The story often told about the birth of phenomenology begins with the perceived proto-phenomenological tendencies of philosophers of antiquity, before the discipline eventually found its proper explicit expression in Edmund Husserl. Following in the footsteps of Husserl comes his young student Martin Heidegger, who takes his basic insights, expands on, develops them and revises them, which eventually results in a ‘phenomenological ontology’, as opposed to Husserl’s ‘transcendental phenomenology’. Though Heidegger disagrees significantly with Husserl on some issues, when it comes to how Heidegger became the kind of philosopher he did, the debt he owes is largely to Husserl. However original Heidegger goes on to be, he is ultimately, to some extent, a Husserlian revisionist. However, as more of Heidegger’s early lecture courses have appeared, another figure’s considerable influence on the young Heidegger became increasingly difficulty to deny, at the expense of Husserl and the line of interpretive thought I just described. This figure is Wilhelm Dilthey, a German historian best known in philosophical circles for his contribution to the epistemological debate surrounding ‘understanding’ and ‘explanation’. The fact that Dilthey influenced Heidegger, and that Heidegger thought his work was especially promising, is uncontroversial: even in Being and Time he wrote that “the researches of Dilthey were, for their part, pioneering work; but today’s generation has not as yet made them its own.” The extent of Dilthey’s impact on Heidegger’s philosophical formation, however, has not been adequately understood, nor its primacy over the influence of Husserl. Correcting this oversight is the central aim of Robert Scharff’s Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological. Using the wealth of evidence from Heidegger’s early lecture courses and the clearly Dilthey-influenced language and theoretical framework found in them, Scharff not only elaborately illustrates Dilthey’s impact on the formation of Heidegger’s thought, but shows how it is this impact that informs his subsequent reading of Husserl. It is only based on his prior reading of Dilthey that Heidegger ‘destructively retrieves’ Husserl. The dominant interpretive line of thought with respect to the history of phenomenology from Husserl through Heidegger is therefore mistaken, a fact that is perhaps not necessarily new to us but has never been as comprehensively expressed and well-demonstrated as Scharff does here. His text is a welcome addition to the New Heidegger Research series, with its clear writing, thorough scholarship and nobly motivated project making it of interest to anyone looking to learn about the history of phenomenology.
On the one hand, Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is a historical, scholarly work concerned with the genesis of Heidegger’s phenomenology and the specifics of his engagements with Dilthey and Husserl. But on the other hand, it is also about what it is to philosophize at all, and what kind of philosophers we need to be, or become. Its expositions of Heidegger, Dilthey and Husserl are driven and bookmarked by an impassioned call for philosophers to question the predominantly materialist/objectivist, ‘technique-happy’, scientifically-minded condition in which much philosophy finds itself, where the “primacy of the theoretical” (158) reigns. In this climate, there is a dominant tendency to conceive of ourselves as knowing subjects, rational animals, as cognizing consciousnesses to which objects appear – at the expense of the wealth of phenomenological life-experience that this conception of ourselves ignores. The effect of this ‘loss of touch with life’ on philosophers, on Scharff’s view, is particularly damning:
their work grows to be an embarrassment, increasingly displaying a tendency to become excessively logical, formalistic, or simply clever; and this is so even if in the beginning, some insightful encounter or concern that is actually lived-through was the source of hat are now just empty exercises. (153)
It is these ‘insightful encounters or concerns’ that Scharff, through Heidegger and Dilthey, insists we must get back to. But this cannot be done as long as we are mired in the normal (read, broadly analytic, scientistic) way of doing philosophy, where philosophers ‘inquire, argue and claim’ (159), ‘take positions, promote theories and influence others’ (xii) and the worth of their viewpoints are evaluated. (xvi) Here, claims are either true or false, arguments are sound or unsound, theories are coherent or incoherent, changing your mind is inconsistent, new ways of speaking perhaps ‘incoherent’, ‘obscurantist’ or ‘unscientific’, and everything a philosopher says in their work is taken at face value. It is this superficial way of doing philosophy that we must overcome, and another strength of Scharff’s text is its emphasis on and drawing out of Heidegger’s way of overcoming it – his way of reading other philosophers in a ‘destructive retrieval’. The bulk of Scharff’s text is dedicated to explicating, in detail, how Heidegger engages in such a ‘destructive retrieval’ of Dilthey and Husserl. I will briefly summarise how the book proceeds chapter by chapter before spelling out some of its most significant points in greater detail.
Chapter 1 frames the book in terms of Heidegger’s early preoccupation with how we should philosophize, his ‘preliminary question’ of what kind of philosopher one needs to be in order to be phenomenological. For Heidegger, this will involve a destructive retrieval of both Husserl and Dilthey, with the emphasis on ‘destructive’ with Husserl and ‘retrieve’ with Dilthey. The retrieval of Dilthey is the starting point of chapter 2, which begins ‘part one’ of the text. Here, Scharff introduces Dilthey’s central ideas of ‘the standpoint of life’ and ‘understanding life in its own terms’ as they arise in the most familiar contribution Dilthey has been known to make to philosophy, which is his attempt to delineate between the natural and human sciences and provide epistemology for the latter. Out of this project arises Dilthey’s idea that the human sciences attempt to understand human history from ‘the standpoint of life’, an idea that gets ‘phenomenologically replaced’ in Husserl with the ‘transcendental consciousness’, a de-historicised, de-contextualized cognizing subjectivity to which objects appear. Heidegger sees certain ‘intuitions’ in Dilthey’s idea that promise far more philosophically (for phenomenology and ontology) than even Dilthey himself realised. Chapter 3 shows how Heidegger sought to appropriate Dilthey and carry his work far beyond the epistemology of the human sciences, which Dilthey confined himself to. Here there are interesting discussions of how Heidegger engages with other philosophers, in terms of ‘appropriation’ and the ‘formal indications’ we might find implicit in their work even if they do not realise it. ‘Formal indication’ is a notoriously difficult concept in Heidegger, one that normally gets fleshed out from its application in Being and Time and beyond, so it is interesting to see its treatment in the 1920s lecture courses. Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey’s ‘standpoint of life’ leads us into ‘part two’ of the text, which deals with how Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey informs the ‘destructive’ element of his engagement with Husserl. Dilthey helps Heidegger realise that Husserl’s phenomenology is not genuine phenomenology, but an enactment of the theoretical-scientific attitude, containing an unhelpful opposition to Dilthey’s alleged ‘historicism’, which for Husserl leads to obscurity and relativism, and does not “a proper philosophical response to the empirical facts of historical-human life.” (98) Phenomenology, on Husserl’s view, must ‘get behind’ historical life to the transcendental consciousness which experiences it. However, an immersion in the historical, as Heidegger learns from Dilthey, turns out to be a requirement for genuine phenomenology, not something to be opposed by it. Chapter 5 turns to the positive retrieval of Husserl, in which Heidegger attempts to salvage Husserl’s ‘principle of all principles’ in a way that is compatible with Dilthey’s historically-immersed ‘standpoint of life’. Heidegger’s destructive retrieval of both Dilthey and Husserl for the purpose of becoming genuinely phenomenological lead Scharff to the conclusions he draws in chapter 6, about the always-ongoing nature of phenomenology, something that necessarily ‘becomes’ without ever reaching a complete state of ‘being’. The point of phenomenology is to become attuned to our historical being, a process which is always ongoing, never finished – the point is therefore to continuously ‘become’ phenomenological, not try and ‘be’ it.
Arguably, the most important term in Scharff’s book, both for understanding how Heidegger conducts his philosophy and for understanding the project of the book itself, is ‘destructive retrieval’. Heidegger’s notion of ‘destruction’ is long-familiar to us, especially in the form of the ‘destruction of the history of ontology’ he proposes in Being and Time. But in his earlier lecture courses, which are the sole focus of Scharff’s analysis, Heidegger speaks rather of ‘destructive retrieval’, emphasizing both the positive and negative aspects of the task he would later refer to only as ‘destruction’.
Sometimes, one encounters texts whose author seems to be “on the way” toward a topic or insight that outruns, or perhaps even casts doubt on the aptness of – what they say or even consciously intend. In such cases, it is especially desirable to try to understand the text “in its own terms” (xviii)
To destroy, or destructively retrieve, a philosopher’s work, does involve a negative dismantling of it, but always with an eye towards retrieving the positive possibilities latent within it, the tools it might (in spite of itself) afford us for moving beyond it. Rather than a strict emphasis on whether someone is right or wrong, coherent or incoherent, destructive retrieval aims at ascertaining what about their historical context might drive a philosopher to say what they say and what worth this motivation might have in the long run, even if the expression this motivation was given and the work it was put to turns out to be mistaken or inadequate. It is not just about dismantling inadequate systems of thought, but “stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition” (BT, 44) in which they are situated, ascertaining what we can learn from it about how to do philosophy as well as how not to do it.
This is precisely what Heidegger does with both Dilthey and Husserl, but it is Dilthey who Heidegger owes a greater philosophical debt to, and Dilthey who informs Heidegger’s subsequent reading of Husserl, not the other way round. Scharff’s book therefore finds a happy home alongside other texts in the New Heidegger Research series such as Thomas Sheehan’s Making Sense of Heidegger, since it also aims at overturning a long-dominant interpretive tendency in Heidegger scholarship. Scharff argues at length that the influence of Husserl on the young Heidegger has been overemphasized for far too long, with “the two main interpretive options […] [being] that he is either a revisionist Husserlian or a radically revisionist Husserlian.” (vii) Scharff’s contention, backed up by the relatively recent availability of Heidegger’s 1920s lecture courses, is that both of these alternatives are wrong, and it is in fact Dilthey who helps Heidegger take up a position on how it is that he should philosophize, a position which goes on to inform his reading of Husserl.
But this is not to say that Husserl had nothing to offer Heidegger, or that Heidegger has no issues with Dilthey – Heidegger engages in a destructive retrieval of both, though “it is more a matter of critically dismantling in the case of Husserl and more a matter of appropriation/retrieval in the case of Dilthey.” (xxii) Ultimately, Husserl saw the potential of and necessity for phenomenology but was gravely mistaken in his articulation of how it should be practised. Phenomenology, for Husserl, must rise above our “concrete circumstances […] of scientific practice […] of culture, society, history” (40) in order to be able to train itself exclusively on what appears to a ‘transcendental consciousness’. Only then will we have returned ‘to the things themselves’, as his famous slogan suggests. But as anyone familiar with the Heidegger of Being and Time will know, this ‘rising above’ is precisely a step in the wrong direction. Rather,
historical-human life […] belongs to us and is possessed by us as an endlessly rich, diverse and multiply interested environmental experience that is an already meaningful and understandable process before it gets theoretically sliced up and conceptualized. (xx)
Husserl’s basic motivation to return to the things themselves as we experience them, is a noble and necessary one. However, his idea of what this means is gravely mistaken. According to Husserl, we must strip away the trappings of historical life, culture and experience in order to experience the world ‘as it really is’, and so he remains trapped in a Cartesian-Kantian framework that amounts to an “enactment of the current (predominantly scientific and philosophically scientized) ways of conceptualizing” (xxi) life as we live it. To be phenomenologists, according to Husserl, we have to become the disinterested, objective cognizing observers that science would have us be, and record our experience this way. Heidegger’s problem with this is not just that the stripping-away Husserl proposes is impossible, but that even if it were possible, would be a far from accurate reflection of our existence and experience. We are fundamentally historical beings, and this being-historical fundamentally conditions our existence and experience of it at every step. To attempt to rise above it to describe our experience of our existence, therefore, is gravely misconceived and would miss out on a constitutive element of our existence. Rather, any phenomenology worthy of the name must involve an attempt to understand our life ‘in its own terms’, cultural-historical trappings and all. And it is this insight that Heidegger gets from reading Dilthey.
Through Dilthey, Heidegger arrives at a conception of how to do phenomenology that far surpasses Husserl’s, but this is not what Dilthey had in mind. Dilthey’s original project, as chapter 2 explains, was originally to construct an epistemology of the human sciences, such that they can be shown to be distinct rom the natural sciences and yet still be called a science. Readers unfamiliar with Dilthey’s well-known contributions to the human sciences and the ‘explanation vs. understanding’ debate will learn a lot from this chapter, which reconstructs some of the most salient points before phenomenologically recasting this territory as Heidegger does. In the course of Dilthey’s project, Heidegger detects “a [very non-traditional] philosophical concern”, namely, the concern to understand the living-through of historical existence and all of its manifestations “in their own terms.”” (xxii) According to Heidegger, waiting to be retrieved in this idea is the basic attitude one must adopt if one wishes to be a phenomenologist, something Dilthey ultimately was unable to realise because of his own historical situation, and his own self-conception as an epistemologist of the human sciences. Indeed, understanding how a thinker’s work is an expression of its own historical-cultural situation is a key element of a destructive retrieval – the point is not only to understand what a philosopher got right or wrong, but what it is about their situation that drove them to say what they said in the first place and how it ‘expresses’ their situation. Dilthey’s idea of understanding life in its own terms, and working out what this might mean for phenomenology, becomes Heidegger’s primary destructive-retrieving concern in the 1920s, up until the writing and publication of Being and Time. His response to Husserl’s conception of phenomenology may initially seem obvious, but it is not without reason that Husserl opposes Dilthey, in fact this points to a deep disagreement between philosophers of all stripes over a key issue: the nature and danger of relativism.
Husserl sees Dilthey as engaging in a kind of ‘historicism’, which brings with it the danger of relativism. If everything must be understood out of and related back to our historical life, everything is relative to whichever historical period it arises out of, none of which are ‘better’ or ‘more fundamental’ than any other. Practitioners of natural science, and anyone that adopts a ‘theoretical-scientific attitude’, would obviously want to oppose this, since the very point of science is to achieve knowledge that would be true no matter what historical period we are in. But Heidegger is not advocating for (at least this kind of) relativism, as this quote shows:
those who cry, “Relativism!” typically have things backward. It is factical life in its primordial sense that is “absolute,” and the particular expressions of practice that emerge from it are “relative” (59)
Heidegger, along with Dilthey, is keen to relate everything back to “the facts of consciousness” (60) for this is where all human practises originate and have their grounding. To say this is not to say that experiential knowledge is more fundamental than natural-scientific knowledge, or that one is ‘better’ than the other, just that they are different and one emerges out of the other, as all human practises do. A phenomenology, to be truly phenomenological, must get to grips with our historical existence as that kind of being out of which disparate human practises, indeed any human practises, arise. The point of phenomenology is not to invalidate or undermine science or the knowledge it discovers, but one of its functions is to explicate science’s origin out of human life and its being grounded therein, in the facts of historical consciousness.
But this task of phenomenology, as Scharff deals with later in the book, is always a necessarily unfinished one, something we are always on the way towards but never quite reach completely because of the ever-changing historical landscape. Phenomenology is always ongoing, always ‘responsive’ to the changes of our existence as we experience them. This is where the second sense of the book’s title comes into play – the first sense emphasizes that it is a book about how Heidegger becomes the sort of philosopher he is by 1927, and the second emphasizes the unfinished nature of phenomenology as something that is always ‘becoming’, never ‘being’ in itself, complete. This is also another reason behind Husserl’s opposition to Dilthey’s ‘historicism’ – because history is ever-developing, to remain immersed in it in the course of our philosophical investigations implies an insusceptibility to a definite method or single way of proceeding, which dooms us to remain trapped in indefiniteness and obscurity. Indeed, because of the problem of history there will have to be as many or phenomenological methods or techniques as is required by whatever new challenges to it that history throws up as it proceeds. But this is not necessarily a negative consequence, but rather testifies to phenomenology’s status as a process: “no method or training regimen can protect even a well-intentioned phenomenologist from the never-ending struggle to become phenomenological” (157). Because human existence is ever-changing, developing and dependent on the whim on history, phenomenology must be ever in the process of becoming ‘responsive’ to these changes in order to capture them adequately. Though Husserl’s basic motivation of getting back to the things themselves is noble, his enactment of it precludes the required kind of attitude to phenomenology, where Dilthey’s openness to historical being better equips us for attaining it.
These are, I would suggest, the most important and salient points Scharff makes throughout the book, but this is not to mention some other interesting issues that arise along the way. The way Scharff grapples with Heidegger’s notoriously difficult idea of ‘formal indication’, and the array of formally indicative concepts and phrases in Heidegger’s early work, is admirable. So is the inclusion of Heidegger’s much-less-discussed engagement with Paul Natorp, a prominent philosopher of the time. How Heidegger uses Natorp’s criticisms of Husserl as a springboard for making a case for “a non-theoretical “immanent illumination of life experience that remains in this experience and does not step out and turn it into objectivity” (122). This is likely not to be familiar to most readers.
Which brings me to some perhaps more negative aspects of the text, of which there admittedly are not many and do not eclipse its overall merits. The influence of Dilthey on the young Heidegger, owing largely to the relatively recent publication of the lecture courses Scharff discusses, has been evident for quite some time now. Readers that are familiar already with Dilthey and Heidegger’s early lecture courses are therefore unlikely to find much that is surprising or new here. However, I find it hard to imagine that the link between Dilthey, the early Heidegger and Husserl has been as comprehensively expressed elsewhere, which is a merit in itself. The book would therefore be especially suited to students of Heidegger looking to learn about his relationship with Dilthey. This is especially the case because a basic grasp of Heidegger (and Husserl’s) work would be beneficial to have before approaching Scharff’s text, which can be dense at times. But these are not necessarily criticisms of the text itself, which is well-researched and well-constructed, and the complicated parts about the nuanced ideas of the three philosophers involved are explained in detail and at length, ultimately leaving little room for misunderstanding.
Furthermore, because of the nature of the text, some of the most interesting issues that arise within it – about the phenomenological ‘method’ and attitude, and whether it can fully escape the trappings of theoretical attitudes – do not ultimately get much attention. Scharff admirably reconstructs this specific area of phenomenological scholarship and points towards the surrounding issues it raises, but leaves the discussion open at some interesting points. To what extent can phenomenology be rigorous if it has no single method? Can we ever really escape the ‘analytic’ way of doing philosophy, where claims are made, positions analysed, etc.? What exactly is the nature of the ‘responsive’, ‘mindful’ attitude to our historical life we must attain, and how do we attain it? These are questions that the text circles around but does not try to solve definitively. Obviously, by the time he writes Being and Time, Heidegger has some ideas about how to answer these questions, but since Scharff’s aim is to ascertain how Heidegger becomes the kind of philosopher he is by that point, he does not go into this. This is part of what makes the text a good springboard toward further research and reading for whoever engages with it, and because it points to the fact that it is in the very nature of phenomenology to be unfinished, and these supposed ‘difficulties’ or ‘deficiencies’ that actually keep it alive, and allowed to develop along with our historical being.
Anyone interested in the history of continental philosophy, the interconnection of Husserl, Heidegger and Dilthey, or the history of phenomenology in general, will find much of worth in Scharff’s text. It would be especially informative for those in the early stages in their acquaintance with these topics, but those with a familiarity will undoubtedly find something worthwhile here too, if only because of the sheer detail Scharff goes into with Heidegger’s 1920s lectures, or the discussion of Dilthey’s epistemological writings, or the specifics of Husserl’s conception of phenomenology. This also because it serves as a good indicator of several interesting areas of discussion about the possibility of a phenomenological method (or methods), the nature of phenomenology and its relation to our historical nature, and how we should do philosophy at all. In fact, it is on this point that Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is at its most admirable, passionately defending philosophy that opposes the dominance of the scientific-attitude, which questions philosophy’s reliance on established theoretical frameworks, and refuses to rely on technique-happiness and generally-accepted ways of doing things. Surely, philosophy should be an enterprise that questions itself all the time, and questions the methods and conceptions of itself that have become dominant within it. Philosophy should always be something the resists complacency, never being completely satisfied with what it has achieved, because the questions that it deals with are eternal questions, ones that we must continuously work towards a better understanding of but always in the knowledge that a complete solution of them is impossible. This is what drives philosophy forward, or at least the most interesting and philosophical kinds of philosophy, no matter where in the world it is from. The divide between analytic and continental philosophy is beginning to become more blurred, with analytic philosophers doing metaphysics, and there is more dialogue than ever between philosophers across the divide (Heidegger and Wittgenstein being a key example), Heidegger Becoming Phenomenological is also a powerful reminder of why this is a good thing, and how much continental and analytic philosophers have to learn from each other.
 Martin Heidegger. 1962. Being and Time (BT). Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, London, 429.
We know Edmund Husserl not only through his rigorous attempts to set forth the phenomenological method but also from his brilliant disciples from various countries: Stein and Heidegger, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, Landgrebe, Ingarden, Patočka are only a few. The Russian/Ukranian philosopher Gustav Shpet, whose works have been discovered not long ago, appears among them as the introducer of Husserl’s phenomenology into Russian philosophy. Not unlike any other student of Husserl, however, he carries the phenomenological thinking further by elaborating its main themes and questions with a rather peculiar perspective. In this regard, Springer’s new volume of the series “Contributions to Phenomenology,” the new translation of Shpet’s Hermeneutics and Its Problems (Germenevtika i ee problemy, 1918), gives the reader a broader picture of his philosophy that inaugurates the problems of the hermeneutic tradition to phenomenological investigations. Unlike his previous work, Appearance and Sense (Javlenie i smysl, 1914), which was a commentary of Husserl’s Ideen I, Shpet turns his focus away from the development of the study of hermeneutics from its roots in Biblical interpretations toward his contemporaries, such as Bernheim, Lappo-Danilevskij, Spranger, Dilthey, and Simmel.
In so doing, Shpet aims to not only provide a historical presentation of the topics of hermeneutics but also to scrutinize the shortcomings of the theories so far suggested, so that he manages to explain why hermeneutical inquiries need a method at least as rigorous as Husserl’s. In contrast to the empirical and natural foundation of human experience, hermeneutics devotes its attention to comprehending the written words as historical signs that can be interpreted. Thus, with respect to understanding the sense and significance of the historical objects (namely texts), history for Shpet (let alone other candidates for hermeneutical inquiries such as philology and psychology) becomes a problem of logic with respect to the part-whole structure: that is, history as a model of knowledge for the individual with the integrity of the whole. The second half of the book includes essays from different dates, which on the other hand, appeals by and large to the task of reversing the question at hand back to phenomenology: given the historicality of consciousness, any kind of cognition is an interpreting cognition, indeed, that necessarily entails historical understanding. For this reason, Shpet pursues an overturning of Husserl’s phenomenology into a hermeneutic phenomenology wherein the written text is recognized not as a physical object, but as a historical object that calls for an interpretation of the reader. After the foundation of the theory of historical knowledge, which is nothing but the act of “understanding” in Shpet’s opinion, the task of hermeneutics as a rigorous science will finally be an achievement of the entire logic of semasiology, i.e., the hermeneutic logic of words as the expressions of interpreting cognition. Shpet’s hermeneutic phenomenology, as a result, contains not only a critical history of the questions of understanding and interpretation in the hermeneutic tradition but also notable elements predating the linguistic turn in the 20th-century philosophy.
As just mentioned, Hermeneutics and Its Problems is comprised of two parts: the translation of Shpet’s work itself and the five essays added to the main body of the text. His highly praised essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner” (1916); a meditation on Husserl’s project of phenomenology, “Wisdom or Reason?” (1917); another important essay, “Philosophy and History” (1916), “Skepticism and Dogmatism of Hume” (1911), and an encyclopedic entry written by Shpet depicting his own philosophical portrait. The editor and translator of the book, Thomas Nemeth is a well-known scholar of Russian philosophy, and of Shpet in particular, stretching back to his earlier translation of Shpet’s Appearance and Sense as well as other essays and entries. Nemeth’s editorial work is satisfying; not only does he meticulously handle the various editions and copies of Shpet’s book but also in the introductory remarks added to the main text and to each appendix, all succinctly written. These introductions are worth reading to grasp their context in terms of the frame of references and historical background.
The main body of the text, Hermeneutics and Its Problems, begins with a short preface that clearly points out the author’s task: if we succeed in critically assessing the significance of “the history of hermeneutics as a scientific discipline” (xxv), hermeneutics as the epistemology of history will pave the way for an authentic methodology for historical knowledge, which remained Shpet’s ultimate project in the following years. The first chapter, “Origin of the Idea and the Methods of Hermeneutics,” opens a discussion on the necessity of the emergence of hermeneutical inquiries in understanding the written texts. In order to grasp the allegories and moral senses in epic poems, such as Homer’s myths, fragments from the Sophists to dialogues from Plato and Aristotle, Ancient Greek thought made the first effort to address the question of the role of the word (slovo) in moralistic, allegorical and historical interpretations of written texts. The encounter of the West and the East in Hellenistic culture formed the next phase of the need for different methods and techniques particularly because of the translation of the Old and the New Testament into the Greek language. The task of hermeneutics, rendered as a theological discipline in this period, was to distinguish between different kinds of interpretations. Here Shpet examines how St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas, Dante, and more thoroughly Origen and Augustine make their distinctions in terms of the contrast between literal/grammatical/historical interpretation and allegorical/spiritual interpretation of Biblical texts.
Even more to the point, the early Christian theologian Origen identifies the problem of interpretation to the extent that there are not only ordinary and historical but also ambiguous and arbitrary senses of the Holy Scripture itself. Thus, hermeneutic techniques are required to address this variation in order to reach consistency in the text. Augustine, on the other hand, is the most important figure in the history of Biblical hermeneutics because of his theory concerning the role of signs in achieving the meaning and sense of the Holy Scripture. Shpet diligently analyzes the two works of Augustine, De doctrina Christiana and De magistro, in order to make manifest Augustine’s psychological theory of understanding: a sign (e.g., a word that signifies in this case) is “a thing that not only conveys its appearance to the senses, but also introduces something into thought along with itself.” (9) Thus, understanding the meaning of written texts is the process of transfer from the thought (i.e., the idea) of the author through signs (written by their writer, perceived by the reader) toward the thought of the reader. It is true that understanding what is written, for Augustine, is to grasp what is intended by the author (11), but once it is asked how the reader’s reception is even possible, Augustine foreseeably brings the theory of anamnesis into view: understanding takes place in the divinatory act of recollecting ideas. Shpet does not find Augustine’s theory satisfactory precisely because of its unclarity on the “originary act” of understanding (12). That there seems no criterion for verifying the accuracy of what is understood leaves the interpreter in the shadows of subjectivism.
A resolution of this arbitrariness in interpretation is achieved as the main concern of Flacius in the 16th century. Though he pursues practical (meaning, rhetorical) goals of the hermeneutical endeavor in reading Biblical texts, the chapter “Flacius and Biblical Hermeneutics in the Renaissance” argues that Flacius makes the first genuine attempt at a theoretical understanding of the “sense” of the text by revealing the part-whole structure. A theory of sense, in this regard, delineates the ways of discerning a harmonious sense between each particular element of the context, the undivided end, and the intention of the whole text (16, 19). Despite the fact that Flacius does not confine himself to Augustine’s unascertained methods of interpreting the Holy scripture, his theory of understanding the sense of the text in Shpet’s final assessment does not suffice in proving its principles as explicitly unbreakable: it gives us neither any clear analysis of the act of understanding (i.e., how we pass from the signs to what they signify) nor any reason why we have to penetrate into the subjective ideas and thoughts of the author (20).
The next chapter, “General Remarks on the Relation of the Sciences to Hermeneutics as a Transition to Ernesti,” has two objectives: explicating the place of hermeneutics within the rise of the natural sciences after the Renaissance and giving an account of modern philosophers dealing with the question of the nature of linguistic signs. As for the former, hermeneutics loses its priority in grammatical and allegorical interpretations of the written text, yet obtains a subsidiary role in deciphering the nature of words as communicative signs. Hence, in the 17th and 18th centuries, hermeneutics, as the logic of communication, inquires into the correspondence between the signs of the written text and the meaning intended and understood. Here we read a concise history of modern philosophy related to the topics of hermeneutics so much broader than what can be found in any other book of the history of hermeneutics. Shpet carries out a critical inquiry on, respectively, Locke’s theory of communication in human understanding, Berkeley’s conceptualism, Hume’s analysis of habit as an explanation of understanding, Reid’s theory of the social object, Leibniz’s idea of meanings as possibilities, Wolff’s rationalist philology, and Meier’s ontology of signs.
Of these figures, Wolff holds a special position in the history of hermeneutics since he is the first theorist breaking the divinatory explanation of understanding and relieving the interpreter of the burden of receiving the intention of the author. Understanding, therefore, is not any kind of reproduction of the “ideas” of the author, as seen in Augustine and Flacius; rather, it is “knowledge of truth itself.” (42) Since “truth” is now the main concern of hermeneutics, we can even argue that the interpreter can understand an author better than the author understands himself. But what is the supervisor of the execution of the task of interpreting? What controls and verifies the reader’s understanding of the sense of the text? As Wolff replies, it is purely and simply “reason” itself. Shpet criticizes this strict rationalism for the reason that the concept of truth is considered limited only to the achievement of “someone who [already] has in mind a certain system of truths.” (42) As he maintains, “this reader will be immediately disappointed upon learning that the entire problem amounts to a very narrow demand, namely, to connect the author’s individual words to precisely the same concepts that the reader connects to them.” (42)
In chapter four, “Ernesti and Ast: The Reorientation of Hermeneutics from Theology Toward Philology,” Shpet concentrates on the philological period of the development of hermeneutical thinking. The problem of ambiguity is restored by the 18th-century philologist Ernesti to be solved with the help of explaining the structure and historical discoveries of the author’s language. On this account, understanding the sense of the text is a scrupulous explication of the multiple circumstances of the author: time, geography, social and economic status, community, and the state, all set of conditions that shape the author’s language used in the text. Hence, in order to find an answer to the ambiguity of meaning, the task of the interpreter should be devoting themselves to the singularity of the author’s particular application of the meaning of a word. Every different use of a word is another application in a different context; ergo, the hermeneutical inquiry should divulge the particular usage of the author. Besides the fact that Ernesti carries the focus of hermeneutics backward to the problem of authorial intention, Shpet is also discontent with Ernesti’s failure of addressing the primary questions: “What is the act of understanding?” and “What is the role of the sign in that act?”
Ast, on the other hand, assigns a new task to philology as the empirical foundation of hermeneutics by following the premises of 18th century idealism and the Romantic dignification of words: “the philologist,” explains Shpet, “should not limit oneself to an investigation merely of the letter and form of language, but should also disclose the spirit that permeates them as their higher meaning.” (50) The method Ast offers is a classical one; the part-whole structure. From the particularity of the letter and the originality of the intention of the author, the interpreter must discover the unity of these parts with the spirit of the text’s sense. In other words, all the particular inquiries must lead to the whole idea of the interpreted work. Shpet’s analyses of Ast’s hermeneutics are quite accurate: because spirit only replaces “reason” in modern philosophy, understanding cannot be explained in terms of the eligibility of spirit. Thus, Ast explains the process of how we come to understand the meaning of a text by appealing to the idea of divination. No more clarification is given concerning the questions of how the reader apprehends the spirit of the text and from what criteria we have correct understanding. In Shpet’s words, that is to say that the very act of understanding remains a mystery in Ast’s hermeneutics (55-56).
The chapter on “Friedrich Schleiermacher” elaborates the biggest leap of hermeneutics. Schleiermacher is the most key figure in the hermeneutic tradition, not only because of extending the sphere of applicability of interpretation toward philosophical and literary texts but also because of his meticulous attempts to establish a methodological technique for all hermeneutical inquiries. Here is not the place to go into details of Schleiermacher’s distinction between explanation and interpretation and his famous division of interpretation into grammatical and psychological moments. These are only the obvious portions of his comprehensive method that has still been accepted and defended with revision, even after Gadamer’s harsh criticisms. What is worth mentioning for our present purposes is Shpet’s making manifest the shortcomings of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics: To begin with, for Schleiermacher, as for many others before him, the difference between interpretation and understanding is unclear (62, 64). Where interpreting begins, where it ends, where it differs from understanding… These critical points are never issues for the German philosopher. As a recurrent theme in Shpet’s critical history of hermeneutics, the lack of ambiguity concerning the quiddity of understanding “as such” is what Schleiermacher’s method remains inadequate in its claim.
Shpet carries his search for clarity in method further by responding to the very grounding of hermeneutics: the language of the author and the original audience, on the one hand, and the part-whole structure between the sense of every word and the sense of the context, on the other (66-67). According to Shpet, however, Schleiermacher’s inquirer does not have a clear map to easily follow: studying the language of the author and its first readers seems to be a historical one, and yet it also needs grammatical and even psychological interpretation. Likewise, the connection between words and their context requires both grammatical and historical investigations employing the study of logic and philology. That is to say, grammatical and psychological moments of interpretation are utterly indistinguishable from each other (73). Where things get complicated, Shpet always shows a discomfort with any ambiguity in the method. Instead, since the rigorous method for hermeneutical sciences has to be pure and precise, what Schleiermacher’s method needs is further explication concerning the definitions and extents of the various kinds of interpretation. As Shpet writes, “By separating the grammatical from the psychological moment of interpretation and ascribing an independent role to each of them, he made a very important distinction. However, considering that a single understanding underlies both, i.e., a single type of lived experience, he deprived his division of much of its significance.” (72)
The chapter entitled “Hermeneutics After Schleiermacher” mostly focuses on Boeckh’s philological hermeneutics and his elaboration of different kinds of interpretation. Philology, however, is no longer simply an account of grammatical structure and historical developments of words. With Boeckh, philology bears a renewed assignment concerning all systems of knowledge: a knowledge of the known, which is simply, “understanding.” Thus, Boeckh, in Shpet’s opinion, holds the first genuine consideration of the act of understanding and the moments of comprehension together with the real question of philology: the role of the written word as a communicative sign. But Boeckh aims to expand the field of philology aided by the study of history: philological hermeneutics concentrates on the historical reconstruction of what is understood (81). Despite its impressive attempt at the act of understanding and comprehension, Boeckh’s theory, for Shpet, still seems to be unsatisfactory because of the unclarity of transitioning between philology and history, and even between philology and psychology. The method of philology becomes an indeterminate in hermeneutics’ penetration into the responsibilities of other provinces. The chapter ends with a circumstantial presentation of the kinds of interpretation mostly suggested by Schleiermacher and Boeckh (92-97).
“Hermeneutical Moments of Historical Methodology” is a chapter on how 19th-century historians took part in the methodological foundations of hermeneutical sciences. Shpet begins with Steinthal’s insightful conclusion that one interprets in order to understand the historical object. Understanding, therefore, is not an immediate occasion taken for granted; rather, it is the goal of the business of interpretation. Shpet also touches upon Steinthal’s division of interpretation into three processes: psychological/philological, factual/historical, and stylistic. The next historian, Droysen, is the key figure for hermeneutical development of the study of history as opposed to Rankean historical positivism. For Droysen not only lays the foundations of a logical methodology for understanding and interpretation of the historical objects, but also employs the part-whole structure to find out the dynamic structure between the individual and the community. That being so, as an expression of the community, the individual person is not only a psychological subject but also an objectively social phenomenon. Shpet’s favorite historian Bernheim separates the task of interpretation in terms of its object: an interpretation of historical remnants, in this regard, differs from that of tradition as well as the interpretation of one source by means of another. Since the scope of interpretation becomes much broader, provided that the study of history occupies the center of the investigation, the historian should now take into account the complementary facts and knowledge obtained by other fields, such as linguistics, anthropology, statistics, and so on. The chapter ends with Shpet’s contemporary, Lappo-Danilevskij and his theory of historical interpretation. The remarkable move of this Russian historian is the idea that the interpreter of historical materials first presupposes the existence of the “other I” whose psychic activity is similar to my own. The principles and techniques of the historical interpretation are based upon this psychic significance, which is predetermined between the interpreter and the author of the work. Shpet’s main criticism of these 19th-century theorists, let alone Steinthal’s highly critical perspective, is their negligence of a proper explanation of the act of understanding per se. According to Shpet, they mistakenly thought that one reads the historical text and then understanding comes by itself; the only task of the reader thereby is to interpret. Shpet also disapproved the aforementioned methodologies based on their faulty subjectivism. Since the historical text owes its being to the author, the only way to understanding its meaning contains two registers: the interpreter’s penetration into the personality of the author or the historical study of how the text was received by the original audience (114). For Shpet, this can only mean to limit the interpreter’s original act of understanding to the psychology of the individual “represented” in the text.
The order of chapter eight, “Dilthey’s Development of Hermeneutics,” is somewhat complicated. It begins with a section on the philosopher Prantl’s idea of understanding as an immediate apprehension. After discussing the middle years of Dilthey’s hermeneutics, Shpet focuses on Spranger’s psychology of the individual with the integrity of the whole and goes back to the later philosophy of Dilthey. The last figure he deals with is rather peculiar: Simmel and his idea that the object of history is the psychological and social conditions of the individual person. Despite the subtle arguments of other theorists that are slightly touched upon, Shpet truly does justice to Dilthey’s finalization of an elaborate hermeneutical method for human sciences. In addition to enlarging the hermeneutical pursuit concerning the question of understanding, Dilthey rephrases the goal of interpretation for the objective character of scientific inquiry. Unencumbered by psychologism, Dilthey’s methodological hermeneutics focuses on the hermeneutic circle formed in between the individual’s lived experience, the objectified expression of the historical subject, and the inquirer’s understanding the objective spirit (i.e., the commonality of the individual) through the processes of interpretation. Shpet concurs with Dilthey’s attempt to resolutely modify the hermeneutical inquiry from the subjective level to the objectivity of the social individual. However, Dilthey too cannot escape Shpet’s razor of purity in descriptions: “Dilthey fails to provide an answer to the question that once again arises before him, namely, what, properly speaking, is the essence of understanding as a sui generis source of knowledge in the human sciences.” (130) Since Shpet believes the question, what understanding is is blurred once again, Dilthey’s hermeneutics too cannot be the final destination of our search for an unshakeable foundation for hermeneutics.
After all historical accounts of the hermeneutic tradition, the final chapter entitled, “The Contemporary Situation,” epitomizes what Shpet’s project was in Hermeneutics and Its Problems. It begins with the conclusion that the theories dealing with historical knowledge have failed to provide a “clear” analysis of the originary act of understanding. Until Shpet, the act of understanding is taken for granted: when you read the historical text, understanding comes by itself; what the reader needs to do is now to interpret it. In Shpet’s opinion, conversely, the question concerning understanding underlies every possible hermeneutical inquiry (149). He rightly argues that we cannot solve hermeneutical problems without such clarification; namely, the problems of authorial intention, ambiguity, arbitrariness in interpretation, the part-whole structure, the kinds of interpretation, the role of the word as a communicative sign, and so on.
For this reason, in concert with Husserl’s project, Shpet reveals in these last pages what he suggests for hermeneutics actually turning out to be “a material-logical foundation for the historical sciences in the broadest sense.” (97) Shpet’s exhibition of hermeneutics as a rigorous science includes three tokens: first, new developments in contemporary psychology accommodate the ways in which the inquirer transfers the psychic content of what the text says by reading signs as communicative media. This latter issue leads us to the second leg of Shpet’s theory: semasiology, i.e., the study of the determination of the role of the sign in the act of understanding, which requires a logical methodology to prevail over the objective character of the task of interpretation. Shpet does not hesitate to refer to Husserl’s and Meinong’s efforts, nor does he confine his study only to a search for a phenomenological method. This is where the Russian philosopher makes his last step toward hermeneutic phenomenology: turning the question of method to the semasiological inquiry on the objective logic of truth. The written text, for Shpet, is a historical residue for the present reader to make sense out of signs by recognizing the unity of the particularity of the reader’s lived experience and the spirit of the to-be-understood text. Understanding, therefore, cannot be reduced to the reader’s penetration into the psychology of the author represented in the text. Far from these subjectivist and psychologistic attitudes of the contemporary era, hermeneutics now adopts a new task of disclosing the intentional structure between the noetic understanding of the reader and the noematic content of the text.
Shpet relates the intentional structure between understanding and spirit to the historical reality subjected to hermeneutical inquiry. For what is historical (the written text, in this case) is the concrete object by which the reader reaches an understanding of what is realized. “Only in such a sense,” he writes, “can we speak of reality itself as history, for history has to do only with what has been realized. The reason that comprehends is not an abstract reason, but a reason that has been realized in this history.” (150) To put it differently, even before Heidegger’s lecture “The Idea of Philosophy and the Problem of Worldview” (1919) where he introduced the requirement of hermeneutical intuition in Husserl’s phenomenological method (Heidegger, 2008, 83-90), Shpet had highlighted the historical character of phenomenological investigation, which requires a method of its own in order to reflect historical consciousness. Consciousness is historical, thereby it always appeals to an interpretation of the object of consciousness and that of itself.
All that is left to be answered by Shpet is our basic question of what understanding truly is. Hermeneutics and Its Problems gives us a history of hermeneutics at length, scrutinizes how it has developed and dealt with the question of understanding, makes manifest where all attempts have failed. And yet, Shpet’s work falls short of delivering a consistent description of “the act of understanding,” because, like Husserl’s many introductive works to the phenomenological method, Shpet’s project too seems to be suffering from incompleteness in the sense that he did not find a chance to write the third volume of his History as a Problem of Logic, whose main task would be “an examination of strictly logical and methodological problems in our investigation of the fundamental problems of understanding.” (147) However, I believe, Shpet’s momentous essay, “Consciousness and Its Owner,” published in 1916, compiled in the present volume, provides an indirect suggestion to answer the basic question concerning understanding. The essay examines the extent to what we call “the I” is transcendent in terms of its irreducibility in the phenomenological reduction. This is important for our concern because the essence of consciousness directly relates to the interpreting reader, who understands the sense of a written text: what kind of “I” carries out the act of understanding?
The opening statement of Shpet’s argument in the essay is the uniqueness of every single, concrete “I.” In its own empirical life surrounded by other objects, the I is “this haecceity” of which it is unable to be generalized (161-62). This, however, leaves us with a conundrum: if uniqueness pertains to the peculiarities of an individual I, we can maintain that “each” I is distinct from other Is, so that all Is “share” a nature of uniqueness. In other words, every singular I is replaceable with other Is as irreplaceable (202). From this conundrum, Shpet unearths a non-egological conception of consciousness as opposed to the subjectivist and psychologist understanding at the time: the I as the bearer of lived experiences is not a “general subject” centered among other objects; rather, it is a unity of consciousness with regard to the surroundings, the historical situation, and the social conditions in which the I itself exists. Therefore, Shpet disapproves of Husserl’s constitution of the pure I as a foundation of consciousness: no “general I” can embrace the entire consciousness that is specific to “singular I.” What is this plurality of the singular individual, then? Shpet says in response that the I is a particular so-and-so, which is conditioned with a social milieu (191, 196). The I cannot exist without its social relations; that being so, the significance of haecceity lies at the specific unity of the experiences lived by “the communal I.” As Shpet continues, consciousness is a communal consciousness, i.e., the primary “we” rather than the pure I. In this sense, the singular I is plural.
Getting back to the basic question, i.e., that of understanding, we can conclude that the historically situated interpreter is the one who reads and understands the sense of a written text within the circumstances that determine one’s unique relations with the community. These constituents of consciousness (i.e., historicality and sociality) describe how the reader (as the “social we”) intersubjectively carries out the act of understanding. As opposed to the psychologistic and subjectivist accounts of the task of interpretation, Gustav Shpet brilliantly suggests a non-egological theory of hermeneutic phenomenology that precedes Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Nancy’s attempts.
Heidegger, Martin. 2008. Towards the Definition of Philosophy, translated by Ted Sadler. London and New York: Continuum.
 In the second appendix, “Wisdom and Reason,” adopting the premises of Husserl’s project of “philosophy as a rigorous science,” Shpet examines the great disparity between philosophy as pure knowledge and the metaphysics of scientific philosophy. Shpet concludes the essay with another dichotomy, namely between the European sophia and the Eastern wisdom.
Jason W. Alvis’s new book, The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, takes insights from Heidegger’s notion of eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren and applies them to the phenomenological study of religion and religious experience. Synthesizing Heidegger’s work with French philosophers who have made influential contributions to the theological turn in phenomenology, Alvis successfully develops an inconspicuous phenomenology which challenges the privileged forms of presentation that hinder our phenomenological and theological thinking. In addition to offering a compelling chronology of the history of 20th century phenomenology and its various twists and turns, this book fruitfully teases out the paradoxical, subversive, and transformative nature of religious experience.
Is God a spectacle? Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? If phenomenology is concerned with phenomena as they appear, while the object of theology is inherently unknowable, then is a “phenomenology of religion” a contradiction in terms? The Inconspicuous God tackles these questions and more, offering a tour de force on the development of phenomenology in Husserl’s writings, Heidegger’s monumental reshaping of phenomenology, and through to the French and theological turns in the later 20th century. Central to Alvis’s project is an attempt to recover, fortify, and ultimately defend Heidegger’s notion of unscheinbarkeit (inconspicuousness) as a way to both breathe life into a phenomenological explanation of religious experience, as well as to challenge critics of phenomenology’s mingling with theology.
Chapter one brings Heidegger’s phenomenology of the inconspicuous into conversation with Jean-Luc Marion’s writings on the paradoxical nature of revelation. Challenging phenomenology’s privileging of precision and clarity, Heidegger observes that what is hidden or covered up is paradoxically integrated into what it is for a phenomenon to appear as a phenomenon. For example, if I’m walking quickly through a crowd I mustn’t focus on what stands right in front of me, for otherwise I would be overwhelmed with information and would be unable to conceive of the pathway to my destination. Instead, I must look to where I’m headed while still being aware of my surroundings enough to not bump into people. The people in the crowd thus become inconspicuously integrated into my frame of vision, presenting useful information while not being fully present to thought. This is brought to a head in Heidegger’s writings on Being—which remains hidden while always closest at hand—eventually leading to his reformulation of phenomenology as no longer loyal to Husserl’s method of unveiling phenomena clearly and distinctly, but now as deformalizing the very distinction between the veiled and the unveiled. For Heidegger, the paradoxical nature of appearance is not something for philosophy to overcome, but is rather something to recognize as irreducibly endemic to the lebenswelt itself.
For Marion, the epitome of paradox is revelation, which he understands as “a phenomenon that phenomenalizes by countering its own modes of givenness.” Similar to Heidegger’s insights into the paradoxical nature of appearing, Marion holds that revelation disrupts the very distinction between that which appears and that which is hidden. His work on saturated phenomena—revelation being the saturated phenomenon par excellence—is characterized by attempting to overcome the dialectic between the visible and the invisible, and as such shares Heidegger’s view that a reliance on this dialectic numbs thinking.
Alvis tries to take the work of these thinkers a step further by indicating two ways an inconspicuous revelation can avoid the dialectic between visibility and invisibility while also providing an opportunity for rich religious experience. First, revelation should be understood as intertwined within the banal fabric of everyday life, not as events that must shock and awe. “Revelation, if it truly is to be shocking, must take place in the most unexpected of places and ways: in the marginal, inconspicuous, and banal.” Second, revelation not only challenges the privileging of visibility over invisibility in presentation, but deformalizes the framing of this distinction itself.
In chapter two, Alvis takes a closer look at what Heidegger might mean by eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren. Drawing from the Zähringen and Parmenides seminars, Alvis attempts to systematize Heidegger’s notion of the inconspicuous and contextualize it with respect to his larger project. As opposed to being a lens through which all phenomena can be viewed or being construed as only a step in the process of phenomenalization, Alvis ultimately finds that the most fecund interpretation of this elusive topic to be that Heidegger had in mind distinct phenomena as being inconspicuous or as appearing inconspicuously. These particular phenomena require a particular phenomenology in order to make them intelligible: a phenomenology of the inconspicuous. While all phenomena can perhaps take on the character of inconspicuousness—as a builder’s hammer becomes inconspicuous in his habitual use of it—certain phenomena are more likely to appear as inconspicuous than others. Alvis’s intended contribution is to show how experiences located in the religious life can represent these distinct phenomena that have a special ability to appear inconspicuously.
Chapter three takes Michel Henry’s writings on “life” in conjunction with Heidegger’s thoughts on “world” in order to challenge the view that the world is a neutral theatre for subjective consciousness. For Heidegger, the world is neither a sum total of neutral data nor something to be overcome, but rather is something intrinsically yet mysteriously tied to the “being open” of Dasein as it lives and endures. The objects I encounter in the world do not merely convey neutral meanings available to all rational agents, but instead tell me something about myself, what I care about, my mood-as-lived, and thus my overall affective involvement in the world at large. Inconspicuousness comes into play as the oscillation between taking-an-object-as-such and taking-an-object-as-indicative-of-involvement-in-the-world. We can learn something about the world not by philosophizing in armchairs but by being affectively involved—living and dwelling—in the inconspicuous clearing opened by Dasein.
Henry takes up this thread of affectivity in his description of “life.” To be living in the world, for Henry, is to be an affective being. We come into the world only after being affectively involved with life. The world is studied by paying attention to the affective interactions that buffer the in-between spaces separating ourselves and the world. Although there is a worry that Henry reinstates a dichotomy between inside and outside—which both Heidegger and Husserl attempted to dispel—Alvis finds that he indeed successfully domesticates life in the immanent.
Combining Heidegger’s “world” with Henry’s “life,” Alvis locates the possibility of experience of the inconspicuous God in the oscillating interval between them. Jesus himself was characterized by a mode of living that was not of this world, teaching his followers the ways in which the ordinary and banal can teach us something about God. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—in which the paradoxical in-the world/not-of-this-world relation is exemplified—teaches that a dwelling in the world allows participation with the inconspicuous God, while cutting against the invisible-visible paradigm.
Chapter four develops an inconspicuous liturgy alongside Jean-Yves Lacoste’s development of the nonexperience and nonplace of the Absolute. Alvis seeks to correct some of Lacoste’s misconstruals of Heidegger’s project and arrive at an inconspicuous liturgical reduction. For Lacoste, a liturgical reduction entails bracketing away the ‘thesis of the world’ in order to allow the presentation of God to be free from the modes of presentation that characterize our world. This allows the phenomenological appearance of God to be located in the strangely irreducible exterior of consciousness. The world must be put in suspension in order to experience the ‘nonexperience’ of the Absolute. By bracketing a totalizing thesis of the world away from the question of the experience of God, Lacoste allows God to appear as total but not as totalizing.
Alvis finds a similar theme running through Heidegger’s writings on the disclosure of Being to Dasein. Contrary to the early Greek and Husserlian notion of Being as a stable presence that can be ascertained by consciousness, Heidegger’s Being is first disclosed when one finds oneself thrown out into the world, which is the fundamental experience of Dasein. This thrown-openness which characterizes Heideggerian Being exceeds—or, rather, precedes—conscious experience, and as such it entails a fundamental relationship with the nonconscious or the nonexperienceable.
Instead of bracketing the world away completely—which destroys the way Dasein dwells as a ‘worlded’ being—Alvis suggests thinking the world as inconspicuous. Instead of looking for the Absolute by escaping from the world, we should view the world as harboring the potential nonplace and nonexperience about which Lacoste speaks. This allows the inconspicuous God to manifest in the marginalized, dormant, and inconspicuous ‘here’ within our world. The clearing or opening onto the nonplace and nonexperience of the Absolute is found in the uncanny and banal places that, inconspicuously, are most near and familiar to us. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction, therefore, suspends not the world but the spectacles of the world in favor of the Absolute’s indwelling in the inconspicuous and immanent ‘here.’
In chapter five, Alvis follows Jean-Luc Nancy’s investigations on Christian adoration in order to develop a way by which the inconspicuous God can be adored. Adoration is a reflexive activity whereby one sets apart that which is deemed worthy of praise from that which is not. But this can all too easily turn into an idolization of spectacles. What is worthy of praise and adoration, Nancy argues, is not the spectacle which is differentiated from the ordinary, but instead differentiation itself, as the abyss or opening which both appears and withdraws when we set things apart.
However, Alvis argues that a grafting of pure differentiation onto divinity can easily become an idolatrous discourse in our spectacle-dominated world. Divine differentiation, to which an inconspicuous adoration is directed, must be seamlessly incorporated into the marginal and everyday in order to avoid the idol-multiplying simulacrum of divinity that an adoration of pure differentiation creates. An inconspicuous adoration allows for the familiar and immanent around us to be an occasion for glimpsing the Absolute. We can learn something about the inconspicuous God by adoring what is forgotten and rejected as commonplace. What do we adore when we adore the inconspicuous God? Not difference-as-content but instead the non-idolatrous differentiation that overcomes the spectacle/ordinary dichotomy altogether.
Chapter six takes stock of Dominique Janicaud’s critique of Heidegger in order to pin down some of the methodological implications for how evidence should be construed in the context of an inconspicuous phenomenology of religion. A staunch critic of Heidegger, Janicaud thought his notion of unscheinbarkeit was the root of the bad theological turn in phenomenology, which was responsible for unnecessarily complicating phenomenological thinking. Heidegger eschewed Husserl’s privileging of clarity over absence, turned away from his intentionality-rich method, and integrated absence and withdrawal into the substrate of phenomenological thinking, all things Janicaud thought were poisoning phenomenology. But this is due, Alvis argues, to his misunderstanding of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit, which Janicaud seems to think means “inapparent” or “invisible.” Unscheinbarkeit instead should be translated as “inconspicuous,” “lacking in evidence,” or “lacking the ability to be spectacular.” Contra Janicaud, then, “phenomenology of religion” is not an oxymoronic attempt to solder together clarity with absence, but is instead, following Heidegger, the attempt to deformalize the very distinction between clarity and absence in order to allow religious experiences to present themselves in ways which exceed our worldly compartmentalizations.
Alvis then synthesizes the work of William Alston, Merold Westphal, and Anthony Steinbock in order to arrive at an inconspicuous construal of religious evidence. Alvis wants a description of evidence that avoids being reduced to epistemology, that avoids ushering in ontotheology, and finally that avoids ascribing legitimacy to any and all phenomena without explanation or defense. For Alvis, if “religion” refers to the being-open-to an essential relationship between Dasein and a meaning-giving potentiality; and if “experience” describes the process of grasping the particularities in consciousness which become meaningful-for-me; then “religious experience” describes the momentary latching onto intelligible data which is constitutive of the being-openness of Dasein to the meaning-giving potentiality of the Absolute.
Alvis then offers three reasons why the theme of inconspicuousness is keen to describe evidence for religious experiences construed as such. First, the religious experience is inconspicuously integrated into the whole of experience, thus being unable to be extracted from the totality of presentation. Second, religious experience isn’t straightforwardly “provable” because this would assume the Absolute can be wholly conjured when its evidence is offered. Third, the absoluteness or omnipotence of God—to which religious experience points—resists being brought into full clarity, remaining inconspicuous in our attempts to do so.
Chapter seven investigates the merits of understanding faith through the lens of inconspicuousness. By considering the thought of both Heidegger and Jean-Louis Chrétien, Alvis develops three ways the theme of forgetting supports an inconspicuous faith. First, forgetting as denoticing, which includes a double movement in which one is open to the new while simultaneously recognizing the disclosure of the new in the old that endures. Second, forgetting as counternoticing reincorporates the remembered into a novel context, which allows for a new type of knowledge to manifest. Third, forgetting as covering-over, which includes laminating over that which is remembered, not as anti-remembrance but as counter-remembrance.
Alvis argues that an inconspicuous faith must recognize the importance of forgetting which resists a totalizing grasp onto the object of faith. Instead of a faith in, we should embrace a faith with, which recognizes the interpersonal aspect to religious experience and phenomenological thinking. The inconspicuous God is the most ‘unforgettable’ because it is paradoxically that which most uniquely resists being contained within memory’s grasp, always residing in the inconspicuous peripheries of thought.
In chapter eight, Alvis investigates the aboutness of the inconspicuous God, which includes bracketing away the metaphysical questions “is there a God?” and “what is God’s essential nature” while instead focusing on the phenomenological questions “how is God given?” and “to what forms of presentation does God relate?” Alvis finds Emmanuel Levinas to be an ally in describing how God can be described in a way that doesn’t idolize incomprehensibility while also avoiding the temptation to draw God out into the full clarity of daylight. Levinas negotiates these obstacles by locating God’s incarnate infinity in the multitudinous faces of the inconspicuous others that surround us. We share ethical and social relationships with the foreign faces around us without ever grasping them directly. God’s intelligibility is thus gestured toward through our immanent relationships with others which avoid a totalizing conceptualization.
Keeping in theme with the preceding chapters, Alvis argues that inconspicuousness offers a key to subverting the dichotomies which obfuscate a description of the givenness of God. The intelligibility of God comes about not through locating God in a single pole of light/dark, clear/obscure, presence/withdrawal, but instead by recognizing the unique way in which an experience of the Absolute subverts these categories altogether. Inconspicuous phenomena instead can be given through hiding, surrogating, screening, or being present-at-hand by proxy. To recognize God as inconspicuous entails paying closer attention to the common and marginal, as opportunities for a glimpse into the Absolute which incites wonder. To seek the inconspicuous God is not to search after a hidden essence, but is instead a call to action for paying closer attention to our immanent relationships with the ordinary and with others. A phenomenology of the inconspicuous, at the very least, obliges one to rethink the temptation to quarantine God into either incomprehensibility or a blinding clarity, and instead to become open to the potential for an experience that oscillates between them.
Now I’d like return to the questions that were posed at the beginning of this review in order to expound on how they can be illuminated following some of the insights gained from Alvis’s project. Is God a spectacle? The answer is a clear no for Alvis. God understood as a spectacle—as well as the inversion of this: God understood as pure incomprehensibility—relies upon the assumption that the phenomenality of God must operate according to a dazzling clarity. Associating divinity with spectacularity is to invoke the multiple duplicities—absence/presence, clarity/withdrawal, light/dark—that facilitate an idolatrous obsession with grasping the totality of the Absolute in its infinity.
A phenomenology of the spectacle—which operates according to a privileging of presence and a repression of absence—is problematic for a number of reasons. Spectacles have a shelf life, so a philosophy that idolizes spectacularity soon becomes a discourse of addiction which eventually colonizes all facets of life. By privileging clarity and a totalizing intelligibility, a phenomenology of the spectacle teaches that what is good is that which does not resist domination and what is bad is what avoids conceptualization. This betrays an epistemological pathology that seeks certainty and absolute precision as the ends of philosophical thinking, which thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Derrida have thoroughly critiqued. Applied to theology, God becomes the greatest spectacle of all and by proxy that which is most able to be domesticated by thought. As all the great thinkers of classical theology knew to be true, a God that can be domesticated by thought is no God at all, but is only a “god”: a powerful yet finite being among beings.
Jesus himself was hardly spectacular in his life. He was a lowly Jewish preacher who disavowed the power of state and sword, lived in a shared community with his disciples, and taught pacifism and tolerance in the face of violence. Those whose faith relies primarily on the mythical spectacles associated with Jesus—miraculous healings and his resurrection—often miss the importance of his life and teachings, as Nietzsche knew to be true. To isolate the spectacle of miracles or resurrections as the core of Christian theology is to necessarily relegate Jesus’s social and political teachings to second-order phenomena, when in fact the reverse is an eminently more faithful portrayal of the Good News brought by Jesus Christ. The force of the New Testament relies not on cheap tricks but on a transformative vision about what humans can become and how they can live as oriented toward a primordial Goodness that shines forth in all things. As Nietzsche knew, an ascetic devotion to metaphysical platitudes—and we should include here the worshipping of divinity-as-spectacle—inevitably tends to turn our heads away from the banalities endemic to worldly being and toward a maddening denial of life.
Instead, the God of a phenomenology of the inconspicuous avoids the totalizing gaze of clarity, while also resisting the void of pure incomprehensibility. God ought to be understood as harboring a potential to be disclosed in the ordinary and banal, among those disavowed and disenfranchised by society. We can glimpse something of the infinite in that which is paradoxically closest to us. An inconspicuous phenomenology thus tarries with the paradoxical nature by which phenomena are disclosed to us. There is always something hidden in a phenomenon’s being presented. Contrariwise, that which most resists conceptualization can be the nearest at hand. The inconspicuous nature of divine phenomenality allows for an experience of the Absolute which paradoxically is revealed through the ordinary and every day.
Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? In considering revelation, the religious lifeworld, liturgy, adoration, evidence, and faith, Alvis consistently finds that these theological themes are animated by a phenomenology that disavows the duplicitous metaphysical categorization by which one would separate phenomena into polarizing categories. The Absolute is paradoxically revealed through the ordinary. Recognizing the affective dwelling of Dasein in the lifeworld resists the polarizing oppositions of inside/outside. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction suspends the spectacles of the world in order to allow for the nonexperience of the infinite in the immanent. By lingering with the rejected and forgotten, we can cultivate an inconspicuous adoration that overcomes the clarity/withdrawal dichotomy. An inconspicuous evidence must recognize the impossibility of bringing divinity into full clarity, and instead must allow God to blend inconspicuously into the entire field of experience. Faith in the inconspicuous God is directed toward that which is unforgettable precisely because it paradoxically resists memory’s grasp. In each case, Alvis shows how invoking a polarizing metaphysics of presence and absence numbs theological thinking, and instead we should recognize the ways in which an experience of the Absolute deformalizes and thus subverts these sorts of distinctions.
Is “phenomenology of religion” an oxymoron? As already alluded to in the summary of chapter six, this phrase only becomes an oxymoron if one adopts a duplicitous metaphysical perspective whereby phenomenology is assumed to be a method of grasping objects with absolute clarity, while religion is assumed to be a discourse directed toward unknowable phenomena. Setting the stage as such certainly would cause problems for how God, as hidden or unknowable, could be brought into the light using a method that privileges clarity. However, following Heidegger, Alvis seeks to deformalize the distinction between clarity and absence that undergirds this problematic.
This confusion in terms also stems back to the misunderstanding of the meaning of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit. As Alvis repeatedly has shown in his book, this word does not mean “absent” or “invisible,” which Heidegger addressed early on in his career. It needs to be understood rather as that which slips conscious grasping while still presenting itself intelligibly. An inconspicuous phenomenology cuts against phenomenality itself and the conditions of experience we typically rely on, paying attention to the ways a phenomenon incorporates absence into its appearance while recognizing the way those phenomena that are ontologically furthest away are paradoxically nearest to us.
I’d like to now pivot into some more critical remarks that hopefully spark further dialogue and academic interest into this fascinating topic. One cannot help but to draw a comparison between a phenomenology of the inconspicuous and the analogia entis (analogy of being) as described in the classical Christian tradition. Both methods seek to accomplish similar goals. The phenomenology of the inconspicuous seeks to offer ways to describe religious experiences that privilege neither clarity nor absence, but instead subvert this distinction altogether. Similarly, the analogia entis seeks to offer ways to understand the relationship between God and creation, which is done by drawing an analogy between the two that eschews both equivocal and univocal predication. While phenomenologists would likely have problems with the analogia entis understood as a totalizing metaphysical system, this largely isn’t what Aquinas and others had in mind when writing about it. Instead, it was a method to temper our knowledge of God and God’s relationship to humanity and to usher in humility before that which escapes complete conceptualization yet is revealed through the immanent.
Similar to the phenomenology of the inconspicuous, the analogia entis seeks to navigate a path between a rationalist philosophy disconnected from history and tradition that seeks to bring everything out into the clarity of light and an individualistic voluntarism that can identify no rational norms nor universal intelligibilities, which ultimately culminates in a nihilistic historicism and relativism. Both also seek to show how something of the infinite Absolute can be gestured at by paying more attention to the immanent and ordinary. Erich Przywara’s celebrated book on the analogia entis endeavored to bring the ancient doctrine into conversation with 20th century phenomenology, especially Heidegger and Husserl. More attention needs to brought to the contact point between this classical doctrine of Christian theology and modern attempts to rethink religious principles in ways like Alvis does in his book.
If nothing else, a phenomenology of the inconspicuous can utilize the scholarship surrounding the analogia entis for understanding how God became understood as a spectacle in the first place, since this was not always the case. As recent commenters like Gavin Hyman have argued, God becomes associated with spectacularity once a univocity of being is adopted in order to understand the relationship between God and man. In order to counteract God or religious experience being understood as spectacles that must shock and awe us, we must learn how the move from analogy to univocity occurred in history and apply this to our current philosophies to safeguard them from hiding a repressed tendency toward idolatrous spectacularity.
In conclusion, Alvis’s book successfully accomplishes its stated goals and is a must read for those interested in both the phenomenological and theological traditions, as well as the ways in which these two traditions can benefit from dialoguing with each other. Alvis provides new avenues for thinking about God and religious precepts which pay homage to Heidegger’s innovations in phenomenology while being true to the salvific story of Jesus. Most of all, Alvis correctly identifies the problems associated with a phenomenology of religion that privileges clarity over other types of presentation. Perhaps Alvis’s greatest lesson is to teach humility before the mundane and ordinary, for the experience of God is revealed through a transformative potentiality present in those overlooked and ordinary phenomena that are closest at hand.
Alvis, Jason W. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hyman, Gavin. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris.
Przywara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Edited by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House.
 Jason W. Alvis. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 33.
 Alvis, The Inconspicuous God, 49.
 Friedrich Nietzsche. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House, 108.
 Erich Przywara. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.
 Gavin Hyman. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris, 49.
Phenomenology as Transcendental Speculative Idealism
The book by Alexander Schnell, a professor of theoretical philosophy at University of Wuppertal, bearing the title Was ist Phänomenologie? (What is Phenomenology?), is his third book written in German. The book presents the conception of phenomenology understood as speculative transcendental idealism. To a large extent it refers to Schnell’s prior investigations, such as in his first German-edited book Hinaus. Entwürfe zu einer phänomenologischen Metaphysik und Anthropologie (Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann, Orbis Phaenomenologicus (Studien), Nr. 24, 2011, 160). This book which will be reviewed here consists of a Preface and three parts, each of which is subdivided into two chapters. The length of this book—relative to its gravity and the complexity of the question included in its title—suggests that Schnell’s new book (in a similar vein to his Hinaus) is a systematic presentation of an idea; a well-thought project rather than a complete system of phenomenological philosophy.
Schnell’s project is intended to answer two fundamental questions: 1) How do we understood phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” (that is, “tactile,” “concrete,” “hard,” etc.) concept of being with respect to reality? What is at stake here is the possibility of reconciling an epistemological question about legitimizing cognition with the ontological character of phenomenology. In other words, Schnell’s agenda aims at reconciling the goals and methods of phenomenology pursued by Husserl and Heidegger, respectively. To reach this goal, Schnell delivers an argument which combines three distinct “ways” out of a possible four: 1) it presents the idiosyncrasies of the phenomenological method; 2) it points to the heritage of German idealism and English empiricism as the philosophico-historical origins of phenomenology; 3) it polemizes with Quentin Meillassoux’ speculative realism and puts forward a phenomenological-transcendental grounding of the concept of reality. The fourth way, which would consider specific investigations of phenomenological problems, not counting the issue of correlationism (Korrelationismus) and sense-formation (Sinnbildung), lies outside the author’s interest.
The book is intended not to be a historical or systematic introduction to phenomenology, but rather an outline of the task which we can label, quoting Eugen Fink, as a “phenomenological idea of grounding.” When asked about the possibility of uniformizing such distinct standpoints as Husserl’s, Heidegger’s, Merleau-Ponty’s, Fink’s, Levinas’s, and Richir’s into a common phenomenological “school” Schnell replies that phenomenology from its very beginning was a project which has been (despite many differences in the methods of its realization) characterized by a common philosophical horizon and direction of thinking. In his view, this common denominator is transcendental philosophy.
Phenomenology is a philosophical project emerging from a critical diagnosis of western culture in the 20th century. Opposing the general cultural tendency to reduce the dimensions of sense and being to pure facts, the point of departure for phenomenology is to note that whatever appears to us is given to our consciousness and that the appearance of things presupposes the idea of correlation. The only object of phenomenology is intentionality or original phenomenological correlation, which is the transcendental field for constituting any sense, including the sense of the real world.
Schnell operationalizes the conceptual core of phenemenology by the following four points: firstly, double (both ontological and gnoseological) presuppositionlessness; secondly, genetic givenness, which, due to the fact that it is just being drawn out, it is not priorly given; thirdly, the above-mentioned correlativity; and finally intelligibilization, which states that instead of exploring Being and justifying or explaining cognition, phenomenology is oriented at investigating sense and “rendering the idea of cognition comprehensible”.
As far the phenomenological method is concerned (chapter 1), with which phenomenology as such happens to be identified, Schnell points to four points of convergence for the shaping of sense: transcendentality, meaningfulness, eidetics and correlativity. The first point reduces to the correlation between thinking and Being (Fichte), with this correlation being enabled by way of “transcendental experience,” or opening the field of sense constitution. That is why the second sense characterizes the phenomenological method as investigations oriented at sense, or as an attempt to make things comprehensible. After Heidegger, we can describe said sense as the “with respect to what” of each comprehension. The third moment, that is eidetics, protects the phenomenological cognition from the threat of collapsing into investigating fact (contra psychologism). Eventually, the fourth moment has already been mentioned in the context of the concept of transcendentality; on the grounds of phenomenology, correlation proceeds in a three-fold manner: 1) It is still a pre-phenomenological correlation between the subject and object of experience; 2) Strictly phenomenological correlation of noetic-noematic nature; 3) Deep pre-phenomenal correlation, understood as pre-immanence, pure anonymity. With these three points mentioned above serving as a point of departure, one can point to four fundamental axes of the phenomenological method 1) Epoché and reduction; the former means suspension of judgement, as characteristic of the natural approach, whereas the latter means a turn to transcendental subjectivity. Additionally there is 2) Eidetic variation, 3) Phenomenological description, and 4) Phenomenological construction. What merits attention is a complex description of the eidetic variation, with the description in question introducing a characteristically phenomenological concept of essence. This very concept appears to be quite different from what traditional philosophy understands by essence (as opposed, on the latter view, to facts and particulars). From the point of view of the well-known opposition of essence and phenomenological fact, Eidos is something third. Across all these constituents of the phenomenological method, Schnell stresses their “creative,” “constructive”, and speculative character. There is a relation of mutual dependence between the objects of phenomenology and the existence of the phenomenological method.
There is another concept related to the above-delineated phenomenological method; namely, the concept of understanding, which makes the Husserlian phenomenology receptive to Heideggerian motifs (chapter II). The concept of understanding operates within a tension between the Self and the Other; that is between the Self and what is other than myself. As an element of the phenomenological method, the previously mentioned concept renders phenomenology capable of addressing the problem of legitimizing (a problem that haunts the humanities) claims for truth and epistemic accomplishments of the sciences. Schnell brings out a methodical outline of understanding in two steps. First, he refers to historical conceptions of understanding in the thought of Heidegger and Fichte. Second, he heeds two aspects of understanding which the afore-mentioned thinkers failed to consider and which are, however, essential to the phenomenological understanding. Just as in the previous considerations related to a method, also at this point, the author emphasizes a ‘creative’ and active character of the phenomenological method, the aspect of which is understanding itself. The said character manifests itself, first and foremost, in the concept of projection (Heidegger); and second – in the self-interpretation of the Self, which understands something; third – in the negative activity of differentiation (Fichte); fourth – in the fixation; that is, in holding of what is to be comprehended, during which within the Self there emerges some distance to itself; fifth, in the “phenomenalization” of what is incomprehensible, which constitutes a sort of base for the comprehensible. The phenomenalization in question, involving the a priori extension of the field of comprehensibility, is achieved by way of “the phenomenological construction”; namely, “genetization.” Generally speaking, phenomenology as a method means an incessant “going back to things in themselves”; or, to put it more accurately, going “beyond things” and towards the open horizon which makes things appear to us in the first place. In this open horizon, there is eventually something irreducible, something given which is not to be identified with any “data” but rather with something “given” in the process of the phenomenological construction. This will be addressed further along.
Chapter III points to another route towards phenomenology. This route goes across philosophico-historical reflection which is supposed to elucidate “what is not thought about” in the phenomenological method. The idea of grounding, constituting a guiding idea of phenomenology itself, derives its motifs from two traditions: classical German philosophy and English empiricism of the 17th century. Resorting to the pronouncements of Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas, Schnell notes that phenomenology is possible only as idealism which combines in itself both a transcendental and ontological dimension. The premises of this reasoning are to be found in classical German philosophy, especially in Fichte, according to whom one legitimizes cognition by virtue of non-sensory intuitive cognition. The intuitive legitimization of cognition has different modi. First and foremost, it refers to the first level of justifying cognition. That is, it refers to the level of the phenomenological description of immanent data of consciousness. At a second stage, with this stage entering the sphere of pre-immanence, aware (or conscious) experience must be supplemented with the annihilation of occurring closures. The positive side of annihilation is the already-mentioned construction. Its intuitive dimension is instantiated as history, conceived of as genesis; that is habitualizations and sedimentations. These are creative accomplishments of a phenomenologist who constructs whatever is necessary for validating cognition at the deepest level. This is the lesson from Kant. However, Fichte goes even further than Husserl by demonstrating in the double reflection how what enables cognition is possible: how are conditions of possibility possible themselves? On the grounds of phenomenology, a similar scheme of conduct is realized by the Heideggerian existentiell being-towards-death, which, grounding the “entirety” of Dasein, is labelled as “enabling” (Ermöglichung) what constitutes the “possibility of impossibility”, and hence, death. Searching for the possibility of combining an epistemological and ontological aspect of the “idea of grounding”, Schnell evokes a dispute between Fichte and Schelling. According to the latter, in order to legitimize knowledge, it is not sufficient to resort to a form of knowledge as such. One should also take into consideration its content. This strict relations between the constituting and the constituted was recognized within the realm of phenomenology by Levinas, who speaks of “the relations of mutual conditioning.” To rebut an indictment of formalism, which is in turn related to an indictment of solipsism, one should demonstrate what the immanent link between thinking and Being consists in. The explication of this relations proceeds in reference to three categories and dimensions: truth, constitution, and genesis. Regarding truth: On the basis of the analyses of experience, Husserl demonstrates in what way “truth is an a priori form of any reference to the world.” Regarding constitution: On the level of the sphere of immanence, it is proved that every actual consciousness is surrounded by the horizons of potentiality, which opens up the way towards “new ontology” (Levinas), although it must be conceded that thinking constitutes Being. The latter each and every time transcends thinking, thus founding the former’s accomplishments. On the level of pre-immanence, what is revealed is the sphere of ‘pre-being’, the aspects of which are “subject” and “object”. Therefore, it transpires that “transcendental constitution is an ontological founding” (100). Regarding genesis: At the level of transcendental genesis, what takes place is what Levinas labels as “diachrony” and Fichte – “the reflection on reflection”. Every relation of conditioning presupposes a shift between registers, wherein one asserts either presence or absence – depending on the perspective assumed: be it the conditioning or the conditioned. Then again, what applies at this point is the trope of enabling doubling. Due to the complexity of the issue under scrutiny and its concise presentation in Schnell’s book, what we can say herein is that it is only at the level which Heidegger calls “fundamental happening,” that what is eventually reconciled is the need to make cognition comprehensible and founding everything upon Being itself.
A second historico-background for Husserlian phenomenology, next to German classical philosophy and of equally importance, is English empiricism (chapter IV). Husserl dedicated much attention to the Humean achievements particularly towards the end of his life; that is, in the period in which—on the one hand—he recognized Lebenswelt as a primary category of his phenomenology—and on the other hand—he described phenomenology as reflection on history. The latter characterization leads to the conclusion that the crisis of science results from its “objectivism”, which roughly means its underestimation of the life-world. The said objectivism supersedes the world of natural approach with a mathematical substrate, understood as a being in itself. And it is precisely in Hume’s thought that soul constitutes the world out of impression by virtue of fantasy that Husserl finds the motifs which shake the foundations of this objectivism. In his phenomenological considerations Husserl tries to give a positive account of how consciousness, including the acts of imagination, constitutes the world “in itself” and legitimizes the pretense of modern sciences for absolute truth. In Husserl’s view, unlike in Kant’s, the major problem in Hume’s thought is not the problem of induction, but the problem of making comprehensible this “naïve obviousness of the certainty of the world” which ordinary and scientific consciousness feeds on. To solve this problem, Husserl enters transcendental considerations which are supposed to disclose the transcendental life of subjectivity at the very foundations of “the certainty of the world.” For this purpose, he develops the “world-life reduction”, which is supposed to liberate one’s perception from the naïve certainty of the world and to direct it towards a priori, inhering in Lebenswelt. That is, to the hidden correlation of the world and the consciousness thereof; to “spiritual actions” which constitute all the meaningful creations. Only via this route is one able to, on the one hand, show whence sciences derive their claim for universal validity; and on the other, to make comprehensible the naïve obviousness surrounding the life-world. According to Husserl, the validity of sciences has its foundations in the sense of being in the life-world, from the “synthetic wholeness” of its transcendental achievements.
From the above-described perspective of “the science of Lebenswelt,” Husserl conducts a critical reinterpretation of five fundamental motifs of earlier phenomenology: 1) The grounding horizon of the legitimization of cognition, 2) Intuition as the principle of all principles, 3) The most fundamental role of actual perception, 4) Description as a basic method of phenomenology, and 5) Hegemony of the constructing Ego. Regarding the five above-listed motifs in turn: 1) Whereas in his writings dating back to the twenties, Husserl mainly aimed at justifying any cognition, in his notes and lectures from the thirties he describes the task of phenomenology as making comprehensible, which introduces the process of sense-formation and exposes the significance of intersubjectivity, or actually, strictly speaking, intersubjectivity of “anonymous” character. Such intersubjectivitity requires not reduction but “in-duction” (Latin inductio literally means: introduction) into the realm of what is pre-subjective. 2) This anonymous subjectivity calls into question the principle of all principles; or to put it more clearly, the primacy of intuition as far as sense-formation goes. 3) This in turn gives rise to contesting the primacy of actual perception as a legitimizing source of all cognitive references made by consciousness to objects. Instead, contesting the above can count in favour of the modes of actualization realized by imagination. 4) Reaching the transcendental non-intuitive foundation of sense-formation requires that it should be recognized and conceded that philosophy may be a “universal science” only as a non-objective science. There is no “descriptive science on transcendental being and life”, says Husserl. This implies that the process of making comprehensible must avail itself of a different notion of truth from the one traditionally attributed to objective sciences. 5) The last difficulty concerns the relations between the constituted world and the constituting subjectivity. Here we are facing the following dilemma: either we preserve the participation of the subject in the word, which would make the world-constitution non-radical. Or, alternatively, the constitution is radical, and then what would be required is that the subjecthood, as related to the world, is to be rescinded. Therefore, at this point there occurs some tension between the natural approach to the world and the transcendental approach. To elucidate this tension, it takes the introduction—as a “foundation” of the world constitution—of the self-destructive subjecthood. In Husserl, this paradox is solved by projecting it onto the problem of the relations between primordial-Self and intersubjectivity and between primordial self and objectified worldly self.
This very reference to the lowest layers of the transcendental life and being is reminiscent of the issue of the Absolute. Schnell raises this issue with reference to the dispute having been going on since the critique of phenomenology launched by “speculative realism,” represented by Quentin Meillassoux (chapter V). According to the latter thinker, phenomenology is purportedly the contemporary paradigm case of the philosophical standpoint, labelled as correlationism, wherein there is no possibility of thinking a being in itself without simultaneously relating this very being to thinking itself. Schnell takes the sting out of these indictments in four steps.
The main argument against the phenomenological correlationism is to be the one from ancestrality. The main thrust of the argument is the claim that any version of correlationism faces an insuperable problem posed by the fact of existence of the events prior to the emergence of conscious beings who could have experienced these events. This argument is easy to refute from the perspective of transcendentalism. Neither Kant’s philosophy nor Husserl’s imply that something exists insofar as it is experienced by empirical persons. Instead, what the above philosophies deal with are the conditions of possibility of possible experience. Believing that the transcendental consciousness must be always embodied in a physical person and defining what is possible in terms of the lack of what is actual, Meillassoux misunderstands the transcendental status of phenomenological subjecthood and its function of making comprehensible what is genuinely possible. It is erroneous to conceive of the relation of phenomenology to reality in the same vein and at the same level as one conceives of the relation of natural sciences to reality. For phenomenology, after applying the epoché, reality appears to us as a phenomenon; a phenomenologist does not ask whether the said phenomenon exists or existed; rather, he asks about its sense: how does the past reality which no empirical person could in fact experience appear to us?
Apart from that in the process of a critical analysis speculative realism proves to be correlationism in disguise. According to Schnell, Meilassoux’s indictments derive from the assumption of a false external attitude towards phenomenology.
A positive side of the discussion is the attempt to engage phenomenology in elucidating the profoundest foundations of the correlation, which should simultaneously ensure the meaningfulness of what is – in both daily and scientific experience understood as reality it itself. Schnell brings up “correlational hypophysics” (Greek hipo – under), which is supposed—in order to fully realize the task of materializing the “idea of the grounding of phenomenology” to life—to elaborate the “transcendental matrix of correlationism” (151). In the course of elaborating this very idea, the three fundamental motifs of correlationism are uncovered. First and foremost, it is to be established what is the foundation and essence of correlation; second, what is the principle of making phenomenological cognition possible and—along with this—of granting sense; third, what phenomenological reflection consists in. Therefore, what makes up the transcendental matrix of correlationism are three motifs: correlation, sense and reflection.
Schnell outlines the said three motifs in the following manner. The essence of correlation is—following Heidegger—“horizon-opening anticipating.” It is this concept that captures the intuitive sense of what appears to us; namely the very appearing to us itself. On the other hand, reflection does not imply a subject’s turning to itself. Rather, it means the already-mentioned “introduction (induction) into a self-reflective processualness of sense-formation” (153). Phenomenological reflection is reflection over both “borderline structures of phenomenality and what phenomenality enables”. What is thereby meant is a “characteristic performance of a phenomenologically relevant form of reflection” (154). Schnell distinguishes three types of induction, which correspond with three layers of the transcendental matrix of correlation. At the first stage of reflection, there emerges an intentional structure of consciousness, designing sense and making cognition comprehensible. Each of these structures have a dualistic form: intentionality is divided between a subject and object; what designing sense consists in is its creation and the reception thereof; making cognition comprehensible is spread between the original (Urbild) and a copy (Abbild). At the second stage, these dualities get both deepened and dynamized: consciousness becomes self-consciousness, the apparently ultimate truth of fulfilling intentions is getting hermeneutically distanced and the relations between the original and a copy within the principle of cognition becomes malleable in the process of the simultaneous designing and annihilating. Eventually, at the third stage, self-reflection becomes inward (verinnerlichende) self-reflection. First, this self-reflection opens a pre-phenomenal, pre-immanent sphere of phenomenological constitution; second, it deepens the hermeneutic truth and elevates it to the rank of a generative truth. In place of what is given, a construction emerges. The example of the latter is Husserl’s phenomenological construction of original temporality, included in Bernauer Manuskripten. Third, what is subject to inward reflection is also establishing and destroying – both interwoven with the principle of cognition; at this stage, the reflection becomes the reflecting (Reflektieren), which highlights the workings (laws) of reflection itself (Reflexionsgesetzmäßigkeit). What is at stake here is to make the very act of making possible transparent. What is thereby meant is to enable the enabling, which characterizes the nature of what is transcendental. These workings (laws) of reflection express—next to making understanding possible—enabling being. For, eventually, what we deal with at the lowest level of what is transcendental is not pure reflective asserting. Rather, it is something which anticipates the former and which reduces to the annihilation of the experienced positiveness of conditions and to the creation of these conditions and of being as a “surplus,” with the said surplus being supposed to serve as ontological foundations to the conditions in question. “Being is a reflection on reflection” (159). “It is being that is ‘ground’ of any reality; it is not priorly given or assumed but rather genetically constructed, reflectively geneticized ‘medium of reality’” (159). With reference to the dispute with Meilassoux, Schnell claims that “the fundamental result of phenomenological speculative idealism ‘is a concept of being that can be classified as the’ Absolute”. It does not coincide with reality. It does not denote any entity. Instead, it can be characterized in the following three-fold manner. 1) Being is a prior being, “pre-being”; it denotes a pre-immanent realm of openness, an “ontological status of transcendental a priori” (161); 2) Being is a surplus; 3) Being is identified grounding.
In the last chapter (VI), Schnell returns to the question of reality. He searches for the motives for raising this question in historico-philosophical problematics of modernity, inaugurated by Descartes and then promptly revolutionized by transcendental philosophy. From this perspective, one can clearly see that the question of reality already appeared in the context of epistemological problematics, within which reality is a concept standing in contradistinction to the subjective experiences of imagination, dream or methodically complex intellectual operations. The Kantian attempt to redefine the problem introduces the idea of correlationism. However, even this idea is originally of purely epistemological character, with which, on the grounds of phenomenology, only Heidegger clearly polemizes.
According to Schnell, one can distinguish four fundamental forms of correlationism. The first of them is to be found in Kant: it is a correlation of judgement and self-consciousness. The second is introduced by Fichte: it is a correlation of Being and thinking. The third one—phenomenological—is inaugurated by Husserl: it is the intentional correlation. The fourth one stems derives from Heidegger: it is the correlation of being-in-the-world. Schnell pauses to consider the third form of correlation, known mainly from late writings and manuscripts by Husserl in which he develops his investigations pertaining to genetic phenomenology. He combines the notion of constitution with the one of genesis. As Husserl says:
“Indem die Phänomenologie der Genesis dem ursprünglichen Werden im Zeitstrom, das selbst ein ursprünglich konstituierendes Werden ist, und den genetisch fungierenden sogenannten „Motivationen” nachgeht, zeigt sie, wie Bewusstsein aus Bewusstsein wird, wie dabei im Werden sich immerfort auch konstitutive Leistung vollzieht” (Hua XIV, 41).
The said history of consciousness is given in transcendental experience. The key concept of genetic phenomenology is the category of “sense-formation” (Sinnbildung). Schnell distinguishes three semantic moments of the process in question: the constituting moment (bildend-erzeugende), the moment of imagination (Einbildung), and the one introduced by Marc Richir: the constituting-schematizing moment (bildend-schematisierende). With reference to Richir, who was searching for the novel grounding of phenomenology, Schnell highlights the third moment and claims that at the very bottom of any act of a cognizing subject referring to Being, there is no perception but fantasy (certainly, as conceived of in the transcendental sense). Referring to the transcendental concept of an image, Schnell attempts—by way of “transcendental induction”—to demonstrate “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation,” which allows for making both cognition and reality comprehensible. According to Schnell, what is an image is both reality and the said pre-phenomenon. In three steps of reflection, Schnell constructs “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation.” In the above-mentioned first step of reflection, one constructs an empty concept of reflection (Abbild) which, in the second step of reflection (that is, during self-reflection) is endowed with some content. This in turn means that the former as an empty concept gets annihilated. The construction thus assumes a malleable form. Finally, during the third step of construction, which is an inward reflection, reflection starts manifesting itself as reflection with its lawfulness, which means that “each transcendental relations of conditioning implies its own enabling doubling” (178); namely, the enabling of enabling. The last sections bring an answer to two originally posed questions: 1) How may we understand phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” concept of being with respect to reality? The first question is replied to with “the principle of elucidating phenomenological knowledge-claims”, which is a gradually inward reflection. By revealing its own workings (laws), this reflection leads to an answer to the second question: the possibility of reconciling epistemological and ontological features of phenomenology is to be found in the concept of phenomenality as “durable steadfastness” (ausstehende Inständigkeit) (Heidegger). Reality, as non-theoretically understood, is a “trace” of a mutual relationship of immanence (endogenesis) and transcendence (exogenesis); it is “onto-eis-ec-stasis”. “Reality is not pure being-in-itself, neither only being-for-myself, but rather, a steadfastly (inständig) discovered and geneticized being-outside-of” (181).
The boldness of some of Schnell’s ideas are inversely proportional to the detailedness of their respective explications; that is why, the last words of the book—since it is devoid of a conclusion proper—is the statement that all the considerations included therein are of preliminary nature and they call for further elaboration.
At the end, let us take the liberty of posing several questions of a polemical-critical nature. Undoubtedly, the content of the book evidences the fact that the author is well-versed in the phenomenological problematics and he freely chooses the issue that he deems necessary to highlight the identity and the peculiarities of phenomenology. However, it raises the following questions: To what extent do Schnell’s decisions related to the selection of problematics stem from what phenomenology as such is? To what extent do those questions stem from the fact that the author desires to validate his vision—rather arbitrarily assumed—of what, in his opinion, phenomenology may be? Furthermore, the next question is this: To what extent is the reconstruction of the motifs selected by Schnell—the motifs being known to the phenomenological movement—an apt interpretation? And to what extent is this interpretation distorted, taking into account the goal motivating the author’s very enterprise? What is the purpose of Schnell’s considerations? It seems that the purpose may be most easily identified in the light of the title of the scrutinized work. In other words, what is at stake is an answer to the question of what phenomenology is. Does the author succeed in reaching his goal?
Certainly, due to its concise and cursory nature, Schnell’s work requires the reader to be significantly acquainted with intricacies of the problematics of phenomenology. In this sense, the book is not, thematically and historically speaking, of introductory character, which, if it were, would make it useful to the adherents of phenomenology barely initiated into the art of philosophizing in this fashion. Quite the contrary, the beginning of Schnell’s considerations require a higher level of prior knowledge on the part of his readers. Certainly, the above does not translate into any sort of indictment. Still, it must be conceded that Husserl’s wrote that a phenomenologist is always a beginner; yet, this dictum should not be construed as related to the amateur’s practice. Husserl’s conviction about the introductory character of phenomenology gives rise to another quite distinct problem. Phenomenology is an introductory science in the five-fold sense: 1) It is a science about origins; 2) It a science designed from scratch; namely, by dint of systematic maneuvers which are supposed to ensure to phenomenology relevant sourceness and presuppositionlessness; 3) It is a point of departure for other sciences; 4) It is located at the beginning of its historical development; and, eventually 5) It is of preliminary nature. Phenomenology is essentially a research work, it is active searching, questioning, also going astray and getting lost. By contrast, Schnell’s work is a systematic presentation of ideas and of the results of phenomenological analyses – genuinely formidable, coherent construction which, albeit sketchily presented, is ex hypothesi a self-confident attempt at a philosophical system. In this sense, the scrutinized work alludes to all those attempts which can be subsumed under the umbrella term of German idealism. It is especially Kant and Fichte, to whom Schnell makes frequent historical references, that used to present their respective philosophies in a rudimentary form which was meant to eventually assume the form of a system. Hence, the title of Schnell’s book—instead of Was ist Phänomenologie?—should rather be: Ein Entwurf der Phänomenologie als spekulativer transzendentaler Idealismus. Counter to the generality of the title given by Schnell—which not only assumes the form of an interrogative but also uses the word Phänomenologie without any article, thus implying that the text shall concern the most general idea of phenomenology taking into account its most extreme thematic and historical instantiations—all the considerations contained herein are from the very beginning dedicated to the presentation of a single form of phenomenology, that is the one which is understood in the light of “the idea of grounding” (E. Fink). It seems that the element most wanting in Schnell’s consideration is the ability “to maintain the state of questionness” (“what is phenomenology?”). After all, the said ability is—as I believe—a distinctive feature of phenomenology as well as its trademark, thus distinguishing it from the other movements in the history of philosophy. The said traits are not only distinctive features marking the realm of phenomenology off against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. They also constitute its philosophical mission, so to speak. Elevating the motif of the question to the rank of a fundamental methodological directive—which entails the altered understanding of cognition and being—it dissociates itself from the question of oblivion, with the oblivion having lasted since the times of Aristotle. To revoke the question is to restore to philosophy its proper dimension of self-realization. And this is what Kant’s “Copernican turn” as well as its misunderstanding on the part of Kant’s German successors essentially consist in. By the same token, this is what the historical importance of phenomenology consists in too. That is why, if one attempts to understand phenomenology through the eyes of historico-philosophical motifs known to the history of philosophy—which, albeit important and educational in itself, threatens to obfuscate the original contribution made by phenomenology—it is precisely in Kant’s ‘Copernican turn’ that one should look for creative affinity.
After all, grasping phenomenology in the light of the question (stated by the title of the reviewed book) shows more than merely the peculiarities of phenomenology against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. By posing the question of what phenomenology is and “remaining in this state of questionness,” one uncovers phenomenology, on the one hand, as a domain or problems; and on the other hand – as an open field of different possibilities of understanding and solving them. Certainly, these are not pure possibilities but possibilities of historical nature. The internal richness of the possibilities of the idea of phenomenology, and which is what we can aptly label as its internal problematicity, somehow a priori resists any attempt to exclusively identify phenomenology with one of these possibilities. This principle applies both to its thematic and historical aspect. The question opens its own historicalness of phenomenology, with this historicalness directing us to philosophico-historical aspect of the phenomenological movement. One would be ill-advised to reduce this internal problematicity either to a specific set of problems or to only selected attempts at solving them. However, in the context of this problem, Schnell’s work is of regrettably one-sided character. For instance, despite Schnell’s scholarly competence, as indubitably evidenced by his intellectual accomplishments, his book almost entirely skips the discussions on and transformations in the understanding of phenomenology known from, say, the writings by French phenomenologists of the post-war period (the only exception being sporadically mentioned Emannuel Levinas and Marc Richir). Certainly, it would be very bad if any subsequent attempt to raise the question of “what is phenomenology” similarly dismissed Schnell’s work.