Iso Kern: Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie, Schwabe Verlag, 2021

Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie: Zu einer Synthese von Husserl und Leibniz Book Cover Phänomenologie der Intersubjektivität und metaphysische Monadologie: Zu einer Synthese von Husserl und Leibniz
Iso Kern
Schwabe Verlag
Paperback $29.95

Karel Novotný: Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie

Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie Book Cover Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie
Orbis Phaenomenologicus Studien, Vol. 50
Karel Novotný
Königshausen & Neumann
Hardback 28.00 €

Reviewed by: Nikos Soueltzis (University of Crete)

World and the Lived-body: From the title of the book the author cares to prepare us for an encounter with two of phenomenology’s most prominent themes. Trivial as it may be this ascertainment is already an understatement of the complexities and shifts that have marked the history of their treatment within phenomenological tradition. Only the plural form in the subtitle (On Some Basic Motifs of Phenomenology) gives a hint of the challenges that await the reader. Thought-provoking and informative, Karel Novotný’s book discusses the work of philosophers who have voiced their objections against Husserl’s classic conception of the consciousness–world correlation.

It should be clarified from the start that Novotný’s book is not meant as an introduction to the phenomenological themes of the world and the lived-body. To appreciate the fineness of his analysis some degree of familiarity with the phenomenological tradition is clearly presupposed. Thus, the reader should be prepared for a close engagement with the text and indirectly with the broad corpus of texts Novotný discusses. We will briefly present the content of each chapter and then address a few points that caught our attention.

The book comprises three main parts each of which consisting of two chapters. In the first part, Novotný examines Eugen Fink’s and Renaud Barbaras’ attempts to initiate and carry out a cosmological turn from within phenomenology. In the second part, he discusses Jan Patočka’s and László Tengelyi’s transcendentally oriented phenomenological conceptions of the world. In the third part, the book focuses explicitly on what he calls the “margins” of the world/lived-body correlation. Patočka’s conceptions of movement and life, both in his late and early work, are given here special attention. Finally, after demarcating the “marginal” function of lived-corporeality in Husserl’s work, the book culminates in a concise exposition of Emmanuel Levinas’ and Hans Rainer Sepp’s original elaborations of it.

In the opening chapter of the book, Novotný introduces the problem of the world’s pregivenness by referring to some of Husserl’s classic texts and to the revisions it undergoes but also elicits in the hands of his major successors. For Husserl, the world is the open framework of all fields in which something that appears exerts an affection on the ego. The world’s transcendence is always given to a horizon-consciousness and phenomenologically explicating its constitution amounts to explicating the world’s horizon-structure. The Noesis-Noema correlation involves horizon-nexuses on both sides. But the world is not a horizon that correlates to a single act; it is the horizon of all horizons. Husserl’s description of the performance of epoché and phenomenological reduction in Ideas I reveals the fundamental function of the Generalthesis: the positing of the world as existing. The world is a sense-formation of a universally functioning subjectivity. Thus, subjectivity and world are tightly connected in this correlation that forms an absolute basis for Husserl’s phenomenology. But, according to Novotný, his theory of world-apperception carries with it a debatable implication much criticized by his successors. Namely, the tendency to understand world-apperception as prescribing that every real thing is determined in advance in its universal typicality. Met with suspicion, this implication led to two different currents of critisism. On the one hand, fearing that this typicality poses a threat to the openness of appearing, the line of Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and Marc Richir, dismisses the view that the world is the origin of appearing or that this appearing is tied to a total apperception (21). On the other hand, before this turning-away from the world, cosmological attempts were made to recover the world in its primordial pregivenness and establish it as the framework that makes possible every phenomenal correlation. Novotný briefly discusses the second line of thought characterizing it as a “cosmological turn” and names Fink as its main proponent. The latter grasps human relating to the world not on the ground of an intentional consciousness and its horizons but within a framework that already embraces them both. To do so, he moves away from Husserl’s model of horizon-gradations by reversing the direction of its openness. Instead of beginning from a subjective bearer that stands outwards (Hinausstehen) toward the openness of the horizon, we now follow the opposite direction and focus on the world’s emerging within (Hereinstehen) the horizon-system (23). Fink’s contribution rests in pointing out the fleeting dimension of the world beyond the bipolar appearing/withdrawing characterizing the ontological difference—i.e., Being’s withdrawal for the beings to appear, while remaining inseparable from them.

In the second chapter, Novotný discusses extensively Renaud Barbaras’ work. In broad strokes, he summarizes the latter’s project as an attempt to radically de-subjectivize appearing as such by being led back to the world’s own process of becoming. He distinguishes between two modes of appearing: “primary” and “secondary.” Primary manifestation is the world’s anonymous process of becoming. Secondary appearing, on the other hand, is the appearing that involves a subjective pole. The world itself exhibits an essential distance within its movement of primary manifestation, a dynamic depth. Thanks to the latter, living beings are characterized by the movement of an insatiable desire: they reach out to the world, always moving within its depth and being that movement. For Barbaras, herein lies the deepest structure of correlation. Secondary appearing emerges through this movement of desire once a peculiar event of rupture occurs. In his earlier texts, this event transpires within the world but does not stem from the world’s movement. Having placed at the core of this movement the productive force of physis, he characterizes this event of rupture as metaphysical to denote what Husserl calls the primary fact of subjectivity (34f.). But the “transformation” effectuated through the event of rupture is a mere prolongation of the world-movement and not a radical change or any kind of discontinuity. The significance of this event as well as the difficulties that follow from it become apparent if one considers the spatial dimension of appearing and the accompanying individuation of the living subjects in it through their lived-bodies.[i] Given his cosmological perspective, it is no surprise that Barbaras speaks of a proto-spatialization. Beings are spatially individuated prior to their embeddedness into any framework of orientation.

As Novotný points out, it is imperative to explain what the role of the event of rupture is in this proto-spatialization. The prolongation of primary manifestation into secondary appearing implies the emergence of the lived-bodily centrality and this must be somehow related to the event of rupture. Trying to delve deeper into the cosmological realm, Barbaras recently revised his initial conception. Focusing on proto-spatialization, he describes the world’s movement through a threefold articulation: (a) as ground (Boden, le sol), (b) as site (Sitz, le site), and (c) as place (Ort, le lieu) (39). Novotný tries to explain the complex ways in which these modes of spacing relate to each other, finally making possible the openness of subjectivity. Barbaras employs this threefold distinction to show that subjectivity’s intentional tendency rests on a more primal movement. Far from being an autonomous self-movement, the movement of phenomenalization is the world’s ultimate force returning to itself. To further explain the emergence of subjectivity within the world’s movement he claims that the world already exhibits a subjectivity of its own, one that differs from the self-relation peculiar to the experiencing of appearing yet attested to by the latter. All beings exhibit subjectivity in different degrees. Human subjectivity is inscribed deeper within world’s subjectivity, while subjectivity of lifeless things is inscribed in it in the most fleeting and volatile manner. Acknowledging world’s own subjectivity implies that lived-bodily subjectivity occurs as a movement within world’s own movement. In the same movement that bodies become individuated, the human living being takes hold of the world in its phenomenalization (43).

It is in the third chapter that Novotný moves away from the previous cosmological attempts. He discusses the similarities and differences between Patočka’s and Fink’s understanding of the world. Like Fink, Patočka does not subscribe to a world-conception based on thing-apperception: the world is not a mere extension of the objectifying intentionality into surrounding zones. However, the peculiarity of his approach rests on acknowledging that there is a deeper horizonal structure involved in thing-apperception that is intimately connected to the world and co-shapes its pre-givenness in a primordial manner. Thus, Patočka’s phenomenology places emphasis on the mutuality between the pre-givenness of the whole and the fact of its limitation: both permeate and sustain each other. He admits that the world-totality does not need the various subject-centers of appearing, but he acknowledges their interrelation as a fact that cannot be ignored. Thus, instead of relinquishing phenomenology altogether towards a speculative cosmology, he insists on the possibility of a phenomenology of the world-totality. Such a phenomenology cannot perform the metaphysical leap to a “real world” behind appearances. Instead, it tries to make accessible those appearances on the ground of the world-totality that is present in them. Novotný characterizes Patočka’s perspective at that time as “static,” provisionally setting aside the “genetic” access to the world-totality, a task taken up in his theory of the “movements of existence.”

Novotný then examines Patočka’s project of asubjective phenomenology. His discussion is initially limited to Patočka’s relevant published texts. He provides us with a brief presentation of his critical reconsiderations of Husserl’s phenomenology, based on the need to preserve the world’s irreducibility to the constituting life of consciousness. But the risk of ending up with a metaphysical enclosure of a cosmos that affords its own hypostatized mode of appearing is too high. He chooses to “focus on the openness of appearing itself, for which the world serves only as a respectively a priori form but not as a ground in the sense of source” (63). The world is an a priori form. But where is this a priori hinged on and how can we trace it? Patočka’s reply is that phenomenology’s proper theme of inquiry is the autonomous “field of appearance,” i.e., the sphere of the different modes of appearing that is independent both from the appearing objects as well as from the spontaneity of the acts of consciousness. Thus, it should not be subjectivized and reduced to the noetic-noematic distinction. The allegedly immanent components of appearing (e.g., sensation and apprehension) are in fact modes of appearance pertaining to the object (65). But how does this field appear and how does it relate to the appearing of the beings that appear in it? Patočka follows a specific methodological path that allows him to free the phenomenal sphere from all possible constraints and misinterpretations. While he employs Husserl’s phenomenological epoché, he dismisses the complementary move toward the immanence of consciousness, i.e., his phenomenological reduction. He characterizes this break as a radicalized epoché (66). In Patočka’s Nachlass Novotný traces significant contributions to an understanding of this asubjective world-a priori. He distinguishes its three structural moments: (a) the totality of “what” appears, (b) the “who” to which it appears, and (c) the “how” of the appearing (72). All these moments are themselves given within appearing as such. Even though Novotný leaves out of consideration Patočka’s relation to Heidegger, he adds that in his project of asubjective phenomenology Patočka is clearly inspired by the motif of the ontological difference (74). In any case, Patočka’s insistence on the primacy of the problem of appearing attests to a certain distancing from Heidegger’s path, albeit on occasions in an ambivalent manner.

Chapter four discusses the issue of world’s pregivenness in Tengelyi’s project of phenomenological metaphysics from his last book Welt und Unendlichkeit. The guiding theme is his investigation on the kind of “necessity” implied in the commonly held view of the world’s non-modalizability. Tengelyi grasps this necessity not as a priori but as a factical one (78). He draws attention to what he considers to be “primal facts” that can be phenomenally shown but are irreducible or non-inferable. In the three sections of this chapter Novotný focuses on three points from Tengelyi’s phenomenological metaphysics of the world: (a) the conception of world’s openness as its essence, (b) the world’s openness in relation to the event of appearing, and (c) the reality of the world. To address the theme of the world, Tengelyi employs what he calls the “diacritic” method and gradually differentiates between world-totality and infinity (83). Both poles are treated in their contrast but as necessarily belonging together (Tengelyi 2014, 301). His aim is to revise our familiar phenomenological conception of the total world-horizon as a mere correlate of consciousness. The world’s existence in experience presupposes an inner concordance that is not a priori guaranteed but only factually shown (cf. Tengelyi 2014, 323). Thus, our world-cognition entails a certain contingence. Starting from this, Novotný broaches the issue of the relation between the world’s openness and the appearing as event. This contingence of my world-cognition attests to an alterity that leaves its traces in the infinite system of possible experiences, it always threatens to disrupt it (85). To denote that, Tengelyi refers to the possibility of “unavailable” experiences, to wit, experiences that do not accord with the smooth sense-giving intentional streaming of consciousness. Appearing announces itself in experience as an event bearing the character of contingent facticity, namely, an event that can never be reduced to sense-giving. This alterity with its potentially disruptive effects is tightly connected to world’s reality. The latter exhibits an openness that is announced in our experience of the world through the potentially disruptive contingence. The fact that this contingence is experienced entails that the openness of the world can be phenomenologically exhibited (88). But Tengelyi also tries to phenomenologically clarify the belief in the existence of the world based on the primal fact of lived-bodiliness. The fact of the sensory appearing of the world that nurtures our world-belief, as Novotný very vividly says, points to the fact of our embodiment. Even though the latter is never implicated in the event of appearing, it shows itself as its factical condition (90).

In chapter five, Novotný examines the basic motif announced in the title: Of the world’s being anchored to a relation to lived-corporeality (Leib-Körper). The experience of the world is always centered around a lived-bodily zero-point of orientation and always bears the polarity “home-alien.” But the lived-body borders on what is alien to it in another peculiar manner. It is the corporeal aspect that attests to this bordering and inscribes certain gaps to the continuous pregivenness. Novotný discusses Patočka’s relevant positions beginning from his dismissal of the primal correlation as one between an objectifying experience and its object. Instead, he privileges the correlation between life and the pregiven world that confronts it with its alienness. To situate this correlation, Patočka will appeal to a third concept of lifeworld mediating between the world as universe of beings and the world in its ontological function. It is the world that correlates to the fundamental movements of human life and not to a traditionally conceived subject. But, as Novotný points out, substituting life-movements for the subject does not amount to an overall dissipation of subjectivity: it is neither a way of naturalizing consciousness nor a cosmological reduction. The movements of existence are forms of expression of a living inwardness. Focusing on the dimension of movement introduces us to a dynamic-genetic perspective that encompasses the static-phenomenological one. Novotný highlights the role of lived-corporeal life for Patočka’s phenomenology by discussing his broader theory of movement and zeroing in on what he defines as the first movement of existence, i.e., the movement of “anchoring.” This movement originally opens the world in a purely instinctive manner; it is the sensuous life that is externally stimulated to movement (105f.). But for Patočka lived-corporeality points to a plurality of life-centers that form the world as the medium of expression starting from their respective internality and in mutual contact. The first world-relating movement is individuated through an intersubjective connection between living interiorities. Thus, the movement of “anchoring” involves more than our organic world-embeddedness. It is also articulated by our being accepted in a community. This acceptance or non-acceptance colors the world respectively either with a welcoming warmth or with the threatening coldness of its vastness.

Novotný turns further to Patočka’s unpublished manuscripts to defend him against any allegations of a cosmological turn. The most challenging part is the one dedicated to Patočka’s early project of life-phenomenology. Novotný guides us through the bulk of untranslated texts from the 1940’s introducing the reader to its main elements (122ff.). From life’s “inwardness” to the appearing as expression of this “inwardness” and his peculiar account of aesthesis based on a polarity of indifferences, Patočka’s early project involves many radical revisions of familiar aspects of phenomenology. As an example, Novotný refers to Husserl’s “hyletic sphere” and how Patočka integrates it to his project. The hyletic sphere is a first externality but not a lifeless one. It must already contain that which enables the intention to turn the hyletic stratum into a bearer of expression (127). Thus, it is not only to the other person or living animal being that an “inwardness” is ascribed but to other beings in general. Hyle is already an externalization that expresses an “inner” life. Lived-corporeality plays here an essential role as the particular expression of human life that offers us the key to understand expression as a phenomenon of life in general (129).

In the last chapter, Novotný focuses explicitly on lived-corporeality and its phenomenological examination. His guiding assumption is that the lived-body (Leib) can only be the core of the self inseparably from corporeality (Körper) while the latter is experienced at the same time as a limit of subjectivity. What we are looking for is a primal lived-corporeal experiencing in which the inner and the outer are intimately connected. His itinerary starts with Husserl and his conception of the lived-body. The aim is to point out the ineradicable significance of the corporeal aspect (Körper) and the impossibility of a total abstraction from it. He does that by critically showing that in Husserl’s (especially later) work the lived-body is absorbed in the immanence of living-experiencing leaving no room for a differentiating singularization. It cannot account for the singularity of the self, i.e., for the singularity of the perceiving subjectivity in its factual distinction from any other. Thus, we should entertain the hypothesis that this is carried out by the twofold character of lived-corporeality. As Novotný says, living-experiencing is each time mine thanks to the “psycho-physical” lived-corporeality (136). Living-experiencing and the lived-body, according to him, are anonymous in their immanence and thus unable to singularize the self. This singularization is only possible through the anchoring of lived-corporeality (140). It is at this point that he will interpose Levinas’ theory about the position (or positing) of the body as corporeality (Körper) from his early text Existence and Existents.

According to Levinas, egoic living-experiencing cannot posit corporeality on its own, so it is posited through an event that escapes the custody of the subject. Levinas refers to a materiality that lies hidden within the objects of the surrounding world as an alterity. It is neither perceived nor thought of as it cannot be fixated within a system of sense-relations, but it is affectively given. This materiality attests to the fact of the anonymous existence, the there is that is revealed in the experience of horror with its depersonalizing effect (142). The emergence of consciousness is made possible by a positing that depends on corporeality and not on a pure ego or the flesh of the lived-body. It is a corporeality that does not point back to a constituting immanence. It is no object but the event of the positing of “here” and a precondition for any immanence. Translating it in the terms of his own model, Novotný claims that the position (or positing) of corporeality lies in the margins of the universal correlation.

Novotný’s last stop is Hans Rainer Sepp’s concept of the border-Leib (Grenzleib) drawn from his project of phenomenological ecology. Along with direction-Leib (Richtungsleib) and sense-Leib (Sinnleib), they form the three fundamental dimensions of lived-body.[ii] Border-Leib refers to the limit-experience of our lived-body in which the nakedness of the real is experienced prior to its articulation in a sense; direction-Leib refers to the movement of an embodied experiencing that is a reaching out to an exteriority by desiring it; the sense-Leib refers to a fixed framework of sense that structures a new lived-bodily dimension. Sepp starts with the acceptance that human subjectivity is an embodied subjectivity. Thus, we must understand how its relation to its environment and to itself is bodily formed in such a way that human beings participate to place-relations determined by their lived-body. To that extent, Sepp speaks of a primordial place as a limit or a border that delineates the singularity of life. It is a factical limitation in an absolute “here.” For Sepp this limit or border is a “living being-inside” (146). With respect to the subjective pole of the correlation, Novotný sees in Sepp’s idea of border-Leib an affinity with Levinas’ positing (or position) of corporeality. But he finds Sepp’s conception of the “real” as more fitting to describe the primal situation with respect to the non-subjective pole. He integrates Sepp’s as well as Levinas’ positions to his own model of the margins of the universal correlation. The former’s “real” and the latter’s anonymous “there is” lurk in the margins deprived of any sense-articulation.

As already mentioned at the beginning, Novotný’s book is a demanding read not due to its writing style but because it engages in a discussion of a wide range of authors and texts. To that extent, the reader’s effort is dictated by the material itself. That being said, the only traceable drawback is that at times Novotný inserts his own remarks and reconstructions without having previously provided a sufficient context. Unfortunately, sometimes this interrupts the reading flow and thus raising the suspicion that particular  sentences are packed with dense implications which are not properly fit in the context. To be fair, this is a recurring pattern only in the chapter on Barbaras’ cosmology.

A striking example can be found on page 34 where he refers to “appearing as such” as the core of his reconstruction without a clear indication as to its differentiation from “primary” and “secondary appearing.”[iii] Things would probably be much easier if a chapter on Patočka already preceded his discussion of Barbaras’ work. However, in the given occasion the lack of an explicit distinction incites confusion especially when Novotný transposes the “event” of rupture into the context of “appearing as such”: it is the latter that exhibits an essentially evental character. Trying to follow this transposition, one can ask: if the distinction between primary and secondary manifestation is something derivative from the point of view of “appearing as such,” why should there be any essential connection between its evental character and the event of rupture? It could even be misleading to employ it as a leading clue. The world’s obtaining its specific mode of appearing (its “how”) does not signify anything like a radical rupture since it is already a moment of the a priori of appearance. In fact, one could contend that there is no dimension of “appearing as such” that could accommodate the speculative demands of “primary manifestation.”

But let us make a more general interpretive suggestion based solely on Novotný’s analysis. Can we claim that in the present context switching from a cosmological to a phenomenological perspective and vice versa is a matter of subordinating interchangeably to each other two significant aspects of the event—its dynamic and its facticity? Can it be the case that Barbaras privileges spatialization by adopting the spatial-modal tripartition of the primary event (le sol, le site, le lieu) to compensate for tacitly ascribing a secondary function to the event’s facticity as opposed to its dynamic? To be sure, Barbaras’ turn to a metaphysical cosmology is not a matter of carefully blurring the limits of phenomenology. However, a close investigation of how he moves away from the latter is surely a productive endeavor. Novotný’s model of the “margins” of correlation admittedly provides us with a solid basis to carry it out.

From a broad perspective, the model of the “margins of correlation” that Novotný promotes in his book allows us to pinpoint and thematize an area of investigation that is quite elusive. He employs it with caution and with a specific aim. To that extent it is a rather useful instrument of analysis. Nevertheless, there is a risk of stretching the model considerably by trying to fit in everything that speculative thought defines as escaping phenomenology’s reach. Some precaution is perhaps necessary to avoid measuring up those margins against the criticized instances of arbitrary hypostatization and to maintain their reference to the correlation itself. This is already what Novotný has in mind when he describes them based on the “escaping appearing/conditioning appearing” dipole and this is probably why confronting Barbaras’ peculiar cosmology is so important for his project.

Apart from this general remark, many interesting points of discussion are raised from Novotný’s analysis. Indicatively, we will mention only two. Because of the varied contexts of the chapters, we will address them in the specific frameworks in which they emerge. The first is drawn from his reference to what Patocka calls the “first movement of existence.” Towards the end of section 5.1 he distinguishes two of its components: (a) our primary acceptance by the others and (b) the affective readiness of life (113). We believe that this is a very interesting issue that should draw our attention to the complex interrelations between these two components, i.e., how the one affects the other. But a more pressing question comes to mind: how does Patočka gain access to the phenomenality of their connection within the anchoring-movement? How is their structural balance on such a dynamic ground procured at a phenomenological level? Is it a matter of their intertwinement in a past that is irretrievable in its own terms or is the first movement of existence as such characterized by an ultimate actuality that sets the limits of any inquiry into the origins of its components? If the latter is the case, should we not acknowledge this actuality first as the phenomenological edge of human life in its polyphonous movement before we proceed to its characterization (as event, proto-facticity, etc.)?

The second remark refers to Sepp’s notion of border-Leib discussed in section 6.3. We mentioned earlier that Sepp considers the limit that delineates life’s singularity as a “living being-inside.” But Novotny traces a certain tension at this point: this absolute “here” where life is factically singularized is not a place where this life is opened up for itself in its singularity. How can Sepp claim that they coincide as a “living being-inside”? To accommodate both claims, Novotny suggests viewing them through the perspective of lived-corporeality. As corporeal, this singularity is posited as absolute “here” in a proto-factical manner. As lived-body, this factical limitation is identified with an “absolute being-inside.” The problem is how to understand the transition or contact between the two. According to Novotný, Sepp settles it by resorting to the perspective of the direction-Leib. It seems that it was probably Sepp’s reference to an “absolute ‘here’” that led Novotny to such a claim (146). Yet, Sepp elsewhere refers to the dimension of “Ausleben” to connect the two poles (cf. Sepp 2010, p. 134). Roughly translated, it is the living-out of the lived-body (here: at an organic level). Orientation and directedness are built on this tendency of “Ausleben” when this tendency itself encounters its limit as an obstacle. In short, the “Da” to which Sepp refers is meant to circumscribe the primary resistance of the naked real against the organic tendency of lived-bodily “Ausleben.” Novotný probably wants to connect this primal contact between lived-body and corporeality with an experiential dimension that does not run the risk of lapsing into a cosmological or naturalistic interpretation. It seems that appealing to direction-Leib as the broader perspective in which the two poles of border-Leib come in contact is what enables him to claim that border-Leib is a component of the margins of correlation.

Overall, Novotný’s book is an invaluable addition to the arsenal of phenomenological scholarship. Insightful and rigorous, Welt und Leib meets all the requirements: rich in content, organized, detailed, historically and systematically informing, and conversing with major contemporary phenomenological theories. In short, the reader can only benefit from it in so many ways.[iv]


Sepp, Hans Rainer. 2010. „Gabe und Gewalt. Gedanken zum Entwurf einer leibtheoretisch verankerten Anthropologie.“ Cornelius Zehetner, Hermann Rauchenschwandtner u. Birgit Zehetmayer (Hg.): Transformationen der kritischen Anthropologie. Für Michael Benedikt zum 80. Geburtstag. Wien: Löcker: 133-146.

Tengelyi, László. 2014. Welt und Unendlichkeit. Zum Problem phänomenologischer Metaphysik. Freiburg: Karl Alber.

[i] Novotný refers on purpose to the Leib-Körper compound and not just to Leib. He does so throughout the book, and it is important for his theory regarding the body’s primary role in the correlation to the world and its way of being situated in the “margins” of the correlation. Below, we will translate it as “lived-corporeality” to preserve a reference to both components.

[ii] Sepp develops this threefold distinction in Sepp (2010).

[iii] Another example is his abrupt reference to the “Earth” as the ground of all corporeality on page 47, while we first learn more about its role in Patočka’s philosophy on page 109.

[iv] This research is co-financed by Greece and the European Union (European Social Fund-ESF) through the Operational Programme “Human Resources Development, Education and Lifelong Learning” in the context of the project “Reinforcement of Postdoctoral Researchers – 2nd Cycle” (MIS-5033021), implemented by the State Scholarships Foundation (ΙΚΥ).

Maria Agustina Sforza: Sein und Leben: Zur Andersheit des Tieres bei Heidegger, Klostermann, 2021

Sein und Leben: Zur Andersheit des Tieres bei Heidegger Book Cover Sein und Leben: Zur Andersheit des Tieres bei Heidegger
Heidegger Forum 18
Maria Agustina Sforza
Hardback 49,00 €

Eric S. Nelson: Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other

Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other Book Cover Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Eric S. Nelson
SUNY Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by: Kristóf Oltvai (The University of Chicago)

In Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other, Eric S. Nelson advances, via these two key interlocutors, a “materialist ethics of nonidentity” (14) that would critique nothing less than “contemporary capitalist societies in their complexly interconnected cosmopolitan neoliberal and neomercantile nativist and nationalistic ideological variations” (260). Such great expectations, and mouthfuls, populate the whole continent of this nigh-five-hundred-page tome, which, alongside its protagonists, surveys, enlists, or corrects thinkers as diverse and challenging as Enrique Dussel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Jacques Derrida, and Iris Murdoch. While such breadth – to say nothing of Nelson’s frequent and fascinating asides to Asian philosophies – reveals a deep erudition, the study’s verbosity often belies its chief argument: that Emmanuel Levinas’s phenomenological defense of ethics as ‘first philosophy,’ if informed by and reinterpreted through Theodor Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics, offers up a useful framework for rethinking our ethical obligations to dehumanized human and nonhuman Others in the Anthropocene. Admittedly, Nelson tips his hand quite late when he writes that “[t]he alternative interpretative strategies outlined throughout this work…point,” not to some reconstitution of “a republic of rational spirits or community of communicative and dialogical agents” à la Habermas and Honneth (Nelson’s whipping boys), but to an “an-archic and unrestrained solidarity…between material existents” (332). His concerns seem, in the final analysis, ecological, while his conclusions share a family resemblance with object-oriented ontology.

The text’s primary theoretical contribution is its concept of “asymmetry”: if ethics is founded on ontological equality, then one’s moral obligations to certain humans, and even more so to nonhuman or flat-out nonliving beings, is impossible. We must thus develop, Nelson claims, ways to think moral obligation in ontologically asymmetrical conditions. Even putting stylistic issues aside, the argument is vexed by a central difficulty, namely, an inability to articulate what sets its solutions apart from the behemoth it means to criticize. While he does offer some recommendations, Nelson frequently jumps from first-person phenomenological description to third-person, extremely concrete public policy positions, or puts forward an idea that “the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). The former confuses distinct levels of philosophical analysis, while – to echo Slavoj Žižek’s criticism of Levinas, one that Nelson himself considers (299) – the latter risks a sentimentalism unable to deconstruct global capitalism. Both fangs of this problem arise from Nelson’s underdeveloped account of the precise epistemological connection between phenomenology and critical theory, as well as from a conflation of liberalism and capitalism his own sources reject. The Ethics of the Material Other thus ultimately finds itself unable to decide whether liberalism’s wholesale rejection, or just its reformulation, is in order.

After an introduction meant mainly to acknowledge Adorno’s and Levinas’s diverging philosophical idioms, Nelson divides his study into three parts: “After Nature,” “Unsettling Religion,” and “Demanding Justice.” In “After Nature,” Nelson turns to Marx’s and Adorno’s idea that ‘nature,’ as an ideological category, is dialectically-materially constructed, first using this idea to critique Habermas and Honneth, and then suggesting it helps us get around Levinas’s anthropocentrism. The basic point here is easy to grasp. ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ are not static ontological spheres; rather, ‘nature’ is itself historically conditioned, and, in late capitalism, serves as both “the environment,” a mere “background for human activity” (38), and as a fetishized reservoir for consumers’ ‘sublime’ experiences. The “natural and human worlds” should thus be rethought, Nelson argues, “as historically intertwined and mutually co-constituting” (46), with ‘nature’ now defined, with Adorno, as the material τόδε τι that confronts and resists reason’s dialectic. In contrast to Habermas and Honneth, then, for whom the Marxian “expression ‘domination of nature’…is [only] a metaphor extended to nature from the domination between humans in misshapen relations” (44), Nelson recovers Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s sense that, in fact, the real exploitation of nature grounds, and is interwoven with, specific forms of dehumanization. In other words,

[i]nsofar as humans are worldly bodily beings, with practical material lives, it is debatable whether the nondisposability of humans can be preserved in a world where everything else is disposable… In not listening and responding to animals, environments, and the materiality of the world… numerous human forms of life and suffering are silenced (48).

The extent to which Nelson himself actually embraces the “nonreductive, aporetic, and ethical praxis-oriented…materialism” (49) he finds in the older Frankfurt School is another question, as his examples of ‘natural’ phenomena still seem oriented by romanticism; we hear of “melting glacier[s]” and “polluted wetlands” (128), for example, but few of the more discomfiting candidates from radical ecology. Nelson wonders, for example, if “[i]t might be the case that there can be an ethics that is responsive to and responsible for animals, ecosystems, and environments without presupposing or requiring any concept or experience of nature” (114), without interrogating what concept of ‘nature’ underlies the three ethical subjects with which he begins that very sentence. The extent to which “bodily suffering” (81) motivates Nelson’s ethics – and restricts them – is likewise open to debate, and downplays, in his account, the extent to which ‘nature’ remains, for Adorno as it was for Hegel, an epistemological category. Nonetheless, Nelson’s use of Adorno to overcome Levinas’s alleged “antinaturalistic and antibiological” (91) is convincing. Levinas’s critique of ‘naturalism’ is indeed oriented by his desire to steer clear of anti-humanist romanticism, especially in its reactionary modes; if we jettison a romantic construction of ‘nature,’ then, granting an “alterity and transcendence to life and living beings insofar as they are ethically rather than biologically understood” (116) does become possible. This reinterpretation also dovetails with the one advanced by Megan Craig and others, namely, that Levinas’s descriptions of the ethical encounter are just extended epistemological metaphors, meant to ground a radical empiricism. This would fit nicely with Adorno’s own defense of empiricism, in his Metaphysics lectures and elsewhere, against idealism’s alleged hatred of the empirical.

In his study’s second part, “Unsettling Religion,” Nelson focuses on the notion of ‘prophecy,’ primarily in Levinas’s philosophical interpretation of Judaism. Before jumping into this, though, he begins by overviewing Ricœur’s three ‘masters of suspicion’ – Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – and their critiques of religion. In what amounts to a methodological exercise, Nelson admits that while “[r]eligions operate as ideological disguises and hegemonic regimes of this-worldly power that demand ascetic and sacrificial practices and exact heavy costs in lives and suffering,” they are simultaneously “expressive of prophetically inspired hope for forgiveness, happiness, and justice” (150). He expends particular energy evaluating Nietzsche’s views on religion in On the Genealogy of Morality, affirming the Genealogy’s ‘prophetic’ elements while rejecting its crypto-virtue ethics and justification of suffering through amor fati. Nelson then turns to the meat of the argument in this part, which is Levinas’s confrontation with Kierkegaard over the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. For Nelson, this contrast illustrates two fundamental ‘religious’ modes: Kierkegaard’s, that of fundamentalism and theocratic tyranny, of “the religious constituting the suspension of the ethical,” as against Levinas’s ‘prophetic’ “interruption of [God’s] command by the ethical demand not to kill” (181). For Levinas, Kierkegaard’s positive valuation of Abraham’s decision in Genesis – to carry out God’s command to sacrifice Isaac despite its patent immorality and absurdity – shows that Christianity is “an egotistical and self-interested search for consolation, redemption, and salvation.” Judaism, on the other hand – which Levinas identifies with the angel intervening to stay Abraham’s hand – is “not even primarily about God” (184), but about “the humanism of the other.” This is “the ethical truth of monotheism,” which Levinas actually finds in the later Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, not “faith and its subjectivity” (183). Through this analysis, Nelson provides evidence for the theory that – as Samuel Moyn has argued – Levinas’s concept of ethics norms his construction of ‘Judaism,’ not vice versa. This is why, for example, he can praise “atheism” in one moment “as the break with mythic absorption and monistic participation” while lambasting it as “the denial and absence of the transcendent” (213) in the next.

Nelson then turns to Bloch, for whom the “the radical potential of prophecy in Judaism and Christianity, the prophetic denunciation of exploiters, despots, and masters… prepared the way for the communist communities of love from which” – on Bloch’s reading, at least – “primordial Christianity emerged” (230). Finally, “Unsettling Religion” concludes, in a somewhat disjointed way, with a chapter on Murdoch and the Danish Lutheran thinker Knud Ejler Løgstrup. Apart from Løgstrup’s apparently “underappreciated” (243) status in contemporary philosophy and his use of Kierkegaard, I found this excursus confusing, especially given that Nelson would have had to unpack Murdoch’s metaphysical commitments in a more sustained way to make the comparison of her and Levinas other than external. Also meriting scrutiny is the “category of the religious” Nelson claims his analysis has uncovered – namely, one that, “through its prophetic and redemptive moments and in its dreams, hopes, and visions formed and expressed in abject, damaged, and wounded life… heighten[s] the radical republican and social democratic alignment in the direction of equality (fairness), liberty (autonomy), and solidarity (love)” (259). After all, his frequent gestures to Asian religious and philosophical concepts notwithstanding, Nelson’s proponents of ‘prophecy’ here all work within one textual reception history – that of the Hebrew Bible. Can we cleave this ethically- and politically-oriented prophetism from its scriptural origins, ethos, and legitimation? If not, we may need to resist identifying it with ‘religion’ sans phrase; “messianism” (232), per Nelson’s own suggestion, may be more accurate.

“Demanding Justice,” the study’s final part, attempts to think through how a Levinasian ethics, having passed through the clarificatory crucible of the first two parts, might reorient contemporary political theory. I stress ‘Levinasian’ because, at this juncture, Nelson’s use of Adorno recedes into the background, even as earlier adversaries like Habermas and Honneth return as the “high priests” (to repeat Žižek’s quip) of global capital. Nelson’s guiding question here is whether “there [is] in the Levinasian motif of the ‘language of the other’…the possibility of an alternative to both the false universality of liberal and neoliberal cosmopolitanism and the false concreteness of communitarianism and racialized particularism” (320). These two frameworks are, for Nelson, secretly complementary: neoliberalism preaches universal equality and ‘human rights’ while materially erasing those distinct ways of life – human and nonhuman – unable to be integrated into the free market’s logic, and finds itself quite comfortable with new forms of nationalism and chauvinism that stratify intrasocietal wealth as long as global capital flows remain unimpeded. He takes especial issue with the classical Enlightenment concept of freedom, which he sees as having been perverted into an ideology whereby “appeals to one’s own freedom function to justify power over others and deny the freedom of others to live without coercion and violence” (285). Where this disfiguration is not carried out by the state, it is done so by the ‘culture industry’ and other homogenizing social and economic mechanisms, as diagnosed by Adorno, Horkheimer, and Alexis de Tocqueville. This ideology finds its quintessential expression in the fact that the modern subject is told her freedom is absolute while she finds the most primal experience of freedom – the freedom for meaningful political action – denied her. “Freedom from society robs the individual of the strength for freedom. Asocial freedom limited to an absolutized private self, and divorced from the sociality of the other, is…a denial of the freedom that participates in and helps shape society” (303).

Now, Nelson is aware that Levinasian ethics does not have an obvious answer to this problem; he repeatedly cites, for instance, Žižek’s objection that Levinas, by hyperbolically exaggerating the self’s infinite responsibility for the Other in the ethical encounter, just shifts the burden of society’s sins onto the atomized subject. Nelson claims in response that Levinasian ethics serves as a corrective to existing egalitarianisms rather than a full-blown political counterprogram. Because “Levinas’s political thinking is in multiple ways…an ethically informed and other-oriented transformation of French republican thought” (321), it aims at “disrupting and potentially reorienting self and society, immanently within and yet aporetically irreducible to being, its unity or multiplicity, or other ontological determinations” (332). “Instead of offering an ethical program of cultivating virtues or duties, or setting up procedural normative guidelines,” then, “Levinas speaks of the other as a who. This ‘who’ cannot be defined by ethics in the sense of a normative theory or moral code” (324). Nelson, however, and in a way that I will momentarily question, then turns to define and elucidate precisely such a theory: a “cosmopolitanism of the other,” one “not only concerned with universal and abstract justice” but with “the singularity and particularity of those forgotten and suppressed by the universal as incarnated in the current social-political order” (340). This new cosmopolitanism would “require…a radically an-archic res publica, a republicanism of unrestricted civic associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338). Moreover, it would extend from the human into the nonhuman world, “[n]ourishing and cultivating the life of material others…in fairer forms of exchange and distribution of goods and of intersubjective and interthingly recognition” (332). Ethics of the Material Other closes by suggesting that, although it has successfully gestured toward the ethical and theoretical foundations of this ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ only a “political economy oriented toward alterity and nonidentity” would complete its task. Such a political economy would “address” itself to the same themes – “the modern domination of nature that has resulted in disappearing species, deteriorating ecosystems, and the wounds of damaged life” (356) – with which Nelson framed the first part, underscoring the text’s ecological orientation.

Nelson’s fundamental contribution here is his use of Adorno to refine Levinas’s concept of alterity and thereby extend the latter’s phenomenology of the ethical encounter to explicitly include nonhuman Others. This detour through Adorno is not, strictly speaking, necessary. Otherwise than Being can, in particular, be read as an empiricist epistemological treatise, in which Levinas uses a prolonged interhuman metaphor to express the radical exteriority, objectivity, and claim on the conscience, not just of the human Other, but of the truth as such. Nelson’s decision to implicate Adorno is nonetheless insightful insofar as the latter’s later work not only concerns itself with the fact that the history of “metaphysical” (Levinas would write “ontological”) thought identifies the particular as negative and meaningless, but with the particular’s epistemological function, as the concretum of experience, without which reason loses contact with reality. The connection between human materiality and particularity on the one hand, and the functional meaning of these two terms on the other, is thus clearer in Adorno’s oeuvre than in Levinas’s, where Otherwise than Being has to flesh out the genetic phenomenology of reason that remains underdeveloped in Totality and Infinity. Nelson’s ‘asymmetry’ productively borrows this ontological-into-epistemological fluidity from Adorno. Asymmetry characterizes my relationship to the culturally, biologically, and, ultimately, even the epistemically Other, such that I might have, for example, an asymmetrical responsibility to a work of art, to my cultural traditions (‘the past’), or to coming generations or states of being (‘the future’). Access to the Other’s internal states or experiences, nay, even to their external characteristics, need not be a prerequisite for ethical relationship. That Nelson himself seems to sometimes ground these relationships in some shared quality – “sentience,” for example, as in “Buddhist ethics,” “or the equal consideration of interests in Peter Singer’s utilitarian animal ethics” (74) – suggests that certain political aims, such as environmentalism, motivate his project, but it does not obviate the fact that his conclusions align with some of our most important moral intuitions: the care for landscapes, landmarks, sacred sites or objects, and institutions. Whether or how these intuitions can be translated into political aims, however, is a more difficult question.

It is here that Nelson’s argument runs into its central difficulty, namely, in its attempt to map what is, for Levinas, a first-personal phenomenological description of the ethical encounter onto a third-personal normative prescription for political action. Otherwise than Being provides Levinas’s own account of how this transition takes place: although my obligation to the other is experienced as infinite, as soon as another other, “the third,” also places its unlimited demand on me, there takes place an ethical compromise whereby these two others’ needs are compared before I act upon them. This tragic but necessary choice, whereby I must not respond to the other’s infinitude for the sake of a ‘third’ just as transcendent, is the abiogenesis, not just of ethical speech, but of reason and language as such. It is in this paradoxical “comparison of the incomparable [that] there would be the latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral notion being.”[1] For Levinas, then, what marks any given politics’ ethicality is not whether it does in fact respond to each and every claim of alterity – an impossible task – but the degree to which it allows itself to be challenged by such claims at all. “It is then not without importance to know if the egalitarian and just State in which man is fulfilled…proceeds from a war of all against all or of the irreducible responsibility of the one for all… It is also not without importance to know, as far as philosophy is concerned, if the rational necessity that coherent discourse transforms into sciences, and whose principle philosophy wishes to grasp, has thus the status of an origin…or if this necessity presupposes a hither side…borne witness to, enigmatically, to be sure, in responsibility for the others.”[2] What Levinas offers us in Otherwise than Being is a genetic phenomenology of human politics, linked to one of rationality. These are accounts of how all such discursive and social formations have in fact come about, as is evident from how Levinas explicitly juxtaposes them against two other universal accounts, namely, Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Levinas is not prescribing, then, a certain form of government, let alone specific policy recommendations – although, if his account is true, and rationality is born of the ethical encounter, then a politics that flouts its hetero-foundation may risk unreason and collapse, as natural law theory believes tyrannies do.

Nelson acknowledges this several times (277, 281, 282) only to then jump to specific cases; “the denial of healthcare” (296) and “the use of capital punishment” (323), for example, are said to be incompatible with Levinasian commitments, as is liberal capitalism. “[E]quality cannot be limited to symmetrical rational agents exchanging reasons or rights. Such an abstract ideal misses the reality of exchange as structured by desires and interests, relations of power, status, and wealth, and the social-economic reproduction of society” (283). This diagnosis of liberalism – shot through with unseen power dynamics and guided by bellicose competition – sits uneasily with Levinas’s genetic account for both structural and epistemological reasons. The structural reason is that Nelson’s argument effectively, in an odd Hobbesianism, hypostasizes the State; it places the State in what is, for Levinas, the subject’s phenomenological position, expecting the State to experience and respond to alterity in the way the subject does. The epistemological reason is that Levinas’s phenomenology, like phenomenology in general, assumes a transparency incompatible with a transcendental hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the same object of analysis. If we accept Levinas’s account of political formation, in other words, we cannot accept a (broadly) Marxian one at the same level.

We are left with three possibilities. Either (a) Levinas’s account is accurate, and liberalism is simply a social formation that necessarily forgets its ethical genesis; (b) liberalism is compatible with societies’ ethical genesis, but has only contingently forgotten it; or (c) the Marxian account of liberalism is accurate, and Levinas’s is an ideological concoction. Because Nelson’s study does not develop a rigorous epistemological link between their phenomenological and critical-theoretical analytic registers (in the vein of, say, Maurice Merleau-Ponty), it cannot firmly decide between these three options. Instead, Nelson wavers between them. Many passages seem to opt for (a): because liberal capitalism has so deeply failed morally, its normative presuppositions are shams. “Abstract liberal arguments against oppression that leave capitalist forms of power essentially unquestioned are complicit with systems of subjugation that exploit, marginalize, and systematically reinforce powerlessness and vulnerability. They are compelled to sustain the machinery of global capitalism” (341). Or, again: “The liberal priority of justice over care, charity, and republican and communistic solidarity functions as a veil of indifference for excusing injustice, given the structures of domination imbedded in the institutions and practices of social-political life” (323). Nelson, rhetorically at least, seems to prefer (a); not unproblematically, however, his conclusion’s writ actually leans toward (b) or (c).

Nelson himself provides an important formulation of (c) in the form of Žižek’s and Stephen Bronner’s objections to Levinas (299, 305): does Levinas’s ethics, by placing a burden of infinite moral responsibility on the individual, not surreptitiously excuse the State or society of their structural injustices? Secondly, does this shift not privatize ethical discourse, obviating the need for social critique and collective action? Thirdly, does a phenomenology of infinite indebtedness to the Other not preclude moral criticism of that Other, “turn[ing]” society, in effect, “into a set of competing cultural ghettos” (314)? Nelson does not provide robust answers to these concerns. His alternative to particularistic communitarianism, the ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ remains underdeveloped, its only seeming quality a promise to avoid the mistakes of past cosmopolitanisms. Even more strikingly, there are moments where Nelson’s interpretation of Levinas as a theorist of ‘small acts of kindness’ meshes with Žižek’s view of him as a bourgeois sentimentalist. In his chapter on Levinas, Murdoch, and Løgstrup, for example, Nelson embraces their idea that “the good can occur through both uncultivated and cultivated human attitudes and practices of goodness, such as the small everyday acts that all three philosophers elucidate to different degrees” (249). We are told that Levinas is, in fact, “the opposite of the moralizing and ethically privileged perfectionist imagined by his detractors. Ethics does not consist in moralistic perfection, not even as a regulative ideal, but in the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and the ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). Nelson’s emphasis on the quotidian may assuage Žižek’s worry that Levinas presses for a “hyperbolic yet ultimately empty responsibility” (272), but not its corollary, that “asymmetrical freedom is inherently conservative and elitist in negatively privileging myself over others, as if injustice were solely my responsibility” (299). Indeed, Nelson’s answer to this specific charge – that Levinas can be placed in the French republican tradition and was sympathetic to socialist causes, and hence would surely not endorse a “neoconservative” policy of American exceptionalism (319) – substitutes biography for philosophy. The question is not where Levinas’s personal political proclivities lay, but whether his ethics structurally endorses a quietism or separatism (as in Totality and Infinity’s phenomenology of family life) that frames individual political involvement as morally irrelevant or, at best, unfulfilling. Given especially Levinas’s known antipathy to Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology of social life,[3] Nelson could have probed this angle further.

In yet other moments of his argument, however, Nelson seems to opt for (b). Levinas, he says, does not proposes any formation to replace liberal capitalism and its grounds in Enlightenment universalism, but rather offers up the encounter with the Other as its continual corrective. “[A]symmetrical ethics signifies a way of correcting,” rather than replacing, “standard liberal and socialist categorizations of social-political equality.” Again: it “indicates a noteworthy way of revising the contemporary discourses of ethical and critical social theory.” Or, yet again: “Levinas’s articulation…is not so much a rejection as it is a critical transformation of the categories of modern universalism” (281). While these sorts of statements get closest to Levinas’s actual position, they are not compatible with Nelson’s siding throughout his text with (a). We cannot claim that encountering the Other urges us to revise our political priorities within an existing liberal framework while also claiming that liberalism is fundamentally an ideological obfuscation. This contradiction stems, in Nelson’s account as in many others’ in contemporary continental thought (including, say, Agamben’s), from a conflation of liberalism with capitalism. Defining ‘liberalism’ as just free markets, and the unitary state power that enforces these (333), makes this conflation possible. Liberal theorists like Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt (to name two of Nelson’s own interlocutors) argue, however, that liberalism requires, above all, ‘civil society,’ the ‘thick,’ face-to-face communities that make deliberative rationality possible. Nelson’s most programmatic gesture, toward “a republicanism of unrestricted civil associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338), fully fits into this richer concept of liberalism, his protests notwithstanding. Classing Levinas with Arendt among capitalism’s liberal critics should lead us, however, to a more nuanced parsing of the relationship between alterity and communality than what Nelson offers here. After all, the point Arendt makes about refugees and human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which Nelson cites in this context, is not really one of “an inclusive republic that would welcome the stranger, the exile, and the stateless who have lost the very right to have rights” (321). (To be fair, Nelson’s misreading here is now so widespread in Arendt reception as to have become an interpolation.) Arendt certainly lauds such welcome, but her basic argument is Burkean. Universal human rights are an aspirational norm, but they are meaningless outside of a concrete political community; the nation-state’s particularism is thus the vehicle that realizes the universal. Arendt would agree with Levinas that “justice remains justice only, in a society where there is no distinction between those close and far off, but in which there also remains the impossibility of passing by the closest,”[4] but would stress that said ‘society’ must be bounded if we wish to retain a lived and practical meaning for ‘passing by’ the neighbor. Ultimately, then, Nelson’s embrace of “unrestricted solidarities” (2) may contradict some of his sources’ terms. I can have an unrestricted sense of responsibility for every possible Other, or a solidarity with the actual others I encounter in my embeddedness in my particular context, but unless ‘the face of the Other’ is but a cipher for a universal ontological determination (which Levinas would surely reject), I cannot have both. It is past due for the ‘negative political theologies’ inspired by Levinas, Adorno, Derrida, Hent de Vries, and others to acknowledge this fact and so to begin shifting their analyses from the insistence on ‘alterity’ to asking what political procedures and norms make – or could make – regular encounters with the Other a feature of public life.

[1] Emmanuel Levinas. 1998. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974).  Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, p. 158.

[2] Id., p. 159.

[3] Dominique Janicaud. 2000. “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology” (1991). Trans. Bernard Prusak. In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, p. 44.

[4] Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 159.

Kimura Bin: L’Entre, Jérôme Millon, 2021

L'Entre. Une approche phénoménologique de la schizophrénie Book Cover L'Entre. Une approche phénoménologique de la schizophrénie
Kimura Bin. Traduit du japonais par Claire Vincent
Jérôme Millon
Paperback $28.00

Ethan Kleinberg: Emmanuel Levinas’s Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought, Stanford University Press, 2021

Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought Book Cover Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic Turn: Philosophy and Jewish Thought
Ethan Kleinberg
Stanford University Press
Paperback $28.00

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953

The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953 Book Cover The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated from the French with an introduction and notes by Bryan Smyth
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by: Antonia Schirgi (University of Graz)


Merleau-Ponty suddenly died in 1961, at the young age of 53, at a time when he was still in the process of developing his thoughts and was working on a major book in which he wanted to further his thoughts and present a new ontology beyond a strict distinction of subject and object. For many years thereafter, notes that Merleau-Ponty drew up in preparation of this book that were posthumously published under the title The Visible and the Invisible and his  second thesis (habilitation), the Phenomenology of Perception, were considered to be his most important works. Apart from some published articles and books, Merleau-Ponty left a number of unpublished manuscripts and working notes (more than 4000 pages). Some of these unfinished works and notes were published in the years after Merleau-Ponty’s death. In 1992 the majority of Merleau-Ponty’s notes were donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France by his family and, since then, some previously unpublished materials have been published. These notes allow their readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts from his early works to the later ones, to see continuities, moments of self-criticism as well as to understand his engagement with certain philosophical and other literature (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 7).

After the completion of his second thesis, Merleau-Ponty was affiliated to the University of Lyon (1945-1949), later he held a professorship for child psychology at the Sorbonne (1949-1952). In 1952 he was elected to the Collège de France, he assumed his position there the same year, held his inaugural lecture on the 15th of January 1953 and began his regular teaching activities the following week (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). The Sensible World and the World of Expression (Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression) was the title of one of the two courses that Merleau-Ponty gave that year. The Collège de France is a unique institution; even if it is a public university, it does not offer regular introductory courses. The courses taught at the Collège are lectures and colloquia that permit the professors to present their ongoing thoughts and recent research to advanced students and/or the general interested public. Holding a chair in philosophy at this institution permitted Merleau-Ponty to further his philosophical thoughts, to return to some the phenomena that he treated in his first and second thesis as well as to some issues of his approach that he became aware of during the years after the completion of these books, and to present these thoughts to his audience. This return does, however, not present a break with his work and thoughts from the years at Sorbonne; rather, the insights that he gained during these years enriched his perspective on the phenomena (perception, the union of body and soul etc.) that he re-started to deal with.

In this review, I will discuss the translation of the posthumous edition of Merleau-Ponty’s notes on The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Furthermore, I want to give a brief overview of the course and of some of the key innovations that can be found in these notes. However, I will not discuss the content of the book in detail here.

The Manuscript

Detailed preparatory notes for the course on the sensible world as well as some further workings notes were part of the materials donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF “don 92-21 de Suzanne Merleau-Ponty”, NAF 26993 X). Merleau-Ponty himself published a brief summary of this course (cf. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968, 11-21), as he did of every course that he held at the Collège de France, but he did not publish any further materials. The preparatory and working notes were transcribed and published by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen in 2011 (MetisPresses).

Merleau-Ponty wrote up these notes in order to present the thoughts they contain to his audience; however, they are not immediately written for a public (like it would be the case with an article or a book). The manuscript contains some paragraphs that are written in full sentences. Nevertheless, large parts of the manuscript consist of incomplete sentences, bullet points, or listings of keywords. The editors of the French edition “strove to present Merleau-Ponty’s notes in a virtually verbatim form, and meticulous effort was made to keep the page layout as close as possible to that found in the actual notes themselves” (xliii). This effort of the editors is of high value for those working with Merleau-Ponty’s notes, as it permits readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts in the way he developed them and not to be simply guided, and potentially misguided, by the interpretation of the editors. However, interpretations of a text like the present one, are challenging. As Merleau-Ponty’s notes are, to my knowledge, the only materials available (no student notes or similar document have been published or included in the collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), it remains unknown how Merleau-Ponty elaborated and discussed his thoughts during his lectures. Smyth argues for a limited interpretation of this manuscript. Even if these notes were of importance as they date back to a crucial moment in the development of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts, the thoughts they contain were thoughts and work in progress. According to Smyth one should not over-hasty draw conclusions from these notes, from the perspective of a present-day reader who knows the further development of Merleau-Ponty’s work. Furthermore, the course notes should not be interpreted “in isolation from his other courses at the College de France” (xxxvi). Merleau-Ponty himself stated in his official course summary that it would still be necessary to further explore linguistic expression in order to define the philosophical meaning of the analyses perused during this course (cf. xxxvi; Merleau-Ponty 1968, 21). Therefore, Smyth argues that “we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions from them [these notes, A.S.] at all” (xxxvi). His call for a cautious interpretation of a manuscript like the present one seems adequate and valuable, but it might be a bit too far reaching. In this manuscript Merleau-Ponty discusses issues from a different angle than he did in other texts, and he elaborates thoughts more in details than he did in his published writings. Even if these notes were still work in progress, they can help readers to understand where Merleau-Ponty was coming from – which sources he considered important, in which direction his thoughts developed etc. To name an example, the importance of the writings of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder for Merleau-Ponty’s development of the concept of the body schema can only be understood from the present manuscript, not from Merleau-Ponty’s earlier writings (in the Phenomenology of Perception Schilder is only mentioned once). His discussion of the body schema in the present preparatory notes does not only deepen the thoughts Merleau-Ponty already developed in the Phenomenology of Perception, but it also shows new directions that he has been about to take with regards to this concept. Smyth is right that these preparatory notes should not be interpreted in isolation from Merleau-Ponty’s notes for his other courses and other materials, but does this not hold true for all of Merleau-Ponty’s writings? Even if certain writings, like the Phenomenology of Perception, were published by Merleau-Ponty himself, now that we know from courses like the present one as well as from articles and manuscripts that Merleau-Ponty himself was critical of some of his early positions and descriptions, it seems wrong to interpret the position he presented there as the position of Merleau-Ponty. Besides that, the problematic status is not unique to the manuscript of the course on the sensible world. None of the posthumously published manuscripts was intended to be immediately published. Even if Merleau-Ponty’s most renowned mature work – The Visible and the Invisible – is the publication of a manuscript that Merleau-Ponty prepared for publication, the manuscript that Merleau-Ponty left when he died in 1961 seems to have been far from a final version. We can only speculate how he would have further developed this manuscript would he had been given the time to do so.

The Translation

Editing notes, like Merleau-Ponty’s notes on the sensible world, is not an easy task; the same holds true for their translation. The present edition is a translation of the French edition (not of the original notes) (cf. xliii). The peculiar style of the manuscript that is, as I already mentioned, excellently reflected in the French transcript, has largely been preserved in the English translation. This means, for example, that words that Merleau-Ponty underlined, are underlined in the book, words that he crossed out, are included in the text, but crossed out as they were in the manuscript and so on (cf. xliv). Nevertheless, a translation is not simply a reproduction of a text in a different language, but it is the outcome of a process of interpretation. Smyth makes very clear that he is aware of his own interference in the text, when he states: “It is not possible […] to translate the notes as they stand without engaging in some disabbreviation, for there are simply too many uncertainties and ambiguities at the level of the words themselves.” (xlv) Hence, while the French edition in general does not add any terms to the text itself, but sticks to the original manuscript and its abbreviated style, the English translations “adds a very large number of terms within the text itself” (xiv). Thereby Smyth wants to enhance the readability of the text, “to facilitate as clear and unambiguous a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notes as possible” (xiv), and to outline the “intended meaning of the transcribed words” (xiv), or rather the transcribed words as they were read and interpreted by the translator. Further to the additions that Smyth made to the text itself, his translations “includes a new and expanded set of annotive notes” (xliii), that go beyond the notes included in the French edition. In addition, Smyth outlines his choices concerning the translation of some crucial terms that are not easily to translate – the “hard cases” as he would say (cf. xlvi-li).

The Structure of the Course and of the Book

In general, Merleau-Ponty held two courses per year, each one comprised fourteen to fifteen lectures (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). Often the topics of the two courses corresponded – this was also the case in 1953, when Merleau-Ponty dealt with issues of language in his second course – and on two occasions the two weekly courses were merged in order to develop one single issue more in depth (1956-1957 and 1957-1958, when Merleau-Ponty gave two intense courses on nature).

The Sensible World and the World of Expression comprises fourteen lectures. The course can be divided into four parts: (1) the first three lectures serve as a general introduction and overview of the course, (2) in lessons four to ten Merleau-Ponty discusses space and movement from a phenomenological point of view (including depth perception, a phenomenon that has become highly important for Merleau-Ponty), (3) the lessens ten to thirteen are dedicated to the body schema and (4) the last lesson dealt with expression (primarily with non-linguistic expression, but Merleau-Ponty gave some indications concerning linguistic expression too). As Smyth points out, Merleau-Ponty did not intend to discuss linguistic expression in detail in this course; however, he did intend to discuss “the passage from expression at the level of the sensible to cultural expression that is not yet language” (xvii), as it is the case in visual art. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty took more time than planned to elaborate the basis of his thoughts and therefore he could only discuss this move in his last lesson. Hence, the four parts were not given equal attention in the course (cf. xvii).

The book (the French and the English edition) contains the notes preparing the course, as well as working notes that Merleau-Ponty developed while preparing the course. These notes were not dated or classified by Merleau-Ponty. The editors of the French book categorized them thematically for their edition (cf. 129; Saint Aubert 2011, 171).

Merleau-Ponty’s Thoughts on the Sensible World

In The Sensible World and the World of Expression Merleau-Ponty primarily deals with the relation between the bodily human being and the sensible world. As I already mentioned, the relation between the world of expression is briefly touched in this course, but dealt with more in detail in his courses and writings on language. So, how does Merleau-Ponty understand this sensible world and what did his course aim at?

Sensible world = things

World of expression = cultural things, ‘use objects,’ symbols. (I didn’t say: universe of language)

Double goal:      — deepen the analysis of the perceived world by showing that it already presupposes the expressive function.

                             — prepare the analysis of this [expressive] function through which the perceived world is sublimated, produce a concrete theory of mind. (9)

This brief definition and equally brief statement concerning the double goal of the course present the first lines of the preparatory course manuscript of Merleau-Ponty. Even if these first words seem to indicate a strong division of the sensible world and the world of expression, in what follows Merleau-Ponty makes clear that they are not separated, but “enveloped” (27) in each other. He is less interested in their analytic distinction, than in the dynamic passage from the one to the other in and through movement. As explained above, Merleau-Ponty did not follow his original plan for the course, in particular did he not manage to extensively discuss expression. Therefore, the course dealt more with the first part of his twofold goal than with the second part; indeed, after spending more time than expected on topics related to the first part of his general aim, only the last lesson remained for the second part (cf. xvii).

The main concepts that Merleau-Ponty deals with in this course are perception and expression (in its relation to the sensible world). Already on the first page of his manuscript Merleau-Ponty criticises his own approach towards perception, as he presented it in the Phenomenology of Perception and in a lecture that he gave at a meeting of the Société française de philosophie in late 1946 on the issue of the Primacy of Perception (lecture and discussion published with Northwestern University Press, 1964). He argues that his earlier works did not present strong and clear enough a break with classical positions, concepts and terms. With reference to the critique by Jean Hyppolite and Jean Beaufret, following his lecture in 1946, Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that readers and listeners could have gotten his thoughts wrong, as (1) one could have thought that the “primacy of perception” as he presented it was primacy in the classical sense, a “primacy of the sensory, of the natural given”, even if for him “perception was essentially a mode of access to being” (10); (2) one might have missed Merleau-Ponty’s ontological thoughts and taken his work as “only a phenomenology” (10); (3) therefore readers might have thought “that being was reduced to the ‘positivism’ of perception”, even if the perceived is “not possessed” by the philosopher, but “unquestionably before us” (10; underlining in the original). With reference to this discussion, Smyth argues that the main innovative aspect of this course “is that Merleau-Ponty is also revisiting the phenomenological analysis of the perceived world itself.” (xvi, emphasis in the original) However, Smyth presents an even stronger claim concerning the shift in Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts as he outlined them in the present course. According to him, Merleau-Ponty realized that his manner of presenting the problem of “how the sensible is taken up expressively […] made it unsolvable” (xvi). Perception was an “encounter with the sensible” and as such it was “already expressive” (xvi). Hence, Merleau-Ponty “came to realize […] that he didn’t get the phenomenology of phenomenology right, because he didn’t get the phenomenology itself right in the first place. So, he was still building his phenomenological method, not building on it” (xvi-xvii; emphasis in the original). Even if this reading indicates a strong shift in and important innovations of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on phenomenology and the phenomenological method, it does not negate the continuity of this development.

Besides perception, the other central concept that is discussed in this manuscript, is expression. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression is broad: Expression is “the property that a phenomenon has through its internal arrangement [son agencement interne] to disclose another [phenomenon] that is not or even never was given” (11; annotations and emphasis in the original). This definition already highlights the relational aspect of expression. Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of perception and expression presuppose and involve a certain conception of the human being. As he already did in his early works, also in this course Merleau-Ponty opposes dualist conceptions. It is the body (in its entirety) that perceives and expresses. A body that is able to perceive and to express, is a body “as [a] given organization, [as] ‘sensory’ activity” and a “body that moves itself”, it is a body “[as a] response to ‘natural’ aspects of the world” and a body “[that] returns to the world in order to signify it [or] to designate it” (28; annotations in the original).

Particularly during the first two introductory lectures Merleau-Ponty discusses consciousness. In the second part of his course, he deals with space and movement, especially with depth perception and the perception of movement. The following lectures are dedicated to the body schema (a part that Merleau-Ponty seems to have added in the course of the semester) (xxii). The notes to this course are the first writings in which Merleau-Ponty aligned depth perception and (the perception of) movement with the body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 10-11).

Thereby Merleau-Ponty further elaborates concepts and thoughts that he already discussed in his earlier works and at the same time he introduces new concepts and thoughts and present some major shifts with regards to some concepts. Some of the core innovations that he outlines in these preparatory notes are:

  • Merleau-Ponty rejects classical conceptions of consciousness (particularly in the first and second lecture). In his course on the sensible world, Merleau-Ponty introduces for the first time the concept of “écart” (generally translated as “divergence”) (xix). Merleau-Ponty elaborates this, not only but particularly well, by referring to the example of the perception of a circle. When a circle is perceived it offers its sense as a tacit sense (as opposed to the classical position, according to which sense is essence and given). The sense of a circle is a “certain mode of curvature” (13), namely the “change of direction at each instant always with the same divergence” [même écart] (20) and therefor the circle itself is a “mode of divergence” [mode d’écart] (20; underlining in the original). Merleau-Ponty develops this notion further in his preparatory and working notes for this course (e.g. working note on the Diacritical Conception of the Perceptual Sign or working note on Diacritical Perception, included in the present edition on the pages 158 and 159).
  • When Merleau-Ponty discussed the concept of the body schema in the Phenomenology of Perception he presented it mainly as a sensory-motor unity. The Sensible World and the World of Expression is the first document in which the body schema is “understood in a much more active (or enactive) – because expressive – way” (xxii). At the same time, this is the first document in which Merleau-Ponty elaborates its relational dimension – the relation of the body schema and the (sensible) world (cf. 123) as well as the relation between different body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 13). The extension of the concept of the body schema has important implications for Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of movement and expression as well as their perception (movement is perceived by the entire body schema) and the relation to the world and others.
  • In the context of his discussion of the body schema, Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of praxis, a notion that he prefers to the notion of action (cf. 100). “The unity of the body schema is that of a praxis so construed, and the body schema is the background implied in [this praxis].” (100; annotation in the original) The praxis builds on the body schema (that is formed by the praxis, but that is more than a memory of previous praxis and/or experience) and continuously forms and transforms the schema. The praxis is a form of interaction with the world – it is not an “adaptation” to the world, at the same time it is not a world-less action performed by an isolated individual, it is “not only functional, but projection of the whole man” (100).
  • Merleau-Ponty intensively discusses movement – what movement is, how movement can be perceived and how movement can be expressed in visual art (How can something that is stationary express movement? (cf. xxxv)). For Merleau-Ponty movement is not displacement, a variation of relations, and a place is not a “relation to other places” (33; underlining in the original), rather it is “first of all situation” (35; underlining in the original). Movement requires that the moving is in movement, that movement is something different to a series of different spatial positions, but rather something “absolute”, something that is “in the thing in motion and not elsewhere” (52). Movement entails an encroachment of here and there, before and after; something that is only possible if movement is neither only in the moving thing nor only in the perceiving or observing subject, but if it occurs “through a sort of mixing of me and the ‘things’” (52). The perception of movement is not simply an intellectual undertaking, rather it is the body schema in its entirety that perceives movement (cf. 64-65).

Consequently, in visual art movement is not something that is depicted by signs that indicate a change of place, but by the “envelopment of a becoming in a stance [attitude]” (124, annotation in the original). It is, for example, the body of a horse that is painted in a manner that shows its intentionality of movement. Movement is indirectly presented or a reference of something oblique. The language of “écart” plays into Merleau-Ponty’s description of the problem of movement in visual art. Movement is “[reference] of signifying to signified that is elsewhere and only appears through [the signifying], presentation through divergences with respect to a norm that is itself never given. Presentation of the world through variations in modulations of our being toward the world.” (125-126; annotation in the original)

Because of these and some further innovations the book is a valuable source for researchers working on and with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Together with his published writings from the early 1950s and the manuscripts of his other courses it can help to better comprehend the development of his thoughts and to enrich one’s interpretations of his concepts.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard.

Saint Aubert, Emmanuel de. 2011. “Avant-propos.” In: Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France. Notes, 1953, edited by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen, 7-38. Geneva: MetisPresses.

Steven DeLay: In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith, John Hunt Publishing, 2022

In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith Book Cover In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith
Steven DeLay
John Hunt Publishing
Paperback £8.99 || $13.95

Adam Lovasz: Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present

Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present Book Cover Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present
Lexington Books
Lexington Books
Hardback 49,00 €

Reviewed by: Giorgi Vachnadze (KU Leuven)

Henri Bergson paints a fascinating, slightly fear-provoking and highly counter-intuitive yet incredibly beautiful picture of the world greatly reminiscent of the Heraclitean universe. A world where one cannot step into the same river twice, where repetition is but an illusion, a temporary shell for the human mind surrounded by the eternal flux of becoming and a place where intuition reigns supreme over both reason and instinct. Adam Lovasz pays great homage to Bergson by reconstructing his thought, adding his own particular flavor to the style and defending the Bergsonian world from the most unrelenting critical attacks. Philosophy, if it is to approach the demiurgic vibration of the real, must resist the temptation to build cathedrals” writes Lovasz (16). Defending the continental tradition against vicious assaults from both the analytical camp as well as from those who seek answers exclusively from fact-minded scientists is no easy task. Despite being slightly repetitive at times Upgrading Bergson is a wonderful read, executed in the most beautiful literary style and showing incredible depth of comprehension in fields as seemingly distant as Einsteinian relativity theory and modern evolutionary biology. Not to mention the philosophical legacies of Bergson and Gilles Deleuze alike.

The book is made up of 5 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2: Completing Relativity should pose the most difficult challenge to most readers, as it gets into the nuts and bolts of relativity theory. Lovasz however goes much further, attempting to reconcile two diametrically opposed worldviews of Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson, shedding a new light on the famous Bergson-Einstein debate and attempting a thorough renaissance of the Bergsonian position concerning the philosophical interpretation of time according to, as well as against – Einstein’s theory of relativity. As far as alternative narratives are concerned, Bergson via Lovasz offers us one of the most profound counter-ontologies.

Instability is a semantic attractor-state for Bergsonian philosophy. Chapter one of Adam Lovasz’ work is dedicated to Bergson’s La Penseé et le mouvement, often translated as Thought and Instability. A treatise on time and the flux of human experience. How does mind make sense of temporality in a real and material sense? Material patterns invoke new modes of thought, without presenting us with any general image or form(Lovasz 2021, 15) writes Lovasz. The absence of an ideal image is precisely what points to instability. The fact that entities persist in time is understood by Bergson as a variety of the miraculous. We have here the deconstruction of universals par excellence. Even scientific theories, according Bergson (via Lovasz), are subject to the constant change in virtue of their underlying methodologies. Behind the apparent unity; the stability of a scientific theory, there lies an ever-present, turbulent and hybrid-form of the method, it’s concrete manifestation in practical performance.

Reality does not offer itself up to mind, there is no one-to-one correspondence between mind and matter. Lovasz shows that Bergsonian cosmology has no room for the idea of progress or a meaningful teleology. History and human activity in the aggregate, have no finality nor a determined goal. Instead, the idea of a purpose-driven universe is only a useful fiction constructed for the purpose of avoiding collective despair and pessimism. Moreover, the deluded thinking which renders the past a servant to the present (or the present to the future) is the direct symptom of universalizing speculative thinking that Bergson aimed to challenge.

Such retrograde thinking serves a distinct political function of means-ends justification. It is often referred to as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or the retrospective movement of truth.” The essence of such wishful thinking and ideological manipulation is once again, the failure to admit the underlying instability of reality, an unmanageable substratum of contingency and chaos. This is a profound connection with serious epistemological and political implications. Bergson wants to underscore the importance of contingency simultaneously at both levels of immediate human experience and history. One might venture as far as to say that the very idea of progress itself is a form of ideology.

There is an internal excess within every object of immediate experience which can never be understood or analyzed completely. The TFP, which stands for the True-First Perception, refers to the uniqueness of an image generated by consciousness during every act of perception, each irreducible to the former and the next. Reality is in essence a perturbation. This way, Bergson is swimming against the current of traditional western philosophy, side-stepping or dissenting from, an enormous corpus of philosophical knowledge, the aim of which is to uncover the essence and the underlying foundation of reality. This leads us closer to the central argument. Bergsonian epistemology unpacks a phenomenological interpretation of time. Time as a duration is contrasted with time as displayed by the clock or time as seen through the eyes of a physicist. Bergson has little interest for the spatialized time of discrete units where every moment is identical to the next. Bergsonian duration is non-quantifiable.

The translation of the flow of time into discrete units instantiates a suppression of duration. It cannot be the case that the time of the clock measures real temporality (Lovasz 2021, 19-20).

The Bergsonian variety of essentialism is quite paradoxical. And understandably so, given Lovasz’ insightful and accurate reflections on the subject. For Bergson, change itself is the underlying structure; the substance of reality. Duration, in all of its heterogeneity, remains nonetheless a given throughout and for all reality. Higher levels of complexity are introduced in Bergsonian ontology, where the reader is confronted with multiple forms of differential durations, which nonetheless exhibit a certain level of invariance. A Bergsonian take on the theory of evolution arranges beings according to the kind of duration they belong to. Material duration refers to inanimate matter, organic duration to the realm of animal species and conscious duration to human temporal interiority.

The deconstruction of the atomistic, abstracted interpretation of time and the universe is followed by a positive theory of human intuition.

We are enjoined to return to a condition of immediacy before the colonization of thinking by ready-made concepts and fixed, static ideas. Intuition is a passive, reverent posture concerning the complexity of being/s that is nevertheless resolutely creative (Lovasz 2021, 27).

Intuition is a spiritual form of comprehension, which reaches into a pre-conceptual mode of understanding. For Bergson via Lovasz, concepts operate as distancing mechanisms, they obstruct the mind’s capacity to relate to the object directly without mediation.

Another element of Bergson’s process philosophy extends his epistemology, his ontology and his theory of time to a very unique account of free will. Without a doubt, one could see its potential emergence and attempt to reconstruct Bergson’s thought along the lines of an indeterminist position concerning freedom. A Bergsonian account of freedom and the conditions for its realization would most likely involve, first and foremost, the recognition of one’s ignorance by acknowledging the occlusion of reality by an invented conceptual framework. The deconstruction of universals and retrograde thinking would then be followed by more positive and active techniques for uncovering the hidden durations and temporalities of the universe thereby fostering one’s intuitive faculty for creative reasoning. One could therefore potentially identify both negative (critique of rigid conceptual systems and the illusion of stability) and positive (developing the intuitive forms of comprehension) forms of freedom in Bergson.

Completing the circle of the first chapter and returning to the question of thought and instability, we can see now how a Lovaszian reading of Bergson advocates for a destabilization of thought, with the purpose of uncovering a more spiritual, but also a finer and more accurate form of intuitive reflection. Bergson’s True Empiricism is a mystical anthropomorphism of inanimate matter and the environment. A mystical form of apprehension which listens to entities in a way that classical empiricism would find childish and pseudo-scientific. An intensified form of listening, as opposed to the indifferent gaze of an impartial bystander.  

The debate between Einstein and Bergson concerning the theory of relativity and the interpretation of time has been strangely neglected by history. At least as far as the Bergsonian view is concerned. The physicist’s conception of time has come to dominate the modern scientific paradigm. Time as duration on the other hand, has been entirely relegated to the realm of the subjective, artistic and the emotional. Lovasz believes that Bergson’s book Duration and Simultaneity, where Bergson offers a critique of specific metaphysical interpretations of Einsteinian relativity, despite all the accusations levelled against it; as being “unscientific” – deserves a second look. A much needed and overdue renaissance for the continental tradition. The purpose of the second chapter is to seek out a reconciliation, if any, for Bergsonian metaphysics and the theory of relativity.

Lovasz offers a shockingly original interpretation of relativity theory, perhaps much to the detriment of many superficial “post-modernists”. The view, which according to Lovasz was shared by Einstein, is that modern science, far from tackling universal truths and eternal verities, is only a useful convention used to solve particular human, all too human, problems. The position is largely reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s view of mathematics. Wittgenstein describes mathematics as a collection of various techniques of calculation – language games, in essence – the purpose of which is to solve particular mathematical problems. There is no overarching Truth or even a stable continuity of calculating practices across either the history of mathematics or within the internal development of any particular axiomatic system. Radical conventionalism has been around as an epistemological theory for a while now, but Lovasz seems to be one of the few people who ascribes this position to a famous revolutionary scientist.

No longer may we talk of absolute movement, mobility having no independent existence in the Einsteinian view. It is always a particular, relative development we talk of when we speak of change (Lovasz 2021, 83).

The larger point is that conventionalist methodological approaches imply the suppression of passions, emotions or other personal investments during the construction of scientific systems and this is what tends to draw a line between Bergsonism and relativity. However, the existence of multiple heterogeneous timelines and the constant discrepancy between clocks travelling at different speeds within different inertial frames of reference seems to hint at a universe that isn’t that different from Bergson’s!

Time itself is a heterogeneous multiplicity of temporal interrelations and mutual causalities. Does this not in itself resemble the Bergsonian affirmation of multiple durations? Real simultaneity is distorted by gravitational effects. Time has no relevance outside of a particular body of reference (Lovasz 2021, 83).

Lovasz’s project is little short of ambitious as he seeks to reconcile two enormous and radically divergent metaphysical systems.

Not only time, but extension itself becomes something relative with Einstein; as objects accelerate they change their shape and become elongated, mass and energy become interchangeable magnitudes, and reality itself becomes akin to a mathematical equation where objects morph and transform into one another according to fixed proportions and measurable quantities.

Momentously, relativity constitutes an upheaval that liquifies all constants by paradoxically utilizing a constant value—the speed of light—to decompose a previous cosmology (Lovasz 2021, 85).

The dissolution of object-identity in Einstein via Lovasz is absolutely fascinating. We spoke of an object-excess, with Bergson, where we can never conceptually grasp reality, but only describe its surface appearances. There seems to be a very similar situation with Einstein where things are not what they are per se; instead, things are what they do i.e. how fast and in which direction they travel, at what speed, how other things are behaving in their vicinity and so forth.

Lovasz takes things further. Much less than attempting to “excuse” Bergson’s critique of relativity theory, he levels his own criticism against Einstein, who, Lovasz claims, remained a crypto-absolutist by utilizing the concept of the speed of light as a constant invariant across space and time. But the weakest link in Einstein’s theory remains for us the famous Twin Paradox. The dissolution of objects qua objects, their mathematical intersubstitutability can be restated as an equivalence between space and time. In an Einsteinian universe time exhibits the properties of space, that is, time is entirely spatialized. The faster one travels the more time one “gathers”. One can monopolize on temporality by increasing the level of acceleration. “Aging is a matter of movement” (Lovasz 2021, 99). If a man is launched into space, traveling fast enough for an (un)certain amount of time, while his twin remains on earth, once he returns to earth, the second twin will have aged considerably more than the first. The problem arises when we decide to choose between the two (seemingly arbitrary) frames of reference. Whichever twin remains “motionless” ends up aging more than the other. What lies, to my mind, at the core of the insurmountable problem is the irreducible difference between Biology and Physics. As Lovasz clearly explains, the world of the physicist is a world of reversible processes, whereas the world of the Biologist, and to a certain extent the Bergsonian subject, both inhabit an irreversible timeline, where the same path cannot be taken twice nor travelled backwards. The essence of the problem then, in very blunt and oversimplified terms, is the artificial imposition of a quantitative universe of interchangeable magnitudes upon the lived and the real experience of time that Bergson aims to bring to our attention. Lovasz dedicates an entire section to the problem, one that is satirically and most adequately termed: The Tyranny of the Clock.

Physics is overwhelmingly concerned with an objective definition of time. Ironically, such a striving to get a handle on the physical reality of time drives Einsteinian relativity into a forgetfulness of time’s indivisible, enduring being. The accelerations and transformations of real processes cannot remain characterized by their relationships with clocks. Measurement invariably tends to decompose duration into a set of spatialized instances (Lovasz 2021, 106).

The main takeaway here is that time cannot be measured. And the obsessive compulsive intuition of the physicist is what lies at the root of the twin paradox. Duration is not, nor can it be made to be discrete. Time dilation which results in the desynchronization of clocks is precisely the result of the spatialized interpretation of time. Space becomes “parasitic” upon time and quite literally steals duration. Bergson via Lovasz argues that this is nothing but pure fiction: “Time dilation is an abstraction that does not correspond to physical reality. It is not unlike mistaking the distancing of a person from us with a real reduction in stature” (Lovasz 2021, 110).  The problem lies in the fact that choosing different inertial frames places us into different kinds of universes, where it is no longer a trivial matter which of the two twins’ position we adopt, as it will decide which one of them is accelerating. In a way, the chosen frame will also add more reality to one of the twins, leaving the other to suffer the consequences of Einstein’s abstractions.

Chapter 3 contains the core argument of the book and an abridged presentation of the entire Bergsonian corpus: Being is becoming. The point was already made earlier in different terms, when we spoke of change being substance, and of reality as essentially impermanent and unstable. Any kind of stability or order encountered in the world is the result of the activity of the mind and is therefore, entirely a construct. Our construct. Lovasz refers to Bergsonian ontology as organic temporality (Lovasz 2021, 121). The chapter also aims at investigating the question of whether Bergson was a monist or a dualist. That is, whether life and matter are in effect the same thing, or if there is a significant distinction that makes living beings stand out ontologically from the background of inorganic matter. Bergson’s book Creative Evolution offers a beautiful literary combination of evolutionary biology and abstract metaphysics, often referred to as philosophy of life.

The phenomenology of Bergsonian becoming is repeatedly compared to a mounting snowball, an analogy used by Bergson himself. The snowball, as it becomes larger tends to get increasingly impure and polluted with assimilated matter. Our experience of duration resembles this process. At any given moment the entire memory of our journey is reflected in our present moment, the path is present as a miniature map within the physiognomy of the actual.

According to Lovasz, process philosophy does not automatically entail holism. The statement concerning either the substantiality of change or the conceiving of reality as a series of hybrid durations, does not necessarily entail a holist-reductionist metaphysics. However, other difficulties come to light. For instance, the reality of individual objects and living beings becomes undermined. To take the theory of evolution as an example:

Movement alone is real, but if this is the case, then the individuation of species represents a halt and hence, an unreality” (Lovasz 2021, 128). And further on: “the privileging of processes and relations involves a slippery slope, leading inevitably to the negation of individual objects. Without individual substance, the very basis of individuation is supposedly endangered (Lovasz 2021, 128).

Bergsonian process ontology privileges change, immobility and movement, which results in a horrifying view of reality where all entities, including human or animal species have neither essence nor reality. What seems most beneficial to the species in the classical Darwinian axiology: their individuation, seems to be the beginning of the end, from the vantage point of process metaphysics.

Lovasz does not offer us a teleological Bergson, but he does aim to rescue him from the accusations of pessimism and holistic reductionism. One of the most common notions in Bergsonian philosophy used to argue in favour of an holistic interpretation is the vital impetus, or vital force. The elan vital was supposed to capture the essence of living beings; exhibiting a mysterious property that constantly eludes proper empirical investigation.

Lovasz argues one should not even speak of the vital force in the singular, but rather see it as a multiplicity of vitalisms, each with its own particular ontology. The functionalist-vitalist account of life relies only on identifying a particular form of arrangement, regularity or a set of relations that are found throughout nature indicating the presence of organic life-forms. There is no singular chemical reaction that would account for the emergence of life. Such indeterminist positions concerning the nature of living organisms has been widely confirmed throughout the sciences. More so, the irreducible complexity of living entities is used by Bergson as an epistemic contribution to his account of free will. Life as indeterminacy is also the very condition for the freedom of living beings. Duration is not a blanket term with Bergson, there is no overarching form of duration that could subsume all the others.

Returning to the question concerning science and its tendency to exclude time as duration in order make sense of reality. The scientific method proceeds in a way that is similar to the human cognitive process: It abstracts a significant portion of reality in order “discover” a handful of variables and identify a set of relations among them. In order to do so, it must operate through fixed concepts. Science, by spatializing time, in fact constructs an artificial edifice; a theory, the purpose of which is in effect to exorcise change and instability. If scientists operated through Bergsonian ontology and the epistemic “commitments” of process philosophy, then science would be in a permanent Kuhnian paradigm shift, an ongoing and ceaseless revolution in methodology. It would be the end of science as we know it.

Only fictional extracts, as molded by scientific or practical activity, have a relative immunity to the bite of time’s fangs, and even these are affected by longer term historical transformations of knowledge and society. Time is not a quantity but a quality (Lovasz 2021, 134).

And nonetheless, reality is not some insane muddle of pure difference, at least not unless we undergo a kind of traumatic limit-experience, which one could argue to be a form of revelation or direct insight into the mystery of substance as pure change. The reason we at least experience reality as relatively stable at moments is due to the variable, but nonetheless patterned distribution of durations. It is indeed the case, as we mentioned before, that the Bergsonian universe is essentially a collection of actions and processes, but there are similarities among them. Reminiscing once more, another Wittgensteinian notion; that of family-resemblances, we could say, despite the fact that no two durations are identical, that there are similarities which tend to crisscross and overlap without pointing to any comprehensive unity or universality. “An object exists to the extent that it endures, but this persistence is qualitative and not quantitative” (Lovasz 2021, 134).

An interesting hierarchy is present in Bergson via Lovasz. Scientific-analytical constructs borrow from, and are built upon the primal level of durations; not the other way around. For a classical philosopher of science, it would be very counter-intuitive to speak of foundation as something less fixed and more turbulent then the construction; more fluid then the facts themselves. Bergson is not exclusively concerned with the world of the scientists. His aim is to reconcile the everyday with the analytical. Bergson is not, properly speaking; a philosopher of science, despite the fact that he was always very careful to square his views with the latest developments in the natural sciences. Instead, Bergson brings the conceptual edifice down to the level of perturbations, demonstrating that theories, concepts and paradigms are subject to the same flux and constant change as the very objects they try to fix.

Bergson’s book Creative evolution is incompatible with either a mechanistic or a teleological world-view due to its insistent emphasis on the role of novelty in all becoming. It is entirely opposed to an unfolding of a pre-determined structure of being. Nothing is set in stone, nothing follows a plan (neither material nor divine) and there is no final end to the striving of turbulent durations. Whatever limited finality an organism might have, it is only an attempt to cling to a false and invented individuality, only to disperse once again into a whirlwind of pure change either in the act of reproduction or its own final termination. Let us conclude this part by quoting Bergson via Bergson this time:

That is why again they [scientists] agree in doing away with time. Real duration is that duration which gnaws on things, and leaves on them the mark of its tooth. If everything is in time, everything changes inwardly, and the same concrete reality never recurs. Repetition is therefore possible only in the abstract: what is repeated is some aspect that our senses, and especially our intellect, have singled out from reality, just because our action, upon which all the effort of our intellect is directed, can move only among repetitions (Bergson 1998, 52).

In chapter 4 Lovasz discusses another famous work by Bergson: Matter and Memory displaces the mind-body problem entirely and offers its own deconstructive version of the unnecessary dualism. The key to uncovering Bergson’s position lies in his theory of perception. The image is contraposed to representation, with the former exhibiting emergent and novel features irreducible to the latter, which in turn is always incomplete. In addition to the mind-body problem and in relation to it, Bergson via Lovasz simultaneously aims at dismantling the debate concerning the opposition between materialism and idealism.

Matter cannot be represented. Nor is it in any other way separate from the way it is uniquely, that is discontinuously perceived. Matter just is a multiplicity of images. There is neither a pure materiality; objective and inert, nor an ideal point of perception that could unite all individual durations into a whole. Neither subjectivism nor objectivism can dominate the Bergsonian metaphysic. Analogously, consciousness with Bergson is an emergent and highly dependent property of the brain, while simultaneously being irreducible to mere neurochemical processes. Memory, according to Bergson, is the meeting ground for mind and matter, the point of reconciliation and the central point of departure for his theory of subjectivity.

Movement is primary, while individual perception is but a sampling of images. What Bergsonism allows for is the introduction of pure, undomesticated mobility into philosophy. Nothing exists apart from images or movements (Lovasz 2021, 186).

We might add that the aforementioned ontology of mobility is further used to occupy a peripheral space between ideality and materiality, a space, it seems, where memory, intuition and images – present central oscillating points for the rest of the Bergsonian philosophy of the process.  

The closing chapter returns to the question of agency and free will in Bergson tending to the famous essay on Time and Free Will. The work aims at a similar project of rescuing duration from quantification, except; instead of challenging leading breakthroughs in modern physics, its purpose is to resist the temptations of psychophysics, neuroscience and other (what today we would term) cognitive sciences to reduce human subjectivity to a set of calculable problems and chemical processes. The project is similar to what is often encountered in classical phenomenology, where the reader is called on to return to “the things themselves”; her immediate given data of consciousness, in order discover a primordial presuppositionless way of seeing that has been covered up by the “natural attitude”. Such a return to immediacy would be consonant with the injunction to think differently, to train one’s intuitive faculty and thereby see through the veil of stability and structure.

Bergson does not, however offer a clear, distinct and positive definition of freedom. It is very difficult to apply his ideas to practical conduct and determine whether this or that course of action was self-determined. If duration is pure heterogeneity and each moment is intertwined with the next, there is no clear way of separating off the stimulus from the agent, the action from the reaction. Where in the chain of interpenetrating images could one separate oneself off and state without hesitation the moment she began to act, as opposed to the moment she was affected by something else? In many ways, Bergson plays on our ignorance, on human ignorance in general, equating freedom with contingency and pure spontaneity. Freedom is the irreconcilable eruption of agency amidst overdetermined necessity; an epistemic break in the series of concepts that bind us to an artificially assembled reality. Concepts, which just like everything else, are vulnerable to the tides of fluctuating perturbations. Our blind spots are effectively the source of our autonomy.

Adam Lovasz’s Upgrading Bergson is an exciting and difficult journey through a cosmology that is both beautiful and terrifying. It presents a real challenge to reassess our worldviews in a radical, almost pathological manner. A world where becoming determines being and order gives way to chaos. A thoroughly anti-Platonic vision, which dares to undermine our most cherished belief in the indisputable authority of modern science and Einsteinian relativity in particular. A turbulent universe of scaled difference, multiple durations and heterogeneous temporalities. And finally, an outstanding contribution to the much neglected field of Bergsonian scholarship. Upgrading Bergson deserves its own shelf-space in every continental philosopher’s personal library.


References & Bibliography:

Bergson, Henri. 1998 (1911). Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Dupré, John, and Stephan Guttinger. 2016. “Viruses as Living Processes.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 59: 109-116.

Kuhn, Thomas. 2021. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Princeton University Press.

Lovasz, Adam. 2021. Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present. Lexington Books.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2010. Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2013. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Routledge.

Nik Byle: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Reinterpretation of Heidegger, Lexington Books, 2021

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christological Reinterpretation of Heidegger Book Cover Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Christological Reinterpretation of Heidegger
Nik Byle
Lexington Books
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