Jean-Luc Marion: Negative Certainties

Negative Certainties Book Cover Negative Certainties
Religion and Postmodernism
Jean-Luc Marion
The University of Chicago Press
Cloth $45.00

Reviewed by: Man-to Tang (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Edmund Husserl, in Die Idee der Phänomenologie, points out that phenomenology has two designations. The first is a science, and the second is “the specifically philosophical attitude of thought” together with “the specifically philosophical method”. [I] Since Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger and Phenomenology, Jean-Luc Marion critically adopts the second designation. His reception is critical because he does not simply repeat Husserl’s transcendental reduction and Heidegger’s existential reduction, but further introduces the reduction of givenness and offers a new “principle of all principles”: as much reduction, as much givenness.[ii]

His book Negative Certainties aims to expand the limits of “classical” phenomenology founded by Kant and Husserl.[iii] His innovation of phenomenological method solves four unsolved puzzles in transcendental philosophy. Man, God, the gift and the event are the puzzles, as they are ideal entities which we can think, on the one hand, but not comprehensively conceptualize or objectify, on the other hand. What is the relationship between negative certainties and the four puzzles? We can think and even “know” them, but we cannot comprehensively conceptualize or objectify them. Marion argues that “such knowledge can indeed be described as noncertain, but should not considered as uncertain, because the indetermination here plays the role of a positive qualification of that which is to be known, and does not sink down into a disqualification of its mode of knowledge” (206). It means that the indeterminablility is not equivalent to undeterminability. The indeterminable knowledge is lack of complete or adequate certainty. The lack has a positive role in the meaning-constitution as a whole. So it is false to say that the indeterminable knowledge has no certainty at all. Indeterminable knowledge is another expression of negative certainties.

There are four questions to trace the train of thought in the book:

  1. Why can’t we comprehensively conceptualize or objectify the ideal entities?
  2. If we cannot comprehensively conceptualize or objectify them, then how can we think them?
  3. If the ideal entities can be thought of without conceptualization or objectification, then are these thoughts knowledge?
  4. More importantly, what is the condition of possibility for the non-conceptual or non-objectifying thinking and the conceptual or objectifying thinking?

In the first chapter Marion performs his radical reduction of Man. The first subtitle one is: “What Is Man?” The obvious answer is: “I am a man”. Through the reduction of the “I” he finds that, instead of solving the problem, the answer leads to further obstacles. Firstly, “I” am not simply a physical thing, so I cannot be seen as an object frontally “full of meaning” (10). In addition, the term “I” is a definite pronoun, but it operates as an index rather than as a definition. Consequently, the “I” cannot exhaust what man is. Secondly, in the expression, “I am a man”, man “escapes me to the extent that the very mode of his possible knowledge, which makes him a thought object, contradicts and hides his first characteristics that of a pure thinking thing, who thinks without becoming a thought thing”. (16) The second obstacle is fundamental because the “I” becomes a thought object, rather than a pure thinking thing. It is impossible to know the pure thinking thing by the name the “I”. The name is a representation of a pure thinking thing. The name as a representation is foreign to any pure thinking thing(s), and therefore there is “a first and chief impossibility in define the essence of man, an epistemic and directly metaphysical impossibility” (15). Through a further reduction of the impossibility in defining the essence of man, Marion points out that the impossibilities are “some characteristics of knowledge by concept, there follows as a consequence the impossibility for man to name – this is, to define – a man except by reducing him to the rank of simple concepts and thereby to know not a man but an object” (25).

Does this imply that “Man” cannot be thought or known? Marion’s response is no. There is “no contradiction between the knowledge of man as the object of anthropology and the impossibility of this knowledge within a reflexive self-consciousness; for knowing me, myself [le moi] as an object, constituted by the alienation common to all objects” (25). The lesson of this reduction teaches us is that “man is the insurmountable difference between the two sides of the cogitation: the ego and the object” (25). As a result, it is impossible to exhaust the essence of man, but it is possible to incomprehensibly know and understand what Man means. Man is originally indefinite. “The original indefinition of man does not remain undecided and anonymous, but instead is inscribed and developed within the horizon opened by its assignation and its reference to the image and likeness of the visible” (50).

In the second chapter, Marion performs the reduction of God. Atheists doubt the existence of God, and even conclude the death of God. The conclusion can be formulated into a subject-predicate judgment, God is death. Atheists do not hesitate to use the concept God. However, through the reduction, Marion finds that “in order to be able to deny having an idea of God, it is necessary to have one” (58). Atheists claim that it is impossible to experience God. Nonetheless, their attribution of God (the experiential impossibility of God) already offers a perfectly conceivable and thus acceptable meaning to God. It is paradoxical that we can disqualify the knowledge of God’s essence, existence and phenomenon, but we cannot eliminate the very question of God. “Consequently, not only our (metaphysical) impossibility of demonstrating the existence of God but especially our (nonmetaphysical) impossibility of defining by concept the least essence of God becomes ambivalent themselves, and therefore problematic” (52). Through a further reduction of the impossibility of defining by concept the least essence of God, Marion realizes that “what one uncovers with the help of the concept of God is an idol, which philosophically has only the signification of making us see what idea of summon ens and of Being is generally directive” (57). It is because the second impossibility refers to the impossible de-nominates or abolishes “the limits set by metaphysics to experiences” (the possible). “This (im)possible can only be understood by opposition to that which it surpasses – by opposition to what metaphysics understands in its way as the relation between the possible and the impossible” (71). Through further reduction of the (im)possible, Marion suggests that  the term “the impossible”, in fact”, can also mean unconceivable, unthinkable or unimaginable. “There is, then, no contradiction other than what is conceivable, and nothing is conceivable that is within a conception of ours, and therefore quoad nos, for us, for our finite mind” (72-3).  If something is unconceivable, unthinkable or unimaginable, then it could never be conceivable to us. God could be conceivable to us that God is attributed by some properties, e.g. not unconceivable, unthinkable and unimaginable to us. It follows that God is not completely unconceiavle, unthinkable or unimaginable. And God is somehow epistemological possible for us. It is a valid argument (denying the consequent). Marion adds that the degree of the knowledge of God is based upon the conceivability of man. He states that “the impossible for man [us] has the name God, but God as such – as the one who alone does what man cannot even contemplate” (82). God is a name or a limiting concept of what man cannot conceive, therefore it denotes what is impossible for man (us).

In the third and fourth chapter, Marion performs the reduction of the gift. The gift is an index denoting a pure gift (the givenness) in the reflective level. The distinction is significant because of two reasons. Firstly, the gift appears as ideal and unreal, whereas a pure gift is real and denoted by the gift. Secondly, the gift appears under the conditions of experience, whereas a pure gift is nonappearent, hence it is presupposed by the gift. The gift appears as its meaning under the condition of actual experience, but it is a term of exchange. The distinction leads to a paradox: “either the gift appears in actuality, but it disappears as gift; or, it remains a pure gift, but it becomes nonapparent, in actual, excluded from the process of things, a pure idea of reason, a mere noumenon, resistance to the conditions of actual experience” (86). As a result, “it is the characteristic of the gift given that it spontaneously conceals the givenness in it” (125). Through a further reduction, “the gift is reduced to givenness by being fully realized without any consciousness of giving-without the self-consciousness…The gift reduced to givenness has no consciousness of what it does” (97-8).

By the reduction of the gift, the two moments of givenness are revealed. “The gift shows itself on the basis of itself in a double capacity: first of all, because like every other phenomenon, it gives itself on the basis of itself; next, because, more radically than every other phenomenon, it gives its self on the basis of itself” (107). On the one hand, the gift that it gives or es gibt refutes Heidegger’s claim that “the giving gives only the given, it never gives itself” (124). On the other hand, unlike the tradition of transcendental philosophy since Kant, the givenness of the gift is self-giving without employing “anything from a possibility that comes from elsewhere, such as the parsimonious calculation of sufficient reason-in short, without any other possibility than its own” (111). However, this is also dissimilar to what speculative realism aims at.  A further reduction is performed towards the self-giving of a pure gift. Marion asks, “what, then makes the visibility of the gift possible, if the very process of givenness, whereby the giver turns the gift over as given, by handing it over in its autonomous visibility?” (125). This is the key for Marion, ie. to have both the commitment of phenomenology and its way beyond the “traditional” phenomenology. Marion’s commitment to phenomenology is his insistence on the reduction, and the insistence is also his pathway beyond the “traditional” phenomenology.  Through the reduction, “the gift given allows the return from which it proceeds to appear, and gives itself up for that reason” (126). A pure gift or the givenness cannot re-veal itself in a reflective or philosophical way. It can be re-cognized through the reduction or the phenomenological reflection of the gift. To perform the radical reduction of a pure gift or the givenness, Marion aims at bringing its nonappearance into appearance; turn the invisible into the visible. This reduction is a re-turn or making anew. Therefore, “it is not a question of suppressing the gift given, for the benefit of the giver, but of making this gift transparent anew in its process of givenness by letting its giver eventually appear there, and first and always, by allowing to appear the coming-over that delivers the gift into the visible” (126). It is the very meaning of his new principle of all principles: “as much reduction, as much givenness”. He reformulates this principle in this context: “the more the giver gives, the less he loses; the more he abandons, the more he affirms himself as a consciousness irreducible to its gifts” (134). It is his hermeneutical dialectic to reveal the play between the two moments or “the game of loss and gain” in Marion’s terminology.

In the fifth chapter, Marion performs the reduction of the event. There are two characteristics in satisfying the demands of a rigorous science through clear and distinct ideas. The first is to constitute an essence (a model, a definition, a “concept”), which is known in advance and foreseeable before the production of the object. The second is to allow for the object to be repeated and reproduced through the essence. “Consequently, the possibility of the object coincides with the conditions for experience-that is, it coincides with the very conditions of scientific knowledge by definition for a finitude understanding” (159). Scientific knowledge pays attention to cognizable objects only. It leads scientific knowledge to “monopolize presence” and expel “the non-objective phenomena from the space of manifestation” (162). The demand of clear and distinct ideas begins with Descartes. By means of universal doubt, Descartes performs the reduction of wax. “The wax, then, has been reduced to what the pure cogitatio (without the senses) can grasp of it, the wax ceases to appear as a thing that is complex, multiple, with undefined properties, ever changing, never stable, in short, a thing in and  of itself” (163). This performance of reduction ceases the wax as an unforeseeable thing, then the wax becomes a foreseeable object. The wax as an unforeseeable thing is what Kant calls an object = x. Nevertheless, Kant cancels the investigation of “an object = x” through his important distinction between phenomena and noumena. He argues that any metaphysical desire to know noumena with objective validity is a misuse of categories or a categorical mistake. Unlike Kant, Descartes explains what “an object = x” means through his implicit reduction. “Things become object through the elimination of those things, or more precisely, through the elimination of that in those things which does not allow itself to be abstracted according to order and measures” (165). It means that things become objects, if and only if the thingness of things are extracted and eliminated. The thing in-itself is concealed. What remains are the appearance or phenomenon of a thing, namely the thing of-itself. It is what Marion claims “the objective interpretation of the phenomenon masks and misses its eventness” (177). The events are indexes denoting any non-object phenomena or “saturated phenomena”, whereas the objects are indexes denoting any objective phenomena or “diminished phenomena” (181).

Marion does not stop here. He performs a further reduction, and uncovers the condition of possibility for the distinction between the events and the objects. Since the “as-structure” is inscribed within the rank of the existentialia of Dasein, “the distinction between the modes of phenomenality (for us, between object and event) can be joined to the hermeneutical variations that, as existentialialia of Dasein…the distinction of phenomena into objects and events thus finds a grounding in the variations of intuition” (199). Therefore, Marion re-emphasizes his principle in this context: “the more a phenomenon appears as an event (is eventualized), the more it proves itself to be saturated with intuition. The more it appears as an object (is objectivised), the more it proves itself to be poor in intuition” (199).

In the conclusion, Marion insightfully points out that “the paradox does not prohibit the knowledge of phenomena, but on the contrary defines the figure that phenomena must take in order to manifest themselves, when they contradict the conditions the finitude cannot not impose upon them” (207). Thus, the titles on the four ideal entities, e.g. man, God, the gift and the event, employ “or” to set up the paradoxes, which are the residuum of the reduction(s): the undefinable, or the face of man (chapter 1); the impossible, or what is proper to God (chapter 2); the unconditioned, or the strength of the gift (chapter 3); and the unforeseeable, or the event (chapter 5). Throughout the book, Marion uses the phenomenological reduction to demonstrate how the double interpretation is possible by means of the “as-structure”, which is inscribed within the existentialia of Dasein. More importantly, it is Marion’s phenomenological contribution to uncover that the “as-structure” is the condition of possibility for the double interpretation: “… or…”. The uncovering is done through the phenomenological method, namely the phenomenological reduction. Consequently, Marion does not repeat what Husserl and Heidegger did, but also broadens the horizon of the unexplored phenomenological field. He is a living successor of the phenomenological movement. His book is so fruitful and rich, a book review cannot exhaust its content. Apart from the already mentioned, his analyses of different saturated phenomena like birth, sacrifice and forgiving are of great value. To borrow Marion’s terminology: reading (his) book is a “saturated phenomenon”.

[i] Husserl, E. (1973). Die Idee der Phänomenologie. Fünf Vorlesungen. Hua. Bd. II, Hrsg. von W. Biemel. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 23.

[ii] Marion, J. L. (1998). Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger and Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 203.

[iii] It is debatable whether phenomenology can be  divided into new and old. Still the distinction between new and classical phenomenology can be found in Leonard Lawlor’s work. He traces the Derridean and Deleuzean criticism of Husserl’s phenomenology back to Eugen Fink. In his interpretation, Fink, under the great influence of Heidegger, argues that phenomenology consists of a “new idea of philosophy”. This new idea of philosophy leads to what Lawlor calls new phenomenology. See Lawlor, L. (2003). Thinking Through French Philosophy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 147-150.

Eran Dorfman: Foundations of The Everyday

Foundations of The Everyday: Shock, Deferral, Repetition Book Cover Foundations of The Everyday: Shock, Deferral, Repetition
Philosophical Projects
Eran Dorfman
Rowman & Littlefield
Softback £27.95 / $42.00

Reviewed by: Man-to Tang (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

The everyday offers foundations for us to remedy the crises of (late) modernity. There are two crises of modernity: first, the inability of acquiring anything new, and second, the sharp separation of the everyday and experience. The former is the practical crisis that people are devoured by mass production and are unable to create something new, whereas the latter is the theoretical crisis that the sharp separation cannot offer a faithful account of our life.

Eran Dorfman has two aims in the book. The first is to ‘provide a better theory of the everyday’ in order to show that the mechanisms of the everyday involve the possibility of acquiring anything new (5). The second is to argue that the everyday and the experience of it should not be conceived independently (9).

What competing theories of the everyday are worthy of criticism? Dorfman takes up Maurice Blanchot and Henri Lefebvre. Blanchot states that the everyday has three definitions. First, the everyday is a ‘self-enclosed circle that moves around itself with apparently no escape, no outside’, so it is ‘hardly graspable’ (7). Second, the everyday is ‘always open to changes, always transcending itself. It is never “finished”’ (7). These two definitions lead to the third and ambivalent definition of the everyday, which can be found in Lefebvre’s analysis. The third definition is that the everyday is characterized both ‘as a prison and as a lacking home’ (8). However, Dorfman argues that the first and second definitions are not mutually exclusive, so the third definition is not ambivalent but ambiguous. This ambiguity means the mechanisms of the everyday consist of that dual dimension, and the dual dimension refers to different moments of our lived experience of the everyday.

What is a better theory of the experience of the everyday? Dorfman explains clearly that the essential structure of the everyday is comprised of three interrelated mechanisms, namely shock, deferral and repetition. Firstly, shock refers to a movement that attempts to go ‘outside’ of the ordinary movement, for example, I may change the angle of my brushing when I am affected by my painful tooth (3). Secondly, to process shocks, another mechanism is needed, that is, deferral. Deferral is a suspension of the ordinary movement, for example, I may pause for a while before changing the angle when I am affected by my painful tooth (4). Thirdly, to understand whether the change is ‘suitable’ or not, another mechanism, repetition, is required. Repetition refers to a movement that reenacts the new into the old. For example, I may return to the ordinary way of brushing to check if my tooth is still painful (4). Throughout the book, Dorfman finds that the deferral mechanism of the everyday is a kind of reflection, but this kind of reflection is an immersed or embodied reflection. The shocking mechanism of the everyday is an attempt to go beyond the ordinary and acquire anything new. The repetition mechanism of the everyday is the integration of the new into the old and returns to the everyday. Thus, a better theory of the everyday can faithfully describe the dual dimension, namely self-enclosure and self-transcendence (as a prison and as a lacking home).

This book consists of five chapters, in which Dorfman attempts to justify his theory of the everyday and its solution for the crises of (late) modernity. In Chapter One, he starts his investigation with phenomenology. Husserl carries out the phenomenological reduction to bracket all everyday beliefs, judgments and activities, and to suspend the natural attitude of everyday life. Husserl’s aim is ‘back to the things themselves’. This ‘back’ means to reflect or to understand the essence of the things without falling into the trap of psychologism, naturalism and objectivism. Thus phenomenological reduction is a methodological tool for us to reflect upon the perceived object (33). Husserl later realizes ‘the impossibility of totally bracketing the natural attitude and abandoning it once and for all’ (38), and re-defines the natural attitude as the life-world, the spontaneous world of praxis. Nevertheless, on the one hand, this is only a preparation for the full exploration of the everyday. On the other hand, exploration of the everyday is not radicalizing enough because it is based upon an artificial act of contemplation.

Dorfman argues that if we explore the everyday radically enough, then we can realize that the mechanisms of the everyday already offer another version of the phenomenological reduction from within. Dorfman uses a holiday resort as an example to illustrate his point. The philosophical implication of the resort provides a partial detachment from my everyday life. It functions like the phenomenological reduction which permits one to suspend the usual and routine life, and reconsider it. More importantly, this is a partial detachment, as one is still ‘within’ the everyday without totally abandoning it once and for all. Therefore, it is possible to have a better understanding of our everyday life and return to it ‘from within’ the mechanism of the everyday.

Dorfman then traces Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein in Being and Time. ‘Instead of thematising the artificial world which results from the bracketing suggested by Husserl, Heidegger proposes to describe the world with which Dasein is most familiar – the world of the everyday’ (42). The everyday is the background for every activity in the sense that Dasein primordially lives with the practical interest instead of the theoretical interest. We would not suspend what we are doing and reflect upon what a hammer is unless the function of a hammer is missing. It means that when Dasein faces three empirical situations (disturbance, lack or obstacle) or the radical situation (death anxiety), which refer to ‘small’ and ‘big’ ‘negativity’ respectively, Dasein spontaneously suspends and reflects upon the everyday (59). Heidegger implicitly relates to shocks and deferral in the sense that ‘negativity’ gives a way to go ‘outside’ the ordinary and leads to a distance for reflection. How about repetition? ‘Repetition characterizes authentic temporality’ and contrasts with the inauthentic temporality which is blind from possibilities. It cannot repeat what has been, but only retains and receive the ‘actual’ which is left over (58). It means that repetition does not simply repeat itself from the actual but also renews my past and present and re-appropriates my future possibilities.

In Chapter Two, Dorfman continues the phenomenological exploration of the everyday through Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body. The body is not solely mine, serving as my private sphere, but also is out there in the world and can be seen by others. It is ontologically ambiguous. Instead of ‘arriving at pure life-world or authentic existence’, the body shows the ambitious character of the everyday. Dorfman pays attention to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh in his late writing. He takes dancing as an example, as dancing is always embodied without thematization of the body. Besides, dancing is always more than just moving the body around the environment. I dance in harmony with others, and reciprocally I become a part of their bodies (68). When I dance, ‘I constitute my environment and am constituted by it’ (73). I re-appreciate my habitual body through the always changing and new environment. Therefore, reflection is always ‘within’ the everyday because the mechanism of the everyday involves an embodied reflection. Dorfman suggests the embodied reflection or immersed reflection, implicit in Heidegger’s thought, as the intermediate kind of vision between a mere contemplation and practical looking (46). It is nothing but an everyday use of the phenomenological reduction. Yet Dorfman doubts the concept of projection ‘acts upon the past and changes it’ (80), and we thus cannot understand whether something new reflected on and integrated into the everyday.

As a result, Dorfman believes that phenomenology can indeed explicate the importance of negativity in order to make a distance for reflection. But there are two defects in the phenomenological analysis of the everyday. First, ‘phenomenology does not explicitly mention whether the ability to maintain an open enough everyday movement is related to particular moment in history’ (188). Second, ‘phenomenology considers negativity merely as the relay of deficiency, lack and finitude’ (188).

In Chapter Three, to further investigate the role of negativity in the mechanism of the everyday, Dorfman gives attention to Freud. Although Freud shares the first defect with phenomenology, he does not consider negativity as deficiency. The origin of sexual trauma can hardly be traced, and deferred retroaction seems to be failed. Accordingly, Freud moves from a theory of sexual trauma to a theory of indefinite shocks because the shocking is within the everyday but leads to a certain distance. Repetitions are responses to unspecific shocks (104). Freud states that child’s play is a way to integrate the shocked everyday and the shocking experience. This play is to play with absence and disturbance, which repetition is the re-experiencing or re-appreciation of something ordinary (120). What is the philosophical implication of Freud’s thought in the crises of modernity? Dorfman observes that Freud’s emphasis of unspecific shocks as negativity provides a possible way out in the realm of ‘too much’ modernity. However, Freud can only show the child’s possibility of the integration of shocks into the everyday, but the not adult’s. With this in mind, Dorfman introduces the last figure in this book, Benjamin.

Chapter Four shows that Benjamin does not only sort out the crises of modernity, but also faithfully describes the relation between the everyday, repetition and mass production and offers a solution to the crises (127). Dorfman finds that a Freudian framework can be found in Benjamin’s thought. In his doctrine of the decline of aura and tradition, Benjamin uses film to illustrate his point. Film is a work with no origin, and it is easy for the masses to watch whenever and wherever they want (147). The features of film are essential to understand the distinction between ‘long experience’ and ‘immediate experience’ (138). The function of the immediate experience is to parry shock before it arrives at the depth home of the long experience, where it will leave its trace. Although the shock is registered as an extraordinary event, it does not connect to long experience. As a result, ‘the modern everyday is full of “shocks” or “events” that nevertheless leave the impression that nothing “happens” and remains “outside”’ (139). Dorfman explains the relationship between shock and the aura. There are two important conditions for the creation of the aura. When an event or an object is totally new, it is perceived as shocking, on the one hand; the comprehension of it must be repeated, on the other hand. The first condition leads to the second condition, that is to say, there is a balance between distance and proximity. It means that the event or object remains partially ‘strange’ and partially ‘familiar.’ It is the key to rectify the first crisis of modernity, namely the inability of acquiring anything new.

In Chapter Five, Dorfman develops the aura of the habitual or the everyday, which is between the strange and the familiar, the distant and the proximal, each of which constitutes the foundation of the everyday. The aura of the habitual brings negativity to the fore through the shock image. The shock image arouses suspension and reflection of the everyday simultaneously. This reflection reveals both ordinary and extraordinary. He uses two examples to explain his founding. The first example is Paul Klee’s Angel Novus. Benjamin describes two special features of the angel. The angel is looking at our present and past, on the one hand, and moves forward to the future, on the other hand. The angel sees our time as holistic, and only then as separated into different temporal moments, but we ourselves see the present as composed of successive events, and forget that the present consists of parts of the holistic everyday. With every shock, every immediate experience or every catastrophe, we could be the angel. We could, through an everyday ‘fight against the present experience’, ‘give up any immediate experience in order to transform our past immediate experience in long experience’ (170-171).

The second example is Cindy Sherman’s photographs. Cindy Sherman’s photographs reproduce Sherman under another identity. Sometimes she is retrieving a book in a library with a tiny nurse uniform and gazing somewhere outside the frame. Sometimes she is walking on the middle of a highway alone and gazing somewhere outside the frame. Dorfman finds the photos ‘show infinite everyday possibilities that are true and false at the same time’ (174). These possibilities expose how everyday surroundings can be staged differently and lead to something anew. Through these reproductions of photography, Dorfman insightfully interprets that unlike Benjamin, Sherman uncovers that ‘the aura is revealed to be conditioned by the everyday: a meeting point of familiarity and strangeness, habituation and shock’ (175). The two examples show that the mass reproductive feature of modernity is full of the shocking. Through the experience of the shocking, we could defer the present life and re-experience it rather than parry it. Thus these mechanisms of the everyday reveal the condition of anything new, as we could never be otherwise without being completely the same.

It is not surprising that some may think Benjamin is the ‘final solution’ towards the crises of modernity. However, Dorfman’s path of thought is a long-route rather than a short-cut because phenomenology is an unavoidable starting point for the investigation of the everyday. Without the methodological procedure, we could hardly avoid unexamined prejudices and hardly make a faithful move ‘back to the everyday itself’. If we could faithfully understand the mechanisms of the everyday, then we could understand that the foundations of the everyday are the ‘antidote’ of the crises of modernity. For example, Dorfman clearly indicates that it is Heidegger’s inspiration that ‘the movement of use-suspension-reuse is the circular movement of everyday foundation’ (46). It explicates the essential structure of the everyday. Also, it is Merleau-Ponty’s inspiration that ‘the body is both subject and object, both the user of the tool and the tool itself. Ideally, there is a continuous link between the habitual body (static foundation) and the actual body (dynamic foundation), the one permitting the other and vice versa (76). The condition of possibility is founded in the everyday. More importantly, ‘rather than an objective representation, phenomenology should be a self-conscious process in which the unreflected is revealed but also created’ (87). Phenomenology paves the way for us to acquire anything new.

Throughout the book, ‘modernity’ is not a well-defined term. Dorfman sometimes draws a distinction between ‘modernity’ and ‘late modernity’, but he sometimes simply uses ‘modernity.’ If the two are different, then what is their difference? In addition, it is interesting to re-think the relationship between phenomenology and critical theory. Benjamin is regarded as one of the significant figures in the school of critical theory, which aims at criticizing the problems of modernity. Unlike Adorno’s radical criticism (1940: 4), Dorfman carefully uncovers the critical dimension in phenomenology through Husserl’s, Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s implicit analyses of ‘negativity’. In fact, critique of modernity is one of the main themes in the Crisis, where Husserl gives a diagnosis and explains how transcendental phenomenology offers a solution to the crisis. In the Kaizo articles, Husserl calls the motif a ‘renewal’ of the European spirit (HUA. XXVII: 3-94). And it marks a commonality between phenomenology and critical theory. If this is the full picture of phenomenology, than we may wonder to what extent it is correct for Dorfman to state that ‘this negativity tends to be ignored or repressed in the everyday by adopting objective categories – that is, by repeating the same old meaning without seeing the need to renew them. This everyday tendency makes all three phenomenologists finally abandon the everyday in favor of a sphere of authenticity or full experience’ (90). Apart from Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty do not simply repress the negativity in the everyday and abandon the everyday without renewing the old meaning. As Dorfman points out, Heidegger’s conception of negativity is founded in the everyday, and it could bring us to re-consider our everyday life. This reconsideration is never an abandonment of the everyday but a rebirth of the everyday. Heidegger claims that ‘[Death as a negativity] is only the “end” of Dasein; and, taken formally, it is just one of the ends by which Dasein’s totality is closed round. The other ‘end’, however, is the ‘beginning’, the ‘birth’. Only that entity which is ‘between’ birth and death presents the whole which we have been seeking (Being and Time: 425). In Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of Cézanne and Giacometti, unlike Cartesian space which is a mere representation of empirical observation, the painter’s body is both within space and functions as the core around which all space expands. He argues, ‘I do not see [space] according to its exterior envelope; I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me’ (Eye and Mind: 178). This negativity of spatiality is not a deficiency or a lack, but opens up a potential meaning and dimension towards spatial and bodily relationships. Other than these three phenomenologists, could any other phenomenologist give a faithful account of negativity and the everyday without seeing them as deficiency? How about Sartre?



Adorno, T.W. (1940). “Husserl and the problem of idealism.” The Journal of Philosophy 37 (1): 5-18.

S. Käufer and A. Chemero: Phenomenology – An Introduction

Phenomenology An Introduction Book Cover Phenomenology An Introduction
Stephen Kaeufer and Anthony Chemero
Polity Press
May 2015
Harcover €68.80, Paperback €21.30, Ebook €17.99

Reviewed by: Man-to Tang (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

There are so many significant figures in the phenomenological tradition that it proves difficult to cover all of them in an introduction. This book gives us an overview of the history and development of phenomenology from its 18th Century philosophical background to contemporary debates in cognitive science, philosophy of mind and psychology, as they are informed by phenomenology. The core of this introduction is organised around three theses. First, the authors expose how the faithful understanding of human beings by phenomenologists can provide an ontological ground to (radical) embodied cognitive science. Second, they explore how responses towards the frame problem (e.g. dynamic system theory, enactivism and the sensorimotor approach), which share similar ideas with phenomenology, “are doing phenomenology” (p.3). Third, putting in perspective the sharp distinction between “continental” and “analytic” philosophy, the authors claim that a “traditional analytic philosophical problem” is pursued in the phenomenological movement.

Continua a leggere S. Käufer and A. Chemero: Phenomenology – An Introduction