Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling (Eds): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Agency
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Edited By Christopher Erhard, Tobias Keiling
Routledge
2020
Hardback £133.00 eBook £27.99
436

Reviewed by: Florian Markus Bednarski (PhD researcher at Leipzig University and The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)

The topic of this new Routledge Handbook is Phenomenology of agency. It is a very well selected topic and a nicely edited volume. The aim of a handbook should be to provide the reader with a selection of essays that cover the most important aspects of a given research focus. The editors must choose contributions carefully to achieve this goal. Before describing the structure and content of this volume in greater detail, some words about the subject of the book will be helpful to better understand the editors’ aim.

Very briefly, Phenomenology of agency is any kind of theorizing about and reflecting on agents’ experiences while performing actions. This theorizing and reflecting, or more generally philosophizing, can be either an attempt at achieving a better understanding of what actions are, or one might be interested in how it feels to act. Contemplating phenomenology of agency can thus lead to manifold findings for the interested reader. Further, the topic of this handbook has several anchor points in different areas of philosophy, among which philosophy of mind and philosophy of action feature most prominently, as well as being of interest for other research fields such as psychology, sociology, political science, cognitive and neuroscience.

Two aims of the handbook are specified by the editors (2). The first is to highlight writings of phenomenologists such as Edith Stein, Hans Reiner and Alexander Pfänder. All belong to a first generation of Husserl followers and worked mainly before 1940. Contributions presenting their work are to highlight the continuity of the phenomenological tradition after Husserl.  The second aim is to increase awareness of how significant phenomenology of agency is for any philosophical account of action. Several contributions discuss phenomenological influences on debates about intentionality, freedom, rationality and morality.

In the introduction, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling not only provide an overview of the book but they also explicate some considerations behind the selection of the contributions. They describe three notions of the term phenomenology. First, the historical tradition founded by Edmund Husserl, second the philosophical method to prefer the “first-person-perspective” in the analysis of philosophical problems, and third the “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology. The editors admit that those differentiations might not be accepted without restrictions by every philosopher; however, the selected contributions are to include any of the three notions of the term phenomenology (2). And so, the reader will find chapters describing the work of Husserl and his companions, for example by Karl Mertens, who provides a good overview of Husserl and Pfänder’s writing on action theory (15-28). Besides the historic route, readers can explore methodological points of view on agency in several chapters, for example by Tobias Keiling on László Tengelyi’s discussions of first-person experience of action (235-259). A few chapters further widen the scope of this handbook to the experiential “what-it-is-like” notion of phenomenology, for example Shaun Gallagher’s contribution on phenomenological perspectives in cognitive science (336-350). Although the better part of contributions is concerned with historical or methodological rather than experiential notions of phenomenology, which is most widely spread in interdisciplinary research areas, the handbook does integrate all three perspectives.

Hence, in 27 Chapters and over more than 400 pages this handbook provides an overview of important figures, systematic disputes, and further aspects of the phenomenology of agency. The editors, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling, both mainly interested in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl, attempted to select authors and topics from a wide range of relevant areas in philosophy. The handbook is divided into two parts. Part I (5-259) introduces important figures and follows a mainly historical route through the landscape beginning with Franz Brentano. Part II is itself divided into two sections. The first (264-350) dealing with more general systematic questions and the second (352-413) highlighting further aspects such as freedom, morality, and rational action. The handbook also includes an index (415-424) of used terminology, which will be much appreciated by experienced users searching for specific references.

In the following, some chapters of each part will be reviewed to give the reader an impression of what to expect from this volume, beginning with the first chapter “Franz Brentano’s critique of free will” by Denis Seron (7-14). Franz Brentano never provided a full account of action, nor did he discuss the phenomenology of agency in greater detail. Phenomenology of agency is only mentioned in reference to how Brentano grounds his determinism in his radical empiricism. This is so because radical empiricism does not accept an ability to perceive possibilities. According to radical empiricism we can only perceive what is actual and not what is possible. This premise renders indeterminism necessarily false because indeterminism is based on the principle of alternative possibilities, which states that we can at least want to act otherwise. If the reader is interested in how this argument unfolds, chapter one of this volume is a well-crafted starting point.

Denis Seron contributed a short but concise chapter on Brentano’s critique of free will. For the reader it might be of great interest to learn more about Brentano’s radical empiricism. In particular, how he understands immediate consciousness and why he thinks that empirical arguments can only be given based on experience. Brentano’s assumption that one cannot perceive oneself doing otherwise opens up many questions about phenomenology of agency. How can humans be curious and creative in performing bodily movements (e.g. in dancing) if one is only able to perceive oneself doing what one is determined to do?

In a short and fast flowing chapter, Michael L. Morgan describes Levinas’ perspective on agency and ethics (147-157). Morgan’s central aim is to try and explain to the reader what Levinas meant when he wrote “to be a ‘self’ is to be responsible before having done anything” (as cited in Morgan, 2021, 148). In the course of the text, Morgan cleverly uses descriptive stories, such as the one of a judge in court, to clarify how Levinas understands freedom as given to the subject. Especially the notions of responsibility-for-the-other and radical disinterestedness are important to understand Levinas’ profoundly ordinary story about freedom of agency.

Michael L. Morgan delivers a precise text full of intuitively accessible argument. This chapter is especially interesting for readers interested in a perspective on phenomenology of agency that is not inherently fused with a subjective self. Levinas’ writing about agency is interested in the role of interpersonal responsibility and a societal dimension as opposed to viewing agency from a capacities and abilities of agents’ point of view. This chapter adds a further dimension to the topic of phenomenology of agency, highlighting once more the diversity of approaches to the debate.

In chapter fourteen, Thomas Baldwin provides a well-structured overview of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings about agency (175-188). The significance of phenomenology of agency for any account of action in general becomes stringently clear in this chapter. Baldwin first summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s critique of traditional dualism, the body viewed as an independent physical entity which is moved by a will, which surmounts to a differentiation between an objective body and a phenomenal body. In what follows, Baldwin describes how this ambiguous view of the body helps Merleau-Ponty give an embodied account of agency: “Hence we should replace the conception of agency as the control of a physical body by an abstract mind, and view it instead as the interplay between the pre-personal being in the world of our organism and a personal self which uses this being in the world to understand and change it.” (181)

The next two paragraphs on agency and the will are intended to connect this embodied account to further issues, for example intentionality and rationality. In this context, it is useful that Baldwin directs us to further literature related to these questions, such as Davidson, O’Shaughnessy and McDowell.

In general, this chapter fits well into the context of this volume, and Merleau-Ponty is an important Philosopher whose work bridges some wider gaps between philosophical traditions. His thinking certainly originates in Husserl’s idea of phenomenology but never became a one-sided affair. His writing contains many references to empirical science and Philosophers from the analytic tradition. Finally, it is beneficial for the reader to gain insights not only into Merleau-Pontys main work ‘Phenomenolgy of Perception’ but also some rather unknown texts such as ‘The Structure of Behavior’.

This written dialogue between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan is a well-structured text in which two philosophers discover the precise details about their disagreement on satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology (264-299). The central debate between both concerns whether satisfaction conditions of agentive phenomenology can be formulated in alignment with a materialist metaphysics of mind. However, a rather intriguing aspect of this chapter is Nida-Rümelin and Horgans’ discussion about the precise understanding of each other’s view. It is a delight to read an argument in which participants consistently reflect on their opponent’s point-of-view and attempt to represent this viewpoint as accurately as possible before formulating any critique.

Henceforth, it is not surprising that Nida-Rümelin and Horgan discover that their main disagreement covers conflicting background assumptions. This chapter thus provides the reader with two learning possibilities. First, a densely packed debate about two opposing accounts of phenomenology of agency. Second, an expert lesson in how to take part in a philosophical debate.

Chapter twenty-one discusses how the will, the body and action are connected (314-335). Robert Hanna guides the reader through his own work while highlighting influential work by O’Shaughnessy, Frankfurt and Kant. Brian O’Shaughnessy explicated one of the most detailed embodied theories of the will and Robert Hanna is one of only a few philosophers’ who have extended their views on this foundation. He starts by introducing trying theories of action and shows how those theories can establish free agency as a natural fact of life. After having considered other options for theories of agency, for example causal theories, Hanna moves on to introduce his own account of the veridical phenomenology of essentially embodied free agency. One aspect of this account is that it entails that “we must not only have veridical psychological freedom, but also be at least fully disposed to believe, or actually believe, ourselves to have an unfettered, non-epiphenomenal, real causally spontaneous will.” (329) In fact, a central aspect of Robert Hanna’s theory about free agency is that phenomenology of agency is essentially an experience of free agency. The remainder of the chapter is committed to debunking strategies from defenders of hard determinism by showing that they themselves will not experience their actions as not-free, because if they did it would most likely cause them to lose their mind.

Hanna tells one of the most interesting stories of the whole volume. For beginners, it might be hard to follow parts of the argument because Hanna presupposes some basic philosophical knowledge. Nevertheless, this chapter is a well-chosen addition to the mostly Husserl influenced texts of the first part of this handbook.

The underlying structure of mechanisms and functions involved in bringing about the sense of agency has been the topic of cognitive science. Shaun Gallagher has greatly influenced this research in recent years. In chapter twenty-two of this volume, he takes stock of what has been achieved and where the research needs refinement and a new direction (336-350).

Three main areas of theoretical debate can be identified. First, defining phenomenology of agency in terms suitable for empirical investigation. Distinguishing between a sense of agency, the feeling of doing something and a sense of ownership, the feeling of owning a body has turned out to be useful but not uncontested. Second, identifying cognitive mechanisms responsible for the sense of agency and ownership. Empirical investigations have since provided extensive grounds for the assumption that some form of comparator mechanism gives rise to both senses. Third, the role of intentions for agency and the relation of both. This turns out to be the most slippery debate as several researchers still contest different notions of intention as well as agency.

Gallagher has an in-depth knowledge of the field and draws a well-structured picture of the status quo. Readers will find a surprisingly inspiring perspective in the last paragraph of the chapter. Here Gallagher points out some of the main challenges of empirical research on the phenomenology of agency. WEIRED (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) samples and few interdisciplinary exchanges have led to a one-sided picture painted by cognitive sciences so far. This might seem like a straightforward critique of the field, but Gallagher rather wants to point to a new direction for the years to come.

This chapter is a delight for the interdisciplinary motivated reader and one of the few outlining future directions for researchers to explore.

Galen Strawson explains in a dense and fast flowing chapter how the experience of freedom relates to the experience of responsibility (352-361). The reader might be surprised to see an author who himself defends a strict determinism point of view about agency write about the experience of the exact opposite. As it turns out, Galen Strawson believes that everything we do is determined and nevertheless we feel as if we are free to act otherwise.

The chapter follows a clear structure. First Strawson discusses whether experience of freedom involves only sense-feeling phenomenology or if it goes further and involves cognitive phenomenology as well. In the next part, he introduces his own notions of radical freedom and ultimate responsibility and shows how those terms help to clarify relations between experience of freedom and questions for responsibility. Finally, Strawson outlines how experience of freedom is included in compatibilist and incompatibilist positions. Most refreshingly, this chapter analyses one of the oldest philosophical questions in relation to illustrative content. Strawson adequately uses thought experiments, pathological case studies and empirical experiments to strengthen the expressiveness of his text.

Constructing large handbooks is a generally challenging undertaking. In the present case, Christopher Erhard and Tobias Keiling committed to an especially complex project, editing a handbook about a yet to be clearly defined research topic. Phenomenology of agency turns out to be a topic of great variety and yet the editors of this volume managed to select interesting contributions. The first part of the volume provides the reader with an overview of influential writers from the past, beginning with Franz Brentano. In the second part of the volume, the reader will find informative links between phenomenology of agency and action theory in general.

Overall, readers will discover well written essays from experts on specific topics related to a common theme. Given that the target group for handbooks is mostly students of philosophy and related fields, some critical aspects need to be mentioned.

Although all contributions included in these twenty-seven chapters have some connection to the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’, the novice reader might be surprised by the variety of perspectives represented here. Erhard and Keiling describe three notions of the term phenomenology in their introduction to this handbook. Both conclude that concerning this terminological query they “expect this volume to stir rather than settle a discussion of that question.” (2) Some contributors included a paragraph about their own position on the dispute in the beginning of their essays. This manifold of opinions about the topic ‘Phenomenology of Agency’ of this handbook makes it hard to find a larger common ground between the individual texts. For the reader it will be helpful to have a specific question or viewpoint of interest in mind when using this handbook. Thus, rather than introducing a research topic, the volume is a reference book for either historically interested readers or students with already formulated research questions.

While the contributions present a wide range of views on agency, one aspect that is essentially neglected throughout the volume is the close connection of agency and development. This aspect is probably one of the most overlooked perspectives in Philosophy and it has been missed by the editors of this volume as well. Developmental aspects of psychological phenomena are rarely given much attention in philosophical projects. This is the case for the 27 chapters of this handbook. Furthermore, the development of phenomenology of agency in infancy is neither mentioned nor discussed in any detail. Despite recent debates in developmental psychology and cognitive sciences (Jacquey et al., 2020; Sen & Gredebäck, 2021), developmental aspects are rarely recognized in philosophical debates today. Philosophers tend to disregard how fascinating questions about phenomenology of agency are inherently linked to early cognitive development. Including a chapter about the current states of these discussions would have increased the value of this book for students and experienced readers alike.

While reviewing this volume, a further aspect of the editing process became obvious: The selection of contributors for the individual chapters. The handbook has 27 chapters, of which twenty-two were written by male contributors and four by women. Chapter nineteen is a collaboration between Martine Nida-Rümelin and Terry Horgan. Further, the better part of contributors work in the Western Scientific Hemisphere. Only Genki Uemure from Okayama University in Japan stands out. This leads to a biased representation of views on the topic of this volume. Perspectives from researchers from South America, Africa and Asia would have been a valuable and unique addition to this book. The reader might be interested in learning about views of Buddhist Philosophers on the relation between agency, phenomenology, and non-self. Selecting contributors and topics with a more diverse background would display the debate taking place on a global stage.

The editors stated that Terry Horgan, John Tienson and George Grahams’ assessment of the neglect of phenomenology of agency in philosophy of mind (2003) encouraged them to take on the project of producing this handbook (1). The result of their efforts is a textbook that will encourage many discussions about a fascinating topic.

 

Acknowledgements

I thank Elizabeth Kelly for her careful comments and suggestions about the manuscript.

References

Horgan, T., Tienson, J. and Graham, G. 2003. “The Phenomenology of First-Person Agency.” In S. Walter and H.-D. Heckmann (eds.), Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 323–340.

Jacquey, L., Fagard, J., O’Regan, K., & Esseily, R. 2020. “Development of body know-how during the infant’s first year of life.” Enfance (2): 175-192.

Sen, U., & Gredebäck, G. 2021. “Making the World Behave: A New Embodied Account on Mobile Paradigm.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Mar 1, 15:643526. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.643526.

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Reviewed by: Quentin Gailhac (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

“History is not something separated from life or remote from the present” (5). It is within the horizon of Dilthey’s affirmation that David Carr resolutely sets out to think about historical experience in a book gathering twelve of his articles, published between 2006 and 2021, under the title Historical Experience: Essays on the Phenomenology of History. The book approaches the question of historical experience from various points of view, and in particular from that of the philosophy and theory of history. The classical problems of this point of view are treated here with the means of a phenomenology open to the exploration of many other traditions of thought. In the introduction (1-7), Carr follows in the footsteps of Dilthey and Ricoeur. He starts from the observation of the irreducible historicity of the human experience in order to identify the various ways in which history embraces us. For Carr, we can only make known and experience a historical event on the condition that we ourselves are involved in history.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which interrogate themes and concepts central to historical experience. The first part deals with three key concepts: historicity, narrative and time, through a fruitful dialogue with Dilthey, Koselleck and Levi-Strauss, among others. The second part confronts the problem of teleology in history, which, as is well known, has occupied Husserl and his commentators. Finally, the third part, entitled “Embodiment and Experience”, focuses on the corporeal, spatial and temporal aspects of historical existence. The relation of embodiment to intersubjectivity, the notion of orientation in history, the concept of Erlebnis in Dilthey, and the relations that exist between experience and history constitute the research directions of this third part.

In the first chapter of Part I, entitled “On historicity” (11-23), Carr attempts to grasp the meaning that the concept of historicity has had in Europe, from Dilthey to François Hartog. The central point of the chapter is to find a way of understanding historicity in the distinction made by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck between two historically attested ways of linking the past and the future. On the one hand, a relationship marked by the idea of a history magistra vitae, typical of pre-modern worldviews. On the other hand, a relationship that rather gives the future as a human reality to be constructed, typical of the Enlightenment. What François Hartog has called “regimes of historicity” (Hartog, 2015) serves here to identify the type of historicity that has gradually been imposed in Europe, thanks to the turning point constituted by French structuralism in the reversal of the relationship between the past and the future. Lévi-Strauss’s famous distinction between cold, non-historical societies and warm, historically marked societies is thus re-characterised, since we are dealing here with two very specific forms of historicity. The decline of the idea of progress in the twentieth century gradually reoriented the question of history within the horizon of heritage and memory (Ricoeur 2006; Nora 1997), to the point of suggesting, with Lévi-Strauss, that Western society, in its fear of progress and becoming, had transformed itself into a cold society. This is a step that Lévi-Strauss himself did not take, but that Carr’s study encourages us to consider, based on a study of the vocabulary of historians, particularly French historians, of the second half of the twentieth century (Pierre Nora’s “places of memory” are thus understood in all their historical depth).

The second chapter (24-33), while not directly addressing the issue of historicity, does approach it from a slightly derivative point of view, by focusing on the issue of temporal perspective. Carr does so through a study of the advantages and disadvantages of hindsight, which Arthur Danto said was the very essence of historical discourse. The main risk of hindsight is to fall into the trap of presentism, whereby the past is judged solely by the present. The present point of view, while it may have the advantage of distance from the event, also condemns us to an exit from time, since the event appears there once and for all. But the time of the past historical event is never the only one to exist, since it is in fact superimposed on the time of the person who recounts it. Thus, Carr devotes a brief section to “superimposed temporalities” (31-32) in history. Historicity is thus implicated in the historian’s own work, insofar as the writing of history is itself a temporal process that can never quite be taken out of history.

The third chapter, “Stories of our lives. Aging and narrative” (34-45), focuses on the unity to which our life in time can aspire, despite differences and by virtue of consciousness and experience itself. It is about bringing out the temporal aspects of awareness and self-awareness. We live in the present, and it is of this that we are aware. The question is, however, to characterise the awareness we can have of the past and the future. Carr thus proposes to distinguish between “awareness of past and future, on the one hand, and our memories and expectations and plans, on the other” (35-36). Through a phenomenological approach that the author himself calls “undoctrinaire”, the question of the relationship between life and time is extended by a study of the narrative, in its link with life, which leads to questions about biography and autobiography. The author insists on their difference by considering the impossibility for the autobiographer to possess a complete point of view on his or her life. The writing is always situated in a point of time of the life, and that this irreducible situation implies that the point from which one speaks determines the very interpretation of events as well as the (re)construction of the unity of the life itself.

Autobiographical reflection is thus confronted with two pitfalls, that of an insufficiently coherent succession, and that of an overly coherent succession. This is why the search for coherence amounts to rewriting a story. The concept of autobiographical reflection is therefore not unrelated to the idea of a narrative identity, and it is regrettable that Carr makes no study here of Ricoeur’s philosophy (see however, Carr 2014, 223-231). Narrative identity is described at length, notably in Time and Narrative (Ricœur 1984-1988). For Carr, Narrative identity, far from being fixed in stone, is always being rewritten, and this is due to the fact of the ever-changing temporal situation from which identity (i.e. also uniqueness) thinks itself, tells itself in autobiographical reflection. Narrative identity thus implies, in the horizon of the philosophies of authenticity (Heidegger 1996; Sartre 2003), thinking oneself as the author responsible for one’s own life, to the point of giving Charles Taylor’s “ethics of the authenticity” (Taylor 1991) to be understood in narrative terms (44). The third chapter closes with a reflection on the notion of aging, which the author tells us is in fact the main topic of the whole chapter, since it designates, not an accumulation in time, but the very becoming of the point of view we can adopt on our life. In this sense, the notion of aging must be understood in the perspective of narrative identity and autobiographical reflection. It also implies that the awareness of our finitude is itself changing and cannot be fixed once and for all. Aging is therefore a personal and creative way of thinking about the relationship between past and future on the scale of an individual life. The phenomenological point of view adopted here by Carr comes close to a hermeneutical perspective. Aging, together with narrative identity and autobiographical reflection, could constitute the bases, not indicated by the author, of a new phenomenological hermeneutic of our individual life in time.

It is to a theme of wider scope that chapter four, “On being historical” (46-58), is devoted, as it attempts to answer the question “What is it to be historical?” This question emerges from the inadequacy of the philosophies of history, in its two main orientations. The first orientation, of the Hegelian type, wants to find a global meaning to what happens in history, ultimately seeking to give a moral meaning to events as a whole. This metaphysical orientation is rivalled by a second, epistemological one, which is more concerned with the conditions of possibility of historical knowledge. However, both orientations assume in the same way that the past concerns us, without explaining why. The concept of historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) comes into play precisely in order to answer this question left unanswered by the philosophy of history. The discussion shows Dilthey’s perspective, developing the idea that the historical world “is always there” (47). What it is to be a historical being. Our interest in the past is thus explained here on the basis of the difference in principle between the past and the future, a difference that has its origins in Jewish thought. By showing in what sense interest in the past is not unique to all societies, Carr thus questions the fundamental cultural presuppositions of our relationship to the past.

The question of historicity then takes a more properly phenomenological path. Carr considers the unity of the subject in time, not as a given, but as an act of projection, with regard to my own temporal coherence and my relation to others. The question of my being with others is therefore not primarily a relationship between an I and a Thou, but is inscribed, as Husserl and Heidegger already wanted, in the horizon of the concept of historicity. Carr, translator of Husserl’s Krisis into English (Husserl 1970), briefly returns to the role given to intersubjectivity in the theoretical investigation, insofar as the research of others forms the starting point of the present research. The notion of group thus appears fundamental to understanding in what sense scientific enquiry can be linked to intersubjectivity, since this research is first and foremost that of a community, and not that of a set of isolated individuals. Carr thus engages in a brief phenomenology of “we”, understood as the capacity of an individual to identify with a group (53-56), and to maintain a direct and living relationship to history. The very suggestive character of this chapter would have deserved, it seems to us, more extensive developments on Husserl and on the generative horizon that the thesis of the chapter seems to imply. If it is true that “to be historical” is to be integrated into a “We” that possesses its own heritage, then we find precisely Husserl’s reflections on the necessity of a generative orientation of the phenomenological method, as an explicitation of the “at home”, of the familiar and historical world carried by a succession of generations that form the unity of historicity (Husserl 1973).

It is, moreover, an eminently Husserlian question that underpins the whole of the second part, namely the question of teleology in history. The fifth chapter, “Teleology and the experience of history” (61-74), starts from the observation that the idea of teleology has a certain longevity, from Hegel and Marx to Francis Fukuyama or Niall Ferguson, via the last Husserl of the 1930s. It is therefore a question of understanding the reason for the maintenance of teleology despite his numerous factual and theoretical refutations. The idea supported by Carr is to assert that teleology functions as a transcendental illusion, in the Kantian sense of the term. Beginning with a brief history of the idea of teleology since Hegel, he then focuses more specifically on the experience of history, which he clearly distinguishes from the representation of history (to which the idea of teleology belongs). The question of the experience of history is thus first of all that of its possibility and its distinction from other types of experience. Our experience is both temporal and intersubjective, and the experience of the most common objects is always linked to a horizon of the past that we experience in the present. History is thus a dimension of our very experience. Here Carr uses the Husserlian concept of retention to explain how this history and past are involved in all present experience (67-69), even though retention is different in nature from memory. Indeed, retention is not dealing with past itself (Husserl  1991). On the other hand, the end of the chapter proposes an interesting re-characterisation of the idea of teleology. Doubly determined by the past and by the future, by our memories and by our expectations, the present must be thought of within the framework of a temporal structure which is also, by its very orientation, a teleological structure: “we can call this temporal structure a teleological structure in that the whole complex of mutually determining meanings is oriented toward the fulfillment of our expectations and plans” (73). This structure must thus apply not only to individual experience, but also to social experience. Historicity is thus understood from a reorientation of the controversial notion of teleology.

Carr expands his reflection on teleology in the sixth chapter, entitled “Husserl and Foucault on the historical a priori. Teleological and anti-teleological view of history” (75-85). The title of this 2016 article is very close to the title of an article, not mentioned by Carr, by Wouter Goris (Goris 2012), also on the subject of the historical a priori. Despite the proximity of the title, Carr takes a significantly different view and method. Goris proposed a very precise reconstruction of the notion of historical a priori in Husserl and then in Foucault, showing that the variations in the meaning of this notion to Husserl corresponded to the different stages of the internal evolution of his phenomenology. On the contrary, Carr looks “from a broader perspective at the views of history that are reflected in the different uses of this expression” (75). The aim is to understand in what sense this expression was born from the topicality of a Europe in crisis, to which Husserl gives an epistemological meaning, by proposing a reconstruction of the birth of European science. In doing so, Carr gives an account of Husserl’s subjectivation of teleology, as opposed to Foucault’s antisubjectivism, which he considers incoherent and based on an apocalyptic vision of history. Goris note that the difference in the meaning attributed to the historical a priori in Husserl and Foucault stemmed from the fact that both diagnosed the crisis itself differently, and that the Husserlian solution of a reactivation of meaning was, for Foucault, the very consequence of the crisis to be overcome. Carr, who more explicitly takes sides against Foucault, nevertheless seems to want to reconcile the two authors on certain points, despite the strong differences between them and criticisms that he addresses to the French philosopher. Indeed, Foucault’s rejection of the teleology of history is related to the subtlety of the Husserlian thesis on this question, to such an extent that Carr seems to bring the two philosophers closer together in their understanding of what a historical a priori is:

“As for Husserl, while he seems at first glance to subscribe to a teleological view of history, his position, as we’ve seen, is actually much more subtle. He sees that his own historicization of the philosophy of science could open him to the charge of historical relativism, as if he were arguing that each historical epoch or people has its own truth and can never escape its boundaries. On this view, “every people has its ‘logic’ and, accordingly, if this logic is explicated in propositions, ‘its’ a priori” (Husserl 1970, 373). What Husserl describes here is, I think, very close to Foucault’s idea of the “historical a priori.” Husserl’s use of scare-quotes makes clear that such a historically limited a priori is for him a contradiction in terms. For him such historical configurations would be instances of a genuine historical a priori, that is, an essential structure of any and all historical configurations: “historical present in general, historical time generally” (372). That is, any array of historical a prioris in Foucault’s sense (he uses the plural) would presuppose the historical a priori which is not itself historically variable” (84).

By considering the historical a priori as an unexplained presupposition, Foucault would thus only be reiterating Husserl’s essentialism. That is why the critique of teleology is studied through a very critical reading of Foucault, and this allows us to understand the status of Carr’s essay on the question of teleology. In the review of the collective book intitled Historical Teleologies in the Modern World (Trüper, 2015) which constitutes the seventh chapter of his book (86-96), Carr considers that the various authors of the collective work (among them Peter Wagner and Etienne Balibar) have not engaged, unlike him, in an evaluation of the teleological view of history. Far from reducing teleology to a question of the history of ideas or the history of philosophy, which would consider the notion obsolete, our author really seeks to examine it as a living notion, even giving it validity under certain conditions.

The question of teleology has been intimately linked to the philosophy of history since the 19th century. This is why the second part closes with a chapter entitled “On the metaphilosophy of history” (97-111), devoted to a study of the classical philosophy of history, based on a new characterisation of the “metahistory” of the famous American historian Hayden White. In his book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe (White 1973), White defined historical work as a narrative discourse, focusing on the interpretation of the works of nineteenth-century historians. However, by showing that White’s sources were not only historians, but also philosophers of history such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche or Croce, Carr proposes to rename White’s enterprise as “metaphilosophy of history, or the philosophy of the philosophy of history” (98). Rather than a reading of White’s work, this chapter is a study of the philosophy of history, after its critics, and aims to overcome the idea that the philosophy of history is dead. This implies, moreover, a slightly different understanding of the philosophy of history, moving us away from the idea of a purely speculative philosophy to one of a practical enterprise. The philosophy of history is thus brought closer here to the historical discipline, contrary to the traditional opposition. The idea of a philosophy of history “not as a cognitive or theoretical embodiment of the teleological structure, but as a practical embodiment of it” (105), allows Carr to read the philosophy of history in a different way, first by opposing the speculative orientation of Hegel to the practical orientation of the philosophy of history and teleology of Kant and Marx, and finally by re-reading Hegel in the sense of a practical narrative, directed towards the realisation of human freedom. Although White’s theses are not directly discussed for their own sake, they guide the whole chapter, and especially this new and very suggestive reading of Hegel. This reading could be the subject of a whole book, by taking into consideration the work of Hegel on the philosophy of history.

The interest in the philosophy of history will continue in the third part, although the general orientation of its four chapters is quite different. Indeed, this third and final part, “Embodiment and experience” (113-167), returns to what is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of historical experience, namely the question of the body. Historical experience is essentially an experience of the common. It is phenomenology that has studied, since Husserl, the role of the body in the question of intersubjectivity. This evidence is however questioned here by Carr, in the ninth chapter that opens the third part, entitled “Intersubjectivity and embodiment” (112-127), and which constitutes a deepening of the phenomenology of the “We” outlined in chapter 4. This chapter establishes the question of whether the body is always a necessary condition of intersubjectivity. While the experience of the face-to-face encounter with another has become a classic starting point in the problem of intersubjectivity, it does not resolve the question. The face-to-face encounter is indeed an encounter of my body with the body of another, but this direct bodily relationship cannot be applied to the we-experience, which requires a different point of view. Where the face-to-face encounter started from the first-person experience, the we-experience implies expanding this starting point to the idea of a non-metaphysical, but properly phenomenological Gemeingeist, in the way Husserl tried to think it. This superpersonal subject is, in fact, linked to the possibility for the I to identify itself with a group, and which precisely characterised the “we” in the fourth chapter, “On being historical”. Therefore, the we-subject, instead of being thought of as a metaphysical hypostasis, is rather phenomenologically constituted by the individuals who produce it. However, what role exactly should the body play in such a subject? By means of numerous examples taken from recent and contemporary history, Carr attempts to determine phenomenologically the role of the body in the we-subject, starting from different Husserlian points of departure (the organism, the community of will), in order to finally attest to the intentional character of the embodied we-subjectivity. The embodiment thus appears essential to collective subjectivity, although it is not necessary for all forms of intersubjectivity, as can be seen, for example, in the communities that are created in the Internet sphere.

Without an explicit transition to the question of embodiment, the tenth chapter, entitled “History as orientation. Rüsen on historical culture and narration” (128-143) is a review of two books of the German historian Jörn Rüsen, respectively Geschichte im Kulturprozess and History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation (Rüsen 2002, 2005 respectively). The connection is actually ensured by the starting point of Rüsen’s research, in that knowledge of the past, far from being of interest only to historical studies, must be understood in its context, which is that of our historicity and our intersubjective historical experience. The three concepts of Rüsen on which Carr chooses to focus thus find the fundamental themes of the whole book. The concept of “historical culture” is linked to the developments on historicity, as is the concept of “orientation”, which implies inscribing our present in a certain relationship to the past and the future. Finally, the concept of “narrative” is intimately linked to Carr’s developments on historical knowledge and consciousness. Moreover, the typology of modes of narration proposed by Rüsen allows, according to the German historian himself, the deployment of a theory of the “ontogenetic development of historical consciousness” (132), within which the form of critical narration constitutes a historical pivot, between pre-modern and modern historical thought. In this sense, Rüsen’s study gives decisive importance to nineteenth-century historicism in its various forms (especially Ranke and Dilthey). Carr emphasises the links between Rüsen’s three concepts in the historical context of the nineteenth century, since the upheavals of that period were significant. The way in which history is told is thus linked to the way in which we orient ourselves in it, which in turn shapes our historical culture. By recalling the many criticisms that have been levelled against historicism since the beginning of the twentieth century (starting with Husserl himself), Carr attempts to go beyond the postmodern critique of historicism and to find a way to make it more effective. In order to do so, Carr defends the compatibility of narrative and objectivity, against the idea of a pure fictionalization of historical narrative, but also against the idea of an opposition between historical objectivity only interested in the restitution of the past for its own sake and the concept of orientation. According to this concept, knowledge of the past is linked to our future and to our situation in time.

These considerations lead Carr, in chapter 11, entitled “Erlebnis and history” (144-152), to clarify the meaning of the phenomenological emphasis on experience for history. This involved first returning to Dilthey’s relationship to the philosophy of history. Indeed, Dilthey is not a speculative philosopher of history in the sense of Hegel, but a philosopher of history in a much more contemporary sense which, rooted in a critique of historical reason, is understood as an epistemology of our historical knowledge, close to what the analytical philosophy of history does. Working on the key concepts of representation and memory in the contemporary philosophy of history, from Ricœur to White, Carr asks “the problem to which the philosophy of history addresses itself: how does history bridge the gap, overcome the distance, which separates it from its object, the past?” (147), in order to find a way out in the phenomenological approach, based on experience. Critiquing the linguistic turn in the philosophy of history, this approach restores the notion of experience to history, but not without ambiguity. According to Carr, it is Dilthey’s concept of Erlebnis that provides a better understanding of what experience can mean in this context. Responding to the ambiguity of the term Erfahrung, Erlebnis allowed Dilthey to designate not only the unity, coherence and connectedness of the individual life, but also the link that we necessarily have with a social and historical context. Erlebnis is thus inseparable, for Dilthey, from the notion of historicity, to which Carr devotes the last remarks of the chapter, against all forms of relativism.

The book concludes with a chapter significantly entitled “Experience and history” (153-166), in which Carr returns to the temporal, intersubjective and historical dimension of experience, in order to answer the question that has animated the whole book: what is the experience of history? The originality of this last chapter consists, in this respect, in giving an essential function to the notion of discontinuity, according to four orientations. The discontinuity inherent in the question of the We-subject, the discontinuity implied by intergenerational continuity, the discontinuity of historical events, and finally the discontinuity inscribed in temporality itself. These different types of discontinuity, which allow us to enrich the contemporary philosophical debate on history and time, lead Carr to assert three fundamental things, joined together, that any phenomenology of history must be able to take into account, and which constitute an “ontology of our lives” (163). 1) Historical events are experienced as historical events. 2) We are conscious of time by being conscious of events in time. 3) The subject of these historical experiences is a collective subject, a We-subject.

The phenomenological interest and significance of these twelve studies by D. Carr thus lies, in our view, in the re-qualification of the starting point of phenomenology itself when confronted with the problematic question of history. Against the accusations of anhistoricism sometimes levelled at Husserl’s philosophy, Carr restores the importance of phenomenological perspective to the fundamentally historical understanding of our experience. He inscribes this perspective in a decentred and irreducibly collective subjectivity, which constitutes both the ground and the horizon of our relationship to the past.

References:

Goris, Wouter. 2012. “Das historische Apriori bei Husserl und Foucault – Zur philosophischen Relevanz eines Leitbegriffs der historischen Epistemologie.” Quaestio, 12: 291-342.

Hartog, François. 2015. Regimes of Historicity. Presentism and Experiences of Time, tr. S. Brown. New York: Columbia University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1996. Being and Time, tr. J. Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and the Transcendendal Phenomenology, tr. D. Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973. Zur Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität. Dritter Teil: 1929-1935. The Hague. Nijhoff.

Husserl, Edmund. 1991. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, tr. J. Brough. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Nora, Pierre (ed.). 1997. Les lieux de mémoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Ricœur, Paul. 1984–88. Time and Narrative, 3 vols, tr. K McLaughlin and D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ricœur, Paul. 2006. Memory, History, Forgetting, tr. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2002. Geschichte im Kulturprozess. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Bohlau Verlag.

Rüsen, Jörn. 2005. History: Narration-Interpretation-Orientation. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2003. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, tr. H. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1991. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trüper Henning, Chakrabarty Dipesh, Subrahmanyam Sanjay (ed.). 2015. Historical Teleologies in the Modern World. London: Bloomsbury.

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Anja Jauernig: The World According to Kant

The World According to Kant: Appearances and Things in Themselves in Critical Idealism Book Cover The World According to Kant: Appearances and Things in Themselves in Critical Idealism
Anja Jauernig
Oxford University Press
2021
Hardback £80.00
400

Reviewed by: Michael Blézy (University of Toronto)

The aim of Anja Jauernig’s project is to provide nothing less than a comprehensive interpretation of Kant’s critical idealism understood as an ontology. In The World According to Kant, Jauernig tackles Kant’s theoretical philosophy in particular, highlighting the ways in which Kant’s views on cognition, God, and, most importantly, the distinction between appearances and things in themselves, contribute to the establishment of Kant’s overall “ontological position” (xi; 1-2).

The first of two main studies (the second study, still forthcoming, will deal with the ontological implications of the practical philosophy), the book revolves around a number of issues regarding how it is Kant conceives of “the world.” From the outset, Jauernig flags that, at least in the Inaugural Dissertation and his lectures on metaphysics, Kant understands “the world” to be “a unified whole of substances that stand in mutual interactions” (16) – a description that technically only applies to what the Kant of the first Critique will call “outer appearances” (A24/B49; A106). Taken in a less strict sense, however, Jauernig argues that Kant can be interpreted as providing an ontology of “the world,” where “the world” is more generally understood to be the sum total of all that has realitas:

[The] book … is devoted to an examination of Kant’s critical idealism, understood as an ontological position. Less technically put, it is about Kant’s account of what there is in the world, understood as the sum total of everything that has reality, including, in particular, his account of appearances and things in themselves and their relation to one another. (xii; See also 25; 355)

From her initial depiction of “the world” understood in this more general sense, it is clear it refers to all existents that possess reality, both sensible, as well as supersensible:

Appearances and things in themselves are distinct existents … Kantian things in themselves [however] are supersensible and ground Kantian appearances. (27)

Although recognizing the Kantian twist given to metaphysical inquiry inaugurated by the Copernican revolution – and so the complications that metaphysical investigation faces once questions are posed about the conditions under which one could possibly come to possess knowledge, including the metaphysical – Jauernig’s account of Kant’s ontology thus proceeds in remarkedly traditional terms. This is especially true regarding the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances; the issue in the book she most thoroughly engages with.

One the one hand, Jauernig raises uniquely Kantian concerns with just how it is we might gain ontological knowledge of things in themselves. Granting that things in themselves, like the objects of traditional metaphysical inquiry, belong to the “supersensible realm” (38), she rightly wonders along with Kant: “In virtue of what can our concepts refer to [things in themselves]? How can we manage to cognitively access them through our thinking? What sort of cognition of them, if any, is possible for us?” (xi). On the other hand, Jauernig’s interpretation of Kant’s ontology sets out, in pre-Kantian fashion, to answer a number of questions about things in themselves conceived of as simply a subset of all that has reality:

[O]ne can take [the question about how to think things in themselves] as a broadly ontological question about Kant’s conception of things in themselves. What sort of things are they? What are their properties? What is their ontological status in Kant’s critical philosophy? (xi)

Of course, whether or not and to what extent answers can be given to these questions (about knowledge of supersensible things such as things in themselves, including their ontological status) will all be determined by the answers given to the first questions (about under what conditions and in virtue of what can we have knowledge, including metaphysical). Sure enough, things in themselves will play a decisive role in critical idealism and a proper account of it will require grappling with ontological questions in some sense. But just how it is that ontology, as first philosophy (one of two main branches of traditional metaphysis, mind you) is to be construed on the Kantian picture will be decided by how it is we understand the philosophical consequences of Kant’s theory of cognition and the revolution in metaphysics it initiated.

Fortunately, at least with regard to her account of how Kant reaches his position on the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances, Jauernig’s book is a model of clarity. Fully laying her cards on the table, Jauernig tells her readers right out of the gate exactly where her reading is heading. Outlining the core tenants of what she refers to as Kant’s “fundamental ontology” (39; 43; 44; 247), the book aims to defend six main theses regarding appearances and things in themselves (15-16):

(1) Appearances and things in themselves are not numerically identical, but are distinct existents

(2) Appearances and things in themselves are both “things,” although they are not the same things. Appearances and things in themselves in no way ontologically overlap, but they are closely related: appearances are grounded in things in themselves

(3) The distinction between appearances and things in themselves is an ontological  distinction

(4) Empirical objects are appearances

(5) Appearances and, hence, empirical objects are fully mind-dependent. This entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about empirical objects

(6) Things in themselves actually exist

Taken together, Jauernig claims these six theses add up to a new version of the “classical” two-world theory of appearances/things in themselves. Appearances, and hence empirical objects, are wholly mind-dependent existents in virtue of their being given under the formal conditions of sensibility, whereas things in themselves are the distinct, wholly mind-independent existents that provide the ground of these appearances. As this is an unabashedly, “ontological” reading of the distinction, Jauernig tells us, and so one of the main targets of the book is the two-aspect theories of appearances/ things in themselves (especially methodological, two-aspect theories) that have dominated Anglo-American Kant scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century (4-5). Indeed, methodological, two-aspect views in particular are either “unfathomably mysterious” insofar as they maintain “that the properties of things truly vary according to how we consider them” or “disappointingly modest,” insofar as they maintain “that considering things as they are in themselves amounts to no more than abstracting from some of their properties” (15n).

In order to establish her “classic,” two-world reading, Jauernig first offers an account of where she stands on some basic interpretive questions regarding Kant’s critical idealism. After outlining the basic tenants of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” in chapter one, chapter two relies principally on some well-known (and hotly debated) passages from the Critique (e.g., B59/A42; B164; A383) to make the case that, for Kant, “the world” is comprised of various “levels” of reality. Consider, for instance, B59/A42:

Thus we wanted to say: that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of Appearance … and that if we take away the subject or even merely the subjective quality of the senses in general, all quality, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed even space and time themselves, would disappear and can as appearances not exist in themselves but only in us.

On Jauernig’s account, appearances are identified with intentional objects of experience or the objects that make up the mind-dependent level of reality. Due to these appearances only existing “in” us or “in our representations” – even when passively given in perception, for instance – their “ontological ingredients” or properties and “modes of being” all presuppose the human mind. In contrast, things in themselves are to be identified with existents understood to be wholly apart from any human mind, and so make up the mind-independent “level” of reality (27). Things in themselves have “ontological ingredients” and “modes of being,” but these ingredients and modes are thus fully mind-independent (30-33; 42-50). What is more, if a mind represents anew given appearances through the power of imagination, it can bring into existence intentional objects, but, due to the flexibility of the mind’s representational capacities, these representations need not faithfully represent the objects as they have been originally given (say, once again, in perception). Some objects (for example, fictional creatures like dragons) have “pseudo-existence” insofar as they are intentional objects that exist in thought, but cannot be found anywhere in given experience (36-42).

Chapters three and four are primarily concerned with demonstrating that empirical objects, as appearances, are not things in themselves, but appear under certain a priori conditions (notably, the formal conditions of space and time). Although on the Kantian picture we are certainly able to distinguish between “inner” and “outer,” “subjective” and “objective,” and so Kant ought not be charged with reducing all objects of representation to our mind à la Berkeley, the notion that space and time are “nothing” but forms of sensibility entails that empirical objects are spatial-temporal existents that fully depend on the mind, and this further entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about such objects (129-141). Once again, that we are only acquainted with appearances, as representations “in” us and whose ontological ingredients and modes all presuppose our mind and its forms of sensibility, means that even passively given, spatial-temporal things and their sensible characteristics are mind-dependent (204-244).

Chapters five and six deal with Jauernig’s positive account of things in themselves. Skirting around long-standing issues regarding just how it is possible to achieve genuine knowledge of things that are wholly mind-independent (much less know for certain that they are), her interpretation takes its guidance primary from passages in which Kant claims that things in themselves “ground” appearances (B61/A44) and “affect” the mind (B522/A494). Jauernig is clear that the way things in themselves relate to appearances ought not be confused with the way in which an objective reality underlies and gives rise to our merely subjective (even potentially deceptive) experience of the world (248-256); nor with the way in primary qualities relate to secondary qualities (257-266). However, in some sense, things in themselves exist, ground our passively receiving representations in sensibility, and are genuinely affective. Indeed, Jauernig advances a version of what she calls “bold critical idealism” in which Kantian appearances are grounded on other, finite things that are “outside us” in a transcendental, and not merely spatial, sense. What is more, these finite things in themselves are genuinely affective, yet still mind-independent in that at least one such thing exists and is distinct from both the totality of human minds and even God (295-302).

Chapter five concludes with a discussion of how it is we can know things in themselves are in fact finite existents and sets the stage for the argument that things in themselves possess the various positive features Jauernig attributes to them (295-318). To my mind the most interesting section of the book, Jauernig provides the reader with a series of carefully laid out syllogisms that move from showing that we can go from the existence of empirical objects to the “existence” of things in themselves, by demonstrating that the passivity of sensibility and the unoriginality of thought and imagination require that there is something other than sensibility and thought.

Essentially outlining the way in which the Kantian “levels” of reality relate to and presuppose each other, Jaurenig’s argument takes a few key steps. First, she makes the case that, due to its essentially unoriginal nature, the imagination can produce pseudo-existents (e.g., intentional objects or representations of inner experience) only by reproducing and recombing sensations. Second, for their part, sensations, are passively delivered via sensibility and the forms of sensibility. Third, due to its passivity, sensibility can only deliver sensations by the mind being transcendentally affected by something other than the mind (namely, things in themselves). Fourth, we in fact have sensations and can think of pseudo-existents (as well as distinguish between them). From the first three premises it follows that these sensuous representations exist and are a response to the more fundamental things in themselves which exist and must affect us (313).

This argument requires that we extend the scope of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” given so far so as to include an ontology of the human mind – the very finite existent that the other finite existents and their “ontological ingredients” and “modes” presuppose (or do not presuppose). That is, unlike the divine intellect, which can bring about the existence of the object or create objects in virtue of its thinking (and so has an “intellectual intuition” of objects), the finite human being’s thought must passively receive sensible materials from without (in sensible intuition) to occasion the representing via thought that constitutes its experience of objects.

For simplicity sake, Jauernig calls the idea that, as essentially finite, the human mind is ontologically uncreative and thus, unlike the divine mind, incapable of originally generating the matter of its objects of representations “UNCREATIVITY” (314). This ontology of the human mind underlies and provides the fundamental support for drawing the conclusion that the existence of things in themselves follows from the fact that we have the material with which to think at all.

On Jauernig’s account of things we can rightly wonder, however, how it is that Kant arrives at and justifies this ontology. How, for instance, can we conclusively establish that it must be something finite that affects our mind and, as it were, kick cognition into gear. Indeed, are there not equally compelling accounts of how we come to have the material by which we think provided by other ontologies, equally as “fundamental”? For his part, Berkeley notoriously made the case that it is only God that can supply our representations with the totality of their matter – the so-called “material” world itself being an extraneous posit. This is not to say we should simply follow Berkeley here, but how exactly can Kant know for certain what supplies the mind with its matter? Indeed, to take another worry, how do we know for certain that is not we who create such matter – that is, that transcendental idealism does not ultimately collapse into idealism proper? Indeed, given that Kant grants the mind some creative power (such as when it represents to itself pseudo-existents) and argues that the a priori forms of the mind (as the very conditions of the possibility of experience) are not capable themselves of being derived from any experience of objects, how exactly does he justify drawing a solid line between passivity and reproduction, between constitutive a priori structuring and creation? As Jauernig puzzles:

[T]here is not much difference with respect to creative power between a mind that actively brings about the “matter” of empirical objects and a mind that brings about the “matter” of empirical objects by affecting itself … If my uncreativity is compatible with me constituting … without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind, why would it not also be compatible with me constituting empirical objects without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind? (316)

But why assume that this [Kantian] uncreativity manifests itself in that we are incapable of actively generating any “matter” for the objects of our representations? Why could it not manifest itself in that we cannot actively generate the “form” of the objects of our representations, or their “form” or their “matter”? (316n)

Jauernig’s response to these worries is not to tackle them head on. There is no attempt to locate the difference between reception and reproduction or formal structuring and creation by appealing to the distinctive characteristics of the various Kantian “representations” themselves (for instance, unlike the representations occasioned by imagination, sensible intuitions obey natural laws). Nor does she provide a Kantian-style argument (not unlike Descartes’ in the Mediations) that the human mind does not have enough creative power to bring about an entire world of objects. Somewhat surprisingly, Jauernig claims when philosophizing about fundamental ontology, there are some features and principles that are ultimately not capable of justification or further argumentation:

All versions of critical idealism … depend for their justification on UNCREATIVITY … It appears futile to attempt a justification for these basic commitments, commitments that one could characterize as being among critical idealism’s constitutive principles, so to speak … [however] the unjustifiability of [critical idealism’s] constitutive principles by further arguments is neither a special problem for critical idealism nor a real problem at all. All arguments for substantive views must start from some substantive assumptions. So, all philosophical positions must incorporate some basic commitments that are not justifiable by any further arguments. (318)

Now, Jauernig’s book has to be admired for its rigor and precision. At key points in her presentation of Kant’s ontology she provides arguments in concise, syllogistic form – no small accomplishment given the complexity of Kant’s thought and the obscurity of the issues tackled. Rigor and precision aside, however, there are many curious features of Jauernig’s account of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” – features that I think are highlighted by the position she arrives at in the passage above regarding basic ontological commitments and their inability to be justified.

What I find most puzzling about The World According to Kant is the very way Jauernig approaches the issue of ontology in Kant’s work. As I have been gesturing at, to frame the issue of Kant’s ontology in terms of a number of issues regarding the ontological status of the existents that populate “the world,” seems to attribute to Kant a traditional metaphysical approach that is – at least on the Kantian picture of knowledge – incapable of furnishing us with any genuine knowledge. To put it succinctly, to conceive of ontology as the investigation into “what there is” in “the world” (at least as Jauernig understands it) is an entirely unKantian move insofar as it disregards the way in which Kant’s revolution in metaphysics fundamentally transforms the ontological issues and shifts them into an entirely different (namely, transcendental) register.

My main concern with Jauernig’s presentation of Kant’s ontology is not simply that it ignores the way in which Kant’s critical system rethinks basic ontological notions such as “reality,” “category,” “being,” “mode,” etc. That being said, it is worth flagging that The World According to Kant gets into trouble with its loose use of ontological terms. For example, after the Copernican revolution inaugurated by the first Critique, “reality” comes to be one of the mathematical categories of the understanding (A70/B95; A161/B200). This category of is to be conceived of as an object’s “what-content” – the essential determinations that constitute or make an object the kind of thing it is. As a Kantian category, however, it is a concept that strictly belongs to the determinations of objects of possible experience. Insofar as “reality” no longer refers to the determinations of a thing (res) as such and in general, but to the determinations of appearances, there is no sense in which it can serve for Kant as a way to think of a general ontology that would include both of appearances and things in themselves. Far from being an innocent terminological move, approaching the distinction in this way suggests that both existents are somehow available to us to be the subject of philosophizing – a commitment that has direct philosophical consequences for how we construe things in themselves.

In a similar vein, being in general (what is to be something, as opposed to nothing) is not to be a member of “the world” in the sense of being an existing thing with reality. To be in general is rather to be posited by a judgment; to have a value relative to a judging cognizer. Hence Kant’s famously arguing that “being” is (1) not a real predicate (does not add anything to an object’s “what-content”), (2) does not add anything to the concept of a thing, and (3) is to be identified with the mere positing of a thing or of certain determinations in themselves (A599/B262). Whether what is posited is merely possible or exists (to be an “existent”) for Kant is a whole different matter.

That there is little to no discussion of the way in which Kant rethinks such notions as “reality” or “being” (much less a take on Kant’s theory of modality or his account of “nothing” as laid out in the table of “nothing” (A2902/B345-9)) in a book-length study of Kant’s ontology seems like an oversight. However, once again the most puzzling aspect of the book is not that it omits such a discussion. Rather, its most puzzling feature is that it does not deal with Kant’s revolution in metaphysics and the consequences this revolution has for the pursuit of traditional ontological knowledge.

We might expect that any attempt to give an account of Kant’s ontology should pay heed to the way in which Kant takes himself to have fundamentally transformed this branch of metaphysics. Consider his two clearest statements on the subject of ontology in the first Critique:

The Transcendental Analytic accordingly has this important result: That the  understanding can never accomplish a priori anything more than to anticipate the form of a possible experience in general, and, since that which is not appearance cannot  be an object of experience, it can never overstep the limits of sensibility, within which alone objects are given to us. Its principles are merely principles of the exposition of appearances, and the proud name of an ontology, which presumes to offer synthetic a priori cognitions of things in general in a systematic doctrine … must give way to one of a mere analytic of the pure understanding. (A247/B303)

[Metaphysics’] speculative part … considers everything insofar as it is … on the basis of a priori concepts, is divided in the following way … Metaphysics … consists of transcendental philosophy and the physiology of pure reason. The former considers  only the understanding and reason itself in a system of all concepts and principles, that are related to objects in general, without assuming objects that would be given (Ontologia); the latter considers nature, i.e., the sum total of given objects, and is therefore physiology (though only rationalis). (A845/B873)

As the first passage states, a key finding of the Transcendental Analytic – the transcendental investigation into the a priori contribution made on behalf of the understanding to the possibility of objects of experience – is that the move to consider objects as they appear under certain a priori conditions leads to us to give up the “proud name of an ontology.” By this, Kant means that insofar as objects are given under these intellectual conditions, the traditional attempt to straightforwardly provide an ontology gives way to two critical tasks. First, expounding transcendental conditions and the a priori knowledge of objects these conditions allow for (i.e., the a priori knowledge of objects generated by the anticipatory intellectual forms that structure our representation of any possible object of experience whatsoever). Second, as these transcendental contributions to our representation of objects (the source of our transcendental knowledge) simultaneously circumscribe what can possibly appear as an object of experience, and so expose the attempt to gain a priori knowledge of objects (including ontological knowledge of them) independently of these conditions (or in themselves) as unable to furnish us with any genuine knowledge.

The undermining of the traditional attempt to secure ontological knowledge is further expanded upon in the second passage, wherein Kant also shows that the faculty of reason – the faculty metaphysicians prior to Kant most heavy relied upon to supply them with a priori knowledge of objects that goes beyond what is made available by sensibility and understanding – also cannot assist us in our quest for traditional metaphysical knowledge. As Kant makes clear here, speculative metaphysics considers “everything insofar as it is” on the basis of reason alone and so according to a priori concepts. Utilizing “pure” reason or reason within which nothing empirical is mixed, we can achieve knowledge through both transcendental philosophy and what Kant calls the “physiology” of pure reason. The former allows for transcendental knowledge, i.e., a priori knowledge (of both understanding and reason) of “objects of in general … without assuming they would be given [in sensibility].” The latter gives us knowledge of objects through reason or rationalis alone, however, it deals strictly with the sum total of “given objects,” i.e., our purely rational, a priori knowledge of the objects (objects of experience) that make up “nature.”

Now, we might expect that a “physiology” of pure reason, insofar as it supplies us with knowledge of objects by way of reason alone, might be able to supply us with ontological knowledge of objects in themselves. However, as Kant makes clear, it is limited to the given objects of nature even when pure reason makes transcendental contributions, and so, in the end, merely gives us the system of the a priori concepts or ideas supplied by reason required to represent this given nature as nature (A846/B874).

Transcendental philosophy, both the kind made possible by the transcendental contributions of the understanding and reason, in contrast, deals with a priori knowledge of “everything insofar as it iswithout objects being “given” in sensibility and is itself explicitly identified by Kant as Ontologia or ontology. Notice, however, that this Kantian ontology is limited to possible (given) objects of experience as the very conditions of their appearing. Although transcendental philosophy does not depend on experience or any particular objects being given in order to establish its transcendental knowledge, it is limited, as the anticipatory forms that structure this experience, to the sphere of objects that can be possibly given in sensibility.

Indeed, after transcendental philosophy, genuine metaphysical knowledge – knowledge of objects achieved a priori, yet would extend our grasp of them and not simply analytically draw out their marks – comes to be transformed and limited to the knowledge of the transcendental sphere, namely, knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. The main idea is that the same “anticipated” form of the understanding and reason that lets objects appear also provides us with a new source of a priori knowledge (the “fundamental predicates” of objects insofar as they are represented under the categories) that enlarges our cognition of objects without turning to any particular experience (e.g., that objects appear as substances standing in community relations of cause and effect). Transforming metaphysics in this way enables it to take the secure course of a Kantian “science.” Metaphysics is no longer the attempt to gain knowledge of objects beyond all possible experience by way of the analysis of concepts alone, but a systematic body of knowledge that can ground its claims, like other sciences that contain an a priori component, on something over and above our concepts (namely, the very possibility of the intellect representing objects of experience).

Keeping this fundamental re-construal of metaphysics in mind, Jauernig’s presentation of critical philosophy as offering an “ontological,” “two-world” account of the appearance/ thing in itself distinction, as well as positively attributing characteristics to things-in-themselves, seems to attribute to Kant an ontological theory that would lapse back into the traditional metaphysical approach to knowledge that Kant sought to show can never result in genuine knowledge, at least in the theoretical sphere. Indeed, from what knowing perspective could make claims about the appearance/ thing in itself distinction or the way things in themselves are that would allow us to properly ground such claims? As claims about the very “relation” between the different kinds of existents that make up “the world” (those that appear under the mind’s transcendental conditions, those that do not), what resources can Jauernig draw upon to ground her knowledge of this very set up? From which relation to existents do we have access to such that this can be established knowledge? Kant reworks and limits genuine ontological knowledge to transcendental philosophy precisely in order to move beyond the antimonies and the seemingly endless “mock combat” that characterized metaphysical debates prior to his metaphysics as a science. Such debates seemed endless because they were groundless – deploying the mere resources of the intellect and their logical coherence, metaphysicians came up with competing, contradictory systems, with no way, no “touchstone,” to ultimately settle their metaphysical disputes.

As Jauernig’s ultimate worries about her reading of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” attests, there is no way to secure our claims about the basic, ontological set up of transcendental philosophy (at least on her reading) that can be justified by any of the criteria for the establishment of genuine knowledge within its own framework. There is no view from which, in other words, we can concretely establish how (or if) the mind passively receives its objects from without. This leads Jauernig to conclude that we ultimately cannot justify fundamentally ontology – indeed, Kant’s or any others – and so we ought simply, within the bounds of logic, to choose which basic assumptions or position seems most agreeable to us:

But unless we adopt the implausible epistemic norm that, under any circumstances,  only claims that can be justified by an argument of some kind are epistemically permissible, or reasonable, we are within our epistemic rights to choose the most basic assumptions on which to build our philosophical positions according to what seems most agreeable to us, provided these assumptions are internally consistent and cohere with the rest of all claims that we accept, all necessary truths, and the totality of the available empirical evidence. Whether to opt for timid critical idealism or bold critical idealism or a version whose strength lies somewhere between these extremes ultimately is a matter of taste. Kant seems to like bold critical idealism best, and I do not blame him. (318)

And at an earlier point she remarks:

Everybody is entitled to their own intuitions about what is plausible when it comes to matters of fundamental ontology. (31)

Taking this route, however, leads right back to the situation Kant wanted to remedy: contradictory metaphysical arguments with no grounding beyond logical coherence. Kant’s lesson is that what allows us to move forward is not to demonstrate that metaphysical claims are merely logically possible; much less does he think metaphysics is simply based on the necessary of conceptual truths or empirical evidence. Rather, he shows us that the only non-sensible a priori knowledge we can have of objects is limited to knowledge of the (non-sensible) transcendental conditions and that supersensible knowledge of objects apart from these conditions (objects as they are in themselves) is not possible. This would include knowledge of how it is the mind fundamentally, ontologically relates to the source of its cognitions’ material.

Jauernig’s pointing out that there is an entire “fundamental ontology” presupposed by Kant’s move of ontological issues into a transcendental register certainly puts a finger on a lasting problem with Kant’s philosophy. It is no surprise that thinkers from Hegel to Nietzsche, the Neo-Kantians to Heidegger, have all pursued the question of how it is the transcendental philosophy of the first Critique (including its reworking of the traditional ontological project) is itself possible. However, to lapse back into a pre-Kantian approach to metaphysical issues or to ignore Kant’s revolution in philosophy altogether does not seem like a promising approach.