Paul Mendes-Flohr: Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent

Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent Book Cover Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent
Jewish Lives
Paul Mendes-Flohr
Yale University Press
2019
Hardback $26.00
440

Reviewed by: Guilel Treiber (Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven)

It was a destabilizing experience reading about Martin Buber’s pessimistic predictions of the future of Jewish nationalism while Israel was bombing Gaza (yet again) in the spring of 2021. Mendes-Flohr’s Martin Buber, A Life of Faith and Dissent highlights Buber’s prophetic criticism of what has now become an intractable conflict and a violent domination of the lives of at least 3 million Palestinians. However, Mendes-Flohr’s much anticipated biography falls short of recognizing that Buber’s unique position in the history of Zionism can make him a beacon for contemporary Israelis or even Jews worldwide critical of Israel’s policies and desirous of a just solution in Israel-Palestine. There is something domesticated about his Buber, something almost naïve. I will go back to these points later in this review. For the moment, it is enough to state that Mendes-Flohr’s biography of Martin Buber, a synthetic work that sums up 40 years of research dedicated to Buber’s work, is impressive as it is enjoyable. In about 350 pages, Mendes-Flohr draws lines of continuity and change through the life and thought of one of the most emblematic Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. If it has any failings, these are centred around the disappointment of making of Buber nothing more than a historical figure. To use Buber’s terms, it is a biography of I-It, one of historical and scholarly acumen, yet one that does not lead to any possible encounter with what Buber was all about, the lived experience of dialogue.

Many of the details of Buber’s life are well known by now. He has left behind many letters exchanged with the leading luminaries of the 20th century, from Einstein to Gandhi, spanning the 60 years of his career. His work has been translated and read in many languages, cultures, and religious contexts. Maurice Friedman, his student and later collaborator, published during the eighties a three-volume biography that meticulously traced every event in Buber’s life. However, no full biography has been published since then. There was an unavoidable necessity to publish a new, more concise biography that deals with the main issues in Buber’s life. Mendes-Flohr has done that with bravado. His biography will become the entry point for every student and lay-reader interested in Buber’s life and work. It traces his contributions to Judaism, philosophy, inter-religious dialogue, politics, his changing relation with Zionism, his critique of nationalism in the aftermath of WWI, and his consistent work towards an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Indeed, between «faith» and «dissent», Mendes-Flohr shows how Buber was continuously understood as an outsider, as a truth-speaker in the public square (213), as a civil disobedient committed to a life of dialogue and meetings, an «anomalous Jew» (232). Read with the eye of a contemporary reader, Mendes-Flohr succeeds in making Buber attractive and (to some extent) relevant again. He constructs a narrative of an individual who always grasped himself as a representative of the Jewish people (all the while remaining on its margins) and who struggled to live up to the highest demands of that burden.

The book is divided into 11 chapters in addition to an introduction. There is no conclusion. The eleventh chapter ends with the passing of Buber on June 13, 1965, at 87. One can divide the book into three sections: the first four chapters detail Buber’s early life and career, his early interaction with Zionism and Jewish collective existence in Europe; chapters five to eight are structured around the dramatic events in Europe between the two world wars and Buber’s transformation following his friendships with Gustav Landauer and Franz Rosenzweig; chapters nine to eleven begin with the Bubers leaving Europe to Palestine in mid-1938, five years after the Nazis took control of Germany. The last three chapters focus mainly on Buber’s passage to writing and teaching in Hebrew and his interaction with the radical transformation in Jewish collective life that the double events of the destruction of European Jewry (1939-1945) and the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) brought about.

The biography is an intellectual biography; hence, specific life events are sometimes passed over rather quickly: Buber’s absent mother, tense relationship with his father and grandfather, and the fact that he and his wife raised his son’s two daughters. On the other hand, marginal intellectual meetings are somewhat overplayed and not always in a very satisfactory fashion. Two of these were addressed by Mendes-Flohr in independent contributions. However, the main thrust of the biography is not interrupted to allow for a long detour into these issues. I refer here to Buber’s engagement and contributions to early German sociology (44-51) and his ongoing critical reading of Heidegger, which led to a meeting after the war (278-286). It is often time forgotten that Buber was heavily influenced by Dilthey and had a long-standing friendship with Simmel (Mendes-Flohr’s doctoral dissertation focused on the way Buber’s dialogical philosophy was shaped by German sociology). Buber was even part of Simmel’s inner circle (47). However, not much more is given as details in this biography.

In fact, one cannot help but wonder whether the biography is more destined to the lay-reader or early student of Buber or Jewish and Continental Philosophy than to the academic philosopher. From the perspective of a philosopher, I would have liked to read more details concerning Buber’s philosophical thought, about his later formulations of philosophical anthropology, about his Nieztscheanism and critique of Heidegger. All these are present, yet always too quickly and too little, giving the biography an introductory character. To be sure, the biography may certainly contribute to renewing interest in Buber’s work and perhaps even research into his philosophical contributions beyond the disciplinary tag of Jewish Philosophy. However, the reader will not find these fully explored here.

Mendes-Flohr structures the biography around two elements in his subject’s life and thought: the tension between the «supernatural Jew» and the «natural Jew» (xiv). The supernatural Jew is in some respect the Weberian ideal-type Jew «beholden to the timeless religious vocation of the Jewish people as defined by the (divinely revealed) Torah and rabbinic tradition.» The natural Jew is the concrete, individual and collective existence of Jews in a specific historical moment. However, although Mendes-Flohr contends that Buber’s «overarching concern» was to reintegrate the natural and the supernatural Jew, this significant claim is not defended systematically. In fact, after getting mentioned in the introduction it is not brought up again until page 241. Moreover, there are some conceptual issues with this definition since it assumes, indeed as Buber did, that there is some essential core to Judaism that is constantly the same, i.e., the direct, unmediated relationship to God. One may argue that perhaps the structure of a relation to God is a-historical, while the content constantly changes throughout history. Nevertheless, this would be an un-Buberian position, and Mendes-Flohr does not adopt such a critical stance.  It is only when treating Buber’s critique of Gandhi — who suggested to the Jews of Europe that it is better to suffer and die under Nazi rule than engage in a colonialist enterprise in the Middle East even if their lives depended on it — that Mendes-Flohr suddenly brings back the issue. According to Mendes-Flohr, Buber argues against Gandhi that doing what he suggests will amount to a preference for the supernatural Jew over the concrete lives and experiences of millions. Mendes-Flohr’s return to the issue at this moment in Buber’s life is crucial. With the rise of the threat of Nazi persecution from the mid-thirties, Jews found themselves torn between the immediate demands of their empirical existence and the «unremitting calling» of the supernatural Jew (243). Moreover, from this moment onward, Buber would be acutely aware of the tension between these two. In contradistinction to Gandhi, who preferred the supernatural Jew over the natural one, the Zionist movement according to Mendes-Flohr reading of Buber, prefers the natural Jew (259) thus neglecting the moral calling of God for Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world according to the social vision of the prophets (114). One can understand Buber’s critique of Gandhi and Zionism only when one replaces our commonplace definition of Zionism as a national movement with Buber’s claim that it is more about cultural renewal than national sovereignty, more about social justice than military prowess. For Buber, a bi-national state was completely coherent with his vision of Zionism, far removed from the nationalistic hegemony that many Zionists promulgate today.

Buber was understood by many of his critics and friends alike to be a utopian thinker, undisturbed by the concrete realities of the Jewish people. Indeed, a striking example of this is a series of conferences he gave in Poland on the eve of WWII. Jews had gathered by the thousands to listen to his every word. But instead of giving them hope or encouraging them to resist, Buber choose to talk about Jewish education. He regretted it later (218). It is clear that Buber was not a political realist, but nor was he detached from the political demands of his day. Mendes-Flohr partly recognizes the critical potential of Buber’s thought showing his ability to detect latent threats and problems years before they are actualized (e.g., concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Nevertheless, the narrative Mendes-Flohr constructs falls into the trapping of telling the story of a dreamer, endowed with a «prophetic realism» (227) exacerbated by WWII. This may have been true of the Buber of his own time, but it is very far from true concerning a Buber for our own.

It is in our own time that Buber’s critical positions concerning Judaism, Zionism, nationalism, and legalistic religion are most relevant. As stated earlier, Mendes-Flohr renders Buber to be some naïve prophet shouting inertly at the entrance of the city. This is a sad mistake. Focusing more on the contrasting views of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a crucial figure in the establishment of the Hebrew state, and Buber would have shown that it is not Ben Gurion’s political realism but rather Buber’s visionary warnings concerning the dangers of Jewish nationalism that seem to have been correct. As some Israeli Jews engaged in mob violence against Palestinians during May 2021, Buber’s warning that «there can be no peace between Jews and Arabs that is merely a cessation of war; there can only be a peace of genuine cooperation» (255) is timely. Indeed, Buber was among the only Hebrew intellectuals calling for a bi-national state—a vision that avoids what still plagues any effort for peace in the region, the nationalistic logic of majority-minority relations. As Mendes-Flohr writes, Buber found the idea of a binational state in Palestine to be «sounder» than any other solution. It was not an «infallible formula,» but it enabled «thinking beyond the conceptual boxes of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, political configurations that would inevitably lead to violent conflict between the Jews and the Arabs.» (246)

Two crucial, highly intellectual, and emotional friendships have shaped Buber’s life. The first, his friendship with Gustav Landauer, the Jewish anarchist who was murdered by German militias in the aftermath of the fall of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. While Buber brought Landauer closer to Judaism, Landauer convinced Buber that his early understanding of Jews as a community of blood is erroneous. To some extent, Landauer shaped Buber’s spiritual anarchism which will inform his thought throughout his life and that made him a prescient critic of nationalism and its dangers. Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of this biography is that it highlights the relationship as a formative one for Buber. It attaches, correctly in my view, more importance to Landauer’s influence and the impact of his tragic death on the morrow of WWI in moving Buber definitively to the anarchist, socialist left than to the experience of the harrowing cost of lives due to the war. Mendes-Flohr thus goes against the somewhat simplistic explanation of Buber himself and supported by Friedman that it was a missed meeting with a young man on his way to the front that made Buber realize the dangers of his mystic understanding of the union between community and God (see the story «Conversion» in Buber’s Meetings and Friedman’s introduction to the text). The second relationship, with Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, ended just as tragically as the first. Rosenzweig died from muscular degeneration (ALS) on December 10, 1929, three days after Buber visited him to work on their translation of the Hebrew Bible to German. His last words were uttered as he was struggling to dictate a letter to Buber. This relation pushed Buber deeper into Jewish philosophy. Rosenzweig was one of the first readers of I and Thou, and their joint translation of the Bible is a landmark work of translation. Yet, each remained relatively firm in their respective beliefs. Buber emphasized Judaism as a lived faith, while for Rosenzweig, it was its legalistic aspects that made it a unique religion. For Rosenzweig, the Law (halakha) and the commandments (mitzvot) were at the basis of a spiritual renewal of Judaism (149). Buber stated in response that revelation is never a direct formulation of the Law, thus rejecting a basic tenet of Judaism. For Buber, it was the meeting between humans and God, i.e., revelation, that led to the formulation of the Law by humans themselves through their «self-contradiction» (153).

Reading Buber’s biography is more than reading about the life of a particular individual, or even a particular Jew (or Jewish individual). Indeed, as the editors of the series in which the book was published, «Jewish Lives,» state, the series aims «to explore the many facets of Jewish identity.» I think of no other Jewish thinker of the 20th century who can give such an englobing and engrossing image of the many facets of this identity. I see no other writer than Paul Mendes-Flohr, who could have done justice to such a complex subject in less than 350 pages of text. As stated, this is a synthetic work, concise as is expected from such a series of books. As such, none of my critical points could have been addressed in the space given to an intellectual life stretching for over 60 years during one of the more tumultuous times in Jewish history. Mendes-Flohr does a wonderful work of introducing Buber to the reader with love and respect, to the great benefit of the general interest in Buber’s life and works. The work may strike scholars who are familiar with Buber’s life and works or with 20th-century Jewish history and thought as somewhat too simple, too introductory. Notwithstanding, it is an enormously enjoyable read that addresses important aspects and raises central issues concerning Buber. I believe it will become the entry point for many future students of Buber and Judaism, and as such, Mendes-Flohr has done an excellent service to both.

Daniele De Santis: Husserl and the A Priori: Phenomenology and Rationality, Springer, 2021

Husserl and the A Priori: Phenomenology and Rationality Book Cover Husserl and the A Priori: Phenomenology and Rationality
Contributions to Phenomenology, Volume 114
Daniele De Santis
Springer
2021
Hardback 114,39 €
XIII, 331

Matthew Beaumont: Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night

Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night Book Cover Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night
Matthew Beaumont
Bloomsbury
2020
Paperback $39.95
216

Reviewed by: Benjamin Rees (KU Leuven)

In Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night, Matthew Beaumont gives us a long overdue reassessment of the mostly forgotten Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. History has been both substantially marked as well as unkind to Shestov’s legacy, and modern readers rarely come across his name but for the occasional comment by better known philosophers of the interwar Parisian milieu. Beaumont picks up the potential for a novel reading of the philosopher where Boris Groys’ chapter length treatment in his Introduction to Anti-Philosophers (Groys 2012) left off. In doing so, many of the previously overlooked possibilities for placing Shestov in a dialogue with post-modern and continental philosophies are brought to light as Beaumont carefully reveals the implicit connections between Shestov and anti-enlightenment philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida, as well as many others.

Beaumont’s reading of Shestov is an ethical one rooted in a hyper-vigilant insomnia that cannot find rest until there is an accounting for all the suffering of our present time, as well as an impossible accounting for the suffering of the past. This endless vigilance is capable of distorting the world away from it’s current state into a world that does not permit of any suffering, no matter how idealistic this may seem. To accomplish this Beaumont gives us a detailed reading of Shestov’s reading of Pascal. These accounts are all characterized by Beaumont’s, Shestov’s and Pascal’s obsessive orbiting of the idea that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: there must be no sleeping during that time” (Beaumont 2020, 20). This imperative is rooted in Jesus’ disciples failing Christ at his most vulnerable moment in the garden of Gethsemane when his despair was at its highest point due to his utter alienation from even those closest to him. Beaumont follows Pascal and Shestov in the need to remain absolutely vigilant, and he develops this theme of sleeplessness into a radical and constant rejection of any practice or institution, past or present, that justifies suffering at any level. In this way it is more so a modality of endless vigilance rather than any particular act or systematic way of thinking that can determine in advance how we are to interpret any given moment or event. What is demanded from Shestov then, as an ethical thinker, is constant and perpetual revolt. We can understand the direction, gravity, and force of Beaumont’s argument when he says that this ethics of eternal vigilance:

is […] about ‘staying awake,’ in some active and even agonistic sense. And, to this extent, though it does not address questions of race, it deliberately situates the political discourse of wakefulness, the resonance of which it emphatically underlines, in a rather different, more fully philosophical context, thereby defamiliarizing and displacing it in an attempt to restore a sense of its persistent, and urgent, importance. (Beaumont 2020, 3)

To develop this ethical state, Beaumont points to the idea of homo vigilans (waking man), as opposed to homo dormiens (sleeping man), found in Shestov’s writings.

For Beaumont homo vigilans is a state of engagement so intense that it is metaphorically brighter than the light outside of Plato’s cave, given that the glow of rationality itself can act as a narcotic if compared with his wakefulness. Beaumont shows us the ways in which, according to Shestov, reason can submerge and subordinate the individual to history, such as we find in Hegel, in a way that justifies their suffering as the necessary costs of historical progress and so rationalizes these casualties into a kind of indifferent acceptance (Beaumont 2020, 140-143). Yet we are also shown how the assurances of reason itself can lull us back to sleep with the peace and quiet found in formulations like the agreeable and eternal assurance that two times two is four (Beaumont 2020, 131-132). Beaumont’s homo vigilans is to be on guard against every one of these intellectual balms and is to always be present to the worlds failings. With this in mind, I would like to turn look more closely at Beaumont’s conceptualizing of homo vigilans.

The only locations in Shestov’s texts cited by Beaumont regarding Shestov’s use of homo vigilans are found where Shestov is attacking Husserlian phenomenology. Our first encounter with homo vigilans comes from a debates between Shestov and the Alsatian philosopher Jean Héring. To be exact, Shestov uses the term homo vigilans in “What is Truth? On Ethics and Ontology” (Shestov 1968c, 400-401); an essay that replies directly to Héring’s defense of Husserlian phenomenology. This essay itself, however, is part of a much larger debate that goes back to an essay titled “Memento Mori(Shestov 1968c, 287-359), where Shestov argues that if we are to believe Husserl’s argument that the evidence of consciousness (i.e. the modality of objects given as actual/evidential) can ground a theory of knowledge, then there is no accounting for the fact that dreaming gives to homo dormiens a variety of seemingly real and evident moments that are indistinguishable from the way evidence is given to homo vigilans. To put it differently: while asleep, homo dormiens takes the objects given to consciousness as if they were evidential/actual in the same way that homo vigilans takes objects while awake, and so Shestov argues that Husserl’s notion of evidence cannot used to ground a theory of knowledge unless it can make a distinction between the way objects are given with the same degrees of evidence in both waking and dreaming alike (Shestov 1968c, 326-328). From this perspective, according to Shestov, homo dormiens and homo vigilans end up becoming two states that relativize each other in away that sets up a tension where one “devour[s]” the other (Shestov 1968c, 340).

With these remarks in mind, I feel it is fair to argue that Shestov does not seem to be offering any solid phenomenological state along the lines of homo vigilans in any of his texts. Instead, he is calling into question the possibility for any truly stable state at all – phenomenological or otherwise. The second use of the term homo vigilans is found where Shestov essentially repeats this argument almost two decades later in Athens and Jerusalem (Shestov 1968a, 432), with nothing new added in terms of the possibility for an ethical reading.

On the heels of these comments, Beaumont’s appropriation of homo vigilans as central to his ethical reading of Shestov might not be beyond questioning. While metaphorically sound and proper, this use of homo vigilans does not seem to be found anywhere in Shestov’s writings, and it is only ever spoken of in a problematic context. If there are other instances of Shestov’s use of homo vigilans then Beaumont has overlooked them, as the ones cited in his book only point to these pages that do not support homo vigilans as an ethical state.

There is another perspective taken by Beaumont that is worth considering. Throughout his book he often uses the term ‘anti-Necessity’ to characterize the unpredictable nature of being that marks Shestov’s philosophy, and this term serves as one of the cornerstones of Beaumont’s reading of Shestov as an original thinker. Yet, this phrase is not one used by Shestov himself. Instead, as Beaumont points out, it is one Czesław Miłosz uses to describe Shestov’s precarious understanding of being (Beaumont 2020, 43). While initially this may not appear significant, the use of anti-Necesity is not without a few unintended, though perhaps wide reaching consequences.

The first is the way in which the concept of revelation is replaced and essentially overlooked by this term. For Shestov, revelations are the point at which there may be effects without causes, when what is unpredictable and beyond any given situation comes in and violently disrupt the order of things. This concept of revelation seems to be the precursor to the concept of the event in post modernity, such as Alain Badiou’s understanding of events, and so overlooking this aspect of Shestov accidentally still keeps his impact on European thought in the dark. To truly consider the profundity of this concept, take the following example:

A thing was suddenly revealed to Descartes of which he had been in ignorance; that he, Descartes, really existed. It was revealed to him; it was a revelation which was in direct contradiction to all the principles of reason. Reason, which questions everything, this pure, super-individual reason, this «consciousness as such», without which all objective knowledge is impossible, had begun to question the existence of Descartes. And where reason is doubted, rational arguments cannot convince. When «the light of truth was revealed» to Descartes (as he himself describes his «cogito, ergo sum«), this was, I repeat, a true revelation which triumphantly dispersed all considerations of reason. (Shestov 1975, 110)

Were we to replace the ‘anti-Necessity’ with the word revelation in the quote above, it is clear that much of the sense will become lost or distorted, as it becomes specifically confusing to grasp the relationship between anti-Necessity and the sense of something being ‘revealed.’ It is for this reason that I believe Beaumont’s use of the term seems to further occlude Shestov’s relationship with future thinkers of the event.

The second problem with the term anti-Necessity is that it still seems to be beholden to necessity at some level; as if anti-Necessity exists insofar as it is a dialectical negation of necessity. Shestov’s understanding of revelation, however, is not in any relation to necessity, but instead is always coming from some kind excess.[1] In this way, if anything, Shestov is more so a pre-Necessity thinker rather than one who champions any anti-Necessity, and if we do indeed attribute to his work any notion of anti-Necessity, I would argue that this is only ever half the story. Taking into account this perspective matters because framing Shestov as a messianic thinker by way of thinking towards anti-Necessity still further accidentally covers over a few of Shestov’s unconventional and novel arguments.

While there are some messianic elements in Shestov, if we would read him as a pre-Necessity thinker, rather than a thinker of anti-Necessity, it becomes merely a choice to either follow the totalizing claims of necessity (which, for Shestov, seems to be synonymous with reason, universality, eternal truths, etc), or to reject it’s claim as the last word in determining the nature of existence. It is of the utmost importance to point out how Shestov ceaselessly argues that we are in fact making a choice when we submit to necessity as the final authority governing reality, and that for him it is a choice, and so one that can be chosen against. Thus it is not a question of refuting necessity, of arguing against it’s alleged authority, but simply a rejection that does entertain the need for any refutation. This kind of rejection resembles Job when he rejects his friends (their reliance on wisdom, on the authority of tradition, their reasoning, etc), rather than engaging in any argument against them on their own terms. Yet there is still a further and more nuanced point to consider with respect to Beaumont’s messianic reading.

Throughout all his writings, Shestov quotes the Psalms, where it is unequivocally declared that “All things are possible.” Messianic along Beaumont’s reading yields the necessity of a future tense to be interjected into this statement, and we would rather need to believe that ‘All things will be possible.’ Yet such an element of futurity is almost entirely absent in Shestov’s oeuvre (and where it does exist, it does not seem to exist in a manner that could be called messianic [Shestov 1968a, 434).

More to the point, in In Job’s Balance we find Shestov reading Dostoyevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man to demonstrate how it is that necessity, as well as the knowledge of good and evil, are not essential characters of humanity but are instead the consequences of choosing to follow the knowledge of good and evil (Shestov 1975, 64-66). The fallen state of man is shown not to be an absolute state of being but rather a state that can one day be radically overturned, perhaps even by a cultivation of the docta ignorantia (Shestov 1968a. 412), and in this way spiritual liberation is not necessarily contingent on any messiah, and so not intrinsically based on something beyond an individual’s capacity at any given moment, including the present. Beaumont does not provide us with this insight, and if anything, he accidentally steers Shestov into a kind of emancipatory ideology rather than towards the existent as being always-already emancipated, yet curiously an existent who willingly turns themselves over to external authorities (ie. necessity, reason, etc.). I would like to focus on one of the last arguments made by Beaumont’s book before turning to some broader considerations of his argument.

In the conclusion Beaumont indicates that Shestov’s anti-Necessity grounds his claim that one day it may no longer be true that “the Athenians poisoned Socrates” (Beaumont 2020, 151-152). Here Beaumont offers a vivid and enlightening way in which Shestov can be read as one of the most hopeful of philosophers. Such an optimistic undoing of Socrates fate rests on the fact that as a truth is born so too may it perish, and one day Socrates will never have been poisoned. Beaumont tells us that Shestov “prophesies a universe in which anti-Necessity finally supervenes, transforming the conditions in which cause and effect unfold from one another in linear narrative sequence, terrible historical events that retrospectively seem to have been inevitable simply will not have taken place” (Beaumont 2020, 153). However, while this kind of thought does match Shestov’s writings, it seems unclear how it is that such anti-Necessity can supervene.

Necessity in Shestov, as well as Beaumont’s reading of Shestov, is a general concept who’s domain extends over all of existence thoroughly and blindly. I am left wondering: in what way can anti-Necessity, itself seemingly a kind of general concept, ‘supervene’ (Beaumont 2020, 153)? In light of this question with the previous considerations of this concept in mind, it becomes evident that Beaumont’s concept of anti-Necessity is still lacking the disruptive nature of Shestov’s understanding of revelation, given that this anti-Necessity more so has the register of something general, like necessity, which acts indiscriminately on all things at all times. It seems to resemble a special category of some sort rather than a specific particular moment of disruption or intervention. I would like to propose instead that, rather than pit anti-Necessity against necessity (which seems to be placing one kind of generality against another generality), we read Shestov’s reversal of the truth of Socrates death as a kind of anti-revelation, as this seems more suited to Shestov’s terms.[2] Shestov’s argument that one day it may come about that Socrates has never in fact been poisoned is not to palimpsestically write over a truth so at to undo its presence, existence, or sense, but is rather for the truth to never have been written at all in the first place. It is to imagine some kind of anti-revelation whose polarity is one that covers what has been done altogether, and in this way is a revelation that is one particular devouring another particular – an anti-revelation that un-reveals what has been disclosed.[3] Strangely enough this ethical idea of a great reversal could be familiar to contemporary readers of French philosophy, as it seems to be touched upon by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux in similarities that are worth considering, even if lightly and in passing.

When Meillassoux says “the fourth World ought to be called the World of justice: for it is only the World of the rebirth of humans that makes universal justice possible, by erasing even the injustice of shattered lives” (cited from: Harman 2011, 190) it is almost impossible not to think back to Shestov’s undoing of Socrates death as it is outlined above. While it is not possible here to determine whether the connection here is accidental or not, this connection should perhaps not be seen as purely arbitrary. Where Beaumont has explored Shestov’s impact on Delueze, the impact of Deleuze on Badiou was not mentioned even in passing and yet aspects of Badiou’s heritage seem to have possibly retained something of Shestov’s radical thinking (whether implicitly or explicitly), and this interesting link deserves a few more words on the matter, as it could contain the link between Shestov and Meillassoux in terms of the degrees in which both of these thinkers are philosophizing on the fringes of thought.

The overlap between Shestov and Alain Badiou becomes evident if we compare the following three quotes. The first is Badiou arguing that there are nothing but differences between anything and everything, a claim fundamental to his differential ontology. Specifically, he says that:

Infinite alterity is quite simply what there is. Any experience at all is the infinite deployment of infinite differences. Even the apparently reflexive experience of myself is by no means the intuition of a unity but a labyrinth of differentiations […]. There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself. (Badiou 2012, 25-26)

By contrast, we also find Shestov arguing in In Job’s Balance similarly, that:

It is impossible to speak of ‘man’ generally, so long as the metaphysical destinies of individual men are different […]. There is a Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and Alexander’s groom, but each of these differs from the other far more strongly than he does from a rhinoceros, a peacock, a cypress, or a cabbage; perhaps even from a tree trunk or a rock. (Shestov 1975, 220-221)

And, furthermore, in Potestas Clavium, Shestov says:

Even when men pronounce the same words, they each mean and see different things. Two orthodox Moslems swear in the name of two different Allahs. And I would say more: every Moslem today worships a completely other Allah than the one for whom he risked his life yesterday. The principle of identity applies only in logic. (Shestov 1968c, 167)

With these quotes in mind that it seems clear to me that some aspects of the differential ontology that came to prominence in post World War 2 French thought can be traced back to Shestov at least at some level, and this claim can be rather well substantiated by Beaumont’s book under consideration, albeit by way of different avenues. And yet, perhaps even more to this point, we can consider an otherwise overlooked rapport between Shestov and Levinas that is absent from Beaumont’ text in question.

It seems clear that Levinas has borrowed (without any citation I am aware of) Shestov’s notion of Socrates and Abraham, while simply changing the name of Socrates to Ulysses (Shestov 1968a, 440) (Levinas 1963, 610). Moreover, both Shestov and Levinas share a strikingly similar perspective with respect to the violence of Socrates’ dialectic in Platonic dialogues (Shestov 1968c, 115-119) (Levinas 1969, 171 – specifically his criticism of ‘maieutics’). While more similarities could be drawn between Shestov’s never ending attack on Western ontology and Levinas’ own ontological deconstruction (though, undertaken in different terms), to explore this at any length is to diverge too far, and I can do nothing more here than encourage a curious reader to simply read In Job’s Balance and Athens and Jerusalem with such suggestions in mind. I have drawn these connections overlooked by Beaumont to indicate how there is still more work to be done in bringing to light Shestov’s profound impact on 20th century philosophy.

Perhaps, in the end, it is worth mentioning that Shestov himself seemed to be a thinker opposed to ethics of any kind, given there can be no form of ethics without an appeal to a concept that is universal, and his attacks on any and every form of universality as the ultimate criteria for truth, and so philosophy, are not few or far between. For example, take the following quote from his book on Kierkegaard:

Reason eagerly strives for universal and necessary truths which are uncreated and dependent upon no one! Is not reason itself in the power of some hostile force that has so bewitched it that the fortuitous and the transitory seem to it necessary and eternal? And ethics, which suggests to man that resignation is the highest virtue—is it not in the same position as reason? It, too, has been bewitched by mysterious spells; man’s destruction awaits him where ethics promises him happiness and salvation. One must escape from reason, escape from ethics, without trying to find out beforehand what the end of the journey will be. (Shestov 1968b, 100)

Yet this is not to say that Beaumont has taken too many liberties with his reading of Shestov, and I am primarily mentioning this to encourage readers to read Shestov for themselves, and not to discredit Beaumont’s ethical insomnia, one that Shestov would have probably approved of at some level. Vladimir Jankélévitch goes so far as to say “je me croyais Chestov lui-même, Chestov réincarné” (Suarès 1986, 79) and still goes further in developing his own ethics (cf. The Bad Conscience or Forgiveness), and it is thus perfectly reasonable for Beaumont to do the same; that is, to work within a Shestovian framework with the intentions of deriving some kind of ethics.

Let me clearly stress that none of my comments above are to detract from the brilliance of Beaumont’s work, which is distinguished for its skillful mixing of clarity and depth. Lev Shestov Philosopher of the Sleepless Night serves as the first overdue step towards bringing to contemporary readers an inspired and original interpretation of an otherwise forgotten philosopher. I cannot strongly enough recommend this book as a fresh and concise starting point for engaging with Shestov’s works as a whole. For these, and many of the other reasons a reader will find while reading this book, Beaumont’s work deserves a close and attentive reading.

Bibliography

Badiou, Alain. 2012. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Translated by Peter Hallward. Verso.

Beaumont, Matthew. 2020. Lev Shestov. Philosopher of the Sleepless Night. Bloomsbury Academic.

Groys, Boris. 2012. Introduction to Anti-Philosophy. Trans. David Fernbach. Verso.

Harman, Graham. 2011. Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1963. “La trace de l’autre.” Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie, vol. 25 (3): 605–623.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Duquesne University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968a. Athens and Jerusalem. Clarion Books.

Shestov, Lev. 1975. In Job’s Balance. Ohio University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968b. Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy. Ohio University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968c. Potestas Clavium. Ohio University Press.

Suarès, G. 1986. Vladimir Jankélévitch Qui suis-je? La Manufacture.


[1] cf. Shestov 1975, 221 – “The Irrational Residue of Being”

[2] Shestov’s reading of Socrates’ poisoning argues that it was entirely needless and contrary to reason that the wisest individual had an unjust and lowly death. Repeatedly Shestov stresses that something is rationally wrong with seeing how Socrates’ drinking of hemlock is as logically equivalent to that of a dog’s being poisoned in the same manner, and the sheer absurdity of Socrates’ fate in itself seems to fit the bill of the definition of revelation in many respects (Shestov 1968a, 94), and this all the more so if we consider the following lines of the quote regarding Descartes above: “There is something in life which is above reason. What reason cannot conceive is not therefore always impossible. And conversely, where reason establishes a necessity the chain may nevertheless break” (Shestov 1975, 110-111). And so Socrates death itself proves how contingent, accidental, and unstructured the world may be, how the chain of necessity may be broken, and yet how we can be coerced by necessity into accepting this truth of Socrates’ dead as being just as reasonable as the death of a dog’s from being poisoned.

[3]It is precisely in this line of thinking that I would place any hope of approaching Shestov in an ethically fruitful way.

Chad Engelland (Ed.): Language and Phenomenology

Language and Phenomenology Book Cover Language and Phenomenology
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Chad Engelland (Ed.)
Routledge
2020
Hardback £120.00
318

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College)

Language and Phenomenology is a collection of 15 essays edited by Chad Engelland. Doing what it says on the tin, these essays cluster around questions about the relationship between language and phenomenology, in a range of different ways and with different axes of analysis in view. The text is bookended by Engelland himself. In both his Introduction and the essay that culminates the text he draws our attention to the fact that phenomenological discourse is itself a language with its own vocabulary and grammar. As Richard Kearney tells us in his contribution on linguistic and narrative hospitality, ‘a mother tongue has many children’ (267). The text exemplifies these two points in its form and content. If all the contributing authors are fluent in the language of phenomenology, there are nevertheless different dialects, or – to use Engelland’s own terminology – ‘inflections’ (273) represented.

Reading the text as a whole presents as a question the extent to which there is agreement or disagreement between the authors that it gives voice to. The collection seems to offer different conclusions about the nature of the relationship between phenomenology and language, but there is a question in this reader’s mind as to how much of this difference is ultimately terminological, rather than substantively philosophical. These questions of interpretation themselves find a mirror in the questions that are put to us in the text. As reviewing a work involves mediation and a kind of ‘translation’ of the authors, I am minded of Kearney’s observation that ‘…each dialect has its secrets, whence the legitimate double-injunction of every guest language cries to its host: ‘Translate me! Don’t translate me!’ (265). I will explore some of the threads, themes and tensions that the text presents, then, whilst recognising the limits of this ‘translation’.

Between them these essays variously look at the possible relationships and connections between speech and language, language and thought, language and meaning, dialogue and language, dialogue and mood, dialogue and perceptual experience, experience and judgement, language and normativity, language and self-consciousness, experience and interpretation, language and embodiment and language and truth. The most prominent scholarly figures in this text are Husserl and Heidegger, with multiple essays dedicated to exegeting both the early and late work of this prominent pair. Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer and others are also brought into these overlapping and intersecting conversations. All of the essays are rooted in the phenomenological tradition, but many find a natural conversation partner with analytic philosophy, drawing the likes of Wittgenstein and Frege. Aristotle is another figure who makes several appearances, offering another bridging point between traditions, as Heidegger’s analysis of language interacts and modifies Aristotle’s account of language.

This bridging of traditions is perhaps in part a natural feature of the subject matter itself, where the philosophy of language has more typically been seen to be the domain of the of the Anglo-American tradition. As Engelland highlights at the off, the domain of ‘phenomenology of language’ ‘initially appears empty’…While philosophy as conceptual analysis obviously involves a close interaction with language and problems of language, it is not at all clear that the same holds for philosophy as description of the structure of experience. What is the specifically phenomenological contribution to language?’ (1). This text seeks to be part of clarifying and constituting this contribution. It succeeds in offering a rich contribution to ‘phenomenology of language’ as its own domain, tracing some central threads about the fundamental presuppositions such a domain has to grapple with, whilst also making space for detailed reflection on the lived experience of our linguistic lives. In this task the form of a multiplicity of voices is a strength, offering a snapshot of this field in both its depth and breadth. This text would not suit beginners to phenomenology, as it assumes a ready familiarity with the tradition. For those already engaged in phenomenological ideas, the writing is largely very accessible and illuminating.

The text is split into two parts, the first titled ‘Language and Experience’, the second ‘Language and Joint Experience’. The second part therefore takes a specific slant on the over-arching theme of the text, namely the relationship between language and experience in the light of the fact that both are inescapably tied to our intersubjective interactions with others. These two parts, Engelland tells us, seek to track both the first-person and the second-person character of language in our lived experience.

The first section offers eight contributions: Daniel O. Dahlstrom argues that language is the ‘light’ by which objects are illuminated. Taylor Carmen evaluates Merleau-Ponty’s account of the connection between language and the expressive body. Dominique Pradelle explores a way of understanding the ‘pre-predicative’ dimension of experience. Jacob Rump argues that perception has normativity ‘baked in’ and outlines why this is relevant to an understanding of the relationship between language and experience. Scott Campbell offers that Heidegger’s understanding of ‘taking notice’ offers a way of speaking that discloses rather than conceals our experience. Leslie MacAvoy outlines how Heidegger modifies Aristotle’s account by shifting logos to perceptual experience itself. Katherine Whitby offers us eight possible ways that language can disclose the world to us, landing with the centrality of dialogue as world-disclosing. Anna Gosetti-Ferencei focuses on poetry as a particular form of language, exploring the phenomenology of poetry and poetry as phenomenology.

The second section is comprised of seven essays. As the focus here is on the intersubjective dimensions of language and experience, many of these authors interface their analyses with analyses in developmental psychology. The joint attention contexts of language learning shared by infants and their caregivers shed light on connections between intersubjectivity, language and experience which are others hiding in plain sight in our adult experience. Andrew Inkpin argues that neither individualism not social holism are adequate ways of accounting for language, but that both the individual and social aspects of language are compound, complex and co-constitutive. Pol Vandevelde draws on the work of Vygotsky to argue both that language scaffolds thought and thought scaffolds language. Michele Averchi uses Husserl’s distinction between expressions and indications to make the case that while there are non-linguistic forms of information transfer, only linguistic forms can function as truly communicative acts. Lawrence Hatab argues for the priority and necessity of language in all forms of world-disclosure. With a different emphasis, Cathy Culbertson argues that forms of play mirror and prefigure spoken conversation. Richard Kearney offers both an analysis and a manifesto for what he calls ‘narrative hospitality’, characterised by flexibility, plurality, transfiguration and pardon. Engelland culminates with a meditation on the ways that we learn a phenomenological language, arguing that this is grounded in, and a completion of, our ordinary language learning. He sketches a distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic forms of communication in terms of the capacity of the former to reach beyond presence to that which is absent.

Whilst the polycentric nature of an essay collection means that there is not a straightforward over-arching argument to analyse here, the key thread that runs through the text as a whole – as the section headings suggest – is that of the nature of the relationship between language and experience. There are at least three different possible positions one might take to the question of the fundamental relationship between experience and language. Broadly speaking these are: (i) Language is imposed on or secondary to the ‘raw data’ of phenomenal experience, where these are two distinct kinds of thing. (ii) Phenomenal experience is in fact linguistic ‘all the way through’, and there is no such thing as pre-linguistic experience – this is a myth. (iii) There is some category of (something like) pre-linguistic experience but this aspect of our experience is nevertheless still structured in a way that is congruent with or isomorphic to linguistic structure.

If we were to caricature phenomenology, we might be inclined to say that it preaches the first of these positions. One might suppose that in the Husserlian exhortation to get ‘back to the things themselves’ the phenomenologist is seeking to analyse that which is prior to language itself. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is not necessarily the case, and indeed, not the tack that most phenomenologists take, despite the emphasis on lived experience as a methodological starting point. This is both because language survives the bracketing process as part of the content of our experience of the world, but also because it becomes clear that (in some way) language is a condition of the possibility of our experiencing the world in the way that we experience it.

Most phenomenologists want a more nuanced account of the relationship between language and phenomenology, but what is the nature of this relationship – or set of relationships? As Engelland makes foreground in his Introduction, we see in the work of classic and contemporary phenomenologists both that: ‘Experience takes the lead but it is an experience widened by speech. One can thereby identify a basic tension within the phenomenological treatment of language: on the one hand, phenomenology subordinates speech to experience. On the other hand, phenomenology identifies the reciprocity of speech and experience’ (3). Further, phenomenologists want to be ‘mindful of the linguisticality of experience’ (13). Engelland here roughly lays out the three emphases above, highlighting that the phenomenological tradition has included elements that imply (i), (ii) and (iii). These positions, when laid out beside each other, seem mutually incompatible. What then are we to make of these competing emphases? What are the arguments in favour of each? This collection seeks to help us think through this question, by together taking a long hard look at these tensions. Each of the essays in their own way make an attempt to ascertain a coherent understanding of where and how language sits in both the form and the content of our lived experience.

On the face of it, it seems as though different authors in the collection come to different conclusions with respect to the question of whether experience is linguistic ‘all the way through’ or not. Contributors such as Hatab make claims in favour of ‘the priority of language in world-disclosure’ (229), emphasising the way that human beings always already dwell in language – which looks like option (ii). Others such as Pradelle argue that the pre-predicative dimension of experience is more primitive than the linguistic dimension, yet there is a form of logos that structures this ‘lower order’ (58) of experience which bridges it to the linguistic – which looks like option (iii).

Another way of framing the key question here might be: Is logos simply the domain of language? And if not, how are we to understand pre- or extra-linguistic logos, or ‘logos in its nascent state’ (72)? Or again to re-frame, in the inverse: If there is some logical structure to our pre-verbal experience, is this because this pre-verbal content is in fact still in some way ‘linguistic’, so tracks the logos of language (as MacAvoy seems to argue with the claim that ‘perception already speaks’ (120))? Or is there a logic that is genuinely and distinctly pre-linguistic here (As Pradelle and Rump both seem to argue)?

These different suggested relationships cash out in a particular way in the second section of book, which focuses on the intersubjective contexts of both language and experience. These papers focus on communication between people, including both pre-verbal forms of communication and verbal dialogue. Mirroring the questions above, we might ask – when we talk about ‘pre-verbal’, ‘extra-verbal’ or ‘non-verbal’ communication (including, for example tone, gestures and body language) are we saying that there is a kind of ‘grammar’ built into these forms of communication that is quasi-linguistic? Or do these forms of interaction have their own logic which is distinct from language, only secondarily entering into some kind of relationship with the linguistic elements of an interaction? Again, we seem to get different answers to this question. Averchi argues that there is a distinct logical and structural difference between verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, which shows up in the difference between language’s capacity to communicate the absent and the abstract – this looks like option (i). Hatab argues that all communication is linguistic and denies the possibility of experience not already shaped by language, which looks like option (ii). A seemingly different position comes through in Culbertson’s article. She looks at the structural similarities between forms of play and spoken conversation, making a case for a structural similarity, congruence and interconnection of pre-verbal and verbal forms of dialogue in this way. A slightly different take but a similar conclusion comes from Pol Vandevelde, using Husserl, who highlights the difference between ‘semantic consciousness’ and ‘phonetic consciousness’ (199). Semantic consciousness is the ‘perceiving-as’ that we are most familiar with: when I hear someone speaking in English, I cannot hear this as ‘mere noise’ but I non-inferentially hear the meaning of the words and sentences. Phonetic consciousness however highlights a slightly different layer of meaning in my reception of speech. Even when I hear someone speaking in a foreign language that I don’t understand, I still grasp it as speech. This maps onto the development of speech in infants, where an infant can recognise speech patterns as speech, and join in proto-dialogue, before understanding the meaning of the words themselves. In Vygotsky’s words, there is ‘a prelinguistic phase in the development of thought and a preintellectual phase in the development of speech’ (195). Vandevelde’s endorsement of this here looks like option (iii).

This central question re-framed yet another way asks: Is language a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the seemingly non-verbal) or is logos a broader category than we might ordinarily think it is (incorporating the non-linguistic)? And – what is at stake in this difference, if anything? This is where the question of the philosophically substantive vs merely terminological comes into play. Does it make a difference if we think about this dimension of our experience as structured by pre-linguistic logos or by pre-verbal language? Are these two ways of saying the same thing? If not, what further might be needed to distinguish these two ways of thinking? This is a genuine question, but I don’t think that the collection as a whole can land us either way.

A slightly different take on this central question asks whether language is necessarily objectifying of our experience, with this question is addressed head on by Campbell. Again, the caricature of the phenomenologist in our minds might say that all language is theory-laden, and it brings a distorting or at least limited and limiting lens to the ‘given’ of experience. This perspective, which has a clear alignment with option (i) above, might argue that language is always re-presenting what is presented in experience. However, there is another suggestion, that language can also straightforwardly present our experience, and successfully communicate this experience to another. Here we have the thought that different types of speech do different kinds of things, in different ‘phenomenological registers’ (109) and perhaps disclose or conceal the world in different ways. Campbell looks at Heidegger’s analysis of the writings of St Paul as a case of ‘taking notice’. Gosetti-Ferencei’s account of the ‘phenomenological moments’ (150) in poetry also offers a picture of language which ‘presents’ rather than represents. ‘Taking notice’ is ‘a kind of pre-predicative and non-propositional language, that is, a language that is evocative, perhaps even stream of consciousness, narrative and exploratory instead of theoretical and objectifiying’ (96). This kind of language is to be distinguished from Heideggerian ‘idle talk’, which conceals the lived reality of our experience. We might read Campbell’s interpretation of Heidegger as akin to option (ii), particularly where he contrasts this with his interpretation of Husserl, which looks more like option (iii). He says: ‘Husserl…thought that predicative language could bring to light the inherent meaningfulness in pre-predicative experience. Heidegger on the other hand, explored a way of thinking about language that was itself pre-predicative’ (110). Whether Campbell’s interpretation of both Husserl and Heidegger is right here is its own question, but even if Campbell is right here, this is not necessarily a point that forces a further dialectic, as both positions could be true. These two articulations of how language might disclose the meaning of experience are not mutually exclusive. There is nothing in this analysis which can arbitrate between option (ii) or (iii) for us. Again, we might wonder how much is ultimately at stake between them, if anything.

Part of the difficulty in assessing where philosophical differences lie and where differences are merely terminological is connected to the fact that both ‘language’ and ‘experience’ ae themselves such wide and contested terms. Each have a cloud of (overlapping) concepts associated with them, and how one understands these associations makes all the difference for the conclusions one draws about the nature of other associations. How one understands the relationship between, for example, dialogue and language will shape how one understands the relationship between dialogue and experience and therefore between experience and language. What gets defined into the relata in question defines what is claimed about the nature and possibility of the relationship. For example, whilst Hatab makes the strong claim that ‘the disclosure of the world is gathered in language, not objects, perception, thought or consciousness’ (299), we find that he defines ‘language’ in such as way that includes ‘facial expressions, touch, physical interactions, gestures, sounds, rhythms, intonations, emotional cues, and a host of behavioral contexts’ (236). This to say, Hatab defines a host of non-verbal embodied interactions into what he means by language. With all manner of embodied meaning brought under the umbrella of language, the claim that language is the sole discloser of the world no longer looks like the narrow claim it initially did. And as above, once language is given a wide definition, it is less clear what is at stake, if anything, between a position like Hatab’s and a position like Pradelle’s. Perhaps Hatab’s non-verbal ‘language’ and Pradelle’s ‘pre-linguistic logos’ are the same thing, and there are ways of seeing option (ii) and option (iii) as the same thing viewed two different ways.

This point about definitional difference noted, a more fertile way of exploring further the possibility of extra-linguistic dimension of our experience might ask: how are we to understand the nature and structure of a pre-linguistic logos (or a pre-verbal language)? The suggestion from a number of authors is that this is given by the normativity that is built into perceptual experience itself. The structure of consciousness as intentionality, which means that seeing is seeing-as, hearing is hearing-as, and so on, gives us the logos embedded in perception. What are the conditions of possibility for consciousness so structured? As MacAvoy gestures towards in her essay, the structure of the world itself is relevant here, and further analysis of the networks of meaning embedded in the ‘interobjectivity’ of things might be part of this further exploration. There is also a possible theological direction in view here, as Kearney indicates – ‘there is no pure pristine logos, unless it is God’s’ (265). Indeed, further exploration of the pre-linguistic logos might take the famous opening lines of St John’s gospel as its starting cue: ‘In the beginning was the logos.Language and Phenomenology offers a springboard to further exploration of this logos baked into to fabric of reality and the logic of phenomenal consciousness, though the conversation is still unfolding.

Lorenz Jäger: Heidegger: Ein deutsches Leben, Rowohlt, 2021

Heidegger: Ein deutsches Leben Book Cover Heidegger: Ein deutsches Leben
Lorenz Jäger
Rowohlt
2021
Paperback 28,00 €
592

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: Spalt und Fuge: Eine Phänomenologie des Experiments, Suhrkamp, 2021

Spalt und Fuge: Eine Phänomenologie des Experiments Book Cover Spalt und Fuge: Eine Phänomenologie des Experiments
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2343
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
Suhrkamp
2021
Paperback 22,00 €
289

Andreas Beinsteiner: Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität

Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität Book Cover Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität
Heidegger Forum 17
Andreas Beinsteiner
Klostermann
2021
Paperback 29,00 €
318

Reviewed by: Daniel Neumann (Universität Klagenfurt)

In Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität, Andreas Beinsteiner sets out to reconceive Heidegger’s central term “Being” as mediality. The overarching goal of the book is twofold: giving a coherent interpretation of the meaning of Being throughout Heidegger’s oeuvre, as well as contributing to the foundational thought of media studies. In doing so, Beinsteiner takes a cue from Dieter Mersch, whose concept of “negative mediality” is based on the assumption that what constitutes the mediality of media has yet to be philosophically elucidated. The “manifest justification deficit of the media concept” (Mersch 2015, 19) could be remedied, Beinsteiner argues, with Heidegger’s thinking of Being. Thirty-seven years before Marshall McLuhan famously pronounced that “the medium is the message”, shifting the focus on the elusive role the medium itself plays in the process of mediation, Heidegger had similarly discovered the constitutive withdrawal of Being itself in the unconcealment of beings (205). The role of mediality is thereby expanded beyond that of media in the strict sense. By looking at Heidegger’s philosophy, Beinsteiner suggests that the way we experience digital media, but also art and technology in the broader sense, has to be grasped from how we experience anything at all, in other words, how we come to experience the Being of beings. As he makes clear in later chapters of his book, Beinsteiner is convinced that Heidegger does not just speak to the fundamental mediality of our being in the world, but also to specific modern forms of mediality of technology, such as autonomously operating machines. The aim of the book is of philosophical and media theoretical interest not just because it aims at laying the groundwork for a concept of mediality, based on a close reading of Heidegger’s philosophy up to his later years, but also because this reading promises an integrated account of mediality, comprising its fundamental and specific aspects equally.

In the first two thirds of the book, Beinsteiner develops this idea vis-à-vis central concepts found in Heidegger’s works, such as presence, event and equipment. In Sein und Zeit, the interested involvement which unveils Being as equipment (Zeug), putting me in a pragmatic mode in which I use this equipment without thinking about its significance, is conceived as a paradigmatic case of mediality. It is not just my existence, being oriented around the care of the being that I am, which mediates the concernful handling of equipment. It is also the equipment as concrete artifact that helps to shape my access to the world. Thus, “contrary to the dominant anti-hermeneutical reading of Heidegger in media studies” (33), artifacts play a central role in the constitution of mediality and the mediation of sense. Mediality here is shown to depend on an interplay of our pre-understanding (Vorverständnis) for equipment to even be recognized as such (a requirement that Beinsteiner shows to be based on Heidegger’s understanding of Platonic ideas) as well as the material artifact, in which understanding, purpose and craftsmanship have coagulated into a being which mediates our access to the world in different ways. Here, basic Heideggerian terminology such as availableness (Zuhandenheit) and occurrentness (Vorhandenheit) are coherently interpreted as modes of mediality. While the scope of the meaning of being in Sein und Zeit seems to follow the paradigm of the availability of being-as-equipment, in later writings Heidegger thinks of the meaning of Being as taking on historical proportions: the meaning of Being concerns historicity, instead of the temporality of an individual existence (51). Yet across the Kehre, mediality retains its central significance for how Heidegger thinks Being. Thus, Beinsteiner argues for a continuity and an expansion between Heidegger’s earlier and later writings, instead of a break, based on the interpretation of Being as mediality.

Throughout the book, a consistent vocabulary is developed to capture this continuity. The early Heidegger’s concern with the meaning of finite existence is conceived by Beinsteiner as the “existential-hermeneutical as” (existentialhermeneutisches als). The “as”, that Being appears as is hermeneutically motivated, following the existential structure of existence. In other words, how we grasp Being, e.g. via equipment, language and mood, is a matter of the constitution of Dasein’s being in the world. In later Heidegger, the way Being discloses the world is still a question of the “as” of Being. But to account for the historical dimension of Heidegger’s questioning, Beinsteiner now speaks of Being appearing as “regimes of accessibility” (Zugänglichkeitsregime), which imply an unavoidable reduction of the ambiguity of Being, i.e. mediality. The regime (or paradigm) of accessibility is what pre-selects the way in which Being is perceived (vernommen). Just as the manners of being (Seinsarten) in Sein und Zeit are shown to be forms of mediality, the historical regimes of Being (roughly, physis in Antiquity, creation in Medieval Times and subjective representation beginning in Modernity) turn out to be forms in which Being is collectively understood. Through this synthetical reading of early and later Heidegger, Beinsteiner is able to demonstrate a basic selectivity of mediality, which spans the understanding of individual being, Being as a whole as well as the selectivity of accessibility to Being itself (65).

The latter aspect is especially important as Heidegger’s interest is not just in discussing the multivalence of Being in existential or historical terms, but more fundamentally in showing that the way Being can be grasped, perceived and understood, is irreducible to any one meaning. According to Beinsteiner, Heidegger comes closest to the idea of Being as mediality when discussing Being in terms of immediacy and mediatedness:

“What is first present in all gathers everything isolated together into a single presence and mediates to each thing its appearing. Immediate allpresence is the mediator for everything mediated, that is, for the mediate. The immediate is itself never something mediate; on the other hand, the immediate, strictly speaking, is the mediation, that is, the mediatedness of the mediated, because it renders the mediated possible in its essence.” (Heidegger 2000, 84).

“Das in allem zuvor Gegenwärtige [d.h. die physis, AB] versammelt alles Vereinzelte in die eine Anwesenheit und vermittelt Jeglichem das Erscheinen. Die unmittelbare Allgegenwart ist die Mittlerin für alles Vermittelte und d.h. für das Mittelbare. Das Unmittelbare [die physis] ist selbst nie ein Mittelbares, wohl dagegen ist das Unmittelbare, streng genommen, die Vermittelung, d.h. die Mittelbarkeit des Mittelbaren, weil sie dieses in seinem Wesen ermöglicht.” (cited in Beinsteiner, 76f)

In opening and selecting our access to the world, Being (or mediality) takes on the double role of immediate allpresence and mediation. Being is immediate, insofar as everything we perceive is necessarily a manner of it. Yet Being is mediation, since it is never grasped in itself, but only in a certain way. Being is immediate mediation or mediated immediacy. From this, Beinsteiner concludes that “nothing is immediate, except for mediality” (77), while also conceding that grasping this “accessibility of accessibility” confronts us with a fundamental difficulty in thinking about the unconcealment of Being.

Yet neither for Heidegger nor Beinsteiner does this constitute a purely epistemological issue. One of the challenges in interpreting Heidegger lies exactly in characterizing the meaning of Being itself, and the role of the philosopher in taking up this meaning. Beinsteiner’s approach is to grasp this as a fundamentally ethical question: to be sensitive to the irreducible meaning of Being and to become aware of the historical and philosophical contingency of a specific regime of accessibility is to increase one’s own freedom, whereas to insist on an established form of mediality without even realizing its ontological antecedents is to become less free. While this may be characterized as the individual’s share in the exercise of freedom, equally important for Beinsteiner’s interpretation is the fact the specific regime of mediality precedes individual thinking and understanding. Taking up the idea of thrownness (Geworfenheit), Beinsteiner deems this the “ek-sistential disempowerment” (ek-sistentiale Depotenzierung) of human beings. In other words, the fact that we are always already participating in the modes of Being of a certain regime cannot be overcome by philosophical reflection. The “thinking of Being” will not lead to a supreme position from where all its meanings unfold in a cohesive picture. No matter how many ways of Being’s mediality are grasped, neither any one of them, nor their totality, amounts to a grasping of Being itself.

Instead, Beinsteiner takes Heidegger’s thinking of the event as the paradigmatic case in which the sensitivity for Being’s irreducible and abyssal meaning is articulated. Since his discussion is mostly restricted to the works published in his lifetime, Heidegger’s thinking of the event is considered only cursorily. Yet what matters to Beinsteiner’s approach is that the event is what brings us closest to the contingency of the being we perceive. To understand the event (the happening of Being) as event means refocusing thinking from one’s immediate engagement with ontic things towards that which makes this engagement possible. Grasping the fact that Being happens enables us to realize the openness in which we stand as reasonable (vernünftig or vernehmend) beings. The exercise of freedom, according to this interpretation, is this movement or “stepping back”, as Heidegger calls it in his Beiträge zur Philosophie, which decenters our place in the world and which simultaneously makes thinkable our taking place in the world, which is inseparable from Being, taking on a specific meaning. Beinsteiner connects this exercise of freedom with Heidegger’s terminology of comportment (Verhaltenheit) and releasement (Gelassenheit), the latter taking the place of the former in the writings after the Second World War (145). The two terms express a somewhat different attitude towards abyssal Being, Verhaltenheit insinuates a timidity and hesitation, while Gelassenheit seems to emphasize a receptive and patient attitude. The semantics get plausibly streamlined so that in Beinsteiner’s interpretation, both terms are shown to attempt to think the necessary selectiveness of our access to the world.

In Heidegger’s own writings, the thinking of the event is often, though not always in a clear way, connected to the mediality of language. Language is what lets things be, it enables the meaningful grasping of things. In this sense, Beinsteiner speaks of the “as-like structure” (alshafte Struktur) of language. In speaking and hearing language, something can be thought, perceived or grasped as something. Language is medium of sense as well as mediality, because in using language we are not merely participating in a specific regime of accessibility, but we are shaping and changing its mechanism of selectivity. Thus, a poem might make us see a statue in a completely new way and Descartes, in writing a meditation about the nature of his mind, helps to create and stabilize subjectivity, making possible a new understanding of our being in the world which becomes our representation. These examples are to suggest that the thinking of Being in Heidegger doubtlessly relies on language as a key paradigm of mediality, though it certainly is not exclusively a philosophy of language. In arguing that Heidegger strives to critically examine and question the meaning of a regime of accessibility by broadening the scope (Spielraum) of how we understand the meaning of being (169), Beinsteiner seems to concur with the emphasis on language without clearly separating the mediality of language from Being as mediality. The “politics of reinterpretation” (172) that Heidegger is said to put into motion presumably operates on different levels of mediality.

This equivocality might be due to the interpretative decision underlying the whole book, which is to understand Being as mediality. The expression of the “mediality of Being” used above is thus not wholly accurate, as it is not Being itself which mediates our access to the world but mediality in its stead. Beinsteiner speaks of a “forgetting of mediality” (Medialitätsvergessenheit) instead of a Seinsvergessenheit, and a “history of mediality” (Medialitätsgeschichte) instead of a Seinsgeschichte to indicate the shift his interpretation operates. Yet it seems to me that the reconfiguration of the ontological difference between Being/beings (Sein/Seiendes) as Medialität/Seiendes is not fully reflected upon. The notion that all beings refer to mediality has different implications than their referral to Being: beings are of Being, in the sense that Being ontologically comprises what beings are, whether this be in a more general, immediate or truer fashion. One of the momentous assumptions of Sein und Zeit was the idea that what is most proper to beings, their being (or Being) itself, has yet to be fully grasped. There is an intimate connection between Being and beings, which might be compared to the relationship between presence (Anwesenheit) und present things (Anwesendes), bearing in mind that presence for Heidegger is merely one way to understand Being temporally. But there is no such relationship, ontological or otherwise, between mediality and beings. Rather, when we understand the specific form of beings as due to an underlying mediality, this necessarily turns these beings themselves into media of this mediality and thus narrows their ontological meaning. While a being might be considered a unity in many ways (following Aristotles’ famous dictum of being as pollachos legomenon), a being that is the medium of mediality is already designated to present something as something else.

Possibly to avert such difficulties, Beinsteiner does not build his interpretation on the ontological difference of Being and beings, but instead suggests speaking of “a difference between mediality and the phenomenal” (42). While this solves the issue of the missing affinity between mediality and what it discloses, it raises another problem because it seemingly restricts phenomenality to what is made available by mediality, whereas in Heidegger there is a sense in which Being itself, even though it does not manifest itself in an ontic way, has a phenomenal quality as well. An essential aspect of the experience of the event consists in Being, in order to disclose beings, withdrawing itself. This withdrawal of Being, as Beinsteiner shows as well, is not something purely negative, but a concealment which can be experienced as such (198). Instead of a simple absence, concealment draws our attention to the fact that there is concealing. But when Beinsteiner quotes Heidegger in insisting that this concealment is one of the characteristics of artworks (200), an aesthetic or phenomenal quality is evidently involved. If it is thus correct to speak of a phenomenality of concealment, then what conceals itself (i.e. mediality in Beinsteiner’s interpretation) cannot be clearly distinguished from the phenomenal. It seems to me that this aesthetic aspect of withdrawal hinges on the intrinsic affinity between Being and beings, which is abandoned when replacing Being with mediality.

Would the situation have been different if mediality was not understood as replacing Being but instead as the way that Being discloses itself to us, in other words, if it was a matter of the mediality of Being? This would have added another conceptual layer between Being and beings, one in which Being would be grasped as itself in a concrete form. But this would turn Being into an absolute entity, existing beside beings. The strength of Heidegger’s philosophy, and one which is amply expounded in the book, is to resist hypostasizing either Being or beings as absolute, and instead implicating them in what Beinsteiner calls a constant “hermeneutical oscillation” (155ff). With Dieter Mersch, one could say that the question is not how Being is mediated, or how something can appear as something else, but instead how the “as” itself comes to be (Mersch 2015, 20). This in turn means that mediality, the “as itself”, is foundational, in the sense that it enables the appearance of something as something, but that it remains concealed, or rather, that it can only be noticed in the seamless way in which it operates ontic unconcealment.

The last third of the book deals with the specific forms mediality takes on, and the role of media in the usual sense of the word. These issues are tackled by Beinsteiner’s interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology, in which a dominant form of mediality threatens to permanently bar alternative accesses to phenomenality. In this approach, two things seem especially remarkable. Firstly, Beinsteiner forcefully argues for the idea that Heidegger’s thinking of technology is one of artefacts, not an abstract philosopher’s critique of the contemporary world, making an empirical turn against Heidegger unnecessary (237). Secondly, the different forms of “phenomenological artifacts”, comprising not just technological objects but also artworks, are seamlessly integrated into the idea of Being as mediality. Beinsteiner suggests that equipment and the artwork are two paradigmatic artifacts which refer to the maximum concealment (as technological Gestell) and unconcealment (as event) of mediality. In other words, these artifacts exist on a continuum of concealment, as it were, which either question and broaden the regime of accessibility, or by contrast, insist in it, naturalizing the criteria of accessibility to the point where they almost seem without alternative.

This latter stage is reached with technology when the handling of technological objects becomes more and more a manner of maintenance. With fully automated, interoperative machines, the scope of possible meanings diminishes in the face of efficient, planned and unceasing repetition. Beinsteiner emphasizes that this is not meant as a scathing critique, nor as a call to simpler times in which the relationship between techne and physis was less determined, but that it merely follows the logic of increased insistence within a specific regime of accessibility. While the whole argument of the book mostly focuses on Heidegger’s own writing, at this point a sideways glance to other contemporary theories of technology would have been interesting. Gilbert Simondon, in his On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (originally published in 1958) offers for instance a much more positive account of the relationship between man and automated machine, which is not merely one of maintenance but of engineering. More to the point of Heidegger, Simondon also constructs a genealogy of technical objects stretching back as far as animist theories. But in Simondon, increased levels of technological ingenuity are described as enabling more creativity and openness, based on the knowledge of the modes of existence of these technological objects. Thus, the complex inner workings of an automated machine present not merely a closed system to the outside observer, but an intricate set of ideas which have taken on a fixed form that can be amended and emended through playful experimentation. This creativity that is manifest in the complexity of the machine is not found in Heidegger. On the other hand, Heidegger’s philosophy of technology could be construed as a lifelong struggle with the “technological condition” of his own thinking, for instance as an underlying technological bias dating back as far as Sein und Zeit, where the world is disclosed in the form of technical or pragmatic affordances (Hörl 2008, 651f).

Some of the ambivalences in Heidegger’s view of the role of technology are conveyed by Beinsteiner’s concepts of the hermeneutics of the user and designer, respectively. Technological objects always entertain a complex relationship to their surrounding sense. They are not abstract functions, but first of all projected ideas. In their objective form, they are subject to the sense the user, as a hermeneutical creature makes, of them, just as their design is not merely the application of a form on matter, but an Entwurf and Zuwurf in which the possibility of unexpected discovery appears (246). In this sense, there is a Simondonian quality to Heidegger’s technological thinking. Outside the realm of subservience, technological artifacts may thus gain relevance in the play with accessibility.

In the last chapter, Beinsteiner draws some consequences from the fact that humans are constitutively related to media strictly speaking and to mediality broadly speaking. This exteriority, which is tied back to the basic condition of ek-sistence, is distinguished from concepts in which technology is understood as the extension of an interiority, like Ernst Kapps’s thesis of technology as organ projection. The argument Beinsteiner makes is that Heidegger does not think technology as an anthropological feature: technology will never determine what humans are, or vice versa, as it is just one part of a broader regime of accessibility which is always open to variability through language (283). This variability of language is also at play when Heidegger’s writing process is deemed a “media-philosophical strategy” (289) which mediates the volatile movement of thinking and the crystallization of thought in letters.

It is not just in this work-biographical self-attribution (Wege, nicht Werke is the epigram of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe) that Beinsteiner follows Heidegger. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that the defense of the coherence of the thesis of Being as mediality coincides with the defense of Heidegger’s philosophy itself. But in arguing for Heidegger’s continuous effort to hold open and question existing regimes of accessibility, the mediality elucidated by the interpretation appears much more uniform than Heidegger’s own term of Being, which, as Dasein or event, signifies quite different forms of mediality. It would have been thinkable, for instance, to distinguish mediality as disclosedness and as unconcealment, relative to the ontological framework in which mediality operates. I also disagree with Beinsteiner’s negative assessment of “critical Heidegger studies”, which historicize Heideggerian terminology, thus going against Heidegger’s own semantic intentions (173). On the next page, Beinsteiner warns that, for it not to seem dogmatic and authoritative, one has to follow closely Heidegger’s own “expanding reinterpretation” of metaphysical concepts to liberate and transform thinking (174). Thus, while Heidegger is granted maximum semantic freedom, reading him seems to require abstaining from calling his semantics into question. From this hermeneutical attitude also follows that the historicity of Being, i.e. mediality, remains elusive. In other words, the regime of accessibility is always already in place and we may increase our freedom by thinking its very mediality, but this remains an exercise of reason, not a media archaeology. Yet it would have been possible to grasp Heidegger’s thinking of mediality, especially as it relates to media in the strict sense, in a more empirical way, that is by consulting the invention and distribution of machines. Likewise, paradigm changes in artworks, for instance from figural to more abstract paintings, emphasizing the creative act rather than reproducing ontic features, might have played a role in describing the artwork as an event showing us the limits of our selectivity of accessibility. But the fact that Beinsteiner chose to follow Heidegger closely instead results in a very consistent interpretation, one which is able to convincingly incorporate ideas and terminology from early to late Heidegger.

Thus, the book succeeds in what it set out to do: providing a coherent interpretation of “Being” as mediality, which is shown to be of central importance for concrete media such as artworks, equipment and interoperative machines. Through this careful and thorough reading, Beinsteiner also exposes the limits of a mediality according to Heidegger, thereby laying out premises for media ontologies to come.

References:

Heidegger, Martin. 2000. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry. Translated by Keith Hoeller. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Hörl, Erich. 2008. “Die offene Maschine. Heidegger, Günther und Simondon über die technologische Bedingung.” MLN 123(3): 632-655.

Mersch, Dieter. 2015. “Wozu Medienphilosophie? Eine programmatische Einleitung.” Internationales Jahrbuch für Medienphilosophie 1(1): 13-48.

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