Adriano Fabris (Ed.): Heidegger. Una guida, Carocci, 2023

Heidegger. Una guida Book Cover Heidegger. Una guida
Studi Superiori
Adriano Fabris (Ed.)
Carocci
2023
Paperback 27,55 €
332

Elena Partene: La norme et l’excédent: Étude sur les prémices du transcendantal kantien, Hermann, 2023

La norme et l'excédent: Étude sur les prémices du transcendantal kantien Book Cover La norme et l'excédent: Étude sur les prémices du transcendantal kantien
Le Bel Aujourd'hui
Elena Partene
Hermann
2023
Paperback 27,00 €
330

Manuel DeLanda: Materialist Phenomenology: A Philosophy of Perception

Materialist Phenomenology: A Philosophy of Perception Book Cover Materialist Phenomenology: A Philosophy of Perception
Theory in the New Humanities
Manuel DeLanda
Bloomsbury Publishing
`2021
Paperback $26.95
224

Reviewed by: Kenneth Novis (University of Edinburgh, MScR Philosophy)

Manuel DeLanda is best known by some due to the experimental films which he made before beginning his philosophical career; to others, he is known as one of the leading interpreters of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy; to others still, it is because of his association with the so-called speculative realist turn in continental philosophy that his name is recognisable. His latest book is likely to disappoint those familiar with his earlier contributions to continental philosophy. Indeed, Deleuze’s name appears a single time here (200-1n101) and DeLanda’s engagement with speculative realism continues only in the background of this book. Materialist Phenomenology sits more comfortably in the tradition of analytic philosophy of mind, alongside the works of Dennett and the Churchlands, with whom he substantially engages here. More notable is the absence of the many authors with whom DeLanda might be expected to have engaged due to his background in continental philosophy, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Trần Đức Thảo, Michel Henry, Jacques Derrida, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The purpose of this book is to produce a non-reductive materialism, in opposition to the contemporary prominence of epiphenomenalist, panpsychist and eliminativist philosophies of mind. The leading motivation behind DeLanda’s own philosophy of mind is that, to paraphrase Deleuze, ‘modern neuroscience hasn’t found its metaphysics, the metaphysics it needs.’[i] Furthermore, DeLanda hopes to provide such a metaphysics by developing a novel theory of perception, drawing upon his close engagement with contemporary neuroscience, systems theory, and the science of artificial intelligence. One might be surprised to hear such grand intentions attributed to so brief a book. However, Materialist Phenomenology is extremely dense, requiring careful and deliberate navigation. For that reason, the largest part of this review is dedicated to laying out DeLanda’s arguments from each chapter, following which I will conclude by providing some brief, critical comments on the book.

The Contributions of the World

The first chapter of DeLanda’s book introduces the synthetic approach on which he will rely for the remainder of this work, as well as several key concepts for his theory of perception. However, the ponderous manner in which he navigates his subject matter here makes the overall trajectory of his argument sometimes difficult to discern. One might struggle, for instance, to see the relevance of his critique of Lewis and Kripke’s modal metaphysics on pages 23-4. Indeed, the explicit terms of DeLanda’s argument are not introduced until the conclusion of the chapter, where he clarifies that he is offering a “proof by construction” (38). I will briefly consider the relevance of such a proof and its meaning before proceeding. To begin, let us note that, to offer an account of perception, one option which lies open to philosophers (frequently adopted by phenomenologists) is to begin with the fact that we have a direct awareness of what perception is, as perceiving beings. But, after one has deduced the structures of perception from examining one’s own experience, it may remain a mystery how those structures emerged in the first place. Materialist Phenomenology pursues just such an explanation.

DeLanda’s argument proceeds via proof by construction. Such a proof, in this case, means simulating the origins of perception, and using this simulation to draw real lessons about the historical origins of consciousness. DeLanda calls his simulation the “Multi-Homuncular Model” [henceforth, MHM] (10). The name of this model follows from the method of construction on which DeLanda relies. This book pursues the possibility of modelling the origins of perception using “artificial neural nets” (10). Neural nets are artificial intelligences which, unlike other intelligences that are programmed by a human designer to possess certain capacities, can simply be fed information from which they develop associations autonomously. It may be objected that reliance on software developed by already-conscious beings cannot accurately simulate the origins of consciousness unless the existence of a designer, like the human software designer, is assumed.[ii] However, DeLanda does not consider this objection, and instead relies on a theory of natural signs, according to which the basic components of perception always-already exist in the external world (7-8).

To initiate the construction of MHM, DeLanda begins by providing what he terms a “job description” for perception. This job description names the features which any rudimentary cognitive agent must possess to have access to perception in our sense. For this purpose, DeLanda thinks that perception must possess a causal and intentional connection to the external world (9), create meanings usable by other cognitive agents (11), and emerge from evolution alongside other, similarly perceiving cognitive agents (13). This cannot be all, however. Not only does human perception possess the aforementioned features, it also emerged in a very specific, terrestrial environment which provided the basic form that we use to discern features of the external world. Our world is populated by solid surfaces which appear in consistent shapes (16). Additionally, things in our usual environment have tendencies to behave in one way rather than another, such as the tendency of gasses to maximally expand within a given container (22). Such facts about our material environment evolutionarily present us with a basic datum of what to detect and what to ignore.  With this as his description of perception, DeLanda attempts to show that we can move from mere hypotheses about the origins of such perception to demonstrate these origins by simulating each feature using neural nets.

If we accept DeLanda’s use of neural nets as analogues for the origins of human perception, a radically different view of perception presents itself to us. Such a view of perception is at great odds with the classical image of the Cartesian Theatre. On this old image, perception operates by a kind of master-operator or homunculus which observes the visual field as would a viewer in a theatre. Contrary to this, MHM is a non-hierarchical conception which posits a multitude of homunculi, represented by different neural nets, operating autonomously to build up perception as we know it through their spontaneous cooperation. In this case, when sense stimuli are received, they are imagined to activate an array of corresponding data-processing units which “all broadcast their signs to whatever other agents are capable of making use of their content” (29). DeLanda concludes this chapter arguing for MHM’s use in contemporary debates around reductionism, for which mental phenomena “are nothing but physical phenomena” (29). Unlike other models of perception, MHM is emergentist, allowing both the origin of perception in the material world, and the causal efficacy of the mind upon the body, represented in the way in which a program, when implanted in an artificial body, can issue commands to that body making it move.

The Contributions of the Body

The second chapter provides a response to a possible criticism of MHM. MHM in chapter 1 conceives of perception as if it was done by disembodied minds whose sole occupation is the processing of input-data. However, to accurately mirror perception as it occurs in us, “the brain must command and control, not only represent” (39). An intuitive view of embodied artificial intelligence would have it that “when we raise our arm the brain must specify the exact angle that each different joint (shoulder, elbow, and wrist) must end up having, as well as the precise degree of contraction that the attached muscles must have once the target position is reached” (39). Embodiment understood in this way would be unrecognisable to human cognitive agents, and if MHM entailed endorsement of such a view of embodiment, the analogy between neural nets and human perceivers would fail. DeLanda’s argument is that this view of embodied perception does not accurately describe the operations of neural nets outfitted with artificial bodies: the way neural nets occupy bodies is in fact extremely similar to our own.

To show the similarity of embodied artificial intelligence to human embodied perception, DeLanda makes significant use of insights from systems theory. This use of systems theory has been a staple of his philosophical work throughout his career, but it is given a central place in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. There, he uses the “theory of dynamical systems where the dimensions of a manifold are used to represent properties of a particular physical process or system, while the manifold itself becomes the space of possible states which the physical system can have.”[iii] Imagining the transformations a system can undergo as a space of possible states (a state space), some of those states (attractors) are more statistically likely ones for the system to move into. For instance, due to the elasticity of tendons in human hands, the natural state which they occupy when no other influence is causing them to be otherwise is with the fingers curled slightly towards the palm. However, when a new system is created, such as one including a hand and a box which it is involved in pushing, the hand might be attracted into a flat and stretched-out configuration.

Attractors within a state space also provide the parameters in which the system it represents operates. Continuing with our example, the same elasticity that gives resting fingers their natural state also entails their inoperability when bent too far backwards and broken. Instead of issuing abstract commands, detailing precise dimensions for movement as would the operator of a Taylorist factory, neural nets implanted in an artificial body learn to navigate their environment through the mediation of the parameters and capacities of the body that they occupy. For this reason, the neural net does not need to specify the exact parameters of its intended movement, as the intuitive view of embodied artificial intelligence above claimed. Rather, “much of the computational work would still be offloaded to the dynamics of the robot’s legs interacting with the ground” (40). DeLanda also extends this view of embodiment to a theory of embeddedness, in which “the dynamical system is simply an extension of the body” (43). Dynamic systems theory conceives of systems as open and reconfigurable as they enter into contact with other systems. Because of this, the environment in which a system functions in a very real sense enters into the functioning of that system as well by adding new attractors.

The above accounts only for how the body influences the commands issued by the mind; it is desirable as well to understand how the body is influenced by the structure of its environment. For this purpose, DeLanda introduces the concept of affordance, which describes features of the environment which are activated by the introduction of the right kind of system, such as “medium-sized elongated objects that afford wielding to a human hand” (45). Introducing the concept of affordance suggests the existence of an already well-structured environment in which only certain details become salient based on the kind of agent interacting with them. Summarising his use of affordance, DeLanda suggests that “[r]ather than thinking of the cook’s brain as containing a single unified model of the entire kitchen, and a detailed plan of the overall task we can think of multiple partial models each specific to a task, or even to a single stage in the task” (48). This addition further highlights the potential value of MHM: it removes the need to develop a single, complete cognitive agent to simulate perception, since the same job can be done by a team of only partially functional agents.

The remainder of this chapter returns to the inner sense of embodiment, before dealing at length with several objections to DeLanda’s account of embodiment and embeddedness, primarily those associated with what he calls the “enactive approach” and the “radical embodiment approach” (63). I will pass over the objections for the sake of this review. To explain the inner sense of embodiment, DeLanda focusses specifically on two kinds of internal perception: proprioception and interoception. While proprioception is responsible for the fact that I do not need to look at my hand to know it is raised above my head, interoception “keep[s] the brain informed about the current state of the body’s visceral environment in order to maintain its metabolic balance” (48). By accounting for both proprioception and interoception, DeLanda hopes to show how we also develop our “sense of ownership of our bodies [and] a sense of agency” (50). For this purpose, DeLanda once again relies on a constructivist approach. Internal representations of our body as situated in a three-dimensional environment, and as a complex system requiring biological regulation are “slowly developed as sensory experiences accumulate” (51). The body map built up through these sensory experiences is primarily a way of organising the “steady stream of signs from joints, muscles, tendons and viscera” (57), and this organisational map of internal perception gives “us a sense of ownership of our phenomenal experience” (57).

The Contributions of the Brain

The picture of perception which DeLanda has offered until this point intentionally avoids the question of how external signs become internal ones. The distinction between internal and external signs was explored in chapter 1 in the context of DeLanda’s attempt to offer a job description for internal signs. This job description required that internal signs be causally and intentionally connected to the external world, and that the intentional meaning of these signs be transmissible between cognitive agents who have undergone a similar process of evolution. The discussion of interoception at the end of chapter 2 adds a further condition to the success of DeLanda’s model, since here it is added that “interoceptive information, in turn, is transformed into lived hunger, thirst, and sexual arousal, or into a primordial feeling of anger, joy, sadness, or fear” (68). Now, MHM must not only be able to account for the communicable content of internal signs, but also their emotional content for the cognitive agent that produces them. In other words, the purpose of chapter 3 is to develop MHM to account for the change from signs that merely satisfy the job description in chapter 1, into signs that also have an emotional, lived significance.

To add this requisite complexity to his model, DeLanda begins by “removing, one at a time, the simplifying assumptions” (77) which allowed him to develop an initial, cogent articulation of MHM. This complexifying process begins by moving from hypothetical models of artificial cognitive agents to a “toy model of the brain” (76). Accordingly, this chapter marks a crucial shift in his argument. Until now, his proof by construction has only attempted to show that the qualities of perception with which we are familiar can be replicated with simulations involving artificial neural nets. This chapter “replace[s] artificial neural networks as our main example of a mindless cognitive agent with something more realistic” (79), that is, actual neuronal systems embedded in an organic brain and body. One simplification that DeLanda here discards imagines that the retina functions in a manner analogous to the optical array of a camera. Now, he stresses that the retina should be understood as “capturing not pictures resembling objects but an array of intensities isomorphic with the optical phenomena in the section” (80). This cunningly bypasses the classical problem of the correspondence between mental contents and the external world by acknowledging that the array of photoreceptors in the retina directly encode the external world in a form isomorphic to itself (although this description of mind-world correspondence is complicated again on page 90).

The greatest part of this chapter is devoted to explaining how the features of neural nets as already described apply in similar terms to specific regions of the brain. Assuming DeLanda’s understanding of contemporary neuroscience to be sound, this is an impressive addition indeed, since it decisively shifts the discussion from artificial neural nets to, not only organic systems in the abstract, but the neuronal structure of the human brain as it realises perception in fact. After a prolonged discussion of how the anterior intraparietal area and the premotor areas of the frontal lobe interact in a dynamic loop that allows affordances to exist within perception, DeLanda returns to considering “the role that the biological value system we discussed in the previous chapter plays in this process” (92). For this purpose, he introduces the contribution to perception of two “relay station[s]”, the first comprised of the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and hippocampus, and the second comprised of the brain stem, hypothalamus, and amygdala, although DeLanda does concede that “from the point of view of the neural basis of the biological value system, the amygdala is probably the most important component” (93-4).

It may be wondered at this stage just how a description of the structure of the brain will yield an understanding of the emotive content of internal signs. Furthermore, it is just this emotive content that DeLanda earlier claimed this chapter is meant to explain. However, after describing the neurobiology of emotions, DeLanda concedes that his argument at this stage must be left “deliberately vague” (96) due to the current state of the science. Despite promising to offer an account of the emotive content of internal signs in perception, DeLanda’s conclusion that neuroscience has yet to provide a satisfying account of this may confirm what critics of physicalism have long suspected: that, however much neuroscientific data we acquire on the biological structure of the brain, it will always be insufficient until we have at least discovered a bridge principle adequate for closing what Nagel called “the gap between subjective and objective”.[iv] Be that as it may, DeLanda’s suggestions, although not obviously providing a satisfactory bridge principle, may give suggestions concerning the form that such a bridge principle could take.

The standard approach to dealing with the hard problem of consciousness begins with the qualitative difference between mind and body, and provides a description of how the latter realises the former. DeLanda’s attempt to provide an account of the emergence of internal signs in their emotive aspect should be seen as a variant on the hard problem of consciousness, to the extent that he is trying to explain how the functions performed by the brain come to acquire a lived significance. However, he does not begin to deal with this problem as most do. His way of beginning is instead similar to Searle’s. Searle writes: “I believe that the key to solving the mind-body problem is to reject the system of Cartesian categories in which it has traditionally been posed. And the first step in that rejection is to see that ‘mental,’ naively construed, does not imply ‘non-physical’ and ‘physical’ does not imply ‘non-mental.’”[v] Likewise, DeLanda states that “given that we need consciousness and intentionality to emerge gradually, we must give up any model that includes only two levels, such as the brain and the mind” (96). Accordingly, DeLanda’s suggestion is that what might serve as a bridge principle “will involve introducing intermediate levels between the two” (98) which do not involve qualitative differences but greater degrees of systematic unity and coordination between a plethora of non-conscious, rudimentary cognitive agents.

The Contributions of the Mind

Operating within the limits imposed on his explanation by the current state of science, the last chapter of DeLanda’s book offers some final additions to MHM to help with overcoming the hard problem of consciousness. In this context, DeLanda’s humility is certainly appreciated. At the end of this chapter, he clarifies that “[i]ntroducing intermediate levels between the brain and a subject who can issue reports does not solve the hard problem but it does break it down into three more tractable problems. And it points to the direction we must follow to find the solution: a methodology that combines analysis and synthesis, starting from the bottom and moving upward” (139). What these three problems are will be seen in the following. DeLanda begins here, surprisingly, by attempting to show that at least three forms of perception (the perception of properties, objects, and situations) do not involve the use of concepts. Why this matters is not at all obvious; and, as another reviewer has noted, it goes against much of the received wisdom on the theory-ladenness of experience.[vi] An explanation of this decision is offered in the book’s introduction. It might be objected that a neurobiological account of perception is sufficient only for explaining perception in organisms less complex than we are. However, “[t]here is no deep discontinuity between animal and human visual experience, as there would be if linguistically expressed concepts shaped perception” (2-3).

If not by means of concepts, how does perception access the sense-data presented to the retina? Most of this chapter is devoted to developing DeLanda’s alternative, that it is instead preferable “to view the perception of properties as performing a measurement function, to view the perception of objects as performing the function of separating the perspectival from the factual, and the perception of situations as having the function of allowing qualitative judgements about the relations between objects” (113). His attempt to prove that none of these kinds of perception involve concepts is unlikely to convince anyone committed to the contrary view. Consider, for instance, how DeLanda deals with the perception of situations. After dubiously asserting that there is no need to depend upon concepts to ask the question “What is that?” (125), he proceeds by appealing to vervet monkeys, who can perform a variety of tasks related to attention and specification “without possessing any sortal concepts” (126). However, DeLanda makes his case here using a doctored understanding of what a concept is. He takes as intuitive the view that a prototype which “does not stand for an essence or abstract universal” (126) is not a concept. But what of the concept of a game? It is well established that such a concept would stand for neither an essence nor an abstract universal, encoding instead a variety of mere family resemblances, and being much closer to what DeLanda calls “a construct capturing statistical regularities in the objects actually used for training” (126).[vii]

The above concerns DeLanda’s attempt to deal with the “easy problems of consciousness, that is, the problems that can be tackled by cognitive psychology and the neurosciences” (129). From this point on, he tries to build a solution to the hard problem of consciousness, on the principle that “the brain monitoring its own activity is the key to the solution to the hard problem” (129). By this, DeLanda means the following. It is strictly incorrect to speak of perception as the perception of qualities in the external world. Instead, wherever there is perception, it is perception by the mind of the various neuronal circuits and the way they behave when subjected to certain kinds of stimulation of the retinal array. Thus, “[f]ar from being an input from the world, perception is more like an intermediate output, and the volition behind an action is not an output to the world but an intermediate input to the motor areas of the brain” (102). Allowing that perception is not perception of the external world, but perception of changes within the brain “eliminates the idea that the visual field is like a veil separating us from reality, as well as the idea that the transparency of this veil must be accounted for” (130).

Let’s see how DeLanda’s multilayer approach deals with the hard problem of consciousness. For this purpose, DeLanda distinguishes between four different senses of the word ‘consciousness’: arousal, alertness, flow, and selective awareness (137-8). In each case, he shows that MHM can simulate the different kinds of conscious phenomena in question. What is most surprising is that qualitative experiences, sometimes called qualia, enter into none of the senses of consciousness DeLanda defines. This begs an important question: in showing that, beginning with a multiplicity of mindless cognitive agents we can simulate arousal, alertness, flow, and selective awareness, has DeLanda shown how such systems realise consciousness? But there is no answer to the hard problem of consciousness which does not explain how it is possible for the operations of mindless things, even teams of mindless data-processing units, to produce conscious states. Along these lines, the three constitutive problems into which DeLanda analyses the hard problem concern the emergence through evolution of what he calls protoselves, core selves, and autobiographical selves. However, only the emergence of protoselves is analogous to the hard problem since the development of protoselves is the stage at which mindless systems “slowly get the ‘sentient’ part to emerge” (139). And the closest DeLanda comes to explaining how protoselves emerge is the following: “The emergence of protoselves in the course of evolution may be due to the fact that the internal milieu displays a greater degree of constancy than the body as a whole” (69).

Critical Comments

With the core arguments of DeLanda’s book aside, I want to conclude by offering three considerations pertaining to the success and nature of his project. In the first case, consider the following. DeLanda’s book begins with the claim that “[t]raditionally, communication between philosophers of the materialist and phenomenological schools has been limited” (1). But this is not remotely true. It would be more correct to claim, as Derrida did, that attempts to synthesise materialism and phenomenology have consistently resulted in “impasse.”[viii] DeLanda’s attempt to bring materialism and phenomenology into dialogue with one another suffers from this same fault. However, his attempt does so differently than have many others. Rather than approaching this reconciliation through the mediation of social interaction and language, DeLanda decisively rejects the relevance of these “meso-scale” (143n4) phenomena for understanding consciousness itself. Instead of approaching the reconciliation of materialism and phenomenology through the highest order of material phenomena, social and economic factors, DeLanda’s approach begins from the lowest: the biological evolution of neuronal networks ultimately possessing rudimentary consciousness.

Secondly, for a work which purports to produce communication between materialism and phenomenology, it is remarkable that there are no discussions whatsoever of the core components of the phenomenological method, such as epoche or noesis. This calls into question the sincerity of the rapprochement being offered. DeLanda’s approach, apart from ignoring the work of actual phenomenologists, sides consistently with phenomenology’s critics. There is an unmistakable affinity between Dennett’s ‘hetero-phenomenology’ and DeLanda’s claim that the “tendency of the conscious mind to make sense of its decisions and actions, results in the fabrication of explanations after the fact” (97). Despite this, the book concludes by adding, “[a]nd this is why it is so important to adopt a materialist approach to phenomenology” (141). But the arguments of the book have nothing to do with adopting a materialist approach to the deduction of the transcendental categories of experience, as one might expect this closing statement to mean. Rather, DeLanda appears to mean ‘phenomenology’ in the sense in which it is more frequently used in analytic philosophy of mind, where it refers to the general quality of experiential states, instead of the rigorous study of experience which begins from within subjectivity itself.

Thirdly, a contrast should be made between the kind of account of perception that DeLanda attempts to provide, and the kind of account that he actually provides. He declares his theory to be a variety of “non-reductive materialism”, which for him means “first, that there are mental properties that are different from physical properties; second, that the existence of mental properties depends on the existence of physical properties; and third, that mental properties can confer causal powers on mental events” (1). However, MHM tries to solve the hard problem of consciousness by positing a continuum between the physical and the mental such that there are between the two “intermediate levels [which] implies a graded conception of both intentionality and consciousness” (134). This solution may be inconsistent with DeLanda’s commitment to a conception in which mental and physical properties really are different. Given some continuum, for instance between hot and cold, it can be granted that the properties lying at either end are really different in some sense. However, this kind of difference is not the kind that a non-reductive materialism requires. Representing differences along a continuum implies their representation as differing in terms of something continuous between the two, reducing the difference to a difference in degree. But the claim that between conscious and nonconscious things there is only a difference in degree is something that even reductive materialists can assent to. A truly nonreductive materialism must successfully maintain the difference in kind between minds and bodies, and since DeLanda’s theory does not offer this, it is perhaps incorrect to call it non-reductive.

The project behind Materialist Phenomenology is a highly ambitious one; and insofar as ambition and innovation themselves deserve praise, DeLanda’s work is clearly laudable. However, the careful reader of this book will inevitably discover many questionable inferences. I am greatly sympathetic to attempts to defend non-reductionism within materialism. I also agree with DeLanda’s initial premise that such a materialism must be brought about by cultivating communication between materialism and phenomenology. But, as with any worthwhile discussion, this communication must transpire among equals. This would mean taking seriously what phenomenologists have learned throughout the last century of their deliberations on the meaning and nature of consciousness. In Materialist Phenomenology, the materialist has been handed the megaphone, and the voice of the phenomenologist has been drowned out by the amplified orations of their interlocutor. Despite this, DeLanda must be applauded: even if the attempt to unify materialism and phenomenology has failed here (and, if Derrida is to be believed, may always fail), the attempt itself is something which unfortunately few philosophers today aspire to enact.


[i] Paraphrasing Deleuze, G. 2007. “Responses to a Series of Questions,” in Collapse, Volume III. London: MIT Press, p. 41.

[ii] For closer treatment of this objection, see Negarestani, R. 2018. Intelligence and Spirit. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

[iii] DeLanda, M. 2013. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury, p. 5.

[iv] Nagel, T. 1974. “What is it like to be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review (83:4), p. 449.

[v] Searle, J. 1991. “Response: The Mind-Body Problem,” in John Searle and His Critics, ed. Lepore, E. and Van Gulick, R. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 141.

[vi] Richmond, S. 2022. Manuel DeLanda, “Materialist Phenomenology: A Philosophy of Perception”, Philosophy in Review (42:2).

[vii] Cf. Wittgenstein, L. 2009. Philosophical Investigations, trans, Anscombe, G.E.M., Hacker, P.M.S., and Schulte, J. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, §67.

[viii] Derrida, J. 1983. “The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations,” in Philosophy in France Today, ed. Montefiore, A. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peter Antich: Motivation and the Primacy of Perception

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Knowledge Book Cover Motivation and the Primacy of Perception: Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Knowledge
Series in Continental Thought, № 54
Peter Antich
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
2021
Hardback $95.00
264

Reviewed by: Jim Gabaret (Paris 1 University)

Motivation and the Primacy of Perception, the edition of Peter Antich’s doctoral thesis, is a study of the notion of ‘motivation’, which has been the focus of extensive investigation in recent years. The term refers to an affective and perceptive awareness of possibilities towards which the agent feels drawn[1]. The notion is part of an already well-established phenomenological tradition but it could still prove useful for epistemologists as it suggests a “Merleau-Pontian epistemological program” (p. 6). Merleau-Ponty’s notion of motivation has already been described as a compelling alternative to the empiricist and rationalist assumptions that underpin modern epistemology[2]. The question of how knowledge can be grounded in experience without reverting to a naive empiricism is a fundamental challenge to contemporary philosophy of cognition. By placing the French phenomenologist in dialogue with major contemporary figures of the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of mind, Antich’s clear and scholarly book identifies some of the most important issues in the transition from perception to judgments, even if it does not resolve them all.

But how exactly can phenomenology help epistemology? First, this book aims to understand knowledge as an intentional state, a type of experience distinct from wishes, imaginations and perceptions, with the tools of phenomenology. But it also allows us to overcome epistemological issues once the phenomenologically inadequate terms in which they were expressed have been replaced. We must indeed understand how, without simply causing knowledge, our embodied experiences can motivate and ground beliefs about the world. In a very merleau-pontian fashion, Antich highlights in turn the difficulties of empiricists and rationalists, causal and intellectualist explanations of perception and knowledge, or conceptualist and non-conceptualist programs, as well as disjunctivism and conjunctivism, in order to propose a middle way, beyond the false difficulties created by these dualistic alternatives.

However, by creating a specific zone between a causally explicable physical world and a reason-justified knowledge, are we not blurring the differences between experience and knowledge, or between the most immediate perceptive norms and the norms of judgments, which are more prone to interpretation or verification? The notion of motivation, a process where we would spontaneously and bodily grasp meanings pertaining to our worldly situation, prompting us to believe or act in a certain way, could wrongly incite us to naturalize a meaning that is in fact always intentionally produced. Antich’s challenge is to solve an age-old problematic dualism about experience and knowledge, by bridging the “space of causes” and the “space of reasons” – and, what is more, to do so without falling into an obscure monism.

Critical overview: the main theses

  1. Causes, reasons and motivation:

The first thesis of the book (chapter 1) is that the traditional epistemological dichotomy – found for instance in Sellars or McDowell – between reasons and causes (or justifying and explaining) is false. If we ask why something happens, we can answer with an objective cause, a conscious reason or a motive that has triggered it. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty says motivation is not only what grounds our will in action but is also a perceptual and an epistemic ground. Perception motivates our beliefs: it does not justify them (there is sometimes a gap between our motivated beliefs about the external world and reality) but it does not simply explain them either. But does such a spontaneous normative relation between the perceptive world on the one hand, and us, our body or our knowledge on the other hand, actually exist? Is it absolutely irreducible to justifications by reasons, or to explanations by causes?

According to Antich’s distinction, causal relationships hold between objects and events and affect everyone the same way, while a motive has an effect on us because of its meaning which appears as the actual cause of our action or thought but is relative. Causes explain why something is the case, reasons explain what should be the case, as far as our knowledge is concerned; motivation also explains what should be the case, but as far as our beliefs are concerned, in front of a perceptual scene. Therefore, it accepts several beliefs (but in finite number and in accordance with certain norms). The norms of perception that motivate our beliefs are for instance equilibrium and determinacy (when a hesitation occurs, it is meant to be solved and doubt to disappear), veridicality, or a « good grasp » of the object perceived. Indeed, contrary to imaginings, perceptions are experienced as non-optional. In front of two conflicting motives, one is right and has to be followed and the other denied. Motives are not norms in themselves, says Antich, but the aspect of what I perceive with perceptual ends in mind. Nevertheless, since motivational processes are not conscious choices, they are intrinsically characterized by normativity.

Antich also distinguishes between motivation and reason. A reason is explicit and revisable while a motive is spontaneous, implicit and cannot be changed. For instance, the Müller-Lyer illusion cannot be affected by reason. Antich then gives much more “intellectual” examples, which are prone to changing interpretations where we might revise our motivation just like with reasons, but he maintains a difference by putting emphasis on the explicitness of reasons. I know the right way to strike the ball on the tennis court without reasoning, because the trajectory of the ball is a motive for my body to position itself in a certain way. If I had to reason, I could not have the same spontaneity.

There are intuitive relations between perceptions: for instance, the notes of a melody bear an intrinsic relation to each other that gives them their meaning, and the retention-protention structure which unifies them is constitutive of perception. Likewise, the gestalt principles of grouping are perceived relations supposedly “out there” in the perceptive field: the groups of dots we see when looking at dots separated by regular spaces are not our creation, but the grouping arises spontaneously, through our perceptive contact with the world. The grounding relations are similar: some are active and intellectual (explanation or justification) but others are spontaneous and bodily relations (motivation). Motivation has the specificity of being a reciprocal relation: a “proactive” influence of a motivating factor and a « retroactive » influence of the motivated on the motivating. Similarly to a melody where the last note influences the meaning of the previous ones, my motivated beliefs or actions can shed a new light on what motivated me: if the death of my friend is the motive of my journey of grief, my decision to go on the journey might, in a logical sense, “confirm this sense as valid”.

  1. The primacy of perception and its relation to grounding.

Antich’s second thesis (chapter 2) is that all our knowledge is based on perception and that perception is, as Merleau-Ponty says, a “nascent logos” with a “silent thesis” which explains the birth of knowledge.

Of course, knowledge cannot be reduced to perception. Knowledge is about states of affairs, it is propositional, thetic, explicit, it depends on symbolization and takes place at the level of verification, in the logical space of reasons, while perception is an experience of meaningful things, one devoid of judgment and verification. Knowledge seeks a greater degree of certainty than that found in perception, and it has a universality through truth that the particular and perspectival perception can never reach.

But despite the differences, every item of knowledge includes in its ground at least some component, not of reason, but of motivation, which is itself an effect of perception. Although they can endure beyond the perception upon which they are founded, knowledge, meanings and intellectual evidence depend on perceptual evidence.

This is the “primacy of perception” explained by Merleau-Ponty: the perceived world is the presupposed foundation of all rationality, value and existence (see The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays). This notion is to be distinguished from empiricism insofar as science and reflection are not mere transformed sensations. In spite of the founding character of perception, the founded knowledge is not merely derived from this perception; for only through what is founded does that which founds become explicit (p. 51): “it is only through the founded that the founding appears” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 414). This double relation (bottom-up and top-down) between the perceived object – which is a fragment of meaning that calls for determination by attention and knowledge – and the thetic understanding that fixes the perceived object and finally makes it exist, imply that the perceived object is the motif, rather than the rational warrant or the natural cause, of the “knowing event” (p. 54). Motivation is thus an epistemic mode of grounding in which perceptions can be that which spontaneously grounds items of knowledge without deliberation. It gives weight to some beliefs and not others, sometimes against my judgment (optical illusions), but does not give actual reasons.

  1. Particular experience, evidence and universal knowledge.

In chapter 3, Antich focuses on particular judgments about the perceptual world: “How can nonpropositional perceptions justify propositional judgments?” (p. 70). Antich abandons the alternative between causality and reason in order to overcome the debate between Davidson’s coherentism and McDowell’s “minimal empiricism” or foundationalism. According to Davidson, our beliefs are only justified by other beliefs: natural events do not belong to the space of reasons, and perception cannot be a justification but causes our belief. But he does not explain the normative fact that there are right and wrong descriptions of the perceptual scene and the phenomenological fact that perception is neither a mere sensation nor an explicit perceptual belief disconnected from its sensory content.

Rejecting the “Myth of the Given”, McDowell, on the other hand, argues that perception does not directly cause our beliefs but that the nonpropositional content of perception noninferentially justifies it through active and reflexive dispositions. But he does not take into consideration the spontaneous aspect that characterizes such perceptions as optical illusions, which are obviously not liable to revision by active thinking. Ordinarily, we do not actively think about the relation between perception and perceptual judgments, nor are we free to revise or alter this relation under the recommendation of active thinking, says Antich.

When we are faced with new experiences, many perceptions are even indefinite and ambiguous; this proves that judgment is not intrinsic to perception – on the contrary, the former determines and enriches the perception. But the perception still grounds the judgment, which without it would be empty and merely verbal. The concept of motivation helps to understand the intimate bond between knowledge and perception in terms of fulfillment. We can freely form an a priori judgment about a state of affairs but it is empty until it achieves evidence, in Husserl’s terms, that is to say until it is intuitively fulfilled by a perception which makes it evident and thus motivated.

One might ask whether this is not simply putting a name to a difficulty rather than explaining it. But the wager of phenomenology is that a good description already contains the beginning of an explanation. In his article “Merleau-Ponty’s Theory of Preconceptual Generalities and Concept Formation” (2018), Antich more precisely explains the formation of concepts as a bridge from perception to knowledge. Against theories of concept formation using abstraction, he very convincingly defends a merleau-pontian account of the birth of concepts from “preconceptual generalities” which organize experience at the most basic level. In The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty indeed exhorts us to “replace the notions of concept, idea, mind, representation, with the notions of dimensions, articulation, level, hinge, pivots, configuration”; but he does so in order to preserve perception from conceptual analysis, and not because concepts should be evacuated. To understand how we are able to identify, categorize and then exert our conceptual capacities towards experience, it is useful to understand the conceptual availability of intuition. But since Merleau-Ponty does not generally think of perception as having conceptual content, in his new work on motivation, Antich wishes to stay neutral with regards to the role of concepts in perception, even though an elucidation of this question might have shed a new light on these debates.

  1. Experience, abstraction and a priori knowledge: overcoming the rationalism-empiricism divide

Chapter 4 focuses on universal judgments beyond perceptual experiences. It advocates to follow Merleau-Ponty’s path to overcome the alternative between rationalism and empiricism. According to the empiricist, for knowledge to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, or between truth and mere logical consistency, it must be grounded in experience. Merleau-Ponty assumes that even abstract scientific concepts like “time” have meaning for us only due to our perceptual experience of time. But the universality of knowledge transcends any singular experience, replies the rationalist. Contrary to the empiricist claim, such concepts as high numbers or time, universals and terms as diverse as “quark,” “chiliagon,” and “modus ponens” and at least some intellectual content (like a priori knowledge) are not reducible to experiential content and evidence, and might even be innate.

Rationalists still have a hard time explaining how such concepts can be self-evident then, as Merleau-Ponty noticed: intellectual evidence (just like perceptual evidence) actually relies on a foreground/background structure, such that any proposition can appear evident only in virtue of a background set of beliefs not simultaneously raised to explicit awareness. That is why every judgment can be doubted and is open to correction. There is a historical situatedness of all evidence (at least in their apprehension). Of course, some propositions known analytically seem presuppositionless since they are apodictically known only because their negation is inconceivable, but they can be labeled as “consequent” rather than “true” if they are not fulfilled in reality. We have to admit that a judgment always relies on other presuppositions. Particular experience grounds a priori knowledge by motivation.

Some moderate rationalists like Laurence Bonjour (In Defense of Pure Reason) argue that any argument, even the ones of the empiricists, depends on some a priori justification, for instance accepting the conclusion of an inference. If the rules for justified inference from experience were derived from experience, they might not themselves be justified, and no knowledge would be. Nevertheless, it can be motivated, says Antich: motivation is not a mere contingent occasioning ground for knowledge, but a funding ground. It creates a transcendent and necessary knowledge which originates in perception but is not reducible to it. Perception, being contingent, cannot justify the necessity of our knowledge, but it can motivate knowledge containing necessary truths. It can ground many of our ideas which are neither caused by our senses nor produced by our imagination, like personal identity, substance or causality, doubted by Hume but which are not mere fictions. The same goes for quantities: first, young children can perceptually distinguish magnitudes, but they have to learn a count list made of numbers, then learn to map their representations with this list in order to acquire the concept of natural numbers, and to finally acquire the concept of succession and the mastering of very large numbers, according to Susan Carey.

  1. Perceptual faith against skepticism

Primacy of perception anchors knowledge in ordinary beliefs. But Antich recognizes that this motivation process cannot provide a justified true-belief account of knowledge. “A belief counts as knowledge, just in case it is a normatively motivated true judgment”, without the need of an explicit justification (p. 60). Chapter 5 focuses on this perceptual faith, the fact that I trust my perception to be of the world, and not a mere appearance. It is not an active position-taking expressed as a judgment about existence, but an experience of inhabiting the world with our body prior to all verification, which cannot justify but grounds our knowledge about the world.

But here the skeptic’s objections arise. Perception sometimes fails to distinguish itself from illusion. Our belief in the perceptual world, because it is not justified, may then be understood as a psychological natural fact about us, caused in us, but lacking normative import. Knowledge could then be entirely inexistant. Rationalists like Descartes or Kant tried to answer skepticism by use of a nonperceptual faculty: reason. But we may not need this recourse to reason if we consider that the skeptic’s desire for justification is simply excessive and should be ignored. Our perceptual faith is a spontaneous and involuntary feature of our perception: it is not an ordinary belief susceptible to error.

Sometimes, hallucinations can of course trick us, but patients can ordinarily distinguish them from perceptions, because differences in the horizonal content are available. One might argue that one can actually find an epistemological disjunctivism in Merleau-Ponty, but this is not Antich’s point: the disjunctivist’s claim that perceptions are intrinsically different from illusions does nothing to dispel the skeptical threat that I may not be able to distinguish them. Such a certainty is simply not needed. In a first-person epistemic perspective, we don’t need a reason to justify our belief that we perceive and are not victims of a hallucination: we simply perceive it. Illusion cannot disqualify perception either in our epistemology because it essentially depends on ordinary genuine perception (the possibility of a false experience presupposes the possibility of a true one).

Again, we may have simply named on a problem that still remains unsolved, and perceptual faith has not been justified but only described. But Antich defends that such a description is neither a psychology of knowledge merely explaining the formation of our beliefs, since the normativity of motivation make them acceptable, nor an actual justification, since trying to justify perceptual faith would reproduce the mistake made by reflective philosophies which look for excessive warranties and reasons to every belief. Asking for more, like the skeptics, would equate to “requir[ing] of the innocent the proof of his non-culpability”, as Merleau-Ponty says: the task of philosophy, rather than justifying or describing the perceptual faith, is to return to it.

  1. Merleau-Ponty versus Kant: grounding transcendental knowledge in experience

Chapter 6 deals with consequences of the abovementioned thesis on the opposition between Kant’s and Merleau-Ponty’s attempts to overcome the rationalism-empiricism debate. Kantian experience is an empirical cognition: a conscious presentation referring to an object which has unity through concepts, that is to say, a judgment. It needs to follow certain rules in order to be necessary, justified then objective. In saying so, Kant may describe conditions for experience in the sense of justified empirical judgment, but not in the sense of perception. For Merleau-Ponty, perception is not a judgment – it is the pre-predicative givenness of the thing – and does not need to be justified, but only motivated. Kant emphasizes the need of an intellectual synthesis like causality in order to experience objective time order, while Merleau-Ponty argued for a passive temporal synthesis which does not need the principle of sufficient reason, since temporal processes are given as wholes and not as distinct moments to be ordered. Perception is not governed by categories, and yet it is objective, since its objectivity derives from motivation, “perception’s spontaneous sensitivity to norms” (p. 164). Moreover, transcendental justification is ultimately motivated in the course of experience, which challenges the a priori status of the categories and the synthetic principles.

Chapter 7 addresses the question of metaphysical knowledge (cognition through mere concepts) which seems to be allowed (contrary to Kant’s thesis) by Merleau-Ponty’s concept of motivation: does Merleau-Ponty release metaphysics from Kant’s bounds? Antich answers this question by focusing on Kant’s Third Paralogism, namely, the identity of the self. Kant considers that intuition only gives us objects, so empirical apperception can give me successive determinations of my mind like a stream of presentations, but it is not a perception of myself as a subject. But Antich shows that the fact that I perceive things and make normed judgment about self-identity is a tacit cohesion of experience (a “tacit cogito”) and a direct self-perception rather than an a priori judgment. According to Merleau-Ponty, the self is made of a stream of continuous experiences that are always internally related and are the background against which each particular experience acquires its meaning: this field implicitly unifies my existence. Contrary to Kant’s view of the self, which fails to account for how transcendental and empirical apperception can “merge” and intend the same determinative (active) but also determined (passive) subject, Merleau-Ponty’s tacit cogito allows us to consider the pre-reflective self as both passively synthesizing the flow of consciousness and as synthesized within the flow of consciousness. The return to motivation, then, does not exactly open the door to metaphysics but does “put transcendental and empirical apperception into dialectic (i.e., it shows both types of apperception to be insufficient in themselves and to be parts of a larger whole)” (p. 193). Perceptions are therefore moments of a common structure, something which is neither a fixed foundation nor a contingent multiplicity, but rather what Merleau-Ponty calls transcendence. It does not mean that we have to embrace groundlessness and skepticism, but that we have to accept that within the contingent, the quest of necessity is permanent and that not ultimate justification, but motivation and negotiated ambiguity, constitute our path towards to an always progressing knowledge.

Issues

Debates inside phenomenology

Antich acknowledges in the notes that his decision to give a unified view of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of perception is open to discussion (see Renaud Barbaras, The Being of the Phenomenon: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology). It might have been interesting to further discuss this point.

Moreover, Merleau-Ponty is the main inspiration for this study, but Peter Antich also borrows from the phenomenological tradition, as his very rich and stimulating notes underline. Despite his criticism of Husserl’s intellectualism, Merleau-Ponty in fact takes up the notion of motivation from him[3] and from Edith Stein[4]. The idea also appears in Anscombe (Intention, 1957), but also in Anthony Kenny (Action, Emotion and Will, 1963), who sees it as a pattern of behavior that invites people to see my action in a certain light, or in Paul Ricoeur (Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, 1950), who sometimes speaks of a motive as an antecedent of action and sometimes as a general trait of action (a personal, social or human tendency). It would have been fruitful to study even more closely the links of dependence but also the profound differences that may separate these philosophers[5], in order to grasp the specificity of the Merleau-Pontian concept of motivation.

The notion of motivation finally comes up in Merleau-Ponty’s discussion with Sartre[6], when dealing with the question of freedom in situation. The fact of having ‘motives’ implies that freedom is never indeterminate or absolute, but according to Sartre, it is always the free subject who gives a situation or a motive its meaning and its motivating power. Yet Peter Antich does not really put this contextual use of the notion of motivation into perspective: he chooses instead to understand the notion at a level that is often more fundamental and less free than action, that of perception, and it leads him to mix, in his demonstrations, examples of very spontaneous and unthinking perceptual acts, and actions (such as undertaking a journey) where reflection on motives, their interpretation and the self-narrative that one makes in an often intellectual way carry much weight, while using the same notion of ‘meaning’ in both cases, and claiming that this meaning always comes spontaneously in context.

Debates about perceptual and veridical normativity

Antich tries to create space between a physicalist reductionism and a theory of knowledge merely internal to the space of reason and disconnected from our experience. He therefore encompasses various phenomena, towards physical or gestalt effects susceptible of a purely physical explanation, but also mental representations and judgments whose origin in experience he tries to understand. But there is much debate about the relevance of avoiding at all costs a reductionist approach of gestalt effects which would describe them as a purely physical process. One phenomenon gives rise to another, not through objective causation, but through “the sense it offers”, says Merleau-Ponty (PhP, 51). But is it not possible to explain illusions or gestalt effects in terms of spatial and temporal contiguity or of an impact of light, textures, and distances on our perceptual system? On the other hand, cognitive « motives » such as reinterpretation of an ambiguous perception, or groundings for our action (for instance a travel we begin because our friend just died) could be given a comprehensive justification in terms of reasons. If there is a retroaction which transforms the whole, it seems to be purely internal to my decision process and my approach of the event: it does not define the intrinsic meaning of my friend’s death, which can be interpreted in many other ways by his other friends or his family, and it does not affect the existence of the event itself. According to Merleau-Ponty, the reinterpretation of the motive in light of the motivatum makes us forget the actual event. But this amounts to admitting that it is our intentionality that has changed, our beliefs or our memories, but not reality itself.

Of course, this continuity seems to be helpful to understand how our knowledge could be grounded in experience: if we consider that gestalt effects are already normative and have meanings, though they are not conscious and voluntary, it could explain how our judgments are also normed in ways we do not control in order to follow the truth. But are these norms exactly the same?

Any activity can be good or bad, depending on whether it fulfills its conscious purpose or not. We can thus say that perceptive activity contains norms of satisfaction: in certain situations, I see badly, because of the distance, an obstacle, or shortcomings in my body, and if I want to perceive, I have to move backwards or forwards, remove the obstacle, or put on glasses. We know this without thinking about it because we are already “experts” in perception (see H. Dreyfus et C. Taylor, Retrieving Realism, 2015). This habit of perception invites us to make anticipations and to see the world continuously, without contradiction between the data of the different sensitive organs or between different moments of experience. In the sense that it has standards of success or failure, perception is normative, which has already been commented on a lot. But are these not descriptive rather than normative features? And if this normativity is the same for perception as for any action that our body considers pragmatically successful or unsuccessful, can it have an epistemic force to guarantee true knowledge? If “seeing well” consists in succeeding in satisfying a practical need to operate within the perceptual scene, can we ever draw from perception a normativity that would concern “true seeing”?

Antich himself is careful to distinguish norms about true judgments (reasons) and perceptive norms which motivate beliefs, when he tries to avoid a reductionist approach which would consider motives as implicit reasons. But then, he faces two difficulties: are motives indeed different from reasons? And if they are, how is their normativity related to the one in the space of reasons, and how can we bridge the gap between motivation in experience and reasons justifying knowledge? It may seem easier, to answer the second issue, to say that there is a continuum between explicit and implicit reasons, as is suggested by Merleau-Ponty himself: sometimes, “motivation” seems to mean the incorporated rules we possess as reason to act or believe in a certain way even if we are not aware of reasoning anymore. It would help in avoiding to disconnect reasons from experience and invent a purely idealistic realm, because reasons are rarely as pure and different from perceptual motives as one might think.

But in section 9 of the first chapter, Antich argues against the idea of implicit reasons by saying that some motives are so amorphous that they can never be made explicit and function as reasons. But this argument seems to reduce the field of « motivation » to indeterminate phenomena, which are quite rare and are not the kind of examples that the author considers in the rest of the book. Of course, it would not be useful to do away with the distinction between perception and reasoning, or between unexplicit belief and clear knowledge. But seeing the kinship between these two categories may allow us to conceive of them as two types of intentional aiming without assuming that motivation is based on a meaning inscribed in reality itself rather than on our intentionality. This would help to understand how a perception can change, as one “changes her mind”, and how it can have in common with knowledge a certain dimension of commitment vis-à-vis the real to be identified or characterized. Interestingly, Antich admits that the meanings produced by motivation are not the motivating meanings, that for instance a light on the wall can draw my attention but is not a compelling force, and that « the light does not drag me along behind it, but awakens within me an intention ». There seems to be room for the intentionality of the subject here. But following Merleau-Ponty’s path between objectivity and subjectivity and refusing the divide, Antich claims that the contributions of both perceiver and perceived are inseparable from the normativity of perceptual motivation: “the idea is (…) not that the subject is solely responsible for the epistemic normativity of perception. Rather, the subject is responsive to the normative significance of perception.” (ch. 2 note 25). Antich later specifies that the subjective role of the perceiver is merely to desire to or be oriented toward seeing the world “as it is”, implying that most of the motivation comes from the side of the world.

The naturalization of meaning

The benefits of Merleau-Ponty’s analysis relies greatly on the essential « fact about perception » which is described in Phenomenology of perception: the idea of a “spontaneous sense”. At the level of the body, at the level of individual history and at the level of society, there are spontaneous valuations “in us”: the perceptual scenes appear to us to be great or small, easy or difficult to reach, and desirable or not, depending on our physiological constitution, our experiences, the lifestyle of our society, and the methods of solving problems that seem ordinary and habitual. This can give the impression that situations are “calling” us in one way or another.

But as Jakub Capek explains, “there are only norms for a being capable of assuming them, carrying them, and, in certain cases, turning away from them”[7]. It is essential to realize that it is always our human commitments that give one meaning or another to an event that motivates us to act or think: Merleau-Ponty himself admits that a form of freedom within these spontaneous valuations and these motives – and motivated by them – is always possible; but to conceive of this, one must not naturalize the meaning of a motive and the value of things in the things themselves. Otherwise, we could no longer go back and change their meaning.

If motivation is conceived as a part of an “operative intentionality” which does not oppose but deepens Husserl’s conception of intentionality, it has to be described as a way of aiming at things and giving them meaning (even if it is outside of the egoistic consciousness, involuntarily and in a pre-predicative and bodily functioning) rather than a passive reception of natural meanings already out there in the world (the “world” itself being the way we make sense of reality). But Merleau-Ponty often implies that the world itself comes to us as already bearing a sense. Indeed, perception does not give us a set of mutually indifferent atomic sensations but an arrangement of figures on a background, which cannot exist (or at least mean something) without another, and which make us do things according to the meaning they have for us.

The few examples given by Merleau-Ponty to prove the existence of such natural senses are ambiguous. If we unconsciously register the reflection of the light in the human eye even though painters forgot it for centuries, it does indeed mean that we can register information without focusing our conscious attention on it, but not that it is in itself a natural information of “livelihood” which cannot be explained. And if we first see a tree on the beach and subsequently reinterpret it as a shipwreck, or if the distance between two objects appears to change when I discover other objects interposed between them, without any conscious decision, does this really mean that we perceive meanings without an intentional movement? Does it not actually prove that, precisely because it can change, meaning is not a given but a construct (even if bodily, necessarily, naturally and unconsciously built)? Quoting Stein, Antich admits that a single state of affairs can always be interpreted in a variety of manners, but he says that “it defines a range of possibilities” (p. 36), as if these interpretations were contained in reality as possible meanings.

The difficulty may lie in the fact that Merleau-Ponty and Antich mix examples related to interpretative meaning with gestalt effects. But these existing gestalt effects are not meanings: they are physical relations between objects. This naturalization of meaning could be a major theoretical difficulty. Many of our perceptions seem to vary depending on the context and meaning has thus often been taken to be “intentional”, to pertain to the ways in which we aim at things rather than to the things themselves. Antich says his analysis keeps the grounding relations “internal to the sphere of meaning” without taking a stance on its ontological location: “Some form of mentalism (the view that what justifies a belief is a mental state) is probably most congenial to my view—though even this would raise thorny questions about Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of meanings” (p. 60), he recognizes. But this point is important, and Antich often seems to implicitly give an external reality to these meanings in order to distinguish them from our intentional conscious judgments. In chapter 2 note 33, he says that “motivation is a responsiveness to normative forces exerted by the phenomena themselves.”

Why is it important to distinguish motivation from causes and reasons and to give it natural meaning? First, Antich’s aim may be to ground truth in something real; lacking this foundation, Merleau-Ponty’s account seems to relativize knowledge which proceeds from mere motives rather than from rational explicit justifications. But as in many other cases, it might also have to do with morality. Antich’s example page 61 illustrating “dispositions” which guide us from experience to belief and knowledge is particularly striking: “For example, if I have a disposition to act generously, this just means that under ordinary circumstances, I will act out of a responsiveness to the relevant normative forces of a situation (e.g., the wants or requirements of those around me). » It inclines toward an innate spontaneous moral sense. The project is commendable but can also lead to biases, especially since morality is susceptible to change, and it would perhaps be preferable to note that it depends on an intentional commitment which is continually relaunched.

At the end, we can say that Antich’s clear, precise and stimulating book offers many glimpses of Merleau-Ponty’s contributions to contemporary epistemology. It highlights the places where the philosophical investigation must be carried on today, toward the understanding of the links between reality, action, perception, meaning, intentionality and knowledge. The localization of problems and their correct description being one of the major tasks of phenomenology, one can only appreciate the way in which Antich deploys his own phenomenology in order to highlight its advantages in contemporary debates, and the manner in which he opens a path to many lines of work in the future.


[1] Dreyfus, H. L., “The Return of the Myth of the Mental”, Inquiry, 50(4), 2007; Kelly, S. D., “Merleau-Ponty on the Body”, Ratio (new series), 15, 2002; O’Conaill, D., “On Being Motivated”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 12 (4), 2013.

[2] Wrathall, M., “Motives, Reasons, and Causes”, In T. Carman (Ed.), Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[3] Walsh, P. J., “Husserl’s Concept of Motivation: the logical investigations and beyond”, History of Philosophy & Logical Analysis 16 (1), 2013.

[4] Bello, A. A., Causality and Motivation in Edith Stein, in Poli, R., Causality and Motivation, Frankfurt, Ontos Verlag, 2013.

[5] Carman, T., “The Body in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.” Philosophical Topics 27, 2, 1999.

[6] Gordon, R., “Let’s Get Rid of Motivation: Sartre’s Wisdom.” Sartre Studies International 12, 1, 2006.

[7] Čapek, J., « Motivation et normativité : Réflexions sur le concept de liberté à partir de Merleau-Ponty », Bulletin d’Analyse Phénoménologique [online], V. 16, 2 (2020).

Emmanuel Falque: Hors phénomène: Essai au confins de la phénoménalité

Hors phénomène. Essai aux confins de la phénoménalité Book Cover Hors phénomène. Essai aux confins de la phénoménalité
De visu
Emmanuel Falque
Hermann
2021
Paperback 34,00 €
476

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Cassidy-Deketelaere (Catholic University of Paris/Australian Catholic University)

Towards a Critique of Phenomenological Normativity

 

Emmanuel Falque’s latest book, Hors phénomène, implicitly opens up a tantalising new possibility by way of an alternative philosophical anthropology: namely, a critique of phenomenological normativity (i.e., of what phenomenology traditionally considers to be ‘the norm’ for its analysis), one that is moreover itself phenomenological in nature (i.e., demonstrates how these ‘norms’ belong to the natural attitude and therefore require reduction). It is, as he puts it, “the norm of all phenomenality” that is at issue here, for that norm does not appear to have been phenomenologically secured itself but entails—precisely—an “a priori of phenomenality” (9):

Are there not, to say the least, certain things taken to be self-evident that would rightly be scrutinised today? For nothing guarantees that health should a priori be the norm rather than illness, the event rather than the brute fact, the given rather than resistance, or indeed the other rather than solitude. (13)

Everything phenomenologists tend to think of as ‘normal’, Falque questions on phenomenological grounds: there are experiences, notably those he considers ‘traumatic’, that fall outside phenomenological ‘normality’ and thereby render it inadequate as a comprehensive framework for the analysis of the whole breadth of human experience. By focussing on these traumatic experiences that remain outside the norm of phenomenality, that are extra-phenomenal (hors phénomène), Falque hopes to reinvigorate phenomenology: specifically, Hors phénomène reconstructs the anthropological vision implicit in the phenomenological tradition around these experiences, which define the human being not according to their presupposed opening to the event of appearing but rather as existing in the transformation wrought by the traumatic events that befall them.

However, one wonders whether, in opening up this new and unexplored field of experience, in his correction of phenomenology’s naïve anthropological vision, Falque’s tendency to return immediately to the frameworks just declared inadequate might mean that he ultimately only scratches the surface of his important discovery: what he finds to be outside phenomenality is almost immediately brought back inside of it (albeit under the guise of modification) in the name of maintaining the phenomenological status of the investigation. Indeed, at times, we can even observe this tendency, not just in the progression of the argument, but in the cadence of a single sentence: “Having (…) dismantled the distinction between the normal and the pathological, I am now taking the additional step of asking whether there is not some kind of ‘privilege’ of the pathological over the normal” (309). Yet, what use is it to dismantle—indeed, to deconstruct—a distinction, only to re-establish and maintain it (albeit in the inverse) in a second instance? What Falque describes as taking a step further is only a very hesitant advance, one that perhaps appears all the more insufficient in light of the position from which it rightly retreats after the eloquent diagnosis the book provides. This, I would suggest, is the tension that haunts Falque’s admirable critique, one that perhaps necessarily plagues the phenomenological project as such (as Derrida might insist). With this book, Falque therefore cements his position as one of the most significant phenomenologists working today, whilst also illustrating the inherent difficulty of using phenomenology as an all-encompassing philosophical method.

***

Let us first, however, examine Falque’s interesting proposal. This is Falque’s first book of ‘pure philosophy’, without reference to the Christian theological tradition, yet the aim of his investigation remains as ever primarily anthropological in nature. Specifically, Hors phénomène articulates a phenomenological understanding of the human condition as transformation by rather than openness to experience: confronted with the experience of trauma, as “defeat of my categories, or rather ‘extra-categorial’, I can only reinvent myself differently—not just in the expectation of eventiality or the so-called salvation of alterity, but also in the confidence of a ‘power of the self’, having no other reason to exist than always being already ‘ahead of itself’ or as if ‘metamorphosed’” (8).

After rooting its starting point in the experience of trauma, the book’s first chapter sets out its titular notion of the extra-phenomenal in a programmatic way:

There is the infra-phenomenal (propaedeutic to phenomenality), there is the supra-phenomenal (excessive to phenomenality); and then there is the extra-phenomenal (outside all phenomenality). The first prepares phenomenalisation, the second overflows phenomenalisation (…), and the third is outside phenomenalisation. The ‘extra-phenomenal’ (…) is thus not itself a phenomenon in the ordinary sense, for it destroys (…) all capacity for phenomenalisation (the phenomenalising subject) and any phenomenalised object (the horizon of appearing). In this sense, speaking of the extra-phenomenal, is (…) to open up a ‘new field’—that of what is (now) without ‘field’ or ‘horizon’. (89-90).

The extra-phenomenal, understood as a traumatic experience that is neither infra- nor supra-phenomenal, is thus meant to counter what Falque calls the “a priori of manifestation” (93): namely, the normal course of phenomenological analysis in which anything that is non-phenomenal is immediately understood as either preparing or exceeding phenomenality, instead of being conceived of as properly outside of phenomenality. This diagnosis is indeed eminently correct and the perspective on the phenomenological method it opens extremely valuable: Falque seeks to give an account of the extra-phenomenal in its extra-phenomenality, namely in its deviation from the phenomenological norm of manifestation. On this account, the extra-phenomenal not only falls outside conditions of possible experience, but in being experienced also destroys these conditions and thus the very possibility of subsequent experiences being lived as phenomena. It accomplishes, as Falque puts it, the “annihilation of any transcendental focus of appearing” (63). Nevertheless, he insists, this account of what remains outside phenomenalisation is nevertheless itself a phenomenological one: a “(phenomenological) essay at the confines of phenomenality,” namely the exercise of “phenomenological scrutiny at the limits of phenomenology itself” (18). Yet, one can be forgiven for thinking that this is a contradiction in terms: at no point does Falque explain in what sense an extra-phenomenal experience can still be addressed by an intra-phenomenological discourse, which constitutes the necessary tension that haunts both this book in particular and phenomenology in general.

In that regard, we can perhaps immediately ask the perfectly reasonable question: why should infra and supra not simply be understood as two different ways of being extra? Falque gives a very eloquent descriptions of the various kinds of infra- and supra-phenomenality known to the phenomenological tradition (§§12-13), but never really explains quite how they differ from the negatively defined regime of extra-phenomenality. To his credit, Falque does provide examples of extra-phenomenal experiences that would constitute a trauma: illness (§1), separation (§2), death of a child (§3), natural disaster (§4), and the pandemic (§5). Here, too, we can ask: the death of a child is undoubtedly a traumatic experience that leaves its mark on whomever undergoes it (thus making it extra-phenomenal), but does it not equally and at the same time exceed any objective representation (thus being supra-phenomenal) and determine how other children appear subsequently (thus being infra-phenomenal)? The book never becomes specific enough to provide us with the material to verify or falsify its presupposition: that phenomenology can consider the extra-phenomenal as such without relating it to phenomenality as either infra- or supra-phenomenal.

It is therefore an abstract phenomenological framework that the book offers us, yet one that is undeniably ground-breaking. Having defined the extra-phenomenal programmatically in the first chapter, the subsequent two provide a detailed account of what Falque understands to be its mode of phenomenality—or, rather, extra-phenomenality. The second chapter, over and against the phenomenological norm of signification or givenness, conceives of it in terms of resistance: the “phenomenon” is “no longer what manifests itself or appears as such, but what resists, opposes, holds back, or simply ‘exists’, or even better ‘insists’” (123). Falque explains:

We no longer have to do here with phenomenalisation (phainesthai), quite the contrary. Rather, we stand at the limits or at the confines of phenomenology, as soon as the very idea of appearing does not or no longer appear. The discourse on the conditions of appearing finds itself disqualified here, as soon as the ‘resisting presence’ opposes itself to it in every way and even destroys the very conditions of its possibility. (122)

Here, Falque indeed identifies a radically new field of phenomenality and rightly insists that it is deserving of its own account. Moreover, he provides that account in the third chapter, which deals with the way in which the extra-phenomenal destroys the conditions of possible experience, notably in reference to a curious remark by Kant in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason about cinnabar (the main mineral ore of mercury): if cinnabar were sometimes red and sometimes black, sometimes heavy and sometimes light—i.e., if nature were not subject to the same normative rules as the association of ideas by human reason—, then the phenomenalising imagination would stumble before the sensational manifold that it offers. In thus in contemplating the possibility of the breakdown of the transcendental imagination, of its act of synthesis being rendered impossible by the very experience whose empirical manifold is subject to it, that Kant adumbrates the extra-phenomenal according to Falque: “Cinnabar not only contests the confrontation of opposites within the object (red and black, light and heavy), but glimpses this possible and ‘unimaginable’ decomposition of the object, even of the subject itself, in an experience where it loses even its identity” (209). In other words, the extra-phenomenal denotes the breakdown of the transcendental schematism: an experience that deviates from the norm, whose empirical manifold escapes the reach of the rule according to which it is associated with pure concepts—and thus, ultimately, resists constitution into an object or phenomenon.

The final three chapters develop the consequences of the extra-phenomenal thus conceived for the broader phenomenological method. Chapter 4 deals with the subject as self: far from being given to the subject by another as one would normally expect, ipseity exists in a constant process of modification or transformation by the traumatic experiences that befall me. Chapter 5 considers this transformation on the existential level: crisis, whose experience is the extra-phenomenal trauma, constitutes being-there ontologically, because it is the experience whose experiencing accomplishes transformation. Here, Falque therefore formulates a new principle of phenomenality according to which “so much exception, so much modification” (299): the experience that is experienced outside—and not just below or beyond—the conditions of possible experience (the trauma of crisis), accomplishes a modification or transformation of possibility itself (the being of Dasein). As Falque puts it: “The exception (within the phenomenalised horizon) and modification (of the phenomenalising subject) have in common that they go hand in hand in an all the more transformed being-oneself in one’s trauma, to the point that one loses any idea of what was once one’s identity” (302). Chapter 6 then frames the extra-phenomenal according to its most fundamental phenomenological contribution: consciousness is not originally characterised by intersubjectivity, but by a solitude that the phenomenological tradition considers to be abnormal—precisely because trauma does not let itself be shared (e.g., despite all the care I may receive, no one can suffer illness on my behalf). “Trauma,” Falque insists, “first of all and always returns me to this original solitude” (393).

***

The book is perhaps best understood as the first step in a bold and ambitious new programme in which the human condition as redefined phenomenologically as transformation rather than opening. It poses a radical challenge to the field in an attempt to disrupt the normal procedure of phenomenology by asking a crucial question with which every phenomenologist should reckon: how do we account phenomenologically for what remains persistently outside phenomenalisation? Falque’s answer is provided by his anthropological account of the transformation accomplished by the extra-phenomenal: “an experience becomes such that it simultaneously ruins the phenomenalising subject and the phenomenalised horizon. In light of the trauma, life is no longer the same” (12). The book’s main and impressive achievement is thus the opening up of this field of extra-phenomenality.

Yet, in achieving this result, perhaps the main question Falque leaves unanswered is that of the status of his investigation: in what sense are these “meditations” still truly phenomenological? When challenged on this front, Falque is inclined to respond that, ultimately, this question of jargon matters little. However, this response confirms and highlights a certain curious irony present throughout the book: in abandoning the Christian theological tradition as philosophical point of reference, Falque nevertheless for the first time becomes fundamentally complicit with phenomenology’s theological turn. I do not mean that Falque thereby abandons phenomenology in favour of theology, but rather that he nevertheless—and with good reason—leaves phenomenology proper behind in his attempt to articulate an “extra-horizontal” phenomenology (302). In a way, this book reverses the patricide Falque so eloquently committed against Jean-Luc Marion (his onetime doctoral supervisor): whereas Falque once defended the existential conditions within which givenness is received as forming the horizon for its phenomenalisation, precisely against Marion for whom these only come into view to the extent that they are exceeded by givenness; we now find Falque suggesting that the extra-phenomenal destroys the horizon against which phenomenalisation takes place along with the subject who projects it. To better understand the unexpected turn Falque takes here, we may perhaps refer to the famous debate Marion had with his own teacher:

Marion. I do not recognise the ‘as such’ as mine. What I have said, precisely in that horizon, is that the question of the claim to the ‘as such’ has no right to be made.

Derrida. Then would you disassociate what you call phenomenology from the authority of the as such? If you do that, it would be the first heresy in phenomenology. Phenomenology without as such!

Marion. Not my first, no! I said to Levinas some years ago that in fact the last step for a real phenomenology would be to give up the concept of horizon. Levinas answered my immediately: ‘Without horizon there is no phenomenology.’ And I boldly assume he was wrong.

Derrida. I am also for the suspension of the horizon, but, for that very reason, by saying so, I am not a phenomenologist anymore. I am very true to phenomenology, but when I agree on the necessity of suspending the horizon, then I am no longer a phenomenologists. So the problem remains if you give up the as such, what is the use that you can make of the word phenomenology.

Marion. (…) As to the question of whether what I am doing, or what Derrida is doing, is within phenomenology or beyond, it does not seem to me very important. (…) Whether Étant donné is still phenomenology we shall see ten years later. But now it is not very important. I claim that I am still faithful to phenomenology (…). But this will be an issue, if any, for our successors.[1]

The debate around Étant donné, which could perhaps be repeated with Hors phénomène, is wrapped up in this brief exchange. Derrida is eminently correct, not only in his insistence that there is no phenomenology without a horizon (i.e., for then there would be no more phenomenon understood as the appearing of things as what they are to intentional consciousness), but also that it is out of a decidedly phenomenology exigency that he sees himself necessitated to go outside phenomenology proper. For now, however, it suffices to note that at this instance, suddenly, we could replace Marion in this conversation with his student Falque. Indeed, the critique that was once levelled against Marion, can perhaps now also be levelled against Falque: in their respective attempts at somehow cancelling out the horizon (whether by going beyond or outside of it), and their joint lack of interest in actually considering the question of the phenomenological nature of their proposal, they both end producing a discourse that is non-phenomenological or even extra-phenomenological—but, as Derrida insist, therefore no less true to phenomenology. Having dealt with Falque’s attempt at cancelling out the horizon higher up, let us now consider his lack of interest in the question of whether his discourse is phenomenological in nature or not, and what it may be instead if not phenomenological.

Revisiting Falque’s treatment of Kant’s reference to cinnabar—a highly sophisticated discussion that constitutes one of the book’s highlights—, we can directly observe his reluctance to properly engage with the question of the nature of his investigation into the extra-phenomenal. With much fanfare, Falque notes that Kant omits the reference to cinnabar from the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason: “Kant is frightened by the ‘conceptual monster’ he has created, in that the mere hypothesis of ‘cinnabar’ is enough to ‘take out’, even ‘blow up’, any principle of unification” (210). On Falque’s reading, Kant realised he had hit upon a notion that threatened the entire edifice of the critique and therefore quickly swept it under the rug. Yet, one wonders whether it is not just as likely that Kant—the first to articulate a transcendental theory of objective experience and therefore perhaps the original phenomenologist—omitted the reference to cinnabar, not because he worried that it risked undoing the very framework he had set out, but rather because he realised that there is nothing that can responsibly be said about this matter from within said framework? In other words, perhaps the first Critique—rightly—avoids further discussion of cinnabar, understood as the experience that destroys the transcendental schematism, precisely because its discussion of experience takes places on the basis of that transcendental schematism. An altogether different discourse would therefore be needed to address the experience Falque focusses on: if Kant says nothing more about cinnabar, perhaps that is because there is nothing more to say within the confines of transcendental-phenomenological investigation. This does not mean that there is nothing further left to say at all, but simply that it cannot be said within the register of phenomenology, that a different discourse is needed.

This is, ultimately, the paradox on which Derrida hits in his own critique of phenomenology and highlights again in his conversation with Marion: the questions that are most fundamental to phenomenology—whether that of presence (Derrida), givenness (Marion), or the confines of phenomenality (Falque)—, require us to leave phenomenological discourse behind in order to consider phenomenology itself from a position and in an investigation that is itself extra-phenomenological. In other words, if Falque wants to submit “the norm of all phenomenality” (13) to scrutiny by way of the valuable notion of the extra-phenomenal; he must also make good on his promise by facing up to the fact that, insofar as it succeeds in moving outside phenomenality (i.e., phenomenological normativity), this scrutiny necessarily takes place outside the phenomenological method. If this were not the case, if the account of the extra-phenomenal were itself an intra-phenomenological enterprise, then the critique of phenomenological normativity would in turn itself be subject to that normativity—leading to precisely the tension that Derrida thematises by way of deconstruction. Falque’s continual attempt at returning to the framework of phenomenology (its normativity) hampers his excellent account of the extra-phenomenal as destroying that very framework (its existence outside-the-norm). At times, we can literally see him struggling with this tension:

So much exception, so much modification: Kant’s hapax (cinnabar) thus becomes the rule here (…); what had thus been the ‘exception’ in a well-ordered phenomenality (…), becomes the norm for what precisely has no norm—the ‘extra-categorial’ of what has no or no longer categories, or the impossibility of all possibility. (302)

Falque’s advance thus proceeds with a certain amount of hesitation: he discovers that there are experiences that remain outside phenomenality, due to the fact that phenomenology operates certain norms that are themselves phenomenologically illegitimate (insofar as this normativity cannot be reduced to actual experience); but then immediately brings those experiences inside of phenomenality, and thus within the bounds of normativity, by turning the exception into the new phenomenological norm. Falque therefore perhaps also finds himself in the position he ascribes to Kant, namely a reluctance to fully exploit his valuable discovery of the extra-phenomenal since it would necessitate abandoning phenomenological discourse altogether—as Derrida already adumbrated: every possible “principle of phenomenology” requires deconstruction insofar as it excludes those experiences that make exception to it, that do not conform to the phenomenological norm, because these principles constitute a priori restrictions of the field of experience that are themselves phenomenologically illegitimate. In other words, what drove Derrida outside phenomenology was precisely what he learned on the inside: the phenomenological ambition is descriptive, not normative; but as scientific description, actual phenomenological analysis exists in bringing experience within a particular normative framework of transcendental rules that govern the intentional constitution of objects (i.e., the “principle of phenomenality”). However, Falque apparently refuses to abandon the discursive style of phenomenology, i.e. the description of experience in its essence by subjecting it to transcendental rules or normative principles; even though his book—rightly—proposes a critique of that normativity in response to a distinctly phenomenological exigency. This is therefore the true result of Hors phénomène (as of Étant donné, though in a very different way): there are experiences that persistently remain extra-phenomenal and therefore also require an analysis that is itself extra-phenomenological; phenomenology may be a perfectly valid way of analysing experience, but it is not exhaustive. Indeed, how else are we to understand what Falque calls the “night of phenomenology” and describes as “not the givenness of the phenomenon of givenness or non-givenness (the phenomenology of the night), but the non-givenness of givenness itself—not by privation, nor by excess, but only by negation” (89)—the negation of what if not phenomenology itself?

If Derrida moves outside phenomenology from within it so as to consider the infra-phenomenal (the deconstruction of presence), and Marion moves outside phenomenology from within it in order to consider the supra-phenomenal (the theology of revelation); then Falque’s book nevertheless sketches a similar way out of phenomenology for him: the psychoanalysis of trauma. After all, what is an investigation that operates “following Freud” (23) and is “built upon the basis of the traumatic” (127), if not psychoanalysis? Indeed, a psychoanalytic lens allows us to better appreciate what Falque means by the extra-phenomenal as exemplified by the experience of trauma:

A nothing that is not nothing, this is what makes up the ‘resistance of presence’—(…) not in that the Id takes refuge in invisibility (a kind of negative theology (…)), but in that its obscurity or thickness is such that it demonstrates impenetrability. (117)

In this sense, “so much exception, so much modification” (299) is perhaps best understood, not as a principle of phenomenality (for nothing appears in the exception), but rather as a principle of psychoanalysis (or, perhaps, of ‘traumaticity’): the traumatic experience is precisely the experience that is not phenomenalised, that is not lived-through in experience; but rather the experience that denotes “any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield” of consciousness (exception) and thereby can “provoke a disturbance on a large scale in the functioning of the organism’s energy” (modification), ultimately resulting in “the problem of mastering the amounts of stimulus which have broken in and of binding them (…) so that they can be disposed of” (destruction).[2]

Curiously, this path is arguably already forged by Falque’s book, but he appears reluctant to actually walk it by confessing his ultimately psychoanalytical perspective. This perspective, nevertheless, provides him with precisely what he needs in order to execute his critique of phenomenological normativity: a discourse that does not operate according to norms, or at least not according to the same norms as those of phenomenology, and is thus able to provide a critique of phenomenological normativity from outside the norm of phenomenality. Yet, such is the necessary tension that haunts Falque’s book in particular and all phenomenology in general, this critique of normativity from outside of it is an inherently phenomenological gesture: it goes by the name of reduction and extends to principles or norms as it does to judgments. We should therefore understand the present book alongside those other unorthodox yet major works of phenomenology that forge a path outside phenomenology from within in order to remain true to phenomenology, as Derrida put it, by justice to the full range of possible experience: Derrida’s Le toucher provides an extra-phenomenology of touch (deconstruction), Marion’s Étant donné provides an extra-phenomenology of revelation (theology), Falque’s Hors phénomène provides an extra-phenomenology of trauma (psychoanalysis)—each time showing how phenomenology can only be actual when confronted with and transformed by non-phenomenology.


[1] John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon (Eds.). 1999. God, the Gift, and Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 66-68.

[2] Sigmund Freud. 1961. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by James Strachey. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 23-24.

Íngrid Vendrell Ferran (Ed.): Else Voigtländer: Self, Emotion, and Sociality, Springer, 2023

Else Voigtländer: Self, Emotion, and Sociality
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences (WHPS, volume 17)
Íngrid Vendrell Ferran (Ed.)
Springer
2023
Hardback 117,69 €
IX, 245

Wouter Kusters: A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking

A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking Book Cover A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking
Wouter Kusters. Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
The MIT Press
2020
Hardback $39.95
768

Reviewed by: Thomas Froy

Wouter Kusters’ ‘Philosophy of Madness’ is difficult to classify. This is probably the point. This enormous work – the full text reaches 738 pages – draws from sources diverse as Plotinus, Sartre, Eastern mysticism, personal testimonies, free associative prose and more; some canonical, some obscure, some empirical, some fictional. It’s difficult, too, among this mass of material, to discern the author’s intentions. Kusters states his explicit intentions quite often, but these statements often contradict each other, remain unfulfilled and unexplained. Gradually, what becomes clear, however – and this is perhaps the overarching theme of the book – is that Kusters’ doesn’t want to be classified.

Insofar as the author and his work reject classification, this book positions itself in a certain post-Foucauldian, anti-psychiatric tradition, which includes figures such as R.D Laing and Thoms Szaz. Psychiatry, writes Kusters, is largely “unable or unwilling to understand madness … [psychiatrists] hold it in contempt or even fear it while at the same time boasting about their “expertise” because they are thought to be able to explain or effectively subdue it” (Kusters 2020: 64). The inability or unwillingness to understand madness which Kusters identifies in psychiatrists and the psychiatric tradition as a whole is thus counterposed to the author’s own comprehensive and emancipatory ambitions: at one point, Kusters writes that the book aims to “alleviate psychosis and emancipate the psychotic person from medical classifications” (Ibid., xv). This work thus shares with many others in the anti-psychiatric genre an allegiance to what might be considered the more Romantic aspects of Foucault’s early work on madness: philosophy and madness are uniquely positioned to emancipate each other from their institutional imprisonments.

Kusters subject, then, is madness, and his aim is emancipation. ‘Madness’ is a rough translation of the Dutch ‘waanzin’; Kusters’ previous works include (as yet untranslated) Pure waanzin (2013) which recounts his personal experiences of psychosis, episodes to which he returns frequently, both as source for philosophical reflection and direct citation (Kusters is no stranger to self-citation, including sizeable passages from previous work, semi-fictional prose and passages which appear to be expressions of his own paranoid fears). Philosophy, for Kusters, is uniquely positioned to gain insights into the experience of madness, and madness into philosophy. The book can thus be understood as a dialogue between madness and reason, in which both slowly unwind and unhinge the other. The process of unwinding and unhinging will gradually lead each toward emancipation from their origins toward freedom.

The opposition between madness and reason – as well as his emancipatory aspirations – does not, however, lead Kusters to a confrontation with the concerns raised, about Foucault’s work, by Jacques Derrida. ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’ (Derrida: 1978), an essay originally delivered as a lecture, warns that any author, including Foucault, who aspires to emancipation from their chains risks reinterning the mad in the institution of philosophy. Already 60 years ago, then, the difficulties associated with semi-Romantic aspirations toward emancipation from the institution of psychiatry have been available to the reader, and presumably to Kusters himself. The consequence of Derrida’s confrontation with Foucault, consequently, are that if Kusters sets his sights on liberation from the prison of psychiatry – with its associated “medical jargon … supposedly objective labels and descriptions, and behind risk management, fear, and attitudes” (xvi) – he will have to be cautious not to reproduce that other trick of reconfinement. Emancipation demands, on the one hand, a rigorous distinction between, on the one hand, the domain from which the emancipated will escape (psychiatry) and on the other hand, the domain into which the mad will arrive. If no rigorous distinction is established, it may remain unclear whether liberation has occurred, and where the liberated find themselves as a result. Consequently, the risk is that madness may be liberated from psychiatry, but reinterned with philosophy.

Indeed, Kusters constructs a yawning chasm between the domains of madness and philosophy. “Madness is kept out of bounds as a nadir of meaninglessness, a breeding ground for unreal apparitions, chimeras, and sham” (2). However, this chasm does not present any obstacles to repeated definitions, in highly philosophical terms, of the essence of madness. On the contrary, despite Kusters’ repeated and clearly stated opposition to psychiatric definitions of madness, he displays no aversion to a philosophical classification of madness: psychosis is defined as “the desire for “the desire for infinity and absolute freedom” (xvii); madness is the experience of “trying to resolve the most fundamental questions of existence but in an uncontrolled, wildly associative way. You want to know what it’s all about, what good and evil are, what is at the very heart of existence: you want to know the meaning of life and the cosmos” (xxiii), and so on.

Not only does this appear to be in contradiction with the author’s stated opposition to classificatory jargon, but also with his declaration that he does not intend to contribute to classifications of madness (4). Since Kusters does not engage – at least, not explicitly – with the concerns Derrida raises about emancipatory critiques of institutions, it’s difficult to know where Kusters stands. It appears that he takes no issue with liberating madness from psychiatric definitions by means of firmly subjecting madness to philosophical definitions. As such, it remains, from start to finish, difficult – mystifying, perhaps maddeningly so – to divine precisely what Kusters’ aim – in terms of method or subject matter – might be.

This mad road is trod by a series of associations or identifications between philosophical notions and Kusters ideas about madness. For the most part, these associations are drawn from canonical works of Western philosophy – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre – and form the comparative structure of the book. Oppositions and comparisons are drawn from a huge number of texts in order to define, describe, and refine Kusters idea of the relation between madness and philosophy. The discourse is highly conceptual, dealing primarily with time and space. Aristotelian time, for example, is considered exemplary of the ‘normal’ attitude and can be juxtaposed with “mad crystal time”: normal time is chronological, while mad time might be circular, or perhaps everything happens at once (89-105). Although he states, early on, that madness and philosophy have appeared as each other’s enemies (p2), this does not mean that they cannot speak to each other, and inform our understanding of both; Aristotle may represent a spokesperson of normal experience at one point, and then an exemplar of insanity at another. As the book progresses, Kusters writes, oppositions will collapse and contradictions will multiply meaning that the reader will be “seduced seduced into identifying even more with the madman and letting himself be transported down a ‘stream’ of madness” (18).

In Part One, Kusters’ comparisons are most commonly within in the phenomenological tradition. Chapters One and Two give describe normal and mad experiences of perception, with citations drawn primarily from Edmund Husserl’s The Phenomenology of Internal-Time Consciousness. Beginning with what Kusters takes to be a Husserlian phenomenological description of experience, the normal perception of time can be characterized as Aristotelian – continuous – while the mad experience of time is circular (45-52). Chapters Three and Four subsequently develop phenomenologies of space and time, citing Husserl, Paul Ricoeur’s notion of ‘static time’ (94-6), as well as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of schizophrenia (98). Rather than subject each citation to analysis, Kusters’ approach is closer to compilation: long passages are introduced with a brief remark indicating that the text is ‘another example of’ of Kusters’ theory of madness, and rarely followed with any interpretation. Husserl, Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty are not subjected to interpretation or criticism, but rather contribute insights to the growing understanding of madness. Given this lack critical engagement, it’s difficult to discern Kusters’ own understanding of these texts. The specific texts are not selected for any stated reason, other than the evocation of a certain phenomenological experience: Kusters frequently introduces texts by describing them as “examples” of the conceptual terms or neologisms which characterize madness.

Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological work is given slightly less attention, and this represents something of a missed opportunity. Insofar as the assumption that phenomenological analysis of a subject’s experience can give us insight into their world is one of the key – if unstated – presuppositions of Kusters’ interest in phenomenology, the lack of engagement with Heidegger’s thinking is a shortcoming. Contemporary thinkers, such as Havi Carel, draw extensively from Heidegger’s rethinking of the spatio-temporal essence of being in order to give a clear picture of the situation and experience of an ill person (Carel 2016). Kusters’ constructions of a series of oppositions and comparisons between normal and abnormal experiences precisely mirrors the work done by post-Heideggerian phenomenologists, especially those working on the experience of mental and physical illnesses.

Part II – Chapters Five to Eight – shifts away from, without leaving, the explicitly phenomenological discourse toward Kusters’ interest in mysticism. Mystical experiences, he argues, are highly comparable with experiences of insanity, insofar as both provide an escape from the normal experience of the world. To some extent, Part II is continuous with Part I: those abnormal perceptions evoked by phenomenology are described more richly in Kusters’ selections from the mystical tradition; the experience of time, for example, may not only become non-continuous but also more intense. Kusters names four processes – ‘Detachment’, ‘Demagination’, ‘Dethinking’, ‘Delanguization’ – in which mysticism can lead the reader further along the path of madness. Here, Kusters draws most consistently from Plotinus: various long passages are drawn from his corpus and cited as instances of each process. Again, Kusters leaves Plotinus’ words largely unexamined, preferring to compile texts rather than subject them to analysis.

In Part III, Kusters describes a series of delusions: ‘The Uni-Delusion’, ‘The Esse-Delusion’, ‘The Ω-Delusion’ and ‘The Ø-Delusion’. Like the mystic processes, the removal of delusions will open the door and lead the reader down the path of madness. The ‘opening door’ motif, an explicit reference to Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelia, chimes with the earlier engagement with phenomenology: the experience of madness expands and reformulates our understanding in the world by breaking through the normal limits and parameters of thought. In this part of the book, the content shifts from canonical philosophy toward logical paradoxes, reflections on LSD, and extracts from fictional works. Kusters describes his process as being increasingly illogical, both in terms of content and form; the gradual destructuration and unravelling should mirror the experience of going mad.

Part IV extends Part III’s interest in paradoxes, aiming to cement Kusters’ idea that the process of philosophizing – be it about space and time, or the prisoner’s dilemma, or nothing at all – may lead the philosopher into madness. In this regard, Part IV is continuous with the previous parts of the book, insofar as the style is consistently compilatory. A number of the same ideas reappear in each part – madness, perception, space, time – but Kusters does not construct a theory of any of these; he merely cites, compares and collects interesting insights into various aspects of what he considers to be madness. On the one hand, this is clearly deliberate and fulfils his refusal to produce a systematic classification of psychosis; on the other hand, compilatory theory does not clearly present the author’s own position. The enormous range of sources are merely included within the ever expanding portrait of madness: the pieces collect without anything resembling structural relation or connection. The consequence of this is that the reader rarely gets Kusters’ own perspective: canonical texts – Plato, Descartes, Sartre, Husserl – are cited at length and pass without comment. Many readers will already be familiar with this works, and less familiar with Kusters’ own thinking: ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ is generous in material, less so when it comes to the author’s actual perspective, ideas, or interpretations of these widely-read traditional texts.

With this in mind, Part IV represents a substantial step within the work’s development: as noted above, Kusters remains highly elusive – perhaps difficult – in submitting to a simple characterization of his intentions. In addition, although the Chapters interweave and interconnect in both style and content, Kusters rarely gives any sense that his theory is building toward any conclusion or system. Chapter 14’s reading of Charles Taylor’s work – specifically the opposition between the bordered and the porous self – substantially revises this non-systematic approach. The compilatory method remains – Taylor’s thinking is merely another example – but Taylor’s thinking on reenchantment radically reorients the purpose of the book. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ clearly signals its disinterest in contributing to a classificatory theory of madness, and Chapter 14 is consistent with this insofar as, at this late stage, it suddenly becomes clear that Kusters is writing a book about enchantment.

The portrait of madness Kusters presents is so unsystematic and incoherent – I believe, deliberately so – it’s difficult to think that his intention is to present anything like a new understanding of madness. Instead, ‘madness’ – and all the processes and experiences which come along with it – is a placename for reenchantment. Kusters collects and compares a huge range of oppositions between normal and abnormal experiences: madness represents an opportunity to be led out of our compartmentalized, limited, singular selves into a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Becoming mad opens the self to a massively enriched and enhanced relationship with worldly phenomena, as well as new possibilities for different and rewarding interactions with everything around about.

Kusters introduces Taylor’s porous self – open and in dialogue with the world outside – as a comparative example with madness, and in this regard, makes explicit the analogy between going mad and reenchantment. However, Kusters does not suggest that this is the comparison which should frame the work. Like Taylor, Kusters sees the contemporary world as a difficult and unwelcoming world, unwilling to accept the insights (even the existence) of the mad enchanters.  Yet the advantages of living as a Taylorian porous self are numerous and many are shared with the madman: the world becomes infused with numerous and diverse meanings (531); greater intimacy with one’s feelings (534-5); greater receptivity (547), and so on.

Despite the apparent proximity of identity between the mad and the enchanted, Kusters does not dwell on this, nor does he explicitly outline what I understand to be the essential affinity described between the processes of madness and of reenchantment. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ frequently returns to its disinterest in classification, systematicity and structure; it is possible, however, that this lack of focus may prevent the reader from recognizing some of the greater themes and purposes of the book. I suggest, in light of this, that interpreting Kusters’ thinking on madness as a longer meditation on the possibilities of what might be ‘mad enchantment’ may grant some thematic coherence to the work without sacrificing the stated desire for chaos, contradiction and confusion.

‘A Philosophy of Madness’ presents the reader with some difficulties. Although Kusters’ work is at home in the anti-psychiatric tradition – and Kusters asserts his devotion to the anti-psychiatric field vocally and repeatedly – this opposition is never substantiated. Kusters does not engage, at any length, with psychiatric literature or the history of psychiatry; he writes that his previous work – the as yet untranslated ‘Pure Madness’ – produced a comparison between his own experience of psychosis and the psychiatric reports written on him. There is no confrontation with the medical tradition, with medical professionals, the history of medicine and its relation with psychiatry, or with psychiatric institutions. Such a confrontation would give greater clarity to Kusters’ understanding of psychiatry, what it is, what its aims are, its limitations, and so on; the reader might also get a clearer picture of Kusters’ consideration of the possibilities and dangers associated with liberating the mad from the domain of psychiatry in order to reintern them within philosophy. Perhaps the matter – namely, of psychiatry as an institution, historical phenomenon, contemporary political entity and all those who work within it – is considered settled. Perhaps the translation of ‘Pure Madness’ will grant the English reader greater access to Kusters’ engagement with psychiatry, but until then, the detail is lacking.

In addition, Kusters does not make any engagement with the contemporary young but fast growing field of critical disability studies. Like the anti-psychiatry movement, scholars and thinkers in this field owe a substantial debt to Foucault’s work on institutions as well as a deep suspicion of those who want the ‘cure’ the sick and mad; furthermore, analyses of chronic pain , psychopathy, long-term illnesses and so on share a great many of the concerns and ideas raised in Kusters thinking; finally, many scholars – like Kusters – turn to the phenomenological tradition in order to understand the spatio-temporal qualities of being disabled. Kusters decision not to find points of dialogue with this field represents a missed opportunity.

Finally, Kusters’ decisions with regard to the structure are problematic. The overview presented above is accurate with regard to the theoretical content of the book; however, through a series of ‘Overtures’, ‘Intermezzos’ and interstitial passages apparently reflecting Kusters’ own mental state. The Overture and Intermezzos largely function as introductory and concluding remarks, describing the plan for the work and the relation between different sections. Kusters prose is highly expressive, ironic and rhetorical; for different readers, this may be amusing, witty, or a little bit irritating. But it is the interstitial passages, found especially in the early parts of the book, which are difficult to read. It appears that they function as literal representations of the paranoid fears of a person experiencing psychopathy.

Besides questions of structure, the Intermezzos also contribute an extremely strange first personal account, in which the writer – perhaps Kusters himself, perhaps not – describes, in direct prose, his everyday life in Amsterdam, meeting up with friends, driving around, spending time alone. The writing is frenzied, sometimes fearful, sometimes ecstatic, often difficult to understand or make sense of. It’s difficult to say what the fragments are – Kusters doesn’t introduce or reflect upon them. Most significant, and troubling, however, is that they are occasionally shockingly racist. While reflecting on languages, the author muses “Yiddish is a kind of basic Esperanto, just like Jews are the people without a country and without an identity” (119). This thought isn’t introduced – there’s no context – nor interpreted or analysed – there’s no explanation. It’s not clear what its purpose, meaning or significance is. Why are the Jews a people without a country? What does it mean to be a people? What is it to have a country? Does lacking a country mean lacking an identity? No context, no analysis. A few lines later, writing from the perspective of ‘the Jews’, Kusters writes “We watch over the system behind the system. We’re the backup, the fourth empire” (Ibid.,). Again, no context or explanation; merely, the introduction of classical anti-Semitism as a passing phrase.

A few pages on, Kusters writes “The ones who always do it right are the Holocaust deniers. And they’re still at it. As soon as you start tampering with Auschwitz, they throw you in the madhouse. But that’s where the Enlightened Ones live, those who haven’t been able to keep their big mouths shut. Of course there was no Holocaust!”. Kusters doesn’t direct these racist remarks toward any other ethnic minorities, nor does he return to them at any other point. Does Kusters mean to be ironic, or funny? Should these remarks frame Kusters’ opposition to institutions, or even the book a as a whole? Should they be ignored? It’s not at all clear what purpose these passages serve, if any.

Kusters’ compilatory method is perhaps the defining feature of ‘A Philosophy of Madness’. It’s possible – perhaps preferable – to understand the decision not to subject any of the his interlocutors to sustained or detailed analysis as being consistent with his stated opposition to systematicity and classification. Perhaps this is the right decision: for readers less familiar with the canonical works of European philosophy, this book functions as a useful introduction to texts from Plato, Descartes, Husserl, Sartre and more. Kusters sets his course firmly in the direction of madness, and this colossal book – just short of 800 pages, in all – is by no means a strict, disciplined work of theory. Instead, it’s pure, philosophical chaos.

The reader should not approach ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ with the expectation of finding a contribution to our understanding of what it feels like to experience psychosis, or periods of mental ill health; nor, a close reading or interpretation of a number of texts from the phenomenological tradition, mysticism or the fictional and real writings of ‘the mad’. Instead, Kusters’ presents the reader with a mass of text which, without ever coming together in any moment, points the reader toward possibilities: possibilities for reflection and reconsideration on one’s place in the world. Madness might be ecstatic, joyous, terrifying, upsetting and scary; it might be a normal way to live in a strange world. It might also be an opportunity to approach one’s life and the people in it with a new sense of enchantment. An off-kilter perspective, to be sure, but one filled with madness and magic.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. University of Chicago Press.

Kusters, Wouter. 2020. A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking. MIT Press.

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