Ron Margolin: Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts

Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts Book Cover Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts
Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah
Ron Margolin. Translated by Edward Levin
Academic Studies Press

Reviewed by: Yutong Li (Hoger Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte, KU Leuven)

Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts, trans. Eduard Levin, Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021 (shortened as Inner Religion hereafter), presented before us by Professor Ron Margolin, is an informative handbook with abounding materials. The thesis Margolin offers to defend is a simple one, and he defends it through this hefty book of 600 pages. The thesis is, despite criticisms issued from other religious or secular groups, Judaism is a tradition that holds a high regard for the interior, intrinsic, or immanent features of religious consciousness. Put in other words, the Jewish people’s observing of the commandments or of maintaining the love for God, is not triggered by fear, nor motivated by outer purposes (physical, social, political, etc.). Their piety results from inner experiences and aspires after inner goals, e.g., the cultivation of their own souls.

To defend this religious thesis, however, Margolin treads the detour of phenomenology. On the one hand, it is a natural choice, since this philosophical tradition lays its emphasis on reduction, givenness, consciousness, and so on, prioritizing subjective experiences to objective validities. On the other hand, nonetheless, Margolin disagrees with the majority of the phenomenologists of religion and theology: van der Leeuw, Levinas, Chrétien, among others. This independent spirit, which, by the way, surpasses the scope of phenomenology and also applies itself to the domain of the research of Jewish mysticism (whose forerunners, above all Gershom Scholem and Idel Moshe, become the targets of sober criticism in many places of Inner Religion), is one of the features that render this book a good read. There are deficiencies, indeed, as will be addressed at the end of the review, but they will by no means prevent readers from appreciating the meticulous interpretative efforts Margolin dedicates to the defending of whatever he tries to defend.

In this article, I will first go over the key concepts (inner, interiority, interiorization) and, second, three of the instantiations (ritual, conceptual, and experiential interiorization) of inner religion. The length of my review will prevent me from reproducing the material abundance waiting for readers in Margolin’s work, but this needs not to be done, due to the nature of the monograph (a handbook, as mentioned in the beginning): instead of arguments piling up on one another, the book, an anthology, rather, consists of a singular overarching principle applied to a variety of literatures. Thirdly, I will comment on the methodology adopted in this book in general (phenomenology and others). At last, as predicted, I will raise a critical remark that concerns in particular the problem of history, which, I believe, is not treated as a problem per se, despite the historical appearance of the work (it is, after all, a commentary on materials from the Bible to Hasidic texts).

Before we start the thematic discussions, however, I should notify the readers of one underlying attitude of this review article. Given the nature of the journal, I will focus primarily on the phenomenological part of Inner Religion, although it occupies a somewhat marginal place in the book. One should not fail to notice that this monograph pertains, to a larger extent, to the studies of Jewish religion and theology. Its central mission, as just mentioned, consists in the apologetics for the Judaic religion, instead of working out an elaborate systematics of phenomenology. It goes without saying that the abundance of sources from the Jewish background does not at all obstruct the phenomenological potentials of the study, but, on the contrary, opens up a new perspective for philosophy. However, this pre-emptive reminder is still needed for the purpose of helping the readers establish a fitting attitude toward Inner Religion: To be found within is, I repeat, not architectonics composed of Husserlian or Heideggerian jargons, but an applied phenomenology that mobilizes the fundamental methods or conceptual framework in the field of religion.

Ambiguity of the term inner

The most crucial term of Inner Religion, is, naturally, “inner”. The Hebrew language has several terms that connotes what Margolin means by it. A metaphorical and hence the most straightforward one is the word lev [heart] (35), but the same idea can be expressed by more theoretical or epistemological jargons, whose exemplar specimen is the word Kavanah [intent] (36-37). This concept connotes proactive planning (87) or attentiveness (89).

A spacial metaphor itself, the equivocal notion “inner” harbors a leeway of interpretation. There are several options that appear thematically or unthematically throughout Inner Religion. First, inner as mental or psychological, as opposed to somatic or physical; one practices belief for the good of her soul, not to strengthen her body. Second, inner as subjective or self, as opposed to objective or others. Third, inner as private, as opposed to public; faith is best tested when one is isolated from the crowd. Fourth, inner as inherent, as opposed to instrumental; religion should be intrinsically good, not a tool to seek respect or other social benefits. Fifth, inner as immanent, as opposed to transcendent; God is dwelling in men’s souls, so there is no need to search for Him outside of oneself, a credo reminiscent of St. Augustine’s teaching. Granted, these understandings of the term «inner» partially overlap with one another. For example, mental, subjective/self, and private are used quite interchangeably by the author in the introductory chapter. But they have different connotations with regard to their oppositions.

Margolin does not intent to categorically distinguish these multiple significations, but he knows how to discern the inner he wants in numerous religious phenomena: “most importantly, this book will focus on practices that the religious individual perceives as means to stand before, or to make contact with, the divine” (13). Where certain events or testimonies attest to one’s—immanent—direct union with the divine, there is inner religion. Two remarks to be made here. First, the innerness Margolin has in mind presents itself, paradoxically, in transcendent or ecstatic experiences. Second, this transcendence is nevertheless not referring to anything really exterior, outside of one’s soul or consciousness, but precisely manifested within interiority. In other words, special attention will be given to the experience of union with divinity, but it is a transcending union as perceived by the mind of an individual: a transcendence from the point of view of immanence.


Margolin, however, does not let this overtly reductive approach develop into a full-blown annulment of the demarcation between the inner and outer. Indeed, the insistence on the distinction between, i.e., the claim that all interiority does not correspond with an outer expression, is what distinguishes Margolin from other phenomenologists. This gives rise to a difficulty, namely whether there is an enclosed domain of interiority, a private spiritual sphere absolutely insulated from outer influences, forming an empire within an empire.

The tendency to espouse this substantial reading, proposing a static, fixed, or idealistic conception of men’s interiority, is an attitude not unlike that of the phenomenological eidetic method in early Husserl. Nevertheless, Margolin does point out yet another way to talk about the inner, which assists to avert the criticism. Instead of substantiating an interiority, he mentions the term «interiorization», referring to “the process of change that occurs within a given religious culture, when the center of attention is shifted from the ‘objective world’ of nature or myth to the ‘subjective world’ of the individual’s psyche” (15). The wording “center of attention” here echoes on another plane the author’s phenomenological method: inner religion proposes a change in attitude, not an ontological claim about some self-sufficient inner space. The outer perception is not simply cancelled out in favor of the inner, but rather regarded as an achievement, a constitution of it. To be more precise, the religious texts that pertain to outer qualities can be (re-)interpreted as metaphorical language that, at the end of the day, alludes back to the inner ones. As Margolin notes down: “The term ‘interiorization’ presumes a transition from outer to inner perception, but the assumed existence of a developmental transition does not necessarily mean the prevalence of inner perception. Often, both perceptions continue to coexist.” (15)

Three kinds of interiorization

The body of Inner Religion is carried out in three parts, each explicating on one or several possible forms of interiorization: ritual, experiential, and conceptual, existential, and epistemological interiorization. Since the space here is limited, I will focus on the first three of these possibilities: ritual interiorization, conceptual interiorization, and experiential interiorization.

First, in line with the author, I start with the rituals, and I believe there is a reason for doing so. The author can best demonstrate his claim if even in rituals, often believed to be social and public events, there can be found elements of inner religion. Second, I single out what is called «conceptual interiorization» because Margolin considers this idea as one of his contributions to the discussion of inner religion. Third, I reverse the order of experiential and conceptual interiorization, because it is in the former that Margolin’s polemical tone reaches a high point, which allows us to more easily situate the author in the traditions both of phenomenology and of the studies of Jewish mysticism.

Ritual interiorization

The technical term «interiorization» mentioned above first manifests itself in the phenomena of ritual and customs. Due to their public features, the practices of rituals and customs permit at the outset no enclosed domain of interiority, but an interplay between the outer and the inner. Or to be more precise: public and exterior in the first place, religious rituals have nevertheless the potential to let their participants focus back on themselves, on the well-being of their souls, instead of that of the bodies that are actually carrying rituals out.

In the beginning of the chapter in question, “Ritual Interiorization and Intent for Commandments”, Margolin invokes an understanding of rituals opposite to his own. In this view, ritual is defined as “a category of standardized behavior (custom) in which the relationship between the means and the end is not ‘intrinsic’, i.e. is either irrational or non-rational” (proposed by Jack Goody, quoted in Inner Religion, 61; emphasis mine) This definition hinges on a merely extrinsic relation “between the means and the end”. We now will see how Margolin argues for the contrary with the aid of Jewish sources. There are several steps in ritual interiorization, as can be seen in the formalization of rites, a process that dates back to the Scripture, and through the prophets and rabbis, reaches its pinnacle in the mystics and Hasidim.

The first step is the replacement of rituals that are more demanding or cruel with ones less so. The Torah already initiates a nascent form of ritual interiorization, which is especially patent in the story of the Binding of Isaac. It is a well-known tale: God demands Abraham to sacrifice Issac, but in the last moment, when Abraham was raising his knife and ready to kill his only son, God sends him a ram, instructing him to perform an animal sacrifice instead. The sanguinary rite is preserved, but, at least from an anthropocentric point of view, it becomes more humane. In line with Martin Buber, Margolin interprets this episode as a demonstration that “God wants the intent and not the actual act” (82) The actual, material, actions being carried out or not, it is men’s sincerity and good faith that count.

The history has seen the intensification of the figure of Abraham, who gradually becomes a figure that not only embodies a sincere intent, but, through his love alone, had fulfilled the entire Torah even before God gave it to human beings. This can be read in, for example, in  R. Menahem Mendel, a grand-disciple of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism: “with a single attribute, namely, love, he fulfilled the entire Torah” (quoted in Inner Religion, 151). The Hasidim “attack the rabbinic formalistic conceptions, which assume that the commandments do not require intent, by imparting inner content to the halakhah” (156), manage to fulfill the incipient tendency of interiorization in the Bible. Hasidism, with its disobedient attitude, exploits ritual interiorization to an unprecedented degree. Here, rituals become a method to intensify the experiential dimension, without eliminating the social, public, objective elements of religion, only aiming to refer therefrom back to its men’s soul: “The method of ritual interiorization adopted by the early Hasidic masters maintained the external religious ritual while infusing the fulfillment of the commandments with inner meaning.” (156) The consequence of this method is twofold: the outer forms are retained, but transformed, e.g., from the original human sacrifices to prayers in the end, and it is now permeated with subjective significance, with intent.

Conceptual interiorization

Margolin offers a special treatment to the phenomenon of “conceptual interiorization”, regarding it as an independent category that, in his opinion, shares the same right with “epistemological interiorizations, existential challenges of religious life, inward focusings” (276).

The particularity about conceptual interiorization is that it establishes an inner religion not through religious or in particular mystic experiences, but via the mediation of the interpretation of statements or concepts in religious texts. (In fact, I would go one step forward and describe this practice as “interiorization through interpretations”, not just through conceptualization). By this conceptual labor, it transforms “sanctified myths, laws, and narratives in the conceptual formulations that mainly emphasize the inner meanings relevant to every person” (276).

Margolin begins to elaborate conceptual interiorization by quoting Nachmanides’s commentary on one passage in Book of Deuteronomy, which is translated in English as: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you…” (Deut. 6:18; Inner Religion, 277) Nachmanides’s exegesis goes like this: “Also when He did not command you, think to do what is good and right in His sight, for He loves what is good and right.” (Inner Religion, 277) In Margolin’s reading, this interpretation expends the original semantics of the biblical statement in a way that favors inner faithfulness to merely exterior or instrumental observations of the commandments. The hinge of Nachmanides’s explanation lies in the phrase “do what is right and good”. Similar wordings can be found, e.g., in Psalms, “Do good, O Lord, to the good, to the upright in heart” (Ps. 125:4; Inner Religion, 277; emphasis mine). In Rabbinic teachings, “‘Do what is right and good’—this refers to a compromise, acting beyond the strict demands of the law⁠1. We should then be able to notice that, by drawing associations between the biblical passages and rabbis’ teachings, Nachmanides harvests an inner reading of the Law, a reading that instructs people to act well even in the absence of laws and commandments (“Also when He did not command you…”).

Experiential interiorization

However, although Margolin esteems the conceptual approach to interiorization as an independent form of inner religion, he does not fail to point out that there is an antagonistic, i.e., non-conceptual method, which is as legitimate as those immanent interpretations. In fact, the chapters about the non-conceptual or non-verbal interiorization, that is, about “paranormal experiences” and “introspective contemplation and inward focusing” (chapter 2 and 3), antecede the one that evolves around the conceptual counterpart (chapter 4). I invert the sequence in the review article on purpose to, I hope, show that Margolin’s own emphasis lies on the former. If language, concepts, and interpretations should indeed have their fair share in the Jewish inner religion, they can nonetheless never eclipse the pre-linguistic or pre-predicative religious experience.

The discussion of experiential interiorization, instantiate by contemplation and inward focusing, appears in the middle of a scholarly debate as to how to interpret the ecstatic experience documented in the Heikhalot literature (233-234). Pioneers in this field of research, above all Gershom Scholem and Idel Moshe, have set the keynote: this experience reflects a “mystic ascent” (233) that leads one away from oneself. Margolin, however, chooses to side with the opposite interpretation, as proposed by Rabbi Hai Gaon, which tones down the exterior or self-alienating dimension of ecstatic experience but emphasizes its immanent character: those who experience ecstasy do not depart from the body, but have visions precisely “in the chambers of their hearts”. (235) As Margolin puts it: “‘Ascent to Heaven’ is therefore an expression of an inner experience of the consciousness of a fierce inner sensation of ascent and detachment from the body; but we need not assign it a meaning of changed outer, spatial location.” (237)

That being said, it is worth noticing that the pre-linguistic and inner faithfulness is, once again, registered in a linguistic or ritual practice: the reciting of the prayers. Therefore, this particular religious practice brings  the three kinds of interiorization together. Prayer is a ritual; it is linguistic (and therefore open to interpretation); and it, as just said, elicits experience. The discussion of prayer is scattered over multiple chapters and sections in the book. It appears first when the author is handling the issue of intent and rituals (chapter 1), returns when he talks about inward focusing (chapter 2), and emerges again in the end where he critically situates himself within the tradition of phenomenology (Afterword). Moreover, prayers should be distinguished in different kinds. Scholars have proposed diverse distinctions (for example, see the discussion on p.91-95), but Margolin chooses to draw it by—like everywhere else in the book—the scale of interiority: There are outer prayers, and there are inner prayers. This particular dichotomy incarnates his problems within the phenomenological tradition.

Apparently, Margolin regards this distinction as significant, since he, after all the discussions of the body, comes back to it in the afterword. The discussion of prayers, the distinction between inner and outer prayer, also allows Margolin to situate himself, albeit in a critical manner, within the phenomenological tradition. He contrasts his own idea with that of a French phenomenologist of religion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, whom the author of Inner Religion accuses of “not distinguish[ing] between different types of prayer, focusing rather on what he sees as the fundamental element common to all prayers: standing before the transcendental Thou.” (519) The same fault is registered in an earlier phenomenologist, Emmanuel Levinas, who is, according to Margolin, still too obsessed with the transcendent Otherness likewise. (518)

Immediately after the polemic, Margolin reasserts the existence of two, not merely one, kinds of prayers. He defines them as such: Outer prayer is that which is “directed to the transcendent Thou who stands opposite him, for the fulfilling of his [the reciter of the prayer] desires”, while inner prayer is represented in “an act of self-negation or negation of the consciousness” (519). There is nothing surprising anymore about this central claim of Margolin’s; the prominence of the interiority of religious experience has been established by the abundant materials Margolin offers so far. However, there is still one consequence to be addressed, a consequence that surpasses the mere intellectual debate regarding which is the preferable, the inner or the outer dimension, but that bears an existential significance. We should not fail to recognize between the lines in this afterword that the term “outer”, and mutandis mutatis, “inner”, adopt a very specific meaning. Not that bodies or rituals or commandments or social recognition are outer, but God Himself, the transcendent divinity, is the ultimately outer element. Combined with the appeal for the coming back to “inner religion”, this equation of outer with transcendent has a theo- and anthropological importance. To put it in more phenomenological (and less controversial) terms, inner religion brackets the validity of the transcendent in its reductive regression to men’s religious experiences. This humanistic undertone makes itself tangible in many places of the book, for instance, in his discussions of the Zoharic doctrine “the awakening below results in the awakening above” (314-318) as well as his retelling of Etty Hillesum’s diary: “I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away […] You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves.” (537)


Margolin’s debate about prayers with other phenomenologists, moreover, allows us to draw a clearer association between his own project and the phenomenological tradition. This, however, is a problematic relationship. Indeed, as said above, the phenomenological method is apt for the subject matter of this book: inner religion. The emphasis on intentional consciousness and subjective experience enables the author, first, to revitalize the debate about the distinction of pure interiority and pure exteriority (5), and second, to bracket “everything except the reality of the self” (21): while the first reflects the gist of the concept of intentionality, the second, that of reduction. Nevertheless, although he evidently follows the method of reduction, Margolin harbors a quite special idea when it comes to the inner-outer problem. For one, he persists in the distinction between the inner and the outer, although it has been put in doubt by van der Leeuw (“here can be no inner without the outer”, 2). For another, as said just now, he stringently restricts himself within the domain of interiority, keeping the transcendent out of discussion, in contrast to Levinas and Chrétien’s approach. These polemics distinctly locate Margolin’s phenomenology in the historical map of the phenomenology of religion.

Notably, however, the strictly descriptive, eidetic, science of consciousness that Husserl establishes in his earlier career is not the exclusive approach the author adopts. Strictly speaking, the author of Inner Religion uses three methods instead of one, the other two being comparative study of religion and hermeneutics. I do not want to go into details regarding the other strategies but am satisfied with pointing out their most fundamental traits: by comparative study of religion, I mean the method used to demonstrate a fact in a particular religion by gathering data from other religious traditions; by hermeneutics, the (re-)interpretation of a passage such that the original text proves whatever the author tries to show. That said, let me tarry a little longer with the first of these two methods, because it reveals one of Margolin’s underlying principles.

That comparative religion is contestable (48), does not prevent Margolin from carrying on with this method. He starts each chapter in this book with an overview of world religions, and believes himself justified in doing so because “[similar] religious phenomena occur in distant parts of the globe and in different historical periods” (48-49), and the term religion indubitably “[denotes] a universal phenomenon” (49). There is undoubtedly a universalistic undertone in the application of the comparative method in Margolin, who explicitly claims that his aim is “to highlight the common denominators of religious phenomena throughout the world” (49). Particularly, as pertains to the scope of this book, the author finds out that there exists in world religions a highly similar tendency to approve of the inner dimension of religious consciousness: “the types of rites in Hinduism and Judaism, for example, they both demonstrate interiorization: the attention of people performing Hindu and Jewish rites shifts from the (‘objective’) world to the (‘subjective’) mind and soul.” (49) Margolin is convinced that the subject matter of his study, men’s interiority, grants him permission to treat different religions in different peoples, at least in this respect, alike. A book centered on the “Jewish sources”, Margolin’s research is however not confined in Judaism alone. The result is transferable to all human beings:

Comparisons of Western interiorization processes with those typical of the Eastern religions, most evident in the Chinese Tao and in Buddhism, also strengthen our understanding that interiorization processes are not dependent on any specific religious worldview. (Margolin, 2021, 522)

A history of the a-historical?

However, we might wonder whether the universalistic understanding of interiority will cause a substantial problem that can undermine the genre of historical research in general, of which Margolin’s study seems a part. Since this book ranges over a span from Bible to Hasidism, readers might expect that it must take into consideration the temporal elements within the development of Judaism, that the author must encounter the diachronic aspect of what he calls “inner religion”. The opposite, however, seems to be the case. The inner, due to the very fact that it is inner and not outer, has in the first place been insulated from the plurality and mutability of empirical ethnicities and religious traditions. For that which has no history but universality, there is only compilation and no historical research.

In line with Idel Moshe, Margolin clearly regards himself as a contestant of Gershom Scholem, the founder of historical science of Jewish mysticism, and sides with Martin Buber in the Buber-Scholem polemics. Margolin’s criticism is centered on how to interpret Hasidism. He criticizes Scholem of going too far in his rebuke of Buber, of negating the whole existential dimension in Hasidism (102, footnote 174; see also 430 and 445), although from time to time, he tries to reconcile his approach with Scholem’s (see, e.g., 27, where Margolin comments in a favorable tone: “To a large degree, Scholem’s work was based on his desire to uncover the experiential inner dimensions of the Jewish religion.”). However, his difference with Scholem has yet another fundamental dimension, which pertains not to the problem of existentialism, but to history. The author of Inner Religion does not explicitly point it out in this book, but already addressed it in an earlier paper (Margolin 2007) — not sufficiently, however, as will be discussed in what follows.

As Margolin also sees it, tradition and history, that is, the diachronical dimension, of the Jewish religion plays a crucial part in Scholem’s reading of mystic experiences. For example, in the opening chapter of his masterpiece, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, “There is no mysticism as such, there is only the mysticism of a particular religious system[.]”(Scholem 1971, 6) Indeed, despite this contextualistic attitude, Scholem acknowledges the universal experiences that are able to unify all mystics regardless of the different traditions, but he also warns his readers not to exaggerate it, a danger in which the modern age is too willing to indulge in. (ibid.) A danger, indeed, to which Margolin may be already exposed.

In both the earlier essay and the recent monograph, Margolin holds a simplistic reading of history that goes hand in hand with his minimalist adaptation of phenomenology. Just as he limits his phenomenology in the study of the static human psyche, history as he conceives it is but a compilation of empirical and exterior facts. His phenomenological analyses, correspondingly, consist in the elaboration of men’s (first-)personal feelings as such and all the other psychological complex happening directly within subjectivity, while the historical ones are conceived as non-phenomenological enterprises that assign those experiences to objective elements: environment, society, historical events, etc., which, at best, harbor an indirect relation with individuals. History in this sense, as an instance of inauthenticity, becomes an easy target, for it surpasses the domain of the intrapersonal consciousness. But a later Husserl would argue that history, in fact, adds an interpersonal or intersubjective dimension to phenomenology, an equally or even more constitutive component without which nothing individual, personal, or “inner”, can emerge.

Therefore, Scholem’s historical attitude, although it is not really new and criticized by Margolin, keeps reminding us of a fundamental problem: to which extent is Margolin’s universalistic and, indeed, ahistorical, treatment of inner religion justified? If we come back to the distinction between interiority and interiorization, men’s soul or spirit — this ideal interior space — might have no history, but the painstaking process of excavating it or coming back to it has one: Just like dots, lines, planes and all other eidetic mathematical objects do not permit developments, but mathematics as a discipline in history are perpetually subject to the governance of mutations. In fact, despite all the universalistic attitude, the author still makes a, however minimal, historical claim that borders on teleology. From Bible to Hasidim, there is after all a history of ascent: first hidden between the lines in the Bible, the interiority of religion was gradually excavated by prophets and rabbis, and this movement of turning inside finally reached its pinnacle in Kabbalah and especially Hasidism in the 18th century. Inner religion is a phenomenon whose embryo already appears in the earliest religious scriptures, but its growth requires a whole complex system of irrigation that entails ritual, conceptual, experiential, existential, epistemological operations. However, without any comparison with other eras, we could not understand what Hasidim really contributes to Judaism and to religions in general. The a-historical attitude which suggests that they are fulfilling a universal mission, a platonic idea of inner religion, does not really explain to us the particular reason why human beings should choose this moment, and not in others, not earlier in the Bible itself, to push the process of interiority to its extreme. To look for insights in this, we still have to turn to Scholem, and not Inner Religion. What this book offers us is a comprehensive reader, a neat elaboration of all the human psyches, as well as human endeavors to search for connections with God. The author lays out before us a vast map of religious consciousness but hides from us its depth.

To be clear, this judgement is not at all a criticism of Margolin’s contribution to our understanding of Judaism as an inner religion. It is a matter of choice, or a matter of perspective. Margolin chooses to write the book in a horizontal and static way, not vertical or genetic. But this choice is made from a phenomenological point of view, and it bears consequence to our understanding of phenomenology, so I choose to split hairs with Margolin’s phenomenology. Hairs are to split because, although the debate about Hasidism in particular and the Jewish religion in general might sound peripheral for many phenomenologists, yet the problem of history carries weight with phenomenological researches: how do we do phenomenology after Husserl, how do we do it when even he himself realizes the problem behind his static and eidetic method?



Margolin, Ron. 2007. ‘Moshe Idel’s Phenomenology and Its Sources’. Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 6 (18): 41–51.

———. 2021. Inner Religion in Jewish Sources: A Phenomenology of Inner Religious Life and Its Manifestation from the Bible to Hasidic Texts. Translated by Edward Levin. Boston: Academic Studies Press.

Scholem, Gershom. 1971. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books.

1 BT Bava Metzia, 108a10; translation Levin. In fact, the anomic tone becomes  more patent in translation of Koran Noé Talmud: “One should not perform an action that is not right and good, even if he is legally entitled to do so.” (Quotation taken from:, accessed November 2021).

Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, Rodrigo Martini (Eds.): Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, Bloomsbury, 2021

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism Book Cover Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism
Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism
Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, Rodrigo Martini (Eds.)
Bloomsbury Publishing
Hardback $117.00

James Risser (Ed.): Philosophy, Art, and the Imagination: Essays on the Work of John Sallis, Brill, 2022

Philosophy, Art, and the Imagination: Essays on the Work of John Sallis Book Cover Philosophy, Art, and the Imagination: Essays on the Work of John Sallis
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume 21
James Risser (Ed.)
Hardback €199.00 $239.00

Ian Angus: Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World

Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World Book Cover Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World
Continental Philosophy and the History of Thought
Ian H. Angus
Lexington Books
Hardback $155.00 • £119.00

Reviewed by: Talia Welsh (University of Tennessee Chattanooga)


Ian Angus’ Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism: Crisis, Body, World is not a light book, both literally and figuratively, at 537 pages of dense analysis of two of the most discussed thinkers in the last few hundred years. Not many contemporary works have tried to integrate Marxism and Husserlian phenomenology. While perhaps everything in the life of the mind is ultimately connected, the project laid out by Husserl and that by Marx seem to point in quite different directions with very different methodologies. Subsequent works by famous thinkers who were influenced by both, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Herbert Marcuse, and Jan Patočka, did not seem to penetrate deeply into the scholarship of the side they are less famous for—that is, contemporary theorists of Marx do not go to Merleau-Ponty to discuss Marx, nor do phenomenologists routinely discuss Marcuse. Angus’ book truly does provide a groundwork to facilitate more work that does not neatly subsume the thoughts of one thinker under that of the other. While Angus notes his main textual supports will be Husserl’s Crisis and Marx’s Capital I, he also embraces a range of scholarship.

One generic challenge to phenomenology is that it struggles to critically engage with complex structures in our societies that exceed examination from the first-person perspective. Perhaps we are not just molded by our social, cultural, economic, and historical place in time, perhaps even what the idea of subjectivity is itself merely a momentary reverie and thus there is no ground from which to properly phenomenologize. A generic one to the Marx of Capital I-III is that the force of his understanding of capitalist logic creates a world in which things are happening with or without individual investment. We are all swept up in the force of history. Not only does the critic point out what Marx thought would come from capitalism has not transpired, but the idea of a self-enclosed system that will either end in ruin or revolution seems to ignore the manifold possibilities that have arisen, for better or worse, as capitalism spreads over the world. While both critiques can of course be argued against as misrepresntations, I bring up these challenges as a way to situate Angus’ impressive text as taking seriously both the analysis of capitalist logic as well as the importance of subjectivity. I read him as arguing that one can do a critical phenomenology in a capitalist world without reproducing bourgeois sentiment in a new form. In particular, his use of the idea of fecundity, ecological thinking, and Indigenous thought help explore places where capitalist logic fails to entirely dominate the lifeworld and places from which we might consider a robust contemporary phenomenological Marxism.

Overview of the Book

Part I: Phenomenology and the Crisis of Modern Reason & II: Objectivism and the Recovery of Subjectivity

In the first two chapters, Angus lays out the crisis of the modern sciences in order to set the ground for his later discussion of the lifeworld. The crisis of the sciences frames the entry into Husserl’s phenomenology and its relevance for the integration of Marx’s work. Husserl asserted that the crisis of the sciences is that they have become abstracted from their origin in human life, and thereby lost their meaning for humanity. The development of the modern sciences initiated the institution of the mathematization of nature. While mathematization of the modern sciences is not called into question as wrong, Angus notes that the issue becomes when the mathematization becomes “sedimented” and sciences assume “their validity has become an available tradition that further researchers use without investigating.” (43) Sciences thus use their symbolic systems, such as mathematization, as if it were full of human value even though it, by necessity, is abstract from human meaning. If we come to assume that only that which is objectively demonstrable by mathematization is “real,” then we are adrift in a world with reality devoid of meaning. The human world of intuition, tradition, sensuous nature, language, culture, and embodied experience cannot be mathematized. When objectivity found from abstract mathematization becomes “true” and subjectivity mere opinion, we find a crisis of reason. “This is the crisis: reasonproceeds without meaning for human life, while value loses its sustenance in reason.” (46) Angus says that the “healing power of phenomenology” is how phenomenology can uncover this historical sedimentation of mathematical reason and recover value.

Chapters three takes up the idea that one aspect of the crisis is the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. To begin, Angus uses Herbert Marcuse’s discussion of Husserl and deepens the manner in which the crisis of the sciences affects the lifeworld. Marcuse, like Husserl, is concerned with the manner in which instrumental reason cancels out the validity of subjective experience. What Angus draws out is how Marcuse draws attention toward the way in which the lifeworld becomes, under the reign of instrumentalism, merely a thing to be used by various techniques and technologies. It is natural to use technologies and associated technical practices to obtain ends; it is only when we have no other means to think of our lives that they become “emptied out.” “The emptying-out that treats a type as a formal ‘x’ removes the technical end from any relationship to other ends as experienced in the lifeworld and theorizes it strictly formally, that is to say, without any consideration if such an end is valid, good, or just.” (101) If human life is merely how we can as living objects use technologies and techniques to obtain certain pre-determined ends, say more money, more production, we merely become things. Moreover, we become things that cannot determine value ourselves since we are seen only as a means to a pre-determined end.

In chapter four, the discussion of technology is drawn into the 21st century. Angus considers how our contemporary digital technological culture is an extension of the instrumentalization of the lifeworld. While digital culture pervades our lives and determines the character of our self-understanding, we do not actually experience the digital itself. We receive information on our computers, tablets, and phone instantaneously (120). Here Angus develops briefly the idea about the importance of silence and delay which will be more developed in chapter nine. As digital culture transmits its information instantaneously, we have no space from which to take a pause from it given how quickly we are presented with new content. Yet, while the lack of any pause or delay can cover up the capacity for bracketing the digital, Angus states that “this absorption can never be complete” for the subject registers this information with a certain “intensity” or “valence” that is dependent upon other investments within the lifeworld (125). These other investments can produce a delay or lack of circularity of the system of digital culture and thus potentially ground a recovery of reason and value.

Chapters five develops further how value is both lost and potentially can be recovered and draws Marx into the picture to understand how abstract labor separates us from value. We do not encounter things in the lifeworld as value-free and then intellectually add value to them some x-value. Such a move would follow from the model that the instrumentalization of the lifeworld suggests. We have both social valuations that come from a determinate time and culture as well as subjectively personal valuations based on our own experience. Here Angus connects Marx and Husserl, reading both as concerned with the manner in which formal sign-systems are unable to address individual objects of value (139). In commodity fetishism, social relations are systematically concealed, similar to how in a “scientific” view of objectivity, one is unable to return to the value that grounds subjective experience. Moreover, because the system of exchange is hidden in object fetishism, self-knowledge is eluded. “This systematic absences of self-knowledge in social action is reproduced in an apologetic scientific form in political economy such that it produces a systematic lack in the social representation of value.” (143) Angus believes in the value of self-knowledge, but also importantly in the idea of a universalization that will permit escape from both a valueless scientific or economic system and from value being relative to particular cultures. In the fourth part of the book, this idea is sketched out more fully.

Part III: The Living Body and Ontology of Labor

Chapters six and seven productively develop stronger connections between the phenomenological project and the Marxist one. One the most developed discussions coming out of phenomenology’s approach to experience is developments that surround the consequences of understanding ourselves as first and foremost living bodies. We do not first consider the world consciously and then judge it, but are first born into a complex cultural, historical, and economic world and our embodied experiences with that world come to shape our judgements by sedimentation, not by conscious deliberation. Hence the lifeworld is not seen as “a” lifeworld, but simply what is, including the values and norms that our society has educated us in to see certain things as real or valuable when it might be just as conceivable that others things might be more deserving of value.  The living-body is “the root-experience of the lifeworld” but we are always being with other beings; we are always part of a human, not just an individual, experience. (157) Angus separates out two features of our shared human experience: the positive “we-subjectivity,” the community in which we live, work, and commune with others, and the other and self as “objects” that either benefit or hinder any individual project (157).

Angus then turns toward Marx’s ontology of labor as the foundation of what it is to be human and what shapes human history. Certainly we need labor to live, but Marx argues that labor is also how we constitute our identity and the world in which we live (162). In Husserl’s work, the living body’s motility grounds subjectivity and Marx’s ontology of labor helps develop one way in which this subjectivity is formed. Angus agrees with Jan Patočka and Ludwig Landgrebe that early Marx’s view on labor lacked, unlike Husserl’s, a full account of subjectivity. However, as Angus will point out the Marx of Capital I presents us with a more complex view of labor. Here we see the sketch of much of the rest of the book—how an ontology of the lifeworld, in particular labor and its relationship to subjectivity, permits an understanding of the structures of that world. In order to connect the ontology of the lifeworld to a phenomenology of the living body, what Marx would call a critique, one must go beyond the “evident” nature of the lifeworld to question its current form and status.

Marx’s mature ideas of an ontology of labor as “a phenomenology of the role of human activity in nature” will shape much of the rest of the section’s discussion (180) While largely sympathetic with Marx’s focus on labor, Angus argues that Marx’s interest in technology as history determining cannot make sense without a better account of the surplus productivity of labor that allows such technology to form itself. I think it beyond the scope of this review to examine this critique—that is, is it really the case that Marx failed to understand the necessity of surplus productivity’s relation to nature?—but rather to take Angus at his word, and examine the interesting idea of fecundity that Angus will develop throughout the remainder of the text (187). The logic of capitalism of collecting commodities to be exchanged can appear to have circular and enclosed perspective. We work to produce things that can be sold to obtain money to buy or produce other things, ad infinitum. One can think here of Hannah Arendt’s dismissive view of labor as this endless need of human work to survive without the possibility of anything new coming from it, other than more survival and thus more labor. Angus writes that what actually happens, and what can be thought to perhaps undermine the capitalist project, is that labor exceeds what is needed to complete the next circuit—what is “the fecundity of nature.” (187) Here one is too reminded of Michel Foucault’s interesting ideas of how any regime of power/knowledge creates subjectivities that are not just docile, but also then have the means to creatively exceed that structure. Later Angus will develop the idea of fecundity to argue for an interesting ecological view of our current situation. Herbert Marcuse’s work helps underscore the emancipatory possibilities inherent in human activity outside its insertion merely into the logic of capitalism as labor. The event of any human activity is not subsumable entirely to the motivation that preceded it. One example is that the excess that labor can create produces not just things for survival, but culture as well. Culture then creates new forms of organization that exceed strict capitalist production.

Chapter eight is one of the densest chapters in the book. It takes up the idea of abstraction and its relevance for labor and value and concludes with how to revive value in the lifeworld. Abstraction in Marx’s theory is complex, there is the abstraction where individuals are only understood as significant insofar they play a role—say laborer or capitalist. Abstraction can also be where one analyzes the core features of capitalism and sets aside the actual concrete form. In this sense, abstraction comes close to a phenomenological reduction. Finally, there is abstraction in the sense of addition—“When we consider any only single factor, such as labor, there are a number of historical and imaginary, or logically possible, forms in which that labor could be organized: capitalist, trial, state, cooperative, etc.” (237) This groundwork lays the foundation for the most important abstraction in Marx’s text, to be later complemented by Angus’ formulation of abstract nature: abstract labor. Abstract labor is not illusory, it is real in the that is produced in the system of exchange of commodities. Workers, as individuals, are now just understood in abstraction as nothing but laborers qua commodities—things that can be bought. The commodity hides the relationship between humans, we do not encounter or know those whose products we purchase hence we tend to assume the value lies within the product—what is commodity fetishism. Laborers themselves becomes a thing as their labor-power is just another unit of exchange. Moreover, abstract labor operates as value—abstract labor has a certain value in the system of exchange and can be taken without consideration of the particular work the laborers are performing. As Husserl wrote about in the Crisis, one consequence of modern science has been the mistaking of the method of mathematization for actual truth and meaning. Marx’s understanding of the abstract labor likewise performs this move in a system of value (256). If only abstract labor is considered valuable, one has lost any footing the real world of humans, as individuals and also as communities in their culture and their history.

The lifeworld is able to recover reason as the place in which one can situate the historical nature of abstract labor and account for how its excess cannot be contained within capitalist reason. Excess productivity produces culture and also draws from the fecundity of nature which is never completely exhausted by capitalism. Nature, individuals, and communities produce excesses but given the particularities of the concrete spaces in which such productivity exists, there is no “unitary source” and thus they do not produce uniform products. Hence, “the proletariat has never acted as a unitary subject as Marxist politics has expected.” (277) Angus develops from this work on abstraction to an idea of abstract nature as critical to his phenomenological Marxism, pointing out that Marx, by not having a concept of abstract nature, is unable to explain just what abstract labor is to be performed upon. Briefly, Angus points toward ecology as a way exit the limitations of capitalist and modern scientific thinking and integrate nature and humanity. “The task of transformation would be to recover nature as the source of meaning and value, human labor as the giving of a specific form to that source.” (286) Ecology works from the connections between nature and cultures and can provide a method to get beyond our reductionistic thinking.

Technology is the theme of chapter nine which develops further the way in which the regime of capitalist value homogenizes production. While Marx and Marcuse’s views on technology are important to underline that there is no simple nature unchanged by humans nor humans apart from technical extension, it is Gilbert Simondon’s work permits us to consider our contemporary lifeworld more fully. Simondon is critical of Communist Party Marxism, arguing that the development of more technological societies with machines as central to production creates a particular kind of alienation where “both the worker and the industrial boss are alienated insofar as they are either above or below the machine.” (303) Hence, some Marxist views of technology as liberating are false. Angus draws our contemporary situation as another crisis because contemporary digital culture “approaches a pure transparency without delays or silences that could initiate emergent meaning” as discussed in chapter four (319). The speed of transmission of information and the lack of spaces in which to not be presented with such information reduces the capacity for the kind of productive excess that permits a possible exit from capitalist logic. One striking feature of our own society dominated by the capacity to share on the internet is how information is exploited much like physical labor. Cognitive capitalism is “neo-mercantilist” as a socio-economic form with the important element of “decay”—that is, the value of the digital form reduces over time (324). Thus, new digital products have a very short lifespan where they produce surplus profit and must be constantly produced by tech workers. As with his earlier discussion of technology, Angus argues that instead of transforming such digital spaces, “the struggles of the working class in such industries would not necessarily be to transform them as such, but to exist to become an independent, self-defining enterprise.” (324)  Technology itself does not liberate workers if they do not have the means to define its value.

Chapter ten lays the groundwork for the recovery of the concrete grounds from which to critique the mathematization of science and the abstractions of capitalism. Husserl himself celebrated biology in its connection to the living body as a means to connect the lifeworld in experience and the sciences of life. However, Angus points out that, as Marx shows us, bodies can be abstracted in labor and creates a closed system of understanding bodies that does not permit a true phenomenological investigation. Angus’ idea of abstract nature is added to this critique in order to point out that it is not just labor, and thus humans, that are abstracted in capitalism, but nature as well. Angus writes, “abstract nature if the fundamental critical category of our phenomenological Marxism that can be counterposed to the discovery of natural fecundity as an excess that underlines all human productivity and culture.” (345) Again, Angus draws attention to ecology as a way of thinking since it considers the connections between life-forms and the worlds in which they live, something biology does not do. This is a concrete starting place instead of the abstraction required by the sciences or capitalism and can think of communities instead of only abstract systems.

Part IV: Transcendentality and the Constitution of Worlds

Chapter eleven and twelve deepen Angus’ ideas of the phenomenological project and the need for an intercultural self-responsible phenomenology. Emphasizing the intersubjective nature of any lifeworld and the plurality of them helps underline how the need for the phenomenological view to complement Marx’s work. In Marxist thought, there is the tendency to see subjectivity as rather uniform amongst classes. Angus takes up the question if Husserl’s commitment to seeing Europe as central makes phenomenology not just Eurocentric, which I would think is hard to deny, but also fundamentally invested in an implicit view of European superiority. Angus develops a fascinating perspective on America, here understood as the Americas, rather than simply the United States, as the kind of example that makes any kind of European view limited. America is not a repetition of Europe; America is shaped by the “conquest-disaster” of its origins as well as by the Indigenous traditions and thoughts that also continue to shape it. The conquest-disaster begins “an ongoing institution that remains with us to this day and points toward some sort of resolution of final goal (Endstiftung). We live within this institution and its assigns us a task.” (399) The task is to see this lifeworld as it is, not as Europe’s, but with its own shape and demands. Angus argues this broader view of the historical nature of cultures helps expose the need to respond not just to the scientific and economic crises, but also to our “planetary crisis.”

This planetary crisis refers to the reason understood as technology that is based on formal-mathematical science as the origination of crisis and phenomenological reason as the renewal of meaning and value through a recovery of relation to the lifeworld. Meaning and value must be generated, not simply from looking back to prior institutions, but from events constituted by the planetary encounter of culture-civilizations that motivate an appeal upward on step toward great universality. (403)

What is needed is intercultural-civilizational understanding that moves toward universality. This might seem a bit strange, after all typically calling for greater intercultural understanding can be seen to call for something particular and non-universal. Angus develops not a particular kind of universality, say something like “Europe,” that should be taken as the goal, but rather a certain kind of community living together. While we live in a world saturated by calls for cultural understanding, one might rightly see them as a kind of buffet model—a little of this one and a little of that. This can be seen as how scientific-technological civilization renders all traditions as local and particular to the universality of its enterprises, so culture becomes like a disposable addition upon “real” understanding which is of course that which can be reduced to either scientific models or capitalist logic. This can also be seen as expressed, in a much different fashion, in relativist philosophies where one can affirm the other, but is left in without any means of overcoming differences. Angus takes up an approach where what the phenomenological tradition can guide for intercultural understanding is by pursuing not a “truth” that then can add various cultural views, like clothing, nor a set of discrete truths which cannot communicate, but a center-periphery logic where different assumptions in culture-civilizations can be upended by each other in discourse and attention to practices. Angus looks to build:

A philosophy that would be ecological, in the sense that it would focus on the concrete relations that construct a Whole; that would be Marxist, in the sense that is would criticize a social representation of value that relies on commodity price; and that would be phenomenological, in that it would ground value in the lifeworld in action and intuition, is a possibility that would enact this hope. (441)

Chapter thirteen spells out just what intercultural-civilization phenomenology could be. By using place-based knowledge, such as Indigenous thought, we can displace the tendency of planetary technology and capitalism to homogenize by abstracting individuals and nature. Like ecological thinking, Indigenous thinking starts from relationships and from thinking from community instead of thinking of individuals first. Yet of course, any community might not be compatible with another, so in order to move from the value of community to the kind of universal investment needed to combat the crises of our age, Angus appeals in chapter fourteen to Charles Taylor’s notion that “each cultural group can find its own reasons for belonging in a higher unity, that the reasons do not have to be identical for each group.” (453). Hence, the intercultural dialogue would consider crises that face us all, but not require that each group form a new identity but rather that each group understand their share and investment in the problem. The final chapter of part IV considers how philosophy can work to restore the fecundity of nature, of human labor, and of community investment. Natural fecundity is found not “outside” human experience in the environment as a thing, but rather within a cultural heritage’s manner in which it takes up freedom. Indigenous thought and ecological thinking help show ways in which cultural heritage and cultural understanding are not limitations to “proper” science or economic systems, but important ways in which to understand relationships and value.

Part V: Self-Responsibility as Teleologically Given in Transcendental Phenomenology

The final section of the book develops the idea that philosophy in the manner outlined above cannot be first and foremost about rule-following. After all, if we are to take seriously intercultural dialogues and the heritage of communities, we cannot find a common set of ethical rules that must guide them all. Moreover, any lifeworld unexamined appears to us “how it is” and thus its “rules” are unexamined as they seem natural. The separation of meaning and value caused by the mathematization- mechanization of the world by the modern sciences and the forced abstraction of humans from their bodies and nature in capitalism requires both an analysis of its origins as well as a responsible call to action to try and guide a method for the renewal of meaning and value. Angus appeals to the idea of responsibility as a method of living by inquiring. “Self-responsibility is the ethic of philosophical inquiry and its practice in confronting the rule-following inherent in lifeworld practices.” (489) This is both a responsibility toward humanity and to the individual. Angus finds that Husserl remains too embedded in the tradition of knowledge “for its own sake” and thus remains unable to articulate a call to action. Instead, learning should be drawn into the strife of the world “with eyes wide open” and to search for justice. (499)


In the preface to the French edition of Capital I, Marx chides the “French public” who are “always impatient to come to a conclusion” that they might not wish to labor through the early chapters. However, he writes “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”[1] While I have nothing to say about if this characterization of the French public of 1872 is deserved, I do want to qualify my comments below as that perhaps they are testimony more to my challenges with the book’s steepness than the text itself. No book can serve all possible audiences, but I did wish the book were more readable for someone who was versed in one or the other tradition and curious about the possible connections. As it is, I would find it quite challenging for someone to read who didn’t already have a good command of Husserl’s phenomenology and at least an understanding of the critique of capitalism in Marxist thought. While Angus does provide an extremely detailed discussion of the main points he wants to draw from each, and thus this could act as a kind of summary, he does not explain for the reader the general frame in which to understand these very detailed summaries. This is particularly so for the phenomenological discussions. I cannot see someone who was well-read in Marxist thought making much sense of the phenomenological project herein since the discussion assumes a certain understanding of phenomenology’s language. I could imagine a reader unfamiliar with Marxist thought, but familiar with phenomenology understanding better the discussion of abstract labor and nature, so central to the book, since capitalism so defines our current reality and even someone who has not read Marx would be familiar with the idea that there might be problems with capitalism.

I wonder if the book began not with Husserl’s thought, but instead with a shorter discussion of ecology that appears very late in the text. This would provide a kind of framework and directionality to the text in which to work through the crises of science and labor. While the ultimate longer analysis of ecology rightly should follow his analysis at the end of the book, any reader would be familiar with our current environmental crisis and could help understand that this book would help elucidate this crisis and provide some ideas for action. In addition, more framing of phenomenology’s method might aid in reaching a wider audience. I also wondered at the conclusion, so exclusively considered with phenomenology where it would have seemed to my mind obvious here to appeal to the call to action in Marxist thought. In the discussion of communities, one could also think not just of communities qua historical cultures, but also communities such as labor unions, political groups, and religious groups.

However, this is a “groundwork” not an introduction to phenomenological Marxism and as such perhaps it is a text that is rightly directed toward an audience who can follow its density and read further as need be. It is a welcome addition to our intellectual life and provides an important way in which to address the manifold contemporary crises our world faces. In particular, Angus presents a compelling model wherein we engage with Indigenous and community-based thinking not to simply affirm the “otherness” of this thought, but to see it as an important interlocutor with European phenomenology and Marxism. The crises we face are not culturally located, but planetary, and as such require a universalizing, but not totalizing, response.

[1] Karl Marx. 1976. Capital Volume I, 105. London: Penguin.

Manfred Velden: Human-like Computers: A Lesson in Absurdity, Schwabe Verlag, 2021

Human-like Computers: A Lesson in Absurdity Book Cover Human-like Computers: A Lesson in Absurdity
Manfred Velden
Schwabe Verlag
Paperback 28.00 CHF

Roman Ingarden: Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs

Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs Book Cover Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs
Roman Ingarden. Translated by Patricia Limido
Éditions Mimésis
Paperback 14,00€

Reviewed by: Noëlle Miller (University of Vienna)

Dans sa préface intitulée « L’énigme des valeurs » la traductrice Patricia Limido contextualise cet essai dans l’œuvre de Roman Ingarden et résume son raisonnement avant d’en proposer la première traduction française. Bien qu’il développe sa théorie des valeurs à partir et souvent à l’aide d’exemples tirés du domaine esthétique (une de ses premières œuvres majeures est L’œuvre d’art littéraire) elle s’attache à juste titre à montrer que le réel enjeu de recherche d’Ingarden est toujours d’ordre ontologique. En effet Roman Ingarden se propose de démontrer que les conditions de possibilité des valeurs — esthétiques, morales, intellectuelles — existent objectivement. Car des valeurs dépendent la responsabilité morale de l’homme et ses exigences. Avant de qualifier les valeurs plus avant, trois problèmes se posent à une théorie des valeurs qui expliquent le titre Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs. D’abord il faut identifier les différents domaines de valeur pour en dégager des rapports de hiérarchie ou de conditionnement, ensuite leur structure ontologique, sont-elles rattachées à des objets porteurs telles des propriétés, auquel cas les valeurs seraient objectivement fondées et sinon troisièmement sont-elles objectives ou subjectives, c’est-à-dire relatives. Limido regrette qu’Ingarden réduise finalement les valeurs à deux domaines : les valeurs vitales et culturelles. Dans cet essai il se limite même aux valeurs esthétiques et morales et cherche à déterminer leur forme, leur matière et leur mode d’être. En particulier les valeurs possèdent « une valence » (Wertigkeit) qui excède la forme et la matière, et qui fait que la valeur a une pertinence et n’est pas une illusion ou une apparence. À côté des limites de l’analyse ontologique, la valeur est exposée au jugement et à la reconnaissance subjective. C’est pourquoi il commence d’abord par essayer de les identifier, à qualifier plus avant leur mode d’être spécifique. Les valeurs ne sont pas des objets, « mais des « quelque chose » individuels, plutôt apparentés à l’ordre des qualités individuelles »[1]. Pourtant elles ne sont pas des propriétés ni des caractéristiques, car elles sont inséparables d’un tout (unselbständig) qui rend possible leur survenance. Elles ne peuvent pas non plus être des propriétés dérivées, car c’est précisément sa nature ou son essence même qui en fait une valeur. Elles ne dépendent pas non plus des récepteurs, puisqu’elles valent en soi et pour soi. La valeur des yeux par exemple sera variable pour un musicien ou pour un automobiliste qui n’en font respectivement pas le même usage, pourtant la valeur des yeux est véritable. Ainsi y a-t-il des valeurs non perçues, mais qui conserve quand même leur réalité. Finalement il les qualifie de superstructure (Überbau), ni propriétés complètement indépendantes des objets, ni réductible à l’objet sensible lui-même. Elles apparaissent « sur la base d’un fondement dont elle dérive et qu’en même temps elle dépasse »[2]. Patricia Limido rapproche ce concept ingardien des philosophes Donald Davidson pour la notion équivoque de survenance. Comme Ingarden le philosophe analytique Eddy Zemach a la volonté de fonder objectivement les valeurs et conclue que « les propriétés esthétiques surviennent ou émergent des propriétés non-esthétiques »[3]. Elles sont donc réelles parce qu’elles dépendent de traits qui caractérisent objectivement des objets mais non réductibles à ceux-là. Le passage de la perception phénoménale au jugement esthétique ou moral s’opère par le désir ou tout autre relation intentionnelle telles les croyances et les émotions. Si les conditions d’observation sont les mêmes pour tous, alors cette relation intentionnelle est également objective pour Zemach. Ces conditions peuvent être l’apprentissage scientifique ou des connaissances spécifiques pour pouvoir juger d’une œuvre. Or Ingarden doute de cette relation invariante et attribue aux valeurs un mode d’être inédit.

Finalement c’est un rapport dialectique que Patricia Limido expose et souligne chez Ingarden : les valeurs sont des phénomènes observables, matériels et sont en même conditionné ontologiquement, des conditions de possibilité que nous constituons aussi, « la part d’activité et de passivité du récepteur »[4].

Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs

Dans son premier chapitre « multiplicité et contrariété des valeurs », Ingarden se pose le problème de la diversité des valeurs et choisit de les catégoriser en valeurs vitales et valeurs culturelles. Il soulève aussi dès le départ la difficulté de délimitation : une valeur morale comme le courage ou l’héroïsme peut être considérée une valeur esthétique et vice-versa. Il nous manque un principium divisionis qui nous permettrait de diviser les valeurs fondamentalement esthétiques de celles fondamentalement morales. C’est la détermination qualitative qui distingue généralement les valeurs. Intuitivement nous pouvons ordonner les valeurs apparentées, mais quant à ce qui constitue cette parenté, il est difficile d’en donner une définition conceptuelle. De plus, à l’intérieur même d’une qualité telle la « beauté », il existe différents types fondamentaux, telle la grâce ou la perfection et différentes significations. « Bon » n’a pas une signification morale dans tous les contextes. Les valeurs positives se délimitent aussi de leur corollaire négatif, qui a aussi une qualité spécifique. Ces contradictions font qu’il faut déterminer les conditions d’apparition des valeurs : un homme libre et psychiquement sain sont des conditions nécessaires mais pas suffisantes. Mais même si on arrivait à déterminer « la totalité des conditions nécessaires et éventuellement suffisantes pour la réalisation de telles valeurs »[5] rien ne peut remplacer l’intuition selon Ingarden. « Rien ne peut nous libérer du devoir scientifique qui nous incombe d’exercer la vision intuitive [der intuitive Erschauung] de la spécificité des valeurs, tout comme de l’effort spirituel qui lui est lié »[6]. Repérer la qualité d’une valeur est un moment indispensable, mais ne nous éclaire pas encore sur ce qui la détermine constitutivement. On peut encore chercher à déterminer les valeurs par rapport aux comportements qu’elle suscite, mais là aussi elle ne remplace pas l’appréhension conceptuelle d’une valeur. Car réduire une valeur à son vécu ou à l’attitude adoptée revient à dire qu’en réalité il n’existe que des ressentis subjectifs. C’est la conception des positivistes tel Leon Petrazycki qui n’autorisent aucune métaphysique des valeurs et rejette leur objectivité. Par rapport à une œuvre d’art par exemple il y aura autant d’états de plaisir que de récepteurs est pourtant la valeur unique de ce tableau existe bel et bien, indépendamment des admirateurs ou de ceux qui seront insensibles à sa beauté.

Malgré les difficultés donc Roman Ingarden refuse de capituler à définir les valeurs comme le fait Max Scheler par exemple[7] et tient au contraire à en démontrer leur scientificité. Il retient donc pour ce premier chapitre que ce qui distingue les valeurs sont leur matière, moment qualitatif qui se laissent abstraire, dont il existe deux cas de figures : A est inséparable unilatéralement de B, alors A ne se rencontrera qu’en présence de B. Ou alors A est dépendant de B équivoquement et apparaîtra avec un apparenté de B, Bn. Toute valeur individuelle présentant une qualité Bn appartiendra à l’espèce de valeur A. Les moments abstraits d’une valeur peuvent donc servir de principe de répartition à la formation de ses types individuels. Mais un principe qui distingue les types fondamentaux de valeurs reste encore ouvert.  La matière peut donc servir à différencier des types subordonnés de valeurs.

Quant à ce qui distingue les valeurs fondamentales, il semblerait que ce soit leur forme, dont traite le deuxième chapitre « La forme de la valeur ». Au premier abord il semble que la valeur soit la propriété d’un objet, elle est toujours valeur de l’objet auquel elle appartient. Cependant beaucoup d’objet, processus et choses physiques, ne sont pas doués de valeur, mais seulement de propriétés physiques, forme spatiale, densité etc… Il faut donc différencier les valeurs des « propriétés chosales de l’objet »[8], leurs caractéristiques physiques. Il existe alors deux éventualités : soit la valeur est une propriété secondaire, soit elle provient de la relation entre l’objet et la personne qui entre en contact avec lui. C’est parce qu’une chose a une certaine forme qu’elle est belle : la valeur « belle » tient à sa propriété physique de la forme. Dans ce cas la valeur serait une propriété dérivée, secondaire de la première, qui est sa caractéristique physique. Une autre manière de déterminer la valeur d’un objet serait de l’organiser selon l’utilité, les sentiments ou les désirs qu’il suscite pour la personne. Encore faudrait-il pouvoir retenir les propriétés qui entrent en ligne de compte pour constituer la valeur : Ce n’est pas parce qu’une lampe a une lumière utile à l’homme que cette utilité constitue la valeur de la lampe. L’utilité serait à son tour dérivée d’une autre valeur, accomplir un travail à l’aide de la lumière par exemple. Une autre conception constitue à dire que l’objet n’a de valeur que lorsqu’il est reconnu comme tel par l’homme ou la communauté humaine. Or toutes les valeurs ne sont pas relatives à quelque chose, telle que la « maturité » ou la « grâce ». Que la valeur viendrait de la relation reste donc très obscure.

Ainsi toutes les tentatives de donner une forme a la valeur soulèvent des doutes et ne permettent pas de la définir positivement. La valence d’un objet est son essence et semble être un mode d’être complètement nouveau, incomparable à une caractéristique. Ingarden met donc en doute l’identité selon laquelle les valeurs seraient des propriétés des objets, car c’est la valence qui fait qu’on privilégie la réalisation d’une valeur plutôt qu’une autre. Sa forme, appelée objectité [Gegenstandlichkeit], est structurellement différente de l’objet[9]. La valence excède la forme est la matière et constitue le mode d’être spécifique de la valeur. C’est elle qui exprime l’essence de la valeur et qui lui donne sa dignité. Elle n’est pas rajoutée de l’extérieur, sinon elle ne serait pas véritablement, authentiquement une valeur, mais émerge de l’objet auquel elle revient, elle est l’expression de son essence. Il appelle qualité-de-valeur ce qui détermine la hauteur, la négativité ou positivité et le mode d’être de la valeur.

Il va ensuite chercher à déterminer « le mode d’être de la valeur ». Les valeurs d’utilité et esthétique dépendent respectivement de l’outil et de l’œuvre d’art qui les portent. Le mode d’être des valeurs morales est complètement différent : elles n’existent pas réellement à la manière d’un événement ou d’un processus dans le temps, mais elles sont inséparables de leur porteur ou dérivées de leurs propriétés. Elles ne sont donc ni objet idéal, immuable, puisqu’elles peuvent se réaliser dans l’action d’un homme, ni objet réel, ni intentionnel. Les valeurs valent, c’est-à-dire qu’elles ont la forme du « devoir-être », qui peut ou non se réaliser. Quant aux critères des valeurs, lesquelles doivent ou non être, ceux-ci nécessitent un nouveau terrain de recherche. Ceci dépend en partie de la hauteur des valeurs.

Ce qu’Ingarden entend par « la hauteur » des valeurs signifie sa supériorité hiérarchique. Beardsley affirme qu’elle n’a de sens qu’à l’intérieur d’un type fondamental de valeur, à savoir qu’on ne peut comparer une valeur esthétique à une valeur morale, mais seulement des valeurs esthétiques entre elles par exemple. Qu’est-ce qui nous permet d’affirmer qu’une valeur morale est toujours plus haute qu’une valeur esthétique, même très haute ? Là aussi nous ne savons pas en quoi consiste exactement cette valeur, s’agit-il de son mode d’être, de sa qualité-de-valeur ou de son devoir-être. Les théories absolutistes affirment que la valeur d’un objet doit être strictement distinguée de son prix. « La hauteur de la valeur, au contraire, est déterminée de manière univoque et invariable par sa matière et seulement par elle, et elle reste indépendante des variations de prix »[10]. La hauteur relative résulte de la comparaison des objets doués de valeur entre eux, mais présuppose la valeur absolue. Les théories relativistes affirment que la valeur d’un objet dépend des circonstances, de la loi de l’offre et de la demande comme des innovations sur le marché qui font qu’une valeur devient « plus mauvaise ». Il n’existe donc pas encore de « critère » bien défini de la hauteur de la valeur.

Dans le prochain chapitre il s’attaque au problème de « l’autonomie des valeurs ». Lorsqu’Ingarden parle d’autonomie, il entend par là la séparabilité des valeurs entre elles, puisqu’on a vu que les valeurs étaient inséparables des objets auxquels elles appartenaient.  Si une valeur n’apparait sur un objet qu’en présence d’une autre valeur du même ou d’un autre type alors elle est « non-autonome ». Cette distinction entraîne aussi des conséquences sur la théorie de l’art, car pour nombre de théoricien et Platon lui-même l’Idée la plus haute est celle de l’identité du Bien, du Beau et du Vrai. C’est-à-dire qu’il ne suffit pas à une œuvre d’art d’être « belle », encore faut-il qu’elle serve des valeurs morales et la vérité soit en montrant des hommes moraux, soit au contraire en dépeignant des valeurs négatives comme le fait le courant réaliste. Ce formalisme repose justement sur le fait qu’il ne reconnaît pas, contrairement à la théorie de « l’art pour l’art », de valeurs esthétiques intrinsèques à l’art. Cette querelle est dû à l’insuffisance de distinction sur le caractère spécifique des valeurs. Une autre source de confusion entre les types de valeurs, leur dépendance ou indépendance sur un objet, est dû à notre expérience et sensibilité faussée. Ceci est dû aux modifications que les valeurs subissent mutuellement de manière bilatérale ou unilatérale. Dans une œuvre architecturale par exemple la symétrie peut apparaître sur fond d’asymétrie ou dans une œuvre littéraire le lyrique après le tragique. Ces valences peuvent s’harmoniser comme elles peuvent annuler leur effet et partant ne pas être perçues.  C’est pour cela que l’étude de l’autonomie et de l’indépendance des valeurs est d’une grande importance pour l’analyse des objets esthétiques.

Le dernier chapitre « La fondation des valeurs » interroge le problème de l’objectivité des valeurs à proprement parler. Quelle est la relation entre la valeur et son objet et comment celle-ci est-elle fondée dans celui-là ? Il expose alors les deux positions opposées qu’il qualifie chacune de dogmatique. Soit on admet une coordination nécessaire des propriétés qui permettent l’apparition d’une valeur dans un objet, soit on la réfute et décide par-là que les valeurs se montrent de manière tout à fait contingente. Pourtant les valeurs se montrent sur le « visage » des œuvres d’art et on est porté à croire qu’il existe des fondements théoriques à une science de l’art, comme à une science de la morale.

En conclusion, Ingarden, on l’aura vu, définit les valeurs presque entièrement de manière négative, par ce qui nous manque et ce qui nous reste à savoir quant à leur nature, ce faisant déployant en même temps un vocabulaire susceptible d’en rendre compte et toujours mû par la conviction intrinsèque à son intuition, que les valeurs, ou leur possibilité, existent. C’est ce rappel justement qui, pour la traductrice, fait la « valence », pour reprendre ses termes, de cet essai aujourd’hui. Nous saluons la traduction française de cet essai, paru d’abord en polonais puis en allemand, pour avoir trouvé des équivalents adéquats à la terminologie très technique d’Ingarden et du courant phénoménologique en général.

[1] Roman Ingarden. 2021. Ce que nous ne savons pas des valeurs, préface et traduction française par Patricia Limido, p. 26. Sesto S. Giovanni: Editions Mimesis.

[2] Ibid, 32.

[3] Ibid, 35.

[4] Ibid, 43.

[5] Ibid, 58.

[6] Ibid, 60.

[7] Ibid, 66.

[8] Ibid, 74.

[9] Ibid, 81.

[10] Ibid, 116.

Wanda Torres Gregory: Speaking of Silence in Heidegger, Lexington Books, 2022

Speaking of Silence in Heidegger Book Cover Speaking of Silence in Heidegger
Wanda Torres Gregory
Lexington Books
Hardback $95.00 • £73.00

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Possibility of Philosophy, Northwestern University Press, 2022

The Possibility of Philosophy: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1959–1961 Book Cover The Possibility of Philosophy: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1959–1961
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated by Keith Whitmoyer. Foreword by Claude Lefort. Edited by Stéphanie Ménasé
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Robert J. Dostal: Gadamer’s Hermeneutics, Northwestern University Press, 2022

Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: Between Phenomenology and Dialectic Book Cover Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: Between Phenomenology and Dialectic
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Robert J. Dostal
Northwestern University Press
Paperback $34.95

Domonkos Sik: Empty Suffering: A Social Phenomenology of Depression, Anxiety and Addiction, Routledge, 2021

Empty Suffering: A Social Phenomenology of Depression, Anxiety and Addiction Book Cover Empty Suffering: A Social Phenomenology of Depression, Anxiety and Addiction
The Social Pathologies of Contemporary Civilization
Domonkos Sik
Hardback £ 96.00