add that quite often when two things stand in appropriate relations (such as a representation-relation), they can gain properties (such as being conscious) that they would not have on their own. Therefore, higher-order theories at least prima facie seem to offer a non-circular explanation of (self-)consciousness and therefore more detailed discussion is required in order for this criticism to work.
Yet, as I explained earlier, Kreuch identifies another circle. According to him, any theory which understands self-consciousness merely in terms of representation presupposes other (unexplained) forms of self-consciousness, because a subject would already have to know something about itself to recognize itself as the object of representation. Kreuch concludes, therefore, that some cases of self-consciousness cannot be representations, but must be understood as non-relational properties or, as he puts it, as “single-digit phenomena”. It is not absolutely clear, I think, whether one really has to know something about oneself to entertain genuine De Se representations (or, as people say, “representations about oneself as oneself”), since we might also be able to have proper De Re representations without having any knowledge about the objects in question. And I am also not sure that we have to accept completely non-relational forms of self-consciousness in order to account for De Se representations, since even those non-representational instances of self-consciousness are supposed to be about me and my mental states and, hence, appear to exhibit some kind of directedness or intentionality. We could simply introduce some form of non-representational self-acquaintance instead. I believe that Kreuch is correct in pressing the question of how genuine De Se (or first-person) representation is possible and that this should be the focus of a theory of self-consciousness. However, it would be useful to be provided with a deeper understanding of exactly how Kreuch’s concept of a single-digit self-feeling can help answer this question.
Rosenthal, David. 2005. Consciousness and Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rowlands, Mark. 2001. “Consciousness and Higher-Order Thoughts”. Mind & Language. Vol. 16 (3): 290–310.
 As stated earlier, Kreuch seems to use these names interchangeably. However, it is not clear whether these notions usually denote the same types of theories in the literature, as a theory of self-consciousness may not be expected to give any hints about the conditions of consciousness in general.
In this addition to the venerable SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Josh Robinson seeks to problematize and subsequently re-construct the concept of ‘form’ as it relates to literature – and the sphere of the arts taken in general – through recourse to both Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory at large, and to the precise and manifold studies of practitioners which Robinson gathers from a thoroughly close reading of Adorno’s Gesammelte Schriften, including the Philosophie der neuen Musik (1949), Noten zur Literatur (1958-1961) and his posthumous projects Ästhetische Theorie (1970) and Beethoven. Philosophie der Musik. Fragmente und Texte (1993).
Robinson provides many of his own translations throughout the book, seeking to preserve and amplify the nuance of Adorno’s distinct German idiom whilst maintaining readability and eloquence. Despite his – unfair – self-criticism in the introduction (22), Robinson has done an admirable job of rendering some of Adorno’s more abstruse terminology, such as erfüllen – which Robinson translates as ‘imbue’ rather than ‘fulfil’ – in ways which retain their literal meaning, whilst allowing him to comment on the tensions or ambiguities inherent in these lexical choices (69). As such, Robinson’s translations do not appear incongruous alongside his selections from Edmund Jephcott and Robert Hullot-Kentor’s work, and in some cases surpass these canonical translations in lucidity. These translations of his own are noted, helpfully, in the list of abbreviated works which precedes the introduction.
The introduction lays out the overall aims of the publication in clear detail, which is characterised by a three-fold objective. Firstly, it seeks to support the development of the ‘New Formalism’ in poetics, outlined by means of tracing the history of this emerging field as it responds to dominant trends in literary theory – the New Criticism of I. A. Richards, Harold Bloom et al., and the New Historicist studies inspired by the work of Stephen Greenblatt and others – which is perhaps best characterised through its approach to the close reading of the internal elements of the text qua historically contingent features and functions, the study of which enables a more textually-grounded literary and cultural historicism. Robinson’s support for this New Formalism comes by way of a rigorous reflection on its underlying principle of artistic form. Rather than accepting the pre-supposition that one knows what is being dealt with when we speak of certain elements of the text as instantiations of the concept of form, Robinson seeks to elaborate on precisely what the ‘formal’ elements of a literature are, and how the consideration of form is itself able to shape the analysis of literary art and artworks.
Secondly, Robinson proposes to support his more practical-critical goal outlined in the paragraph above by way of critical philology of Adorno’s writings. As an aesthetician, Adorno had a “somewhat uneasy influence […] on the New Formalism,” in Robinson’s characterisation (8). In his analyses of music, the visual arts and literature, we see a diversity of uses to which Adorno puts form—as an explication of the activity of a practitioner as they shape the lexical, physical or phonic materials out of which their art is made, as the manifestation of that shaping activity – the artwork itself – and, as the tradition or convention within which that objective manifestation is placed alongside others, the genre which draws different works together. By focusing on Adorno’s claim that form is ‘sedimented content’ in the artwork, and that artworks are “products of social labour[…],” Robinson seeks to provide a basis from which we can think of forms, and consequently what those forms might tell us about the form of life specific to capitalist social and property relations (25-26).
Robinson’s third and final aim is to lay the groundwork for a future study of specific works of art and their attendant form, what this poetics of form may illuminate in the texts and other artworks to which it is applied, and the implications of this approach for the theorising of art’s possible intervention into, and relationship with, society and the political economy.
His first chapter, titled ‘Form and Content,’ goes ahead to critically assess Adorno’s thinking of form through an analysis of the polemical rift between Adorno and Martin Heidegger, noting that although Adorno is guilty of mischaracterising Heidegger’s argument, his issue with Heidegger’s attempt to engage with the question of art is in fact a pointed critique of his method. In Heidegger we see that the question of what an artwork is cannot be answered by starting from the question ‘what kind of thing is an artwork?’ (30), whereas Adorno insists that the artwork’s thing-hood is that which enables it to be more than a mere thing—that their tangible qualities, accessible through sensory observation, simultaneously reveal elements which cannot be fully understood through that sensory observation or ‘anschauung.’ Much like Heidegger, Adorno focused a considerable portion of his writing on the lyric poetry of Johann Friedrich Hölderlin; Robinson notes, however, that Adorno’s criticisms recognise the tendency in Heidegger’s discussion of this work towards a metaphysical separation of form and content, which is then followed by the philosophical investigation of content to the detriment of any inquiry into the form of the work. This philosophical investigation into the content of the work is necessary, posits Robinson, but must begin with what is left behind after the philological analysis of form has been undertaken, in response to the “aspects that are philologically most challenging” (36).
Adorno’s rejection of Heidegger’s theorisation starts here: any separation of form and content in Adorno’s work is first and foremost a conceptual separation which is only ever temporary, and the philosophy which attempts to uncover the truth-content of the work of art thus ought to be carried out in relation to the poem as it is experienced (36) in philological analysis, a philosophy commensurate with and sensitive to the requirements of the work. Such a philosophy would side-step Adorno’s criticism of Heidegger’s method, that it would not ‘infiltrate’ the poetry with philosophy from the outside, risking the possibility that the analysis would tell us more about the philosopher’s presuppositions than the “object of enquiry[…]” (29).
Robinson carries on to clarify Adorno’s notion of form as sedimented content, whereby form is characterised as coming into being as the particular way the artist deposits content in the work:
“Form is thus the result or mark of the process by which the work of art is made, but never appears as merely subjective or arbitrary. […] What is significant for understanding the relationship between form and content is that the separation is arbitrary. […] Sedimentation refers here to a process whereby the content of what come to be artworks […] ceases to be relevant (or even exist), while the objects continue to be made with the same or similar features.” [Emphasis added] (44-45).
As such, if the critic minimises the role of form in the artwork to the emphasis of content, they disregard what the whole aesthetic content of the work is, and simultaneously miss the way in which truth-content in the work is characteristically shaped by the intentions of the artist. Form has its origins in the content of the work of art, insofar as propositional content is only one half of the picture, the other half fulfilled by the formal content in the work. Discussing Adorno’s essay on punctuation marks in the Noten zur Literatur, Robinson suggests we see a clear example of the way in which form functions and takes on meaning, as distinct from the functioning of propositional content in the work. The punctuation in a work does not signify, Adorno insists, but rather fulfils a performative function in that they direct the subjective experience of reading, in that they encourage the reader to slow down, speed up, halt, and so on—and thus the language in the work is “itself[…]” able to enter “into communication with the reader” (52).
Chapter two, ‘Form and Expression,’ continues this thread of argument, investigating the relationship between artist and expression. Form and expression, Robinson contends, are fundamentally observable phenomena in the work of art (67). If form is something which is refined by the work of the artist, as set out above, then it is also that which mediates the expression of the artist in the manifestation of the work, by way of its being imposed on the expressive impulse (69). However, if this is the case, then the observable form of the work is itself a presentation of the expressive impulse within the work; in Robinson’s words, “the form that subjugates expression itself becomes expression […]” an “immediate subjectivity that masquerades as object” in even the most stringently realist work (78-80). There is something of a reciprocity in the work of art, that is, there is a palpable subjectivity inherent in the work, even if the expression which is presented in the work is necessarily seen as an objective content. This formal mediation of expression in the work of art means that the expressive impulse outlined here is distinguishable from that of the individual artist themselves, characterised by Robinson as the ‘subject of art,’ which in Adorno’s words “speaks out of art[…]” and is not merely “presented by it” (78).
This is perhaps best portrayed by recourse to Robinson’s discussion of Adorno’s critique of Expressionism. In attempting to bypass aspects of tradition or convention – and, by extension, form writ large – by way of the ‘intensification’ of the principle of expression, aiming at an immediately “subjective expression as its content,” by means of an “unstylised recording of psychic or emotional content,” the Expressionist work appears as merely a contingent, arbitrary ‘experiential impression,’ as it is through the process of forming that “the subjective presence of the artist exists within the work,” as the subjective power to form which is distinguished from the expression of the subject of art (73-78). In Robinson’s words, through the “elimination of the objective content of expression, expression can no longer be subjective, and at once ceases to express and is transformed into objective content. […] a subject free of all mediation through the object—is no subject at all” (74-78).
Robinson’s concern in this chapter is primarily given over to the notion of mimesis in Adorno’s aesthetics; that the artworks whose realism comes closest to the world are not necessarily works of Expressionism or Realism, considered as attempts to describe the – subjective or objective – world, but rather in the works of artists such as Samuel Beckett, and particularly in the short stories and novels of Franz Kafka, as artists whose works imitate the world and as such draw attention to the process of reification, which “makes the web of delusion knowable” in Adorno’s interpretation (85). In a masterful reading of Kafka’s Das Schloss (1926) and Der Process (1925) we see our own estrangement or alienation “come to expression” in light of the author’s “rejection of the techniques of literary expressionism[…]” in the form of Kafka’s works “their realistic element crystallizes;” that is, in the ‘sober’ depiction of brutal oppression and bureaucratic absurdity alongside the ‘interior’ sensations, thoughts and feelings of his characters we see imitated our own condition of social repression, the ‘scattered shards’ of reality which compose an enigmatic, thoroughly expressive image (82-84). Mimesis, as such, is tied to the composition of artworks and how works make meaning: a specific bearing towards the work, and towards the world. Through the mediation of their particular expression by way of the formal aspects of the work, the examples of Kafka’s work briefly stated here achieve, to paraphrase Robinson, mimetic, “objective form.”
In chapter three, ‘Form and Genre,’ Robinson turns from his focus on the notion of form as it is manifest in particular works to how form is able to offer a way of thinking through the individual work to the shared character of different works. Each artwork that is worthy of the name, Robinson notes, ought necessarily to challenge and redefine the limits of its genre—and as such genre is shown to be historically contingent, characterised by its shifting frontiers. As each artist employs diverse techniques of composition in the process of creation they reconfigure the material available for future artists to shape, with consequent significance for the general category to which the work belongs. Pace Marx, Adorno suggests that artistic production is not a mere epiphenomenon of changes in industrial production, rather asserting that the means of artistic production are mediated through the relations of production, in much the same way that the means of industrial production are mediated through the relations of production. If “labour constitutes the principle means of relating to nature, at once enabling and restricting human life,” then the relations of production constitute the logic by which that labour is organised (100), and artistic labour is just as receptive to this mediation as industrial labour.
Individual developments in the particular form of art have an effect on the ‘universal’ tradition or genre within which it is placed, but this is more than a simple contribution. It is in the aspect of the individual, particular work of art which is hostile to the very notion of genre – the ‘abstractness’ and ‘limitedness’ of the concept –that this “tendency to strive against and break down the generality of the subordinating concept starts[…]” (108-109). Robinson considers here Adorno and Horkheimer’s treatment of the products of the culture industry as illustrated in Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), suggesting that the significance of the consideration of these products – instantiations of the ‘commodity form’ (116) – for Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory is in their instrumentalisation of art. In short, the commodity form is a means by which the work uncritically assimilates and as such supports the state of things as they are; products of the culture industry are best depicted in opposition to the ‘worthy’ artworks outlined above in that there is an absence of the tension between particular and universal which characterises the individual work of art. By way of their “fidelity to this [uncritically accepted] reality they abandon that which distinguishes them from it, renounce their claim to be different from the world,” to restate Robinson’s explanation (117). Thus it is not the products of the culture industry which are the cause of the taking-up of the commodity form; rather, it is the development of the culture industry and automated production under late capitalism which has caused the shift in socio-economic conditions and thus enabled the commodity form to function.
Of course, it is not simply the products of the culture industry which have been denigrated under this mode of production. In a case which appears as the opposite of the mimetic expression of Kafka’s work, the novel under capitalism has typically served not to draw attention to the reification of oppressive social-property relations, but to be in alliance with reification by means of a ‘realistic’ demystification of the world, an “uncritical absorption of and hence support for things as they are” [emphasis added] (118-119). The universal, generic artistic form, Robinson asserts, develops and evolves in response to the given social conditions of the historical ‘moment,’ conditions which demand a certain expression and ‘mode of address’ of the particular work, manifest in the ‘capitulation’ to a reality which cannot be transfigured under late capitalism (124-126). Those ‘worthy’ works draw attention to this state of alienation, to the “hollowing out of subject and reality,” even if they reject realism outright (125).
Chapter four, ‘Form and Material,’ sees Robinson turn to questions of the relationship between works and the materials out of which they are formed, engaging more closely with questions of technique and process. If “content, broadly speaking, is an aspect of existing artworks[…]” [emphasis added], then the material of which those artworks are created – the colours from which the painting is fashioned, the sounds from which compositions are hewn, the words from which the poem is constructed – can be understood as “in some way pre-artistic, that out of which not-yet-existing artworks are made” [emphasis added] (136). This distinction between form and material and content and material is, much like the distinction between form and content, not a metaphysical separation, but an abstract and conceptual one which again serves to temporarily allow for investigation of the aspects of art which are present in the experience of the work. In Robinson’s words:
“Material can no more be thought of as contentless than content as free from the material in which it is expressed; the meaning of a poem cannot be divorced from the words and sounds and traces of which it is made.” (136)
The physical properties of a given material do not merely lend themselves to the production of a given artwork, but, as a pre-artistic and pre-productive condition from which those particular works are fashioned, must also and to a significant degree determine the way that the particular work – and, by extension, the universal, generic form in which that particular work is placed and modifies – develops. Though these materials pre-exist the work of art, the range of material which appears available to the artist is and must be, as Adorno suggests in the Ästhetische Theorie, “historical through and through” (ÄT, 223). For how could it be any other way? To take an Adornian tack, the material available to the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, such as the stochastic or random process which he applied in his musical arrangements, pre-existed his use of them – indeed, they pre-existed our uncovering of them, considering that ‘stochastic processes’ merely delineates and enables the description of various physical and biological phenomena such as the motion of particles through space – but they were not apparent and available as an artistic material until they were theorised as being applicable in the work of composition, and they did not become part of compositional tradition until the 1957 premiere of his piece Pithoprakta. In Robinson’s terms, “each new composition not only opens up new possibilities but also[…] sets new restrictions for future musical development;” and, by extension, future artistic development in general (140).
Artistic technique and material, for Robinson as for Adorno, are mutually interdependent; technique is attentive to the constraints and “demands of the material, but also by the content of the work that is to be created” whilst the material available for use is determined by the results of prior artistic technique (144-145). Even the most oppositional technique which seeks to fight against “form’s tendency to settle and stagnate” is complicit in the creation of a new form, which will consequently be opposed by even newer forms (147). Technique is not merely an addition to working the available materials of artistic production, but is also present to the future artist as a constraint, inhering in a form which becomes material to be opposed in this future productive activity. Contingency enters into the picture here in the shape of “influences or interruptions from external factors” which destroy or modify the material available to the artist—here one could think of the potential artistic materials lost when the artist’s studio burns down, for instance (160).
In chapter five, ‘Artistic Form and the Commodity Form,’ Robinson highlights “the antagonisms that permeate bourgeois society[…]” insofar as they are reflected within the concept of form (163). In doing so, Robinson is able to bring his discussion to a close through a return to Adorno’s discussion of artworks as products of social labour, characterised not by their relationship to exchange-value through ‘commodity-producing labour,’ but rather as it refers to an activity which deliberately sets out with the “purpose of improving human existence,” the form of human labour prior to its transformation into a type of mutually-reinforcing abstract, alienated labour through the reification of social domination, hierarchy and the logic of the capitalist mode of production (168-170).
Even under the conditions of this society – our society – there exist forms of labour which are able to realise a different kind of sociality (170). The making works of art is such a process, although it is one in which the product is never wholly disassociated from the commodity form—whether that is through the techniques of mechanical reproduction which are deployed in industry before being co-opted by artists, or by the use of tools such as the internet, developed within a military context. It is in the experience of the artwork, however, in our experience of the particular work, that we see the potential of art manifested:
“Artworks[…] exemplify the actuality of a social labour that is liberated from compulsory abstraction […] in doing so they not only serve as a reminder that it is possible to resist the totalising claims of abstract value and its logic of exchangeability, but also present a kind of social labour that does not efface the particularity of the activities that constitute it. […] The artwork as we encounter, experience, and conceive it, that is, is a consequence and a phenomenon[…] of capitalist society. Absent this coercive, violent sociality, the artwork ceases to be thinkable as we think it, as both a mode of resistance and a promise of something better […] Artworks are thus a kind of clearing within a world dominated by instrumental reason, opening the way for emancipation from it.”[Emphasis added] (176-177)
Artworks, in Robinson’s final analysis, come to be defined in opposition to the logic of the capitalist mode of production, yet this is always already a definition which sustains a connection between the work of art and the society in which they were a part; in even the most radical rejection of the principles which govern that society and its mode of production one cannot wholly separate the work from its negation of the society out of which it was created—capitalist social-property relations remain in the work as a trace, or mark, or echo. Robinson’s utilisation of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is a notably clear example of this quality of artworks: freed of the functional rationale of instrumentality in which it would have otherwise been found – in this case, the ‘mens room’ – our experience of the work nevertheless calls to mind the location and instrumental reason from which it has been freed by means of the subjective activity of the artist (179). This recursive and referential relationship to reality is reflected in the form of the work, a reality it simultaneously maintains and abandons, a reality which “form thus helps render[…] thinkable” (179). Referring back to Adorno’s demand “that life imitate art,” we see that the poetics of form which Robinson draws out of Adorno’s aesthetic theory is one which enables the reading of artworks as a means by which the possibility of a different mode of production, and thus a different kind of sociality, is not realised or actualised, but is postulated as possible. This illuminates Robinson’s claim that Adorno’s aesthetic theory is an poetics of “the wrong state of things;” that is, that his reconfiguration of the work of art “opens up the possibility of the emergence of a transformation out of the existing order[…]” and as such, the work of art effects a “formulation of the complexity of the relationship between commodity society and a successor[…] that is worth wishing for” (186-187).
In his conclusion, ‘Lyric, Form, Society,’ Robinson considers the implications of the arguments outlined here, and the elaboration of Adorno’s ‘poetics of the wrong state of things’ for the study of literature. In this study, forms are grounded as “a token or[…] a deposit for a wide range of connections between us and the worlds to which the work connects us: it lies at the nexus of these connections,” the sensitivity to which means that, through our experiential engagement with the work of art, we keep in sight the prospect of a different world, or the realisation of a different set of social-property relations in our present one (209). Robinson’s analyses indeed fulfil his goal of gesturing towards a conception of the work of art, as outlined above, in which particular works are able to intervene into the social and economic form of a given society, whilst not restricting this functional possibility to ‘political’ works of art, or the ‘revolutionary art’ which Trotsky sets out in his Literature and Revolution (1924).
Adorno’s poetics of form appears to present a means by which we can theorise the relationship between artworks and shifts in the fabric of society by imbuing those works with a kind of agency: by means of the function outlined in the discussion of chapter two, these works are able to embody “emancipatory social practice,” clearing away the reification which attends the capitalist mode of production, a means of thinking beyond oppressive social structures towards a “non-hierarchical life in the world” (218-222).
In Adorno’s Poetics of Form, Josh Robinson carries out a necessary and fruitful investigation into the way we think about art, and the potential embedded in particular works. His reconstruction of Adorno’s wider aesthetic theory – considered beyond the remit of his Ästhetische Theorie – is masterful, and establishes a strong foundation on which the thinking of literary form, and artistic form in general, can take place. It is able to stand alongside projects such as Fredric Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns: On the Historicity of Forms as setting the stage for a contemporary Marxist aesthetics, whilst being of practical value for literary critics and art theorists alike. The immediate criticism which could be made of Robinson’s publication, a choice which was no doubt necessitated by the requirements of brevity and the focus of the project, is that it perhaps gives Walter Benjamin’s arguments in support of Surrealism, outlined in a short paragraph in chapter two, rather short shrift; similarly, his discussion of labour and the creative process in chapter five would have benefitted from a discussion of Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936). For a reader well-versed in the internal debates – both voiced and unvoiced – between the thinkers within and on the periphery of the Frankfurt School, this work was likely in mind, however, for the reader just setting out on their investigation of Adorno’s aesthetics, to understand what he was responding to in his collaborator’s work may provide additional insight into what sets Adorno’s project apart.
These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Robinson has produced a highly readable and accomplished contribution to the scholarship on Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic project as it pertains to the question of form, and a thought-provoking reformation of the Marxist theory of art.
It is well know that Friedrich Nietzsche was decided not to have heirs or disciples. Ironically, he was one of the most influential thinkers in history. The history of philosophical thought is actually made up by legacies – sometimes also by kinship. This was the idea underlying the title of the intellectual historian Richard Wolin’s book “Heidegger’s Children”. The book, published in 2001 and reissued in 2015, meant this kinship provocatively and of course not in a biological sense. Following this provocation, a conference on the topic “Cassirer’s Children” has been organized in Turin on February 8 and 9, 2018 by Sebastian Luft, Professor of Philosophy at the Marquette University (Milwaukee), and Massimo Ferrari, Professor of the History of Philosophy in Turin University. The conference, financially supported by the Humboldt Foundation in the frame of its Alumni Program and organized in collaboration with the Philosophy Department of the University of Turin, offered Cassirer’s scholars from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, USA and Canada the opportunity to gather in Turin.
The speakers took seriously the provocation about the kinship. Many of them confronted the question about the different possibilities of describing the relationships of intellectuals and thinkers from the 20th Century with Ernst Cassirer: rebellious or “turbulent” children? Legitimate or not? Outspoken or “hidden” heirs? At the end a variegated portrait emerged, focusing on an important segment of 20th century philosophy not only from Germany but also from the USA, Italy and Japan.
As the title suggested, the conference aimed at reconstructing the influence exerted by Cassirer directly or indirectly. At the same time, the assumed personality-based criterion allows building a discipline-based map of the philosophical science in the 20th Century, in which Cassirer’s trails are detected. So, for instance, Rudolf Makkreel and Muriel Van Vliet explored the implications of Cassirer’s thought for aesthetics. More precisely, the first one investigated the meaning and function of arts, particularly of music, and their connection with myth and symbols, according the interpretation of Susanne Langer, an American philosopher 21 years younger than Cassirer, but strongly influenced – clearly acknowledged by her – by his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. The name of Langer appears also in the second paper, devoted to the “turbulent child” of art history, i.e. Edgar Wind, whose intuitions regarding the cognitive status of art and art history and the possible contamination between mathematics and art are sketched. Van Vliet’s conclusion is fruitful: «Who is the master, who is the pupil? Who is the son, who is the father? Cassirer, Panofsky and Warburg find with Wind a son who inspires them as much as he was inspired by them. Wind presented himself at the same time as a classic, as wise child and as an innovator, a turbulent child».
Following the discipline-based criterion it is possible to remark that anthropology attracted the attention of two other speakers. The anthropology of the American scholar and University Professor Clifford Geertz, who was influenced by Susanne Langer and Talcott Parsons, is in the center of Sebastian Luft’s talk. The paper was organized in a symmetrical way: if the first part elucidates Geertz’ understanding of anthropology in its proximity to philosophy, the second part, devoted to Cassirer’s position on anthropology, describes in detail the relationship between culture and nature but also the dangers and limits regarding the connection between experience and thought, culture and philosophy of culture. The conclusion at which the paper arrives is that the link between Cassirer’s philosophy and anthropology is to be depicted in the terms of a sibling relationship. A critical assessment about the philosophical anthropology of Hans Blumenberg in his “Auseinandersetzung” with Cassirer is delivered by Andrea Staiti. If, on the one hand, Enno Rudolph practices the reconstruction of intellectual relationships to Cassirer as an opportunity to provide an ambitious outline of the 20. Century philosophy – his reference names in his frame are Nelson Goodman, Pierre Bourdieu and Jürgen Habermas –, then Massimo Ferrari, on the other hand, detected the traces of Cassirer within the history of science and the development of scientific thought. On the basis of Cassirer’s monumental work on the Problem of Knowledge in modern science and philosophy and of Individuum and Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance, the contributes and remarks of Émile Meyerson, Léon Brunschvicg, Edwin Arthur Burtt, Alexander Koyré, Raymond Klibansky and Paul Oskar Kristeller are taken into consideration and critically connected with each other. The history of science is at the core of two other papers as well, although they focus on the philosophy of one single thinker, Arthur Pap. David Stump identifies the “Neo-Kantian elements in Pap’s Philosophy”, while Thomas Mormann puts in connection Pap’ necessity and his functional A Priori with Cassirer’s critical determinism. In his view the intellectual link between Pap and Cassirer, both German and both emigrated to the USA, allows one to contrast the pessimistic assessment affirming that the clash between “the analytic” and “the continental tradition” has become irreconcilable.
From Germany to the USA – and beyond. The geographical extension of Cassirer’s influence is enriched by two other contributions. Saverio Ricci emphasized the implications of Cassirer’s understanding of culture and cultures for the Italian tradition of historiography and historical thought applied in philosophy. Reference point of his presentation is Eugenio Garin. Away from Europe, Steve Lofts presents Cassirer’s family in Japan. His detailed and well informed paper about “the influence of the Marburg’ School and Cassirer on the foundations of Japanese philosophy” gave the opportunity to make the acquaintance with a series of Japanese intellectuals and thinkers belonging to the Kyoto School and normally unknown or neglected by our West oriented studies.
In the end, the conference offered the chance to Cassirer’s scholars spread all over the world to meet each other, just at the moment when Cassirer’s philosophy and scholarship experience a rediscovery and a veritable renaissance.
Report by Elena Paola Carola Alessiato (Università degli Studi di Torino/University of Turin – Italy)
What an honour it is to review Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, especially as the Denktagebuch was originally published in German in 2002 (and republished in 2016), and has not been translated (as yet) into English. The editors, Roger Berkowitz and Ian Storey are respectively the Academic Director and Associate Fellow of The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College and Artifacts of Thinking is the result of a week-long workshop held there in the summer of 2012. They have gathered together a collection of nine stellar contributions that allow readers a glimpse into the fascinating mind of arguably the greatest political theorist of the twentieth century. The German edition of the Denktagebuch is divided into 28 books dated between June 1950-1973. 22 of these were written between 1950-1958, with books 23-28 written from 1958-1961 to 1973, with a final contribution on Kant. As the Editors make clear, it is difficult to classify the Denktagebuch as a ‘thought diary’, as “the Denktagebuch makes evident how closely Arendt read the work of her interlocutors, records previously hidden sources, and displays the dynamic, evolving nature of Arendt’s thinking” (Storey, 1).
In the first chapter ‘Reconciling Oneself to the Impossibility of Reconciliation: Judgment and Worldliness in Hannah Arendt’s Politics’, Berkowitz notes Arendt’s Denktagebuch “begins and ends with reflections on reconciliation” (10). Berkowitz argues that reconciliation is a key and guiding idea that enriches understanding Arendt’s conception of politics, plurality and judgment. He seeks to demonstrate that the judgment to reconcile with the world comes from Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger on thinking, forgiveness, and reconciliation which are part of a complex interplay with Arendt’s personal and intellectual reconciliation with Heidegger (11). Berkowitz presents nine theses around the theme of reconciliation that he discerns from his reading of her Denktagebuch (12-33). The first four theses distinguish reconciliation from forgiveness, guilt, and revenge. Reconciliation is understood “as a political act of judgment, one that affirms solidarity in response to the potentially disintegrating experience of evil” (11). Theses 5 locate her discussion in her engagements with Hegel and Marx. Thesis 6 examines the key role of reconciliation in Arendt’s book Between Past and Future arguing that the “gap between past and future” is the location of Arendt’s “metaphorical space for a politics of reconciliation understood as a practice of thinking and judging without bannisters, as she put t, in a world without political truths” (12). Theses 7-8 focus upon Arendt’s engagement with Heidegger, arguing that her articulation of reconciliation within an evil world is a direct response to Heidegger’s erroneous worldless thinking. The last theses examines Arendt’s final judgment of Adolf Eichmann, arguing that Arendt’s refusal to reconcile with Eichmann’s actions demonstrates the limits of reconciliation and that her demand for his death is a paramount example of political judgment. Berkowitz concludes that reconciliation and nonreconciliation are at the centre of Arendt’s understanding of thinking and judging in politics and that “both are judgments made on the battlegrounds of past and future and thought and action” (33).
Ursula Ludz, one of the two editors who compiled and annotated the German publication of the Denktagebuch, examines one key section in the Denktagebuch for insights it can provide on one of the most controversial periods of Arendt’s life and work: the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the fallout of her five instalments on the trial published in The New Yorker in 1963. Ludz locates the discussion in Notebook XX1V under the title ‘Wahrheit und Politik’ (Truth and Politics). The section has 43 entries and, for Ludz, two merit special attention (10 and 21) as they are directly related to Arendt’s personal case and also note 44 (Weihnachten 1964), which Ludz examines in detail (40). “Like Entry 21, Entry 44 is unique, but this time because it reveals some of Arendt’s inner life, which in principle she keeps hidden almost all through her thought diary” (43). She also notes that Arendt begins the section with two important distinctions: (1) Truth vs. lie and (2) truth vs. opinion (37). Ludz uses the three sections to provide insights into why Arendt chose to respond to her critics collectively and from a distance. Moreover, Ludz discusses what the Denktagebuch adds philosophically to the claim that Arendt apparently understood Eichmann’s banality as a simple factual truth. This is further elucidated as Ludz’s reading examines what constitutes factual truth in Arendt’s consideration of the Eichmann trial (46), a question she claims “haunted the seminar discussion and indeed many of the essays in this volume: What is “truth on a factual level”?” (39).
Wild begins his engagement with the question of whether there is a way of thinking that is not tyrannical. Like Berkowitz, he engages with the themes from the first Notebook, themes that would encapsulate Arendt’s central political concerns of the 1950s. “The question of the relationship between tyranny and thought is a political and theoretical one” (52). Wild is keen to demonstrate the way in which Arendt diagnoses an “unprecedented break in history and tradition” developing new ways of writing and expression that examine the political structure of thinking, especially its reduction to reason and logic. Wild’s reading of the Denktagebuch seeks to demonstrate the way in which Arendt sought to describe what was in front of her. “She does not refer to a pre-existing system of conception, nor does she deduce a theory to present her thoughtful observations. Her way of writing describes a process: ‘to face and to come to terms with what really happened’” (54). Wild identifies Arendt’s approach as a mode which is not chronological, intentional or causal. In the Denktagebuch she takes the word ‘band’ and uses it differently. “It is not the coercive logic of reason but rather the imagination that forms a ‘band between people’” (54). He describes Arendt’s system of writing in the Denktagebuch as creating constellations: “It is a collection and juxtaposition of notes, excerpts, reflections, fragments, quotes, poems; assemblages that establish connections and leave them open, because they are being questioned; or figurations, whose traces are reworked in Arendt’s texts, from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to The Life of the Mind (1977)” (58). This key characteristic of Arendt’s modus operendi, has remained, ‘largely without response” (58).
Similarly, in ‘Thinking in Metaphors’ Cornelissen recognises that the Denktagebuch cannot be read as a book and is better to be thought of as a series of ‘thought fragments’, because there is no single theory or set of propositions (73). He constructs a dialogue between the Denktagebuch and The Human Condition, specifically the way in which the fragmentary nature of the Denktagebuch makes readers aware of the fragmentary nature of her other published work (74). The essay addresses the question of how Arendt “conceives of the activity of thinking without the model of making (Herstellen) (76). Cornelissen locates three different motifs of thinking which he identifies as “condensed meanings, as wanderings through her writings” (76). Firstly, dialectical thinking (the inner two-in-one), secondly, representative thinking as a type of thinking that attempts to ‘represent’ the plurality of perspectives in the public realm preparing the formation of opinions and judgments about past happenings and future events, and finally, ‘thinking poetically’ which refers to the recognition that thought occurs in language, and that the nature of language is metaphorical (77). In her later work, Arendt speaks of ‘meaning’ rather than ‘truth’ and according to Cornelissen, her reflections upon metaphor stay largely consistent (77). He notes that traditionally the activity of thinking is conceived on the model of cognition (seeing or beholding the truth). In contradistinction to cognition, Arendt proposes a different metaphor based upon understanding thinking as an endless activity. Arendt proposes there is a correspondence of thinking to “the sensation of being alive” as well as a cyclical motion, both metaphors she derives from Aristotle (78), yet she admits these metaphors are not entirely satisfactory. Cornelissen notes that rather than search for an alternative metaphor, Arendt shifts her attention to another question – What makes us think? He says “I have always found this a rather abrupt shift” (78). The rest of the essay outlines the correspondences between thinking and political speech (78-82) and the correspondences between thinking and poetic speech (82-85). The essay concludes where it began with the question of how Arendt conceives of the activity of thinking without contemplation (85).
Anne O’Byrne in ‘The Task of Knowledgeable Love: Arendt and Portmann in Search of Meaning’ examines the influence of Portmann, a Swiss zoologist, in terms of their parallel concern with appearance. She notes that the Denktagebuch entries on Portmann “turn out to be entrances onto the realm of life or, more to the point, onto a distinctive and dynamic thinking of life” and she asks the question of what drew Arendt to Portmann’s work and what status did Arendt give the insights he offered?(89). Portmann’s accounts of the natural world paralleled her own approach to understanding the political world. Arendt “engages his work as a fellow thinker of the human condition, a fellow member of the reading and writing public” (90). A key connection reading “through her Denktagebuch notes and The Life of the Mind to his thinking of life leads us to their meeting place in the question of meaning” (90). Arendt brings a ‘phenomenological sensibility’ in reference to Portmann’s morphology and Portmann appears in the Dengtagebuch between 1966 and 1968. O’Byrne notes that early in The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s thinking encounters Portmann’s and that what is important “is that appearances are sensed and that sensing is the province of all sentient beings” (91). O’Byrne traces the scientific tendency to understand the world via truth “but the gap between knowing and being….persists and generates the distinction between truth and meaning. Along with a desire to know, we have a need for meaning, which is pursued through the activity of thinking” (91). Arendt resists philosophy’s metaphysical tendency and regards modern science “as giving new life to this old tendency” (94). “This move beyond appearance is not our only alternative. Indeed, for Arendt, it is no alternative at all” (94).
In “Vita Passiva: Love in Arendt’s Denktagebuch” Tommel claims that the Denktagebuch “is certainly the richest source of her thought on love, richer even than her dissertation about the concept of love in Augustine” (106). She cites passages form the Denktagebuch from May 1955 and acknowledges that although Arendt’s main work concern the active life and the life of the mind, “she did not neglect the personal and intimate life, as it has often been suggested” and claims the Denktagebuch “makes clear that the vita passiva must be understood as an independent mode of life” (107). Tommel asks the questions: “What is love according to Arendt? What are we doing when we love? Where are we if we are neither alone with ourselves nor equally bound to all other people but entirely focussed upon one person?” (108). The chapter seeks to give an overview of Arendt’s core thoughts on these questions. She suggests that “Arendt’s ambivalent, partly paradoxical thinking about love emerges from a – never systematic – differentiation between various forms of love” (109). She identifies four different kinds of love in the Denktagebuch that intersect but cannot be subsumed into a single understanding and says Arendt’s important notion of amor mundi is beyond the scope of the chapter and cannot be understood without taking into account Arendt’s understanding of volo ut sis (118). With regards to love as passion, Tommel argues that Arendt’s separation of love and the world is not as absolute as Arendt suggested, and further, that the fourth notion of love, love as unconditional affirmation, provides further insights into the paradoxical relation between love and the world (109). In conclusion, Tommel notes that like Lessing, Arendt did not feel obliged to resolve the difficulties raised by her work (119) and does not advocate blurring the distinction Arendt made. In fact, she advocates embracing the importance of these distinctions as “it is the plurality of love that guarantees the mutual protection of the public and intimate spheres. We need them both to turn a desert into a world” (119).
Tracy Strong’s “America as Exemplar: The Denktagebuch of 1951” begins with Arendt herself, arriving in America in 1941 as both a European and a refugee. As an outsider, Arendt had been struck by the difference between European nation states and America. Having become an American citizen in 1950, Strong traces Arendt’s scholarly attention in attempting to make sense of what had happened to her, with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism to understanding her new environment in America. He notes that she begins a series of entries in her Denktagebuch from September 1951 referring to America as “the politically new” and these notes go on to become On Revolution (124). Strong outlines Arendt’s concern with sovereignty and what a human society would be if it were truly political (125). He notes that what is striking about Arendt’s discussion is that she approaches the question through the explicit lens of European philosophy. “Thus, she is attempting an answer to the question of ‘can we determine the particular excellence of the American polity by viewing it through the lenses of European thought?’”(125). Strong claims the thinkers Arendt invokes are important as she first mentions Marx, and then Nietzsche, whom Arendt understands as having key roles in the end of Western philosophy, as Marx inverted Hegel and Nietzsche inverts Plato (125). “The point of her analysis of Marx and Nietzsche is to assert that they released thought from its bond to the ‘Absolute’” (125). Strong goes on to investigate what the implication is of Arendt’s claim that contract (or covenant or compact) is the “highest law” and the specific excellence of America (128). His discussion engages Nietzsche, Kant, Derrida and Weber in extending understandings of promising (which is a contract) and performatives to conceptualise Revolution as, in working with Nietzsche, this is something further understood as hyper-performative (131). Strong’s reading of the earlier parts of the Denktagebuch provide us with an understanding of how important America was to Arendt as an exemplar of what the political could be (126).
Jeffrey Champlin’s “Poetry or Body Politic: Natality and the Space of Birth in Hannah Arendt’s Thought Diary” examines one of Arendt’s most central contemporary concepts, the concept of natality. As Champlin notes, the term only appears in the Denktagebuch once before it appears more centrally in The Human Condition (1958). “The puzzling, even obscure, presentation of the term in the Denktagebuch challenges interpretive protocols that depend on a linear development” (144). Champlin argues that the entry ‘deserves attention’ “because it shows Arendt transforming a political metaphysics of the body through an alternative conception of corporeality. Maintaining Rousseau’s attention to the clash of language and ontology, Arendt shows that the body bears a specifically earthly form of freedom” (144). Champlin notes that it is tempting to approach the Denktagebuch from the tradition of western philosophy but he wants to suggest that Arendt’s early entry of natality “requires a focus on its specifically literary aspects, understood as the particular ways in which she constructs it through arrangements of language” (144). Champlin argues that this entry on natality helps us comprehend the striking originality of Arendt’s understanding of politics and emphasises the way in which “a careful reading of the explicit reference to natality in the Denktagebuch and nearby references to figures of birth can help understand how Arendt uses the narrative and poetic dimensions of the idea to expand the philosophical concepts of novelty and change. Natality, as a condition in Arendt’s sense, is related to, but different than, a concept, an anchor, and an ontological principle” (145). Ultimately, “Arendt offers a poetry of the body politic” (158), and as Champlin astutely points out, Habermas’s claim “that Arendt falls back on the ‘contract theory of natural law’ rings false, though. He leaves us little else to support his accusation, and it seems to be a sort of stopgap approach to closing the important questions raised by his description of Arendt’s conception of power” (152).
The final contribution in Artifacts of Thinking is Ian Storey’s “Facing the End: The Work of Thinking in the Late Denktagebuch”. He seeks to explore the last substantive section of Arendt’s Denktagebuch the twenty-seventh notebook. Storey notes that Notebook XXVII is “preoccupied with thinking about ends, and Arendt weaves the multiple senses of the word in both English and German together into a series of mediations on the relationships between thinking, death, and purpose” (162). As Storey notes in the Introduction to the book, “It asks what can be learned by looking on the Denktagebuch as a rear-view mirror on Arendt’s thought as well” (8). For Storey, the mediations in Notebook XXVII, with the central focus upon ends, provides a way of bringing to the surface aspects of Arendt’s published work, particularly The Human Condition and the various iterations of Culture and Politics, as well as providing threads for rethinking aspects of her work across different periods. He notes that instrumentality and the orientation towards particular ends were a key concern of Arendt’s work in the 1950s and 1960s and this explains the rise in the popularity of her thought in political theory and philosophy more generally. Storey moves within the complex interplay of ‘what might have been’ and ‘what might yet be’ when he considers Notebook XXVII having been written in the shadow of the “terrible interruption” of Heinrich’s death and Arendt’s own declining years (176). He poses the question as to whether Arendt’s work on reconfiguring the place of good in the world of appearances may have led to “a new vision of political conscience” or “have become a fully-fledged ethics, in the book Judging that was never to be? Or would this line of reason simply have become mired in all the basic moral dilemmas that “aesthetic” accounts of politics have been accused of creating” (176).
I said at the beginning of this review that it is an honour to have the opportunity to review this edited collection. And it has been. Each contributor provides important insights into how the Denktagebuch illuminates Arendt’s oeuvre and stunningly original approach to thinking politically. This edited collection is especially significant given Arendt’s Denktagebuch is not available in English translation as yet. It means serious scholars of Arendt’s political theory can glimpse into the extraordinary mind of Arendt to further complement their understanding of Arendt’s key texts written in tandem during these particular historical periods. Overall, a crucial and significant contribution to the legacy of the political theorist who is Hannah Arendt.